Agents of Grace Ethical Agency between Ghazālī and the Anthropology of Islam

Main Article Content

Ali Altaf Mian


Ghazali, Anthropology of Islam, Ethics, Moral Theology, Intention, Grace


This article contributes to theorizations of ethical agency in the anthropology of Islam by turning to the medieval moral theologian Abū āmid al-Ghazālī (1058-1111). Building on Talal Asad’s engagement with Ghazālī, this article closely reads the latter’s writing on intentionality, which amply illuminates his theory of ethical agency. Ghazālī neither elaborates an idealist theory of ethical agency nor  posits an ethical subject whose practices are “directed at making certain kinds of behaviors unconscious or nondeliberative” (Saba  Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 139). Rather, he articulates ethical agency as a site of contingency and ambivalence, as action involves not  only knowledge, resolution/will, and bodily capacity but also divine grace. Grace, this article argues, is a cipher for the non-sovereignty  of the ethical subject, since for Ghazālī agency is split between the subject’s discursive and material capacities (knowledge, resolution, and bodily strength) and a certain metamorphic spontaneity/enablement that is experienced as a gift of the Other (grace). By turning  to Ghazālī, then, this article encourages serious engagement with the concept of grace for understanding ethical agency in the anthropology of Islam. 

“[The pious ancestors] knew that intention is not what a person pronounces with his tongue when he utters, ‘I intend.’ Rather, it is the  springing forth in the heart of the flowing stream of openings from God, [a springing forth] that sometimes happens easily and sometimes with difficulty.” —Ḥujjat-ul-Islām Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī

