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Ghazālī’s Wondrous Plays of the Heart

Dramaturgy in "The Resuscitation of the Religious Sciences"

A ninth/fifteenth-century copy of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī’s classic The Resuscitation of the Religious Sciences. The manuscript, of Moroccan origin, was auctioned off by Sotheby's in 2011.

Sam Kigar


What we forgot, when we deified reason, was not that reason is incompatible with feeling, but that knowledge requires acknowledgement. (The withdrawals and approaches of God can be looked upon as tracing the history of our attempts to overtake and absorb acknowledgement by knowledge; God would be the name for that impossibility).

–Stanley Cavell1


In Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī’s (d. 505/1111) “Wonders of the Heart”—an important part of the famous Muslim thinker’s multi-volume magnum opus, The Resuscitation of the Religious Sciences—we read a litany of metaphorical descriptions of the heart.2 An early section, for example, is structured around the idea that the heart is a “king” (malik), who has “armies that are his servants and assistants.”3 The heart, for Ghazālī, is a powerful locus of cognition, affect, and control. Its “armies” are the external sense-organs and limbs, as well as internal psychic complexes and appetites. The king-heart has to command these armies in order to make a safe “journey to God.”4

Why does Ghazālī rely so heavily on metaphor in his description of the heart? What does he make of these illustrative examples, and what do we? Without delving into the thought on metaphor that might have been available to him,5 I want to introduce a concept that is foreign to Ghazālī’s text, but which I hope will be illuminating. These metaphors can be read as the stage setting of a play, perhaps a tragedy (I’ll defer the question of genre), in which different actors—armies, angels, demons, and ego, for example—act. There is a drama of the heart happening. Ghazālī is the dramaturge. I argue, following Stanley Cavell, that these dramatic flourishes allow Ghazālī to introduce and work through skepticism and to present a novel understanding of the relationship between free will and predestination.

In addition to a king, Ghazālī sometimes imagines the heart as a reservoir, sometimes as a fortress, and sometimes as the scene of a court in which artists vie for the king’s favor. These images are meant to depict the heart as an organ that is plunged into the world. Against worldly temptations, it struggles to maintain purity. Ghazālī writes:

Imagine that we were to dig a reservoir into the earth. Water would flow into it from the surface by way of streams. Water could also be pulled into it by digging beneath the reservoir and removing [more] dirt until we reached a deep well of pure water, which would burst forth into the reservoir from below. This water would be purer, more continuously flowing, more abundant and copious [than the surface water]. The heart is like this reservoir and knowledge is like the water. The five senses are like the overland rivers. It is possible to convey knowledge to the heart by way of these sensate streams—contemplation of observable objects—until it is full of knowledge. It is also possible to dam those rivers by secluding and isolating [oneself] and lowering one’s gaze [from the world]. Then one can proceed to the depths of the heart by purifying it and removing layers of veils from it, until knowledge explodes forth, gushing into the heart from the inside.6

Ghazālī implies that overland water will pick up dirt and grime along the way, while groundwater will remain pure. The water from the streams is discursive knowledge, gleaned from reflection on what is observable with the five senses. The underground aquifer represents a purer form of knowledge, which enters by way of meditative inspiration (ilhām). Unlike the “sensate rivers,” knowledge that comes from the inside cannot be sullied.

The monumental mausoleum at Gunbad-i Haruniyya, in Tus, Iran, purported to contain the tomb of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111) (photo credit: Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom, courtesy of ArchNet.org).

The important thing to notice is how vividly Ghazālī illustrates these different means of acquiring knowledge. He uses dynamic verbs to show how the reservoir might be filled. He stages more familiar forms of irrigation first, before revealing the surprising underground source of water. The movement from one kind of water to the next gives the metaphor the sense that time is passing. We are asked to envision the work of digging a pool and the search for clean water. Over the course of the scene, we come to understand that the unfolding of the drama represents the labor that we undertake throughout our lives to gain knowledge and avoid corruption. Indeed, the story rehearses Ghazālī’s own journey from being a doyen of Muslim scholasticism to retreating into asceticism.7

In the story of the artists, the king has set a challenge in which Byzantine and Chinese painters have to compete to create a brilliant image.

