He is known by many names. The most famous, and perhaps the most profound is ‘Hujjat al-Islam’ – ‘Proof of Islam’. Abu Hamid Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Al-Ghazali died at the age of 53. It is not an understatement to say he was, and still is, the most prominent Muslim philosopher, theologian, jurist and mystic of Sunni Islam that has ever lived. He lived a thousand years ago in the city of Tus under the great Seljuq Empire and spent much of his life teaching and reviving, what he believed, was a ‘lost’ Islam.
Al-Ghazali is a giant. I will not attempt to summarise his life, nor his works. I leave it to the curious reader to research and understand the importance this man plays in our lives – particularly if one is of the Muslim or Christian faith (Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic theologian and philosopher, was heavily influenced by al-Ghazali).
Al-Ghazali, at the peak of his career, held the “most prestigious and most challenging” professorial at that time, at the Nizamiyya Madrasa in Baghdad. Put simply, no other Muslim during his time held the authority he did when it came to matters of Islam. At the peak of his career he underwent a spiritual crisis that would see him take a decade long break during which he would travel the Muslim world. He performed the Hajj and then spent years working to resolve what he saw as an illness of his ego that had turned him into a hypocrite. He would return to his old life but only after he had undergone a major transformation. He left as a teacher and returned as a man focused on helping others avoid mistakes he himself had made. In his later life al-Ghazali was even seen and revered as a saint.
“Dear friend, your heart is a polished mirror. You must wipe it clean of the veil of dust that has gathered upon it, because it is destined to reflect the light of divine secrets.” Imam al-Ghazali
In the summer months of 2018, I travelled to Iran under the pretext of studying Farsi in Isfahan, a city known as ‘Half the World’ (Naqsh-e Jahan), a title well-earned, given the city’s size, rich history and majestic Islamic architecture. My plan was to spend two or three months in Iran, where I would study but also spend a lot of time in the mosques and madrasas. My own spiritual crisis had begun years earlier, but only now was I able to gather enough strength and will to consider where I would be at the end of it.
I spent four weeks in Isfahan and by the end was incredibly eager to
travel to the corners of Iran. I visited Yazd (the city of the Zoroastrians),
Shiraz (the ‘city of Love and Hafez’), Tabriz and many others, including
Hamedan (where Ibn Sina ‘Avicenna’ is buried). I was accumulating hundreds of
miles but was oblivious to the benefits being bestowed upon me. They say travel
makes you wise, but I had only learnt the wisdom of this everyday world – a
knowledge that meant little to me. After six weeks in Iran my Farsi had improved
and was fluent, but I had not learnt how to decipher the meaning of my journey
in Iran. This was a spiritual journey for sure, but one without preparation or
plan. I thought of myself and my comforts constantly, but only romanced with
the idea of true self-sacrifice. I had one goal that now seemed almost
impossible: to rid or destroy as much of my ego as possible. A concept or
technique used to spiritually elevate one’s self, that all the great Islamic
mystics and sufis preached, including Rumi, Mohammad Iqbal and of course
I had fallen in love with Persia and while I did manage to drown my ego in a shallow pond, my love for Farsi and the people who spoke it distracted me. I would walk hours on foot in unbearable heat to find mosques, bazaars and narrow streets where I could find meaning. I was not aware, but I had begun to take on the soul and spirit of the Persian so deeply that Iranians who would meet me could not understand why a European would do what I was doing. “You came to Iran to study? Why?”, “You want to explore our country? But you could be in Paris or London.” I laughed on the inside, but outside I merely nodded politely, because how does one translate the agony of their soul to those who want to find a worldly meaning to our actions? For instance, how could I expect an Iranian taxi driver who works night shifts to understand that I, a comparatively rich European, was here to ‘shed my ego’? It felt false. I felt ashamed. Was I merely indulging in ‘spiritual’ tourism?
I arrived in Tehran with four days remaining of my Iran trip. I had done it; who survives this long in Iran in the summer? News reports said this was one of the hottest summers Iran has ever experienced. Who could have travelled and integrated themselves so effortlessly? I had many stories to share, tons of photos for my Instagram page and so much ‘experience’ to digest that my mind and heart were full to the brim. Well done me. But this was not the end.
