A study of the Life and Personality of Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Tusi al-Ghazali, together

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1 Brit. Mus. Add. 76561. Murtada, op. cit., p. 43. These verses have been attributed to Ahmad al-Ghazali, but certain of them are found in Abu Hamid's Tahasin al-Zunun, It is related that Suhrawardi al-'%Iagtul (ob. 587/1191)

recited some of these lines shortly before his death. Cf. von. Kremer. Gesch. der Nerrs. Ideen des Islams, pp. 132, 133.

YSqut, Georg. Worterbuch (Iilu'jam al-B ddan) III. p. 561; Qazwini,

Athar al-Bilad, II, p. 278. Subkl, op. cit.. IV, p. 115.

3 Cf, p. 63 below.

• Abu Tammam Habib b. Aws, a distinguished poet who died c. A.A. 850, the author of the .Iamasa.

• M. Rida, op. cit., p- 26. Ibn KhaI!ikan, op. cit., II, p. 623­

- Yafm'f, op. cit., fol. 257a. Mi'yar al-'Ibn (Tarjanral, p. 13 Khwdnsari, Rautilt al-Jaunt, p. 184,



honour, green in colour, and with them a noble steed. They alighted at the head of a certain tomb and brought one forth from his grave, and having invested him with the robes, set him on that steed, and ascended with him to the heavens, continuing to ascend with him from one heaven to another until he had passed through all the Seven Heavens' and, ascending beyond them, he traversed the Seventy Veils.' " I was filled with wonder at that," said Abu'l-'Abbas, " and I desired to know who that rider was, and I was told : " It is al-Ghazali," and I did not know then, that he had attained to martyrdom." a It is said that al-Ghazali occupied the position of Qu;b, the supreme head of the Sufr hierarchy, for a period of threee days.'

It is also related that someone saw al-Ghazali, after his death, in a dream and asked about his state and he replied : " If it were not for this 'strange' knowledge, all would be well with us." His biographer is anxious that no one should imagine that "this strange knowledge " should be interpreted to mean the mystical knowledge of al-Ghazali. This, he holds, would be a Satanic device to prevent others from following in al-Gbazali's. steps and would mean that they were veiled from God and hindered from attaining to the highest degreee of saint-hood. He inter­prets the words to mean that, since it was a celestial vision, of one now in the Presence of God, no longer concerned with the things of sense, the " strange knowledge " was that which was concerned only with this world, with human affairs and relation­ships, which could have no bearing whatever on life in the world to come, for death means separation front them. So perhaps al-Ghazali regretted having concerned himself with the worldly knowledge which was strange to the heavenly places. But his biographer points out that the knowledge of the mysteries of devotion and what belongs to the world to come could not be " strange " to one who had attained to that world, therefore he urges his readers not to misinterpret these words, lest they be

1 Cf. pp. no ff below.

• Cf, pp. z47'ff. below.

• Subkl, op. cit., IV, p. '4x.

" The station of the Q. r.,^~ is the station of Perfect Manhood-his due title is Director of Souls and he is a blessing to those who invoke his aid, because he comprehends the innate capacities of all mankind and, like a camel-driver, speeds everyone to his home." R. A. Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, p. 165.


hindered from seeking spiritual knowledge, but to acquire of worldly knowledge only as much as was really necessary.'

A number of other visions of al-Ghazali after his death are mentioned by his biographers.' Miraculous gifts (karamcU) were also ascribed to him as to all the great saints of Islam.


1 Munawl, op. cit., fol. ig8b.

' Cf. Qazwinl, op. Cit., Pp. 277, 278. YaL'!, Mie al-Janan, fols. 2S9a, b­Jam!, of. cit., pp. 423, 424. Subk1, Tab, pp. zz6, 131, 132. Munawi, fol. 9Sa.


al-Ghazdli's Character and Personality. His sociability.
His love of travel. His fondness for and knowledge of.
animals and Plants.

