Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination

Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination

by Ebrahim Moosa

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Abu Hamid al-Ghaz&257;l&299;, a Muslim jurist-theologian and polymath who lived from the mid-eleventh to the early twelfth century in present-day Iran, is a figure equivalent in stature to Maimonides in Judaism and Thomas Aquinas in Christianity. He is best known for his work in philosophy, ethics, law, and mysticism. In an engaged re-reading of the ideas of this preeminent Muslim thinker, Ebrahim Moosa argues that Ghaz&257;l&299;'s work has lasting relevance today as a model for a critical encounter with the Muslim intellectual tradition in a modern and postmodern context.

Moosa employs the theme of the threshold, or dihliz, the space from which Ghaz&257;l&299; himself engaged the different currents of thought in his day, and proposes that contemporary Muslims who wish to place their own traditions in conversation with modern traditions consider the same vantage point. Moosa argues that by incorporating elements of Islamic theology, neoplatonic mysticism, and Aristotelian philosophy, Ghaz&257;l&299;'s work epitomizes the idea that the answers to life's complex realities do not reside in a single culture or intellectual tradition. Ghaz&257;l&299;'s emphasis on poiesis--creativity, imagination, and freedom of thought--provides a sorely needed model for a cosmopolitan intellectual renewal among Muslims, Moosa argues. Such a creative and critical inheritance, he concludes, ought to be heeded by those who seek to cultivate Muslim intellectual traditions in today's tumultuous world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807876459
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 03/08/2006
Series: Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Ebrahim Moosa is professor of Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame, with appointments in the department of history and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in the Keough School for Global Affairs.

Read an Excerpt

Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination

By Ebrahim Moosa

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2005 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-2952-8

Chapter One

Agonistics of the Self

Social life ... even its apparently quietest moments, is characteristically "pregnant" with social dramas. It is as though each of us has a "peace" face and a "war" face, that we are programmed for co-operation, but prepared for conflict. The primordial and perennial agonistic mode is the social drama. -Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre


The Syrian-born writer Ali Ahmad Said, better known by his pen name, Adonis, startles his readers with the subtitle "Journey in the Cities of al-Ghazali" in a long poem titled "Eighth Sky." It is startling because Adonis is a secularist, even a self-declared atheist. Why would someone with his secular predispositions show an interest in Ghazali? What kind of inspiration can a modern poet derive by reaching into the twelfth century to a deeply religious figure like Ghazali Written in complex mystical verse and full of allegorical illusions, Adonis's poem unmistakably plays off the past against the present and prefigures the future. It is a captivating and brilliant poem punctured by lamentation about the perils facing the "Cities of al-Ghazali." Poetic visions have to be inclusive, and Adonis must have kept alive inhis imagination the past glory of Baghdad as one of the cities of al-Ghazali, the miseries unleashed periodically on that city notwithstanding.

Utopian thought, even if it turns to the past, the exiled Russian writer Joseph Brodsky reminds us, "usually implies the unbearable character of the present." Therefore, it would be erroneous to read Adonis's poem in a linear fashion and to unequivocally conclude, as some have done, that the poem is an attack on Ghazali. It contains the possibility of being both a critique and an appreciation of Ghazali, since "ambiguity is an inevitable by-product of the struggle for objectivity." Indeed, in the sequel to "Eighth Sky," in which the poet continues to refer to the "planet of al-Ghazali," Adonis's mystical figure, Mihyar, makes an appearance. Mihyar personifies the poet's ideas, hopes, and dreams as a life symbol in continuous movement.

By juxtaposing Ghazali and Mihyar, is it possible that Adonis is suggesting that they are both on the side of continuous movement, creativity, and imagination? Yes, I think this is a reasonable conclusion. Do not both Ghazali and Mihyar personify dreams? Dreams can be frightening and nightmarish; they scare us with the grotesque and ugly. Yet dreams can also inspire hope; they can offer us visions of the future and provide energy so that we may live out our desires and fantasies. Adonis, of course, realizes as much, despite the differences between his own life trajectory and Ghazali's. And, interestingly for the modern poet, Ghazali as an intellectual and a pious figure is not outside the range of resources indispensable to the poet's craft-the craft of imagination and inventive making and creating known as poiesis.

Here, I have chosen Ghazali as my locus of enunciation, fully aware that I bring to the enterprise at least two epistemic languages: the conceptual tools and interpretive frameworks derived from a multiplicity of Muslim traditions as well as those of Western traditions. They reflect my own multiple locations and experiences of living in a dihliz, an interspace, negotiating and struggling with the hegemonic and colonial knowledge traditions as well as the subalternized knowledge systems to gain a modicum of emancipation and ultimately liberation from totalizing ways of existence. In large part, I try to understand Ghazali with the multiple cultural resources of the present. At the same time, I must also acknowledge that we cannot understand the present without taking account of how Ghazali, his universe, and his pivotal role in the formation of ideas impacts ours. Not to be aware of this critical tension brought about by dialogical thinking is to fall prey to the grossest forms of the colonization of knowledge.

