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Maimonides and Siger of Brabant Battle al-Ghazali in a Fight to the Finish

Abu Hamid Ibn Muhammad Ibn Muhammad al-Tusi al-Shafi’i al-Ghazali had quite a bit to say about God and Philosophy. So did Moses Maimonides and Siger of Brabant. It was the fact that all three of these esteemed gentlemen met this demanding criteria that got them in the door. Now that they're all here, I'm a gonna talk about similarities and differences in their various philosophies. Because it's what the assignment tells me to do, the tournament will have two Matches: Match One will be between Maimonides and al-Ghazali. The winner of Match One will go on to face Siger in the Telcom Middle-Ages Philosopher Championship. In the event of a draw, the match will go to the Philosopher who can guess the number I'm thinking of. Each one is representing his professed belief in one of three established religions, so this should be interesting! Ready? Let's go!

Moses Maimonides (Jew), first of all, seems to be in agreement with al-Ghazali (Muslim) on a few major points. Having a system derived from an Aristotelian point of view, Maimonides thought that matter, by itself, is incapable of independant movement. In other words, without God, there would be nothing. He backs this up by citing his own faith-based belief in creationism, actually giving it preference over the Aristotilian view of eternity, on the basis that neither can be proved, and furthermore, that embracing such a system would thereby enable much more lattitude on other issues. Now, he never claims that he could disprove Aristotle, but the idea of eternity did not satisfy him: "if the philosophers would succeed in demonstrating eternity as Aristotle understands it, the Law as a whole becomes void." Maimonides had no desire to see the Law become void, and beyond that, he believes that he fulfills the three major criteria for an individual wishing to "free [himself] from what is habitual, and rely soley on speculation." These are: 1. to know your mind is sound and capable, 2. to know fundamental laws of nature and mathamatics (presumeably to keep you from proposing a belief, when there is contradictory truth), and 3. to be of sound moral principle. Maimonides also had an interesting take on the universe and neccessity. He believed, as Aristotle ("prince of philosophers") did, that the earth was stationary, but reasoned that it really didn't matter, as long as the astronomer could do his work. He was an interesting individual. His methodology includes all of the exceedingly boring rhetorical tools and semantic monotonies that are neccessary to be considered a philosopher proper. At the same time, however, he seems to have been pretty down to Earth, even if he did think it was stationary.

Indeed, although Maimonides believed that God had granted life, he never questions the hand of God in what might take place between his creations. Al-Ghazali, in his work, focuses on this very issue. It is hard to say exactly how much one would agree or disagree with the other since the issues they addressed, at least in the selections made available to me, are quite different. One thing that I believe to be fairly self-evident is that the two would agree that the other believed in a false religion. Another discrepency arises when one examines the underlying reasoning between the two men's system of thought. Al-Ghazali believed that God had a hand in everything, to the point where, when I get up in the morning and yawn, I do so because God "or one of his agents" makes me. Maimonides takes a far more tempered view. Full of pragmatism, he gives the "I'll believe it when I see (or feel [sense?]) it" argument in this case. He might back this up by refusing to acknowledge al-Ghazali's logic. He might maintain it to be possible, but I doubt he would embrace it.

This then, becomes the commonality that links the two men: a distrust in the abilitly of science (e.g. philosophy, mathamatics, and the natural sciences) to determine the validity of spiritual or metaphysical claims. Maimonides believed the world had a fixed momment of creation, and did not exist proir to that. Al-Ghazali thought that our every move (and even the process of burning) was the result of a choice made by God or Angels. Both these points were, at their time, debatable. Al-Ghazali's still is. Either way, the respective gentlemen putting forth the claims held them up in the face of challengers, as beliefs, not truths. That makes it awfully hard to argue with them, don't it?

Match One is a draw, since they both seem like well-meaning chaps. Al-Ghazali guessed the number, but fret not, Maimonides isn't going home empty handed. As my token of thanks for playing, he'll recieve the Project Tapestry CD-ROM, compatible with both Windows and Macintosh! Match Two pits al-Ghazali against slightly more slippery competition, Siger of Brabant (who was Christian, after all), so this should be a real battle.

Siger of Brabant, aside from the silly name, maintained that God and Logic need not neccessarily occupy the same textbooks. On this count, he'll get no objections from al-Ghazali. A "Latin Averroist" (interesting label, as Averroes is, itself a latinized version of Ibn Rushd), Siger, like Maimonides, was from the school of Aristotilian thinking. Al-Ghazali, also had training here, so the playing field remains level. Or does it? Siger seems to have believed in a "Double Truth" theory, which allows for a "Christian" to, at one and the same time, believe that the World was created, and know, philisophically that something cannot come from nothing. "Double Truth" seems to be a handy way to label individuals operating on a hypocritical ideal. Al-Ghazali did not embrace such a theory. As a believer in Creation, he has no choice but to defend the theory that something can come from nothing, and he does, reasoning that it is within God's power to change the nature of matter (even to the extent that he can change wisdom into energy)--although he would not use the word "change," but perhaps "replace with," in its place.

On the topic of causation, I believe the two gentlemen would also differ. Siger maintains that "act is simply seen to precede potency in time," whereas in truth, "everything existing in potentiality is brought into actuality," meaning that potentiality actually precedes action. Al-Ghazali, however, would take issue with this, suggesting that it is God, in fact, who causes acts, and nothing exists prior to existence, except in God's knowledge, where they both exist, and have existed eternally, which would mean neither precedes the other, except physically, which is the only way we can understand it, anyway. Siger would disagree, stating that, in some senses, it is possible for act to precede potentiality, in the manner al-Ghazali suggests, but to the claim that they both exist, eternally, I suppose he would have to offer a challenge as an Aristotilian, but acceptance as a Christian. I have a problem with that, though. I have a problem with the whole "Double Truth" formulation, altogether. It has been suggested that this was merely a way to skirt the Inquisition (and this is rather plausible), but if approached in that way, all of his work is suspect, and for that reason, the Championship Match goes to al-Ghazali.

Well, that's it. The Grand Prize, a date with Catherine of Sienna, has been respectfully declined, but all three contestants get the CD-ROM. Thanks for tuning in. Have a great day!


  • Ahmed, Monzur. "Abu Hamid al-Ghazali." Muslim Gateway. July, 1998.
  • Buchman, David, trans. The Niche of Lights by al-Ghazali. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1998.
  • Hyman, Arthur and James J. Walsh, Philosophy in the Middle Ages 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1973).
  • author unspecified. "Ghazali, Al." Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia. 1999.

    This site was last modified on Dec. 16th, 1999.
    This site was created by me. My name is Henry Snyder.
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