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Inspired Knowledge in Islamic Thought: Al-Ghazali's Theory of Mystical Cognition and Its Avicennian Foundation.

Inspired Knowledge in Islamic Thought: Al-Ghazali's Theory of Mystical Cognition and Its Avicennian Foundation. By ALEXANDER TREIGER. Culture and Civilization in the Middle East, vol. 27. London: Routledge, 2012. Pp. xi + 183. 75 [pounds sterling], $125.

In the introduction, which is significantly entitled "A New Paradigm in Ghazalian Studies," Alexander Treiger asserts that the traditional image of al-Ghazali, who renounced philosophy and endorsed Sufism, is now crumbling, due in large part to Richard M. Frank's studies on al-Ghazali's theology and cosmology. Moreover, as he rightly observes, the Munqidh, al-Ghazali's so-called autobiography, which largely formed the basis of the traditional image, is essentially an apologetic work--one, I would add, full of literary tropes and rhetorical devices that make its historical value uncertain. Since Treiger takes at face value al-Ghazali's accounts of his first epistemological crisis or of his transformation from a scholar of this world, concerned with fame, social status, and prestige, to a scholar of the afterlife, he seems not to have been fully aware of this uncertainty. Al-Ghazali's accounts are not necessarily false, but neither are they unambiguously straightforward. Space limits do not allow me to go into detail, but suffice it to say that Franz Rosenthal and Vincenzo Poggi have shown that Kitab al-Wasaya of the mystic al-Muhasibi (ninth century) was a direct source of inspiration for a significant part of the Munqidh's introduction.

Aware of the tremendous complexity of al-Ghazali's thought, Treiger proposes five methodological assumptions: (1) al-Ghazali is a theologian in the generic sense (not a mutakallim); (2) Avicenna's philosophy constitutes an important key to understanding his thought; (3) for any given idea, one must go through the entire corpus; (4) al-Ghazali is consistent in his thought; and (5) he writes in a pedagogical rather than scientific way. With the exception of (4), I can only agree with these basic assumptions (although a study of the entire corpus is undoubtedly somewhat utopian since the attribution of significant works, such as Ma'arij al-quds, is still open to discussion, and we lack critical editions and exhaustive lexica). However, the claim of consistency in al-Ghazali's thought, even if it is only on a deep level, as specified by Treiger, seems to me to be somewhat gratuitous, especially insofar as it rejects, or at least makes highly improbable, any serious theoretical evolution in that thought. Is it not typical of a great thinker who tries to develop a new, encompassing system--among whom I count al-Ghazali--to fail to be completely consistent in the articulation of that system and to feel the necessity to reformulate several delicate issues, especially when becoming aware of all the implications of the system in question? Moreover, in al-Ghazali's case it can get complicated, since he copied entire texts or parts of texts of earlier Arabic thinkers, taken from different traditions, or even of his own earlier work, much of the time introducing modifications. Precisely these modifications are crucial for determining what typifies al-Ghazali's most profound thought and whether, or not, fundamental changes appear in his works. Given the lack of critical editions, however, it is almost impossible to know whether a given variant comes from al-Ghazali himself, or is a copyist's mistake, or even a printing error. That the difficulties surrounding a serious examination of al-Ghazali's thought are greater than Treiger believes also comes to the fore in his chronological presentation of twenty-four works. Even if it is reasonable to assume that the Mi'yar was written after the Ihya', this is probably only correct as far as its actual form, which includes four parts. However, some parts may have been written earlier. There is no proof as yet for this, but looking at the actual composition it seems possible, or even probable. Notwithstanding these basic reservations, the volume under review offers valuable insights, and especially its main thesis, namely, that al-Ghazali's noetics has a profound Avicennan basis, is more than worthy of attention.

