Al-Ghazzali and religious angst

January 4, 2010 at 8:45 pm (Islam)

This is for LK, Ellen, and anyone else who’s ever felt this way!

From “A History of God”, chapter 6.

Al-Ghazzali … had a restless temperament that made him struggle with truth like a terrier, worrying problems to the bitter death and refusing to be content with an easy, conventional answer. As he tells us,

I have poked into every dark recess, I have made an assault on every problem, I have plunged into every abyss. I have scrutinised the creed of every sect, I have tried to lay bare the inmost doctrines of every community. All this I have done that I might distinguish between true and false, between sound tradition and heretical innovation.

He was searching for the kind of indubitable certainty that a philosopher like Saadia felt, but he became increasingly disillusioned. No matter how exhaustive his research, absolute certainty eluded him. His contemporaries sought God in several ways, according to their personal and temperamental needs: in Kalam, through an Imam, in Falsafah and in Sufi mysticism. Al-Ghazzali seems to have studied each of these disciplines in his attempt to understand ‘what all things really are in themselves’. The disciples of all four of the main versions of Islam that he researched claimed total conviction but, al-Ghazzali asked, how could this claim be verified objectively? …

The strain of his quest caused al-Ghazzali such personal distress that he had a breakdown. He found himself unable to swallow or to eat and felt overwhelmed by a weight of doom and despair. Finally in about 1094 he found that he could not speak or give his lectures…

He fell into a clinical depression. The doctors rightly diagnosed a deep-rooted conflict and told him that until he was delivered from his hidden anxiety, he would never recover. Fearing that he was in danger of hellfire if he did not recover his faith al-Ghazzali resigned his prestigious academic post and went off to join the Sufis.

There he found what he was looking for. Without abandoning his reason – he always distrusted the most extravagant forms of Sufism – al-Ghazzali discovered that the mystical disciplines yielded a direct but intuitive sense of something that could be called ‘God’.

Now, I’m not saying we should all go off and join the Sufis! I included that last part just to show there was a happy ending. I just found it amusing to read this description of the famous scholar al-Ghazzali. It made me laugh at myself a little bit. It is also quite validating in a way. Plus, at least I didn’t get such a huge dose of religious angst as him! It could be worse! 😀



  1. LK said,

    Whoa he makes me look sane! LOL jk But I can totally identify with this. Funny enough, once he stopped looking for facts to support a truth he found his truth. That is advice I should definitely take. 🙂 Thanks for writing this.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      He makes all of us look sane!
      “once he stopped looking for facts to support a truth he found his truth”
      That’s a good way of putting it.
      I might try to read some of his works.

  2. Sarah Elizabeth said,

    I have always been attracted to Sufism. I actually admire his angst, it shows he really loved God and wanted to love God in the right way.. I guess through Sufism he found that love, and I can see why his path lead him there..

    How are you doing, BTW?

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      I find Sufism quite appealing too. I did some Sufi workshops a while back.

      I’m doing OK thanks! I’m glad this angst is mostly behind me now.

  3. Ellen said,

    Lol! He *does* make us all look sane!
    “I have poked into every dark recess, I have made an assault on every problem, I have plunged into every abyss.” Oh I hear you Al-Ghazzali!

  4. Jasmine said,

    I thought of you as I read the description as well!
    I thougt of “A Beautiful Mind” as well….

  5. Achelois said,

    Finding truth is very hard and tiring and long and disturbing and distressing and annoying and, and, and…

    But yes once you give up, you find it and suddenly it is simple, and easy, and pleasing, and loving, and calming, and soothing …

    Sufism is the rose without thorns. But in natural environment you won’t find a rose without thorns; you have to pluck them off yourself. And once you have done that any organized religion can instantly become purely spiritual and mystifying.

    I wanted to join a Sufi group but they never bothered to register me so I gave up. Then later I heard they had a very strong tendency to revere their master to a very high level. That is what Zia Sardar says in his book Desperately Seeking Paradise as well (if you haven’t already, please do read it. It is an excellent book and I think you’ll like it –delivered free in Scotland by Amazon). He was attracted to the Sufi sect but thinks it is difficult to find the perfect group where ‘shirk’ is not involved.

    I found it very intriguing that most Sufi groups actually don’t read much from the Quran and quote the Bible a lot. But they do a lot of dhikr with the names of Allah. In the same way they will give a lot of lip service to Muhammad but take Jesus as their moral guide. More than half the Sufis also don’t believe in Hell. I really don’t know how they understand passages from Quran and Bible on Hell then! But they are peaceful and kind and have the ability to find God everywhere and anywhere unlike most other Muslims. I think Sufis are like the Universalists of Islam 😀 (I had to plug my UUs somewhere!)

