Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (Algazel; d. 1111) was one of the greatest intellectuals of Classical Islam. Traditional minded supporters today revere him as the dogmatic and sure minded juridical theologian (faqih), mystic (mutasawwif) and architect of Islamic Orthodoxy. He was also a brilliant albeit eccentric professor of at the prestigious Nizamiyyah University in Baghdad (al-madrasah al-nizamiyyah).
Ghazali had a strong scholastic background and legacy. His teachers (shuyukh) included the jurist al-Juwayni and mystic al-Farmidhi. He was envied by his academic peers (‘ulama’) for his outstanding argumentation skills (munazarah) and for teaching so many students (talamidh), which included the jurist Ibn al-‘Arabi. His interlocutors included the jurist/philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and the jurist Ibn Taymiyyah. All were great scholars of their time and for generations to follow. Their lasting greatness was the inexorable result of their personal reflection (tafakkur), independent reasoning (ijtihad) and scholarly disagreement (ikhtilaf). Much of their intellectual vitality was due to the strong spirit of scholasticism within Islamic civilization, which flourished in the universities, seminaries, libraries and research institutes that continually transformed religious and secular discourses within Classical Islam (for more see works by George Makdisi). The intellectual vitality of scholasticism may subsist in the traditional universities from which it was born–e.g. Al-Azhar or Al-Qarawiyyin. But it thrives in modern universities which are its legacy.
Today, we are generally cut off from the scholastic origins of Classical Islam that led to the rise of the universities in Medieval Europe and later all over the modern world today. Because the Muslim community in particular is cut off from its scholastic past, there is an obsession with preserving ‘tradition’ and hypersensitivity towards criticism. Much of this intellectual crisis is the legacy of the political fragmentation and feudal-style warfare of Islamic civilization–especially in the 13th-15th centuries–which gave rise to coagulated understandings of Islamic scholarship. The predatory experience of European colonialism upon Islamic civilization–mainly in the 18th-20th centuries–exacerbated this problem and inculcated, in some cases, a religious ambivalence towards ‘modernity.’ Emulation (taqlid) among jurists contributed to wrote wisdom (talqin) among the masses. One result of this crisis is that great Imams like Ghazali are adored more so than studied. They are imagined as flawless symbols of unquestionable Islamic authority, rather than professors engaging in imperfect dialectic.
The truth is that like many academics, Ghazali was a complicated man and not always 100% certain. His social and personal complexity had a great impact on his scholarship, much of which may be gleaned from his works, The Deliverance from Error (al-Munqiz min al-dalal) and The Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din). Ghazali was a man of persistent reflection. He was also haunted by questions of existentialism. He was at different times of his life engulfed by eclectic disciplines, including Law (fiqh), Peripatetic Philosophy (falsafah) and Mysticism (tasawwuf). His intellectual and spiritual exploration involved suffering–not unlike St. Augustine or the Buddha–through experiences of skepticism, atheism and non-egoism. He chose a married life with children. Then he abandoned them and wandered the wilderness for 10 years. He was a publicly celebrated professor of the highest rank, and a frail and private Bohemian. How much of Ghazali’s sobering humanity is appreciated–tolerated–among his supporters today?
If we reconnect with Islamic scholasticism, we reconnect with the intellectual vitality of Islam. This can be done on the social as well as personal level. On the personal level, it means realizing that faith (iman) is the product of constantly evolving personal reflection and independent reasoning (Qur’an 2:171; 3:190-91). It requires that the Muslim community exercise–in the words of Hamza Yusuf–much ‘stronger Islamic Literacy,’ but that it also embrace–to paraphrase Taha Husayn–‘doubt as a means of certainty.’ On the social level it means that the Muslim community can best re-create itself through the scholarly debate of the university, among sympathetic believers and challenging skeptics. Scholarly disagreement is supposed to be according to numerous Hadith scholars (muhaddithun) a ‘mercy’ to the community, and a matter only God can resolve (Qur’an 42:10).
It is positive to see in recent years modernist, reformist and even Sufi-minded intellectuals of Islam who are also university professors. Some examples include Fazlur Rahman, Anne Marie Schimmel, Nasr H. Abu Zayd, Abdullahi An-Naim, Abdolkarim Soroush, Karen Armstrong, Ebrahim Moosa, Talal Asad, Khaled Abou El-Fadl, Tariq Ramadan, Abdullah Saeed, Amina Wadud and Timothy Winter (Abd al-Hakim Murad). The only question is whether we will engage them as fancying followers or serious students.