Al-Ghazali And Decline Of Sciences In Islamic World – Analysis


The Abbasid Dynasty, founded in 750 AD, turned the Islamic World into a melting pot of exotic cultures, evolving intellectual traditions, architectural development and a cauldron for the exchange of diverse ideas.

The preceding dynasty of Ummayad and Rashidun Caliphate did not experience any exchange of ideas, cultural flowering, scientific inquiries, philosophical discussions, and jurisprudential development. The intellectual journey in the Islamic World was embarked upon during the Abbasid dynasty.

Soon after the dynasty was founded, Muslims learned the art of paper-making and established paper mills in Baghdad and Samarkand. The paper mills enabled Muslims to translate Greek philosophy, along with Indian and Persian, into Arabic language and comprehend the world by employing those diverse set of ideas.

Openness towards foreign texts

Though religion was reckoned to be an agent of change, it did not deter Muslims from engaging themselves in philosophical discussions that emanated from the works of Aristotle and his predecessors and successors. Aristotle was considered to be the First Teacher in the Islamic World for a long period of time.

Early scientific investigations carried out in the Islamic world were not religion-driven, but were purely driven by the quest for knowledge. Had religion been the force behind the scientific examinations, Muslims would never have continued reading and studying Aristotle and other Persian and Indian texts.

Most of the philosophers and scientists in the early period were practicing Muslims, but were also open to the diverse variety of other texts. The reason behind the scientific flight of Muslims in the early period was primarily the non-intervention of religion in purely scientific examinations. Al Farabi and Avicenna were the prime examples who remained proverbial Islamic philosophers, but also contributed massively to the development of science.

Just like Maimonides in the later 12th century, a proverbial Jewish philosopher who read the Torah along the allegorical lines if a contradiction surfaced between the religious text and the scientific inquiry, Al Farabi and Avicenna also treaded the same philosophical and theological terrain earlier in the Islamic world. The early Islamic scholars and philosophers did not drag religion into scientific investigations; as a result, found compatibility between science and the religious text.

But Al-Ghazali, an influential Islamic philosopher in the medieval period, changed the trajectory of science in the Islamic world. Al-Ghazali had a strong grip on Islamic jurisprudence and Greek philosophy; as a result, had a dilate circle of influence not only in the academia but also in the political quarters.

Al-Ghazali in some of his powerful books heavily criticized the prior philosophers and scientists for their blind admiration of Greek philosophers and their attempts to understand the physical world without weaving in a theological perspective into it. His critique against Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Aristotle, Plato and various other philosophers was theology-driven and was intended at reviving the lost purity of Islam. His criticism was so intense that the curriculum in traditional institutes was revised along theological lines and even science was made to become Islamized. The phenomenon of Islamic Sciences is mostly attributed to the works of Al-Ghazali.

Epistemological tools of Al-Ghazali

Born in Persia in the 11th Century, Al-Ghazali proposed an anti-thesis to the theory of causation heavily employed by Aristotle, and later on developed by his intellectual followers like Al-Farabi and Avicenna.

Al-Ghazali argued that the theory of causation is a reductionist attitude towards fathoming the complex nature of the phenomena that constantly transpire in this world. The effect does not have necessarily a relation with the cause or for the effect to get materialized does not necessitate a prior cause. Every event can stand alone independent of any cause behind its creation.

Al-Ghazali embraced the theory of occassionalism and examined the world through the lens of a different ontology. Occassionalism is a theory that claims that the created substances cannot perform the function of the efficient cause. Every event that unfolds does not rely on a cause for its materialization; rather God intervenes directly or through His intermediaries for the accomplishment of the event. This theory stands at loggerheads with the Aristotelian understanding of God who was powerless, passive, and too intoxicated in self-contemplation to have played a role in defining the trajectory of events transpiring in the physical world.

Al-Ghazali argues that every material object in this world is composed of atoms. These atoms do not embody any qualities or attributes; rather they make up the constitution of the body of a substance. These atoms, in their configuration, carry certain accidents.

For example, the accidents of a pen will be its weight, colour, etc. These accidents are immaterial that inhere every substance that occupies space in the world. Al-Ghazali asserts that the heart is also a composition of multiple atoms that embody a multitude of accidents. The accidents of heart are feelings. The accidents of brain are thoughts. These accidents are seamlessly made by God either directly or through His angels. An incident does not rely upon the previous one for its formation; rather God constructs an event in a fashion that necessitates the evolution of cause of effect together happening one after another without dependence on each other.

On the ontological level, the accident of cause created in one moment does not have a causal correlation with the accident of effect created in the next moment. When one moment passes by, God intervenes and creates another accident in the next moment. Movement and development in a body is generated at a juncture when God attempts to reconfigure the arrangement of the moment beforehand. In simple words, the atoms of a substance are reconfigured to create new accidents every next moment in order to construct an event; as a consequence, forming a new world altogether literally every moment.

