This is class number one of Sheikh Hamza Yusuf’s exploration of Imam Al-Ghazali’s reflections on the Quran. He starts this class with a rich overview of the scholar’s biography and his significance to the Islamic tradition.
It’s a long one, but believe me, if you read right until the end (as I watched the hour and half of video), you will feel that it is worth the effort for what you learn and understand, insha’Allah. So grab a coffee or whatever preferred beverage and take out some leisure time to read this.
(please note that spellings of scholars names mentioned below may not be exact).
Sheikh Hamza starts with a cute greeting to those of us who are watching him via the live stream (or on the on-demand video like me!).
“Salam to all those wherever you are around the world… These are the days of miracles and wonders. It is just very amazing all this technology…”
He goes on in length about a variety of various topics before he delves into the rich profile of Imam Al-Ghazali.
All of this is as close to the actual words spoken as possible, but should not taken as a word for word account, nor a perfectly accurate reflection of the sheikh’s explanations. Any mistakes are my own.
“Imam Al-Ghazali b. hamid is probably one of the greatest scholars of Islam (after generation of the companions). He is ranked among the greatest scholars in Islam.
Like every scholar, there have been criticism of him. . . like for Imam Malik and Imam Shafey (of whom some considered him from among the shia).
Most of the uluma or scholars, even the great muhadeetheen (relaters of hadith), have been criticised. Humans do differ greatly.
Birds tend to find their own kind goes an Arabic saying, like the Western one about birds of a feather that flock together. . . and yet generally people will rarely agree on anything. There will always be differences of opinion. We will differ about talent, likes and dislikes, from what we wear to what we eat, to who we associate with, to what we find different.
This is part of the Divine decree that we are all different.
As well, this doesn’t diminish the value of anyone or any creature so but the greatness of the creation of the mosquito is no less than the greatness of the elephant. You would see that the needle of the mosquito is as extraordinaroy as the elephant’s trunk.
Allah is not hesitant to use as anology as the mosquito. Even the Quraysh wondered why the Quran talks about ants and bees and these insignificantt things. And now modern people will spend their whole life studying the bee and now we know as Einstein said that if the bee goes, we go because the bee is pollinating most of the food we eat.
When we look at Imam Al-Ghazali, though there are some criticism, Imam Azad ibn al Furat, who studied with Imam Malik relates a story that should make us all remain skeptical about those who criticize great scholars.
Imam Asad (who had become an important judge in Egypt) relates that he saw a man in a mesjid who was talking about Imam Malik (his former teacher) and trying to point out all the places he believed the sheikh had made mistakes while offering his own opinions as the accurate rulings. Asad said,” I likened this man to someone who urinated next to the ocean and who pointed to the puddle of urine and claimed that this is another ocean.” Sh. Hamza says that many people will attack these mountains and yet they are coming from pathetic positions. So no one will remember that little man in the mesjid, but Imam Malik is still taught in the world. He was truly a mountain.
Imam Al-Ghazali is like that, too. He is a mountain, and the more you know him and get closer to him, the bigger the mountain appears. If you try to ascend it, it is harder and you are sapped of energy and if you could ever get to the top, you are panting and completely out of breath.
One of his students said he wouldn’t understand this man’s fadl, virtue, unless he had very excellent intellect. Imam Suki said this is a sound understanding. A man can only be judged by intellect and understanding. Intellect can distinguish, and the understanding can enable one to judge.
And Imam al Hanbali said he never saw anyone who was like him, all of the great scholars that he saw, even Imam Juwaini who was a scholar of the outer sciences. He was a vast ocean, an ocean to drown in.
The first thing to recognize is the circumstances which lead people to their place in life, and which led Imam Al-Ghazali to his place in the world (this sort of thing is mentioned in a book by author Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers about the nature of circumstance in the success of people). We have a fantasy in the West that we attribute succees to a triumph of the individual, like struggling against odds to rise up. But this is a fantasy because what makes a human being is so variable. So Bill Gates for example, who had access to a mainframe that no body had access to as a 17 yearold was able to find success that was afforded to him by where he lived at the time.
Muslims would add the metaphysical to that, the unseen element of what leads us to our places and roles.
Imam Ghazali’s father was a very simple man, he was a weaver, (ghazala) which is said that is where he got his name from.
His father loved the uluma,and he wished that he was an alim, but he did not have the opportunity,so he had to go into trade to support his family. Nevertheless, he would always sit in their majalis, and he would give whatever money he could give.
