Al-Ghazali is one of the most important Islamic thinkers of any generation since the Prophet Muhammad first brought the revelations of the Qur’an in the seventh century. A renowned jurist, theologian, and mystic, he penned one of the most influential texts of living the faith of Islam with proper intention as well as action—the Revival of the Religious Sciences. He also wrote a very influential critique of the Aristotelian-influenced philosophy of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and his predecessor al-Farabi. That work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers,translated by the late Michael E. Marmura, an eminent scholar of Arabic philosophy, was the very first text we produced in our Islamic Translation Series (the first edition appeared in 1997) and remains one of the most in-demand titles in our catalogue.
Recently al-Ghazali’s intellectual legacy has become once again the subject of public discussion and debate. For many generations, the consensus was that al-Ghazali had dealt a death-blow to rational thought in the Islamic tradition by producing such a thoroughgoing critique of Peripatetic and Neoplatonist philosophy as Incoherence. It seemed to most scholars that even Ibn Rushd’s rebuttal —The Incoherence of the Incoherence—failed to check the growing suspicion of and disdain for the foreign influence of Greek philosophy among the Muslim intelligencia. The result, so the story has gone, was a regression to dogma, mysticism, and factionalism that stunted the intellectual development of Islamic culture for the rest of its history, which then explains why the Middle East is so rife with retrograde, reactionary extremism today.
But this is a view of al-Ghazli’s legacy that has come under increased critical scrutiny over the past twenty years, beginning first with the work of Richard Frank and reaching perhaps is most robust and nuanced statement in the work of Frank Griffel of Yale University and a member of the advisory board for the Islamic Translation Series. Long story short, there is much more to al-Ghazali’s relationship with Greek thought than meets the eye. Reading between the lines, and sometimes even reading the actual lines he wrote, it becomes evident that although he had some substantive disagreements with specific conclusions and positions arrived at by his Aristotelian predecessors, al-Ghazali was very much an admirer of classical Greek thought—its logical discipline and attention to evidence—and he employed it in his theological and even his spiritual writings. He is not the killer of rationalism and the forerunner of Islamic extremism that some have made him out to be.
Recently Melvyn Bragg, host of the outstanding BBC Radio program In Our Time, conducted a lively panel discussion about al-Ghazali and his legacy. One of the scholars featured, Peter Adamson, is another member of the Islamic Translation Series advisory board. And our bilingual edition of The Incoherence of the Philosophers is the first work listed in the suggested reading for the program.
In a future post, I’ll have more to say about another important project that Peter Adamson has undertaken in recent years. But for now, enjoy the discussion at BBC about the legacy of al-Ghazali.
D. Morgan Davis has been affiliated with the Maxwell Institute’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative since its launch in 1993 and became the project’s director in 2010. He holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Brigham Young University, an MA in history from the University of Texas at Austin, and a PhD (2005) in Arabic and Islamic studies from the University of Utah.