[These are rough notes from the first session of the workshop conducted by Shaykh Kamaluddin Ahmed (db) on Imām al-Ghazālī’s (rah) text ‘Al-Munqidh min al-Ḍalāl’ on March 10, 2013 in Karachi].
يٰۤـاَيُّهَا الَّذِيۡنَ اٰمَنُوا اتَّقُوا اللّٰهَ وَكُوۡنُوۡا مَعَ الصّٰدِقِيۡنَ
O you who believe, fear Allāh, and be in the company of the truthful. [9:119]
Al-Munqidh min al-Ḍalāl
DELIVERANCE FROM ERROR
And Attachment to the Lord of Might and Majesty
Translation by W. Montgomery Watt
BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO THE LIFE AND WORKS OF IMĀM AL-GHAZĀLĪ
Allāh (swt) blessed this ummah with raḥmatan lil ʿālamīn, khātam an-nabiyyīn Rasūl Allāh (sws). Just like Allāh (swt) gave this ummah the greatest Prophet (sws), He gave this ummah the greatest companions (ra), and the greatest ṣiddiqīn and ṣāliḥīn in the history of any ummah. The greatest of the ṣiddiqīn is Syednā Abū Bakr as-Ṣiddīq (ra) — the imām of ṣiddiqīn. The ṣiddiqīn will continue to exist until the end of times. Ṣiddiqīn are the true believers and true followers of Syednā Rasūl Allāh (sws), and true lovers of Allāh (swt). How they come to this level is a very interesting story for us, especially pertaining to Imām Abu Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (rah).
In a ḥasan ḥadīth Syednā Rasūl Allāh (sws) said that at the turn of every hijrī, Allāh (swt) will bring forth from the ummah a person who would do tajdīd — who will revive the dīn. That person is known as the mujaddid. This is something all the ʿulamā have accepted — although some have argued that there could be more than one mujaddid in one century, others have said there will be one mujaddid per century but for each field. Different ʿulamā have written who they feel, historically before them, was the mujaddid of their time. Perhaps one of the most agreed upon candidates for being a mujaddid of the 7th Islāmic century is Imām al-Ghazālī (rah). It means he revived the dīn in some way which was critically needed at that time in order to keep the baqā or the sustenance of that dīn. Many people who study Ghazālī in western universities and academia focus on his text Tahāfut al-Falāsafah (refutation of the philosophers). However, from the perspective of Muslim intellectual tradition and our understanding of our own history, that is not Imām al-Ghazālī’s (rah) major work. His major work was Iḥya ʿUlūm al-Dīn in which he revived different disciplines of Islāmic learning. Tahāfut al-Falāsafah was just an icing on the cake. Some of the greatest aspects of his legacy of tajdīd are:
- Revival of the spiritual aspect of dīn; bringing people to the feelings of dīn, particularly bringing the ʿulamā and ṭulabā (teachers and students of formal Islāmic learning) who knew the meanings of dīn to the feelings of dīn
- Articulation of tasawwuf and tazkiya i.e Islāmic spirituality
- Refutation of the false philosophical ideologies prevalent at his time
Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) was born in 1058 or 1059 AD and passed away in 1111 AD. He was born and raised in a place called Ṭūs, which is now in modern day Iran, which means he was ethnically Persian. In Persian society, the language spoken at that time was Arabic. In a way, he was a native Arabic speaker without being natively Arab. During this time, he was studying ʿulūm al-Islāmiyya — the different branches of Islāmic learning. He left Ṭūs in 1077 AD at the age of 19 years and lived the next 14 years in Nishāpūr, which is another city of modern day Iran. From 1077 to 1085 AD, he taught at Nizāmiyya college. He also served as an adviser to a very famous Seljud vizier known as Nizām al-Mulk from 1085 up to 1091 AD. In 1091 AD, at 33 years of age, he moved to Baghdād and was appointed as the sadr mudarris, the dean of academics, at the main Nizāmiyya college in Baghdād, which was the cradle of Islāmic civilization at that time.
In the year 1095 AD, at the age of 37 years, he experienced a “crisis of faith” which eventually caused him to stop teaching. He traveled and went to Damashq, Bayt al-Muqaddas, Makkah Mukarramah, Madīnah Munawwarah and Hebron. This traveling took about one to one and a half years. Around 1097 AD, he returned back to Baghdād where he spent the next nine years, up to 1106 AD, in khalwah and ʿibādah — in solitary devotion to worship. He also wrote his masterpiece Iḥya ʿUlūm al-Dīn during this period. After that nine year hiatus, in 1106 AD, when Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) was 48 years old, he was called back to Nishāpūr to teach. He resumed teaching in the Nizāmiyya madrassah in Nishāpūr after a gap of eleven years and continued until he died in 1111 AD, at a relatively young age of 53 years.