His sons were very young and when he was about to die, he left what little money he had to a friend becasue the mother wasn’t there, and he asked him to take care of these two boys. The man put them in a madrassa after the money ran out so they would have had their daily bread.
Imam al-Ghazali with all his genius could have been born in a completely different place but he was born in a place that had the greatest scholars of his age. So even in primary education he got excllent education, and though he himself acknowledges learnign for other than the sake of Allah, he says the knowledge refused to be for other than the sake of Allah.
His first teacher was a faqih, and of course he memorized the quran, he learned Shafi madhab.
Then he goes to Koos where he studies for two years and on his way back a group of high robbers (briganes) rob him and he chases after them asking for his little bag full of all his notes. The robbers ask him what he wants, and when he explains their boss starts laughing.
“What kind of knowledge do you have if the likes of me can steal it from you?” said the robber according to the imam, who said, “I knew at that point that God had made this man say that to me, and I have not acquired that knowledge.” So he goes back to Koos and remains there for three years to put everything to memory.
After that he studies with Imam Juwaini, at nineteen years, who was an absolute genius, a great shafie scholasr, a master of fiqh and usool, and kalam. He said he recognized the brillirance of Imam Al-Ghazali.
By the time he is 27 years old, Imam Al-Ghazali is finished his formal studies. He is undefeatable in debate and one of the most articulate people in Persian and Arabic. When you hear the syntax and elequonce of his language, people were in complete awe of him.
This was a time of great scholars who learned everything by rote. For example, Ibn Khaldun, the head of the Maliki scholars in Egypt memorized a 6-volume set – that’s thousands of pages. It was a time of immense memory development whereas now a lot of memory development has diminished. Now we have books and we can look things up. In those days books, were not as available as they are today.
Imam Al-Ghazali became incredibly arrogant which he admits. One of his beautiful qualities is that he was incredibly honest. He admits that he relished debates and loved to squelch opponents. He decided to go to the Sultan at the time and Imam Al-Ghazali shows up and all the scholars say he is better than all of us and the sultan pulls him in. He is lavished upon at a time when scholarship was honoured in the Muslim world; it is still to some degree, but in those days you could become incredibly wealthy, like the televangelists who become multi-millionnaires.
The Sultan realized that with so many varying sects in the realm, there needed to be a unifying force to avoid sectarianism and assure social order. So in his genius, the Sultan set up nithamaya schools to offer a central framwork. At only 30 years of age, Imam Al-Ghazali was made the headmaster of this institution, which included one in Baghdad where he headed. Those who saw him said they reckoned that his clothing and his carriage were worth around 500 dinars which was an immense amount of money. He came in as a sultan.
At age 34, Imam Al-Ghazali sets up a majlis, gathering, in which 40 of the most seasoned and well-versed scholars are in there taking lessons from him. They would sit there mezmerized by his language and his knowledge and they are amazed at the speed of his intelligence.
And then, at age 37, he falls into a crisis after an immense intellectual output that many have wondered at, which put the number of books he authored at 200. His three most important works are his autobiography which Sheikh Hamza strongly urges everyone to read as it has been translated to English.
The second book is on philosophy in which he lays down the aims and intents of the philosophers. The scholars got upset with that one because it became so clear that it was understandable by the plain people. That was the same argument against his magnus opus, Ihya uloom al-Din. He also writes many other great books on philosophy and ethics.
Then he wrote Mizan al Ilm, a book on logic, Quranic logic as well. He shows that logic is a useful tool though that not the end-all. He wrote several books on usool. His two books on usool, the mustafsal. He is a mujaded in usool.People think of him as a sufi, but it is arguable that he is actually an usuli scholar before anything else. an excellent book
He was a master of ilm al qalam. His last book is that common people should not learn dialectical theology because it was dangerous. He felt that certain sciences should be left to a certain cadre of intellectuals. It is very dangerous for when people delve into these things without proper training. This is one of the dangers of religion, a great jurist and usuli scholar says that it is far less harmful for a person to fornicate or steal then to speak about God or revelation without knowledge. And it is done all the time. Like those who say something is fabricated just because a hadith doesn’t make sense to them.
He writes all this and then he collapses , probably physically and intellectually but he enters this major phase of self-doubt and feels unauthentic. So he’s in crisis mode. He was raised in a milieu of tasawuff, known as sufism which meant a devotion to God. He starts reading these books and realizes that these deeply spiritual people were people of states not people of words. He, on the other hand, was feeling increasingly that he was a person of words. He felt his inner state was numb. He would speak and it didn’t mean anything to him. The clapping was getting old and didn’t have the same effect on him. He is now moving into maturity, beign almost 40 at a time when people didn’t usually get to be very old.
