Islam and Rationality. The Impact of al-Ghazālī. Papers collected on his 900th Anniversary

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 Islam And Rationality
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Frank Griffel
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Al-Ghazālī on Error

Given that God is omnipotent and supremely good and that He has decreed that our true happiness should lie in the contemplation of reality as it truly is, how and why do humans ever go wrong in their beliefs or stray from the path of true religion?

Al-Ghazālī’s answer to this question has attracted little commentary in modern scholarship,1 which is surprising given the prominence of the concept of error in the very title of his best-known work in the West—the quasi-autobiographical al-Munqidh min al-alāl (Deliverer from Error)—and the amount of attention lavished on the related issue of skepticism in al-Ghazālī. This study aims at filling a minor lacuna in the scholarship.

A suitable starting point is found in the Mishkāt al-anwār (Niche of Lights), where al-Ghazālī states categorically that as the light of the heavens and earth, God by His own light is the most manifest of all things. Consequently, people are only ever held back from the divine light, “either by their human attributes; or by sensation, imagination, and faulty reasoning (muqāyisat al-ʿaql);

 or else by sheer light.”2 For all that it is extremely brief, al-Ghazālī’s remark reads prac- tically like a programmatic run-through of the sources of error when it comes to religious matters. What is more, al-Ghazālī’s exposition here can be mapped on to things he says elsewhere in his authorship in a reasonably tidy manner.

It turns out that underlying al-Ghazālī’s occasional remarks there is a fairly well-developed theory, one that amounts to a kind of psychology of error. The fact that al-Ghazālī’s account starts from, and essentially ends with, the famil- iar notion that it is our passions (our “human attributes”) that lead us astray should not dissuade us from digging deeper, for there is a fair bit more to establish about error and its sources.

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In fact, the problem about mistaken beliefs and misplaced evaluations is a useful prism through which to view much of what al-Ghazālī has to say about the acquisition, retention, and loss of faith. At the same time, the generic nature of much of al-Ghazālī’s analysis—what goes for errant religious belief goes for belie neral—allows for a wider

application of the results.

Innate Nature Incomplete

Let us begin from the well-worn saying attributed to the Prophet according to which every person is born with an innate nature (fira), whereafter one’s parents then make one into a Jew, a Christian, or a Magi. Although al-Ghazālī cites this adīth in a number of permutations, often in elliptical form and sometimes in paraphrase, and although he applies it across a number of argu- mentative contexts, he is nonetheless reasonably consistent in what he means for it to say.

Perhaps the most famous evocation of fira occurs in the well-known account concerning al-Ghazālī’s own formative years in the Deliverer from Error (al-Munqidh min al-alāl):

Since my first years and all the way to maturity, the thirst to perceive the real natures of things (darak aqāʾiq al-umūr) was my custom and habit: it was an innate disposition and nature (gharīza wa-fira) placed in me by God, not something I would have chosen and cultivated for myself.

 The shackles of authoritarianism (taqlīd) therefore fell from me and inherited beliefs fell to pieces in my sight even while I was still a youth: this hap- pened when I saw how the children of Christians never grew up to embrace anything other than Christianity, or the children of Jews any- thing other than Judaism, or the children of Muslims anything other than Islam. I also heard the Tradition according to which the Messenger of God said: “Every newborn is born with an innate nature (fira): then his parents make him into a Jew, a Christian, or a Magi.” Through this my inner being was moved into researching the reality of that original innate nature (aqīqat al-fira al-aliyya) as well as the true nature of those accidental beliefs that [come about] by authoritative adherence to parents and instructors.3

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We would do well to notice first of all how the whole passage is a deliberate literary construct. Instead of describing actual events in al-Ghazālī’s youth, the author seeks to set the stage—in effect, to justify the discussion that is to follow concerning the four groups of truth-seekers. Al-Ghazālī’s primary aim is to paint a picture where his own searching inquiries into the domains of philosophy, Isma‘ili doctrine, and Sufism—activities which were sure to raise questions if not outright suspicion—can be seen as the manifestations of an innate disposition handed down by God Himself, lying within a spectrum of natural potentiality (albeit at the far end of it) that in principle encompasses all humankind.4

The positive side of the inborn fira tradition is thus that all people (in prin- ciple at least) are born receptive to the message of Islam, being predisposed towards loving God and desiring to know reality in its essential aspects. This, we may note, is at once more and less than what other thinkers have said on the basis of Q 30:30.

In light of that Qur’anic passage, having a fira could effectively be taken to mean that everyone is born the functional equivalent of a Muslim, as for instance Abraham was (Abraham being the paradigmatic anīf or righteous man).

Al-Ghazālī by contrast holds that all true religious knowledge, crucially including knowledge of right and wrong, is of the acquired sort, which already opens up the space for things to go wrong as well as right in the process of our faculties maturing.5 Even non-believers when pressed on the point  might  be  forced  to  acknowledge  and  testify  to  God’s  creation  of  the world,6 but the fact remains that each and every person needs to be awakened to this fact and that this kind of recollection can just as soon fail to manifest.

The first book in al-Ghazālī’s Iʾ ʿulūm al-Dīn (The Revival of the Religious Sciences), Kitāb al-ʿIlm (Book of Knowledge) introduces this principle in the context  of  explicating  the  true  meaning  of  the  term  “intellect”  (ʿaql);  it  is noticeable just how finely al-Ghazālī threads the needle of at once establishing that all humans are capable of and indeed disposed towards recognizing the reality  of  God,  while  at  the  same  time  acknowledging  that  not  everybody develops this capacity.

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God Most High has said: “If you were to ask them, ‘who created the heavens and earth?’ they would say, ‘God’.” The meaning of this is that if they ….

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