I didn’t expect to be making my foray into a work of Al Ghazali’s so soon, or that it would be the subject of a series of posts, but when I began to read it I realized, as one always realizes, that Al Ghazali has accomplished the bulk of the work already and for those like myself there is only to nurture the fervent hope that we have the ability to place a few helpful footnotes that bring his work into an interaction with the problems of today.
I was driven to take in some of Ghazali by the incessant and irritating neo-pagan overtones of Hyperion. It seems like an all too common obsession of the Germans of the 19th and early 20th centuries to get caught up in a whole lot of empty nostalgia and blind mysticism. Holderlin’s modern Greek protagonist is no exception to this trend and the casual and rampant idolatry that was indulged in turned the reading into a chore, a task brought to its finished only out of a desire to have read the entire book and not judging it without completing it. The prose and the images, as always with Holderlin, were unmatched. There are even plenty of moments of truth in the work, I believe. But the stupider facets of the Romantic movement drag it from what heights it could have occupied. I find much of his poetry more satisfying, in the end. God knows best. For now, we will find repose within a theologically sound work of spiritual edification.
The text that I have begun studying is The Marvels of the Heart, which is the twenty-first book of the Ihya Ulum al-Din or The Revival of the Religious Sciences. It was translated by Walter Skellie, who I am told has done a most excellent job. His translator’s introduction shows the thinking of a learned and even handed scholar. In my reading of this book, I have the benefit of the exegesis of Shaykh Yahya Rhodus, whose wisdom and teaching I am exceptionally grateful for. Any error contained herein is of my own making, and I am not making any attempt to teach this text in the traditional manner, for in that sense I have not learned it myself. What follows are merely the notes of a student and his preliminary thoughts on the road to hopefully contributing something small to the intersection of the canons of the West and the East.
What are we saying when we refer to the heart? An organ, but also a “subtle, tenuous substance” which is the very essence of man. T.J. Winter calls it the point at which the finite realm and the infinite interface, an “event horizon” wherein occur miracles and signs. Perhaps Kant would call it the faculty which effects some sort of contact with the world of noumenon, though he would not dare. But we dare. And if the breaking apart of the synthesis provides us with some small sense of the majesty and magnitude of what is beyond our perception, that which we call the sublime, then I indeed dare to say that it could be nothing but the heart that facilitates this experience.
It is not the organ of flesh of which we speak, but something else which we describe with the use of many metaphors so that one may obtain an understanding which reaches beyond the grasp of our words. The following is from Al Ghazali’s foreward to the book:
In the Name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate.
Praise belongs to God, whose majesty perplexes the hearts and thoughts of those who seek in vain to comprehend it; whose shining light at its beginning is such as to bewilder eye and sight; who is acquainted with all hidden secrets; who knows all that conscience conceals; who has no need of counselor or helper in ruling His kingdom; the Overturner of hearts and the Forgiver of sins; the Concealer of faults; the Deliverer from anxieties. And may blessings and peace rest in abundance upon the master of the messengers, who unites religion and defeats heretics, and upon his descendants, the righteous, and the pure.
The honor and excellence of man, in which he surpasses all other sorts of creatures, is his aptitude for knowing God, praise be to Him. This knowledge is man’s beauty and perfection and glory in the present world, and his provision and store for the world to come. He is prepared for this knowledge only through his heart, and not by means of any of his members. For it is the heart that knows God, and works for God, and strives toward God, and draws near to Him, and reveals that which is in the presence of God.
It is this heart, which is man’s capacity to approach the level of the angels or to sink lower than the animals, which we now take as our object of study. This heart and its special relationship to our other faculties and natures which is the ground upon which one struggles to purify themselves. In this text, Ghazali will begin to outline a moral psychology. It benefited a great deal from the earlier work of both Plato and Aristotle as well as others. Ghazali had no aversion to finding truth in any place that he could. This is a facet of classical Islamic interaction with new cultures and peoples which goes perhaps underappreciated today. Wherever the Muslims would go, they would affirm the truth of that new land. This is why most pre-modern mosques take on the cultural characteristics of the local architecture in whichever place they reside. China, India, Greece, Africa, and so on each have their own flavors of Islam, traditionally speaking. This cosmopolitan vibrancy has come under assault in recent decades by a spirit of insecurity and the logic of modernity, but it still shines through in much of the world.