Al-Ghazali is buried in Tus. It was only in 1995 that excavations revealed what many experts claim are the ruins of his tomb. Tus is 30 km from the city of Mashhad. For many Sunnis, this name means little, but Mashhad is home to the shrine of Imam Reza (the eighth Shia Imam) – who is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). The Imam Reza shrine is the centre of religion in Iran and this incredibly ‘Shia’ centric city had always been a curious fascination for me. Should I go? I made my decision on a hot and sticky evening in Tehran while eating a falafel. I booked my plane ticket and a four-star hotel (of course) and would fly the next day.
I arrived in Mashhad and opened Google Maps to see what to do and where to go (I was a truly modern sufi wanderer by this point). The blue arrow led me, and ‘lost GPS signal’ would confound me. I knew Ghazali was near Mashhad but so were the tombs of Ferdowsi (the greatest Persian poet) and the mathematician and poet Omar Khayyám. This city and my time here would hit me like a mountain, but I thought that I could handle it. I had sat at Ibn Sina’s feet, I had read Hafez to Hafez and I had embraced Saadi already – what could possibly happen now? Who and what is this force of al-Ghazali?
I spent the first day and night in the haram of Imam Reza. I swallowed Islamic architecture like a thirsty traveller. Imam Reza’s shrine is a city within a city. I am unable to describe its majestic nature, so believe me when I say that this place alone could convince you of the Persian’s artistic genius, if you ever had doubts. I witnessed the madness and chaos of the pilgrims. They all possessed and displayed a zeal and love for the Imam that I could not realise for myself. I certainly was not here for this. This became clear as I stood a metre away from the blood of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and my cold heart was more interested in the mirror ceilings above me and the elbows that were hitting my ribs below. Was this madness or was this what love requires? I felt no pangs in my heart, I felt nothing. I have never been moved by tombs or mausoleums but standing amongst such strong believers, I felt exposed and ashamed. I quickly exited the chamber, the hall, the mosque and then the entire haram and made my way to my spacious and grand hotel. Anxiety and fear had overtaken me. I skipped Isha prayer without shame and slept deeply. This is how disbelief overtakes and how Iblis wins. He takes one moment of weakness and confusion brushes your hair with his fingers and comforts you with the words “Sleep, this isnt for you.” I slept wonderfully.
I woke up late the following morning, stepped out of my hotel into a swarm of taxis and stretched out my arm to say “Tus, who wants to go Tus?” I would do it. I would place my finger on the tombs of both Ferdowsi and Al-Ghazali. I had delayed it enough. Within seconds I found a driver who agreed to drive me there and back for seven dollars. He was younger than me but possessed strength and confidence in his face that comes only with absolute conviction, whether in the reality of this life or the next- something I was lacking in abundance, it was clear. On the dashboard of his taxi he had a photo of Imam Hussein’s or Imam Ali’s shrine in Iraq (I couldn’t really tell given my fake credentials) but I found an opening to gain his confidence and smile by announcing “My name is Ali.” It worked. He shook my hand and immediately made me one of his own. Was I Shia? Yes! Did I visit Mashhad for pilgrimage? Yes! Lying is easy if you think you have no other choice; but there is a choice and it had become such a habit of mine that I found no shame in small and then bigger lies. He adorned large black rings on his fingers that he would kiss when talking about Imam Ali; I felt joy at this man’s faith, but also a longing and fascination.
I had been in Iran for almost two months and had yet to meet a young person who identified themselves as a practising Muslim. I would often hear the same sentence repeated: “I am not a Muslim; I hate religion and what it has done to this country.” This bothered me at first, but I convinced myself later that the experience of these young people with religion, with Islam, is far from ideal. It appeared, on further enquiry, that the rules and enforcement of religious law into society had pushed people away from even exploring Islam for themselves. The beauty of Islam had been hidden by the garbs and pronunciations of an outward religion that did nothing to soothe and appeal to the hungry and inquisitive young mind. Islam was a tool used by the government to keep power I figured, and those who professed Islam the loudest benefited the most- a theology that rewarded the most obedient and punished the least. To balance this situation, I sometimes attempted to explain my own experience to these curious and anti-religious Iranians. I would fail, but at least get their attention; how often does a European Muslim, with freedom and choice choose to become religious? I was clearly educated and privileged, but I chose to do what they chose to run away from. In almost all cases, I was respected for my faith. If only I could do the same; I did not expect to be in Iran trying to convince Iranians of the truth of Islam, (especially given the reputation Iran has on the international stage for being a religious theocracy) but here we were.
