The Assault on Islamic Neoplatonism
The flowering of Asharism in the tenth and eleventh centuries signaled the renewal of the struggle between the Neoplatonic philosophers, represented primarily by al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, and the Asharite theologians. To begin with, the Asharite theologians, as well as the grammarians and legal scholars, looked with suspicion on the deductive methods of the logicians and the philosophers and were content to apply the linguistic and explanatory methods of interpretation to the sacred texts or juridical problems. Metaphysics, whether in its Neoplatonic or Aristotelian forms, was deemed inimical to the Islamic worldview and the teachings of the Quran because it rested on the twin principles of causal efficacy and the uniformity of nature, which are irreconcilable with the Quranic concept of God's unlimited power and inscrutable ways.
Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, one of the greatest theologians of Islam and one of its most fascinating figures, was the Asharite theologian who was the standard bearer of the assault on philosophy in the eleventh century. Born in Tus, Persia, in 1058, al-Ghazali started his studies of logic, philosophy, mysticism, and theology with a series of outstanding scholars, the most important of whom was al-Juwayni. In 1091 al-Ghazali was appointed by the vizier of Persia, Nizam al-Mulk, as head of the Nizamiyah school in Baghdad, where he remained until 1095. The assassination of Nizam al-Mulk in 1092 by an Ismaili commando and the death of the Seljuk sultan Malik-Shah shortly thereafter probably impelled al-Ghazali to leave Baghdad and travel throughout the Muslim world disguised as a Sufi. Another, and more plausible, scenario is that al-Ghazali decided to focus on the mystical dimension of Islam, after leading an illustrious and successful career studying purely exoteric and legalistic matters, he turned to the Sufi path in which mystical experience is privileged over rational-legal deductions, an epistemological shift triggered, probably, by his envy of the Ismailis, who exhibited philosophical sophistication in their worldview. Al-Ghazali eventually returned to Nishapur, Persia, where he resumed his teaching until his death in 1111. Al-Ghazali was particularly well equipped to mount the onslaught on Neoplatonism in the name of Asharism and Sufism, because he was fully conversant with the philosophers’ teachings, evident in his Intentions of the Philosophers, a succinct summary of Neoplatonic physics and metaphysics, which he wrote as a prelude to that onslaught in the Incoherence of the Philosophers. His epitome of logic, the Criterion of Knowledge, which is a very lucid summary of Aristotelian logic, should be added to this summary as well as his ethical treatise, The Balance of Action, which has an Aristotelian base and a Sufi capping.
Al-Ghazali began Incoherence of the Philosophers by defining his strategy as clearly as possible, distinguishing three parts of the philosophical sciences: (1) a part that includes logic and mathematics and has no direct “bearing on religion” and should therefore not be questioned, except by “an ignorant friend, who is worse than a learned foe”; (2) a part that deals with political and ethical maxims ultimately derived from the teachings of the prophets and the Sufi masters, which should not be questioned either but should be approached with caution; and (3) a part that contains the bulk of the philosophers’ errors, namely physics and metaphysics. Al-Ghazali then listed the three most pernicious questions on which the philosophers deserve to be declared infidels (takfir); namely, the eternity of the world, God's knowledge of universals but not of particulars, and the denial of bodily resurrection. On all other issues, which he reduced to seventeen, the philosophers should be declared heretical (tabdi).
The philosophers’ thesis of the eternity of the world opens the list of the twenty “pernicious” questions of Incoherence, because according to al-Ghazali this thesis entails that the world is uncreated and therefore the existence of its Creator is indemonstrable. Al-Kindi and the Asharite theologians had in fact predicated the existence of God on the existence of a created (hadith, muhdath) world; because it is created, the world necessarily requires a Creator (muhdith), as al-Kindi put it. In time, this became the favorite argument of the mutakallimun (Muslim theologians), both Mutazilite and Asharite, for the existence of God.
As for God's knowledge of universals but not of particulars, al-Ghazali leveled his attack on Ibn Sina in particular, because Ibn Sina had contended that the knowledge of changing particulars entails change in the essence of the “knower”; so that the only knowledge God can have of the world is universal, bearing on species and genera and not individuals. For al-Ghazali, however, not only reason but the Quran itself affirmed that “not a single atom's weight in the heavens or on earth is hidden from Him” (34:3). To deny God's knowledge of particulars, then, reduces God to the status of the ignorant or the dead.
Regarding bodily resurrection, al-Ghazali accused the philosophers of having failed to prove demonstratively the immortality of the soul, let alone the resurrection of the body. Because of this failure, the only recourse open to the believer, he argued, is to defer to the authority of scripture, wherein both the Quran and the hadith are explicit that on the Day of Judgment, souls shall be united to the appropriate bodies, made up of the same matter as the original body or one of a different nature. Once the soul has thus “repossessed the instrument,” or the material body to which it was originally united or its analog, the individual will not only revive, but he or she will immediately regain the ability to experience those bodily pleasures and pains of which the Quran has spoken so graphically.
A fourth major issue, assigned to the physical part of Incoherence, is that of the Aristotelian concept of necessary connection between causes and effects. Neither experience nor reason, argued al-Ghazali, justifies the assertion of necessary causal connection. Experience (mushahadah) simply proves that the alleged effect occurs simultaneously with the cause, not through it (ma ahu la bihi). The association between the two creates in the mind the belief that the former is indeed the effect and the latter the cause. Individuals should believe instead, he wrote, that effects in the world are caused directly by God, who is the sole agent in the universe, or through the agency of those angels “charged with the affairs of this world.” To assert that effects follow necessarily from their antecedent causes, as Aristotelian physical theory stipulates, concluded al-Ghazali, is in the end incompatible with the universal Muslim belief in God's power for miracle making.