Theology and Philosophy after al-Ghazali: The End of Philosophy in Islam?

Hasan Hameed

In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, one of the most influential thinkers of the modern world dismissed the importance of Arabic (Islamic) philosophy. Hegel declared that Arabic philosophy “has no content of any interest.” Other European writers such as Ernest Renan remarked that philosophy in the Islamic worlds had once flourished—the Greek philosophical tradition reached Europe via Arabic translations—but the forces of “Islamic orthodoxy” destroyed the spirit of free thinking. Soon after, Ignac Goldziher and Edward Browne, towering figures in the study of Islam in the West, identified a particular figure responsible for the end of philosophy in Islam: Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (d. 1111; hereafter Ghazali).

Today, Ghazali is venerated by millions of Muslims as the foremost religious intellectual of his time. His influence on the Islamic scholarly tradition is comparable to that of Aquinas in the Christian and Maimonides in the Jewish traditions. Many of his works, especially his Revival of the Religious Sciences, continue to be read in formal and informal institutions across the world in the original Arabic as well as in the countless vernacular languages in which it has been translated. In recent years, however, Ghazali has also been prominent in other circles, for other reasons. The Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg wrote that Ghazali “argued against the very idea of laws of nature.” Drawing on Ghazali’s work, The Precipitance of the Philosophers, he argued that following Ghazali, science in the Islamic world soon went into a decline from which it hasn’t recovered. Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of America’s most well-known science communicators, has long echoed the same view.

Unsurprisingly, many Muslims, too, have embraced these views of Ghazali. Liberal Muslims see him as responsible for the death of philosophy and the natural sciences in the Islamic world. Ghazali is thus seen as embodying everything that is wrong with traditional Islam. Conservatives, on the other hand, see his alleged refutation of philosophy as good reason to curb philosophical thinking in Muslim societies. But what if Ghazali himself was—and was taken as such by his immediate students—a philosopher? What if his works did not destroy but engender new genres of philosophical thinking in Islam? These are precisely the questions taken up in Frank Griffel’s magnificent new book, The Formation of Post-Classical Philosophy in Islam.

Even before he published his latest book, Griffel was recognized as one of the world’s preeminent scholars of Ghazali. His earlier monograph, The Philosophical Theology of al-Ghazali, won recognition from both the Western academic community and traditionalist Muslim circles. A professor of Islamic Studies at Yale University, Griffel had argued in his earlier work that Ghazali’s views were much more complex than a simple “rejection” of the “laws of nature.” The book thus laid to rest any claims that Ghazali could be held responsible for an (alleged) decline of the natural sciences in Islam after the 12th century. Complementing his earlier arguments, his current book offers a resounding refutation of the thesis of philosophical decline after Ghazali.

Griffel’s strategy is simple. The best evidence demonstrating that philosophy did not die after Ghazali is the existence of philosophers and books of philosophy. In over six hundred pages, Griffel takes us on a riveting tour of Islamic intellectual history, exploring the lives and works of a host of Muslim intellectuals in the decades after Ghazali. These authors and their texts are so numerous, in fact, that one wonders: how could earlier scholars miss them? This question leads Griffel back to a treatise of Ghazali, one that has frequently been cited as proof of Ghazali’s anti-philosophical views: the Tahāfut al-falāsifa (the Precipitance of the Philosophers).

Cover for 

The Formation of Post-Classical Philosophy in Islam
Frank Griffel. The Formation of Post-Classical Philosophy in Islam. Oxford UP, 2021. Pp. 664.
$125, hardcover.

In the Tahāfut, Ghazali presented the falāsifa (literally: philosophers) as uncritical followers of Avicenna’s philosophical positions. These falāsifa claimed that Avicennan positions were based on apodictic reasoning (a form of argumentation that leads to logically certain, irrefutable conclusions). The Tahāfut demonstrated the falsity of this claim, using the same principles of Aristotelian logic championed by the falāsifa. Ghazali deconstructed twenty key tenets of Avicennan philosophy: seventeen, he deemed heretical to Islamic teachings; three, outright disbelief. On the last page of the book, Ghazali issued a fatwā (a legal opinion) that the one holding these three beliefs—the eternity of the world, denial of bodily resurrection, and denial of God’s knowledge of particulars—became a non-Muslim and merited the death penalty.

