Book 1 : On Knowledge – The Arrogance of Extremism

(For explanation of Imam Ghazali’s Book 1: On Knowledge by Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, please click here)

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Uncertainty in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

All religions suffer an epistemological paradox. How can man follow the commands of God when God does not directly speak to them? Legal scholars such as Ghazali’s teacher, al-Juwayni, believed transmitted knowledge of God’s commands is probablistic. For any given situation, we can only have a reasoned estimation of what God would have wanted.

That uncertainty can provoke three reactions among those who promulgate Islamic law:

1) Believe ones interpretation is ineluctably correct.

2) Regard the whole enterprise as inherently unstable, and ignore the whole interpretative process.

3) View uncertainty as part of one’s journey to the Divine and be humble as to one’s determination of law.

The beginning of Ghazali’s Book of Knowledge is a biting critique of legal scholars, who he regards as being” trapped in their arrogance” issuing rules for the sake of other considerations. Unfortunately, they ignore the key reason for God’s intervention in Human history, and that is to inform Man of life after death (the akhira). Man’s key concern should be in preparing for this eventuality.

Hence, only point 3 is the appropriate reaction to uncertainty.

When an Islamic scholar issues a ruling, he has to navigate the uncertainty inherent in expressing God’s will. How can he be sure he is correct? More importantly, he is burdened by the uncertainty as to whether the ruling pushes a person, and others indirectly affected by his ruling, away from contemplating the akhira.

The recent attacks in Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad have the hallmarks of ISIS and Al Qaeda: wanton violence to illicit fear. The problem with their mission, however, is that they are concerned with political and legal dominance. Spreading the message about the akhira is largely ignored. They symbolise point 1.

Arrogance is therefore their mark. When followers can casually brutalise individuals who were non-Muslim or could not read the Quran properly, they have set themselves up as God. If God wished to destroy nations, he would have done so himself. What is worse, and indeed quite peculiar, is that behind the smiles of their own belief in their martyrdom, is that in killing and then being killed, they resemble the people the Angels worried about when God created man “Will You place therein those who will make mischief therein and shed blood, while we glorify You” (Quran 2:30)

Instead of fearing the consequences with God of unlawful murder against innocents, they butchered gleefully.

The Muslim’s role is to convey the message of the akhira, not to force obedience. All humans are in a state of uncertainty, only arrogance contemplates otherwise. To convey the message effectively takes time and patience. Indeed, Prophets in the Quran were granted time to convey.

People are scared of ISIS and their nihilistic proclivities, so the consequence of these attacks is fear of humans, and not fear of God.   For Ghazali, it is fear of God  that should direct one’s journey to the Divine. This represents the true foundation of knowledge and a guide to ones actions and interactions. Only from it can the immanence of the akhira be truly conveyed.

(To view and listen to more lectures on Imam Ghazali’s Ihya, please visit





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