Dr Eric Ormsby, Deputy Head of the Department of Academic Research and Publications, and Professor Wilferd Madelung, leading Islamic scholar and Senior Research Fellow at the IIS, were invited to speak at an international interdisciplinary conference entitled Islam and Rationality: The impact of al-Ghazali at Ohio State University, USA.

The conference came about in recognition of Al-Ghazali’s influence on Islamic, Christian and Jewish thought as a uniquely rich basis for dialogue and intellectual exchange between faiths. By focusing on his commitment to religion and rational thinking, the conference highlighted cross-cultural commonalities as well as specific features of cultural, philosophical, and religious identity to deepen mutual inter-religious understanding.

Dr Ormsby’s presentation, entitled The Comedy of Reason: Strategies of Humour in al-Ghazali, explored some of the ways in which al-Ghazali employs humour in his works as a way of clinching his arguments. Elaborating further, he examined how these range from such time-honoured rhetorical devices as reductio ad absurdum, hyperbole and irony, to outright satire, caricature and even lampoon. Dr Ormsby drew examples mainly, but not exclusively, from the Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din - The Book of Love, Longing, Intimacy and Contentment and the 36th book on the Love of God (Kitab al-mahabba); other examples were taken from the Tahafut al-falasifa, particularly the renowned chapter on causality.

He explained how the importance of these considerations was twofold: first, to demonstrate that al-Ghazali, in his use of such devices, stands firmly in a classic tradition of adab of which such authors as al-Jahiz and al-Tawhidi are acknowledged masters; and second, to explore certain aspects of tone and style in his prose. Dr Ormbsy explained that the dubious reputation which al-Ghazali encountered among his various detractors —for example, the recurrent accusations of ‘insincerity’ or inconsistency — may be explicable, at least in part, to his use of such stylistic strategies. Dr Ormsby stated that too often, al-Ghazali’s irony was taken all too literally.

Professor Wilfred Madelung’s presentation was entitled Al-Ghazali’s Changing Attitude to Philosophy. Giving some historical background to the works of al-Ghazali he explained that his famous refutation of the philosophers, Tahafut al-falasifa, was written by him as a young man. According to Professor Madelung, the meaning of the title ‘Incoherence of the Philosophers’ may suggest that al-Ghazali intended to point out contradictions and inconsistencies in philosophical thought.

However, Professor Madelung elaborated, al-Ghazali was more concerned with demonstrating the incompatibility of philosophical thought with the Sunni Muslim creed. In particular, he maintained that three points of Ibn Sina’s teaching constituted unbelief (kufr) in Islam: the thesis of the eternity of the world, God’s knowledge of universals only, and the denial of the physical Resurrection. Professor Madelung went on further to explain that the refutation was set forth on the basis of Ash‘ari theological thought, even though al-Ghazali stated that he did not wish to support any particular school doctrine.

Speaking of al-Ghazali’s earlier work, Maqasid al-falasifa, which he composed shortly before the Tahafut, Professor Madelung described it as his testimony to his admiration for the rational achievements of Ibn Sina. In fact, he went on to discuss how in his later life, al-Ghazali wrote some treatises reserved for his elite students in which he seemed to adopt the philosophical thought of Ibn Sina fully, even in the points he had described as unbelief in his Tahafut. He evidently no longer viewed the philosophers’ thesis of the eternity of the world as incompatible with Islam. According to Professor Madelung, there are indications, however, that al-Ghazali, like Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi after him, ultimately remained undecided on whether the philosophers or the Ash‘ari theologians were in possession of the truth about God and the world. He remained primarily concerned with upholding the traditional Sunni Muslim creed.

The conference was attended by leading scholars in intellectual history, philosophy, Islamic law and theology, and medieval Christian and Jewish thought.