My new friend, the caravan driver, mocked me (in good humour I hoped) for visiting Tus to see dead poets and philosophers when instead, he declared, I should have been taking a bus to Najaf or Karbala in Iraq to visit my Imams. My name was Ali and this was enough; for him, my faith was contained in my name and I was a believer who knelt before the Almighty. I wanted to correct him, but how could I when I myself did not know what I was? I had been a Hanafi and an Ismaili; a Twelver and a sufi meddler. I was spiritual some days and on other days an orthodox habitual. The journey to Tus was long and hot. I shut my eyes and tried to rest.
I woke up minutes later to music. He had switched on the radio and was listening to nasheeds. These are highly energised melodic tunes, and like most I had heard in Iran, were about remembering the death, suffering and injustice suffered by the Imams of the Shia faith. I never enjoyed this genre of religious music growing up but here in Iran, the passion and hypnotic element to each nasheed is something else. There is a beat, a thud and a slap on the chest that is in rhythm with the lyrics. Iranians love to sing and if Arabic, as some say, was created for the Quran, then Farsi was created for poetry and music. One does not need to understand the language to experience the immense beauty of this ancient tongue. Iranians love to recite and sing and don’t even need an excuse. Every café I visited in Iran had a copy of Hafez at hand (no exaggeration) and every evening that I walked by the Zayanderud river in Isfahan to the Khaju bridge, I heard singing. And why not? Iranians have beautiful voices; the nightingale is caged in the Persian’s throat and to sing is to let it fly free.
I stared out of the window as the caravan sped up. A thousand years earlier, in his old age, al-Ghazali would have returned to Tus on the same road, I thought. Again, I fell asleep. No bandits had raided this caravan and we were now entering Tus.
The city of Tus today is nothing. The few that visit come to see where the poet Ferdowsi sleeps. He is credited (some say falsely) for saving the Persian language under the rule of the Arabs, and he went on to pen the famous ‘Shahnameh’ – a book of enormous size and influence on the modern Persian landscape. It is the longest poem ever written by a single poet and Ferdowsi is considered the most important Persian poet in history. His tomb is grand and clearly influenced by the tomb of Cyrus the Great, an honour that should indicate the place Ferdowsi now holds on the national stage.
Tus was once a significant limb in the greater Khorasan region. It blossomed with poets, mystics and several polymaths. Jabir ibn Hayyan, Asadi Tussi, Nizam al-Mulk and, of course, al-Ghazali himself, came out of the dirt here. Tus also found itself in the unfortunate position of being in the path of the invading Mongols. The forces of Genghis Khan passed through this garden of a city and cut, bled and burnt the flowers and people, and then dug their roots and crushed them with the hooves of their horses. The anger and brute force of the Mongol was so great that they would have made stones bleed if they had any signs of Persian, Arab or Islamic influence. This was the fate of Khorasan. The lamp in the east was put out with such power that it took centuries to recover, though it never returned to its former greatness. Before I left Tus, I visited a recently excavated site of a madrasa where ash is still visible from a firestorm lit 800 years ago by the Mongols. Historians say what remains today is a fraction of a fraction of Tus. I would agree. Tus is a sad and sombre place and the residents carry the sweet sadness in their eyes and noble character.
I circumambulated the tomb of Ferdowsi, took some photographs and left. Imam al-Ghazali was close by.
“Remember your contemporaries who have passed away and were your age. Remember the honours and fame they earned, the high posts they held, and the beautiful bodies they possessed. Today all of them are turned to dust. They have left orphans and widows behind them, their wealth is being wasted, and their houses turned into ruins. No sign of them is left today, and they lie in dark holes underneath the earth. Picture their faces before your mind’s eye and ponder.”~ Imam al-Ghazali
I found my caravan parked and raised my hand to indicate it was time to depart. “Let us go” (‘Bayreem‘). “Where?” (‘Koja?’); “The tomb of Imam Al-Ghazali (‘Iramga Imam Al-Ghazali’).
