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Al-Ghazālī on the Origins of Ethics

In: Numen
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  • 1 New York University Abu Dhabi, Department of Philosophy, P.O. Box 129188, Abu Dhabi, UAEktk4@nyu.edu
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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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