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Abu Hamid Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Al-Ghazali, known as Imam Al-Ghazali, was a prominent philosopher and theologian during his time. He stood out as a symbol of intellectual strength, forging his unique path alongside contemporaries like Avicenna and Farabi. Born in 1058 CE in Tabaran, Iran, Al-Ghazali’s pursuit of knowledge was revolutionary. Amid turbulent times, his unwavering dedication to challenging divisive beliefs earned him the esteemed title “Hujjat al-Islam,” the Proof of Islam.
Al-Ghazali is arguably the greatest Islamic thinker and philosopher of the medieval era. He connected the realms of Tasawwuf, and Sharia, a set of religious laws, and fearlessly contested the teachings of leading Greek philosophers. Al-Ghazali penned over 70 books on philosophy, Sufism, and science, including “The Incoherence of Philosophers,” a critique of philosophers linked to the Greek school.
However, a disheartening aspect looms over this remarkable journey — the unfortunate state of Imam Al-Ghazali’s tomb in Iran, which has been neglected and left in disrepair. This neglect prompts a more significant and profound question: What does the condition of his tomb signify, and how does it relate to his enduring intellectual legacy? To uncover answers, we will delve into Al-Ghazali’s thoughts on science, theology, causation, and Greek philosophy, all while unravelling the intriguing importance of his long-neglected resting place.
Questioning Causation: Balancing Theology and Philosophy
“The Incoherence of Philosophers” is often misconceived as an assault on science. In reality, it aims to safeguard Islamic theology from unjustified scientific intrusion. Al-Ghazali sought to balance science and faith, acknowledging valid empirical claims while preserving the integrity of theological principles.
Al-Ghazali reconciles the principle of causality, central to science, with Islamic theological doctrines articulated by the dominant Ash’ari school. The Ash’ari school of Islamic theology, founded by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari (c. 874-936 CE), represents one of the most influential theological traditions in Sunni Islam. It emerged when Islamic scholars grappled with reconciling the teachings of Islam with various intellectual currents, including Greek philosophy. One of the central debates within Islamic theology during this period revolved around the concept of causality (known as “cause and effect” or “al-‘Illah wa al-Ma’lul” in Arabic).
Causality refers to the idea that events in the natural world have causes and effects that can be understood and studied through empirical observation and reason. This concept was central to the development of scientific inquiry, which was flourishing in the Islamic world during the medieval period.
Al-Ghazali, himself a prominent Ash’ari theologian and philosopher, faced the challenge of harmonizing the principles of causality with Islamic theological doctrines. The Ash’ari school, as opposed to the rival Mu’tazilite school, upheld the belief in occasionalism, which declares everything in the universe is directly caused by God’s will and that there are no natural causes independent of God’s divine will. He challenged the connection between a cause, or sabab, and its effect, or musabbab, is one of necessity, such that the existence of the cause without the effect or the effect without the cause is not possible. He contends that this argument does not allow for the existence of miracles as a departure from the natural course of events and thus restricts God’s power over creation.
His critique was not against science itself but against its intrusion into theological realms. Al-Ghazali’s position on causality, elaborated in the “Discussion Seventeen of the Tahafut,” asserts that only God can be considered a cause under a specific notion of causality. He argues that no cause other than God can necessitate its effect, given the existence of miracles and the idea that God can do anything, implying that God can produce an entirely different effect or prevent the anticipated effect from occurring. This stance aligns with the Ash’ari theological school, which emerged as a response to unorthodox formulations of Islamic doctrine that undermined essential Divine attributes.
Al-Ghazali’s stance against necessary causation gained praise and criticism, eventually influencing the interpretation of past and future scientific texts. In “Discussion Seventeen of the Tahafut,” he aimed at the prevailing notion that the connection between a cause and its effect was inherently necessary. Al-Ghazali proposed a more intricate perspective — a causal framework centred on God. While his critique has been misconstrued by Ibn Rushd (Averroes) as an attack on science, it was, in fact, a defence against unwarranted scientific intrusion into theological domains.
Misconceptions regarding Al-Ghazali’s role in the Islamic scientific inquiry decline have gained unwarranted traction. His critique of causation has been unfairly linked by liberal Muslims to a decline in scientific progress. However, this interpretation oversimplifies a complex historical process. Al-Ghazali’s views on causation were multifaceted, nuanced, and rooted in his commitment to Ash’ari theology. He challenged the exclusive determination of effects by natural causes, asserting that God’s will remains the ultimate causal force.
Challenging the Greek Philosophical Paradigm
For some critics such as the liberal Muslims, Al-Ghazali remains a controversial figure, due to his opposition to distinguished Muslim philosophers like the 11th-century scholar Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and the earlier thinker Al-Farabi, both proponents of Greek philosophy. These eminent Muslim philosophers championed Greek thought, an approach that Al-Ghazali boldly questioned.