Before we engage with the text, let us contemplate our position today, in a time that could be said to be lacking such knowledge as Ghazali treats here. I would argue that this has been the primary weakness of Western philosophy since the beginning of the end of the Catholic hegemony in Europe. Whatever we might say of the Catholic Church, it had developed a moral psychology and practice of rigorous self-denial and produced men that even Friedrich Nietzsche could find respect for. There was an appreciation for certain technologies of the self, or practices for the formation of a distinctly Catholic subjectivity. Talal Asad discusses this in his book Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam.
Once Europe witnessed the end of any normative set of practices and agreed upon ends to be achieved by man, we witness the departure of moral psychology from much of the conceptualizing to occur. We have since existed in an age of confusion when it comes to this matter. To describe the process and consequences of this shift has both already been done in part and also is quite beyond my abilities. I merely wish to point out one probable result of the ascent of secularism in the Western world: the idolization of reason. Since the time of the aforementioned Greeks, reason has been venerated and respected. But there was almost always a general acknowledgement that as high and noble as reason is, and indeed its wings are mighty and bring us to great heights, it can be corrupted. It can be enslaved to the basest of compulsions and urges. It is instrumental, and if not made to serve higher purposes, it will inevitably serve lower ones.
It is only with the erosion of religion on the continent that we are able to see such things as Hegelianism take root, with no proper theological censure to hold its manifest error in check. And that is only one example. The story of certain strains Western thought since the Enlightenment is in many ways a tale of men who have lost the ability to know themselves, and thus had no ability to know anything else. Whatever they do glimpse is often quite small and distorted and thus they must claim that it is the definite and real view ever louder. Their appetitive soul has enthroned itself within their reason and used it to aggrandize the self. Reason is the locus of the greatness of mankind, they say, but they take it further than the ancients dared and place man at the center of all, the brightest of all shining stars. With his reason, man will exert his control over all he surveys. He will sail across the stars and rip energy from the atom. It is with this movement that some men have lost the example of Abraham or Nehemiah and taken up that of Prometheus.
We were created to be the deputies of God on this world, to till the land and bring good things from it, to provide for and care for the animals who live under our charge and to allow those that roam free their own place and ability to thrive even as we hunt them for sustenance. We are here as stewards, but in regards to the animals we know that this world belongs to them. And we will be called to answer for every transgression we commit against them. May God have mercy upon all of us on that day. It is not a sin to kill and eat a deer, but it is a grave sin to poison a land and drive a species to extinction. By the time things are all said and done, many lands will be poisoned and many species wiped from the face of the earth. I seek refuge in God from such things.
It is an unfortunate maxim of our time that removing what regulates and provides boundaries is the path to liberation. When such things are destroyed, we are only liberated from our greatest tool in the quest to be anything more than bodies which hunger and feed those hungers. I am not saying that, in this regard, every tradition has an equally good and valid set of practices and corpus of knowledge but that when you remove it entirely and replace it with nothing you are only blinding yourself to what it was instantiated to prevent. The walls of the city have crumbled, the watchtowers have gone unmanned for many years, the army is given to idleness and drink, and the people go about their business unaware. They expect that they should know of an invasion when it happens. Well, my friend, it has already occurred! The enemy lives among you. They have ever since the very moment that you expected that they were no longer to be feared. They are your masters, and all you have freed yourself from is your ability to know that it has happened at all.
Perhaps I complain of ‘the times’ a great deal. I only hope to stand for what I know to matter and for what of value is lying hidden. People once had some notion of restraint as the means for a higher subjectivity. They may again. Accuse me not of the sin of objection. With Nietzsche I would look upon it all, take every “Thus it was,” and say “Thus I would have it!” I don’t wish for our past to be any different, only for our today to be firmly grasped with open eyes and sound knowledge and a noble spirit.
And so we begin our look at Al Ghazali’s book.