Language in Diversity

Knowing God in the View of Al-Ghazâli

By Mr. HOLIL (a student of postgraduate in PARAMADINA UNIVERSITY) in philosophy discussion (edition 5 march 2013)

Hopefully we meet in another time; from Ciputat with LOVE sir…

Since the Greek ancient, the question of how to know the Reality, Sufis said God, arises to surface. It takes a long journey to find the answer, the ancient philosophers has tried to answer by observing the existence of universe. It might be they assure that the knowledge of the universe lead them to the knowledge the Reality itself. In fact, the Universe comprises very complex elements which mostly philosophers made it as an object of their concern, the philosophers are curious on from what element the universe is made up, their curiosity comes wider when observing motion, change, and then Man’s existence as the most unique and sophisticated among others dwelling in the universe, this is based on the fact that Man is really able to know himself, other selves and everything surrounding him, all parts and body that he possesses are instruments to assist him to know, to understand, to do, to achieve his will and to cope with troubles encountered, consequently he can occupy each of his parts as utilities to gain his intention and destination. For instance, his ears deal with voice to hear, the eyes see the colors to, the tongue tastes the foods, the nose smells the odors[1], the skin feels the weather both hot and cold, the mind or ratio understands and conceives logical manners and the soul or heart feels love etc. Therefore, it makes sense that they are seeking the creator of these existences.

To answer their curiosity, they raise some questions on element of the universe, and man and functions/utilities belong to him, therefore he should be questioning himself about who create them? do they naturally exist without any creator?  Could be a great existence creating these all? how does the way to know the creator?

Dealing with these basic inevitable questions, Empedocles, a materialist prominent, asserts that the universe, including man, emerges from the same elements and neglects the existence of creator who administers and rules the universe, other wise he conveyed that the universe is eternally existed through its elements without any maker; the creation comes to exist because of these elements are unified, on the contrary the creation becomes corrupt because the elements separate[2]. Animal, for instance, emerges from unified elements of sperm and sperm emerges from animal and so on[3], it logically indicates the eternity of physic. As a result, he convinces that their thought on senses observing the motions and changes of what they say exist (universe). So, it’s consequently neglecting the existence of God even the knowledge of God. 

Somehow, Muslim philosophers without any hesitation, of course by deeper analysis, view that there must be a great creator of the universe which must be God the Exalted as the source and prima-cause of creations. They attack materialist concepts of the nothingness of God as obvious absurdity. As vise-versa, they assure that the existence of Universe is the reason why there must be a God, they as same as theologian also strengthen their view by utilizing Aristotelian logic and Platonic idea and interpreting Qur’ânic verses on God, therefore they call themselves knower of God by saying  that God must be Immaterial, Immortal, Omniscient, Omnipotent and so forth. Therefore they make many concepts of God based on their method, reason, and their interpretation of Qur’ân.

However, the sufis don’t acknowledge that what people say exist (universe) is no more than nothingness, the existence of universe relating to it essence is merely absence. Nevertheless, we can still say this existence as existent in relating to the Creator, the existent itself. And Sufi admit their knowledge as the highest knowledge for they have been experiencing God. And this is the ultimate knowledge of God. Some of sufis refers their saying to the text of the holy Qur’ân al-Baqarah (2.156) “Truly! To Allâh we belong and truly, to Him we shall return[4]”.

Based on the aforementioned verse, Seyyed Hossein Nasr stated the relation between Man and God through this verse which indicates the nature of man, the man belong only to Allâh and he is travelling from Him and to Him; he is then born as ignorance to learns and to be enlightened and to know Him when he comes back to the Creator of him. Consequently every travelling has both departure and destination; it means the world is the space of journey from ignorance when he is born purposing to know the greater mysteries of unknown[5], God.

God in this context is the Reality, the only center of human journey both as a departing point and at the same time as a returning point. This statement is based on the fact that when man gets stuck for some complicated problems encountered, he effortfully tries to find the way or something to rely on and to get back to the basic rule which is the way of spirituality, so in all circumstance he must come from God and return to God. Briefly God must be the only creator of him for he cannot overcome his curiosity as well as find his creator of this organs and qualities.

