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  • Al-Ghazālī’s Philosophical Theology
  • L.W.C. (Eric) van Lit
Al-Ghazālī’s Philosophical Theology. By Frank Griffel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xiii + 408. Hardcover $74.00.

As we near the nine-hundredth anniversary of the death of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī, his writings remain as popular as ever. This is not surprising, not only because of these texts’ historical importance but also because aspects of them still feel relevant [End Page 564] to today’s reader, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. The vast amount of scholarly output on him attests to al-Ghazālī’s preeminence in Islamic intellectual history.

To this large field, Frank Griffel has contributed his new book Al-Ghazālī’s Philosophical Theology. In it, Griffel has synthesized his long-standing and extensive work on al-Ghazālī into one book that covers a variety of topics. The title is well chosen as all these topics add in some way to the view that positions al-Ghazālī “as someone who contributed to the process of the naturalization of falsafa within the Islamic theological discourse” (p. 7).

Griffel’s book can be divided into two parts: one on al-Ghazālī’s life and his early followers, the other on his teachings on epistemology and cosmology (p. 7). In fact, his discussion of al-Ghazālī’s cosmology focuses mainly on the way true knowledge can be obtained and on the concept of causality, specifically the difference between secondary causality (usually associated with the falāsifah) and occasionalism (usually associated with the Ashcarites). This is an issue that has been intensely debated among scholars, including Fakhry, Marmura, Goodman, Alon, Abrahamov, and Frank. It is in this tradition that Griffel puts forward a new thesis, positioning himself between Frank, who has argued that al-Ghazālī adhered to the falāsifah, and Marmura, who has argued that al-Ghazālī never broke with Ashcarite theology.

At first, these positions seem mutually exclusive, so a middle position is hard to envision. After all, a necessary, essential causality that extends to creatures is hard to reconcile with occasionalism, according to which all effects are directly traceable to one cause: God. Moreover, the demonstrative science that the philosophers propagate to understand the world seems to be intrinsically connected with this notion of necessary, essential causality. The middle position between Frank and Marmura, which holds that al-Ghazālī accepts the methodology of the philosophers’ demonstrative science but rejects its ontology, seems difficult to defend. However, Griffel does a fine job in arguing for such a middle position (a ‘philosophical theology,’ so to say), repeating that al-Ghazālī remained uncommitted to a choice between secondary causality and occasionalism.1 Griffel writes early on in his book: “al-Ghazālī believed that neither revelation nor demonstration provides a conclusive answer as to how God acts upon His creation. . . . Once he realized that neither of the two principal sources in his own epistemology — reason and revelation — could settle the matter, al-Ghazālī simply lost interest in cosmology as a scientific question” (p. 122). It is thus al-Ghazālī’s epistemology that held him back in making extensive claims about cosmology. With this tension between al-Ghazālī’s epistemology and cosmology as a focus, Griffel studies most of the well-known works of al-Ghazālī and shows how his thesis finds support throughout the Ghazālian corpus.

The most interesting chapters of the book are chapters 6 –9, in which Griffel’s main argument is set out. Chapter 6 gives a detailed account of the locus classicus: the seventeenth discussion of al-Ghazālī’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahāfut al-falāsifah). While it is true that analyses of this text can be found in many other books and articles, Griffel’s account adds value by virtue of its clarity and comprehensiveness. For him, this text represents the basis of al-Ghazālī’s thought, the text where al-Ghazālī shows that he does not refute the methodology of the philosophers [End Page 565] but that he “questions the assumptions of...