To give you a bit of a context, before Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) there was a philosopher known as al-Rāzī. There are two Rāzīs; the first one is Muḥammad Ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī who lived from 865 till 925 AD. This philosopher was deeply engaged with the works of Plotinus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle; let’s say the early Greek philosophy. Impressed and overwhelmed by that, he renounced his īmān and became an atheist. The person after him is Ibn Sīnā who lived from 980 to 1037 AD. Interestingly, this is one of the forgotten aspects of Ibn Sīnā that he severely critiqued the atheism of al-Rāzī. Although today people love these two together, Ibn Sīnā was not an atheist, in fact far from it. Although, there may have been certain other problems, but he was definitely a theist; he did not deny the existence of God. In one of his writings, he extensively critiques al-Rāzī. One of the early philosophers, al-Bīrūnī, also critiques al-Rāzī. Some say Ibn Sīnā was Shi’ī, some say he was Ismāʿīlī, a minority opinion also suggests he was Sunnī, Allāhū ʿālam. Imām al-Ghazālī’s concern with him are not these things. His concern with Ibn Sīnā was a mistake he had made, which is very important for us to reflect upon because we make a similar mistake today; he tired to reconcile the philosophy of neoplatonism and aristotelianism etc., with ʿilm al-kalām and come up with a type of fusion so that great thinkers like Muḥammad Ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī would never become atheists. On surface this intention is noble; he was actually worried about atheism. Hence, he articulated very rigorously his philosophy. In fact, this was his main impact on Thomas Aquinas who also thought he could reconcile rational thoughts with Christian theology.
Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) was living at a time when a lot of the learned, intellectual and educated people — regardless of being educated in dīn, science, astronomy or medicine — went through a craze of being inspired by al-Rāzī. Later, Ibn Sīnā turned the direction away from atheism to a more philosophical type of Islām so people were increasingly inspired by that. Then Allāh (swt) raised up Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) to turn the direction again back to a classical and spiritual form of Islām. There were thinkers even after Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) who were trying to find the right mix between different types of thoughts and different articulations of those thoughts. Just to show you a few names afterwards; another person was Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī who lived from 1149 to 1209 AD. He is also in the line of Imām al-Ghazālī (rah). Then there was a person called Ibn Rushd as well. You may end this with al-Dūsī [?] who critiques al-Ghazālī and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī.
BACKDROP AND SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
This is Imām al-Ghazālī’s (rah) text al-Munqidh min al-Ḍalāl — rescuer from error or from being astray. Some people translate it as deliverance, but it means the deliverer or the rescuer which brought him to salvation from ḍalāl i.e. from being astray or from being in manifest error. Some view al-Munqidh min al-Ḍalāl to be Imām al-Ghazālī’s (rah) very last work, some have put Minhāj al-ʿAbidīn after this, others have put his letter Ayyuhal Walad after this, either way this is one of his latter and final works. There is another title after this but it is unclear whether it is Imām al-Ghazālī’s own title or whether someone has edited it after his death which was Musilu ila Dhil-ʿizati Wal Jalāl — that which is going to connect a person to Allāh (swt) who is the Being of incredible honor and majesty. Contrary to what some people say, this is not really an autobiography of Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) because he does not mention everything about his life. However, you could call it a spiritual autobiography; he wants to share with people a certain part of his life and his journey which we have titled here in English From Skeptical Doubt to Certain Conviction. To actually pen down on paper the doubts, skepticism and questions he had and how he managed to reach a level of certainty in his conviction, is a very honest and generous thing for him to do.
A backdrop to this text is when Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) was teaching in Baghdād, all of a sudden he experienced a crisis that made him question the knowledge that he previously believed in. Initially, he felt he could not even rely on his own sense-perception. He started questioning knowledge, information and data that he had acquired through his sight, smell, hearing or from his touch. Then he began questioning his basic beliefs in Allāh (swt) because he felt that he had merely inherited those beliefs and he was following them just because he was born into it. This is the “crisis of faith” that he had:
- He doubted his ability to know
- He doubted the knowability of Allāh (swt)
Amazingly, he does not go through this crisis while being a secular student, he goes through this crisis while being of the most reknowned ʿulamā and scholars of his time; he does not go through this crisis as someone who hardly knows anything about Islām, he goes through this crisis with his deep ʿilm of tafsīr al-Qurʿān, ḥadīth, sunnah and shariʿah; he does not go through this crisis living in New York or Los Angeles, he goes through this crisis living in Baghdād — the cradle of Islāmic civilization of that time — a city of ʿulamā and awliyā’; he does not go through this crisis having not met real practicing Muslims, he goes through this crisis having seen real Muʿminīn and Muslimīn. Thus, one cannot overstate the profound magnitude of this crisis. During this time, he continues teaching and he will share with you how he pretends whilst going through the motions of praying, teaching and lecturing even though inside he is wondering and questioning. Eventually, he realizes this routine to be unsustainable and decides to experiment and experience; to interact with claimants who claimed to know Allāh (swt) with truth and certainty, and investigate their claims to see if any of their methods of knowing the truth would work for him. Thus, he goes through four predominant categories of seekers of truth. He is going to share with us how he interacted with each one of them and what his views and experiences were. He is also going to share with us how successful he views each of these four paths to be in bringing a person to the truth and a certain conviction in Allāh (swt).