In this universe, it’s only man who desires to know and is capable of knowing[6] God because he has the instruments of knowing such as senses, ratio and heart which others do not. To acquire knowledge, man perceives any physical things through his senses which is animals share these, and then analyze what he perceive utilizing his ratio, and later he is able to know what is beyond rational or supra rational by through his heart which is no animals do it. Therefore man has a potency to know anything even his God the Exalted.

In fact, Man has a great potency to know God, for man, previously before his birth, has promised in the imaginal world by saying and conveying the shahâdah when God testifies him as expressed by Him the Holy Qur’ân, “And (remember) when your Lord brought forth from the Children of Adam, from their loins, their seed (or from Adam’s loin his offspring) and made them testify as to themselves (saying): “Am I not your Lord?” They said: “Yes! We testify,” lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection: “Verily, we have been unaware of this.”(QS, al-A’râf: 172)[7]so, this shahâdah uttered by man is not a meaningless sentence, it has a very deep meaning which presents to every single of soul differently based on human’s depth of consciousness. The higher their quality is, the deeper they grasp the meaning of it. This sentence of disclosure to God is a promise of spiritual man upon his God that he will be continuously in the spiritual path and will not pray, worship, know, and return except to Him, the Real, the One and the Infinite.

This sentence of shahâdah is therefore deiformity because it’s the departure point to depict man’s connexion to the Creator. The shahâdah emerges as the symbol of the relation of Man to Him. He, the Absolute, manifests Himself into these words as an expression and that man with their qualities comes to grasp the meaning beyond it. So, the enlightened people only will deeply understand it. Because His secret has been revealed for them since what they hear, see and understand is His seeing and His understanding as well as His hearing, as has been stated in hadîth qudsi“My slave ceaseth not to draw nigh unto Me through devotions of free-will until I love him; and when I love him, I am the Hearing Wherewith he heareth and the sight wherewith he seeth and the Hand wherewith he fighteth and the foot whereon he walketh”[8].

Despite that man has promised his shahâdah to the creator; however he cannot immediately remember it for his qualities has been subjugated and immersed by materialization during his life. Assuredly, it’s a must that he effortfully involves all of his potency such as senses, ratio and heart to redeem the nearness and awareness which have been established between God and Him.

The man’s potency here is the bounty and beauty of the graceful God granted to human because of His love which is intended to make man return to the fitrah[9] (nature) through his knowledge. In fact, it’s quiet natural that since baby, man, no matter who and no matter how, must keep his fitrah purified from anything except God, he must strengthen not to allowed all thing that separates himself from his nature which has no distance between him and his Creator, no matter who is the man, he should keep his nearness to Him during his life, but in fact when man is born to the world he forgot what he promise in the past to his Creator, because he has immersed in any kind of materials matters which close his eyes of spirituality from the essence of his destination of living in the world..

When man wakes up from the unawareness the light of god illuminates his heart and purifies his soul. This man will continuously see that all what he thinks and sense is a reminding point to guide him and help him find the way to come back as he was when he gave his promise before falling into the earth. Somehow, God still gives his grace for man to effortfully be closer to Him.

With regard to the case above, al-Ghazâli[10], a great prominent sufi from 11th century, fantastically addresses his critique to those people who acknowledge knowing God:

First, al-Ghazâli criticizes materialists’[11] major view on neglecting the Existence of God who persistently rules and preserves the Universe, the materialists assert the immortality of Universe, as they say that creation occurs from the very elements which are unified and create certain other personal forms, otherwise, if these elements separate it comes to corrupt and then come into other form and so forth, therefore the elements are immortal as the universe.

Second, Al-Ghazâli criticizes theologians who fight for his belief based on the literal meaning of Qur’ân and traditions when they are discussing on God’s essence, name and attribute. Al-Ghazâli views that they attack one to another to solely show the weakness of their interlocutor. Therefore to know God through theology is insufficient.      

