Ghazali, Abu Hamid al-
legal scholar, and
Few individuals in the history of Islamic learning have had as profound an influence as medieval theologian, legal scholar, and mystic Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. His major work pulled together the various strands of the Islamic sciences so well that scholars ever since have admired it. Born in 1058 in Tus, in the province of Khurasan in northeast Iran, al-Ghazali gained distinction in the court of the Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk. At age 34, he became a professor of law at the Nizamiyah college in Baghdad. After teaching for several years, however, al-Ghazali suddenly lost his faith in purely intellectual matters and suffered what the modern world would call a ner-vous breakdown. He became paralyzed and even lost his ability to speak. After leaving his position at the college, he spent 11 years traveling, meditating, and reflecting. By the time he returned, he had found the object of his search—in the practice of Sufism.
In his autobiography, Deliverer from Error, al-Ghazali explained that conventional theologians, philosophers, and teachers all claimed to possess the truth but in reality wasted time in pointless discussions. In al-Ghazali's view, only the Sufis walked the right path. The Sufis combined knowledge with action, had sincerity of purpose, and actually experienced the serenity and contentment that comes from God's illumination of the human heart. With this new understanding, al-Ghazali set out to identify and analyze the circumstances that helped or hindered a person seeking to live a good life. His search resulted in his best-known work, The Revival of the Religious Sciences, which integrates all the major components of Islam: theology, law, ethics, and mysticism. Al-Ghazali sought to simplify the understanding of Islam. He believed that to be a good Muslim it is not necessary to understand the more complex matters that interest theologians. It is enough, he insisted, simply to believe the teachings of God as told to the Prophet and recorded in the Qur'an.
Al-Ghazali was also interested in social reforms. In his works, he criticized Muslim scholars who focused too heavily on abstract matters while ignoring the practical needs of the common people. He also condemned the wealthy for their lack of concern for the poor.
A popular and respected thinker during his lifetime, al-Ghazali's enlightened approach to his subject, his sincerity and objectivity, and his progressive tone ensure the lasting appeal of his work. He is one of the writers whose work has received much attention from Western as well as Muslim scholars. See also Philosophy; Sufism; Theology.