My Path to Islam

John Lounibos, Ph.D.

It is an honor to have John Lounibos write an essay about his discovery of Islam through the life and work of Al-Ghazali. At seventy-five years old, he is a marvel of energy and unceasing academic accomplishments.

John's insightful article highlights one aspect of religious scholarship: that study of our religious heritage can heal our souls and deepen our understanding of who we are as humans. Close examination of these materials may reveal that the religious tenets, which seem on the surface to divide, may actually be the source that unites.


After teaching at Dominican College in Blauvelt, New York, for thirty-six years, I have concluded that the vast majority of U.S. students, and by extension, the general population of this country, is ignorant of religion. We cannot assume that anyone knows, or bothers to ask, about the major differences as well as similarities between Christian and Muslim beliefs. Years ago one of my Catholic students in the course in which I teach Jewish, Christian and Muslim authors, asked me why we don’t study “our own religion”. Even though the majority of my students have Christian backgrounds, most are as unfamiliar with the history of Christianity, the Catholic Church, or historical and literary biblical study, as they are with the history of Islam.

The attitudes toward Islam in the U.S. have severely polarized since 9/11/01. Now as our political leaders and some portion of the population have learned the differences between the Sunni and Shia sects, I see some hope that we will see the necessity of exploring Islam's history and theology with curiosity and openness as well as a sharpened awareness of what is at stake.

Biblical Abraham was promised many descendants. Islam traces its heritage to Abraham. In the spirit of Abraham, and other biblical persons who figure in Muslim traditions, I offer the following personal reflections and accounts of some research I have conducted on my way to understanding Islam. My remarks are a summary of what my students and I have learned about Islam through my encounter with Al-Ghazali and his path to Sufism. I see Ghazali as representative of the non-violent greater jihad, the warrior who is an “athlete for God”, the role of an advocate for the good. My intent in this essay is to immerse myself in Ghazali’s world and retrieve his methods and content. I believe there is enormous value in this for the twenty-first century world citizen.

A Starting Point: Aristotle’s Agent Intellect

My journey to Islam began at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Fr. Edmund W. Morton, S.J., the president of Gonzaga when I was a student there in 1960, offered a tutorial course on the Agent Intellect. I was required to access and interpret the medieval Latin texts of Aristotle (384-332 BC), Avicenna or Ibn-Sina (980-1037), Averroes or Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), and Aquinas (1225-1274) on the agent intellect.

In his work on psychology, called the de Anima in Latin, Aristotle divided the mind into passive and active functions. Passively the mind is a power to become all things. Actively, the mind, when it thinks, is capable of making all things, like light that makes potential colors become actually all colors, said “The Philosopher”.

Thomas Aquinas, who studied Aristotle from Latin translations in Naples, Paris and Rome, interpreted the powers of the active and passive intellect as functions and capabilities inherent in the intellect of each human being. Avicenna in Baghdad and Averroes in Cordova, with minor variations, interpreted the agent intellect as the world mind that activates the world soul. Plotinus (205-270), who taught in Rome, was considered the greatest teacher of Plato in late ancient society by his disciple, Porphyry (232-303). Plotinus taught that ideas in our human minds participate in the thoughts of a cosmic or universal mind, nous, through our participation in a cosmic world soul. Who we are and what we know originates from the universal soul and mind. The superior powers of a cosmic soul/psyche and mind/nous, emanate from the original and originating One. The knot that cinched this ancient story of soul and mind, was philosophy. For Plotinus, Porphyry, and other neo-Platonists, philosophy was the pathway that leads the thoughtful human soul to return back to its true origins in the great world Soul and world Mind, toward the One.

As a result of my work with Morton, I saw that Aquinas interpreted the active and passive intellect in Aristotle’s de Anima in a personal, integral, and humanist sense as an active power each person has the ability to engage while the two famous Muslim philosophers, Avicenna and Averroes, interpreted Aristotle’s agent intellect in a Neo-platonic context, as part of the world soul and world mind. At that time I did not consider what impact this world-soul doctrine had on Islamic views regarding the relative value of the individual person or the view of the community of Islam. It was my study of Ghazali, which eventually led me a fuller understanding of the Islamic worldview. Now I think that many advocates of a universal Islamic civilization, whether violent jihadist or peaceful Muslim, often seem to be drafting their notion of world Islam from the ontology of the world soul and world mind.

Mystical Experience and Islam

Before I even began to grapple with the work of Al-Ghazali, called Algazali or Algazel in Latin, I plunged into the history and nature of Islamic religion and culture, the basic known facts about the life of Muhammad (570-632), the founder of Islam, information on the spread of Islam, the composition and development of the Qur’an/Koran, and the three great Caliphates.

