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Al Ghazali’s Moral Philosophy

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Source: Introduction to Some Religious and Moral Teachings of Al-Ghazzali (Baroda: Lakshmi Vilas P. Press Co., 1921).


The Comparative Study of Religions, interesting as a form of intellectual research, has for many a further value in the influence it may exert upon the widening and the deepening of the religious life. The practical value may become more and more acknowledged, if, as signs suggest, the reality of the religious experience is more keenly felt and mankind recognise the place of religious goods in the highest type of life. Though it is certainly premature to say that there is much serious acknowledgement and recognition of these values amongst the peoples of the world, there are reasons to think that tendencies of thought and feeling in this direction are increasing in power. One of the best means of aiding the Comparative Study of Religions and promoting these tendencies is by the publication of important books connected with the religions, representing the views of leading thinkers and saints.

If we turn to Islam, we find that some Western writers describe it as in a condition of progressive decay, while others would have us believe that its onward march is a menace. It is well to be able to avoid the obvious purpose which lies behind both contentions. Nevertheless, to the present writer it appears true to say that there is much stagnation in Islam (In which-religion is there not?), and that its spirit is often lost and its real teachings neglected owing to the general use of Arabic in the recitation of the Quran by persons entirely ignorant of that language, and also to the prevalent mechanical conception of the character of the Quran as a form of divine revelation. We believe that the Comparative Study of Religions will help to turn the attention of Muslims away from these to the emphasising of the essential spirit of Islam. This should be central and normative in the rising movements of reform and rejuvenescence. In this connection, as bringing out this spirit, it is especially appropriate, both for the students of the religions and for those directly interested in the spiritual revival in Islam, to publish in an easily accessible form some of the religious and moral teachings of Ghazzali. A Western scholar has written of him that he is “the greatest, certainly the most sympathetic figure in the history of Islam...the only teacher of the after generations ever put by Muslims on a level with the four great Imams.”1 And he goes on to remark further: “In the renaissance of Islam which is now rising to view, his time will come and the new life will proceed from a renewed study of his works.”2 But Dieterici says of him: “As a despairing sceptic he springs suicidally into the all-God (i.e. all-pervading deity of the Pantheists) to kill all scientific reflection.”3 To justify such a judgment would indeed be impossible if the whole course of Ghazzali’s works is taken into consideration. The greatest eulogy is perhaps that of Tholuck: “All that is good, worthy, and sublime, which his great soul had compassed, he bestowed upon Muhammedanism, and he adorned the doctrines of the Quran with so much piety and learning that in the form given them by him, they seem, in my opinion, worthy of the assent of Christians. Whatsoever was most excellent in the philosophy of Aristotle or in the Sufi mysticism, he discreetly adapted to the Muhammedan theology. From every school he sought the means of shedding light and honour upon religion, while his sincere piety and lofty conscientiousness imparted to all his writings a sacred majesty.”4

One feature of Ghazzali’s attitude has considerable significance in looking to an increased study of his works as a factor towards the revivification of Islam: his tolerance. Although regarding Al Hallaj’s expressions, (for example, I am the truth, i. e. God) as incautious, he helped to defend him and to save him from execution on a charge of blasphemy. He wrote a treatise on tolerance: The Criterion of the Difference between Islam and Heresy. In this teaching of tolerance he felt himself to be pointing back to the policy of the earliest Muslim times and to the greatest authorities of early Islam. He “strove to attract the souls of his fellow Muslims to spiritual faith which unifies, to worship at the altars which are in the hearts of men”.5

The influence of Ghazzali has been represented by Mr. Macdonald as chiefly that he led men back from scholastic labours upon theological dogmas to living contact with, study and exegesis of the Quran and Traditions; gave Sufiism an assured position within the Church of Islam; and brought philosophy and philosophical theology within the range of the ordinary mind.6

Al Ghazzali has given some account of his own religious development in a work entitled: Munqidh min-ad-dalal. This account is significant, but as the Baron Carra de Vaux remarks, his eventual explicit adoption of a Sufi mysticism was not merely a consequence of the failure of his other attempts to find a solution to life’s profoundest problems but a result of his early influences. For, soon after his birth at Tus in Khorassan in 450 A.H. (1059 ), his father died and he was brought up by a Sufi. Nevertheless his mystical leanings did not assert themselves vigorously till he was well on to maturity. Up to that time he devoted himself to the usual studies of canon law, the orthodox theology, the doctrines of the Mutazillites, and a variety of other subjects, including the works of the Sufis. For a time he was a student of the Asharite Imam Al Haramayn at Nysabur. He himself represents his attitude as at this time that of one working and wishing for reputation and wealth. In 484 A.H. he was honoured by appointment to the “University” or “Academy” of Baghdad, where he soon acquired great renown as lawyer and theologian.