There is much that may be learned of al-Ghazali's character

and personality from what we know of his life, and still more

from his own writings. His eager curiosity and desire to investi­

gate all branches of knowledge, his intellectual pride and self­

confidence, were qualities natural to one possessed of such out­

standing gifts, and natural to his youth, but there were other more

essential and more lasting traits which are revealed as being

more truly characteristic of him. He seems to have been

sociable and fond of company and given to hospitality. It is good to eat in company, he observes, for it will mean friendly and profitable conversation during meals. He was probably a chess-player, for he remarks that when a man is an expert at chess, he rejoices in the game and if he is kept from it for a time, he will not give it up and cannot endure to be deprived of it. He observes also that one who is expert at the game is prepared to sacrifice his castle and his knight, without hesitation, in order to win the game, while the uninstructed spectator laughs at him and is surprised at his action. Elsewhere he notes that the expert at chess, for all its baseness (i.e., it is only a game) cannot refrain from instructing others in it and speaking about his own moves, because of the pleasure he takes in his knowledge and skill in the game. 1

Sociability he considers to be one of the marks of an attractive character and the unsociable man will be found to have an un­pleasant personality. An attractive personality naturally secures affection and friendship and good relations with others, while an evil character produces dislike and jealousy and quarrels. " The believer both gives and receives friendship and there is no good in anyone who does neither." al-Ghazali quotes the

1 Kfmiva at-Sa'uda, p. 18. Ihya, IV, pp. 321, 264.


Prophet's saying that when God wishes well to anyone He gives that one a good friend who, if he is neglectful, remembers him, and if he is mindful, helps him. The Prophet said that two friends meeting together were like two hands, one of which washes the other, and he also said : " To certain people it will be granted to sit around the Throne of God on the Day of resur­rection and their faces will shine like the moon, on the night when it is full. Others will flee in terror, but they will remain, and other will fear, but they will be unafraid. These are the friends of God "upon whom there shall be no fear, neither shall they grieve," 1 who are clothed in light and the prophets and martyrs desire to be of their number. The radiance of their beauty is manifest to the Blessed in Paradise, even as the light of the sun, and it is written upon their foreheads that they are " Those who love one another in God." Y

There were five qualities which al-Ghazali thought to be de­sirable in a friend who was to be a real companion in intellectual interests, in religion and in worldly affairs,. and all five of these qualities were conspicuous in al-Ghazali. himself.' The first quality was that of intelligence, he considered that there was no good to be derived from the companionship of the foolish, which .which would end only in alienation and separation, An intelli­gent enemy, he thinks, is better than a foolish friend. The second quality is an attractive disposition, and by an unpleasant character al-Ghazali means that of a man who is lacking in self­control, who gives way to anger and to lust. The third is a high moral standard, no friendship is to be sought with an evil-doer, who persists in deadly sin. The fourth is freedom from greed, for the company of one who desires this world's goods is deadly poison, and the fifth is sincerity, for the man who cannot be trusted is " like a mirage which makes what is distant seem near to you, and what is near to seem far away." Friends are of three types, he observes, the one with whom you have fellowship in religion, the one whose company you seek in worldly affairs, and the one whose company you avoid as evil and a temptation. The first is like food, which is indispensable to life, the second is

1 Sura II, 36.

2 1hya, II, PP. 6, 138 ff.

J. t:


like medicine, necessary at one time, but not at another, and the

third like disease, for which there is no need at all. 1

People on the whole, al-Ghazali adds, are like trees and plants,

some of which give shade but bear no fruit, for example, the

friend who is a help to you for this life, but not for the next

what is of benefit in this life is like the shade which quickly

passes away. Some trees bear fruit, but give no shade, like a

friend who gives you help in regard to the world to come, but not

in the affairs of this world, and there are some plants which give

neither fruit nor shade, such as the mimosa (Egyptian thorn),

Which tears the clothes and produces neither food nor drink." 2

al-Ghazali had a high ideal of the duties involved in friendship, which in his view included silence .and speech, each in its due time. Friendship, he held, must be based on fidelity and single-minded sincerity, -and fidelity meant not' only continual regard for a friend until his death, but also,,after his death, for his children and his friends. He quotes his master al-Shafi'r who wrote of his friendship with M, b. 'Abd al-Hakim :

My friend fell sick and I visited him,

Then I fell sick from my anxiety for him.

