In the ancient ruins of Tus in northeastern Iran, a forlorn cemetery in a dusty field covered by a tin shed bears testimony to the devastation caused by the Mongols many centuries ago.
A round pit in the middle of the cemetery is where the tomb of 12th-century Iranian philosopher and theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, also known as Imam al-Ghazali, once stood. He died on Dec. 19, 1111.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency (AA) on the eve of the anniversary of al-Ghazali's passing, historian and poet Nader Jafari said: "The magnificent tomb was flattened when Mongols under Genghis Khan invaded the Khwarizmi-ruled Iran in the 13th century."
"They annihilated everything that came their way, including al-Ghazali's tomb, leaving a trail of death and destruction in the city," he said. "For the next thousand years, no one knew where he lied buried, there was no trace of his grave, until recently."
In 1995, the grave was unearthed during archeological excavations in an area called Bija Khishti, close to a mysterious brick monument known as Harooniyeh, which had long been popular among locals and tourists as al-Ghazali's memorial.
The grave, just a kilometer away from the attractive mausoleum of legendary Persian poet Ferdowsi, is covered by a tin shed and receives hardly any visitors.
Locals rue the fact that the plan to reconstruct a tomb over it has made no headway through many years.
"There had been talk about building a tomb for al-Ghazali, on the pattern of Ferdowsi and (11th-century Persian polymath Omar) Khayyam. But so far, the project hasn't taken off," a local resident told AA.
Al-Ghazali's final resting place in Tus may have been obliterated, but his name and legacy have lived on, especially in the domains of philosophy, theology and mysticism, inspiring generations of both Persian and non-Persian scholars.
The celebrated philosopher-jurist is today referred to as a "Hujjat al-Islam" (proof of Islam) and hailed as one of the greatest "renewers" of the Islamic faith for his rejection of philosophies that he believed were in conflict with sacrosanct Islamic beliefs.
Hossein Sadiqiyan, a philosopher and university lecturer, said al-Ghazali's contributions are "deep and everlasting," as evident from the manner in which his theological doctrines influenced scholars in the West, including the likes of 13th-century Italian philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas.
"Al-Ghazali is arguably the greatest Islamic thinker and philosopher from the medieval era, who bridged the divide between Sufism and Shariah and dared to challenge the top Greek school philosophers," he told AA, rejecting the perception that al-Ghazali was "against philosophy or science."
Born in the small town of Tabaran in Tus in 1058, al-Ghazali had a troubled childhood battling stark poverty. He studied theology and jurisprudence from al-Juwayni, one of the greatest jurists of his time, in the city of Nishapur. After Juwayni's death, he served in the court of Nizam al-Mulk, vizier of the Seljuk Empire and noted scholar, who appointed him as the head of Nizamiya schools in Baghdad.
In 1095, Sadiqiyan noted, the philosopher had a "spiritual crisis," prompting him to spend years in seclusion in his hometown. "That was a turning point in his life as a philosopher and mystic, and has been explained in detail in his autobiography Deliverance from Error," he said.
Al-Ghazali authored more than 70 books on philosophy, Sufism and science, one of them being the Incoherence of Philosophers, a scathing critique of philosophers affiliated to the Greek school.
Historian and writer Mohammad Reza Abouee Mehrizi refers to his Persian book The Alchemy of Happiness as "one of his greatest." That book talks about the "knowledge of self, knowledge of God, knowledge of this world and knowledge of the hereafter."
"Al-Ghazali was a leading scholar of his time, a pre-eminent philosopher and theologian who chose a path different from that of (scholars) Avicenna and Farabi, winning both fans and critics," Mehrizi told AA.
For some, al-Ghazali was a controversial figure, too, as he went against many illustrious Muslim philosophers like 11th-century Muslim physician, astronomer and philosopher Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna, and the earlier thinker and scientist Abu Nasr Al-Farabi, both of whom were proponents of Greek philosophy.
Al-Ghazali raised questions over the rationality and logic of Greek philosophy and criticized Muslim advocates of the Aristotelian school, before going on to present his own version of "rationality."
In his seminal work, The Incoherence of Philosophers, al-Ghazali writes that "they refused to be content with the religion followed by their ancestors," referring to Avicenna and Farabi.
Masoume Shahgordi, a scholar of contemporary philosophy, said al-Ghazali's opposition to Avicenna was "because he did not comprehend Avicenna correctly," while his objections to Farabi were "on the relation of religion and philosophy – which one has the upper hand over the other."
Ali Fadli, a researcher of philosophy, said that while al-Ghazali's contribution to the spiritual Islamic tradition and mysticism was "wonderful," he thought "philosophy was opposite to Islamic teachings."
His supporters, however, argue that al-Ghazali's thoughts on philosophy and science were "more nuanced" and that he was fiercely against the "uncritical embracing of Greek philosophy."
Sadiqiyan cited his celebrated work Tahafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of Philosophers) to stress that his opposition was against "orthodox philosophers," not philosophy per se."
"Al-Ghazali did not destroy philosophy or science and he was not against the philosophy," he stressed. "He was simply critical of the Greek philosophy and its Muslim proponents."
The debate, meanwhile, continues between his supporters and critics 10 centuries after his death.
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