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.