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Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī was a noted Islamic jurist, theologian, philosopher and Sufi of the medieval period. Born into a Persian family in 1058 or 1059 CE in the city of Ṭūs (in the northeastern province of Khurāsān), al-Ghazālī was orphaned at a young age. While he and his younger brother Aḥmad both received their primary education in Ṭūs, al-Ghazālī subsequently left for the Niẓāmīyya madrasa (i.e., an Islamic college) in Nīshāpūr, a city also in Khurāsān. Here, he delved into Islamic theology and Sufism with some of the preeminent scholars of his time.
The move to Nīshāpūr proved a defining moment for al-Ghazālī’s life, for it brought him in close contact with the court of the Seljūq Sultan Mālikshāh (r. 1072-1092) and with his influential vizier, Niẓāmal-Mulk, whose name al-Ghazālī’s college bore. The ‹Abbāsid caliph, based in Baghdad, may have nominally held sway over the Islamic world’s core empire. Nevertheless, it was the Seljūq sultan and his vizier who de facto exercised power, albeit as the caliph’s loyal subjects.
In 1091, Niẓāmal-Mulk appointed al-Ghazālī to a professorship at the Niẓāmīyya college in Baghdad, one of the most prestigious madrasas in the Islamic world. Al-Ghazālī lectured in jurisprudence for four years before abruptly turning his post over to his brother, resigning, and leaving the ‹Abbāsid capital. According to al-Ghazālī’s own account, he had been overcome with a deep angst over the epistemological underpinnings of his own belief system, particularly as it related to Greek-inspired philosophy.
Under the pretense of traveling to Mecca for pilgrimage, al-Ghazālī departed Baghdad in 1095, sojourning first to Damascus, where he taught at a small Sufi school for some time. From there he continued on to Jerusalem and then to the tomb of Abraham the Patriarch at Hebron, where he swore a vow never again to work at a state-sponsored institution or otherwise serve the agenda of political powers. In 1096, he decided his pilgrimage was complete and by the following year he had arrived home to Ṭūs where he founded a small private school and Sufi convent. For the next nine years, al-Ghazālī espoused a life of asceticism and relative poverty while composing his magnum opus, Iḥyā› ‹Ulūm al-Dīn (The Revivification of the Religious Sciences), which criticizes the jurist class as being overly concerned with ritual and too embedded with the political establishment, while advocating Sufi mysticism as the true path to spiritual realization.
Nevertheless, in 1106, having received an invitation from the son of Niẓāmal-Mulk – who similarly had risen to vizierate in the Seljūq court of Khurāsān – to teach at the Niẓāmīyya of Nīshāpūr, al-Ghazālī set aside his vow. He justified his reversal to his students by pointing both to the state’s pressure on him and to the spread of theological confusion among the masses. The Prophet Muḥammad had once said that God would send a scholar to renew the faith every century and al-Ghazālī considered himself to be such a man.
During these next four years, al-Ghazālī penned a semi-autobiographical work, al-Munqidh min al-Ḍalāl (The Rescuer from Error), in which he explains the roots of his spiritual crisis a decade earlier and how he overcame it. In 1110, al-Ghazālī moved back to Ṭūs, his hometown, and lodged in the Sufi convent he had founded; he died a few months later in 1111. Al-Ghazālī's legacy was to establish Sufism in mainstream Islam as a legitimate means to seek divine truth. He is undoubtedly among the most influential Islamic thinkers of the pre-modern period.
Written by Sadegh Ansari, Ph.D. candidate, Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies (MESAAS), Columbia University
Griffel, Frank. “Al-Ghazali”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
Bowering, Gerhard. "Ghazālī, Abū Ḥāmed Muḥammad," Encyclopædia Iranica, X/4, pp. 327-28