Friday, May 20

Book: Al-Ghazali on Disciplining the Soul and on Breaking the Two Desires: Books XXII and XXIII of the Revival of the Religious Sciences, T.J. Winter Click for more info

It's always a little tricky to review a translation of an original work, since you'd effectively be looking at the work of both the original author and the translator. That said, this compendium of books 12 and 13 of Al-Ghazali's The Revival of the Religious Sciences does come with an extremely useful, interesting and somewhat sizeable introduction by T.J. Winter, which does help attribute credit to him in his efforts here.

This is less an introduction and more a primer for what's to come. Winter gives an in depth background of when the book was written, including the context surrounding what was being debated at the time. He explains how a lot of the philosophy back then (and indeed what some consider to be purely Islamic now) actually had it's origin in that of the Greeks. And finally, he even goes on to critique some of Al-Ghazali's ideas; something I found quite refreshing considering he was going to throw himself into translating the work. I do think that some of the deeper coverage of the two books was a little redundant given that I was going to read it first hand anyway, but that's hardly a complaint.

Despite an academic translation of a scholarly work, the book was prose enough to be read end to end without too much friction. Yes, there was a lot of repetition, labouring of points and redundancy throughout, but nothing more than was to be expected.

I found Disciplining the Soul to be a little uninteresting to be honest. Al-Ghazali essentially focuses on will power and on how being good is both an observable and learnable behaviour, and to do or not do either is in our individual hands. All of it was pretty much common sense, much in the same way the modern equivalent of self-help books are, although I will say that any reminder to talk less and be explicitly nice to other is no waste of time.

Breaking The Two Desires on the other hand was much more interesting (which I go on to explain here). The desires in question are food and sex by the way, although four fifths of the book does explicitly deal with the former. Perhaps surprisingly, Al-Ghazali starts off being a little extreme and even masochistic at times, recommending things like starvation to the point of self harm. It was a little difficult to consider the initial advice as anything but impractical and over the top but he eventually admits to condoning balance instead, explaining that this can only be achieved if we aim past that and to the impossible levels he initially presented. I'm not quite sure how correct a strategy that is; it sounded a little Machiavellian actually, although I have to admit that I found myself controlling my own appetite in a very explicit way so perhaps his (somewhat disingenuous) tactic worked after all.

In a world where the average Muslim on the street seems proud about how much friend chicken they can eat or what fancy restaurant they visited that week, the book happens to be quite topical today too. This could just be seen as yet another example of killjoy Islam putting to bed any social activity Muslims choose to partake in, but ultimately as explained above the advice is in regards to balance rather than quitting food completely.

In conclusion however, I can't help but feel that Al-Ghazali is in danger of overcomplicating and academicising the issues he wishes to deal with in these two books, making it difficult for the reader to take as much value from his as they could have otherwise. His technique of wanting to define each and subtlety of an argument, although comprehensive, can never be complete and one can go mad trying to list and categorise of all of the infinitely countable variations on a theme.

As someone who believes Islam should be more accessible than this I have a problem with that approach, although as a proponent of multiple paths to God I do feel that there is a place for this book at least as a starting point for those who wish to discuss it further. However given the depth to which Al-Ghazali reaches in both his books, I suspect these people are few in number. On the other hand, the book did inspire me further (again, here) and so ultimately I have to recommend it for that reason despite my clearly mixed feelings of his work.