Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Al-Ghazzali and the Aryanization of Islam

(Excerpt from my new book, Take Another Look: The Qur'an, The Sunna, and the Islam of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad)

2. Al-Ghazzālī: Proof of (What) Islam?

THEM’s claim that God is a man is certainly at odds with the normative or orthodox Islamic view, a view well articulated by the Persian scholar Muhammad Abu Hāmid al-Ghazzālī (d. 1128), called Hujjat al-Islāor the ‘Proof of Islam,’ in his Kitāb al-qawa’id al-‘aqā’id, 1.3:

“He [God Most High] is not a body with a form, or a limited, quantitative substance…He does not resemble anything that exists, nor does anything that exists resemble Him. There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him, nor is He like unto anything. He is not delimited by magnitude, contained by places, encompassed by directions, or bounded by heavens or earth.

He sees without a pupil or eyelids. He hears without ear canals or ears. Likewise, He knows without a heart, He seizes without an extremity, and He creates without an implement-because His attributes do not resemble the attributes of the creation. Likewise, His essence does not resemble the essences of the creation.”

Al-Ghazzālī’s influence on later (and current) orthodox theology is unparalleled. He is called ‘The Proof of Islam,’ Hujjat al-Islām in part because his articulation and rationalization of a formless, bodiless, immaterial God is the articulation and rationalization of Islamic orthodoxy today. Thus, the theological interpretation of the scriptures of Islam against which THEM is often judged and found guilty of shirkand kufr (unbelief), and the interpretation which he himself rejected, is an interpretation substantively influenced and informed by al-Ghazzālī. And while THEM has been accused of reading his anthropomorphist doctrine into the Qur"ān where it (presumably) does not naturally exists, it is demonstrable that al-Ghazzālī read his anti-anthropomorphist doctrine of incorporeality into the Qur"ān and Sunna where, by his own admission, this doctrine is completely absent. In his important treatise,Iljām al-awām an ilm il-kalām (“Bridling the Common Folk Away From the Science of Theological Speculation”) the Persian Proof of Islam confesses that, even though the Prophet Muhammad was in no way lax in terms of his desire to propagate the full truth as he knew it; though he had no intellectual deficiency that would have limited the truth as far as he possessed it; though he lacked nothing in terms of linguistic and semantic facility that would have precluded his clear articulation of the truth as he knew it; yet the Prophet never affirmed this incorporeal god to whom he (al-Ghazzālī) and the speculative theologians were calling the people. Why didn’t the Prophet, fully capable of affirming the truth of this incorporeal deity, actually do so? Because, al-Ghazzālī claims, the Prophet was commanded by God to speak “only at the level of the people's intellects.” Because the people to whom the Prophet was sent were not intellectually capable of grasping this ‘truth’ and therefore would have rejected this god as an impossibility and rejected Islam, the Prophet withheld the truth of the incorporeal god (see below)! It is not necessary here to deconstruct al-Ghazzālī’s elitist and condescending presumptions regarding the masses of the Muslim followers of the Prophet. It is enough to emphasize that al-Ghazzālī here clearly admits that the ‘Islam’ of which he is said to be the ‘Proof’ is NOT the Islam that the Holy Prophet articulated!

Relevant page from al- Ghazzālī’s Iljām al-awām an ilm il-kalām

Al-Ghazzālī thus had to read his incorporeal god into the Qur"ān and Sunna by applying allegorical exegesis (ta’wil) to the passages that would otherwise seem to affirm or support an anthropomorphist reading. His ta’wil was informed by Hellenistic logic, in particular Aristotelian Logical Analogies. It is therefore no surprise that his incorporeal god is but the god of the Greek philosophers in a turban.

3. Whose Orthodoxy? The Black Sheep and the White Sheep

To understand the full significance of this ‘Persian Proof of Islam’ and his revision of the Prophetic legacy, one must see him in the light of a prophetic report of Muhammad.

