Fitrah, Al Ghazali, & Academic Dishonesty

In this modern age of YouTube, iTunes, and Facebook, knowledge has been reduced to that which people can gain access to in any way shape or form as long it’s not the very act of picking up a book and reading it. Instead of reading for ourselves what our scholars have actually said, we now completely rely upon our preachers to relate that information to us. Unfortunately, we have somehow unknowingly granted infallibility without justification to several of our preachers, and we now assume that whatever they relate to us will be accurate. Granted, most of the time it is accurate, but in certain cases when some claims are made that might put a scholar in a negative light, the least we can do is factcheck what’s been related to confirm.

A recent lecture given by one of the most prominent teachers of the Islamic Tradition was dealing with the subject of The human Fitrah (the pure innate nature of man). For a significant portion of the lecture, the teacher was addressing what he claimed to be Imam Abu Hamid Al Ghazali’s position on this issue, and discussed how wrong it was. What was shocking in this lecture was the blatant omission of much of what Imam Al Ghazali actually said, which in turn changed his position to something else, thus allowing the teacher to refute this newly concocted position without much effort. This misrepresentation of what Imam Al Ghazali said is similar to how the famous poet Abu Nawas from the Abbasid Era misrepresented the Quran when he said:

دع المساجد للعباد تسكنها *** وطف بنا حول خمار ليسقينا

ما قال ربك ويل للذين سكروا *** ولكن قال ويل للمصلينا

Leave the mosques for the worshippers to occupy it *** And take us around to a pub to drink

Your Lord didn’t say woe onto those who get intoxicated *** But He said woe onto those who pray

Abu Nawas was referring to Chapter 107 Verse 4 in the Quran where Allah says:

فويل للمصلين

So woe to the praying ones

What he neglected to mention was the verse right after it that qualifies it saying:

الذين هم عن صلاتهم ساهون

Who are unmindful of their prayers

Had the teacher actually finished the paragraph he used to misrepresent Imam Al Ghazali with, half of his lecture wouldn’t have been necessary. There are multiple troubling issues arising from this. First, given that the teacher omitted the rest of the paragraph, and in fact the rest of what Imam Al Ghazali said in his book, it makes it impossible to say that he must’ve misunderstood the Imam. Because it’s that very material that was omitted in this lecture that would make the teacher’s “refutation” null and void. Second, the ratings and few comments by the viewers on YouTube were extremely troubling. If they’re indicative of the impact this lecture had on those poor students who clearly didn’t go to read what Imam Al Ghazali said, then his misrepresentation is amplified many times over. After all, these students will go around uncritically repeating what they heard. Furthermore, this lecture of his is apparently based on a whole chapter in his PhD dissertation, which makes matters worse because it’s establishing his distortions of Imam Al Ghazali as academically acceptable work.

No scholar in Islam is infallible. They’re all human beings that can err. But they did reach their statuses as a result of facilitation from Allah followed by their long years in seeking knowledge and staying the late hours of the night acquiring it. The least we can do is give them their due respect and if there is a matter they made a mistake on, first we have to relate what they said faithfully and in full before showing where they went wrong. There is no need to cut and paste and take quotes out of context if they truly made a mistake. More importantly, there is no need to be extreme supporters of one scholar over another, to the point where we will deprive the rights of the one we disagree with just so we elevate the one we support. Sadly, this is exactly what happened in this lecture. After misrepresenting Imam Al Ghazali, the teacher went on to endorse and give a plug for Imam Ibn Taymiyyah who in his opinion was “the greatest scholar in Islam”.

The dangerous part of the lecture was that after the falsification of Imam Al Ghazali’s position on the human Fitrah, the teacher went on to show how Imam Al Ghazali was actually going against the Quran and the Hadith with his conclusions. He did that by quoting a couple of verses and a Hadith to show this was the case without explicitly saying it. Had this teacher actually read the very next sentence from where he stopped, Imam Al Ghazali was quoting the same Hadith the teacher brought up, and was elaborating his position. This makes finding an excuse for the teacher impossible.

Imam Al Ghazali never negated the human Fitrah. A complete reading of his book “Deliverance from Error” (المنقذ من الضلال) will show that he was seeking a way to realize the true Fitrah and discern it from inherited beliefs. He says in his introduction:

For I saw that the children of Christians always grew up embracing Christianity, and the children of Jews always grew up adhering to Judaism, and the children of Muslims 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.” 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. I wanted to sift out these uncritical beliefs, the beginnings of which are suggestions imposed from without, since there are differences of opinion in the discernment of those that are true from those that are false.

