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Imam al-Ghazali: The Unlikely Seeker

by Omar Sallam

A child is born, probably to a great joy for his family. This child would sadly grow up and lose his father. With no money, he is sent to seek means for funding. Years later, he would be attacked by brigades. Without going further in this story, if I were to ask, “does this look like a biography of a transformative figure in human history?” It doesn’t seem so.

The ironic reality, this story is about one of the most famous and influential figures in Muslim history, Imam Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali. He grew up in poverty. He lost his father at a young age and faced various other challenges. However, Imam al-Ghazali is also the scholar who attained the highest levels of academic knowledge of his time, rose to prominence at this time, and reached an experiential knowledge of Islamic spirituality in an unparalleled way. While, there are many factors that contributed to his success, one that can’t be overlooked is his lifelong attachment to learning.

Humble Beginnings

Imam al-Ghazali learned the basics in his hometown of Tabaran. He was sent to be a student, after the funds his father left with his caretaker ran out. A religious caretaker was entrusted by his father, who himself both loved preachers and scholars of his time. In our age of social media, claims to expertise, and selling oneself, many don’t value basics in comparison to the allure of appearing sophisticated. Imam al-Ghazali climbed the path to knowledge on trodden steps. His basics established a foundation for further studies that shaped his future.

At the Feet of a Giant

Later in his life, he traveled to study with one of the giants of Islamic scholarship and geniuses of the world, Imam Diya al-Din ‘Abd al-Malik al-Juwayni. After inheriting much knowledge from his teacher one would think, that would be sufficient, but he didn’t stop there. He learned and sought spirituality on top of his mastery of rational sciences, theoretical sciences, and mastering the ability to preach and teach.

Where are Certainty and Fulfillment?

Imam al-Ghazali, not feeling content, went through a crisis of his own. That crisis led him to resolve the prior dilemma of teaching publically and seeking spiritual solitude to attain certainty. He wouldn’t take a break from teaching for a month or two, nor a year or two, but a full decade. In it, Imam al-Ghazali left prestige, fame, the ego, and spiritually developed himself unlike any learning previous experience he had before.

Spiritual Seeking

After reaching spiritual realization and contentment, he penned his knowledge in classics and mainstays of a spiritual tradition that are read until this day. He sought spirituality, experienced it, and even shared some of this experience in his autobiography and various other spiritual works. He would eventually return to his town, but not intending to teach. After much pleading he agreed to teach, but everyone that knew him realized something profound has changed about him. It seems that Imam al-Ghazali can now retire…

Hugging the Tradition

Imam al-Ghazali, always the seeker, established a space for spiritual seekers and gave them his care. His life-long journey to seeking didn’t stop. It is related he would hold hadith collection of Imam al-Bukhari to study and hug. The tradition he embodied, was still sought, but this time in the knowledge of hadith, which he probably didn’t feel he studied sufficiently before.

Soon after, the curtain of his life would draw to his close as he met the fate of every human, mortality. Imam al-Ghazali died in 1111 CE, but nearly 900 years later, his legacy inspires several questions.

Ask Yourself…

Are we willing to embrace our commitment to life as seekers? One would benefit from approaching the deen with the attitude of a lifelong learner. Just like many are encouraged to do this careers, we owe it to our souls to make every year an addition to our knowledge. Whether it is essentials, or enrichment, or a reaction to a life change, one can always find something to learn that is obligatory or recommended.

Will we approach our realities with wondering curiosity? One beautiful quality in children is nonstop questions. Adults can be stagnant with life turning into a reaction to bills. Dig deep in your past or current state and ask what are the saved questions you want answered. Prioritize them and then engage with those learned or seekers of wisdom about.

Can we be honest with ourselves and not just about the outward world but our inward world and be genuine people rather than pretenders? As we move to life it is hard to imagine no visits or stays from arrogance, or vanity, or show off. We should learn to grow and be curious, but we should also learn to polish our innermost jewel our hearts.

As long as there is life, there is a chance to seek. May God give us the will and success to do so.

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