A Debate on the Paths to Religious Truth: al-Ghazali and Ibn Tufayl

A Debate on the Paths to Religious Truth: al-Ghazali and Ibn Tufayl

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By Terra Zhang | Fall 2023

Al-Ghazali and Ibn Tufayl are two of the most interesting medieval Islamic thinkers who debated the relationship between reason and revelation in one’s attainment of truths about God. Their intellectual programs have two commonalities. First, both engaged with and critiqued the Farabian and Avicennan program of Aristotelian philosophy. Second, both wrote in response to Sufi literature. Al-Ghazali studied under a Sufi during his early education in Tus and eventually became a Sufi himself. Ibn Tufayl longed for the distant and arguably mystical “oriental philosophy” of Avicenna, and wrote in direct response to al-Ghazali’s Sufi texts.

Integrating rationalistic and mystical thought, both al-Ghazali’s autobiography Deliverance from Error and Ibn Tufayl’s philosophical novel Hayy ibn Yaqzan investigate the paths to truth. In Deliverance, al-Ghazali recounts his earlier philosophy teaching in Baghdad, and his crisis upon realizing his attachment to worldly fame and alienation from God. He went into ten years of isolation to practice the ecstatic union with God, a beatific state that surpasses any true intellectual knowledge about the divine. Hayy ibn Yaqzan pursued a different path. Growing up alone on an island under the care of a gazelle, Hayy could not even speak, but he intensely observed nature until he reasoned his way towards the existence of God. Hayy also strived for the mystical union with God, shutting himself in a cave where he contemplated nothing but God.

Apparently, Hayy’s story challenges al-Ghazali’s process of attaining truth by obviating the need for scripture, authority, or rituals. Hayy does not need a language to communicate with other believers; independent reasoning alone is sufficient. However, this broad generalization needs to be problematized upon a more careful examination of what the al-Ghazali and Hayy understand by religious truth – their shared aim of learning and religious experience. Al-Ghazali and Hayy both pursued two dimensions of religious truth, the cognitive and the experiential. For al-Ghazali, the cognitive dimension, “knowledge,” is an “ascertainment by apodeictic proof,” but even more true than that is a “fruitional experience” or “tasting” of God. Hayy’s story, too, is an allegory for the pursuit of religious truth, “first by thought and theory,” then through the “brief state of the actual experience.” With this two-part working definition of religious truth, I argue that while al-Ghazali and Hayy disagree about the extent to which independent reasoning gives one access to the cognitive truth, they have much more in common in their pursuit of experiential truth. I conclude with a final evaluation of al-Ghazali’s and Hayy’s position by placing these arguments into the overall set-up of their stories, suggesting that their disagreements boil down to the tension between the private and communal natures of belief and religious experience.

The cognitive truth

In the process of acquiring true propositions about God’s attributes and the ethical standards that His subjects should follow, al-Ghazali’s method involves an authority that is absent in Hayy’s world. When an authority is present, one could enjoy the convenience of bypassing independent reasoning, trusting that the authority has done the reasoning before telling her what to believe or do. However, trusting an authority also risks accepting conventions that are established not on reason, but on that authority’s facade of reputability.

Al-Ghazali was well aware of the dangers of the uncritical acceptance of authority (taqlid), an epistemic attitude marked by knowing truth by men instead of knowing men by truth. Al-Ghazali distanced himself from the theologians (mutakallimun) who upheld orthodoxy without inquiring into its nature and truth. He also criticized the Banites, who staunchly believed in the infallibility of Imams and opposed anyone who formed their own opinions. As an absurd implication of the Banites’ taqlid, a Muslim has to forgo his duty of prayer: when the time of prayer comes, he would not figure out the qibla by himself, but insist on obtaining instructions from a faraway Imam who would only be available when the time of prayer has passed.

