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Comparing Phases of Skepticism in Al-Ghazl and Descartes: Some First Meditations on

Deliverance from Error

Author(s): Omar Edward Moad
Source: Philosophy East and West, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Jan., 2009), pp. 88-101
Published by: University of Hawai'i Press
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Omar Edward Moad

Department of Philosophy, National University of Singapore

There is much to consider in the positions occupied by Abu Hamid al-Ghazall

(1 058-1 1 1 1 c.E.) and Rene Descartes (1 596-1 650 c.E.) in the history of their respec-

tive traditions. Descartes is most widely considered in the West as having ushered in

the modern age of Western philosophy. AI-GhazalT, on the other hand, has been
commonly blamed by some Western critics, as well as some Muslim modernists,
for having single-handedly 'killed philosophy' in the Muslim world, while others
have considered him pivotal in a much more positive sense. In this latter assessment,
al-GhazalT did not 'kill Muslim philosophy' as such. Rather, his selective criticism of
the Muslim peripatetic philosophers freed Islamic thought from the limitations of the
Aristotelian framework. Descartes himself controversially rejected much of the Aris-

totelian baggage of his scholastic predecessors, who, in an interesting switch, actually represented the religious orthodoxy of his context. In this light, it is worth taking

a close comparative look at the substance of the ideas of these thinkers.

Arguably, the most comprehensive representation of al-Ghazall's mature

thought (at least that part of it that he saw fit to disclose) is found in his magnum
opus, IhyS 'ulum ad-din (Revival of the religious sciences). His Persian abridgment
of this work, KJmiya-yi sa'adat (Alchemy of happiness) is divided into four sections,

dealing, respectively, with (1) knowledge of self, (2) knowledge of God, (3) knowledge of the world as it really is, and (4) knowledge of the next world as it really is.1
This runs roughly parallel to the order of topics treated by Descartes in his Meditations on First Philosophy with the exception that any section on 'knowledge of the
next world as it really is' is missing, and that, prior to 'knowledge of self,' which is
treated in the Second Meditation, Descartes takes up, in the First Meditation, the
issue of knowledge per se. A much more comparable discussion of this latter topic
by al-Ghazall occurs not in the Alchemy but in the beginning of al-Munqidh min al-

dalal (Deliverance from error), in a manner strikingly similar in both structure and
content to Descartes' discussion in the First Meditation. The present essay aims to
present the beginning of a close comparative analysis of the contents of these two


The general philosophical relationship between al-Ghazall and Descartes has drawn
the attention of several scholars. In A History of Muslim Philosophy (1963), M. M.
Sharif mentions a variety of similarities. Although, according to him, there is no

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direct evidence that al-Ghazah's Deliverance had been translated into Latin by
Descartes' time, he asserts that the "remarkable parallel" between it and Descartes'
Discourse on the Method renders it "impossible to deny its influence."2 It is a bit
curious that Sharif discusses only the Discourse, since the similarity between the
Deliverance and the first and second Meditations is far more explicit and striking.
Unfortunately, but as must be expected in the course of a brief historical entry, he
does not offer much in the way of a detailed comparative analysis.
Catherine Wilson took up the topic in her contribution to the more recent His-

tory of Islamic Philosophy (1996), where she cites V. V. Naumkin (1987) as claiming historical proof that Descartes did read al-Ghazall. Wilson concentrates on the
comparison of the Deliverance to the Discourse and the first and second Meditations, calling both the parallel and the divergence "unmistakable" - the latter consisting mainly in the fact that "Descartes' natural light leads not to fideism but to
the exact sciences."3 The implied charge of fideism against al-Ghazall seems based
on Wilson's assessment that he "was disenchanted by the exact sciences, which,
associated with naturalism and materialism, bear a taint of impiety, and Sufism
shows him that he must forsake his attachment to worldly things."4 While, again,
the short space and broad aim with which a historical entry such as Wilson's overall
fine article is saddled naturally precludes the in-depth analysis one would like to
see here, it is not necessarily unavoidable that this should result in a degree of oversimplification. Simple deployment of the term 'fideism' to al-Ghazall in contrast to
Descartes overlooks the more complex relation between faith and reason operative
in both cases.