On the threshold of maturity he was afflicted by doubts as to the validity and worth of the theological and philosophical bases of his religious belief. The strain of his reflection and the intensity of his anxiety to reach a secure faith seem to have caused a breakdown of health. With unexpected suddenness he left Baghdad. That was in 488 A.H. (1095 ) He had examined in all details the traditional orthodox scholastic system of the Kalam, the positions of the Mutazilites and the philosophers, and in the light of his new doubts and experiences turned again also to a closer study of the writings of the leading mystics, such as Abu Talib, Al Muhasibi, and Al Junayd. His early training had predisposed him to the acceptance of mysticism, and this acceptance was led up to by the conclusions of his reflection, in which it has been maintained he carried doubt as far back as did Descartes.

Thus he himself writes: “A thirst to comprehend the essential natures of all things was indeed my idiosyncrasy and distinctive characteristic from the beginning of my career and prime of my life: a natural gift and temperament bestowed on me by God and implanted by Him in my nature by no choice or device of my own, till at length the bond of blind conformity was loosed from me, and the beliefs which I had inherited, were broken away when I was little more than a boy.”7

Carra de Vaux8 thus graphically describes the process in Al Ghazzali’s mind, as he himself suggests it to us: “Religious beliefs, he reflected, are transmitted by the authority of parents; but authority is not proof. To arrive at certitude it was necessary for him to reconstruct all his knowledge from the very foundation. With a vivid feeling of this necessity, he aspired to certitude, defining it in a purely psychological fashion as a state in which the mind is so bound up with and so satisfied with a piece of knowledge that nothing might henceforth deprive him of it. This curious definition, which is applied to religious faith as well as to scientific knowledge, does not escape from being purely subjective. As one might foresee, the great desire for certitude only led him at first into a series of doubts. As he sought this state of perfect assurance, step by step he saw it recede before him. He looked for certitude in the perceptions of the senses, with the result that he could no longer trust his senses. Sight, the most powerful of the faculties of sense, for example, led him to the perception of an immovable shadow on the sun and an hour afterwards this shadow was gone. Sight showed him a star which is very small, and geometry made him recognise it to be greater than the earth. Then he turned to the first principles of reason; but the perception of the senses took its revenge in saying to him: ‘Previously you believed in me and you abandoned me when this judge reason presented itself. If this judge had remained hidden you would have continued to believe in me. Who can tell you that beyond the reason there is no other judge, which if it made itself evident, would convict reason of falsehood?’. That is a movement of thought which is dramatic enough, though perhaps a little artificial.—The thinker continued his search for the certain. He halted and concerned himself with the famous comparison of life with a dream and death with an awakening. Perhaps after that awakening he would see things in a different manner from that in which he then saw them. Mysticism thus suggested itself to him: This actual dream of death could be anticipated by the condition of ecstasy, by less than ecstasy, by a light which God pours into the heart. In this light, he saw not only the truth of the dogmas of the faith or the beauty of the moral life, but he was assured of the truth of the first principles of reason, the basis of all knowledge and all reasoning. He doubted no longer; he was cured of his pains; he had found certitude and peace.”

On leaving Baghdad, he retired to meditate in the mosques of Damascus, and is further reported to have made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Hebron (the burial place of Abràham), Medina and Mecca. In abandonment to his immediate religious experience of the love of God he found more peace. In the course of time he associated again more definitely with his family. Eventually in 499 A. H. (1106 ) he was ordered by the Sultan to teach in the Academy at Nysabur. After a life in which he had written a large number of independent treatises and indeed brought about a great change in the tendencies of Islam, he died at his native town of Tus in 505 (1111 )

If in his initial process of doubt Ghazzali resembled Descartes, in his view of causality he reminds us of Hume; in his general attitude he approaches Kant and Schleiermacher. On the one hand he insists on the limitation of the efficiency of the theoretical reason, on the other he finds in will, in the moral and the religious experience a more immediate avenue to real knowledge. For the study of religion in our day it is important to note that Ghazzali (here unlike Kant) sees in religious experience a way to certitude. But in this he is led to acknowledge that the advance of the human mind towards its goal of real knowledge and peace is dependent upon an active influence of God upon man. It may be maintained that he puts here in religious terminology the central idea of the Aristotelian conception of Scholastic times, the relation of the “Active Intelligence” to the minds of men. His view enabled him to give a due position to the Prophet and the Quran. For the knowledge of God is to be conceived as coming not in immediate mystical intuition to all alike, but while in some degree to all, to some in a special degree. These are the prophets. The position which Maimonides presents in his Guide to the Perplexed9 with relation to religious knowledge and the functions of the prophets is parallel with that of Ghazzali.

