Over the past century, western scholars have paid more attention to Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazzali (d. 505 AH/AD 1111) than to any other Muslim thinker of his age. Despite this, we remain divided and confused over the precise nature of his religious thought. Our confusion stems primarily from the great and eclectic literary production of Ghazzali (and those who wrote in his name). While Ghazzali is most known as a Sufi writer, he also contributed to theology, jurisprudence and philosophy.
Muslim and western scholars alike have sought to organize this writing according to the traditional account of his intellectual career: a philosopher turned skeptic turned mystic. Ghazzali himself helped paint this picture in his autobiography, Munqidh min al-dalal (Deliverance from Error). According to this account, philosophy was merely a stage in the spiritual journey of Ghazzali, left behind and forgotten.
The present paper will challenge this view, which has already come under increased scrutiny. By looking at the textual history of one of Ghazzali's philosophical works, The Intentions ofthe Philosophers (Maqasid al-falasifa), I will argue that Ghazzali never left the philosopher's path. What is more, we will see that the Intentions is an excellent case study of the problematic transmission of classical philosophy. Ghazzali inherited a Hellenistic philosophical system from earlier Muslim philosophers and passed that system on to medieval Europe. Yet through this process the system was altered and the identity of Ghazzali was confused. Was Ghazzali a friend or enemy to philosophy? The issue has been contested for eight centuries.
Ghazzali was born in 450/1058 in Tus, modern day Iran. At an early age he began philosophical studies in Nishapur with the well-respected theologian, al-Juwayni. After Juwayni's death in 478/1085, he went to work in the court of the powerful Seljuk Vizier, Nizam al-Mulk. The vizier was so impressed with Ghazzali's abilities that he appointed him to the premier Sunni institution of the time, the Nizamiyya college of Baghdad. Ghazzali went on to distinguish himself through his teaching and his renown as a scholar spread throughout the Islamic world. Yet after several years Ghazzali suffered a deep ideological and spiritual crisis. This crisis, he tells us, was fueled by a growing distrust of philosophy and a sweeping doubt of all learning.
In the year 488/1095, he left his position in Baghdad, swearing to never return to academia. During the next 11 years, Ghazzali traveled through the Islamic world, making stops in Jerusalem and Damascus and a pilgrimage to Mecca. It was during this time that he had a conversion experience and embarked on the Sufi path. In mysticism, Ghazzali discovered something truly knowable: the reality of the divine for the individual mystic. Meanwhile, he wrote prolifically, including his magnum opus Ihya *Ulumal-din (The Revivification of the Religious Sciences), a work that stands at the center of Islamic intellectual tradition.
Despite his pledge, Ghazzali returned to the academy in 499/1106, spending the next 5 years of his life teaching at the Nizamiyya college in Nishapur. Thereafter he returned briefly to his hometown of Tus, until his death on December 18, 1111 (14 Jumada II, 505).
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