Already in the first chapter, where Treiger deals with the notions of qalb (heart), 'aql (intelligence), and Him (knowledge), Avicenna's impact on al-Ghazali's thought becomes evident. Most significant in this respect is al-Ghazali's use of Avicenna's theory of the (three lowest) degrees of the theoretical intellect, including the "special" degree of the so-called sacred intellect. Based on a synoptic presentation of three Ghazalian texts (in order, Mizan, ch. 4; Iliya', book 21, bayan 4; and Ihya', book 1, bab 7, bayan 2), Treiger discovers a gradual reformulation of Avicenna's doctrine. In the final text al-Ghazali introduces references to non-philosophical sources, both mystical (al-Muhasibi) and theological (no specific reference, but al-Baqillani is a serious candidate, as shown by Treiger), and also eliminates any reference to "cogitation," i.e., syllogistic reasoning. However, it should be noted that the wording of the second text is very close to that of the first (Mizan)--it does not explicitly evoke the idea of a remote potentiality in the infant to write or to know, but it clearly suggests it when it states that the young child in his original constitution is deprived of knowledge and will, which are only realized once the child has attained maturity. It is immediately clear that al-Ghazali omits here, in sharp contrast with the Mizan, any explicit mention of the philosophical notion of potentiality. A reading of the rest of the text confirms this: on a terminological level the pair potentiality-actuality has completely disappeared. One could suspect a conscious decision to hide the philosophical inspiration of the doctrine in question, but then why would al-Ghazali in this "rewording" replace the kalam-inspired notion of "acquisitional intelligibles," present in the Mizan's exposition of the third level of intelligence, by the philosophical, or, at least philosophically inspired, expression "knowledge acquired from experience and cogitation"? Hence, although I agree with Treiger that all three of al-Ghazali's formulations have their ultimate source of inspiration in Avicenna, I am not so sure that one can speak of a "gradual" reformulation, at least in a one-directional sense. Could it be that al-Ghazali was unsure how to best articulate his own system and therefore kept rephrasing his ideas? Another dilemma is whether a difference in terminology can be considered doctrinally as "neutral"? As shown by Treiger, al-Ghazali uses qalb (P. del) as the philosophers use the notion of "rational soul" or "intellect," namely, as the immaterial and immortal locus of cognition peculiar to humans. Treiger explains this change in terminology as an intention to defuse the concept's philosophical connotations so as to make it more palatable to the broader circle of religious scholars (as inspired by Avicenna's example in Risala fi l-nafs al-natiqa--but more research is needed in order to know whether al-Ghazali indeed had access to this work, since the doctrinal matches might be due to the use of other Avicenna's texts). If this were the only reason, there would clearly be no essential difference in content. However, Treiger highlights an additional--and perhaps crucial--reason, namely, that because of its religious connotations, the heart, even more than the rational soul, is an appropriate meeting point for the two dimensions of spiritual life: the ascetic praxis and the mystical theoria. This observation is undoubtedly correct, but if I am not mistaken it has an important implication on the doctrinal level, insofar as it seems to imply a greater unity between the practical and the theoretical dimensions of the intellect than is the case in Avicenna (for whom one can attain theoretical perfection without having any practical perfection, as becomes clear in his fourfold distinction regarding happiness/misery in the afterlife; see, e.g., Metaphysics, IX,7 of the Shifa'). Finally, it is not unusual for one and the same term to be understood in different ways according to a given context. For example, the term ma'rifa is often synonymous with 'ilm, but sometimes expresses a higher type of knowledge, as judiciously exposed by Treiger (who also refers to an "ad hoc" use).

In the second chapter, which examines al-Ghazali's conception of the science of unveiling (mukashafa), Treiger calls attention to another example of philosophical influence. Although al-Ghazali's major aim in the Ihya' is practical, as reflected in the very structure of the work, one finds several allusions to mukashafa, based on which Treiger offers a well-founded basic outline, categorized under five broad sections: God, cosmology, prophetology and religious psychology, eschatology, and principles of Quranic interpretation. Moreover, he presents valuable evidence that al-Ghazali refines the Sufi term, especially by making its key component the image of the heart as a polished mirror. Significantly, Treiger points out that in line with the philosophers al-Ghazali places the knowledge of God as the telos of human life, while according only a lower paradisiacal state to those who lack this knowledge.