Abstract 1374 | PDF Downloads 509


1 See the following three texts: Talal Asad, “Thinking about Tradition, Religion, and Politics in Egypt Today,” Critical Inquiry 42, no. 1 (2015):166-214; Talal Asad, Secular Translations: Nation-State, Modern Self, and Calculative Reason (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018); “Thinking about Religion through Wittgenstein.” Critical Times 3, no. 3 (2020): 403-442. To rehearse the various nuances in Asad’s approach to tradition between the mid-1980s and more recent publications is beyond the scope of this article. For a nuanced, meta-analytical engagement with his anthropological thinking, see Basit Kareem Iqbal, “Thinking about Method: A Conversation with Talal Asad.” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 26, no. 1 (2017):195-218.
2 Asad, Secular Translations, 92.
3 Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).
4 Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 4; Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 152.
5 He does this by engaging with Ghazālī’s definition of nafs or soul as “a set of divinely implanted potentialities and tendencies within which there are continuous tensions but always containing the possibility of awareness of what one is in the fullest sense” (Asad, Secular Translations, 71).
6 Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 122.
7 Asad thus writes: “Michel Foucault and others have famously written about the ‘care of the self,’ but in contrast to individualistic formulations of that process, my emphasis here is on how the self gradually learns to develop its abilities from within a tradition that presupposes generational collaboration in the preservation, teaching, and exercise of practical knowledge that is rooted in a vision of the good life” (Secular Translations, 74.).
8 Secular Translations also elaborates self-correctives; a case in point being Asad’s complication of what he had said earlier concerning the link between agency and intentionality in Formations of the Secular (in the chapter titled, “Thinking about Agency and Pain”). In the latter, Asad assumed a rather reductive view of intentionality, often attributing it to liberal autonomy. However, Secular Translations demonstrates the need for renewed engagement with intention in Islamic thought and practice. To that end, Asad engages briefly with Ghazālī’s views on intention. My discussion of intention below is in part inspired by Asad, but note that I have offered a different, more textually grounded, take on the theme of intention in Ghazālī’s thought. Let me mention here why I remain somewhat skeptical of Asad’s treatment of intentionality. He points out how knowledge and “will or intention” shapes our “practical orientation to an object” and makes a problematic claim when he says that “the agent’s causal energy,” or the idea of his, her, or their will as the origin of action, paves the way “toward secularity” (Secular Translations, 72). He further locates this turn toward secularity in Descartes and the seventeenth century (Secular Translations, 88). As I demonstrate below, for Ghazālī human actions are shaped not only by knowledge and resolution (what Asad calls will) but are also contingent on bodily capacities and the grace of God. As opposed to the sovereign notion of will that appealed to philosophical liberalism, Ghazālī is able to resist a monocausal theory of action while equally emphasizing the agent’s causal energy and the relational context in which actions are performed (including the relation to God through grace). Asad’s view that the transition from inclination to origin is an ingredient in the making of modern secularity is therefore reductive, if not outrightly dubious, since the idea of human beings as origins of their own actions is one of the key questions debated in the contentious conversations on secondary causality among classical Islamic philosophers and theologians, and thus can hardly be seen as modern or originating in the seventeenth century. For a discussion of this with special reference to Ghazālī, see Frank Griffel, Al-Ghazālī’s Philosophical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 128-146.
9 Samuli Schielke, “Being Good in Ramadan: Ambivalence, Fragmentation, and the Moral Self in the Lives of Young Egyptians,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (2009):S24-S40, at S25.
10 Schielke, “Being Good in Ramadan,” S25-S26.
11 Benjamin F. Soares and René Otayek, “Introduction: Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa,” in Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa, eds. Benjamin F. Soares and René Otayek (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007):1-24, at 18.
12 Filippo Osella and Benjamin F. Soares, “Islam, Politics, and Anthropology,” in Islam, Politics, and Anthropology, 11.
13 Ranjana Khanna’s wide-ranging work on unbelonging has touched what I am thinking here. See, for example, Khanna, “Touching, Unbelonging, and the Absence of Affect.” Feminist Theory 13, no. 2 (2012):213-232.
14 Asad, Secular Translations, 73.
15 Asad, Secular Translations, 92. Already in his 2015 Critical Inquiry piece, Asad had said: “Tradition is singular as well as plural. For subjects there are not only continuities but also exits and entries. Tradition accommodates mistakes as well as betrayal; it is not by accident that tradition and treason have a common etymology” (“Thinking about Tradition, Religion, and Politics in Egypt Today,” 169).
16 Asad, Secular Translations, 92.
17 Asad writes: “A living tradition is not merely capable of containing conflict and disagreement; the search for what is essential itself provokes argument. A concern with “essence” is therefore not quite the same as a concern with authenticity” (Secular Translations, 95).
