Imam Ghazali’s Views on the Importance of the Caliphate/Imamate

Imam Ghazali had strong views on the obligation of the caliphate. He wrote about the topic in a number of his works, and even penned a defence of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mustaẓhir Bi-Llah.

Significantly, Imam Ghazali considers the subject so important that he includes it in his writings on ‘aqīda (creed/beliefs).

The Jerusalem Epistle on the Principles of the Creed (al-Risāla al-qudsiyya fi qawā‘id al-‘aqā’id)

This essay on beliefs is included by Imam Ghazali in his magnum opus, Iḥyā’ ‘ulūm al-dīn (‘The Revival of the Religous Sciences’) as chapter 3 of Book 2.

Introducing the essay, he states that ‘the people of truthrealized that expressing the devotional testimony “There is no god but Allah [and] Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah” is pointless and without benefit unless one completely comprehends the pillars and principles related to this testimony. They recognised that the two testimonies, despite their brevity, contain an affirmation of [Allah’s] essence, attributes and acts, and an affirmation of the veracity of the Messenger [ﷺ]. Thus they came to know that faith is centred on these four pillars [arkān], each of which is centred on ten foundations [uṣūl].’

In relation to the fourth pillar (rukn), he states that its foundations include ‘the rulings pertaining to the Imām, the virtues of the Companions in their hierarchical order, the conditions of the Imāmah, and [to affirm] that even if a potential Imām does not possess piety and knowledge, his rule is valid if he fulfils the other conditions’.

Concluding the Jerusalem Epistle, Imam Ghazali states: ‘These, then, are the four pillars containing forty fundamentals which together constitute the principles of the creed. He who believes in them is in accordance with the people of the sunnah and distinct from the heretics’.
(Cf. The Principles of The Creed: Kitāb Qawā‘id al-‘aqā’id: Book 2 of The Revival of the Religious Sciences: Iḥyā’ ‘ulūm al-dīn, Fons Vitae, Louisville, 2016, pp. 57-58, 89. Cf. pp. 381 to 382 and 424 of Arabic text – click here)

Thus, according to Imam Ghazali, knowledge of the Caliphate/Imamate is a foundational principle of the creed for Sunnis.

Al-Iqtiṣād fi al-I‘tiqād

Imam Ghazali includes a whole chapter on the Imamate in his book on creed/beliefs, which is entitled al-Iqtiṣād fi al-I‘tiqād. An English translation by Aladdin Mahmud Yaqub was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2013 (Chicago/London).

In this chapter, he states categorically that ‘it cannot be denied that appointing an Imam is obligatory’.  Imam Ghazali presents what he states is ‘definite legal proof’ (al-burhān al-qaṭ‘ī al-shar‘ī) that the caliphate is obligatory.

His argument is that the Prophet’s purpose was the formal establishment of the dīn of Islam, and that to secure this end both life and livelihood must be protected. The appointment of an Imam is therefore obligatory. He also states that dīn and sulṭān (authority) are twins’ and that ‘the dīn is a foundation and authority (sulṭān) is a guard: that which has no foundation collapses and that which has no guard is lost’.  He concludes that ‘the obligation of appointing an Imam is among the essential requirements [arūriyyāt] of the law – a requirement that by no means can be ignored, so take heed of that!’ [Yaqub, op. cit., pp. 229 to 231 – the full quote can be viewed here. Cf. pp. 147 to 149 of Arabic text – click here]

The Caliph Al-Mustahir Bi-Llah

In Book 14 of the Ihya’, Imam Ghazali states:

“In my opinion, the caliphate may be considered legitimate for those of the descendants of al-‘Abbas (May Allah be pleased with him) who perform its responsibilities. The authority (wilāya) of those who rule over the regions of the empire, and who follow the caliph, has legal force (nafīdha). I have explained, in my book entitled al-Mustaẓhari…in refutation of the different sects among the Shī‘a known as alBāṭinīyya, how this matter is related to the public welfare.”

