Transcript: 145 - Frank Griffel on al-Ghazālī

Why did al-Ghazālī judge "the philosophers" to be apostates? Peter finds out from Frank Griffel.
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Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: One of the things I wanted to talk to you about, because you've written about it, is how Ghazali affected conceptions of orthodoxy and toleration of belief in Islam. Before we get on to what Ghazali has to say about that, I thought maybe we should start by having you say what the situation is before Ghazali. So what is the sort of standard attitude towards which beliefs can be tolerated and what happens to you if you step out of line in the Islamic world? 

Frank Griffel: Right, when you talked about the Tahafut, I think you explained that on the last page, al-Ghazali has this verdict of unbelief, kufr, against the philosophers. And one of the things one has to keep in mind is that for al-Ghazali, kufr always means apostasy from Islam. But he thinks about apostasy in a different way as earlier legal scholars in Islam have thought about it. Apostasy in the real meaning and the earlier meaning in this case, earlier in the sense of how al-Ghazali understood it, means that somebody walks away from Islam and says, for instance, “from now on I'm no longer a Muslim and I actually want to be, say, a Christian.” That is something that the Sharia in this case, Islamic law, always found to be punishable by death. There is a saying of the prophet which basically goes, whoever changes his religion, kill him. And that was applied to Muslims who in this case would walk away openly from Islam. Al-Ghazali thinks about it differently. He uses this so-called verdict of apostasy in order to rein in his doctrinal adversaries in Islam, particularly on the one hand the Falasifa in this case, the movement of Avicennism and secondary also a group of seven Shiites, of Ismailites at this point in time. And he thinks that apostasy is a certain inner disposition that these people have, that they take on certain views and these views can no longer be regarded as Muslim. And for him, this is something that he actually calls clandestine apostasy because it is not happening in the open. It is for him assumed a secret apostasy that someone would not say, “okay, I've left Islam.” No, these people still pretend to be Muslim, but because they have taken certain positions that are so far away from what can be in this case regarded Islam, they have become clandestine apostates. Zanadiqa is the Arabic term. And therefore these people can also be punished with death, with capital punishment, despite the fact that they never declared open apostasy. 

PA: And Ghazali seems to be adopting for himself the authority to decide who is and who isn't within the bounds of Zandaqa then. 

FG: Yes, he does. And he does this. And this is something that he does not do as a philosopher where he argues with philosophical arguments, but this he does as a Muslim legal scholar, as a faqih, which he also was. 

PA: And he thinks that you can judge whether someone is in this unacceptable condition just on the grounds of what they say, presumably. 

FG: In fact, and here, and here I come back to the question that you asked in the beginning, he was the first to do that. Before this, nobody in Islam really said that these are positions that are no longer covered by Islam. By and large, although this is narrowing down a long narrative to a short sentence, by and large, we can say that before al-Ghazali, basically everything was tolerated in one way or another. And it is hard to find any writing in this case, any text that would argue these and these things are certainly no longer Islam. Of course, people wrote that this is wrong, and this is heterodox, and this should not be accepted as correct and such a position, whoever holds it will end up in hell. But punishing a Muslim, in this case a co-Muslim, on account of a certain position in this world rather than the next world was something that probably hasn't much happened before al-Ghazali. 

PA: And who did al-Ghazali think should actually do the execution, literally, in this case?

FG: Well, in one text he actually writes that if you ever get hold of someone like this, meaning in this case if you would have ever gotten hold of Avicenna, everybody could have killed him. 

PA: Wow, that's a rather striking view. 

FG: It is true that al-Ghazali's position in this regard is very harsh and it's also very principled in a way. We have, however, to keep in mind that it also comes with, I would say, an equivalent view about religious toleration, which other people did not hold. By and large we can say that people were killed before al-Ghazali for various reasons. Some of them might have had to do, in this case, also with religious ideas. What I say is that nobody has ever written about it in that way. 

PA: So he's the first theoretician, as it were, of killing people on religious grounds. 

FG: In Islam that's probably true. On the other hand, he's also the first theoretician, in this case, who thought about toleration in Islam and what are the bounds of toleration. 

PA: Let's actually look at a text where he does talk about that. This is a work called Faisal al-Tafriqa bayn al-Islam wa’l Zandaqa, which in your book you translate Decisive Criterion for Distinguishing Islam from Clandestine Apostasy

FG: Yes. 

