The striking similarity between the views of al-Ghazali and Shri Shankaracharya8 min read

ABOUT 1,000 a.d. there was composed a short and most valuable treatise entitled Mishkat al-Anwar (The Niche for Lights) by the Arab philosopher and mystic, al-Ghazali. Even a slight acquaintance with the text suffices to draw one’s attention to the striking similarity between the views of al-Ghazali and the Advaita (nondualist) philosophy of Shri Shankaracharya, the greatest of Vedanta metaphysicians. It may be of interest to explore this parallel in respect of the first part of the Mishkat. This is, in effect, a commentary on the verse of the Koran

“ Allah is the Light of the Heaven and of the Earth,” a thought which occurs many times in the Bhagavad Gita, for instance, in Chapter XVIII, verse 46 :

“ He from Whom is the evolution of all beings, by Whom all this is pervaded.”

The first question is—are we to take the Koran statement literally ? Or symbolically ? Or as a rhetorical eulogy ? al-Ghazali gives an unequivocal answer in the first sentence of his commentary. “ The Real Light is Allah,” he writes, “ and the name ‘ Light ’ is otherwise only predicated metaphorically and conveys no real meaning.” al-Ghazali’s main arguments in support of this proposition are :—

(a) that, actually, ‘ light ’ (as indeed all else in Creation) derives ultimately from the Prime Mover Who is the material as well as the efficient Cause ; and that therefore, in a very real sense, the term ‘ light ’ can most appropriately be applied to Allah. (It will be remembered that the Vedanta Sutras in like manner demonstrate the Upanishadic view that Brahman is the Cause of everything in the universe.)

(b) that, symbolically, Allah is fittingly described as “ the Real Light.” (The Upanishad also speaks of “ That Light, illumined by which the sun shines.”) Light is that which is self-luminous and which illumines all else, both in the physical sphere and in the sphere of the intellect where it manifests as the knowledge which dispels the darkness of ignorance. Again, light is the most obvious thing in the world and nothing can be seen without its aid. Yet we see only the effects of light in the form of whiteness and other colours, and not light itself. Indeed, very little is known about light by scientists to whom its apparently contradictory properties present an insoluble mystery.

As al-Ghazali says, “ through its intense obviousness it is invisible.” Similarly, the truth of “ All is Brahman,” of “ Allah is the Light of all,” is obscured for the normal person and is only evident to the Saints and Prophets, although it is the most obvious truth of all. The same meaning may be perceived in the refrain of Swami Rama Tirtha’s poem:

“ Know that Allah is nearer than the jugular vein.”

“ When thy inner eyes are opened
Thou wilt cry : ‘ Allah is ! Allah is! ’
‘ I am God ! will be thy loud cry.
Remember, God is nearer to thee than the jugular vein.”

Let us follow al-Ghazali’s reasoning to establish that “ light ”, as the term is normally understood, is only “ predicated metaphorically To “ the Many,” he says, “ light ” means an objective phenomenon, something that they may not be able to describe but which they can see and recognise in the otitside world. But this picture is only partly true and does not stand up to close analysis. “ The Few,” therefore, incline to the more correct view that “ light ” only has meaning in so far as it is perceived. Light (“ the light in the eye ”) is a. more fundamental factor in the process of perception than the object seen.

This is not to take up the extreme position of an idealist philosopher like Bishop Berkeley and to suggest that the external world is somehow “ in the mind ” : it reminds us more of the Advaita account of perception where a ray of the mind, as it were, shoots forth into the mass of external potential sense-data and illumines a certain section of it. “ The Fewest of the Few ” go further and point out that physical sight is not strictly independent but is really a function of the seer. Considered per se, the physical eye is subject to many defects : it can see only a limited distance, it cannot see round opaque objects, it suffers from many aberrations.

