Arabic Sciences and Philosophy

Ghazali and Ash'arism Revisited

a1 Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto, 4 Bancroft Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1C1


At the basis of Ghazali's criticisms of Ash'arite kalam is the thesis that its primary function is the defence of traditional Islamic belief, the 'aqida, against the distortions of heretical innovations (al-bida'). Kalam is not an end in itself and it is error to think that the mere engagement in it constitutes the experientially religious. In the I[hdotu]ya' he maintains in effect that when it is pursued as an end in itself, its dogmas can constitute a veil preventive of the attainment of gnosis (ma'rifa). On the other hand, Ash'arite kalam when not pursued as an end in itself can be an aid in the quest after gnosis. This is implicit in his reference (in Kitab al-Arba'in) to his own major work of Ash'arite kalam, the Iqti[sdotu]ad fi al-i'tiqad, where he states that “it goes deeper in ascertaining [the truth] and is closer to knocking at the doors of gnosis than the official discourse encountered in the books of the mutakallimin.” The I[hdotu]ya' abounds with homilies, guides for the pious, particularly for those seeking mystical knowledge. Ash'arism pervades such homilies. Thus in Kitab al-Tawba, Ghazali formulates, analyzes and defends the concept of human choice in Ash'arite terms. He thus argues that each of the ingredients of this concept - knowledge, power, the decisive will, as well as the ensuing choice - is individually the direct creation of God. Not that the argument for this concept yields experiential knowledge of its meaning within the cosmic scheme of things. For Ghazali such knowledge is only attained through mystical vision. But the Ash'arite argument, when not pursued as an end in itself, can be an aid to the seekers of gnosis. It can bring them closer to knocking at its doors.