Deliverance from Commitment: al-Ghazali’s Reconfiguration of Rationalism
William Bartley’s The Retreat to Commitment outlines how Euro-American rationalist traditions have repeatedly faced identity crises when realizing that what they took to be knowledge did not live up to their standards of what counts as rational. Such an internal contradiction could be resolved in different ways: by upholding reason but rejecting beliefs/knowledge (rational skepticism), by having beliefs but rejecting reason (irrationalism, relativism, fideism), or — more significantly for rationalism — by upholding reason and the possibility of knowledge but relaxing the criteria of what counts as rational by no longer requiring that every proposition be justified by reason. In Bartley’s terminology, this is a shift from “pan-rationalism” to “critical rationalism.”
Professor Sadeghi argues that al-Ghazali’s Deliverance from Error represents the kind of shift Bartley described, from pan-rationalism to critical rationalism. As a scholar of Ash’ari kalam, al-Ghazali had been an exponent of the pan-rationalist meta-context governing kalam, falsafa, and Batini thought, which insisted that every proposition be justified by a sequence of logical inferences ultimately rooted in firm foundations. He experienced a crisis when he realized that his cherished beliefs could not be justified in this way. True to the pan-rationalist demand to believe only what is rationally justified, he privately gave up all belief. After two miserable months as a skeptic, an epiphany allowed him to have beliefs: namely, he gave up the requirement that all beliefs be justified by reason. Crucially, though, he did not thereby reject reason; rather, he became a critical rationalist. His faith in Islam was restored, and he set out to determine which approach to Islam is correct — kalam, falsafa, Isma’ilism, or Sufism. He argued for Sufism using a mixture of rational argumentation and rationally unjustified beliefs.