I attended presentations on Islam by John Renard of St. Louis University. I purchased two English translations of the Qur’an and began to collect syllabi for courses that taught Islam. I read Renard’s studies and the work by his Harvard mentor, Annemarie Schimmel (1922-2003), Mystical Dimensions of Islam (1975). Then in 1984 I met Arthur Hyman, and the world changed for the better.

I was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities to study with Hyman on “Virtues, State and Law in Medieval Philosophy” at Columbia and Yeshiva Universities in 1984. Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh were co-editors of an anthology of medieval philosophy, Philosophy in the Middle Ages, The Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Traditions (2nd ed. 1983). It was Dr. Hyman who introduced me to the study of Maimonides (1135-1204), his Guide of the Perplexed in the Shlomo Pines translation, and modern debates about the interpretation of Maimonides since Leo Strauss. Hyman, fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, wrote introductions and notes to the five Jewish and four Muslim philosophers in the textbook above.

After that seminar I searched for a Muslim author who would complement my teaching that included not only Maimonides’ Guide, but also Augustine’s Confessions, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations, and Dante’s Inferno. Then I happily discovered Al-Ghazali's The Inner Dimensions of Islamic Worship, 1983, translated by Muhtar Holland. A few years later I found the autobiography of Al-Ghazali, 1980, translated by Richard J. McCarthy, S.J. In 1983 I discovered Huston Smith’s film “The Sufi Way” which helps one understand Sufism. And finally, the poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-73), the founder of the Mevlevi order rounded out my reading.

Before I drag the reader, screaming and wailing, to Baghdad and the 11th century world of Ghazali and medieval Persia, let me explain a few things about medieval and classical readings, which create a context for the encounter with Ghazali. Let me also share something about the way in which I read ancient, classical literature.

I am no therapist, but I read and ask my students to read every text as therapy. Why read the classics for therapy? Because most of them were written with some intent to heal the soul. So I read the Bible for therapy. I read Julian of Norwich (1342-1420?), Augustine (354-430), Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), Maimonides (1135-1204), Dante (1265-1321), and Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) as therapy; then I read them for history, for social, political values, for critical thinking, for poetry, for creative thinking. Then I read them for windows on the catastrophes of their time and apply lessons for our own contemporary times. I also read them for meditation.

Reading authors in this way can provide plausible links and insights from the past to the challenges of present day living and engage interdisciplinary and global conversations, for example, to construct contexts for Jewish, Christian and Muslim dialogue, and promote a respectful, healthy conversation among the great religious traditions. We can read them and explore divine communication or revelation, in human language and experience, and at the same time encourage in-depth reflection on one's own religious and human experience, connecting the past with similar contemporary experiences, distinguishing what liberates humans from what destroys human values and relationships, in personal and social life.

The Encounter with Al-Ghazali

I invite you—as mutual explorers for meaning—back into the life and time of Al-Ghazali. I approach Ghazali’s life and presentation of Islam under the themes of pilgrim, mystic, mentor, and warrior.

He was born in 1058* to a Sunni family in Tus, modern Mashad, on the northeastern border of Persia close to western Afghanistan. Arthur Hyman says Ghazali was orphaned at an early age. Ghazali began his studies in Tus. At age fifteen he studied at Jurjan/Gorgan on the southeast corner of the Caspian Sea. At age nineteen he studied with Al-Juwayni, a great theologian, in Nishapur. After that, at the invitation of the powerful vizier, Nizam al-Mulk, Al-Ghazali worked in the court of the Seljuk Sultans. At age thirty-three, in 1091 he taught for four years at the prestigious Nizamiya College in Baghdad, a leading position in the Sunni world. Early in the “conversion”, or Da’wah, of Persia to Islam, Baghdad, founded in AD 726, was the center of major trade routes through Mesopotamia on the banks of the Tigris River amid fertile irrigation canals.

Ghazali was a contemporary of Omar Khayyam (d. 1123), the Persian poet and mathematician, who was born in Nishapur at the highpoint of the Seljuk era. Though Khayyam's poem, the Rubaiyat, has been made famous in English translations, he is best known in Islam as a mathematician. In the west, Ghazali was a contemporary of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), Abelard (1079-1142), and Heloise (1100-1163).

A century after Ghazali, the grandeur of the Persian-Muslim caliphate collapsed under the crush of the Mongol invasions. Tus and Nishapur, cities on the perennial “silk route” which, through various pathways, supported mercantile trade and exchange among eastern and western societies, were targets of the brutal Mongol massacres of men, women, and children under Genghis Kahn (1206-1227).