From the accompanying list and classification of the works of Ghazzali, it will be seen that he was a writer on all sides of the theory and practice of his religion. He was an authority on canon law and jurisprudence, and a commentator of the Quran. He examined the positions of the Scholastic theologians, and found that they depended entirely on the acceptance of their initial dogmatic assumptions. The disputes of the Scholastics amongst themselves appeared to have little or no relation with religious life, rather if anything they were a hindrance to true religion. And in face of the philosophers the Scholastic theologians were almost helpless. But the books which exerted the greatest influence both within and beyond Muslim circles, and the books that still retain their interest today are the Maqasid ul Falasafa (The Aim or Goal of the Philosophers the Tahafat ul Falasafa (the Refutation of the Philosophers) and the Ihya-u-Ulum-id-Din (The Renovation of the Sciences of Religion.) In the first of these he gives an account of the different philosophical positions which were more or less prevalent. In the second he critically examines those positions. In the third he gives a general survey with a constructive purpose chiefly moral and religious. It is due to this last work more than all others that Ghazzali has been called “The Regenerator of Religion”, “The Proof of Islam”. The Ihya “expounds theology and ethics from the moderate Sufi school”. Though it was committed to the flames, chiefly in Spain, probably by those holding opinions which Ghazzali had bitterly attacked, it soon established its position in the Muslim world, in which it has been widely studied up to today. From it the passages translated in this book are taken. The following table of contents will show the range of the subjects with which it deals.


    Part I.

  • 1. On Knowledge. Articles of Faith.
  • 2. On Purification.
  • 3. Prayer and Its Meaning.
  • 4. Zakat and Its Meaning.
  • 5. Fasting and Its Meaning.
  • 6. Pilgrimage and Its Meaning.
  • 7. The Reading of the Quran.
  • 8. Varieties of Orisons.
  • 9. The Order of Praying, and Vigils

    Part II.

  • 1. On Eating.
  • 2. On Marriage.
  • 3. On Business.
  • 4. The Lawful and the Unlawful.
  • 5. Social Relations and Etiquette.
  • 6. On Retirement.
  • 7. On Travel.
  • 8. On Music.
  • 9. On Enforcing Good and Checking Evil.
  • 10. Good Living: Description of the Prophet’s Mode of Living.

    Part III.

  • 1. Psychological Description of the Nature of Man.
  • 2. On Virtues and the Purification of the Heart.
  • 3. On Appetite and Passion.
  • 4. On the Tongue: Its Goods and Evils.
  • 5. On Anger: Enmity and Envy.
  • 6. The Evils of the World.
  • 7. Parsimony and the Evils of the Love of Wealth.
  • 8. On the Evils of Reputation and Hypocrisy.
  • 9. Pride and Vanity.
  • 10. Self-deception.

    Part IV.

  • 1. Repentance.
  • 2. Patience and Thanksgiving.
  • 3. Hope and Fear.
  • 4. The Poor and the Hermit.
  • 5. Unity of God, and Dependence on Him.
  • 6. On Love, Ecstasy, and Joyous Submission to His will.
  • 7. On Intention, Sincerity and Truth.
  • 8. Meditation.
  • 9. Contemplation and taking a Warning.
  • 10. On Death and the After-Life

Against the philosophers he argued for the belief in the reality of the divine attributes and against the view of the eternity of the world. He contended against the theory that there would be no physical punishments and rewards hereafter, maintaining, as he did, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. He virtually denied that there is real causal connection in events as experienced by us; but only sequence: in this he adumbrates the theory of Hume. For Ghazzali, God is the only efficient cause. From the scepticism to which his consideration of philosophy led him he turned to the acceptance of revelation, this as found in the mystic experience and in the words of saints and prophets, especially the Prophet Muhammed.