There was a problem. The caravan leader did not know where al-Ghazali was buried. While we had found Ferdowsi without trouble, it would seem that the whereabouts of al-Ghazali were a mystery. But I knew where he was; I had saved his location on my Google Maps; I had even marked it as a ‘favourite’. “Here, ‘inja’, he is buried here!” I had no internet connection, but I could quickly calculate that it was, at most, a 15-minute walk from Ferdowsi. I pushed my phone into the hands of the caravan driver, but he refused to look. What sort of madness was unravelling? He was a man of tradition. He needed another person to give him directions and not a GPS device. I watched as he asked one person, and then another, but none knew of al-Ghazali. I started to question myself and whether I had been mistaken.
Was I wrong? Of course, I was wrong and of course I was misguided. How could al-Ghazali be buried in this place? A place so desolate and ordinary that his mere presence would have lit up the entire land if he was nearby. If these men who were of this land could not guide us to him, how could my phone? Each time we asked of al-Ghazali someone replied with “Ferdowsi? He’s here – right behind you.” Madness. I had taken this journey and put myself through this just to see Ferdowsi? But Ferdowsi is a giant. His tomb was worthy of a visit. I talked myself into submission and stared hopelessly at the driver. My Farsi was at its limit and I could say no more. I would return to Mashhad it appeared.
“Bayreem Bayreem”, let us go. Like a true Persian the caravan leader had not given up. He found a caravanserai nearby where the owner knew of al-Ghazali and his burial place. I felt strength returning. He provided the driver with precise instructions and it was indeed nearby. I was right. Of course, I was right. We rushed to the caravan and jumped in. I sat in silent excitement and watched the landscape move, then rise and fall as if a camel had replaced this taxi. A left, a right, another left, and we approached the end of the road. What lay ahead surprised us both. The paved path had ended and to continue we would need to cross a rocky dirt road, on both sides of which mud and straw houses lined the route. Where are we? This is the path to al-Ghazali? The camel tripped and stumbled but it continued without a push.
“I will walk from here.” “No you won’t – stay.” The camel tripped again and again but it kept on going. I looked over to the caravan leader and he was in deep focus. I looked on. This was the road to al-Ghazali. This is the moment that plays in my head when I think of my visit to the maqam (‘home’) of Abu Hamid Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Al-Ghazali of Tus. “I will walk from here.”
I jumped from a height that was human in its reach but celestial in its gain. I have travelled to many lands with His blessings and kissed many saints, but this experience was to be its own. A few weeks earlier I was in Shiraz, where I spent days visiting shrines of saints (Sufi, Sunni and Shia), dervishes and poets. I had entered gardens and climbed small mountains, I had been scrutinised by security guards and I had stared directly into the eyes of man who looked right through me in search of some Divine light. This was very different. It was just me and him. No one cared who I was, where I came from and what I would do here at this desolate spot in Tus.
Our worries about the outer replace questions of the inner without us ever realising– for me they did so early on. I had stopped asking questions about the unseen and started to believe exclusively in the physical. The measurable, quantifiable and tangible was science – it was real and progressive, with a before and a successive. The inner, the metaphysical and spiritual? It was the unbelievable and the irrational. Think it but don’t dictate it. Muhammad on a winged horse? Iblis whispering in my ear? How many prophets and how many books? No Jibreel would come to me, but I would be expected to read, to recite and to feel the love and fear with no miracle but one Book. The Book. How convenient. As a Muslim of the post enlightenment period, I was a paradox of a man like all the others around me. Goethe and Locke were put in my hands, but in my case the eyes stole glances of Muhammad Iqbal and Baba Farid (Fariduddin Ganjshakar) and my lips searched for the best English translation of the Quran to kiss. It was true I understood little, but I imagined it all balanced out. I could lock horns with an English man on his own turf about his history and culture, but I could also utilise my Islam to go further back and light a torch when the European would pause in the Dark Ages. I was a Muslim who was adopted by two great civilisations, but a believer who was never taught the intimate love for Him. I was a new European settler, but a highly fashionable sufi dabbler. Al-Ghazali was the epitome of it all – read him and you’re complete.
