Task Force Essay: Al-Ghazali’s Methodical Engagement with the Scientific Tradition

February 11th, 2016 | by MuslimScience
Task Force Essay: Al-Ghazali’s Methodical Engagement with the Scientific Tradition
February 2016

by Shaykh Afifi Al-Akiti

KFAS Fellow in Islamic Studies
Oxford Center for Islamic Studies
Oxford University, United Kingdom

I am going to reflect on the historic theological engagement of al-Ghazali (d. 505/1111) with the scientific tradition of the medieval Islamic world, and this relates to a set of works that were discovered in the beginning of the twenty-first century. These concern a number of manuscripts attributed to al-Ghazali, called the Madnun. This is an important development because it gives us the knowledge with regards to al-Ghazali’s views as a Muslim theologian with regards to the rational tradition in Islam. I would argue that this is the first systematically reasoned synthesis of Sunni orthodox Islam in the work of Islam’s own Doctor Angelicus, al-Ghazali, celebrated by Muslims throughout the ages as the Hujjat al-Islam (the Proof of Islam) and who died in the memorable and arguably providential year of 1111.

Like Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) in Latin Christendom, al-Ghazali was a theologian-philosopher whose pre-eminence lasted through all subsequent periods. Yet a crucial, unanswered question has blocked the interpretation of al-Ghazali’s writings and clouded scholarly understanding of much, if not the whole, of subsequent Islamic intellectual history, inside as well as outside the Muslim community. That issue is the extent to which the Greek rationalist and scientific tradition was incorporated by al-Ghazali in his theological synthesis. Did he exclude falsafa (other than logic), or did he embrace Greek metaphysics and natural philosophy (and thus theoretical science)? In my recent work I have identified and systematically considered for the first time a group of philosophical writings, called the Madnun corpus, that is to be attributed to al-Ghazali.1 My discoveries are based on a painstaking survey of around fifty medieval Arabic manuscripts, many of which were unidentified or wrongly identified, and almost all of which were previously unstudied.

Besides acquainting scholars with this remarkable new body of source material, my work presents a critical edition of the most advanced and technical work of this corpus, the manual on metaphysics and natural philosophy called the Major Madnun. Al-Ghazali’s Madnun corpus is characterized best by these Madnun manuals, such as the Major Madnun, which are philosophical and theological writings of a concentrated, academic nature intended for the ears of the initiates—rather like the so-called esoteric writings of Aristotle, his extant lecture notes, the best known version of which forms the basis of our modern printed texts and was edited by Andronicus of Rhodes. The title ‘Madnun’(which translates as ‘esoteric’ or equally acceptable are ‘restricted’, ‘confidential’, ‘private’ or even ‘unpublished’) is an abbreviated form of its full title, ‘al-Madnun bih `ala Ghayr Ahlih’ [That Which Is to Be Restricted from Those Unfit for It]. This is al-Ghazali’s own formulation of the title. I have used the term ‘corpus’, because the Madnun is made up of more than one text; in the places where he refers to it, namely in the Jawahir al- Qur’an and the Arba‘in fi Usul al-Din, al-Ghazali explicitly mentions kutub (pl.), not kitab (sing.) in the Madnun.2

In this corpus al-Ghazali reveals the extent to which his theologizing has developed: by relying on the philosophical and scientific community, he has constructed a unified theological system that provides a reasoned explanation of the world, but he expresses his ideas in traditional, religious terms. To put it in reverse order, it is in the Madnun that al-Ghazali constructs the theological doctrines in philosophical and scientific terms.