    Someone wrote yesterday on another blog that Universalists “just pick and choose from all the religions and take the nice sounding stuff” – we accept all religions but we don’t necessarily pick and choose from all religions, and yes we do tend to focus only on the good aka nice-sounding-stuff … we pick out the thorns. And what are the dangers of doing that? None that I know about so far. Is it a bad thing? Bad to choose good?! I have met loads of Sufi at the UU church even though the greater majority of UUs are Christian in thought in that they follow Jesus as a moral and spiritual guide.
    I found it quite liberating like Gazali to be able to focus on the positive and deny the negative for yourself. I experimented with both the UU and Unitarian Christian churches and found that the UU church never compels you to believe in anything. They inspire, never force you. With the UC church there was hidden coercion – passages from the Bible that you don’t understand – you MUST understand and accept.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      I have heard of that book but not read it. I’ll add it to the list!

      Yes, why not pick out the thorns. I think the argument against picking and choosing is that one would choose not to pick the more challenging aspects of a religion and just take the easy parts. In reality though, more orthodox believers probably do that. The outward parts are usually easier and it’s the inward parts that mystical traditions seem to focus on more, which are more challenging.

      I can’t take Islam as a package deal because of the “thorns” but having realised that, I am now free to consider something which is less rooted and more evolutionary. I used to think Sufism sounded great but was something of a cop-out because it wasn’t all based on the Quran. It would be like a way of calling myself a Muslim but without having to really be sold on Islam’s very core, which felt dishonest. But now I’ll probably never call myself a Muslim so it doesn’t matter.

      I like the music in Sufism. 🙂

      • Achelois said,

        The music is great!

        But like LK said I too find Sufism a bit difficult to both follow and comprehend. I try to be devoted to God completely and I try and alter my behaviour but there are concepts I don’t understand.

        The Dervish – Irving Karchmar – is an immense support and a great role model for me. I try to follow his examples in my daily life.

        You know, when I was a child, history was my most hated subject and now I really like reading history. I’m not a historian but I like history and I read the history of religions. I find thorns in the history and the problem is you can’t remove those thorns. I can say I won’t do this because it doesn’t suit my sense of morality, but how can I ignore that it happened long ago and was part of the life and law of the original religionists?

        • Wrestling With Religion said,

          Same here – thought history was boring at school, but am really interested in it now!

          It’s all a question of what is essential to the religion and what isn’t. If something unpleasant was done by later followers but not the originators, it is easy to say this is not original therefore not part of the religion. Even the original cultural practices incorporated in the religion are not necessarily part of the religion. But how the religion interacted with those cultural norms matters, and is one of the ways we characterise the religion (if we know what those norms were).

          I don’t think many, if any prophets or whatever actually captured “perfect universal ideals” (if that even exists). Maybe the ideals are something very broad and general, like “treat others as you would want to be treated”, which can work (somewhat imperfectly) within cultural norms. But “perfect” is so unimaginable that even prophets couldn’t see it.

          Just an idea!

    • Jasmine said,

      Truth is hard because 1.) it hurts, 2.) we can’t handle it and 3.) we have to give up so much to see t.

      In all my life, I have only uncovered maybe 3 or 4 things that I would say “this is the truth of which there is no doubt”

      And when I got to them, I had that Ureka! thing. Everything else…blurgh! Still going!

  6. Sara (cairo, lusaka, amsterdam) said,

    I absolutely love al-Ghazzali. Good thing you included the happy ending – in the end he did decide that Islam was the answer. And he also managed to reconcile Sufism with traditionalism. Amazing!
    You should really read his work. I think he’ll give you a lot of the answers you’re looking for.

    There are many different types of Sufis – some don’t even believe in the 5 daily prayers, and some do practice a mix of Islam, Christianity, and gnosticism. But al-Ghazzali, like you mentioned, practiced the more “moderate” form, without all the extravagances.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      I think I have come across books of his writings, but I’m definitely more curious now, knowing the angst he went through! Thankfully I am out of that phase. I wouldn’t say I’m even looking for answers any more. I am letting ideas come to me more naturally. Where I am right now is perfectly fine!

  7. Achelois said,

    Wanted to add that one book from Ghazali that you may particularly like is “Deliverance from Error.” It is very powerful and insightful. I encourage all non-Muslims who find it hard to appreciate the beauty in Islam to read this book.

    It really has the power to bring you face-to-face with spirituality and closer to God.

