April 15, 2009

Revival of the Fittest

When Abu Hamid al-Ghazali challenged the Islamic status quo in the 12th century, he set the stage for reformers—and fundamentalists—who have sought to redefine the religion ever since

By Taylor McNeil

To this day, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058–1111 AD) is considered a seminal Muslim jurist, theologian, and mystic, and is usually regarded as an orthodox figure. But he wasn’t really, says Ken Garden, an assistant professor of religion who is writing a book about al-Ghazali’s masterpiece, The Revival of the Religious Sciences.

“It’s hard to imagine now, but rulers would summon theologians to debate different points of theology, and sometimes they would give a cash award to whoever debated the point best,” says Ken Garden. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Al-Ghazali was influenced by Islamic mystical thought, or Sufism, which emphasizes the need for spiritual self cultivation to achieve happiness in this world and in the next. Muslims needed to get back to what al-Ghazali said were the ideals of the Prophet Muhammad, what he called the “otherworldly science.” That same tactic—arguing that an innovative contemporary agenda is in fact a restoration of Islam’s founding ideals—is used by Muslim fundamentalists today who have very different agendas. Garden uses al-Ghazali to show the continuity that runs through dramatic changes in the Islamic tradition.

Garden, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and arrived at Tufts last fall, teaches a variety of courses, including Introduction to Islam, Islam and Modernity, and classes on Sufism and on Islamic scripture, authority and canon.

Tufts Journal: Why did you focus on The Revival of Religious Sciences?

It was an extremely influential work. Al-Ghazali’s admirers have gone so far as to say that if all the books of Islam were lost, the Revival would suffice for them or that the Revival verged on being a Koran. It’s still in print today. Today in some cities in the Muslim world you can even buy small pamphlets that are excerpts from the work.

Despite the impact it has had on Muslim thought over the past 900 years, it hasn’t been studied as much as other works of his. Modern scholars have described it glowingly but superficially as a “magisterial” work of Sufism and left it at that. The puzzle I set out to solve was the question of why it was burned in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) in his lifetime. It had been assumed that the burning of this “orthodox” work of Sufism reveals something exceptional about al-Andalus. I found that it actually reveals something about The Revival of the Religious Sciences.

Scholars haven’t paid much attention to that title—he meant it very seriously. He felt that the religious sciences in his day were dead, and in need of revival. It suggests The Revival wasn’t some run-of-the-mill work of orthodoxy, but rather a work with a radical agenda.

Why did al-Ghazali say there needed to be a revival?

He said there needed to be a revival because the correct focus of Islamic religious sciences had been usurped by law and theology. He calls them ‘worldly sciences,’ and what he promotes in their place is ‘the otherworldly science.’ This draws on a Koranic distinction, which says that people are too concerned with the affairs of this world, but are heedless of the otherworld. People are not acting with the knowledge that they will have to make a place for themselves in the world to come, or the afterlife.

What was the basis of the “otherworldly science”?

Al-Ghazali drew heavily on Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, in talking about the otherworldly sciences, but also on philosophy. People now focus on the more dramatic aspects of Sufism—sometimes it’s music; sometime it’s reciting the names of God over and over with the aim of achieving this mystical experience, described sometimes as fana or annihilation of the self.

But Sufism is really about the cultivation of the self: trying to root out vice and cultivate virtue, trying to cultivate asceticism, to come to trust God in all matters, to accept patiently whatever fate comes your way, realizing that everything comes from God. Mystical insight can come from this, but cultivating a virtuous self is an aim in its own right—and it leads to salvation in the afterlife. This longer-term spiritual struggle of Sufis isn’t as exotic as whirling dervishes, but I think it is the more important element.

How does al-Ghazali say people should go about developing this virtuous self?

If you look at his psychology, he says the human mind or soul consists of three different components: rationality, anger and appetite. The psychological deficit that most people suffer is that these faculties are not in harmony with one another. This is an ethical and psychological system that derives from Plato and Aristotle.

The aim is to bring balance to these faculties. Wisdom results from having your rational faculty properly balanced: cunning and deviousness come from it being overdeveloped; stupidity is the opposite. If your appetites are underdeveloped, you become listless. If they are overdeveloped, that gets you into lust and gluttony. And if your anger is overdeveloped, you fly off the handle all the time.

And he thought people at the time weren’t following those guidelines?

The problem was that the otherworldly science was eclipsed by law and theology. People saw that you could gain access to power by becoming a judge, for example. Al-Ghazali says that the early generations of Muslims only practiced law reluctantly—it was a distraction from their primary concern, the otherworldly science—but because it was of communal importance, they reluctantly agreed to be jurists. Then other people saw they got prestige from this, and they flocked to the study of law for the sake of prestige.

And he says theology went off the rails, too. Theological debate was something of a spectator sport. It’s hard to imagine now, but rulers would summon theologians to debate different points of theology, and sometimes they would give a cash award to whoever debated the point best.

Al-Ghazali insisted on the primacy of philosophical-ethical self-cultivation, and this was an innovation—but he presented it as a restoration of the ideal. He argued that the first three generations of Muslims were primarily devoted to this otherworldly science.

But were they in fact dedicated to this otherworldly science, this philosophized mysticism and Sufism? Not really. It’s an innovation in a prophetic religion, and innovation has to be justified as a restoration, as it is in Judaism and Christianity. I’ve been studying the rhetoric he uses to present his innovation as a restoration. And in my teaching, I’ve been looking at contemporary revivers and reformers, and I see them using a lot of the same rhetorical tactics that he does.

How does that compare with Islamic fundamentalists today who say they are trying to bring back what they call the true Islam?

Looking at contemporary religious thought and comparing it to medieval religious thought forces me to be more nuanced in talking about the tradition. There are people who are critical of Islam today, who look at the statements of fundamentalists—and that’s a very broad umbrella—and take them at face value. These people are saying that they are representing the original focus of the religion, that they want to return to the seventh century.

But no tradition stays the same—even if you wanted to go back to the seventh century, it would be impossible to do from the 21st century. I look at Muslim thinkers of the past century and a half—these are people I teach in my class on Islam and Modernity—and I see them doing a very similar thing here. They have a very different agenda, but in some ways they are using a very similar rhetoric to al-Ghazali’s.

Is there a particular essence to a prophetic religion that doesn’t change over time?

The unifying thread in any religion is a tradition of looking to the same sources of authority, usually scriptural authority, in trying to navigate in the world. These traditions form their followers, but they are formed in turn by their followers and change over time. Sometimes their course is altered dramatically by an Aquinas, a Luther, a Maimonides, or a Ghazali. They don’t have an objective, unchanging essence. They are understood in different ways over time, from place to place, and among individual believers

One of the great Muslim modernists, Muhammad Abdu, an Egyptian who died in 1905, argued that the essence of Islam was rationality. According to Abdu, [the prophet] Muhammad had called humanity to this, had rooted Muslims in rationality, but they had lost sight of the rational essence of their religion. In calling for rationality and for the pursuit of science and so on, Abdu had to say, ‘We’re not just aping Europe. We are going back to our own heritage.’

Now, is that an accurate portrayal, to say that Muhammad advocated rationality? Does it matter? Not really. This is how change occurs within a prophetic tradition. You have to link your agenda today to the founding generations, to the founding documents, the founding scriptures that have been the source of authority and legitimacy for all Muslims for nearly a millennium and a half.

And that approach still happens today.

Other people since Abdu have done the similar things, including fundamentalists, who say, ‘We represent true Islam, and the others are a perversion of the religion.’ That’s a dynamic that’s been around for centuries.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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