SPIRITUAL RECONSTRUCTION

January 3, 2008

I post here a short essay published some years back in The Chicago Tribune Book section.

_________________________________________________________________

Spiritual Reconstruction
By Ibrahim N. Abusharif

At the end of the summer, I spent a month in one of the most crammed cities on Earth, Cairo. There I helped edit a translation of a text on Islamic law that was written about 900 years ago by the great scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. He is celebrated in Western scholarship and is fast becoming a kind of hero for those who dabble at Sufism in the English-speaking world. And it is from his name that the expression “Ghazalian experience” originates, a metaphor of modern coinage that refers to a drastic turn one makes in life that seems incomprehensible to family, peers and especially popular culture—when one utterly discards what others would traffic their souls for.

Not far from where I stayed—at a home on a plateau at the edge of the city—there is a long walkway from where one can see below the whole town and an oppressive dust cloud that hovers about it. At night, the view is clearer and sometimes spectacular. But to get to this lovers lane you must walk past elite villas and abject poverty with no dividing line between them: roosters, donkey carts and BMWs on one street; torn dirty cloaks and Donna Karan in the same pod.

At the walkway, indigent men and women squat peacefully in the middle of the bustle roasting corncobs over burning scraps of wood. Children play far too close to the edge of the rocky cliffs that drop in extreme fashion. Affluent bands of young men and women saunter and compete, it seems, to see who can laugh the loudest; otherwise, they sit in their cars quietly listening to Pink Floyd or Egyptian pop.

The scene is ideal for writers of pretension who yearn to use nasal phrases like “the poetry of mules and Mercedes,” (something I actually wrote in one of my e-mail correspondences). But I’ve since concluded something quite rigidly during my work in Cairo: If one is serious about writing for posterity—composing for change—it seems that he or she must go through a Ghazalian experience, though not as drastic as what our Ghazali went through in the second half of the 11th Century.

Ghazali had been well-established as the premier scholar in law and theology, occupying the most-coveted seat in all of academia, at the Nizamiyya University in Baghdad. He had veneration, prestige, status and a great mind. He was, with no exaggeration, the monarch of intellectuals.

But there came a moment in the man’s life when inner agitations caused him to order a wiretap on his soul. It turned out that the knife fights secretly going on inside him were over the fact that he was spiritually damaged. The man walked away from it all. He left his position, wealth, prestige and students. And for more than 10 years, Ghazali wandered the Middle East, often living anonymously and on the bare essentials, to purge from his soul the trained assassin of religious faith and character: arrogance. This he admitted himself. His spiritual ride—his desperate search for sincerity—took him to Damascus, Jerusalem, Madina, Makkah and Egypt, where I found myself poring over his greatest of legal works, The Quintessence of the Science of Jurisprudence, a work translated by Ahmad Hammad, a scholar who also wrote a cutting study on the book while at the University of Chicago.

Ghazali returned from his trip. The revived genius and mystic at last found peace. His spiritual reconstruction imbued all that he was to write, whether iconoclastic treatises that demolished the heretics of his day or spiritual tracts that helped people realign themselves. By all historical accounts, Ghazali’s personal triumph stimulated a wave of spiritual vitality and reoriented the goals and aims of religious studies that are felt to this day.

Even in English-speaking milieus, Ghazali’s writings have been a subject of recent resurgence. The Islamic Texts Society of Cambridge, England, for example, has produced an excellent series of volumes of Ghazali’s spiritual works, taken mainly from his monumental The Revival of the Religious Sciences. Its series general editor and occasional translator is T.J. Winter, a lecturer at Cambridge. Also, the Islamic Translation Series of Brigham Young University Press has published two of Ghazali’s notable works: The Incoherence of the Philosophers (1997), a clubbing of certain strands of Greek philosophy; and The Niche of Lights (1998), an exegesis of one passage of the Koran called the Verse of Light. The Niche weaves the metaphor of God and this light into a complex tapestry that cannot be read except with unfettered concentration. Otherwise, readers will find it laborious.

It is expected that more of Ghazali will appear on the publishing horizon, especially his spiritual treatises. But it is good to be wary of the stiff academic view that Ghazali’s 900-year impact is a matter of a gifted mind and remarkable scholarship. Rather, what makes Ghazali the standout personality is not merely his layered repertoire of erudition, but the desperation that nearly destroyed him and his battle to take back what he was courageous enough to discover he had lost. A hidden master moving alone and without the identity of his former glory, a warrior taking his jihad to find certainty during his lost-and-found years—this breathed relevance into his erudition and admitted a more direct route between the secluded realm of scholarship and its inevitable social impact in popular culture.

It seems only fair, though, that a warning label be placed on each of these translations: Serious and long engagement with the works of this author may cause his permanent occupancy in your mind. Ever since I first started to read Ghazali more than 13 years ago, I have regularly found myself in protracted thought about this man and his personal struggle. This past summer, I caught myself looking closely at the faces I came across on that walkway in Cairo to see if I could recognize the signs of a genius who broke away from the tyranny of expectation simply to roast corn and work things out in the mind with no more rigor and authority than calm reflection and brutal honesty.

###

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: