Al-Ghazali and the Closing of the Muslim Mind

I have been telling you people about this malign influence over the Muslim mind, the philosopher Al-Ghazali, for some time. Robert Reilly wrote a book about him in “The Closing of the Muslim Mind“, which you should read if you wish to understand why, for many muslims, everything in the world is “in’shallah” – as God wills- when the subject under discussion is as trivial as why the car tire has a flat.

In a world without natural causes, everything that happens happens directly from God’s will. Imagine a world without natural causes. Everything must be a human conspiracy, and act of a djinn, or an act of God. Imagine what happens to science and philosophy when there are no natural causes. They crash. They become quasi-heretical activities, when they are not fully heretical.

In this week’s New Yorker, there is a short story by Salman Rushdie about the f=great Islamic follower of Aristotle, Ibn-Rushd, and this is what he has to say about al-Ghazali:

There was a deep, sad wound in him, because he was a defeated man, had lost the great battle of his life to a dead Persian, Ghazali of Tus, an adversary who had been dead for eighty-five years. A hundred years earlier, Ghazali had written a book called “The Incoherence of the Philosophers,” in which he attacked Greeks like Aristotle, the Neoplatonists, and their allies, Ibn Rushd’s great precursors Ibn Sina and al-Farabi. Ghazali had suffered a crisis of belief at one point, but had recovered with such conviction that he became the greatest scourge of philosophy in the history of the world. Philosophy, he jeered, was incapable of proving the existence of God, or even of proving the impossibility of there being two gods. Philosophy believed in the inevitability of causes and effects, which was an insult to the power of God, who could easily intervene to make causes ineffectual and alter effects if He so chose.

The crude popular level of interpretation of al-Ghazali that has reached the islamic street is that God renders all causes not originating in Himself utterly null. Everything proceeds from God’s will. Hence why bother with science?


“What happens,” Ibn Rushd asked Dunia when the night wrapped them in silence and they could speak of forbidden things, “if a lighted stick is brought into contact with a ball of cotton?”

“The cotton catches fire, of course,” she answered.

“And why does it catch fire?”

“Because that is the way of it,” she said. “The fire licks the cotton and the cotton becomes part of the fire. It’s how things are.”

“The law of nature,” he said. “Causes have their effects.” And her head nodded beneath his caressing hand.

“He disagreed,” Ibn Rushd said, and she knew that he meant the enemy, Ghazali. “He said that the cotton caught fire because God made it do so, because in God’s universe the only law is what God wills.”

“So if God had wanted the cotton to put out the fire, if He had wanted the fire to become part of the cotton, He could have done that?”

“Yes,” Ibn Rushd said. “According to Ghazali’s book, God could do that.”

She thought for a moment. “That’s stupid,” she said, finally. Even in the dark she could sense the resigned smile, the smile with cynicism in it as well as pain, spreading crookedly across his bearded face.

“He would say that this was the true faith,” he answered her, “and that to disagree with it would be . . . incoherent.”

“So anything can happen if God decides it’s O.K.,” she said. “A man’s feet might no longer touch the ground, for example. He could start walking on air.”

“A miracle,” Ibn Rushd said, “is just God changing the rules by which He chooses to play, and if we don’t comprehend it, it is because God is ultimately ineffable, which is to say, beyond our comprehension.”

The point is, the differences between Islam, on the one hand, and Christianity on the other, including secular societies proceeding from Christian belief, is that the universe is intelligible. It can be figured out. This is why science as we understand the term emerged in Christian lands and not anywhere else (despite what they tell you in university). Neither India nor China, for different reasons, developed science in the sense in which the practice originated in the christian west. But in Islam, the development of philosophy and science was cut short by the fanatics and by the baneful influence of the philosopher who renounced philosophy, Al-Ghazali.