Imam al-Ghazali on disagreement, conflict, debate and argumentation

Imam al-Ghazali (d. 505/1111, may Allah have mercy on him and help us to benefit from him) divided his monumental work The Revival of the Religious Sciences into four main parts: al-‘Ibadaat (Acts of Worship), al-‘Adaat (Customary Practices), al-Muhlikaat (Destructive Vices), and al-Munjiyat (Saving Virtues). In the first part (and each part comprises ten “books”), there is an extremely beneficial section concerning disagreement and conflict as well as the harmful nature of debate and argumentation.

After delineating the eight essential conditions for the proper conduct of intellectual and religious debates (which spans several pages), imam al-Ghazali goes on to discuss the ten qualities that are considered to be the “main inward abominations” (literally, the “inward mothers of abomination” (ummahaat al-fawahish al-batinah)), the very qualities that debate itself has a tendency to engender in its participants. He lists each of these ten qualities, following each one up with a detailed description of how they are brought about and occasionally citing verses of the Qur’an as well as traditions narrated from our beloved Messenger, peace and blessings be upon him.

The ten qualities are as follows:

  1. Envy (hasad)
  2. Arrogance (takabbur)
  3. Enmity (hiqd)
  4. Backbiting (ghibah)
  5. Self-promotion (tazkiyah al-nafs) [In this context this term certainly does not mean “purification of the soul”!]
  6. Spying and faultfinding (tajassus wa tatabbu’ al-‘awraat
  7. Finding joy in the bad news of others and grief concerning what brings them joy
  8. Hypocrisy (nifaq)
  9. Haughtiness in accepting truth, showing contempt for it, and avidness to argue concerning it
  10. Ostentation, paying attention to the creation, and striving to turn their hearts and faces (towards one)

This is quite the laundry list of seriously troubling characteristics! After a very detailed account (again, spanning several pages), the imam goes on to say that each one of these ten qualities can further be divided into yet another ten, equally dangerous and blameworthy (as if the first ten weren’t enough!).

He then says:

Debaters are at variance with regards to these qualities in accordance with their levels—and they have many levels—and even the greatest of these debaters in both din and intellect is still not safe from at least some of these characteristics. The best that he can do is to hide them, or fight against his self (nafs) with regards to them.

He then goes on to say:

[You should] know that these blameworthy qualities are also inescapable for those that occupy themselves with reminding and admonishing the masses [i.e. preachers and teachers], those who seek public acceptance, attainment of status, or gaining wealth and glory. […] In summary, these traits are unavoidable for anyone that seeks knowledge for other than the reward of Allah (the Exalted) in the Hereafter. For knowledge neglects not the knower (scholar)—it destroys him with an eternal destruction or grants him everlasting life.

At the end of this invaluable section of the Ihya, he finishes by saying:

The one who seeks leadership (ri’asah) is personally destroyed, even though he may rectify others. But such is only with the condition that he advocates doing without the things of this world and is one whose outward state is congruent with the outward state of the scholars from the pious predecessors (the Salaf), notwithstanding the fact that he harbors an intent for status and position (al-jah). His example is like the candle that burns itself while others derive light from it. The rectification of others lies in his very destruction. On the other hand, if he actually advocates the quest for the things of this world, then his similitude is like that of the burning fire: it consumes itself and everything else.

Therefore, the scholars are three in number:

  1. One who destroys himself and others. These are the ones that are manifest in their desire for the world and are inclined to it.
  2. One who brings felicity to himself as well as others. These are the callers of the creation to Allah (the Exalted), both inwardly and outwardly.
  3. And finally, one who destroys himself while bringing felicity to others, such as those who call to the next life, outwardly rejecting the life of this world, but inwardly seeking the acceptance of creation and the attainment of status (al-jah).

Hence, look and see in which category you fall and that for which you have been busying yourself with preparation. Never think that Allah (the Exalted) will accept anything other than what is purely for His sake, from both knowledge and action.

May Allah reward imam al-Ghazali for sharing these beautiful and priceless teachings and perspicuous insights, and may Allah help us to internalize these matters and live in accordance with what they indicate.

Source: by Khalil Abu Asmaa Moore


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