The king gave them a portico, of which the Chinese were to paint one side and the Byzantines the other. A drop cloth was hung between them, which prevented each side from looking at the other. The Byzantines collected countless strange colors. But the Chinese entered without even one color. They began to polish and burnish their side. When the Byzantines were finished, the Chinese claimed to be finished as well. The king was startled by this claim and wondered how they had painted without any color at all. They were asked, “How is it that you’ve finished but you didn’t use any color?” They replied, “Don’t give it a thought. Lift the curtain.” It was raised and there shone forth the wonders of the Byzantine craft with added brightness and luster. [The Chinese side] had become like a polished mirror because of so much brightening. The beauty of their side [exceeded that of the Byzantines] because of this added clarity.8

Here too, the work of the Byzantine painters represents discursive and sensate knowledge. The Chinese artists symbolize those who purify their hearts so that inspiration might enter. Like the story of the reservoir, this image also unfolds as a narrative. Ghazālī leans heavily on images to conjure the scene of the court. He invites us into the excitement of the competition without showing favor for either side. Not until the end of the scene do we learn which characters are the protagonists with whom we should identify.

These are just a few of the multitudes of metaphors in “Wonders of the Heart.” Sometimes the metaphors illustrate a competition between forms of knowledge. Others, like the king and his armies, depict a struggle between forces of righteousness and evil. What all these metaphors share is duality. They all have two doors (the paintings themselves can be read as doors), one of which opens up to the unseen world while the other opens up onto the world of the five senses. Through these doors enter the characters who vie for control of the heart.

Why does Ghazālī deploy these scenes? At one point, he tells us that he does so because the wonders of the heart can’t be grasped by the five senses. “Know that the wonders of the heart are out of the reach of the senses because the heart is also beyond comprehension of sense. Comprehension by the senses is too weak to understand except by tangible example.”9 He is trying to bring into discursivity what is beyond it. But these examples have an effect beyond illustrating the complex attunements of the heart. They are also meant to shock a reader who is presumed to be versed in discursive knowledge but not “inspiration.” What Cavell refers to as Shakespeare’s strategy in King Lear also applies here:

A strategy whose point is to break up our sense of the ordinary (which is not the same as a strategy whose point is to present us with spectacularly extraordinary events) also has claim to be called philosophical: this is perhaps why an essential response in both philosophy and tragedy is that of wonder.10

Ghazālī wants his little plays to perform the wonders of the heart.

Dramaturgy: for the most part, drama has been a neglected art form in Islamicate societies, at least until recent times, with some well-known exceptions such as wayang kulit or Indonesian shadow puppetry, a form with medieval analogues in the Arab world (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Next, what can be made of the two doors? Is there any advantage to seeing them as doors onto a stage? If so, how might we think of the players? Towards the end of this book, Ghazālī moves progressively towards a skeptical stance with regard to the physical world and our ability to know anything by it. Our vision is clouded by desire for it. This is foreshadowed by his metaphor of the fortress:

Know that the heart is like a fortress and Satan an enemy who wants to enter it, to take possession of it, and rule over it. And there is no way to protect the fortress except by guarding its doors, entrances and places where it is cracked.11

It is as though Ghazālī is asking us to identify with a character in a play. He draws on dramatic images to question the status of the world and our ability to know it. We should barricade ourselves off from the world as an army would fortify a fortress under siege. The doors are meant to indicate the vast possibilities that lie just offstage. What happens in the theater need only be suggestive of the larger forces beyond. Each play demonstrates the heart’s struggle to control its contact with and susceptibility to outside worlds by coordinating the opening and closing of the doors and the characters that pass through them.

