Posted by: Dawud Israel | February 24, 2010

15 Timeless Ghazalian Insights and Maxims

Bismillah, alhamdulillah, was salat wa salam ala Rasulullah

I’ve read about 3 books now on Imam al-Ghazali and I wanted to quote some of the really strong things he’s said. The points he hits are absolutely amazing. The commentaries on the side are from either Ebrahim Moosa or Dr. Sherman (Abdul Hakim) Jackson. The quotes themselves can be found in either his Faysal at-Tafriq (Sherman Jackson translated this, “On the Limits of Theological Intolerance in Islam”) or in Ebrahim Moosa’s “Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination.” Oh and yes, I am playing around with fonts to try and make reading easier…let me know your thoughts.

Take a read and mull it over!

Imam al-Ghazali’s most famous work, The Ihya Ulum ad-Din (The Revival of the Islamic Sciences)

1) Ghazali remorsefully remarked: “We went to the madrassa (ostensibly) to study law but in reality we attended it in order get food.” “We sought knowledge not for the sake God,” he inveighs against himself and his brother, before he delightfully mitigates his condemnation by adding, “but knowledge] refused to [surrenderj except to God (talabna al-‘ilm li ghayr Allah fa aba an yakuna illa liAllah).

2) Pure intention [ikhlas] does not exist on it on its own; rather, intention is the elixir that purifies both knowledge and practice. To bring about that change requires a psychological attitude that is fixed on intentionality. Only the catalytic elements of intentionality and purity of motive transform information into a sense of reality, so that knowledge becomes disciplinary practices which can straighten the prior distortions of the senses and the self that block the cognition of the ends of death. This is exactly what Ghazali set out to do during the rest of his life to reconstitute his physical senses. His obsession with purity of motive and sincerity shows that he preserved his childlike impressionability. Even on his deathbed, he advised his~disciples to conscientiously “cultivate sincerity of motive” (‘alaykum bial-ikhlas).

3) From this episode, Ghazali extrapolated a nugget of wisdom that he believed served Abraham well and from which he profited.   Abraham discontinued his first fine line of debate and adopted a more potent polemical line of argument for a good reason; his goal was “not to annihilate (ifna’hu) him [Nimrod], but to resuscitate him (ihya’hu).

4) The Qur’an, in Ghazali’s view, sufficed as a discourse to ensure doctrinal rectitude in public discourse. “The likeness of arguments from the Quran he says, “is like that of nourishment, from , from which every person can b can benefit; whereas arguments of the dialectical theologians are similar to medication, in that they only profit some individuals, and rather cause harm to to most people. He continues: “In fact, the similarity of the Qur’anic arguments is like that of water; they benefit a suckling infant as well as a strong person. All the other arguments are like regular foods: they are beneficial to the of those 10 who are fit in some instances, but they can also be the cause of their illness on other occasions, infants, it is clear, cannot profit from these food, that is, theological arguments at all.”

5) “How can the secrets of the (angelic) kingdom enlighten people whose deity is their desires?” “when their rulers {salatin sing. sultan} [were] their object of worship; their direction of worship (qibla) their dirhams and dinars [the currency of the time]; frivolity their law; glory and lust their intention; and serving the rich their act of worship; when evil whisperings [substituted for the remembrance oi God [dhikr]; when politicians [were] their treasure; and legal fictions [were] the sum total of their ideas to the extent that decency demanded [that they adhere to laws]. ‘ Such frightening levels of moral depravity e question, in his view, as to how such theologians could “differentiate between the darkness of heresy and the light of faith.””

6) “Perhaps if you are fair,” he taunts his opponents, “you will realize that the one who believes that a single speculative thinker has the exclusive monopoly over the truth, such a person is closer to unbelief and contradiction. It is unbelief, because elevates such a a mortal to the status of a prophet. A prophet alone is infallible. For faith [doctrinally} is established by compliance with [the teachings of a prophet], and opposing him [his prophetic teachings] is a warrant for unbelief.”

7) “Rather,” he reveals, “it is by means of a light [nur] that God had cast in the bosom. And that light is the key to most knowledge. Therefore, anyone who thinks that the unveiling of truth depends on carefully formulated proofs has indeed placed the abundant mercy of God under restraint.” This form of ontic knowing, knowing from being, is what Ghazali and the Muslim tradition generally metonymically refer to as the “expansion of the bosom” [sharh al-sadr} a code for the essential vitalization of the self.

