THE CRY OF THE HEART FOR GOD:
A Comparison of Mysticism and Intellect in Saint Augustine and Al-Ghazali
History is remarkable only when it is understood in terms of the great personalities that shaped its ebb and flow. Strip history of the dynamic struggle of the human spirit and it becomes merely a narrative of uninteresting epochs and events, lifeless and mundane, intriguing as a bill of sale or an accountant's ledger. Weave into history the triumphs and tragedies of the men and women of the ages, and history is transformed into a drama more exciting than fiction. Nations are established by the ambitions of one man, kingdoms crumble around the obsession of another. Power and passion, avarice and envy, seek expression through the medium of willing hosts. The multitudes polarize around the leadership of remarkable men while historians stand by the way to record the fray.
In the midst of the swirling mass of humanity, each soul struggling for recognition and the grasp for immortality, arise a few men who are able to distance themselves from the mires of self-seeking depravity. These personalities are not necessarily noteworthy for their unique physical prowess, nor their exceptional intellect, history is replete with such men, instead they often stand as beacons of light, exceptional in their personal quest, illuminating an ancient path that leads beyond the pit of sin and shame. Each major religion has had its prophets, sages, and holy men. By their example, humankind is reminded of his/her created state to reach beyond the material world and grasp a knowledge of God. And yet even within the ranks of these mystics, there are a few who have drawn our admiration and emulation because of the measure of the degree to which they have been successful in seemingly to grasp a knowledge of God. Two such men are Al-Ghazali and Saint Augustine. Born to different times but for similar destinies, both men were called upon to champion their respective faiths. Both men passionately pursued truth and an understanding of God. The impact they made on the development of Christianity and Islam respectively entreat an exploration into their influence. Al-Ghazali and Saint Augustine are not necessarily representative of the best of their respective religions, but their combination of solid scholastic inquiry for truth coupled with a driving passion to know God attracts similar hungry pilgrims like a moth to a flame.
By default, the lion's share of consideration falls to Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali. Saint Augustine is by far more familiar to the Western mind. Therefore, in order to avoid the pitfall of stating the obvious, this writer takes license in assuming sufficient knowledge of Saint Augustine exists on the part of the reader already for a comparison. The purpose of this paper is to focus on a brief sample of two of the writings of al-Ghazali. Ihya' 'Ulum ad-Din or Revival of the Religious Sciences and al-Munquidh min ad-Dalal or Deliverance from Error are the most familiar writings of al-Ghazali to the West. Ihya' 'Ulum ad-Din was written after al-Ghazali's immersion into the Sufi way and is a comprehensive treatise on Islam. It is by far his most well known, and some would say greatest, contribution to Islam. Al-Munquidh min ad-Dalal is, according to the scholar, a description of his "venture in climbing from the plain of naive and second-hand belief to the peak of direct vision" (Watt 1982:19). The work is both autobiographical and explanatory of al-Ghazali's belief system. It is therefore invaluable as a rich, compact summation of what he believes. However, in order to contrast the two scholars it is beneficial to first open a brief window into the world that forged their steel resolves to apprehend God.
