Al-Ghazali and His Ecumenical Mission: A Reflection for Contemporary Singapore Muslim Community (Edition no. 4/August 2015)

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faysal tafriqahBy Ustaz Irwan Hadi bin Mohd Shuhaimy

With the proliferation of new media, historical lines of friction and tension points which have always existed between different orientations within the Singapore Muslim community has become more accentuated and magnified.

What would have otherwise been issues discussed amongst religious learning circles or academic discourses have been brought to the forefront and made more accessible by what I would term as lay Muslims; those who hitherto have been oblivious to such discussions.

Additionally, the reality of living in an open society and the most religiously diverse global city like Singapore,[1] means that the Singapore Muslim community is more than ever confronted with the challenge of ensuring that it continues to be able to uphold the tradition of accommodating plurality of religious orientations and sects among its followers.

It is this author’s observation of recent times, there have been discussions by different Muslim religious orientations in Singapore regarding the theological boundaries of who deserves to be the “authentic” Muslim.

As mentioned in an earlier article in this publication, it is observed that there is the return of “discursive” theological discussions amongst the religious elite of Singapore.[2]

This return inter alia can be attributed to the eagerness to uphold and defend the traditional Ash’arite or Maturidite’s theological approaches or to uphold another theological school of thought brought fourth by those inclined towards the thought of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahab which are inspired by teachings of Ibn Taimiyah or what would be known in Imam Ghazali’s work as the Hanbalites.

While this is, in the author’s view, as asserted by Jonathan Haidt an innate and natural reaction emanating from  human’s tendency to be “groupy”[3], it is, if left unguided by the religiously, ethically and socially appropriate lenses, may be detrimental to the unity of the already minority Muslim community in Singapore.

It is with this concern in mind that this author proposes to bring forth for consideration and reflection, imam Al-Ghazali’s framework of theological boundaries in his Faysal Al-Tafriqah Bayn Al-Islam Wa Al-Zandaqah (The Decisive Criterion For Distinguishing Faith From Masked Infidelity).

While admitting that imam Al-Ghazali’s context would not be as perfectly analogous to the current context witnessed in Singapore, his challenges were somewhat similar to what we are facing and that being its ‘ecumenical mission’[4] as highlighted by Sherman Jackson and almost a century ago, it was described by Goldziher as ‘a special work on the idea of tolerance’.[5] 

Accommodating Diversity in Approach in Imam Al-Ghazali’s Theological Worldview 

Imam Al-Ghazali, in the first chapter of his book, began with a direct denouncement of negative exclusivism and absolutism present amongst his peers in the theological debate scene of his era.faysal tafriqah-eng

He addressed presumably a question about the appropriateness of the charge that Al-Ghazali had written works that contradict the doctrine of the master-theologians particularly those of the Ash’arite school, and that to go against that school even in the smallest of details, is an act of unbelief or kufr.[6]

Imam Al-Ghazali responded that such an approach of denouncing other’s faith (takfir) to silence and discredit people is not something new within the Islamic experience. In fact, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself was charged and ridiculed as a madman.

However, Al-Ghazali at the same time also advised against giving credence to such charges as they emanate from people who are steeped in envy and pursuit of wordly gain.

He went on to advise that it is in the absence of intellectual humility that such charges would prevail. An issuer of such charges is neither a seeker of truth nor protector of it.

As asserted by Jackson, such a person was just “merely an overzealous, sophomoric sycophant who equated knowledge with the ability to parrot views picked up and swallowed whole at lectures and disputation sessions.”[7]

In this author’s mind, this point on ensuring a spiritual state which is not consumed by envy, jealousy and the need to maintain intellectual humility is a pertinent one.

faysal-pg1Particularly in this age of new media proliferation where pseudo-scholars from amongst those who would otherwise be lay person’s in religious scholarship terms would blatantly make claims of owning the exclusive right to truth.

