Following my introduction (2 paragraphs) are selected excerpts from Wikipedia's article on al-Ghazzali. Many historians, Muslim or not, believe al-Ghazzali is the most influential Muslim since the Prophet Muhammad. He single-handedly shifted early Arab ideals away from Greek philosophy to orthodox Islam. Despite being a scientist, philosopher and innovator himself, Ghazzali's prolific and influential writings heralded the end of 3 centuries of Arab advancements in science, philosophy and innovation and the beginning of Islam's permanent intellectual stagnation.

What is the result of his influence? Dogma squelched and replaced innovation. Consider this: there are 1.2 to 1.5 billion Muslims in the world but only 12 to 15 million Jews. That's a ratio of 100 to 1. Now, look at the number of Nobel prizes awarded in the sciences. From 1901 to 2003, there were 347 prizes awarded in the sciences. Of those 347, Jews received 43. That's 1/8th of them. On the other hand, only 2 Nobel prizes for science have ever been awarded to Muslims (Abdus Salam was co-awarded alongside Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg for their Electro-Weak Theory and Ahmed Zewail - an Egyptian-American - was awarded his prize for his work on femtochemistry). If you take the 100 to 1 ratio between Jews and Arabs, then factor in the 43 to 2 ratio for Nobel prizes in the sciences, you get a per capita award disparity ratio of 2150 to 1 between Jews and Muslims. That's what happens when you freeze a religion and culture to the 12th century.

Al-Ghazzali has sometimes been acclaimed in both the East and the West as the greatest Muslim after Muhammad. Besides his work that successfully changed the course of Islamic philosophy – the early Islamic Arabic Neoplatonism developed on the grounds of Greek philosophy was so successfully censored by Ghazzali that it never did recover – he also brought the Islamic orthodoxy in close contact with Islamic mysticism. The orthodox theologians still went their own way, and so did the mystics, but both developed a sense of mutual appreciation which ensured that no sweeping condemnation could be made by one for the practices of the other.

Ghazzali wrote more than 70 books on Islamic sciences, early Islamic philosophy, Islamic psychology, Kalam and Sufism. His 11th century book titled The Incoherence of the Philosophers marks a major turn in Islamic epistemology, as Ghazzali effectively discovered philosophical skepticism that would not be commonly seen in the West until René Descartes, George Berkeley and David Hume. The encounter with skepticism led Ghazzali to embrace a form of theological occasionalism, or the belief that all causal events and interactions are not the product of material conjunctions but rather the immediate and present will of God.

The Incoherence of the Philosophers marked a turning point in Islamic philosophy in its vehement rejections of Aristotle and Plato. The book took aim at the falsafa, a loosely defined group of Islamic philosophers from the 8th through the 11th centuries (most notable among them Avicenna and Al-Farabi) who drew intellectually upon the Ancient Greeks. Ghazzali bitterly denounced Aristotle, Socrates and other Greek writers as non-believers and labeled those who employed their methods and ideas as corrupters of the Islamic faith.

The Incoherence of the Philosophers is famous for proposing and defending the Asharite theory of occasionalism. Ghazzali famously claimed that when fire and cotton are placed in contact, the cotton is burned directly by God rather than by the fire, a claim which he defended using logic. He argued that because God is usually seen as rational, rather than arbitrary, his behaviour in normally causing events in the same sequence (ie, what appears to us to be efficient causation) can be understood as a natural outworking of that principle of reason, which we then describe as the laws of nature. Properly speaking, however, these are not laws of nature but laws by which God chooses to govern his own behaviour (his autonomy, in the strict sense) - in other words, his rational will.

The autobiography Ghazzali wrote towards the end of his life, The Deliverance From Error (Al-munqidh min al-ḍalāl; several English translations) is considered a work of major importance. In it, Ghazzali recounts how, once a crisis of epistemological skepticism was resolved by "a light which God Most High cast into my breast...the key to most knowledge," he studied and mastered the arguments of Kalam, Islamic philosophy and Ismailism. Though appreciating what was valid in the first two of these, at least, he determined that all three approaches were inadequate and found ultimate value only in the mystical experience and insight (the state of prophecy or nubuwwa) he attained as a result of following Sufi practices.

In this work, Ghazzali expressed support for mathematics as an exact science, but argues that it cannot be used as a form of proof for religious or metaphysical doctrines due to their non-physical nature. He argues that religion and metaphysics are not in need of mathematics in the sense that poetry is not in need of mathematics or in the sense that philology or grammar can be mastered without any knowledge of mathematical sciences. He also argues that every discipline has its own experts and that an expert in one discipline, in this case mathematics, may fail miserably in other disciplines, in this case religion and metaphysics. Ghazzali saw the practical usefulness of mathematics and condemns those who reject the mathematical sciences:

A grievous crime indeed against religion has been committed by the man who imagines that Islam is defended by the denial of the mathematical sciences, seeing that there is nothing in revealed truth opposed to these sciences by way of either negation or affirmation, and nothing in these sciences opposed to the truth of religion.

