Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Tahafut al-Falasafah (Incoherence of the Philosophers) – Abu Hamid Mumhammed al-Ghazali


Born in the easten Iranian city Tus, Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111) was an Islamic theologian, jurist, philosopher and mystic. By his early thirties he became a pre-eminent scholar and lecturer at the leading university of Baghdad. Following a period of scepticism and doubt, he attained religious certitude through mysticism before re-emerging in public life. He remains one of the most celebrated scholars in the history of Islamic thought.

The translator Michael Marmura was born in Jerusalem, gaining his MA and PHD from the University of Michigan, subsequently chairing the Department of Middle East and Islamic Studies.

Fundamental Ideas

The Tahafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers) marked a turning point in Islamic philosophy, bringing to a head the conflict between kalam (speculative theology) and falsafa (philosophy).

Ghazali explained his reasons for writing the Tahafut in the preface and introduction. He condemned certain pseudo-intellectuals of his time, who have been so impressed by “high sounding names such as Socrates, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle and their likes” that they became imitators and their followers without having any real thought of their own. Furthermore, they used these examples to rationalise their own disregard for the rituals and obligations imposed by their own religion opting for disbelief (kufr). Tahafut was to show the incoherence of the philosopher’s beliefs and the contradictions of their metaphysical statements. His argument however was not with their mathematics, astronomical sciences or logic, but only those theories that contravened the principles of religion.

Ghazali stated that the Tahafut was intended to refute the works of the philosophers and not to defend any specific theological doctrines. He said he would write a sequel which would affirm the true Islamic doctrines, which was to become Al-Iqtisad fi al-Itiqad.

In Tahafut Ghazali rejects twenty philosophical doctrines, based on the works of Aristotle and Plato and the Muslim philosophers, Al-Farabi (d. 950) and Ibn Sina (d. 1037), their proponents in the medieval Muslim world. Seventeen of these doctrines were condemned as heretical innovations and three as irreligious (kufr), totally opposed to Islamic belief.

In his first and longest discussion, Ghazali addressed the issue of the world’s pre-eternity – the first irreligious doctrine. The philosophers he said argued that the world is the necessitated effect of an eternally necessitating cause so therefore must be eternal. They argued issue at hand being does god act voluntarily or necessarily because of his nature. Ghazali argued that an eternal world implies the negation of the divine attribute of will. The philosophers had to show the impossibility of a divine and eternal will creating the world at a given time – something they were unable to do.

The second irreligious doctrine is in the thirteen discussion, Ibn Sina’s theory that God knows particulars only in a universal way. According to Ibn Sina’s system of thought, God would know all about the universal characteristics of the planets and the suns for instance, but not in relation to individual acts. Ibn Sina failed to prove this to be the case Ghazali argued and furthermore this position would contradict the divine omniscience articulated in the Quran.

The final irreligious doctrine is Ibn Sina’s doctrine denying bodily resurrection. Ghazali argues that Ibn Sina has not proven the immateriality of the soul which he used as the basis to argue this point. Ghazali offers a detailed refutation of the proofs Ibn Sina uses to prove the immateriality of the soul. He then goes on to state, even if this point is accepted, it does not mean bodily resurrection is not possible. Quranic texts describe the bodily resurrection in a literal manner and must therefore be taken literally and not metaphorically unless the resulting meaning is rendered impossible. This is not the case and the philosophers were unable to demonstrate this.


In the twelfth century, Ibn Rushd (also known in the West as Averroes) drafted a lengthy rebuttal of Ghazali's Tahafut entitled Tahafut al-Tahafut - The Incoherence of the Incoherence. It critiques Ghazali’s understanding of the philosopher’s positions arguing that he in fact has misunderstood some of what the philosophers argue. Furthermore, his focus of attack is Ibn Sina’s philosophical system rather than that of al-Farabi.

However, the influence of Ghazali’s Tahafut still continues. It put philosophy on the defensive as never before, however, it also articulated the philosophical positions so clearly that it inadvertently brought philosophy to the attention of new readers. Theological scholars after Ghazali would not fail to address philosophical arguments in their books of kalam.