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Ghazālī, Muḥammad al-

By:
Raymond William Baker, Joseph A. Kéchichian
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Ghazālī, Muḥammad al-

Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (1917–1996) was an Egyptian Islamic scholar and for a time a leading member of al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn (Muslim Brotherhood). Al-Ghazālī is arguably one of the two or three most influential Sunnī Islamic thinkers of the the twentieth century. Born in Buḥayrah Province in the Nile Delta, he graduated from al-Azhar in 1941 and occupied influential positions in his own country and in other Arab states. In Egypt, he was director of the Mosques Department, director general of Islamic Call (daʿwah), and under secretary of the Ministry of Awqāf (religious foundations). He has also taught at the universities of al-Azhar (Egypt), King ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz and Umm al-Qūrā (Saudi Arabia), and Qatar and was the academic director of Amīr ʿAbd al-Qādir's Islamic University in Algeria.

Al-Ghazālī was dismissed from his position in the hayʿah taʿsīsīyah (constituent body) of the Ikhwān in December 1953, reportedly after attempting, with two other prominent members, to unseat the organization's leader, Ḥasan al-Ḥudaybī (with the approval, some Muslim Brothers suspected, of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers). Many feel that he remained an Ikhwānī in all but name, and he consistently maintained a positive evaluation of the historic role of the Muslim Brothers. However, his bold and original interpretations over his lifetime far exceeded the often stifling limitations of Brotherhood thinking.

Al-GhazālĪ's Work.

Ghazālī's most enduring legacy resides primarily in his role as a leading member of the Egyptian new Islamist school of creative and independent Islamic thinkers who produced an impressive body of fiqh on all the major issues facing the Islamic ummah, from progressive attitudes to the arts and education, to innovative and socially responsible thinking about the economy and society (notably the role of women and non-Muslims) and innovative elaborations of democratic ideas and resistance to external pressures. Active in publishing throughout his life, al-Ghazālī wrote approximately forty titles including such important works as Moral Character of the Muslim, Islam and Economic Affairs, Islam and Political Despotism, A Constitution for Cultural Unity, and Prejudice and Tolerance in Christianity and Islam. He established a reputation for being a reasonable, well-balanced, and independent scholar. A rigorous interpreter, although by no means a traditionalist, his positions on various issues are taken seriously by the mainstream of the Islamist movement.

Al-Ghazālī contended that contemporary Muslims paid excessive attention to matters of cleanliness, prayers, pilgrimage, and rituals while lagging far behind the West in matters of government, the economy, and finance that he regarded as being of far greater importance to the ummah.

As an erudite theorist who strongly supported an expansive concept of shūrā (political consultation) and was quite willing to build on that precept to elaborate democratic principles compatible with Islam, Al-Ghazālī stood out among contemporary philosophers. He was and is still regarded as a modernist in social and political matters, condemning the austere, simplistic orientation of what he termed al-fiqh al-badawī (the jurisprudence of nomads, implicitly referring to Wahhabi thought), and he actively encouraged consideration of the experience of other (non-Muslim) societies as a source of inspiration for Muslims. For example, he cited both historical Islamic and contemporary non-Islamic examples to support the case that a woman may legitimately assume any high post in society, which was entirely compatible with traditional Islamic teachings.

Al-Ghazālī's main, and rather daring, methodological contribution has been his attempt to reduce excessive reliance on the ḥadīth in contemporary jurisprudence or, to put the issue another way, to insist on the priority of the Qurʿān over the ḥadīth. His voluminous writings admit only the ḥadīths that have a Qurʿānic credibility and excludes aḥādīth al-āḥād (single sayings), if they appear odd or poorly reasoned. He maintained that “a little reading of the blessed Qurʿān and a lot of reading of the aḥādīth does not give an accurate picture of Islam.” In his view, it was this lopsided methodology in approaching Islam that partly explained what he regarded as the “infantile” and “half-educated” attitude of militant Islamists; they were obsessed with power but poorly trained.