Just as plays can render life in miniature, the heart is a microcosm of the world. Ghazālī describes the faculties of sense and the ability to apprehend the physical world as such: “You can never apprehend anything except that which is connected to you; and were it not that the whole world was created in you, you would have no information about that which is separate from you.”12 The heart is such an attuned organ because it contains the world within it. Its ability to comprehend stems from a concordance between its innate qualities and the world at large. For this reason, Ghazālī is not keen to cross out all the faculties of sense perception or discursive knowledge. As Ebrahim Moosa and Paul Heck argue, he uses skepticism for a productive inducement to “intellectual inquiry” and “self-transformation.”13 As Moosa shows, Ghazālī exists in an in-between space between the skeptic’s doubt and the reasoning subject’s confidence in her ability to know the world.14 Likewise, Cavell writes, “For the point of forgoing knowledge is, of course, to know.”15

However, as we have seen, Ghazālī becomes increasingly skeptical and distrustful of the physical world as the “Wonders of the Heart” progresses. At one point he admits, “Yes, one can become strong so that one is not led astray. And one can repel evil from one’s self through struggle. But one can never be free of struggle and defense so long as blood flows in the body.”16 For Ghazālī, the temptations of the world and its ultimate unreality when compared with God are linked. To desire the world is to be led away from the Real:

Since there is not one heart that is empty of desire, anger, covetousness, greed, hope for a long life, and similar human qualities originating from whim, without a doubt there is not a heart in which Satan doesn’t roam about, making evil promptings.17

The antidote lies in world rejection: focusing on the unseen world by (for example) recalling the name of God makes us less apt to be seduced by the temptations of this world. Ghazālī enumerates the doors through which Satan can enter the heart; and he encourages withdrawal from the world and purification of the heart.

This resonates with other comments that Cavell makes about King Lear. Cavell argues that when, at the beginning of the play, Lear abdicates and becomes insane, he is leaving not only the kingdom but also acknowledgement. Cavell defines acknowledgement as either a confession to one’s self, as in, “I know I am in pain,” or an expression of understanding of what another is going through, “I know you are in pain.”18 Of King Lear, he writes:

Suppose we see in the progress of Lear’s madness a recapitulation of the history of civilization or of consciousness: from the breaking up of familial bonds and the release of offenses which destroy the social cosmos, through the fragile replacement of revenge by the institution of legal justice, to the corruption of justice itself and the breaking up of civil bonds.19

Ghazālī’s book must be read as the reverse of King Lear. It is not just his individual images that perform little plays. Taken as a whole, the book itself also traces a dramatic arc. At the beginning, the king assembles an army to guide him through the world. As the book progresses, though, the world becomes too much, too illusory and tempting. By the end, the king—the heart—is encouraged to abdicate the worldly throne. What Cavell laments in Lear, Ghazālī advocates. Cavell writes, “If you would avoid tragedy, avoid love; if you cannot avoid love, avoid integrity; if you cannot avoid integrity, avoid the world.”20 Here, love should be read as romantic love, or love between people, the repression of which Ghazālī sees as a prerequisite for divine love.21 For Ghazālī, the ultimate cosmic tragedy must be averted by avoiding love of the world.

I only wish to draw one more conclusion from thinking about Ghazālī in the terms Cavell uses to describe King Lear. Cavell writes that Lear is about the necessary impossibility of being present: “One function of tragedy would be to show me that… at every moment there is a present passing me by and that the reason it passes me by is the old reason, that I am not present to it.”22 In similar fashion, Ghazālī asks us to remain constantly vigilant about where our urges are coming from. One of his last sections is thus an investigation into how humans are held morally responsible. Why does the book end with the notion that some of us are destined for the fire and others for the garden?23

The inevitability of judgment: the Prophet Muḥammad witnesses the torments of the damned. Detail, folio from a Chagatay Turkish Mirʿājnāmah dated to 1436 (Supplément turc 190, f. 57r; courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Might it be that Ghazālī is trying to show that, like characters in a play, we are both radically free—acting in the present moment, in one another’s presence—and radically determined?24 This would accord with the way that Ghazālī so easily slips in and out of his stories and what they are meant to illustrate. When he speaks of “sensate rivers,” for example, he has perfectly mixed the metaphor of the rivers feeding the reservoir with the sense organs that they are meant to represent. As in a play, the reality of the actors mixes with the unreality of the characters they portray. The stakes of the actors’ performance and the stakes of the dramatic narrative heighten one another. Cavell writes:

Kant tells us that man lives in two worlds, in one of which he is free and in the other determined. It is as if in a theater these two worlds are faced off against one another, in their intimacy and their mutual inaccessibility.25

In Ghazālī’s plays we can see, indeed we feel, why Ghazālī has explained in such detail how to avoid falling in love with the world when, as the last few words of the book make clear, it is only God who can give us the ability to do so.26

 

SAM KIGAR defended his dissertation from the Graduate Program in Religion at Duke University just days before this piece was published. He works on conceptions of possession and sovereignty in medieval and modern Muslim thought.

