Al-Ghazali: Muslim Destroyer of Philosophy
by Paul Austin Murphy (October 2013)
Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali (c. 1058–1111) is often been referred to – by both Muslims and non-Muslims - as ‘the greatest Muslim after Muhammad’.
Avicenna and Averroes (still well-known in the West) were largely forgotten in the Muslim world but their influence in Europe was very strong. Ghazali, on the other hand, was more or less ignored in Europe yet his philosophy gained a supreme position in the Muslim world and it kept that position all the way to the 20th century and beyond. In other words, two important sustainers of philosophy were forgotten in the Muslim world, whereas the destroyer of philosophy (in his own words) gained an overwhelming hegemony.
I am well aware that many Muslims, and even some Western/European non-Muslims (e.g., historians and other academics but not many – or any – philosophers), have claimed the exact opposite about Ghazali. Rather than being the destroyer of philosophy in the Muslim world, they see him as being its defender and upholder. Some even claim that he kept philosophy alive in the Muslim world. I am convinced that the primary reason for this view is the mistake of believing that because Ghazali was a philosopher, indeed a skillful one, that it somehow automatically followed from this that he must also have been an upholder and defender of philosopher. But the latter simply does not follow from the former. Ghazali was an adept philosopher but he was most certainly neither its defender nor its upholder, as I hope this essay will show.
As I said, Ghazali required philosophy in order to destroy philosophy. Part of that process of destroying philosophy was to provide Islamic theology and Islam itself with a strong foundation. That meant that in order to save Islam from philosophical attack, he had to give it a secure philosophical grounding. However, that philosophical foundation was but a slave, or ‘handmaiden’, of Islamic theology. It was a means to an end.
In order to achieve all this, Ghazali believed he required at least a smattering of Aristotelian logic. He also required, at that time, various neo-platonic methods and concepts in order to bolster Sunni dogmas and teachings. Again, these neo-platonic methods and concepts, as with Aristotelian logic, were but the ‘slaves of Allah’.
In a certain sense, Ghazali’s destruction of philosophy was successful; although it took around 300 years for Ghazali’s complete authority, in all matters philosophical and theological, to set in. In the end, Ghazali ‘made supreme a theology which was itself a slave of dogma’ (as Roger Arnaldez put it).
I mentioned Ibn Taymiyyah (the primary theological inspiration for contemporary Wahhabis and Salafists) earlier. He was an extreme - but not an altogether uncommon - example of Islamic reaction. Ghazali, the ‘greatest Islamic philosopher’, was also an extreme Islamic reactionary but one who nonetheless allowed a certain amount of freedom for the sciences and for logic (the latter being only an ‘instrument of thought’); though certainly not for philosophy generally and particularly not for metaphysics. Ibn Taymiyah, on the other hand, regarded all philosophy, science, logic, etc. as un-Islamic and even as anti-Islamic (as the Wahhabis and Salafists still do today).
Consequently it is best not to regard Ghazali as simply another Muslim Avicenna or Averroes. His attitude to philosophy was very illiberal. In fact his position on philosophy was so extreme that he even had a (religious) problem with the Greek syllogism. The ironic thing, however, is that he used very good philosophical and logical arguments to criticise both the syllogism and philosophy as a whole. (In this he was a kind of 11th century logical positivist or even a Wittgensteinian.)
Ghazali always referred to philosophers with the definite article – ‘the philosophers’. That is, he wasn’t against Philosopher X or Philosopher Y; or even against Philosophical School X or Philosophical School Y. He was against ‘the philosophers’ – that is, all philosophers. Ghazali himself wrote:
The source of [Muslims’] infidelity was their hearing terrible names such as Socrates and Hippocrates, Plato and Aristotle…. [the followers of the philosophers] relate of the how, with all the gravity of their intellects and the exuberances of their erudition, they denied the scared laws and creeds and rejected the details of the religions and faiths, believing them to be fabricated ordinances and bedizened trickeries.1
As a consequence of these ‘impieties’, ‘exuberances’ and ‘trickeries’, Ghazali demanded the death penalty for anyone practicing philosophy; for anyone holding the opinions of ‘the philosophers’; and even for anyone holding opinions derived from the philosophers.
As an example of his penchant for the death penalty, Ghazali demanded ‘the execution of any many who made a public declaration that the body did not share with the soul in immortality’. Now of course this sort of thing also happened in Western Christian society up until the 17th century and beyond. The point is, though, that no great Western philosopher - Ghazali is deemed to be ‘the greatest Muslim philosopher’ – ever demanded the silencing of philosophy let alone the death penalty for those philosophers who said the wrong thing (which is not to say the same about Christian clerics or even theologians).
