Imam al-Ghazālī's Methodology in Delivering Knowledge and Its Spread in The Malay World (Part 1)

By Abdullah Zawawi Bin Mohd Zawawi

Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazālī is a major figure in the Islamic intellectual tradition whose works, till today, remain relevant as a central reference. An effort to enliven his evergreen ideas are being carried out by some of the major Islamic thinkers who see it as a panacea for the crisis and challenges of our age. These ideas have been reinterpreted and manifested in various aspects of thought in different ways.[1]

The thoughts and writings of Imam al-Ghazālī centered on the reformation of intellectual errors and the moral values of society through knowledge and da’wah (invitation to Islam). To address this, he opined that a suitable methodology to deliver any type of knowledge must be in place. Without a suitable and precise methodology, the knowledge that originally serves as a curative solution could potentially change into a poison that destroys. This notion can be understood through his commentary regarding what Allah SWT says in the Quran about the debate between Prophet Ibrāhīm a.s and Nimrod.[2]

              “Through this debate, the friend of Allah (Prophet Ibrāhīm) did not mean to destroy his adversary but in fact, his goal was to revive him. And verily, feeding someone with suitable nutrition is a kind of revival. In contrast, continually burdening someone with something beyond his capability and suitability is a kind of destruction.”

Part I: Imam al-Ghazālī's Methodology in Delivering Knowledge

In general, Imam al-Ghazālī's methodology can be seen as focusing on a few aspects which are based on the background of the individual learner. In his book al-Qistas al-Mustaqim, the delivery of knowledge, as expounded by Imam al-Ghazālī, contains two main aspects: 1) the intellectual level of the learner and 2) the need for such knowledge.

In relation to these two aspects, the excerpts of Imam al-Ghazālī's words which are quoted above are clear evidence that these two aspects are important elements that must be measured and weighed before the process of knowledge delivery can take place. Similar to how a certain food must be given in accordance to the compatibility and need of the one being fed knowledge must therefore also be delivered in accordance to how compatible it is with the intellectual strength of the learner and the need for the knowledge.

In view of the first aspect which is the intellectual level of the learner, Imam al-Ghazālī had classified humans into 3 categories:

  • The Common Men, which includes the general population whose intellect is not strong
  • The Elect, which include people whose intellect are extremely sharp
  • The Wranglers (people of dialectic and contention), which include the ones whose intellects are sharp but are inclined towards dogmatism and deviation from truth 

Next, based on this classification, Imam al-Ghazālī had arranged a kind of ‘syllabus’ that subsumes a few ‘subjects’ of knowledge as a manual and guide to determine the types of knowledge that are needed by an individual based on his level.[3] 

  • The Common Men – The delivery of knowledge is limited to what is inside the Holy Quran and the traditions of the Prophet. It includes the knowledge of Allah’s attributes and names as seen in the two main sources, the certitude of all notions that exalt Allah and all that negate the existence of anything that has any form of similitude to Allah. This knowledge is called Theology (Aqidah). As for the delivery of Jurisprudence (Fiqh), it has to be limited to matters related to the foundations only and not related to the branches that scholars can debate upon. They must also be taught about taqwa which can be defined as the obligation of leaving the prohibitions of Allah like backbiting, inciting others to conflict, breaking trust and others. These falls under the subject of basic Sufism[4] (tasawuf).
  • The Elect – Must be equipped with knowledge that can be used as tools for thought to seek the truth
  • The Wranglers (people of dialectic and contention) – Their treatment is similar to the Elect, however, if this group continues to be dogmatic and deviate from seeking truth, they should be abandoned and the delivery of knowledge to them must be ceased. 

In line with the ‘syllabus’ that have been outlined, Imam al-Ghazālī have applied it to a more practical situation. In his work al-Iqtisad fi al-I’tiqad, he categorised people into 4 groups based on their need for dialectical theology (kalam) [5]:

  • Those who believe the truth and of sound faith – The delivery of dialectical theology is not required because it is feared that it might disturb the soundness of their faith
  • Those who believe the truth and have strong intellect but their faith have been exposed to disturbance and doubt – The delivery of dialectical theology is required to dispel any doubt.
  • Those who believe falsehood and have strong intellect but are not dogmatic – The delivery of dialectical theology is required to attract them towards the truth.
  • Those who believe falsehood and are dogmatic – They must be ignored and the delivery of dialectical theology is not required because it will not result in any benefit. 

Therefore, in the context of delivering dialectical theology, Imam al-Ghazālī had laid down the methodology as outlined before this. He holds the opinion that the delivery of dialectical theology – though it is an important science – must be based on the need of the one receiving the knowledge. If the need for the knowledge arises, the delivery should continue but if otherwise, it must be put on hold. This treatment is consistent for other sciences.

Part II: The Manifestation of Imam al-Ghazālī's Methodology in Delivering Knowledge in the Process of Spreading Islam in the Malay World 

Author received his Masters Degree in Mohammed V University, in Rabat, Morocco. Prior to this, he attained his Degree in Cadi Ayyad University Marrakesh, Morocco. 

Article was originally written in Malay translated by Amir Irsyad Khan. 


 [1] See this discussion further in:  Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud, Falsafah dan Amalan Pendidikan Islam S. M. Naquib Al-Attas: Satu Huraian Konsep Asli Islamisasi, (Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Universiti Malaya, 2020M): 12-13.

[2] Al-Ghazālī, Timbangan Yang Adil, tran Abdullah Zawawi (Kuala Lumpur: Nizamiyyah Publications & Distributors, 2021M): 8.

[3] See this discussion further in the chapter “Pada Membicarakan Mengenai Jalan Keluar Daripada Kegelapan Perselisihan Bagi Manusia” dalam: al-Ghazālī, Timbangan Yang Adil, tran. Abdullah Zawawi (Kuala Lumpur: Nizamiyyah Publications & Distributors, 2021M).

[4]  Sufism or Tasawuf is a fardu ’ain subject which can be defined as the purification of the heart. At the novice level, it includes the education of moral character by following the commandments of Allah and refraining from His prohibitions by controlling basal desires. Advanced students would aspire and work towards getting closer to Allah and reach higher levels of unveiling through supererogatory acts of worship.

[5] Al-Ghazālī, al-Iqtiṣād fī al-I’tiqād (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhāj, 2012M): 74.