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Mustafa KAYMAZ

Mustafa KAYMAZ

Al-Ghazali is one of the leading figures in Islamic thought tradition who evaluated Sufism on philosophical grounds. He wrote several books to defend Islam and substitute it by philosophical methodology without ignoring the Qur’an and the Sunnah. The Niche of Lights is one of his books in which he interprets the inward meanings of the “Light verse” and “Veil hadith” besides their outward meanings. To do this, he first explains necessary concepts for understanding what he says. Therefore when we are to interpret al-Ghazali’s books we have to consider these and the totality of the book. Otherwise we might be misled and mislead others.

Since al-Ghazali is a key figure in Islamic thought tradition there are countless works on his ideas and identity. The article “Monism and Monotheism” of Alexander Treiger is one of them. He tries to understand ontological perspective of al-Ghazali by analyzing his book The Niche of Light (Miskat al-Anwar) and making comparisons and contrasts between that book and other works of al-Ghazali and Avicenna’s ideas as well. Based on this, he argues that al-Ghazali was a monist. However, I think, this argument is wrong and in this article I will try to prove my claim.

First, I will mention Treiger’s arguments and then show why they are problematic and wrong. I will criticize his methodology, and show other three problematic aspects of his arguments. After doing that I will present an analysis of the book Mishkat by considering it in totality and show that al-Ghazali argues monotheism rather than monism.

Since I could not found works related to this specific issue I will depend on Treiger’s article and al-Ghazali’s book. I will mention these sources once in the footnotes and then just showing numbers instead of repeating the same names. For page numbers of the former I will use “p. (page number)” format and for the latter “chapter, page, paragraph number” format.


In his article[1], Alexander Treiger argues that al-Ghazali in The Niche of Lights represents both monistic and monotheistic approaches. According to Treiger, the first part of the book is related to the former and the second and third parts are to the latter. “… according to the first passage, God is the only true existent, the other existents possessing only borrowed and metaphorical existence – hence monism. According to the second passage, by contrast, God is the Lord and Creator (I turn my face as a true believer to Him who created the heavens and the earth) and while the divinity of the intermediary ‘lord’ is rejected their existence is never denied – hence monotheism.”[2] Furthermore, he argues that this two approaches are interrelated and by them al-Ghazali tries to combine philosophy and Sufism by substantiating Sufis’ ideas philosophically and rejecting ones that he sees wrong.[3] The most basic argument of Treiger is that al-Ghazali adopted Avicenna’s metaphysical system after reforming and re-naming it. So he separates the first chapter of Mishkat from the others, understands it in terms of ontology, and claims that it is monistic. For the last two chapters he uses “quiddity / what-ness / mahiya/” term of Avicenna, and claims that they are monotheistic.[4] However, I think those arguments are problematic in different ways.

a.   Purpose of Al-Ghazali in writing Mishkat

First of all, al-Ghazali has written his book Mishkat al-Anwar to a friend of his in order to explain to him outward and inward meanings and interpretations of a verse from Qur’an and a saying of the Prophet. The verse is known as “verse of the Light” (ayat al-Nur) [24:35][5] and the saying known as veil hadith.[6] To do that he explains different meanings of the word light in terms of peoples’ degree in knowledge. He tries to do this so carefully in order to prevent misunderstanding of his arguments because the matter is also related to one’s faith and to cause a believer to lose his or her faith is the last thing that al-Ghazali would wish. He defines all concepts he uses and after each chapter he clarify what he has said. Therefore, we have to understand what al-Ghazali says form what he argues that he says. At this point I think Treiger’s arguments are problematic because he cuts the relationship between the passages he took and the chapters and parts they belong. Based on one passage from a thinker’s book and another passage from another book of his, we cannot refer an idea that contrasts with his or her general perspective to him or her.

b.   Ontological Incompatibility Between Monism and Monotheism

Secondly, there is an ontological incompatibility between monism and monotheism. One cannot be monist and monotheist at the same time. There are several types of monism. For instance, when it comes to body and mind relation, a person who put one of them at the center of his or her thought by ignoring or rejecting the other is monist. In the monism, as the name itself suggests, there is one category, kind or type etc. depend of the area. If we are talking about religion, then, there are two types of monism: pantheism and atheism. Both of them rejects categorical difference in existence. As the former rejects that there is a created existence by claiming that the whole existence is one and divine, the latter rejects the divinity by claiming that there is just one category of existence which is not divine.[7] Monotheism, by the contrary, accepts two category of existence: the Creator and the created. Depending on all those I argue that to claim that al-Ghazali is monist and monotheist is so problematic that it cannot be solved by claiming that he is monist in this regard and monotheist in that regard.

