Carole Hillenbrand CBE is Emerita Professor of Islamic History at the University of Edinburgh and Professor of Islamic History at the University of St Andrews. She is the Vice-President of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies and a Member of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics. Her research interests include: Islamic philosophy, theology, and political thought, and the Crusades. In 2005, Professor Hillenbrand was the first non-Muslim to be awarded the King Faisal International Prize for Islamic Studies.
In the 2009 New Year Honours, she was appointed as Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). In 2016, she was awarded the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding by the British Academy for her book Islam: A New Historical Introduction. And in the 2018 New Year Honours, she was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).
The Persian-speaking al-Ghazali (1058-1111) is renowned as the foremost medieval Muslim intellectual, a polymath who wrote exhaustively in Arabic on the law, ethics, mysticism and philosophy. His early writings on philosophy spread throughout the Muslim world from Samarqand to Spain and thence, once translated into Latin, to medieval Europe and especially to St Thomas Aquinas. Al-Ghazali’s talents catapulted him while still relatively young to the very summit of his profession, as the Islamic equivalent of the Regius Professor of Philosophy at Oxford and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet the early onset of what we might call a mid-life crisis rendered him, without warning, physically unable to lecture. His autobiography, a quite remarkable document alive with raw personal emotion, describes how this experience brought home to him the tawdry nature of worldly success and prompted him to turn his back on his glittering career.
Donning the woollen robe of a mendicant Sufi or dervish, he wandered across the Middle East for six years before returning to his home town in eastern Iran to meditate, surrounded by a group of disciples. He personified the battle between the head and the heart in Islamic religious thought and practice. This lecture will analyse what al-Ghazali says about philosophers and philosophy, and will explore his ambivalent attitude to that subject, which entranced him in his youth but which he ultimately rejected in favour of the mystic path. An examination of his thinking on aesthetics, and specifically on the nature of beauty, will serve as a test case of the nature of his thought. The lecture will conclude with trying to establish whether al-Ghazali considered philosophy to be compatible with Islamic orthodoxy, or whether on the contrary he regarded it as dangerous for the Muslim intelligentsia and indeed all orthodox Muslims to explore this fascinating but threatening area of scholarship.
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