[ Prof Abdel Wahab El Messeri in conversation on Imam AlGhazali ]
Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri (Arabic: عبد الوهاب المسيري, 1938-July 2, 2008) was an Egyptian scholar, author and general coordinator of the opposition organization Kefaya.
Elmessiri was born in Damanhur, Egypt, graduated with a BA in English literature from Alexandria University in 1959. He received a MA in English and comparative literature from Columbia University in 1964 and a PhD in the same field from Rutgers University in 1969. He was professor emeritus of English and comparative literature at Ain Shams University, Egypt since 1988. He was also a University Professor at King Saud University, Saudi Arabia (1983–1988) and at Kuwait University, Kuwait (1988–1989) and a visiting Professor at the International Islamic University Malaysia. He is considered as one of Egypt's most famous thinkers and very well-known among Arab scholars.
Elmessiri's major areas of research included: Jews, Judaism and Zionism; secularism and prejudice; Western culture and contemporaneity; modernism and postmodernism; literary theory and comparative literature. Over the course of his life his outlook moved from western secularism to a modern islamic vision. Elmessiri wrote several articles about his ideas, including "Chosen Community, an Exceptional Burden".
On July 2, 2008 he died after a very long battle against cancer at the Palestine Hospital, Cairo.
Question: Mohamed Islam:
One of the leading Islamic Philosophers was Al-Ghazali. Who was he? Can you tell us about him?
Answer: Prof Emeritus Abdel Wahab El Messeri:
He was, like most Islamic thinkers or philosophers of the time, quite versatile, well rounded: He was a lawyer, a scientist, a jurist, a judge. Non of the Islamic thinkers were confined to the discipline of philosophy. They had comprehensive knowledge (alchemists. Scientists, literary critics, mystics, etc.). This well-roundedness and comprehensiveness occurred in the west only during the renaissance.
He was born in Tus, near the Iranian border in 1058, during the time of the last florescence in Islamic Philosophy. He went to the Nazamia School in Baghdad, where he made quite an impression. He was preceded by Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina. The philosophical outlook before him was quite impressive.
Later in Baghdad he underwent a change, he started suspecting every thing he had learned. The radical skepticism of Descartes. He is always compared to Descartes. But differences between them are much more than resemblances. Descartes fell back on the Ego to resolve the crises of meaning. ‘ I think therefore I am’. This was the beginning of modern rationalism which resulted in the absolute polarity of man versus nature. Now we know that nature conquered man.
Al-Ghazali left school and went on a quest. When he returned, he came with a world outlook which represented a synthesis of the best in Islam. It was based on a critique of all the trends in Islamic thought during his time. He pointed out:
.......The limitations of the mystics ( Sufis ) The tendency to contemplation and esoteric knowledge. Religion has to express itself in exoteric learning. This was quite a shift in mysticism. He pointed out that action is part of mysticism. You know then you act. Just to know is not enough. He said mystics try to get some kind of union with God, but there has to be a gap between man and God. This sets him apart from those who tended toward heresy. They wanted to bridge that gap between the created and the Creator, but the Islamic World Outlook depends on that gap. Man should not try to bridge that gap, to have union with God, but he must strive to get closer to God. The Muslim learns to recognize the gap. This is of the essence in Islam. Those who want to bridge the gap, and reach God, and have union with Him, are Pantheists. Islam is very much opposed to Pantheism.
......He addressed himself to the Mukalimun (Theologians) They served Islam by solving some problems, but really did not solve most problems.
......As for the Philosophers, he criticized them most severely. Firstly, they believed in eternity of the world, co-eternal with God ( They were believers but erred on certain points). Secondly they made God very distant from man. Thirdly they believed in a world controlled by cause and effect. He refuted these and other points in a book: Incoherence of the Philosophers.
The Cosmology of Al-Ghazali: man is here, God is there. In between is the world of norms, both ontological and psychological, Moral and axiological. In other words, it is not a an arid world, or abyss. It is a field. One can interact with god in that field. If man fulfills some of these norms, and man recognizes his separateness, he can get closer to God. There is a great role for mysticism. Not leading to unity with God, but simply spiritual exercises. The mind for Al-Ghazali is not , like for other philosophers, absolute. It can not be. Otherwise, whence would it derive its norms.
Causality: This is his real contribution to philosophy. Philosophers say: cause lead to effect. Al-Ghazali says : to follow after does not mean to follow from. He says : the power is not the cause. The power is God. God has imposed the pattern. The cause is God. Not like ‘natura naturans’ of Spinoza/ Descartes, they make this latent in nature. This is Pantheism. The patterning force in nature is eminent in it, but transcendental at the same time. This is the essence of Islamic Epistemology, which means: we can know nature but not completely because of the power that is there, both latent and transcendental. Unlike the modern Secular Concept, where you have to know nature completely, and you control it, and harness it to your service. Of course, since modern western man has failed, now you have Materialist Irrationalism, where they claim there is no causality at all. We go from absolute causality of the Cartesian or Hegelian variety, to the Post-modern denial of causality completely.
Ghazali's Islam assures us a level of certainty, enough to go along, but it does not promise us absolute certainty and absolute control of the universe.
MI: The other contribution of Al-Ghazali was the revival of the science of religion?
AWM: He wanted to define the sciences of religion and at the same time infuse spirit into them. The essence of Al-Ghazali’s Epistemology was this attempt to bring in the full complexity of man. With science there had to be emotion. The heart had to be operative, not just the mind. He then moved on to Miskat un Anwar (the mystical: the Niche of Light) where he talks about certain mystical exercises .
He also had educational books to fulfill the function of a well rounded, versatile philosopher: Educator, thinker, psychologist, mystic.
MI: What kind of following did he have?
AWM: I understand that Al-Ghazali dominated the Islamic world from that time on. There was opposition who rejected his view. Saying that it would subvert the mind completely. The Philosophers saw man in the form of polarity: it is either the heart or the mind. Whereas Al-Ghazali says man operated in a complex integrated duality. That is why he said there was a field and not a gap between man and God.
MI: How were the philosophers viewed or received by the ruling elite of the time.
AWM: There were ups and downs. For example : the Mu’tazilites or pure rationalist : if the ruler was of the same persuasion, they would be supported, if not they were persecuted.
Al-Ghazali: he had no problem, because he had ideas of order. He tried to harness the mystical impulse, which sometimes ran amok.
MI: Al-Ghazali as a jurist, what role did he play?
AWM: The same interplay of mind and heart. Between the attempt to apply the idea of law inspired by Divine Revelation. He did not believe in empirical law, but did not reject it. It is all encapsulated in Divine dictates.
MI: How was the world after Al-Ghazali?
AWM: The Mongol invasion of the Islamic world occurred, and then the Crusades. The Islamic World withdrew inwards. Al-Ghazali is sometimes blamed for this withdrawal. But it was a result of these historical forces which were much more powerful in determining the future developments.
[ Prof Abdel Wahab El Messeri is Professor Emeritus on English Literature, Ain Sham University, Cairo]