Thirdly, al-Ghazâli denies and attacks philosophers’ statement of that God knows merely the Universals but not particulars, God universally knows that Man, in general,  is born, flourishing, sick, and eventually dead, but He does know the particularity man: of How a man is born, flourishing, sick, and finally dead. God doesn’t know the particulars for they are divisible into time and space, and consequently time and space require changes in God’s knowledge whereas God’s knowledge must be eternal. If God knows the particular, therefore His knowing follows the knowledge when it occurs. Al-Ghazâli refuses this for God is subtle and encompassing everything in which He must know everything. So, those philosophers don truthfully know God as He is.

Fourth, al-Ghazâli disagrees with al-Hallâj and AbuYazîd al-Bhustami’s utterance “whithin this robe is nothing except Allâh” and “glory be to Me”[12]. Al-Ghazâli said that they are shocked and even confronted suddenly like a man who has never seen a mirror, he will confess that the image in the mirror is the form of mirror itself and that the mirror and its image are identical[13].

                  To have a clear understanding on al-Ghazâli’s neglecting and critiques of these four cases above, it’s required to be discuss briefly deeper as below:

  1. Al-Ghazâli actually neglects materialists’ concept of elements constructing personal form not merely because they assured that in their view materials/elements are eternal and there is not immaterial (God) creates this element, but it’s also because they measure the truth of their knowledge based on their sensual observance. In supporting this idea, al-Ghazâli listed many weaknesses of senses in seeing, hearing, feeling, and smelling. It’s nevertheless not acceptable if the final truth made by senses. Senses are commonly assist man to know but it doesn’t mean that senses are the only judge of truth.
  2. Al-Ghazâli’s refusal to the theologians’ concept of God is not solely because they misinterpret Qur’ânic and tradition text, but because mostly theologian accept the truth after referring to the sacred text. Al-Ghazâli views that a man who accept the truth only from sacred text means that he simply restrict the bounties of God. So, sacred text alone is not adequate to know God. Somehow, it doesn’t mean they are mistaken at all, but they need another factor to determine the truth.
  3. Having been immersed in theology, al-Ghazâli still confesses not to acquire the true Knowledge, therefore he turns his concern to philosophy, shortly after obtaining a deeper understanding of how philosophers conceive the Truth he comes hopeless for in his point of view it’s not what he wish. From this experience, He delivers attacking critique on about twenty problems, one of them is that God knows Universals not particulars, God the events in general, like Man is born, flourishing, sick, and dead, but He does know the particularity of How a man is born, flourishing, sick, and dead. God doesn’t know the particulars for they are divisible into time and space, and consequently time and space require changes in God’s knowledge whereas God’s knowledge must be eternal. If God knows the particular, therefore His knowing follows the knowledge when it occurs. In this point, Al-Ghazâli’s critique actually addressed not to the knowledge that philosophers achieve but rather because they rely on logic. Logic helps man to know but doesn’t mean that truth emerges from logic, there must be another thing beyond logic. However, man has another instrument namely heart, heart is the highest instrument to know God, of which bestowed to only for purified soul
  4. About al-Ghazâli’s disagreement to Hulûl and Ittihad[14], it might be caused by al-Ghazâli’s view that there are many grades of man’s knowledge of God, of which will be discussed clearer later, and that this unveiling should not be uttered to common people. He worries that commonly people are not ready to have this kind of knowledge.

This briefly aforementioned explanation blows to the surface that al-Ghazâli proposes more complete epistemology of knowing God, integrated epistemology by integrally utilizing all powerss of human being to unveil the reality of Him. This idea is supported by his interpretation after a long journey he takes as a seeker.