PA: It's bound to be a bestseller, the title like that. And so the title speaks of a criterion for telling whether or not someone is in this condition of apostasy. So what is the criterion that he offers us? 

FG: In this book, al-Ghazali does two things. On the one hand, he does what he promises in the title, namely distinguish or single out those positions which can no longer, according to his position or according to his view, no longer be tolerated in Islam. Therefore, he singles out what in his view is Zandaqa, clandestine unbelief. With regard to the philosophers, these are three positions. The first position is that the world has no beginning in time. The second position is that God does not know the individuals. God only knows classes of beings. And the third position is that there is no bodily resurrection in the afterlife, but that the afterlife is only something that the souls experience. These three positions, which were all held by Avicenna, al-Ghazali singles out and says this is whoever holds this is a clandestine unbeliever, a zindiq, and he can be, if he teaches it, not simply holds it, if he teaches it to other people, he can actually be killed. 

PA: Can I ask you a question about that actually before you go on? So there's these three positions, the world is eternal, God doesn't know particulars, and the body isn't resurrected. So the afterlife is purely an afterlife of the soul. Do these three have something in common? I mean, why are those three things and not, why not, for example, the universe is necessary, although that's close to saying that the world is eternal? 

FG: The different opinions about this, my opinion is that two of them are related to one another, the two latter ones. The bodily resurrection in the afterlife and God's knowledge of particulars have to do with the validity of divinely revealed law in this world. Al-Ghazali was of course a philosopher. He was also, as I said, a legal scholar. And thirdly, he was also a political thinker. For him, the main goal in political philosophy was the validity of divinely revealed law, of Sharia. And his position was that if the ordinary people would not know that their deeds in this case are known to God firstly, and if they would get the impression that there is no bodily punishment or bodily reward in the afterlife, then they would no longer heed the law. 

PA: So there's no reason for them to be good, in other words. 

FG: Exactly. So the two latter ones are connected to the making people better in this world because they fear the punishment in the next world, or they strive to acquire the reward in the next world. With regard to the first position, the eternity of the world, there is actually much debate about this also in later Muslim literature. Averroes, for instance, responds to that, and many other philosophers respond to al-Ghazali's accusation here. And I have come to the position that this has more or less to do with Avicenna's view of God, in the sense that God for Avicenna becomes this one might say, and here I would use words that al-Ghazali would choose, becomes this impersonal creation machine. That is something where al-Ghazali wanted to act against, and this can be best singled out in philosophical terms, with the position of the eternity of the world. 

PA: So actually, in a way, it just amounts to the other thing I mentioned, namely that God's relationship to the world is necessary.

FG: Right.

PA: Which probably actually hangs together with the idea that he doesn't know particulars. 

FG: Yes. What al-Ghazali actually wants to do in his Tahafut is kind of rectify philosophy, in a way. He does not want to abolish it, for sure, but he basically wants to say to the philosophers listen, if you just give up these three positions, you can be good Muslims.

PA: Right.

FG: And we're going to have you here, and we're going to sit around with a campfire, sit around the campfire with you. 

PA: [Laughter]

FG: As long as, however, you hold these three positions, there can be no bridge between the two of us. 

PA: Right. So let's go back though, before we get on to talking more about the Tahafut, let's talk a little bit more about the Faisal al-Tafriqa

FG: Sure.

PA: Because actually, as you've explained in some of your work on this, it's not just that there's the Muslims who have what you might call orthodox belief, in other words, the correct belief, and then these people who are in the state of apostasy, who have gone beyond the pale, it is also possible for people to have false beliefs and be tolerated. 

FG: Right. What al-Ghazali does in this book, first, as I said, he singles out what is clandestine unbelief, then he divides the Muslim community into three groups. First, those who hold these positions, which are apostasy and who are no longer Muslims. Secondly, a group of people who hold wrong positions, from his point of view, we would say heterodox positions, and this is a fairly large group for him, which for instance includes most Shiites, other Sunnis, and Mu'tazilites as well, as any other members in this case of Muslim groups. These are Muslims and they're tolerated and they enjoy all the legal protections that comes with being a member of the Muslim community. Thirdly, he identifies that group who are the orthodox, who hold the right positions, and of course he counts himself amongst them. The criterion in this case for determining what is the right position is in this particular book connected to Quran interpretation. The question is basically, when is one prompted to interpret a certain formula or certain word in the Quran allegorically, and when is one prompted in this case to understand it by what is called the outside meaning, the zahir, we would say the literal sense. 