In its preface, addressed to the Faculty of Sacred Theology of Paris, Descartes

writes that the existence of God and the soul are "chief among those that ought to
be demonstrated with the aid of philosophy rather than theology."5 Although faith
suffices for believers with regard to these propositions, he explains, unbelievers can-

not be persuaded of them unless they are proven by natural reason. Reference to
scripture as proof of God's existence, he points out (in an intriguingly worded passage), would be regarded by unbelievers as circular. Interestingly enough, he proceeds thereafter to cite scriptural support for his project. He interprets a passage
from Romans chapter 1 - "What is known of God is manifest in them" - to mean
that "everything that can be known about God can be shown by reasons drawn
exclusively from our own mind."6 While nearly all the arguments mustered by great
men for the existence of God and the soul "have the force of demonstration," and
"hardly any new arguments can be given," Descartes clarifies that his aim is simply
to "seek out, once and for all, the best of all these arguments and to lay them out so
precisely and plainly that henceforth all take them to be true demonstrations."7
Were al-GhazalT's position on the 'exact sciences' thoroughly laid out, it would
be clear that the slant of Wilson's assessment somewhat mirrors that of Cemil Akdo-

gan, as expressed in a conference paper published by the International Institute of

Islamic Thought and Civilization. "The main difference between them," he writes,
"is that al-Ghazali works within the framework of Islamic theology in which there

is no 'problem of God,' whereas Descartes begins with the problem of God and

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places his emphasis upon human mind or secular philosophy."8 On one reading,
this seems just to say, with Wilson, that al-Ghazall was a fideist, while Descartes
was not (except that in this case it is good to be a fideist). That al-Ghazall was no
less concerned with presenting philosophical proofs for the existence of God than
was Descartes is clear on a first perusal of the contents of his corpus. The notion
that al-Ghazalfs thought never ventured outside the established framework of
Islamic theology in any attempt to evaluate the framework itself on independent
grounds is dispelled in, among other places, the opening of the Deliverance itself,
which he addresses to his "brother in religion" as his answer to a request for, among
other things, "an account of my travail in disengaging the truth from amid the welter
of sects, despite the polarity of their means and methods," and "my daring in mount-

ing from the lowland of servile conformism to the highland of independent investigation."9
This account culminates in an explanation and defense of his embrace of the
Sufi path, which came about as the result of two crises: an earlier, epistemological
crisis, and a later, more important, spiritual crisis. Our focus here is on al-Ghazalfs
account of the first. "The thirst for grasping the real meaning of things was indeed my
habit and wont from my early years and in the prime of my life," begins al-GhazalT's
account. "As a result, the fetters of servile conformism fell away from me and inher-

ited beliefs lost their hold on me, when I was still quite young."10 Descartes writes,
similarly, that "several years had passed since I first realized how numerous were the

false opinions that in my youth I had taken to be true, and thus how doubtful were
all those that I had subsequently built on them."11 In this regard, al-Ghazall writes of

how he had noticed that the children of Christians, Jews, and Muslims always grow
up following the religion of their parents, and notes a saying of the Prophet Muhammad that "every infant is endowed with the fitra: then his parents make him Jew or

Christian or Magian":12
Consequently, I felt an inner urge to seek the true meaning of the original fitra, and the
true meaning of the beliefs arising through slavish aping of parents and teachers. I wanted
to sift out these uncritical beliefs, the beginnings of which are suggestions imposed from
without, since there are differences of opinion in the discernment of those that are true
from those that are false.13

Descartes, as we saw, aims in the Meditations to prove by natural reason not

only the existence of God and the soul but also that "of all the things that can be
known by the human mind, these latter are most certain and most evident."14 More-

over, he had "developed a new method for solving all sorts of problems in the
sciences," which he aimed to use to this end.15 The general goal of the method itself
was, as we just read, to "establish something firm and lasting in the sciences," for

which he had to "raze everything to the ground and begin again from the original
foundations." AI-GhazalT describes himself as having had a thirst for "grasping the
real meaning of things," which, upon observation of the unreliability of inherited
beliefs arising from "slavish aping," gives him an "urge to seek the true meaning of
the original fitra."

