Review by Thomas D. Carroll, 2002
Al-Ghazālī. The Deliverance from Error. Annotated trans. by Rich Joseph McCarthy. Louisville: Fons Vitae, 1999.
This text has commonly been compared Descartes’ Meditations in literature directed towards an audience familiar with European philosophy. While there is a superficial similarity to be noted between the two texts, the tenor and aims of each text are decidedly different. Both Descartes and Al-Ghazálí begin their respective texts with reflections on the arising of doubt. During the middle of both texts, both reflect on how that doubt might be alleviated. At the end of the respective texts, there is a return from doubt, now with the wisdom of having endured a journey. However, Descartes’ doubt is methodological. Al-Ghazálí’s is real and deep.
Al-Ghazálí describes his doubt as like a sickness that has befallen him. He doubts everything that except that which can be demonstrably proved. And even then, he is aware that a “higher judge” than the intellect might cast doubt on such knowledge. He seeks a cure for this doubt from the four groups of seekers for truth (the theologians, philosophers, Bátiníyah (the party of ‘authoritative instruction’, and Sufis). Surely the truth must lie amongst these groups.
Al-Ghazálí spends a good portion of the text describing each of these groups and accounting for why each of them (excepting the Sufis) fails to heal his sickened heart. Then, when he comes to dealing with the Sufis, Al-Ghazálí recounts his own religious experience.
He had been growing increasingly aware of his own despondency with his teaching duties in Baghdad. For some time, he debated on leaving, but as he claims, Satan kept persuading him to stay with the safety of a life he knew. Finally, in July of 1095/Rajab, 488 A.H., “the matter ceased to be one of choice and became one of compulsion. God caused my tongue to dry up so that I was prevented from lecturing.” (See Al-Ghazálí, The Faith and Practice of Al-Ghazálí, trans. W. Montgomery Watt, Oneworld Press: Oxford, 1994, p. 60.) Al-Ghazálí then left Baghdad (somewhat secretly) for Damascus and then later Jerusalem and Mecca where he practiced Sufism and found his heart healed. Eventually, he returns to teaching, not just because he was now healed, but because he felt, and his Sufi brethren concurred, that God was directing him to heal others (including the other three schools of seekers for truth). There are many themes than run through this text, but principally, it is a text where Al-Ghazálí seeks after a teaching that is not merely intellectually consistent with the Qur’an (although, this is of deep importance), but heals the hearts of those who are lost.