You will notice that this risālah, like many of Imām al-Ghazalī’s (rah) other works, is written in response to a question. This was one of the most famous stories of that time that Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) left the Nizāmiyya college in Baghdād, disappeared for one and a half years, came back to Baghdād and refused to teach and interact with people, then after ten years he resumed teaching in Nishāpūr. His students knew this and all of them must have been curious; may Allāh (swt) reward this one fellow who did not just have the curiosity but also the courage to ask Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) regarding what had happened. This is what we call barakat al-saʿil; sometimes the questioner has so much sincerity and ikhlās that he elicits a whole risālah for the person who is asking.
All praise be to that Being with whose praise begins every single epistle, treatise and every speech; and may Allāh’s (swt) salutations and blessings be upon Syednā Rasūl Allāh (sws), the chosen one, the one who is bestowed with prophethood; and all of those who are of his spiritual brethren; and all of his companions; all of whom were guides to guide humanity away from being astray and bring them to the path of Allāh (swt). O my brother in dīn; this is Imām al-Ghazālī’s humility that he did not say O my student, or O my lowly follower, or O my fan. This is also because Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) is opening up and he is going to share with him a very personal experience. You asked that you should show to me the objectives of disciplines of learning and their inner nature. You have begged me to relate to you the difficulties I encountered in my attempts to extricate the truth from the confusion of contending sects and to distinguish the different ways, methods and ventures I made in climbing from the plain of naïve and second-hand belief (taqlīd) to the peak of direct vision. The word taqlīd here has nothing to do with fiqh. Imām al-Ghazāli (rah) is talking about taqlīd in aqīdah. The Arabic word that is translated as vision is istifsār — ṭalab of tafsīr; seeking clarity of depth for oneself.
You want me to describe, firstly what benefit I derived from ʿilm al-kalām, secondly, what I disapprove of in the methods of talīm (these were the Ismāʿīlī of the time, later he is going to call them Bāṭinīyah), thirdly what I rejected of the methods of philosophy, and fourth, what I approved in the way of tasawwuf. You also want to know what essential (primary) truths became clear to me in my manifold investigations into the doctrines held by men, why I gave up teaching in Baghdād although I had many students and why I returned to it in Nishāpūr after a long interval. I am proceeding to answer your request for I recognize that your desire is genuine. This is barakat al-saʿil — he said the only reason I am responding is because you have ikhlās. But in this I seek the help of Allāh (swt) and I place my trust and dependence on Allāh (swt), and I seek refuge in Allāh (swt) meaning he is doing it in the name of Allāh (swt), for the sake of Allāh (swt). What he is really saying is that I want Allāh (swt) to give me ikhlās in responding to you. This is the barakah of kūnū maʿa ṣādiqīn [Q. 9, 119] — Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) and his student have no ethnic, linguistic or family ties. There is a relationship of ikhlās. This is also Imām al-Ghazālī’s (rah) humility that he made duʿā to Allāh (swt) to grant him ikhlās in his efforts and attempts to answer the question. May Allāh (swt) perfect you on the right path and soften your heart to receive the truth. As the first answer, he makes duʿā for the person. In fact, this is the real answer which he has given at the outset.
The different religious observances and religious communities of the human race and likewise the different theological systems of their religious leaders, with all the multiplicity of sects and variety of practices, constitute ocean depths in which the majority drowns and only a minority reaches safety. Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) is writing this 900 years ago, and this is something people ask today that there are so many different views out there, so many movements, so many ideas, so many ideologies; what am I supposed to do? This is not something new. This is something the ʿulamā have been aware of and have addressed, and they have even experienced and gone through this process themselves. I will say what Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) said back then is still true today; those who try to investigate this, the majority of them will drown and only a minority will be able to navigate these murky waters.
Each separate group thinks that it alone is saved. ‘And each party is rejoicing in what they have’ [Q. 23, 55]. This is what was foretold by the greatest of the prophets Syednā Rasūl Allāh (sws) who is as-Ṣādiq al-Amīn — who is the truthful one and trustworthy — when he said: ‘My community will be split up into seventy-three sects and but one of them will be saved.’ What Syednā Rasūl Allāh (sws) had foretold has indeed come about. This is another famous question we get that the Blessed Prophet (sws) said there would be seventy odd, or seventy-two, or seventy-three sects and only one of them will be saved. In another work of Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) Faysal al-Tafrīqa, he mentions another ḥadīth which we traced as being an authentic ḥadīth which I had actually never heard myself until I came across that work of Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) that Syednā Rasūl Allāh (sws) has also said: ‘My community will split up into multiple sects all of whom will be saved but one.’
The way Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) joined these two ḥadīth in that work was that he said there are two types of differences in sects; one are the differences of creed and theology which are so critical that it puts a person either inside or outside īmān; the other are differences of methodology within the ahl al-īmān but those differences do not put a person outside īmān; they all remain inside. I am amazed at how few people know and even I myself did not know the second ḥadīth while everybody knows the first one. Certainly, there is a notion here that Syednā Rasūl Allāh (sws) is very much trying to show that there are a lot of ways to go astray; there is a lot of ḍalālah. Someone who is a sincere seeker who knows this ḥadīth would naturally be very hesitant, cautious and afraid. Today’s rational mind would think I have only one out of seventy-three chance of getting it right.