This can be hardly understood to be a negation of the Fitrah by Imam Al Ghazali. He says it in unequivocal terms that all he was looking for is a way to discern the difference between what the Fitrah will guide man towards and what was simply a blind imitation and inheritance of what parents pass down. The other issue this teacher claimed about Imam Al Ghazali saying that we need to critically examine everything can be found towards the end of the introduction section:

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… The aim of this account is to emphasize that one should be most diligent in seeking the truth until he finally comes to seeking the unseekable. For primary truths are unseekable, because they are present in the mind.

How one could conclude from these statements of Imam Al Ghazali that he negated the Fitrah, and said that we’re born with a completely blank slate without even knowledge of Allah is puzzling. There is one occasion that could be used as proof that Imam Al Ghazali said we’re born with a blank slate, and it’s in the chapter titled “The True Nature of Prophecy and the Need All Men Have for It”:

Know that man’s essence, in his original condition, is created in blank simplicity without any information about the “worlds” of God Most High.

It should be noted here that Imam Al Ghazali is speaking about the Creation NOT the Creator. He elaborates further on this as he goes on when he brings up how knowledge of the world is gained through perception using the senses and the stages in which they develop. Again, nothing indicative of Imam Al Ghazali negating the Fitrah.

Nothing will beat reading the actual books of scholars. This is especially more important when whatever is related about the scholar might put him in a negative light. The least we can do is ascertain the veracity of what is being transmitted before moving on. To do this would be to enact a command from the Quran where Allah tells us:

يأيها الذين ءامنوا إن جاءكم فاسق بنبإ فتبينوا أن تصيبوا قوما بجهلة فتصبحوا على ما فعلتم ندمين

O you who believe! If an evil-doer comes to you with a report, look carefully into it, lest you harm a people in ignorance, then be sorry for what you have done

Just because the preacher or even scholar transmitting the information is prominent and quite popular and we might really like him, it doesn’t mean that we can’t at times factcheck their statements and what they transmit. They’re still human beings and no one after the Prophet peace be upon him is infallible.

I didn’t mention the name of the teacher, but given the topic I realize that it will be simple for anyone reading this to find out who it is. This matter is not about people. Even if it was another teacher misrepresenting Imam Ibn Taymiyyah, I’d do the same to defend the Imam against any falsifications. This is about principles that we should be upholding regardless of who we’re dealing with. We have a problem as a community, and it lies in the fact that we don’t fulfill the first command that Allah has ordered us to fulfill and the archangel Gabriel repeated three times: Read!… Read!… Read!

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References:

– Al-Ghazali’s Path to Sufism his Deliverance from Error al-Munqidh min al-Dalal, Translated by R.J. McCarthy

13 thoughts on “Fitrah, Al Ghazali, & Academic Dishonesty

  1. May Allah guide us all to His straight and true path, and deliver us all from the torment of the Fire. “Deliverance from Error” is a weighty and difficult read, but I believe all Muslims have much to gain from it. I could be biased though, as I follow the Shafi’i madhab…

  2. This was very refreshing to read. I also heard a lecture delivered by this individual during which he was doing the same thing: implying that Imam Ghazzali was encouraging others to participate in activities/ harbor ideas that are contrary to the original teachings of Islam. He also endorsed Ibn Taymiyyah’s ideas and viewpoints and claimed that his ideas never went against the Quranic injunctions. He brought up the fitra only for a brief moment but he was stating that Imam Ghazzali encouraged others to leave Islam (religion), actively seek the truth, and then return to the religion. And he said that this has no basis in Quran. I’m sure Imam Ghazzali never encouraged this type of idea for everyone and I’m sure he was truly misrepresented. Alhamdulilah God will always preserve the truth.

  3. Salam dear brother Mohamed,

    I’m listening to the teacher’s lecture now and I feel you shouldn’t leave this unadressed. He makes a big mistake which needs to be corrected or at least you should seek to advice him and ask him how he could have made such a mistake and let him explain his approach. He mentions the book and must have read the passage, or that is what I assume. Anyone who reads the autobiography of al-Ghazali knows he doesn’t negate the fitrah because this passage is very striking. If you can contact him do it insha’Allah for the sake of Allah and academic honesty and objectivity.

