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Monday, July 03, 2017

The way of Imam Ghazali (d 505/1111)

Okay this is going to be a dig in the ribs so brace yourself. Allah (the Exalted) blessed me to study the books of Imam Al-Ghazali (may Allah show him mercy) when I started my path to knowledge. I was obsessed with his books and I read everything. I borrowed and brought all the books that I could find. I recognised there was something in his works that I could not find elsewhere. 

I looked at how others read books, which had strange opinions in them. It got to the stage that I do not want to read anything else. This was vital for me to remain balanced. I am grateful for this blessing because so many adhere to rare and unreliable positions. 

Imam Al-Ghazali was Sunni but not a 'qatar' sunni ala the indo-paks! He clarified points that caused a lot of disagreement at the time. From matters of belief, Sufism, sects and so on. His way was balance in terms of his writings. Moderation in matters was important because far too many people rely on opinions that are not the majority or relied upon opinion. People read books and quote without knowing that there is a mistake in it. 

Imam Al-Ghazali was not someone who would refute others without looking into their points and then after a period of learning and questioning. Only then would dissect the group, sect or religion. He became known for refuting groups from their own books. (Munqid min Al-Dallal p.20/1) He did this to remove all doubt that he had about the other. (ibdi p.21) He saw true knowledge as something there is no doubt in (Ibid p.23).

He threw off the shackles of trusting what others say and looked for necessary truths. He concluded that the senses could not be relied upon. He spent two years studying the books of philosophy and one deliberating with himself (Ibid p.30). He was a great scholar at the same time he studied to increase his knowledge. There are points mentioned in the texts that cannot be understood without a teacher. Reading books and then speaking is one the many modern problems.

In many of his books, he emphasised the way of knowledge and practice. And that true success was the combination of these two and not the isolation of one over the other.


Upon his study of the Sufism, he realised that this subject could not be learnt, it had to be experienced (ibid p.55) He saw it as the difference between learning what intoxication was and being intoxicated. Therefore, learning of Sufism by books was not sufficient then, as it is not sufficient now. A person who reads Sufi texts and then follows what he wishes is the one who is following his passion rather than a standardised method of a spiritual path. After the passing of Imam Al-Ghazali do we see the rise of the Tariqah. Great masters such as Abdul Qadir Al-Jilani (may Allah show him mercy) appear after his time. This was due to Imam Al-Ghazali placing Sufism as an inseparable part of Islam.

The bayah or oath of allegiance is promoted in adherents to a particular path of a Sheikh. This was one of the reasons he left his position and went in search of someone who could teach him the spiritual way. This sojourn was to last ten years. He worked for bed and board in masjids such as the Ummayyad in Damascus. He also came to the realisation that his teaching was not for Allah (the Exalted). He paused and reflected hard on this for a length of time. He found a teacher of the spiritual path. During his sojourn, did he transform and then in this illuminated state did his magnum opus emerge. The Ihya Ulum Al-Din was written in order to improve himself. He wrote about what he experienced in that time.

Many teachers refute others without reading what they say, therefore make their refutation unacademic. So it is not worthy of being read or being adhered to. 

The best policy

Imam Al-Ghazali's Ihya is taught all over the world. Its pages have been are poured over by scholars for centuries. There were times it was burnt because some scholars saw a mirror of themselves. So rather than admit and be honest, the book was burnt. It is still one of the most popular books in Turkey, a Hanafi Dominated country. However, it does not resonate as much in the indo-pak world.  

The last thirty years has seen parts of the Ihya enter the English language. The better translations are by Islamic texts society. However, these are single or double chapters at time. There is a very poor translation that arrived from the indo-pak world of the whole text. It is arduous to even read and I recommend the translations from the latter.

Strangely, one of the most popular commentaries is by a Hanafi Al-Murtada Al-Zabidi.

The way

The Yemenis in the valley of Hadaramaut have made the Ihya part of their scholarship program and part of their teachings. Even then, the scholars of the area warn that the opinions of Imam Al-Ghazali are very difficult to put into practice. He often takes the toughest approach to the self. So they might not accept particular parts. So we can ask does anyone carry the method of Imam Al-Ghazali in totality? I am going to upset the apple cart and say no. I will give you my reasons why because Imam Al-Ghazali is not a tariqah. The Ihya is taught by Sufis but some are on a spiritual path and others are not. It is not a book of suluk/wayfarering not like the same manner of the books of Imam Al-Sharani. However, parts of it are taught to Murids for their spiritual benefit like the books of death, destructive vices and breaking two desires etc.

