Justice and democracy in Islam – العدالة والديمقراطية في الإسلام

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أبي حامد الغزالي و التنوير

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A systematic basis for justice and democracy exists in the Islamic legacy of the Abbasid period culminating in the work of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111).   This legacy is comparable with Immanuel Kant’s ethics, from the European Enlightenment.

However, the systematic elaboration of Ghazālī’s legal theory within his overall philosophy arguably takes us further than Kant’s merely abstract principles of ethics, and fills a lacuna in European Enlightenment thought in respect of developing the abstract ethics into a practical institutional framework.

Careful consideration of this legal theory also clarifies a long-standing confusion in Islamic debates about political institutions.

Before getting to the point about ideas of justice and democracy let us discuss their epistemological basis in the next 4 sections

The Epistemological Basis

(i) A priori reason and the independence of Islamic law from political power

After the Abbasid Revolution of 131/749, the new caliphs ruling the Islamic world swore oaths to uphold religious Islamic law which the preceding Umawī régime had contravened. Abū Jaʿfar Abdullah, son of Hārūn al-Rashīd, became Caliph al-Maʾmūn in 198/813 after the death of his brother, al-Amīn, who died in an internecine war with al-Maʾmūn. A significant period in Islamic thought began with al- Maʾmūn’s rule not, as is usually thought, because of the mass purchase and translation of Greek texts from Byzantium by the Bayt al-Ḥikma in Baghdad, but because of its indirect contribution to al-Maʾmūn’s attempt to acquire religious authority for the office of ruler, and what ensued from this.

With the unprecedented scholarly output of the Bayt al-Ḥikma, together with the fact that al-Maʾmūn was versed in Greek philosophy and wrote theology himself, this new caliph felt that he had powerful unprecedented new tools of reason at his disposal. The class of scholar-jurists judged him as having instigated the civil war against his brother, so now he had to justify himself, especially since in addition to this crime, ʿAlī ibn Mūsā al-Riḍā, the 8th Imām to be descended from the Prophet, disappeared without explanation while under al-Maʾmūn’s personal protection. So with the legitimacy of his rule at stake, al-Maʾmūn saw that the tools of reason he prized should allow him to make is his mark on religious discourse and reshape the basis of ‘Abbasid political legitimacy from the historical hereditary argument to a religious one (Al-Ḥibrī 2002: 106).

Since the founding of Kūfa (16/637) and Baṣra (18/639) in Iraq, a number of schools of language and law had been established in those garrison towns by pious individuals, to cater for the demands of the avalanche of converts to Islam in that region. These schools quickly overtook those at Mecca and Medina in importance. It was the scholar-jurists specifically of these schools who had found fault with the Umawī administration, and who from 100/719 onwards had encouraged the calling for a political revolution by the descendants of the Prophet. This calling led to the Abbasid revolution fifty years later. Furthermore it was these scholar-jurists, comprised of fiercely independent grammarians, lexicographers and lawyers, whom al-Maʾmūn would seek to subjugate in his attempt to acquire religious authority for himself. To this end, in 212/827, he declared officially that ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib was the most excellent among ṣaḥāba (companions of the Prophet*) (Al-Ḥibrī 2002: 106). Al-Maʾmūn must have known that the opposition among the scholar-jurists and in particular among the traditionists would naturally press for the priority of Caliphs Abū Bakr and ʿOmar, in the historical order of succession. But, given that he launched the inquisition soon after, it is evident that he had been preparing himself for confrontation with them.

The dominant Islamic theology in al-Maʾmūn’s day was Muʿtazilī, a theology which essentially believed that good could be known from bad through a priori reason, without the help of revealed texts. This would hypostatise reason, giving it an independent abstract subsistence and priority. It justified the freewheeling interpretation of the Qur’an followed by such scholar-jurists in the early period as Abū Ḥanīfa al-Nuʿmān (d. 148/765), which required no specific justification from text. As al-Ghazālī says:  “The muʿtazila… do not refer back to anything (al-muʿtazila lam yarja’ū ila shayʾ)…” (Al-Ghazālī Qisṭās: 73, line 8-10).

This also accorded with al-Maʾmūn’s later view that based on reason he could have interpretative powers over revealed texts superior to those of the scholar-jurists. Muʿtazilī theology also held that God was said to have no eternal attributes, and that the Qur’an itself, as God’s speech, was not eternal, but ‘created’.

An inquisition was to enforce this so-called “createdness of the Qur’an” doctrine as the basic creed of al-Ma’mun’s régime. Resistance to this action began among a section of the scholarly community that had not previously been involved in matters of law, and who were merely specialists in the recording and the analysis of the traditions of the Sunna, led by Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (d. 241/855). Over time, symphathy with ibn Ḥanbal’s struggle, and that of his supporters, swung majority opinion away from the Muʿtazilī view, which had ironically been widespread prior to the miḥna, to one subsequently which questioned the role of reason in the interpretation of revealed texts. When Caliph al-Mutawakkil acceded to power in 232/847, the miḥna was annulled twenty years after it had begun.

The outcome of this formative period in Islamic history led to the establishment of the principle that religious law was the business of the class of scholar-jurists and not of the ruler. As al-Ghazālī says: The scholar-jurist has the authority of law in politics… and is the teacher of the sulṭān (al-fāqih huwwa al-ʿālim bi qānūn al-siyāsa… wa muʿallim al–sulṭān…)” (Al-Ghazālī Iḥyāʾ: 30, line 18-19).

But it threw reason and rationality as understood in the a priori sense in Greek philosophy, to the winds, leading to heated debates between the various schools of law about the place of any reasoning at all in law, the general concept of which was referred to as qiyās, with the Irāqī Ḥanafī and the Eastern Shāfiʿī schools becoming the most influential in leading the way to a new understanding. This process I call the Islamic Enlightenment, and it culminated in the work of al-Ghazālī within the Eastern Shāfiʿī School.