So he tries to find solace somehow and hewent into the depths of whatever he was studying. He was a lifelong learner. He learned philopshy in his spare time, without a teacher, he mastered all these books, and that was while he had a fmaily, children, his teaching. He wasted no time in his life. An incredible respect for time, and the blessings of the time of the salaheen.
He looks at the past, and then he looks at the four paths of truth:
Four paths – the dialectical theologian, the philosophers, esoterists and the Sufis. At his time, though, philosophy meant six things, today it refers to a history that begins with pre-socratists in Greece and ends with post-modernists in the West.
At his time, philosophy included logic, mathematics, natural science, politics, ethics, and metaphysics. He included in this empirical scientists, people like our Dawkins who is creating views of the world that are based on material sciences. Dawkins argues there is no God and that scientists will be able to explain it eventually (but in which explanation postulates that a lightening bolt struck a pond of water and then it developed into the earth and all its creatures. That all of this came about through natural selection, cause and effect , & incredibly random events…etc. and that there was no real design.”
When he examined all these paths, he concluded that the Sufi way was the path of truth. He sits there for 6 months and while he likes reading the books, he concludes that reading about it is not going to get him anywhere. He felt it was for the heart and that it is a path of diciplined practice and experience. It is about dhauq(taste) and just as you cannot understand the taste of honey without tasting it, you canot gain the knowledge of God from books, but from experience.
The sufis claim if you take this path, you will get certain results, but the problem for him is that this would imply experimental science and if you can replicate experience and results, then it is science. You test the hypothesis, everytime will be the same result. But struggling against your own particular faults is what leads to the path of nearnes to God.
So the key is doing things on a daily basis. One of the beauties of the religion is the fard duties, obligatory ones, protects people from ostentation. You can draw nearer to God with the fard, but with the nawaful or extra acts of worship you become a sanctified wali, companion. This is the path of sanctification. It is not only about salvation, though salvation is part of Islam and an acceptable path – like the hadith of the Bedoin who vowed to fulfill the five pillars of the faith, no more, no less. The Prophet said he would succeed with that.
And yet, basic salvation wasn’t the path of the companions like Ali, Abu Bakr, etc. Their path was the path of sanctification, may Allah sanctify their intention, they are the holy people. God can make hearts holy (and the kaaba with all its holiness is not as exalted as the heart of the believer in Allah’s sight, so that killing a believer is worse than taking apart the kaaba).
This is what makes Imam Al-Ghazali decide to set out. He internalizes the hadith that wealth and stature are more harmful to a religion of a man then sheep among hungry wolves. It wasn’t easy to get away.
He would say, “I would put one foot forward on this path, and then the other foot back.”
Shaytan, the accursed, would tell him to let it go and this wasn’t important and he relates that finally Allah Decided the matter for him. One day, when he went to lecture a class of 300 students, he literally couldn’t talk, he sat there like an idiot. He goes home, the doctors come, they say it is the black bile, that he is melancholic, and then finally he is told this is not a disease of the body, this is a disease of the heart. He realizes what he has to do.
What he decides is so radical – he basically leaves everything; he sets his family in order, and Sheikh Hamza says he is sure his wife was very supportive of him because that is what love is and his children were older, he left them in a good condition. He then he goes to hajj, then he goes to Damascus where he does a lot of thikr and fikr (remembrance and reflection) , doesn’t speak to anyone, he sweeps the mosque, he lives in the minaret. There is the room there that is the called the Ghazali room.
He then goes to Jerusalem , after 10 years of retreat he returns, but he remains in khalwa, seclusion, for another year.
He has changed, and all the outside knowledge is internalized and he doesn’t even need to speak anymore. People are just overwhelmed by his presence.
His last student set out to visit him, and he was in seculsion at the time. He said,“When I walked into the room it was is if I had been in darkness my entire life, and it was as if I saw the sun rising.” This was Imam Al-Ghazali’s impact.
He returns to teaching for a few years, and then he retires to a little zowayah, at the age of 54. 11/11 – 504 hijrah, or December 11, he gets his kafan out (the sheets used to wrap around the bodies of the dead) and he makes ghusul, and he writes a poem for his brother Ahmed (who had also become an admirable judge and poet). He wears his kafan and writes, “don’t weep if you see this body because this is a cage that the bird of my soul has occupied for a short time and now it is free.”
He is hujjatal Islam because his life is the proof of transformative power of this spiritual teaching and all of that outward knowledge, to imam ghazali meant nothing in the end, in the light of marifa or closeness/knowledge of Allah.