“Zayd b. Aslam related that the Prophet (s) saw a vision and told his companions about it. He said: “I saw a group of black sheep and a group of white sheep then mixed with them [until the white sheep became so numerous that the black sheep could no longer be seen in the herd of sheep.] I[1] interpreted it to mean that [the black sheep are the Arabs. They will accept Islam and become many. As for the white sheep, they are the non-Arabs (i.e. Persians, Turks, Byzantines, ect.)] They will enter Islam and then share with you your wealth and your genealogy [and become so numerous that the Arabs will not be noticed amongst them.]” The Companions became surprised by what he (s) said. Then one said, “The non-Arab Persians will enter our land, O’ Messenger of Allah?!” The Prophet (s) then said, “Yes. By He Who Has my soul in His Hand, if the religion was hanging on the distant star, men from the non-Arab Persians would reach it and the luckiest of them would be the people of Faris.”[2]

The original recipients of the Prophet’s message, the Arabs or ‘black sheep,’ are here said to have been (or in the future to be) engulfed by later non-Arab converts to Islam or ‘white sheep’ who will not only ‘share’ their wealth (e.g. the riches generated from Middle Eastern oil), but also share or, rather, ‘appropriate’ Arab genealogy. In other words, non-Arab converts to Islam will assume Arab identity to such an extent that the actual ethnicity of the original Arabs will be forgotten. The fact that the original Arabs and Arab followers of Muhammad were black is well-documented.[3] So too is the fact that these original Muslims have been lost within an influx of non-Arab converts to Islam.[4] The face of Islam went from black to white.

It is not to be doubted that the ‘black sheep’ metaphor in this report alludes to the black ethnicity of the original Arabs. This is confirmed by numerous reports. See especially the example of Muhammad b. ‘Abd Allāh (d. 762), known also as al-Nafs al-Zakiyya (“The Pure Soul”). He was a pure descendent of the Prophet himself through the latter’s daughter Fatimah, wife of ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, and in fact “prided himself on being a Qurayshi [Arab] of pure lineage…[with] a pure descent from the Prophet.”[5] This point is clearly evident in a letter he sent to the ‘Abbasid caliph Abu Ja’far al-Mansur (r. 754 – 775), against whom he rebelled in 762. Al-Nafs al-Zakiyya felt Abu Ja’far al-Mansur’s mixed lineage (his mother was a Berber) disqualified him for leadership over the community. He wrote to the caliph:

“You well know that no one has laid claim to this office (the caliphate) who has a lineage, nobility, and status like ours. By the nobility of our fathers, we are not the sons of the accursed, the outcasts, or freedmen…I am at the very center of the Banu Hashim’s lines. My paternity is purest among them, undiluted with non-Arab blood, and no concubines dispute over me.[6]

What did this pure Arab descendent of the Prophet look like? “Muhammad (Al-Nafs al-Zakiyya) is described as tall and strong with very dark skin”.[7]  Indeed, al-Dhahabi describes him as “black-skinned and huge.”[8] But it is al-Tabari’s description that is most informative:

Muhammad (Al-Nafs al-Zakiyya) was black, exceedingly black, jet black (adam shadid al-udma adlam) and huge. He was nicknamed “Tar Face” (al-qari) because of his black complexion (udmatihi), such that Abu Ja’far used to call him “Charcoal Face” (al-muhammam).[9]

Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya, a Qurayshi Arab whose pure lineage on both his father’s and his mother’s side put him “at the center” of the genealogical lines of the Banu Hashim, the Prophet’s kinsfolk, was so black he was called ‘Tar face’ and ‘Charcoal face’. He best represents those ‘black sheep’ to whom the message of Islam first came and who disappeared from view once non-Arab groups converted in large numbers.