Al-Maʾmūn’s miḥna represented a period of terror justified by the priority of reason that eventually led to al-Ghazālī’s form of Islamic Enlightenment as a reaction. Much later, at the heart of the events of the European Enlightenment, the French politician St-Just launched la Terreur, a period of bloodshed during the French Revolution, also in the name of reason, based on ideas in the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (d. 1778). There are therefore parallels between these two periods in respect of the problems surrounding rationalism and their resolution.

(ii) The European Enlightenment and the Problem of Reason

The European Enlightenment was a series of cultural revolutions based primarily in France, Germany, Scotland, and Holland, which intermingled and spanned the 17th and 18th centuries. The Empiricism which characterised the French Enlightenment (Lumières) was ultimately encapsulated in the varied contributions between 1751 and 1772 to the Encyclopaedia (Encyclopédie). These drew to a great extent on the ideas of the English empiricists, Francis Bacon (d. 1626), John Locke (d. 1704), and in the case of the encyclopaedist Voltaire (d. 1778), drew also on the work of Isaac Newton (d. 1727). Naïve empiricism could not of itself be productive of ideas, so a certain degree of unsystematic rationalism, perhaps best represented by the contributions of Rousseau, necessarily accompanied it.

Naïve empiricism originates with Bacon’s thought in 1600s England. This was the earliest contribution to the narrative of the European Enlightenment, and was a direct reaction to the Reformation. At the centre of the Reformation was Martin Luther’s rebellion against the Catholic Church. His fideism rejected the Church’s authoritative reason in the interpretation of the Bible, and his mantra of “faith alone” (sola fide) declared that only belief in the literal word of the Bible counted as truth. But the Bible in question was Luther’s own German translation of the original Greek and Hebrew, and it was followed by translations into the whole range of European vernacular languages, by other religious reformers. After this, the common man had unmediated access to this Holy Scripture for the first time. Given the inevitable intrusion of interpretation into the process of translation, instead of clarity, there arose considerable disagreement about the meaning of the Bible. The result was the creation of new churches such as the Reform Church (mainly the Calvinist Church), followed by the rise of the anti-institutional religious movements which dismissed the collegiate notion of the church altogether (mainly Anabaptists). This all ended in religious war.

Personally witnessing the devastation caused by such war, Bacon wrote the New Organon (Novum Organum). As the title of the book suggests, he rejected the Catholic Church’s use of Aristotelian logic and reason in the original Organon. Bacon described reason as amagnificent palace without a foundation’ (Bacon, Novum Organum: 2), and sought to engage instead with nature, which he called “God’s second book”. Reason, he said, comprised of “idols of the mind” or fixations of a psychological nature that actually impeded the acquisition of truth. But instead of Luther’s fideism replacing reason, his scheme would rely on experimentation in order to “tweak” nature into revealing itself. If the Bible now caused so much dissention, Bacon thought therefore that it fell to us to find God’s truth by digging it out of nature as if it were buried treasure (Bacon, Novum Organum: 12).

While this English philosophical tradition, later developed by John Locke, influenced the empiricism of the French Enlightenment, it was rejected by the French mathematician Renée Descartes (d. 1650). He rejected it as being unable to provide us either with ideas necessary to justify moral, religious, and political beliefs, in respect of the a priori knowledge of God, providence, and immortality, or with the certainties of logic and mathematics. In fact, present-day scientists who see themselves as ‘empiricists’ need to take account of the rationalist techniques that have been incorporated into their methods over generations, if ever comparing themselves to this early form of empiricism. As already mentioned above, without reason playing a part, there would be great difficulty in explaining how human knowledge is acquired.

So, in respect of Descartes, we find him leaving Paris to work in the relative safety of Holland, and that it was his systematic rationalism which triggered a reaction there in the thought of Baruch Spinoza (d. 1677). Spinoza sought to overcome what he saw as a failure in Descartes’ philosophy, in particular in his theory that mind and body consist of different substances. Spinoza’s thought in turn caused a reaction in Gottfried Leibniz (d. 1716) who rejected its strict necessitarianism, and whose own brand of rationalism came to define the classic German Enlightenment (Aufklärung). While Germany, with its political diversity, had centres of thought which, similarly to France, pursued an unsystematic mix of empiricism and rationalism, as in the case of the ‘Popularphilosophen’ of Göttingen, most other German centres of learning would favour rationalism.

As we saw above, Luther’s fideism at the heart of the Reformation, and the difficulties and conflicts it led to, resulted in the empirical philosophical tradition starting with Bacon, to seek a new and different route to truth. But the rationalists rejected this route because in their view reason was all-encompassing. The idea of the ‘majesty of reason’ was explicitly brought out in Spinoza’s studies of Descartes’ work. The eleventh axiom in Part I of his Principles of Cartesian Philosophy states:

“Nothing exists of which it cannot be asked what is the cause (or reason), why it exists (Nulla res existit, de qua non possit quaeri, quaenam sit causa (sive ratio), cur existat)”(Spinoza Principia I: 18).

This thesis that everything must have an explanation would later become known as the “Principle of sufficient reason”. With Leibniz’s re-working of it, this becomes the centerpiece of the German’s Enlightenment’s claim to overcome the problem of the need for literal belief in the Bible which the Reformation had insisted on. For Leibniz’s pupil, Christian Wolff (d. 1754), this Principle of sufficient reason becomes a self-evident axiomatic deductive system of truths built on the mathematical model, which describes the way God had organised the world (Wolff Philosophia prima: 51-4, §72-74).

In fact, this Leibnizian-Wolffian view of the world became dominant throughout Europe. However, it was eventually to suffer two fatal blows.