Al-Ghazālī's strict scrutiny of the ḥadīth thus enabled him to criticize simultaneously both the Muslim social reactionaries, who used ḥadīths on the flimsiest grounds to justify such practices as beating and sodomizing wives, and the Islamist political radicals, who have used similar ḥadīths to justify forcing their own views and authority on society at large.

With consistently centrist positions, which inevitably exposed him to attacks from both Islamist traditionalists and violent extremists, al-Ghazālī attracted the antipathy of militant secularists as well. Because they were generally opposed to all Islamists in public life, belligerent foes did not welcome the interpretive successes of the new Islamist school to which al-Ghazālī belonged. His place in public life was marked by periodic crises when his views came under sharp, often vicious attack.

The Case of the Farag Foda Assassination.

One such incident proved particularly damaging. When Islamist extremists resorted to terror and assassinated the secularist Farag Foda in 1992, al-Ghazālī and the New Islamists stood against them with an unambiguous condemnation. Still, it was not always possible to avoid being drawn into the controversies around such deplorable incidents. Al-Ghazālī, for example, was called to testify as an expert on sharīʿah for the defense in the trial of Foda's murderers. He did so in a strict and unimpeachable way, but was nevertheless vilified when his testimony was distorted in tendentious ways as a justification of the assassins. Al-Ghazālī offered no such justification in his narrow but accurate clarification of the provisions of sharīʿah in such cases. Naturally, he assumed some responsibility for the uproar his testimony generated, because his final response on punishment for those who take it upon themselves to chastise an apostate, though technically correct, was too brief and too insensitive to the context within which this narrow legal question was posed. Earlier in the court session, al-Ghazālī elaborated on the fiqh surrounding the issue of apostasy, and he indicated clearly his own opinion that sharīʿah did not, as the extremists claimed, demand a death sentence. He could and should have done the same on the issue of those who usurped authority. After all, what was at stake in the trial was precisely the fate of those accused of the murder of an alleged apostate, and such an elaboration would have been even more germane than the one he offered on apostasy in general terms. Regrettably, and because he failed to take this opportunity, al-Ghazālī made himself vulnerable to attack. He was repeatedly accused of "not [being] closely identified with the militant cause" and frequently appeared on state-run television to criticize extremists, all of which drew the ire of revolutionaries. His 1989 book Al-sunnah al-nabawīyah bayna ahl al-fiqh wa ahl al-ḥadīth severely criticized Ahl al-ḥadith, which was a term thought to be a euphemism for Wahhabis that, for complicated reasons, he could not openly identify. The controversial volume prompted both unfavorable "major conferences...in Egypt and Saudi Arabia" (Abou El Fadl, p. 93) and highly critical articles in the Saudi-owned newspaper Ashara Al-Aswat. While some questioned "his motives and competence," few could deny the scholar's credentials as well as his impressive contributions to mainstream Islamic thought.

See also EGYPT; FUNDAMENTALISM; MODERNISM; and MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD, subentry onMUSLIM BROTHERHOOD IN EGYPT.

Bibliography

  • Abou El Fadl, Khaled. The Great Theft : Wrestling Islam from the Extremists. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.
  • Baker, Raymond William. Islam Without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. In-depth treatment of al-Ghazālī's life work, emphasizing his role, along with Shaykh Yūsuf al-Qaradāwī, as a leading figure of the New Islamist School of independent and enlightened Islamic thinkers.
  • Ghazālī, Muḥammad al-. Humūm dāʿiyah (Concerns of an Islamic Caller). Cairo, 1983. Useful collection illustrating al-Ghazālī's position on several religious and social issues.
  • Ghazālī, Muḥammad al-. Al-sunnah al-nabawīyah bayna ahl al-fiqh wa ahl al-ḥadīth. Cairo: Dar al Sharuq, 1991. Tenth edition (in two years) of a book in which al-Ghazālī illustrates how his methodology of uṣūl al-fiqh may be applied to the analysis of various religious and social issues.
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