Education and Early Career

Algazel was born in 1058 in Tus in northeast Persia. Having followed the traditional Islamic education in the madrasa, he went to Nishapur (ca. 1077) to study with al-Juwayni. Al-Juwayni belonged to the legal school of al-Shafi‘i and theological school of al-Ash‘ari.

The legal schools represented different interpretations of Islamic law (shari‘a). The theological schools (kalam) determined how one debated the religious truths of the Koran and traditions (hadith). Algazel became an expert in both fields and was appointed in 1091 as a teacher of law in the Nizamiyya in Baghdad.

The Nizamiyyat were the new-style Islamic colleges founded by Nizam al-Mulk in the realm of the Seljuk Turkish sultans. The Seljuks were Sunni Muslims, and the Nizamiyya espoused the al-Shafi’i school, in contrast to the Fatimids in Egypt who were Shi’ite. Thus Algazel was steeped in orthodoxy and living at the spiritual centre of the Islamic world, Baghdad.

Nevertheless, it was during this period that Algazel felt moved to confront the ideas and beliefs of the intellectual movement of falsafa. This is the Arabic transliteration of the Greek term philosophia. It referred to the peripatetic tradition of Greek philosophy that had been brought into the Arabic world through translations, mainly made at Baghdad in the ninth century. The philosophers believed that one could acquire the truth through reason, independent of revelation.

Algazel was clearly keen to see how far reason could go, and one may say that, in his initial inquiries, this led him into scepticism—doubting the truth about everything. First, he distrusted the senses: we cannot see the shadow of the sundial moving, and yet it does; the Sun looks like it is the size of a coin but is many times bigger. Then he questioned the trustworthiness of reason itself. However, he soon came to realize that scepticism was like a disease and that one must, in all events, hold on to reason.

After this brief ‘illness’ Algazel devoted himself to the analysis of falsafa. He wrote an account of the doctrines of the philosophers which he called The Aims of the Philosophers (Maqasid al-falasifa). This work was written in Arabic but was based on a Persian work by the most popular representative of the falsafa tradition, Avicenna. Avicenna had written several expositions of his philosophy, of which the most comprehensive was known as the Shifa’ or Cure (namely, a cure from error). But Avicenna had explained his philosophical views more briefly in the Danesh-nameh, written for a Persian patron, prince ‘Ala’ al-Dawla (prince of Isfahan). It was on this work that Algazel based his Aims of the Philosophers.

The Aims of the Philosophers covered the fields of logic, metaphysics and physics. Because of its brevity and clarity, it was a useful account of falsafa. As such, it was translated into Latin in its entirety by Dominicus Gundissalinus and ‘magister Johannes’ in the third quarter of the twelfth century. Gundissalinus and his collaborator also began to translate the Shifa’ into Latin at about the same time, but only portions of this much larger work were rendered into Latin. The Latin title varies, but in 1506 it was published at Venice as Logica et philosophia Algazelis Arabis. In 1965, Charles Lohr published the Logica Algazelis; edited by Rev. J.T. Muckle, the Philosophia appeared in 1933 as Algazels's Metaphysics. Eva St. Clair provided an updated critical edition of the fourth treatise of the Metaphysics in 2005.

Problems of Transmission to the Latin West

The Arabic text of the Aims of the Philosophers includes an introduction in which Algazel states that he was summarizing the views of the philosophers so that he could refute them in a later work which he would call The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahafut al-falasifa). He repeated this assertion at the end of the Aims. With one exception these passages were not transmitted in the manuscripts of the Latin version of the text, which give them the title Summa theoreticae philosophiae (Compendium of theoretical philosophy). Only MS Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 16096 (a manuscript of the late thirteenth century), includes the prologue with the title ‘Intentiones philosophorum’, and scholars are inclined to think that this is a later addition.

It is difficult to know why the Latin transmitters would have left out this introduction, especially since criticisms of the philosophers’ position were as much part of the Christian Latin tradition as the Islamic Arabic tradition. Ironically, Giles of Rome, in the 1270s, quite unaware of Algazel’s true position, performed the refutation of what he understood to be Algazel’s philosophical views in his Errores philosophorum.

A text by Algazel entitled The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahufat al-falasifa), is extant in Arabic, but does not refer at all to the Aims of the Philosophers. It is possible that Algazel originally wrote the Aims and the Incoherence as separate works, and only linked them, at a later stage with a reference to the Incoherence in the Aims.

One aspect of falsafa that Algazel did not refute was logic, and he added an appendix to the Incoherence on this subject called The Standard of Knowledge (Mi‘yar al-‘ilm). Then, since the Incoherence criticized the doctrines of others without offering his own alternative, Algazel wrote a text called Moderation in Belief (al-Iqtisad fi al-i‘tiqad) to make up for this. In this group of works written over a comparatively short period while he was teaching at the Nizamiyya in Baghdad, Algazel established his position in regard to falsafa and Islamic theology.

