Skip to main content
Ghazali and Educational Philosophy
Oct 1, 1994

Ghazali's search for knowledge

Abu Hamid Muhammad bin Muhammad al-Ghazali was born in the city of , northern Persia (Iran), in the year 1058/450H.

His father, a wool spinner, used to enjoy the company of preachers and scholars and prayed that his sons would be like them. Ghazali, became 'the most scholarly person of his generation and the imam of his time'; his brother Ahmed 'an awe-inspiring preacher' (Al Sabki p.94). Through them, their father's prayers were answered.

After their father's death, the brothers, along with their inheritance, were entrusted to a poor ascetic. When the inheritance ran out, the ascetic commended them to pursue their education in a school where they might be financially supported. Ghazali excelled as a student. He used to 'thirst after comprehension of things as they are' (Watt, p.21). He recalls: 'we studied 'um, knowledge, for other than Allah, but it refused to be studied except for Allah.' (Zabidi,p.l94).

He left for Jurjan, where he took notes on the lectures of Abu Nasr al-Isma'ili. On his return journey, he was waylaid by a highwayman. He pleaded only for his notebooks. The highway-man mocked: 'How can you cali yourself a scholar, when, if I take your books you have lost your knowledge?' His books were returned to him, and, as a result of the incident, he spent the next three years memorizing his notes, so that 'no highwayman could rob him of his knowledge' (Sabki, p. 195).

He travelled to Naisabur, the largest town in Khorasan and studied there under imam al-Haramain, 'Abd al-Malik al-Juwaini. After his sheikh's death, he headed for the Seljuk camp of the Sultan Nizam al-Mulk in Baghdad. The scholars of Baghdad recognised Ghazali's excellence and he was soon appointed head of the Nizamiya school. it was whilst in this position that he became famous and involved himself in the political and religious disputes of the time.

In 1093/485H, Ghazali renounced celebrity and public influence for devotional retreat. He spent long periods in contemplation in the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus. He also visited Makkah several times. it was in 1097/489H, that, at the grave of the Prophet Abraham, he concluded never 'to receive money from any ruler, nor to greet any ruler nor to be inspector over anyone' (Ghazali, p.85). On his way home to, he travelled through Baghdad, but, upholding his vow, he stayed at the retreat of Abu Sa'id al-Naisaburi and did not visit its rulers. it was there that he told of the work he had carried out in recluse and the resulting book ihya 'Ulum al-Din. On arrival in , he concentrated on worship and teaching until, on seeing the poor state of education, he returned to Naisabur and the public defence of the Suma using the teachings of his book ihya, until on Monday 14 Jumadi al-Akhira 1113/505H when, after praying his morning prayers, he told his brother Ahmed to prepare for his funeral. He died that day and was buried next to the imam Ali Rida in Mashad, Iran.

Philosophy of Education among the Muslims before Ghazali

Ghazali's philosophy contained nothing that could not be traced back to the Qur'an and Sunna.

The Islamic philosophy of education draws largely on the stories in the Qur'an as its primary source. An example is the story in which Allah teaches Adam the meaning of 'things', and then instructs him to teach the Angels. Among other stories in the Qur'an used by Muslim educationalists to justify their philosophy is the story of Musa and Khidr and the numerous stories of the Prophets and their disciples.

The Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace, advised many of his Companions how to teach. He told Muadh bin Jabal and Abi Musa when they went to the Yemen: 'Make things easy and do not make things difficult, teach and do not chase away' (Bukhari). On another occasion he said: 'Teach and do not rebuke for the teacher is better than the ne who rebukes.' (Tayalasi)

'Schools' in the form of 'study circles' were established during the time of the Prophet Muhammad and the frst four Caliphs. These 'learning centres' developed around the prominent companions.

Although the sayings of Muhammad, upon whom be peace, and the main companions concerning education were not recorded together, they were contained in scattered collections and transmitted practically wherever schools existed.

The first book expounding the educational philosophy of islam was adab al-muallimin by Muhammad bin Þahmn. This was followed by books by Ibn Jizar al-Qairawani1 and Abu Hasan al Qabini.'

Ghazali's ihya is a milestone in the development of educational philosophy because it brought together and simplified many of the ideas of his predecessors. Most subsequent writings on Islamic teaching philosophy merely abridged r commented upon his work.

Ghazali's writings on education

Among Ghazali's writings on education are the following:

Ihya 'Ulum al-Din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences)

Ghazali's ihya, written during his period of retreat, is probably his most important and well known work. The first of its forty books is Kitab al-Ilm, The Book of Knowledge. This, along with the section on riyadat al-atfal, (Children's Play) contains Ghazali's most direct references to education.

Ayyuha l-Walad, (Oh Son)

This short text was written after ihya in response to a request from ne of his students. Its title expresses Ghazali's view that the teacher is like a father to his student.

Bidayat al-Hdaya (The Beginning of Guidance)

The first chapter of this short text is often read by the novice to his sheikh as a type of initiation. it contains a warning about insincerity in seeking knowledge and a description of the various types of scholar and student.

Minhaj al-Mutalim (The Student's System)

There is some controversy ver whether this book can rightly be attributed to Ghazali.2 Its content is similar to Ayyuha l-Walad and it is thought to be possibly a summary of Ghazali's writings on education.

AH but the last of the writings mentioned above have been translated into English.


  • AL-SABKI (n.d) Tabaqat al-Shafiat al-Kubra, vol. 6, Dar al-Marifa, Cairo. AL-ZABIDI (n.d) Itihaf Sadat al-Mutaqin, Beirut.
  • AL GHAZALI (n.d.) Fada 'il al-Anam, Cairo BUKHARI (1975) Sahih: Book of Knowledge, Beirut
  • TAYALASI (n.d.) Maqasid al-Hasanah, Cairo WATT W.M. (1953) Faith and practice of Ghazali (trans. of Munqidh min al-Dalaf), London.
  1. Ibn Jizar Al Qairawani d.395H/1003c.e. who wrote Siyostu Sibyan wa Tadbiraha. Abu Hasan Ali bin Muhammad Al Qabiti d.463H/1072c.e. wrote Adab al-Mualimeen
  2. According to Haji Khalifa it is the work of Ghazali. However it is not mentioned in wo/iot al-'Ayn r Shadharat al-Dhahab r the History ofDamascus by Ibn Asakir.