Imam Ghazali's Methodology in Delivering Knowledge and Its Spread in Malay World (Part II)

By Abdullah Zawawi Bin Mohd Zawawi

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

History recorded how the advent of Islam manifested the development of an intellectual culture that flourished in the Malay World. We proposed that this development was the result of the wisdom of the great scholars of the past who emphasised the true and precise methodology in interacting with the different levels of society. Imam al-Ghazālī's methodology in delivering knowledge as clarified before was utilized with effectiveness in the spreading of Islam in the Malay World. In conjunction with what had been done by Imam al-Ghazālī, the scholars in this region also used intellectual strength and the need of the individual as an important indicator to determine which type of knowledge should be presented.

This phenomenon can be observed more clearly by reviewing the different phases of the spread of Islam in the Malay World which can be divided into 3 phases: 

  • First phase – between 12th and 14th century CE
  • Second phase – between 14th and 17th century CE
  • Third phase – from 17th century CE onwards 

From these three phases, only the first and second phase will be touched upon in this writing because of its close connection with Imam al-Ghazālī's methodology.

The first phase saw Islam as a religion which has already gained a foothold among the Malays. The delivery of knowledge during this era was observed to be limited to the study of “Arabic grammar, jurisprudence and topics related to the foundations of Islamic creed” [1]. As for other knowledge like dialectical theology (kalam) and advanced sufism, it was not prioritised by the scholars of that era. This is proven by the fact that the high positions in the Malay royal court during that period were held by jurists and a big portion of works that had been written was on Islamic jurisprudence. In the context of Sufism for instance, no documentation had mentioned of any Sufi scholars holding any position in the royal court and any works or scholarly discussions regarding the knowledge.[2]

The second phase witnessed the rise of influence of sufism and dialectics as the knowledge to interpret the laws in the religion. Prof Syed Naquib Al-Attas has characterised this phase with his words [3]:

“The 16th and 17th century CE witnessed such prolific writing in the literature of philosophy, metaphysics and rational theology that had not been matched by any other area or era in South East Asia. The first translation of the Quran to the Malay language had been commissioned including its exegesis based on al-Baydawi; and other translations and commentaries as well as original works in the field of philosophy, sufism and rational theology all had been executed in this period. This period also signified the development of rationalism and intellectualism that had never occurred in the ancient past in any parts of South East Asia in general and the Malay Archipelago in particular.”

By analysing the aspect of knowledge delivery in these two phases, we can conclude that the types of knowledge that was the focus of the scholars in the first phase of the spread of Islam differs from the second phase. If the first phase focused on grammar, jurisprudence and foundational creed and belief, then the second phase witnessed how knowledge like dialectical theology and sufism became more prevalent in the society and was promulgated through written works in these fields.

This leads us to apprehend as if these sciences had been structured according to a certain order based on the intellectual level of society and their needs. If we look from the aspect of intellectual strength, the Malay society in the first phase had not been encultured with a flourishing intellectual culture and discourse. Their lives were focused on agriculture, craftsmanship and the like. From the aspect of the need for the knowledge, the ones that were prioritised in this phase were the foundational sciences which include jurisprudence and elementary belief. For that reason, other sciences were not the main focus of delivery by the scholars. The characteristics of the society in the first phase mirrored the characteristics of the Common Men as mentioned by Imam al-Ghazālī. For this group, Imam al-Ghazālī proposed to deliver knowledge that is limited to what is in the Quran and the Sunnah and this had been clearly practised by the scholars.

Hidāyat al-sālikīn fī sulūk masalak al-muttaqīnʽAbd al-Ṣamad al-Jāwī al-Falimbānī, Dated : 5 Muharram 1192/3 Februari 1778. Image Source: Nusantara Manuscripts Portal

A different case would be made for the second phase of the spread of Islam. This phase witnessed a kind of intellectual reformation in the Malay society. Their need during that time was knowledge which could answer questions that could not be solved using basic level of knowledge in theology and jurisprudence. Therefore, the initiative done by the scholars in this phase was to introduce to the society types of knowledge that could be used as tools to think and find the truth namely the knowledge of dialectics and sufism. The Malay society in this phase could be categorised as the Elect in the human classification hierarchy by Imam al-Ghazālī.

In conclusion, by observing the pattern in the development of knowledge in the Malay world, it can be summed up that the scholars that proselytise in this region have a deep understanding about the existence of a hierarchy and organisation in the levels of status of men and with that understanding, they were able to formulate different approaches of interaction for each level. Thus, the knowledge that the scholars put focus on for each phase was also different, depending on the varying levels of society. This is a reflection of Imam al-Ghazālī’s thought when he classified men into the Common Men, the Elect and the Wranglers.

This is the continued approach that had been implemented by the Muhaqqiqin[4] thinkers of Islam in every age which had proven to be successful in building a great civilization in the past. Hence, it is upon the future generations to follow the path that had been set by them and contemplate on valuable ideas, integral to the solutions of the current crisis and challenges faced by the Muslim community now.

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

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] Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud, Falsafah dan Amalan Pendidikan Islam S. M. Naquib Al-Attas,: 261. 

[2] Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, The Mysticism Of Hamzah Fansuri (Kuala Lumpur: University Of Malaya Press, 1970M), :191 onwards.

[3] Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Islam Dalam Sejarah dan Kebudayaan Melayu (Kuala Lumpur, Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 2019M): 41.

[4] The Muhaqqiqin are those whose hearts has been unveiled to the true realities of the universe and see things as what they really are without any obfuscation.