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In Praise of Doubt, When Necessary

A mosaique with the name of Allah [© Zain Ali - Pexels]

Al-Jâhiz and al-Ghazâlî's reflection on doubt

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

Last update: 2019-05-27 12:41:25

In some passages of two key authors, one, al-Jâhiz, famous as an acerbic writer and an expert on apologetic theology, the other, al-Ghazâlî, an elected and tormented soul and reference for Sunni orthodoxy, one discovers a unique reflection on doubt, considered a useful method in certain situations, one sometimes necessary for a route towards the certainty of faith, but not sufficient in itself. Differently from the light that only God can cast into the human heart.






The Lesson of Al-Jâhiz



Recognize the occasions and situations necessitating doubt, so as to be able to recognize the occasions and situations necessitating certainty, and do study the doubts applicable to the doubtable. Were this to lead merely to realizing (the need for) hesitation and then to assurance, it would be something that is needed.



Realize further that all (scientists) are of the opinion that there are degrees of doubt. They are not agreed on (the existence of) degrees of strength and weakness in certainty.






[Sayings by certain experts on Kalam about doubt]



When Abû l-Jahm said to al-Makkî,[1] “I hardly have doubts,” al-Makkî replied, “I hardly have certainty.” Al-Makkî wanted to show that he felt superior to Abû l-Jahm, because he had doubts when doubts were called for, whereas Ibn al-Jahm wanted to show that he felt superior to al-Makkî, because he had certainty when certainty was called for.



Abû Ishâq (an-Nazzam) said: “I have had disputations with both doubters and deniers among heretics,[2] and I have found that the doubters have a better insight into the essence of theological speculation (kalâm) than the deniers.” Abû Ishâq also said: “The doubters is closer to you than the denier. Never has there been any certainty, unless there was doubt before. Nor did anyone ever switch from one belief to another without an intervening situation of doubt.”



Ibn al-Jahm said: “I truly long for the conversion (that falls to the lot) of those beset by uncertainty. For when uncertainty has cut off a man from certainty, the lost thing he goes after successfully is clarity,[3] and he who finds what he has lost rejoices.” ‘Amr Ibn ‘Ubayd[4] said: “Declaration through the tongue of a denier is stronger than recognition by the heart of an ignorant.” And Abû Ishâq said: “If you want to know the worth of a wise man and the level he has reached and if you want to assay him in the fire in order to distinguish what is true from what is false or how much truth or falsity is in him, you who are a wise man should assume the appearance of a pupil and ask him questions as though you expected him to give you the answers.”






[The difference between the common people and the elite in relation to doubt]



The common people have fewer doubts than the elite, because they have no hesitation with regard to believing something to be true (or false), and they do not doubt themselves. They see no other choice except absolutely believing something to be true or absolutely believing something to be false. They exclude the third possibility, that of doubt, which comprises the various degrees of doubt, according to the presence or absence of suspicion with regard to reasons for taking or not taking a doubting attitude and according to the various measure of likelihood.






[The respect owed to experts of Kalam]



A man with some experience in speculative thought heard scholars approve of some doubt. He extended this attitude to everything and finally assumed that the truth or untruth of every thing is knowable not absolutely but only according to a varying measure of likelihood. This man died, leaving no offspring nor anyone following his method. If I mentioned his name in this connection, I would do no wrong. But presently I do not like to mention with praise someone who partook in the dignity of kalâm and who held the opinion of the precedence of istitâ‘ah.”[5]






[Excerpts taken from Franz Rosenthal, Knowledge Triumphant. The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam, Brill, Leiden, 1970, pp. 303-305].






The Way of Al-Ghazâlî



The thirst for grasping the real meaning of things was indeed my habit and wont from my early years and in the prime of my life. It was an instinctive, natural disposition placed in my makeup by God Most High, not something due to my own choosing and contriving. As a result, the fetters of servile conformism fell away from me, and inherited beliefs lost their hold on me, when I was still quite young. For I saw that the children of Christians always grew up embracing Christianity, and the children of Jews always grew up following the religion of Islam. I also heard the tradition related from the Apostle of God – God’s blessing and peace be upon him! – in which he said: “Every infant is born endowed with the fitra: then his parents make him Jew or Christian or Magian.”