It can be argued that the atmosphere of crisis and confusion is the perfect climate for the emergence of a leadership that can spell the destruction of a particular religious movement or the catalyst for stability and expansion. Such were the times of Saint Augustine. Religious historians argue that the third and fourth centuries were critical in the survival of the then relatively young Christian religion. The church had expanded beyond the confines of its cradle of birth in Israel and was now found throughout the then Roman world. The followers of Jesus of Nazareth were growing in numbers and in doctrine. Letters of the apostles were circulated between the churches in order to teach the basic tenants of the faith, as well as to refute heresy. Despite these efforts, influential schools of belief contrary to the accepted teachings of the apostles were having a damaging effect on the church. It has been argued that the tide of heresy had to be stopped if the church was to survive. Into the historically insignificant town of Thagaste, North Africa was born Augustine; a very significant (though at that time unknown) standard against the heresy tide. Augustine's parents were of sufficient means to give him a formal education. Among the influence of the learned men of Thagaste, twain seeds were sown for young Augustine - a thirst to know truth and the hunger to know the passions of life. The death of his pagan father left young Augustine dependant on the persistence and prayers of his Christian mother to guarantee his future in academics. And persist she did, God answered prayer, and Augustine went onto excel in the various disciplines of the scholar, especially rhetoric. Augustine's ability to teach rising young public servant aspirants the art of speechmaking afforded him the luxury to continue in his riotous living (Wirt 1971:37). And yet despite success, the young scholar was still unsatisfied. The spark of Plato ignited a small flame of curiosity, and with his basic needs met by his acclaim as a teacher of rhetoric, Augustine turned his attentions to the mastery of theology. Pride and arrogance caused him to disdain the orthodox Christian church with its mysterious Scriptures, and instead embrace the heresy of Manicheism. Characteristic of Saint Augustine, he immersed himself in the study of this religion. Manicheism fulfilled Augustine's longing for God and yet allowed him to continue in the sensual lifestyle he had grown accustomed to or in his words "my soul was in weak and puny shape, its ulcers dripping, as it itched for some sensual contact on which it could scrape itself" (Wirt 1971:34). And yet the pseudo religion proved to be as unfulfilling as the riotous lifestyle Augustine had come to loathe, yet need. Eventually, Augustine realized that Manicheism did not answer the deep seated questions in his heart. The persistence of his own problem with evil haunted him. Frustrated with his habits of passion and longing for meaning beyond the sciences, he turned back to the faith of his mother and scrutinized the Christian religion. Confronted with the realization that the Scriptures and their author (God) were true, Augustine finally abandoned his sensual lifestyle. Broken in spirit under a fig tree, Augustine yielded whole heartedly to God. It has been argued as to whether or not the crisis of faith in the garden at Milan was a salvation experience for Augustine or merely the culmination of his yielding his will finally to God. Sherwood Wirt in his translation of Augustine's Confessions chooses to word the translation in a way that favors a salvation experience in the garden when Augustine was thirty three years of age, instead of an earlier conversion when he was in his late twenties (1971:xiii). Regardless, Augustine pursued his new found love of God with the same zeal he had pursued in finding happiness through mere mortal embrace. The flame of God's love ignited his heart and even today the church can feel the heat from that flame.
Augustine went on to be ordained as the bishop of Hippo. His previous training in civil law and the art of rhetoric were instrumental in stemming the tide of Pelagianism. Augustine asserted that because Adam's fall infected all mankind with sin, salvation was totally by faith, not by merit. Salvation is a gift from God (Baker 1959:70). In addition to addressing Pelagianism, Augustine established the official doctrine of the church in regard to the Donatist controversy. Augustine said since the authority of the church guarantees the validity of any act the bishop might perform, a bishop who is a heretic can still give the sacraments. This argument greatly enhanced the recognition of the Roman Catholic Church's authority (Baker 1959:80).
Volumes have been written on Augustine's contribution to Christianity. He was strategically placed by God to contribute order and elegance to formal theology. D.W. Robertson, commenting on Augustine's On Christian Doctrine, says Augustine's ability to write with eloquent exegetical principles marked a break from the writings of antiquity and shaped theology for the Middle Ages (1958:xi). It suffices here to reiterate that Augustine was critical in the growth of the church. His acclaim as one of the great church fathers is due not only to his skill as a scholar and the deft hand by which he pens the study of God, but also, Augustine is recognized as one of the great mystics of the Christian faith. Love and, especially, happiness found through a deep personal walk with God are the underlying themes of all his writings. On reading Augustine, one is left with the sense that God really does love mankind and desires to reveal Himself to the human race in a satisfying relationship. Scholastic integrity coupled with warm personal experience is the contribution Saint Augustine has endeared to Christianity. As one writer has put it, "No other philosopher ever brought the Creator and each and every creature into a closer affinity" (Schopp 1948:11).