And my friend then came to visit me

And I was cured by looking upon him."s

While commending the custom of visiting the shrines of the saints,

to seek a blessing, he expresses the view that, in general, visiting

the living is more meritorious than visiting the dead.

From contact with others is learnt courtesy and understanding and the meaning of the good life in relation to God and one's fellows, an experience which cannot be realised in solitude. Unsociability may be a form of pride : al-Ghazali tells the story

V of an Israelite who wrote three hundred and sixty books on different types of knowledge (hikma) and supposed that'he had won the Divine approval for his work, but he received.a prophetic message, saying : " Thou hast filled the earth with hypocrisy, I will have none of it." So the Israelite retired into an under­ground cave and thought that by so doing he.had secured what he sought, but there came another message to say that he could

Bidr+yatal-H152ya, PP. 41. 42. Tyd, 11, pp. 150, 151. Ibid., p. 165.



not expect the Divine approval unless he mixed with men and endured tribulation from them. So he went forth into the markets and mixed with men and sat with them and fed them and ate with them and walked with them, and then at last came the message : "Now hast thou attained to My good pleasure." 1

We should judge that al-Ghazali was generous and hospitable, from the accounts given of his large household, and from his own expression of deep admiration for these qualities. He quotes the words of the Prophet : " Generosity brings us near to God and to man and to Paradise," and again : " Generosity is one of the trees of Paradise, the branches of which hang down to the earth and he who takes hold of one of its branches can climb thereby up to Paradise." He quotes also the saying of lbn Sammak : z " I marvel at one who buys slaves (i.e., for the pur­pose of manumission), with his wealth, and does not buy free men with his kindness." He also quotes the lines

" You belong to wealth if you retain it,

But when you spend it, wealth belongs to you."

He tells with approval a story, comparable to that of the Widow's Mite, related by Abu'l-Hasan, of how al-Hasan and al-Husayn, the Prophet's grandsons, and 'Abdallah. b. Ja'far$ went on pilgrimage, and, having lost their baggage, suffered from hunger and thirst. They came upon an old woman, in a tent of camel's hair, and asked her for something to drink. She had one ewe lying under the lower flaps of the tent and she bade them milk it and mix water with the milk. They asked them if she had anything to eat. She replied : " Nothing except this ewe. Let one of you slaughter her and I will prepare you something to eat." Then one of them killed the ewe and skinned it and the old woman prepared food for them and they ate and rose up to depart. When they set off, they told her that they were people of the Quraysh and if they returned in safety, she should come to them and they would deal kindly with her.

They went their way, and when her husband returned and she told him what had happened, he was angry and exclaimed

1 I4yd, II, p. 213,

3 Ob. 1831799.80. Cf. Ibn Khallikan, III, pp. 18 ff. Ob. 80)699-700. Cf. Ibn Khailikan, III, p. 627.


" Woe be unto you, you have killed my ewe for strangers whom

you assert to belong to the Quraysh." Shortly afterwards
destitution forced, them to go intb the city, where the man was
reduced to collecting dung and selling it, so that they might live
on the proceeds. One day, as the old woman was passing
throughh one of the streets of the city, Hasan, sitting at the door
of his house, recognised her, though she did not know him, and
he sent his servant to bring her to him, when he said : " I was
your guest on such and such a day." Then she rejoined : " You
are my father, and my mother." He then gave orders that one
thousand ewes should be brought for her from the sheep of the
tithe,' and that she should also be given one thousand dinars,
and he sent her with her servant to Husayn. The latter asked
her what his brother had given her and when she told him,
Husayn commanded that she should be given a similar amount
from himself and then sent her with his servant to 'Abdallah b.
Ja'far, who asked her how much Hasan and Ijusayn had given
her. She said : " Two thousand ewes and two thousand dinars,"
and 'Abdallah gave orders that she should be given another
two thousand ewes and two thousand dinars, and observed to
her : "If you had begun with me, I would have wearied them
both (i.e., in.,equalling my gift)." So the old woman returned
to her husband with four thousand ewes and four thousand
dinars. 2
Having travelled widely himself, al-Ghazali has much to say
of the advantages of travel, especially on the human side.
Perhaps there is a personal reminiscence of early fears, in his statement that " a certain one" who was conscious of cowardice and faintheartedness within himself, and desired to make himself courageous, used to sail on " the sea " (possibly the Tigris, since most great rivers in the East are called" the sea " by those who live near them, up to the present day), in winter, when the waves were disturbed. 3 Travel may be of great advantage, he thinks, to those who are mature enough to reap the benefit, but not for the young, as it is likely to make them idle and

