The Ismā‘īlī Influence on al-Ghazālī: A Reassessment

By Khalil Andani
Submitted to Session P4078 (Medieval Ismaili Muslim Thought: Methodology, Hermeneutics and Cosmology, 2015 Annual Meeting
Rel Stds/Theo
Islamic Studies;
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The life, career, and thought of Abū Ḥamīd al-Ghazālī (1058-1111) have continued to captivate scholars of Islamic thought for the last several decades. Being well versed in Ash‘arite kalām, falsafa, and Sufism, al-Ghazālī is often credited with formulating a unique synthesis of these divergent streams of Islamic theology and philosophy. At the same time, al-Ghazālī is remembered for his infamous refutations of the Philosophers and the Ismā‘īlīs in texts whose publication shortly preceded al-Ghazālī’s own spiritual crisis in the last decade of the eleventh century.

This paper revisits the pivotal question of the Ismā‘īlī influence upon the cosmology of al-Ghazālī and demonstrates that al-Ghazālī adopted certain features of the Ismā‘īlī cosmology present in the Persian Ismaili thought of Abū Ya‘qūb al-Sijistānī (d. after 971) and Nāṣir-i Khusraw (d. 1004-1088). The paper first attempts to ascertain one of the Ismā‘īlī sources to which al-Ghazālī had access by examining some of the Ismā‘īlī doctrinal material presented in his Faḍā’iḥ al-Bāṭiniyya and tracing this material back to eleventh-century Ismā‘īlī treatises. This analysis concludes that the Wajh-i Dīn of Nāṣir-i Khusraw was a likely source for al-Ghazālī’s knowledge of Ismā‘īlī doctrines.

Secondly, the paper demonstrates the great commonality between al-Ghazālī’s “two-worlds” cosmology of spiritual-physical correspondence (muwāzana) laid out in his Mishkāt al-Anwār and Nāṣir-i Khusraw’s two-world Ismā‘īlī cosmology which is equally based on correspondence.

Finally, the paper re-examines al-Ghazālī’s higher cosmology in the “Veils” section of the Mishkāt where he explains how the true God transcends both the “Lunar Angel” (whom the Aristotelians worship as the First Mover) and the “Solar Angel” (the Obeyed One, whom the falāsifa worship as the Necessary Existent). This section critically appraises the prior conclusions of Hermann Landolt (1991) and Frank Griffel (2010) on the “Veils” section and argues that al-Ghazālī derived his theological interpretations of the God of the falāsifa and the Aristotelians as well as his polemical strategy of evoking Sun and Moon worship from Nāṣir-i Khusraw’s Ismā‘īlī cosmology and the Wajh-i Dīn in particular.

The paper concludes that al-Ghazālī likely appropriated Ismā‘īlī cosmological ideas and polemical tactics from Nāṣir-i Khusraw and re-presented them in his Niche of Lights. Even if this conclusion is not certain, the results of this study call for a reassessment of the degree of Ismā‘īlī influences on the thought of al-Ghazālī.