Again and again, he is saying that your death is right there, don’t waste your life, don’t waste your time, even if you don’t arrive, just setting out is arriving, the knocking at the door.
That is what he is telling us. The truths that he speaks are as relevant as they were when he wrote them. His autobiography is read by non-muslims; he is read by Thomas Acquinas, for example, and he had an impact on Western civilization that it hasn’t recognized
We are here just to honour him in this 900th anniversary by the solar calendar of his death and the teachings that he left behind. For me it is difficult to read him, I always feel horrible after reading him. He doesn’t let up the way that coaches don’t let up on the people they love the most. He wants us to recognize that this life is an incredible opportunity to draw nearer to Allah.”
Thanks for reading. I’ll be viewing on-demand videos of the Rihla for the coming weeks & months, and posting summaries here once a week insha’Allah so please subscribe to the blog if you haven’t already, and keep reading and sending along your feedback.
– In peace, digital daytripper
p.s. if you have access to on-demand video, too, and would like to share your thoughts, I can also grant you access to this blog so you can post here as well.
So the second lecture of Sheikh Hamza focuses more deeply on Imam Al-Ghazali’s life. He divides it into three parts:
1st part — Education -when he and his brother Ahmed were orphaned and he is taught by imminent scholars,ending with Imam Al Juwaiini. Later beocmes lecturer and then head lecturer at nitham ul mulk / nidhamaya (university) in Baghdad (akin to being a senior lecturer at Yale or Oxford)
2nd part – seclusion – writing of Ihya uloom al Din (the Revival of the Religious Sciences) – (considered his Magnum Opus, ie. Greatest work).
3rd part – After the seclusion
– Imam Al-Ghazali was rare in that he was knowledgeable in many areas.
– He began writing early on, while he was still a student. His books in the first period, can be divided in four groups:
1 – Logic – Ibn Taymiyyah didn’t agree with Imam Ghazali’s position that Logic is fard kafayah. . . Al-Ghazali argued that the Quran uses a lot of reasoning. He wrote a book called the Upright Standard,which teaches the logic in the Quran (which he considers is a Quranic science).
2- Usool & Fiqh – He follows the Shafi’ school of Fiqh, becoming an imminent scholar, though he has his own ijtihadad or way of coming to conclusions. Some criticisms of him include that he was too far out on some matters.
3 – Refutations against the esoterists – known as the bataniyah, and at the time the predominant group was the Ismailis.
4- Philosophy – He wrote a book that would be considered similar to “Philosophy for dummies”, as well as other books. One predominant Christian Arab blamed Imam Al-Ghazali for the fall of Islam, claiming he was the cause of the destruction of a philosophical tradition. But this isn’t fair because he actually is a philosopher. What the imam tries to do is to convince religious people to become more philosophical and philosophical people to become more religious. Sheikh Hamza’s own teacher says that there is so much confusion because of the loss of philosophical training and in civilization, you have to have philosophers.
The area that is central to his teaching and becomes his predominant obsession after the crisis.
In the second phase, he abandons the world and begins writing the Ihya. What is important about the Ihya is that he wrote it with intention of giving the ummah a book that could only be compared to writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. He wanted to give a book that would, after the Quran, be enough for a Muslim to be soundly educated in the religious sciences.
And there are scholars that have argued that Ihya is all you need as a book for your journey back to God.
It is a phenomenal book, though not everyone always thought so. It was burned in Cordoba in Andulusia. Another scholar burned it, but then repented after seeing the Prophet, may peace be upon him, in a dream. In the dream, the Prophet made Al-Ghazali whip him.
The reason for the controversies is around a few things he wrote about the nature of the soul, and in his book on Tawheed (the oneness of God).
There were also some issues about the Hadith because not all of them are proven to be sound transmissions. Though Ibn Kathir, the great scholar of the Quran called the Ihya a great book. Ibn Kathir, who was a student of Ibn Taymiyyah says you will find some hadith that are unsubstantiated but that this is not a big deal in books of this ilk – books of tarbiyyah or character-building as the hadith aim to inspire. So long as the unproven hadiths are not in the books of fiqh or rulings (same is true in the biographical books of the Prophet).
The general rule is that if hadith goes against the religion that it is rejected. But hadith basically can be ranked, with the strongest being those found in Bukhari (like an A+ hadith), and the weaker ones, lesser in grades. So even if there isn’t a specific source for a hadith, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. We should simply say “I haven’t found the evidence”, not that it isn’t there at all.