It is not incidental that the Qur’an emphasizes that it is an Arabic, not a non-Arabic (a’jamiyya) revelation (41:2-3, 44). This suggests that the proper context in which to understand the revelation is a 7th century Arab linguistic and, thus, cultural context. It is the case that the Bedouin Arabs (a’rabi) were seen as the purest representatives of the Arabic Islamic way. Fine points of Islamic law were frequently decided by appeal to Bedouin tradition, and Arabic philologists privileged ‘pure’ desert Bedouin usage over the more cosmopolitan Arabic of the town when ruling on matters of correct Arabic grammar. The pure Arab was the Black Arab, the black sheep of the Prophet’s vision. This was the original recipient community of the message of Islam, and their linguistic-cultural way provided the context in which to properly understand the revelation.  

The Persian al-Ghazzālī best represents the ‘white sheep’ – those non-Arabs who converted to Islam and appropriated the wealth and even identity of the original Muslims, the black sheep or Black Arabs. It is quite telling that al-Ghazzālī would dismiss the original Muslim followers of the Prophet, the black sheep, as too dim-witted to have received the ‘truth’ of the incorporeal god from the Prophet – thus the conspicuous absence of this god from the Prophet’s message. This sentiment no doubt reflects not only a condescending elitism on al-Ghazzālī’s part, but also racism: the latter characterized much Iranian (Persian) Muslim literature in his day.[10] These ‘white sheep’ introduced non-Arab, even non-Islamic elements into Islam, such as an anti-black racism. They also, however, introduced the ‘God of the Philosophers’ and the Hellenized interpretation (ta’wil) of scripture so as to locate that god within Islamic revelation.[11]


[1] Or Abu Bakr with the approval of the angel.

[2] There are several versions of this report here conflated. See e.g. Al-Suyutī, Tārikh al-khulafā (Cairo: D§r al-Fajr lil-Turuth, 1999) 86. 

[3] See Wesley Muhammad, Black Arabia and the African Origin of Islam (Atlanta: A-Team Publishing, 2009) Chapters Six and Seven.

[4] Robert Goldston, The Sword of the Prophet: A History of the Arab World From the Time of Mohammed to the Present Day (New York: Dial Press, 1979) 87: “the original Arabs, those lords of the desert who had formed the vanguard of Islam and presided over its golden age…(almost) all had long since become so submerged into the cosmopolitan empire that they were indistinguishable from their neighbors.”

[5] Muhammad Qasim Zaman, “The Nature of Muhammad al-Nafs al-Zakiyya’s Mahdiship: A Study of Some Reports in Ißbah§nÊ’s Maq§til,” Hamdard Islamicus 13 (1990): 60-61.

[6] Quoted from al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, Vol. XXVIII: 'Abbasid Authority Affirmed, trans. annot. Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985) 167-68.

[7] The Encyclopedia of Islam (New Edition; hereafter EI2) 7:389 s.v. MuÈammad b. #Abd Allāh by F. Buhl.

[8] Al-'Ibar fi khabar man ghabar (Kuwait: Tur§th al-ArabÊ) 4:198. 

[9] Al-Tabari, Ta'rikh al-rusul wa'l-muluk, edd. Michael Jan de Goeje and Lawrence Conrad,Annals of the Apostles and Kings. A Critical Edition Including ‘Arib’s Supplement (Gorgias Press, 2005) 10:203.

[10] Mino Southgate, “The Negative Images of Blacks in Some Medieval Iranian Writings,” Iranian Studies 17 (1984): 3-35

[11] See Wesley Williams, “A Body Unlike Bodies: Transcendent Anthropomorphism in Ancient Semitic Tradition and Early Islam,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 129 (2009) 19-44.


  1. the Prophet was not black i have seen him 1o times in dream form 8 times clearly he was a wheat color same as Prophet Abraham PBT

  2. in prophets and patriarchs it says the descendants of shem are of brown and white complexion

  3. The Muslim historian Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (c. 915) recounts a tradition that the wife of Lud was named Shakbah, daughter of Japheth, and that she bore him "Faris, Jurjan, and the races of Faris". He further asserts that Lud was the progenitor of not only the Persians, but also the Amalekites and Canaanites, and all the peoples of the East, Oman, Hejaz, Syria, Egypt, and Bahrein.
    from wikipedia