Imam Al-Ghazali's Perspective on Sufism: Integrating Sharī'ah, Spirituality, and Ethics
Imam Abu Hamid Muhammad Al-Ghazali was a highly influential figure in the history of Islam. He was a great Muslim teacher and scholar, and his work continues to be studied and admired today. Al-Ghazali was born in 1058 in the city of Tus, Iran. He studied Islamic law and theology, and eventually became a professor at the Nizamiyya Madrasa in Baghdad. In 1095, he experienced a spiritual crisis and left Baghdad to live as a Sufi for several years.
After his return to Baghdad, Al-Ghazali wrote a number of important works, including The Revival of the Religious Sciences (Iḥyā′ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn). This book is a comprehensive guide to Islamic law, theology, and spirituality. It is considered one of the most important works of Islamic literature.
Relationship with Sufism
Imam al-Ghazali was born into a family of Sufis in 1058 in the city of Tus, Iran. His father, who was a calligrapher, encouraged him to study Sufi works from a young age. When Al-Ghazali was in his teenage years, he was particularly influenced by the works of Abu Talib al-Makki and Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri. These two Sufis wrote about the importance of love for God and the need to purify the soul.
Al-Ghazali's own writings on Sufism reflect the influence of these two teachers. In his book The Revival of the Religious Sciences, he writes about the different paths to spiritual enlightenment and the importance of following a Sufi master. Al-Ghazali's relationship with Sufism was complex and evolving. He was initially critical of some aspects of Sufism, but he eventually came to see it as a valuable path to God. His writings on Sufism helped to make it more accessible to a wider audience and to legitimize it within mainstream Islam.
Here are some of the key aspects of Al-Ghazali's Sufism:
- Love for God: Al-Ghazali believed that the highest goal of life is to achieve love for God. He wrote: "The purpose of the journey of this world is to know God and to love Him." (The Alchemy of Happiness)
- Purification of the soul: Al-Ghazali believed that the soul can only achieve love for God by being purified of impurities. He wrote: "The soul cannot know God until it is purified." (The Revival of the Religious Sciences)
- The importance of a Sufi master: Al-Ghazali believed that it is important to follow a Sufi master on the path to spiritual enlightenment. He wrote: "The Sufi master is like a guide who shows the way to the traveller." (The Alchemy of Happiness)
Al-Ghazali's writings on Sufism were not without controversy. Some critics accused him of heresy, while others accused him of being too rationalistic. In response to the slanders against his works, Al-Ghazali wrote a book called The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tuhfatul Fālasifah). In this book, he defended his views against his critics and argued that his works were in line with the teachings of Islam.
Perspectives on Sufism
Al-Ghazali's work on Sufism is a valuable contribution to the Islamic tradition. It provides a clear and concise explanation of the Sufi path to God, and it has helped to make Sufism more accessible to a wider audience. He had a unique perspective on Sufism. He believed that Sufism should be based on the foundations of Sharī'ah (Islamic law) and theology. He also believed that Sufism should be moderate and avoid the extremes of asceticism or hedonism.
Al-Ghazali believed that the goal of Sufism is to achieve love for God and to know God through direct experience. He believed that this can be achieved through a combination of spiritual exercises, self-purification, and following the guidance of a Sufi master. He argued that Sufism is simply a different way of understanding and experiencing the same truths that are taught in the Qur'an and the Hadith.
Al-Ghazali's concept of Sufism had a profound impact on the development of Sufism. He helped to legitimize Sufism within mainstream Islam and to make it more accessible to a wider audience. He also helped to purify Sufism from the philosophical influences that had crept in.
Here are some key points about Al-Ghazali's concept of Sufism:
- Sufism is based on the foundations of Sharī'ah and theology.
- Sufism is moderate and avoids the extremes of asceticism or hedonism.
- The goal of Sufism is to achieve love for God and to know God through direct experience.
- Sufism is compatible with Islamic law and theology.
- Sufism is a different way of understanding and experiencing the same truths that are taught in the Qur'an and the Hadith.
Al-Ghazali's concept of Sufism is still relevant today. It offers a path to spiritual enlightenment that is rooted in the Islamic tradition. It is also a path that is open to people of all backgrounds and beliefs.
Rules and Principles of Sufism
Imam al-Ghazali established a Sunni traditional Sufism on a set of rules and principles that are based on the teachings of Islam. These rules and principles are as follows:
- Sincere intention: The intention behind all actions should be for the sake of Allah. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: (The value of) an action depends on the intention behind it. A man will be rewarded only for what he intended.
- Sincerity of worship: Worship should be done only for Allah and not for any other purpose. When Jibrail (a.s) asked: 'Inform me about Ihsan,' the Messenger of Allah ﷺ answered: "It is that you should serve Allah as though you could see Him, for though you cannot see Him yet He sees you."