Similar to the fourth century in Christianity, the eleventh century was also a critical time in the development of Islam. Outside influences from Hellenization, Gnosticism, Manichaean, and Buddhist philosophies had crept in on the heels of the Mu'tazilah (Rahman 1979:87). The Mu'tazilah assertion of free will and ambiguity as to the identity of the true Muslim threatened to uproot Islam at the root of its belief - the Shari'a or law. Islam was in need of scholars within its rank who could dissect the Greek philosophies, extract the truth they contained, and apply these truths in an articulate way. The gauntlet was taken up by Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali. This is not to say that up to this time no one was opposing the Mu'tazilah, many competent scholars of the Ash'arite school were attempting to react to the damaging influences of the Greeks, but the mastery of the complex logic needed to counteract its seduction was proving problematic. The Ash'arites have been called anti-rational to delineate that they were a reaction to the rational thought of the Greek philosopher (Tomeh ?:173). But the label of anti-rational also bespeaks of the reluctancy of the Ash'arite scholars to grapple with Greek philosophy; in essence they refused to entertain the idea that it may in fact bear truth. The courage to immerse oneself into an unfamiliar discipline in order to understand its truth is the hallmark characteristic of al-Ghazali. For this Ash'arite scholar, all the sciences contained truth, truth which would lead the true "seeker" closer to all truth, namely God (Watt 1982:20-21). A passion to know God was applied to the path of inquiry. Al-Ghazali's renowned bridge between orthodoxy and mysticism was merely the logical end to the "seekers'" path. The following quote reiterates this tendency:
Even more significant was the fact that he was able to discover the way of life for a truly religious man to follow, so as to be prepared to attain that stage, when the supreme truth meant the spiritual accent of a faithful enquirer, who diligently sought the truth for its own sake. It is hardly necessary to recall that for him the highest attainment of knowledge was the spiritual or divine truth. All other truths were of secondary importance (Shafaq 1954:45).
And again in Al-Ghazali's own words:
I have ever launched recklessly out into the midst of these ocean depths, I have ever bravely embarked on this open sea, throwing aside all craven caution; I have poked into every dark recess, I have made an assault on every problem, I have plunged into every abyss, I have scrutinized the creed of every sect, I have tried to lay bare the inmost doctrines of every community. All this have I done that I might distinguish between true and false, between sound tradition and heretical innovation. ... To thirst after a comprehension of things as they really are was my habit and custom from a very early age. (Watt 1982:20-21).
Al-Ghazali used the various disciplines of the academia as stepping stones to apprehending fulfillment in the knowledge of God. And yet, what set this Muslim apart? What shaped his education to cause him to pursue after truth about God?
The answer to the enigma of Al-Ghazali lies in the progression of his life. The similarities he shares with Augustine in his development as a scholar, stand as markers to contrast, Augustine and al-Ghazali's radical conclusions about what it means to know God.
Al-Ghazali was born in Tus in Khurasan near modern Meshed. He was orphaned at a very young age ((Lewis 1965:1038). According to his father's will he was placed under the care of a family friend and given the traditional education in the religious sciences (Stern 1990:7). Evidently, al-Ghazali demonstrated promise in the religious sciences, for at an early age he found himself the pupil of the renowned Nizam al-Mulk. Eventually Nizam al-Mulk sent al-Ghazali to Baghdad to be a professor at the madrasa he had founded there - the Nizamiyya. The young professors personality and passion for truth was such that within four years he was one of the most prominent men in Bhagdad and for those four years lectured to an audience of over three hundred students (Lewis 1965:1039). Al-Ghazali had fame, the favor of the Caliph, and the financial security his fellowship afforded him, and yet he was still not satisfied. Historians cite this period of turmoil in al-Ghazali's life as a nervous breakdown which caused him to resign his position as professor and precipitated his eleven year quest in search of the Sufi way (Lewis 1965:1039). However, in al-Ghazali's words, it was not a nervous illness but rather a crisis of truth. "I investigated the various kinds of knowledge I had, and found myself destitute of all knowledge with this characteristic of infallibility except in the case of sense perception and necessary truths" (Watt 1982:22). "I proceeded therefore with extreme earnestness to reflect on sense-perception and on necessary truths, to see whether I could no longer trust sense perception either ... the sense as judge forms his judgement, but another judge, the intellect, shows him to be wrong in such a way that the charge of falsity cannot be rebutted. To this I said: My reliance on sense-perception also has been destroyed" (1982:23). Eventually, al-Ghazali hypothesized that perhaps there was knowledge beyond even intellect. Perhaps the Sufis understood this knowledge to be their special ecstatic state they referred to. So al-Ghazali, as demonstrated before, set out to immerse himself in the way of the Sufi in order to "treat the unhealthy condition"(1982:25).
