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Haseeb Ahmed

Professor William C. Chittick

RLS 380: Islamic Classics: Philosophical Psychology

According to al-Ghazali:

The Goal of Studying the Soul

The primary goal of philosophy in general, is to achieve true wisdom.

Philosophers have attempted to attain this wisdom of the truth of the world

through various intellectual means. Muslim Philosophers have particularly

understood this intellectual struggle predominantly through the faculty of the

soul. These philosophers have divided the soul and its encompassing sub-faculties

in various ways. They generally all came to the consensus that the soul was the

innermost essential human faculty and in it lay the connection to the truth and

wisdom. The soul due to its very nature had the potential to become actualized

and turn into the intellect; the highest actualized potential and closest to the

perfect or divine state. This can be better explained with the common

philosophical dichotomy of form vs. matter. The soul is the matter of the intellect

as the intellect is the form of the soul.

Although Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111), was highly critical of

the philosophers’ means of investigating the soul (he wrote The Incoherence of the

Philosophers, in an attempt to refute many approaches and conclusions made by his

Ahmed preceding philosophers), he himself was highly knowledgeable and learned in


their methods. He also shared with them the principle of the soul’s potential, and

its faculties. And al-Ghazali agreed with all of these interpretations of the faculties

and their relation to the soul in terms of his own religious belief and doctrine as

“there is nothing in what they have mentioned that must be denied in terms of the

religious law” 1 . Al-Ghazali also agreed with the philosophers’ view of the grand

attainable reward from actualizing the soul. His criticisms lie particularly to their

claim that reason alone is sufficient for attaining wisdom. Nonetheless, Al-Ghazali

held firm to his beliefs that through gaining knowledge of the highest faculty of

the rational human soul, true understanding and ultimate knowledge can be


Like his preceding Muslim philosophers, the soul was understood to be the

highest faculty. Al-Ghazali confirmed that the philosophers’ notion of the sub-

faculties of the animal and human faculties 2 . He methodically explained each sub-

category of all the faculties in the Eighteenth Discussion of The Incoherence of the

Philosophers. The animal faculties were divided into motive and apprehending.

The motive faculties were motor-inducing, while the apprehending faculties were

more perceptual. These were subdivided into internal and external apprehending

faculties. The external faculties referred to the five senses: touch, sight, hearing,

1 Packet, 34

2 Packet, 35

Ahmed smell, and taste; and the internal faculties: imaginative, sense intuitive, cogitative,


and retentive.

The highest faculty that only humans have is the ‘rational human soul’. Al-

Ghazali divides the soul into two faculties as well; a practical and cognitive

faculty. The practical faculty, or intellect “moves the body of man toward the

ordered human arts whose order is drawn out by deliberation, [the activity]

proper to man 3 . In other words, this faculty guards the practical soul and relates it

to all worldly matters. Just as human beings are comprised of the body, soul, and

spirit; the practical intellect of the soul refers to the relationship between the soul

and the body. Therefore, the practical intellect is the part of the soul is receptive

from below. It controls are all other bodily faculties, and is ultimately the

dominant source of all bodily affairs.

Whereas the practical intellect refers to the faculty of the soul that relates

the body to the soul, the cognitive intellect relates the body to the spirit. Therefore,

it is receptive from above. Also known as the theoretical intellect, the cognitive

intellect’s function is to “apprehend the true natures of the intelligibles stripped

from matter, place, and [spatial] direction” 4 . The theoretical intellect is the part of

the soul that can receive knowledge of the divine and all the true sciences. This is

the soul that can understand and grasp Reality.

3 Packet, 34 (lines 1-3)

4 Packet, 34 (lines 4-5)

Ahmed Therefore the complete rational human soul has both practical and


cognitive/theoretical intellects, or faculties. Both are necessary to define the

complete soul. The practical intellect is responsible for the body, and all worldly

affairs; including rectifying moral character and disciplining and controlling the

sub-bodily faculties. The practical intellect must take control over all bodily

desires and not let the lower wishes dictate the human being. This is what is

meant by controlling the lower self. Yet the practical faculty of the soul is limited

to bodily affairs. The theoretical intellect is necessary to delve into the nature of

the Divine; to understand God. The theoretical soul, being oriented towards the

intelligibles, is the only means by which matters beyond the world can be

understood. It is the use of the theoretical faculty of the soul that must be ‘studied’

to achieve the true goal of knowing the Divine, or of understanding Reality.

However, al-Ghazali differs from other philosophers in attesting that studying the

soul by oneself itself is not by itself a sufficient means of attaining this goal.

To attain the desired ‘cognitive reception’ from above, a certain amount of

information must be unveiled to the human being from a higher source. This

notion distinguishes al-Ghazali from most other philosophers; as philosophy in

general contends that man is fully self-sufficient to achieve full wisdom, and attain

all humanly potential goals. Al- Ghazali believes that there is a limit of what can

be understood without divine intervention, and the goals cannot be achieved

without it.

Ahmed In The Niche of Lights, al-Ghazali, systematically explains the true meaning


of light. The true meaning of light can only be defined only by terms of its source,

which is The Light (ر ا), or one of the divine names that define God. The light

of knowledge must be unveiled from God Himself to human beings. Therefore he

clearly explains that there is a limit to how much can be gained without the

unveiling of light from God, and only with God’s light can one reach the potential

goals of the soul; of understanding Reality.

The source of all knowledge is the source of all light, and only when the

Light or Reality is unveiled to the slave 5 , or guided by God, can man achieve the

goals of the soul, to fulfill the highest level of knowledge attainable through the

highest faculties, to the understanding of Reality.

God is the light of the heavens and the earth…

Light upon light:

God guides whomever God will to divine light;

and God gives people examples.

And God is cognizant of everything 6 .

5 Packet, 43

6 Qur’an 24:35



Works Cited

Al-Ghazali, The Incoherence of the Philosophers

Translated by Michael M. Marmura (Prove 1997)

Packet pp. 33-36

Al-Ghazali, The Niche of Lights

Translated by David Buchman (Provo 1998)

Packet pp. 37-44

The Qur’an: A New Translation by Thomas Cleary (Starlatch Press 2004)