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