Spirituality in an Age of Violence: Al-Ghazali's Relevance Today
By Dr A. Khan
Elmhurst College , Illinois, has the unique distinction of building bridges across cultures and religions, and promoting the interfaith dialogue through the Al-Ghazali series of annual lectures . This year’s lecture was delivered on April 15 by Professor Dr Mustafa Abu Sway, Dean, College of Da’wah and Usul Al-Din & College of the Qur’an and Islamic Studies at Al-Quds University , Jerusalem .
The proceedings started with notes of thanks and welcome by Dr Larry Braskamp, president of Elmhurst College , and Ms Uroosa Nafasat, Vice President of Muslim Students Association. Introducing the speaker Professor Inamul Haq said, “Dr Abu Sway is the Imam Al-Ghazali Chair at Al-Aqsa Mosque and Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, he was a Fulbright Scholar at Florida Atlantic University and a visiting professor at Bard College in New York. Through his writings and worldwide lectures, Professor Abu Sway has contributed to studies on Imam Al-Ghazali , classical and contemporary Islamic issues, and the Palestinian question .”
Professor Abu Sway started his lecture by saying, “In the Name of God, Who revealed the Torah , Zabur , Injil, and the Holy Qur’an ; And peace and blessings upon all his messengers and prophets, and peace and blessings upon you, Assalamu Alaykum .”
He thanked Elmhurst College for welcoming Imam Al-Ghazali to the hearts and halls, and for opening the door for the youngest Abrahamic siblings. He said, “Today’s interfaith gathering brings forth a spiritual giant of the 11 th century, and the finest of America’s 21 st century academia and lovers of wisdom to foster that, which is best for the future.” He also offered special thanks to Dr Larry Braskamp, Elmhurst College President; Rev Scott Mathini, College Chaplain; Dr Paul Parker, Chair Department of Religion at Elmhurst ; Rev Emily Labrecque, Director Niebuhr Center; and Prof Inamul Haq, adjunct faculty and program coordinator & Muslim Co-chaplain, for their dedication and efforts in organizing the lecture.
Prof Abu Sway started his lecture with the theme of equality and humanity. He observed, “Our humanity is given, although not all members are treated as equally human, for they are denied some of the basic rights! Colonialism and neo-colonialism , ongoing occupation legacies that shamefully continue to plague our human family; and in the order of their gravity, state, group and individual terrorisms that take away life or keeps the living lifeless; socio-economic injustices that are rampant with widening gaps between the rich and the poor, between the north that enjoys and the south that subsists!”
Expounding on injustice, hope and building bridges across religions, Prof. Abu Sway noted, “It is quite unfortunate that there are those who cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel because the light was stolen, and those who cannot see the light because they have been blindfolded by their own worldviews or because of the very harsh conditions that they endure. Yet, we recognize those, from all religions and walks of life, who continue to selflessly build bridges of understanding until they themselves become a light unto others.”
Discussing the opposition to truth and humanity, he observed, “And let us remember that no prophet was ever received with open arms, and those of us who attempt to follow the prophetic path, should not expect a different reception by those who made a profession out of hate! It is in this light, that I find it rather beautiful and comforting to confirm our humanity through the very same worldview that Islamophobes try to undermine. Ali Ibn Abu Talib , the 4 th Caliph, said: ‘People belong to either of two categories, either your brother (of course, sister) in religion, or your brother in humanity’. “
Expounding on the theme of security and justice, Prof. Abu Sway said, “We build high walls because we do not want to share or because we are afraid! There is an organic link, in the case of the latter, between security and justice. When an emissary came to see ` Umar Ibn Al-Khattab , the second Caliph, he arrived at a time when `Umar was sleeping under a tree, alone, with no guards! That emissary realized the political implications of what he saw and captured the essence of the scene in three Arabic words: ‘You must have been just, therefore you felt safe and slept [like this].’ Justice is disseminated when we honor the very humanity of the person in front of us. To this effect the Holy Qur’an shows that the material gifts God gave to humanity are sandwiched between honoring humanity and preferring them to other creatures: And We have certainly honored the children of Adam and carried them on the land and sea and provided for them of the good things and preferred them over much of what We have created, with [definite] preference. (Sura Al-Isra’: 17:70)”
Prof. Abu Sway said that his journey with Al-Ghazali began in 1981, when he studied his Deliverance from Error ( Al-Munqidh min al-Dalal ) at the hand of a Jesuit theologian, Fr Peter DuBrull, at Bethlehem University. Remembering Imam Ghazali’s passion for seeking knowledge, Prof Sway observed, “Within a life journey there are many smaller remarkable ones. One of Imam Al-Ghazali’s first journeys to seek knowledge almost ended in a tragic end for his books and notes, when they were stolen by brigands on his way home, to Tus, Khurasan. He followed the robbers who inquired about the reason he followed them and threatened him not to, only to be shocked that it was all about the knowledge he acquired during his trip, and was deposited in one of the bags. Their commander mocked him for how easy it was to strip him of his knowledge. They ultimately gave him his books, which, as a result of this incident and his exchange with the commander, Al-Ghazali committed to memory.”
Reflecting on the rights of human beings, Prof Abu Sway said, “Imam Al-Ghazali, in the chapter on hisbah (translated as “accountability”) in the Revival of the Islamic Sciences , when he discusses protecting an insane person against doing evil, though not liable legally because he does not differentiate between right and wrong, it is because he is a ‘respected human being’.”
Discussing the notion of the clash of civilizations , Prof. Abu Sway said, “To know each other “li ta`arafu” became the favorite Muslim scholars’ antithesis of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations! Civilizations do not clash! They are cumulative, building and fertilizing each other. There is a civilizational continuum that challenges the notion that these civilizations are separate and remote from each other. Dare I say that there is one human civilization and one history that began in the garden and ends, hopefully, in the garden! The Holy Qur’an celebrates cultural and ethnic diversity as positive signs pointing towards God. It means no conflict should be based on this divinely intended human mosaic: And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge. (Sura Ar-Rum, 30:22)”
Reflecting on the creation of the heavens and the earth, Dr Abu Sway cited the saying of prominent Islamic scholar Bediüzzaman Said Nuri , who said that everything in the Universe has a stamp of God, if people cannot see it, then it’s people’s problem.
Discussing the aims of Islamic law, Prof Abu Sway said, “The five major aims of Islamic law have been historically and systematically listed as protecting: 1. Religion 2. Life 3. Intellect 4. Progeny 5. Property. There are modern scholars who have added ‘freedom,’ ‘justice’ and ‘protection of the environment’ as necessary maqasid categories.” He said that every soul counts! The Holy Qur’an highlights the sanctity of human life and urges us to protect it.
Discussing cultural and ethnic diversity, Dr Abu Sway observed, “The Holy Qur’an celebrates cultural and ethnic diversity as positive signs pointing towards God. It means no conflict should be based on this divinely intended human mosaic: And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge. (Sura Ar-Rum, 30:22)”
Discussing humanity, human values, love and coexistence, Dr Abu Sway reminisced about how his mother breastfed her Christian neighbor’s baby in Jerusalem. He said that it was not that the neighbor could not breastfed her baby, but my mother wanted to share the “milk bonds” with the neighbor.
Prof Abu Sway concluded his lecture by saying, “And no, civilizations do not clash! Am I my brother’s (or sister’s) keeper?” The lecture was followed by a Question-and-Answer session. (The video recording of the lecture is available at: http://muslimsabroad.com/live-event/ )