The first blow was dealt by the Scotsman David Hume in his Treatise on Human Nature (1739). The Scottish Enlightenment, of which he was a part, had begun before Hume, with the work of Francis Hutcheson (d. 1746), not as a philosophical, but as a theological revolution with philosophical implications. Its premise was that God had created man in his own image, and that far from the problem of knowledge being about exploring the external world it was rather about looking inward into the mind. Only by looking inward and thinking about our thoughts, could one prove the existence of God. This “Scottish philosophy” would spread to America and help to form its individualistic culture. Hume however was sceptical of these ideas. He rejected necessitarianism of reason and believed that our thoughts were simply habits, in other words they represented the world to us in ways which didn’t necessarily reflect what was going on in the external world.

Hume’s scepticism extended to our thoughts about God, which led to a strong reaction from Thomas Reid (d. 1796), and to Reid’s theory of “Common Sense”. Reid charged Hume with subjective idealism and the belief that everything we perceive is of our own manufacture, thus relegating him to the realm of fantasists. Hume’s sceptical reasoning was used by German fideists in the tradition of Luther, like Friedrich Jacobi (d. 1819), to undermine rationalism. Jacobi held that reason’s claim to justify ethics, religion and the state was false because reason in the end had to be materialistic, nihilistic and atheistic (Jacobi ignited the ‘pantheism controversy’ in 1785 which falsely conflated rational nihilism and irrational fideism).

While Hume’s argument was thus a serious blow to the Enlightenment, the second blow, which came next with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, was more serious, although it was effectively a solution to the problem Hume had posed. If the European Enlightenment subsequently failed, just as the French revolution was happening in the 1790s, and if it gave way to the fideism, romanticism and idealism of the Counter-Enlightenment, this was only because the popular philosophers of Kant’s time completely failed to understand and to rally round his so-called “transcendental” solution to Hume’s sceptical problem in his Critique of Pure Reason [CPR] (Kritik der reinen Vernunft).

Kant argued that Reid had not understood Hume. Hume’s scepticism did not address our perceptions as such, only our thoughts about them. Kant however also held that Hume’s scepticism was an incomplete philosophy. Reason so far had been merely thought of in terms of the output or the products of reasoning, in other words in terms of the logic and mathematics and general ideas in textbooks. Kant saw that Hume was quite right in questioning the claim that all of this was representative of something real, or of the truth, but the output of reason needed to be explained by enquiring into reason itself. He called this the “critical philosophy”. He rejected Reid’s dogmatic solution that everything in the authoritative textbooks was to be accepted as “common sense”, in virtue of it being “common” among all sane people. Specifically, he became interested in how Newton’s physics had come to explain the world around us. So he worked backwards from the fact of Newton’s physics, to explain what kind of logic was available to the human mind that could make all such rational explanations possible.

Given that we cannot really tell what is going on our minds, Kant thus produced what is called a “transcendental” argument, in terms of logical structures which explains the mind’s output. The explanation which would otherwise, in the case of the brain, impossibly have to be neurological, rises above the materialist aspect and instead can be said to “float” over what it is explaining – hence the term “transcendental”. Given that our scientific theories of the world are essentially “emergent” systems, in other words that they are reflections of what is going on in nature rather than true descriptions, it makes sense that our explanation of their causes in the brain are also “emergent” in the same sense.

Kant describes logic as what we truly know to be certain, and he calls that kind of certainty “analytical”, where in logical propositions the meaning of predicates are already included in the subject . When specific forms of such logic are ascribed as qualities of the mind, they are to be understood as an organisational capacity which does not bear contradictions and drives us to create the categories with which we describe the world. Certain basic Aristotelian logical laws had previously been called the “laws of thought”, and this is what Kant’s logic of the mind was. The difference between Kant and Aristotle though, was that the Aristotelian approach had human beings thinking in a certain way because the world itself was a particular way (viz.: Aristotle’s identity between mental acts and sensing in Aristotle, De Anima, Book III Chapter 2, 425b). For Kant, human beings see the world in a particular way because of the workings of the logic of their minds.

Kant’s argument meant that we could only understand how knowledge comes about anthropocentrically. Wolff thought he had resolved all the problems of rationalism since Descartes, through the doctrine of “pre-established harmony”, and he claimed his was the final philosophical science (Wolff De differentia nexus: 14-7, §VII). But according to Kant this centrepiece of the European Enlightenment was contradictory in its attempt to explain the world theocentrically, in other words to explain it from a ‘God’s eye’ point-of-view. The problem lay in the foundationalism of Wolff’s axiomatic mathematical approach. Its failure arises from the inability to derive propositions directly from first principles, because as one progresses down the chain of reasoning from genus to species and so-on, more information is always required such that particular concepts always contain more than is thought in the general concept (Kant CPR A281/B337).

The additive function of information here is said to be “ampliative”. Thus beginning with definitions, what is derived from a definition is an interpretation, and depends on what we read into it from the start. Since there are different interpretations of the same definition, unanimity should not be expected by starting with a definition, no matter how obviously self-evident.

So, although certainty cannot be claimed for such definitions as have metaphysical content, it can be claimed, at a higher order level of understanding, for the contentless logical structure of the mind. Where information is ampliative, knowledge can then be said to arise from an interaction between this so-called “analytic” structure of the mind and the world, in order thus to give us “synthetic” propositions, of which our knowledge about the world consists. Leibnizian-Wolffianism had originated in Leibniz’s idea of God’s creation where an infinite number of conceptions of possible worlds are thought through to infinity, and where knowledge thus precedes creation. But the French philosopher Antoine Arnauld had foreshadowed Kant’s question of where that knowledge was supposed to have come from in the first place, as early as 1686. Arnauld said he could not understand how Leibniz was supposed to explain how God has knowledge he might not have had about things in the future that didn’t exist (Antoine Arnauld, Letter to Leibniz dated 13th May 1686). This clarifies why, in Kant, instead of an ideal world, we have an indeterminate and indefinite empirical world where the different possible worlds are thought of synchronously and are not pre-empted by knowledge.

Because Kant’s solution to Hume’s problem, and his new case for reason synthesising empiricism with rationalism was not fully appreciated, Counter-Enlightenment thinkers inspired by the fideism of the likes of Jacobi came to dominate the European 19th century. Their new idealism and romanticism emphasised the social and historical dimension of reason. It was now thought that the language and customs of different cultures determined the criteria of reason, invalidating the idea of a single universal reason judging between them.

