Seljuq Power and Religious Knowledge

Written By Dinda Revolusi on Minggu, 20 Februari 2011 | 15.29

Although al-Ghazali’s education preceded the full flowering of the Nizamiyya schools, it was directly funded by Nizam al-Mulk. When Nizam al-Mulk succeeded al-Kunduri, he rescinded al-Kunduri’s ban on Ash'ari theology and invited the renowned “Imam al-Haramayn” al-Juwayni to return from the Hijaz, where he had fled to escape persecution. He even set up a school for al-Juwayni in Nisabur. Al-Ghazali spent years studying under al-Juwayni, and remained in Nisabur until joining Nizam al-Mulk’s court in 478/1085.

Before al-Juwayni, al-Ghazali had taken instruction from other noted scholars, some of whom were Sufis. Sufism was heavy in the air at the time and place of al-Ghazali’s education. At least one early teacher in the madrasa, Yusuf Nassaj, was apracticing mystic. Al-Ghazali pursued higher study after the madrasa, focusing on the field of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) under the tutelage of Ahmad al-Radhkani. Fiqh was to become his area of greatest expertise. After his introduction to Islamic law, al-Ghazali left ?us to study with al-Juwayni in Nisabur, then the capital city of Khurasan.

At the Nisabur school, al-Juwayni taught fiqh, kalam (systematic theology), and ušul aldin (fundaments of Islam). He associated with the great Sufi al-Qushayri and had mystical leanings of his own. Al-Juwayni was among the first to apply Ash'ari kalam to the study of fiqh. In the decades following, and in some measure because of al-Juwayni’s work, Ash'ari kalam was the favored theological system of both Shafi?i and Maliki fuqaha’ (legal scholars). The Ash'ari approach to kalam was to treat it as “a rational metaphysics,” hardly distinguished from philosophy. “Science” and systematic logical processes played a prominent role in the grounding of religious knowledge. Specifically, they were assigned the role of independently demonstrating the veracity of core Muslim beliefs. As we will see, al-Ghazali later attacked this approach to knowledge.

Thus, his stance relative to mainline Ash'ari kalam was quite ambiguous, for he repudiated those elements of Ash'arism that advocated logic outside certain limits, but did not leave the Ash?ari fold altogether. Al-Ghazali excelled under al-Juwayni’s tutelage. His earliest biographer, 'Abd al-Ghafir, told of tension between the teacher and student on account of al-Ghazali’s precocity and even arrogance. Though the Imam al-Haramayn “made an outward show of pride” in al-Ghazali, he harbored in his heart a “dislike for his speed in expression and his natural ability.” Reports of bad blood notwithstanding, al-Ghazali spent a number of years studying under al-Juwayni and inherited many of his teachings, notably his Sufi inclinations, Shafi'i legal allegiances, and Ash'ari theology. While in Nisabur, he began to instruct younger students, to write, and to form independent legal opinions.

In 478/1085, the year that al-Juwayni died, al-Ghazali left Nisabur at the invitation of Nizam al-Mulk. Based on al-Ghazali’s own testimony, it appears likely that ambition for personal renown was a primary impetus for this relocation. Al-Ghazali was foremost among the many leading intellectuals that Nizam al-Mulk drew into his schools. As al-Ghazali later lamented in the Ihya’, these scholars often cooperated eagerly in exchange for recognition and wealth. Al-Ghazali soon distinguished himself in the frequent lectures and debates on fiqh and kalam that were held at Nizam al-Mulk’s court. Nizam al-Mulk was so taken by al-Ghazali’s intellectual acumen that in 484/1091 he appointed the young scholar to head the most prestigious educational establishment in Seljuq territory, the Nizamiyya of Baghdad.

Nizam al-Mulk made the promotion of intellectual life a priority during his long vizierate (455/1063-485/1092). His eponymous Nizamiyyas attracted prominent scholars in the fields of theology, law, philosophy, and medicine. These institutions have been romanticized as spontaneous outgrowths of a cultural and intellectual flowering around this time. In this view, they sprang up to meet a heightened demand for knowledge and education. An alternative thesis, which takes greater account of political conditions and the vizier’s likely priorities, views the Nizamiyya schools, and especially the Nizamiyya proper at Baghdad, as bastions of Sunni “orthodoxy.” In this capacity, they were key strongholds in the struggle against the subversive Isma'ili politico-religious threat.

As the reigning religious scholar at the Nizamiyya, al-Ghazali was on the front lines of ideological resistance to such groups, whose religious teachings were as inimical to Sunni orthodoxy as their political agenda was to the stability of Seljuq rule. Al-Ghazali’s appointment, far from freeing him to pursue a quiet life of teaching and contemplation, made him a key player in the battle for doctrinal and political supremacy in Seljuq lands. His state-sponsored authorship of works denouncing the Isma'ilis, like Fada'ih alBatiniyya wa Fada'il al-Mustazhiriyya (Kitab al-Mustazhiri), constitutes prima facie evidence that al-Ghazali was an active participant in this battle.

Religiously motivated conflict was not confined to this struggle; factional strife was rampant even within Baghdad. Doctrinal affiliations had major significance in the political realm. In fact, from the perspective of Islamic theorists at the time, political theory was a subset of religious knowledge. Political rivalries were inevitably communicated in the language of doctrinal distinction. Bloody conflicts over doctrinal points were frequent, even among small groups within cities. Ibn al-Athir recounts one such outbreak in 475/1082-3, between Shafi'i and Hanbali fuqaha' in Baghdad. He relates how the Ash'ari preacher Sharif Abu?l-Qasim al-Bakri al-Maghribi disparaged Hanbalis from his well-salaried post at the Baghdad Nizamiyya, to
which Nizam al-Mulk had personally appointed him.

"One day [Abu'l-Qasim] went to the house of the chief Cadi Abu Abd Allah al-Damghani, on the Qalla'in canal. An argument occurred between some of his followers and a group of Hanbalis which led to a riot, and the crowd that assembled was large. He broke into the houses of the Banul-Farra' and took their books. One of the books was The Book of Attributes by Abu Ya'la. Later, passages from it would be read in his presence, while he sat on his chair to deliver his homilies, and he would use it to attack them. He had many disputes and confrontations with them."

The urban climate in Seljuq lands was marked by such factional tensions. The participants in these struggles were fervently attached to their doctrines—mutually exclusive dogmatism played the leading role in fueling animus between groups, and religious affiliation was the leading component of personal identity.

The same 'ulama' who participated in these doctrinal squabbles were indispensable to the maintenance of Seljuq authority. In the absence of strong, indigenous local governments, they were the only visible leadership in many towns under Seljuq rule. There had developed a “caste-like local domination by families of ulama.” Their authority was based on their knowledge of  the Qur'an and the sunna, the model of the Prophet’s behavior as related in hadith. Hadith were transmitted orally by respected 'ulama'. Although important written collections of hadith had been compiled long before, oral transmission remained the accepted mode. This practice preserved for each hadith the crucial seal of its veracity: the isnad (chain of transmission). During al-Ghazali’s lifetime, the tradition of oral transmission was fading, but had not died altogether—there was still a strong sense that one ought to learn under a respected instructor rather than on one’s own from a book.

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