Al-Ghazali’s Search for Certainty: The Way of the Sufis

Mysticism in Islam is widely known as Sufism or Tasawwuf. What is Tasawwuf? Is it a departure from orthodox Islam, or central to the Islamic faith? Most important, what are the practices through which one may seek truth for oneself?

One of the most influential of all teachers on these questions has been Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali, who lived from 1058 to 1111 CE. As a scholar, jurist and philosopher he worked at the court in Isfahan, in modern Iran, of the Seljuk Sultans, the dominant power in the region at the time, and as head of the Madrasa, or sacred college, at Baghdad, then the seat of the Caliphs, who were nominally still the religious leaders of the Muslim world, although they were no longer politically powerful.

Among Ghazali’s many writings is a philosophical treatise, known in English translation as the Incoherence of the Philosophers, which uses Aristotelian logic to argue that Aristotelian logic does not challenge the fundamental teachings of Islam. Later he produced The Revival of the Religious Sciences, an immense compendium in four parts and forty books, on all aspects of Islam in principle and practice. In it he addresses the issues that had arisen in the five centuries following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, during which Islam had spread from Arabia, where it had first united the tribes under an ardent monotheism and a single leadership, to a vast region including the former Persian and Eastern Roman empires with all their diverse cultures and wealth. Ghazali’s Revival established how Islam was to form the basis of personal and social life in these circumstances. One of its conclusions was that conventional Islamic teachings lead into Tasawwuf, and that the foundations of Tasawwuf are conventional Islam. These views on philosophy, theology and mysticism have characterised the Islamic world to the present day.

Ghazali has exercised such influence at least in part because his conclusions are seen as based not only on intellectual acumen but also on profound wisdom gained through a life dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and spiritual practice. Much of what is known about his life is from his own autobiography, a relatively short and accessible book translated into English as The Deliverance from Error. In it he describes how he set out to discover certain knowledge, which he defined as knowledge which left no room for error or doubt. In the Deliverance he recounts how he first studied theology, which he concluded was valid in its own sphere, but was based on accepted premises and convention, and thus could not satisfy his desire for certainty. Turning next to philosophy, he found that mathematics and Aristotle’s logic were valuable intellectual tools, based on irrefutable principles if properly understood. However, the rigour and certainty of these subjects did not extend to ethics and metaphysics, where he found much confusion and uncertainty. [An article on this stage of Ghazali’s quest appeared in Self-Knowledge Spring 2019.] Having examined theology and philosophy (and the claims of certain ‘esoterics’) and found that they did not fulfil his search for certainty, he turned to the teachings of the Sufis.

He recognised immediately that to understand the Sufis, it was necessary to combine theory with practice. He says their aim is:

To free the soul from the tyrannical yoke of the passions, to deliver it from its wrong inclinations and evil instincts, in order that in the purified heart there should only remain room for God and for the invocation of his holy name.
[Quotes are from the translation by Claude Field, 1909.]

Ghazali began by reading the classic Sufi texts that were available to him, including those by Junayd [see Self-Knowledge Autumn 2018] and Bayazid Bastami. However he soon realized that just reading about them would not unlock for him the secrets of the Sufis. Knowing what is health is not the same as being healthy; to understand the cause of drunkenness is different from being drunk. He writes:

It became clear to me that the last stage could not be reached by mere instruction, but only by transport, ecstasy and the transformation of the moral being.

I saw that Sufism consists in experiences rather than definitions, and that what I was lacking belonged to the domain, not of instruction, but of ecstasy and initiation.

Ghazali was still quite young and at the height of a great career as scholar and courtier. These reflections led him to an inner crisis.

In order to recount Ghazali’s story accurately, we must include an element in his thinking that is not entirely shared by the non-dual teachings. He writes about his state of mind at this time:

The researches to which I had devoted myself, the path which I had traversed in studying religious and speculative branches of knowledge, had given me a firm faith in three things—God, inspiration and the Last Judgment. These three fundamental articles of belief were confirmed in me, not merely by definite arguments, but by a chain of causes, circumstances and proofs which it is impossible to recount.