(iii) The Ghazālīan revolution in thought and the Islamic Enlightenment

The Greek philosophy which issued from the translations of the Bayt al-Ḥikma fuelled a new philosophical tradition in the Islamic world, represented in the main by Muḥammad Abū Naṣr al-Farābī (d. 339/951) and Al-Ḥusayn Abū ʿAlī ibn Sīnā (d. 428/1037). This philosophy was “neo-Plotinian” in that it ascribed a nature to God and held that the world had always existed, emanating necessarily from this nature, in such a way that God had no choice in the matter.

(The ancient texts which actually influenced these Islamic philosophers were: Theologia Aristotelis, thought to have been by Aristotle, but actually a paraphrase by the neo-Plotinian philosopher Proclus of Books IV, V, VI of Plotinus’ Enneads, and Liber de Causis, a rearrangement of Proclus’ Elements of Theology by an anonymous Islamic author.)

Significantly, Ibn Sīnā made an advance over Farābī’s philosophy, which like all Greek philosophy, lacked a psychological dimension.

We saw this lack earlier in Aristotle’s notion of the identity between mental acts and sensing. Ibn Sīnā’s advance had it that something non-existent can in fact be the subject of predication, and he thus posited the existence of imaginary subjects in addition to real subjects (ibn Sīnā al-Shifā: 25, lines 14-16). Nevertheless, Ibn Sīnā made no use of the potential in this distinction to allow the position of the subject individual toward causal connections in the outside world any independence from what is perceived there. His departure from neo-Plotinian norms in respect of perception and mental activity was influenced by his training as a physician and his desire to synthesise between the findings of the physicians and those of the philosophers (Peters 1968: 163). But a naturalistic account of intention is inevitably entailed from his naturalistic account of perception, and the fact that his account focuses on intentions or “meanings” as being latent in the object perceived, rather than in the mind of the observer (Banchetti-Robino 2004: 71-82). Thus ibn Sīnā’s psychology is essentially stillborn.

However, this isn’t the case in Ghazālī.

Ghazālī became a pupil at the Niẓāmiyya college (madrasa) in Nishapur (c. 460/1067), founded as part of a chain of colleges by Niẓām al-Mulk (d. 485/1092), who personally staffed them, and set their Shāfiʿī-Ashʿarī curriculum in line with his own education (al-Subkī, Ṭabaqāt IV: 309-312, §383). After studying under Abdel-Malik bin Abd-Allah al-Juwaynī (d. 478/1085), Ghazālī followed Abū Isḥāq al-Shīrāzī (d. 476/1083) as head teacher of the Niẓāmiyya in Baghdad in 484/1091. In his main theological text, al-Iqtiṣād l-iʿtiqād, Ghazālī argues for Niẓām al-Mulk’s Sunni Systematisation as an institutionalization of the religion ordered by the Prophet Muḥammad (al-Ghazālī Iqtiṣād: 234, line 11). In virtue of his legal training in the Shāfiʿī legal tradition, Ghazālī is more connected to the Arabic linguistic tradition and the mental processes which use words as token representations for the world around us, than he is to the community of physicians whom Avicenna frequented, drawn as they are to describing the physical properties of things.

Ghazālī, from the very first discussion of his famous work Tahāfut al-Falāsifa finds that the human “will” is not only something that is apart from the things we find in this world, but is that upon which perception ultimately depends, as in the example of the thirsty man facing two equidistant glasses of water (al-Ghazālī Tahāfut: 41, line 3). Only such representation as is in the mind corresponds to knowledge:

“… whatever representations form in the mind, it is through them that knowledge is acquired: so there is no sense to knowledge other than a representation occurring in the mind corresponding to whatever it stands for in the senses, and that is what is known (mahma irtasama fī l-nafs mithāluhu fa huwwa al-‘ilm bih: idhan la ma‘nā li l-‘ilm illa mithāl yaḥṣul fī l-nafs muṭābiq lammā huwwa mithāl lahu fī l-ḥass wa huwwa al-ma‘lūm) …” (al-Ghazālī Miʿyār: 76, lines 1-3).

But Ghazālī is no subjective idealist for the ‘thing’ or the object in reality is linked with its representation in the mind:

“… when something is not established in of itself, no representation of it is possible (fimā lam yakun al-shayʾ thubūt fī nafsuhu, lam yartasim fī l-nafs mithāluhu)…” (al-Ghazālī Miʿyār: 76, line 1).

The circle is then completed by words being generated in the mind to correspond with the representations of the external ‘thing’:

“… the word points to the meaning in the self, and what is in the self is the representation of what is in the external world (al-lafẓ dall ‘ala al-maʿnā al-ladhī fī l-nafs wa l-ladhī fī l-nafs huwwa mithāl al-mawjūd fī l-aʿyān)…” (al-Ghazālī Miʿyār: 75, lines 20-21).

In a detailed article on Ghazālī (Kassem 2015), I elaborate on the relationship between the internalism of Ghazālī’s intensional logic and that of Kant. I argue that whereas Ghazālī’s epistemology doesn’t possess the full-blown internalism of Kant’s Analytic of Principles (Kant CPR: A137/B176), his scheme has the same starting point, and in the end provides us with the conventionalist outcome which I see as implicit in Kant’s work. Just as there is a concordance here about what is certain in terms of intensional logic, there is the same understanding of the effect that this has on our perception of world as “emergent”. In fact, Ghazālī uses the word “pretence” to describe emergence, and writes that this is the lesson we take from tawḥīd, namely to understand that everything is actually God, is to understand that the world we see is “pretence”:

“… it is thus revealed that everything in the skies and the earth is pretence (faʾidhan inkashaf laka anna jamīʿ ma fī l-samawāt wa ma fī l-arḍ maskharāt)...” (al-Ghazālī Iḥyāʾ: 2490, line 22).

