On Moosa’s Ghazali

“Monday Musings” for Monday March 26, 2015

Volume V, No. 12/220

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Book Review

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Ghazali & The Poetics of Imaginations

by Ebrahim Moosa
Introduction: 32 pages, 289 pages of text, 28 pages of Notes
five pages of Glossary, 22 pages of Bibliography
and 12 pages of index
Publisher: UNC Press, 2005

The intoxicating intellectual celebration of Persian New Year—Norooz—lingers…We thought the review of a book related to that region of the world might soothe the thirst.

Of the eminent Persian poet and philosopher, Hamid Ghazali, we spoke in the pages of the October issue, WCP, with a promise for more. The reader will recall that we discussed Ghazali’s devotion to seeking, learning, and discovering through his devotion to faith on the one hand, and skepticism on the other, a true intellectual oxymoron. The issue of faith and skepticism, like many other confounding discourses, such as Saint Augustine of Hippo’s theory of predestination and will, present theological oxymoron, if not conundrums. We are keeping our promise by reviewing a most remarkable book about Al-Ghazali by Professor Ebrahim Moosa.

As a child, I recall my father encouraging us to read Al-Ghazali to strengthen the gift of doubt in his children.  In a recent conversation with a learned friend about education, after a lengthy discussion, we agreed that in order to encourage our college students to adopt a more vigorous orientation and grounding in critical thinking, they should read Al-Ghazali and Abu Nasr Farabi (872-950, known to West as Alfarabius), also a Persian polymath, scientist, poet, philosopher and theologian.

Who was AL-Ghazali

Abū Hāmid Muhammad ibn al-Ghazālī (1058-1111) was born and died in Tus, in the Khorasan province of Persia (modern day Iran). He was an Islamic theologian, jurist, philosopher, cosmologist, physician, psychologist and mystic of Persian origin, and remains one of the most celebrated scholars in the history of Sufi Islamic thought. He is considered a pioneer of the methods of doubt and skepticism, and in one of his major works, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, he changed the course of early Islamic philosophy, shifting it away from an Islamic metaphysics influenced by ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophy, and towards an Islamic philosophy based on cause-and-effect that were determined by God or intermediate angels, a theory now known as “occasionalism.”

After the 32 page comprehensive introduction, nine sections and a conclusion follow. The book is a symphonic rhapsody of the understanding of the “SELF.”  It is very difficult to translate the Arabic word NAFS or NAFS-AL-EMAREH into a meaningful English word. The word “SELF” may asymptotically approach the true meaning of NAFS but never reaches the complexity, richness and centricity of its Arabic equivalent. This book is all about “SELF”.

The first segment “Agnostics of the Self”, pushing skepticism to its limit, the author acknowledges that Ghazali’s ethics are at time inseparable from his poetics (imagination.)

In section 2 of this book, author Ebrahim Moosa devotes the discourse to “Narrativity of the Self”, a brilliant exegesis of Ghazali’s ability to wed poetic imagination and rational ideas. He forwards the argument that Ghazali was skeptical toward “and took a dim view of the confabulations promoted by specialist raconteurs and story-tellers.” As a physician, I am acutely aware that confabulation is a symptom of systemic poisoning of certain parts of the brain, namely Para-median grey that is destroyed by too much alcohol and cannabis. The pseudo-Sufis of Ghazali’s time, one may conclude, did indulge heavily in both.

Section 3, “Poetics of Memory and Writings”  reminded me of the book 11 of Saint Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, devoted entirely to memory. It combines Plato’s views on writing, some explanation of the origin of the myth of writing, and explores authoritatively, the contribution of Neo-Platonist to understanding memory and writing.

The subsequent six sections on “Liminality and Exile”, ”Grammar of the Self” which includes “Grammar of Religion”, “Metaphysics of Belief—Faith in a Nutshell”, “Dilemma of Anathema of Heresy”, ”Hermeneutics of the Self” and “Technologies of the Self” complete the volume.

Who is Ebrahim Moosa?

Dr. Moosa is Associate Research Professor of religious studies and Director of The Center for the Study of Muslim Networks at Duke University. In my experience with languages, the humanities, and religious studies, I have found that these fields attract a disproportionate number of pretend-scholars, phonies, and pseudo-historians, if not downright charlatans. There are “experts” in Mowlana Masnavi Molavi Rumi who market distorted ideas and cleverly sell Rumi, while not knowing a word of Farsi, the language of Rumi. Edward Fitzgerald and Rubaiiat (quatrains) of Omar Khayyam is another example of clever marketing and exploitation of the most holy name in Sufism. For example, in one quatrain, where Khayyam speaks of a “14 year old beloved and a two year old wine….” he is not speaking of a lecherous pedophile who is a wine guzzler. Khayyam is speaking of Prophet Mohammad pbwh who at the age 40 (four ten or ‘fourteen’) was called upon by Angel Gabriel to found Islam, and it took two years (the fruit or the wine), the Holy Quoran, to be completed. These are but a few examples of the attraction of the fields of humanities and religious studies for the unwashed and uninitiated pseudo-scholars who exploit their subjects…

Professor Moosa is not a phony! He is an Arab, he knows the language, and has a deep understanding of the Arab and Persian cultures. His remarkable knowledge of the subject and brilliant exegesis of the life and writings of Al-Ghazali make reading of his book a sheer pleasure. For those who would like to gain a better understanding of the rich tapestry of Sufism, mysticism and witness the holy marriage of poetry, transcendent imagination, and disciplined facts of the past (not history), this book is gold mine.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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