18 I am here, as elsewhere, indebted to Stefania Pandolfo’s Knot of the Soul, which models for me how to take Ghazālī and other Muslim thinkers as serious theorists MIAN: AGENTS OF GRACE of psychic life. See Stefania Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul: Madness, Psychoanalysis, Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018). For how I approach Pandolfo’s broader recasting of psychoanalysis and Islam, see Ali Altaf Mian, “The Play of the Qur’anic Trace: Engaging Stefania Pandolfo’s Knot of the Soul,” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 28, no. 1 (June 2019):189-210.
19 Asad, “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam,” 14.
20 Asad, Secular Translations, 66-67.
21 Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad b. Ismā‘īl al-Bukhārī, Al-Jāmi‘ al-Ṣaḥīḥ bi-ḥāshiyat al-muḥaddith Aḥmad ‘Alī al-Sahāranfūrī, ed. Taqī al-Dīn al-Nadawī, 15 vols (Beirut: Dār al-Bashā’ir al-Islāmiyya, 2011), 1:180-181. This ḥadīth, which is the first report recorded by Bukhārī in his Ṣaḥīḥ, appears with slight modifications in six additional “books” of this collection. Here, I cite the opening version, but have used italics to indicate a phrase that is included in many other versions in and beyond Bukhārī’s Ṣaḥīḥ. For an insightful analysis of this report, see Ignazio de Francesco, “Il Lato Oscuro Delle Azioni: La Dottrina Della Niyya Nello Sviluppo Dell’Etica Islamica,” Islamochristiana 39 (2013):45-69.
22 Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī, Muntahā al-āmāl fī sharḥ ḥadīth innamā al-a‘māl, ed. Muṣṭafā ‘Abd al-Qādir ‘Aṭā (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1986), 43.
23 I discuss the rich commentarial tradition on this ḥadīth in a book chapter titled “The
Ḥadīth of Intention and Islamic Ethics” (forthcoming).
24 Anna L. Peterson, Works Righteousness: Material Practice in Ethical Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 5.
25 Aḥmad b. ‘Alī b. Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī, Fatḥ al-bārī bi-sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ al-Imām Abī Abdillāh Muḥammad b. Ismā‘īl al-Bukhārī, ed. ‘Abd al-‘Azīz b. ‘Abd Allāh b. Bāz, 13 vols. (Cairo: Al-Maktabat al-Salafiyya, 1969), 1:10; Suyūṭī, Muntahā al-āmāl, 37-38.
26 Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī, Iḥyā’ ‘ulūm al-dīn, eds. ‘Alī Muḥammad Muṣṭafā et al., 6 vols. (Damascus: Dār al-Fayḥā’), 6:132.
27 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’, 6:140.
28 Jamāl al-Dīn b. al-Manẓūr, Lisān al-‘arab (Beirut: Dār Ṣādir, 1984), 15:347-348.
29 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’, 6:131. For this report, see Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ, Kitāb al-birr wa’l-ṣila wa’ladab, bāb taḥrīm ẓulm al-muslim…” It is ḥadīth # 2564.
30 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’, 6:131.
31 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’, 6:135-136.
32 Margaret Smith, An Early Mystic of Baghdad: A Study of the Life and Teaching of Ḥārith b. Asad al-Muḥāsibī A.D. 781-A.D. 857 (London: The Sheldon Press, 1935), 44.
33 Al-Ḥārith al-Muḥāsibī, Al-Ri‘āya li ḥuqūq Allāh (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, n.d.), 246. On al-Muḥāsibī, see Smith, An Early Mystic of Baghdad; Gavin Picken, Spiritual Purification in Islam: The Life and Works of al-Muḥāsibī (London and New York: Routledge, 2011). Picken describes Al-Ri‘āya as “essentially a book concerning sincerity to God, cleansing the heart, purification of the soul and a life of complete moral, ethical and behavioural perfection” (Spiritual Purification in Islam, 69). Regarding this text, Margaret Smith writes: “This is al-Muḥāsibī’s great treatise on the interior life, which reveals a profound knowledge of human nature and its weaknesses, while in the means which he suggests for combating these weaknesses and for attaining to the single-hearted service of God, he shews also the discerning wisdom and inspired insight of a true spiritual director and shepherd of souls” (An Early Mystic of Baghdad, 45). See also ʻAbd al-Ḥalīm Maḥmūd, Al-Moḥâsibî: Un mystique musulman religieux et moraliste (Paris: P. Geuthner, 1940); ʻAbd al-Ḥalīm Maḥmūd, Ustādh al-sāʼirīn al-Ḥārith b. Asad al-Muḥāsibī (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub al-Ḥadīthah, 1973); Şahin Filiz, “The Founder of the Muḥā sabah School of Sufism: Al-Ḥā rith Ibn Asad Al-Muḥā sibī,” Islamic Studies 45, no. 1 (2006): 59-81.
34 Cited in Picken, Spiritual Purification in Islam, 202. Translation revised.
35 The intellectual historian Key has recently demonstrated that the word “meaning” does not fully capture the Arabic term ma‘nā (Language Between God and the Poets: Ma‘nā in the Eleventh Century [Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018]). He proposes that we view this latter term as signifying “mental content.” In his eleventh-century Arabic sources spanning the work of lexicographers, logicians, theologians, and literary critics, ma‘nā was wedded to ḥaqīqa (accuracy) in two important ways. First, ma‘nā implied an accurate correspondence between mind and language, as if words mirrored mental images. Second, ma‘nā implied an accurate correspondence between mind and reality, as if the mind mirrored the external world but also the essences of things. By wedding ma‘nā to these two meanings of “accuracy,” Key’s sources established the validity of such a thing as pre-linguistic meaning or “mental content.” It was this picture of language that Wittgenstein questioned most forcefully by suggesting that language does not reflect some pre-linguistic given, but is an ordinary phenomenon.
36 al-Muḥāsibī, Al-Ri‘āya, 246.
37 For Drāz, “the moral good, in general, is neither encompassed by an internal reality nor by a bodily manifestation, but it consists of communication between the two” (see Muḥammad ‘Abd Allāh Drāz, Dustūr al-akhlāq fī’l-Qur’ān, trans. into Arabic from French by ‘Abd al-Ṣabūr Shāhīn [Kuwait: Dār al-Buḥūth al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1972], 446, translation mine). For the original French, see Mohamed Abdallah Draz, La morale du Koran (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1951). For the English translation of this landmark study, see M.A. Draz, The Moral World of the Qur’an, trans. Danielle Robinson and Rebecca Masterton (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008).