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While a close comparative study between this original fitra and Descartes' conception of original foundations is certainly called for, it cannot be done justice in the

limited space of this article. A valuable contribution toward this end has recently
been made by Tamara Albertini. "The actual philosophical interest of comparing
these two great minds," she writes, "lies not in exploring their skeptical periods
but, on the contrary, in discovering how they thought that doubt could be defeated,

namely by creating what one could call an 'epistemological platform' that is

grounded in subjectivity."16 Without disparaging her insights in this regard, it may

yet be considered that the distinctive features of their solutions to doubt may be
more deeply understood in light of a close look at the precise nature of their respective skeptical periods.
A focus on the latter can be found in an earlier paper by Sami M. Najm. He
presents a closer analysis of the skeptical periods in question than any of the previously mentioned scholars, concluding that "the two cases of dealing with the problem of doubt are profoundly comparable," and that "the solution of the problem of
doubt is essentially the same."17 While Ibrahim Musa, in a recent treatment of this
topic, also concentrates on the outcome of al-GhazalT's process of doubt as compared to that of Descartes, he cites Mahmud HamdT Zaqzuq as maintaining, contrary
to Najm, that "both took recourse to doubt at first but then followed different paths to

ascertain what knowledge is and how we come 'know' with certainty."18

In what follows, I will concentrate solely on the 'skeptical periods,' that is, the
processes of 'dealing with the problem of doubt' that al-GhazalT and Descartes describe, respectively. In the course of doing this, I will bring to light some subtle differ-

ences between them in this regard that are relevant to the comparative issue of the

respective solutions, or 'epistemological platforms,' at which they arrive. I will not

touch on the latter issue here, although I do intend the present discussion as a prelude to a future treatment of that topic and, I hope, as a complement to the work
being done by others.

In the Deliverance, after having described his urge to seek "the true meaning of the
original fitra," al-GhazalT writes:
So I began by saying to myself: "What I seek is knowledge of the true meaning of things.
Of necessity, therefore, I must inquire into just what the true meaning of knowledge is."
Then it became clear to me that sure and certain knowledge is that in which the thing
known is made so manifest that no doubt clings to it, nor is it accompanied by the possi-

bility of error and deception, nor can the mind even suppose such a possibility.19

On first reading, one might understand al-GhazalT to be defining sure and certain

knowledge (al-'ilm al-yaqlnl) as 'that in which the thing known is made so known
that no doubt clings to it.' In this case, he would be defining a certain sort or degree
of knowledge, rather than knowledge per se as suggested by his stated aim of inquiring into the "true meaning of knowledge." Otherwise, we would have a rather

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circular definition of knowledge as a certain kind of knowledge (the certain kind, at

that). Importantly, though, the object of al-'ilm al-yaqlnl is not described as made
so known, but as made so manifest (zahlr) that no doubt clings to it.
This resonates with a theme that al-GhazalT presents in Mishkat al-an war (Niche
of lights). In the beginning of this work, he mentions three senses of the term 'light' -

the "common," the "elect," and the "elect of the elect"- and says that "when the
degrees of these lights become manifest," one would know that God alone is the real

Regarding the first sense of the word, for the common people, "light" alludes to manifestation. Manifestation is a relative affair, since without doubt a thing may be manifest to
one person while remaining non-manifest to another; hence, a thing is relatively manifest
and relatively non-manifest.20

To know the thing with al-'ilm al-yaqlnl is for the thing to be manifest to a
certain maximal degree (such that no doubt clings to it). Knowing per se, we may
naturally conclude, is for a thing to be manifest to one in some degree or another.
This suggests that we are not to understand manifestation as relative to the perceiver

simply in the sense that the same thing can be manifest to one person and nonmanifest to another. Since there are degrees of manifestation, a thing can be manifest
to a person at a given time to a lesser or greater degree than the degree to which it is

manifest to another person, or to the same person at a different time. In this case,
from the perspective of one to whom the thing is manifest to a greater degree, a low-

er degree of manifestation would be a relative non-manifestation or concealment


Al-'ilm al-yaqlnl emerges, then, as a degree of manifestation of a thing, such that

"the mind cannot suppose" the possibility of another degree of manifestation of the

thing, in relation to which the former degree of manifestation would be a concealment of it. The uncritical beliefs from which al-GhazalT seeks to sift this ilm should

be easy to identify; as Descartes states in the Meditations: "it will suffice for the re-

jection of all these opinions, if I find in each one of them some reason for doubt."21

On first scrutiny, al-GhazalT finds that, of his cognitions, all that seem to answer
to this standard of sure and certain knowledge are "sense-data and self-evident

With great earnestness, therefore, I began to reflect on my sense-data to see if I could

make myself doubt them. This protracted effort to induce doubt finally brought me to
the point where my soul would not allow me to admit safety from error even in the case
of my sense-data.23

Descartes' assessment is parallel here. "Surely whatever I had admitted until

now as most true I received either from the senses or through the senses," he writes.

