Al-Ghazali’s Spiritual Crisis

Philosophical Side Quests: Philosophers of the Islamic Golden Age

Nick Nielsen
14 min readJun 12, 2024

Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ṭūsiyy al-Ghazali (أَبُو حَامِد مُحَمَّد بْن مُحَمَّد ٱلطُّوسِيّ ٱلْغَزَّالِيّ), better known to posterity of Al-Ghazali (1058–1111), fits neatly between Avicenna, who died before he was born, and Averroes, who was born after he died, but al-Ghazali made a point of criticizing the use that Avicenna (and later Averroes) made of Greek philosophy. Al-Ghazali usually isn’t discussed in relation to philosophy of history, which is why I am calling this a philosophical side quest rather than Today in Philosophy of History. But all philosophy is ultimately relevant to philosophy of history, and the philosophers of the Islamic Golden Age constitute an important link between ancient Greek philosophy and contemporary philosophy.

I said in my episode on ibn Khaldun that we can read the authors of other cosmopolitan civilizations like contemporaries. Such cosmopolitan civilizations have widely ranging trade connections, routine travel, the movement of talented individuals into cities, where there are greater opportunities, and the leisure time for intellectual pursuits. As cities become larger they attract more trade, more travel, and more talent. For a while, this is a virtuous cycle that builds cities into great cosmopolitan centers. But not everyone is happy about what goes on in big cities, and eventually there comes a time when the blessing passes into a curse. Al-Ghazali experienced this in a personal way, and I will try to explain what I mean by this.

Al-Ghazali experienced a spiritual crisis as a consequence of being appointed the head of Nizzamiyya University in Baghdad. In modern terms we could call this the fallout from imposter syndrome, but the imposter that al-Ghazali thought that he had become was that of a worldly man who had forsaken his true religious nature. He came to think that he had chosen the way of personal aggrandizement over the way of religion, and he was genuinely chagrined about this. He more or less disappeared from society for ten years, trying to find his way back to the life he believed he ought to be leading.

Someone doesn’t come into a position like this — the head of a major university in a major city — without having first becoming well known as a scholar, but it’s what Al-Ghazali wrote after this time that made his reputation. Al-Ghazali was concerned by the skepticism that he encountered at the university. Bagdhad then as now was a big city, and it had typical big city problems. Let me frame this in anthropological terms. The anthropologist Robert Redfield made a distinction between what he called the little tradition and the great tradition. The little tradition is the folk tradition of villages. Since Redfield did his anthropological field work in Mayan villages, he thought in terms of villages, but a field anthropologist studying Arabia would probably identify the folk traditions of the Bedouin of the desert as the little tradition for this geographical region and cultural milieu.

The great tradition, in contradistinction to the little tradition, is the tradition that we find in literate cities, so it only appears after the appearance of cities and writing. In cities we often find a professional religious class who specialize in a written tradition that is maintained in a ritual setting over multiple generations. Barbara Ann Kipfer used Redfield’s conception of a great tradition to define a civilization as, a “Complex sociopolitical form defined by the institution of the state and the existence of a distinctive great tradition.” So the great tradition on which civilizations are centered tend to be based in cities.

The initial trajectory of life in cities involved the genesis of a great tradition, but the developments don’t stop there. Oswald Spengler made a developmental distinction between high cultures and civilizations. He argued that when a people are in their creative and vital stage, they create a culture. As soon as this culture peaks, thereafter we have not a high culture but a civilization:

“In this work, for the first time the two words, hitherto used to express an indefinite, more or less ethical, distinction, are used in a periodic sense, to express a strict and necessary organic succession. The Civilization is the inevitable destiny of the Culture, and in this principle we obtain the viewpoint from which the deepest and gravest problems of historical morphology become capable of solution. Civilizations are the most external and artificial states of which a species of developed humanity is capable. They are a conclusion, the thing-become succeeding the thing becoming, death following life, rigidity following expansion, intellectual age and the stone-built, petrifying world-city following mother-earth and the spiritual childhood of Doric and Gothic They are an end, irrevocable, yet by inward necessity reached again and again.”

