Al-Ghazali: the Legacy of a Reformer

Muhammad al-Ghazali (d. 1996) was a prolific author and influential Salafi jurist. In 1989 he wrote a blistering critique of the Wahhabi movement and influence upon the Salafi creed.  His work (al-Sunnah al-Nabawiyya Bayn Ahl al-Fiqh wa Ahl al-Hadith) is important for many reasons, not the least that it is well known that any criticism of Saudi Arabia or Wahhabism is a dangerous task.  Nevertheless, he published his work and is the first since the early 1930s to attempt such a task.

Al-Ghazali considered himself a Salafi (a rough translation: one who ought to follow the precedents of the Prophet and the Rightly Guided Companions).  Salafism as a creed was founded in the late nineteenth century, though there are early traces in Ibn Taymiyya’s work, by liberal Muslim reformers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d.1314/1897), Muhammad Rashid Rida (1354/1935), and others.  As a term, it is exploitable by any movement that wants to claim that it is grounded in Islamic authenticity.  Just as “socialism” and “democracy” can be attributed to groups and movements that have very little connection to the terms.

Salafism maintains that on all issues, Muslims ought to return to the original textual sources of the Qur’an and the Sunna (precedent) of the Prophet.  In doing so, however, Muslims ought to reinterpret the original sources in light of modern needs and demands without being slavishly bound to the interpretive precedents of earlier Muslim generations.  Thus, Salafism was not necessarily anti-intellectual, but like Wahhabism it did tend to be uninterested in history.  Both movements movements emphasize a presumed “golden age” in Islam and idealize the time of the Prophet and his Companions.

Because Salafism rejected juristic precedents as a source of authoritativeness, it adopted a form of egalitarianism that deconstructed traditional norms of established authority; similar to the reformations in Christianity under Luther and Calvin.  However, unlike Wahhabism, Salafism was not hostile to mysticism (Sufism) or to the juristic tradition.  Most Salafi scholars engaged in tafliq, in which they mixed and matched various opinions from the past in order to emerge with novel contemporary solutions to problems.  Eventually, Salafism turned into apologetics and was focused on showing Islam’s compatibility with modernity and even its supremacy.

Al-Ghazali’s critique of Wahhabism was based on its antirationalism and immoralism.  Al-Ghazali called the Wahhabi’s the modern-day Ahl al-Hadith, an amorphous expression that refers to literalist movements in Islamic history that claimed to adhere to the traditions of the Prophet faithfully, and without the “corrupting” influence of human interpretation or reason.  The Ahl al-Hadith had a loose affiliation with the 9th century scholar Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (d. 241/855); although they claimed not to follow any established school.

According to al-Ghazali, the Ahl al-Hadith knew how to collect and memorize the traditions but did not know how the source material could interact with legal methodology in order to produce jurisprudence. The puritanical Wahhabi’s were capable of only recounting, not interpreting the texts.  In effect, they utilize the inherited traditions about the Prophet in an arbitrary and whimsical personalized fashion in order to affirm whatever positions they feel like supporting; thus, cultural habits and preferences are are often portrayed as Islamic law. For al-Ghazali, the Wahhabi’s corrupt Islamic law because they lack any disciplined methodology or principled way in thinking about the Divine Will.

His critique did not stop at accusing the Wahhabi’s of corrupting Islamic law.  He blamed the  Ahl al-Hadith of perpetuating acts of fanaticism that defiled the image of Islam to the world.  In effect, Al-Ghazali was criticizing men like Sayyid Qutb, and Muhammad Faraj.  Because of this “arrogant and intolerant attitude” of the Wahhabi’s, denied Islam its universalism and humanism.  He argued that the contemporary Salafi movement, under the influence of the Wahhabis, had created a “Bedouin Islam”.

Scholars like al-Ghazali exist and they should be given more attention in the West and in the various Islamic countries.  His work, while not perfect, represents a major shift in Islamic thought. His desire to follow a particular methodology and to interpret ancient texts in light of contemporary reality is a move towards pluralism and tolerance.  Writers like Sayyid Qutb and Abu al-A’la al-Mawdudi were not jurists and their knowledge of Islamic jurisprudential tradition was minimal.

Moderate Muslims, like al-Ghazali, seek to understand and to explore the depths of their faith.  It is true, that good people can do good things and bad people can do bad things in the name of their religion.  Al-Ghazali represents a serious, intellectual, and rational approach to faith and modernity in the Islamic tradition; his legacy should not be ignored.

For a more detailed analysis on al-Ghazali and other reformers, see The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists by Khaled Abou El Fadl- A professor of Law at UCLA.


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