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Cultural Memory of the Pious Ancestors (Salaf) in al-Ghazālī

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The superiority and truth of the way of the first few generations of Muslims, the Salaf, has been a key theological premise of Sunni Islam, which Sunni ulamā have tried to defend against incursions of intellectual sophistication as well as foreign systems of reasoning and spirituality. However, they have also been attracted by the promises of greater intellectual coherence, sophistication, or ultimate truths that other traditions seemed to offer to a remarkable and underappreciated extent. Al-Ghazālī, an iconic defender of the intellectualist branch of Sunni tradition (Asharism) against challenges posed by rationalist theologians (Mutazilites), Aristotelian philosophers, and Neoplatonist Batinites, attempted to synthesize these various traditions, and in the process, struggled with the cultural memory of the Salaf. His attempts at resolution ranged from the projection of a selective and romanticized view of the Salaf as proto-mystics, neglect and implicit deprecation of the Salaf in his mysticial writings, and finally a qualified return to the Salaf’s way in his last treatise. Although he never seems to settle on a stable alternative to the Sunni teleology in which the Salaf always came out on top, he consistently resorts to esotericism and elitism whenever attempting to transcend the Salaf. Such tensions and attempts at resolution continue to characterize subsequent intellectualist Sunni tradition.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo 2004 Scott Hall, 2801 West Bancroft Ave. Toledo, Ohio 43606 USA, Email:


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