The Madnun corpus amounts to al-Ghazali’s ‘commentary’, as it were, with ‘religiously correct’ revisions, on basic texts of the Aristotelian curriculum in theoretical philosophy, as modified by Ibn Sina (Lat., Avicenna; d. 1037). These are not works on logic, but, astonishingly, the Metaphysics, part of the Physics, the De Anima, and parts of the Parva Naturalia—they represent some of the subjects and topics that al-Ghazali himself criticqued, for example, in the Tahafut al-Falasifa. These Madnun writings of al-Ghazali make it clear that he indeed adopted (and adapted to Muslim doctrine) most of Aristotelian and Avicennian science, even while strategically concealing that indebtedness. The basic results of my investigation show that there is an underlying relationship among three of the philosophical or falsafi works of al-Ghazali. The first is the work that I had studied, the Major Madnun. The second is the Tahafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers), the famous work in which al-Ghazali attacks Aristotelian science. The third work is the Maqasid al- Falasifa (The Intentions of the Philosophers), which is al-Ghazali’s own Summa of Aristotelian science that became a famous textbook in the Latin world. In sum, I argued that there is a close and definite relationship exhibited by these three works, which we may characterize as al-Ghazali’s version of ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of falsafa.

For al-Ghazali, falsafa represents the scientific tradition of his time, viz. Aristotelian science. In this medieval period, the prevailing view of ‘science’ was not the notion of science that we have to come to know today from, say, Newtonian science. Science, for al-Ghazali, was undifferentiated from philosophy, or that natural philosophy and metaphysics were both regarded as science. Before Newton’s scientific revolution—whether in the Jewish, Christian or Muslim tradition, and indeed going all the way back to Aristotle— the study of falsafa or philosophy was in fact thought of in the medieval mind what we today would take for granted as the pursuit of scientific inquiry. Medieval scholars like al-Ghazali, Aquinas and Maimonides would in fact regard Aristotelian science and falsafa as representing the rational tradition— as opposed to the scriptural tradition—science, if you like, as contrasted with religion. So, for al-Ghazali, falsafa represents the best of the rational tradition, that is to say, the scientific tradition for him.

So we can now say that al-Ghazali’s theological engagement with science thus can then be characterized as one of good, bad and the ugly. My work demonstrates how the ‘good’ falsafa used by al-Ghazali in the Major Madnun excludes the ‘bad’ falsafa he exposed in the Tahafut and departs from the ‘ugly’ falsafa he presented in the Maqasid.

This crude Hollywood characterization, for me, expresses eloquently the results of this great Imam’s engagement with the scientific tradition of the time. They suggest the existence of a positive engagement with science, a neutral engagement with science and also a negative or critical engagement with science—indeed, the three works show al-Ghazali’s engagements with Aristotelian science.

(1) The neutral work is primarily a summary of his favourite scientific writer, that is to say, al-Ghazali’s hikaya of Ibn Sina the Maqasid texts. This is the ‘ugly’ aspect of falsafa and science, since it has been left unaltered and contained both the unacceptable as well as the acceptable scientific theories according to Muslim doctrine.

(2) The negative work is the Tahafut, which addresses the faults of the Aristotelian system presented in the Maqasid works by—as he puts it— demolishing [hadm] and dismissing as false [ibtal] or feeble [ta‘jiz] certain falsafi theories, numbering a grand total of 20. This is the ‘bad’ aspect of falsafa, since he is showing us its problematic doctrines vis-à-vis the Muslim religion.

(3) And the final work, which is of positive value to his theological project, is the assertion (or ithbat) by what he considers to be demonstrative knowledge (burhan) of the parts of the scientific legacy of Aristotle and Ibn Sina deemed fit for appropriation in the Madnun corpus. This is the ‘good’ aspect of falsafa and science, since al-Ghazali makes use of the sound or corrected falsafi teachings. It confirms his own statements in one Tahafut passage, that he will write another work to be called the ‘Qawa‘id al-‘Aqa’id’ (The Foundations of Beliefs), that will be about reassembling these Greek scientific and philosophical theories; just as the Tahafut was about disassembling them. So, he says in the Tahafut:

In this work we have been committed only to muddying their position [madhhab] and throwing dust on the ways of their proofs so as to show their incoherence, and nor have we sought to defend a particular school [madhhab]; in this [Tahafut], therefore, we have not gone beyond the purpose of this work. Nor will we thoroughly examine the discussion about the proofs arguing for the origination of the world [hadath], since our intention [in this chapter of the Tahafut: mas’ala I] is to refute [ibtal] their claim to a knowledge of its eternity [ma‘rifat al-qidam]. As for affirming [ithbat] the right position [madhhab], we will write a work regarding it after completing this one (if success comes, God willing!), and we shall name it, Qawa‘id al-‘Aqa’id [The Foundations of Beliefs]. In it we will be concerned with building up [ithbat], just as in this work we are concerned with tearing down [hadm].3

