An Interpretation Theory

A New Reading in the Thought of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali

The ACRPS has published An Interpretation Theory: A New Reading in the Thought of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (368 pp.) by Mohammed Lachkar. Despite the divide between Muslim and non-Muslim scholars of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali on whether to consider him an Ashʿarī, a philosopher, a Sufi, or an amalgamation thereof and on his transformation into an enigmatic figure, as attested by much scholarship, An Interpretation Theory sheds light on aspects of this distorted image in the 21st century.

The interpretation of the history of al-Ghazali’s thought has taken two contradictory courses. In the first, al-Ghazali represents a dark corner of Islamic thought and stipulates that the future is a critique of, and better than, the past. The second course views al-Ghazali’s thought through the lens of deference, veneration, and sanctification based on the argument that “nothing possible is better than what was” [laysa fī-l-ʾimkān ʾafḍal mimmā kān].

Hermeneutics and the History of Philosophy

Hermeneutics has been a turning point in the history of philosophical thought. Since the beginning of the 21st century, it has been understood as the art of removing the arbitrary aspect of interpretation. Previously a tangential component of interpretation, hermeneutics had not emerged in the form of an independent scholarly endeavour since the Renaissance. It received great attention in the Middle Ages, with the Catholic popes using it to interpret religious texts more deeply; indeed, the controversy that al-Ghazali raised – that of “divine speech as opposed to human understanding” – appears negligible relative to the problems of hermeneutic interpretation. Still, An Interpretation Theory interrogates whether al-Ghazali is a source upon which contemporary hermeneutics draws, and the currency of Ghazalian interpretation in the Islamic cultural space. Was he influenced by his predecessors, just as he influenced those who came after? Did he have a self-contained theory of interpretation?

The issue of interpretation in the work of al-Ghazali has not received sufficient research attention save for a few articles, some of which do not even concern al-Ghazali specifically, by contemporary Arab scholars. Others focus on al-Ghazali but without interpretation at the core of the analysis, which leads us to the importance of delving into Ghazalian hermeneutics in isolation from inconclusive, unscientific claims. The book dedicates three chapters by Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Abd al-Jalil bin Abd al-Karim Salim, and British scholar Martin Whittingham to these questions, with Lachkar’s commentary on each essay’s theoretical assumptions, methodological choices, and conclusions.

Divisions of the Interpretation Theory

An Interpretation Theory is divided into three sections and includes eleven total chapters. The first section explores the interaction of Arab-Islamic culture in the fifth century AH with al-Ghazali’s thought, especially his hermeneutical conceptions. The second section traces al-Ghazali’s writings on interpretation, ranging from candid discussions of hermeneutical values and arguments – understood as key components and general principles of the Ghazalian theory of interpretation – to other, more circumspect meditations. The third section is concerned with revealing the “inadvertently veiled” corollaries and intersections of Ghazalian hermeneutical theory on four issues: “the Divine [al-ʾilāhī] and the Worldly [al-ʾinsānī]”, “Paths and Obstacles to Acquiring Knowledge [subul al-taḥṣīl wa-muʿawwiqātuh]”, “the Hierarchy of Creation [tarātubiyyat al-khalq]”, and “the Relationship between the Comprehensible [maʿqūl] and the Traditional [manqūl]”. The section also discusses al-Ghazali’s evaluation of the question of the Divine Self, Attributes, and Actions, then broaches knowledge acquisition and its paths, methods, obscurities, and difficulties.

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