From my early youth, since I attained the age of puberty before I was twenty, (this is also showing you the understanding of youth in Islām; youth ends before your twenties after which you are considered an adult) until the present time when I am over fifty, (this is an ishāra for those involved in Ghazālī studies that this is one of his last works since he passed away at the age of 53 years) I have ever (meaning he is still doing it) recklessly launched out into the midst of these ocean depths, I have ever bravely embarked on this open sea, throwing aside all craven caution; I have poked into every dark recess, I have made an assault on every problem, I have plunged into every abyss, I have scrutinized the creed of every sect, I have tried to lay bare the inmost doctrines of every community. All this have I done that I might distinguish between true and false, between sound tradition and heretical innovation. This was what today you would call his intellectual curiosity, or even his intellectual honesty in seeking truth.
Whenever I meet one of the Bātinīyah (the people of talīm; the Ismāʿīlī ), I like to study his creed; whenever I meet one of the Ẓāhirīyah, (this was another movement of that time of literalists who took every thing at its face-value meaning; for example, if Allāh (swt) uses the word in Qurʿān: ‘The hand of Allāh (swt) is over their hand’ [Q. 48, 10], not all but the most extreme position they would take is that Allāh (swt) literally has a hand that is a part of a body and Allāh (swt) has a body) I want to know the essentials of his beliefs; if it is a philosopher, I try to become acquainted with the essence of his philosophy; if a Mutakallim (which is translated as a classic theologian; a person of ʿilm al-kalām), I busy myself in examining his theological reasoning; if a Mutasawwif (a person of tasawwuf), I yearn to fathom the secrets of his tasawwuf. You can see that I do not like the English translation Sufi and mysticism, we prefer to stick to the Arabic); if a mutaʿabbid (a person who is doing ʿibādah all the time; sometimes this was called zuhd; sometimes this was also taken to an extreme and even though Syednā Rasūl Allāh (sws) said: ‘la rehbānīyata fil Islām; there is no monasticism in Islām’, there were some individuals historically who lived a monastic life and they were known as mutaʿabbidīn), I investigate the basis of his intense practices of ʿibādah; if one of the Zanādiqah or Muʿaṭṭilah, I look beneath the surface to discover the reason for his bold adoption of such a creed. You can imagine that Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) probably did indeed investigate seventy-three sects, here he has given us a few names.
To thirst after a comprehension of things as they really are was my habit and custom from a very early age. It was instinctive with me, a part of my Allāh’s-given nature, a matter of temperament (ṭabā) and not my choice or contriving. Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) is making it clear that my journey, which I am going to share with you, is descriptive, not prescriptive; I am not prescribing or telling you to do these things; I am merely describing that it is my nature to go into every single detail.
Consequently as I drew near the age of adolescence the bonds of mere authority (taqlīd) ceased to hold me and inherited beliefs lost their grip upon me, for I saw (this is also a classic question asked by university students) that Christian youths always grew up to be Christians, Jewish youths to be Jewish and Muslim youths to be Muslims. In Iran and Iraq there were significant non-Muslim minorities living at that time completely peacefully. Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) was clearly interacting with them and asking them about their behavior as well. I heard, too, the Tradition related to Syednā Rasūl Allāh (sws) according to which he (sws) said: ‘Everyone who is born is born with a sound nature (fiṭrat al-salīm) but it is his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Magian.’ My inmost being was moved to discover what this nature (fiṭrah) really was and what the beliefs derived from the authority of parents and teachers really were. He thought of taking guidance from that ḥadīth that there is something called fiṭrah; some internal, inherent, intrinsic humanity. He wanted to discover that inside himself which was inherent so that he could distinguish it from that which was acquired from society. The attempt to distinguish between these authority-based opinions (that is what he means by acquired knowledge) and their principles developed the mind, for in distinguishing the true in them from the false, difference appeared. When he saw what was true and what was false, he began to see the differences in different methods, methodologies and sects.
I therefore said within myself: ‘To begin with, what I am looking for is knowledge of what things really are, so I must undoubtedly try to find what knowledge really is.’ He asked himself this question that what does it mean to know; what is knowledge; how do I know the knowable; is something knowable; am I able to know it; how will I know the knowable? This is also called epistemology which is concerned with how do we know what is knowable and how do we know that knowable. It was plain to me that sure and certain knowledge (ʿilm al-yaqīn; ʿilm al-ḍururī; ʿilm al-qati’; absolute; unequivocal; irrefutable knowledge) is that knowledge in which the object is disclosed in such a fashion that no doubt remains along with it, that no possibility of error or illusion accompanies it, and that the mind cannot even entertain the possibility of error or illusion. He is now defining what certain knowledge should be; he wants to get such a knowledge that has no doubt, no skepticism, no possibility or even a hypothetical possibility of doubt in it; something that is absolutely sure. Secondly he says, certain knowledge should also be infallible (no scope or possibility of error) and this infallibility or security from error is such that no attempt to show the falsity of the knowledge can occasion doubt or denial; if I really know something with certainty and someone else tries to refute or disprove it, none of their refutations and proofs will make me budge at all; I can never doubt or deny what I know. To know something with certainty means every refutation, every counter-argument that may come to you does not even put the slightest doubt in that thing which you know. He has come up with an extremely high benchmark for what is certain.