 

  1. Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1976 [1969]), 347.
  2. My thanks go to Dr. Ebrahim Moosa for showing me the depths of Ghazālī and to my classmates in his Muslim Humanities course for their comments on an early draft of this piece.
  3. Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn (16 vols. Cairo: Dār al-Shaʿb, n.d.), 8.1347.
  4. Ibid.
  5. The concept of metaphor was of great interest for medieval Muslim thinkers in multiple disciplines. For an illuminating discussion of the development of understandings of figurative speech see Wolfhart Heinrichs, “On the Genesis of the Ḥaqîqa-Majâz Dichotomy,” Studia Islamica 59 (1984): 111-140.
  6. Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ, 8.1373-1374.
  7. For a brief biography of Ghazālī, see Ebrahim Moosa, Ghazālī and the Poetics of Imagination (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 2-8.
  8. Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ, 8. 1376.
  9. Ibid., 8.1373.
  10. Cavell, Must We Mean, 316.
  11. Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ, 8.1394.
  12. Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ, 8.1374.
  13. Moosa, Ghazālī and the Poetics of Imagination, 258; Paul Heck, Skepticism in Classical Islam: Moments of Confusion (New York: Routledge, 2014), 109-115.
  14. Moosa, Ghazālī, 187.
  15. Cavell, Must We Mean, 325.
  16. Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ, 8.1392.
  17. Ibid., 8.1387.
  18. Cavell, Must We Mean, 263.
  19. Cavell, Must We Mean, 305.
  20. Ibid., 349-350.
  21. I am indebted to Dr. Ali Mian for this formulation.
  22. Ibid., 348.
  23. Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ, 8.1423.
  24. Moosa also indicates the coexistence of heteronomy and autonomy in Ghazālī’s thought (Ghazālī and the Poetics of Imagination, 233).
  25. Cavell, Must We Mean, 317.
  26. Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ, 8.1424.

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Ghazālī’s Wondrous Plays of the Heart

Dramaturgy in "The Resuscitation of the Religious Sciences"


Sam Kigar


What we forgot, when we deified reason, was not that reason is incompatible with feeling, but that knowledge requires acknowledgement. (The withdrawals and approaches of God can be looked upon as tracing the history of our attempts to overtake and absorb acknowledgement by knowledge; God would be the name for that impossibility).

–Stanley Cavell1


In Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī’s (d. 505/1111) “Wonders of the Heart”—an important part of the famous Muslim thinker’s multi-volume magnum opus, The Resuscitation of the Religious Sciences—we read a litany of metaphorical descriptions of the heart.2 An early section, for example, is structured around the idea that the heart is a “king” (malik), who has “armies that are his servants and assistants.”3 The heart, for Ghazālī, is a powerful locus of cognition, affect, and control. Its “armies” are the external sense-organs and limbs, as well as internal psychic complexes and appetites. The king-heart has to command these armies in order to make a safe “journey to God.”4

Why does Ghazālī rely so heavily on metaphor in his description of the heart? What does he make of these illustrative examples, and what do we? Without delving into the thought on metaphor that might have been available to him,5 I want to introduce a concept that is foreign to Ghazālī’s text, but which I hope will be illuminating. These metaphors can be read as the stage setting of a play, perhaps a tragedy (I’ll defer the question of genre), in which different actors—armies, angels, demons, and ego, for example—act. There is a drama of the heart happening. Ghazālī is the dramaturge. I argue, following Stanley Cavell, that these dramatic flourishes allow Ghazālī to introduce and work through skepticism and to present a novel understanding of the relationship between free will and predestination.