    Fi amanillah,

    H.

  4. Asked the scholar in discussion the same question in a lecture he gave on the topic (What was Ghazzali’s view on Fitrah?); Jak for the post. Agree with the commenter above ^, some sort of productive discussion with him on the details could be helpful iA.

  5. This also brings us to many other instances where intellectual and/or academic dishonesty and even fraud takes place with regards to other ‘ulama:

    – Muhammad ibn ‘Abd ul-Wahhab
    – Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash’ari
    – Ibn ‘Arabi

    And one can think of a dozen topics next to this where this dishonesty and fraud takes place from as well as the ‘Salafis’ and the ‘Sufis’. It’s just disgusting and many of the laymen are the victims here because there is a lot of confusion and there is no authority who ends these fitan. There is so much bias.

    Sorry, this lead to a lot of frustration with me personally because it can bevery hard to figure out who is speaking the truth, especially if you can’t read Arabic.

    • This is the problem of this age of “mass-information” yet little knowledge. I can totally relate to your frustration because I’ve felt that betrayal of trust and now I find myself counting on my fingers who I can listen to. I think the issue has to be with those scholars themselves. May be they feel a sense of obligation to be knowledgeable about everything, and so they might find it too difficult to admit their ignorance. At the very least they can make the caveats of “this is how I understand it” and “this is what I’ve read about this subject” and “here are the references” so they can clear themselves in front of Allah first and the people second.
      What a sad state we’ve come to now. May Allah guide us all and show us Truth as it is and bless us to follow it, and Falsehood as it is and safeguard us from it.

  6. Could you please mention the chapter & verse for Qur’an texts in the future? Great blog and interesting article. Barak Allahu feek

  7. I listened to the lecture in question, and I did not hear the lecturer say that al-Ghazzali negated the fitra. He cites Ibn Taymiyya as saying that al-Ghallazi’s problem is that he ignores the fitra in claiming that true faith begins with doubt. The lecturer then agrees with Ibn Taymiyya. What you have cited above from al-Ghazzali does not show that the lecturer mischaracterizes al-Ghazzali’s position, but rather that the lecturer, like Ibn Taymiyya, disagrees with al-Ghazzali on the nature of the fitra.

    • The lecturer doesn’t start by citing Imam Ibn Taymiyyah. He starts at 3:00 by specifically half-quoting Imam Al Ghazali from his autobiography THEN he starts intertwining his own interpretations with his half-quoting of the Imam. Anyone who read Imam Al Ghazali’s autobiography once, let alone having read it several times, studied it, digested it, thought about it, reflected on it, synthesized it, looked at in the greater perspective of other works, then came back and read it again, would be annoyed to no end at the blatant audacious mischaracterization of Imam Al Ghazali’s position. This is not about emotional attachment to Imam Al Ghazali either. From a purely academic perspective, the lecturer is misleading whoever he’s teaching and whoever listens to that talk and trusts in him having done the work properly. After he spent 3 minutes mischaracterizing Imam Al Ghazali’s position, at 6:11 he asks the students “who can tell me what is the problem with this ‘Ghazalian” method?”, and sets the students up to accept how it “ignores the fitra” and “it could lead to kufr” and “it could lead to atheism” and “you have to step out of iman before you can step back into it, i.e., you have to become a kafir before you can become a Muslim” and “Ghazali is saying I need to step out of Islam and then think of Islam and then step back in”, and calls it a “Ghazalian system”. The last thing he says after establishing all of this mischaracterization is that “this is Ghazalian thinking” and says about himself “I said I respect him but I disagree”. It’s not until 11:20 into the lecture does he bring up Imam Ibn Taymiyyah but brings him up by asking “who are the people that challenged Ghazali?” and said “Ibn Taymiyyah took on this misunderstanding”.

      Basically, the lecturer is taking ownership of everything he brought up and uses Imam Ibn Taymiyyah to support HIS case. Only problem is that he deliberately mischaracterized Imam Al Ghazali’s position, just the same as some people do the same to Imam Ibn Taymiyyah, by half-quoting the Imam and not faithfully transmitting what he said. Unfortunately, most Muslims don’t read anymore and so he’ll mostly get away with what he’s done with Imam Al Ghazali. But may be this article of mine will turn people’s attention so they can go and fact-check before they accept this terribly inaccurate analysis of Imam Al Ghazali’s position on something as important as the theology of Muslims.

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