Behind it is the intelligence which is not limited by these physical defects, which itself “ sees ” the eye, which can embrace the concepts “ far ” and “ near ” and which can to a certain extent penetrate behind the veil. In fact, sight and the other senses are only the spies of intelligence, which therefore has a greater claim to the name of “ Light ”. But is even intelligence self-luminous and self-dependent ? No, as is clear for instance from the fact that it starts off with, certain a priori truths which are not discoverable by intelligence but “ given ” to it as the logical framework within which it can reason and form judgements.

Such truths as, for example, that the same proposition cannot be both true and false at the same time in the same respect. The highest of these axiomatic truths are given in the sacred scriptures, such as the Koran. Thus Allah Who is the revealer of the spiritual wisdom contained in the sacred scriptures, may ultimately be inferred to be the Real Light of all. Moreover, as their Self, He is the Seer in all intellects.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, it is written “ When breathing, He is Breath by name ; when speaking, Speech by name ; when seeing, Eye by name ; when hearing, Ear by name ; when thinking, Mind by name. All these are but names of His acts.”

al-Ghazali gives the following simile. The light of the sun makes the moon radiant ; the moonbeams fall on a mirror in a house, reflecting on the wall opposite and thence lighting up the floor. So Allah reflects through everything in varying degrees : in the case of perception He shines through the intelligence and the physical eye to illumine external objects.

It is as the Svetasvatara Upanishad says : “ When He shines, everything shines after Him ; By His light, all this is lightened.”

It is apparent that by “Allah is the Light of the Heaven and of the Earth ” much more is meant than that Allah is the “ illuminator ” of the Universe. In the Gita the Lord is spoken of as “ the Spectator, the Permitter, the Supporter, the Enjoyer, the Great Lord and also the Supreme Self.”

So also al-Ghazali describes Allah as He by Whom all things are revealed (the Illuminator), He for Whom all things are brought into existence (the Enjoyer or Witness), He from Whom all things derive their existence (the material and efficient cause), and as He Who transcends the above categories (the Attributeless).

The Mishkat al-Anwar, like the Advaita classics, maintains the immanence of God in His creation and also His transcendence, a mystery which cannot be rationalised but which is referred to in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, e.g. in Chapter X, verse 42: “I stand sustaining this whole world by one part of Myself.”

The stress laid on the transcendence of Allah effectively refutes any suggestion that al-Ghazali was a pantheist and brings him close to the position of Shri Shankaracharya. Allah is indeed the substratum of the Universe and all that it contains.“ ‘ Everything perisheth except His Countenance, His aspect ’ ; not that it perisheth at some particular moment, but rather it is sempiternally a perishing thing.”

For-a parallel passage we may turn for example to the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter XIII, verse 27 : “He sees who sees the Supreme Lord remaining the same in all beings, the undying in the dying.

Each several thing other than Allah, is, when considered in and by itself, pure not-being; and if considered from the ‘aspect’ to which existence flows from the Prime Reality, it is viewed as existing, not in itself but solely from the ‘ aspect ’ which accompanies Him Who gives it existence.”

In other words, everything consists of Self and not-Self. The real essence, the Self, is Allah ; the illusory not-Self, consisting of names and forms, has no independent existence, and is like a mirage projected by the Self and serving to conceal It until Its true nature is directly experienced.

But Allah is more than the essence of the Universe. As such He would still be (theoretically) in the category of the known and would be inferior to the potential Knower. “ For ever known falls necessarily under the sway and within the province of the Knower : a state which is the very negation of all Majesty, all Greatness.” But His transcendence is a mystery beyond the grasp of the finite intellect. Reason can shed no light and we have to rely on the revealed scriptures as well as the experiences and teaching of the Saints of God.

It is the testimony of the Saints and the authority of the Scriptures which allow us a glimpse of “ the true and absolute Oneness-and-Onliness,”the “ One without a second ” of the Vedanta.

This is the goal of human endeavour. “ The Kingdom of the One-and-Onliness is the ultimate point of mortals’ Ascent,” writes al-Ghazali. Could there be any clearer epitome of the Advaita philosophy ?