Imam Al-Ghazzali

Early Life & Education

Turns to Sufism

Reconciles Sufism & Islam

Ihya Uloom-ud-Din

Role of Mujaheda

Fragrant Flowers From Al-Ghazzali










CO Bar Sufism.gif (1162 bytes)


Becomes a Sufi

   But now a great change suddenly overtook him and it was the love and search for truth which seized him tightly. He renounced office, honor and rank. "True knowledge must be sought" became a phantom that seized him day and night. He writes: "From the age of 20 up to the age of 50, I met all classes of philosophers, thinkers, theologians, Sufis and heretics and tried to understand their viewpoints with an open mind. This made me to break with the bonds of canonical laws and ritualism. I now felt a keen desire to study logic, philosophy, ethics and other allied subjects."

   "I came to the conclusion that the followers of Islam incorrectly consider that philosophical and logical discussion undermines Islam and, therefore, their antagonism to these sciences was unwarranted. I thought that the great injury caused to Islam by this attitude was that many principles of philosophy which were self-evident and proved by irrefutable argument and intellectual discussion when asserted to be antagonistic to Islam, made them who believed in those philosophic truths to doubt Islam itself. So these friends of Islam really proved to be its enemies."

   Thereafter the Socratic way of insistence on Truth and inquiry became the method of treatment by this great theologian and he put religion of Islam on a scholastic basis, emphasizing upon the fact that the tenets of philosophy were not antagonistic to the religion of Islam. But the fanatics fought tooth and nail against all such statements of Al-Ghazzali, branding them as heresies. He was, however, strictly adamant in his views and boldly declared that "genuine religion demands at the outset a thoroughly ethical life. The mind must be thoroughly cleansed of all evil tendencies to become a true Muslim. Purification of behavior and conduct (Tazkiya-e-Ikhlaaq) was the first step." Endowed with the knowledge of various religions and countries, he deeply pondered over the ethical and moral values, critically analyzed them and started explaining the esoteric import of the verses of the Holy Qur'an, supporting his interpretations with the Traditions of the Prophet (sas), and thereby opened quite a new venue of thought in the spiritual life of the people.

   This sudden change in the thought of Al-Ghazzali smashed all the shackles and trammels of the scriptures which, since his childhood, had warped his clear understanding and made him a rebel against mere canonical and ritualistic religion followed and preached by the orthodox Ulema. He found that mere theology and its discussion could not give him the peace of mind nor the glimpse of real Truth. His attention was thus riveted on Tasawwuf (Sufism) wherein he found the achievement of true peace of mind and consolation. He therefore dived deep into the mystical writings of great Sufis like Bayazid Bastami, Junaid and Shibli and came to the conclusion that this knowledge of Sufism must be practiced at any cost. This made him bid good-bye at one stroke to all the high offices, honors and riches. He donned a woolen blanket and renounced all attachments to the world. And thus Imam Al-Ghazzali became a Sufi dervish at the age of 38.

Al-Ghazzali Praises Sufism

   Let us now see what the great Imam has to say about the Sufistic path, in his candid and heartfelt Confessions of Al-Ghazzali:

   "I saw that in order to understand Sufism thoroughly one must combine theory with practice. The aim which the Sufis set before them is as follows: To free the soul from the tyrannical yoke of the passions, to deliver it from its wrong inclinations and evil instincts, in order that in the purified heart there should only remain room for Allah and for the invocation of His holy name."

   But without a clear path of practice, Al-Ghazzali undertook an exhaustive study of the great books on Sufism:

   "As it was easier to learn their doctrine than to practice it, I studied first of all those of their books which contain it: The Nourishment of Hearts, by Abu Talib of Mecca, the works of Harethel Muhasibi, and the fragments which still remain of Junaid, Shibli, Abu Yezid Bustami and other leaders (whose souls may Allah sanctify). I acquired a thorough knowledge of their researches, and I learned all that was possible to learn of their methods by study and oral teaching. It became clear to me that the last stage could not be reached by mere instruction, but only by transport, ecstasy, and the transformation of the moral being…I saw that Sufism consists in experiences rather than in definitions, and that what I was lacking belonged to the domain, not of instruction, but of ecstasy and intuition."

   Al-Ghazzali’s heart and mind were cast into a sea of conflicting intentions and emotions:

   "Coming seriously to consider my state, I found myself bound down on all sides by these trammels. Examining my actions, the most fair-seeming of which were my lecturing and professorial occupations, I found to my surprise that I was engrossed in several studies of little value, and profitless as regards my salvation.