But what about independent reasoning, or literally an “effortful exertion (ijtihad),” which al-Ghazali subscribes to? Al-Ghazali discusses how problematic ijtihad is in philosophy. Math and logic provide the tools for independent reasoning and the demonstration of propositions, which lead to knowledge. However, these two branches of philosophy also breed vanity and contempt for religion, and they could even be hijacked by unbelievers to serve their agenda. Metaphysics is more problematic, as one risks believing in blasphemous propositions such as the world’s eternity. These errors could be a result of independent reasoning going astray: in his Incoherence of Philosophers, al-Ghazali was able to lay bare the steps of reasoning where Avicenna stumbled. Metaphysical errors could also be attributed to the following of wrong authorities — in this case, the transmitters of Aristotelianism, al-Farabi and Avicenna.

Here al-Ghazali faces a dilemma. If both taqlid and ijtihad could lead to error or unbelief, and even accomplished philosophers could err in their independent reasoning or their choice of authority, where should one land on the spectrum between taqlid and ijtihad? Hayy provides a radical solution by eliminating taqlid altogether. Hayy’s innate capacity to reason landed him on the truths that completely agree with Islam. Hayy started out as an empiricist interacting with the physical world, finding out that an animal’s life principle is incorporeal by dissecting his mother gazelle’s heart. Hayy subsequently categorized his surrounding objects into species and genera, and abstracted the incorporeal forms that endow corporeal things with being. He left the sensory world further and further behind, until he finally reasoned that there must be one single incorporeal Being that begets all the individual forms — and that Being is God. 

Hayy’s success in independent reasoning challenged the role of any authority. He even did better than those who had access to authority: without the interference of taqlid, Hayy sidestepped the eternity of the world error that al-Ghazali had criticized, since Hayy himself could figure out the absurd infinite regression that was to ensue had there been no first cause in time. In fact, al-Ghazali also inquired into what the world would be like without authority or external influences on one’s belief. He briefly considered fitra, the original disposition of a child without the corrupting influence of his non-Muslim parents. If part of fitra is the capacity for independent reason, al-Ghazali has never approved an unrestrained use of it. Al-Ghazali was still grappling with the impossible balance between authority and independent reason, but Hayy’s experience gives a beautiful illustration of what that fitra could accomplish intellectually.

The experiential truth

Are we to say that Hayy is superior to al-Ghazali in the attainment of religious truth? In fact, when we look at the experiential religious truth, they share a significant common ground. Hayy and al-Ghazali both experienced the mystical union with God, an ineffable ecstasy of losing all their minds and selves to God alone. This epistemic mode is entirely different from either independent reasoning or dutiful consultation with the right authority. To al-Ghazali, the difference between knowledge and the beatific union with God is like that between knowing what it means to be drunk and being drunk. The blissful mystical state transcends the grasp of the intellect, and transports a believer to an absolute certainty that neither sense perception nor rational data could ever attain. Similarly, Hayy found mystical union to be incommensurable with reason and thought, and trying to describe that ecstasy with words is like “wanting to taste colors.”

The ineffability and elusiveness of the mystic union with God seem to put this state beyond the reach of conscious control. As al-Ghazali notes, his state of absolute intimacy with God was achieved not by his own effort in reasoning and demonstration, but by the descent of a light which “God Most High cast into my breast.” Yet, both al-Ghazali and Hayy consider right belief, or the cognitive dimension of religious truth, as the foundation for any possible mystic experience. Before embarking on his ten-year contemplation of God, al-Ghazali had already acquired from rational and revealed knowledge a “sure and certain faith in God Most High,” as well as a belief in the truth of prophecy and the Last Day. Similarly, Hayy’s desire to embrace and unite with God was also based on his genuine understanding of God’s absolute goodness and perfection.

