Introduction to Classics

This article was published in Oasis 21. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2021-12-07 14:35:16

 It cannot be said that reflections concerning certain crucial questions such as the role of religion in a modern state, the position of non-Muslims or women in an Islamic society or limits to the legitimate use of violence have been lacking in the Islamic world over the last two centuries. The answers have been and remain extremely varied, ranging from the most conventional to the least predictable.


There is, however, a frame of mind without which any discussion of individual points of doctrine risks running aground just as it sets sail: it is the conviction that the task for today’s Muslims is not only to apply the right answers but also, and above all, to find those answers, through a work of patient enquiry. Such a course has already been followed in the past, during the first Abbasid age, when Muslims came into contact with the other religions and cultures in the Near East.


The page from al-Jâhiz (776-868), one of the masters of Arab prose, is a lively testimony to this spirit of enquiry. A native of the cosmopolitan port of Basra who went down in history as a mordant and multifaceted writer, al-Jâhiz considered himself first and foremost an expert in kalâm (apologetic theology), being an exponent of that Mu‘tazili school that set out to rationally defend the Islamic doctrines from attacks by the followers of other religions, as well as from “heretics, materialists and those who deny the truth.”


The Book of Animals (from which the excerpt we are presenting here is taken) is absolutely not a theological treatise, however. Indeed, al-Jâhiz accumulated in it numerous anecdotes about animals in apparently no particular order and punctuated them with reflections on man and other, more general, considerations. Amongst these there also appear some sayings about the value of doubt, not as an end in itself but as a means of arriving at the truth, including through a close comparison with other doctrines. Never “did anyone […] switch from one belief to another without an intervening situation of doubt.” As the great Franz Rosenthal observed, whilst “the common belief was that necessarily and simply, doubt in God was unbelief,” “to the glory of the Mu‘tazilah, it can be said that within their ranks, there existed convinced champions of doubt.” For them doubt “obviously showed the way toward a well founded understanding of scientific data as well as the religious phenomena which were their prime concern” (Knowledge Triumphant, pp. 303-305). Naturally, such an attitude was not immune to the dangers of rationalism. This fact, combined with political considerations, resulted in the school attracting increasing hostility, after an initial period of favour with the Caliphs. Despite these limitations, Ahmad Amin was to write, “The death of the Mu‘tazilis is one of the greatest calamities to have afflicted the Muslims.”


That doubt that al-Jâhiz describes with the rather blasé levity of the successful intellectual was to become, almost three centuries later, an anguished existential experience in the story of al-Ghazâlî (1058-1111), who brought about the great renewal of Sunnism. A work that is likened to Augustine’s Confessions in some of its aspects, the Deliverance from Error tells the tale of a tortured quest, probably selecting and schematizing biographical data in the process. Al-Ghazâlî describes two crises and two conversions. The first was more intellectual, whereas the second was decidedly moral. Having rejected the proof of authority, al-Ghazâlî falls victim to a scepticism from which he is cured not by way of a rational proof but thanks to a moment of divine illumination. But this is only the beginning of the journey towards an intellectual and existential certainty that constitutes, as Farid Jabre has demonstrated, the driving force of al-Ghazâlî’s thinking. Such quest was to lead him to measure himself against theologians, philosophers and, above all, the initiates of esoteric Shi‘ism. However, whereas for the latter certainty comes from submission to the imam’s teaching (the imam being the visible Face of everything in God that is accessible to man), for al-Ghazâlî the only imam is Muhammad and the mystical paths that originate in him. Thus Sunnism is re-structured around the theme of certainty, so as to better resist the challenge of Shi‘ite esotericism. In doing so, it grants citizenship to a Sufism that is principally moral. Nevertheless, there lies a message for the present in the fact that this new synthesis was achieved after passing through doubt: doubt, as Jabre writes, not “about the beliefs themselves but, rather, the grounds on which their credibility in the eyes of reason is based” (p. 43).


But in the faith that al-Ghazâlî comes to, how much is similar to the corresponding Christian notion and how much is different? The Islamist Louis Gardet answers this question in some masterly pages. After a restless and mysterious youth, Frère Marie-André (as he was known in his religious life) converted to Catholicism and joined the first group of Little Brothers of Jesus in 1933. A disciple of Maritain (who accompanied him in his spiritual journey), he devoted himself to the study of Islamic religious thought, publishing more than 20 books, some of which he co-authored with the Dominican Georges Anawati. In Dieu et le destinée de l’homme (1967), he tackles five of the main issues in Sunni Muslim theology, putting them on a parallel with the Christian treatment of the same subjects. Significantly, for Gardet (who has precisely al-Ghazâlî in mind) Islam’s faith is “acceptance of a testimony by virtue of the intrinsic obviousness of this same testimony.”


The reform that is to come in the Middle East (because come it certainly must) will be both political and religious and perhaps political sooner than religious. But in illustrating the crossroads at which the Islamic world has been standing, undecided, for more than two centuries, it seemed important not to neglect – alongside the political, social and economic considerations – a plunge into the core of Islamic faith and the ways in which it is lived.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


To cite this article

Printed version:
Martino Diez, “Choosing How to Travel, before Where to”, Oasis, year XI, n. 21, June 2015, pp. 100-101.

Online version:
Martino Diez, “Choosing How to Travel, before Where to”, Oasis [online], published on 7th December 2021, URL: /en/choosing-how-to-travel-before-where-to