[The disease of doubt]



Consequently I felt an inner urge to seek the true meaning of the original fitra, and the true meaning of the beliefs arising through slavish aping of parents and teachers. […] With great earnestness, therefore, I began to reflect on my sense-data to see if I could make myself doubt them. This protracted effort to induce doubt finally brought me to the point where my soul would not allow me to admit safety from error even in the case of my sense-data. Rather it began to be open to doubt about them and to say: “Whence comes your reliance on sense-data? The strongest of the senses is the sense of sight. Now this looks at a shadow and sees it standing still and motionless and judges that motion must be denied. Then, due to experience and observation, an hour later it knows that the shadow is moving, and that it did not move in a sudden spurt, but so gradually and imp0erceptibly that it was never completely at rest. Sight also looks at a star and sees it as something small, the size of a dinar: then geometrical proofs demonstrate that it surpasses the earth in size. In the case of this and of similar instances of sense-data the sense-judge makes its judgments, but the reason-judge refutes it and repeatedly gives it the lie in an incontrovertible fashion.



Then I said: “My reliance on sense-data has also become untenable. Perhaps, therefore, I can rely only on those rational data which belong to the category of primary truths, such as our asserting that “Ten is more than three,” and “One and the same thing cannot be simultaneously affirmed and denied,” and “One and the same thing cannot be incipient and eternal, existent and nonexistent, necessary and impossible.”



Then sense-data spoke up: “What assurance have you that your reliance on rational data is not like your reliance on sense-data? Indeed, you used to have confidence in me. Then the reason-judge came along and gave me the lie. But were it not for the reason-judge, you would still accept me as true. So there may be, beyond the perception of reason, another judge. And if the latter revealed itself, it would give the lie to the judgments of reason, just as the reason-judge revealed itself and gave the lie to the judgments of sense. The mere fact of the nonappearance of that further perception does not prove the impossibility of its existence.”



For a brief space my soul hesitated about the answer to that objection, and sense-data reinforced their difficulty by an appeal to dreaming, saying: “Don’t you see that when you are asleep you believe certain things and imagine certain circumstances and believe they are fixed and lasting and entertain no doubts about that being their status? Then you wake up and know that all your imaginings and beliefs were groundless and unsubstantial.” […]



So perhaps this present life is a sleep compared to the afterlife. Consequently, when a man dies, things will appear to him differently from the way he now sees them, and thereupon he will be told: “But We have removed from you your veil and today your sight is keen” (50:21,22).



When these thoughts occurred to me they penetrated my soul, and so I tried to deal with that objection. However, my effort was unsuccessful, since the objection could be refuted only by proof. But the only way to put together a proof was to combine primary cognitions. So if, as in my case, these were inadmissible, it was impossible to construct the proof. This malady was mysterious and it lasted for nearly two months. During that time I was a skeptic in fact, but not in utterance and doctrine. At length God Most High cured me of that sickness. My soul regained its health and equilibrium and once again I accepted the self-evident data of reason and relied on them with safety and certainty. But that was not achieved by constructing a proof or putting together an argument. On the contrary, it was the effect of a light which God Most High cast into my breast. And that light is the key to most knowledge.



Therefore, whoever thinks that the unveiling of truth depends on precisely formulated proofs has indeed straitened the broad mercy of God. When the Apostle of God – God’s blessing and peace be upon him! – was asked about “the dilation” in the Most High’s utterance: “So he whom God wishes to guide aright, He dilates his breast for submission to Himself (i.e., to embrace Islam)” (6:125), he said: “It is a light which God casts into the heart.” Then someone said: “And what is the sign of it?” He replied: “Withdrawal from the mansion of delusion and turning to the mansion of immortality.” And it is this of which the Apostle – God’s blessing and peace be upon him – said: “God Most High created men in darkness, then sprinkled on them some of His light.” From that light, then, the unveiling of truth must be sought.









Cured from radical doubt, Al-Ghazâlî “travels the roads” of the theologians, the Batinis (esoteric Shiites), philosophers and Sufis. He measures the limitations and errors of the first three categories of “truthseekers.” He then moves on to questioning the mystics.



