The Origins of Today’s Mainstream Islam: How Imam al-Ghazali Balanced the Dry Textualism of the Arabs and the Extravagant Rationalist Spiritualism of the Persians

Frontispiece of a manuscript of Imam al-Ghazali’s Alchemy of Happiness

Within Sunni Islam, there is a small minority of Muslims whose Islam seems to be largely about strict, mechanical adherence to religion that is seems devoid of purpose or spirituality. These Muslims in general represent the influence of the atharī or naqlī (textualist) approach to Islam, common among the scholars of hadith. According to them, Islam is the reenactment of history, rather than the application of a spiritual program. This approach was popularized and defended by Imam Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (d. 855 CE) and a line of scholars after him who were nearly all Arabs. This is an interesting fact because every other area of Islamic intellectual history has been dominated by Persians. When studying Islamic intellectual history, we can actually trace out two lines of activity, one Arab, one Persian. The Arabs focused on the transmission of texts and conforming to them, the Persians focused on organizing and systematizing knowledge and deriving general principles from them. This led to two different approaches to Islam that defined the history of Islam and the way we practice Islam today.

It is common for most people, especially Westerners, to treat classical Islamic scholars as if they were all Arabs. The fact that their names often have al- and ibn in them gives the illusion of their being Arab. The reality is that a major part of Islamic scholarship was done by Persians. The six major hadith collections of Sunni Islam were all created by Persians: al-Bukhārī (d. 870 CE), Muslim (d. 875 CE), Abū Dawūd (d. 889 CE), Ibn Māja (d. 887 CE), al-Tirmidhī (d. 892 CE) and al-Nasāʾī (d. 915 CE) are all Iranians. The seventh major collection, the Muwaṭṭaʾ, was created by Imam Mālik (d. 795 CE), who was either half-Persian or half-Greek. Other major collections by Persians include the Muṣannaf of ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Ṣanʿānī (d. 826 CE), the Ṣahīh of Ibn Ḥibbān (d. 965 CE) and the Mustadrak of al-Ḥākim al-Nishāpūrī (d. 1014 CE).

The Shāfiʿī school of Islamic law was almost entirely dominated by Persians despite having an Arab as its “patron saint” (Imam al-Shāfiʿī), and the same is true of the Ḥanafī school, founded by the Persian Imam Abū Ḥanīfa. As for the Mālikī school, it was founded by the already-mentioned half-Persian or half-Greek Imam Mālik and was to be dominated by the highly mixed Arabs of Northern Africa and Spain. Great Spanish scholars like Ibn Rushd (Averroes) may have been largely European genetically despite having an Arab lineage, similar to the way the “Arab” Abbasid Empire was ruled for an entire century by a succession of emperors who were 97% Greek and Persian despite having Arab lineage (due to each emperor being born to a Greek or Persian woman, for more on this see this blog post).

In this highly culturally and genetically diverse scene, we have the atharī school that is almost entirely dominated by Arabs, and that has a very specific approach to Islam. These scholars are Imām Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1200 CE), al-Nawawī (d. 1277 CE), Ibn Taymīya (d. 1328 CE), Ibn Kathīr (d. 1373 CE), Ibn Rajab (d. 1393 CE), al-Shawkanī (d. 1834 CE), Ibn Bāz (d. 1999 CE) and Ibn ʿUthaymīn (d. 2001 CE). The most important scholar in this group is Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, founder of the Ḥanbali school.

For these scholars, Islam is largely about following hadith narrations as strictly as possible without bothering to organize them into a system. To them spirituality means submission to God through strictly following hadith narrations. The ideal Muslim acts as if he is programmed by hadith. It would be wrong to call them unspiritual, because people like Ibn al-Jawzī and Ibn al-Qayyim have written some of the most spiritually uplifting books in Islamic history. But to them strictness and a lack of intellectual curiosity when it comes to religious matters are virtues. A good Muslim, in their view, should accept the whole of the authentic hadith literature on faith, not engage in questioning things, leave it to the scholars to argue about the issues within the literature, and follow each hadith they see as strictly as possible.