*(I use Montgomery Watt (1963) for the chronology Ghazali’s life and follow Watt’s spelling of the name).

Ghazali on The Pillars of Islam

A portion of Ghazali’s Ihya’ was translated as Inner Dimensions of Islamic Worship by Muhtar Holland (1983, 138 pp.) Holland is a British-born convert to Islam. The “Revival of the Religious Sciences” is considered the greatest work by Ghazali. There we find Ghazali’s teaching on four of the five pillars or duties of Islam, with chapters on: Prayer (Salat), Almsgiving (Zakat), Fasting (Sawm), Pilgrimage (Hajj), followed by three brief sections on devotional practices of Islam, the “Night Vigil”, “Invoking Blessings upon God’s Messenger”, and the “Merit of Seeking Forgiveness.”

On the first pillar or duty of Islam, the Shahadah, or profession of faith in the one God, Allah, and Muhammad the messenger of God, the Dominican College librarian, Harbhajan Arneja, a Punjabi Sikh, told me that Muslims say that if you recite these words of faith-witness three times, you will become a Muslim. The words testify to the unity (tawhid) of God, and the belief in Muhammad as God’s last and final prophet.

An example from the Inner Dimensions will illustrate Ghazali’s method. He divides the Pilgrimage or Hajj into an introduction with quotations from the Qur’an and Hadith of Muhammed, then comments on the merit of the pilgrimage, the excellence of the Ka’aba and Mecca/Makka, the merit and demerit of residing in Mecca, the superiority of Medina the Radiant over other towns. He then adds ten points for proper internal conduct of the pilgrim: 1. purity of intention and means, 2. shunning unlawful taxes, 3. moderation in expenditure, 4. forsaking evil conduct, 5. going on foot, 6. modesty and simplicity of transport, 7. shabbiness in dress and appearance, 8. kindness to beasts of burden, 9. sacrificing animals, 10. equanimity. Finally he presents “inner states” for each stage of the Hajj, subtitled as: understanding, yearning, resolve, severing ties, provisions, transport, purchase of a shroud, leaving home, crossing the desert, putting on the shroud and crying “Labbayk”, to “rid yourself of your power and strength, and rely on the grace and generosity of God” (111), entering Mecca, circumambulating the house, touching the black stone, standing at multaza, the draped wall of the Ka’aba, running between Al-Safa and Al Marwa, standing at Arafat, casting pebbles, sacrificing animals, visiting Medina, visiting God’s Messenger, with a conclusion for these “duties of the heart”. Ghazali gives similar inner and outer advice and counsel for proper conduct in each of the other three major practices of Islam. Holland’s book represents less than one quarter of Ghazali’s “Revival”, which is filled with the spiritual advice Ghazali composed for living the authentic Muslim life.

In his effort to explain to Muslims the motives for making the pilgrimage, Ghazali quotes the Qur’an (5:82) about priests and monks who were not arrogant, and then comments.

But when all that had vanished, and people had become interested only in chasing their desires, shunning exclusive devotion to God, Great and Glorious is He, and getting lax about it, then God, Great and Glorious is He, sent his Messenger Mohammed, on him be peace, to revive the way of the Hereafter and to renew the method of traveling along it in accordance with the practice of God’s Envoys.

Members of the earlier religious communities asked God’s Messenger, on him be peace, if the ways of the monks and anchorites were followed in his religion and he replied: "God has replaced them for us with the Jihad and the declaration of His supremacy on every elevated place” (alluding to the Pilgrimage). When asked about the anchorites, God’s Messenger, on him be peace, said: “They are the ones who Fast.” [I suspect “hermits” might be better here than “anchorites”.]

So God, Great and Glorious is He, has favored this Community by making the Pilgrimage its form of monasticism and has honored the Ka’aba, the Ancient House, by calling it His own, Exalted is He (105).

Muhammad had met many Jews and Christians who traded or lived in late 6th century Mecca and early seventh century Medina. He knew Christian and Jewish stories some of which have Arabian counterparts in the Qu’ran. Jewish and Christian practices of daily prayer, fasting, tithing, and pilgrimage are incorporated into the pillars of Islam. Christians find the spiritual teaching of Jesus on prayer, almsgiving, and fasting collected in one section of Matthew’s sermon on the mount (Mt 6:1-18). Passover was a pilgrimage festival in ancient Israel. For many centuries Christians made pilgrimages to Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

Thus if a Christian or Jew reads Ghazali on prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and pilgrimage, they are on familiar grounds. Except for the Arabic and Muslim context, these practices are part of the heritage of the three religions of Abraham.