When I had finished with all those kinds of lore, I brought my mind to bear on the way of the Sufis. I knew that their particular Way is consummated [realized] only by knowledge and by activity [by the union of theory and practice]. The aim of their knowledge is to lop off the obstacles present in the soul and to rid oneself of its reprehensible habits and vicious qualities in order to attain thereby a heart empty of all save God and adorned with the constant remembrance of God. […]



Then it became clear to me that their most distinctive characteristic is something that can be attained, not by study, but rather by fruitional experience[6] and the state of ecstasy and “the exchange of qualities.”[7] How great a difference there is between you knowing the definitions and causes and conditions of health and satiety and your being healthy and sated! And how great a difference there is between your knowing the definition of drunkenness. […]



I therefore reflected unceasingly on this for some time, while I still had freedom of choice. One day I would firmly resolve to leave Baghdad and disengage myself from those circumstances, and another day I would revoke my resolution. I would put one foot forward, and the other backward. In the morning I would have a sincere desire to seek the things of the afterlife: but by evening the hosts of passion would assail it and render it lukewarm. Mundane desires began tugging me with their chains to remain as I was, while the herald of faith was crying out: “Away! Up and away! Only a little is left of your life, and a long journey lies before you! All the theory and practice in which you are engrossed is eyeservice and fakery! If you do not prepare now for the afterlife, when will you do so? And if you do not sever these attachments now, then when will you sever them? […]



Thus I incessantly vacillated between the contending pull of worldly desires and the appeals of the afterlife for about six months, starting with Rajab of the year 488 (July, 1095 A.D.). In this month the matter passed from choice to compulsion. For God put a lock upon my tongue so that I was impeded from public teaching. I struggled with myself to teach for a single day, to gratify the hearts of the students who were frequenting my lectures, but my tongue would not utter a single word: I was completely unable to say anything. As a result that impediment of my speech caused a sadness in my heart accompanied by an inability to digest; food and drink became unpalatable to me so that I could neither swallow broth easily nor digest a mouthful of solid food. That led to such a weakening of my powers that the physicians lost hope of treating me and said: “This is something which has settled in his heart and crept from it into his humors; there is no way to treat it unless his heart be eased of the anxiety which has visited it.”



Then, when I perceived my powerlessness, and when my capacity to make a choice had completely collapsed, I had recourse to God Most High as does a hard pressed man who has no way out of his difficulty. And I was answered by Him Who “answers the needy man when he calls on Him” (27:62), and He made it easy for my heart to turn away from fame and fortune, family, children, and associates. […]









Ascertainment by apodeictic proof leads to knowledge. Intimate experience of that very state is fruitional experience. Favorable acceptance of it based on hearsay and experience of others is faith. These, then, are three degrees, or levels, of knowledge – “God raises in degrees those of you who believe and those to whom knowledge is given” (58:12,11).






[Excerpts taken from Deliverance from Error, translated by Richard J. Mccarthy s.j.,]







[1] Abû l-Jahm is apparently identical with Ibn al-Jahm, as he is called later on. He was Muhammad b. al-Jahm, the brother of the famous poet, ‘Alî. Muhammad al-Makkî is frequently cited in al-Jâhiz and other works by al-Jâhiz as one of his friends, cf. the translation of the Livre des avares by C. Pellat, 342 (Beirut-Paris 1951).



[2] This refers to the existence of God. Another reading: “with doubters and heretics”, would remove the doubters from the category of heretics.



[3] The variant reading “certainty” seems more to the point, but the more difficult “clarity” deserves preference. The difference between the two words in Arabic writing is very small.



[4] He was a disciple of Hasan al-Basrî, and one of the first exponents of the mu‘tazila along with Wâsil Ibn ‘Atâ’. He died in 761 while he was going to Mecca as a pilgrim.



[5] More precisely, the anonymous theologian argued that the human capacity to act (istata‘a) came before the act itself. This is a characteristic position of the Mu‘tazilite theological school, to which Al-Jâhiz belonged.



[6] The mystical experience.



[7] Man must strive to embody the qualities suggested by the divine attributes as much as possible, changing his very nature (Ed.).

To cite this article

Printed version:
Text by Al-Jâhiz, Al-Ghazâlî, “In Praise of Doubt, When Necessary”, Oasis, year XI, n. 21, June 2015, pp.102-107.

Online version:
Text by Al-Jâhiz, Al-Ghazâlî, “In Praise of Doubt, When Necessary”, Oasis [online], published on 31st July 2015, URL:

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