c.    Theological Problems

Thirdly, there are theological problems with Treiger’s arguments. If we accept that al-Ghazali was a monist we have to accept several theological ideas that are incompatible with his Islamic thought. Islamic principles are about relationship between the believer and God, other existents, other human-beings, other believers, and himself or herself. If al-Ghazali was a monist he would have to deny Islam per se. If the only existent was God, there would be no need for any religion. And again as mentioned above, in religious terms one can be a monist either as a pantheist or an atheist.

d.   Al-Ghazali’s Critiques of Al-Hallaj and Al-Bistami

And the final problem of Treiger’s article that I want to criticize is about his mentioning criticisms of al-Ghazali against “ecstatic Sufis al-Hallaj (d. 309/922) and Abu Yazid al-Bistami”[8]. The quotation he gives from al-Ghazali is this:

Those who have reached this stage are overcome in it by a state similar to intoxication (sokri) and in this intoxication are prone to err in two ways. First, they may think that there has occurred a conjunction (ettesali) [with God] and express it in terms of [God’s] indwelling (holul) [within them]. Second, they may think that there has occurred a union (ettehadi) [with God]: they have become [God] Himself and the two have become one… [like those who say] ‘I am the Real [i.e. God]’ and ‘Glory be to Me’ [i.e. al-Hallaj and al-Bistami respectively]. When this intoxication gives way to sobriety they understand that they have been in error. [Al-Ghazali then goes on to refute these interpretations on philosophical grounds.]

According to Treiger al-Ghazali makes this criticisms in order to prevent reactions of people and formulates the same argument (i.e. there is nothing in existence but God.) in a philosophical way.[9] I think this is very problematic because he here sees what he want to see despite the text. This criticism actually shows that al-Ghazali was not monist but, rather, he was against monism. The words and the experiences of the two Sufis are monistic. The idea of “only One Existent” is possible by conjunction with God because in this way there remains only One Existent. Union with God also makes monism possible because in that sense again there is only One and nothing else. God’s indwelling within existents is again another possibility for monism. This is the way of pantheism. Since al-Ghazali rejects these all arguments of those Sufis, one cannot consider him as monist. There is no reason to think that al-Ghazali veils his ideas since he actually expresses them in his book Mishkat explicitly. Furthermore, there is no need for veiling philosophical ideas since they are not available for common people. These are, I, think sufficient to reject the argument of Treiger that al-Ghazali tries to veil his monistic ideas.


In the first part of Mishkat, al-Ghazali explains the meaning of the light and makes hierarchy between lights. The light that is seen by eyesight, light of eyesight, light of rational faculty, prophetic light, and Light of lights. Furthermore, he also explains different spheres (i.e. different worlds): world of lowness and world of highness. However, such categorizations are meaningless in a monistic point of view. I think these criticisms above are sufficient to show that Alexander Treiger is wrong in saying that al-Ghazali is a monist. From now on I want to make an analysis of the Mishkat to understand what al-Ghazali really argues.

As mentioned before, al-Ghazali wrote Mishkat al-Anwar to interpret a verse and a hadith. To do this he explains what light means, kinds of lights and their differences from each other, and the relation between lights. There is a hierarchy of lights according to him.

The seen light:

In sum, “light” consists of that which is seen in itself and through which other things are seen, such as the sun. This is its definition and reality in the first sense.[10]

The seeing spirit:

…the spirit is superior to the manifest light, since it perceives and through it perception takes place.[11]

The eye of rational faculty:

The rational faculty is more worthy to be named light than the outward eye because its measure is lifted beyond the seven imperfections,[12]

The Qur’an:

…nothing other than the speech of wisdom can bring things to its (the rational faculty’s) attention; for when the light of wisdom radiates, the rational faculty comes to see in actuality, after having been able to see only potentiality.[13]

And the hierarchy goes on until it reaches God, the Light of all lights:

…the name “light” for things other than the First Light is a sheer metaphor, since everything other than that Light, when viewed in itself, has no light of its own in respect to its own self.[14]

After this point al-Ghazali claims that the only Real Existent is God and other things are sheer non-existence when considered in themselves.[15] He defines light as follows:

Then in the true sense, light is that through which, for which, and by which things are unveiled and beyond which there is no light from which this light could be kindled and take replenishment. Rather, it possesses light in itself, from itself, and for itself, not from another. Moreover, you know that only the First Light has these qualities.[16]

Until this point al-Ghazali does two things:

First he uses light as a metaphor for source of knowledge. According to this metaphor we see with our outward eye manifest things with the help of seen light. Since eyes have imperfections there is need for another light which is beyond these imperfections and is superior to the outward eye. This is rational faculty or in other words inward eye. Rational faculty has potential light and to actualize this potential light we need wisdom which is God’s speech and especially Qur’an. This is al-Ghazali’s epistemology. God being here the First Light and the Origin of all lights. In this regard there is no source for God’s knowledge. Then, God’s knowledge is the only Real Knowledge because others are imperfect and borrowed from it. To say that a light is borrowed and not worthy to be named light does not mean that it is not light at all. Yet, when we compare it with its source it loses its worthy and cannot be called light. In epistemological sense there is emanation from one light to its inferior but we cannot make this argument in ontological terms. If this light metaphor was for ontology it would be as follows: The existence of the sun is borrowed from human outward eye existence of which is borrowed from human inward eye…until it reaches God whose existence is not borrowed. It is obvious that this is incorrect in an Islamic point of view. After all these, I can say that the hierarchical metaphor of lights is epistemological.

The second thing that al-Ghazali does is an ontological metaphor of light. Light here means existence and darkness means nonexistence. In this regard existence of all things (other than God) is borrowed from God. God here being the only Real Existent who has no partner in existence in the real sense. To say this does not mean that God is the only existent and does not lead us to monism. To make this argument more obvious I want to quote from al-Ghazali:

Existence can be classified into the existence that a thing possesses it in itself and that which it possesses from another. When a thing has existence from another, its existence is borrowed and has no support in itself. When the thing is viewed in itself and with respect to itself, it is pure nonexistence. It only exists inasmuch as it is ascribed to another. This is not a true existence…[17]

This quotation shows us that al-Ghazali makes a monotheistic argument. What does borrowing existence mean other than being created? No monotheist argues that creatures exist independent from God. In monotheism God is Giver of existence (in other words Creator/ al-Khaliq/ al-Fatir) and also the Sustainer of existence (al-Qayyum)[18]. I think the matter here is about naming because if a thing borrows its existence from God it can be named as existent or nonexistent. People, according to their levels of knowledge and their point of consideration, may name it existent or nonexistent.  

Based on these points now we can understand, I think, what al-Ghazali means by

“The only true light is His. Everything is His light – or, rather, He is everything. Or, rather, nothing possesses a he-ness other than He, except in a metaphorical sense. Therefore there is no light except His light.”[19]

and by

Each thing has two face: a face toward itself, and a face toward its Lord. Viewed in terms of the face of itself, it is nonexistent; but viewed in terms of the face of God, it exists. Hence nothing exists but God and His face: “Everything is perishing except His face” from eternity without beginning and to eternity without end (azalan wa abadan)[20]

To do this we have to firstly understand “he-ness”. Unlike Treiger who explains this term with Avicenna’s ideas[21], I will try to understand it from al-Ghazali himself because as I mentioned earlier, he explains all terms and concepts he uses carefully.

Indeed, just as there no god but He, so also there is no he but He, because “he” is an expression for whatever may be pointed to, and there is no pointing to anything but Him. Or, rather, whenever you point to something, in reality you are pointing to Him.[22]

As it is seen from this quote, al-Ghazali says the same thing we mentioned before: this is about considering the things in itself, since they are nonexistent, one cannot point to them. If he or she does it will be God who is pointed to. Again, in the second quote, he explains the same thing. The only difference is that he uses the term “face” which is related to “pointing to”. The verse “Everything is perishing except His face” and al-Ghazali’s comment “azalan wa abadan” can now be well understood. In the reality that al-Ghazali explains, except God, everything when is considered in itself is sheer nonexistence. Just as God exists from eternity without beginning and to eternity without end, other things are perishing (in other words are not exist) from eternity without beginning and to eternity without end. Because if there has been a time period for their nonexistence there has to be another time period for their existence. And this existence time will be equal to total eternity because total eternity except a limited time period is also total eternity. In other words if we say that things other than God are perishing for a time period we actually say that they exist from eternity without beginning and (after perishing) to eternity without end. This is not only logically incorrect in itself but also contradicts with the verse. Hence, this specific passages have to be understood within their context and Treiger is wrong in explaining them as monism by considering them without their context and with Avicenna’s ideas.

The Second Chapter of The Niche of Lights is about “clarifying the similitude of the niche, the lamp, the glass, the tree, the olive, and the fire”[23] and consists of two poles. In the first pole al-Ghazali explains what similitude means and how it is used.[24] In the second one, he explains humans’ differences about their understanding of similitudes.[25] Therefore, this chapter has to be understood in light of this information because this is al-Ghazali’s argument that he will explain those issues. Let us briefly analyze these two poles in order to understand them and make a correct relation between the first and second chapters.