To his great credit, Duncan Macdonald suggested long ago that one should try to understand the Maqasid, the Tahafut and the Qawa‘id together.4 More recently, Gabriel Reynolds described the scheme of these three works as, respectively, al-Ghazali’s construction, deconstruction and reconstruction of falsafa.5 Of course, at this stage, modern scholars prior to the twenty-first century have not discovered the Madnun corpus in its entirety. Yet they have long wondered about the identity of the ‘Qawa‘id al-‘Aqa’id’ referred to in that Tahafut passage above. Had previous scholars paid heed to one of al- Ghazali’s favourite maxims, ‘once the haqiqa or meaning is understood, there is no need to quarrel over labels, titles or names’,6 and thereby unpacked the meaning of the ‘Qawa‘id’, seen past its name, and thereby recognized its generic nature, namely that it is simply a ‘theological project’, they would have solved this longstanding problem by associating the Qawa‘id with the Madnun—something possible, even if difficult, without access to the Madnun manuscripts.

Among medieval Muslim scholars, Ibn Rushd (Lat., Averroes; d. 595/1198) and Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328) described al-Ghazali’s engagement with the falsafa tradition accurately, listing the works in the order in which they developed: first, the Maqasid, then the Tahafut and finally the Madnun. Thus the Madnun corpus is at the top of al-Ghazali’s theological project, the Qawa‘id, and at the very summit is the longest manual, the Major Madnun. These new results, I hope, will resolve the original aporia stated by Reynolds when he says ‘In the Maqasid, al-Ghazali builds up a philosophical system. In the Tahafut, he tears this system apart. If that is the entirety of his project, then we are left with nothing but ruins.’7 The Madnun manuals would, I expect, satisfy the yearning of Richard Frank, for instance, who lamented that ‘al- Ghazali never composed a complete, systematic summary of his theology in formally conceptual terms.’8

The philosophical and scientific ideas ‘appropriated’ by al-Ghazali in the Madnun corpus eventually found their way into his famous work, the Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences), through the use of religious imagery and metaphors—which al-Ghazali calls talwih (allusions), but his great nemesis, Ibn Taymiyya calls talbis (cloaking), and I call ‘naturalization’ following the terminology employed by Abdelhamid Sabra.9 It is not surprising, therefore, that such progressive ideas caused offence at first, and led to the short-lived campaign to burn the Ihya’ in the more conservative lands of Andalusia at the time.10 Disregarding any political incorrectness that may have been the actual causa cremandi, it is not unlikely that some of the unorthodox materials were used as the actual legal pretext for the complaints against the Ihya’. After all, the naturalized Avicennian materials in it—whether from the De Anima or the Metaphysics—were detected by theologians like Ibn Taymiyya who could see through al-Ghazali’s talwih and coded writing.

Here, al-Ghazali’s success on the naturalization front comes in large measure from his didactic gifts and presentational skills. He belongs to that rare breed of scholars who can communicate specialist knowledge effectively in popular, lay terms. It is appropriate to repeat here Ibn Taymiyya’s perceptive remarks about the Ihya’ and al-Ghazali’s incorporation of falsafa theories into his magnum opus, which show the effectiveness of his naturalization project:

There are many benefits in the Ihya’, but there are also objectionable elements—unsound elements derived from the theories of the philosophers connected with the subjects of divine unity, prophethood, and the next life. Whenever he speaks of the insights (the ma‘rifa) of the Sufis, he is like someone who takes an enemy of the Muslims and ‘cloaks’ him in the garments of the Muslims.11

The dense, academic nature of the three philosophical works—the Maqasid, the Tahafut and the Madnun—are mainly written at the specialist level, that of burhan, a style of exposition which is itself a result of al-Ghazali’s engagement with the falasifa and his appropriation of their ideas. For al-Ghazali, burhan (i.e., demonstrative, scientific knowledge), is the ‘gold standard’ in the art of reasoning and argumentation. Yet, it is through his popular writing, such as in the Ihya’, that al-Ghazali made the art of burhan accessible and, in time, acceptable to the religious scholars of Islam, the ulama.