Even though the attempt is made by someone who turns stones into gold or a rod into a serpent. The only result is that I wonder precisely how he is able to produce this change. Of doubt about my knowledge there is no trace. Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) is not saying that people can turn stones into gold or a rod into a serpent necessarily; rather that I should be so certain about it that even if an alchemy or a miracle worker were to come and do something like that and say this proves that I know what you are saying is wrong, I would still be 100% sure of what I know; Allāhū ʿālam how you turn stones into gold, but your ability to do that still does not give any credence to your refutation of what I know to be true; what I know to be true is still true. For example, you know that 2 + 2 = 4 — were someone to come in right now, wave their hand and make the chair fly across the room, you might be amazed, but even then if he says 2 + 2 = 5, you will say that is incorrect. If anything would amaze you it would be that someone who can make a chair fly with the wave of their hand does not even know that 2 + 2 = 4. By changing rod into serpent Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) is not in any way referring to Syednā Mūsá (as) that if a nabī comes to me and says something I will not believe it. He is saying even any miracle worker will not be able to shake me from my knowledge, that is what I call certain — I witness, I see it myself first hand, even that will not budge my certainty. After these reflections I knew that whatever I do not know in this fashion as I have described above and with this mode of certainty is not reliable (if all these things I cannot say about a knowledge, that knowledge is not reliable) and infallible knowledge; and knowledge that is not infallible is not certain knowledge. Now he has set a very difficult task for himself. He is not setting this for himself in his fifties, he is recalling to the person what standard he had set for himself as he had embarked on his journey to know.
ii. PRELIMINARIES: SKEPTICISM AND THE DENIAL OF ALL KNOWLEDGE
After he decides the definition of knowledge, he says, thereupon I investigated the various kinds of knowledge I already had and I found myself destitute of all knowledge with this characteristic of infallibility. I looked inside myself what are all the things that I al-Ghazālī think I know at this time. None of them met the criteria I had set up except two things; for none of the things could I say that I have certain knowledge except two things:
- Sense-perception: if I see something as white, I am certain it is white; if I see something to be a table, I am certain it is a table; if I hear a clapping sound, I know it is a clapping sound.
- Necessary truths: These are also called maxims; for example, 2 + 2 = 4.
Other than that there is nothing I know with certainty. Most important thing missing from this list was īmān. That was the key thing. You can imagine what is going to happen to him; he sets up a criteria for certainty of knowledge using this definition; he looks inside himself and decides the only thing I am sure of is what I can see. This is way before people even came up with the English term empiricism; the word empiricism does not exist in English language at this point. Nonetheless, Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) is saying something which today philosophers call empirical; you can only know for sure that which you can see; that which is demonstrated in front of you; that you can perceive. So I said: ‘Now that despair has come over me (because īmān in Allāh (swt) did not make it into the list; he was a sincere person and if someone who has belief all of a sudden sets up a definition for which they no longer have certain belief, they are going to start panicking; which is also a good thing because it shows sincerity), there is no point in studying any problems (investigating them has no benefit because I will never be able to resolve it to a level of certainty) except on the basis of what is self-evident, namely necessary truths (maxims) and the affirmations of the senses (sense-perception); these are the only two tools I have, therefore I should not take up any issue which I cannot access with these two tools. I must first bring these to be judged in order that I may be certain on this matter.
Then, he asks himself another question, am I even certain about these two tools? Is my reliance on sense-perception (sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste) and my trust in the soundness of necessary truths (2 + 2 = 4 etc.,) of the same kind as my previous trust in beliefs I had merely taken from others and as the trust most men have in the results of thinking? Do I really know what I see is certainly what is there? Maybe I should open this up for investigation and questioning also. Do I really know that 2 + 2 = 4? That is something my Math teacher told me; that is also something I have accepted on authority of elders, teachers and transmitters, therefore, perhaps I should question that as well. Or is it a justified trust (can I justifiably trust these two tools) that is in no danger of being betrayed or destroyed?
I proceeded therefore with extreme earnestness (I made this the passion and mission of my time) to reflect on sense-perception and on necessary truths; now Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) feels the need to question the tools of knowledge; first he had questioned what knowledge itself is; then he questioned how do you know knowledge; now he is questioning whether the tools of knowing ever really know anything; to see whether I could make myself doubt them; remember how he had defined certainty; no matter what refutations or questions are raised, you would not have any doubt. Here, he is saying let me raise questions against sense-perception and see if any doubt arises. If the doubt arises, it would mean I cannot trust my sense-perception at the level of certainty. The outcome of this protracted effort to induce doubt was that I could no longer trust sense-perception either. Doubt began to spread here and say: ‘From where does the reliance on your five senses come? The most powerful sense I have is sight; this is something everyone today in media will also tell you; vision is the most powerful of your senses. When it looks at a shadow, it sees the shadow standing still and judges that there is no motion.’ But in reality, in terms of astronomy, the earth is always moving, and therefore in relation to the earth and the sun, this relationship is always moving and so the shadow is always moving. In theory, when Sun is at its zenith, there will be one second when the shadow does not move. Depending on the curvature of earth; latitude and longitude, after the shadow comes down and before it starts extending on the other side, there are certain minutes at the time of zawāl when you do not pray; for these 5-7 minutes it remains stationary, but normally, if you look at the shadow at lets say 10 A.M., you will say the shadow is not moving or extending; your brain will give you the data that it is stationary but astronomy will tell you it is moving. Therefore, he starts questioning that is sight even reliable?