To them, turning Islam into a meaningful system feels almost sacrilegious, because such an effort would make hadith subservient to the system, which is unacceptable in their view. Each hadith should be considered independently authoritative without reference to any system. And that is why their Islam feels unspiritual and obsessed with appearances and rules rather than connecting with God. Since each hadith is independently authoritative, since there is no system, their Islam ends up being made up of thousands of detached pieces that do not necessarily make intuitive sense and that may even appear to contradict one another and even contradict Quranic principles. It is quite natural for a Ḥanbali to be extremely kind to a neighbor (because some hadith narrations recommend that) while being extremely cruel to their own families because another set of hadith narrations seem to recommend being cruel toward those who fail to live up to certain standards of behavior. The lack of system turns their Islam into a religion that often has no common sense; religion is made up of thousands of separate compartments that seem to randomly lead to the most unexpected kindness here and the most unexpected cruelty there.

In this form of Islam, the Quran is often overshadowed by the much larger hadith literature. The mechanical adherence to hadith and overshadowing of the Quran’s teachings often leads textualist Muslims to follow an Islam that appears to lack a heart and soul. There is no room for intellectual maneuvering or prioritizing Quranic principles over narrations. Textualism has no guiding “brain” because the ideal it seeks is to follow authentic narrations as mechanistically as possible while taking the self and the brain out of the equation. Man is nothing but a vehicle for the implementation of hadith.

The anti-intellectual textualist approach to Islam led to a strong reaction from the Persians of the Abbasid Empire. The Persians could simply not accept a form of Islam that lacked a “common sense” driving it and giving it meaning. Their reaction took two main forms, Muʿtazīlī Islam and Sufism. Despite their greatly differences, both of these forms of Islam can be thought of as expressions of the Persian desire for systematization. Persians could not accept a religion made up of separate and unrelated compartments. The Persians were also the main drivers behind the development of the sciences of hadith, fiqh, ūṣūl (legal theory) and kalām (philosophical theology), all of which represent the same Persian obsession with building systems rather than being content with the mere raw materials of religion (the hadith texts). Intellectual curiosity and a desire to see the “big picture” of religion was second nature to the Persians, while it almost felt heretical to the Arab textualists.

The Muʿtazīlīs considered the textualist scholars ignorant and narrow-minded and were not ashamed to use the most insulting words against them. The Muʿtazīlīs were often philosophers and scientists and were far more intellectually sophisticated than the textualists. Their problem, however, was that they were so enamored of their own cleverness that some of them thought they could use their own thinking to override the teachings of the Quran and hadith. This does not describe every Muʿtazīlī scholar, but they often were rather liberal and lax in their adherence to Islam and were almost invariably less pious than the textualists in their outward behavior. This lower Muʿtazīlī piety was all the proof the Arab textualists needed for the heretical nature of the Persians and the correctness of their own beliefs. The Muʿtazīlīs were involved in the Miḥna (the Inquisition) of the half-Persian Abbasid caliph al-Maʾmūn, who reigned from 813 to 833 CE. Like so many Oriental reformers of the past few centuries, he absurdly tried to force what he thought was open-mindedness on others by forcing the Muʿtazīlī approach to Islam on the rest of the scholars. Imam Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal was persecuted by this Inquisition, which turned him into a hero and martyr for the textualist Islamic scholars. To this day he remains their “patron saint”, the defender of authentic Islam against the encroachments of the heretical Persian Muʿtazīlīs enamored of pagan philosophy.

That Muʿtazīlī abuse of authority caused a hardening of the Arab opposition to their views, so that the Arabs created their own traditionalist Islam (Ahl al-Hadīth or the Cult of Hadith) that entirely ignored Muʿtazīlī Muslims as heretics that should be considered outside of Islam. Persians were treated with extreme suspicion unless they proved their credentials by strict adherence to the manners and doctrines of Ahl al-Hadīth. The textualist Ḥanbalī scholar Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1200) was so suspicious of Persians that in his famous book of advice to his son, he tells him not to read books of tafsīr (Quranic exegesis) written by Persians.