Within a century a number of the ulama had taken up where al-Ghazali left off with the Avicennian legacy. The Eastern Islamic world saw the emergence of a completely new kind of religious scholar: the madrasa-trained, orthodox Sunni who was an Ash‘ari theologian as well as a Shafi‘i jurist but also an Aristotelianizing theologian—men such as Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1210), Sayf al-Din al-Amidi (d. 631/1234) and ‘Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi (d. 629/1231)—all emerging from the traditional Muslim Ash‘ari school of theology. Indeed, I would argue that al-Ghazali was one of the first among this new breed of scholastic theologians: a committed rationalist of the Aristotelian sort, yet equally a spokesperson for the Sunni, orthodox tradition, who promoted Greek scientific thinking.

However, the earlier debates over the legitimacy of Aristotelian logic still loomed large in the memories of many in the world of religious scholarship to which al-Ghazali belonged.12 If introducing Greek logic into the religious curriculum, something al-Ghazali managed to do openly, was not controversial enough, the introduction of the Metaphysics and the De Anima would have been utterly unacceptable. It is no wonder that he could only bring in the theoretical sciences of falsafa through the back door. His strategy seems to have paid off, however. Ibn Rushd was a witness to the success of al-Ghazali’s enterprise. He said:

Then came Abu Hamid, who flooded the valley by bursting the dam; that is to say, he made known all of philosophy and the ideas of the philosophers to the general public, according to what he was able to understand. This was done in his work called the Maqasid. He claimed that he only composed this in order to refute them. Then he wrote his work called the Tahafut al-Falasifa…

Then he said in his work called the Jawahir al-Qur’an that what he asserted in the Tahafut were polemical arguments, and that the truth [i.e., what he himself believed to be true] is only to be found in the Madnun.13

This opening of the flood gates, as described by Ibn Rushd, somehow allowed religious scholars to teach what amounted to falsafa, in the name of teaching logic and, euphemistically, hikma (ontology, cosmology, and psychology; i.e. the Metaphysics and the De Anima) in the madrasa community. Al-Ghazali’s openness to falsafa attracted a following, initially in the Eastern Islamic lands but later in the Islamic West as well.

This may sound surprising to those familiar with the view that al-Ghazali was an out-and-out opponent of falsafa—and by extension, the nasty accusation propounded by some today of al-Ghazali being anti-science. In fact, having ‘disassembled’ falsafa—as the Tahafut passage above indicates—he ‘re-assembled’ the fragments into another version of it. As his autobiography, al- Munqidh min al-Dalal (The Deliverance from Error), shows clearly enough, he was not against philosophy and science per se, but he was opposed to those theories of Aristotelian philosophy and science that contradicted basic Muslim beliefs.14 A re-examination of simplistic images of al-Ghazali and a careful re-reading of his established writings, in particular the Ihya’, will be enough to lead the present-day reader to the same conclusion as was drawn by medieval scholars—friends and foes alike, men such as Ibn Rushd and Ibn Taymiyya. The contents of the Madnun corpus, as my work shows, are the authentic basis for many of the ideas expressed by al-Ghazali in his popular writings.

Al-Ghazali’s role as a transmitter of the Greek philosophical and scientific disciplines is easily observed in medieval Europe—where he was known as ‘Algazel’—but scholars have not appreciated the part al-Ghazali played in this regard in his own conservative world of the madrasas, despite its great importance. As a result of his engagement with both the sacred and profane traditions, the Hujjat al-Islam was able to say to the best scholars of his religious community—the orthodox Sunnis, theologians as well as jurists and sufis—that they must not shy away from scientific truth, no matter what its sources: even foreign ones, such as Aristotle and Ibn Sina. In time, this openness attracted a following even among the traditional ulama, so that secular subjects, such as astronomy and medicine, and even stigmatized disciplines, such as logic, and controversial ones, such as metaphysics, became acceptable to the religious community and came to be transmitted by the ulama of the madrasas themselves. Later theologians such as Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (now if al-Ghazali was the Doctor Angelicus of the umma, then Fakhr al- Din is its Doctor Subtilis—another schoolmen lingo here, I know, but one that is very apt I think). The point here is that the theological and philosophical vision of al-Ghazali empowered Muslim religious scholars to teach what amounted to the science and philosophy of that age, transforming what had been almost purely secular—mainly courtly—pursuits