Thus Ghazālī’s anthropocentrism foreshadows Kant, whose philosophy, although misunderstood and thus denied a voice in the face of the Counter-Enlightenment, was nevertheless, in virtue of its logical resolution of the problem of reason, the crowning achievement of European Enlightenment thought. The anthropocentrism in Ghazālī is especially clear in his critique of Ṣūfīsm in Iḥyāʾ where in Book 35, which discusses tawḥīd as the highest level of knowledge demanded of the learned, and is the search for the knowledge of God as the Cause of all causes (al-Ghazālī Iḥyāʾ: 126, lines 6-7). Ghazālī writes that when Ṣūfīs call this level of knowledge fanā’, and when they mean by this that they are at one with the whole, they fall into error. The reason for this error is the omission in their discourse of the subject individual who is the originator of the picture of the world that is being perceived, and therefore the erroneous omission of the role of the subject individual here as a witness (al-Ghazālī Iḥyāʾ: 2486, line 23). Tawḥīd can thus only be experienced from a perspective, and any appeal to “intellectual intuition” which permits metaphysical knowledge of an absolute sort is denied.

Intellectual intuition: In fact, when we consider Wolff’s axiomatic mathematical approach, the corollary to such a foundationalist scheme was necessarily ‘intellectual intuition’ where the soul has absolute knowledge of the world, in the form of concepts and ideas. In attacking Wolff, Kant makes it clear that whereas mathematics can construct its objects in intuition beginning with definitions, philosophical speculation can have no such advantage, and ‘intellectual intuition’ in such a case can only be “dogmatic” (Kant CPR: A713/B747) (i. e. arbitrary).

Of course for Ghazālī, the matter of denying “intellectual intuition” was of crucial importance in his pursuit of Sunni Systematisation, which had as its main antagonist the Ismāʿīlī doctrine promoted by the Fāṭimī Shi‘a régime in Cairo. Ismāʿīlīs were known as taʿlīmiyya in virtue of their doctrine of taʿlīm, which required deference by all people to the opinion of the Imām who, alone credited with “intellectual intuition”, was considered the “shadow of God on earth”.

For Ghazālī, no man had those qualities. Of course, had al-Maʾmūn’s trial of strength against the Sunni scholar-jurists during the miḥna succeeded, a similar doctrine might have arisen surrounding the Abbasid Caliphs. However, it was the defeat of that policy which created the climate of diversity and pluralism, during which numerous sects and schools of law thrived, and which Ghazālī’s enlightened philosophy encapsulated. From Ghazālī’s anthropocentrism, there logically emerged recognition of the necessary diversity in the nature of law:-

“… it is necessary that… the differences in judgements reflect the differences in circumstances in the world… and all those who dispute in regard to interpretation must judge on the basis of their own efforts which are necessarily different to those of others… reminding the interpreters of the metaphor of the direction of prayer that they all pray in different directions but it is all one to God (“… al-wājib… anna ikhtilāf al-ḥukm bi ikhtilāf al-aḥwāl fī l-‘ālam… wa yajib ‘ala al-mukhtalifīn fī l-ijtihād anna yaḥkum kul wāḥid bi mawjib ijtihādhu wa huwwa mukhtalif ‘an ghayruhu… dhikruhu li mujāz al-mujtahidīn fī l-qibla anna yuṣallū ila jihāt mukhtalifa ma ‘ an al-qibla ‘and allah wāḥid)” (al-Ghazālī Mustaṣfa II: 374, lines 7-11)

In Fayṣal, Ghazālī writes that giving the monopoly of truth to one person is an act of unbelief and is contradictory (al-Ghazālī Fayṣal: 22, lines 16-18). In fact, he makes a plea here for tolerance among theologians, which is also as a defence against charges of unbelief against him by his detractors. Ghazālī faced criticism from Central Asian Ḥanafī scholar-jurists, who based their doctrine on the natural law theology of Muḥammad Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī (d. 333/944), whose ideas had their origins in the Murjiʾī beliefs of al-Hārith bin Surayj (d. 128/746). The eventual dominance of this doctrine after Ghazālī’s death heralded the equivalent in the Islamic history of thought, to the Counter-Enlightenment.

(iv) Practical reasoning, freedom and belief

Returning to Kant’s “critical philosophy”, we saw that this led to the idea that human beings perceived the world spontaneously, because of the inter-subjective logical platform of their minds, thus achieving objective knowledge. This spontaneity does have a corollary for rational beings in matters of ethics. If we move beyond the mere perception of objects and address reason in general, we recognise that our ideas of causal determinism result from this rationality and thus from our capacity for generating scientific theories. The postulates of these theories are in fact elevated by us to the status of law. Such theoretical reasoning leads to us having to temporarily suspend our belief in our practical freedom, just as, when it comes to our daily actions, we temporarily suspend our belief in our determined nature. While the two separate domains of “nature” and “freedom” (the latter being the domain of ethics) are distinct, the two forms of reason, theoretical and practical, are nevertheless two functions of the very same faculty (Kant, Reflexion 6353).

The denial of metaphysics, therefore, liberates thought from the strictures of theoretical reasoning, which therefore turns to serving practical reasoning. In other words, if we are free to view ourselves in different theoretical lights, as reflective beings, we can begin to address our practical concerns first and foremost. This means ethics and religion become possible, although strictly speaking we are no longer able to claim knowledge in these matters, for knowledge is necessarily theoretical and not practical. Practical reasoning can only be build on belief, since we cannot have theoretical knowledge of God. Kant writes in fact that he “… had to deny scientific knowing in order to make room for belief” (Kant CPR: Bxxx). In fact, when we see ourselves practically and unscientifically, we reveal to ourselves what we truly are, and the extent to which we are free. Our will then requires hope of always being able to achieve what we want practically, whilst belief in God as the sum of all things and all possibilities is integral to this vision. So belief in God and the future world become the self-evident “Postulates of Practical Reason” (Kant CPrR: 5.122-132).

