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Farah Jassat

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Al Ghazali: 900 Years Later and Still Relevant

Posted: 12/18/11 08:38 AM ET

Exactly 900 years ago today, on Dec. 19, 1111, the world bid a sad farewell to one of its most influential contemporaries: Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. That same world still has a reason to be nostalgic.

Al-Ghazali was a Persian theologian, philosopher, jurist and mystic, acclaimed in both East and West as the most influential Muslim after the Prophet Muhammad. His works shaped how generations of Muslims would understand their religion and even influenced European theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas. His great feats include bringing orthodoxy and mysticism into closer contact and leading Islamic theology into an epic battle against Arabic Neo-Platonism.

But perhaps he is most relevant to us today in terms of his personality. Great religious figures transform society by who they are, as much as what they say. His life was one of fame, doubt, confusion, introspection and searching. His journey was riddled with the eternal questions of life and meaning which still face us today.

As a young lad he excelled in all the disciplines of his education and so took the route of academia. By the age of 38 he was at the pinnacle of his career as a university professor in Baghdad, with hundreds of students sitting at his feet and a reputation as a religious scholar that carried far beyond the city.

It was at this point in his life, when he apparently had all the answers, that he realised all he had was questions. He underwent a traumatic spiritual crisis riddled with doubt and confusion. Did he really believe in existing doctrine? Was he sincere in his profession or massaging his ego? Was he ready for the mortal journey of death?

Al-Ghazali later relayed this existential crisis in "Deliverance from Error," a sort of autobiographical account. His inner turmoil culminated in his dramatic exit from the classroom where, in front of his students, the falsity of his state dawned on him, rendering him speechless. He walked out of the class to start a journey of self-discovery and didn't return for 10 years. He left as an academic who had just had a breakdown and returned as a holy man who had tasted the fruits of faith.

He sold most of his possessions, leaving enough to sustain his family and set out for the wilderness. Thus began his spiritual odyssey. Al-Ghazali and Odysseus have more in common than one might think. Both their epic journeys were in order to return home. Whilst Odysseus sought the island of Ithaca, al-Ghazali looked towards his spiritual origin. They both took 10 years to find their way home but never lost sight of the final goal. As we admire Odysseus for his shrewd schemes to outwit the Cyclops and survive hearing the songs of the sirens, we too must admire Al-Ghazali's strategies to master the ego and insatiable search for knowledge which spurred on his journey.

He knew a truly informed decision on how to live his life would first entail understanding the alternatives. He studied the ways of theologians, philosophers and authoritarians before deciding to walk down the mystic path as one which not only knew about faith, but experienced it. His search for meaning was not just ethereal and his great corpus of 40 volumes, "The Revival of the Religious Sciences," explores how to practically tame the ego and foster a good character.

In the noisy rat-race of the 21st century, it's sometimes hard to take a step back. The world we live in seems to function as a great big machine for competition and ego. A sort of envy culture permeates, leaving us always asking for more but not necessarily making us happier. In a time of economic instability and talks of measuring the Happiness Index of nations, it might be a thought to look at the vision of a man who has been known to be the Alchemist of Happiness.

Al-Ghazali speaks to us because he was just as human and confused as us all -- but he never stopped searching. Faith could not be defined by academia, but was a complicated journey of realisation. He wasn't afraid to admit that despite his reputation, he didn't know. Such humility was, and still is, a rarity in a world of both religious and secular arrogance.

On Wednesday, Karen Armstrong spoke at London School of Oriental and African Studies and claimed that despite our technological advances, "our understanding of religion is very simplistic -- even primitive." We are bombarded with political discourse which confines God and religion to a box labelled with sound-bites, as though it is quick and easy to understand.

As Aquinas mentions at the end of his great exposition on the five proofs for the existence of God, we have no idea what has actually been proved because we can't comprehend what we mean when we say God. Armstrong draws an analogy with the end of a great musical symphony. There is a profound beat of pregnant silence before the applause erupts. Perhaps contentment is this serene yet weighty moment of realisation that we have transcended our own understanding and submitted to what has been found.

Al-Ghazali tried to live in this beat of silence.