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

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either horse or dog is more of an expert, and to be esteemed more

highly than the hunter using the dog and horse, because he is

safe from the danger of his horse bolting with him, and he cannot

be attacked and bitten by his dog, but this view al-Ghazali

considers mistaken, for he who hunts with horse and dog, if he

is strong and has them well-trained and under control, is a hunter

of a higher class than the other and will get more enjoyment

out of his hunting. 1

al-Ghazali compares this world to a snake, smooth to the

touch and attractive in appearance, but possessed of deadly poison, and he advises men to beware of what they admire in it, because its allurements cloak the power to do men deadly harm. 2 Again he compares self-centred action and absorption in the desires of the self with the action of the silk-worm " which spins continually and comes to a grievous end in the midst of what it spins." So, also, man can destroy himself by a life centred in himself, and if he will take warning from the self-destruction of the silk-worm, he will utterly reject the life of self-indulgence, and save his soul alive. 8

al-Ghazali frequently uses images derived from his knowledge and love of plants and his experience of a garden and its needs. He compares the man who imagines that human knowledge will suffice him apart from Divine revelation, to one whose father built him a castle on a mountain-top and placed within it a certain growing herb, with aromatic properties, and impressed upon his son that the castle must never lack this herb for a single hour. The son planted all kinds of sweet herbs around the castle and sought far and wide for cuttings of aloes-wood and saffron and musk and many sweet-smelling trees, so that the scent of the original herb was quite overpowered and he said within himself: "Doubtless my father bade me preserve this herb simply for its fragrance and now with all these scents, we have no need of it and it serves no purpose now except to take up space," so he threw it away. When he had done so

I Ih''d, IV, p, 37. 1 ILyd, IV, p. 208. s AP!, III, p. 187.


from a certain hole there appeared a poisonous snake, which bit him and brought him to the point of death. Then he realised, when it was too late, that.the herb had been expressly intended to keep away this deadly snake and that his father, in bidding him preserve the herb had two purposes in view, firstly, that his son should benefit by- its fragrance, a purpose which the son had realised by means of his reason, and secondly, that the deadly snake should be kept away by its scent, and this purpose the son, by his unaided reason, had failed to realise, because he supposed there was nothing beyond what he knew. So al-Ghazali draws the moral that human knowledge and reason are not enough for men, they need the guidance of the prophets, to whom is revealed the mystery of God. 1

He uses the nut to illustrate the different classes of believers. The first, he says, is like the outer husk of the nut, the second like the inner rind, the third like the kernel, and the fourth like the oil which is extracted from the kernel. just as the outer shell of the nut is not fit to eat, but is bitter to the taste, and when used as fuel, extinguishes the fire and makes it smoke, and if left about in the house, clutters up the place, and it is therefore thrown away, so also the confession of faith with the tongue only, apart from the heart's conviction, is profitless, harmful, blameworthy, both outwardly and inwardly, though useful for a time, to preserve the inner rind until death comes. For the inner rind represents the heart and the body, and the confession of the faith, even by the hypocrite, preserves his body from hostile swords, for they are not bidden to pierce men's hearts, the sword reaches only the flesh, which is the outward husk, and when this is stripped from him in death, there remains no advantage afterwards in his confession of faith (which was only with the lips). The inner rind serves to preserve the kernel and to keep it from corruption, while it is stored, and when it has been removed, it may be used as fuel, but is of little value in comparison with the kernel, so also the heart's conviction, accepted on the authority of others, is of greater profit than mere con­fession by the lips, but is of much less value than the belief produced by personal experience of the grace of God. Though

I Subki, Tab., IV, p. 137.




the kernel is precious in itself, as compared with the inner rind,

and as a whole is desirable, it is not free from a certain admixture

of impurity, in comparison with the oil which is extracted from

it, and so also the believer, who through his own experience

sees God to be the Only Agent, has attained a high rank, yet he .

may not be free from some acceptance of " otherness " as com­

pared with the mystic who does not regard God in relation to His

works at all, but sees Him alone and nought else.'

