• Book Title:
 Ghazalis Politics In Context
  • Book Author:
Yazeed Said
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About the Book – Ghazālī’s Politics in Context

Imām Abū Hamid al-Ghazālī is perhaps the most celebrated Muslim theologian of medieval Islam, yet little attention has been paid to his personal theology.

This book sets out to investigate the relationship between law and politics in the writings of Ghazālī and aims to establish the extent to which this relationship explains Ghazālī’s political theology.

Articles concerned with Ghazālī’s political thought have invariably paid little attention to his theology and his thinking about God, neglecting to ask what role these have contributed to his definition of politics and political ethics. Here, the question of Ghazālī’s politics takes into account his thinking on God, know- ledge, law and the Koran, in addition to political systems and ethics.

Yazeed Said puts forward the convincing argument that if Ghazālī’s legal and political epistemology provide a polemic analogous to his writings on philo- sophy, for which he is more famed, they would reveal to us a manifesto for an alternative order, concerned with a coherent definition of the community, or ummah. This book will be an invaluable resource for students and scholars of the Middle East, political theology and Islamic studies.

Yazeed Said is an affiliated member of Faculty at McGill University in Montreal and a scholar in residence at Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. He com- pleted his PhD at Corpus Christi College in the University of Cambridge in 2010 and has lectured widely on subjects related to Ghazālī, Islam, political theology, and contemporary issues relating to Israel and Palestine. A Palestinian-born Israeli citizen, ordained as an Anglican priest, he has served in the diocese of Jerusalem, Cambridge, Vancouver, and Montreal.


This book investigates the relationship between law and politics in the writings of the Imām Abū H. āmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111). We also explore the extent to which this relationship explains Ghazālī’s political theology. As we shall see, for Ghazālī, political and legal activities cannot function independently. Political activities here are not so much about the character of the political establishment

in the abstract; rather, they represent efforts to address political questions with Ghazālī invoking, articulating, and authoritatively defining the collective resources of the law.

 Pursuing political theory with Ghazālī means revealing the extent to which he examines the nature of particular decisions, considers their efficacy and suitability, and suggests alternative decisions that might be more appropriate. This applies to the whole body politic, giving rise to a number of broader questions about law, its meaning and purpose, about government and its purpose, and about the role of the individual.

What follows is not an intellectual history of Ghazālī’s thought in the conventional Orientalist sense. In contrast to traditional studies, which have not been very keen on theory, this book is part of a movement to avail the field of Islamic studies of the considerable resources in the academy that go beyond the walls of ‘Oriental studies’ faculties.

Such resources include theology, ethics, law, and political philosophy. This reflects, as other works have aimed to do, the intrica- cies of medieval Muslim thought,1 a matter that requires taking seriously the theoretical basis of Islam’s theological understanding of history and law as based on the Koranic Revelation.

There are sufficient scholarly studies available on Ghazālī’s thought, which treat various aspects of his relationship to Arab philosophy, his Sufism, and his own story. Surprisingly, however, there is need for more work on his legal thought, despite the fact that he was a major Shāfiʽī jurist who produced numer- ous legal treatises. Also, very little work has been done on his political ideas. Henri Laoust’s La Politique de Gazālī (P. Geuthner, 1970) represents the only comprehensive attempt to look at Ghazālī’s politics.2

However, there is room for lots more to be said than what Laoust has provided. In this book, I attempt to bring together various areas of Ghazālī’s thought, which are too often treated in isolation from each other. This hinders deeper understanding of Ghazālīan studies.

For example, articles concerned with Ghazālī’s political thought invariably pay little attention to his theology, and his thinking about God and make almost no effort to ask what role these and other areas in his thought contribute to his definition of politics and political ethics.

Ghazālī may sound alien to our modern approach to issues in philosophy and theology. He cannot think about God without simultaneously thinking about political society and vice versa. Thus, the question about Ghazālī’s politics involves aspects of his thinking about God, knowledge, law, and the Koran, in addition to political systems and ethics.

The importance of such a study lies in the fact that if Ghazālī’s legal and political methodology and epistemology provide a polemic analogous to his writings on philosophy, for which he is more famed, they would reveal to us a manifesto for an alternative order, concerned with a coherent defi- nition of the ummah. This book does not claim to have a full grasp of the consid- erable breadth of Ghazālī’s thought.

Rather, it is an attempt to map what could still be developed further in the study of Ghazālī’s law and its relationship to politics.

Supporting a methodology that goes beyond the frontiers of Islam, we will bring some very recent material, namely that of John Finnis, the contemporary jurist in Oxford, and point to the proximity of Finnis’ writing on Natural Law to Ghazālī’s thought. This closeness outlines the shift upon which the discussion takes place, a shift from a positivist streak of legal thought to a focus upon the significance of the moral basis of legal activity.

This change of focus present in the writings of Finnis bears some significant similarity to Ghazālī’s critique of the jurists of his own day. The similarity stems particularly out of the theological sensitivities, which Ghazālī has, and which John Finnis implicitly brings in with his dependence on Thomas Aquinas’ thought though, unlike Ghazālī, Finnis is not a theologian.

John Finnis’ theory of Natural Law has both proponents and opponents.3 What Finnis presents as Natural Law is not necessarily congruous with what others have believed Natural Law to be.4

For Finnis, as I argue in Chapter 2, Natural Law is neither simply a blind inference from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ nor does it imply an ahistorical immobility in morality; rather, it is based on an identification of the ends of human society and basic goods that help us reach this end. Finnis’ theory serves as a theoretical underpinning of the study, no more no less.

 Though an attempt is made to point out possible similarities between Finnis and Ghazālī, the book focuses on the relation of Ghazālī’s moral vision with his political thought.

 I do not aim at an inter-textual exercise between Finnis and Ghazālī. Neither am I claiming a liberal interpretation of matters legal and polit- ical in Islam. In an era of the disappearance of a unitary legal and political view- point, both during Ghazālī’s lifetime and among contemporary legal and political scholars, the book engages with Ghazālī’s thought and context, while engaging with discussions on law beyond Ghazālī’s boundaries.

Thus, I neither suggest that Finnis is a secret scholastic, nor do I insinuate that Ghazālī established a nest of proto-Natural Law theorists in Islam. But, one can still claim that notwithstanding the difference in spirit, structure and time, separ- ating the worlds of Finnis and Ghazālī, they seem to be bound together in a

common project. This project stems from the belief in a human capacity to identify goals, values, and purposes in the structure and functioning of the human person that can be used to evaluate and reform social, political, and legal structures.

Therefore, the analysis in this book will not only shed light on the intricacies and complexities of the legal, theological, mystical, and political thought of Ghazālī, but will also allow Ghazālī to shed some light on modern ideas. Investigating Ghazālī’s context shows that the essence of law and the conditions of its validity were problems known long before the invention of positive jurisprudence and political science.

Indeed, opening up Ghazālī’s text to sources beyond the frontiers of Islam does not mean negating Ghazālī’s own context and difference. Instead, it means opening up to the complexities of Ghazālī’s theo- logical sensitivities.

 Hence, as mentioned earlier, taking Ghazālī’s theological sensitivities seriously means that our reading of Ghazālī’s politics will take a different direction from that which some scholars have proposed.

The varied scholars writing on Ghazālī’s political ideas differ in their methods and starting points. But, they, for the most part, share similar conclusions. They

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