Monday, February 9, 2015

Deliverance from Error

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 A.D.)

The introduction (or Khutbah) to Al-Ghazali's The Incoherence of the Philosophers might persuade anyone who reads it to investigate whether or not Allah ever granted his sincere request for deliverance.  Toward the end of his life, Al-Ghazali composed a spiritual autobiography, Path to Sufism: His Deliverance from Error, in which he recounts his quest to rid himself of "reprehensible habits" and "vicious qualities" in order to "attain thereby a heart empty of all save God and adorned with the constant remembrance of God." (p. 10) 

Al-Ghazali recognized that his "reprehensible habits" and "vicious qualities" were the result of impure motives:  

"I reflected on my intention in my public teaching, and I saw that it was not directed purely to God, but rather was instigated and motivated by the quest for fame and widespread prestige. So I became certain that I was on the brink of a crumbling bank....Mundane desires began tugging me with their chains to remain as I was, while the herald of faith was crying out: 'Away! Up and away! Only a little is left of your life, and a long journey lies before you! All the theory and practice in which you are engrossed is eye service and fakery! If you do not prepare now for the afterlife, when will you do so? And if you do not sever these attachments now, then when will you sever them?'" (p. 9-10)  

It may have taken him more than a decade to achieve his objective, but Al-Ghazali finally declared that God had delivered him from error: 

"At length God Most High cured me of that sickness. My soul regained its health and equilibrium and once again I accepted the self-evident data of reason and relied on them with safety and certainty. But that was not achieved by constructing a proof or putting together an argument. On the contrary, it was the effect of a light which God Most High cast into my breast. And that light is the key to most
knowledge." (p. 23)

In spite of his confession of such base desires, Al-Ghazali also considered that truth-seeking had always been a part of his nature:

"The thirst for grasping the real meaning of things was indeed my habit and wont from my early years and in the prime of my life. It was an instinctive, natural disposition placed in my makeup by God Most High, not something due to my own choosing and contriving. As a result, the fetters of servile conformism fell away from me, and inherited beliefs lost their hold on me, when I was still quite young. For I saw that the children of Christians always grew up embracing Christianity, and the children of Jews always grew up adhering to Judaism, and the children of Muslims always grew up following the religion of Islam. I also heard the tradition related from the Apostle of God — God’s blessing and peace be upon him! — in which he said: 'Every infant is born endowed with the fitra: then his parents make him Jew or Christian or Magian.' Consequently I felt an inner urge to seek the true meaning of the original fitra, and the true meaning of the beliefs arising through slavish aping of parents and teachers. I wanted to sift out these uncritical beliefs, the beginnings of which are suggestions imposed from without, since there are differences of opinion in the discernment of those that are true from those that are false." (p. 19-20)

Parts of Al-Ghazali's medieval account bear a striking resemblance to the account of a certain young man who sought truth in the midst of a "war of words and tumult of opinions" in the early 19th century.  Perhaps some 21st century problems are not as new as we suppose them to be.

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