He argues that a regional ruler who is loyal to the Caliph and rules in his name ‘will be deemed a legitimate ruler whose judgement and government will have the force of law throughout the land. I have discussed this matter in detail in a treatise entitled Aḥkām al-imāma (“The Requirements of Leadership”), which is included in my book al-Iqtiṣād fi al-I‘tiqād.
[Ghazālī on the Lawful and the Unlawful: Kitab al ḥalāl wa’l-ḥarām – Book XIV of the Revival of the Religious Sciences Iḥya’ ‘ulum al-dīn (translated with an introduction and notes by Shaykh Yusuf Talal DeLorenzo), Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge, 2014, pp. 195-196. Cf. pp. 536 to 537 of Arabic text – click here]

Imam Ghazali argues in the aforementioned book against those who view the caliphate to be invalid due to questions about whether all the conditions are fulfilled by the holder of the office. His contention is that a stipulation such as the ability of ijtihād (independent legal reasoning) is not absolutely necessary, as the Caliph can consult the competent ‘ulamā’ regarding matters for which he needs advice. Necessity dictates that, in the current situation, the Caliph is accepted as legitimate. He elaborates:

“I wish I knew how someone who does not accept this [principle] could judge that the imamate in our time is invalid insofar as its conditions are not fulfilled, while he is unable to replace the Imam with someone who seeks it, for even he cannot find someone who fulfils its conditions. Which of his states is better; to say that the judges are dismissed, appointments are invalid, marriages are annulled, all the decrees of the governors everywhere in the world are unenforceable, and all of mankind are [on the verge of] engaging in what is unlawful [ḥarām]; or to say that, based on the current state and necessity, the imamate is valid and the decrees and appointments are enforceable?” [Yaqub, op. cit., p. 234. Cf. p. 151 of Arabic text – click here]

Kitāb al-Mustaharī

In his autobiography, Imam Ghazali refers to an instruction from the Caliph to refute the claims of the rival Fatimid ruler and the esoteric sect which followed him:

“The heresy of the esotericists had flourished, and they had become famous for their claim to acquire knowledge of the meaning of things from the Infallible Imam, the Master of Truth. It occurred to me that I should study their treatises, in order to become familiar with the contents of their books. Then I happened to receive a peremptory command from the Caliph, demanding the composition of a book that would disclose the reality of their doctrine, so I could not possibly refuse to obey.” [The Saviour from Error [al-Munqidh mina’d-Dalāl], translated by Muhtar Holland, al-Baz Publishing, Fort Lauderdale, 2010, p. 25. Cf. Arabic text p. 23 – click here]

This book is entitled  Faḍā’i al-Bāṭinīyya wa-Faā’il al-Mustahirīyya (‘The Infamies of the Esotericists and the Virtues of the Mustahirites’) or Kitab al-Mustahārī.

Imam Ghazali refutes the heretical doctrines of the esotericists in the first eight chapters of the book. Of particular interest here is chapter 7, in which he discusses the correct method of appointing the Imam. He asserts, as all Sunni scholars do, that the method of divine designation (naṣṣ) upheld by the bāṭinī sects is false. The correct procedure is ikhtiyār (election) and the appointment of an Imam through bay‘ah (a pledge of allegiance). This he says is proven by mass transmission (tawātur). He states clearly:

We would say: ‘Yes, there is no source for the imamate except naṣṣ or election. Since naṣṣ is invalid, election holds good.’”

Chapter 9 of the book has been the focus of much discussion in relation to Imam Ghazali’s views on government. In it, he includes a response to those who say that the Caliph is not qualified to rule very similar to the passage quoted above from Al-Iqtiṣād fi al-I‘tiqād.