The knowledge of moral principles Ghazzali conceived as coming not through rational reflection but by immediate intuition of the divine character revealing itself. Moral truths come especially through moral and religious teachers, as the most fit persons for the transmission of these revelations. He possessed great skill in psychological analysis of moral conditions, and passages in illustration of this have been included here, treating of pride and vanity, friendship and sincerity. As almost all great practical moral and religious teachers, Ghazzali makes considerable use of apt stories, and of striking sayings from the saints and prophets. He continually harks back to the time of the Prophet and his “Companions”.

Ghazzali’s abandonment of his academic position at Baghdad, his retirement to mosques and journeyings on pilgrimage, are sufficient evidence that he recognised that the truth of mysticism could not be tested by theoretical reflection but only by an attempt at practice. Only the experience itself could prove its own reality. He appears to have held that for the attainment of the condition of ecstasy the means of asceticism and meditation should be used. But it does not seem quite correct to suggest as does Carra de Vaux that Ghazzali did not recognise the fact of divine “grace”, though he did not use a corresponding term. The beatific vision of the mystic certainly depended in part, for Ghazzali, on God’s mercy in removing the veil. How far he himself was successful in attaining the bliss of the mystic vision it is impossible to tell: in this direction he gained no such reputation as did several other Sufis. He taught that repenttance, a moral conversion, is a necessary preliminary to the mystic life, and he fought against a common tendency of mystics towards antinomianism. Similarly he tried to avoid the danger of interpreting the union of the soul with God as its identification with God in a pantheistic view of the universe. Goldzieher says he differed from the Sufis generally in the rejection of their pantheistic aims and low estimats of religious ordinances.10


Title. Subject. Place and date of publication.
K. Wajiz (Compendium). Canon Law. Cairo...1317 A. H.
Risalat-ul-Qudsiyya. (Transcendence of God) included in Ihya as the 3rd section of the 2nd Chapter of its Book 1.
Anqud ul Mkhtasir. Summary of Jowim’s Mukhtasar.
Ghait ul Ghor fi Masail il dor. Divorce.
Gaur ul Durar.
Qanun ul Rasul. The Canon Law of the Prophet.

Al Mustasfa. Jurisprudence. Boulac...1322 A. H.
Al Manhul wal Muntahal. Doctrines falsely attributed to others and falsely claimed by some. Jurisprudence.
Wajiz fil Furu. Jurisprudence. Egypt...1305 A. H.
Khulasat ul Fikh (Quintessence of Jurisprudence). Jurisprudence
Al durr ul Manzum fi sirr il Muktum Wasit. An Exposition of Shafite Jurisprudence.

Mizan ul Amal, Logic. Cairo...1328 A. H.
Mihakkul Nazar fil Mantaq. (Whetstone of reflection). Logic. Cairo...
Maayar ul Ilm. Logic.
Al Maarif ul Aqliyyah wal Allahiyyah Al Mutaqid. Discourses on Logic.
Mayar ul Ilm fi Fannil Mantaq. (the weighing scale of the science). On Logic. Cairo...1329 A. H.

Ihya u-Ulum-id-Din. (The most important book for his philosophy). Cairo...1322, 1324 A. H.
Egypt...1282 A. H.
Lucknow. 1281 A. H.
Meerut...1280 A. H.
Maqasid ul Falasafa. (The aims of the philosophers). Cairo...1326 A. H.
Maznun bihi ala Ghairi Ahlihi. Exposition of Ghazzali’s own views. Cairo...1328 A. H.
Kitab-ul-Arbain. Abridgement of Ihya. Cairo...1328 A. H.
Risalat ul Luduniyya. Knowledge (Ilham and Wahi) Cairo...1328 A. H.
Al-Kashfu-wat-Tabyin fi Ghurur il khalqi Ajmain. On the delusion of men in general. (On the margin of As-Shurain’s Tanbihul Mughtarrin.) Cairo...1324 A. H.
Faysalut-Tafriqa baynal Islam-i-wa-z Zandiqah. Refutation of Atheists. Cairo...1325 A. H.
Al Fikratu al Ibrah. Meditation and Contemplation.
Tahafat ul Falasafa. Destruction of the Philosophers. Cairo...1321 A. H.
Iljam ul Awam. Abreviation of the Ihya.
Al-Imla-u-’ an ishkalat-il-Ihya. Statements on disputed passages of Ihya. In the margin of 1334 edition of Ihya.
Mustazhiry. A guide for novices.
Al Hikmat-u-fi-Makhluq-i-Ilahi. Wisdom of God. Cairo...1326 A. H.
Hakikat ul Ruh. On Soul.