Al-Ghazali explicates his argument further that any explanation for the natural phenomena must fulfill four provisos. 1) There lies no necessary connection between the cause and the effect, though it still remains in the power of God to establish a link. 2) The effect can transpire without the interference of the prior cause. 3) God creates two events side by side. 4) God pre-determines His creation which he referred to as destiny.
Al-Ghazali famously uses the example of fire and cotton to elongate upon the extent to which God intervenes for the creation of events.

Fire + Rational will of God+ Cotton = Smoking

He argues that fire is a dead body that does not possess the ability to act. The angels carry out the rational will of God by forming the accident of smoke resulting in the event of smoking. The general causal explanation merely describes the event of fire reacting with the cotton and giving birth to a plume of smoke without digging deep into the determinants that brought about the reaction. Al-Ghazali unveils the determinants and refers to them as the angels which carry out the rational will of God.

Al-Ghazali argues that the rational will of God that precipitated the reaction of fire with cotton helping transpire the event of smoking cannot be witnessed or proven on the empirical grounds.

The causal explanation for the event of smoking is merely the deception of eyes that cannot penetrate beyond the veneer of demonstration. He gives the example of a blind person who upon acquiring the faculty of sight on a bright sunny day comes to a conclusion that everything that surrounds him is visible owing to his own faculty of vision without being acquainted with the fact that it is the sun that makes everything visible.

Al-Ghazali holds the contention that the philosophers aiming to offer a logical, causal explanation of the world fail to look beyond the façade of apparentness and by default, synthesize theories like causality that lacks the ability to appreciate the complex nature of the mechanics at play in the formulation of the world.

Ontological lacunas in Al-Ghazali’s interpretation

The ontological perspective of Al-Ghazali embracing the theory of occassionalism gives a totalizing view of the world with everything directly or indirectly controlled by a superpower namely God. This ontology renders Al-Ghazali in a position where he is compelled to negate the use of logic in the physical world. He gives a picture of the world where laws of nature can be suspended by God at will; as a result, faith takes precedence over logic. The scientific explanations to the events unfolding in the physical world become meaningless since God can disrupt the pattern of working at any time.

The ontological position held by Al-Ghazali undermines the scientific inquiries and attempts to investigate the world since for him there are no laws of nature; logic belies the natural principles that underlie the events; every action can stand alone without being contingent on any prior cause; the apparent interplay of different substances in the world are mere deceptions to our eyes with something greater happening behind the façade of demonstration; and every incident or event is created anew in every next moment. How can scientific theories be effective in understanding the world since God can intervene to disrupt their normal functioning?

The laws of motion by Newton will be immaterial since the atoms carrying the accidents of this motion can be re-arranged by God at any time. The law of gravity holds no water given the ability of God to generate an anomaly by disrupting this pattern at will.

According to Al-Ghazali, there are no laws of nature; rather it is the behavior of God that governs the world. How can any natural phenomenon be scientifically studied and analyzed when the laws of nature are merely the manifestation of God’s behavior that are subject to tremendous changes?

Disastrous fall-out

Though Al-Ghazali made an epoch-making attempt in trying to understand the complexity of world through synthesizing a narrative characterized by the conception of God Who was potent enough to create a new world altogether every next moment, his approach towards finding a solution to the mysteries of the natural phenomena rejected logic. In his attempt to establish the existence of God and explain the world within the framework of Islamic theology, he probably undermined the scientific inquiries.

An evolving body of evidence confirms that the early Islamic scholars and philosophers were eager to acquire knowledge from every nook and corner of the world and use it to better understand the world. This unique quest for knowledge did not have the hurdle of religion in its way. Religion did not stop them from engaging themselves in an endeavor to unravel the mysteries of the universe by bringing into use the oceanic knowledge acquired from different other sources. But after the intense critique of Al-Ghazali, the openness of Muslims towards other sources of knowledge apart from the religious scriptures was replaced by an ultra-religious attitude towards sciences in the 12th century.

The influence of Greek philosophy was systematically curtailed with an intention to replace it with the Islamic philosophy that was still at an embryonic stage. Science that was neutral in terms of its religious affiliation was Islamized with the passage of time. The idea of Islamic Sciences does not have any roots in the early Islamic history. The phenomenon of Islamic Sciences emerged in the 12th century. Before that science was treated as a separate discipline apart from the religious sciences. The process of Islamizing philosophy and science, initiated at the start of the 12th century threw away the Greek, Indian and Persian philosophies and a purely religious interpretation reigned supreme.

*Rehan Khan is a prospective candidate for the Ph.D. program at NYU.

Rehan Khan

Rehan Khan is a freelancer from Pakistan.

4 thoughts on “Al-Ghazali And Decline Of Sciences In Islamic World – Analysis

  • October 10, 2019 at 3:31 pm

    Excellent review of an important topic in Islamic thought. That God is the prime mover is not novel, however that His actions are random and without long term intention is strictly an Islamic postulate which permeates Islamic thought from al Ghazali to the present.
    In order for this basis for the evolution of nature to be accepted, one must unquestioningly submit to God and there in lies the problem. Vast numbers of people in the Islamic world literally submit to God and are therefore isolated from existential reality. No wonder there are suicide bombers and frenzied legions of zealots available to do the work of God for unscrupulous “leaders.”