‘That al-Ghazali’s polemics dealt a death-blow to falsafa is an over-hasty generalisation, which sometimes still lingers on in popular textbooks’,15 says Shlomo Pines. Seventy years on Shlomo Pines’ insightful statement still holds. One must avoid the temptation to use a ‘box approach’ to history, conveniently placing historical figures or disciplines or theories in neat, self-contained compartments—just as al-Ghazali himself resisted that temptation. As it turns out, the Tahafut, instead of bringing falsafa to an end, opened the world of the ulama to falsafa, and al-Ghazali was probably the first in the kalam tradition to read Ibn Sina seriously and apply his teachings successfully.

The Madnun corpus presents an entirely new perspective, a sort of previously unspoken truth, which without the Madnun, could only be implicitly recognized through his public writings like the Ihya’: the image of al-Ghazali who is Aristotelianizing. Of course we must not over-generalize. As an Aristotelian—by virtue of his systematic appropriation of Ibn Sina—al-Ghazali was not at all a blind follower, or to use in his own words, a muqallid, of the falsafa tradition. Instead, to use another maxim of al-Ghazali, ‘the middle way is either devoid of two extremes or a compromise of two points of view’,16 the true picture is either an uneasy mean between, or mixture of, two stereotyped extremes: Algazel as a sequax Avicennae simpliciter at the one end, or al- Ghazali as the author of the Tahafut that dealt a death-blow to falsafa at the other. The particular example of al-Ghazali’s Madnun and, indeed, the wider case of the good, the bad and the ugly of falsafa and Aristotelian science by al-Ghazali show that science and religion have been reciprocally relevant and interactive in so rich a variety of ways that quick and easy generalizations are not profitable and that individual densely contextualized studies are what are valuable and necessary.

The Madnun not only evokes an amazing intellectual journey of one of Islam’s most gifted masters, but it also confirms al-Ghazali as a man of deep spirituality and with a true faith: traits which together mark him out as one of the world’s great harmonizers. The dependence on God is still there: all true knowledge, indeed whatever is, comes from Him, and all knowledge leads back to Him. This suprarational spirit of al-Ghazali is present throughout the works of the Madnun corpus. Yet there is an admirable and innovative spirit of rational enquiry, where blind faith in God is challenged and partially delimited, but never trivialized; one which confidently advocates the judgement that there is no true bifurcation between religion and science, but rather a real complementarity between them. All of that is best expressed through the words of Adelard of Bath (d. ca. 1160), the famous English, Christian scientist who was a devotee of the Arabum studia and had studied directly under Muslim and Jewish scholars from near here in Anatolia and all the way to Andalusia. He learned from his Eastern masters to lead by reason as far as it could carry him:

I will detract nothing from God…but very carefully listen to human knowledge as far as its limits; only where this utterly breaks down, should a thing be referred to God.17

Wa-Llahu a‘lam

(Only God knows best!)


1 M. Afifi al-Akiti, ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Falsafa: Al-Ghazali’s Madnun, Tahafut, and Maqasid, with Particular Attention to Their Falsafi Treatments of God’s Knowledge of Temporal Events’, in Y. Tzvi Langermann (ed.), Avicenna and His Legacy: A Golden Age of Science and Philosophy, Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, no. 8 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009); see also, M. Afifi al-Akiti, ‘The Madnun of al-Ghazali: A Critical Edition of the Unpublished Major Madnun with Discussion of His Restricted, Philosophical Corpus’, D.Phil. diss., 3 vols. (University of Oxford, 2008).