Algazel's Spiritual Crisis and Venture into Sufism

After four years of teaching (1091-1095), Algazel had a spiritual crisis. As he tells us in his autobiography (Munqidh min al-dalal, The Deliverer from Error), he realized that he had been teaching and writing in order to achieve worldly success, and not for a genuine spiritual reason. His academic pursuits distanced the subject matter from real life. What he wanted was direct experience of the truths that he was merely writing about.

Algazel's crisis led him into the Sufi path, in which direct experience, nicely described as dhawq (taste), is the aim. Algazel applied for a leave of absence from his prestigious job on the pretext of going on a pilgrimage to Mecca. In the end he spent eleven years training to be a Sufi in Damascus, Jerusalem, Hebron, Mecca, and Medina.

The result of his journey was his monumental work on the reconciliation of traditional Muslim belief and Sufism, which he called the Revival of the Sciences of the Religion (Ihya’ ‘ulum l-din). In this text he aimed to inculcate a greater piety and spirituality into the Muslim believer. He saw the ideal path to be that of the Sufis, but identified some Sufi beliefs with those of traditional Islam: e.g. that of ‘annihilation’ (al-fana’) of the self in God, with ‘closeness’ (qurb) to God.

In 1106 Algazel returned to teaching Islamic law, as it were retracing the steps of his life. First he taught at Nishapur, and then at Tus, where he died in 1111. During this period he wrote his major work on Islamic law: the Choice Essentials of the Principles of Religion (Al-Mustasfa min usul al-din).

An incomplete Western picture of Algazel

Thus Algazel's output can be divided into three periods:

  • the first period was devoted to philosophy and religion
  • the second period was devoted to mysticism
  • the third period was devoted to law.

However, there is a certain coherence in his doctrines throughout his life. Through subtle changes of terminology, he adapted philosophical, kalam, and Sufi ideas to his own world view.

Most Latin readers in the Middle Ages were acquainted only with part of the first division. Reading The Aims of the Philosophers, they could not be aware that Algazel was to pursue the mystic way of the Sufis. It is curious, however, that it was Algazel in particular, who attracted one of the West’s most mystical teachers: Raymond Llull, who made his own version of Algazel’s logic, in Latin (Compendium Logicae Algazelis), and in Catalan verse (Logica de Gatzell).

Algazel's most distinctive doctrine is that which we call ‘occasionalism’. This states that no effect necessarily follows its cause. Rather, the fact that a particular effect follows a particular cause on a particular occasion is due entirely to God’s will that it should be so. God alone is the direct cause of each effect. That certain effects habitually follow certain causes is due to ‘ijra’ al-‘ada—God’s ordaining events to proceed along a uniform, orderly, habitual course. This doctrine is associated in the Latin West with the philosopher and theologian Nicholas of Autrecourt (1300-1350).

But it was not as an occasionalist, or a Sufi, that Algazel was known in Europe, but rather as a faithful abbreviator of Avicenna. Giles of Rome in his Errores philosophorum introduces the "errors" of Algazel with the words:

"Algazel autem, ut plurimum Avicennae sequens et eius abbreviator existens, erravit…" (‘Algazel, for the most part following Avicenna and being his abbreviator, erred…’).

Only two medieval scholars seem to have been aware that Algazel criticized the philosophers’ opinions. The first of these is the Franciscan, Roger Bacon, who writes shortly before 1270:

"Algazel in his prologue to the books of logic, metaphysics and physics, asserts that all the opinions that he recounts in these books are those of others, and they include many, he says, which he wishes to attack and explain in another way in his own book On the Controversy of the philosophers"
- Communium naturalium Pars IV, ed. Steele, Opera hactenus inedita, III, Oxford 1911, p. 224).

The second is the Dominican missionary, Ramón Martí. Martí read an extraordinarily wide range of Arabic texts in their original language and quoted them in his Pugio Fidei (Fist of Faith) of 1278. Martí, unlike most scholastics knew the Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahufat), which he called the Ruina philosophorum, though he did not, apparently, know the Aims of the Philosophers (Maqasid).

Though it is sad that Western Scholastics did not appreciate Algazel's most characteristic views, they are indebted to him for the clear summary of Avicenna's views he provided.


Latin translations of Algazel's Aims of the Philosophers:

Algazels's Metaphysics: A Medieval Translation, J.T. Muckle (ed.), Toronto: St. Michael's College, 1933. For an assessment of this edition see E. St. Clair ... “Logica Algazelis: Introduction and Critical Text,” ed.

C. Lohr, Traditio 21 (1965) 223–90. Logica et philosophia Algazelis Arabis, Venice: P. Liechtenstein, 1506. Reprint Frankfurt (Germany): Minerva, 1969.

Eva St. Clair, "Algazel on the Soul: A Critical Edition," in Traditio, vol. 60, 2005.

Secondary literature

D. Salman, ‘Algazel et les latins’, Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen âge 10 (1936), pp. 103-127.

Michael A. Marmura, ‘Al-Ghazali’, in The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy, eds Peter Adamson and Richard C. Taylor, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 137-54.

Jules Janssens, ‘Al-Ghazali’s Maqasid al-Falasifa. The Latin Translation’ (forthcoming).