Printed in The Muslim News, London (http://www.muslimnews.co.uk), 28 April 2000; p 9)
Two Poles of a Critical and Creative Faith
AL-Ghazali: The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Tr. By Michael E. Marmura. Brigham University Press, Provo, Utah, 1997. Pp. 260. ISBN 0-8425-2351-0.
Al-Ghazali: The Niche of Light. Tr. By David Buchman. Brigham University Press, Provo, Utah, 1997. Pp. 79. ISBN 0-8425-2351-7.
Abu-Hamid Muhammad Al-Ghazali (450-505/1058-1111) was the greatest scholar and saint of classical Islam who wrought a veritable and enduring synthesis of theology, philosophy, law and mysticism in a universal science of Islam. The paths of harmony and accord, however, are paved with the cobblestones of compromise and conciliation and the acquisition of half a loaf by those who demand a full one is seldom gratifying. Little wonder that Al-Ghazali’s opponents accused him of being all things to all men. Ibn-Rushd, the great antagonist and adversary of Al-Ghazali who was born after his death, for instance, claimed in a vein of unkind polemics that “Abu Hamid … adhered to no single doctrine in his works, but he was an Ash´arite with the Ash´arites, a Sufi with the Sufis, and a philosopher with the philosophers, so that he was like the man in the verse:
One day you are a Yamanite, when you meet a man of Yaman
But when you meet a man of Ma´add, you assert you are from ´Adnan”
These two new translations of such disparate and conflicting texts again raise the question of the unity and coherence of Ghazali’s teachings, viz. whether all meaningful understanding of his works is premised on the establishment of a chronological order, or whether his ‘true’ doctrine is to be found only in his esoteric treatises. Whatever the academic discomforts of resolving these controversies, there is no doubt that the re-issue of these two, celebrated but also scandalized, texts in a scholarly collection is a singularly salutary event that is a source of joy and comfort to every student of Islamic philosophy and mysticism. Indeed, the relevance of Ghazali’s seminal critique of the metaphysical axioms and postulates of philosophy stretches far beyond the confines of medieval polemics in which it was historically situated and reaches right down to the heart of the contemporary debate over the truth and ideology of scientism, to the thorny question of the relationship between scientific knowledge, which by its very empirical nature is reductionist, and man’s search for meaning, which is unable to shun the ‘unscientific’ questions of totality and ultimacy.
Before any discussion of the contents of these texts, however, a few introductory remarks about the academic project, Al-Hikma: Islamic Translation Series, that, I believe, are not without interest to the readers of this journal. ‘The Islamic Translation Series: Philosophy, Theology, and Mysticism’ is designed, in the words of Parviz Morewedge, the Editor-in-Chief of the series, ‘to further scholarship in Islamic studies but, by encouraging the translation of Islamic texts into the technical language of contemporary Western scholarship, to assist in the integration of Islamic studies in Western academia and to promote global perspectives in the disciplines to which it is devoted. If this goal is achieved, it will not be for the first time: Historians well know that during the so-called Middle Ages, a portion of the philosophical, scientific and mathematical wealth of the Islamic tradition entered into and greatly enriched the West. Even Christian theology was affected, as is brilliantly evidenced in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas and other scholastics.’ Cosponsored by the Institute of Global Cultural Studies, Bringhamton University, State University of New York, under the direction of Professor Ali Mazrui, Al-Hikma project appears to enjoy the patronage of a number of reputable scholars, including some Muslims. Nevertheless, judging from the present texts that have been translated and introduced by a veteran scholar of Islamic philosophy, Michael E. Marmura, and a promising young student, David Buchman, any significant Muslim contribution to the academic output – just as to the funding of the Series itself - is yet to be made. That such scholarly, and handsomely produced volumes with bilingual texts, have seen the light of day is however a source of great satisfaction and inspiration for all.