    I feel Ghazali lived in far better political times than the first two generations of Muslims in Arabia. Islam had spread to Persia by then but there was better political and social stability which allowed him to link mysticism with traditionalism that hadn’t been done by the Muslims of the first two generations who were occupied with spreading Islam and wars both external and civil. Ghazali thought beyond his time.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      Thanks, I’ll check that out.
      Yes, I think philosoply and mysticism both developed in a conducive political environment. Interesting that he was troubled by fear of hellfire, this was certainly true for me and maybe would be less likely when there were other things like holy wars to concentrate on and rally oneself with.

  8. susanne430 said,

    Really cute post – I’m glad there was a happy ending! 😀

  9. LK said,

    I think we all pick out the thorns no matter what religion you choose. A person cannot simply agree with everything associated with a religion. The problem comes when one of those “thorns” is part of the main belief structure of the religion (ex if you don’t believe Jesus is God Trinitarian Christianity could be difficult for you. If you dont believe the Qur’an is a holy book, Islam will be difficult for you). Outside of the main concepts, thorns can be plucked, in my opinion.

    Sufism confuses me but it does have a beauty to it. I’ll have to check out one if his books.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      True, and I think that’s a good thing. I’d say the vast majority of believers in the world believe what they were brought up to believe. They may not even know very much of what their religion says, and if they did, they might not agree with it all. But they belong to the religion all the same and it is a big part of their life. It is what it is to them.
      Converting, or thinking, just makes things more complicated. LOL

      • LK said,

        You don’t have to tell me that twice! LOL I actually think this plucking of thorns is a good thing because it makes you much more sure of what you believe. You just have to make sure that what you need to pluck is not part of the actual stem you know?

        Actually this goes really well with a post Im developing….I may use the thorn analogy over on my blog too 🙂

    • Achelois said,

      LK, that is a very interesting point you brought up. I was talking to a Sufi who doesn’t think Quran is the word of Allah. I mean he thinks the good bits were inspired perhaps but the ‘thorny’ issues were either altered verses/additions or were the innocent imagination of the Prophet. Now this is a man who prays three times a day (as opposed to five) and really believes in everything else but he think the Quran we have today is not unaltered word of God. He still recites it because he has “no other choice” as he puts it.

      So I asked him why he calls himself a Muslim then if he doesn’t even believe in the Quran and his argument is that belief in the Quran is not one of the five pillars of Sunni Islam. So I pointed out verses that mention again and again that it is the word of Allah and again his argument was that if it isn’t the word of Allah to begin with it doesn’t matter what it says and the fact that the Quran has to testify its divine origin is itself proof to a skeptic that it isn’t the word of God. Blasphemous; but I know some Muslims who either don’t believe in the Quran or have begun to question it. But they are still Muslim. I found it interesting that they argue belief in it isn’t one of the five pillars.

      • Wrestling With Religion said,

        I always looked at the shahaada and thought, OK so I have to believe Muhammad was a messenger of God if I am to be Muslim. And the way to find that out was to look at the message he brought i.e. the Quran and see if I think it’s from God. But then, maybe one could say the Quran wasn’t the message, it was just one aspect of his message, and not even central. Which is supported by the fact that there’s so much other stuff given in hadiths.

        So maybe the Sufi you spoke to considers the 5 pillars as the main message (and doesn’t mind if the rest was not totally right, to him). Interesting.

        • Achelois said,

          I always look at who is bringing the message to begin with than the message itself. And the messenger’s own moral outlook, cultural practices and behaviours are always reflected in the message. I’m not categorizing “true” religions Vs. false religions; just talking generally about religions. Any religious book would always reflect the nature of the one who wrote it/dictated it. You can’t miss it. This is a reason I can’t think of a perfectly timeless and universal book. There is no book that comes out as a manual with timeless doctrines, laws and edicts or completely removed from the cultural nature of its writer/dictator/messenger.

          There are so many interesting types of Muslim. There was a blog I really enjoyed reading but it mysteriously stopped updating. Eerie! It is and the writers on it, though Muslim, always supported the reverence of all prophets and highly condemned giving Muhammad superiority over all others. They are Quranist and reject all hadith – good and bad. They also reject division between Sunnis and Shias. But they are Muslim!

          There are also Quranists who don’t believe that Muhammad was a prophet (nabi) and strongly believe that he was just a messenger (rasul); merely a medium for dictation of the Book, and that is why he made mistakes in life that other prophets didn’t make.

          So I think Sufis are far closer to traditional Islam than others who go to the opposite extreme. I *think* those are the Muslims who find a lot of thorns but are afraid of Hell to abandon their faith altogether. If you are afraid of Hell then it means you know there is some truth in Islam and if you feel that way then Islam is the truth for you. We all have our own truth. But most skeptic Muslims find it really hard to leave their religion because they are taught from childhood that Islam is the only perfect religion and it is not that they can’t doubt the religion, but they can’t doubt the ingrained belief that Islam is perfect. My husband’s cousin recently converted and went through a lot of troubled times when he was questioning his faith. He is 38 years old so you can imagine how long he wrestled with his belief. But now he’s the happiest chap around.

