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History of Political Economy 32.4 (2000) 857-888

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The Economic Thought of Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali and St. Thomas Aquinas:
Some Comparative Parallels and Links

S. M. Ghazanfar

My primary purpose in this article is to identify and present some parallels and similarities between the major economic ideas of two medieval Scholastics: Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058–1111), “acclaimed as the greatest… certainly one of the greatest” (Watt 1963, vii) and “by general consent, the most important thinker of medieval Islam” (Bagley 1964, xv); and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), the most prominent of the European-Latin Schoolmen, “the Doctor Angelicus, the Princeps Scholasticorum” (Pribram 1983, 4), “perhaps the greatest Catholic philosopher of all time” (Newman, Gayer, and Spencer 1954, 16). Heretofore, some scholars of medieval history have explored similarities and links between Al-Ghazali and St. Thomas with reference to other dimensions of their discourses, but none has focused on their economic views. While this essay mainly discusses similarities in the economic ideas of the two Scholastics, more serious analysis might further corroborate the observations of historians as to links between the two in other areas of knowledge. Further, it might be noted that while Thomistic economic thought is well recognized in the literature, very [End Page 857] little is known about the contributions of Al-Ghazali—one of several Arab-Islamic precursors of medieval Europe’s Latin Scholastics who wrote extensively on economic issues.1 Much of the economic thought of Arab-Islamic Scholastics belongs in the several centuries between the Greeks and St. Thomas Aquinas—a period unfortunately labeled as the “great gap” of “blank centuries” by the late Joseph Schumpeter (see Ghazanfar 1991, 1995).2

One finds detailed discussion of prevailing economic and social conditions and significant economic maxims, primarily normative but also with considerable positive content, in the writings of several Arab-Islamic writers. However, the main focus of these Scholastics, Arab-Islamic and Latin-Christian, was not the domain of economic aspects of life—economics remained merely an appendage to philosophy, ethics, and jurisprudence. One chiefly encounters theological-philosophical ratiocination in their treatises, and not economic content as we now know the subject. Within the religious-ethical system of Scholastic jurisprudence, which called for divine, scriptural prescriptions as guides to human affairs, the overriding assumption was always that all behavior, including economic activities, is teleological. Thus, economic thought emanating from medieval Scholastics, such as Al-Ghazali, St. Thomas, and others, was seldom elaborated in separate volumes; such a segmented treatment would have been hardly compatible with the prevailing emphasis on the unity of knowledge as a fundamental epistemological principle of scholarship.3 Indeed, such an approach prevailed in Europe up until the eighteenth century, when Adam Smith took charge of [End Page 858] the chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow College (de Roover 1955, 162).

The medieval Scholastics viewed economic matters as part of their larger concern for the common good and social justice. As a branch of ethics, economic relations were to be judged by rules of justice, as derived from the scriptures (Jewish, Christian, Islamic), that ought to preside over the distribution and exchange of scarce goods. One readily derives such insights from a cursory examination of the table of contents of Al-Ghazali’s Ihya Ulum al-Deen and St. Thomas’s Summa Theologica. However, while both gave a place to economic matters in their universal scheme, the pursuit of material welfare was not regarded as an end in itself, but as a means to achieve the summum bonum of salvation (see O’Brien 1920).

Thus, as another objective of this essay, some evidence will be provided to demonstrate the considerable influence of Arab-Islamic Scholasticism, encompassing almost all endeavors of human intellect, on Latin Europe generally, but also to argue that such historical links were particularly substantial concerning St. Thomas Aquinas’s philosophical writings. This essay will also briefly note the sociocultural and intellectual context in which the scholarship of Al-Ghazali and St. Thomas evolved. This will be...


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