For Spengler, civilizations are by definition a high culture tradition that has entered into its decline. This is what happens after a people in their fullness of their powers create a great tradition, which is the expression of their high culture. After this high point, other developments occur in cities (though I would argue the decline of high cultures in cities is not as well understood as the growth of a high culture). In the centers of learning that cluster around the great texts of the great tradition, once a society becomes sufficiently comfortable, men begin to become critical and skeptical. And since their world is centered on a great tradition, criticism and skepticism tend to focus on the great tradition. This is what al-Ghazali experienced, ensconced as he was in the center of Islamic scholarship, and he reacted against it.

Almost four hundred years later ibn Khaldun would describe the socio-political cycle he had seen play out between the simple peoples of desert and village as compared to cosmopolitan city dwellers. Recall that Ibn Khaldun was living at the end of the Islamic Golden Age, while al-Ghazali was living near the peak of the Golden Age. But al-Ghazali already saw, or thought he saw, the beginnings of cultural decay. One way to formulate this would be to say that al-Ghazali saw that the Great Tradition of Islamic civilization had been compromised, and that it stood in need of renewal. He would himself become an agent of religious renewal.

If we like, we can see this as an exemplification of what Toynbee called crisis and response. Toynbee held that civilizations are periodically faced with a great crisis, to which that civilization seeks to respond, and, if it is capable of an effective response, that civilization experiences a renewal. If the civilization in question is not capable of an effective response to a crisis, then there is no renewal, and the crisis expands and accelerates, consuming the civilization, which then goes extinct. Following this model, we could speculate that al-Ghazali’s personal spiritual crisis reflected a larger spiritual crisis in his society. Al-Ghazali himself was part of the response to this crisis.

In the Islamic world, Al-Ghazali is known as “The Proof of Islam” and he wrote many doctrinal works that are seen as a stage of religious renewal. His book The Revival of the Religious Sciences, or The Revival of Religious Studies, is considered by many to be the second most influential book in Islamic civilization other than the Koran. This book has had almost no influence on Western thought. Al-Ghazali is best known to Western philosophers for Tahāfut al-Falāsifah, translated as The Destruction of the Philosophers or The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Averroes later wrote a response to this, called The Destruction of the Destruction, or The Incoherence of the Incoherence (Tahāfut al-Tahāfut).

In the second part of this book, which is the critical part for which it is now known, takes aim at twenty propositions that had been defended by philosophers, and which in particular had come to be associated with Avicenna. The first two of these have to do with the eternity or everlasting nature of the world. Al-Ghazali separately treats two claims: That the world has no beginning in time, which he calls the eternity of the world, and that the world has no ending, which he calls the everlasting nature of the world. These two conceptions of the eternity and everlastingness of the world constitute the first two problems that he deals with in The Destruction of the Philosophers. Al-Ghazali begins his criticism with an exposition of the problem:

“The philosophers disagree among themselves as to the eternity of the world. But the majority of the philosophers — ancient as well as modern — agree upon its eternity, holding that it always coexisted with God (exalted be He) as His effect which was concurrent with Him in time — concurrent as an effect is with the cause, e.g., light with the sun — and that God’s priority to the world is the priority of the cause to the effect — viz. priority in essence and rank, not in time. Plato is said to have maintained that the world began in time. But some people put different interpretations on his words, for they would not have him believe in the origin of the world. From Galen’s book ‘What Galen Believed’ it appears that towards the end of his life he was inclined to be neutral on this question. He said that often he would argue that the nature of the world could not be discovered — not because of any deficiency on his part, but because of the inherent difficulty of the problem which baffles on minds. But such instances are few and far between. The consensus of opinion among the philosophers is that as a rule it is inconceivable that something which has a beginning in time should proceed from the eternal without there being any intermediary.”