‘Then by experiment and observation after an hour it knows that the shadow is moving and, moreover, that it is moving not by fits and starts but gradually and steadily by infinitely small distances in such a way that it is never in a state of rest. What a beautiful mathematical explanation; infinitely small distances — later when calculas was discovered in the mid-17th century, that is what was called the limit of X as it approaches 5 (a constant); there are infinitely small steps X takes to reach 5 but because Math cannot handle that, it says X is 5. Math teaches you that you cannot handle the infinite so you should go back to the finite. If the ʿaql cannot fathom the infinite divisions you can make between 4 and 5, then how can you expect ʿaql alone, without wahī, to understand the infinite nature of ākhirah? Another example Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) gives is when it looks at the heavenly body (i.e. astronomical objects that are in the sky) and sees it small, the size of a shilling; yet geometrical computations show that it is greater than the earth in size.’ For example, you look at the sun perceiving it to be the size of a quarter. Your eye cannot tell you how big the sun is; it is the geometrical computations or astronomical algorithms that show you it is greater than the earth. Similarly, your eyes will tell you the star is there but in the astronomical reality that star may have died out many years ago and what you see is the light it sent out millions of years ago; or you see the star as the size of a dot while that star may be millions of times bigger than the sun.
In this and similar cases of sense-perception the sense as judge forms its judgments, but another judge, the intellect; ʿaql, shows this sense repeatedly to be wrong; and the accusation of being wrong cannot be refuted. Since the ʿaql said the sun is not that size; the star is not that small; the shadow is moving, therefore, he moves to another tool which is the ʿaql — the rational intellect; because if the rational intellect can prove the sense-perception to be wrong, he now wants to check if the rational intellect can also be wrong.
To this I said: ‘My reliance on sense-perception also has been destroyed. Perhaps only those intellectual truths which are first principles (or derived from first principles) are to be relied upon, such as the assertion that ten is more than three, that the same thing cannot be both affirmed and denied at one time; if I say it is raining outside, you cannot say ‘yes, it is raining’ and ‘no, it is not raining’ at the same time, that one thing is not both generated in time and eternal; you can either say that this world did not exist and then big bang brought it into existence, or you can say this world has always been around, you cannot say both, either we were born or we have always been around, you cannot say we were born on this day and we have always existed, nor both existent or non-existent; something cannot be maujūd and ghayr-maujūd at the same time that this mouth exists and does not exist at the same time; you will have to go to some really wild philosophers, and there are some people in California who can argue this to you, that is a very strange understanding of life, nor both necessary and impossible.‘ All of these are what he was calling the intellectual truths; that I can no longer rely on what I sense and the only thing that is left for me are these types of truths. That is the only thing I know with certainty.
Sense-perception replied (he is writing it as a story that my sight, hearing and touch etc., said to me): ‘Did you not expect that your reliance on intellect truths will flare like your reliance on sense-perception? Fine, you are not trusting us because you say sometimes we maybe wrong and you are so happy to side with this big thing ʿaql thinking it can never be wrong, so let us show you how your ʿaql, too, can be wrong. You used to trust in me, then along came the ʿaql and it proved me wrong. It proved that the sun really is not the size it seems. If it were not for the ʿaql, you would have continued to view whatever I said to be true;‘ you would have thought that the shadow is not moving had you never known astronomy, had you not known that the earth is moving; for example, certain people even today believe that the earth does not move because they perceive it to be still. I had a teacher in the madrassah who had spent years there never leaving the madrassah compound. Once we were doing a text of old philosophy which said that the earth is not moving and gave many refutations of the counter view. The students were having fun with me because they knew I was from abroad. They said: ‘Ustād Jī this fellow thinks that the earth is moving.’ The teacher looked at me and said: ‘Aḥmaq! Is it moving? Can you feel it move?’ This is also a type of empiricism; he was saying that because his vision was showing him that if the earth was moving on its axis at the speed science tells you, things would be flying off of the surface of the earth. It means that without that particular ʿaqlī understanding of whatever the centrifugal forces of gravity are, you would have trusted your vision. That is what the vision is saying. May Allāh (swt) bless that ʿālim; he may not know that the earth is moving and you may think in one aspect of your life you have a juzʿī knowledge of this particular thing more than him that planet earth is a sphere that rotates around its axis and that the whole earth is orbiting around the sun. That ʿālim knows more about Allāh’s (swt) mercy moving into the hearts while we may know more about this piece of mud rotating around its axis. This is the difference; this is the choice we have made in our life.
Perhaps behind ʿaql there is another judge who, if it manifests itself, will show the falsity, fallibility and possibility of error of ʿaql in judging, just as, when ʿaql manifested itself, it showed the falsity of sense in its judging. He calls it the suprarational faculty; there is a faculty beyond rationality; just like there was a faculty called rationality that showed sense-perception can be wrong, what if there was a faculty beyond rationality that can prove rationality to be wrong?