Al-Ghazali raised questions about the rationale and logic of Greek philosophy, and critiqued Muslim advocates of the Aristotelian school before presenting his perspective on rationality. In his seminal work, “The Incoherence of Philosophers,” Al-Ghazali highlights that “they refused to be content with the religion followed by their ancestors,” referring to figures like Avicenna and Farabi. “The Incoherence of Philosophers” audaciously challenged their departure from traditional religious beliefs and deconstructed the rational foundations of Greek philosophy, presenting an alternative notion of rationality.
The State of Al-Ghazali’s Final Resting Place
Al-Ghazali was a leading scholar of his time, a distinguished philosopher and theologian who followed a different path from scholars like Avicenna and Farabi, attracting both admirers and critics. The neglect of Imam Al-Ghazali’s tomb in Iran is a disheartening sight that casts a shadow over the Muslim world’s respect for one of its most influential intellectual figures. Imam Al-Ghazali left an enduring mark on the evolution of Islamic thought, greatly enriching scholarly discussions and the comprehension of faith. However, as we witness the deteriorating state of his final resting place, we are confronted with a painful truth – the gradual erosion of a monumental legacy.
It is perplexing that despite Iran’s commendable efforts to preserve its historical and cultural treasures, the tomb of a man whose influence echoes across centuries lies in ruins. While other burial sites receive meticulous attention and restoration, Imam Al-Ghazali’s tomb is a stark exception — a silent testament to the disregard of a who contributed significantly to Islamic scholarship.
Imam Al-Ghazali’s neglected tomb in Iran is a poignant symbol of the country’s complex relationship with his legacy. Al-Ghazali’s objection to Shi’ism and plentiful writings debunking Shia doctrines left him somewhat marginalized in a Shia-majority nation despite his Iranian roots. Iran’s contemporary politics and governance, heavily influenced by Shia Islam, have led to uncertainty regarding Al-Ghazali’s intellectual contributions. His revolutionary ideas and challenges to established norms — both in theology and philosophy — are arguably underappreciated in a society that often seeks to preserve and promote Shia traditions. In the context of Shia rulers, following their acquisition of control over Sunni Persia in the 16th century, the Safavid dynasty undertook deliberate efforts to erase Sunni Persian history to the greatest extent possible. Their focus extended to the targeted desecration and levelling of graves belonging to Sunni scholars, a phenomenon notably exemplified in Baghdad.
In this context, Al-Ghazali’s tomb is a stark reminder of the broader trend of neglecting figures and ideas that challenge the prevailing status quo, even when those figures originate from within the very lands they once called home.
The Erosion of a Monumental Legacy
The decay of Imam Al-Ghazali’s tomb also serves as a solemn reminder of the importance of safeguarding and upholding the legacies of intellectual giants. As stewards of history, it falls upon us, as readers, to ensure that these great thinkers continue illuminating the path for future generations. The heritage of the Muslim world comprises a tapestry of varied voices and viewpoints, and Imam Al-Ghazali’s contributions deserve to be cherished, irrespective of the controversies surrounding his work.
Furthermore, the debates and disagreements surrounding Imam Al-Ghazali’s work should not undermine the respect and reverence owed to his memory. Intellectual discourse is inherently diverse and intricate, and differences of opinion are natural. Nevertheless, it is crucial to rise above personal biases and engage in constructive dialogue rather than allowing discord to contribute to neglecting a sacred site.
In recent years, Persian online news agencies have reported that tour guides in Iran have noticed an increasing number of Muslim pilgrims, particularly Sufis, hailing from diverse countries, including Turkey, Pakistan, and even Indonesia, embarking on pilgrimages to the still humble resting place of Al-Ghazali. This surge in pilgrims underscores a renewed appreciation for Al-Ghazali’s lasting influence and the universal appeal of his intellectual legacy.
A Legacy of Nuance and Understanding
Centuries after his passing, the debate between Al-Ghazali’s supporters and critics persists. His work embodies a dynamic engagement with theology, philosophy, and science — a commitment to a well-rounded intellectual discourse. Rather than vilifying him based on assumed consequences, his intricate perspectives and contributions deserve recognition and appreciation. The lessons from Al-Ghazali’s journey call us to engage in well-informed discussions that transcend simplistic narratives.
In an era marked by oversimplification and polarization, Imam Al-Ghazali’s legacy invites people to go beyond surface-level judgments and engage in the profound exploration of ideas. His enduring influence challenges us to appreciate the beauty of intellectual diversity and to foster an environment where well-informed discourse can flourish, enabling us to navigate the complexities of our world with greater wisdom and understanding.
In Al-Ghazali’s words, “Dear friend, your heart is a polished mirror.” Al-Ghazali’s role in the perceived decline of Islamic thought is neither singular nor definitive, but revisiting his legacy underscores the importance of nuanced and contextual understanding. His intricate viewpoints will continue to resonate, urging us to partake in meaningful dialogues honouring his multifaceted intellectual journey.
Edited by Bethlehem Samson