The structure of the text is quite similar to medieval Latin philosophy, with an exposition of the problem followed by arguments and counter-arguments. As I said, this is from the second section of The Destruction of the Philosophers. The Destruction of the Philosophers is divided into four parts, the first part of which is Maqāsid al-Falāsifa, translated as The Aims of the Philosophers. This book, The Aims of the Philosophers, which is only the first division of The Destruction of the Philosophers, made it to medieval Europe without the rest of the book attached. Since this was an exposition of Avicenna’s work, before the main work of the criticism of Avicenna began, Al-Ghazali was believed by Western scholars to be a minor figure in Islamic philosophy who followed Avicenna but didn’t have much of his own to say. The Aims of the Philosophers begins with what we would still easily recognize today as philosophical logic.

“Although the science are divided into many branches they may be reduced to two; conception and judgement. Conception consists of grasping the essence of things designated by uncombined words by way of making something understood and asserting a truth. As for example the grasping of the object designated by the word ‘body,’ ‘tree,’ ‘angel, ‘spirit,’ and the like. But judgement is e.g. the knowledge that ‘That the world was created,’ that ‘The believers will be rewarded and the rebellious will be punished.’ Every judgement is of necessity preceded by two concepts. For without understanding either ‘world’ and its definition, or ‘created’ and its definition one cannot possible assert that it was created. But the word ‘created,’ when its meaning cannot be properly conceived, is like the word ‘preated,’ for example. For it if were asserted that ‘The world was preated,’ it would be impossible to affirm or deny it. For how can that which is not understood be negated or confirmed? The same is true of the word ‘world’ which it is replaced by a meaningless word.”

Even here, when al-Gazhali is giving an exposition of logic, he chooses examples to discuss that illustrate his later theses in the book denying the eternity and everlastingness of the world. We see, then, that the exposition of Avicenna’s view in the first part, and their criticism in the second part, are closely connected to each other, so it’s not like they are conceived in isolation from each other.

Not only is the critique of familiar philosophical doctrines continuous, but the use of philosophical argument is continuous, and this points to something important. When philosophical logic became entangled with theology, it wasn’t enough to simply reject philosophy as a foreign influence. Philosophy had to be taken head on. This meant that theologians had to learn the methods and master the concepts and the language of philosophy in order to criticize it. This in turn meant that even the theologians and the orthodox philosophers found themselves deeply immersed in philosophy whether they wanted this or not. And this in turn meant that the general level of discussion was raised to a higher level of sophistication.

This is parallel to what happens with technology that is passed from one civilization to another. Even as civilizations rise and fall, inherited technologies often continue to accumulate, and the overall sophistication and complexity of societies increase cumulatively over time. It’s easy to see this, for example, with technologies of agriculture and shipping. Logic and philosophy are technologies of the mind, and Islamic civilization, in inheriting Greek philosophy, found itself with a sophisticated intellectual instrument that it had to bend to its own needs.

If you like, you could say that the project of Islamic philosophy was to bend the tradition of Greek philosophy to the Great Tradition of Islam. A couple of hundred years later, similar developments would play out in Europe, when philosophers like Giles of Rome brought the resources of philosophy to bear upon a critique of philosophy, which Giles provided in his book Errors of the Philosophers. Chapter VIII of this included a compilation of the errors of Al-Ghazali, but this also addresses al-Ghazali as an expositor of Avicenna, since Giles probably only had the first part of The Destruction of the Philosophers. Giles criticized Al-Ghazali for precisely the doctrines of the eternity of the world that Al-Ghazali would turn to refuting in the second part of The Destruction of the Philosophers. Giles and Al-Ghazali were engaged in the same philosophical project, although they didn’t know it.

We already had intimations of a meta-philosophical project like this in the ancient world. In classical antiquity, the philosophical industry of note was the effort to reconcile the work of Plato and Aristotle. After the appearance of Christianity and then Islam, the new meta-philosophical project was the reconciliation of ancient Greek philosophy with revealed religion. This was a problem that bothered both Christian and Islamic philosophers. Al-Farabi was interested in this problem quite early in the history of Islamic philosophy, and if I produce an episode on him I will address this question, as his approach to the problem remains interesting, at least to me.

