A very timely and important work.
August 16, 2005
This review is from: On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam: Abu Hamid al Ghazali's Faysal al Tafriqa (Studies in Islamic Philosophy, V. 1) (Hardcover)
"Hujjat al-Islam" (Proof of Islam) Shaykh Abu Hamid al-Ghazali covered a very important topic in his famous book "Faysal at-Tafriqa Bayna al-Islam wa al-Zandaqa" - The Decisive Criterion for Distinguishing Islam from Heresy (or Masked Infidelity).
It's actually a really great read, especially the commentary by Dr. Sherman (Abdul-Hakim) Jackson. Very methodological, but also flows very well, giving great background on Ghazali's life, the development of his work, and the importance of his thought even today.
Dr. Jackson explains the importance of the book: "al-Ghazali's mission is to define the boundaries within which competing theologies can coexist in mutual recognition of each other, i.e., as 'orthodox,' in the sense of passing theological muster. Al-Ghazali's aim, in other words, is not to establish who among the theological schools is 'right', but rather to demonstrate the folly and unfairness of the practice of condemning a doctrine as heresy simply because it goes against one's own theology. Furthermore, he insists, even where a doctrine can be justifiably deemed 'wrong' or heretical, this does not necessarily constitute Unbelief."
It is a very important book, and i really recommend it to anyone interested in trying to make sense of all this stuff. It really helped me a lot, and made me see that this whole idea of who is right, and who is not, the notions people have of "haqq" (truth) and so on, are actually much more complex and deeper than at least I believed previously. I am sure for many others this will be the case too.
In it Ghazali (and Dr. Jackson) mention a number of interesting points. A few that i remember are:
1) Certain matters are Usul (foundations) and others are Furu (branches).
2) All Muslims must believe in the Usul, as that is what makes them Muslim, but the Furu can have differences and still be within the boundaries of Islam.
3) There are many different methods of dealing with/interpreting Quran and Sunnah that jurists/theologians use - especially ones that us everyday people don't understand. These are matters for specialists.
4) Sometimes scholars are speaking on different wavelengths about the same subject, and this can lead to misunderstanding, when actually they are perhaps using different methods/levels of interpretation (point 3 above).
From within that, al-Ghazali mentions that there are only a handful of things that are actually Foundations (Usul):
1) The Oneness of God
2) The Prophethood of Muhammad (s)
3) The reality of Judgement Day
According to his explanation, other things are secondary and as Dr. Jackson translates "there should be no branding any person an Unbeliever over any secondary issue whatsoever, as a matter of principle."
The exception to this rule is the secondary issues handed down by the Prophet in the state of tawatur (ie. Mutwatir hadith). Rejection of this is basically a rejection of point 2 above.
For me, this is abslutely fascinating, and led to me looking at the various different sects/interpretations of both law and theology within Islam in a different way. This is especially true when there are certain sects within Islam that seem to delight in calling 'Takfir' on others (pronouncing other sects of Muslims as unbelievers, or apostates).
The other most interesting part, is how al-Ghazali deals with non-Muslims and their place in the afterlife. It is a very topical question, and this book shows a master of theology at work. The complex relationship between non-Muslims and their relationship with Islam is explained, and various possibilities are given. It is much more nuanced than the standard "non-Muslims will be in the eternal Hellfire" that certain groups like to say - which is very black & white - something I feel completely disregards our intellectual tradition. Instead the principles of Justice and Mercy shines through (especially from the famous hadith "My Mercy precedes my Wrath.")
A truly remarkable book I highly recommend to anyone wanting to read the work of one of the greats in Islam and understand their importance!