By inspiration Ghazali means what is made known to the prophets in a special way, and that these teachings should be accepted as authoritative. And elsewhere Ghazali has made clear that by the Last Judgment he means a great event that will be experienced by individuals to be followed by paradise or the opposite, which will involve bodily and not just mental experiences.

This is not entirely the same as the non-dual teachings, which understand the final revelation to be the realization that the phenomenal world is not absolutely real, and that ultimate reality is not limited in space or time. It is fully recognised by the non-dual teachings that our actions in this world shall have consequences that lead to growing understanding and lasting fulfilment, or the opposite, but the possibility of paradise or torment in eternity would contradict the non-dual understanding of eternity and reality.

What the non-dual outlook and the views expressed by Ghazali here do have in common is the realization that life is an opportunity, that wise and foolish choices have immensely different outcomes, and that there is a certain urgency in our need to make spiritual progress while the opportunity presents itself.

Ghazali continues the account of his own journey:

I saw that one can only hope for salvation by devotion and the conquest of one’s passions, a procedure which presupposes renouncement and detachment from this world of falsehood in order to turn towards eternity and meditation on God. Finally, I saw that the only condition of success was to sacrifice honours and riches and to sever the ties and attachments of worldly life.

Coming seriously to consider my state, I found myself bound down on all sides by these trammels. Examining my actions, the most fair-seeming of which were my lecturing and professorial occupations, I found to my surprise that I was engrossed in several studies of little value, and profitless as regards my salvation. I probed the motives of my teaching and found that, in place of being sincerely consecrated to God, it was only activated by a vain desire of honour and reputation. I perceived that I was on the edge of an abyss, and that without an immediate conversion I should be doomed to eternal fire.

Ghazali recounts how, prompted by such considerations, he resolved to give up his position and devote himself to the future life. But then thoughts of a worldly nature crowded into his mind and he hesitated. In the morning he woke, clear that life was short and the journey long and he must set off; later the same day the inner voice would point out the advantages of his current position, all the opportunities it offered, how much would be lost by giving it up with no hope of attaining it again. This anguished state, he says, persisted for about six months during the year 1096. Then finally:

…I gave myself up to destiny. God caused an impediment to chain my tongue and prevented me from lecturing. Vainly I desired, in the interest of my pupils, to go on with my teaching, but my mouth became dumb. The silence to which I was condemned cast me into a violent despair; my stomach became weak; I lost all appetite; I could neither swallow a morsel of bread nor drink a drop of water.

Then he says, it became easy for him to sacrifice his honours, wealth and family. Fearing that his friends or the Caliph would try to obstruct him, he gave out publicly that he was planning to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, while his true intention was to go to Damascus in Syria and never to return to Baghdad. Giving up the highest position attainable in the religious community, and all his wealth, except enough land to provide support for his family, he left Bhagdad for Damascus, in solitude and obscurity.

Again, it might be noted, that according to the Bhagavad Gita and other classics in the non-dual tradition, it is not necessary, or even possible, to entirely renounce one’s position in the world. Later we find Ghazali himself resuming his teaching, albeit in different ways, and returning to attend to the needs of his family. From the non-dual perspective what is most important is to fulfil our duties without attachment to the results for ourselves personally but as our offerings to our own higher Self and the general good. Changes in our outer life as a result of growing devotion to spiritual practice are more likely to be gradual than dramatic steps. Still, to recognise that the spiritual path is demanding and that time is limited, is a positive step, which Ghazali’s life exemplifies. He recounts how after leaving Baghdad he stayed in Syria for two years:

…which I devoted to retirement, meditation, and devout exercises. I only thought of self-improvement and discipline and of purification of the heart by prayer in going through the forms of devotion which the Sufis had taught me. I used to live a solitary life in the Mosque of Damascus, and was in the habit of spending my days in the minaret after closing the door behind me.