          • Wrestling With Religion said,

            Yes, I agree with you about books. Language is such a human thing, and it contains so much culture and it expresses so much humanity, basically. Anything that is expresses in human language must be at least partly human in origin, I think. I always maintained that even when I was considering Islam.

            I can understand people wanting to follow the Quran and reject the hadiths, because most of the “thorny issues” are in hadiths!

            There is a big difference between the two and this was a big puzzle to me for a while. The Quran is more philosophical and a lot of hadiths are… well, painfully legalistic (for me). OK, maybe the hadiths are less accurately preserved, but overall the picture they paint is probably pretty accurate. It doesn’t seem possible that women could *not* have ceased worship during menstruation, for example. That cannot all be fabricated. I couldn’t come up with an explanation for why Muhammad would add to the words of God, or even apparently override them (e.g. wiping socks instead of washing feet in wudu). The best I could come up with was that the non-Quranic things were pre-existing customs that were allowed to continue.

            My new theory is that the Quran was not central to everything, but was just one part of the authority that Muhammad had. It contained those matters about which external verification was needed: it let other parties know where they stood with Allah and by extension the Muslims. It didn’t need to contain much law, or ritual, because the Muslims accepted this direction straight from Muhammad. In a way maybe the Quran was more often for non-believers than for believers. It was poetic and persuasive and had the purpose of winning them over.

            So basically, I think viewing the Quran as a divine life manual and central to everything is an inauthentic view. Completely un-scholarly opinion of course, just based on my own observations.

            “it is not that they can’t doubt the religion, but they can’t doubt the ingrained belief that Islam is perfect”
            This occurred to me too! It surprises me that “certain people” who know very little of the religion are so completely convinced of its truth. It’s almost as if the whole religion is an idol, an object of reverence.

            • Achelois said,

              That is certainly an interesting theory! I’ll think more about it.

              According to the Quran, it was Muhammad’s only miracle so I assume it was very important to him. But your point is very interesting that perhaps it was for non-Muslims and Muslims got their laws directly from the prophet.

              I know that many people reject hadith but how much can one reject? There must be some truth in some of them even if they sound odd. We can’t change history by rejecting records of it.

              • Wrestling With Religion said,

                I’ve no doubt it was very important to him, but I don’t think it was a life manual for believers (although obviously it does address them too). It more often seems to talk about unbelievers of various types. We keep hearing about how amazing the linguistics of it is, so maybe that was the miracle.

                • Achelois said,

                  Oh, I agree with you. It isn’t a life manual.

                  I don’t know about the “amazing linguistics.” There are those who literally weep because it sounds so good and there are also those who don’t find it all that emotionally amazing. I think to treat a work of art – music, visual arts, literary work as a miracle is a very subjective thing. You can part water and walk on it and everyone will call it a miracle. You can bring a dead back to life and everyone will call it a miracle, but a book no matter how amazing it is, is open to subjectivity.

                  Even obvious miracles were rejected by some as sorcery but not because they weren’t amazing to some and amazing to the rest. And there were people who weren’t too impressed with the language even when it was written in their language and their dialect. Even a scribe of Muhammad left Islam and the city because he suddenly felt it wasn’t divine language.

                  Just saying that I understand people who don’t really find it amazing. There are thousands of Arab non-Muslims who can understand the Quran but don’t find it so amazing.

                  For want of an example like the Mona Lisa – You hear so much about it that even if you personally don’t find it a superb piece of art you will think you don’t know how to appreciate art; you won’t think well perhaps it is just hyped up. At the Louvre my husband stood in queue for an hour to see it, I didn’t even bother and then when he came up he said it wasn’t all that great 😀 And just because the Mona Lisa is so beautiful to so many people it doesn’t become a miracle.

                  But yes, there are parts that are so beautiful in the Quran, like Surah Fajr. It really inspires me. And like everyone else I just love Surah Rahmaan for its poetry. I try not to concentrate on the message because it distracts me from the lyrical quality of the Surah and when I’m listening to its beautiful rhythm I don’t want to read how we will all boil and scald on the last day 😀

                  • Wrestling With Religion said,

                    “I think to treat a work of art – music, visual arts, literary work as a miracle is a very subjective thing.”

                    Me too.

                    “Even a scribe of Muhammad left Islam and the city because he suddenly felt it wasn’t divine language.”

