Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali’s ‘Deliverance from Error and Attachment to the Lord of Might and Majesty’ successfully allows the reader a concise, and informative window into the life of a great scholar. Deliverance from Error, translated from the Arabic ‘al Munqidh min ad-Dalal’ by W. Montgomery Watt, is an autobiographical account of Ghazali’s struggle during a period of spiritual unrest in his life that begins with him as a teacher at a prestigious academic institution at the age of thirty-three, continues through his ascetic wanderings, and concludes upon his return to his teaching career but now as a complete God-orientated man, rather than a person “on the plain of native and second-hand belief (sic)”.
The book opens with Ghazali replying to a colleague, who had questioned him regarding “the aims and inmost nature of sciences and the perplexing depths of the religious systems” and the reasons for Ghazali’s actions at this stage of his life. He is an enquiring man who subjects all to his scrutinising eye. This habit and custom he describes as “a God-given nature, a matter of temperament, and not of my choice or contriving.”
With this outlook he starts to question the different types of knowledge around him. He systematically and diligently tackles each science which influences man’s spiritual/religious mindset, covering the four main sciences of the time: theology, authoritative instruction, philosophy and mysticism, all of which continue to play significant roles today.
The analysis is carried out in detail, unbiased and authoritatively (as Ghazali studied and authored in most of the fields of his investigation). He dissects each science like a skilled surgeon and then delivers his post-surgery evaluation with accuracy and precision.
A passage which distils the essence of his spiritual journey can be found in Section 4 – The Ways of Mysticism, “I learnt with certainty that it is above all the mystics who walk on the road of God; their life is the best life, their method the soundest method, their character the purest character; indeed, were the intellect of the intellectuals and the learning of the learned and the scholarship of the scholars, who are versed in the profundities of revealed truth, bought together in the attempt to improve the life and character of the mystics, they would find no way of doing so; for to the mystics all movement and all rest, whether external or internal brings an illumination from the light of the lamp of prophetic revelation; and behind the light of prophetic revelation there is no other light on the face of the earth from which illumination may be received.”
A chapter on the nature of Prophecy follows which highlights its compelling need. He discusses sensual and intellectual perceptions, their development in humans from simple to complex, and they end where divine inspiration and revelation begin. The methodology used to explain this spectrum of perceptions is both simple and effective and allows the reader to follow the thought pattern of the author.
A concluding chapter on Ghazali’s return to teaching also tackles and in fact successfully deals with possible rebuttals of the hypothesis that he postulates on the need for prophetic leadership. As an expert in each of the fields his replies to the various groups are from their own teachings, doctrines and methodology.
The translation is reasonable, however it can prove challenging to read in certain places due to the occasional unusual use of grammar and language. Having said that, the reader should be prepared to be astounded at the effortless artistry of a great master plucking pearls from the depths of the oceans.
In this time of great confusion, misinformation (or rather overawed by information!) and the claim of many sects to be ‘the callers of truth’, ‘Deliverance of Error’ can prove to be a lighthouse on the horizon gently bringing in the seeker of Truth from the darkness and volatility of the ocean to the abode of Truth and Certainty. [Please note that this review is of the translation by W. M. Watt].
Reviewed by: Amjad Muhammad