Spiritualities of Al-Ghazali and Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556)

Some contemporary Jesuits claim that Sufis, who were among the Moors of Spain, may have been known by Iñigo of Loyola and thus directly or indirectly influenced Ignatian spirituality. I also see many similarities between Ghazali and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. Scholars of Spanish History, Catholicism, Sufism in Andalusia, comparative studies of Catholic and Muslim practices, and those with better knowledge of Iñigo of Loyola than I have, may draw different conclusions than I do here. With that in mind, here are a few comparisons I see between Ghazali and Ignatius on the exercise of their particular religions.

Both men are deeply committed believers who appeal to mystical experience; they create meditations and contemplations out of their scriptures; they teach one how to pray and serve God, by right intention, by appeals to understanding when possible, by example of the saints. Both add colloquies with angels and with God to end their prayer sessions. Both Ghazali and Ignatius composed rules and duties for proper observance of their respective traditions. Both teach discernment of spirits, modesty in conduct. Both lived their personal lives as models of the revival and renewal of their respective faiths, something needed and characteristic of their times. Both lived during times of renewal. Ignatius lived during the European Reformation and Ghazali at the turn of the new century, AH 500, when renewal was expected in Islam.

One purpose of these reflections is to show a non-violent trend in Islamic Sufism and its role as the “greater Jihad” in Ghazali. Ignatius and Ghazali each exhibit their unique kind of “spiritual jihad”. Ignatius was a convert from the life-style of a Spanish hidalgo, a career of soldiering and courtly self-promotion. In his Spiritual Exercises he asks his spiritual follower to compare and contrast the call of an earthly king to a good knight with the call of Christ to be a dedicated disciple. Ignatius’ imaginary earthly king says to a generous, gallant, chivalrous “warrior-servant”:

It is my will to conquer all the land of the infidel. Therefore whoever wishes to join with me in this enterprise must be content with the same food, drink, clothing, etc. as mine. So, too, he must work with me by day, and watch with me by night, etc., that as he has had a share in the toil with me, afterwards, he may share in the victory with me (tr. L.J. Puhl, S.J., 1960, 43).

Ignatius then contrasts the crusader-like military call with the spiritual call of Christ: “…to conquer the whole world and all my enemies, and thus enter into the glory of my Father…” (44). The labor and sufferings in service of the heavenly king that leads to glory and eternal reward are put in the form of a prayer: “…to imitate Thee in bearing all wrongs and all abuse and all poverty, both actual and spiritual…” (45). This meditation is placed by Ignatius as the introduction for the spiritual follower to the calls of Christ that echo through meditations on the Gospel accounts of his life, death, and resurrection.

On almsgiving, Zakat, what the Bible knows as a tax or tithe, Ghazali cites the Qur’an on renunciation of attachments to ego and belongings (9:111). Ghazali paraphrases the sura:

This concerns Jihad, the struggle in the way of God, which entails a readiness to sacrifice even life itself to meet God, Great and Glorious is He. The renunciation of wealth is trivial by comparison (54).

The Qur’anic text cited by Ghazali goes on to assert that the Jihad demonstrated by prayer and alms-giving stems from the notion of fidelity to the covenant recognized “in the Torah, and the Gospel, and the Koran” (9:112), which has the eschatological promise of “the gift of paradise” (9:112). The importance of Jihad in the rhetoric of Islam since the Muslim terrorists attacks of 9/11 on U.S. targets, is one reason I propose reading Ghazali. It is clear that Ghazali has in mind and advocates the inner or greater jihad. Military jihad texts in the Qur’an, called the lesser jihad, were composed during the Medina wars with the Meccans for the most part.

At several junctures St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises appeal to the rhetorical device of divisions of three. He describes “three classes of men” and “three degrees of humility”. His “Letter on Obedience” (1553) outlines three degrees of obedience, of execution, of understanding, and finally with will and judgment. When reading Ghazali on the three groups who respond to zakat, I thought of similarities with the experience of Ignatius of Loyola. I found A. Hilary Armstrong, the classical scholar, identified classical Greek writers who employed the division of people into three different groups based on their degree of response to social or cultural initiatives. By contrast, Jesus’ parable of the sower of the seed, a key parable in all three synoptic Gospels, divides the response to the seed of God’s word into four types of soil or circumstance that illustrate the various intensities or seriousness of human responses. At least we observe that the classification of people by degrees of response to initiatives from others has a long history of discerning differences.