After the scientific revolution, the meta-philosophical project sidelined philosophy and the new sore spot became the reconciliation of science and religion. Lawrence M. Principe calls the idea that science and religion are intrinsically in conflict the “warfare thesis.” In his lectures Science and Religion for the Great Courses he defined the warfare thesis like this:

“The conflict or warfare thesis maintains that throughout history, religion and science have been opposed and inimical. Religion has stymied the advance of science.”

This is another interesting idea that I may take up at some time. For the moment, I merely mention it so as to contrast it with the complementary thesis. In the twentieth century the paleontologist Stephen J. Gould introduced the idea of what he called non-overlapping magisteria, which he gave the acronym NOMA. According to the NOMA doctrine, scientists (in their capacity as scientists) have nothing to say about religion, and theologians (in their capacity as theologians) have nothing to say about science. Here is Gould’s formulation from his essay Nonoverlapping Magisteria:

“The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise — science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives. The attainment of wisdom in a full life requires extensive attention to both domains — for a great book tells us that the truth can make us free and that we will live in optimal harmony with our fellows when we learn to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly… No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority — and these magisteria do not overlap (the principle that I would like to designate as NOMA, or ‘nonoverlapping magisteria’).”

Gould was not overly naïve about NOMA and adds this remark:

“This resolution might remain all neat and clean if the nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion were separated by an extensive no man’s land. But, in fact, the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer — and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult. To cite just two broad questions involving both evolutionary facts and moral arguments: Since evolution made us the only earthly creatures with advanced consciousness, what responsibilities are so entailed for our relations with other species? What do our genealogical ties with other organisms imply about the meaning of human life?”

Both Principe and Gould were interested in the relationship between science and Christianity. The relationship between science and Islam takes place primarily within a distinct civilization, and we should expect that science and religion will be conceived differently is Islamic civilization. Al-Ghazali’s acceptance of philosophical logic and epistemology as legitimate methods can be understood as a moving of the boundary to accommodate a particular way of understanding non-overlapping magisteria. For al-Ghazali, metaphysics wrongly crosses over into natural theology, and this needs to be checked by revealed theology, but it’s fine that revealed theology makes use of logic and epistemology, which can also be pursued as independent disciplines, and the work of ancient Greek philosophers remains valid within this sphere.

We can understand various efforts of meta-philosophical projects to reconcile ancient learning with contemporaneous thought as re-drawings of the boundary between philosohy and religion in order to maintain both in something like a pristine state where neither impinges upon the proper scope of the other. Whatever the differences between the Christian and Islamic conceptions of the relationship of science to philosophy, some of the problems they faced were similar or the same. One of these similar problems was with the idea of the eternity of the world in Greek philosophy, which, as we saw, al-Ghazali took up in The Destruction of the Philosophers.

The earliest Christian philosophers in classical antiquity, like St. Augustine, Simplicius and John Philoponus, had also taken up this problem. The Abrahamic religions all based themselves on some form of the finitude of the created world. Even here, there is a bit of wiggle room. As we saw with Al-Ghazali, he separately criticized the idea that the world had no beginning in time, and the idea that the world has no end in time. We can easily see that there are four possible permutations here:

  1. The world is finite both in its origins and its future
  2. The world is finite in its origin but not in its future
  3. The world is eternal in origin but finite in its future
  4. The world is eternal in its origin and infinite in its future

It’s not clear which permutation is the orthodox one, so an orthodox philosopher might defend any of these positions. (We saw that Al-Ghazali defended the first of these.) In my episode on Philosophy of History before Augustine I said that there is a disconnect between the philosophy of history and the philosophy of time. This is one of those issues where this disconnect becomes important. The history of the world takes place within the larger framework of time, and a claim that time is finite entails a claim of the finitude of history, even if we haven’t yet run into this finitude. The debate between ancient philosophers who maintained the eternity of the world, and later Christian and Islamic philosophers who maintained the finitude of the world is philosophy of history on a grand scale, where it is the history of the world that is at stake. We could say that this is a big history philosophy of history.