In this chapter, I ground and elaborate the interpretive keystrokes that I will be using in subsequent chapters of this book. I explain how I use notions and concepts such as bricolage, poiesis, teleiopoiesis, the in-between space (dihliz), tradition, orthodoxy, and history, all elements that underpin much of this book. Here, I also demonstrate the dialogical conversation that takes place in the heterogeneous disciplines that draw inspiration from nonsecular and non-Western contexts as well as from knowledge traditions that are broadly conceived of as Western humanities.

This attempt to foster a conversation among iterations of different intellectual traditions aims to advance an emancipatory and humane discursive tradition, one to which the Muslim intellectual legacy can make a meaningful contribution despite the double marginalization that Muslim thought suffers. Western humanities and modern philosophical traditions intentionally overlook Muslim thought as a sustainable inspiration for knowledge; this is one form of marginalization. And certain contemporary Muslim knowledge practices often consciously refrain from articulating Muslim thought in an accessible idiom or engaging with the historical Muslim tradition in an empowering manner from their multiple locations in the present. This is a form of surrender to the hegemonic discursivity of modernity, even though Islamist proponents would claim to resist modernity by means of such actions. For, indeed, those who choose isolation and absence unconsciously endorse the dominant knowledge practices as normative while reducing the knowledge of their own tradition to a subaltern status, veiled in its alleged purity and suffocating in its isolation.


To return to Adonis, it is apparent that he succeeds in casting Ghazali as an enigma in his tantalizing poem. Many scholars agree that Ghazali is an enigmatic and agonistic figure. It is perhaps due to his enigmatic personality and equally complex legacy that he has become such a pervasive force in the Muslim intellectual tradition. What is appealing about Ghazali is that he left behind a nontotalizing intellectual legacy. While to some of his critics this is a weakness, for the modern Muslim subject he provides a treasure of resources with which one can construct a plausible trajectory for reimagining the religious tradition of Islam.

Ghazali combined the skills of both an architect and a bricoleur. In one sense, he was an architect engaged in the creation of new art forms, of the architecture of the imagination. In another sense, he was a bricoleur, busy with the indigenous art of making new things from quotidian objects and fashioning new meanings from fragments of myths. Being an architect as well as a bricoleur was by no means exceptional in the world that Ghazali inhabited, but it takes a certain genius to make it work.

French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, from whom I borrow the concept of "bricolage," points out that the "difference" between an engineer and a bricoleur "is less absolute than it might appear." An engineer, says Lévi-Strauss, always attempts to go beyond the constraints imposed by a particular moment in civilization. A bricoleur, on the other hand, is always inclined to remain within those limitations and constraints. Ghazali combined the roles of both an engineer and a bricoleur: at times, he was prepared to transgress the boundaries drawn by civilization, and on other occasions he was ready to work within the constraints of his time.

Lévi-Strauss uses the expression "bricoleur" in order to describe the sort of worker who mends and maintains machinery or takes old materials and improvises new uses for them. He deploys this engaging metaphor with reference to two main processes: first, the appropriation of cultural elements from the dominant culture; and second, the transformation of meanings through ironic juxtaposition and innovative use in order to challenge and subvert existing meanings. Thus, the result of a series of improvisations might be that a multiplicity of very culture-specific meanings and norms is refashioned into a coherent unity.

Even those of us who take ideas from many different sources and experiences in order to contemplate how their underlying and interlinking meanings make sense in a larger pattern of ideas and worldviews can be called bricoleurs. Being a bricoleur is different from being an eclectic. The crucial difference is this: in order for any performance or idea to be deemed eclectic, the provenance of the borrowed artifact must still be very much visible to the observer in the composite product. In fact, the borrowed idea does not develop a life of its own within the new setting. Lacking coherence, it sits uncomfortably in its new habitat as if it had been mechanically inserted into the new setting. By contrast, a bricoleur relocates artifacts in such a way that they form an integral part of the new environment. A bricoleur adds originality to a process or an artifact and in this crucial respect is different from an eclectic. A bricoleur demonstrates originality in the process of refinement and adaptation, making the borrowed artifact synthetically fit in with the new surroundings as if it had been there all the time and belonged there in the first place.

"Bricoleur" is an appropriate descriptor for Ghazali. Extensive research has shown that he derived inspiration from a broad spectrum of thinkers who preceded him, including Miskawayh (d. 421/1030), Raghib al-Isfahani (d. ca. fifth/eleventh century), and Muhasibi, among others. Not only did he reconstruct ideas, but he did so with an originality that was secreted into his innovative interpretations. Of course, Ghazali's reconstructed coherence did constitute a rift from the past; however, such a shift is in itself an event. It is a change that marks the end of one system of simultaneity and inaugurates a new one. "The same words and the same ideas are often reused," notes Michel de Certeau in another context, "but they no longer have the same meaning, [and] they are no longer thought and organized in the same way." He concludes, "It is upon this 'fact' that the project of an all-encompassing and unitary interpretation runs aground."

