Al-Ghazālī on the Origins of Ethics

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In his famous autobiography, The Deliverer from Error, al-Ghazālī reconstructs the way the science of ethics is supposed to have developed. Al-Ghazālī contends that the philosophical ethics taught by the Arabic Aristotelians necessarily depends upon prior revelations handed to religious aspirants of a vaguely Sufi stamp. Al-Ghazālī’s argument is reminiscent of similar ones made in late antiquity; I maintain, however, that for al-Ghazālī the point bears added systematic significance. Given the central position held by the purification of the soul in al-Ghazālī’s conception of true religion, he can hardly admit that the philosophers should have discovered independently any of the philosophical ethics al-Ghazālī himself espouses. It is the supernatural power of prescribed ritual acts that ultimately allows al-Ghazālī to maintain the superiority of religiously predicated ethics.

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International Review for the History of Religions

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2

Ghazālī 1967: 86[0]. All English translations in this article are my own.

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