"However, I have noticed that the senses are sometimes deceptive; and it is a mark
of prudence never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived us even
once."24 Al-GhazalT describes his soul interrogating him on his trust in the senses,
reminding him that the strongest of the senses - sight - is quite prone to error: "Sight

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also looks at a star and sees it as something small, the size of a dinar; then geometrical proofs demonstrate that it surpasses the earth in size."25 In such cases, "the
sense-judge makes its judgments, but the reason-judge refutes it and repeatedly gives

it the lie in an incontrovertible fashion."26 Interestingly, Descartes uses a nearly

identical example, in the Third Meditation, to demonstrate that sense perceptions
that proceed from external things need not resemble them.27
In the First Meditation, of course, his skeptical concern with regard to the senses

is much broader in scope:

But perhaps, even though the senses do sometimes deceive us when it is a question of
very small or distant things, still there are many other matters concerning which I simply

cannot doubt, even though they are derived from the very same senses: for example that I
am sitting here next to the fire, wearing my winter dressing gown, that I am holding this

sheet of paper in my hands, and the like. But on what grounds could one deny that these
hands and this entire body are mine?28

This could be denied, famously, on the grounds of the possibility that I could be
dreaming at that moment, coupled with the fact that "there are no definitive signs
by which to distinguish being awake from being asleep," for "how often does my
evening slumber persuade me of such ordinary things as these: that I am here,
clothed in my dressing gown, seated next to a fireplace - when in fact I am lying
undressed in my bed!"29
Recalling the consequence of this possibility in the Third Meditation, Descartes

But even now I do not deny that these ideas are in me. Yet there was something else I
used to affirm, which, owing to my habitual tendency to believe it, I used to think was

something I clearly perceived, even though I actually did not perceive it at all: namely,
that certain things existed outside me, things from which those ideas proceeded and
which those ideas completely resembled.30

The dream hypothesis here is understood by Descartes as calling into question

his belief in the very existence of the external world. AI-GhazalT, as we saw, had
simply called to mind specific instances whereby the judgment of the senses was
corrected by that of reason. This seems to fall short of explicitly raising the possibility
that nothing external exists. The judgment of reason 'gives the lie' to the judgment of

sense, showing the star to be much larger than it previously appeared, but entailing
that the object of both judgments is the same star. The object of a judgment that I am
only dreaming of a star would be, in Cartesian terms, not the star itself but the idea,

judged as not proceeding from or resembling any external object.

AI-GhazalT does make reference to the phenomenon of dreaming, as we shall
see, but not in his consideration of the reliability of the senses. In this case, the hypothesis underwriting skepticism is the possibility, for any given sense judgment, that

reason may 'give it the lie' - but, interestingly, by actually increasing the extent to
which the object is manifest, rather than shrouding it in perpetual concealment, as
Descartes' dream hypothesis does with external reality. AI-GhazalT writes:

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Perhaps, therefore, I can rely only on those rational data which belong to the category of
primary truths, such as our asserting that 'Ten is more than three/ and 'One and the same

thing cannot be simultaneously affirmed and denied/ and 'One and the same thing cannot be incipient and eternal, existent and non-existent, necessary and impossible/31

Of course, Descartes, too, sees that these rational data survive the skeptical onslaught of the dream hypothesis. "For whether I am awake or asleep, two plus three
make five, and a square does not have more than four sides," he writes. "It does not

seem possible that such obvious truths should be subject to the suspicion of being
false."32 But the possibility nevertheless exists of being mistaken in such matters:
"[S]ince I judge that others sometimes make mistakes in matters that they believe
they know most perfectly, may I not, in like fashion, be deceived every time I add
two and three or count the sides of a square, or perform an even simpler operation,
if that can be imagined?"33

The suggestion here is not, for instance, that every time I add two and three
some glitch in my mind causes me to think that they are six (or any sum other than
five). Rather, it is that I am mistaken in believing that two and three are five, despite

the self-evidence with which I find it to be true and my inability to conceive it as

being otherwise. Descartes' suggestion is that the seeming indubitability of the
results of such operations might simply be a matter of how God has created my fac-

ulties. "Nevertheless, if it were repugnant to His goodness to have created me such

that I be deceived all time," he writes, "it would also seem foreign to that same
goodness to permit me to be deceived even occasionally."34
That occasional deception occurs has already been established, and skeptical
worries about the rational faculties are all the more palpable given naturalist presuppositions:
Now they suppose that I came to be what I am either by fate, or by chance, or by some
connected chain of events, or by some other way. But because being deceived and being
mistaken appear to be a certain imperfection, the less powerful they take the author of my

origin to be, the more probable it will be that I am so imperfect that I am always