In addition to a king, Ghazālī sometimes imagines the heart as a reservoir, sometimes as a fortress, and sometimes as the scene of a court in which artists vie for the king’s favor. These images are meant to depict the heart as an organ that is plunged into the world. Against worldly temptations, it struggles to maintain purity. Ghazālī writes:

Imagine that we were to dig a reservoir into the earth. Water would flow into it from the surface by way of streams. Water could also be pulled into it by digging beneath the reservoir and removing [more] dirt until we reached a deep well of pure water, which would burst forth into the reservoir from below. This water would be purer, more continuously flowing, more abundant and copious [than the surface water]. The heart is like this reservoir and knowledge is like the water. The five senses are like the overland rivers. It is possible to convey knowledge to the heart by way of these sensate streams—contemplation of observable objects—until it is full of knowledge. It is also possible to dam those rivers by secluding and isolating [oneself] and lowering one’s gaze [from the world]. Then one can proceed to the depths of the heart by purifying it and removing layers of veils from it, until knowledge explodes forth, gushing into the heart from the inside.6

Ghazālī implies that overland water will pick up dirt and grime along the way, while groundwater will remain pure. The water from the streams is discursive knowledge, gleaned from reflection on what is observable with the five senses. The underground aquifer represents a purer form of knowledge, which enters by way of meditative inspiration (ilhām). Unlike the “sensate rivers,” knowledge that comes from the inside cannot be sullied.

The monumental mausoleum at Gunbad-i Haruniyya, in Tus, Iran, purported to contain the tomb of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111) (photo credit: Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom, courtesy of ArchNet.org).

The important thing to notice is how vividly Ghazālī illustrates these different means of acquiring knowledge. He uses dynamic verbs to show how the reservoir might be filled. He stages more familiar forms of irrigation first, before revealing the surprising underground source of water. The movement from one kind of water to the next gives the metaphor the sense that time is passing. We are asked to envision the work of digging a pool and the search for clean water. Over the course of the scene, we come to understand that the unfolding of the drama represents the labor that we undertake throughout our lives to gain knowledge and avoid corruption. Indeed, the story rehearses Ghazālī’s own journey from being a doyen of Muslim scholasticism to retreating into asceticism.7

In the story of the artists, the king has set a challenge in which Byzantine and Chinese painters have to compete to create a brilliant image.

The king gave them a portico, of which the Chinese were to paint one side and the Byzantines the other. A drop cloth was hung between them, which prevented each side from looking at the other. The Byzantines collected countless strange colors. But the Chinese entered without even one color. They began to polish and burnish their side. When the Byzantines were finished, the Chinese claimed to be finished as well. The king was startled by this claim and wondered how they had painted without any color at all. They were asked, “How is it that you’ve finished but you didn’t use any color?” They replied, “Don’t give it a thought. Lift the curtain.” It was raised and there shone forth the wonders of the Byzantine craft with added brightness and luster. [The Chinese side] had become like a polished mirror because of so much brightening. The beauty of their side [exceeded that of the Byzantines] because of this added clarity.8

Here too, the work of the Byzantine painters represents discursive and sensate knowledge. The Chinese artists symbolize those who purify their hearts so that inspiration might enter. Like the story of the reservoir, this image also unfolds as a narrative. Ghazālī leans heavily on images to conjure the scene of the court. He invites us into the excitement of the competition without showing favor for either side. Not until the end of the scene do we learn which characters are the protagonists with whom we should identify.

These are just a few of the multitudes of metaphors in “Wonders of the Heart.” Sometimes the metaphors illustrate a competition between forms of knowledge. Others, like the king and his armies, depict a struggle between forces of righteousness and evil. What all these metaphors share is duality. They all have two doors (the paintings themselves can be read as doors), one of which opens up to the unseen world while the other opens up onto the world of the five senses. Through these doors enter the characters who vie for control of the heart.

Why does Ghazālī deploy these scenes? At one point, he tells us that he does so because the wonders of the heart can’t be grasped by the five senses. “Know that the wonders of the heart are out of the reach of the senses because the heart is also beyond comprehension of sense. Comprehension by the senses is too weak to understand except by tangible example.”9 He is trying to bring into discursivity what is beyond it. But these examples have an effect beyond illustrating the complex attunements of the heart. They are also meant to shock a reader who is presumed to be versed in discursive knowledge but not “inspiration.” What Cavell refers to as Shakespeare’s strategy in King Lear also applies here:

A strategy whose point is to break up our sense of the ordinary (which is not the same as a strategy whose point is to present us with spectacularly extraordinary events) also has claim to be called philosophical: this is perhaps why an essential response in both philosophy and tragedy is that of wonder.10

Ghazālī wants his little plays to perform the wonders of the heart.