Reconsiders His Knowledge

   He was forced to face his true motives, and made this astonishingly honest appraisal of his life’s work to that time:

   "I probed the motives of my teaching and found that, in place of being sincerely consecrated to God, it was only actuated by a vain desire of honor and reputation. I perceived that I was on the edge of an abyss, and that without an immediate conversion I should be doomed to eternal fire. In these reflections I spent a long time."

   Despite his extraordinary knowledge and station of learning, Al-Ghazzali was torn by anxiety and self-doubt:

   "Still a prey to uncertainty, one day I decided to leave Baghdad and to give up everything; the next day I gave up my resolution. I advanced one step and immediately relapsed. In the morning I was sincerely resolved only to occupy myself with the future life; in the evening a crowd of carnal thoughts assailed and dispersed my resolutions. On the one side the world kept me bound to my post in the chains of covetousness, on the other side the voice of religion cried to me, "Up! Up! thy life is nearing its end, and thou hast a long journey to make.

   In fact his confusion and struggle became so great that he that lost the power of speech:

   "Thus I remained, torn-asunder by the opposite forces of earthly passions and religious aspirations...Allah caused an impediment to chain my tongue and prevented me from lecturing. Vainly I desired, in the interest of my pupils, to go on with my teaching, but my mouth became dumb. The silence to which I was condemned cast me into a violent despair; my stomach became weak; I lost all appetite; I could neither swallow a morsel of bread nor drink a drop of water."

Ultimately Turns to Almighty Allah for Guidance:

   "Finally, conscious of my weakness and the prostration of my soul, I took refuge in Allah as a man at the end of himself and without resources. "He who hears the wretched when they cry" (Qur’an, xxvii: 63) deigned to hear me; He made easy to me the sacrifice of honors, wealth, and family…

   At last I left Bagdad, giving up all my fortune...I then betook myself to Syria, where I remained for two years, which I devoted to retirement, meditation, and devout exercises. I only thought of self-improvement and discipline and of purification of the heart by prayer in going through the forms of devotion which the Sufis had taught me."

   His absence from his home brought pleas from his family which tore at his heart, and he decided to return home to them, but with a firm resolve and intention:

   "I meant, if I did return, to live there solitary and in religious meditation; but events, family cares and vicissitudes of little changed my resolutions and troubled my meditative calm. However irregular the intervals which I could give to devotional ecstasy, my confidence in it did not diminish; and the more I was diverted by hindrances, the more steadfastly I returned to it. Ten years passed in this manner."

Sufism The One True Way

   He then sums up his life of a most exhaustive and devoted study of Allah and His Islam, with these words:

   "During my successive periods of meditation there were revealed to me things impossible to recount. All that I shall say for the edification of the reader is this: I learnt from a sure source that the Sufis are the true pioneers on the path of God: that there is nothing more beautiful than their life, nor more praiseworthy than their rule of conduct, nor purer than their morality.

   "The intelligence of thinkers, the wisdom of philosophers, the knowledge of the most learned doctors of the law would in vain combine their efforts in order to modify or improve their doctrine and morals; it would be impossible. With the Sufis, repose and movement, exterior or interior, are illumined with the light which proceeds from the central Radiance of Inspiration. And what other light could shine on the face of the earth ? In a word, what can one criticize in them?

   "From the time that they set out on this path, revelations commence for them. They come to see in the waking state angels and souls of prophets; they hear their voices and wise counsels. By means of this contemplation of heavenly forms and images they rise by degrees to heights which human language cannot reach, which one cannot even indicate without falling into great and inevitable errors."

   For those who condemn or deride the life and practices of the Sufis, Imam Al-Ghazzali offers this advice:

   "But behind those who believe comes a crowd of ignorant people who deny the reality of Sufism, hear discourses on it with incredulous irony, and treat as charlatans those who profess it. To this ignorant crowd the verse applies: "There are those among them who come to listen to thee, and when they leave thee, ask of those who have received knowledge, 'What has he 'just said?" There are they whose hearts Allah has sealed up with blindness and who only follow their passions".

   Allaho Alim!

   It was during the period of seclusion and search that he wrote his remarkable work lhya-ul-Uloom which resuscitated Islam which had become merely a set of rituals and ethical rules under the domination of the orthodox Ulema. His indomitable will and devoted work earned him the title of Hujjat-ul-Islam (the proof of Islam) and the charges leveled against him that he did not follow the scriptures and canonical laws, that he accepted the rules of philosophy and followed them and thus lowered the dignity of ritual and canonical laws of Islam were all leveled to dust.

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