Out of knowledge of human character, Ghazali finds three classes of people who respond to the practice of zakat. The first group gives alms most generously. The second group gives but more sporadically. Group three of ordinary people give the bare minimum and lack detachment from money and property. Ghazali analyzes motives by discerning spirits. He advocates gratitude for God’s gifts and ways to break the hold of deadly sins and reform the habits of greed and miserliness, which come by way of demonic suggestion. One cure recommends selection from three possible months for a fixed time for the distribution of alms, either the first of the year, or Ramadan, or the Hajj month.

On giving in secret Ghazali writes, give “without his left hand knowing what his right hand has given” (59). This is a paraphrase of Jesus in Mt 6:3. It is typical of Qur’anic stylistic borrowings from Jewish and Christian scriptures, a feature of pedagogical imitation, common to people who lived in oral, memory cultures. Muslims often say that the only miracle of Islam is the writing of the Qur’an, because Muhammed is considered to have been illiterate. The lack of reading and writing skills increases the importance of oral memorization and recitation habits in Islam. The Arabic word Qur’an/Koran means “recitations”. On almsgiving, Ghazali gives some of the best advice for true altruism and philanthropy in his treatment of the free and humble surrender of wealth and property to the poor, something that is “actually His property all along…all wealth belongs to God” (60-1).

On prayer I find another set of similarities between the teachings of Ghazali, the Muslim Sufi, and Ignatius, the Christian mystic. Both reflect with psychological sensitivity to guide the practitioner how to manage external and internal distractions and movements, including the proper time and place for prayer, modesty of the eyes, and placing oneself in the presence of God with our eschatological destiny always in the balance. Both advocate a kind of mindfulness, to examine what disturbs the mind and imagination at prayer, discern emotional movements and desires, something Ghazali sometimes calls a “review of your heart” (44). Ignatius called for reflection on how one’s prayer went, taught daily examinations of conscience. Ghazali ends his lengthy study on prayer with salutations, salam, to Muhammed the “prophet”, to God’s servants, the angels, others present, with supplications for your parents and other believers. The practice of dikhr, “remembrance” in Islamic prayer might be stretched to incorporate the practice of mindfulness in Buddhism. They are not the same, but they touch on similar experiences. The way Ghazali closes his prayer with “salutations”, reminds me of Ignatius who closes meditations in his Spiritual Exercises with colloquies or conversations with divine and human interlocutors. Like Ghazali, Ignatius often identifies parties with whom one is to converse in the colloquy.

Al-Ghazali’s Autobiography

In Ghazali’s last years teaching in Nishapur, a city in eastern Iran, he composed his autobiography, Munqidh min al-dalal, often translated as Deliverance From Error (DHE). He completed DHE just before he finished his great summa of Islamic religion, “The Revival of the Religious Sciences”, Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din, at Tus in the last month of his life Dec, 1111 (AH 505), at age fifty-three.

Ghazali’s autobiography is a valuable and timely work. I have used it to introduce Muslim spirituality, Sufism, to U.S. students whose media perceptions of Islam are shadowed by contemporary “jihadist” terrorists, the “Great Satan” or adversary of our time. I add to two modern titles of the translations of Munqidh min al-Dalal, to call it “My non-violent Jihad”. Richard J. McCarthy’s (1913-1981) translation, introduction, and notes are classics in themselves; he writes about Al-Ghazali in Freedom and Fulfillment (1980), republished under the title Deliverance From Error by Fons Vitae in 1999, abbreviated as DFE. I use the page numbers in the short edition by Fons Vitae called Al-Ghazali's Path to Sufism (2000). This new edition is abbreviated GPS. (McCarthy was a Jesuit priest who, with several other Jesuits, founded Baghdad College in the 1930s. He taught at Al-Hikma University, Baghdad, and was its last president when Saddam Hussein expelled the Jesuits from their Baghdad schools and confiscated their property in 1968. I met some of these expelled Jesuit companions at a Thanksgiving dinner at the Gregorian University, Rome, in 1968).

Ghazali’s life is presented by McCarthy as an adventure and quest. The reader joins him to visit four major movements within eleventh century Islam, one of which, Sufism, wins Ghazali's critical commitment and allegiance as the proper path to achieve Islam’s great aim of achieving unity in diversity. In a general way, Ghazali’s narrative of social inquiries, critical thinking, exclusion of competing pathways, and commitment to Sufism has four moments or movements similar to Augustine. The major difference besides time frame and the social-political-religious context is that Augustine, although a Catechumen, was not a believing Christian until his mid-career change of mind, metanoia, at age thirty-two. Ghazali made a mid-career, life-style change to dedicate his life to Sufi practices at age thirty-seven. But Ghazali was always a Muslim believer. Unlike Augustine, who moved dramatically from “outside” to “inside” the Christian faith, Ghazali moved dramatically from “inside” to “deeper inside” the Muslim faith.