  • October 12, 2019 at 3:43 am

    Khan, you forgot to mention that Ghazzali was a Sufi. Many of his views introduced Sufi beliefs and thus sort of misguided. Your article is well-written but a lot of generalizations and lack of thorough analysis of early Islamic scholars and Islamic scholarship to give the reader an insightful understanding. I am going to pull out all these generalizations that Khan made and urge Khan to go back and address these generalizations:
    Generalization#1: “Early scientific investigations carried out in the Islamic world were not religion-driven, but were purely driven by the quest for knowledge. Had religion been the force behind the scientific examinations, Muslims would never have continued reading and studying Aristotle and other Persian and Indian texts.” Knowledge is a prophetic inheritance, a written by early scholars of Islam. It is precisely the religious/Islamic thought that urged man to seek knowledge of various disciplines and to study and understand that knowledge in light of what God has revealed in Quran, what Sunnah had explained, and how the great companions of Muhammad (SAW) approached such knowledge. All branches of knowledge that many great scholars of Islam studied, had the religion as the driving force behind them. I would recommend Khan to begin his studies and analysis by studying the lives of Ibn Masud (radiallahu anhu), Muadh Muadh ibn Jabal, Umar radiallahu anha- going back all to the major sources and begin your study there. This claim needs to be revisited as it is a misleading claim, especially for a Westerner who already lacks knowledge of Islam.

    claim#2 that needs to be revisited: “The reason behind the scientific flight of Muslims in the early period was primarily the non-intervention of religion in purely scientific examinations.” I am not sure how Khan just continues to make such generalizations. Science, astronomy, and various other disciplines were all studied from the time of Muhammad PBUH- not just religion.

    claim#3- misleading and needs to be revisited: “The early Islamic scholars and philosophers did not drag religion into scientific investigations; as a result, found compatibility between science and the religious text.”

    claim#4: ” The phenomenon of Islamic Sciences is mostly attributed to the works of Al-Ghazali.” Absolutely false and needs to be revisited. Ghazzali is being given a lot of credit.Ghazzali has been refuted many times by scholars before his time because of his Sufi ideas, so no.

    okay (In his attempt to establish the existence of God and explain the world within the framework of Islamic theology, he probably undermined the scientific inquiries)” BUT should have mentioned Ghazzali was a Sufi.”You will find that even though Abu Haamid al-Ghazzaali had such a deep knowledge of fiqh, Sufism, ‘ilm al-kalaam, usool al-fiqh, etc., and even though he was such an ascetic and devoted worshipper, and had such a good intention and vast knowledge of Islamic sciences, he still had an inclination towards philosophy. But his philosophy emerged in the form of Sufism and was expressed through Islamic ideas. Hence the Muslim scholars, including his closest companion Abu Bakr ibn al-‘Arabi, refuted his ideas. Abu Bakr ibn al-‘Arabi said: Our shaykh Abu Haamid went deep into philosophy, then he wanted to come out of it but he was unable to. There were narrated from him opinions which sound like the Baatini way of speaking, and that may be verified by looking in al-Ghazzaali’s books. See Majmoo’ al-Fataawa, part 4, p. 66.”

    • May 28, 2020 at 11:22 pm

      His life can be divided into two distinct periods. First period (where most of the above work comes from) is when he was a man of word. He believed in all that a muslim needs to know is in the Quran and Hadith (almost a salafi belief) and he was very fixed in his ideals.

      Second phase is when he introspected and tried to reverse course where you can call he became a sufi. I think these two phases need to be differentiated to see the effects of both

  • October 12, 2019 at 10:15 am

    To do justice with Ghazali’s contribution to the advancement of knowledge is very difficult to explain in one comment. But after reading your critique of his work its seems that misrepresenting his contribution is possible.
    First of all, to judge his contributions on Post-modern scale is utter injustice.
    Second, your criticism of Ghazali’s Tahafut is also flawed. The Tahfut has been written with the sole purpose to elucidate the inconsistencies in the Aristotelian and other philosophies of the time. Ghazali has mentioned this intent in the Author’s introduction.
    Third, as far as the philosophy of “occasionalism” is concerned, it was an honest contribution, on his part, to devise a coherent link for the dilemma of the cause and effect. The idea of “Kant’s Transcendental Idealism” is regarded as a novel idea in philosophy. A close inspection of both philosophies will show that both were honest efforts and, unlike your accusation, might be motivated by religion but independent of its influence.
    To picture this in modern science, consider the involvement of ‘Mathematics’ in science especially physics. The frontier concepts in physics like Dark Matter and Dark Energy, extra-spatial dimensions, and the whole Quantum realm find its roots in advanced mathematics, far from any intuitive considerations, which by the way has always been prized by the Scientists. Remove maths and half of the natural science would collapse. Now you may argue that maths is logically coherent and independent of any subjective involvements. To that, I would say that similar arguments can be made on the prudence of “occasionalism” and “transcendental idealism”.


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