Me and myself hesitated a little about the reply to that (here, nafs does not mean ego; it means he himself), and vision heightened that difficulty by referring to dreams. He gives the example of a transrational suprarational experience a person has: ‘Do you not see how when you are asleep your mind believes things and imagines circumstances, holding them to be stable and enduring? Even modern neuroscience will say the brain (ʿaql) functions while dreaming. In fact, that is how they can tell you are dreaming; by putting instruments on your head they will record the activity of your brain. Your brain was functioning when you were dreaming that you were in, for example, Madīnah Munawwarah. At that time your ʿaql, your mind, in that dreamlike state fully thought that it was there while you were actually in your home. So long as you are in that dreamlike state, you have no doubt about it whatsoever.‘ MāshāʿAllāh some of you have very complicated (lucid) dreams; that I was dreaming and in the dream I realized I was dreaming, then in the dream I realized that I realized I was dreaming! However, normally when people dream, they do not realize it is a dream, especially when they are having vivid dreams.
‘Is it not the case that when you woke up you realized all that your mind had believed was unfounded and untrue? Therefore, another judge can come and tell you what your mind held to be true was something that was untrue. Why then are you so confident that your waking beliefs, whether from sense-perception or from intellect, are genuine? What your mind thinks to be true is true in respect to your present state; but it is possible that a state will come upon you whose relation to your waking consciousness is analogous to the relation of the latter to dreaming.‘ When dreaming, you were confident what your mind believed to be true in a dream to be true, but when you woke up you knew it was no longer true, then why are you so confident that when you are awake what your mind thinks to be true is, in fact, true? Maybe, you will wake up from this wakefulness; maybe one day you will see something beyond this life which will make you realize that many of the things that you thought to be true in the wakeful state were, in fact, untrue. Can you deny the possibility of such a thing?
Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) had said that I will only view to be true that thing which can withstand all doubts. The sense-perception is now putting doubts in ʿaql using the example of the dream — that maybe this whole life is a dreamlike state and maybe we will wake up on the Day of Judgment and realize that many of the things that our mind thought was true in this world are not true, can that not be a possibility? If Imām al-Ghazālī’s (rah) response to that is: ‘Yes, that is a possibility.’ Once he sees the possibility, he will no longer have certainty in ʿaql either, because certainty in ʿaql meant, as Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) had himself defined it, that you can never entertain the possibility of the ʿaql being untrue. Now, by this analogy of dream, Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) is going to have to entertain the possibility of yet another state of being which will make him realize that his merely rational state of being was not true.
‘When you have entered into this (transrational and suprarational) state, you will be certain that all the suppositions of your intellect are empty imaginings. It may be that state that the people of tasawwuf claim as their special ‘state’; when they reach a certain level of fanā, ʿistighrāq and ʿistihḍār; when they go deep into this state of dhikr of Allāh (swt), which has nothing to do with ʿaql, it has to do with their qalb; so there were the five senses, then there was ʿaql, and now he is bringing yet another faculty of perception which is called the qalb; when they entered into the state of their qalb, in that state they realized what their ʿaql had thought was wrong. Until one enters into that state, they will never know, just like the person who is dreaming only on waking up will realize what they held to be true in the dream was wrong, they will never be able to realize that until they wake up. The only way to ascertain what one feels to be true in their current state to be really true is when they enter the next state. Vision is saying that just like after your state of vision there was a state of ʿaqlī analysis, is it possible after that ʿaqlī analysis there is a state of qalbī feeling; and it is only when you enter into the state of the qalbī feeling that you will know that your state of ʿaqlī analysis was wrong? That is a possibility because if you have demonstrated its reality in the dream-and-wake analogy, it means there is a possibility in the ʿaql-qalb analogy, and when it is a possibility, the ʿaql is no longer infallible in the way Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) defines infallibility.
This is a bit difficult that is why I am repeating it in different ways, but as long as you get some idea, that is sufficient for now.
Not only is this a possibility, there are a group of people who are laying claim to this. They are saying: ‘When I do dhikr of Allāh (swt) in my qalb, I get a feeling of qurb even though my ʿaql will tell me Allāh (swt) is baʿīd.’ Your ʿaql will tell you that you are a lowly mortal creature on earth and Allah (swt) is a transcendental Being; huwa warā al-warā, thumma warā al-warā, thumma warā al-warā; but when a person enters into the sate of the qalb, of heart-felt dhikr, they will feel that Allāh (swt) is qarīb, as He Himself has said in Qurʿān: ‘Fa innī qarīb’ [Q. 2, 186]. What can perceive that qurb? Your eyes cannot perceive the closeness of Allāh (swt), the sense-perception cannot do that; your ʿaql cannot perceive the closeness of Allāh (swt), rational-intellect cannot do that; there is another state, the heart, qalb, that can perceive the qurb of Allāh (swt). What’s going to happen here, I am just going to lay it out for you at the outset; the existence of Allāh (swt) can be known with certainty through the faculty of heart’s perception which is called qalb. It cannot be known with certainty, in Imām al-Ghazālī’s (rah) understanding, through sense-perception nor from ʿaql’s perception.