- Following the Sharī'ah: Muslims should follow the teachings of the Sharī'ah in all aspects of their lives. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “None of you [truly] believes until his desires are subservient to that which I have brought.”
- Working by following not by innovating: Muslims should follow the path of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and his companions, and avoid innovations. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: So, hold fast to my Sunnah and the examples of the Rightly- Guided Caliphs who will come after me. Adhere to them and hold to it fast.
- High commitment to upholding the Sunnah: Muslims should be committed to following the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet ﷺ said: Verily Allah Almighty loves for you to perfect a good deed when you perform it.
- Helplessness and humility before Allah: Muslims should humble themselves before Allah and recognize their own weakness. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: "Allah has revealed to me that you should humble yourselves to one another. One should neither hold himself above another nor transgress against another."
- Combining fear and hope from Allah: Muslims should have both fear and hope of Allah. This is because the Prophet ﷺ said: Observe moderation (in doing deeds), and if you fail to observe it perfectly, try to do as much as you can do (to live up to this ideal of moderation) and be happy for none would be able to get into Paradise because of his deeds alone. They (the Companions of the Holy Prophet ﷺ) said: Allah's Messenger ﷺ, not even you? Thereupon he said: Not even I, but that Allah wraps me in His Mercy, and bear this in mind that the deed loved most by Allah is one which is done constantly even though it is small.
- Persistent dhikr: Muslims should constantly remember Allah, because the Prophet ﷺ said: "The example of the one who celebrates the Praises of his Lord (Allah) in comparison to the one who does not celebrate the Praises of his Lord, is that of a living creature compared to a dead one."
- Consistency in observing Allah: Muslims should be mindful of Allah at all times, both in public and in private. And that is due to the commandment of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ: “Fear Allah wherever you are, do good deeds after doing bad ones, the former will wipe out the latter, and behave decently towards people.”
- Pursuing Allah's commands and abstaining from His prohibitions: Muslims should obey Allah's commands and avoid His prohibitions. And that’s what the Messenger of Allah ﷺ stated: “In the body there is a piece of flesh, and the whole body is sound if it is sound, but the whole body is corrupt if it is corrupt. It is the heart.”
These rules and principles are designed to help Muslims achieve spiritual enlightenment and to live a life that is pleasing to Allah. They are based on the teachings of the Qur'an and the Hadith, and they have been practiced by Muslims for centuries.
Imam al-Ghazali played a vital role in providing a new understanding of Sufism that integrates Sharī'ah, spiritual exercises, and virtuous morals. He believed that Sufism, Sharī'ah, and ethics are all interrelated and that they can all help Muslims to achieve spiritual enlightenment.
Through his works, such as Iḥyā′ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn, Minhāj Al-Abidīn, and Alchemy of Happiness, Imam al-Ghazali revitalized the study of Sufism by correcting the misconceptions and erroneous theories associated with the Sufi order. He made Sufism more accessible to a wider audience by grounding it in the teachings of the Quran and Sunnah.
Abu Hamid al-Ghazali; IhyaUlum al-Deen: The Revival of Religious Sciences.
Abu Hamid al-Ghazali; The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahafut al-Falasifa) translated by Michael E. Marmura.
Abu Hamid al-Ghazali;Munkidhmin al-Dalal (Deliverance from Error).
Abu Hamid al-Ghazali; The Alchemy of Happiness.
Taj al-Din al-Subki; Tabaqat Al-Shafiiya Al-kubra.
Sufism according to Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Journal of Islamic Social Sciences and Humanities.
 Sufism according to Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Journal of Islamic Social Sciences and Humanities, VOL. 25 (1) pages: 309-311
 Hadith 222, Book 33; the Book on Government. Sahih Muslim 1907a. SUNNAH.COM
 Hadith 2, Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi. SUNNAH.COM
 Hadith 41, Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi. SUNNAH.COM
 Hadith 157, Introduction, Riyad as-Salihin. SUNNAH.COM
 A Hadith from Musnad Abu Yala.
 Hadith 601. The Book of Miscellany, Riyad as-Salihin. SUNNAH.COM
 Hadith 75. Book 52, Sahih Muslim. SUNNAH.COM
 Hadith 102, Book 80, Sahih al-Bukhari. SUNNAH.COM
 Hadith 61, The Book of Miscellany. Riyad as-Salihin. SUNNAH.COM
 Hadith 4. Book 11, Mishkat al-Masabih. SUNNAH.COM
About the author
Ashraful Faruki, from Assam, is a PG student conducting research in the Department of Civilizational Studies at Darul Huda Islamic University, Malappuram, Kerala.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily mirror Islamonweb’s editorial stance.