Al-Ghazali’s Unspeakable Doctrine of the Soul: Unveiling the Esoteric Psychology and Eschatology of the Ihya’

Gianotti’s purpose behind this monograph is to draw out Ghazali’s position on the vexed question of the true nature of the soul and its state in the afterlife. Ghazali’s actual views on this question have been a point of serious debate in both the Muslim intellectual tradition and Ghazali scholarship in the West. At the heart of this debate lies the question of his true allegiance: Was the man, widely held to be the mujaddid (renewer of religion) of the fifth Islamic century, a full-fledged Asharite, as tradition has made him out to be, or was he, as others have suggested, a closet Avicennian? Or was he, to complicate matters even further, neither? The source of the problem rests on the apparently conflicting doctrines he articulated in various places concerning the soul in various places in his vast and multi-layered literary oeuvre. These seeming inconsistencies led Averroes, in the thirteenth century, to accuse Ghazali of adhering “to no one doctrine in his books,” and of being a Sufi with Sufis, an Asharite theologian with the Asharites, and a philosopher with the philosophers (p. 19).

Gianotti confesses that the “tensions and ambiguities are real and beg resolution” (p. 8). He poignantly asks, however, whether they were the “unintentional mess left by a brilliant but indisciplined mind,” or whether the master was fully aware of the apparently conflicting views he expressed in different places. Favoring the second view, he notes that Ghazali differentiated between religious doctrines that could be openly expressed and those that could not. These latter comprised the esoteric teachings of the mystics, the domain to which the nature of the soul and the spirit belong.

Gianotti argues that the tensions in Ghazali’s writings reflect his pious restraint in treating the soul’s true nature. Yet how is this restraint to be reconciled with what appear to be definitive statements about the soul scattered across his writings? The author’s response to this question lays out the method for his entire study: Ghazali’s writings should be divided into four categories: falsafah (philosophy), kalam (theology), fiqh (jurisprudence), and tasawwuf (“mysticism”). Confusion regarding Ghazali’s position on the soul arises when we begin to cross the lines separating one category of discourse from another, or, put another way, when we attempt to extrapolate from one kind of discourse more than he intended to convey in it.

The purpose of Ghazali’s philosophical works, notes Gianotti, is primarily to exposit and refute the views of the Muslim philosophers, primarily Avicenna, and, to a lesser extent, Farabi. He does, admittedly, in this genre and on more than one occasion, taken the positions of his interlocutors: a tactic consciously employed in the Tahafut for the purpose of argumentation, to demonstrate to the philosophers that even if we accept some of their premises, we are not forced to reach, through their own methods, the same conclusions that they have. But Gianotti also shows that Ghazali’s relation to Islamic philosophy was far more complex and ambivalent than one might presume, judging from his public condemnation of certain philosophical positions. This complexity is brought to the fore once we begin to examine his writings on the soul in his mystical writings. The author, in effect, demonstrates that although Ghazali has commonly been perceived as “anti-philosophical,” his actual views were much closer to those of Avicenna than we might be led to think.

Timothy Gianotti, Leiden: Brill, 2001. 205 pages.


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