2 ' The Za/at or alms-tithe levied in kind on the Muslim's possessions, eluding animals, and devoted to charitable gifts. Ihya, III, p. zt6.

Ihya, III, P. 54.


disinclined to settle down to work. For those who are fitted for it, travel means an increase in knowledge. " Flowing water is good, but stagnant water loses its goodness." The traveller who visits other places, sees their scenery, mountains and deserts and oceans, and all kinds of animals and plants, and these remind him that their Maker is One. He also meets with other men, the learned and the saints, and this is profitable and may induce the traveller to imitate them. Travel, too, serves as a convenient means, as -it had done for al-Ghazali himself, of escaping from disturbances to religion, e.g., position and authority and other hindrances : it enables the heart to be at leisure from itself. But al-Ghazali's fondness for company is suggested by his recommendation not to travel alone, but to choose a good com­panion, " First the companion, then the road." r

al-Ghazali advocated tolerance and charity towards others and we have the evidence of his friends that he practised these virtues in his mature years. He expressed his disapproval of slander not only because it might cause pain if overheard, but because it was finding fault with God's handiwork, for God created mankind and their qualities and their actions and their characters and these therefore ought not to be blamed.' al-Ghazali also commends the advice to speak no harsh word to others without a kind word to follow it. The only way to get rid of envy is to look upon all men, whether in a good or an evil state, as being the same fellow human beings, and this state of mind will not come about so long as any attention is paid to this world's goods. A man must needs " become absorbed' in the love of God Most High, like one intoxicated and beside

himself, so that his heart at last pays no attention to the different

states of men, but he regards all with one eye and that is the eye

of compassion, whereby he sees all to be the servants of God

and their actions to be the actions of God and all under His

control, but this state occurs but briefly, it does not last." 3

To show the lengths to which he felt that charity and kindness

I Ihya, 11, pp. z2S ff. Cf. the saying of Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya of Basra, quoted by al-Ghazali himself, " First the neighbour, then the house." 11iya, IV,

p. 269.

Cf. Acts, X, 25. "what God bath cleansed, make not thou common."

Ihya, III, p. 273.



to others should be carried, he tells a Franciscan story of how
'Abdallah b. 'Umarl did not hesitate to eat with those suffering
from elephantiasis, and how he gathered the lepers and the
afflicted and made them sit at his table.2
al-Ghazali carried his spirit of tolerance to notable lengths
when asked whether it was not legal to curse the Caliph Yazid
b. Mu'awiya, who was generally regarded as responsible for the
death of the Prophet's grandson Husayn at the battle of Karbala
(6r /68o), 3 and his name held in execration by most Muslims.
But al-Ghazali replied that it was absolutely forbidden to curse
a Muslim and he who did so was himself accursed. " How
should be be allowable to curse a Muslim," he asks, " when it is
not permitted to curse the beasts of the field, and we have been
prohibited from doing sd ? . . . Now, it is certain that Yazid
was a Muslim, but it is not certain that he slew IIusayn or
that he ordered or consented to, his death, and as long as these
circumstances remain uncertain, it is not allowable to believe
that he acted so. Besides, it is forbidden to think ill of a Muslim.,
since God has said : " Be not ready to entertain suspicions of
another, for it may be that these suspicions are a sin." 4 The
Prophet has declared that the blood, the wealth and the reputa­
tion of the Muslim are sacred and of him no ill should be thought.
Moreover, if any person asseit that Yazid ordered Husayn's death or consented to it, he gives thereby a proof of his extreme folly, for were he to endeavour to discover the true circumstances of the death of such great men, viziers and sultans, as perished in his time he would not succeed not even if the murder were perpetrated in his neighbourhood and his presence. And how can he know the truth (of Yazid's conduct), now that four hundred years have elapsed, and that crime was committed in a place far remote ? . . . the true circumstances of it cannot therefore be known and such being the case, it is incumbent on us to think well of every Muslim who can possibly deserve it.... Suppose that there be positive proof of one Muslim having
' Ob. 931692.3, one of the most eminent of the Companions, who devoted himself to the religious life.