Ever so often in human’s pursuit of asserting his idea of the ‘truth’, the tendency to only award exclusive claim of truth to their methodology is real.

Absolutism and exclusivism is a virus which may infect any form of Islamic orientation or followers of schools of theology within the Islamic tradition.

This is partly driven also by the human psyche and tendency to want to emerge victorious and to defeat others.

As Jonathan Haidt puts it:

“Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects. If you want to understand another group, follow the sacredness.”[8] 

Imam Al-Ghazali also acknowledged this reality and warns against the habit of appealing to double standards which was common among theologians of his time.

For this imam Al-Ghazali challenged and asked if Al-Baqillani, who is held in high esteem in the Ash’arite school could escape condemnation for differing with the Ash’arites on whether eternity was an attribute added to or inherent in God’s essence (dzat), why should this be denied to others including Mu’tazilites and Hanbalites?[9] 

Imam Al-Ghazali then asserted that, in their zeal to press for their cause, some of the ‘extremist’ theologians actually ended up in greater error than those they sought to condemn.

He admonished, “if you are fair, you will probably know that one who gives any particular thinker a monopoly over the truth is himself closer to being guilty of unbelief..because he puts this thinker in the position of the Prophet, who alone is exempt from committing errors (in doctrine) and through whom alone faith (iman) obtains by agreeing with him and unbelief (kufr) obtains by disagreeing with him.”[10]

This is a timely and most appropriate reminder for the current situation which this author observes of the growing intra-faith competition amongst the various orientations of the Singaporean Muslim community for the title of the most authentic Muslims.

Imam Al-Ghazali had witnessed a somewhat similar reality in his era and penned down his admonishments and reminders for us to reflect.

As Singaporean Muslims become more religious or go deeper into the study of their religion, they should be cautious with the evil leanings of the human self to be fanatic with their orientation and theological methodologies or schools of thought.

From time to time teachers of theology should always be reminded and remind their students that the path of theology is ultimately to facilitate us in understanding the greatness of the Divine and to nudge us closer to Him.

A Broad and Inclusive Theological Criterion of Faith (Iman)

After exposing the biased and arbitrary nature of the various charges of unbelief (kufr), imam Al-Ghazali then invited his interlocutor to consider his criterion for unbelief.faysal-pg3

He qualified that neither time nor space would allow him to fully explicate the concept but that even in its adumbrated form, the definition should suffice as, “A means of avoiding the error of condemning various groups as Unbelievers and of casting aspersions on the people of Islam- however much their ways may differ- while they hold on fast to the declaration ‘there is no god; Muhammad is His messenger,’ being sincere therein and not categorically contradicting it in any way.”[11]

Unbelief (kufr) according to imam Al-Ghazali is, “to deem anything the Prophet brought to be a lie” just as faith (iman) is “to deem everything he brought to be true.”[12] 

As applied to Muslims, this criterion is subject to the qualification that this ‘deeming to be a lie’ is connected to one of the three principles (usul) of the faith.

These principles (usul), according to imam Al-Ghazali are three namely, 1) the existence and oneness of God, 2) the prophethood of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and 3) the reality of the Last Day (Al-Qiyamah).[13]

He considered these three as the primary principles and anything beyond this to be only secondary and cannot, as such, be taken as a basis to charge a person with unbelief (kufr).

Among these secondary issues imam Al-Ghazali included things such as the far-fetched interpretations of the Batinites.

Even though he perceived their interpretation as psychedelic, he insisted that as long as these are not connected with a fundamental creed, they cannot be taken as a basis for condemning them as unbelievers.

However though, imam Al-Ghazali made one exception to this rule of where nobody can be charged with unbelief on the basis of secondary issues.

The exception is made when it is the denial of secondary issues that have been handed down from the Prophet via diffuse congruence or tawatur.[14]

Imam Al-Ghazali’s basis for adding this exception is understandable as tawatur[15] virtually guarantees the integrity of the report from the Prophet and as such, to dismiss such reports or to deny it, is tantamount to saying that the Prophet have lied and this is part of the primary fundamentals.

