Ghazali in Political Prescription and Epistemological Polemic

Written By Dinda Revolusi on Rabu, 23 Februari 2011 | 05.30

Like most medieval Islamic political theorists, al-Ghazālī identified the leading purpose of government as the maintenance of  peace and security. In a secure environment, Muslims would be free of the worrisome exigencies of survival and able to practice salvific Islam. Without security the sharī'a would crumble, tempting people to sidestep right practice in order to protect their interests in a violent, uncontrolled situation, jeopardizing their salvation in the process.

In al-Ghazālī’s conception of political order as expressed in the Kitāb al Mustazhirī and echoed elsewhere, the caliphate was the cornerstone of law and of government. In this chapter I will show that al-Ghazālī envisioned the caliph as a crucial mediating link between (1) the Islamic community guided by the ulamā, (2) Seljuq coercive force, and (3) God’s authority.

Both ʿulamāʾ and rulers acknowledged the authority of the caliph; this mutual acknowledgement tied the Seljuq rulers to the Islamic community via the sharī'a, valued by both parties. The legitimacy of Islamic government depended on the maintenance of the caliphate, even if the caliph commanded only nominal obedience from the secular rulers and the 'ulamā'. 

The primary threat to the fragile political order in al-Ghazālī’s day was the infiltration of Isma'ili missionaries. Al-Ghazālī inveighed at length against the Ismaʿilis before outlining his thoughts on the caliphate and offering advice to his young patron, the caliph al-Mustaẓhir. I will conclude this chapter by outlining al-Ghazālī’s objections to Isma'īlism, especially regarding the faulty roots of Ismaʿīlī religious knowledge and the implications of knowledge for the constitution of an Islamic polity.111 Al-Ghazālī’s polemic brings his own views on knowledge and politics into sharp relief.

The Kitāb alMustaẓhirī was among the last works that al-Ghazālī wrote before his 488/1095 crisis and flight from Baghdad. The circumstances surrounding its composition were marked by political tumult of a kind unseen in Baghdad since the Seljuq invasion. On 14 October 1092, an Ismaʿīlī “Assassin” “in the guise of a suppliant or a petitioner” fatally stabbed Nizām al-Mulk. Sultan Malikshāh probably abetted the murder, for he had been on bad terms with his vizier in preceding weeks. A month later, Malikshāh succumbed to an illness contracted while hunting. A period of civil unrest and upheaval followed his demise. Bedouins, “emboldened by the death of the sultan and the absence of the army, waylaid and fell upon” pilgrims making the Hajj. Rival Seljuq princes Barkyārūq and Tutūsh struggled for supremacy, neglecting the maintenance of peace and order in the interest of gaining personal ascendancy. Barkyārūq triumphed by 487/1094. The caliph al-Muqtadī signed the new sultan’s diploma. 

Moments later, he began hallucinating and promptly died. In the space of a year and a half, the leading lights of al-Ghazālī’s society had been snuffed In this bleak hour, al-Ghazālī attended a small, private session of condolence held for the new caliph al-Mustaẓhir, the son of al-Muqtadi. The Baghdad notables present swore their allegiance to the new caliph, a callow youth of sixteen. Among his first acts in office was to commission from al-Ghazālī, then the preeminent religious scholar in Baghdad, a work refuting the doctrine of the Isma'īlīs, whose politically and doctrinally subversive activities
had flourished amid the recent upheaval.

The K. alMustaẓhirī was not intended for the caliph’s personal consumption but instead as an apologetic tool, a rallying point for Sunni ulamā combating the Ismaʿīlī challenge while reckoning simultaneously with the alien Seljuq Turks. The book attempted to navigate the fragile vessel of the caliphate between these twin challenges to its future. Its intended audience certainly included the caliph and the ulamā, who alone were sufficiently educated to trace the efflorescent style of al-Ghazālī’s arguments. But al-Ghazālī also claimed to address a broader audience, “to follow the via media” between abstruseness and oversimplification, “for the need of this book is general, with respect to both the elite and the common folk, and embraces all the strata of the adherents of Islam.” 

He sought to write a book that would be “pleasing to men’s ears,” even those of modest intelligence who had not “delved deeply into the sciences.” Thus al-Ghazālī intended portions of his work, read aloud, to reach a broad segment of the population as inoculation against the Ismaʿīlī appeal, though the full text and the sequential thread of his argument might be accessible only to the educated, especially the 'ulamā.

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