M.S. Stern, commenting on his translation of The Revival of the Religious Sciences, offers additional insight into perhaps why this "crisis of faith" occurred. Stern asserts that the seeds of the Sufi were already planted from al-Ghazali's childhood. Al-Ghazali's guardian, according to Stern, was himself a Sufi (1990:8). Additionally, Stern claims that al-Ghazali was disillusioned with his colleagues in Baghdad. In essence the crisis in his life was more a crisis of religious leadership than a mere illness (1990:8). Stern goes on to say that perhaps al-Ghazali was concerned that he would follow the path of his colleagues and use his influence as a religious teacher to further worldly ambitions. Joseph Politella concurs with Stern in this quote:
The strongest ties which fetter the soul are those of the creatures and the love of position, for the joy of exercising authority and control and of being superior to others and of being their leader is the joy which in this world most prevails over the souls of the intelligent ... " (Politella quoting al-Ghazali 1964:182)
The search for truth in the Sufi way was also a search for personal salvation (1990:8). Stern's arguments are more in keeping with al-Ghazali's own confession. The claim that perhaps the crisis was more political than spiritual, while possibly an underlying influence, does not bear up to the opinion of Watt and Stern. Consequently, for eleven years al-Ghazali lived the life of a recluse. He left Bhagadad with the intention of becoming a Hajji. His travels led him first to Damascus, then to Jerusalem and Hebron. In 1096 he did take part in the pilgrimage to Mecca. From Mecca he "lived as a poor Sufi, often in solitude, spending his time in meditation and other spiritual exercises" (Lewis 1965:1039). The quest brought him full circle back to Baghdad, back into teaching, and eventually, back to the writer's pen to record his pilgrimage and the truth he had found in al-Munqidh min ad-Dalal.
It goes without saying that al-Ghazali leaves an undeniable impression on the reader who comes across his script. The cry of the heart to know God is intertwined throughout the Munquid. Al-Ghazali built the stool of honest academic inquiry and then stood on his toes of mystic longing and reached for God. Transparent in his pursuit of God and his willingness to share the gleanings of his quest with fellow seekers truly sets him apart among the early theologians of Islam. It is not hard to understand why most scholars are left with impressions about al-Ghazali such as: "a truly searching religious spirit" (Rahman 1979:94). Or, "Yet perhaps the greatest thing about al-Ghazali was his personality" (Watt 1982:15). The journey of the heart toward God, would by design lead many honest seekers into the pages of this Muslim mystic. For the theologian, regardless of the religion, one can find a companion in al-Ghazali; the desire to applaud his courage to ask why against the tide of the Ummayad consensus. Al-Ghazali's willingness to tackle the giant of Greek philosophy, subdue it, and then subject it to Islam (see Piety and Proofs by John Clayton) warrants praise. The skill with which al-Ghazali prescribed obedience to the Shariah as a meaningful way of life undoubtedly was a welcome melody to the ears of the religious leaders of the Umma (Lewis 1965:1041). The overall speculation of what Islam would be like today without the contribution of this one man leaves one to consider the words of McCarthy: "With the time came the man. .... I seemed to hear trumpets: philosophical and theological and mystical trumpets, trumpets of strife and battle, trumpets of death and life" (commenting on a quote by McDonald about al-Ghazali (1980:ix).
