The Authority of the Text 2 AlGhazall and the Ismalll Imam

The Arabic text entitled al-Munqidh min al-Dalal (The Deliverer from Error) by Abu Hamid al-Ghazall (1058-1111) ranks as one of the world's great pieces of confessional literature, despite its rather obviously artificial structure. It bears sustained comparison with Augustine's Confessions and John Henry Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua.437

Structurally, the Munqidh divides, all too neatly, into an examination of the belief systems of four distinct categories of seekers (al-talibin) after truth:

• The Scholastic Theologians (al-Mutakallimun)

• The Isma'ili Sect of Shl'ism (al-Batiniyya)

• The Philosophers (al-Falasifa)

Al-Ghazali insisted that the truth (al-haqq) must lie within one of these groups; and, if it did not, he wondered what the point was in trying to identify the truth.439

Al-Ghazali had intellectual problems with each of these groups: theology sought only to maintain the theological status quo;440 the philosophers were infected with kufr (unbelief) and bid'a (lit. innovation, popularly 'heresy');441 and the essence of sufism could only be apprehended by, literally, 'tasting' (dhawq), i.e. experience.442 That left the Isma'ilis, whom al-Ghazali termed the Ta'limiyya, with their talk of knowledge via an Infallible Imam (al-Imam al-Ma'sum).443

Al-Ghazali counters such a notion by insisting that the Islamic community, the umma, already has an infallible teacher who is Muhammad (mu'allimuna al-ma'sum (huwa) Muhammad).444 One may use ijtihad in the absence of the text (al-nass);445 but ultimately however, the text of the Qur'an reigns supreme:

The fundamental beliefs are contained in the Book [al-Kitab] and the Sunna; in questions of detail and other disputed matters apart from these fundamentals the truth is known by weighing them in 'the just balance', that is, the standards set forth by God most high in His Book [fi Kitabihi]; and they are five in number as I show in The Just Balance [Kitab al-Qistas al-Mustaqim].446

In other words, the Text rules, not the infallible Imam of Isma'ili dogma, and it is to the former rather than the latter that the umma should have recourse.

In the last passage which we have just quoted, al-Ghazali directs us specifically to his earlier work al-Qistas al-mustaqim. Here he tells us, in an interpretation of Q.i7:35 ('and weigh with a balance that is straight' [bi 'l-qistas al-mustaqim])447 that this balance consists of 'the five rules of measurement which God has revealed in His Book and which He has taught His Prophets to use'.448 Here again, then, is the clearest of all statements that it is the Text, the Qur'an, which reigns supreme in al-Ghazali's eyes. This is the final criterion by which all should be elucidated and judged, not a human being like an Isma'ili Imam. For al-Ghazali, 'your (true) Imam shall be Muhammad, your guide shall be the Qur'an'.449 He goes on: 'I do not summon people to any Imam other than Muhammad or to any book other than the Qur'an. From the Qur' an I draw all the secrets of knowledge.'450

It is clear from all this that al-Ghazali is concerned to degrade the authority of the Isma'ili Imam. He does so by a massive stress on two primary sources of authority: there is that of the only real Imam, Muhammad himself, but there is also that of the sacred text of the Qur'an which, in a very real sense, becomes a kind of alter-Imam:

the eternal Words and Mind of God made textual on earth are, in effect, for al-Ghazali an infallible Imam for the entire umma.

After a long and possibly exhausting debate, reported in al-Qistas al-Mustaqim, al-GhazalI treats his Isma'IlI interlocutor with scant respect, even though the latter has been worn down by al-Ghazali's arguments.451 It is almost as if al-Ghazali wishes to underline the total truth of what he has been saying by his total contempt for his Isma'IlI companion:

You are not suited to be my companion, nor am I suited to be yours. Depart from me, so that there is distance between us. I am preoccupied with ordering my own soul and cannot look after yours as well. I am too concerned with learning about the Qur'an to instruct you too.452

Of course, al-Ghazali did not deny that there should be earthly Caliph-Imams as well, though these must clearly rank in status as lower than that of the Prophet Muhammad and the Holy Qur'an itself. Mitha stresses that in al-Ghazali's Kitab al-Musta^hiri, written c. 1094/5 at the behest of the 'Abbasid Caliph al-Mustazhir (reg. 1094-1118),453 Chapter Nine begins 'with a clear emphasis on the legal ideal, as expressed in the wording of the Chapter's title':

On the Establishment of the Legal Demonstrations (al-barahin al-shar'iyya) that the Imam charged with the truth whom all Men are Bound to obey in this Age of Ours is the Imam al-Mustazhir Billah.454

Mitha goes on to note that al-Ghazali 'argues that al-Mustazhir fulfils the conditions (shara'it) of the Imam, and hence he is God's khalifa over mankind and obedience to him is a religious obligation (fard) incumbent on all mankind ... the caliph is an indispensable source of legitimacy'.455 This observation is syllogistically validated in al-GhazalI's text.456

In sum, one of al-Ghazali's pressing concerns was to devalue the status of the Isma'ili Imam.457 For al-Ghazali, the Proto-Imam, the Supreme Teacher, was the Prophet Muhammad.458 After that came the rightful Imam-Khalifa. But beyond all was the eternal Text of the Qur'an itself. That text, by virtue of its divine oigins, had to be the lodestar, ultimate Imam, Mentor and Teacher par excellence for al-


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