Difficult as it is to attain through cognitive means, the insuperable mystical union with God does not take away the need for a believer’s striving. Al-Ghazali delineates his gradual self-purification to get close to God: he distributed his wealth, shut himself in the Dome of the Rock, and never ceased practicing and aspiring to that state. Hayy’s striving towards God was rooted in his cosmological knowledge about God’s creations. He devised for himself a tripartite “ladder” towards God, in which he would first imitate the non-human animals, then the celestial bodies, and finally God. He first suppressed his bodily desires by eating the bare minimum to survive, thus moving himself one step away from his corporeal nature. He then took care of plants and animals just like how the heavenly bodies nourish them with light, and imitated the spinning of stars so that he might lose his senses somewhat. The final part of his ascent to God is even further removed from the sensory world: he secluded himself just like al-Ghazali did, and tried to get rid of his physical self — motion included — to devote all his being towards God. At this point, when Hayy and al-Ghazali had “attained His identity” to the point that everything else vanished, when both are truly being that very state of ecstasy, it becomes insignificant how one gets to know God. Reason, revelation, and authority are all humbled and dwarfed by the descent of divine power.

After attaining truth

How do we make sense of the divergences and parallels in al-Ghazali’s and Hayy’s attainment of the truth, both cognitively and experientially? Do the brief moments of mystical union that they share make them more similar than different? 

After becoming a mystic, al-Ghazali went back to teaching. Al-Ghazali sees himself as the solution to the impossible balance between taqlid and ijtihad. When one must either reason correctly or choose the right authority — both very high expectations for the masses, he, a Sufi, was the right authority to follow. Hayy eventually befriended Absal, a solitude-loving Muslim who was astounded by the purity of Hayy’s devotion to God. Absal invited Hayy to enlighten the most intelligent Muslims back in his home country, but Hayy found it difficult to change the minds steeped in prejudice, so he went back to solitude. Once again, Hayy had good reason to reject authority: authoritative indoctrination had closed the minds of the so-called intelligent men, who upheld a kind of taqlid similar to that of the Banites.

Besides his consistent rejection of authority, Hayy’s more fundamental departure from al-Ghazali also comes to the fore. Hayy views belief and religious experience as a private matter, preferring to contemplate in solitude and practice the intimate union with God. Al-Ghazali views belief and religious experience as communal. He brought his elevated insights of mysticism back to teaching, hoping to revitalize the faith of those who had not experienced mystical ecstasy and needed some handholding to lead a faithful life. Al-Ghazali defines faith as “favorable acceptance of it [fruitional experience] based on hearsay and experience of others.” Religious belief is a communal matter, with the Sufi authorities setting the standard for all to follow.

For al-Ghazali, consensus, convention, and authority are required not just of belief. They also apply to the non-cognitive religious experiences, such as the observance of religious laws and rituals. Al-Ghazali is, after all, part of the communal institution of religion. Of religion’s institutional character Hayy was critical. Hayy doubted whether rituals are only trappings of Islam or if they actually improve the believers’ character, since these rituals cannot even check the believers’ intemperance and cupidity. Hayy even questioned whether languages were a hindrance or a help: why use languages as symbols that veil the divine truth, instead of letting everyone access the truth directly? In fact, when the revealed truths are stipulated in a language, interpreters could not even agree on whether to read them exoterically or esoterically. In sum, Hayy’s success in arriving at religious truths without the institution raises a question: are rituals and languages just unnecessary crutches on one’s way to true belief? By this line of reasoning, Hayy could even criticize al-Ghazali’s decision to return to teaching. Al-Ghazali thought that only Sufis like himself could guide those who were unable to identify the right authority to follow, and this intellectually elitist attitude is unnecessary and unjustified given the power of human’s independent reason.

However valid Hayy’s criticisms may be, his vacuum-like environment for improving reason and purifying character should be remembered as an allegory and a thought experiment. Insofar as religion exists as a communal institution, the disciplining of belief and practice is inevitable. So is maintenance of an intellectual hierarchy — sometimes by veiling the truth — by the gatekeepers of truth that al-Ghazali envisions himself to be. Are we to maintain the institutional expectations and authoritative checks on religious truths, or should we set individuals free to understand and strive for God in their own ways? The tension among reason, revelation, and authority is never resolved by the debate between al-Ghazali and Hayy. And so is tension between the private and the communal nature of belief.