Ghazali begins his life story by explaining that the starting point for radical freedom on his path to Sufism required overcoming “servile conformism,” Al-taqlid, literally, living like a “roped animal”, as McCarthy notes (2, 18, also 25). (Again paragraph numbers are from McCarthy, followed by page numbers from GPS.) Ghazali compared the confusion concerning Islamic teachings to a deep sea where many flounder from insecurity, while some uncritically proclaim they have the true way. Augustine also used the stormy sea metaphor for his times (Conf I xvi 25.18). Ghazali says, “from the time I reached puberty before I was twenty until now, when I am over fifty, I have constantly been diving daringly into the depths of this profound sea…” (4, 18-19). His method was critical inquiry. He cites the Muslim tradition that “Every infant is born endowed with the fitra: then his parents make him Jew or Christian or Magian” (6, 19-20). I understand fitra to mean something like the natural desire to know or seek God, an idea found in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans and turned into a Catholic dogma that emphasized the ability of human reason to know God at Vatican Council I (1870). (Cf. Revelation chpt. 2, canon1. It is not fitra, but it is part of a similar claim of basic human orientation.)

Ghazali then describes the search of the young mind for certitude with scientific examples how this creates doubts for sense perceptions. He allegorizes a debate between “sense-data” and “reason” which knows primary truths. This leads him to a major thesis of his education: “The mere fact of the nonappearance of that further perception does not prove the impossibility of its existence” (12, 22, also pp. 76-77). This principle operates today in debates between science and faith. Ghazali cites dreams and the after-life to imagine altered states of consciousness beyond “rational beliefs”, something claimed by Sufis. The “sense-reason” debate put Ghazali into two months of teenage skepticism. It was resolved by means of an enlightenment, “…the effect of a light which God Most High cast into my breast” (15, 23). At this point Ghazali says revelation of truth is from God who “dilates his breast for submission to Himself (i.e. to embrace Islam) [Qur’an] 6:125” (16, 23). He then adds “Your Lord, in the days of your lifetime, sends forth gusts of grace: so then put your selves in the way of them” (16, 24). Later on Ghazali defines the heart as “the essence of man’s spirit which is the seat of the knowledge of God, not the flesh which man has in common with corpse and beast…” (121, 64-5). Nakamura thinks Ghazali had met Sufi teachers in his youth. The source of Nakamura’s inference about Ghazali meeting Sufis when he was young may arise from this discussion about a grace that broke through his youthful skepticism. Ghazali concludes the section on his youth saying his purpose is to emphasize that one should be “most diligent in seeking the truth…[but]…primary truths are unseekable, because they are present in the mind…”(17, 24).

Arthur Hyman informed me that Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) read Ghazali’s Munqidh. One thing the Guide of the Perplexed has in common with Ghazali’s Munqidh, besides the search to overcome error, is arguments against Mutakallimin, Muslim apologetes for orthodoxy and polemical defenders of Kalam, theology. Ghazali admits the Mutakallimin tried to defend orthodox Islam against innovators, but “…their discussion was not thorough-going; therefore it did not provide an effective means of dispelling entirely the darkness due to the bewilderment about the differences dividing men” (24, 26-7). The Mutakallimin remind me of Catholics who quote the catechism, theologians who quote Denzinger, or evangelists who quote the Bible as the last word and end of discussion. It is notable that Ghazali’s deeper search is to find remedies for unhealthy divisions in Islam.

On philosophy Ghazali uses his critical thinking. Muslim philosophy reached its apex in Baghdad in the east and Spain in the west. Persian Muslim scholars provided Arabic translations of the Greek texts of Plato and Aristotle that had circulated in Syria in previous centuries. Eventually Western Christian scholars like Thomas Aquinas benefited from these texts. The Muslim philosophers Al-Farabi and Avicenna helped make Baghdad a center of lively thought. Philosophers clarified ideas about God and man that the two great schools of Mutakallimim, the Mu’tasilites and Ash’arites had debated. Therefore it is not surprising that Al-Ghazali, a master of Fiqh, Muslim jurisprudence, when appointed to teach at Nizamiya college on the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad in 1091, composed two works on philosophy, The Intentions (Opinions) of the Philosophers, Maqasid al-Falasifah, (1094) and The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Tahafut al-Falasifah, (1095). Over a century later Averroes wrote a refutation of the Tahafut, calling it The Incoherence of the Incoherence.