Many Western scholars have seen this last statement as proof that Ghazali was part of an “Islamic orthodoxy” bent on persecuting “philosophers”. But Griffel argues that here—as in so many other places—Western writers have been guilty of all-too-easily projecting the historical experience of European Christianity onto the history of Islam. The historical record demonstrates that Ghazali’s fatwā had very little historical influence. Ghazali’s overall critique of Avicennan philosophy, however, had a profound impact on Islamic thought. This can be seen in two major developments during the twelfth century, according to Griffel:

The first is that philosophers who were committed to the scholarly as well as textual tradition of philosophy as it has come down from the Greeks to the Arabs avoided the word falsafa and replaced it with another word that assumed largely the same meaning that falsafa had up until the late fifth/eleventh century [that is, ḥikma]. Secondly, we see the emergence of a different type of philosopher [that is, the mutakallim], one who wrote and engaged in philosophy just as much as the falāsifa of earlier centuries did, but who consciously rejected the attribute of being a faylasūf and distanced himself from falsafa.

Put differently, many Muslim scholars after Ghazali wrote on issues such as metaphysics, ethics, and theology. They also consciously engaged with earlier scholars who had written on similar issues. Their philosophical concerns and their engagement with a philosophical tradition are sufficient to characterize their works as philosophy. Yet these scholars avoided the labels falāsifa and falsafa for themselves and their practice because Ghazali’s critique had made these terms unfashionable. While the falāsifa did not entirely disappear—there were those who continued to follow the teachings of Avicenna without engaging with Ghazali’s criticism—they constituted only a minority of the groups practicing philosophy. Consequently, when Western scholars looked for philosophy in the Islamic world in the period after Ghazali—what academics call the postclassical period of Islam—they restricted their enquiry to books identifying as books of falsafa, without realizing that there were two other, much more productive genres of philosophy that went by other names: ḥikma (whose practitioner was called a ḥakīm) and kalām (whose practitioner was called a mutakallim).

“Whoever is granted ḥikma,” the Quran declares, “has been granted much good.” As a term, ḥikma (wisdom) had sacred legitimacy. In fact, already in the writings of Avicenna, the term was occasionally used as a synonym for philosophy. Muslim philosophers seeking to distance themselves from the falāsifa that Ghazali had criticized thus latched onto the term as a self-description for their practice of philosophy. Moreover—and here is Griffel’s key observation—the term also indicates a new genre of philosophy that consciously distinguishes itself from falsafa. Books in the genre of ḥikma genre seek to improve the Avicennan system ‘from within’. They engage with Ghazali’s criticism of Avicenna, but are concerned only with philosophical reasoning; whether the conclusions support or contradict the teachings of revelation is of no concern. These books implicitly acknowledge that even though Ghazali was concerned with Avicennan teachings because they appeared to him against revelation, his criticism of them in the Tahāfut was based on sound philosophical arguments.

The key figure in the development of ḥikma as a genre was a Jewish convert to Islam, Abū l- Barakāt al-Baghdādī (d. c. 560/ 1165). Painstakingly reconstructing his biography from scattered references in various sources, Griffel establishes that Baghdadi was already respected as a Jewish philosopher before his conversion to Islam late in life—he is said to have been around sixty years old at the time. Like many other philosophers of this era, he was formally employed as a physician at the courts of the Seljuk rulers. While the circumstances of his conversion are unclear, there is no doubt about the importance of his magnum opus, The Carefully Considered Book (al-Kitāb al-Muʿtabar). Influenced by Ghazali, Baghdadi leaves off the notion that philosophical truth can be established via demonstration (apodictic reasoning). Instead, al-Kitāb develops another method, i‘tibār (careful consideration), where different alternatives are compared to reach the one closest to truth. He thus introduces a ‘dialectical turn’ in Islamic philosophy, an intellectual move culminating in the works of the famous Muslim polymath, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606/1210).

Along with Ghazali, Razi is one of the most prolific and influential authors in the history of Islam. He wrote books in the fields of medicine, physics, chemistry, astronomy, and history, among others. His most famous works, however, are his commentary on the Quran and his books of philosophy. But the latter have also posed an acute problem for historians: Razi appears to adopt contradictory philosophical positions in his different works. For instance, in some texts, he took the position that the world was pre-eternal; in others, that the world is created in time. How does one explain this discrepancy?

Griffel provides a brilliant explanation: Razi’s different works take different positions because they are part of two different genres of philosophy in Islam: ḥikma and kalām. We have already seen the development of ḥikma post-Ghazali. By contrast, kalām (literally “speech”) was already an established genre long before Ghazali. It denoted books of inter-sectarian disputation over questions of metaphysics, that is, a form of rationalistic theology. Ghazali’s key contribution, according to Griffel, was incorporating tools from falsafa, specifically Aristotelian logic, into kalam. Ḥikma, of course, also drew on Aristotelian logic, but the key feature of kalām was its emphasis on revelation as a source of knowledge and the ultimate arbiter of truth. Razi felt called upon to contribute to both genres, and he had no problems arguing for different positions depending on the different genres.

