Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Rereading al Ghazali

I like to revisit good books and now that I've successfully completed a post-graduate diploma in law I'm finding that my life is returning to some level of normalcy. This morning I leafed through the first of the four books of the Ihya that I have. I had read it before, in fact the other three books remain unread and if I complete it this time it will be the third time I have read it in its entirety, yet I still get new things from it.

This time I was struck by something I had not noticed before. al Ghazali draws a distinction between the traditional scholars of "Fiqh" or jurisprudence, who deal with the observance of The Law and those with knowledge of the "Batin" or inside. This might ring alarm bells with some traditionalist Muslims who will instantly exclaim that there is no such thing mentioned in the Qur'an or the Sunnah, but someone who pays attention to what he is reading will note the subtle meanings the author intended.

I'd already been thinking deeply about the idea that some knowledge can be reached but not expressed. If I remember correctly the Greeks called this kind of knowledge gnosis, or "irfan" in Arabic. One hint from al Ghazali was a brief phrase where he pointed out that the knowledge of the Qur'an and the prophets was different. Not like the calculation of mathematics, nor like the experience and experimentation of medicine, nor was it like the argumentation of the kalam practitioners. Yet these are the three areas that critics of religion demand of religous people. For al Ghazali, over 1000 years ago, religion was something different to what was popularly thought of it.

But what is it then? Well, he gives hints not too different to some of the cryptic hadith and some of the more vague Qur'anic phrases. Improving your manners, avoiding obscene and rude behaviour, contemplation, thought, all of these do not immediately give you a ticket to paradise, whatever that is. Instead, they seem to be cultivating and nurturing a person with a particular mindset who is only then capable of noticing certain things, or asking certain questions. I guess there is a point here. If you re-read a book you read when you were a teenager you will always notice new things and interpret things differently. Why shouldn't the same apply to something like the Qur'an or hadith, especially when it is your ego and self that you have been cultivating and looking after. In effect, it is about nurturing a human being that is truly honest with themselves, and sensitive to the effects of the world around them on their self. This human being would also be sensitive to the effect that they would have to the world around them, and be able to see how little actions can have much bigger consequences.

Such a person could then, with little effort, be able to see how words, mannerisms or actions could affect their surrounding world. Some people might be so successful, they could even change the course of world history. Prophets?

I'm going to leave blogging about this topic for now...This Ramadan will be interesting.

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