The first pole:

Al-Ghazali here talks about two worlds that are named in terms of viewer’s point of view.[26] Then he explains all these possible names for the two worlds. “Bodily and spiritual”, “sensory and rational”, “high and low”, and “seen and unseen”.[27] Those all are explained in detail. Shortly we can say that the high world which is parallel to the low world cannot be seen by most people; but there is a ladder between the two worlds which enables the rational faculty to see the high one. This ladder being the low, sensory world. For all existents in the high world there is a similitude in the low one.[28] The only exception here is God who has no similitude because if an existent has an imperfect similitude is also imperfect and all similitudes are imperfect because they are in the low world. Furthermore, he also warns the reader not to misunderstand from these explanation about similitudes that he rejects the literal meaning of words. To reject literal or inward meanings of words is an imperfection.[29]

The second pole:

Here, he talks about different human spirits that are luminous. The sensible spirit is capable of sensation.[30] The imaginal one is about imagining, storing of seen and imagined things, and recalling them.[31] The rational spirit is capable of perception of the meanings outside of the senses and imagination.[32] The reflective spirit processes rational knowledge and it has no end for this.[33] And the last one is the holy prophetic spirit that is able to reach flashes from unseen world. In the rest of the pole he explains similitudes of “the light verse”.

At it is seen the second chapter is epistemological. Since there is no comparison of these things with respect to their real meaning there is no denial of their worth or existence. As in the epistemological part of the first chapter there is a hierarchy of lights. I think if al-Ghazali compared these lights with each other, like he does in the first chapter, he would also reject their worth and existence because the hierarchy is nearly the same. With a similar method al-Ghazali classify human beings in term of their knowledge and by doing this he interprets the veil hadith. Since there is not a significant difference related to our subject I will skip analysis of the third chapter.


In conclusion, I argue that al-Ghazali represents a monotheistic perspective rather than a monistic one, in the Mishkat. Since I could not find any other work which claims that al-Ghazali was a monist, it will be sufficient to reject Alexander Treiger’s article “Monism and Monotheism in al Ghazali’s Mishkat al-Anwar” to reject the argument. Treiger’s article is problematic in four respects.

First, his methodology is invalid. He select specific passages from the book and compares them with each other. Also he uses other works of al-Ghazali and compares all this with Avicenna’s thoughts. However, he neglects the totality of the book, in other words, he interprets the text without its context. This, I think, misleads him. Second, monism and monotheism are incompatible ontologically. Since al-Ghazali cannot be a monist and a monotheist at the same time, it is a contradiction to claim that in the first chapter he presents monism and in the second chapter of the same book monotheism. Third, monism is incompatible with Islam because Islamic principles require a Lord and His servants in the first place. Since monism will be denial of Islam, it cannot be considered for al-Ghazali who dedicated his life to defense of Islam. And final problem of the article is that it argues that al-Ghazali criticized al-Hallaj and al-Bistami to prevent being seen as monist. Since the article itself claims that al-Ghazali represent monism in his book, this is a self-contradiction.

If we interpret the book with its totality we see that what al-Ghazali presents is monotheism. In the first chapter he defines concepts and explains metaphors to make the reader ready for understanding his interpretation of “light verse” and “veil hadith”. In this chapter he explain the light metaphor first epistemologically. This is most of the chapter. Then he does the same thing in a different manner ontologically. In the second and third chapters he explains differences between existents’ knowledge and interprets light verse and veil hadith according to each group.

In short, al-Ghazali was a monotheist and his words that seem to be monistic are to be considered in this regard. Therefore Alexander Treiger is wrong in identifying al-Ghazali as a monist.


Mustafa KAYMAZ

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[1] Alexander Treiger, Monism and Monotheism in al-Ghazali’s Mishkat al-Anwar, 2007, Edinburgh University Press

[2] P. 4

[3] P. 16

[4] P. 14-15

[5]Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is Knowing of all things.

[6] “God has seventy veils of light and darkness; were He to lift them, the august glories of His face would burn up everyone whose eyesight perceived Him.”

[7] New Dictionary of Ideas p. 1501

[8] P. 6

[9] P. 6

[10] 1, 4, 5

[11] 1, 4, 6

[12] 1, 6, 11

[13] 1, 10, 24

[14] 1, 15, 38

[15] 1, 16, 42

[16] 1, 19, 49

[17] 1, 16, 41

[18] Qur’an [2:255]

[19] 1, 20, 52

[20] 1, 17, 43

[21] P. 8

[22] 1, 20, 53

[23] P. 25

[24] 2, 25, 2

[25] 2, 25, 3

[26] 2, 25, 4

[27] 2, 26, 4-5

[28] 2, 26, 6

[29] 2, 32, 35

[30] 2, 36, 47

[31] 2, 36, 48

[32] 2, 36, 49

[33] 2, 37, 50

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