Amid these advances of science the old orthodoxy fought to keep the loyalty of the educated classes. The conflict between religion and science led many to skepticism, some to open atheism. Al-Ghazali divided Moslem thinkers into three groups—theists, deists or naturalists, and materialists—and denounced all three groups alike as infidels. The theists accepted God and immortality, but denied creation and the resurrection of the body, and called heaven and hell spiritual conditions only; the deists acknowledged a deity but rejected immortality, and viewed the world as a self-operating machine; the materialists completely rejected the idea of God. A semi-organized movement, the Dahriyya, professed a frank agnosticism; several of these doubting Thomases lost their heads to the executioner. “You torment yourself for nothing,” said Isbahan ibn Qara to a pious faster during Ramadan; “man is like a seed of grain that sprouts and grows up and is then mowed down to perish forever…. Eat and drink!”86

It was in reaction against such skepticism that Mohammedanism produced its greatest theologian, the Augustine and the Kant of Islam. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali was born at Tus in 1058, lost his father early, and was reared by a Sufi friend. He studied law, theology, and philosophy; at thirty-three he was appointed to the chair of law at the Nizamiya College in Baghdad; soon all Islam acclaimed his eloquence, erudition, and dialectical skill. After four years of this glory he was laid low by a mysterious disease. Appetite and digestion failed, paralysis of the tongue occasionally distorted his speech, and his mind began to break down. A wise physician diagnosed his case as mental in origin. In truth, as al-Ghazali later confessed in his remarkable autobiography, he had lost belief in the capacity of reason to sanction the Mohammedan faith; and the hypocrisy of his orthodox teaching had become unbearable. In 1094 he left Baghdad, ostensibly on a pilgrimage to Mecca; actually he went into seclusion, seeking silence, contemplation, and peace. Unable to find in science the support he sought for his crumbling faith, he turned from the outer to the internal world; there, he thought, he found a direct and immaterial reality, which offered a firm basis for belief in a spiritual universe. He subjected sensation—on which materialism seemed to rest—to critical scrutiny; accused the senses of making the stars appear small when, to be so visible from afar, they must be vastly larger than the earth; and concluded from a hundred such examples that sensation by itself could be no certain test of truth. Reason was higher, and corrected one sense with another; but in the end it too rested on sensation. Perhaps there was in man a form of knowledge, a guide to truth, surer than reason? Al-Ghazali felt that he had found this in the introspective meditation of the mystic: the Sufi came closer than the philosopher to the hidden core of reality; the highest knowledge lay in gazing upon the miracle of mind until God appeared within the self, and the self itself disappeared in the vision of an all-absorbing One.87

In this mood al-Ghazali wrote his most influential book—Tahafut al-Filasifa (The Destruction of Philosophy). All the arts of reason were turned against reason. By a “transcendental dialectic” as subtle as Kant’s, the Moslem mystic argued that reason leads to universal doubt, intellectual bankruptcy, moral deterioration, and social collapse. Seven centuries before Hume, al-Ghazali reduced reason to the principle of causality, and causality to mere sequence: all that we perceive is that B regularly follows A, not that A causes B. Philosophy, logic, science, cannot prove the existence of God or the immortality of the soul; only direct intuition can assure us of these beliefs, without which no moral order, and therefore no civilization, can survive.88

In the end al-Ghazali returned through mysticism to all orthodox views. The old fears and hopes of his youth flowed back upon him, and he professed to feel the eyes and threats of a stern deity close over his head. He proclaimed anew the horrors of the Mohammedan hell, and urged their preaching as necessary to popular morality.89 He accepted again the Koran and the Hadith. In his Ihya Ulum al-Din (Revival of the Science of Religion) he expounded and defended his renovated orthodoxy with all the eloquence and fervor of his prime; never in Islam had the skeptics and the philosophers encountered so vigorous a foe. When he died (1111), the tide of unbelief had been effectually turned. All orthodoxy took comfort from him; even Christian theologians were glad to find, in his translated works, such a defense of religion, and such an exposition of piety, as no one had written since Augustine. After him, and despite Averroës, philosophy hid itself in the remote corners of the Moslem world; the pursuit of science waned; and the mind of Islam more and more buried itself in the Hadith and the Koran.

The conversion of al-Ghazali to mysticism was a great victory for Sufism. Orthodoxy now accepted Sufism, which for a time engulfed theology. The mullahs—learned exponents of Moslem doctrine and law—still dominated the official religious and legal world; but the field of religious thought was yielded to Sufi monks and saints. Strangely contemporary with the rise of the Franciscans in Christendom, a new monasticism took form in twelfth-century Islam. Sufi devotees now abandoned family life, lived in religious fraternities under a sheik or master, and called themselves dervish or faqir—a Persian and an Arabic word for poor man or mendicant. Some by prayer and meditation, some by ascetic self-denial, others in the exhaustion that followed wild dancing, sought to transcend the self and rise to a wonder-working unity with God.

Their doctrine received formulation in the 150 books of Muhyi al-Din ibn al-Arabi (1165–1240)—a Spanish Moslem domiciled in Damascus. The world was never created, said al-Arabi, for it is the external aspect of that which in inward view is God. History is the development of God to self-consciousness, which He achieves at last in man. Hell is temporary; in the end all will be saved. Love is mistaken when it loves a physical and transitory form; it is God Who appears in the beloved, and the true lover will find and love the author of all beauty in any beautiful form. Perhaps recalling some Christians of Jerome’s time, al-Arabi taught that “he who loves and remains chaste unto death dies a martyr,” and achieves the highest reach of devotion. Many married dervishes professed to live in such chastity with their wives.90

Through the gifts of the people some Moslem religious orders became wealthy, and consented to enjoy life. “Formerly,” complained a Syrian sheik about 1250, “the Sufis were a fraternity dispersed in the flesh but united in the spirit; now they are a body well clothed carnally, and ragged in divine mystery.”91 The populace smiled tolerantly at these sacred worldlings, but lavished worship upon sincere devotees, ascribed to them miraculous deeds and powers, honored them as saints, celebrated their birthdays, prayed for their intercession with Allah, and made pilgrimages to their tombs. Mohammedanism, like Christianity, was a developing and adjustable religion, which would have startled a reborn Mohammed or Christ.

As orthodoxy triumphed, toleration waned. From Harun al-Rashid on, the so-called “Ordinance of Omar,” formerly ignored, was increasingly observed. Theoretically, though not always in practice, non-Moslems were now required to wear distinguishing yellow stripes on their clothing; they were forbidden to ride on horseback, but might use an ass or a mule; they were not to build new churches or synagogues, but might repair old ones; no cross was to be displayed outside a church, no church bell should ring; non-Moslem children were not to be admitted to Moslem schools, but could have schools of their own: this is still the letter of the law—not always enforced—in Islam.92 Nevertheless there were 45,000 Christians in tenth-century Baghdad;93 Christian funeral processions passed unharmed through the streets;94 and Moslem protests continued against the employment of Christians and Jews in high office. Even in the heat and challenge of the Crusades Saladin could be generous to the Christians in his realm.

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