Skip navigation

The Alchemy of Happiness – CHAPTER I -THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE SELF – By the great Sufi Saint and Scholar of Islam by Hujjatu-l-Islam Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, rahimah-Ullah




It is a well-known

saying of the Prophet that “He who knows himself, knows his Lord”; that is, by

contemplation of his own being and attributes man arrives at some knowledge of

Allah. But since many who contemplate themselves do not find Allah, it follows

that there must be some special way of doing so. As a matter of fact, there are

two methods of arriving at this knowledge, but one is so abstruse that it is not

adapted to ordinary intelligences, and therefore is better left unexplained. The

other method is as follows: When a man considers himself he knows that there was

a time when he was non-existent, as it is written in the Qur’an: “Does it not

occur to man that there was a time when he was nothing?” Further, he knows that

he was made out of a drop of water in which there was neither intellect, nor

hearing, sight, head, hands, feet, etc. From this it is obvious that, whatever

degree of perfection he may have arrived at, he did not make himself, nor can he

now make a single hair.

How much more helpless, then, was his condition when he was a mere drop of

water! Thus, as we have seen in the first chapter, he finds in his own being

reflected in miniature, so to speak, the power, wisdom, and love of the Creator.

If all the sages of the world were assembled, and their lives prolonged for an

indefinite time, they could not effect any improvement in the construction of a

single part of the body.

For instance, in the adaptation of the front and side-teeth to the mastication

of food, and in the construction of the tongue, salivating glands, and throat

for its deglutition, we find a contrivance which cannot be improved upon.

Similarly, whoever considers his hand, with its five fingers of unequal lengths,

four of them with three joints and the thumb with only two, and the way in which

it can be used for grasping, or for carrying, or for smitting, will frankly

acknowledge that no amount of human wisdom could better it by altering the

number and arrangement of the fingers, or in any other way.

When a man further considers how his various wants of food, lodging, etc., are

amply supplied from the storehouse of creation, he becomes aware that Allah’s

mercy is as great as His power and wisdom, as He has Himself said, “My mercy is

greater than My wrath,” and according to the Prophet’s saying, “Allah is more

tender to His servants than a mother to her suckling-child.” Thus from his own

creation man comes to know Allah’s existence, from the wonders of his bodily

frame Allah’s power and wisdom, and from the ample provision made for his

various needs Allah’s love. In this way the knowledge of oneself becomes a key

to the knowledge of Allah.

Not only are man’s attributes a reflection of Allah’s attributes, but the mode

of existence of man’s soul affords some insight into Allah’s mode of existence.

That is to say, both Allah and the soul are invisible, indivisible, unconfined

by space and time, and outside the categories of quantity and quality; nor can

the ideas of shape, colour, or size attach to them. People find it hard to form

a conception of such realities as are devoid of quality and quantity, etc., but

a similar difficulty attaches to the conception of our everyday feelings, such

as anger, pain, pleasure, or love. They are thought-concepts, and cannot be

cognised by the senses; whereas quality, quantity, etc., are sense-concepts.

Just as the ear cannot take cognisance of colour, nor the eye of sound, so, in

conceiving of the ultimate realities, Allah and the soul, we find ourselves in a

region in which sense-concepts can bear no part. So much, however, we can see,

that, as Allah is Ruler of the universe, and, being Himself beyond space and

time, quantity and quality, governs things that are so conditioned, so that soul

rules the body and its members, being itself invisible, indivisible, and

unlocated in any special part. For how can the indivisible be located in that

which is divisible? From all this we see how true is the saying of the Prophet,

“Allah created man in His own likeness.”

And, as we arrive at some knowledge of Allah’s essence and attributes from the

contemplation of the soul’s essence and attributes, so we come to understand

Allah’s method of working and government and delegation of power to angelic

forces, etc., by observing how each of us governs his own little kingdom. To

take a simple instance: suppose a man wishes to write the name of Allah. First

of all the wish is conceived in his heart, it is then conveyed to the brain by

the vital spirits, the form of the word “Allah” takes shape in the

thought-chambers of the brain, thence it travels by the nerve-channels, and sets

in motion the fingers, which in their turn set in motion the pen, and thus the

name “Allah” is traced on paper exactly as it had been conceived in the writer’s

brain. Similarly, when Allah wills a thing it appears in the spiritual plane,

which in the Qur’an is called “The Throne”; from the throne it passes, by a

spiritual current, to a lower plane called “The Chair”; then the shape of it

appears on the Tablet of Destiny”; whence, by the mediation of the forces called

“angels,” it assumes actuality, and appears in the earth in the form of plants,

trees, and animals, representing the will and thought of Allah, as the written

letters represent the wish conceived in the heart and the shape present in the

brain of the writer.

