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Story 72: In Quest Of Certitude

In the vast realm of the Seljuk empire, the Baghdad and Nishabur academies were like two shining stars. Seekers of knowledge and clarity increasingly rushed to one of these two great universities. The director of education in the Nishabur Academy was Abu al-Ma’ali Imam al-Haramayn from the years 450-478 Hijrah.

Hundreds of young earnest students came to his center of religious education in order to gain knowledge in writing and memorization of Hadith. Among Imam al-Haramayn’s disciples, there were three who showed a natural gift, attracted everyone’s attention and acquired good reputations. They were, Muhammad Ghazali Tusi, Kiahrasi, and Ahmad ibn Muhammad Khawafi.

In regards to these three students, Imam al-Haramayn’s praises passed by word of mouth, saying: ‘Ghazali is a surging sea, Kiarasi is a ferocious lion and Khawafi is a blazing fire.’ Of these three, Muhammad Ghazali appeared to be the most eminent and most qualified. This was the reason he became the hope of the Nishabur academy at the time.

Imam al-Haramayn passed away in 478 Hijrah. Ghazali, who had no equal at the time, decided to offer his services to Khajah Nizam ul-Mulk Tusi, the learned Seljuk minister, as an assistant to the assembly of scholars and men of letters. He also enjoyed debates and defeated all his contemporaries. Meanwhile, the seat of the director of the Baghdad Academy had become vacant, waiting for a suitable professor who could assume its position. There was no doubt that there was no-one more capable than this talented young man who had originally come from Khurasan.

In the year 484 of Hijrah, Ghazali arrived in Baghdad with pomp and dignity. He took the position of director of the Academy, which was the highest scientific and spiritual position at the time. He was considered the greatest scholar, as well as the highest religious authority. He was involved in important daily political affairs. Al-Muqtader Billah, the ruling Caliph, and after him al-Mustazhir Billah, showed him great respect.

Also, the great Seljuk King, Malik Shah, and his powerful erudite minister, Khaja Nizam ul-Mulk Tusi had shown great affection towards him and held him in high esteem. Ghazali had reached the zenith of his accomplishments. There was no rank remaining that he had not achieved. While he reigned in his scientific and spiritual supremacy, others envied him. In his inner soul a flame had been lit. It burned throughout his life and burnt entirely the harvest of his existence, as well as his rank and glory.

During his studies, Ghazali began to feel deeply within himself a mysterious sentiment which sought quietude, certitude and self-assurance, but his overwhelming craving for popularity, reputation and honour did not give this feeling a chance to grow. As he reached the zenith of his worldly progress and he began to be satiated, his curiosity and his search for truth started to grow.

He felt that his arguments and reasoning which had defeated others, did not satisfy his own soul or quench his thirst any more. He came to realize that all of his teaching, studying, reasoning and discussion was not sufficient, but rather embarking on a spiritual journey, and striving for virtuous purification and piety were more important.

He thought: just as intoxication does not result from the name of drink, nor satiety from the name of bread, nor cure from illness from the name of medicine, then quietude, certitude and self-assurance do not arise from debate and discussion about truth and prosperity. Truth requires that one becomes authentic and that is incompatible with the love of glory, fame and honour.

A strange conflict appeared within him. It was a pain no one was aware of, except himself and his God. This inner conflict lasted for six months and intensified to such extent that it deprived him of sleep and appetite. He stopped speaking. He was not able to teach any longer or to debate. He felt ill and developed a digestive disorder. Physicians examined him and diagnosed a psychopathy. All known remedies were attempted, until no more options existed. He had no saviour but Allah and the truth. He pleaded to Allah to give him succour and cure him of this conflict.

It was not an easy matter. On the one hand, this mysterious feeling became more and more conspicuous, and, on the other hand, it seemed very difficult for him to renounce all of the glory, respect and popularity. Finally, he reached a point where all his ambitions disappeared from his mind. He decided to renounce all his glory and rank. Fearing people’s reaction, he did not mention anything about his decision.

He left Baghdad for Makkah under the pretext of going for pilgrimage, but when he had travelled a little outside the city limits of Baghdad, and after asking his farewell escort to return, he deviated off the road and headed towards Syria and Bayt ul-Muqadas. In order to travel unrecognized, and to not be disturbed while he was on his inner spiritual journey, he dressed himself in the guise of dervish.

He proceeded towards the horizon, in the company of his own soul, until he found what he was searching for, certitude and inner peace. This period of meditation, solitude and asceticism lasted ten years.1

  • 1. The History of Ibn Khalkan, v. 5, p. 351 and Ghazali Nameh.