Of the stations attained by the traveller on the mystic Patti,

al-Ghazali says that they consist of knowledge, feeling and action (in accordance with knowledge and feeling), 2 and the knowledge is like a tree, the feeling like the branches and action like the fruit, and this is universally true in regard to the stations of those who are seeking God. 2 Referring to the capacity for attaining to perfection, which God has implanted inhih

man, wc may akesbe

brought from potentiality to actuality, if man chooses the

conditions which make for its development, al-Ghazali t

for illustration the date-stone which, he observes, is neither an

apple-tree nor a date-palm, but has been created such that it

may become a date-palm, if it is properly cultivated-it could

never become an apple-tree, even with cultivation-but the

date-stone is affected by the choice which gives it the conditions

necessary for growth, or fails to do so. So, too, we can choose

to develop our character and our religious life, by self-discipline

and effort, which lead us to salvation and the life with God,

Who gave us the capacity to ascend, if we but choose to do so.+ In stating his conviction that it is essential for the novice on the road to God to have a spiritual director as guide and tutor to help him and train him in getting rid of the vices which hinder his progress, and in acquiring those virtues, by the help of which he can go forward, al-Ghazali compares such a director with the ploughman who harrows the soil, in order to remove the thorns and weeds from the crop, so that its growth may be

stimulated and it shall thrive more perfectly. s

al-Ghazali also compares the different capacities of men for the attainment of knowledge, with the different means of

= Cfyp• IV, below. Cf. p. z67 below. 3 Ihya, IV, P. 55. 5 Ayyuha'l-walad, p. 38 Ihy6, I11, p. q8.


obtaining a water-supply. If wells have to be dug there must be effort involved, but as there is water which flows without any work on the part of men, and some which is hidden beneath the earth, which requires perseverance in digging in order to discover it, and some which needs toil, but very little of it, so it is also with the attainment of knowledge within the human soul. Some comes forth from potentiality to actuality without human study, and this is the case with the prophets, for their knowledge is received from heavenly sources apart from human means, and for some, prolonged effort is needed, which is the case with most men, and for others, comparatively little.'

Again al-Ghazali compares the heart to a reservoir, into which flow waters which are offensive, turbid, impure, from the rivers of the senses, and the purpose of self-discipline is to free the reservoir from such waters and from the mud which defiles it, and also to prevent the water which is clean and pure from being affected by defilement. How, asks al-Ghazali, can such water be drained away from the reservoir, while the rivers are free to flow into it, for at every moment the supply is renewed to a greater extent than it is removed ? Therefore the senses must be controlled and limited to what serves a necessary purpose, as waters which flow into a reservoir must be con­trolled and purified, and self-control, he adds, is made perfect only in solitude and freedom from distraction, in which state the seeker hears the call of God and contemplates the glory of the Divine Majesty. 2

al-Ghazali illustrates the difference between spiritual and material values by a reference to the merchant in precious stones. To the ignorant it seems that to give one hundred dinlars for a gem which weighs but a mithgal (one and one­seventh of a dram), is to give ten times the like of it, since the money weighs ten times as much as the gem, but the jeweller knows better. The worth of a jewel is not perceived simply by looking at it, but by the knowledge of the expert. The boy and the villager and the Bedouin deny its value, saying: " This jewel is nothing but a stone, it weighs but a mithgdl and the

All-an al-`Ainal, p. tog. Cf. al•Risalat at-Laduniyya, pp. 46 ff. 1 hva, III. p. 66.