Another Persian reaction to Arab textualism was Sufism. Almost every major classical Sufi master is a Persian. Similar to the Muʿtazīlīs, the Persian Sufis tried to turn Islam into a holistic system that made sense, but unlike them, they went the mystical route rather than the philosophical and rationalist route. Some Sufis accepted the importance of following Islamic law while others thought that they were needless of the law if they became sufficiently enlightened. The Persian Sufi Bayazid Bastami (d. 848 or 849) was controversial due to his almost heretical gnostic views. The Persian Sufi Manṣūr al-Ḥallāj (d. 922 CE) was famously executed for heresy. Rumi, a Persian Sufi, defended the wine-drinking of his Persian Sufi master Shams-e-Tabrīzī by saying that Tabrīzī lived in a different plane of existence that made it unnecessary for him to abide by the Islamic prohibition on wine.

The Persian Muʿtazīlīs and Sufis tried to turn Islam into a system that made sense, while the Arab textualists saw no need for systems and were happy to follow their compartmentalized Islam made of separate and unrelated narrations.

Among these currents came the Persian scholar Imam al-Ghazali (d. 1111 CE). Despite his contributions to the fields of Islamic knowledge and his high status as a scholar of Islamic law, he became dissatisfied with his way of life and had a crisis, which ended in his rediscovering Sufism. He went on to create a new…system of Islam that united respect for the Quran and tradition with a deeply meaningful spirituality and a respect for logic, stated in his most important work Iḥyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn (Revival of the Religious Sciences).

Today we live in a post-Ghazali world. His influence was so great and his teachings were so deeply integrated into mainstream Islam that we (mainstream Sunni Muslims) are all his students one way or another, even if we have never read a work by him. He helped show that Muslims do not have to make a choice between either being strict textualists, open-minded philosophers or spiritual Sufis. We can become a new type of Muslim who respects Islamic law, loves hadith, appreciates philosophy (but places it below revelation), and seeks to have a deeply spiritual connection with God.

Al-Ghazali was not necessarily the first Muslim to integrate these qualities, but he was the first scholar to turn them into a system that could be defended and passed on to future generations. He defended the idea of the “integrated Muslim” who does not have to take sides with any of the camps of his time, but who takes what is good from all of them while avoiding their extremist tendencies. You can respect and follow hadith without losing sight of their purpose and their relation to the rest of Islam, and importantly, without ignoring the Quran’s ethics and morality. You can appreciate science and philosophy without having to say that God is chained by philosophy like the Muʿtazīlīs thought. And you can be a deeply spiritual person without having to belong to any Sufi group and without following the esoteric teachings of certain groups who thought they could ignore Islamic law due to being “enlightened”.

Between the Forest and the Trees

In English we have the idiom “missing the forest for the trees,” which can be used to illustrate the difference between the Arab and the Persian approaches. The textualist Islam of the Arab scholars and their modern admirers focuses on each tree individually and is not very interested in the forest, they may even consider it almost heretical to bother too much about the forest. This makes their approach to Islam feel shallow, concerned with technicalities and appearances, and lacking in substance to outsiders. The Persian approaches of Muʿtazīlī rationalism and philosophical Sufism focus largely on the forest, and think it is only the uneducated masses who should concern themselves with the trees. To them Islam is about the overarching principles and deeper meanings, rather than about appearances and technicalities. Islam is turned into a philosophical system of metaphors and esoteric teachings that claim to offer the path of enlightenment.

Imam al-Ghazali’s realization was that we do not have to make a choice between focusing on the forest or the trees. We should follow the rules and prohibitions of Islamic law in our daily lives without losing sight of the purpose behind them and without losing sight of the purpose of religion itself, which is to know God and to worship Him in the best way possible. In the textualist approach, the focus on strict, compartmentalized adherence to hadith makes God fade to the background. In the extreme rationalist or spiritualist approach, the focus on God leads to lawlessness and corruption because Islamic duties are ignored. Al-Ghazali taught that we need to find a balance between the two approaches; we can seek God, but we should never consider ourselves smarter than Him or consider His laws beneath us. We should follow hadith, but we should relate them to the rest of Islam and find out how they make sense within the big picture rather than treating the hadith literature as made up of isolated compartments.