Later he travelled to Jerusalem, where he continued his practices staying in the Dome of the Rock. He also made the pilgrimage to Mecca and visited Medina and Hebron, resting place of Abraham. At one point he returned to his home region, in what is now the north-east of Iran. He intended to continue living in seclusion, but says that worldly events and the needs of his family made demands that he could not ignore and troubled his calm. Still, he writes:

However irregular the intervals which I could give to devotional ecstasy, my confidence in it did not diminish; and the more I was diverted by hindrances, the more steadfastly I returned to it.

At this point in the Deliverance, Ghazali comes to say less about how he searched and more about what he concluded. From other sources we gather that during this time he resumed teaching, however no longer in official institutions but in something more akin to a Sufi community, of which he was the head. Around this time it seems that he wrote and read from what would become the Revival of the Religious Sciences. And evidently at this time he determined for himself the qualities of Sufism and set forth what he found. He writes:

Ten years passed in this manner. During my successive periods of meditation there were revealed to me things impossible to recount. All that I shall say is this: I learned from a sure source that the Sufis are the true pioneers on the path of God; that there is nothing more beautiful than their life, nor more praiseworthy than their rule of conduct, nor purer than their morality.

The intelligence of thinkers, the wisdom of philosophers, the knowledge of the most learned doctors of the law would in vain combine their efforts in order to modify or improve their doctrine and morals; it would be impossible.

With the Sufis, repose and movement, exterior or interior, are illumined with the light which proceeds from the Central Radiance of Inspiration. And what other light could shine on the face of the earth? In a word, what can one criticize in them?

To purge the heart of all that does not belong to God is the first step in their cathartic method. The drawing up of the heart by prayer is the key-stone of it and the last stage is the being lost in Allah.

In this connection, Ghazali speaking about what the Sufis attain to. He calls it ‘proximity to God’ and notes that some have said that it is ‘intermixture’, ‘identification’ or ‘union’ with God. Here Ghazali refers to another of his writings, in which he holds that it cannot mean that the finite individual becomes at one or united with the infinite Being; such utterances, he says, can only be indicative and poetic, as a lover might speak of being united in essence with the object of their love.

At the same time, he says that those who deny that the Sufis attain to great intimacy with the divine and a knowledge far beyond the range of intellect, do so in ignorance of what the Sufis have discovered. In general, his view is that those who have known, cannot and should not try to express it exactly, and that those who have not should not ask or draw unqualified conclusions. He says:

Those who have reached that stage should confine themselves to repeating the verse:
What I experience I shall not try to say,
Call me happy, but ask me no more.
He who does not arrive at the intuition of these truths by means of ecstasy, knows only the name of inspiration.

A little earlier Ghazali had written:

…the last stage is the being lost in God. I say last stage, with reference to what may be reached by an effort of will, but, to tell the truth, it is only the first stage in the life of contemplation, the vestibule by which the initiated enter.

Here he speaks of a stage that can be attained by an effort of will, which corresponds to the stage recognised in the non-dual teachings where efforts have to be made by the individual to stabilise and lighten the mind. This stage is necessary, but while the individual remains individual and reliant on their individual powers, there can be no talk of unity with the supreme. Ghazali implies a further stage, where the individualized will is no longer the primary agent, and the divide between the Truth and the seeker is less distinct.

Overall, there seems to be some ambiguity in Ghazali’s position about this, as perhaps there must be. Where there is discussion in rational terms about the possibility of union or identity with the divine, he concludes, rationally, that there cannot be. This is in keeping with the orthodox view. In other passages, which point beyond the realm of intellect, the position is less definite. Ghazali’s writings on these matters have been highly influential and expressive of what is characteristic of Islam to the present day.

Here we do find some contrast with non-duality. Islamic, like Christian, writings, including mystically-minded teachings, tend to avoid affirming the potential or ultimate unity of the human and the divine. In contrast, this identity is unambiguously declared as the foundation of the non-dual philosophy which is based on the insight that the phenomenal world is exactly that—phenomenal—and that the qualities which give rise to all the difficult metaphysical questions, are found to be insubstantial from the highest ‘point of view’. The Sufi, and Christian mystic, is trying to rise towards God; the non-dualist is seeking to confirm that the separations were never entirely real. These differences in principle lead to some differences in practice, but, especially in the higher stages, what the two approaches have in common is most significant.

