Al-Ghazālī and the Sufi Tradition

Written By Dinda Revolusi on Rabu, 23 Februari 2011 | 05.16

Al-Ghazālī’s close affiliation with the Seljuq state in Baghdad came to an abrupt end in the year 488/1095. An epistemic crisis shook the foundations of his certainty, even his confidence in the reliability of sense perceptions and rational data. While he kept his post as official bastion of state orthodoxy, he descended into a state of secret skepticism. He feared for his salvation, and berated himself, saying
“Away! Up and away! Only a little is left of your life, and a long journey lies before you! All the theory and practice in which you are engrossed is eyeservice and fakery! If you do not prepare now for the afterlife, when will you do so? And if you do not sever these attachments now, then when will you sever them?”

Yet he could not tear himself free from his endowed chair at Baghdad. His internal torment lasted fully half a year, until, he relates, “the matter passed from choice to compulsion. For God put a lock on my tongue and I was impeded from public teaching…my tongue would not utter a single word: I was completely unable to say anything.” Al-Ghazālī was quite literally paralyzed with a doubt that none of his great learning or powerful associates could remove. His deliverance, he claimed, came in the form of a divine “light” that reestablished his certainty.

Under the pretext of making the hajj, al-Ghazālī left Baghdad. He turned his face toward Damascus, not as a touring scholar but as a solitary traveler. In Syria his “only occupation was seclusion and solitude and spiritual exercise and combat.” In Baghdad he had been a Seljuq courtier. Now asceticism and complete devotion to God filled his days, passed alone in a minaret. Desire consumed him to concentrate on remembrance of God (dhikr) and purifying his soul from worldly passions. These practices were hallmarks of Sufism.

The Sufism that was widespread in Sunni lands by al-Ghazālī’s day had its roots in ascetic self-denial (zuhd), a trend that had begun centuries earlier. While Western scholarship has tended to emphasize extra-Islamic stimuli in the rise of this movement, writers within the Sufi tradition averred that Islamic asceticism and its later development, Sufism, were organic outgrowths of the Qurʾān and the sunna of Muhammad. The early forerunners of Sufism prefigured staples of Sufi practice in striving
"to achieve a psychological and experiential proximity with God through self-imposed deprivations…, self-effacing humility, supererogatory religious practices, long vigils, pious meditation on the meaning of the Qurʾanic text and a single-minded concentration on the divine object."

These individuals stripped the external life of its material refinements in order to magnify the vibrancy of the soul within. The ascetic impulse took a reactionary form after the Arab conquests, when luxurious plunders circulated among the victors. By contrast, the early ascetics developed the habit of wearing rough woolen garments to distinguish themselves from ordinary believers and to mortify the bodily desire for comfortable dress in a dusty, sweltering climate.

While in some ways the ascetics’ manner of life was novel and extreme, they did not abandon the historical foundations of Islam. Proto-Sufi writers were quick to affirm that their tradition was consistent with the Qurʾān and sunna, and Qurʾānic recitation and memorization remained central to their practice. However, ascetic masters derived a certain authority from their putative connection with the divine. This authority tended more and more to displace the transmitted authority of hadīth. Hadīth lost some of their perceived immediacy as the life of the Prophet faded into the past, and ascetics—figures of demonstrable spiritual prowess—filled the resultant authority void. This authority adjustment was marginal; none of the early spiritual masters was known for claiming authority from God directly opposed to authority transmitted via the Prophet. Nevertheless, this perceived tension occasioned one of the major enterprises of early Sufi writings: the presentation of asceticism as continuous with the Muslim mainstream.

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