Examples of this would be to deny that the authenticity of entire text of the Quran as revealed to the Prophet and handed down to Muslims, that Ka’abah at Mecca is the house of God and that ‘Aishah, the wife of the Prophet was innocent of the charges of adultery when the Quran has clearly exonerated her from it.

Following this exception, imam Al-Ghazali moved to pre-empt any potential abuse of it by reinforcing the boundaries of what it means.

He stated that secondary beliefs transmitted through isolated (ahadi) reports which does not meet the requirement of tawatur, cannot be taken as a basis for charging a person with unbelief (kufr).

It is, at most permissible, to be used to charge a person with unsanctioned innovation (bid’ah) but only if his views threaten to confuse the masses or could lead to public disorder.

Other than that, errors regarding secondary doctrines handed down via isolated reports should only be pointed out and corrected without prejudice.

Such an approach by imam Al-Ghazali in defining belief and unbelief with such as wide boundary is indeed useful and much needed in a time when we are witnessing conflict and tension characterises the relationship between different Islamic groups of various orientations around the world.

islah n fasadIt is this author’s view that Singaporean Muslim community in addition to obtaining knowledge of ethics of differences should also be able to grapple with the reality of the diversity which has existed and will continue to exist within the Islamic tradition.

Singaporean Muslims should be equipped with the understanding of an inclusive, yet rooted to the tradition, boundary such as the one espoused by imam Al-Ghazali.

It would ensure that they would not be distracted by issues such as determining who is the more authentic Muslim instead of focussing on more developmental issues such as how the Muslim community is able to facilitate in the elevation of poverty, ameliorate the position of knowledge within the community and multiply their contribution to the ethical, spiritual, intellectual and social development of the Singaporean and global society. 

 Middle Path on Literal Understanding (Tafwidh) and Figurative Interpretations (Ta’wil)

The question of God’s essence (dhat) and attributes (sifat) has always confronted Muslim scholars with perplexing paradoxes touching on the Divine Oneness (tawhid) and also transcendence (tanzih).

The essence-attributes question reflected the variant dimensions of scriptural interpretation and its grounding theories of meaning.

According to heresiographic accounts, it was the distinction claimed between the exoteric, apparent (zahir) meaning of scripture and its esoteric, hidden (batin) sense which generated extremist doctrinal positions, most symbolically the anthropomorphist (mushabbihah) and corporealists (mujassimah) at one extreme, ranged against various esotericists (batiniyyah) on the other.[16]

In trying to create the middle ground between the two extremes, Islamic thought tradition has given birth to different schools of thought which has been known traditionally to be made up of three main schools which are namely the Hanbalite, the Ash’arite and the Maturidite schools.

Proponents of these schools have been known to co-exist at times bitterly in Islamic communities around the world, Singapore being one of it.

Of recent times, this author, as asserted in the beginning of this essay stated that proponents of the two groups i.e. Hanbalite and Ash’arite and Maturidite, within the Singaporean Muslim community are progressively asserting that their methodology is the more sound and in fact the only true authentic approach to Islamic theological thought.

This has somewhat brought about an underlying tension, albeit not apparent in the public sphere amongst the proponents of both camps.

This is where, it is this author’s opinion, that imam Al-Ghazali in his ecumenical mission has proposed a refreshing perspective of how proponents of both schools of the Hanbalite on one hand the Ash’Arite and Maturidite on the other may consider to draw their differences closer.lailahaillallah

According to imam Al-Ghazali, all the theological schools, particularly the ones mentioned above, grounded their charge of unbelief against others on the basis that they have deemed the Prophet to have lied and have contradicted the declaration of ‘There is no God but God and [Prophet] Muhammad is His messenger.’

For example, when the Ash’arite denied the possibility of God’s mounting His Throne (istawa ‘alal ‘arsh), the traditionalist Hanbalite accused them of implying that the Prophet lied when he conveyed what the Quran stated which is ‘The Merciful Mounted The Throne’ (Al-Rahman ‘alal ‘arsh istawa).

