Al-Ghazali, Averroes and the Interpretation of the Qur’an: Common Sense and Philosophy in Islam

  • Book Title:
 Common Sense And Philosophy In Islam
  • Book Author:
Avital Wohlman
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Thebook examines the contrasting interpretations of Islam and the Qur’an by Averroes and Al-Ghazali, as a way of helping us untangle current impasses affecting each Abrahamic faith.

This has traditionally been portrayed as a battle between philosophy and theology, but the book shows that Averroes was rather more religious and Al-Ghazali more philosophical than they are usually portrayed. The book traces the interaction between two Muslim thinkers, showing how each is convinced of the existence of a Book in which God is revealed to rational beings, to whom He has given commandments, as well as of the excellence of Islamic society.

Yet they differ regarding the proper way to interpret the sacred Book. From this point of view, their discussion does not address the contrast between philosophy and religion, or that between reason and revelation that is so characteristic of the Middle Ages, but rather explores differences at the heart of philosophical discussion in our day: is there a level of discourse which will facilitate mutual comprehension among persons, allowing them to engage in debate?

This interpretation of sacred texts illustrates the ways religious practice can shape believers’ readings of their sacred texts, and how philosophical interpretations can be modified by religious practice.

Moreover, since this sort of inquiry characterizes each Abrahamic tradition, this study can be expected to enhance interfaith conversation and explore religious ways to enhance tolerance between other believers.


This book is devoted to the study of the “decrees” of al-Ghazali and of Averroës regarding the question which is found at the heart of Islamic existence, which may well be defined as being the “religion of the book” par excellence.

 In his Decisive Treatise Distinguishing between Islam and the Hypocrites (1045–6), Ghazali explains how, by pretending to know what eludes believers endowed with common sense alone, philosophers do not consider the Qur’an as revealed Word, and by thus failing to engage with its interpreters, by their very existence they threaten to destroy the identity of the Muslim community.

 In his Book on the Decisive Criterion Whereby One Can Establish the Existing Connection between Revelation and Philosophy (1179–80), which purports to be a response to al-Ghazali, Averroës sets out to show how philosophy alone can fully appreciate revealed truth, so it alone can guide one in interpreting the Qur’an in such a way as to preserve the absolute coherence of the “inimitable book.”

This controversy is replete with consequences, but what particularly struck me about it is the way it is rooted in a discussion between two Muslim thinkers, each convinced both of the existence of a Book in which God is revealed to rational beings to whom He has given commandments, as well as of the excellence of Islamic society.

Yet they differ regarding the criterion of interpreting the sacred Book.

From this point of view, the discussion between Averroës and Ghazali ought not to be considered to be one between philosophy and religion, or between reason and revelation, so characteristic of the Middle Ages, but rather like those which are at the heart of philosophical discussion in our day: is there a basic level of discourse which will permit mutual comprehension among persons, so that it may be presupposed by the very fact of debate?

Like David Hume in the eighteenth century, and like many today, Ghazali is convinced that a level of discourse is available which author- izes rational inquiry and meaningful discussion outside any philosophy, by the light of common human experience in a manner unique to us as human beings. Averroës, on the other hand, is convinced that philosophy alone is able to resolve meaningful debates, so in its absence there will be nothing but diverse opinions and multiple experiences.

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 Moreover, this is especially the case when it comes to the Word of God in the Qur’an: with- out philosophy, there can be no way of knowing its proper meaning. In this way, Averroës adopts the position of Aristotle, yet in the process refashions key concepts of Greek philosophy in the light of “revealed truth,” thereby underscoring the rapport of revelation to philosophical activity.

 Similar to David Hume, Ghazali would rather limit reason to a critical capacity, as providing a necessary tool for realizing one’s goal so long as those who use it respect its inherent limitations.

The vision of the world which David Hume presents in his Treatise on Human Nature (1748) resembles that presented by al-Ghazali in his Incoherence of the Philosophers (1094). Well before Hume, Ghazali did not want to neglect rational thought but rather to make room for common sense, by making it clear that there can be no domain reserved to philosophers.

