Abu Hamid Muhammad Al-Ghazzali

Al-Ghazzali (al-Ghazel in Latin) is one of the foremost Muslim theologians, comparable to Saint Augustine or Thomas Aquinas in Christianity. He was born in northeastern Iran and studied science and theology. As a young man, he was appointed by the Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk to teach at the Nizamiyya madrasa (government sponsored school) in Baghdad. A popular professor, al-Ghazzali gave lectures that were widely attended and he became known in his lifetime as an expert on law and theology. He was familiar with classical Greek philosophy as well as Christian thought.

Al-Ghazzali’s written works in Arabic number into the hundreds and include songs and poetry. His Incoherence of the Philosophers, a critique of the classical Greek philosophers and of Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina, who accepted classical thought, was read throughout the Islamic world and was translated into Latin. In The Revivial of the Religious Sciences, al-Ghazzali attacked the thought of the Greek philosopher Socrates.

The latter work has been compared to the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas. However, Ibn Rushd (Averroës), the great Islamic philosopher based in Córdoba, Spain, vehemently disagreed with al-Ghazzali’s refutation of Greek philosophy and wrote a blistering critique, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, in which he demolished al-Ghazzali’s assertions, one by one.

In arguments that have resonance in the contemporary debate between secularists and supporters of religious thought, al-Ghazzali posited that the world was a creation of the divine being and disputed assertions that the world had no beginning or end.

A crisis of faith around 1095 c.e. caused al-Ghazzali to quit teaching, and, after traveling to Jerusalem and Mecca, he returned to Iran, where he immersed himself in Sufism (Islamic mysticism). He wrote an autobiographical account of his spiritual journey in That Which Delivers from Error.

Al-Ghazzali ultimately returned to teaching and became a foremost proponent of orthodox Sunni Islamic belief that, he argued, could be compatible with Sufi religious practices. Although they disagreed on specific points, both al-Ghazzali and Averroës sought to understand the interrelationship of philosophy and religion.