On al Ghazali’s Deliverance from Error

On Al Ghazali’s Deliverance from Error ( al Munqidh min al Dhalal): the two stages of al-Ghazâlî’s skeptical crisis in the Munqidh: (a) what he describes as the “breaking of tallied and (b) his loss of confidence in his cognitive faculties (senses and intellect). His arguments for distrusting his cognitive faculties and his account of how this trust was restored.

One cannot discuss Al-Ghazali [1] without exploring his background that was strongly affected by the current reigning powers, and the conflict among Islamic sects.[2]

Al -Munqidh[3] seems like an autobiographical account, in which he takes his conversion from skepticism to faith as an occasion for philosophical reflection, or perhaps also as an opportunity for justifying his attack on philosophy in his previous “Tahafut Al Falasifa”[4].

In al-Munqidh, Al-Ghazali promotes himself as a searching philosopher, even though he insists on never becoming one. The search turns into a quest, which he portrays as a disturbing one. Somehow because a usual philosophical search starts with a search that ends up as a journey. It is like a ship that doesn’t find a harbor in which to anchor. Although Al- Ghazali’s al-Munqidh, appears to be confused, it clearly indicates his intention.

The book starts with a discussion with someone who has asked him some questions, saying: “ You have begged me to relate to you the difficulties I encountered in my attempt to extricate the truth from the confusion of contending sects and to distinguish their different ways and methods, and the venture I made in climbing from the plain of naïve and second-hand belief [5] to the peak of direct vision “[6]. In his response to the seeker in the following sentence, he gives him a briefing of his own conclusion in his quest, which falls into four categories: he questions the different types of knowledge that exist around him, systematically and diligently tackling each science that influences man’s spiritual\religious mindset covering the four core sciences of the time; namely, the profit that he derived from the science of theology[7]; what he disapproves of in the methods of the party of (ta’lim), that involves (taqlid) and restricts the apprehension of truth; His rejection to some of the methods of philosophy; and his approval of the Sufi way of life.

Of course, al-Munqidh resulted from a crisis that al-Ghazali was going through, which influenced his writing in the way he disclosed himself. He ultimately had to give up his prestigious position in the court of the Sultan[8] and choose to become a pilgrim. Al-Ghazali placed emphasis on his crisis and analyzed himself on a psychological level in addition to writing a critical social commentary on the profession of teachers and the social position that they occupied. This is an account that he begins with the explanation of his crisis.

Al-Ghazali’s realization that he had to alter the course of his life at that time totally had a direct impact on his output. This alteration led him not only to change his whole lifestyle but to sort out his priorities as well. It is his searching for the Truth that made him change tracks. He explains that he was blessed with this sense of searching and curiosity all his life. However, he had ceased to be convinced of taqlid since his adolescence when he realized that beliefs originate from the authority of parents and teachers. He attempted to distinguish between those authority-based opinions and the principles that are developed in one’s mind. He states: “ …for I saw that Christian youths always grew up to be Christians, Jewish youths to be Jews and Muslim children to be Muslims.”[9]

Al-Ghazali’s skepticism started with this. The difference among human beings is in their religions and beliefs[10]. In this case, this uncertainty concerning the inherited beliefs[11], made him search for their reality, to find out where they come from: “My innermost being was moved to discover what this original nature was and what the beliefs derived from the authority of parents and teachers were. The attempt to distinguish between these authority-based opinions and their principles developed the mind, for in recognizing the right in them from the false, differences appeared.[12][13]

He lost his trust in the inherited beliefs that he took from his parents and his teacher, and he started to question every (Yaqeen) for what are senses and what are the necessary things [14]. And this took him to another level of perplexity, in which he questioned the origin of this feeling of trusting senses[15], such as the sense of seeing. For example, when looking at a planet, you see it small; but then scientific calculations show that it is bigger in size than the earth.

Thus, it is that which one can feel in his keen senses that one can believe; not what the eye shows. Such sight perceives what the eyes cannot.

