Aladdin Yaqub has spent more than 40 years thinking about the thoughts of Muhammad al-Ghazali (c. 1058-1111), the pivotal Muslim theologian, jurist and mystic. The associate professor of philosophy has been inspired by al-Ghazali’s exceptionally lyrical portraits of a universe created entirely by a truly divine deity. He’s been fascinated by al-Ghazali’s logical concept of God as omnipotent and not required to be benevolent, not even to his most obedient servants.
Yaqub has elevated this relationship by completing the first complete English translation of al-Ghazali’s Moderation in Belief, an almost scientific defense of everything from God’s attributes to the Prophet Muhammad’s miracles.
Published last fall by the University of Chicago Press, Yaqub’s edition contains a small book of footnotes, including reconstructions and dissections of al-Ghazali’s labyrinthine arguments. The extensive annotations are designed to help the educated uninitiated, especially Westerners, understand why Moderation in Belief is a bible of Sunni orthodox theology, and why al-Ghazali has been called “Proof of Islam” and “the common pool of refreshing waters for all.”
Yaqub discovered this pool in his late teens in his native Baghdad, where the Persian-raised al-Ghazali wrote Moderation in Belief. The son of a bank manager who taught English, Yaqub first read the autobiographical The Deliverer from Error, where al-Ghazali describes a six-month spiritual crisis where he couldn’t speak because Allah had dried up his tongue.
When Yaqub himself suffered his first major depression, which lasted five months and prevented him from taking a college entrance exam, he identified with al-Ghazali. His youthful passion faded, however, as he recognized that al-Ghazali’s personal trial was “a test from God” rather than a case of mental instability.
Yaqub found stability in al-Ghazali’s The Revival of the Religious Sciences, a poetic, transcendental explanation of Islamic rituals and doctrines. He was particularly captivated by al-Ghazali’s view of God creating a universe so excellent, it would not have changed even if He had endowed humans—also known as “the creation”—with all His attributes, including “the subtleties of divine favor and the mysteries of final punishment.” Everything would have remained identical, even “a gnat’s wing.”
It was a pesky, gnat-like dare that led Yaqub to read Moderation in Belief. He was a 22-year-old mathematics major at the University of Baghdad when he was told about the book by a fellow student, a faithful follower of Islam skeptical of Sufi mystics like al-Ghazali. The skeptic hoped that Yaqub would think less of his “beloved” author when he read al-Ghazali’s claims that God does not care about people or animals.
The plan worked wonders. Disappointed by al-Ghazali’s relatively harsh view, Yaqub decided to boycott the writings of his favorite philosopher. He changed his position when he read Moderation in Belief in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. This time he realized that it was perfectly logical for al-Ghazali’s God to be capable of treating the righteous and the wicked alike. “He may reward them, punish them,” writes al-Ghazali of God, “or even annihilate them and never resurrect them.”
According to Yaqub, it was this brutal honesty that kept Moderation in Belief from a complete English translation for over 900 years. It was considered “too unpleasant,” he says, by theologians and philosophers, believers and non-believers, from the Middle East and the West.
“It did not fit the standard of the gentle al-Ghazali. It did not conform to the image of the inspiring al-Ghazali.” By comparison, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, al-Ghazali’s robust critique of Aristotle, Socrates and other ancient Greeks admired by his Islamic contemporaries, received a complete English translation in 2002, six years before Yaqub made it the center of a seminar for fellow Lehigh philosophy teachers.
One of the reasons that Yaqub decided to translate Moderation in Belief is that it contains all his academic specialties: logic; truth theory; metaphysics; the philosophy of religion, mind and body. He became a forensic footnoter to make sense of al-Ghazali’s almost scientific, supersensible proofs of everything from the possibility of God punishing innocent animals to the impossibility of Him appearing in animal forms. His annotations include debates about schools of theology and styles of argument, long exercises in logic, explanations why a translation is literal or liberal.
Forensic footnotes helped Yaqub hurdle his biggest challenge: separating al-Ghazali’s positions from other people’s positions. It’s easy to get lost, he points out, in al-Ghazali’s metadialectics.
“He likes arguing for argument’s sake,” says Yaqub. “He’s perfectly capable of admitting: ‘This is not a very good argument. Let’s think about a better argument.’ He’s perfectly capable of making the implausible plausible. He can be quite spellbinding.”
Another challenge was navigating al-Ghazali’s corkscrew contemplations and calculations. Yaqub received philosophical and linguistic help from Roslyn Weiss, Lehigh’s Clara H. Stewardson professor of philosophy; an authority on Jewish philosophy, she read all of the Moderation translation.
Yaqub received detailed linguistic help from his wife Connie, an Iowa native who teaches English as a second language at an elementary school.
Connie Yaqub served as her husband’s sounding board. He would read her two translations of a sentence and she would tell him which one sounded better. Eventually she realized she needed to be more accessible to make his translation more accessible. So she moved her workplace from a second-floor study to his workplace in the couple’s first-floor dining room. There she juggled his questions while working on lesson plans for elementary schoolers and a doctorate in literacy and educational leadership.
His wife helped Yaqub balance readability with accuracy, content with intent. She has also helped him balance his mood disorders—the mania that makes him write in a white heat, the depression that made him take a 2013 sick leave from teaching. She’s driven him to medical appointments, comforted him during sleepless nights, given him hope during hopeless times.
“Without her I wouldn’t have survived,” says Yaqub of his spouse. He’s more touching in his Moderation dedication: “To Connie, who kept a candle burning during the darkest days of my life.”
Connie Yaqub is also a dedicatee in her husband’s other new book, Introduction to Metalogic, to be published in January 2014 by Broadview Press. He thanks her, his mother, his five sisters and his two daughters for “making me the man I am.” In the acknowledgements he does something more unusual for a scholarly book. He acknowledges his mood disorders, in the hope that mental illness can be treated as normally as physical illness.
Yaqub’s current project is a translation of The Book of Monotheism by Abu Mansur al-Maturidi, another pivotal Islamic treatise by another medieval Persian theologian/jurist. He insists the edition, scheduled for a 2015 release by Brigham Young University Press, is tougher than his edition of Moderation. Not only will it have side-by-side texts in Arabic and English, it will be aimed at religion and philosophy scholars—the educated initiated.
So why is Yaqub climbing another mountain, this time during a major depression? Why is he again stretching his sanity? “Because,” he says with a smile, “I’m a fool.”
Connie Yaqub offers a more logical explanation of her husband’s ambition.
“Aladdin really has a gift for making things understandable, in his teaching and in his writing,” she says. “He’s brilliant. He has an extremely inquisitive mind. He’s interested in so many things: politics, contemporary issues, classical music. He likes to share his knowledge, which makes him a fantastic teacher and a fantastic spouse.”
Empowered by his wife, Yaqub feels more confident about translating medieval Arabic to English. Once he peppered her with 30 to 40 questions a day. Now he’s down to two handfuls, a mere sprinkling.
Story by Geoff Gehman '89G
Posted on Monday, January 27, 2014