 Both presume that human beings are susceptible of multiple impressions and habits acquired as a result of them. According to Ghazali and Hume, philosophers are imprisoned by their pretension that they alone are in possession of a unique mode of knowing, certain as the exact sciences and replete with consequences regarding existence itself.

 Yet in the face of this presumption and vainglory, their discussions only reflect verbal sparring.

Yet contrary to Hume, who thought this to be the case universally, Ghazali gives central place to certitude concerning the existence of God, the sole agent, whose will constitutes the origin of all experience as well as determining the worth of all actions carried out by human beings in accomplishing His commandments, in fear and hope of His judgment.

 In this way, the disagreement between Ghazali and Averroës regarding the criterion of interpretation of the Qur’an is coupled with the goal of revelation.

Ghazali takes the goal to be deepening people’s fear and hope regarding the last judgment, while Averroës takes it to be to encourage rational reflection on beings so as to expose better the beauty and mar- velous coherence of the world as testimony to the perfection of the artisan whose very thought is creative.

Ghazali is convinced that the literal sense of the Word of God is clear for the believer, especially in those passages which concern articles of faith; whereas Averroës, on the contrary, is inti- mately persuaded that only philosophers can identify the Qur’an’s literal sense. For it is a unique Book whose miraculous veridical coherence will escape anyone bereft of the proper criterion of interpretation, which stems from logico-philosophical reflection on beings.

Nevertheless, the more Averroës highlights philosophical acumen as interpreter of the Qur’an, the more he feeds Ghazali’s suspicion that philosophers are hypocrites, since they are not receptive of the truth of revelation but rather tout their power to assess it by the light of philosophical reflection.

Indeed, according to Averroës, those who are not philosophers, like Ghazali, can hardly appreciate the profound affinity between revelation and philosophical activity, so will invariably fail to judge its proper valence. For his part, Averroës has treated this affinity in his works for philosophers, which for that very reason ought not be placed in the hands of those who are not philosophers.

Now both Ghazali and Averroës are agreed on this point: that public debate on the subject of faith and Qur’an interpretation can be the root of serious harm to the identity of believers and the cohesion of Islamic soci- ety, though this agreement will entail acutely disparate trajectories.

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For Ghazali, such debate is dangerous because it accentuates differences to the neglect of what is essential: the decisive equality among human beings as Muslims, who can only be distinguished by varying degrees of right intentions as well as the depth of hope which guides their journey towards the next world.

Whereas for Averroës, public debate regarding the law and interpretation of the Qur’an will be corrupting because it is freighted with a double danger: trivialization of the Qur’an and obscuring the miraculous power of the inimitable Book, which is to convince all readers, even in the face of a categorical disparity in the degree of their respective modes of knowing.

The only way to resolve such impetuous debate, in the eyes of both Ghazali and Averroës, would be to place them under the severe and exigent control of a vigorous and intelligent authority. Ghazali hopes that such authority would respect the counsel of spiritual guides like himself, while Averroës hopes they would follow the counsel of philosophers.

The gulf which separates us today from both Ghazali and Averroës can be dis- played by the fact that neither of them envisaged the possibility that imposing silence on religious issues and debates over faith could lead to the secularization of society in such a way that the focus of worldly inter- est would henceforth be monopolized by utility and pleasure.

We can only comprehend the good to which Ghazali and Averroës aspired by removing debates concerning faith from public space in the light of the vitality of Muslim faith and the cohesion of Islamic society as they were then flourishing. Both spiritual master and philosopher relied upon the stability of Muslim life in a society all of whose members accepted the commandments of the Word of God in the Qur’an.

 In fact, this perfectly rooted and palpable stability explains why Averroës couldaccentuate radical differences among believers without disturbing their common practice.

That same faith allowed Ghazali to call everyone to examine their consciences, the better to appreciate the gulf separating them from God considered in His ninety-nine perfections, yet remain keenly interested in imitating Him by deepening their fear and hope.