To better grasp the exact nature of this knowledge, Treiger concentrates in the third chapter on two technical terms, dhawq and mushahada. He observes that al-Ghazali first used dhawq to designate the experience of intellectual pleasure in the afterlife, as per the philosophers. He then generalized it to mean the perfection of knowledge, and lastly he connected it to prophecy so that it came to express that degree of prophecy that is available to non-philosophers. Treiger offers convincing evidence that al-Ghazali's analysis of dhawq owes much to Avicenna's idea of intellectual pleasure, experientially associated with knowledge. In so doing, he gives the impression that al-Ghazali was familiar with several Avicennan texts--a familiarity that cannot be verified until literal quotations are found. In the present case, the Isharnt passage of Namat 8, fasl 8 (T44, p. 61) was in all likelihood the direct source of inspiration. It may be interesting to note that Avicenna might have borrowed the term dhawq from Sufism, but he nevertheless interprets it in an explicitly philosophical way, as he does with every "mystical" notion in the last three sections of the Isharat. As regards mushahada, Treiger emphasizes that it is the expression of an intellectual vision. Even in as late a work as the Kimiycd, al-Ghazali is reluctant to affirm that the vision of God is a vision of one's eyes, as defended by classical Ash'ari kalam. Nevertheless, al-Ghazali's understanding is not completely identical with Avicenna's since he tacitly omits the latter's crucial stipulation that it should have, at least implicitly, a syllogistic structure. Hence, as Treiger subtly concludes (p. 63), this is a fine line that clearly separates Avicenna the philosopher and al-Ghazali the mystic.

Another point of Avicennan influence, the basis of chapter four, comes to the fore in al-Ghazali's taxonomy of the modes of cognition, when he reduces the distinction between prophetic revelation (wahy) and the mode of cognition of the saints (ilham) to being able, or not, to perceive the angel who transmits knowledge to man. Insofar as al-Ghazali claims that everyone can attain the latter mode, he clearly affirms something that is absent in the earlier Sufi tradition. As Treiger observes, al-Ghazali has evidently been influenced by Avicenna's explanation of the mechanics of prophecy. However, al-Ghazali not only discusses different modes of cognition, but also different educational approaches. In Mizan, 7, he insists that the rejection by the Sufis of the (philosophical) way of learning is unjustified, even if ilham, as they claim, is a valid medium for knowledge. It should be noted that Treiger interprets nuzzar in this context as referring to the philosophers, not to the mutakallimun (it may be added that in lhya', I, 6, his discussion of the existence of varying degrees in the first technical sense of yaqin, al-Ghazali contrasts the nazir to the mutakallim). However, a tension seems to arise when al-Ghazali offers up the famous parable of the Chinese and Byzantine painters, which clearly extols the Sufi way. Treiger suggests that it is possible that al-Ghazali is speaking only of those who embark on the Sufi path after having received a thorough training in the sciences, or, alternatively, that he is comparing the two ways as modes of cognition. As far as I can see, nothing in the text really points to the first alternative, so I find the second not just probable but almost certain. Finally, al-Ghazali presents two models for explaining ilham: the Preserved Tablet and a curtain, and a pond with two openings (it would be interesting to examine whether Avicenna's theory of the two faces of the soul played any role in the development of this second model). Treiger detects in the background two major Avicennan influences: the idea of intuition (hads) and the concept of an imagination-based prophecy. He makes clear that despite al-Ghazali's avoidance of the term hads in his unquestionably authentic works (except when expounding the philosophers' doctrines), he has an understanding of prophecy that is closely related to Avicenna's, especially insofar as the "sacred prophetic spirit" is not a separate spirit to al-Ghazali but simply the most luminous and purest part of the cogitative spirit. As for imagination-based prophecy, Treiger shows how significant it is for the model of the Preserved Tablet and a curtain, but also stresses that, in sharp contrast with Avicenna, al-Ghazali does not accord a special role to imagination in the process of cognition nor does he make a distinction between two possible ways of connection with the supernal realm, i.e., through hads or through imagination.