To my knowledge, there yet remains to be seen, in English, a thorough comparison between St. Augustine and al-Ghazali, though very much needed in light of the recent interest in a Christian and Muslim context of dialogue. However, there are two works by Johan Bouman in German on the two mystics. The tendency for many experts on al-Ghazali is to compare briefly (usually no more than a paragraph) al-Ghazali with Saint Augustine. Often the comparison is on equal terms (Burrell 1987:176; Upper 1952:23; Tomeh 1952:184; McCarthy 1980:xxxiv). While they are similar in background and even on some points of philosophy, there is a distinct difference in their frame of reference as to the knowability of God. Time and again the issue of knowing God is used to link these two great philosophers. But, like so many other terms Christianity and Islam share, the same word often has totally different if not opposite meanings (i.e. sin, salvation, and faith). The phrase "know God" is also very different in its frame of reference. Christianity, in its basic doctrine, proclaims that to know God means more than knowledge of God, it means relational. As will be demonstrated, the mystical experience of God in Islam, though ecstatic and steeped in mystery, would never claim relationship with God. A brief summation of the basic beliefs of al-Ghazali demonstrates this stark contrast between the two religions.
Al-Ghazali was a prolific writer. Conservative estimates place his publications at, minimally, a hundred and twenty works, dealing with almost all of the Islamic problems of his period (Shafaq 1954:43). While the volume of his work prohibits an exhaustive description of his beliefs, it is possible to glean from his two most renowned works, The Revival of the Religious Sciences and Deliverance form Error, some basic underlying assumptions about the nature of God and man. For the purpose of this paper it is important to consider basically five foundational truths al-Ghazali would hold to: the nature of the soul, sin and repentance, knowledge of God, the elements of belief, and the relationship between the sensory and the intellect.
Muslims believe that each individual is created by God good and without sin. Al-Ghazali affirms this presupposition when he compares the heart or the soul to a mirror. Al-Ghazali is very clear what he means by the heart: "man is formed of a body and a heart - and by the heart I mean the essence of man's spirit which is the seat of knowledge of God" (McCarthy 1980:101). The heart (soul) is compared to a mirror that is given to each person when they are born in a state of high polish. According al-Ghazali, the person that presents their soul to God in the same state they received it will gain entrance into paradise. "If man sins he allows vapor and filth to encrust itself upon the surface of the mirror ... Once a mirror begins to dull it must immediately be cleansed and polished" (Stern 1990:18). But how does one go about polishing the heart in order to keep it presentable before God?
First, in order to understand how to clean the soul before God, it is necessary to understand what al-Ghazali believes as to how we relate to God. Again basic to the doctrine of Islam is the transcendence of God and the inability for His creation to know Him. Instead, what can be known about God is merely his attributes as are revealed in the Qur'an. It has been argued that, aside form the Sufis, the philosophers and theologians have not felt the need to question the possibility of a human relationship with God, lest they threaten God's sovereignty and transcendence (Geisler 1993:28). And yet, al-Ghazali is known primarily as a mystic who wedded orthodox Islam with Sufism. Is this one area where al-Ghazali breaks with traditional Islam and sides with the Sufi assertion of absorption into God? What does al-Ghazali mean by "knowing" God? S.R. Shafaq argues that al-Ghazali "rejects the idea of crude pantheism" which the more extreme forms of Sufism claimed, such as identification or unification (ittihad), incarnation (hulul), inherence or joining (wusul) with God (1954:46). This claim receives credibility in Deliverance from Error when al-Ghazali says: "In general what they manage to achieve is nearness to God; some however, would conceive of this as inherence, some as union, and some as connection. All that is erroneous" (Watt 1982:61). And yet, al-Ghazali seemingly embraced the experiential state of the Sufis. Al-Ghazali has often been accused of paradoxical statements, but on this point it is not a paradoxical dilemma but rather a different meaning of the term to "know". For al-Ghazalii, knowing God is knowing His revelation. It is not personal, relational knowledge. Love for God is to love the revelation He has given in the Qur'an. Hava Lazarus-Yafeh summarizes this well in a quote from Al-Arba'in:
Know that the purpose of the commandments is to strengthen the feeling of joy in the recollection of the Almighty and Adored God, that man may return to the world of eternity and that the heart may be indifferent to the world of temptation; but only he will have bliss in the next world who comes to his God (at his death) through love, and only he can love God who knows Him and frequently mentions His name, since knowledge and love can only be attained by constant meditation and recollection. Nor can the recollection of God be kept lastingly in the heart except by (deeds) that recall Him and these are the commandments. (1961:176).