Indeed, if our minds have emerged, not by design but by the blind force of nat-

ural causes, it seems not only possible but even more likely that there should not be
any special connection between the modus operandi of the mind and the truth. To
underwrite the possibility of being globally mistaken in this regard, Descartes entertains the "evil genius" hypothesis, thereby justifying (temporarily) his universal sus-

pension of belief:
Accordingly, I will suppose not a supremely good God, the source of truth, but rather an

evil genius, supremely powerful and clever, who has directed his entire effort at deceiving me.36

This hypothesis, like the dream hypothesis, proposes that a state of affairs ontologi-

cally independent of me obtains by virtue of which all the information that my

perceptual and rational faculties provide me with is false, and which is, therefore,

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impossible for me to disprove. Like the dream hypothesis, it proposes the possibility
of it being impossible to know anything.

AI-GhazalT's skeptical hypothesis about reason differs here by proposing, instead, the possibility of yet another means of knowing:
Then sense data spoke up: "What assurance have you that your reliance on rational data
is not like your reliance on sense-data? Indeed, you used to have confidence in me. Then
the reason-judge came along and gave me the lie. But were it not for the reason-judge,
you would still accept me as true. So there may be, beyond the perception of reason, another judge. And if the latter revealed itself, it would give the lie to the judgments of rea-

son, just as the reason-judge revealed itself and gave the lie to the judgments of sense.
The mere fact of the non-appearance of that further perception does not prove the impossibility of its existence/'37

So, while al-GhazalT's skepticism is, in each case, underwritten by the possibility of
deeper forms of knowledge that might reveal the limitations or falsehoods in what is

currently taken as known, Descartes' is underwritten by the possibility of a state of

affairs that would undermine any possible epistemic faculty, rendering all equally

false and misleading. In light of this, al-GhazalT's hypothesis raises the following
question. If the judgment of reason would be corrected by the newly emerging judge
in the way that reason had corrected the senses, on what basis are we now justified
in believing that reason actually ever did correct the senses in the first place, when
reason itself is not a trustworthy faculty? Second, how can we guarantee that, beyond this other judge, there is not yet another judge that would correct it, and so
on? In the absence of any such guarantee, none of the faculties are trustworthy,
and it seems there is really no basis for proposing that any of them corrects or 'gives
the lie' to any other.

Given the evil genius hypothesis, for example, the star is neither the size of a
dinar nor larger than the earth. In fact, it does not exist. Therefore, neither the senses

nor reason can be considered any more or less accurate than the other in judging its

size. Any sort of judge beyond reason could be justifiably construed as falsifying or
correcting the others only if it were capable of revealing any such evil genius and his

deceptive ways, thus being immune to his tricks. While one could propose the possibility of additional latent faculties ad infinitum, unless it can be conceived in such
a way as to logically eliminate the evil genius possibility, none can be justifiably
described as correcting or falsifying any other.

At first glance, this only augments the skeptical conundrum that al-GhazalT
is describing. However, the possibility of another judge, beyond reason, had been
illustrated by recalling the alleged discovery, about reason and the senses, that the
former "refutes it (the senses) and repeatedly gives it the lie in an incontrovertible

fashion." Having placed the veracity of reason in question, we can no longer

consider the accuracy of this description of the phenomenon of 'discovery' as incontrovertible as all that. Perhaps it was reason that was mistaken all along. More

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generally, if coming to know that some belief we held was false entails discovering
some truth about how things stand in that regard, then the fact that we have never
known a truth entails that we have never discovered that a belief was false. Thus,

reference to the 'fact' of previous mistakes to show the probability of present and
future mistakes is moot; so far as we know, there is no such fact at all.