The section on philosophy in the autobiography revisits some of Ghazali’s earlier Baghdad studies. He reminds his readers what he wrote in his “Incoherence”, that Aristotle as received by Muslim philosophers had twenty dangerous teachings, seventeen innovations or heresies and three of unbelief or apostasy. McCarthy lists the twenty errors in fn 103, (GPS, 97-8). The three propositions that contradict Muslim faith, and Jewish and Christian faith as well, are: 1) the eternity of the world—contrary to belief in creation; 2) God knows only universals, not particulars—contrary to belief in divine providence for each person; and 3) the soul alone lives after death—contrary to faith in the resurrection of the body and a final reward and punishment. Similar theses return again to a Christian condemnation of 13 propositions attributed to Latin Averroism by Stephen Tempier, bishop of Paris in 1270.

The Politics of Aristotle were translated into Arabic but were not taught. Government by secular constitutions was not permitted because Islam wanted Qur’anic law, Sunna traditions, and Hadith sayings with Sharia, religious law, to govern Muslim people. Plato’s ideal state and the practice of virtue in Plato and Aristotle provided sufficient political-moral guidelines. Ghazali says philosophers took their moral teachings “…from the sayings of the Sufis”(50, 37). This anachronism is partly due to centuries of confusion regarding textual transmission and false attributions of texts of Aristotle. A similar confusion follows in Ghazali’s remark about “the Companions of the Cave” Qur’an sura 18, which McCarthy notes is “a borrowing from the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus” (fn 115, 99). There is an abundance of Neoplatonic thought in Ghazali as found in almost all medieval Christian and Muslim writers. I have already mentioned how the great chain of world soul, world mind, and the One affects the ideal of world Islam. Each individual is oriented to global Islam like all humans were believed to be linked in the Neoplatonic cosmic vision.

Al-Ghazali thinks some errors arose when Muslim philosophers mixed scriptural or Qur’anic texts with Sufi views and their own views. Clarification requires each view be examined on its own merit (52, 38). We are also susceptible to error when we are swayed by the opinions of others. Then we are like those “who know the truth by men, and not men by the truth” (53, 38). The intelligent person discovers the truth and then evaluates a speaker or teacher not by his or her institutional authority, rhetorical power, or emotional appeal, but by criteria of true and false, right and wrong. Pundits with “an overweening opinion of their own competence and cleverness…”(54, 39), will often convince the gullible hearer to accept as total, a view of which only one part is correct. Ghazali’s examples are from a culture of snake charmers, counterfeiters, and deceivers in a society of open marketplaces where the buyer must learn to beware, caveat emptor.

The Batinites or Talimites of Ghazali’s day remind me of some Shia in our time. They held secret teachings that came from an invisible Imam. This authoritative teacher was “master of truth” which was hidden, batin, having an interior, inner, or esoteric meaning. The 12th and last infallible Imam died in 941, but his followers said they still secretly communicated with him. Ghazali answers that there is only one infallible teacher in Islam, Muhammad (64, 44). In uncertain cases of law, “the prophets and religious leaders referred men to the exercise of personal judgment” (67, 46). This teaching is similar to the catholic moral doctrine that an informed conscience is the proximate norm of morality. For Islam it applies to religious practice. Ghazali says “…judge according to the most probable opinion…”(66, 46). To answer the objections of the three groups, Talimites, philosophers, and Mutakallim, Ghazali composed The Book of the Correct Balance to guide the perplexed person to learn how to discern the truth “by weighing the matter with the five scales” (75, 48). This little book is translated with notes by McCarthy as “Appendix III” in DFE (1999, 245-283). Without good norms for discerning judgment no one will be saved “from the darkness of conflicting opinions” (77, 50). In my view, the Shia are more prone to this Muslim school of Gnostic authoritarianism than the Sunni.

Sufism takes up the longest section of Ghazali’s autobiography. His account is illustrated by a dramatic personal narrative of the deep emotional crisis that became manifest in a psycho-somatic illness that accompanied his decision to stop teaching and depart from Baghdad, to practice with Sufis in Damascus and Jerusalem, before making the Hajj. He gave up fame, fortune, and attachments in Baghdad and by means of this detachment took up Sufi practices that brought him deep spiritual profit which he designates with the phrase, “fruitional experience.” In one place he praises Sufism by saying:

[Sufis]…uniquely follow the way to God Most Holy; their mode of life is the best of all; their way the most direct of ways, and their ethic the purest. Indeed, were one to combine the insights of the intellectuals, the wisdom of the wise, and the lore of scholars versed in the mysteries of revelation in order to change a single item of sufi conduct and ethic and to replace it with something better, no way to do so would be found! For all their notions and quiescences, exterior and interior, are learned from the light of the niche of prophecy. And beyond the light of prophecy there is no light on earth from which illumination can be obtained (94, 56-7).