I had spent two decades coming to terms with the delights of this and that and I never steered too far from Him. I had found Him in the walls of mosques, so I had jumped to Iran to look up at the most magnificent. I had tried but it had not been enough. I thought my feet would be my witnesses if He were to ask where I had looked for Him. They would speak for me and explain in detail that I had taken steps towards Him everyday. I walked to, into and out of His houses like an addict. None of this was normal for someone who looked like me. I had no rags, I was no ‘fakir’ (a man of God), I was not enrolled in any madrassa; but here I was knocking on the door each day, to find out if today, I would finally feel His embrace.
Let me jump one more time oh Allah, but this jump, this one right here, make it towards You, make it sincere in its intention and fruitful in its result, make it forward moving and not backward, make it complete and sustain it, let me land with a soft foot and give me a deep hold to survive the auspicious winds.
I looked behind and the caravan had disappeared. I was truly alone. I was here.
No, I was almost alone. I had seen a shepherd and his flock graze past al-Ghazali seconds earlier, but when my eyes searched once more, he was gone. He had disappeared into the horizon. I felt my throat tighten. I had jumped and now I had landed. I walked closer and noticed a fence guarding al-Ghazali. I will climb this, and I shall climb again if I slip, and I shall jump into this stone tomb and find al-Ghazali; and then I shall locate his feet and then we shall sit and we will talk.
There was nothingness around me and I wanted and craved more of this nothing. I had no spiritual awakening when my feet touched the dusty tomb. I was prepared for this. Al-Ghazali is no prophet (though some say if there were to be another prophet after our Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) -sacrilegious, but let me finish- Ghazali would have been it). Al-Ghazali was a man of great genius and piety. What he achieved in his short life shook the entire Islamic world for a thousand years. He penned guidance that would shed light on our errors, illuminate the path to Him, help us understand the diseases of our hearts and ultimately save us from what al-Ghazali saw as our own destructive ego. Al-Ghazali’s life and his contribution to Islam was just that – a contribution. I did not see him as any sort of Prophet (although he was accepted as a saint later in his life) and I certainly would not kneel and weep, but for some reason I had no choice.
In Mashhad I had stood at the feet of Imam Reza twice, a man who came from the blood of our beloved Prophet. I witnessed love and faith or something that makes men weak. Was it love for Him? Was it strong faith or a show for no sake? I was pushed back and forth like a small boat in rough waters but possessed no anchor. Those around me were lost in their own storm but enjoyed the chaos. I saw such religious fervour it scared me. I hid my surprise and kept observing. There were chants, screaming and deliberate attempts to raise emotions- but how it worked. Either these pilgrims believed, or they were all fakers I concluded. These pilgrims, young, old, strong and broken had grabbed the grill of Imam Reza’s shrine and kissed so deeply as if deliverance would enter their hungry lips from just the contact. Puzzled and confused I looked around to see if anyone else saw what I was seeing, but these people were believers and they were here to reaffirm their belief.
I should love and revere Imam Reza even if he was not my Imam. I should weep out of love for a man who carried our Prophet’s blood, but I am not a man who weeps. I should wrestle these men and plant my lips on the top most part of the grill. I should plant my feet deep into this ocean and exhibit my faith. I did nothing and left. I felt exposed, ashamed and entirely insufficient to even be near these pilgrims. In my head I repeated the words “They know I’m a chameleon” as I rushed to find the gates to exit. They all saw and felt my disbelief. I truly was a religious tourist who came to spectate. The gold, the glass and the mirror, the green and the spectacular shimmer – it was just a spectacle and how masterfully I spectated once more.
I wept. I sat down by al-Ghazali and wept. My feet hung down into the tomb and I wept. My hands raised to my face I shut my eyes and wept. I had spent a decade avoiding the words of al-Ghazali because he reminded me of my faithless ways, but now I had come to him to spectate and he got me. I was not a student of al-Ghazali but why would he care? Why would He care? Why does anybody care? Where I found failure and insufficiency, my heart found an opening and an opportunity.