Al-Ghazali decided to look for the knowledge of what things are. He considers knowledge “in which the object is disclosed in such a fashion that no doubt remains along with it. That no possibility of error or illusion accompanies it, and that the mind cannot entertain such a supposition “.[16]

At the same time, there is some knowledge that is infallible. And hence, because of its infallibility, it cannot be mistaken or falsified, because it has been seen and examined by the eye. Such as someone who turns a rod into a serpent or stone into gold. In a conventional logical means, it cannot be happening. But the fact that it has been changed from one status to another and it was seen it makes it infallible, so there is no need for doubt in this case. The only thing he would wonder about is “ precisely how he can produce this change.” [17]

Here, we examine two examples that contradict one another, and yet, take us to the same conclusion.

In the case of the planet that looks small, and the belief that it is much bigger than the eye can grasp. And in the other example, the eye sees a serpent converting from a rod, in which logic says it cannot, but the eye saw it, so it cannot be denied.

After investigating various kinds of knowledge, he found that there is no such knowledge with infallibility, except what is associated with “ sense-perception and necessities[18]. However, his reflection into senses and needs put him in a circle of more skepticism and doubt. And he starts to ask for the source of such trust in sense perception. “ From where does this reliance on sense-perception come?“ [19]

“ In this and similar cases of sense perception the meaning as judge, forms his judgments, but another judge, the intellect, shows him repeatedly to be wrong; and the charge of falsity cannot be rebutted. “ [20]

This also goes to other senses, and then he asks the question: can the intellect[21] be the ultimate end [22](of the truth[23]? But this questioning leads only to his loss of confidence in senses too. So he goes back to the intellect [24](that maybe it is the primary. “ My reliance on sense-perception also has been destroyed. Perhaps only those intellectual truths which are first principles are to be relied upon, such as the assertion that ten are more than three, that the same thing cannot be both affirmed and denied at one time, that one thing is not both generated in time and eternal, not both existent and not existent, nor both necessary and impossible”. [25]

So he puts the senses under the control of the intellect. And he makes the entrance for every truth the principle[26] of non-contradiction. Even this stage was temporary because it quickly put him again into skepticism. This goes on: “ Do you not see’, it said,’how, when you are asleep, you believe things and imagine circumstances, holding them to be stable and enduring, and so much time as you are in that dream-condition, have no doubts about them? And it is not the case that when you awake you know that all you have imagined and believed is unfounded and ineffectual? Why then are you confident that all your waking beliefs, whether from sense or intellect, are genuine? They are true in respect of your present state, but it is possible that a state will come upon you whose relation to your waking consciousness is analogous to the relation of the latter to dreaming until the intellect [27]becomes a state of skepticism to him as well”. “Perhaps behind intellectual apprehension, there is another judge who, if he manifests himself, will show the falsity of intellect in its judging, just as, when intelligence revealed itself, it showed the falsity of sense in its judging. The fact that such a supra-intellectual apprehension has not manifested itself is no proof that it is impossible.” [28]

He goes back and forth in this analogy, to a level where his existence becomes of imagination. “When you have entered into this state, you will be certain that all the suppositions of your intellect are empty imaginings.”

And this is where; he finds refuge, or answers in Sufism, and their claim of their particular “ state,” meaning mysticism.

This is a country that occurs when a person becomes absent from his senses and withdraws into himself. It is a state that the individual witnesses on his own and realize as a country that is free from the principles of the intellect.

This level of skepticism, and questioning the truth of every single aspect he thought of logical in realizing the truth, undoubtedly led him to a state of “ unhealthiness.” A crisis that penetrated his existence, and affected his health eventually.

He insisted, however, instead of losing his senses and intellect, to look for a demonstration[29]. And to find the true manifestation, he was aware that event requires knowledge of the central: first principles[30], and it was impossible because he realized that it is impossible to be admitted to the first principles.

He owes his regaining of confidence, neither to a prepared argument or a systematic demonstration, but to the “light,“ that has been sent to him by God, which is to him, the key to greater part of knowledge. And all that we experience is nothing but part of that LIGHT. “ It was about this light that Muhammad (PBUH) said,’ God created the creatures of darkness, and then sprinkled upon them some of His light ‘ from that light must be sought an intuitive understanding of things Divine. That light at certain times gushes from the spring of Divine generosity, and it one must watch and wait – as Mohammad (PBUH) said: ‘ in the days of your age your Lord has gusts of favor; then pace yourselves in the way of them.’

He realizes that understanding certain things that are related to DIVINE cannot be narrowed to what the intellect and senses together can grasp. But God’s mercy is wider than the capacity of what a mind of man can comprehend.