However, fideists like Jacobi would dismiss Kant’s anti-metaphysical approach to religion as “heuristic fiction” (Jacobi Kriticismus: 182). In fact, Ghazālī pursued the same scheme as Kant.

But, whereas Kant had to contend with Christian scholars and theologians who had erected a dike of literalism around the Bible to stave off doctrinal erosion, Ghazālī had the advantage of working all along within a school of thought which had embraced the Ashʿarī notion of God as bilā kayf (without howness) and bilā tashbīh (without similitude). Although Ashʿarīsm would come under attack from the Māturīdīan ideas of the Central Asian Ḥanafī tradition, nevertheless the anti-metaphysical approach in Islam was a venerable tradition which went back to the earliest days when according to Ḍirār bin ʿAmr (d. 199/815) consensus had it that the literalism of the anthropomorphists was in error. What Ghazālī did was to systematise this tradition.

Frank Griffel analyses in detail how Ghazālī approaches ibn Sīnā’s cosmology and its proposition regarding necessary emanation of the world from God’s nature, and he describes how Ghazālī removes God entirely from the sphere of theoretical analysis and assigns to Him a place one step more transcendent than in ibn Sīnā’s cosmological system (Griffel 2009: 281). Thus we can understand how on Ghazālī’s opinion, Ghazālī’s detractors from among Central Asian Ḥanafī scholar-jurists confused practical with theoretical reasoning by introducing Māturīdīan theological arguments into their jurisprudence (al-Ghazālī Mustaṣfa I: 10, lines 5-6). For these scholars the purpose of religion was to generate belief in God, considered equivalent to possessing theoretical knowledge of God’s nature. In this doctrine, belief could never fluctuate, because unbelief is equivalent to a failure of theoretical reasoning in achieving metaphysical understanding.

By contrast, for Ghazālī, belief simply does not have the apodeictic quality of rational proof, and does fluctuate (al-Ghazālī Iḥyāʾ: 210, lines 20-21). If we move away from the ideal world of the neo-Plotinian philosophers, which is shared by Māturīdīan doctrine, to an empirical world where there is recognition that the future has not happened, we have different possible worlds thought of as being synchronous, the resolution of which as we saw is not pre-empted by knowledge. In this context, Ghazālī sees God as pure will, such that His acts lead to knowledge (al-Ghazālī Iqtiṣād: 101, line 9; 102, line 7). Meanwhile, human beings, whose acts, in contrast, do derive from knowledge, become the substrate in which God’s power is embedded (al-Ghazālī Iḥyāʾ: 13, line 13; 2505, lines 20-21). Thus God is the sum total of all possibilities and He cannot be the subject of reduction. He exists in all eventualities and cannot be present other than in all His different sides at once (al-Ghazālī Iqtiṣād: 43, line 3; Miʿyār: 347, lines 7-8). The quality that orders all others is therefore that of Preponderator inclining between different possibilities:-

“… there is no need for other than the Preponderator ( la nurīd illa l-murajjiḥ)…” (al-Ghazālī Iqtiṣād: 26, line 1)

This aleatory world is the source of anxiety for human beings, which means that their belief must wax and wane. The point of the revealed texts, however, is to increase hope and reduce fear (al-Ghazālī Iḥyāʾ: 2315, line 24; 2316, line 1), especially as it is impressed on its readers through both the Qur’an, the Sunna and other juristic evidences that God is forgiving and one should not be afraid to act or fear making mistakes – there are many second chances (al-Ghazālī Iḥyāʾ: 2316, line 24; 2318, line 2). But this anxiety is the essence of existence and the cause of action. While, as we saw, Ghazālī criticised Ṣūfīs for their mysticism, he nevertheless sought out their teachings from the practical aspect of guiding people in their actions.

So Ghazālī rejects the fatalism inherent in Māturīdīan metaphysics. He wrote Iḥyāʾ to specifically enjoin people into action, being as they are the substrate of God’s power.

The Māturīdīan conception of God is that He is separate from the world, which He is said to have created along with both good and evil, and all the other contradictions. Here as we have said it is theoretical reasoning which gives us knowledge of God’s nature, and reveals tawḥīd as being the fundamental unifying force which keeps this contradictory world from annihilation. This picture is anathema to Ghazālī. For him, God is not separate, He is all things inseparably (al-Ghazālī Iḥyāʾ: 2486, line 14), and evil only arises within human dispositions towards the world where the purpose of religion is then to bring these dispositions into line with the world that is God, such that the anger and passions are released to reveal the true self and the essential human being (al-Ghazālī Iḥyāʾ: 1345: 6-11).

Tawḥīd in Ghazālī is thus not a description of God’s actions, but a normative guide for human action. The Māturīdīan idea that evil is part of God’s purpose, and is a test of our individual qualities, has at its core the Murjiʾī thesis that justice can only be realised in the future world. At odds with this, therefore, is Ghazālī’s principle that justice originates in this world, and that rewards in the future life can only be the fruit of action in this life:

“… the next life grows out of this one (al-dunyā mazrāʿat al-ākhira)…” (al-Ghazālī Iḥyāʾ: 2309, line 18)

Justice and Democracy

Justice in this world is thus a matter of prime importance and demands the creation of just institutions, together with the rejection of tyranny. In complete contrast with this, were we to live under tyranny, the Murjiʾī thesis at the core of Māturīdīsm, determines that it should be accepted. Although this would later change, Māturīdīsm in the period up to Ghazālī’s time was still a minority doctrine. In that time, the effects of the defeat of the terror of al-Maʾmūn’s miḥna were still being felt and Islamic law was not only developed, but reached its canonical stage in this climate of freedom. This was not merely as a result of the work of Ghazālī, but also of many others. This included Ghazālī’s predecessors in the Eastern Shāfiʿī tradition, Shīrāzī and Juwaynī, and such scholars in the Iraqi Ḥanafī-Muʿtazilī tradition as Abū l-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī (d. 478/1085) and Muḥammad bin Aḥmad Abū Sahl al-Sarakhsī (d. [c.] 483/1090), as well the Andalusian Mālikī scholar Abū l-Walīd bin Khalaf al-Bājī (d. 474/1081). But although Ghazālī’s legal theory produced its own share of breakthroughs, his special contribution was in the systematisation and justification of the received Islamic law of his time and the Sunni Systematisation he was engaged in, which warrants him being described as a systematic philosopher in the sense of the European Enlightenment.