Ghazali presents the Sufi path or way, tariq, as a synthesis of theory and practice, what we in the west might call contemplation and action. Sufis aim “…to lop off the obstacles present in the soul and to rid oneself of its reprehensible habits and vicious qualities in order to attain thereby a heart empty of all save God and adorned with the constant remembrance of God” (80,51). Ghazali says the most “distinctive characteristic” of Sufis is that they learn “not by study but by fruitional experience, and the state of ecstasy and the exchange of qualities” (82, 52). The Sufi appeal to a lived, felt experience, compared to taste, al-dhawq, reminded McCarthy of Ps 34:8, “Taste and see that the Lord is good”. This “taste” means a “savoring, or relishing, and enjoyment…” (McCarthy fn 162, 103), a sense of general inner well-being. “Ecstasy” is a term commonly used for a mystical experience because it “stands out”, ex stasis, from normal experiences. The “exchange of qualities” “refers to a moral change” (McCarthy fn 164, 103) a moral conversion, the acquisition of virtuous habits that replace bad habits.

Ghazali then narrates the circumstances of his personal, critical decision to turn away from his attachments to fame, honor, wealth, and prestige as the “greatest” teacher in Baghdad, (he had three-hundred students), to begin “a long journey” (86, 53-4) dedicated to the practices of Sufism. I think it more than historical irony that the same year that Ghazali resigned from teaching in Baghdad and under went his psychosomatic illness of loss of speech and appetite as he struggled with an anxiety ridden, heart rending decision, was 1095, the year that western Christians organized and launched the first crusade, which slaughtered Muslims and Jews in the holy land. This tragic irony is strongest if we compare and contrast teachings and actual practice on war and peace in the history of Christianity and Islam.

Ghazali distributed his wealth, provided for his children and his associates, arranged for a brother to teach in his absence and left Baghdad and the Iraqi leaders “firmly resolved never to return…” (89, 155). He went to Damascus, then Jerusalem, then made the Hajj to Mecca and Medina. He returned to his native Iran ten years later when “certain concerns and the appeals of my children drew me…” (93, 56).

Ghazali was fifty-years old when he finished his autobiography. Muslims believe God plans a renewal for Islam at the beginning of each century (137, 71), so as the year AH 500 approached, Ghazali began to compose his Revival of the Religious Sciences.

Ghazali closes this work with comments on prophecy or revelation and discernment of true and false in religion. Here I close with the gem of folk religion buried in the last section of his book. Alex Trebek once used the mathematical riddle called “Ghazali’s square” on a televised quiz program. Ghazali learned that midwives used two pieces of cloth never touched by water to assist in difficult childbirths. One piece was visible for the pregnant woman to fix her eyes on, the other placed under her feet, “and forthwith the child hastens to come out” (145, 75). Each cloth had nine Arabic letters written on them in a square form such that the mathematical sum of each letter, which stands for a number, “in any one line, read straight or diagonally, is fifteen” (145, 74-5).

4 9 2                D T B

3 5 7                J H Z

8 1 6                H A W


The number fifteen was related to a myth of moon power and sacred to the goddess Ishtar in ancient Nineveh and Babylonia. McCarthy notes what a scholar wrote to him, that 15 “is reminiscent of (or influenced by) the Jewish shunning of the letters yodh and he, the two Hebrew letters that represent Yah (God-Yahweh); yodh =10 and he =5. The Arabic letters, too, have the same numerical equivalents of the Hebrew letters. God’s help may be invoked symbolically by this talisman” (fn 248, 114). Thus religious folklore contains popular practices that belong in the domain of faith and revelation whose heritage may have begun when writing first appeared in ancient Sumer.

“With the time came the man” begins McCarthy’s “Introduction” quoting Macdonald on Ghazali (DFE, 1999, 9). McCarthy concluded his forty-three pages of “Introduction” saying, “The time is gone; but the man remains, and will remain, for you, for me, and for all men [sic]” (DFE, 1999, 52). He imagines meeting Ghazali in heaven to continue the conversation and to thank him and his co-religionists for sharing their immense learning with us.

I thank Al-Ghazali and Richard McCarthy, both of whom have shared the wonders and achievements of their rich educations, made learning and understanding a delight, and while celebrating learning, reveal steps in the world's pathways to Islam.