38 Drāz, Dustūr al-akhlāq fī’l-Qur’ān, 448.
39 On Abū Ṭālib al-Makkī’s influence on Ghazālī, see Kojiro Nakamura, “Makki and Ghazali on Mystical Practices,” Orient 20 (1984):83-91.
40 Abū Ṭālib al-Makkī, Qūt al-qulūb, ed. Maḥmūd Ibrāhīm Muḥammad al-Riḍwānī, 3 vols. (Cairo: Maktabat Dār al-Turāth, 2001), 3:1342.
41 al-Makkī, Qūt al-qulūb, 3:1343.
42 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’, 6:140.
43 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’, 6:137.
44 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’, 6:137-138. Let me note in passing that this same insight was developed more fully in colonial India by Mawlānā Ashraf ‘Alī Thānavī (1863-1943).
45 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’, 6:138.
46 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’, 6:155.
47 Ibn al-Manẓūr, Lisān al-‘arab, 2:117.
48 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’, 6:138.
49 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’, 6:138.
50 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’ ‘ulūm al-dīn, 6:138-139.
51 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’ ‘ulūm al-dīn, 6:150.
52 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’, 6:142.
53 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’, 6:141. Alexander Treiger sheds further light on this point: “There is no doubt that al-Ghazālī’s understanding of felicity is indebted to the Arabic philosophical tradition, where the term ‘felicity’ refers specifically to the bliss in the afterlife (al-sa‘āda al-quṣwā, ultimately going back to the Greek εύδαιμονία), and knowledge of God is regarded as the telos of human life and the prerequisite to the attainment of that bliss” (Inspired Knowledge in Islamic Thought: Al-Ghazālī’s Theory of Mystical Cognition and its Avicennan Foundation [London: Routledge, 2012], 47). Ghazālī’s invocation of “meeting God” in a discussion of sincere intentions is supported by the Qur’anic verse, “Say: ‘I am only a mortal, the like of you; it is revealed to me that your God is One God. So let him, who hopes for the encounter with his Lord, act righteously, and not associate anyone with his Lord’s service” (18:110).
54 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’, 6:137. Cf. Jules Janssens, “Al-Ghazzali and His Use of Avicennan Texts,” in Problems in Arabic Philosophy, ed. Miklós Maróth (Budapest, 2003), esp. 37-49; Frank Griffel, “Al-Ġazālī’s Concept of Prophecy: The Introduction of Avicenna Psychology into Aš‘arite Theology,” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 14 (2004):101-144, esp. 129-130.
55 The following saying attributed to a son of ‘Abdullāh b. Mas‘ūd also emphasizes how the interplay among fikr and dhikr transforms interiority: “Glad tidings belong to the one who purifies his devotions and supplications to God, and does not let what his eyes behold preoccupy his heart, and does not let what his ears hear become a cause for forgetting the remembrance of God, and does not let [the wealth] given to others sadden his soul” (Ibn Abī’d-dunyā, Al-Ikhlāṣ wa’n-niyya, ed. Iyād Khālid aṭ-Ṭabā‘a [Damascus: Dār al-Bashā’ir, 1992], 36).
56 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’, 6:146.
57 Derrida’s conceptualization of “textuality” is not a valorization of play qua play (or, ambivalence qua ambivalence). Rather, his point is that texts at once intend meanings and exceed their intentions, and one is always already thinking in form when trying to subvert genre or when aspiring to realize a transcendental opening. See Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge (London: Routledge, 1992).
58 I am grateful to Basit Kareem Iqbal for this point.
59 This introspective practice can be seen as another type of migration, one that involves the traversal of psychical instead of physical distance.
60 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’, 6:155.
61 Again, let me note in passing that this same insight was developed more fully in colonial India by Mawlānā Thānavī.
62 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’, 6:155.
63 Ghazālī, Iḥyā’, 6:157. The Arabic original for what I have italicized in the translation is: inbi‘āth-ul-qalbi yajrī majrā’l-futūḥi min allāhi-ta‘ālā. By framing how God enables human actions through the expression, “the flow of openings from God,” Ghazālī maintains his ambiguity around secondary causality, an ambiguity that also characterized his teacher al-Juwaynī’s ideas on this issue. See Griffel, Al-Ghazālī’s Philosophical Theology, 128.
64 Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 197.
65 Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 197-198.
66 Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 191.
67 Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 29.
68 Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 137.
69 Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 137.
70 Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 137.
71 Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 137.
72 Ebrahim Moosa, Ghazālī and the Poetics of Imagination (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Griffel, Al- Ghazālī’s Philosophical Theology; Treiger, Inspired Knowledge in Islamic Thought.
73 Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 126.
74 Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 154.
75 Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 139.
76 Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 139.
77 Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 137.
78 For an argument that has some resonance to this point, see Amira Mittermaier, “Dreams from Elsewhere: Muslim Subjectivities Beyond the Trope of Selfcultivation,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 18, no. 2 (June 2012): 247-265. However, I have emphasized in this article a different conceptualization of intentionality than what is presupposed in Mittermaier’s account. My thanks to Basit Kareem Iqbal for this reference