There is little doubt that The Incoherence of Philosophers is a very sophisticated piece of polemics, a highly original and stimulating text occupying the borderland of philosophy and theology that constituted the most cogent intellectual argument of the monotheistic faith in medieval times. Not surprisingly, it was a source of inspiration even for the protagonists of other Abarahamic traditions. The principal claim of Maimonides’ great apology for Judaism, The Guide of the Perplexed, that the God of religious faith possesses a free will in the exercise of which He is not bound to act in accordance with the order of nature, and the God of Aristotelian philosophers, who is hamstrung by the immutability of this order, ‘owes’, according to Shlomo Pines, Maimonides’ modern translator, ‘a great deal to Al-Ghazali.’ Of course, there’s no denying that Al-Ghazali’s argument – which is certainly not to be construed as an anti-philosophy - inhabits the mental universe of Aristotelian logic and syllogism. And yet, he is also surprisingly ‘modern’ in his insight that certain claims of First philosophy are nothing but the dogmatic tenets of an unsubstantiated and unverifiable ‘cosmology’, a non-philosophical attempt to impart meaning to the human situation from the standpoint of an ‘All’, the ever-existing and eternal ‘world’. Thus, there is every reason to agree with the editor of this series that Al-Ghazali’s seminal text needs to be dusted off the medieval shelf and brought to the debating hall of modernity. Following the Ghazalian insights, it would appear that even attempts by modern physics to generate a cosmology, to deliver an authoritative account of all by a theory of the origin, are spurious and unscientific. The putative ‘cosmology’ of physics, whatever its claims to analogical reasoning, is nothing but an ideology!
Mamura’s translation is eminently lucid and readable. If one may have any quibble with it all, it would be about its excessive transparency which suggests far too generous an empathy with modern consciousness! For instance, al-dahriyya, is rendered, in conformity with the usage adopted by the earlier translator Van Den Bergh, as ‘the materialists.’ While this choice may be conceptually and philosophically unimpeachable, the literal rendering of the term would be ‘the temporalists’. The very canny adaptation by Muslim writers of this term would seen to suggest, however that the duality of ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’ is conceived by them as the antithesis of ‘time’ and ‘transcendence’. Islamic consciousness does not, accordingly, devalues ‘matter’ but is opposed to the nihilistic pretensions of the temporalists who, like the postmodern relativists, find no values beyond and outside of time and history. Uncannily, the Islamic labeling of nihilism as ‘temporalism’ also strikes at the heart of philosophical and metaphysical variety of modern secularism, which is quintessentially historicist and immanentist. Be that as it may, Mamura has done a great service not only to the scholarly community but also to all lovers of Ghazali and the would-be critics of Enlightenment reason. Not only is his translation far more eloquent and gratifying, his commentary also lacks the gratuitous polemics and supercilious Eurocentism of Orientalist precursors, just as the presence of the parallel Arabic text is a real boon that for many readers is likely to provide a doorway to the intricacies and beauties of classical Arabic itself.
The Niche of Light is a text of a different complexion and character altogether. It forms a mystical reflection and esoteric commentary on the celebrated Qur’anic Light Verse (Ayat al-Nur; 24:35), and the hadith, thematically related to this, that is known as the ‘Veils Hadith’. Ghazali explains their meaning, according to the translator, ‘by establishing a metaphysics of light - which includes an ontology and an epistemology- and interrelated cosmological and psychological schemes based upon this metaphysics.’ Thus, contrary to his strictures on the axiomatic claims of philosophy, which enunciate a cosmology, as it were, gratuitously and insidiously, Ghazali here proffers a cosmology and a worldview – ‘a way of giving meaning to reality though presenting an interrelated cosmology and psychology’ – that derives from the Qur’anic revelation. This brief tract on the metaphysics of light, full of spiritual beauty and mystical splendour, is regarded as a gem of Sufi literature and as such has elicited much traditional reflection and modern commentary. By his competent scholarship and labour of love, Buchman has thus put everyone, scholars and truth-seekers alike, in his gratitude. Nor may one forget that lovers of Sufism would be particularly delighted at the appearance of this bi-lingual edition of such a key text of the Islamic mysticism.
These magnificent texts reflect the two, ostensibly opposite, sides of Al-Ghazli’s personality. In one, he refutes - on the ground of reason itself - the claim of reason to provide an account of ‘everything that is’; in the other he himself discovers, from the light of the Revelation, such a source of ultimate meaning and reality. If these disclose tensions and inconsistencies, they do so within a splendidly critical and creative human soul.
S Parvez Manzoor Stockholm