Consider, however, al-GhazalT's reference to the phenomenon of dreaming, in

illustrating the possibility of another judge:
Don't you see that when you are asleep you believe in certain things and imagine certain

circumstances and believe they are fixed and lasting and entertain no doubts about that
being their status? Then you wake up and know that all your imaginings and beliefs were
groundless and unsubstantial. So while everything you believe through sensation or intellection in your waking state may be true in relation to that state, what assurance have you

that you may not suddenly experience a state which would have the same relation to
your waking state as the latter has to your dreaming, and your waking state would be
dreaming in relation to that new and further state? If you found yourself in such a state,

you would be sure that all your rational beliefs were unsubstantial fancies.38

Al-GhazalT does not question, as does Descartes, whether he ever knows that he is
not dreaming. The difference between the third state and waking, here, is described
by analogy to that between waking and dreaming; that is, in relation to the former,
the beliefs of the latter are groundless and unsubstantial. This depends on my actually understanding a difference between the two. If they are, in fact, indiscernible,
then I certainly cannot know that I have ever woken from a dream, or even that I

have ever dreamed, and I should not be able, as Descartes is, to "recall having
been deceived on other occasions even by similar thoughts in my dreams!"39 My
real circumstance should be more like that of Chuang Tzu, who wakes from a
'dream' that he is a butterfly to find that he is Chuang Tzu, only to question whether
he is not 'really' a butterfly now dreaming that he is Chuang Tzu. Indeed, if dreaming

were truly indiscernible from waking experience, then he should also have as much

reason to believe that he is either dreaming both times or awake both times, and
his idea of the difference between the two - with the one being real and the other
unreal - most certainly could not have been derived from any past discoveries,
upon 'waking up,' that he had been dreaming.
Descartes, on the other hand, concludes that there is no way to discern the
dreaming from the waking experience, immediately after referring to previous expe-

riences of waking up to realize that what he had previously thought to be waking

reality was only a dream. How is such an experience possible, if the two are indiscernible? The key here is that the question has shifted. Descartes is, in fact, in search

of something that would guarantee the accurate representation, by his experience,

conceived as consisting of sensible ideas, of an external world "from which those

ideas proceeded and which those ideas completely resembled." Upon waking from
a dream, one does not find such a guarantee; but this means that dreaming and waking reality are indiscernible only on the presupposition that the difference between
the two is simply that one set of ideas resembles the external world while the other

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does not. Therefore, either experience gives us absolutely no reason to believe that
we have ever even had a dream, or that the real difference between dreaming and
waking experience does not lie in the resemblance, or otherwise, of 'internal' ideas
to 'external' objects.
AI-GhazalT's underlying presuppositions here are different. Indeed, he describes
the beliefs of the dream state as being revealed, by the waking state, to be 'groundless and unsubstantial/ However, he suggests that the beliefs of the waking state
themselves would be revealed to be unsubstantial, were you to find yourself in the
third state. So the difference between the dream state and the waking state cannot be
that the former is groundless, in the sense of its not appropriately resembling an ex-

ternal reality that the latter does.40 Indeed, he explicitly states that while what is
believed in your waking state may be true in relation to that state, it would, in rela-

tion to the third state, be like the dream state is in relation to the waking state -

groundless and unsubstantial. While dreaming, however, one may believe these
things to be, as he says, 'fixed and lasting.'
The difference between the objects perceived in these states, then, is one of relative 'fixity and continuity' on the one hand, and 'groundlessness and insubstantial-

ity' on the other, at least between the dreaming and waking states. This opens the
possibility that the same holds for any third or additional state, and that truth, consequently, is relative to the state. But the proposition that all my beliefs are simply and

absolutely mistaken entails reference to an absolute truth (e.g., an "evil genius" scenario), in relation to which beliefs in all possible states are false, in which case the
possibility of absolute knowledge is that of a state the objects of which are absolutely

grounded and substantial. This need not be conceived as a state in which internal ideas appropriately resemble external objects. A very important passage in alGhazalT's Tahafut al-falasifa (The incoherence of the philosophers) is illuminating in

this regard. In demonstrating that, in his words, existence "with" a thing does not
prove that it exists "by" it, he writes:
Indeed, we will show this by an example. If a person, blind from birth, who has a film on

his eyes and who has never heard from people the difference between night and day,
were to have the film cleared from his eyes in daytime, [then] open his eyelids and see

colors, [such a person] would believe that the agent [causing] the apprehension of the
forms of the colors in his eyes is the opening of his sight and that, as long as his sight is

sound, [his eyes] opened, the film removed, and the individual in front of him having
color, it follows necessarily that he would see, it being incomprehensible that he would
not see. When, however, the sun sets and the atmosphere becomes dark, he would then
know that it is sunlight that is the cause for the imprinting of the colors in his sight.41

