Saturday, December 19, 2009

`Action Informed by Knowledge'

One of our best poet-critics, Eric Ormsby, is also a scholar of Islam. Last year he published Ghazali: The Revival of Islam, a brief critical life of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111), the Persian philosopher, theologian, jurist and Sufi mystic. I would have ordered and read the book solely because Ormsby had written it, but Ghazali proves to be an extraordinary figure I should have studied decades ago. Ormsby says in his preface:

“For the breadth, subtlety and influence of his work, Ghazali deserves to be counted among the great figures in intellectual history, worthy to be ranked with Augustine and Maimonides, Pascal and Kierkegaard.”

What impresses me again is our arrogance toward those who precede us. Nine centuries separate us from Ghazali and his culture. Among his near-contemporaries were Avicenna, St. Anselm, Peter Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux. Thomas Aquinas followed a century later. Snobbery, pride of chronology, looks ridiculous in such company. Ghazali was as sophisticated and well-read an intellect as any of our contemporaries, and humbler than most. Here’s Ormsby:

“Like all scholars of his class and time, Ghazali was a thoroughly bookish man; his intellectual voracity drove him to read everything he could lay his hands on. Nevertheless, he understood that books alone do not lead to truth, let alone to salvation. In that case, paradise would be open exclusively to the learned (a thought that surely appalled him, given his opinion of scholars). Ghazali’s sense of the unimaginable scope of God’s mercy, as well as his own considerable compassion for people of all walks of life, denied such a limitation. (In this, he resembles Thomas à Kempis, who would later remark, in his Imitation of Christ, that at the Last Judgment we won’t be asked what books we’ve read but what actions we’ve performed.)”

Some read books in search of answers, whether cures for acne or prescriptions for enlightenment -- Bibles, self-help books, pop religion and psychology, Dianetics, economic treatises. That sort of reading is alien to me. I’m after facts, suggestions of truth, the beautiful – not deliverance. Here’s the rest of Ormsby’s paragraph:

“Ghazali remarks, `Even if you studied for a hundred years and collected a thousand books, you would not be eligible for the mercy of God the Exalted except through action’…From books and book-learning we get knowledge, that alone cannot lead to salvation; for that, action informed by knowledge is required.”

I’ve known too many well-read jackasses and unlettered saints to think otherwise.

[Friday was the 898th anniversary of Ghazali’s death, on Dec. 18, 1111, in his home town, Tus, in what is now northeast Iran.]

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