There are individuals blessed with ijaza to him and have the text but not the spiritual path. The Ihya is a wholesale view of Islam that includes belief, fiqh, character, description of vices, death and redeeming qualities. A book of a path would be just about ones relationship with Allah (the Exalted) and all related fields. The Hikam of Ibn 'Ata Allah or Adab Al-Murid or Risala Qushayria etc. Are books of general Sufism, practical Sufism and experimental Sufism. The Ihya has fingers in all the richness of the arts of knowledge. There is no book like it. Muslims ignore it their peril, yes they do.

So his texts or way is not adhered to in its totality.


Imam Al-Ghazali retreated from public life and teaching for thirteen years before briefly returning to it before he died. Even if someone was to read Ihya and try to practice it then they would undoubtedly find it too difficult. Because following books is not the way of the Tasawwaf. We follow men who are realised in spirituality not dead papers. Imam Al-Ghazali attested to this fact himself because there were sciences he could study himself because he was a master but he could not study something where he had little knowledge of the subject matter.

No one now can say that they are following the way of Imam Al-Ghazali because this is folly. Moreover, it is akin to giving oneself permission in the path which could lead to disbelief. This path has to be traced by to him but there is no spiritual path of Al-Ghazali present in the world. Maybe his path merged with another path and or died out.

There is no doubt that millions of Muslims benefit from the tawfiq he was given. I am one such individual to benefit immensely from his works. One of the scholars said that a sign that a scholar is one of the scholars of the afterlife is his love for the Ihya. A sign that a scholar is one of the worldly scholars is his hate of the Ihya. A scholar of the world being someone to avoid and a scholar of the afterlife someone to cling to.

Most of all, if I could narrow Imam Al-Ghazalis way it would be honesty. Honesty is the way of Imam Al-Ghazali. Yet, how many people reading this cannot admit this? He was not a lair and nor did he pretend things were okay when they were not. He was honest and the Ihya is a lasting testament to his honesty. He asked questions of himself that no one dared ask and then researched the answers. This is a massive lesson for the 'speakers and scholars' of this time who do not cease to be found in the wrong part of the book of knowledge.

Consider one point about the way in which Imam Al-Ghazali considered backbiting which is that he considered speaking good about someone backbiting - because they disliked it! No one says that! Backbiting is normally saying something evil spoken about someone. So consider how deep his knowledge was and how he interpreted hadith. If Imam Al-Ghazali's way is difficult then how greater and harder is it to adopt the Sunnah of the Prophet (may Allah bestow peace and blessings upon him)? This is why we have madhabs so we can focus and do a part because the whole is too difficult.

Tasawwaf is about making ones heart pure from all sin. This is why it is only arrogance that we think we can follow a path without the means of a master. The same is he who reads medical books and says that he can understand the procedure; would you now trust him to do an operation on you? Your deen is more important than this. You do not need it all but you can learn parts, ideally at the hands of a teacher. 

People seem to think that they can delete the scholars and follow Quran and Sunnah alone. Ponder how this fact is against Umar ibn Al-Khattabs (may Allah be pleased with him) way. He was one of the great companions yet used to send questions and consult Ali (may Allah ennoble his face). As well as gather the people of Badr to consult on a matter. Even though he was a leader, he sought clarification by making sure there was no room for doubt. He did not interpret Islam as he wished. Rather he consulted companions who could advise him. He never had the audacity to say that he was following Quran and Sunnah and did not need anything else. Which many people claim now.

There is a sad trend of people 'distilling' the works of the Imam Al-Ghazali for the sake of earning money and not for the sake of teaching. They put his name to sell books and I do not mean valid summaries by scholars with ijaza. I mean those intellectuals who have picked up books and started to teach or 'summerise' without valid ijaza/permission. 
Not many people can be honest like Imam Al-Ghazali and even to refute others from their own books is not possible for most. Because they have, doubts in themselves so cannot refute others correctly. Refutation must be based on sound knowledge and not mere visceral opinion. So their arguments are based on doubt and this is why they are ignored.

There is no way of Imam Al-Ghazali in this time just fragments of his teaching in special places of the world. Yet that is watered down to make is accessible. In knowledge his way was to study until he had no doubts. He sought knowledge not just to practice it but to live it.

We are in need of studying until we have no doubts but how can you when most of the 'speakers' have doubts? So you have a lot of work to do to find that teacher without doubt but he is present.

But what we are mostly looking for is someone honest.