Today, those influenced by the Arab approach, especially those taught in Saudi Arabia or converts who are under the impression that strictness and anti-intellectualism equal piety, often tell us that their approach to Islam is the only valid one. They consider themselves al-firqa al-nājiya (“the group that attains salvation”), the one single rightly-guided group of Muslims out of 73 (this concept is based on a fabricated narration, as I explain here). And because of that, they often believe themselves to be morally superior to those around them. They consider their approach to Islam the only possibly valid one and could never admit that a person as pious and knowledgeable as themselves could reach a different form of Islam.

But al-Ghazali’s Islam is just such a form of Islam. The argument is not over who is more pious or who loves the Prophet , his Companions and his Successors best. The argument is over methods and priorities. Al-Ghazali said we should follow Islam as an integrated system that focuses on the most important things. Islam’s teachings all come from the same source and have the same logic and intent behind them, therefore our focus should be the achievement of those aims, rather than following each hadith individually and forgetting the fact that they relate to a larger whole.

Al-Ghazali’s system makes it possible to prioritize, something that is largely impossible in the textualist approach. In the textualist anti-system, the important thing is to follow the texts without presuming to try to work out the intent behind them and without presuming to prioritize one thing over another. The textualist approach shows a very strong distrust of the human intellect and believes that only through strict and narrow adherence to authentic texts we can be saved. Al-Ghazali’s approach respects the human intellect without letting it run wild (as the Muʿtazīlīs and some Sufis of his time allowed). He creates a system where there is a well-defined framework (Islamic law, morality and ethics) that rules our daily life, but within this framework, we have great freedom to be who we are and to approach God in the way that works for us. Islam provides the skeleton and each person fleshes it out according to their own understanding and creativity. While in the textualist approach, everything is already fleshed out for you by others. You have no room to be human, no room to prioritize one thing over another. To be a good Muslim, your only option is to say goodbye to your humanity and let the texts possess you.

In Imam al-Ghazali’s Islam, we follow the Quran and the most important hadith narrations and try to embody their teachings. We start from a position of spirituality and use the texts as helpers on the way. The purpose is God, the texts are helpers. In textualist Islam, things work the other way round. The focus is on the texts, the connection with God happens as an afterthought. Both approaches are meant to bring us to God, and both approaches can achieve that goal even though they approach it from different directions. The best followers of Ḥanbalī Islam can be similar to al-Ghazali’s best followers.

But when it comes to the average Muslim belonging to either approach, we see a great divergence. The average follower of al-Ghazali’s Islam (which almost means the average, reasonably well-educated mainstream Muslim, due to the way that al-Ghazali’s teachings have become part of mainstream Islam) is going to be tolerant and spiritual from the get-go, while the average follower of Ḥanbalī Islam is likely to be rather intolerant and unspiritual from the get-go due to their compartmentalized and unsystematic adherence to Islamic texts. That is the case until they learn a great deal and slowly come to the realization that there is a deeper purpose within Islam, and many may never reach this stage, because trying to see purpose and sense within Islam is a distinctively Persian, meaning somewhat heretical, thing to do.

It is likely that there is a sense of racial solidarity in the devotion of many Arabs to the textualist Ḥanbalī approach to Islam. It is a tradition that represents centuries of Arab struggle against the more sophisticated, but often less pious, Persians before al-Ghazali. Today most Arabs are not textualists, rather, most textualists are Arabs. Most Arabs are mainstream Muslims who admire al-Ghazali.

Conclusion

The existence of an Arab versus Persian approach to Islam in classical times is a hypothesis that is strongly suggested by the evidence, but as far as I know it has not been studied by others. Today Egyptian intellectuals are great admirers of Imam al-Ghazali, therefore the division between an Arab and a Persian Islam should not be used to explain modern Arab behavior (except perhaps inside the Ḥanbalī school), it rather refers to two general trends during the development of classical Islam.

Those who today defend textualist Islam continue to hold onto the pre-Ghazali divisions within Islam, thinking that the choice is either between Arab textualist piety or Persian heresy. The Ḥanbalī school represents perhaps only 1% of the world’s Sunni Muslim population. The remaining 99% live in a post-Ghazali world where those divisions are no longer relevant; we can respect hadith, follow the law, be open-minded and intellectually curious, and strive to closeness with God like Sufis—without having to take sides with anyone.

On Tolerance toward Textualists

There are those who demonize Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal’s followers and talk about them with contempt while considering themselves open-minded. That attitude does not do anyone any good, it is just a repetition of the Muʿtazīlī attitude of 1000 years ago. As I explain in my essay Consensual Communities, if we are truly open-minded then we will be respectful toward those who disagree with us, whether they are extreme conservatives or extreme liberals. You cannot consider yourself open-minded if you cannot love those who disagree with you. Even if some of them are somewhat intolerant and have an annoying sense of moral superiority, we should forgive them their faults and appreciate the fact that they are doing their best to be pious followers of the Prophet .

The Persians Inside the Cult of Hadith

The study of hadith in classical Islam had its own “cult” that was quite different from the study of fiqh (jurisprudence). Hadith scholars were textualists who invariably allied themselves with Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal’s theological views, while fiqh scholars were often rationalist and less concerned with conformity than intellectual achievement. As mentioned earlier, almost every major hadith collection of classical Islam was collected by Persian scholars. Since they belonged to the field of hadith, they had to follow its rules or risk being driven out of the field by the textualists. Therefore even if they were not perfectly happy with textualism, they probably had to keep quiet about it.

On Intolerant Textualism

You will meet textualists on the Internet who think that they follow the only true version of Islam, demonize those who disagree with them and think that ideally they should be given the power to force everyone else to follow their views. These people represent the influence of the many well-funded Saudi websites on the Internet that promote the Wahhabi worldview (for more on Wahhabism see this essay). Such people should be ignored the way we ignore annoying vegans who think they are morally superior to everyone around them. In mainstream Islam we believe that people have the right to disagree and to reach their own conclusions. In Wahhabism, disagreement is not allowed; the Wahhabis think they have the right to use force to make others follow their views. Wahhabis are great admirers of Ibn Ḥanbal and Ibn Taymīya, but not every admirer of these two great scholars is a Wahhabi.

Bibliography

Ibn al-Jawzī, Ṣayd al-Khāṭir (Quarry of the Mind) (d. 1200)
Mohammed al-Ghazali, al-Sunnah al-Nabawīya bayn Ahl al-Fiqh wa Ahl al-Ḥadīth (Prophetic Traditions between the People of Fiqh and the People of Hadith) (1989)
Yasin Dutton, The Origins of Islamic Law: The Qur’an, the Muwatta and Madinan Amal (PhD dissertation) (1999)
Murteza Bedir, The Early Development of Hanafi Usul al-Fiqh (PhD dissertation) (1999)
Jonathan A. C. Brown, The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim  (2007)
Umar F. Abd-Allah Wymann-Landgraf, Mālik and Medina: Islamic Legal Reasoning in the Formative Period (2013)
Jonathan A. C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad (2014)
S. Frederick Starr , Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane (2015)

Scholarly Papers

George Makdisi, “Autograph Diary of an Eleventh-Century Historian of Baghdād (Part I)” (1956)
George Makdisi, “Autograph Diary of an Eleventh-Century Historian of Baghdād (Part II)” (1956)
George Makdisi, “Autograph Diary of an Eleventh-Century Historian of Baghdād (Part III)” (1957)
George Makdisi, “Autograph Diary of an Eleventh-Century Historian of Baghdād (Part IV)” (1957)
George Makdisi, “Autograph Diary of an Eleventh-Century Historian of Baghdād V (Concluded).” (1957)
George Makdisi, “Ashʿarī and the Ash’arites in Islamic Religious History I.” (1962)
George Makdisi, “Ash’arī and the Ash’arites in Islamic Religious History II.” (1963)
George Makdisi, “The Significance of the Sunni Schools of Law in Islamic Religious History.” (1979)
George Makdisi, “The Juridical Theology of Shâfi’î: Origins and Significance of Uṣûl Al-Fiqh.” (1984)
George Makdisi, ‘Ṭabaqāt-Biography: Law and Orthodoxy in Classical Islam.’ (1993)
Wael B. Hallaq, “Was Al-Shafii the Master Architect of Islamic Jurisprudence?” (1993)
Christopher Melchert, “George Makdisi and Wael B. Hallaq.” (1997)
Jonathan A.C. Brown, “The Rules of Matn Criticism: There Are No Rules.” (2012)

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