Al-Ghazali and the Isma`ilis: A Debate on Reason and Authority in Medieval Islam by Farouk Mitha

(First published 2001)

It is a critical study of a text, its author and their place in the larger context of Muslim intellectual history in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Ghazali wrote a book called Fada`ih al-Batiniyah wa fada`il al-Mustazhiriyah (The Infamies of the Batiniyyah and the Virtues of the Mustazhiriyyah), popularly known as Kitab al-Mustazhiri. He was commissioned to write this text by the Abbasid caliph, al-Mustazhir, before or soon after the latter ascended to the caliphal throne. The Batiniyah here refers to Isma`ilis and Mustazhiriyah to those who supported the Abbasid caliph in particular and believed in the Sunni caliphate in general. Thus, it is a polemical rejection of the theology and doctrines of the Isma`ilis and an affirmation of the Sunni orthodoxy in the form of Abbasid caliphate.

The book starts with sketching out the sociopolitical landscape at the time Ghazali penned down his book. Then it proceeds to deal with questions of form and style of the Kitab al-Mustazhiri. Next comes the evaluation of content and arguments brought forth against Isma`ilis and in favour of Abbasids. Finally, the book provides a summary of the main currents running through Kitab al-Mustazhiri and alternate ways to read that text. It is a complex book and relies a lot on specialised terminology. In that it is not for the starters as the readers should preferably have prior knowledge of the general history of the groups and ideas dealt with in this book to appreciate it fully.

Ghazali wrote Kitab al-Mustazhiri in 1092; a time of confusion and upheaval in Sunni lands. Abbasid caliphate had for long lost its grandeur and power, first at the hands of Shi’i Buyids (or Buwayhid) and later at the hands of Turkic Seljuqs who were in effect the masters of the domains nominally under the Abbasid caliph. A civil was raging among Seljuq princesses for power by the year 1092 and the fate of the caliphate was uncertain. On the other front, Isma`ili Fatimids held sway from their seat in Egypt on North Africa as well as Palestine, Syria and Hijaz. The Fatimids were already in decline but this wasn’t yet noticed; the famous Nizari-Must`ali split which pronounced the decline of the Fatimids was, in 1092, just two years away.

The urgency in the polemics of Ghazali reflects the severity of the Ism`aili threat perceived by Sunni Islam. At that time, Ism`ailsm wasn’t only popular in Fatimid-controlled lands but was rapidly winning converts in Sunni mainlands notably Persia. This led to the launch of a stream of attacks by the Sunni `ulema to put down Ism`ailism.

Ghazali, while launchiing a full scale attack on Ism`aili theology, particularly focuses on the doctrine of T`alim. This doctrine is basically a systemisation in Ism`aili terms of the general Shi’i doctrine which states that the world cannot ever be without a teacher, an Imam, who is infallible and thus the only person at a given time to which Muslims should turn in all religious matters. By extension, this infallible Imam is the only legitimate ruler of the Muslims. Isma`ilis, in and before 1092, recognised the Fatimid caliphs as those Imams.

Ism`ailis believed that for absolute truth, such as religion seemed to require, decisive authority (an Imam) is needed, for otherwise one man’s reasoned opinion is as good as another’s and none is better than a guess. They believed that this proposition is in fact all that reason as such can furnish us with. Therefore, the necessity of an infallible teacher in all times is all but evident and cannot be denied. Ghazali takes on this premise with the objection that if the need for an infallible teacher is self-evident by virtue of reasoning, and if all Muslims are capable of realising this self-evident necessity, why, then, most Muslims do not recognise an Infallible Imam or the need for such a figure?, legitimising, as it were, the majority Muslim position who didn’t believe in the infallibility of any one after the Prophet.

Later, Ghazali, within the framework of his Shafa`i-Ash`ari though process, spells out the parameters of reasoning in human affairs and in religion, stressing on the role of reason to derive laws by ijtihad al-ray (analogical reasoning?) from the already established sources (Quran, Hadith, Ijma`) rather than succumbing to what he terms false ideology to solve the ikhtalaf (difference) in opinion in fiqh.