If we return to the analogy we drew earlier between al-Maʾmūn’s terror in the cause of reason, and that of St-Just based on Rousseau’s philosophy during the French Revolution, we find that Kant rejects the ideas in Rousseau which laid the ground for St-Just’s terror. Once again an analysis of Kant’s position here will help us frame Ghazālī’s thought. In Du Contract Social Rousseau writes about the General Will (volonté générale) which has it that the free individual must give himself to the whole (everyone in equal measure), such that, in obeying the whole, he is in fact only obeying himself. The general will is thus the general intention of each individual as he thinks of himself as part of a single body. All the implicit clauses in this contract must be kept to, as it is a commitment by the individual to carry out his own decisions, thus being true to his status as a self-determining being. So:

“For the social compact to avoid becoming a meaningless arrangement, it has to be understood as offering this commitment, which guarantees all the others, that whoever disobeys the General Will, will be compelled to obey it by the body politic as a whole, which essentially means that he shall be forced to be free…” (Rousseau Du Contrat Social I, VII: 36).

The problem however comes in the fact the general will cannot reflect majority voting because any collection of people that vote will think of themselves as individuals as well as members of the social whole. The solution is then to have the “legislator” devise a constitution for approval which maximises the extent to which everyone in fact thinks of themselves as a member of the social whole:

“Whoever has the courage to institutionalise a people must feel able, as it were, to change human nature, transforming each individual… into a part of a greater whole, from which he in a sense receives his life and being, altering the constitution of man in order to strengthen it”(Rousseau Du Contrat Social II, VII: 83-4).

At this point a totalitarian nightmare emerges in the running of the French Republic. Saint-Just determines that he represents the General Will in virtue of the fact that he as “legislator” understands the good. He therefore brooks no criticism. Anybody who criticises the republic is to be considered a traitor, and the guillotine, formerly a symbol of oppression, is transformed by St-Just into a machine of liberation, used to eliminate those defectives who contradict the General Will and universal reason (Camus ‘L’Homme Révolté’: 534).

Unlike Rousseau, Immanuel Kant is a systematic philosopher, although he is still an enthusiastic Rousseau reader. Although he finds “beauty of expression” in Rousseau, he nevertheless expresses his disapproval about contradictions in his work (Kuehn, Kant: 132).

In his ethics Kant begins by asking us to:

“Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you at the same time can will that it become a universal law” (Kant GMM: 4: 421).

Called the “categorical imperative” this moral criterion is supposed to act as test of our actions by having us ask ourselves whether we would sanction any maxim we chose to follow in our lives, for the use of all persons. Kant’s interpretation of how this test works recalls Rousseau’s General Will when he says that willing an immoral maxim is impossible because such a will would then contradict itself (Kant GMM: 4:402)

If Kant thus restates the General Will and the necessity to conform to it, he nevertheless resists Rousseau’s externalist resolution of the political problem, which involves positing the figure of the “legislator” outside the body of the social whole to set its constitutional terms. Instead, he takes the internalist approach we are now familiar with, and restates this moral criterion as follows:

“So act that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means” (Kant GMM: 4:429)

As is the case in Rousseau, self-determination and acting on one’s true will remains the basic idea of freedom, just as the search for the universal and the commitment to the whole becomes its realisation. However, the source of the determination to thus commit is recognised in Kant as the rational self. In Rousseau it is as if the individual finds himself a member of a human mass by chance, while this mass has to be fashioned into a workable whole by the external legislator. For Kant the General Will is merely the “form”, while human rationality is the “matter”. These two synthesise into the “complete determination” where the supreme moral law is stated in a final form which asks us to:

... [a]ct in accordance with maxims of a universally legislative member for a merely possible realm of ends(Kant GMM: 4:439)

This outcome is a result of Kant’s vision of the spontaneity of rational beings applying their capacity for rational judgement in an empirical environment, and in doing so, interacting dynamically with all other rational beings, in a world merely of possibilities, in order to seek the series of temporary accommodations which become the universals that shape our bodies politic.

The categorical imperative is thus an exercise in formal practical reasoning which establishes this moral law in terms of the necessities that follow from the properties of our being rational individuals. It doesn’t therefore provide us with any positive moral content, only with instructions as to how such content variously arises from the interaction which is the natural consequence of acting as a rational being. The general will is thus the outcome of a process and cannot in any meaningful sense be posited prior to such deliberations.

Thus contrary to Rousseau’s philosophy and its expression in St-Just’s injustice, that the General Will is the outcome of a process must be the fundamental character to political systems consisting of rational beings and the justification of democratic systems in general. There cannot on this basis be principles that pre-empt the principle of democracy as a deliberative social activity, for according to Kant even the categorical imperative as a moral organising principle emerges from within such deliberations for:

“The very existence of reason depends upon this freedom, which has no dictatorial authority, but whose claim is never anything more than the agreement of free citizens...” (Kant CPR: A738/B766)