This fact will also help us understand the way the chapters are ordered to treat each theme of this discussion. The first chapter outlines aspects of their receptive biographies, where we find rooted their contrasting convictions regarding the role of reason: for Ghazali, a critical power and tool needed to realize the intentions of those who have taken its limits; for Averroës, the unique path to truth, an arena reserved to a select group beyond barriers of time or of language.

 There I shall also reflect on certain tendencies prevailing among commentaries on their two “decrees,” to bring to light my debt to them as well as certain lacunae which I hope to supplant.

In the second chapter, taking account of the vicissitudes which appear to have shaped the life of Ghazali, with their possible import for the Decisive Criterion of Distinction, I attempt to clarify the sole preoccupa- tion which animated his work before and during his eleven years of pilgrimage.

I take note of the fact that Ghazali writes in the name and for the same audience, in the Incoherence of the Philosophers, the Enlivening of Religious Knowing, and the Just Balance, while at the same time chal- lenging that same audience.

In this way I concur with those authors who attribute a single motivation to Ghazali – that of being spiritual guide for ordinary Muslims, thereby distancing myself from those who attribute to him philosophical positions, or an esoteric theological perspective.

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The third chapter is devoted to my interpretation of the Decisive Criterion of Distinction, in the light of Ghazali’s stance regarding the strict agreement between the literal sense of the Word of God in the Qur’an and the conception of existence proper to common sense. The merit of this interpretation is that it will help us to read the fivefold disposition which this thinker proposes for reading the Qur’an by reference to his own examples, thereby revealing the strict rapport between this dispo- sition and the literal sense of retribution promised to Muslims in the after- life.

So philosophers and certain Sufis who put their confidence in their intellectual or spiritual superiority are unmasked as hypocrites.

The object of Chapter Four is Averroës’ response, explaining how philo- sophical inquiry is an explicit commandment of the Qur’an, hence obliga- tory for all who are capable of it. He will also underscore that the Qur’an cannot be an authoritative word unless the criterion for reading it has been established.

Finally, he judges Ghazali to be acutely misled in condemning philosophers, whom he considers to be actively diverting people from faith. So this chapter in effect delineates the connection between revelation and philosophy from a philosophical point of view.

In Chapter Five I set out to study the original position of Averroës regarding the connection between revelation and philosophy from the point of view of revelation, as the Andalusian intellectual lays it out in works directed to philosophers.

By way of introducing my position, according to which Averroës is a Muslim philosopher and an original interpreter of Aristotle, I will offer a summary presentation of the contrary view prevailing among most commentators. Basing myself on a naturalist interpretation of certain questions left open by Aristotle, I prepare the way to better appreciate better the different position held by the Muslim com- mentator.

By studying his Substance of the Celestial Sphere as well as the Large Commentary on the Metaphysics, I hope to be able to show how his certain faith in the existence of the Artisan coheres with realign- ing the major concepts of Aristotelian metaphysics: nature, being, and matter.

In the new alignment shaped by the light of faith, philosophical questions like the goodness of the world and its order become theological issues.

Chapter Six depends on the third and fourth chapters, to complete them by examining the social consequences of the positions of Ghazali and Averroës regarding the supremacy of a spiritual guide over against a philosopher in a society torn by debates.

From his conviction regarding the utter equality of all Muslims as believers, Ghazali must justify the superiority of a spiritual guide, while Averroës must account for the place reserved for reasonable people who are not themselves philosophers, vis-à-vis the Qur’an. He must also fulfill his function as judge without attenuating the obligation of silence which his philosophical knowledge imposes on him, reserved as it is for philosophers.

Finally, I shall return, by way of conclusion, to the principles of the philosophical and religious debate which originated this study. I will first consider the two ways by which Ghazali and Averroës have organized the shared elements of their faith into two disparate theological configurations.

I shall also underline the evident difference between the two models of society which they espouse. For while Ghazali retains a place in the heterogeneous society which Averroës endorses, Averroës has none in the society which Ghazali proposes. Finally, I shall outline the solution offered by the two thinkers with a view to ending the conflicts which….

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