Ghazali also contributes to the already established image of the Ism`ailis and their doctrines in the tradition of heresiographies written by his predecessors. Farhad Daftary terms this image as the “Isma`ili Black Legend” created by Sunni authors to discredit Ism`ailism. It basically says that Ism`aili Imams, their da`is and their followers comprise of those with weak minds who are ignorant and stupid enough to believe in anything; those who are seeking vengeance from Islam on behalf of their pre-Islamic Persian ancestors; those with sheer desire for mastery and domination; those who seek to be a part of the elite so as to distinguish themselves from the masses; those who have grown up amongs the Shia and the Rawafid and hence share common interests with them; those godless philosophers and dualists who believe that revealed laws are man made; and much more. In short, it is a grand conspiracy by the deviants to put down Islam; no Ism`aili is genuine in his or her belief and practice.

After listing all the errors of Ism`ailis, Ghazali is now ready for the final showdown. Are Ism`ailis Muslims? Or are they infidels whose blood can be shed? He deals with this question in a very curious way.

He says that the belief of Ism`ailis in the infallibility of Imam Ali, belief in a list of infallible leaders of the Ummah down to their current Imam, belief in the categorical rejection of the first three khulafa al-rashidun as well as their hatred for them does not amount to kufr. On the other hand, he launches a scathing salvo on the Ism`aili method of interpreting the Quran in spiritual and esoteric ways (hence the epithet Batiniyah). He holds that the tendency of Ism`ailis to wrest literal meaning from Quranic verses and to dress them in esoteric terms results in beliefs which are contrary to the main tenets of Islam. Ghazali lists those beliefs before giving his verdict on the Islam or the lack it of Ism`ailis.

i) Isma`ilis believe that al-Qiyamah (Resurrection) doesn’t entail a cessation of the world and the process of generation (tawallud) will never finish.

ii) Al-Qiyamah is a reference to the emergence of the seventh Imam in the cyclical process of abrogation and renewal of the law (referring to the Ism`aili view of cyclical history which each circle completing its term on the advent of every seventh Imam in the chain).

iii) The body decomposes after death and is thus not gathered again in the hereafter, so that there is no physical Heaven and Hell.

Ghazali believes that the afore-mentioned esoteric interpretations of the Quran by Ism`ailis amount to calling Prophet Muhammad a liar, who stressed on the reality of Heaven and Hell, of bodily Resurrection and timelessness of Islamic/Quranic law. Therefore, since Batiniyah (Ism`ailis) are guilty of rejecting the word of the Prophet, by holding the afore-mentioned beliefs, they put themselves out of the pale of Islam. Batiniyah (Ism`ailis) are thus infidels and it is permissible to shed their blood.

The narrative of Kitab al-Mustazhiri is interspersed with proving the legitimacy of the Abbasid caliphs in opposition to the Fatimids. This line of argument runs side by side Ghazali’s attacks on the Ism`ailis. He bequeaths Abbasid caliph with all the roles and responsibilities claimed by the Fatimid caliph-Imam.

Interestingly, he makes no reference to the de facto power of the Seljuqs who had actually rendered the Abbasid caliph useless and powerless, though Ghazali was clearly aware of the dangers of the de facto vs. de jure. Throughout the book he is also busy in carving out a role for the `ulema as the guardians of the faith. Since this duty actually rests with the caliph, but as he is fallible and doesn’t have time or knowledge to fulfill all his roles, it is best for the caliph to surround himself with the company of trustworthy `ulema. By which he meant himself and others like him.

He also doesn’t deal with the Imamiyah or Ithna `Ashariyah in this book.

A highly rewarding but complex read. My only criticism is that Farouk Mitha’s analysis is a bit muddled and doesn’t follow clearly laid out scheme. However, my rating is 4/5.

Get it on AMAZON


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