Al-Ghazâli convinces that to know the great mysteries of the Unknown man should directly and symbolically discern both the very physical thing together with the Metaphysical. To make his explanation easily understandable by his students he simply illustrates how to know God by acknowledging God as the real Light in which God himself said in the holy Qur’ân:

Allâh is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is as (if there were) a niche and within it a lamp, the lamp is in glass, the glass as it were a brilliant star, lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the east (i.e. neither it gets sun-rays only in the morning) nor of the west (i.e. nor it gets sun-rays only in the afternoon, but it is exposed to the sun all day long), whose oil would almost glow forth (of itself), though no fire touched it. Light upon Light! Allâh guides to His Light whom He wills. And Allâh sets forth parables for mankind, and Allâh is All-Knower of everything (Qs: an-Nuur 35)[15].

Commenting this verse, al-Ghazâli firmly resembles lights as man’s qualities which are beneficial for man as instruments to penetrate the veils of knowing God. As a result, these qualities should be integrally occupied and sometimes considered as a grade. His description of lights similitude of man’s power is simplified as in the following:

Mishkât/Niche                                                      Spiritual Senses

Misbah/Lamp                                           Imaginal

Zujajah/Glass                                           Intellect

Syajarah/Tree                                                           Reflective power

Zayt (olive)                                                                             Propethood/Sainthood

Nuur ‘ala Nuur/the Light of Ligh                      God, the Reality

To say that physical light make others seen it logically means that eyes are better to be a light, for with eyes man can see. Consequently if we argue that eyes are better than physical light, so it’s more appropriate to call intellect higher than the eyes, because the eyes can conceive what beyond the physic, and so forth.

This is the fact why al-Ghazâli elucidates that God is the most appropriate to be the Real light. He systematically shows the structure of light, he mentions kinds of light as the source of light to light as the perceiver of light. Briefly he prolong the views that the sun is the similitude of the Real Light which is God, the sun (God) projects its light (Qur’ân) to make everything bright (the physical eyes see everything on the surface and rational intelligence to gain the truth). Although when the sun disappears in the night as well as God, however the sun still projects the light through the moon and of course man also is still enlightened. The man perceives the light and also makes other lightened up.

In so far, The Sufis, in this context, are who experience the real light, the reality, the One. the sufis when he achieves the highest reality agreed that they see nothing of the existence except the One, the Reality. The purified sufis who obtains this will not perform dzikir but to God.

As the consequences of both his critique and explanatio, it’s easily understood that al-Ghazâli offers an integrated way to experience God, somehow to have a clearer view on how this integrated method works and what is the reality of God in the view of al-Ghazâli will be elaborated larger in the following chapters.


[1]Abû Hâmid al-Ghâzali, Kimia Sa’âdat translated into English under the title the Alchemy of Eternal Bliss by Muhammad Âsim Bilâl, (Lahore : Kazi Publication, 2001) ed. I, page 54.

[2] Samuel Enoch Stumf, Philosophy: History and Problem (New York: Vanderbilt University Publisher) Ed IV, 1989, page 22

[3] Abû Hâmid al-Ghazâli, al-Munqidh mina Al-Dhalâl.

[4]الَّذِينَ إِذَا أَصَابَتْهُم مُّصِيبَةٌ قَالُواْ إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعونَ

[5]Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the Garden of Truth, (New York: Harper Collin Publishers) 2008, Page 6

[6]Frithjop Schuon, The Transcendent Unity of Religions, the Theosophical Publishing, United States of America, 1984, page 149

[7]وَإِذْ أَخَذَ رَبُّكَ مِن بَنِي آدَمَ مِن ظُهُورِهِمْ ذُرِّيَّتَهُمْ وَأَشْهَدَهُمْ عَلَى أَنفُسِهِمْ أَلَسْتَ بِرَبِّكُمْ قَالُواْ بَلَى شَهِدْنَا أَن تَقُولُواْ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ إِنَّا كُنَّا عَنْ هَذَا غَافِلِينَ

[8] This is in accordance with the prophetic tradition:

ما يزال عبدي يتقرب إلي بالنوافل حتى أحبه فإذا أحببته كنت سمعه الذي يسمع به وبصره الذي يبصر بها ويده الذي يمسك بها و رجله الذييمشي بها  .Maktabah Syâmilah/Sahîh al-BuchariJuz 20, Page 158 Number 6021

[9] Fitrah is a potency which God grant to every human being since his creation, the potency to achieve the true values and views. Therefore after his birth, human has abilities to be a human religious, human of moral, to find the truth and to be totally free. See Ayâtullâh Murtadhâ Mutahhari, Mas’ale-ye Syenokh (translated into Indonesia as Pengantar Epistemologi Islâm by Muhammad Jawad Bafagih), (Lentera Jakarta, I Edition 2010 page 307)

[10] Abû Hâmid Muhammad Ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad well known as Al-Ghazâli, he is also called as Hujjatul Islâm and is regarded as the Greatest prominent than others defending Sunnî Sufism, his argument on Sufism mostly based on Sunnî School of thought. He was born in Khurosân 450 H. He mastered over Fiqh, theology,  and philosophy, and  mostly spent his life teaching in al-Nizhâmiyah School, Baghdad, then later he went out to Syria living as ascetic and taught there. His thought and works, mainly Ihyâ ‘Ulûmuddîn, have been studied by worldwide scholar both western and eastern. See, Abûl Wafâ Ghânimî al-Taftazânî, Madkhâl ila al-Tasawwuf al-Islâmi translated by Ahmad Rofi’I Utsman as Sufi Dâri Zaman ke Zaman, (Bandung: Putstaka Publisher ) Ed III, 2003, Page 148-155.

[11]Al-Ghazâli called materialist as al-Dahriyûn of which Empidocles is the most prominent philosophers concerning materialism; Empicdocles disciples said that the basic elements of Universe are eternal or not contingent. The events/creations occur based on the elements which unify and separate, the event occurs if the elements unify and on the contrary disappear when the elements separate. See al-Ghazâli, al-Munqidz min al-Dhalâl (Setitik Cahaya dalam Kegelapan translated by Masyhur Abadi), Published by Pustaka Progressif, Surabaya, Edition I, Page 135

[12] Al-Majmû’ah  al-Sûfiyah al-Kâmilah, AbûYazid al-Bustâmi, Tahqiq and Foreword adressed by Qâsim Muhamad Abbâs (Damascus: al-Mada Publishing Company) 2004 ed. I, page 49

[13] Abû Hâmid al-Ghazâli, Mishkât al-Anwâr wa Mushaffat al-Asrar, edited & foreword by al-Syaikh Abdul Azîz ‘Izzuddîn al-Sirâwân (Beirut: ‘Alam al-Kitâb) Ed I, 1986 Page 139-140)

[14] Abû Hâmid al-Ghazâli, Mishkât al-Anwâr wa Mushaffât al-Asrâr, edited & foreword by al-Syaikh Abdul Azîz ‘Izzuddin al-Sirawan (‘Âlam al Kitâb, Beirut, I Edition, 1986 Page 139-140)

[15]اللَّهُنُورُالسَّمَاوَاتِوَالْأَرْضِمَثَلُنُورِهِكَمِشْكَاةٍفِيهَامِصْبَاحٌالْمِصْبَاحُفِيزُجَاجَةٍالزُّجَاجَةُكَأَنَّهَاكَوْكَبٌدُرِّيٌّيُوقَدُمِنشَجَرَةٍمُّبَارَكَةٍزَيْتُونِةٍلَّاشَرْقِيَّةٍوَلَاغَرْبِيَّةٍيَكَادُزَيْتُهَايُضِيءُوَلَوْلَمْتَمْسَسْهُنَارٌنُّورٌعَلَى نُورٍيَهْدِياللَّهُلِنُورِهِمَنيَشَاءوَيَضْرِبُاللَّهُالْأَمْثَالَلِلنَّاسِوَاللَّهُبِكُلِّشَيْءٍعَلِيمٌ

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