On Imam Ghazali and Bosnia

An Interview  of the Scholar and Author

conducted by Dr. Enes Karic,

Minister of Education, Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina

Published in Ljliljan, a Bosnian-language newspaper.

EK: Can I start by asking about your belief that Imam al-Ghazali’s books must play a central role in the current campaign to revivify Islam?

AHM: Imam al-Ghazali’s significance is manifold. He not only understood philosophy, but he showed the dangerously speculative nature of its basic premises in a way which anticipates much modern positivism. This awareness led him to develop a Muslim epistemology rooted in ‘tasting’ (dhawq), i.e. the illuminative fruits of systematic and divinely-assisted introspection, as the only sure path to knowledge. This makes him a figure of profound and immediate relevance to Westerners of my generation who often feel that post-modernism and the notion of the ‘equality of all discourse’ have thrown humanity into what is in effect, despite all the information cascading from the universities and science laboratories, a state of ideologically rigorous ignorance. We are now grasping what Ghazali and his school were explaining nine hundred years ago: no universal statements about the world or the human condition can be reached by purely ratiocinative or inductive methods, because these cannot transcend the material context of the world in which they are framed. Ghazali, in short, through his manifesto the Ihya, offers the only intellectually rigorous escape from the trap of postmodernity.

EK: Could you say a little about the West’s relationship with Ghazali?

AHM: In the medieval period Ghazali was known in Europe as ‘Algazel’, through Latin translations by Guindisalvi and others of a few of his books, particularly his ‘Intentions of the Philosophers’ and his ‘Incoherence of the Philosophers’ in which he famously demolishes Arab Aristotelianism. Scholastic thinkers such as Aquinas, Robert Grosseteste and Hugo of St Victor were materially influenced by these books. Medieval Jews such as Maimonides, his commentator Moses of Narbonne, and particularly the pietist writer Bahya ben Paquda, were also profoundly indebted to his ideas on epistemology and logic.

His Ihya however appears to have been unknown. In the present century about twenty of the forty volumes have been translated into various European languages, mainly French and German, but also Italian, Dutch and Russian. It is a curious fact that although he is recognised as the most influential Muslim thinker of all time, there are very few serious studies of his thought in the West, with the exception of Richard Frank’s recent Al-Ghazali and the Asharite School, which is of limited compass.

EK: What about Ghazali’s academic influence in the East today?

AHM: Ghazali’s Ihya continues to be reprinted constantly in many countries. It is particularly popular in Turkey, and is also known in Iran in the Shiite version of Muhsin Fayz Kashani. In Malaysia he has a particular influence because he followed the Shafi’i rite in law, which is practiced by almost all Malaysians. Of course, his intellectual approach has

provoked the anger of some literalists at the Saudi universities, where any systematic theology is regarded as blasphemous. Saudi Arabia, unfortunately, is a country where most people until recently lived in extremely simple conditions, and have not recognised the need to speak to the modern world in a sophisticated idiom. Literalism and anti-intellectualism may appeal to desert people, but will not survive long in the global academic and intellectual arena. Similarly, Ghazali’s interest in Sufi mysticism is regarded with suspicion by members of the Wahhabi sect, which has its headquarters in Saudi Arabia, because it interferes with their vision of Islam as a purely legalistic, superficial religion with no possibilities of nuanced spiritual or literary discourse. Nonetheless, even in Saudi Arabia, many more educated and sensitive people now seem to be rejecting the Wahhabi sect and are turning to Ghazali for a more thoughtful and advanced understanding of their religion.

EK: Can we turn now to the wider issue of the mutual incomprehension of the Islamic and Western worlds?

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