The use of the word ecstasy here is interpolation; the translator is inserting words. Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) is not saying anything about union or ecstasy. The translator has interpreted the word ḥāl as ecstasy because that is their non-Muslim understanding of Sufism. Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) was not talking about that, he was talking about tasawwuf. Ḥāl means ḥālat al-qalb; ḥālat al-fanā; it does not mean union or ecstasy. It may be that that state, which is the state that lies beyond the state of ʿaql, which the people of tasawwuf claim as their ḥāl which occurs when they have withdrawn into themselves; ‘Wadhkur Rabbaka fī nafsik’ [Q. 73, 205], and are absent from their senses: ‘Tabattal ʿilaihi tabtīla’ [Q: 73, 8]; they are unaware of their vision, their eyes are closed, their ears are closed, their tongue is not tasting, their nose is not smelling; they are unaware of their senses, they witness states (or aḥwāl) that do not tally with these principles of the intellect.
One example Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) has given us is of ḥāl of tasawwuf; another example is that perhaps that state is death. Maybe after a person dies, they enter into a state which is beyond the state of the ʿaql, in which they can critically assess what the ʿaql thought to be true and realize it is untrue; just like when a person wakes up they can critically assess what they thought was true in the dream was actually untrue. Syednā Rasūl Allāh (sws) has used the same analogy in a ḥadīth: ‘The people are dreaming; when they die, they become awake.’ So perhaps life in this world is a dream by comparison with the world to come; and when a man dies, things come to appear differently to him from what he now beholds, and at the same time the words are addressed to him: ‘We have removed your veil from you; so your sight today is sharp’ [Q. 50, 22]. In life, things that appear to be real are actually unreal. People perceive that the dunyā is the be-all and end-all of existence. It is only when they die that they will fully realize that the ākhirah is the be-all and end-all of existence. Right now, they do not feel: ‘Qul matāʿu al-dunyā qalīl’ [Q. 4, 77]; that this dunyā and all that it contain is but a trifle, that realization will come when they enter the next state which is after their death.
Let’s just pause here. This is something that Allāh (swt) knows best. When a person dies and their rūḥ and body is laid in the grave, there is some type of perception that remains; I am not saying that the person in the grave knows what is going on on the planet earth, but it also does not mean they are completely unaware. Syednā Rasūl Allāh (sws) said: ‘When a person dies their grave will either be a garden from the gardens of Jannah or a pit from the pits of the fire of Jahannam.’ In that sense, there is some shaʿūr; there is some perception that the person in the grave is going to be able to feel and perceive that garden from the gardens of Jannah or that fire from Jahannam. In that state, in either of those cases, the person would realize that the dunyā was untrue. If they are, inshāʿAllāh, in the garden from Jannah, they will realize that all of those things that they thought were pleasurable in this world were nothing. Similarly, if they are, al-amān al-ḥafīẓ, in the state where their grave is a fire from the fires of Jahannam, they will also realize that all those things that they thought were worth it in the world were truly not worth it at all. This is why Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) has mentioned the verse about the veil; it means the veil on perception that existed in this world will be lifted, ʿIllā māshāʿAllāh if someone really has ḥaq al-yaqīn in the ākhirah; otherwise we cannot really perceive ākhirah while living in this world. However, on the Day of Judgment it will be crystal-clear that ākhirah is Real.
One question that students have at this point in text is that Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) is talking about doubts, skepticism, journey of faith, how can he along the way also use Qurʿān and ḥadīth when at this point he is not even certain that Allāh (swt) exists; therefore he is not certain that the Qurʿān is true; therefore he is not certain that the Prophet (sws) was a prophet; therefore he does not believe that the ḥadīth references are truths? Simple answer is that at this point Imām al-Ghazālī (rah) has become uncertain of everything and he is stuck with all types of things that are in the realm of possibility. He is considering different possibilities and seeing which possibility will lead to certainty; just like he makes use of sense-perception at the level of possibility; he makes use of his ʿaql at the level of possibility thinking may be that will give him certainty; then the state beyond ʿaql is also something he accepts because technically it is possible because of the dream analogy — even now he is accepting Qurʿān at the level of possibility that perhaps it will lead him to certainty, similarly he is using ḥadīth at the level of possibility. The crux is going to be that from all of these possibilities, the one that leads him to certainty, he will view that to be certainly true. He is not trying to prove Qurʿān through Qurʿān; he is exploring the concept of certainty through whatever he has in front of him because at this point, everything that is in front of him is viewed by him as equally possible, yet equally uncertain. People say he should not have used Qurʿān and ḥadīth, rather he should have used his ʿaql alone, but why? For Imām al-Ghazālī (rah), at this stage, ʿaql is not certain, that is also at the level of possibility, so why then can he not use Qurʿān and ḥadīth in his journey towards certainty even if he holds them right now at the level of possibility? There is no circular logic taking place; he is not using the verses and ḥadīth to prove the existence of Allāh (swt). He is also open to existence of other positions which shows his intellectual honesty; he is open that those too could lead to certainty and he keeps questioning, keeps considering, keeps pondering, keeps percepting.
Cont’d in Session II