2 Al-Ghazali, Jawahir al-Qur’an, ed. Muˆyi al-Din Sabri al-Kurdi (Cairo: Matba‘at Kurdistan al- ‘Ilmiyya, 1329/1911), 30.8-12 (qism I, fasl 4, namat 2, tabaqa: ‘ulya); al-Ghazali, Kitab al-Arba‘in fi Usul al-Din: fi al-‘Aqa’id wa-Asrar al-‘Ibadat wa al-Akhlaq, eds. ‘Abd Allah ‘Abd al-Hamid ‘Irwani and Muhammad Bashir al-Shaqafa (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2003), 39.14-15 (qism I, epil.).

3 Al-Ghazali, Tahafut al-Falasifa, ed. Maurice Bouyges (Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1927), 77.10-78.7 (mas’ala I).

4 Duncan B. Macdonald, ‘The Life of al-Ghazzali, with Especial Reference to His Religious Experiences and Opinions’, Journal of the American Oriental Society 20 (1899): 71-132 (p. 98).

5 Gabriel Said Reynolds, ‘A Philosophical Odyssey: Ghazzali’s Intentions of the Philosopher’, in John Inglis (ed.), Medieval Philosophy and the Classical Tradition: In Islam, Judaism and Christianity, (Richmond: Curzon, 2002), 43.

6 For the original Arabic, see M. Afifi al-Akiti, ‘The Hikam or Aphorisms of al-Ghazali: Some Examples’, in Rotraud Hansberger, M. Afifi al-Akiti and Charles Burnett (eds.), Medieval Arabic Thought: Essays in Honour of Fritz Zimmermann (London: Warburg Institute, 2012), 17 (no. 2).

7 Reynolds, ‘A Philosophical Odyssey’, 42.

8 Richard M. Frank, Al-Ghazali and the Ash‘arite School (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1994), 100-1.

9 The terms ‘appropriate’ and ‘naturalize’ are used here, following the seminal article by A.I. Sabra, ‘The Appropriation and Subsequent Naturalization of Greek Science in Medieval Islam: A Preliminary Statement’, History of Science 25 (1987): 225–43.

10 See Delfina Serrano Ruano, ‘Why Did the Scholars of al-Andalus Distrust al-Ghazali?: Ibn Rushd al-Jadd’s Fatwa on Awliya’ Allah’, Der Islam 83 (2006): 137-156.

11 Ibn Taymiyya, Majmu‘ Fatawa, ed. `Abd al-Rahman b. Muhammad Ibn Qasim al-‘Asimi, 37 vols. (Riyadh: Matabi‘ al-Riyad, 1961-7), 10:551.13-552.2.

12 Exhibiting an interest in logic was generally regarded as disgraceful by the religious community at the time; and the grammatical community was precisely the religious scholars who were the jurists and the theologians. See F.W. Zimmermann, Al-Farabi’s Commentary and Short Treatise on Aristotle’s De Interpretatione (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981), cxviii-cxxix.

13 Ibn Rushd, al-Kashf ‘an Manahij al-Adilla fi ‘Aqa’id al-Milla, eds. Muˆammad ‘Abid al-Jabiri and Mustafa Hanafi (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wahda al-‘Arabiyya, 1998), 150.19-22, 151.2-5 (fasl IV).

14 Al-Ghazali, al-Munqidh min al-Dalal wa al-Muwassil ila dhi al-‘Izza wa al-Jalal, eds. Jamil Saliba and Kamil ‘Ayyad (Beirut: Dar al-Andalus, 1981), 112.6-16 (qawl IV, fasl 2, qism 6, afa 1).

15 S. Pines, ‘Some Problems of Islamic Philosophy’, Islamic Culture 11 (1937): 66-80 (1937): 80 n. 2.

16 Cf. al-Akiti, ‘The Hikam or Aphorisms of al-Ghazali’, 17 (no. 4).

17 Adelard of Bath, Conversations with His Nephew: On the Same and the Different, Questions on Natural Science, and On Birds, eds. C. Burnett, et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998), 96-98: Deo non detraho… Que quantum scientia humana procedit audienda est; in quo vero universaliter deficit, ad Deum res referenda est; cf. Burnett’s translation: ‘I am not slighting God’s role. One should attend to this distinction, as far as human knowledge can go; but in the case where human knowledge completely fails, the matter should be referred to God.’



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