David B. Burrell echoes Yafeh when he confirms al-Ghazali's affirmation in an unknowable God when he says: "So if God be unknowable, the way to God is unchartable, except as a set of invitations to set out on a journey of self-becoming, which defines our central task in life" (1987:178-179). In other words God is not knowable in the familiar sense, but more in a sense of "gnosis". The excursions into the realm of experiencing God is more of ecstasy induced by reflections on what is known about Him. According to al-Ghazali, obedience to the commands of God affords the "seeker" to maintain a "polished mirror" and thereby facilitating him in his/her pursuit of "loving" God. Loving God compels the Muslim to obedience. Al-Ghazali defines this reciprocal relationships in terms of science of revelation and science of action.
Belief, according to al-Ghazali is a ongoing relationship between the science of revelation and the science of actions. The science of revelations comprises a belief in God, His attributes and His deeds. The absence of an affirmation in God's revelation is unbelief. Unbelief is the guarantee of eternal damnation in hell. Adherence to the science is belief in monotheism and Divine revelation, primarily the revelation of the Qur'an through the Prophet (Stern 1990:17). Al-Ghazali would put the mystery of Sufism under the category of revelation. The confidence al-Ghazali has in the value of the mystical is evident in the following:
Beyond intellect there is yet another stage. In this another eye is opened, by which he beholds the unseen, what is to be in the future, and other things which are beyond the keen of intellect. ... God most high has favored His creatures by giving them something analogous to the special faculty of prophecy, namely dreams. ... dreams (because they fall beyond what can be perceived) are analogous to prophecy .... The other properties of prophetic revelation are apprehended only by immediate experience from the practice of the mystic way." (Watt 1982:64-66)
The flight of ecstasy, according to Al-Ghazali, remains tethered to the ground of the intellect through the binding of what is revealed (Revelation).
The second arm of belief is that of actions. Actions compromise the practical duties and states of man's heart. Al-Ghazali equates actions with faith and faith with knowledge (1990:17). Ignorance is the cause of all sin. Therefore it is understandable how a Muslim can still be a Muslim and yet sin. Sin for the Muslim is not moral failure but merely a mistake made by ignorance of the right way to behave - the sunna of the Muslim.
According to al-Ghazali the relationship between the two sciences is one of reciprocity. "Only the combination of knowledge (revelation and belief) and action (intellect) can ensure the proper performance ..." (Lawrance-Yafeh 1961:178). Therefore, the role of repentance is not sorrow for a transgression of a moral law per se, but more of a returning to the proper actions as found in the revelation of the Qur'an. Repentance affords the obedient Muslim to polish the mirror of his soul in order to reflect upon the attributes of God, in order to experience "knowing" God. Repentance is ceasing from sin, and embracing again the commandments of God as expressed through Islam. This notion of repentance as being a "returning to" as opposed to the Christian notion of repentance as a "turning from" is illustrated in a story al-Ghazali told on this topic. The story goes:
Accompanied by his camel which bore his food and drink, a traveler came to an arid desert. He laid down his head and napped. He awoke and his camel was gone. He searched for it until the heat and thirst overcame him, et cetera. He said, I will return whence I started and sleep until I die. He proceeded to place his head upon his arm so as to die. Then he was aroused, and lo, his camel stood before him, provisions intact. God's joy at the repentance of the faithful servant is more intense than that of the man on account of his camel. (Ghazali quoting Muhammad) (Stern 1990:34).
