Imam al-Ghazzali About Spirit
As with many other subjects, Imam al-Ghazzali fundamentally shook the opinions of both ancient philosophers and renowned Muslim philosophers such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, and the Mu’tazilite thinkers, all of whom may be regarded as students of ancient philosophy, about the spirit as well, and opened a brand new field of study for the Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama’a along the way of the Ash’aris. While he expounded his objections to and counter-arguments against all the ancient and new thoughts and philosophies which he saw as erroneous in Nafhu’r-Ruh wa’t-Taswiya (“The Breathing of the Spirit and the Full Formation”), al-Madnun bih ‘ala Ahlih (“Addressing the Specialists”), Usulu’l-Arba’in (“Forty Principles”), and Tahafutu’l-Falasifa (“The Incoherence of the Philosophers”), he explained the way of the Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama’a in Ihyau ‘Ulumi’d-Din (“Reviving the Religious Sciences”) in the style of his time. In this last work of his, rather than theoretical matters, the Imam concentrates on religious life, worship, sincerity, avoidance of forbidden things, the purification of the soul, and the refinement of the heart.
In the works mentioned, Imam al-Ghazzali assigns extensive room to psychology under the title of “The Science of the Spirit.” Based on the verses, We will show them Our manifest signs (proofs) in the horizons of the universe and within their own selves, until it will become manifest to them that it (the Qur’an or the truths it preaches) is indeed the truth (41: 53); and, On the earth there are (clear) signs (of God’s Oneness as Lord and Sovereign) for those who seek certainty, and also in your own selves. Will you then not see (the truth)? (51: 20–21), and on relevant Prophetic Traditions, he draws attention to the human soul and makes extensive explanations concerning it.
The Imam is an important advocate of the Sunni scholars regarding their views of the spirit. He frequently reminds his audience that human nature contains a spirit separate from the body. Though he refers to it sometimes as “the speaking soul,” sometimes as “the spirit,” sometimes as “the soul,” and sometimes as “the heart,” he points out the nuances among these, and he emphasizes the spirit as the essential reality of humanity.
Due to the views which he put forward when he discussed the duality of the spirit and the body, those who lack sufficient knowledge of Imam al-Ghazzali may suppose that he thinks like the spiritualists. While others, who primarily consider his reiterations on the body as having no essential value, but that we should rather concentrate on “the essence of humanity,” may think that he is a pantheist. The truth is that the illustrious Imam is neither a spiritualist nor a pantheist. He affirms that the spirit is a substance separate from the body but one which controls it. While doing so, he also insistently emphasizes that the spirit is not something material or corporeal, and that its relationship with the body is not of a nature of either incarnation or separation, but of control and direction. In his al-Madnun bihi ‘ala Ghayr-i Ahlihi (“Addressing the Non-Specialists”), the Imam stresses that the spirit is neither a part of the body nor detached from it. For joining or attachment, and detachment are actions peculiar to material things. The spirit is not something material. As for its effect on and control of the body, we should only point out that it is a mystery known only to God. Its explanation in human language may cause confusion in minds such that particularly common people may liken it to God’s control of things and events. The Imam also points out that we may make similar mistakes and cause confusions in dealing with the spirit’s relationship with time and space, and is very careful about God’s having no resemblance at all to the created.
According to al-Ghazzali, the spirit is something created, and therefore it has no eternity in the past. Its being brought into existence is like an effusion or diffusion from a limitless source into the frame of the body. God sometimes forms a body out of clay and endows it with the capacity to receive a spirit as in the case of the Prophet Adam, upon him be peace; sometimes He creates a body out of a human seed—a few drops of fluid coming from a male and female—and causes it to develop so that it can receive the spirit. We should not understand the effusion mentioned as a part detaching from a whole. In accordance with the rule, if we should present Divine truths using parables, we should present them with the most sublime parables—this effusion can be likened to reflections in mirrors. We should point out here that although the Imam, like others who discuss spiritual matters, cannot avoid using comparisons and parables associated with corporeality, the spirit is from the Immaterial Realm of (the Initial Manifestation of) Divine Commands, and it is therefore almost impossible to explain it in terms of corporeality.
Imam al-Ghazzali also discusses the permanence of the spirit after the death of the body. Based on the Qur’anic verses concerning life after death, such as: Do not think at all of those killed in God’s cause as dead. Rather, they are alive; with their Lord they have their sustenance (3: 169), and the Prophetic Traditions that mention life in the grave and beyond, he emphasizes life in the grave and rejects any considerations that oppose this. Saying, “A human being is human due to their spirit, not their body,” the Imam considers the other-worldly existence as a new creation and existence.