Aladdin Yaqub on al-Ghazālī

Aladdin Yaqub

Moderation in Belief

Muḥammad al-Ghazālī was a Persian Muslim jurist, theologian, and mystic who is considered by many to be one of history’s great theologians. Ghazālī contributed significantly to the development of a systematic view of philosophical theology and its integration and acceptance in mainstream Islam, and an influential manuscript he wrote in the 11th century is the focus of a forthcoming book by Aladdin Yaqub, associate professor of philosophy.

Three years in the making, Yaqub’s book, Moderation in Belief: Annotated Translation, is the first complete translation into English of Moderation in Belief, a book Ghazālī’ composed while teaching at a university in Baghdad.  Over the course of his life, Ghazālī’ wrote more than 100 books, including 10 books in four years while in Baghdad. Moderation in Belief is his most important work on philosophical theology, says Yaqub. It addresses wide areas of the subject, including the existence of God, his oneness, his characteristics, attributes, and acts.

Yaqub’s translation is supplemented with extensive commentary that brings out and reconstructs the argument and supplies the intellectual and historical background of the work. In it he presents a system of philosophical theology and his arguments for it—a school of theology called Ash’arism.

“This is by far the most original, the most deep, the most thorough and the best defense of the school,” says Yaqub. “The book was so successful that shortly after his death that Ash’arism became the orthodox form of Islamic theology. It was largely from the impact of his work.”

Studying Ghazālī’s work for nearly 10 years was a significant academic shift for Yaqub, whose background is in logic, metaphysics, and philosophy of mathematics.

“I read the largest part of what he produced and was surprised that Moderation in Belief, the most important work of philosophical theology in the Islamic tradition, had never been translated in its entirety into English. There are partial translations, but nothing complete,” he says.

A number of Ghazālī’’s contemporaries had been following and developing several viewpoints of Greek philosophy, leading to conflict with Islamic teachings. On the other hand, Sufism was assuming such excessive proportions as to avoid observance of obligatory prayers and duties of Islam. Ghazali sought to correct these trends, both in philosophy and Sufism.

Ghazali upheld the approach of mathematics and exact sciences as essentially correct. Yet, he adopted the techniques of Aristotelian logic to expose the flaws and lacunas of the then prevalent Neoplatonic Western philosophy and to diminish the negative influences of excessive rationalism.  He was able to create a balance between religion and reason, and identified their respective domains.

“The greatest intellectual output of Islamic civilization is still not translated yet,” says Yaqub. “My hope is that the interest in Islamic philosophy would widen from a select group of intellectuals to the mainstream, and I hope that works like this will continue to attract people who are interested in these topics.”