When the Hanbalite insisted on the literal meaning of such a verse and not going into figurative interpretation (tafwidh), the Ash’arite charged them as implying that the Prophet lied when he said ‘Nothing is like Him’ (lays ka mithlih shai’).

The Ash’arite took this to be a blanket denial of anthropomorphism and the possibility of accidents, such as motion, inhering in the Divine.

Imam Al-Ghazali was of the view that ultimately, all of these judgements revolved around each groups understanding of what constitutes the deeming of a statement as false (takdzib) and the deeming of what is a true statement (tasdiq).

This was where he attempted to provide a certain framework within which takdzib and tasdiq could be explained and ultimately minimise or even prevent conflict between the groups.[17]

According to imam Al-Ghazali to deem a statement to be false is to deny that it is true. However, to deem a statement to be true would be acknowledge the existence (wujud) of its referent.

Existence, meanwhile according to him can be perceived and subsequently acknowledged on five levels: 1) ontological (dhati), 2) sensory (hissi), 3) conceptual (khayali),4) rational (`aqli) and,5) analogous (shabahi). 

Imam Al-Ghazali opines that it is because the above mentioned groups are oblivious to these various levels of perceptions that they persist in accusing the others as having deemed the Prophet to have lied.

He then insists that for as long as a statement falls within one of these levels of perceptions, it cannot be deemed as a statement which implies the Prophet is lying and subsequently cannot be charged with unbelief (kufr).

Only when a statement cannot be taken as being in one these categories of perception would it be unbelief (kufr) or masked infidelity (zandaqah).[18]

These five levels of existence, as mentioned by Sherman Jackson represents the ‘descending hierarchy of literalness’[19] with ontological (dhati) being literal in the strictest sense, sensory (hissi) as the first level of figurative interpretation and analogous (shabahi) as the most remote.

It is on this basis that imam Al-Ghazali developed the Rules of Figurative Interpretation or what is known as (Qanun Al-Ta’wil).

These rules stipulate that when interpreting statements of the Prophet (pbuh) or the Quranic texts, one must begin with the ontological (dhati) level.

If the statement can be upheld as true and be understood as such at that level, one cannot move to other levels of figurative interpretation.

Only if the statement cannot be fully understood at the ontological level would one be permitted to then necessarily move on to the most proximate level of figurative interpretation.

This is where it is clear that imam Al-Ghazali viewed that the real difference between the two schools of Hanbalite and Ash’arite and Maturidite as being one of degree and not of kind.

Meaning, he does not accept that the difference between them is that the Asharite and Maturidite engages in figurative interpretation (ta’wil) and the Hanbalite does not at all.

The real contention according to imam Al-Ghazali was over what each of the group recognises as a justification for moving from one level of interpretation to the other with Hanbalite being stricter in moving away from the ontological level than the others.

tatarruf mazhabiThis is not to say that imam Al-Ghazali was subtly committed to esoteric subjectivism.

It should not be understood that he was saying that there is no absolute truth or that truth is purely a matter of perspective.

As asserted by Jackson, “in fact, one of the main points of the Faysal is that while presuppositions may initially inform all interpretations, there is a fundamental distinction between presuppositions and logical proof (burhan)….What Imam al-Ghazali advocates is actually for theologians to come together and subject all presuppositions to critical examination and accord recognition only to those that meet their mutually agreed upon standard of logical proof.”[20]

This is where this author would like to stress that instead of charging the others as unbelievers i.e. the proponents of the Hanbalite school in Singapore, who are more inclined towards a stricter ontological understanding of religious texts should not charge those who chooses figurative interpretation (ta’wil) as unbelievers as equally the proponents of Ash’arite or Maturidite in Singapore should not charge those who are more stricter in keeping to the ontological interpretation (tafwidh) of religious texts as corporealists (mujassimah) or anthropomorphist (mushabbihah).