Dramaturgy: for the most part, drama has been a neglected art form in Islamicate societies, at least until recent times, with some well-known exceptions such as wayang kulit or Indonesian shadow puppetry, a form with medieval analogues in the Arab world (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Next, what can be made of the two doors? Is there any advantage to seeing them as doors onto a stage? If so, how might we think of the players? Towards the end of this book, Ghazālī moves progressively towards a skeptical stance with regard to the physical world and our ability to know anything by it. Our vision is clouded by desire for it. This is foreshadowed by his metaphor of the fortress:

Know that the heart is like a fortress and Satan an enemy who wants to enter it, to take possession of it, and rule over it. And there is no way to protect the fortress except by guarding its doors, entrances and places where it is cracked.11

It is as though Ghazālī is asking us to identify with a character in a play. He draws on dramatic images to question the status of the world and our ability to know it. We should barricade ourselves off from the world as an army would fortify a fortress under siege. The doors are meant to indicate the vast possibilities that lie just offstage. What happens in the theater need only be suggestive of the larger forces beyond. Each play demonstrates the heart’s struggle to control its contact with and susceptibility to outside worlds by coordinating the opening and closing of the doors and the characters that pass through them.

Just as plays can render life in miniature, the heart is a microcosm of the world. Ghazālī describes the faculties of sense and the ability to apprehend the physical world as such: “You can never apprehend anything except that which is connected to you; and were it not that the whole world was created in you, you would have no information about that which is separate from you.”12 The heart is such an attuned organ because it contains the world within it. Its ability to comprehend stems from a concordance between its innate qualities and the world at large. For this reason, Ghazālī is not keen to cross out all the faculties of sense perception or discursive knowledge. As Ebrahim Moosa and Paul Heck argue, he uses skepticism for a productive inducement to “intellectual inquiry” and “self-transformation.”13 As Moosa shows, Ghazālī exists in an in-between space between the skeptic’s doubt and the reasoning subject’s confidence in her ability to know the world.14 Likewise, Cavell writes, “For the point of forgoing knowledge is, of course, to know.”15

However, as we have seen, Ghazālī becomes increasingly skeptical and distrustful of the physical world as the “Wonders of the Heart” progresses. At one point he admits, “Yes, one can become strong so that one is not led astray. And one can repel evil from one’s self through struggle. But one can never be free of struggle and defense so long as blood flows in the body.”16 For Ghazālī, the temptations of the world and its ultimate unreality when compared with God are linked. To desire the world is to be led away from the Real:

Since there is not one heart that is empty of desire, anger, covetousness, greed, hope for a long life, and similar human qualities originating from whim, without a doubt there is not a heart in which Satan doesn’t roam about, making evil promptings.17

The antidote lies in world rejection: focusing on the unseen world by (for example) recalling the name of God makes us less apt to be seduced by the temptations of this world. Ghazālī enumerates the doors through which Satan can enter the heart; and he encourages withdrawal from the world and purification of the heart.

This resonates with other comments that Cavell makes about King Lear. Cavell argues that when, at the beginning of the play, Lear abdicates and becomes insane, he is leaving not only the kingdom but also acknowledgement. Cavell defines acknowledgement as either a confession to one’s self, as in, “I know I am in pain,” or an expression of understanding of what another is going through, “I know you are in pain.”18 Of King Lear, he writes:

Suppose we see in the progress of Lear’s madness a recapitulation of the history of civilization or of consciousness: from the breaking up of familial bonds and the release of offenses which destroy the social cosmos, through the fragile replacement of revenge by the institution of legal justice, to the corruption of justice itself and the breaking up of civil bonds.19

Ghazālī’s book must be read as the reverse of King Lear. It is not just his individual images that perform little plays. Taken as a whole, the book itself also traces a dramatic arc. At the beginning, the king assembles an army to guide him through the world. As the book progresses, though, the world becomes too much, too illusory and tempting. By the end, the king—the heart—is encouraged to abdicate the worldly throne. What Cavell laments in Lear, Ghazālī advocates. Cavell writes, “If you would avoid tragedy, avoid love; if you cannot avoid love, avoid integrity; if you cannot avoid integrity, avoid the world.”20 Here, love should be read as romantic love, or love between people, the repression of which Ghazālī sees as a prerequisite for divine love.21 For Ghazālī, the ultimate cosmic tragedy must be averted by avoiding love of the world.