Ghazali’s General Criticisms of Philosophy & Science
In terms of the specifics of philosophy, Ghazali cited three of the most dangerous questions which the philosophers had asked and debated: the eternity of the world; Allah’s knowledge of universals and particulars; and the denial of bodily resurrection. Because philosophers dared to ask these questions, let alone answer them, they were declared takfir (‘unbelievers’) by Ghazali. Ghazali himself put the situation this way:
They [the philosophers] are absolutely to be condemned as infidels on three counts. The first of these is the question of the eternity of the world, and their statement that all substances are eternal; the second is their assertion that Allah does not encompass in his knowledge particular events occurring to individuals; the third is their denial of the resurrection of the body.2
Ghazali’s Technical Criticisms of Philosophy
This is how Averroes argued that the belief in necessary causation was a belief in Allah’s favour, rather than the contrary. Firstly he said that ‘he who repudiates causality actually repudiates reason’. What he meant by that is that the necessary causation which we experience in the world should tell us that Allah has fixed the world according to a pre-determined and fully causal pattern. This is what Christian philosophers believed both before Ghazali's time and after. Indeed this law-like, or nomic, nature of the world made science possible; as so many thinkers have explained. Denying necessary causation, or the nomic nature of the natural world, is to deny order and symmetry and therefore the very things which make science itself impossible. Indeed it can be argued that Ghazali’s rejection of all this did make science impossible in the Muslim world. If Muslims had followed the words of Averroes (whom they largely forgot about), rather than Ghazali, they would have realised that the ordered and causal nature of the world is fully discoverable by the human mind precisely because it is ordered and causal. Through discovering the (necessary) causal nature of the world, Averroes believed that we could discover many truths about the Maker of all that causal regularity and necessity. We could discover the First Cause - God.
The Greek Syllogism
So it is ironic that all this very good and advanced philosophising was carried in order to destroy philosophy. Even partly to destroy logic itself. All this was simply to show that, in the end, only Islam, or the Koran and hadith, can provide certain knowledge and certain truth. Thus it was important, to Ghazali, to take philosophy, and even logic, down a peg or two. In this endeavor he was very successful, at least philosophically and logically (whether or not many Muslims, or even most educated Muslims, relied on his reasoning is another matter).
Universals & Particulars
Ghazali singled out Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 980-1037) for special attack.
Despite offering us an account of Allah’s special kind of knowledge of universals and particulars (or his not knowing them qua universals and particulars), Averroes does go on to say that Allah’s mode of knowledge is unknown to us (something which ties into much Islamic thought). This fusion of particulars and universals, as it were, in the mind of Allah, is part of his mystery; even though, as I said, Averroes did attempt to explain that mystery.
The Eternity of the World
Ghazali believed that philosophical heretics, ‘the philosophers’, argued that the world is eternal. Averroes denied that. He said that if the world were eternal, then it couldn’t have been created. Therefore Allah couldn’t have created it. And, as a Muslim, Averroes said that he could not have believed that, despite Ghazali’s contentions. Instead Averroes argued that the world is generated ab aeterno (from eternity). It is not clear what this means. However, Averroes did say that to argue that the world was created in time (muhdath) is to place limits both on Allah’s power and on his perfection. More precisely, believing that the world was created in time would mean that Allah could not have created the world at any other time than the time he did create it. It would also entail the question: why did he create it when he did create it and not at another time? In other words, in order to free Allah from these contingencies, he had to be taken out of time. Rather than being eternal (strictly speaking), Allah is outside of time.
The Resurrection of the Body
That lack of proof was a good thing to Ghazali (just as it was for Kant 700 years later). Without proof, or demonstration, for either bodily resurrection or the immortality of the soul, Muslims had to fall back on the Quran and hadith for sustenance. That is, instead of proof, there is faith. More specifically, the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul were shown (though Muslims still talk about ‘proof’ when they talk about the Koran and other Islamic matters) in the Koran and hadith when they make explicit reference to the Day of Judgement when the souls of Muslim men will be united with their bodies.
Interestingly enough, if there had been a prior Ghazali (as it were), then the actual Ghazali would neither have had any philosophy to destroy nor would he have had the philosophical skills with which to destroy it. Ghazali and his memory effectively killed philosophy in the Islamic world.
1. Al Ghazali, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Trans. by Sabih Ahmad Kamali (Pakistan Philosophical Congress Publication No.3, 1963), Introduction, pg. 2.
2. Ibid. Preface 4, pg. 11.
Paul Austin Murphy is a writer who lives in Bradford, West Yorkshire. He has had articles published in American Thinker, Think-Israel, Liberty GB, amongst other places. He also runs the blogs, Jihad/Counter-Jihad & Politics: News & Comment and Counter-Jihad: Beyond the EDL, as well as Paul Austin Murphy’s Poetry and a more general blog, Stuff.
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