He then asserts the following:

“We claim that the Imam Mustaẓhir Bi-Llah is the true Imam…who must be obeyed. Our detailed and convincing argument:

There must be an Imam in every age
But only he is qualified for the office
Therefore he is the rightful Imam”

The first premise, that a caliph must exist at all times, is not denied by anyone according to Imam Ghazali – even the esotericists agree with this. He makes mention that the only one who denied this is Abd al-Rahman ibn Kaysan al-Aṣamm [the Mu‘tazilite].

He stresses that this premise is proven by ijmā‘ (consensus), by the fact that a single leader is needed to prevent disunity and disorder, and that the Companions (رضي الله عنهم) considered it so important that they delayed burying the Prophet because they were busy appointing a caliph – and so he concludes that the requirement of appointing a caliph is qāṭi‘ (decisive/definite).

“Let it be noted of the first generation, as to how the Companions (رضي الله عنهم) hastened after the death of the Messenger of Allah to appoint the Imam and contract the pledge of allegiance, and how they believed that it was a conclusive obligation (farḍ), a right and mandated (wājib) with immediacy and urgency, as well as how they left the preparation of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ (for burial) through being busy with it (appointing the Imam).

They knew that even if a moment was passed over them without an Imam for them, then perhaps a blameworthy incident would afflict them and they would be immersed in a great incident in which opinions were disparate and differed followed by submission to an amalgamation of disparate opinions.

We do not violate the system and invalidate the security, with an imminent collapse through the loosening of the ties of the rulings (aḥkām).

So for this purpose they took the initiative and did not remain still in a situation without one (an Imam).

Thus it is conclusive (qāṭi‘) that the appointing of the Imam is a necessary matter for the preservation of Islam.”

[Faḍā’iḥ al-Bāṭinīyya wa Faḍā’il al-Mustaẓhirīyya, pp. 170 to 171. See Arabic text here]

In relation to the qualifications of the caliph, Imam Ghazali distinguishes between those that are natural and innate (khilqiyya) and those that are not.  The former are conditions such as maleness, adult status, sound intellect and good hearing and sight. He then mentions four ‘acquired’ attributes: najda, kifaya (competence), ‘ilm (knowledge) and wara‘ (scrupulousness).

He argues that all these qualities are to found in the person of Al-Mustaẓhir Bi-Llah. And he insists that as far as ‘ilm is concerned, in order to rule in accordance with the Sharī‘ah it is not important whether the caliph uses his own knowledge of the Law or consults the best scholars of his time.

Imam Ghazali describes what he means by najda:

“Our view is that what is meant by najda in the case of Imams is a show of strength, a plentiful supply of equipment, seeking the help of armies, the tying of banners and standards, possessing the ability – through the help of parties and followers – to subdue rebels and wrongdoers, to fight against infidels and those who are inordinately proud, to still the manifestation of discords and to stop the flow of the accumulated swell of trying afflictions before their evil becomes apparent and the harm they cause becomes widespread. This is what is meant by najda.” [[Faḍā’i al-Bāṭinīyya wa-Faā’il al-Mustahirīyya, p. 182. See Arabic text here]

Regarding najda, he makes the following interesting comment about the Turks:

“In this age of ours, from amongst the (various) kinds of human beings is the Turks who possess force (shawka). Allah has given them the good fortune to befriend and love him (i.e. the caliph) to such an extent that they draw near to Allah by helping him and by suppressing the enemies of his state (dawla). They yield themselves to belief in his caliphate and imamate and in the necessity (wujūb) of obedience to him, just as they submit themselves to the obligations of Allah’s commands and the confirmation of the truth of His message by His messengers. So this is a najda, the like of which has not (ever) been established for anyone but him, so how can there be any dispute about his najda?” [ibid]

In Chapter 10 of Kitāb al-Mustaẓharī, Imam Ghazali chooses to give counsel to the Caliph. He mentions how this life is only temporary and is merely a means to achieving the Afterlife. So he advises him to be just and observe the Sharī‘ah strictly. He insists that obedience to him is conditional on him ruling by the Sacred Law, so it is paramount that he consults the ‘ulamā’.

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