A passage which distils the essence of his spiritual journey is explained in the Ways of Mysticism, “I learnt with certainty that it is above all the mystics who walk on the road of God; their life is the best life, their method the soundest approach, their character the purest character…from which illumination may be received.[31]”[32]

I would conclude in what he states towards the beginning of his quest in which he says: “the task is entirely fulfilled when the quest is prosecuted up to the stage of seeking what is not sought. For principles are not found, since they are present and at hand; and if what is present is requested for, it becomes hidden and lost.” [33]

In his chapter on Prophecy, Al-Ghazali resolves the perplexity or skepticism, in making it clear that those given the light of the Divine revelations are only the prophets. He ends human development of senses and his complexity as the beginning of inspiration and revelation that the Divine reveals exclusively to the Prophets. And this is a level where some intellects refuse to acknowledge. “ Moreover, just as the man at the stage of discernment would reject and disregard the objects of prophetic revelation. That is sheer ignorance. They have no ground for their view except that this is non-existent in itself.”[34]

“ God, however, has favored His creatures by giving them something analogous to the individual faculty of prophecy.” [35]

[1] Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (c. 1058–1111).

[2] “The different religious observances and religious communities of the human race and likewise the religious systems of the religious leaders, with all the multiplicity of sects and variety of practices, constitute ocean depths in which the majority drown, and only a minority reach safety. Each separate group thinks that it alone is saved, and ‘each party is rejoicing in what they have.’ This is what was told by the prince of the Messengers (God bless him), who is accurate and trustworthy when he said.’ My community will be split up into seventy-three sects, and but one of them is saved, and he foretold has indeed almost come about.”(Al Munqidh, p. 20).

[3] Al Munqidh min al-Dalal, Deliverance from Error.

[4] The Tahafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers) marked a turning point in Islamic philosophy, bringing to a head the conflict between kalam (speculative theology) and Falsafa (philosophy)

[5] Taqlid.

[6] Ibid, p.9.

[7] Kalam.

[8]At the age of 23, Al-Ghazali became the student of the famous Muslim scholar Abu’l Ma’ali Juwayni, known as Imam al-Haramayn. After the death of Al-Juwayni in 1085, Al-Ghazali was invited to go to the court of Nizamul Mulk Tusi, the powerful vizier (minister) of the Seljuq sultans. The vizier was so impressed by Al-Ghazali’s scholarship that in 1091 he appointed him as a chief professor in the Nizamiyya of Baghdad. He used to lecture to more than 300 students, and his participations in Islamic debates and discussions made him famous in all over the Islamic territories.

[9] Ibid, p.21.

[10] matha Iba Hom and milli lahom.

[11] Aka’ed.

[12] He passed through a spiritual crisis in 1095 and abandoned his career and left Baghdad on the pretext of going on pilgrimage to Mecca. Making arrangements for his family, he disposed of his wealth and adopted the life of a poor Sufi. After some time in Damascus and Jerusalem, with a visit to Medina and Mecca in 1096, he settled in Tus to spend the next several years in seclusion.

[13] Ibid, p.21.

[14] Hissi and Dhar our yat.

[15] Al mahsusat.

[16] Ibid, p.22.

[17] Ibid, p.22.

[18] Darurat and hisssiyat.

[19] Ibid,p.23.

[20] Ibid, p.23.

[21] Aql-all.

[22] Malath.

[23] Yaqeen.

[24] Aqliyaat .

[25] Ibid,p.23.

[26] Mabdaa.

[27] Al Aql.

[28] Ibid,p.24.

[29] Dalil.

[30] Mabade.

[31] Chapter 4 – The Ways of Mysticism, “I learnt with certainty that it is above all the mystics who walk on the road of God; their life is the best life, their method the soundest approach, their character the purest character; indeed, were the intellect of the intellectuals and the learning of the learned and the scholarship of the scholars, who are versed in the profundities of revealed truth, brought together in the attempt to improve the life and character of the mystics, they would find no way of doing so; for to the mystics all movement and all rest, whether external or internal brings an illumination from the light of the lamp of prophetic revelation; and behind the light of prophetic revelation there is no other light on the face of the earth from which illumination may be received.

[32] Ibid,p.63.


[34] Ibid, p.66.


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