“Never have I dealt with anything more difficult than my own soul, which sometimes helps me and sometimes opposes me.” ~ Imam al-Ghazali
The state of internal chaos is difficult to control. Some of us might not experience it ever in our lives, and maybe they are the blessed ones. I had been led to this place after two months of wondering around His houses. Al-Ghazali is dead. He is long gone and the rock and the tomb that I sat across from are nothing. Historians place the blame for the destruction and further neglect of al-Ghazali’s tomb on the Mongols. The Mongol wind that burnt the gardens of Khorasan also flattened and removed any signs of al-Ghazali from human memory. For the next thousand years, no Muslim would know where he lay. I associate no intrinsic value to burial places, for they serve a limited purpose, but in the case of al-Ghazali and what I knew of his life and struggles, I felt compelled to laugh about how this had all ended for a man who sought obscurity for so long. I laughed and then wept immediately. I read Surah Fatiha multiple times and sat silently again. Al-Ghazali and I were alone. All the minds that pondered him, all the eyes that searched for him, all the hearts that found truth in his heart had perished and now no Mongol, Muslim or even this lone visitor, could disturb the peace of our Imam. May He bless and reward Al-Ghazali with the highest heaven.
So why weep? Why this internal chaos? The darkness within my heart felt exposed to a light, so bright that I wanted to look away. The truth held my face by the jaw and demanded I look and let it enter. He had bought me to Khorasan, He had placed me in the holiest of places amongst the most zealous, and now He did this. In this wasteland I was exposed, and the truth of my own shortcomings was apparent. There was no sharp blade resting on my throat, but the truth had put a bag over my head and begun suffocating me.
We are made up of light. His light. We also possess darkness. For many years I had recognised this truth, but it had remained unchallenged. Iblis had made a home in my chest and I had guarded him like my own. This dirt in front of me had no light to mark the pure heart of al-Ghazali. There was no garden, no rose or nightingale, there were no pilgrims and there was no one to even guard this place. It was dirt and nothing more. There is no miracle waiting to happen here, no grill to grab and kiss, no deliverance and no wailing or any rituals to perform. There is no need for a proper tomb, no need for a marble slab, no need for a mosque, no need for a city, no need for even a sign – he is dead, and he is gone, but this is not the dirt that I came to kiss. I came for nothing, but I found the grief had started to fade and felt a slow sense hope rise inside of me. I grabbed the hand of al-Ghazali and kissed his fingers one by one. I then took his palm against my face and used it to shut my eyes, but the light kept coming in. I had jumped, I had walked, and now I just wanted to lay down. I wanted to believe this was not the end for me.
I am not done with you son of Adam. He makes the immaterial material and the material into nothingness. He sent armies of jinns and angels to protect our Beloved, He melted iron in the hands of Dawud; He made fire the home of Ibrahim and placed Idris in the fourth heaven; He placed the blade and removed it from Ismail and taught Solomon the language of beasts. What is within His limits? But nothing.
I am his ‘Ghulam’, I am his slave. I am nothing, but I am everything that creation witnessed. I am what Iblis rejected, but I am what will also be his end. The revival of my own Islam had begun with al-Ghazali a decade ago, and now having travelled the world I am back to the proof of Islam to say “I believe, I believe.”
The journey back to Mashhad was quiet. The caravan passed an ancient fortress and then another mausoleum that some Iranian governmental sources claim is the actual resting place of al-Ghazali, but this is not true. The sources are weak, and no serious historian would support these claims. Al-Ghazali is not anywhere here. The Mongol might have started the fire, but it was us, all of us, who had wiped his name from our hearts. It didn’t matter that he was in Iran, in Khorasan, in Tus, in that place alone under the desert sun.
The caravan picked up speed and we left Tus behind. I fell into a deep sleep as the caravan rocked me gently. Tus disappeared and the soft evening sun welcomed us. My world was at peace. “Ali, Ali,” I heard the taxi driver say. “Let me tell you something.” I woke up and looked at him with a tired smile. “I have lived in Mashhad my entire life brother, yet I knew nothing of al-Ghazali’s grave being here. Be honest, you aren’t a pilgrim for Imam Reza or even a photographer who likes mosques, you are a historian, or something aren’t you?” – to which I laughed and agreed. What difference did it make? This lie might have helped him place me better. He had figured me out, I wasn’t here for any reason I myself knew.
My journey with the caravan ended in heavy traffic, the same way it had begun earlier that morning. I was dropped off a mile from the Shrine of Imam Reza. I saw the golden dome. I smiled and tightly shook the hand of the caravan driver, who also grabbed my hand tightly and stared at my tired face. He laughed and drove off.