Towards the end of the Deliverance Ghazali speaks of why he eventually resumed teaching, partly at the prompting of the Sultan, having previously vowed not to do so. He says that he observed around him an urgent need for religious reform and a solution to widespread tepidity of faith, and further that his enquiries and discoveries had equipped him to meet these needs. He describes how events and the will of God seemed to bring about his return to teaching, and also how he no longer taught in pursuit of glory, but taught the knowledge that leads to renunciation of worldly glory. As we noted before, the moral authority all this implies is part of the reason for Ghazali’s influence.

He also discusses here the nature and importance of prophecy, and in particular that of Muhammad himself. Ghazali’s main point is that prophesy stems from a power beyond the human intellect; it is uniquely authoritative, and that the teachings of the prophets ought to be adopted with faith by all who seek well-being in this world and the hereafter, and by aspirants to mystic knowledge. Here too, Ghazali is in line with, and a formative influence on, what have become orthodox Islamic teachings.

Of particular interest to us is the actual practice of Sufism. On this Ghazali refers to another of his works, a text that has been translated into English as The Marvels of the Heart, which forms number 21 of the 40 books in The Revival of the Religious Sciences. There he writes:

…the way is this: first of all, cutting off ties with this present world, and emptying the heart of them, taking away concern for family, possessions, homeland, knowledge, rule and rank. Nay, he must bring his heart into that state in which the existence of all these is the same as their non-existence.
[Translation by W J Skellie, PhD thesis, 1938.]

This teaching on detachment is as strong as anything we find in any ascetic or monastic traditions. Is this possible? It is humane? These questions have been much discussed. Ghazali does not say one should neglect one’s duty or not care for one’s family. It does mean that ultimately there should be inner freedom, a realization that in relation to eternity, everything in the world has the same value. Ghazali continues:

Then he must withdraw alone, to a place of private devotion, and limit himself to prescribed religious duties and supererogatory prayers. He must sit with an empty heart and concentrated purpose. He must not divide his thought by reciting the Quran, nor the contemplation of its exposition, nor books of tradition, nor anything else. But he must strive so that nothing save Allah shall come into his mind.

We note that at this stage mental activity is to be so restrained as to not think even of the Quran and traditions. Then Ghazali prescribes a form of meditation involving the repetition of a single word, the name of God.

Then, he shall keep saying continuously with his tongue, Allah, Allah, and his heart shall be fixed on it too, until he comes finally to a state in which the motion of the tongue will cease and it will seem as if the word is flowing over his tongue.

One is to keep saying the word, until it seems to be saying itself. And then:

Still he shall persevere until the form and letters of the expression and the very appearance of the word is effaced from the heart and there remains present in it naught save the ideal meaning which is, as it were adhering to and inseparable from the heart.

This is what has to be done. Using his own will, the seeker can do this, and persevere. However, says Ghazali, it is not in the seeker’s power to cause knowledge to appear in his heart. In this way the seeker may:

…expose himself to the breezes of Allah’s mercy, and it only remains for him to wait for such mercy as Allah may grant to him, even as He has in this way given mercy to the prophets and saints.

This view is similar to the non-dual teachings, according to which we can do the practices, but the mind cannot engineer the rise of knowledge, which lies beyond the scope of the mind. The mind’s task is to prepare and withdraw itself. In the non-dual teachings, what we call Grace emanates from our own higher Self, when the obstacles are removed. Ghazali writes:

…if his desire is sincere, his intention pure, his perseverance good, if his lusts do not draw him aside nor the suggestions of self engross him with the ties of this present world, there will shine forth the gleams of reality into his heart.

Here then is a specially detailed description of the practice, the form of concentration, remembrance of God, dhikr, used by the Sufis to attain inner illumination, as described by Ghazali, whose life and teachings put Tasawwuf at the heart of Islam, and Islam at the heart of Tasawwuf.


This article is from the Autumn 2019 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.