Ghazali's Theory of Virtue

The Unity in Imam Ghazali's (may Allah sanctify his soul) Thought

According to a tradition attributed to the Prophet of Islam at the beginning of every hundred years God will send someone to revive the faith of the Islamic community. In the history of Islam, Imam Ghazali (may Allah be pleased with him) (d. 505) is considered the reformer (mujaddid ) of the fifth century of the Islamic era, and he was himself of the opinion that he was favoured by divine providence for this role. The majority of Muslims agree that he is the Proof of Islam (hujjat al-Islam ), and a large number of learned Muslims went so far as to consider him the greatest religious authority of Islam after the prophet Muhammad. As a result of the great esteem accorded to him, Imam Ghazali deeply influenced Islamic thought in particular and medieval thought in general.

Imam Ghazali's (may Allah sanctify his soul) accomplishments cover many diverse fields of learning: Islamic jurisprudence, dialectical theology, philosophy, and mysticism and because of his manifold interests students of Islamic thought differ sharply as to his greatest achievement. Some regard him as a dialectical theologian who put an end to philosophy in the Muslim East and even consider him its chief executioner. Some regard him as a jurist, although others deny him this status on the grounds that his teachings violate the strictly established rules agreed upon by Muslim jurists. Others see Imam Ghazali as a philosopher at heart who articulated his philosophy in Islamic terminology, and many agree that he was a great champion of mysticism, pointing to his avowed pride in regarding himself a follower of the mystic path.

Ethics - Division of Sciences Mystical Virtues
Supporting Mystical Virtues Virtues produced by Love

The diversity of attitudes toward Ghazali frequently results in considering him primarily a master of one or another field of learning. Consequently students of Islamic thought usually undertake to explain how one of these disciplines truly represents Ghazali's real doctrine, interpreting his writings in the other fields as supplementary and, therefore, as containing secondary and less significant views. These attitudes may attest to the richness of Ghazali's thought and his ability to contribute to many branches of learning in a substantial way but they offer only partial interpretations of Ghazalian thought.

The worst difficulty in any partial interpretation is that it cannot satisfactorily account for Ghazali's interest in contributing to many diverse fields, and to be aware of this crucial problem one need only turn to Ghazali's own intellectual autobiography, the Deliverer from Error (al-Munqidh min al-Dalāl), in which he relates his search for certainty. His inquiry into different sciences, he explains, was extensive and for the purpose of understanding their fundamental principles. He did not move haphazardly from field to field, but tried to discover the relationships among them. By examining his writings on all these subjects one can discern a movement which finally fulfilled Ghazali's quest for truth. Because the unity of his thought only emerges when we are aware of this movement. Ghazali's true teaching cannot be adequately understood by examining certain of his doctrines to the exclusion of the others.

On the other hand, by taking one central theme in Ghazali's writings it should be possible to explore the nature of this unity, and since such a theme should be representative of all the disciplines to which he contributed, I propose here a study of Ghazali's ethics. In all his works ethics appears as an important, if not always the central, issue. "He was emphatically ethical in his attitude; he lays stress on the value for us of a piece of knowledge." In his quest for truth in the Deliverer, Ghazali emphasizes that knowledge of any thing in any way must be evaluated in proportion to its usefulness in leading man to those moral states that make possible the attainment of ultimate happiness. Thus, ethics provides the link between knowledge and action and is the indispensable means for attaining man's highest end.

Ghazali's declaration that his search for the truth ended by adopting mysticism confirms the view that ethics is a central theme in his writings. In his view, the ultimate end of mysticism is the vision of God in the hereafter, and he regards this as belonging to the knowledge of revelation ('ilm al-mukāshafah) which cannot be expressed or laid down in writing. What can be expressed, however, is the knowledge of devotional practice ('ilm al-mu'āmalah) which shows the novice how to reach the ultimate goal. This, in turn, comes about through refinement of the soul, which consists in purifying the soul of bad character traits and acquiring noble ones. The process of acquiring good character traits is continued by the novice until he attains love of God in this life which prepares him for the vision of God in the hereafter. Therefore, the core of Ghazali's mystical doctrine can ultimately be derived from his ethical teaching.

For these reasons, I propose to study the unity of Ghazali's ethical teaching as set forth in his principal writings. The objection may be raised that ethics comprises only part of Ghazali's understanding of the attainment of truth and happiness and that a complete account should include knowledge of revelation as well. However, I maintain that a coherent study is only possible through examining what Ghazali himself discussed and not through conjecturing about a subject which Ghazali omitted and, indeed, declared could not be expressed in writing. My inquiry, I believe, will raise the questions essential to any ethical teaching and will reveal the basic problems inherent in Ghazali's ethics.

The rest of this introduction will discuss Ghazali's principal works and the divisions of the sciences set forth in them, and will give a preliminary outline of the problematic elements of his ethics.

Mohamed Ahmed Sherif

1975, State University of New York Press, Albany