Ahmad Al-Ghazali, Remembrance, and the Metaphysics of Love

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Joseph Lumbard
SUNY Series in Islam
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , November
     270 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Joseph Lumbard has tackled love and metaphysics in his recent monograph Aḥmad Al-Ghazālī, Remembrance, and the Metaphysics of Love, promising the first comprehensive study of Muslim and Sufi poet Aḥmad Al-Ghazālī (d. 1123) in a European language. For some, it may come as a surprise to find that a renowned mystic of Aḥmad’s stature would have been overlooked by European scholars for so long, but this neglect may in part be due to the fact that Aḥmad had an imposing older brother named Abū Ḥāmid, who has dominated many European scholarly discussions of Islamic thought and practice for more than a hundred years. 

The work in question takes Aḥmad out of the shadow of his older and more prolific brother and re-situates him amid a formidable breadth of Sufi literature. What exactly is Sufi literature? As Lumbard notes, Sufism means many things to many people. Eschewing translations of “Sufi” as “mystical Islam,” Lumbard settles on Nile Green’s definition of Sufism as a “powerful tradition of Muslim knowledge and practice bringing proximity to or mediation with God” (80), while himself commonly referring to Sufism as a “pietistic movement” throughout. Accordingly, Lumbard spends as much time situating Aḥmad al-Ghazālī’s thought within the wider accounts of medieval Sufi devotional practices as he does laying out Aḥmad’s ties to other Sufi views and theoretical frameworks for divine love.

With great care and effort, Lumbard has outfitted his reader with an impressive digest of early and later Sufi texts, many of which are not available in English translation, and some of which only exist as manuscripts. For the student of Sufism, the early chapters of Lumbard’s work provide a handy literature and source guide.  The first three chapters on sources, historical context, and the practices pertinent to Aḥmad al-Ghazālī deliver a rich contextualization of Ahmad’s piety and pious practice; however, this richness may have benefited from a few helpful nudges of clarification. For instance, in the absence of summarizing tables, it is left for the reader to cumulatively list and map out the authentic and relevant sources that Lumbard so painstakingly identifies. Also, the treatment of Aḥmad as a single figure risks obfuscation, since Aḥmad’s views are often woven seamlessly alongside remarks and practices of other Sufi authors, including predecessors and much later successors. 

The conceptual heart of the book lies in the last two chapters. Chapter 4, a treatment of various Sufi understandings of love before and in Aḥmad’s time, offers precious insights, summaries, and treatments of lively Sufi debates on love, engaging texts not easily accessible to the general reader, even speculating on the possible existence of an unwritten oral tradition on love. Lumbard has thus done a great service for the scholar or general reader desirous of a thick digest of Sufi views on love. 

It is the final chapter, chapter 5, that takes up Aḥmad al-Ghazālī’s metaphysics of love. Even here, Lumbard supplements his analysis of Aḥmad’s views with speculative connections to other Sufi authors. The result is that his case for a metaphysics of love perhaps applies more accurately to a loose “School of Love” (166) that included Aḥmad along with contemporaries and disciples.

The crux of his argument is that Ahmad al-Ghazali, in his Sawāniḥ, “makes a revolutionary move in Sufi thought by placing love at the center of metaphysics” (112). Lumbard distinguishes this move from making love a stage or even the end of a spiritual journey towards God. Lumbard further distinguishes Aḥmad’s views on love from those who simply treat love as part of the relationship between humans and God, and from those views that speak of love as a Divine Attribute of God. For Aḥmad, love is not simply an emotion, it is “the natural response of one’s being to God” (115). Further, for Aḥmad al-Ghazālī, love is the Divine Essence. Affirming love as the Divine Essence brings with it an interpretation of realitythat transcends the dualism of God and creation, Beloved and lover, asserting instead monism as the metaphysical ground of all being.

Lumbard’s prioritization of Sufi “recognition” (‘irfān) over conceptual schematization sidesteps scholarly discussions of philosophical monism (in fact, he dismisses the work of Alexander Treiger in a footnote). Yet, a monistic reality of love might invite his reader to ponder a few big-picture questions. For instance, how does one affirm both monism and love as ultimate reality? Are there not metaphysical benefits to models of love that take into account differences between those united in love? What does love even mean when the distinctions of those united in love are utterly erased?

The trouble with a metaphysics of love is that love, especially when alluded to in poetic verse, is a slippery notion to hold on to. Lumbard’s own sources lay bare this point. According to his citation of Al-Mustamlī (d. 1042/3), there are good reasons that render writing about divine love difficult. In Sufi understanding, love is more direct experience and tasting than intellectual framework, so words become subsidiary to elusive meanings. Al-Mustamlī writes, “If he is not a lover, how will he describe something he has not seen? And if he is a lover, he will be so preoccupied with love’s burning that he will not have an opportunity to describe it. And if he does, though those who hear have no trace of this burning, his description will not be understood” (132). The problem of writing about love as metaphysics is further complicated by Lumbard’s and his sources’ tendency to sharply distinguish Sufi views on love (maḥabbah/‘ishq) and recognition (‘irfān) from all conceptual and philosophical attempts to articulate love and Divine Reality. This puts many an attentive reader in a predicament and presents no small challenge for any author who wishes to engage the elusive but central experiential dimension in Sufi authors writing on love.

Ultimately, Aḥmad Al-Ghazālī, Remembrance, and the Metaphysics of Love is a welcome mix of erudite and accessible, a significant fruit born of long and thoughtful gestation. It should prove an important reference for scholars of Aḥmad al-Ghazālī and Sufism in years to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taraneh R. Wilkinson is International Research Fellow at the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Sciences.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph E. B. Lumbard is Assistant Professor in the Department of Arabic and Translation Studies at the American University of Sharjah and author of Submission, Faith, and Beauty: The Religion of Islam.


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