The story of the camel communicates more than repentance. It summarizes Al-Ghazali's basic view of what it means to know God and how to relate to Him. The camel is independent by nature, and subject to his passions. The camel is dependant upon his master, because the master alone knows how to draw water form the well. Try as the camel might, he can never draw water for himself. The master, in exchange for the loyalty of the camel, provides the basics of life and generally gives the camel a better life than he would have out in the desert. Just as the camel can never enjoy a relationship beyond that of master and servant, the Muslim is limited to a knowledge of God in obedience. To know God is to obey Him. To love God is to love obeying Him. Ecstasy for the Sufi is not communion with God, but the degree to which the soul can identify with the revelation of God. This identifying with God's revelation as a way "to know" God is illustrated in the inseperable link between the Qur'an, the names of God, and the use of dervishes and chants as the avenue of ecstasy in the Sufi way of worship. For Al-Ghazali, identifying with God was yielding to God's revelation, subjecting his passions, and apprehending truth. In answer to the mystics in Islam who claim to relate with God, he says: "Salvation is to be found in the experience of God the Beloved. It is a constant state attainable only in the hereafter" (Stern 1990:19). To al-Ghazali, "knowing" God is the act of understanding His attributes and revelation while looking toward the door of death where then he would know (relational) or be absorbed into God.
Augustine of Hippo and Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali remain as truly great scholars and theologians today. Perhaps the appeal of al-Ghazali to the Western mind is due in part to his methods of describing what he believes. Al-Ghazali's extensive background in philosophy and logic appeals to our own frame of reference and mirrors that of Saint Augustine. Both men demonstrated a passion for pursuing truth, and the holder of truth, God, with a fervor that thrust them into the admiration of their peers and their critics. Both men poured their lives into satisfying their longing to know God. And though often they walked the same path, it was in the crisis of faith that the path divided into to very different ends. Perhaps a comparison of Saint Augustine and al-Ghazali is more like the comparison between the story of the camel and another story - the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The difference in the stories is the difference between a master's praise over a wayward camel, and the joyous grasp of a father's warm embrace as he welcomes home a wayward son. One is the recipient of a sense of restoration, the other the object of loving forgiveness. The comprehension of the degree to which each man attained his goal of knowing God is reflected in their words. When al-Ghazali was asked to explain what he found in his quest for God, he replied: "What I experience, I shall not try to describe, call me happy, but ask me no more" (Shafaq 1954:47). The reader can almost hear him working the cud. In contrast, the words of Saint Augustine reflect a different "knowledge" of God. Hear the words of a man who found the knowledge of God was wrapped up in knowing God:
Let me know you my Knower. Let me know you even as you know me. Power of my soul, enter into it and make it fit for yourself, without spot or wrinkle, then claim it and possess it. That's what I hope for, and why I speak out. That hope is what really gives me the joy of my salvation .... I talked to you freely as a child talks to its father, Lord my God, my light, my treasure, my salvation. (Wirt 1971:122).
The contrast goes beyond mere literary styles and cultural cues. The contrast highlights one of the core points of disagreement between Muslims and Christians - namely the approachability of God. It was not the purpose of this paper to belittle the accomplishments of al-Ghazali, nor to set him up as a "straw man" to elevate the Christian faith. Al-Ghazali stands as one of the greatest scholars of Islam. His lifelong search to understand truth in order to know God is a candid picture that captures the heart of many a Muslim as they seek to know their unknowable God. In contrast, the warm, intimate reflection of Saint Augustine invites the need for a more lengthy treatise comparing these two men. Mysticism as a whole may be similar across cultures, but the similarity ends at the point of "experiencing" God. Islam has not cast off its pre-Islamic stone effigies it detests, but merely transferred unknowable stone to unknowable script. The Love from God is reserved (for the Muslim) for those who love His revelation, the Qur'an. In the contrast between communion with God (Christian) and the knowledge about God (Muslim) there is no comparison. Love for a revelation is no substitute for the warm embrace of the revealer of all truth - Jesus Christ.
R. M. Lotz
May 20, 1997
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