PA: So presumably, actually a lot of the people who are running around with false but tolerated beliefs would be people who took passages in the Quran literally, which are actually to be interpreted figuratively. 

FG: Or the other way around. 

PA: Right, okay. And Ghazali says, well, you're wrong about this, but that doesn't mean you're no longer Muslims and he might even think that they're going to paradise, correct? 

FG: Probably not. 

PA: [Laughter] He's not that tolerant. 

FG: No, but it is not so much. This is something one has to stress in this case. Al-Ghazali does not write much about the afterlife, and he always makes clear that we know very little about the afterlife. He also says that this is really the realm of speculation, and it is only revelation that tells us anything meaningful about the afterlife. 

PA: I see. So in other words, he would say he's not in a position to say which false beliefs wind up sending you to hell and which don't. 

FG: Which is correct. 

PA: And I guess as an Asharite, he would think that God could send everyone to paradise or everyone to hell anyway, so of course he's not in a position to think that. Okay. So what would be the kind of standard by which we would decide whether to interpret a given passage in the Quran figuratively or literally? 

FG: In the Faisal al-Tafriqa and in a number of other words, al-Ghazali uses a formula which he calls the rule of interpretation, qanun al-ta'wil. We must say when we use the word interpretation, we should always keep in mind this is allegorical interpretation. It's not interpretation like we use the word now in English that you say, you know, oh, I have to interpret this sentence. It means that we read the Quran different from what the literal sense of the text actually is. The rule of interpretation goes like this. We read the Quran in the literal sense as long as there is no demonstrative argument that prevents us from doing so. 

PA: And a demonstrative argument would be a proof that proceeds from certain premises and thus establishes a certain conclusion. 

FG: Demonstrative argument in this case by al-Ghazali is understood to the same meaning as Aristotle, for instance, understands it in the second analytics or Avicenna does in a similar way in this case. So he adopts this criteria of certain knowledge from the philosophical movement, from the Aristotelian movement. 

PA: What would be an example of something he thinks you can demonstrate that would force you to read a text figuratively then? 

FG: Al-Ghazali himself says when he's asked about this, these are all the passages in the Quran that talk about God as if he has a body. For instance, those verses in the Quran that speak of God having a hand or for instance, the verses that say that he sits on the throne, similar suggestions that he would actually be, as the theologian said, in a certain direction, meaning that he would be at a certain place. All this al-Ghazali thinks he can prove demonstratively is impossible. God does not have a body. God is not in a certain direction. God is not physical. Thus, those verses we must read figuratively. He for instance says that hand represents the power to punish. Therefore, when the Quran talks about God's hand, in reality, what God wants to convey to us is God's ability to punish us. Throne represents majesty. What God truly wants to convey to us in the meaning of these verses is that God has a majesty that is beyond every other majesty, that he has the highest majesty. 

PA: And that actually sounds a lot like what previous Asharites, in fact, al-Ashari himself had said about, for example, passages that suggest that God has a body. So I guess that what Ghazali is adding to that is this Aristotelian/Avicennian notion of demonstration. Is that right? 

FG: That's correct. This is not a revision of Asharism. It is, one might say, very traditional Asharism. It is one what one can even say the philosophical expression of something that was current in Asharism before al-Ghazali. 

PA: Right. That's a pretty good summary of a lot of what Ghazali does in his career, actually. Well, so that I think leads us back to the Tahafut because something very striking about that text is that he keeps accusing the philosophers, by which he means Avicenna, of giving arguments that are not demonstrative. So it's not just that they're wrong. It's that they're giving proofs that fall short of the standards that they themselves would aspire to reach. And so is this basically an application of the same sort of rule that he's giving in the Faisal al-Tafriqa

FG: Yes, it is. In the Tahafut as well, he looks into a number of teachings that are put forward by Avicenna and his followers. And he says these positions cannot be proven demonstratively. What kind of consequences this has is different. If such a position, for instance, violates the outside meaning of the Quran, then it is at the same time also untrue. Because one might say in this case, the authority of revelation trumps over the authority of an argument that is non-demonstrative. However, sometimes al-Ghazali also accepts positions that the philosopher bring forward, yet in his opinion cannot prove demonstratively. This for instance applies to the cosmology, for instance, of Avicenna, the view that there are different spheres and there is a highest sphere which is connected with God. This is something which al-Ghazali at the end is sympathetic to. But he says this is not something that you philosophers know through demonstrative arguments, because your arguments are not demonstrative. No, you know this from earlier revelations which have come down to Moses or to Jesus or to other earlier prophets than Muhammad. And this knowledge has trickled down to the philosophical movement and now you pretend to know this solely on the basis of reason which al-Ghazali thinks is wrong.