Perhaps nature precedes humans in bricolage. "Your Lord inspired [awha] the bee," a delightful parable in the Quran begins. It describes the labor of one of nature's most productive bricoleurs-the bee. Addressing the bee, the passage continues: "Prepare for thyself dwellings in mountains and in trees, and in what [humans] may build [for you by way of hives]. And then eat of all the fruits and follow humbly in the paths ordained by thy Sustainer. Then, from the bee's innards a drink of many hues pours forth; in it is a remedy for all humanity. In all this, behold, there is a message indeed for people who think."

The parable of the bee is instructive. As a matter of habit, this insect draws from a diverse variety of sources-pollen and nectars-in order to produce a synthetic product that reflects all the colors and fruits of its immediate habitat. While the honey produced is in some way the aggregate of many diverse types of nectar, it is simultaneously something very new and unparalleled. In the end, the bee not only produces a delectable substance but also furthers reproduction through cross-pollination that in turn generates new flowers and restarts the cycle for the future production of honey.

Similarly, in the reconstruction of ideas from fragments, it is often the case that ideas that were once the end products of a constellation of thoughts are now deployed in the reconstructive process as means for different ends. In fact, bricolage has metalepsis as its equivalent in language. An embodied metaphorical process performs in similar ways to bricolage: one action is replaced by another action just as one metonym replaces another metonym in the figurative metaphor of metalepsis.

The other significant observation made by Lévi-Strauss, equally applicable to Ghazali, is that a bricoleur "speaks" not only with things but also through the medium of things. Thus, when bricoleurs make choices among a limited number of possibilities, in doing so they reveal their personalities and put something of themselves into the purposes behind their performances or deeds.


I couch my reading of Ghazali within an understanding of the Aristotelian notion of poiesis. "Poiesis," or shiriya in Arabic, is the making or construction of something by means of poetics, which involves imitation or representation, also called mimesis. For Aristotle, "poiesis" does not designate the finished poem; on the contrary, it signifies the act of poetic creation. Mimesis, or representation, has its own duality. As a form of action, it is a doing. But the making of a representation involves something more: standing back from one's actions and engaging in reflection requires one to actively consider how knowledge is made instead of viewing knowledge passively. This is exactly how the brilliant Italian thinker and jurist Giambattista Vico (d. 1744) formulates humanity's immense debt to poetic wisdom (sapientia poetica), which he considers to be a way of knowing the ongoing process of history and the making of knowledge.

Bolstering and reformulating his interpretations, Ghazali did several things along the lines of poetics. He constructed a narrative by weaving a plethora of ideas and insights into a coherent but profoundly refigured whole. On some occasions, he reflected as to the reasons and justifications behind his viewpoints. In doing so, he demonstrated that thoughts and ideas are not given, but made and constructed. His narration is an account of doing, as well as an account of reflection as to what he achieved. At the same time, he elucidated a cosmology for Muslim thought that simultaneously imitated what came before it and innovated and provided something additional, something of what might be: the conditions of possibility.

Ghazali, like a good bricoleur, employed the very materials used by his predecessors, such as verses of the Quran; prophetic reports (ahadith); philosophical, legal, and theological discourses; and the narratives of mystics. But he did so with a crucial difference. He combined a variety of genres so that they constituted an organic unity. Not only was the whole of the new narrative very different from the sum of its parts, but the narrative also transformed the whole.

The renowned philosopher and jurist Abk al-Walid Ibn Rushd singled out for opprobrium Ghazali's use of poiesis (shiriya) as well as his strategies of discursivity (khitabiya) and his dialectical polemics (jadaliya). What Ghazali viewed to be constructive, Ibn Rushd deemed to be intellectually offensive.


Excerpted from Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination by Ebrahim Moosa Copyright © 2005 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Moosa brilliantly argues that Ghazali did not reconcile contradictions between different systems of thought by forging middle grounds or by producing a great synthesis of multiple systems of knowledge. Rather, he imagined new forms of knowledge through which contradictory views can be simultaneously maintained. Ghazali thus exemplifies the ability to position oneself in intellectual exile while remaining a committed insider. Moosa's study of Ghazali offers creative solutions to the contemporary crisis of Muslim thought.—Ahmad Dallal, Georgetown University

Moosa's book shows better than any work I am aware of how Ghazali transformed Islamic thought at a critical moment when the European Crusaders and other forces were dismantling the Pax Islamica in which the older schools had flourished.—Richard C. Martin, Emory University

This is a brilliant, original, and often quite profound study of one of the most important of medieval Islamic thinkers. Ebrahim Moosa has sought to enter the world-view of an especially elusive and ambiguous thinker, whom even his contemporaries found overly slippery, and he has done so with audacity, empathy, and great perspicacity.—Eric Ormsby, McGill University

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