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The Significance and Impact

of Al-Ghazali's Life and Work


Proof of Islam
Al-Ghazali's is widely known among Muslims as "The Proof of Islam", a name which recognises his
significance in the Muslim world. Through his distinguished teaching career and prolific writing he
has had a profound impact on the life of Islam. He is recognised for his synthesis of theology,
philosophy, law and mysticism.
Many modern scholars regard Al-Ghazali as the most important teacher in the history of Islam,
however, this is a modern trend and Al-Ghazali often did not enjoy such praise among his
contemporaries. His style of writing is particularly attractive to modern learning, however, it was
less attractive at his own time.
Critique of Theology
Al-Ghazali's analysis of Islamic thought included substantial work on the four major paths or
strands of Islam that were evident in society at the time. These were Ash'arite theology which
represented the mainstream Sunni belief structure, Isma'ilite theology which represented the
smaller Shi'a group, the mystical movement of Sufism and Kalam theology which was based on the
insights of Greek philosophy. He critiqued elements of all these paths or strands and as a
consequence met with opposition and criticism from virtually all fronts. However, it also allowed him
to develop his critical synthesis of ideas which would become one of his most significant
contributions to Islam.
His critique of Ash'arite theology, principally contained in "the Munqidh" was based on the making
of assumptions or presuppositions which had no rational basis. He challenged the notion that the
Qur'an was uncreated and therefore the very speech of Allah. He questioned the understanding of
anthropomorphic images in the Qur'an and the idea that eschatological images should be accepted
at face value rather than being regarded as metaphors. Al-Ghazali also challenged an
understanding of free will which taught that Allah creates the acts of the individuals who simply
acquire them.
He critiqued aspects of Isma'ilite theology, in particular the relationship of knowledge to the
teaching of the infallible Imam. The Isma'ilites held that all knowledge on any point must come from
the teaching of the infallible Imam. Al-Ghazali found himself drawn to Sufi mysticism because he
believed that there was a limit to the knowledge that could be gained through rational means and
that higher learning could only be achieved through mystical disciplines. While he embraced the
Sufi way of life, he remained critical of some Sufi practices which disregarded the obligations of
Shari'ah law.
Critique of Sufism
Al-Ghazali found himself drawn to Sufi mysticism because he believed that there was a limit to the
knowledge that could be gained through rational means and that higher learning could only be
achieved through mystical disciplines. While he embraced the Sufi way of life, he remained critical
of some Sufi practices which disregarded the obligations of Shari'ah law.
He wrote the enormous and important forty volume work known as the Ihya which systematically
tracked the relationship between the authentic Sufi life and the requirements of Shari'ah law. The
Ihya had enormous importance for the future of Sufism. The Sufi way of life had often been
criticised by other Muslims to the extent that some Sufi leaders had even been executed as
unbelievers and enemies of Islam.

The patronage of Al-Ghazali led to Sufism gaining a far greater acceptance and respect within
Islam and has ensured that is has been able to continue to grow and develop as a significant
element in the Islamic world. While Al-Ghazali was critical of some aspects of Sufi practice, he
nevertheless embraced the movement and he is now regarded as one of its most influential
members.
Synthesis of ideas
The impact of Al-Ghazali on the development of Islam can be seen in his accomplished synthesis
of the areas of theology, philosophy, law and mysticism and his ability to synthesise the ideas of
the main strands of Islamic thought. This provided considerable impetus in allowing the traditions of
Islam to develop with clarity and relative harmony which may not have been possible otherwise. He
has made significant contributions to each of these disciplines yet his most profound impact has
been his ability to bring out the best from all these disciplines and strands of Islam in a way that
provided strength and maturity to Islamic thought rather than seeking to annihilate the other
through religious and political rivalry.
Use and critique of philosophy
The work of the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato and the writings of Muslim philosophers
such as al-Farabi and Avicenna held a great deal of interest for Al-Ghazali. There had been
considerable interest in Islam concerning the writings of the philosophers, however, by the time of
Al-Ghazali, there was a considerable backlash against Hellenistic ideas. It is likely therefore that AlGhazali's study of the philosophers would have been done secretly.
Al-Ghazali's study of philosophy led him to find considerable value in the use of Aristotelian
syllogisms which he frequently used in explaining Muslim ideas. This technique has provided
considerable opportunities for the development of learning in Islam and has helped to provide a
rational basis for many aspects of Muslim belief.
The capacity of Al-Ghazali to be at once critical and supportive of ways of thinking was one of his
greatest attributes. Rather than a wholesale rejection of an approach which was flawed, he was
able to critique the areas of concern and adopt aspect which had value. This approach was in stark
contrast to the tendency to take up one position and vigorously defend it against all others which
prevailed at the time. Al-Ghazali's measured use of different schools of thought allowed him to
avoid the type of partisan conflict that accompanied much of the scholarly development of Islam at
the time.
Al-Ghazali was able to bring the same balanced critique to philosophy that he had brought to his
study of theology. As a consequence of this he was able to point out areas of concern while at the
same time embracing and making use of its positive elements. On one hand he could see great
potential for the use of philosophical thought to provide insight into, and explanation of, Muslim
ideas. On the other hand, he was wary about aspects of philosophy which were not in harmony
with Muslim beliefs. His concerns were mostly in the area of metaphysics where he identified
twenty points of conflict between metaphysics and the beliefs of Islam. Three key concepts
underpinned these twenty concerns. The first was that there was no resurrection for the body and
that resurrection was a spiritual reality only. Secondly that the knowledge of Allah is limited to
universal aspects and that Allah does not have knowledge of particulars. Thirdly that the world had
existed for all time and was therefore not created.
A number of Al-Ghazali's works focused on the area of philosophy. These included: Masqasid alfalasifa (The Aims of the Philosophers), known simply as the Masqasid, Tahafut al-falasifa (The
inconsistency of the Philosophers) known simply as the Tahafut, Al-Iqtisad fi-l-I'tiqad (The Just
Mean in Belief) known simply as the Iqtisad, Mizan al-`amal (The Criterion of Action) known simply
as the Mizan and Al-Mustasfa (The Pure Teaching) otherwise known as the Mustasfa.
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