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Great Educators: Al Ghazzali (1058 to 1111 CE)

The Islamic ideology provided the world with a powerful source of inspiration and intellect.  The rich contributions which Islam has made in the various branches of science served as the bases for the development of modern science.

Although many earlier Western writers tended to ignore this fact, recent investigators have stressed and recognized the importance of the Muslim contributions in all areas of human endeavor, especially in developing areas of scientific outlook.

Muhammed Ibn Muhammed Ibn Ahmed, Abu Hamid Al-Tusi Al-Ghazzali (or Al Ghozzalli) Al-Shafi was born in 1058 at Tus in Khursan near the modern Meshed in Iran.  He is also known as ‘Hajjat Al-Islam’ (The Proof of Islam), ‘Ornament of the Faith’, and ‘Gatherer of Multivarious Sciences’.

Al-Ghazzali

He was a major jurist, heresiographer and debater expert in the principles of doctrine and those of jurisprudence.  Al Ghazzali was an outstanding theologian, original thinker, mystic and religious reformer

The members of his family were prominent in the study of Qaron Law.  When he left his teaching position at the Nizamiyah School in Baghdad he deputized his brother Ahmed, who was famous for his preaching to replace him there has been much discussion since ancient times whether his ‘niba’ (family name) should be Ghazzalli or Ghazzalii he died in Baghdad in 1111.

Al Ghazzali received his education at Jurjan, adjacent to the Caspian Sea.  Among his teachers was Abu Naser Al-Ismaili.  Then at Nayshabur he met many intellectual scholars such as Imam Al-Haramyn abu Al-Maali Al-Juwayai, who lectured in both Mecca and Median the two holy cities of Islam.

Al-Juwayni was a theologian, a Mutakallim ‘scholastic’ who headed the famous Nizmyah school which Nizam Al Mulk built and where Al-Ghazzali studied for eight years, 1077 to 1085.  He studied theology, philosophy, logic and natural sciences.

Al-Ghazzali then went to Baghdad where he joined the court of the Salijuks where he met the greatest scholars and poets patronized by the Persian Wazit (‘the minister of the court’), Nizam Al-mulk, the founder of Nizamiyah school named after him.  Nizamiyah was considered Baghdad’s first great school of religious law founded in 1067.  Al Ghazzali was appointed a professor there for four years, teaching theology and philosophy.

Baghdad 11th century
Baghdad 11th century

Many scholars came to him for learning and consultation.  Al Ghazzali abandoned his post to become a wandering mystic.  He went on pilgrimage to Mecca and then to Damascus where he lived in the mosque as was the custom of travelers at the time.  It was there he wrote ‘The Revival of Religious Sciences’ (Ihya Ulum Al-Din) and many original religious books which synthesized the mystical and orthodox points of view.

Al Ghazzali studied Christianity and became familiar with the doctrines and faith of the Christian Greeks.  He also read the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle and others.  He wrote a plethora of books on various subjects which were closely related to his intellectual and spiritual growth.

His intention in writing was to reach ordinary men as much as the scholarly elite and took much effort to spread his ideas amongst all.  Al Ghazzali was and still is considered by many as one of the greatest writers and thinkers of Islam and the intellectual world.

His contributions include major advances in religion, philosophy and Sufism.  Al Ghazzali was introduced to philosophy by Al-Juwayni.  With this inspiration he wrote Makasid Al-Falasifa (Objectives of the Philosophers) which was greatly admired in the west, especially in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  The Objectives of the Philosophers is a presentation of the theories and thoughts of philosophers as he understood them from original translation.  It also incorporates studies of Al Farabi (d. 950) and Ibn Sina (d.1037).

This he followed by a criticism of the doctrines of such philosophers entitled Tahafut Al-Falasifa (The Inconsistency [or incoherence] of the philosophers).  This book concentrates on demonstrating the inconsistencies of other philosophers, especially those most influenced by the Greeks, however he does not argue for any positive views of his own.

What inspired Al Ghazzali in philosophy was logic, in particular the Aristotelian syllogism found as part of his organon.  This said, Al Ghazzali’s philosophical position included the perspective that expressed the inability of reason to comprehend the absolute and the infinite.  He argued that religion and reason had, as their spheres, the infinite and the finite, respectively.

In religion, particularly religious mysticism, he removed the approach of Sufism of its excesses and worked to reestablish the authority of the orthodox religion.  He stressed the importance of genuine Sufism which he suggested was the path to the attainment of absolute truth.

His chief work in this area was Al-ikisad fi El Itikad (The Economy in Believing).  This book makes full use of Aristotelian logic, including the syllogism and it is a preparation for the wisdom or gnosis (Ma’rifa) of the Sufi.

Before his death Al Ghazzali wrote Al-Mungith min Al-dalad (The Resiner from Loss) which was an amount of his religious opinions.  Many consider this to be an autobiographical sketch. In this book he is much concerned with defending himself against the accusations and criticism that had been brought against his conduct and views he expressed.

This book is relevant to educationalists as it emphasizes the importance of the self-examining approach or method on which the truth-seeker must rely in order to continue their search for truth through a balance between religion and reason.  In his Ihya Ulum Al-Din (The Revival of Religious Sciences) he presented his unified view of religion incorporating three elements which were formerly considered contradictory tradition, intellectualism and mysticism.

Al Ghazali, Great educator and philosopher
Al Ghazali’s Manuscript

Al Ghazzali’s philosophical thought had a considerable effect on education, and his writings served to introduce logical thinking into Islamic educational thought.  He performed a great service for Muslim’s at every level by presenting obedience to the prescriptions of the Shari’a (Islamic Law) as a meaningful way of life.  In this way he helped to develop the concept of self-control by both teachers and students in their pursuit of any educational activity.

Al Ghazzali’s reflections on the nature of man’s knowledge of the divine realm, and his conviction that the upright and devout person could attain to an intuition or direct experience of divine things, implied that in the realm of education a devout and hard working learner should not be just a copier or follower.  Rather, they could participate in developing and enriching the realm of knowledge, and the more sincere they are in their scholarly endeavors, the more opportunities they would have to add to authentic knowledge.

Al Ghazzali’s influence on educational thought was many sided.  To begin with, he emphasized the importance of raising a generation of faithful people who would be close to God and free from conflict among one another.

Education should be in the service of society and bring up people with high moral standards.  He emphasized that education is a virtue.  Pedagogy he argued concerns what is in essence a human process and this meant that education cannot be properly practiced except through humility, careful listing and the ability to respond on the basis of love and intimacy or collaboration among human beings.

Education, he insisted, is an essentially logical process, and should therefore start from the simplest aspects of life and proceed towards the most complicated.  The job of the teacher is to explain even the most complex matters in the clearest terms.  Pedagogy is moreover, a moral process.  Teachers should have sympathy for their students treating them as kindly as if they were family, guiding and advising them.

Teaching should not be a punitive process, but one of counseling.  Teachers should, therefore, support their students and help them to fulfill their needs, and to achieve psychological and emotional stability.  Teaching, he explains, combines both theory and practice; teachers thus should serve as live models for students in their words and behaviour.

As a cultural process, education vitally contributes to the future of a society in which individuals and groups grow and progress.  Al Ghazzali’s focus is upon teaching as a value building process.  Students should be encouraged to cultivate good behaviour based on a sound system of such values as telling the truth, faith, honesty, humility and the avoidance of arrogance.

He posited that education is a total process that should attend to every aspect of human beings intellectual, psychological, social, physical and spiritual.  Hence teaching should be sensitively conducted so that differences among students are recognized and they are helped to develop according to their own capacities and interests.

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