Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali was born in Tus, Persia in 450 H (1058 AD). During his lifetime, he acquired one of the most distinguished positions in the academic world as the Principal of the famed Nizamiyya Madrasah in Baghdad. He was appointed to the position at the age of 34 and was widely revered for his extensive knowledge and eloquent presentations.
At the age of forty, al-Ghazali encountered a crisis; internal in nature and spiritual in essence. He came to feel that the one thing that mattered was avoidance of hell and attainment of paradise. He perceived as if his present way of life was too worldly that he had lost any hope of achieving eternal reward. This severe internal struggle eventually prompted al-Ghazali to take the life of a wandering ascetic, roaming around various landmark destinations across the Muslim world.
One of the most important sources that explain vividly al-Ghazali’s struggle against his own thoughts is the book al-Munqidh min ad-Dalal or 'The Deliverance from Error'. This book outlines in detail al-Ghazali’s refutations on the validity and reliability of all knowledge.
Al-Ghazali contented that for knowledge to be certain, it must always remain free of doubts, illusion and possibilities of error. To him, “knowledge that is not infallible is not certain knowledge.” He evaluated the various branches of knowledge available during his time. From the analysis, al-Ghazali embraced the view that all knowledge are to be denied. His reasons are based on the following two issues: reliance on sense-perception, and reliance on intellectual truths. These two, representing the philosophy of empiricism and rationalism respectively, are the two major schools of thought in discussions on epistemology.
Since al-Ghazali had acclaimed that for knowledge to be certain, it has to be free from doubt, he launched a series of analysis to see whether he could make himself doubt either or both sense-perception and intellectual truths. The outcome extinguished whatever reliance he had on both.
To demonstrate the falsity of sense-perception, al-Ghazali used our sense of sight as an example. Al-Ghazali claimed that sight is the most powerful sense. But yet, when it looks at the shadow of a stick, it sees it standing still, and judges that the shadow has no movement. However, if one were to observe the situation after an hour, one would know that the shadow is moving. It moves gradually and steadily but infinitely in small distances in such a way that it is never in a state of rest. Therefore, what we had observed through our sense of sight is proven to be wrong, thus should not be relied upon.
In another demonstration, this time to falsify intellectual truths, al-Ghazali began asking some profound questions to himself pertaining to his previous reliance on intellectual truths. He finally came to the assumption that perhaps behind all intellectual comprehension, there is another judge who, if he manifests himself, will show the falsity of intellect in passing any judgments. Even if this meta-physical comprehension has not manifested, that does not prove it is impossible.
A clearer explanation can be obtained from al-Ghazali’s narration on the relationship between dreaming and wakefulness. One has to be asleep if one were to dream. Therefore, he is either in an unconscious or sub-conscious state. But yet, the images he had in his dreams are so vivid and graphic that everything seemed to be real. However, when the person wakes up, he immediately knows that everything he had imagined were false, therefore unreal. In other words, we know that our beliefs, once we are awake, automatically nullify whatever beliefs we had while we were dreaming. So, the question now is, wouldn’t it be possible that there could be another higher state, beyond consciousness that can nullify whatever beliefs we have in this conscious state, just as how our beliefs during wakefulness had nullify our beliefs in our dreams? To support his opinion, al-Ghazali quoted a hadith in which the Prophet SAW said, “the people are dreaming, (but) when they die, they become awake.”
The state beyond wakefulness that al-Ghazali proposed, is often referred to as what the Sufis claim as a special ‘state’, mystic union or ecstasy, which occur when they have withdrawn into themselves and are absent from their senses. In his writings, al-Ghazali often claimed that the Sufi path is the only way to seek knowledge. He denounced all other classes of knowledge seekers; the theologians, proponents of batiniyyah, and the philosophers. Al-Ghazali had labeled them as either anti-religious or ultra-religious, whose view on epistemology therefore cannot be accepted.
Al-Ghazali’s viewpoints on this issue are interesting amid somewhat controversial. His conclusion to accept only and only the Sufis as the true seeker of knowledge is even more intriguing once devoured upon entirely. Dare I ask, in our pursuit of knowledge today, have we indeed been on the right path?
(Note: This essay was originally written as a class assignment in November 1999. It was later adapted for publication in a student magazine. The article is reproduced here for the benefit of students of History & Philosophy of Psychology. Jazakumullahu khayr.)
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Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali was born in Tus, Persia in 450 H (1058 AD). During his lifetime, he acquired one of the most distinguished pos...