weight of a camel is a thousand thousand rni qa s." To

it seems that the camel must therefore exceed the jewel in value to that extent, but it is they who are wron

values cannot be measured in terms of material o, tooalents.t, al Comparing the eternal happiness of the next life

passing pleasures of this world, al-Ghazali says ; " with the

we were given a world full of pearls, and eve Indeed, if

a bird were to snatch away g every hundred years

pearls would vanish, but no part of eternal f happiness ' will shell ever

pear e diminish or pass away." 2 He observes elsewhere

in which the pearl is enclosed ought not to distract you from the

l itself, nor the outward form of the spirit i.e, which it inhabits) from the spirit, nor the outer huskowhich

surrounds it, from the kernel, so that you are led away by the

things which are seen and temporal from the things which are

not seen and are eternal. You should therefore be concerned

with one thing only, and busy your heart with God alone : the

Adversary will then have no power against you and you will become one of God's chosen servants." 3

al-Ghazali often has recourse to the common things of life to provide him with illustrations. To make clear the difference between Self-subsistent Being

does not subsist of itself), and Not-Being (i.e., that which

does u in the ghe says that when the dust of the earth itself e the in the of i y the wind and proudly twists about suppose that the dust itself is v~hirl ~yoandl°0k~ng upon it would

tt is the wind which is moving it, but while he cannot see the wind,

g but it is not so,

he can see the dust. The dust is not a Being, Not-Being but the wind is. The dust in its movement is simply

helpless, under the power of the wind, and all power rests with

the wind, though that power is not evident.

So likewise is

the creature under the power of the Creator : it seems to act

by its own volition, but in reality all is due to the Will of the

Creator, though that Will is invisible. 4 to beware of despising the little things whIn warniyi~, h readers

ich combines to make

up both what is good and what is evil,. al-Ghazali urges them

' Ihya, IV, p. 25

' :lliz¢n al-'rlntat, p. 3, IV, p. 66•

1dm+, Nafahrit al-Uns, P• 426.


not to be like the woman who was too lazy to spin and excused herself by saying that she could manage to spin but one thread in an hour and asked : " What good is attained by a single thread and what contribution will that make to a garment ? " not realising that the clothes worn in this life combine thread with thread, as the material substances of the world combine particle with particle, and so make up the whole. So also the little deeds of goodness are by no means lost in the sight of God. i
That it is impossible to serve God and Mammon al-Ghazali seeks to prove by the example of the vessel, from which, as the water enters, the air passes out : it cannot contain them both. So too, the heart cannot contain both the love of this world and the love of God, and he who lives in fellowship with God is pre­occupied with Him and can be concerned with nothing else. He uses much the same image to prove that, as Nature abhors a vacuum and you cannot therefore empty the vessel of air without replacing it with water or something else, otherwise it will be filled with air, as a matter of course, so too, the heart which is occupied in serious reflection on religion is free from the suggestions of Satan. On the other hand, to be heedless, even for an instant, of the claims of God Most High, means that in that very instant, Satan enters in. 3 He also observes that nothing can leak from a vessel except what is in it, and so also the heart gives forth only of that which has taken possession of it, whether good or evil. 4
al-Ghazali notes that the darkness of sin cannot exist along with the light of good deeds, just as the darkness of the night cannot co-exist with the light of day, any more than the defile­ment caused by dirt can co-exist with the cleanliness produced by soap. "Just as the use of clothes for manual work soils them, and washing them in soap and hot water cleanses them, so also the concern of the heart with sensual lusts defiles it, and ,vashing it with tears and burning it with contrition cleanses and purifies it. The heart which 'is thus purified is acceptable unto God and it is for you to cleanse and purify it. The heart of man
Iltva, I\', P. 43. a flit-it, IV, p. 65.

Ihh'd., p. 2O) ' 1), I'd, II, P. 237• ' Iktid, IV, p. ii.


al-Ghazali compares to a glass vessel, and evil qualities are

like smoke and darkness : if these affect the heart, the way to

happiness is darkened, but good qualities are like light and

flame, and when these take possession of the heart, it is purified

from the darkness of sin : the heart is either enlightened or

darkened, and none can hope for salvation save him who ap­

proaches God with a pure heart.'

