The Alchemy of Happiness
As a professor of Islamic jurisprudence in Baghdad 's Nizamiyyah College, Al-Ghazzali was considered one of the leading minds of his day. All his life he had aimed to know 'the deep reality of things', and his mental powers had led him to eminence. But at the very peak of his career he began to have doubts that his powers of reasoning had really led him to truth.
As he tells it in his autobiography, The Deliverance From Error, Ghazzali had a kind of spiritual crisis in which he was no longer sure of what he knew, and his thinking ran along the following lines: He observed that the evidence of one's senses could often be wrong, overtaken by some higher order of truth. Although, for instance, a star in the sky appears tiny, mathematics proves that the object is in fact much larger than the earth. Similarly, during a dream we could see and feel fantastic things, but on waking we realize they have no basis in reality. He wondered: might it not be the case then that the reasoning we use to structure and explain our day to day reality might also seem like an illusion seen from some higher state of wakefulness? Ghazzali remembered that Sufi mystics, for instance, claimed their higher states of consciousness made reasoning worthless.
In the midst of his dark night of the soul, Ghazzali had an experience that would change him forever. A blaze of light seemed to pierce through to his heart, and in an instant the 'well-ordered arguments' that had that had been his basis in reality thus far became insignificant next to his direct experience of divine truth. Yet this epiphany was clearly not enough to sustain him, and he began an exhaustive program of private reading and study to discover the school of philosophy, religion or mysticism that would best correspond to the truth he had been witness to. This study evolved into his monumental The Revival of the Religious Sciences, which progressively debunked every school of philosophical learning except for Sufism, which in his eyes provided the route to direct experience of God that Islam had lost sight of.
The intensity of the work left Ghazzali with a nervous breakdown and a speech problem that made him unable to continue giving lectures. Leaving behind his family and colleagues, he resigned his post and began over a decade as a wandering Sufi mystic in Syria, only to return to teaching many years later.
In time, Ghazzali's attempt to revive his religion was fully recognized, and he was given the peculiar title Hujjat-el-Islam, or 'The Proof of Islam'. What Aquinas became for medieval Christendom, so Ghazzali was to the Islam of the early Middle Ages, except that Ghazzali's ideas were also influential in Europe, where he was known as 'Algazel'.
Though a theological heavyweight, one of his wiser acts was to make an abridgement of The Revival of Religious Sciences that could reach a wider audience. The result was The Alchemy of Happiness (in Arabic Kimiya'-yi sa'adat). The first four chapters follow the hadiths, or sayings of Muhammad, in making a case for the impossibility of true happiness without a close relationship to God. Though now relatively obscure in the West, it has for nine centuries remained one of the great inspirational tracts of Islam.
Ghazzali begins the book by stating the four elements in the metamorphosis that turns an average person 'from an animal into an angel'. They include:
Knowledge of self
Ghazzali draws attention to the simple fact that until we know something about ourselves we cannot fulfill our potential.
The key to knowledge of the self is the heart - not the physical heart but the one given us by God, which 'has come into this world as a traveler visits a foreign country.and will presently return to its native land'. To lose our heart in the things and concerns of this world is to forget our real cosmic origins, whereas knowledge of the heart as given by God provides a true awareness of who we are as God created us.
When people allow their passions to take over, Ghazzali says, it is as if 'one who should hand over an angel to the power of a dog'. Whereas if a person restrains themselves from worldly excesses and thinks more about God, they begin to get very intuitive, to gain knowledge that would never come to them simply through the senses. Just as by polishing iron it can be made into a mirror, so a mind conditioned by discipline can eliminate its mental and spiritual rust and be shined up to truly reflect divine light.
Humans delight in using the faculties which we have been given, Ghazzali points out, such that anger delights in taking vengeance, the eye delights in seeing beauty, and the ear in hearing music. If, therefore, the highest faculty of human beings is the location of truth, then we must delight in its discovery. The lustful and the gluttonous think that they are getting the most enjoyment out of life by satisfying their appetites, but they cannot know the much greater delights that come with knowledge of the self and of God. Saints and mystics are ecstatic for a reason.
Knowledge of God
Ghazzali refers to a line in the Koran: "Does it not occur to man that there was a time when he was nothing?" Yet he notes that many refuse to look for the real cause that brought them into creation. He likens a physicist to an ant crawling across a piece of paper which, seeing letters being written on to it, believes they are the work of a pen alone. A person suffering from depression will be told a different cause for his ailment, depending on who he sees; the physician and the astrologer will find different causes. It does not occur to them that God may have given the man the illness for a reason, and caused the conditions that led to his dissatisfaction with the normal pleasures with life, in the hope that it would draw him closer to God. There is always a real cause behind the apparent ones, and that real cause is God's.
Many do not care for the idea that every person is called to account when they die, but Ghazzali says these people are like one who does not take their medicine because they believe the doctor does not care whether they do or not. The issue is not the worry of the doctor, but the fact that a person will self-destruct by their own disobedience. In the same way, God appreciates our worship, but if we do not worship often it does not mean that God will waste away, but that we will forget who we are, that is, spiritual beings who have been asked to take on a human life.
Though a hard core mystic who experienced spiritual mysteries first hand, Ghazzali's influence came from the fact that could make a case for the existence of God that employed reason alone. While he may have been called 'The Proof of Islam', his writing in fact builds a watertight case for the truth of any religion, and as a tool for the winning over of a doubter or lapsed believer, The Alchemy of Happiness is hard to beat.
There are other factors that make this 900 year-old book influential still: A title that carries a great promise; the book's basis in the authority of Muhammad's sayings in the Koran; and its short length, compared to the weighty tome it was abridged from. And as Claud Field noted in his classic 1909 translation (the one we use here), the power of Ghazzali's writing lay in his brilliance with the use of allegories that anyone could understand.
But the larger message of The Alchemy of Happiness, whether you are Muslim or not, is that genuine happiness comes from the knowledge that we are creations of God, and have therefore been made for a purpose. Peace comes from knowing that we are merely 'travellers in a foreign land', and will before long return to an eternal paradise.
Source: 50 Spiritual Classics: 50 Great Books of Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose, Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)
"Know, O beloved, that man was not created in jest or at random, but marvellously made and for some great end. Although he is not form everlasting, yet he lives for ever; and though his body is mean and earthly, yet his spirit is lofty and divine."
Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali was born in 1058 in Tus in what is now northern Iran. His appointment to Nizamiyyah College was made in 1091 by the vizier or chief minister of the Seljuq Sultans, and he stayed in the position until 1095. Ghazzali was a prolific writer, whose over fifty works include The Intentions of the Philosophers, a summary of the philosophy of Ibn Sina, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, a refutation of the classic influence upon Islamic philosophy, The Touchstone of Proof in Logic, The Just Balance and The Essentials of Islamic Legal Theory.
Ghazzali died in Tus 1111.
© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2023
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