Ghazzali was responsible for formulating the Ash'ari school of atomism. He argued that atoms are the only perpetual, material things in existence, and all else in the world is “accidental” meaning something that lasts for only an instant. Nothing accidental can be the cause of anything else, except perception, as it exists for a moment. Contingent events are not subject to natural physical causes, but are the direct result of God’s constant intervention, without which nothing could happen. Thus nature is completely dependent on God, which is consistent with other Ash'ari Islamic ideas on causation, or the lack thereof.

In atomic theory, Ghazzali alluded to the possibility of dividing an atom. In reference to the wide divisions among Muslims, he wrote: "Muslims are so good at dividing that they can divide the atom. If you see two Muslims, probably they belong to 3 parties."

Another of Ghazzali's major works is The Revival of Religious Sciences (Arabic: احياء علوم الدين‎ Ihya al-Ulum al-Din or Ihya'ul Ulumuddin). It covers almost all fields of Islamic religious sciences: Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), Kalam (Islamic theology) and Sufism. It contains four major sections: Acts of worship (Rub' al-'ibadat), Norms of Daily Life (Rub' al-'adatat), The ways to Perdition (Rub' al-'muhlikat) and The ways to Salavation (Rub' al-'munjiyat). It is said that he used Abu Talib al-Makki as one of his sources. He then wrote a brief version of this book in Persian under The Alchemy of Happiness (Kīmyāye Sa'ādat).

In this book, he classified mathematics and medicine of medieval Islam as praiseworthy (mamdūh) sciences and considers them to be a community obligation (fard kifāyah). He writes:

Sciences whose knowledge is deemed fard kifāyah comprise [all] sciences which are indispensable for the welfare of this world such as: medicine which is necessary for the life of the body, arithmetic for daily transactions and the divisions of legacies and inheritances, as well as others. These are the sciences which, because of their absence, the community would be reduced to narrow straits.

Ghazzali was responsible for formulating the Ash'ari school of atomism. He argued that atoms are the only perpetual, material things in existence, and all else in the world is “accidental” meaning something that lasts for only an instant. Nothing accidental can be the cause of anything else, except perception, as it exists for a moment. Contingent events are not subject to natural physical causes, but are the direct result of God’s constant intervention, without which nothing could happen. Thus nature is completely dependent on God, which is consistent with other Ash'ari Islamic ideas on causation, or the lack thereof.

Ghazzali's writings are believed to have been a source of encouragement for the study of medicine in medieval Islam, particularly anatomy. In The Revival of the Religious Sciences, he classed medicine as one of the praiseworthy (mahmud) secular sciences, in contrast to astrology which he considered blameworthy (madhmutn). In his discourse on meditation (tafakkur), he devoted a number of pages to a fairly detailed anatomical exposition of the parts of the human body, advocating such study as a suitable subject for contemplation and drawing nearer to God.

In The Deliverer from Error, Ghazzali made a strong statement in support of anatomy and dissection:

The Naturalists (al-tabi'yun): They are a group of people who are constantly studying the natural world and the wonders of animals and plants. They are frequently engaging in the science of anatomy/dissection ('ilm at-tashriih, علم التَشريح) of animal bodies, and through it they perceive the wonders of God's design and the marvels of His wisdom. With this they are compelled to acknowledge a wise Creator Who is aware of die ends and purposes of things. No one can study anatomy/dissection and the wonders of the utilities of the parts without deducing this unavoidable inference—that is, the perfection of the design of the Creator with regard to the structure (binyah, بنية) of animals and especially the structure of humans.

His support for the study of anatomy and dissection was influential in the rise of anatomy and dissections carried out among Muslim physicians in the 12th and 13th centuries, by the likes of Ibn Zuhr and Ibn al-Nafis, among others. Ibn Rushd, a critic of Ghazzali, also agreed with him on the issue of dissection.

In cosmology, in contrast to ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle who believed that the universe had an infinite past with no beginning, medieval philosophers and theologians developed the concept of the universe having a finite past with a beginning (temporal finitism). This view was inspired by the belief in creation shared by the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Christian philosopher, John Philoponus, presented the first such argument against the ancient Greek notion of an infinite past. However, the most sophisticated Medieval arguments against an infinite past were developed by the early Muslim philosopher, Al-Kindi (Alkindus); the Jewish philosopher, Saadia Gaon (Saadia ben Joseph); and finally Ghazzali, under whom the arguments reached their most developed form. Ghazzali proposed two logical arguments against an infinite past, the first being the "argument from the impossibility of the existence of an actual infinite", which states:

"An actual infinite cannot exist."

