I was not aware of al-Ghazali contributions to religious thought, but we would all benefit if his influence on the Islamic world increased. Thanks to Joshua Allen for this post.
Abu Hamid al-Ghazali was an important inflection point in human philosophy. Roughly 1000 years ago, he was instrumental in introducing Aristotle and Plato to the Islamic world. He made several improvements on the work of the previous philosophers and had a lasting impact on western philosophy. However, 500 years before the “cult of reason” swept the west, he saw the potential for a clash between rationalism and mysticism. Soon the Islamic rationalists were hard at work exterminating all traces of revealed authority by making faith subordinate to reason, while the blind faithful attacked the very core of this new threat by attempting to exterminate reason.
al-Ghazali was one of the first to use reason in service of religious doctrine, and the most honest. In comparison, the attempts of Aquinas and Pascal seem cheap and deceptive. But Ghazali also realized the futility of making faith subordinate to reason, as well as the futility of making reason subordinate to faith. He saw both parties in the reason vs. faith debate as being misguided — the two should enrich one another, not obliterate one another. Through mastery of both systems, he argued that blind faith in reason is just as bankrupt as blind faith in revealed authority. He made the religious dogmatists just as nervous as the blind rationalists. During his life, he witnessed the birth of the strain of theocratic philosophy that led to the assassains and predated modern Islamists, and endured threats on his life from these fundamentalists. He was utimately able to see these extremists brought into check and his more balanced approach prevailed for several hundred years. It’s only in recent years that Maududi and Qutb succeeded in reviving the Islamist political ideology of the revealed authority dogmatists.
There are several current theories about what the west should do in order to “save” the Arab world from the grip of the Islamists (he would call Batinists). Popular proposals include imposition of western values of liberty, democracy, free markets, scientific inquiry, and secularism. The memes competing for supremacy in the world today look remarkably like the “four doctrines“ which Ghazali described competing in his day; reading his writings it is amazing to note how little has changed. Ghazali’s felt that spiritual enlightenment is a very personal thing which must be gained through experience, and cannot be taught, indoctrinated, or imposed. He predicted that true enlightenment is impossible in conditions of social strife and upheaval, when indoctrination and propaganda take precedence, and saw a function of government as a mechanism to provide the stability and framework necessary for individuals to find spiritual enlightenment for themselves (the opposite of sharia, which seeks to impose, but also not a “cult of liberty”, which is its own dogma). This balanced “Zhong Yong” philosophy could seem indecisive in a world of absolutes, but I think it’s closest to what we really want.