Here, the person's original judgment - that clear, open eyes and a colored object, alone, bring about the seeing of colors - is corrected by the experience of nightfall: the seeing of colors "with" the clearing of the eyes is distinguished from its happening "by" it. The operative principle to be inferred here, however, also entails that

the disappearance of colors with the setting of the sun, and their reappearance with
its rising, is, likewise, no proof that one sees them "by" the sun. Indeed, al-Ghazall's

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main contention here is that God is the only causal agent - a position shared by

Our point here is that the experience that may elicit the conclusion that the sun

is the agent of seeing, although itself mistaken, does indeed correct the judgment
based on the previous experience, that the removal of the film is the agent. Further-

more, the relation that this experience bears to the first judgment leads one to the
insight by which one becomes aware that the second judgment - that the sun is the
agent - is likewise groundless. The result here is an entirely new level of thinking
about causal agency. Thus, while each judgment in this series is indeed mistaken,
it is not the case that they are absolutely devoid of truth, and from this it is clear in

what sense one can say that a judgment is true in relation to one state and false in
relation to another.

In the example above, an ontological connection remains between both the removal of the film, the setting of the sun, and the sight of colors. Each new experience

simply augments one's understanding of this relation, revealing the manifestation of

the preceding experience as in itself groundless and unsubstantial, by revealing the

deeper reality in relation to which it alone exists. Thus, considered in itself, it is false

that the clear eyes and a colored object are that by which colors are seen; but considered in relation to the sun, it is true. Simultaneously, considered in itself, it is false

that clear eyes, a colored object, the sun, and anything else that seeing colors occurs
"with," are that "by" which colors are seen; but considered in relation to that by
which these occur with each other, it is true. The manifestation, at each level of

awareness, is simultaneously a 'veil' over the one beyond it and, in a certain sense,
an effect thereof; so the truth provides clues to its discovery in the manner by which
it hides itself. It manifests itself in its concealment.
Thus, when the sun is revealed, by reason, to be larger than the earth, its appearance to the senses is not thereby wholly dispensed with. Rather, it is shown for what
it is: that is, not the sun itself, but the veil behind which the sun is presented to one

whose awareness is limited to the level of sense perception. Reason does not simply
disregard the veil. Rather, recognizing it as an effect of the veiled, it uses it as a point

of reference by which to peer behind. The mathematical calculations employed in

ascertaining the size of the sun are not applied but to the very sense perceptions
that would, of themselves, misrepresent it. In the process, the sense perception is
both falsified and confirmed. In showing it as merely the appearance of the sun, reason falsifies it; but in explaining the manner in which it is ontologically connected to
the sun, reason confirms it.

This, of course, raises the question as to whether the object, as it appears to reason, is itself the ground, the substance, and the agent, or simply another veil through

which it conceals itself from, and manifests itself to, the subject in that state of
awareness. Second, this raises the question as to how the first could possibly be

answered. AI-GhazalT writes:

When these thoughts occurred to me, they penetrated my soul, and so I tried to deal with
that objection. However, my effort was unsuccessful, since the objection could be refuted

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only by proof. But the only way to put together a proof was to combine primary cognitions. So if, as in my case, these were inadmissible, it was impossible to construct the

Descartes is commonly understood to have constructed a proof by which to escape the skeptical clutches of his "evil genius" hypothesis: / think, therefore I am.
Yet, one may wonder how such a proof could be effective in that regard when, in
light of the hypothesis, it is quite possible that an "evil genius" is simply deceiving
us into believing that the argument is sound. The argument itself depends on the
hidden premise that that which does not exist cannot think, behind which there lies
of course the fundamental principle of non-contradiction. As al-Ghazall points out,

primary cognitions such as these cannot be appealed to when reason itself is in

In conclusion, and as an indication of future investigation, I suggest that there
are certain 'primary cognitions' that Descartes could not discard, despite the apparent implications of the "evil genius" hypothesis. Second, I believe that these items
are entailed in the skeptical hypothesis itself. Third, I project that, although this fact

seems to constitute a significant difference between al-GhazalT and Descartes on this

point, when the precise nature of these primary cognitions that Descartes retains are

clarified, there will emerge, at a deeper level, a similarity through which continued
reflection can yield both a deeper understanding of both thinkers and a new per-

spective on the relation between classical Islamic and modern Western philosophy.


1 - Abu Hamid al-Ghazall, The Alchemy of Happiness [Kimiya al-sa'adat], trans.

