Converging Shari’a and Sufism: Imam al-Ghazali

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Imam al-Ghazali is a famous scholar in the Islamic world. His full name is Abu Hamid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn Ṭaws Aḥmad al-Ṭusi al-Ghazali. He was born in 1058 AD/450 AH in Ghazalah, a village near Ṭus, a small town in Iran, which was known as one of the centers of knowledge at that time (Sulaeman, 2022, p. 161).

He undoubtedly had considerable influence during his life time and in the centuries that followed to the present day (Watt, 1963, p. 171). One of his thoughts that influenced and contributed to Muslim world is in converging shari’a and sufism.

What it means by shari’a here is religious practices which often refer to Islamic law or well-known as fiqh in Islam, while sufism is mystical Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to discover the truth of God’s love and knowledge through direct personal experience (Merkur, 2022).

It is essential to highlight what circumstances that lead al-Ghazali to reconcile shari’a and sufism? Thus, this is an attempt to examine condition of possibilities that supported al-Ghazali to converge shari’a and sufism.

Baca juga: Imam Al-Ghazali: Spiritualis dan Rasionalis

Al-Ghazali lived in the mid-5th century Hijri until the beginning of the 6th century Hijri. He spent his life to study various disciplines. He studied Islamic law (fiqh) from Abu Hamid Ahmad ibn Muḥammad al-Radhkani. In addition, he also learned jurisprudence, theology, logic, and philosophy of Ibn Sina from Abu al-Ma’ali al-Juwayni Imam al-Haramin (1085 AD) at al-Nizamiyyah, Naisabur.

He was such a very hungry one in seeking knowledge. Therefore, he decided to study other sciences. He studied the schools of jurisprudence, kalam, usul fiqh, philosophy, logic, sufism and other religious sciences from Imam Al-Haramayn Abu Al Ma’ali Al-Juwayni, the most famous Asha’ariyah theologian of his time and a well-known professor at the Niẓamiyyah in Naisabur.

Al-Juwayni had colored al-Ghazali’s perspectives especially in sufism since al-Juawayni was student of Imam al-Qushairi, one of famous sufism figure whose masterpiece is Risalah al-Qushairi.

Al-Ghazali achieved his highest academic achievement by appointed as a rector of al-Nizamiyyah, Baghdad in 1091 AD. The various sciences above that he had learned became one of very important things in transforming his way of life from rationalism to sufism.

Beside of his journey of study, the socio-political horizon that al-Ghazali experienced also played important role in changing al-Ghazali become a sufi. He witnessed a very great tension between the fiqh movement (Islamic science) and the sufistic movement.

Even though there was tension between these two groups, it was surprising that several members of Islamic science were sufi but some others attacked on sufism too (Watt, 1963, p. 176). Islamic science movement was an exoteric religious orientation that relies on issues of jurisprudence (fiqh).

They claimed as the best representative of religious understanding and the way of truth (shari’a) par excellence. They seem to judge that sufistic movement was far from excluding the observances of the shari’a. On the other hand, sufistic movement, exoteric religious orientation which is based on personal experience and spiritual awareness, also claimed to be religious knowledge (ma’rifah) and the path to happiness (ariqah) par excellence (Majid, 1992; Sulaeman, 2022, p. 165).

Here, al-Ghazali would have liked to expose himself to this tension as he had done to expose himself in the tension of philosophy before. He then came up with a view that sufism was existential (Watt, 1963, p. 177).

Al-Ghazali began making a very prestigious contribution to Islam by reconciliating these two opposite groups. He rooted for converging shari’a dan sufism.

Al-Ghazali first realized that he had to go through sufism practices himself to answer this challenge. He decided to leave his position as rector of al-Nizamiyyah. He wandered Damascus to spend time for contemplating in the Umayyad mosque (Watt, 1963, hlm. 144). He did deep reflection on the essence of life and began to write the book Ihya’ Ulum al-Din. He had built the foundations that bridge between Islamic science (fiqh) and sufistic movement.

What he had written in the Revival of Religious Science and Ihya’ Ulum al-Din can be considered as his contribution in bridging shari’a and sufism. He stated that the basis of sufism life is adherence to the external forms of activity described in the sacred texts, Qur’an and sunnah, and systematized by Islamic science.

Baca juga: Kesalahan-Kesalahan Para Filosof Menurut Al-Ghazali

He argued that the Sufi way of life does not replace formal Islamic practices, but complements or completes them (Watt, 1963, p. 176–177). Furthermore, he criticized the Islamic science (fiqh) as dry science and a mere practice (‘amaliyah) that does not touch its essential meaning (Sulaeman, 2022, p. 77, 2022, p. 165).

In the other words, al-Gazali would have liked to say that sufism was the essentiality of the fiqh practice. That is what we find in his masterpiece Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din. For instance, al-Ghazali wrote a chapter on asrar al-salah, asrar al-zakah and so on. (Al-Ghazali, 1996)  It was to show that fiqh practice should have not been a mere practice. Al-Ghazali’s criticism then resulted the Islamic science movement in more tolerant of sufism.

Al-Ghazali has made shari’a and Sufism as sciences that are intertwined and inseparable. If fiqh/shari’a is the body, then sufism is the spirit. It is a clear analogy to explain the relationship between shari’a (Islamic law) and sufism.

In short, shari’a should not have been a merely practice but it should give an effect of changing and purifying the soul (sufism). This shows that al-Ghazali’s style of sufism can be considered as more intended to practical sufism (tasawwuf ‘amaly) rather than philosophical sufism. Sufism that was introduced by al-Ghazali relays on the sacred scriptures, Qur’an and sunnah, as the fundamental sources. Hence, we can consider what al-Ghazali had done is an attempt to overcome misleading claims toward sufism.

As the result, we can conclude that there are two main circumstances that influenced al-Ghazali to converge shari’a and sufism. First, it is the life and study journey that al-Ghazali had experienced; second, socio-political horizon in which al-Ghazali lived. He witnessed a great tension between Islamic science (jurist) and sufistic movement at his life time. They were on contrary and in conflict. They claimed their movements as the best one and at the same time they attacked each other.  Ihya’ Ulum al-Din is his masterpiece that was written in order to end or reduce this tension.


Al-Ghazali. (1996). Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn. Isa al-Babi al-Halabi.

Majid, N. (1992). Islam Doktrin Dan Peradaban: Sebuah Telaah Kritis tentang Masalah Keimanan, Kemanusiaan dan Kemodernan. Yayasan Wakaf Paramadani.

Merkur, D. (2022, September 7). Mysticism. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Sulaeman, M. (2022). Al-Ghazäli; Mendamaikan Syar’ah dan Tasawwuf. Empirisma; Jurnal Pemikiran dan Kebudayaan Islam29(2), 159–169.

Watt, W. M. (1963). Muslim intellectual: A study of al-Ghazali. Edinburgh University Press. 

Editor: Sukma Wahyuni
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Ph.D student in Islamic Studies at Universitas Islam Internasional Indonesia (UIII).
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