' 14ya, III, p. 306.

Cf. R. A. Nicholson, Literary History of the Arabs, pp. 196 ff., Ya2Id himself was not resent at the battle.

r4 S~ira, XLIX, i


murdered another; -the judgment of those whose authority is to be accepted is that the murderer may not be cursed, because the act itself is not an act of infidelity, but of disobedience to God. It may also happen that the murderer repents, before he dies. If an infidel be converted from his infidelity, it is not allowable to curse him how much the less, then, is it allowable to curse him who repents of having committed murder ? Besides, how can it be known that the murderer of Husayn died unrepen­tant ? " And he accepteth the repentance of his servants." 1 Wherefore, inasmttch as it is not lawful to curse a Muslim after his death4 he who curses him is a reprobate and disobedient to God.... 'Accursed are those who are alienated from God Almighty,' but who those may be is a mystery, except in the case of such persons as die infidels.... As for the invocation of the Divine mercy on Yazid, it is allowable, nay acceptable . . . in fact, it is included in those words which we titter in every prayer,

• 0 God, pardon the men and women who believe,' for Yazid was a believer. God knows if my opinion be right." 2

It was at least the opinion of one who would be neither unjust nor intolerant in his judgment of others, who had the moral courage to express a conviction which was likely to incur the criticism and hostility of others. 3 al-Ghazali was tolerant even of the religious views of those who were not of his faith and urged that a Christian's teaching should be tolerated except where it conflicted directly with the tenets of Islam.'

With this charity towards other men was associated a sense of humility and of his own unworthiness which, in his more mature years, replaced the intolerant pride of his youth. al-Ghazali held that for any man to regard anotherr as worse than himself was really pride and he tells a story of the humility of the Caliph 'Umar b. 'Ahd al-'Aziz, s to whom a visitor came one night when he was writing and the lamp had almost gone out. So the guest asked if 'he might replerish it. The Caliph replied

• It is no honour to a man to let his guest do a servant's work."

1 Sara IX, 105.

• Ibn KhallikIn, Biig. Dict., II,'pp. 23o ff.

• Cf. Khwinsdrf, Raw4dt aI Jpnat, p: 182,

at-Mungidh, p. 13. .

• Reigned A.D. 717-720, a just ruler who was both philosopher and saint,


The guest asked then if he should rouse the servant-boy, who was sleeping, but the Caliph would not allow it, saying that the boy was enjoying his first sleep. Then he himself rose and fetched the leather bottle and filled the lamp with oil. His visitor said : " Was it for you to rise and do it for yourself, 0 Commander of the Faithful ? " The Caliph replied : " I was 'Umar when I went and 'Umar when I returned. I have lost nothing. The best of men is he who humbles himself in the sight of God."'

al-Ghazali relates another story in praise of modesty, a quality conspicuous in himself in his later years, of how the preacher

Ibn al-Sammak entered the presence of Hariin al-I2ashid 2 and

said to him : " 0 Commander of the Faithful, your humility in regard to your high rank is more honourable to you than your rank." Haran replied : " That is well said." The preacher continued : " 0 Commander of the Faithful, if God creates

a man with goad looks and of high li

,neage and wealthy and that

wealth an is modest in regard to his appearance and munificent with

hism and humble in regard to his lineage, then he is written

down in the Divine record among the purest of God's saints."

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