Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Book 90, Iran: "Deliverance from Error" and "The Beginning of Guidance" by al-Ghazali

This slim little volume took longer than I thought. But that's okay; I think I actually like Al-Ghazali. He's an oddly modern thinker, rationalist even in his irrationalities.

While the divine/human mind that wrote the Quran is obsessed with hellfire, Al-Ghazali's more interested in the very idea of the Truth. In Deliverance from Error, he explains that he's unwilling to accept proof via miracles: no point is proven through magic tricks of turning stones into gold or rods into serpents. He's smart enough to point out that the Faithful must not dismiss their ideas of infidel philosophers in the realms of natural science, logic, even ethics.

Of course he's silly sometimes: he claims the Greek thinkers are fundamentally flawed because they weren't Muslim; he warns that only the elites should be allowed to access their ideas. I fucking love his imagery here, though:

"It is only the simple villager, not the experienced money-changer, who is made to abstain from dealings with the counterfeiter. It is not the strong swimmer who is kept back from the shore, but the clumsy amateur; not the accomplished snake-charmer who is barred from touching the snake, but the ignorant boy."

Oh, and one of his counter-arguments for complete dependence on natural philosophy is the inductively proven usefulness of magic squares in aiding childbirth.

Yet it's these very imperfections which draw me in as a reader: the knowledge that this religious writer is fallible, is fundamentally human. He charts his own philosophical and spiritual development in this text, acknowledging that rationality can only take one so far and thus the necessity for mysticism - a paradoxical situation he has to live with.

And that fallibility, that very idiosyncrasy, is what makes his commandments in The Beginning of Guidance more charming than ridiculous. It's here that he lays out strict rules for ablutions before prayer, for going to the toilet (never in front of others, step into the room left foot first and exit right foot first, and wipe your cock an odd number of times on a stone).

It's here that he warns against lying, backbiting, cursing, and most important of all, hypocrisy. If every Muslim followed what he prescribed, they'd be saints even to our secular eyes - always turning the other cheek, never judging lest they themselves be judged. It's also here that he advocates moderation in all things, propriety at prayers and in conversation, and naturally respect for elders. It's like he's the reincarnation of Confucius or something.

So I've read two religious texts in a row! Never let it be said that I'm anti-faith, my dears.

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Representative quote: Beware of association with the learned men of this time, especially those occupied with controversial topics and intellectual disputes. Beware of them; because of their jealousy they wait for you to fall into ill-fortune, imagine various things concerning you, and behind your back make signs with their eyes among themselves while enumerating your faults when they meet together so that sometimes in their anger they confront you with these faults during their rivalries. They do not forgive your faults or slips; nor do they hide your private matters which should be kept hidden. They make an account with you even in the most negligible matter, and they envy you inn everything, small or great. They instigate your friends against you by slandering, spreading false information, and lies. If they are pleased with you they show it through servile flattery; if they are angry with you they are quietly stupid. On their bodies they wear beautiful clothes, but their minds are wolves. This is a judgement based on clear observation of most of them except those whom God (exalted is He!) has protected. Companionship with them is a loss, and association with them is to be forsaken.

Next book: Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, from Afghanistan.

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