In reference to the seeker who is sure of the way to God and

follows it of his own accord, al-Ghazali says that if God gives

illumination on the way to such a seeker, he does not become

more certain of it, but he sees it more clearly, just as one who

sees a man at dawn, when the sun has risen, is not more certain

that it is a man, but sees more clearly the details of his form .2

The Reason he compares to a lamp and the Canon Law to the

oil which supplies it : so long as there is no oil, the lamp is useless and if there is no lamp, the oil cannot serve its purpose. There is a reference to this in the verse : " God is the Light of the Ifeavens and the earth," for the Canon Law is Reason from without and the Reason is a Canon Law from within. s

al-Ghazali draws a striking picture of the degree to which men vary in respect of gnosis and faith, upon which theit eternal happiness depends, for only by means of the light of knowledge do men pass hereafter into the Presence of God, which is the true meaning of Paradise. Some give forth light like a moun­tain and some much less, and in the lowest rank is the man who has only light enough for the toe of his foot, a light which shiries at one time so that he can go forward and at another is extinguished and he stands still. The passage of the faithful over Sirdt-the bridge, sharper than the edge of a sword and finer than a hair, which is suspended over the flames of Hell, over which they must pass to Paradise,-depends upon the light they possess. Some pass like the twinkling of an eye, some like a flash of lightning and others like quicksilver or a shooting star, Some pass like a race-horse at full speed, but he who has light enough only for his great-toe crawls along, face downwards, on his hands and feet, dragging one hand and

' )Cfriya al-Sa'ada, p. 13.

_ lhya, IV, p. 218,

' illa'arij al-Q, ds, p, Go. Sura XXIV, 35.


holding on by the other, with the flames touching his sides, and so makes his way until he is safely across. As the light of the sun, if measured against the light of all the candles in existence, would surpass them, so also the light of some men is like the sun's light, far surpassing the candle-light possessed by the common folk. The faith of the righteous is a light like that of the moon and the stars, but the faith of the Prophets is like the sunlight. Just as the surface of the world, from one -_--horizon to the other, is revealed in the light of the sun, while l

t ie light of a candle reveals but the kno

corner of the wledge which expands the


there is a distinction between

breast (of the ordinary believer) and the revelation of the full , extent of the Kingdom to the heart 'of the gnostic. . . . Oil the Day of Resurrection those Whose rhearts contain less, weight I of a grain of faith, or half a grain, q brought forth from the flames of Purgatory, but those whose faith exceeds the weight of a grain will not enter the flames at all.'

In reference to other worldliness, al-Ghazali quotes the words of

Yahya b. Mu'adh' who said : " The ascetic for the sake of God,

makes you sniff vinegar and mustard, but the gnostic makes

you inhale musk and ambergris." The same mystic is quoted

as saying : " This world is like a bride.and the worldling who

seeks her is her tire-woman-the ascetic blackens her face and

pulls out her hair and tears her garments, but the gnostic is so pre­

occupied with God that he does not even turn towards her"


Another simile of which al-Ghazali makes use in reference to

this world is one derived f turn the Prophet, who said : ` It is

as if a rider, journeying on a hot day and seeing a tree, were

to take an hour's rest beneath its shade : then he goes on his

way, leaving it behind." He who regards the world in this

light, says al-Ghazali, does not rely upon it or mind whether

his days therein are spent in distress and hardship or in dace

and luxury. He does not build brick upon brick (i.e.,

not make a permanent abode for himself there). He repeats

also a tradition do t not makes your abode there," and adds pass

over it, but = b x258/8 1, a mystic of Nishapiu. 2 Ihpa, IV, P. 28.