"An infinite temporal regress of events is an actual infinite."

"An infinite temporal regress of events cannot exist."

His second argument, the "argument from the impossibility of completing an actual infinite by successive addition", states:

"An actual infinite cannot be completed by successive addition."

"The temporal series of past events has been completed by successive addition."

"The temporal series of past events cannot be an actual infinite."

Both arguments were adopted by later Christian philosophers and theologians, and the second argument in particular became more famous after it was adopted by Immanuel Kant in his thesis of the first antimony concerning time.

Ghazzali played a very major role in integrating Sufism with the Islamic orthodox laws (Sharia). He combined the concepts of Sufism very well with the Shariah laws. He was also the first to present a formal description of Sufism in his works. His works also strengthened the status of Sunni Islam against other schools. The Batinite (Ismailism) had emerged in Persian territories and were gaining more and more power during Ghazzali's period, as Nizam al-Mulk was assassinated by the members of Ismailis. Ghazzali strictly refuted their ideology and wrote several books on refutation of Baatinyas which significantly weakened their status.

Ijtihad is the process through which Islamic scholars can generate new rules for Muslims. Ijtihad was one of the recognized sources of Islamic knowledge by early Islamic scholars - that is, in addition to Quran, Sunnah and Qiyas. While it is not widely agreed that Ghazzali himself intended to "shut the door of ijtihad" completely and permanently, such an interpretation of Ghazzali's work is believed to have led Islamic societies to be "frozen in time". Works of critics of Ghazzali (such as Ibn Rushd, a rationalist), as well as the works of any ancient philosopher, are believed to have been forbidden in these "frozen societies" through the centuries. As a result, all chances were lost to gradually revitalize religion - which may have been less painful had it been spread over a period of centuries.

Whether the actual outcome of "freezing Islamic thinking in time" was the goal of Ghazzali is highly debatable. While he himself was a critic of the philosophers, Ghazzali was a master in the art of philosophy and had an immensely studied the field. After such a long education in philosophy, as well as a long process of reflection he had criticized the philosophical method. But only taking Ghazzali's final conclusions, while lacking a comparable education (and a reflection process) in the area, and as a result being unable to trace Ghazzali in his thought process, only exacerbates the probability of the misuse of Ghazzali's conclusions.

Writer Iqbal Latif holds Ghazzali responsible for the decline of logic, reason and tolerance in the Islamic world. Latif believes that the civilization of Islam began to falter as ‘destiny’ persevered over reason and logic, and as lenient ecclesiastical and priestly control once again tightened over the Muslim populace. With 'fate' sufficing to explain everything, risk no longer mattered and Muslim commerce began to dramatically suffer.

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Comment by Dave G on September 9, 2009 at 10:04am
So it's his fault!
Comment by Atheist Exile on September 10, 2009 at 7:45am

Yeah, it's ALL him!

I see the last paragraph as analogous to Christendom's strangling by the Roman Catholic church. The ensuing Dark Ages lasted for 9 centuries. The Muslims didn't learn from Europe's example. Islam drowned in its own rising tide of religious fundamentalism and is still in its Dark Ages.

Actually, I didn't think the article was written very well. Usually, Wikipedia entries are pretty well written.

My view is that whatever fundamentalism existed in Islam, it didn't dominate until the advent of Ghazzali's influential books.

I think it's fair to note that Islam is an abjectly fundamentalist religious and political doctrine. The Quran makes this fundamentalism self-enforcing. There is no wiggle room in its dogma. Any "moderate" Muslims out there are moderate despite the Quran. Most people don't want hate and conflict: including Muslims. They're moderate by nature -- not by religion.

Anyway, Plato, Socrates and Aristotle weren't "incoherent philosophers" -- they were infidel philosophers. It wasn't the charge of incoherence that persuaded the Muslim masses, it was the charge of disbelief that did the persuading. Ghazzali set the stage and showed, by example, how Muslim leaders can lead their followers by the nose.

The Quran and ahadith have not changed since Ghazzali's time. Neither has Islam. Islam has not enjoyed the reforms that Judaism and Christianity have. As both a religious and political doctrine, Islam may well be permanently impervious to reform. "Reformers" of Islam, in the modern world, are anonymous, in hiding, living with bodyguards or some combination of the three. Apostasy and heresy are still punishable by death under Shariah law.

To my point of view, if it weren't Ghazzali, it would have been somebody else who used the Quran to bring all facets of Muslim life under the control of Islam. Once that happened, stagnation was inevitable.


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