That still leaves the question: which position did he ‘truly’ believe? Griffel gives a fascinating answer: Razi could not decide between them. Human knowledge is, ultimately, limited. On some matters, God had simply not given us enough information to reach the Truth. The impulse is not quite the same as Immanuel Kant’s (d. 1804) “denying knowledge to make room for faith,” but the dilemmas are similar to the ones the most important European philosopher called the “antimonies of reason.”

The distinctions between falsafa, kalām, and ḥikma are not of Griffel’s own making. He presents a wealth of evidence for the same in a range of biographical dictionaries written in the decades after Ghazali. Its wide use of source materials constitutes, in fact, one of the biggest strengths of the book. In addition to an impressive range of philosophical works and biographical dictionaries by medieval Muslim authors—many of which remain in manuscript form—Griffel draws on existing scholarship in a number of fields—historiography, archaeology, and urban studies—to provide evidence for a flourishing intellectual scene after Ghazali in regions that are part of present-day Iran, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Reminding us that authors need patronage— then, as now, writing philosophy books was insufficient to make a living—Griffel demonstrates that many urban polities in these regions experienced economic growth in the twelfth century. They thus maintained a robust culture of scholarly life and higher education. Griffel is here countering the widespread idea that the Mongol conquests destroyed economic and, therefore, intellectual life in these cities.

Griffel also attempts to counter another idea which is as pernicious as it is pervasive in popular media discourse: that the madrasa, the traditional institution of Muslim scholarly learning, was closed off to rational sciences like philosophy. On the contrary, drawing on Sonja Brentjes’ works on the history of mathematics in Islamic societies, in addition to the biographies of Muslim philosophers, Griffel tries to show that the madrasa is the institutional center of post-classical philosophy in Islam. This traditional madrasa system is only disrupted, so Griffel, when European colonizers wipe off the pious endowments, awqāf, that supported madrasas—imagine the impact of a legal decree that suddenly wiped out the endowment of an elite Ivy League research university. Griffel goes on to claim that books of ḥikma were taught in madrasas for centuries until “the moment that colonial institutions of learning were introduced and Western ideas about the nature of philosophy proliferated.”

It is these last claims that suffer from lack of specificity and lack of evidence. When, exactly, is this “moment” of great rupture? Which madrasas, specifically, does Griffel have in mind? Which philosophy books were historically part of madrasa curriculum, and when were they removed? It is worth remembering that the regions now comprising the Middle East, Iran, and South Asia all had very different experiences of colonialism. Even within these large regions, Muslim scholars in different locales responded in various and complex ways to the pressures of colonialism. Much more research remains to be done on the evolution of madrasa curriculum over time in different parts of the Muslim world. Until then, general claims about the ills of colonialism risk supporting a position often parried by Muslims themselves: lay the blame of all that is wrong on the colonizers.

Far from discrediting it, however, these criticisms only reveal the strength of Griffel’s central argument: philosophy in the Muslim world thrived after Ghazali. For it is the abundance of philosophical works in the 12th century and later that leads us to ponder: when, where, and why, if at all, can we trace the ‘decline’ of philosophy in the Muslim world? Before wondering “what went wrong” with Muslim societies, we must better understand “what happened?” The first step to decolonizing history is to know history beyond the colonizer’s gaze.

Other than the historiographical, the book also forces us to ask other questions. Griffel has shown that influential Muslim scholars of the past combined expertise in the philosophical sciences with command over other subjects such as hadith and law. Their achievements were a combination of these different interests. Razi’s insights in his Quran commentary, for instance, are indebted to his engagement with falsafa. If that is the case, what do Muslims today lose when they turn their backs on traditions of knowledge considered “secular”? Since the days of colonialism, Muslims have, of course, acknowledged the need to study subjects such as STEM, but the reasoning is generally an instrumentalist one—if we can’t build our own aircrafts, how will we fly to Mecca? But Griffel’s work shows that the issue is not merely the necessity of studying different disciplines for the material benefits they may carry in this world; it is rather the significance of studying across disciplines of knowledge to better understand the revelation of God. Importantly, Griffel’s book shows that the reverse also holds true. That is, philosophers—and practitioners of other sciences—also lose something when they refuse to engage with other traditions of knowledge, such as the Islamic intellectual tradition.

The Formation of Post-Classical Philosophy in Islam is, first and foremost, a landmark contribution to that tradition. However, as this review has shown, it also has much to benefit historians, philosophers, and anyone interested in the ways that problematic ideas in the present—such as narratives of decline—shape readings of the past.

Hasan Hameed is a PhD candidate in History at Princeton University, working on Islam, gender, and Persian literature in modern South Asia. Before coming to Princeton, he earned a Master’s in Modern South Asian Studies from the University of Oxford, where he was the Vicky Noon Scholar from Pakistan. He was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, where he earned an undergraduate degree in Social Sciences and Liberal Arts from the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi.