15.09.02, Yaqub, Al-Ghazali's "Moderation in Belief"

Main Article Content

Frank Griffel

The Medieval Review 15.09.02

Yaqub, Aladdin M., ed. Al-Ghazali's "Moderation in Belief". Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013. pp. 344. ISBN: 9780226060873 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Frank Griffel
Yale University

English is becoming an ever more important Islamic language. Many Muslims who live in the English-speaking diaspora in Europe and North America know no other language than English and rely on translations of Muslim literature. Yet the number of works in Islamic theology that are available in reliable and readable English translations is still small. Aladdin M. Yaqub's translation of an important theological work by one of the most influential Muslim thinkers contributes to changing this situation. His translation is both reliable and well readable and it can be recommended for students of Islamic theology who have no access to the Arabic original. Those who read some Arabic may use it to get more quickly through the text. They should, however, still consult the original text if they wish to avoid missing the most interesting and stimulating points of the book.

Al-Ghazālī's Moderation in Belief is an important work of theological instruction in Islam, written, most likely, as a textbook for students at the Niẓāmiyya-madrasa in Baghdad when al-Ghazālī was the head teacher there between 1091 and 1095. Its Arabic title al-Iqtiṣād fī l-i‘tiqād has a two-fold meaning and refers firstly to a middle position or "balance" (iqtiṣād) of the theological views presented here between the "extremes" of several rival Islamic theological parties and secondly to the right amount or "balance" of depth of theological training it includes. The book is, according to al- Ghazālī 's self-assessment, just the right amount of theology for students of Islam who have chosen the "middle way" between the more extreme views held by other Muslim theologians. Al- Ghazālī, therefore, plays it safe in this book. He refrains from presenting his more controversial positions on prophecy, for instance, or on the superiority of Aristotelian logic over the logic of Islamic rationalist theology, i.e. kalām. This is, in fact, an almost typical book of Muslim kalām-literature and that by itself merits its translation. There is hardly any other work of that genre of literature available in English today.

Yaqub's translation is accompanied by a brief introduction of sixteen pages, detailed footnotes to his translation, as well as an "Interpretive Essay" at the end (251-289) where Yaqub presents the content and the major arguments of al- Ghazālī's work. These almost thirty pages at the end provide a helpful introduction into the major themes of al- Ghazālī's thought. The essay is generally a good analysis. It becomes masterful when dealing with al- Ghazālī's ethical theory (270-283), which is the subject of an article that Yaqub published in 2012 (in: Monotheism and Ethics: Historical and Contemporary Intersections among Judaism, Christianity and Islam, edited by Y. T. Langermann [Leiden: Brill], 163-195), a text that runs in many ways parallel to Yaqub's "Interpretive Essay" in this book. His presentation, however, is less reliable when it comes to details. Al-Ash'arī's position on passages in the Qur'an that describe God in anthropomorphic terms, for instance, is misrepresented (254). Yaqub's al-Ash‘arī (d. 935-936) already defends a position that will only be taken by the later theologian Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). As translator and commentator, Yaqub brings in a strong philosophical background--generally to the benefit of his translation. Yet his lack of reading practice in Islamic literature sometimes leads him astray. In the notes to his translation, for instance, he associates the argumentative strategy of sabr wa-taqsīm that al- Ghazālī describes in this work (15) with Aristotelian syllogistics. The real background, however, lies in previous practices in kalām and Islamic legal literature (fiqh). In fact, the examples of "disjunctive syllogisms" that Yaqub discusses on that page are not, strictly speaking, syllogisms but rather examples from Stoic logic, a tradition that had a strong influence on the logic of kalām.

When it comes to the ontological and theological positions defended by al- Ghazālī, Yaqub's reading could also be more careful. On several occasions he reports al- Ghazālī's view that each and every event in God's creation is willed by Him and created by Him. Yaqub, however, sneaks the word "directly" into his several paraphrases of al- Ghazālī's view (261, 271), whereas that word is not in his text. For Yaqub, al- Ghazālī teaches that God creates all events in this world "directly and exclusively" (285). He promotes Michael E. Marmura's (1929-2009) interpretation of al-Iqtiṣād fī l-i‘tiqād, according to which this book teaches strict occasionalism. Yaqub polemicizes against other readings, among them that of this reviewer (286). Nobody disputes that al- Ghazālī teaches "that all occurents are willed by God" (271, emphasis in the original) and that al- Ghazālī assumes the existence of a fully determined universe governed by God's will only. Disputed is how God creates the events in this world, either directly by acting upon them individually, or by employing some of His creations as intermediaries. The latter view is that of secondary causality where events are created "side-by-side," yet not directly but by employing one creation (the "cause") to bring about the other (the "effect"). Nowhere in this book does al- Ghazālī specify that God creates "directly" without employing intermediaries. A close reading also reveals that the "habit" (‘āda) that connects one event (such as decapitating) with another (such as death) is both the habit of the creatures as well as that of God. This seems to be a general feature of the book, as I pointed out in my 2009-study Al- Ghazālī's Philosophical Theology (New York: Oxford University Press). There (198, 202), I discuss a crucial passage of the book also singled out for analysis by Yaqub (219, 285). Whereas Yaqub reads it as a witness for al- Ghazālī's mainstream Ash‘arite occasionalism, I read it as a place where he combines an occasionalist position on ontology with an almost Kantian view of human knowledge: Humans cannot but look for causes in their environment--and given that God's creation follows a certain "habit" (‘āda), the human habit of identifying God's habit as causal connections is well justified. Al- Ghazālī thus promotes the human search for necessary connections in the natural sciences and does not seem to care whether these laws are referred to as "God's habits" (‘ādāt Allāh) or "laws of nature."

Yaqub's translation--the real accomplishment of this book--is quite readable and clear. As a trained philosopher, Yaqub understands al- Ghazālī's major points and renders them into comprehensible English. In details, however, he makes mistakes. When al- Ghazālī in the final chapter of the book defines "unbelief" as takdhīb, he does not mean to say that an unbeliever necessarily accuses the Prophet Muḥammad of lying. Yaqub's own discussion of the position of the falāsifa (287-289) clarifies that they did not think the prophets were lying. They simply believed that the prophets' teachings are not literary true. The meaning of the Arabic word kidhb can be both "falsehood" and "lie". Every lie includes falsehood, but not every falsehood is a lie. Here, "falsehood" is intended and takdhīb, the criterion for a Muslim's unbelief, should consequently be translated as "attributing falsehoods" to God's messenger rather than "attributing lies" (245). Mistakes in Yaqub's transliteration from Arabic ("had" for "hadd," "mihak" for "mihakk," and "kul" for "kull") suggest that the three-radical structure of Arabic morphology may not be fully clear to the translator.

Overall, Yaqub's al- Ghazālī is a less subtle and less philosophically interesting theologian than the one I try to present in my 2009-monograph. Yaqub's al- Ghazālī is a strict occasionalist whereas mine combines occasionalism in ontology with causality in epistemology. I think a close reading of al-Iqtiṣād fī l-i‘tiqād leaves even room for the alternative ontology of secondary causality. These points, however, may be philosophical and theological subtleties that al- Ghazālī would not want to have discussed in a book of moderate depth. For the English reader interested in a well-comprehensible presentation of an Ash‘arite textbook of Islamic theology, these questions may indeed not be all too important. For this reader, Yaqub's annotated English translation of al- Ghazālī's Moderation in Belief is indeed a good and adequate choice.

Article Details