Claud Field (London: Octagon Press, 1980).
2 - M. M. Sharif, "Influence of Muslim Thought on the West," in A History of
Muslim Philosophy ed. M. M. Sharif (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1963),

p. 1382.
3 - Catherine Wilson, "Modern Western Philosophy," in History of Islamic Philos-

ophy ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Oliver Leaman (London: Routledge, 1996),

p. 1022.
4 - Ibid.

5 - Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy trans. Donald A. Cress (India-

napolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), p. 1.

6 - Ibid.

7 - Ibid., p. 2.

8 - Cemil Akdogan, "The Al-Ghazahan Origins of Modern Philosophy" (paper

presented at the International Conference on al-GhazalT's Legacy: Its Contem-

porary Relevance, October 24-27, 2001, at the International Institute of

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Islamic Thought and Civilization), p. 4. A somewhat different reading of Akdogan's cited statement is possible, however, if we understand his 'problem of
God' as a reference to the 'problem of God' discussed by Syed Muhammad
Naquib al-Attas; that is, a specific philosophical problem al-Attas sees as having emerged in the history of western thought as a result of a real distinction
between essence and existence, traced back to Thomas Aquinas and diagnosed
as a misunderstanding of Ibn STna's position on the issue (see al-Attas, Islam
and Secularism). This is not insignificant, as further investigation may reveal

that a fundamental difference between al-GhazalT and Descartes in their re-

spective approaches and solutions to doubt may be linked to just this problem.
To examine the question at this stage, however, would be premature.

9 - Abu Hamid al-Ghazall, Deliverance from Error [al-Munqidh min al-dalal],

trans. R. J. McCarthy (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 1980), p. 53.

10 -Ibid., pp. 54-55.

1 1 - Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Meditation 13.

12 - On the meaning of 'fitra,' in a footnote to his translation of Deliverance from

Error, R. J. McCarthy writes: "The word is from a root meaning to cleave or split

and to create (God). So fitra means: creation, nature, natural disposition, constitution, temperament, etc., i.e. what is in a man at his creation."
13 - AI-GhazalT, Deliverance from Error, p. 55.
1 4 - Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, p. 1 0.

15 -Ibid., p. 13.
16-Tamara Albertini, "Crisis and Certainty of Knowledge in Al-GhazalT (10581 1 1 1 ) and Descartes (1 596-1 650)," Philosophy East and West 55 (1 ) (January
2005): 2.

1 7 - Sami Najm, "The Place and Function of Doubt in the Philosophies of Descartes
and AI-GhazalT," Philosophy East and West 1 6 (3-4) (July-October 1 966): 1 33.

18 - Ibrahim Musa, Chazali and the Poetics of the Imagination (Chapel Hill and
London: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), p. 14 (see also p. 177).
19 - Al-Ghazah, Deliverance from Error, p. 55.

20 - Abu Hamid al-Ghazall, The Niche of Lights [Mishkat al-anwar], trans. David
Buchman (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1998), p. 3.
21 - Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, p. 13.
22 - Al-Ghazah, Deliverance from Error, p. 56.
23 - Ibid.

24 - Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, p. 14.

25 - AI-GhazalT, Deliverance from Error, p. 56.

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26 - Ibid.

27 - Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, p. 27: "For example, I find within

myself two distinct ideas of the sun. One idea is drawn, as it were, from the
senses. Now it is this idea which, of all those that I take to be derived from out-

side me, is most in need of examination. By means of this idea the sun appears
to me to be quite small. But there is another idea, one derived from astronomical reasoning, that is elicited from certain notions that are innate in me, or else
is fashioned by me in some other way. Through this idea the sun is shown to be
several times larger than the earth."

28 - Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, p. 14.

29 - Ibid.

30 - Ibid., pp. 24-25.

31 - Al-Ghazah, Deliverance from Error, p. 56.

32 - Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy p. 15.

33 - Ibid.

34 -Ibid., p. 16.
35 - Ibid.

36 - Ibid.

37 - AI-GhazalT, Deliverance from Error, p. 56.

38 - Ibid., p. 57.
39 - Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, p. 14.

40 - In this respect, AI-GhazalT firmly believes in the revelatory significance of

dreams. So, he cannot ultimately consider them false in the sense of not relating to any reality whatsoever. However, in the context of this particular
epistemological discussion, the significance of this fact is admittedly open to

41 - Abu Hamid al-Ghazah, The Incoherence of the Philosophers [Tahafut alfalasifah], trans. Michael Marmura (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University

Press, 1997), pp. 171-172.

42 - AI-GhazalT, Deliverance from Error, p. 57.

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