this is a clear simile, for thee life of this world is -a passage to the

next and the cradle is the first milestone and the tomb the last,

and between the two is a journey, the length of which is limited;

men include those who have crossed half the bridge and some

who have crossed a third and some two-thirds, and some for

whom there remains but a step more. In any case, it must

be crossed, and to build upon the bridge and adorn it, in the

course of crossing it, is the height of folly al-Ghazali uses another

simile taken from words ascribed to Jesus : " He who seeks

this world is like one who drinks salt water, the more he drinks

the more his thirst increases until it kills him." He gives

another illustration of the worldling's folly, taken from the

Prophet, who said : " The worldling is like one who walks on water, and how can anyone walk on water and his feet not give way ? " r

Again al-Ghazali compares this world to a halting-stage or market-place through which pilgrims pass on their way to the next. While in this world, it is a man's business to secure provisions for the way, that is to, say, by the use of his bodily faculties, to secure some knowledge of the works of God, and, through them, of God Himself, in the vision of. Whom he will find his bliss in the world to come. s

Dealing with the " lust of the eyes " al-Ghazali quotes from a saving of Fudayl 3 that Satan says : " It is mine ancient bow and mine arrow which goes not astray," al-Ghazali is reminded that the -Prophet had also said : " The glance of the eye is one of Satan's poisoned arrows, which he shoots with unerring aim and no shield can ward it off save the shutting of the eyes and fleeing from the direction of its course, for this arrow is shot only from the bow of outward forms and if you turn aside from the (temptation) of those forms, Satan's arrow cannot reach you.


Writing of the one who possesses knowledge and acts in accordance with his knowledge, al-Ghazali says that he shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven, and compares him


Y4, III, pp. 187, 188.

• 1hya, 111, p. 182.

• Ihn 'lyid (ob. 187,6o2) one of the best-4nocn of the early Sufis. ' 11sYir, III, p. 37, IV, p. 66.

AL-GHAZALI'S LIFE AND PERSONALITY 79 with the sun which is both radiant in itself and gives of its radi­ance to others, and like themusk hiehwhot knows ands doe

diffuses its fragrance abroad. not act accordingly i sessing the knowledge, and` the whetstone.

others, while itself pos

which sharpens others and has no cutting-edge elitself naked w and

and the needle which clothes others,

the wick of the lamp which gives light but is itself burnt away,

as someone said

It is only a wick which was lighted,

It gave light to men and was itself consumed." 2 "Though

In this connection al-Ghazali writes in one of his books: would of you were to measure out othousand did notadrinkithereof. Therefore


become intoxicated, if y

know that it does not profit ~k o s to o~g4asr youudo not ac knowledge

and nd to accumulate many accordance with what they teach." 3

He compares the heart heard man to a sheet and believed s since paper is childhood. is imprinted all that he has

Some may have come to fmh~ maturity Qhea beliefs

and nd these are receptive

not so deeply impressed that is so deep that they are like paper the but in some the impression

imprint on which cannot be lags destroyed hand, thinking by g of the heart' paper and burning it. O

susceptibility to temptation turns roundions its nest every hour, pares it to the bird

to the pot when it is boiling hard, and its h of the continually blows

disturbed and to a feather on waste land, it over and over. a

Some of his illustrations instance, disastrous effectcof recall his by land and by prominent position he

wrong-doing on the part of those in a p

writes : " The sin of a learned man is like the wreck of a ship

1 Cf. p. 3o below•

• Il'y I, p 44 Cf. &Iizan af-'Ama1,6p. 129.

• Khulasat ul-tasanif p'1-Tafaw'W~+f' p'

k1izan at-'Am al, p. 163.

• Ihva, 111, p. 40


which sinks together with those on board her." 1 Another simile

derived from his experience as a traveller is used in reference

to the virtue of patience, which, he considers, is to faith what

the head is to the body : " There is no body without a head,

nor does anyone possess faith without patience. The two

half-loads (borne on each side of the camel) and the small package

(which is placed on top) are bestowed upon the patient, the two

side-loads being Prayer and Compassion, and the small package

Guidance." I

In urging his readers to tolerance of those whose beliefs may

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