PA: Right, so actually the title, the Tahafut al-Falasifa is usually translated as The Incoherence of the Philosophers, but maybe then we should understand it in a more literal way as like the places where the philosophers stumble. So maybe that's more what he has in mind here, is that right? 

FG: In fact, a young colleague of mine, Sascha Trager, recently suggested that Incoherence is not a good translation of Tahafut. He rather suggested this is the precipitance of the philosophers. 

PA: So places where they've jumped the gun, as it were, and not places where they've even necessarily said what is false. 

FG: True. 

PA: I think that's interesting because actually I never thought about that before, that he might be telling them off for a methodological failure even in cases where they've said something true. 

FG: There is a polemic going on in the Tahafut about the providence of knowledge as well. In addition, of course, to what is right or wrong amongst the philosophers, al-Ghazali also accuses them of basically selling positions that have come down from prophecy as philosophical positions and that he says is wrong. 

PA: Right. One last thing I wanted to ask you before we end is al-Ghazali’s reception, and obviously that's a huge topic that we can't really tackle now, but maybe we could at least say a little bit about how he affected the way people saw philosophy. So he writes this work, the incoherence or the precipitance of the philosophers, and I've said this in the podcast already that there's a kind of myth that he killed off philosophy in the East. And I know you agree with me that he didn't do that, but what effect did he have? So how do people see philosophy different after al-Ghazali? 

FG: As I said before, for al-Ghazali, the Tahafut is more or less a book where he wants to rectify the philosophical movement. He wants to say these are the things you shouldn't do. As long as you don't do these things, particularly taking on the three positions that he identifies on the last page of the book, as long as that happens, you can actually be a viable movement, in this case, amongst the various movements of Islam. And that is in fact what we see is happening. First of all, however, what is also happening is that the word falsafa and the falasifa as a movement is understood in a different way. After al-Ghazali, it is understood as one particular movement amongst the various theological or philosophical movements within Islam. In fact, it becomes identified, particularly with these three positions that are condemned on the last page of the Tahafut al-Falasifa, or we can also say it really becomes identified with the Avicennan system. 

PA: Right. So he effectively, it's quite ironic really that he helps Avicenna become the philosopher instead of Aristotle, let's say. 

FG: Yes. Al-Ghazali does a number of things about philosophy in the Islamic tradition. First of all, he changes the understanding of the word falsafa. It becomes the meaning of Avicennism. On the other hand, he also creates philosophy within the tradition of Kalam. From now on, we actually see a lot of philosophical arguments being used by figures that we usually identify as mutakallimun, that means thinkers who are active within the tradition of Kalam. One of the important followers of al-Ghazali, who is Fakhr al-Din al-Razi as an example, he dies in 1210, he is somebody who becomes an active philosopher who engages with the thought of Avicenna very seriously and very much in detail, yet at the same time, he saw himself as somebody who is active in Kalam. So we now see philosophy being practiced by a number of thinkers, by people who are active in Kalam, by sufis such as Ibn Arabi and other thinkers. Philosophy is something which from now on leaves the more or less confined space of falsafa and becomes more widespread in the Islamic world. 

PA: And that would explain why Averroes is so upset about the Tahafut, because he keeps – I mean, I'll get to this later on, but when he writes Tahafut al-Tahafut, The Precipitance of the Precipitance, maybe we should translate it – he keeps saying, well, this is not what philosophy is. Philosophy is Aristotelianism, not Avicennism. 

FG: That is right. That is his kind of response. It also needs to be said, and you will come to that later on, that there are many things which are truly happening in al-Ghazali's Tahafut al-Falasifa in this case that Averroes does not respond to because he doesn't understand the radicalness of the response that al-Ghazali puts out there. 


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