I explain how the structure of Ghazālī’s legal theory in Mustaṣfa comes essentially to these same conclusions (Kassem 2015). In fact the basis for this lies in what we noted earlier as the necessity of the diversity of law ( where we talked about the ‘metaphor of the direction of prayer‘ in al-Ghazālī Mustaṣfa II: 374, lines 7-11). Lawyers in their role as mujtahid are bound to attend to the perspectival interests of their clients, such that legislation is less about the wide dissemination of law (the use of boilerplate judgments), and more about its correct application in context (al-Ghazālī Mustaṣfa II: 350, lines 11-12). To that end mujtahidīn are prohibited from blindly following one another’s rules (al-Ghazālī Mustaṣfa II: 384, line 4), and any conclusions arrived at by any one mujtahid do not bind another (al-Ghazālī Mustaṣfa I: 180, line 15). In fact, when it comes to the work of the mujtahid in his capacity as advocate proposing a law before a judge, there are no rules for the judge to abide by. There is merely the imperative of ensuring that the mujtahid works out his deductions from the sources directly in respect of the case in hand without following the rulings of another for, before any judge, the rulings of all mujtahidīn are in principle equally correct (kul mujtahid muṣīb) (al-Ghazālī Mustaṣfa II: 380). But the question has to be asked in respect of the law, how agreement in virtue of all the resulting diversity is possible:

“… so in respect of the sayings of the Muslims in its multitude and diverse callings in regard to the truth and their insistence thereon, how is agreement of their views possible for it seems as impossible as an agreement for example as all eating raisins on the same day (faʾin qīl al-umma maʿa kuthrahā wa ikhtilāf dawāʿīhā fī al-i‘tirāf bi l-ḥaqq wa l-‘inād fīhu kayfa tatafiq ārāʾuhā fa dhalika muḥāl minhā ka ittifāqhum ‘ala akl al-zibīb mathalan fī yawm wāḥid…” (al-Ghazālī Mustaṣfa I: 173, lines 13-14)

The answer comes in the notion of consensus (ijmāʿ) in Islamic law and its unifying role, which Ghazālī was instrumental in canonising. While differences in legal rulings are inevitable, it is only in method of the principles of law that there should be unity (al-Ghazālī Mustaṣfa II: 374, lines 13-14). In Ghazālī’s explanation of legal theory, the principles of law (uṣūl al-fiqh) start with the Qur’an as its source, then continues with the Sunna as the explication of the Qur’an, and ends with consensus (ijmāʿ) as what defines what is acceptable and not acceptable in terms of Sunna. Furthermore, consensus also determines what is acceptable and not acceptable in terms of the types of reasoning (qiyās) used in abstracting (istiṣḥāb) rules (aḥkām) from the sources of law (adilla). Consensus is thus at the apex of the system. But while becoming a universal concept, it becomes a legal concept no longer used for the purpose of obtaining uniformity, but rather for ensuring overall synchrony. The fact that synchrony is the objective rather than uniformity, is demonstrated by the fact that a significant minority cannot ever absent itself, and that unanimity is always required, where on the contrary uniformity would only ever require the ruling of a select few (al-Ghazālī Mustaṣfa I: 185, line 18; 187, line 9).

Consensus thus, like the categorical imperative, takes on the role in ethics of a criterion of wrongness rather than a criterion of right. Not only do both criteria set the boundaries within which diversity is possible, they both arise out of the process of law-making and are principles which cannot in any meaningful sense be posited prior to such deliberations.

The consequences of these ethics for political institutions

Where for Ghazālī as we stated earlier it is clear where legislative power lies, namely with the scholar-jurists on behalf of the people who are their clients, he also, in virtue of Islamic Sharīʿa, develops the relevant practical legal basis for this. The practical problem of the promulgation of law from its abstract basis in the categorical imperative is left out in Kant. In fact he objected, much as Rousseau had done earlier (Rousseau Du Contrat Social III, XV: 214), to parliamentary representation, as the proper basis of such promulgation (Kant Streit 7: 790). Parliamentary institutions in the opinion of both these philosophers were liable to break up into factions that would compete to dominate over the interests of individuals in society at large. However, no legal theory was developed by Kant to replace the idea of the system in his time of a constitutional monarch with a parliament.

In Ghazālī’s legal theory, the scholar-jurist is the representative of the people by dint of the capacity of the common person (ʿammī) as follower (muqallid). This doesn’t take place through any kind of voting system, but by the selection of the scholar-jurist by the common person to represent his interest in law (al-Ghazālī Mustaṣfa II: 389, line 7). It is in fact the duty of the common man not only to follow carefully the law-making activities of the scholar-jurist, but also to understand fully his own self-interest, so that he ensures it is served (al-Ghazālī Mustaṣfa II: 390, lines 5-7). Ghazālī elevates the Prophet’s* report – “…la tajma’ ummitī al-khaṭaʾ…” – (Tirmīdhī: 2167), into a report recurrent in virtue of meaning (tawātur maʿnāwī), as the basis for the canonisation of consensus (ijmāʿ) (al-Ghazālī, Mustaṣfa I: 175, lines 7-9). This clearly also places sovereignty in the common man in general, and the common man’s appointment of legal advisors (fuqahāʾ) to represent his interests, effectively creates a class of specialists (khawwāṣ). To the extent that this class of specialists act in any way as a corporate body, given the admonition we saw above about taqlīd, this could only be in respect of consensus.

But since consensus is a property of the law which reflects synchrony and not uniformity, the specialists representing the common man in this respect are not legislators as such, but only technical experts. So if scholar-jurists come to represent the people in any kind of corporate, say parliamentary body, they should not do so as legislators, only as co-ordinators of the law. This actually answers the lacuna left in Kant’s theory in respect of the promulgation of the law in the only possible systematic way. Accepting this Ghazālīan answer as the only outcome Kant could have accepted, makes it clear he couldn’t have validated the justness of parliamentary institutions as they are understood specifically in the English tradition. It also clarifies the meaning in the Qur’an of verse 42:38 in respect of the idea of consultation (shurā). This verse cannot justify the creation of parliaments which are intended for legislation, only for the technical co-ordination of law, in the manner of an ‘upper house’ or ‘senate’, which law on the other hand should be the business of scholar-jurists in their capacity as private sector law-makers at large, as understood originally in the context of Islamic Sharīʿa.

also read Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī on Intensional Logic, Freedom and Justice, Journal of Islamic Philosophy 10 (2016)