Today's "Salafis" have revived a particularly bad trait of some naysayers of the past, which consists in attacking Imam Ghazali and belittling those who read his works and cite them to illustrate their opinions. This concerns especially his major book Ihya' ʿUlum al-Din, because it is a landmark of tasawwuf whose immense success and readership the enemies of tasawwuf find particularly galling. Some go so far as to claim that Ghazali was mad when he wrote it, others misconstrue Ghazali's deathbed reading of Imam Bukhari as a renunciation of tasawwuf, others yet bring up the condemnations of the book by a handful of scholars known for their anti-sufi bias. Yet Allah has allowed the book to tower high above the clamor of its few detractors, and its translations keep increasing in number and quality. The following is intended to provide readers with reliable references concerning his life and works so as to protect ourselves, with Allah's help, against the slurs of ignorance and envy.
Salah al-Din al-Safadi (d. 764), Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi's student, relates in his great biographical dictionary entitled al-Wafi -- which contains over 14,000 biographies:
Muhammad b. Muhammad b. Muhammad b. Ahmad, the Proof of Islam, the Ornament of the Faith, Abu Hamid al-Tusi (al-Ghazali), the Shafiʿi jurist, was in his later years without rival.
In 488 he gave up the entirety of his worldly estate (and his professorship at the Nizamiyya, where he had taught since 484) and followed the way of renunciation and solitude. He made the Pilgrimage, and, upon his return, directed his steps to Syria, where he abided a while in the city of Damascus, giving instruction in the mosque retreat (zawiyat al-jamiʿ) which now bears his name in the Western quarter. He then voyaged to Jerusalem, exerting himself greatly in worship and in visiting the holy sites and places. Next he travelled to Egypt, remaining for a while at Alexandria...
He returned to his native city of Tus (shortly before 492). Here he compiled a number of valuable books [among them the Ihya'] before returning to Nisabur, where he was obliged to give lessons at the Nizamiyya (499). He subsequently forsook this and made his way back to his home city, where he assumed the directorship of a retreat (khaniqah) for the Sufis and that of a neighboring college for those occupied with learning. He divided his time among good works such as reciting through the Qur'an and holding lessons for the People of Hearts (the Sufis)...
It is among the noblest and greatest of books, to the extent that it was said concerning it: If all books of Islam were lost except the Ihya', it would suffice for what was lost... They disapproved of him for including in it hadiths which were not established to be authentic, but such inclusion is permitted in works of encouraging good and discouraging evil (al-targhib wa al- tarhib). The book remains extremely valuable. Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi used to say: "It was as if Allah gathered all sciences under a dome, and showed them to al-Ghazali," or something to this effect. He passed away... in 505 at Tabaran... the citadel of Tus, where he was interred.(1)
The above clearly refutes the fabrication by some that Ghazali disavowed tasawwuf towards the end of his life. Let us turn to the fabrication of those who try to separate between the Ghazali of usul al- fiqh and the Ghazali of tasawwuf. When they are told that Imam Ghazali's books on the methodology and foundations of Islamic law are considered required reading in the field -- such as his Mustasfa and Mankhul and Shifa' al-ghalil -- they say that he wrote them before his period of seclusion during which he adopted tasawwuf. In reality, the greatest and most comprehensive of the four books he wrote on Usul al-fiqh (Principles of law) was composed in the last period of his life as stated by Dr. Taha al-ʿAlwani in his book Usul al-fiqh al-islami:
Al Imam al-Ghazali's Encyclopedia of Shariʿa Source Methodology, his fourth book on the subject, and his last word, was al- Mustasfa, which has been printed several times in Egypt and elsewhere. Indeed, this is the work he wrote after coming out of his period of meditation and seclusion.(2)
The notice on Ghazali in the Reliance states:
In Damascus he lived in seclusion for some ten years, engaged in spiritual struggle and the remembrance of Allah, at the end of which he emerged to produce his masterpiece Ihya' ʿUlum al-Din [Giving Life to the Religious Sciences], a classic among the books of the Muslims about internalizing godfearingness (taqwa) in one's dealings with Allah, illuminating the soul through obedience to Him, and the levels of believers' attainment therein. The work shows how deeply Ghazali personally realized what he wrote about, and his masterly treatment of hundreds of questions dealing with the inner life that no-one had previously discussed or solved is a performance of sustained excellence that shows its author's well- disciplined intellect and profound appreciation of human psychology. He also wrote nearly two hundred other works, on the theory of government, Sacred Law, refutations of philosophers, tenets of faith, Sufism, Koranic exegesis, scholastic theology, and bases of Islamic jurisprudence.(3)
What about Ghazali's scholarly critics? The most vocal, Ibn al- Jawzi -- a detractor of Sufis -- dismisses the Ihya' in four of his works: Iʿlam al-ahya' bi aghlat al-Ihya' (Informing the living about the mistakes of the Ihya'), Talbis Iblis, Kitab al-qussas,(4) and his history al-Muntazam fi tarikh al-muluk wal-umam.(5) His views influenced Ibn Taymiyya and his student Dhahabi. The basis of their position was Ghazali's use of weak hadiths, a list of which is provided by Taj al-Din al-Subki in his Tabaqat. Is their criticism justified or an exaggeration? Most likely the latter, in view of the fact that both the hafiz al-ʿIraqi (d. 806) and the hafiz al-Zabidi (d. 1205) after him documented every single hadith in the Ihya and never questioned its usefulness as a whole. Rather, they accepted its immense standing among Muslims and contributed to its embellishment and spread as a manual for spiritual progress. As Subki stressed, Ghazali never excelled in the field of hadith.(6)
More importantly, the majority of hadith masters hold it permissible to use weak hadiths in other than the derivation of legal rulings, such as in the encouragement to good and discouragement from evil (al-targhib wa al-tarhib), as countless hadith masters have indicated as well as other scholars, such as al-Safadi himself.(7) It must be understood that Ghazali incorporated all the material which he judged of use to his didactic purposes on the bases of content rather than origin or chain of transmission; that most of the Ihya consists in quotations from Qur'an, hadith, and the sayings of other than Ghazali, his own prose accounting for less than 35% of the work;(8) and that most of the huge number of hadiths cited are authentic in origin.
In conclusion, we say as al-Safadi that the Ihya' ranks as a work of targhib or ethics, which is the principal business of tasawwuf. Criteria of authenticity for evidence cited in such works are less rigorous than for works of ʿaqida and fiqh according to the majority of the scholars, as the next section shows. To hold works of tasawwuf to the criteria of the latter works is to blame apples for not being oranges. Consequently, as al-Safadi correctly indicated, the criticism of Ihya' ʿulum al-din by some on the basis of weak hadiths does not stand, nor does similar criticim of like works, for example Dhahabi's criticism of Abu Talik al-Makki's Qut al-qulub and others. Those who cling to such criticism while ignoring the massive endorsement of tasawwuf and its books by the Muslim scholars cling to their own prejudice rather than sound knowledge. Our advice to these brethren is: We remind you of al-Dhahabi's advice in his biographical notice on Ibn all-Farid in Mizan al-iʿtidal: "Do not hasten to judge, rather, keep the best opinion of Sufis";(9) of Imam Ghazali's advice in al-Munqidh min al-dalal: "Think good thoughts (about Sufis) and do not harbor doubts in your heart";(10) and of Ibn Hajar al-Haytami's fatwa concerning critics of those who respect tasawwuf and believe in awliya': "Bad thoughts about them (Sufis) is the death of the heart."(11) Take the great good that is in each of the works of the Sufis in the proper manner, respect the masters of tasawwuf, the least among whom towers high above you in knowledge, do not search out the disagreements of scholars, and stick to humbleness and respect before those who speak about Allah from Whom comes all success.
(1) Salah al-Din Khalil ibn Aybak al-Safadi, al-Wafi bi al-wafayat (Wiesbaden, 1962-1984) 1:274-277 (#176).