In the fifth and final chapter, Treiger argues that the Tahafut should be seen as a "stage combat," creating the illusion of a real fight without inflicting any damage on the opponent (p. 85). In fact, its main objective is to show that the philosophers' teachings are unproven, rather than incorrect. In this sense, Treiger analyzes q. 16 and 20 of the Ihya' and offers evidence that several ideas criticized there are endorsed by al-Ghazali in his later works. The evidence offered is so great that there is no serious room for doubt. What is mainly at stake is the philosophers' claim to have proven some ideas in cases where no proof is available to human reason. Indicating the limits of the apodeictic method, the Tahafut makes room for the epistemological claims of prophecy and mystical cognition, hence criticizing the philosopher's arguments rather than his conclusions. For example, as shown in great detail by Treiger, in several of his works al-Ghazali accepts the philosophers' symbolist interpretation of the eschatological imagery of the Quran. Moreover, al-Ghazali's view leaves room for Avicenna's "imaginalist" view (allowing the intellectually non-perfect souls a kind of "imaginary" life in the hereafter). However, he makes no mention whatsoever of this Avicennan idea in the Tahafut. Given that he was familiar with it, this omission is certainly not by accident. Hence, one may wonder with Treiger why al-Ghazali did not discuss it, all the more since it clearly saves Avicenna from "giving lie to the prophets." Treiger thinks it is because al-Ghazali did not want to complicate the issue while facilitating his blanket condemnation of the philosophers as infidels. However, the accusation of kufr against the philosophers is only expressed in the khatima, which may constitute a later addition (maybe related to the Nishapur controversy). It might simply be that al-Ghazali considered the "imaginalist" view to be untypical of philosophy and therefore omitted it in a work that clearly condemns the philosophers for their adherence to an attitude of taqlid. If this is correct, the Tahafut might address in particular the contemporary philosophers of al-Ghazali's time, who were merely "followers" or "imitators" of Avicenna. But this does not represent Treiger's view. Rather, he qualifies the Tahafut as a "pseudo-refutation," a kind of exercise in deconstructionist rhetoric and dialectic, and as being essentially a work of kalam, aimed at safeguarding the commoners' creed, nothing more and nothing less. This is a valuable alternative interpretation that cannot easily be dismissed, although it is not obvious. Clearly further research is needed to determine the exact nature of the renowned, but highly complex work that is the Tahafut. Even its title is far from clear. In appendix B Treiger makes a serious argument for translating it as "Precipitance (of the Philosophers)" instead of "Incoherence (of the Philosophers)." At first sight, this is convincing, even if some aspects of the work make the more common translation "incoherence" more plausible.

To sum up, in this volume Treiger convincingly shows that al-Ghazali's theory of mystical cognition has at its core Avicennan ideas, either lightly or majorly modified. He demolishes once and for all the myth of al-Ghazali as the anti-philosopher who brought to an end independent rational thinking in Islam. Although this is not an entirely new insight, Treiger makes clear how even in his "non-philosophical" works al-Ghazali is still deeply in debt to the philosophers' doctrines, especially to those of Avicenna. The precise extent of this debt is extremely difficult to determine and, generally speaking, Treiger is aware of this and articulates in a most nuanced way Avicenna's influence; sometimes, however, he exhibits a slight tendency to overstress this influence and to ascribe to al-Ghazali a too outspoken philosophical view, e.g., the acceptance of the immortality of the soul alone, as if the latter's affirmations regarding the resurrection of the body are purely rhetorical. Nonetheless, this book deserves the full attention of all specialists in the field. It without doubt contributes to a better understanding of al-Ghazali, hujjat al-islam, as a thinker who valorized both reason and revelation, positing them as complementary rather than as opposite.


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Author:Janssens, Jules
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2015
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