8 ) To shun an ignoramus is to make an offering to God!

9) Human beings and the universe around them, according to Ghazali, resemble a script (tasnif) and a composition (ta’lif). His description is delicate “The universe, and whatever mystery it hides, is God’s script and His composition, His original creation and invention. And the spirit is a part of the many components of the universe. And every unit of its multiple parts teems with mystery.”

10) Ghazali argued, fiqh meant the “knowledge of the path to the afterlife and cognition of the subtle perils afflicting the soul, as well as those actions that corrupt deeds; the capacity to grasp the insignificance of the world and the burning curiosity to experience the pleasures of the afterlife with a heart overwhelmed by reverential awe [for the divine].” Ascetic practices are necessary, but these must, as a matter of necessity, be coupled with discursive knowledge based on investigation and inquiry.

11) In a rhetorical interlude with a fictional interlocutor who asks if one can independently determine whether what the sufis say is true/false, Ghazali retorts: “This book is not about providing demonstrable proofs but about wasaya to alert the heedless ones.

12)  “Knowledge,” says Ghazali, “is the worship of the soul, and in the lexicon of revelation [shar’] it is called the worship of heart.”

13) “The pleasure an intellectual [alim, literally “learned person”] gains from his knowledge does not go unnoticed. He gains even more pleasure when he makes discoveries in the resolution of complex matters, especially when these relate to the kingdom of the heavens and earth and matters divine. This is an enjoyment that cannot be understood unless one has experienced the bliss of unveiling the mysteries. . . . This is an unending pleasure, because there is neither limit to knowledge nor any competition in this regard. For the true student, knowledge expands no matter how many may seek it. Affection, for an intellectual, grows in proportion to the growth of his conversation partners. It is especially delightful when knowledge is sought for its own sake and not for worldly gain and leadership.”

14) “In some parts of the world, whenever there is cohesion in the sect or discursive tradition [madhhab] and those who vie for political office fear that they will fail to engender subservience, they proceed to invent issues! They then create the impression that it is necessary to create division and promote prejudice. So some people will dispute whether the official flag should )e black or red. One group will say: “The true flag is black.” Another will it’s the red one!” And so the goals of the leaders are accomplished in making the masses subservient to the extent of getting them entangled in a false conflict. While the masses mistakenly believe it to be a vital matter, the leadership knows fully what the real purpose was in fabricating this matter.’*’

15) “Faith in God comes of a light that God casts into the hearts of His servants, as a gift and a gratuity from Him. True faith (al-iman al-rasikh) is the faith of the masses that develops in their hearts from childhood due to their constant exposure (to religious material), or that accrues to them after they have reached the age of majority as a result of experiences that they cannot fully articulate.’ “

–the difference between being informed and coming to a realization might be likened to the difference between hearing the words, “I love you,” after one and after forty years of marriage.

…speaks of the means via which one comes to realize the truth of the prophethood of Muhammad (salallahu alayhi wasalam). It is by experiencing, in other words, the truth of such Prophetic teachings as, ‘Whoever acts on the basis of what they know, Allah will grant them knowledge of what they do not know,’ or ‘Whoever assists an evil-doer (zalim), Allah will eventually turn the latter against them,’ that one comes to realize the truth of the Prophet’s message.

“this is the means by which you should seek certainty of (a claim to) prophethood, not by (a person’s) turning a staff into a snake or splitting the moon. For when you observe the latter alone without the benefit of extraneous corroborative indicators too numerous to count, you may think that you are observing a feat of magic or a phantasm or that this is simply a test from God via which He intends to lead people astray. For, indeed, ‘He leads astray whomever He wills and He guides whomever He wills.'”  —Munqidh

Subhana kallahumma wa bihamdika ash-haduana la illaha illa ant astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk, ameen.


  1. Awesome quotes! Jazakallah khair for collecting and publishing them here.

    God bless!

  2. JazakAllah for sharing!
    I read the translation of the Ihya w/notes by Kojiro Nakamura and TJ’d probably enjoy it.

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