In fact, imam Al-Ghazali in reconciling these two seemingly opposite sides had suggested that there should two different degrees. For the lay person or masses (‘awam khalq), the approach of keeping to the ontological meaning would be safer.

Imam Al-Ghazali said that it is more proper for them to follow the established doctrine and should be cautious in innovating proclamations of figurative interpretations (ta’wil) which were not proclaimed by the Companions.

However for the speculative theoreticians (ahl nuzzar), their investigations should not go beyond the necessary. They should only abandon the apparent meaning of a text upon being compelled by some definitive logical proof which is recognised by the scholars.[21]

This serves as a reminder that instead of those who chooses the ontological or literal understanding of texts (tafwidh) charging those who allows figurative interpretation to be unbelievers and vice versa, it would be wiser to actually accept that both tafwidh and ta’wil are accepted methodologies in bringing one closer to the appreciation of the existence of God.


This natural phenomenon of human diversity has always been a salient feature of human societies and the sub groups subsumed under it be it religious, political, professional amongst many others.did taifiyah

It is part of the Divine wisdom that plurality and diversity is an inseparable feature of God’s creation. It was meant to make humans realise the greatness and magnificence of God being able to create such great varieties in various species.

Scholars such as imam Al-Ghazali has put forth an attempt to work towards a more ecumenical approach in reconciling differences amongst the different theological schools of the Islamic tradition.

This is with the intention to uphold the unity of the society and to enable us to achieve the higher objectives of appreciating God, drawing closer to Him and then manifesting it through the spreading of goodness to all His creations.

The Singapore Muslim community, particularly its religious leaders, are to be reminded always that the idea of tawhid which literally means unity is intended to unite humanity under the appreciation of a common God despite their vast differences cultural, social, intellectual, political or economical experiences.

We should ensure that differences are not left to be utilised by the unseen Devil to ruin the potential of the community to achieve spiritual and temporal success.



[1]The Global Religious Landscape Report by Pew Research Center at (15 July 2015).

[2]Anwar, Azfar, The Unwelcomed Return of Kalam?, Wasat Online, edition no.2/April 2015,  (18 July 2015).

[3] Haidt, Jonathan. (2012).The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, p. 221.

[4]Jackson, Sherman A. (2002).On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam: Abū Ḥāmid Al-Ghāzalīʼs Fayṣal Al-Tafriqa Bayna Al-Islam Wa Al-Zandaqa. Karachi: Oxford University Press, p. 39.

[5]Quote is from Goldziher’s ‘Vorlesungen uber den Islam’ (Heidelberg. 1910), cited in G. Makdisi, ‘Hanbalite Islam,’ Studies on Islam, trans. and ed. M. Swatrz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981) p. 252.

[6]Al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid Muhammad bin Muhammad. (1991). Fayṣal Al-Tafriqah Bayna Al-Islam Wa Al-Zandaqah. Amman: Dar Al-Biruni, p.19.

[7]Jackson, Sherman A. On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam, p. 45.

[8]Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind, p. 311-2.

[9]Al-Ghazali. Fayṣal Al-Tafriqah. p. 20-2.

[10]Ibid, p. 22-3.

[11]Ibid, p.25.


[13]Ibid, p. 61-2.

[14]Ibid, p.62-3.

[15]Tawatur is a model of transmitting reports from the past via so many channels that it is inconceivable that those transmitting them could be mistaken or could have colluded to perpetrate an act of intentional deception.

[16]El-Bizri, Nader. (2008). “God: Essence and Attributes”, The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, ed. Tim Winter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 121.

[17]Al-Ghazali. Fayṣal Al-Tafriqah, p. 27.

[18]Ibid, p. 27-39.

[19]Jackson, Sherman A. On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam, p. 50.

[20]Ibid, p. 55.

[21]Al-Ghazali. Fayṣal Al-Tafriqah,  p. 48-9.


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