What are the ethical teachings of al-Ghazali and how important and relevant are they to contemporary Muslims? Critically discuss.
Imam al-Ghazali (d.1111) remains perhaps the most important religious authority in Islam after the first three generations of Muslims. The title, ‘Proof of Islam’, conferred upon him by the majority of Muslims, is a reflection of the complexity of his work, which included jurisprudence, theology, philosophy, psychology, and mysticism. This essay will demonstrate how al-Ghazali synthesised concepts of tawheed (unity of God), islam (ritual worship, virtue, ilham (Godly inspiration) and tasawwuf (Sufism) in a broad ethical theory. His ethics, as illustrated in the Ihya Ulum id-Deen, can be applied by common Muslims, Muslim scholars. More broadly, its implications–spiritual, social, behavioural, and intellectual–can play a significant role in the umma’s Islamic revival.
Al-Ghazali’s ethical vision was based on humans attaining happiness, which is ultimately found in salvation in the next life (Hourani 1976, p. 77). The means by which he thought this was achieved best was through spiritual devotion rather than rationality. Al-Ghazali prioritises spirituality over intellectualism in knowing what is right and wrong based on his assertion of the soul as the human’s most important component (Moosa 2005). The soul possesses reason, thus holds the potential of knowing God and the capacity to know the realities of this world. As the immaterial soul is merged with the material body, the temporal worldly form of a human is experienced. The body is the vehicle through which the soul can achieve its potential of knowing God; bodily senses become tools through which the soul achieves ethical behaviour. The body has faculties such as anger, appetites for food and drink, lust and greed. It is possible for the bodily faculties to overcome the soul’s faculty of reason, a condition described in the Quran as the ‘self that incites to evil’ (Quran 12:53). Conversely, reason can be used to control bodily faculties, and by doing this achieve the ‘serene soul’ (Quran 89:27). A third self is the middle one between the two, the reproachful self (Quran 75:2), which is in constant struggle with temptations of the evil self. The integrated divine and animal souls form the nafs, which is the human’s true self or identity.
The coexistence of soul and body is volatile; the soul wishes to know God, while the body desires temporal sensory pleasure. The bifurcation of the human into these two opposing components indicates the necessity for a method of achieving equilibrium, for the solution to the struggle between the divine and animal forces is not a simple separation of soul and body, as this renders void the Creator’s wisdom in creating the worldly human. A more complex method assumes the human comprises other entities integral to the nafs. Here al-Ghazali’s ethical theory assumes a view of the human imparted by Sufis before him; in addition to the soul and body, there is the ruh (spirit), qalb (spiritual heart), and ‘aql (intellect) (Moosa 2005, p. 224). The qalb is an abstract entity directly linked with the physical heart that contributes to the human experience, the faculties of perception, knowing, and spiritual experience (Moosa 2005, p. 225). The level of integration of the faculties of the qalb determines the success of the soul’s goal in knowing God. Thus, the qalb’s condition is vital to the outcome of the soul’s journey through this temporal life. Hourani (1976) describes Ghazali’s ethical concern as ‘right conduct and the purification of the soul by the individual . . .’ (p. 1). To this end, the method of equilibrium that al-Ghazali promoted, like Sufis after him, is tazkiyat al-qalb, or purification of the spiritual heart. Ameur (2009) notes three aspects of the process of purification: good action; virtues; and knowledge (p. 3).
Good action refers to the following of ritual...
References: Ameur, R 2009, 101466 Ethical Traditions in Islam, The Ritual of the Law: lecture transcript, University of Western Sydney, Milperra.
Hourani, G 1976, ‘Ghazali on the ethics of action’, Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 96, no. 1, pp. 69-88, University of Western Sydney Resources Online ( 101466).
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