Badayat ul Hidayah. Ethics. Cairo..1317, 1326 A. H.
Kimiya i Saadat. Ethics. Cairo..1317, 1326 A. H.
Tibr ul Masbuk. An ethical mirror for princes. A letter. Cairo..1317 A. H.
Ayyuh al Walad. A letter of faith and conduct. Cairo..1328 A. H.

Al durr ul Fakhira. On eschatology. Cairo..1322 A. H.
Yaqut ul Tawil fi Tafsir il Tanzil. A commentory en the Quran in 40 vols. Not found.
K. Iqtisad fil-I’’tiqad. Exposition of Faith. Cairo...
Fadhaih ul Abahiya. The exposure of the Doctrines of the Free-thinkers
Al Quistas ul Mustaqim. (No Imam is necessary except the Prophet himself). Cairo...
Al Qual ul Jamil fil Raddi Ala man Ghayyar al Injil. Criticism of those who have changed the text of the Bible.
Haqiqat ul Qualain, An Exposition of truth of two sayings.
Tadlis Iblis. The intrigue of the devil.
Jawahir ul Quran, A collection of the best verses of the Quran. Cairo...1329 A. H.
Risalat ul Wahdah wal-I’tiqad. A brief letter on preaching and Belief.
Risalat-ul-’Aqaid. Doctrines of Islam and the duties of rulers. Cairo...1325 A. H.
Al Maqasid ul Khilaf fi fan il Kalam. Different theories of Kalam

Al-Adab-fid-din. (Fitting behaviour in religion). Cairo...1328 A. H.
Al-Qawaid ul-Ashara. (A very brief summary of general advice of religious matters.) Cairo...1323 A. H.
Maqasid ul Hasana Sharh Asma i-illahi’l Husna. An exposition of Divine names. Cairo...1322 A. H.
Minhaj ul Abidin. The path of the devout. (Said to be the last of his work). Cairo...1313 A. H.
Nasihat-ul Talmiz. An Epistle. Cairo...1295 A. H.
Kitab Asrar al Anwar.
Madkhal ul Suluk ila Manazil il Muluk. A Guide for kings.
Al Munqid min ad Dalal. (Deliverer from error). Autobiographical statement of his spiritual progress. Cairo...1303 1329 A. H.
Tajrid fil-Kalimat il Tauhid. Exposition of Kalima. Cairo...1325 A. H.
Murshid ul Talibin. A Guide for novices.
Mishkat ul anwar fi Lataif il Akhbar. (Niche for the lights). Esoteric exposition of the verse “God is the light of heaven and earth” Cairo...1325 A. H.
Kitab ul-Madnun -i-Saghir. Esoteric exposition of the verse “Then shaped him and breathed of His Spirit into him.” Cairo...1328 A. H.
Makashifat-ul- Qulub. (Abridgement of a work of doubtful authorship ascribed to Al Ghazzali). Boulaq & Cairo 1360 A. H. Cairo...1306 A. H.

[1. ]D. B. Macdonald: Muslim Theology London 1903. p. 215. This book gives the best account of Al Ghazzali’s work yet available in English.

[2. ]ibid. p. 240.

[3. ]Quoted in E. G. Browne: Literary History of Persia 1903. Vol. I. p. 294.

[4. ]ibid. p. 293.

[5. ]I. Goldzieher: Vorlesungen uber den Islam. Leipzig, 1910. p., 185. See translation in the Indian Philosophical Review by the present writer: Vol. I. pp. 260-6.

[6. ]Op. cit. pp. 238-40.

[7. ]From Al Munqidh min ad’ -Dalal.

[8. ]Gazali. Paris 1902. pp. 44-45.

[9. ]See the English translation of the Guide by Friedländer; The Guide to the Perplexed. London especially, pp. 225. ff Al Ghazzali’s works were so widely studied that it is hardly possible to suppose that Maimonides was not influenced by them. The influence may have been direct, as Maimonides was not only a student in Spain but also physician in the court of Saladin in Alexandria. Indirectly the influence may have come through the Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi.

[10. ]op. cit. p. 179.

[* ]This list is taken from A Chronological List of Muslim Works on Religion and Philosophy which has been for a short time in preparation at the Seminar for the Comparative Study of Religions, Baroda, by Professor J. ur Rehman of Hyderabad, and Professor F. S. Gilani of Surat. Fellows of the Seminar. The list has been compared with that of Shibli in his Urdu life of Ghazali (Cawnpore 1902) whose classification is followed with slight modification.

Last modified April 13, 2016