I only wish to draw one more conclusion from thinking about Ghazālī in the terms Cavell uses to describe King Lear. Cavell writes that Lear is about the necessary impossibility of being present: “One function of tragedy would be to show me that… at every moment there is a present passing me by and that the reason it passes me by is the old reason, that I am not present to it.”22 In similar fashion, Ghazālī asks us to remain constantly vigilant about where our urges are coming from. One of his last sections is thus an investigation into how humans are held morally responsible. Why does the book end with the notion that some of us are destined for the fire and others for the garden?23

The inevitability of judgment: the Prophet Muḥammad witnesses the torments of the damned. Detail, folio from a Chagatay Turkish Mirʿājnāmah dated to 1436 (Supplément turc 190, f. 57r; courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Might it be that Ghazālī is trying to show that, like characters in a play, we are both radically free—acting in the present moment, in one another’s presence—and radically determined?24 This would accord with the way that Ghazālī so easily slips in and out of his stories and what they are meant to illustrate. When he speaks of “sensate rivers,” for example, he has perfectly mixed the metaphor of the rivers feeding the reservoir with the sense organs that they are meant to represent. As in a play, the reality of the actors mixes with the unreality of the characters they portray. The stakes of the actors’ performance and the stakes of the dramatic narrative heighten one another. Cavell writes:

Kant tells us that man lives in two worlds, in one of which he is free and in the other determined. It is as if in a theater these two worlds are faced off against one another, in their intimacy and their mutual inaccessibility.25

In Ghazālī’s plays we can see, indeed we feel, why Ghazālī has explained in such detail how to avoid falling in love with the world when, as the last few words of the book make clear, it is only God who can give us the ability to do so.26

 

SAM KIGAR defended his dissertation from the Graduate Program in Religion at Duke University just days before this piece was published. He works on conceptions of possession and sovereignty in medieval and modern Muslim thought.

 

  1. Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1976 [1969]), 347.
  2. My thanks go to Dr. Ebrahim Moosa for showing me the depths of Ghazālī and to my classmates in his Muslim Humanities course for their comments on an early draft of this piece.
  3. Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn (16 vols. Cairo: Dār al-Shaʿb, n.d.), 8.1347.
  4. Ibid.
  5. The concept of metaphor was of great interest for medieval Muslim thinkers in multiple disciplines. For an illuminating discussion of the development of understandings of figurative speech see Wolfhart Heinrichs, “On the Genesis of the Ḥaqîqa-Majâz Dichotomy,” Studia Islamica 59 (1984): 111-140.
  6. Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ, 8.1373-1374.
  7. For a brief biography of Ghazālī, see Ebrahim Moosa, Ghazālī and the Poetics of Imagination (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 2-8.
  8. Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ, 8. 1376.
  9. Ibid., 8.1373.
  10. Cavell, Must We Mean, 316.
  11. Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ, 8.1394.
  12. Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ, 8.1374.
  13. Moosa, Ghazālī and the Poetics of Imagination, 258; Paul Heck, Skepticism in Classical Islam: Moments of Confusion (New York: Routledge, 2014), 109-115.
  14. Moosa, Ghazālī, 187.
  15. Cavell, Must We Mean, 325.
  16. Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ, 8.1392.
  17. Ibid., 8.1387.
  18. Cavell, Must We Mean, 263.
  19. Cavell, Must We Mean, 305.
  20. Ibid., 349-350.
  21. I am indebted to Dr. Ali Mian for this formulation.
  22. Ibid., 348.
  23. Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ, 8.1423.
  24. Moosa also indicates the coexistence of heteronomy and autonomy in Ghazālī’s thought (Ghazālī and the Poetics of Imagination, 233).
  25. Cavell, Must We Mean, 317.
  26. Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ, 8.1424.

Ghazālī’s Wondrous Plays of the Heart

Dramaturgy in "The Resuscitation of the Religious Sciences"

Ghazālī’s Wondrous Plays of the Heart

Dramaturgy in "The Resuscitation of the Religious Sciences"