Imam Al-Zuhri was a huge source of hadith, for example, and once he was told a hadith and he wasn’t sure about it. The person relating the hadith asked him if he know 100 per cent of all hadiths and the scholar said just about half. So the person replied that this hadith may be from the half he doesn’t know.
Imam Malik also said that because the companions went all over, people practice what they have learned so that it is important not to supplant that knowledge with other knowledge that may also be sound but that may be difficult for the people to adopt. Sheikh Hamza notes that a lot of modern Muslims don’t understand that just because there is something you don’t know, doesn’t mean it isn’t a way that it can’t be done.
Sidi Ahmed Zurooq said one of the most important things for Muslims to know is the difference between opposition and differing opinions.
Differences are a mercy according to a hadith. Differences of opinion are very valuable. One way to do something is very difficult on people…maliki madhab, if people are following something that you have some stronger proof, then you just leave them on what they are doing.
For example, people argue about getting up for people, but in certain cultures, not standing up to greet someone is a cultural affront. So there are people who are very stubborn and they won’t stand up.
Don’t hate one another, don’t turn away from each other, don’t cut away from each other.
Some people were upset at a scholar for standing up for a christian and the scholar explained this person has power over muslims and I have to show respect. (in other words, be wise in your dealings and do not cling to orthodoxy mindlessly).
His books include : Kitab Al Arbaeen..he writes summaries of things…Ayuha Al Walad, Letter to a young man – which is a tiny little book. So a man asks for something he can hold on to – al walad – spiritually immature person…at a certain point, ilm rijal – is men and women. He writes the ihya, it has an immense impact.
Let’s look at architecture of the Ihya – it is in four sections…He basically puts in each section 10 books. So forty is a sacred number. There is sacred numerology but know too that there is a type of madness assoc. with numerology (gambling is a lot about numbers). Undeniably 7 is a sacred number – all numbers are sacred as they are part of revelation, arithmetic is part of God’s intentions, as well as a lot of negative effects of focusing too much on that.
Prophet Musa (AS) is told he will meet God, he gets 40 days. Rabat – to defend the land of the Muslims, there is a hadith that you need to be out there for 40 days to be a Murabit. That is where you get the idea of khuruj for forty days. if you live with a people forty days you will become like them. He tells them in the introduction, he is writing the Ihya to rectify what he says as the death of the Islamic sciences.
He will do something throughout the Ihya – he weaves these hints in the ocean of the Ihya (a big white whale) like he will give instructions to do something, and then leaves it at “if you do what i tell you, you will see what I have seen”, or “I could say more but let’s leave it at that.” There is a secret narrative in the Ihya which if you study long enough, will emerge. Similarly the Quran doesn’t reveal itself without great effort, people with be intimate with the Quran, you cannot experience this book without being purified, if you are willing to do this work.
This book is like the stars (quran) the places of the constellations, – you know how many constellations there are ? – 88 official constellations, 85th surah, first ayah is three words . The quran swears by the maqawah al nujoom, the heavans out there is for outward journey — we use the stars to be guided.
I was on a British Airways flight to England and I met with the pilot and asked him what would happen if all the navigation shut down. He said, we always have the stars. At the end, that is how we find our coordinates..it’s celestial. Mawaqoh al najoom, so the internal journey, verses and knowledge are the lights in the darkness..these verses are the things that guide you.
It needs constant observation. When you first look at it , it looks so jumbled. That is their response to their Quran. But the more you penetrate the Quran, the more it becomes clearer.
Second aspect of it, ilm ul muamala, book of behaviour.If you practice it, you will begin to taste the muqashafa.
Inward and outward aspects of muamalah – the ibadat and al ilaat or customary practices and devotional practices.
Kitub ilm – Book of Knowledge is the first book – it is the utmost imporance…..
Muamalat – thahir and batin – outward and inward aspects.
20 books in total here. On the outward – has the ibadat and ataat…
Devotional practices – prayer zakat,
Habitual practices – marriage life, friends, eating and drinking
Kitub ilm – we have a crisis in knowledge because words don’t have the same meanings when we received from prophet and Quran. Fiqh has been reduced to buying and selling and menstrual cycles but it is not the understanding of the sahaba, they were fuqaha of the religion. Whoever he wants good for, he gives him fiqh of the religion. The sahaba were all faqih, but they weren’t experts in sharia, so there is a deeper meaning of the term fiqh.
Muqashafat–you have made fiqh dry, says Al-Ghazali. I was one of you; I was the best of you. It was all the completely wrong path. It is so focused on the outer. Ihya is all about moving inward.
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