                    I don’t know if this is the same story but I read in Farid Esack’s book about a scribe who, after hearing a verse, exclaimed something in praise of God, and Muhammad told him to write that down as part of the verse – and he stopped believing because of that.

                    For me it just comes down to the message. I don’t really care about the choice of words or how it was made.

      • LK said,

        that is interesting you bring up the Qur’an. Its one of my issues that I may not be able to solve. I haven’t finished it yet so I can’t really make a verdict. I really enjoy the Qur’an and I agree with about 90% of it thus far. I do think it is a holy book. I do think that it is possible that God could have created a prophet who would be able to re-iterate his message perfectly. bad part is, Muhammad didn’t write the Qur’an. There are a couple things that make me go “Hmmm this seems out of place”. There are a few things that seem added. Maybe its because I come from a Christian background and we know people messed with the bible. I find it hard to believe that there wasn’t a corrupt scribe or caliph or official who got some of their own info in there before it was penned down for good.

        I think Muhammad’s message and contribution was more than the Qur’an. But yes, its a big part of it.

        • Wrestling With Religion said,

          LK, that is an interesting thought about bits being added to it. This is the kind of thing part of me would love to discuss on the blog, but part of me just wants to stay well away from it!

          I read in a book on the Quran by Farid Esack that its compilation into a canon was not an entirely straightforward process. So your idea probably isn’t that controversial actually.

          I found it quite inspiring in the beginning. It had been so long since I’d read any “scriptures” and it reminded me of things about God that I used to think about much more. Towards the end I found it incredibly repetitive, but then the short suras right at the end are very beautiful.

          • LK said,

            Don’t get me wrong, I identify with the Qur’an many times more than I did the Bible. I could go as far to say I love it. I’ve never had any other book bring tears to my eyes simply because it is speaking is a such a way that I can understand and Identify with. But human beings are corrupt, imperfect creatures. Im sure there have been many who have tried to mess with it. I can understand how one or two may have slipped in. But I am still amazed at how muslims have been able to preserve it.

            I honestly think it comes from being Christian and seeing how many changes and editions there are of the Bible. Though within these changes the overall message seems to stay in tact although sometimes hard to find (for me anyway). Same with the Qur’an. The “iffy parts” really dont disrupt the overall message or value of the book.

            And yes it loves to repeat itself 🙂

            • LK said,

              And yes, despite its many edits and additions, I do think the Bible is a holy book.

            • Wrestling With Religion said,

              Yes, I’d agree the overall position of the Quran is very clear. The odd addition would not change that. I’m happy to hear that you are identifying with it so strongly!

              It *is* amazing how the early Muslims preserved their sources. Even the hadiths, which may not be perfect but as Jeffrey Lang pointed out in one of his books, we know an astonishing amount of detail about Muhammad’s life compared to any other prophet. That is quite mind-blowing when you think about it!

  10. ModestJustice said,

    I’ve still been reading your posts (all thought-provoking) but feel that I have nothing intelligent to contribute to all of these discussions :/

    However, I did find A History of God in DVD form (History Channel/watered-down version) hehe. I plan on watching it this weekend :]

    I understand Ghazzali’s religious angst (coupled with teenage angst on my own part ‘finding myself’ e.t.c) maybe I’ll search for his book and read it.

    I guess the only problem I have here, is, kind of the conclusion you came to on Islam.
    I believe the Qur’an is a holy book and has no error; therefore, if there is something I disagree with or find an error in there, then… what? It negates my former belief in it as holy book and then I’m left religious-less (because if Islam is completely perfect and then I come to the conclusion that is not perfect, I’m not willing to believe in other religions- personal reasons)

    And like Ghazzali, I’d be terrified to find out that I was wrong and end up in hell -.-;

    Angst. Angst.

    • Wrestling With Religion said,

      “feel that I have nothing intelligent to contribute to all of these discussions :/”
      No, don’t feel that way! We all have something good to say for ourselves. At least, that’s what I tell myself when I feel that way. 😉

      I hope you enjoy the DVD! I am enjoying the book, slowly getting through it.

      I found “Al-Ghazali’s Path to Sufism” on Amazon which looks good and it contains the “Deliverance from Error” which Achelois mentioned.

      If you are questioning the religion you have grown up in, maybe you are just that type of questioning person along with Al-Ghazali and the rest of us. It’s not a bad thing although it isn’t easy. I have certainly been through that whole fear of hell thing but I now refuse to believe that God would condemn me for using my brain and sincerely trying to find out the truth. I think questioning is very difficult, and painful, but I do think we end up where we are supposed to be in the end.

      I understand your angst! ((hug))

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