No one can understand a king but a king; therefore Allah has made each of us a

king in miniature, so to speak, over a kingdom which is an infinitely reduced

copy of His own. In the kingdom of man, Allah’s “throne” is represented by the

soul, the Archangel by the heart, “the chair” by the brain, “the tablet” by the

treasure-chamber of thought. The soul, itself unlocated and indivisible, governs

the body as Allah governs the universe. In, short, each of us is entrusted with

a little kingdom, and charged not to be careless in the administration of it.

As regards the recognition of Allah’s providence, there are many degrees of

Knowledge. The mere physicist is like an ant who, crawling on a sheet of paper

and observing black letters spreading over it, should refer the Cause to the pen

alone. The astronomer is like an ant of somewhat wider vision who should catch

sight of the fingers moving the pen, i.e., he knows that the elements are under

the power of the stars, but he does not know that the stars are under the power

of the angels. Thus, owing to the different degrees of perception in people,

disputes must arise in tracing effects to causes. Those whose eyes never see

beyond the world of phenomena are like those who mistake servants of the lowest

rank for the king. The laws of phenomena must be constant, or there could be no

such thing as science; but it is a great error to mistake the slaves for the


As long as this difference in the perceptive faculty of observers exists,

disputes must necessarily go on. It is as if some blind men, hearing that an

elephant had come to their town, should go and examine it. The only knowledge of

it which they can obtain comes through the sense of touch; so one handles the

animal’s leg, another his tusk, another his ear, and, according to their several

perceptions, pronounce it to be a column, a thick pole, or a quilt, each taking

a part for the whole. So the physicist and astronomer confound the laws they

perceive with the Lawgiver. A similar mistake is attributed to Abraham in the

Qur’an, where it is related that he turned successively to stars, moon, and sun

as the objects of his worship, till grown aware of Him who made all these, he

exclaimed, “I love not them that set.”

We have a common instance of this referring to second causes what ought to be

referred to the First Cause in the case of so-called illness. For instance, if a

man ceases to take any interest in worldly matters, conceives a distaste for

common pleasures, and appears sunk in depression, the doctor will say, “This is

a case of melancholy, and requires such and such a prescription.” The physicist

will say, “This is a dryness of the brain caused by hot weather and cannot be

relieved till the air becomes moist.” The astrologer will attribute it to some

particular conjunction or opposition of planets. “Thus far their wisdom reaches,”

says the Qur’an. It does not occur to them that what has really happened is this:

that the Almighty has a concern for the welfare of that man, and has therefore

commanded His servants, the planets or the elements, to produce such a condition

in him that he may turn away from the world to his Maker. The knowledge of this

fact is a lustrous pearl from the ocean of inspirational knowledge, to which all

other forms of knowledge are as islands in the sea.

The doctor, physicist, and astrologer are doubtless right each in his particular

branch of knowledge, but they do not see that illness is, so to speak, a cord of

love by which Allah draws to Himself the saints concerning whom He has said, “I

was sick and ye visited Me not.” Illness itself is one of those forms of

experience by which man arrives at the knowledge of Allah, as He says by the

mouth of His Prophet, “Sicknesses themselves are My servants, and are attached

to My chosen.”

The foregoing remarks may enable us to enter a little more fully into the

meaning of those exclamations so often on the lips of the Faithful: “Glory to

Allah,” “Praise be to Allah,” “There is no god but Allah,” “Allah is the

Greatest.” Concerning the last we may say that it does not mean that Allah is

greater than creation, for creation is His manifestation as light manifests the

sun, and it would not be correct to say that the sun is greater than its own

light. It rather means that Allah’s greatness immeasurably transcends our

cognitive faculties, and that we can only form a very dim and imperfect idea of

it. If a child asks us to explain to him the pleasure which exists in wielding

sovereignty, we may say it is like the pleasure he feels in playing bat and

ball, though in reality the two have nothing in common except that they both

come under the category of pleasure. Thus, the exclamation “Allah is great”

means that His greatness far exceeds all our powers of comprehension. Moreover,

such imperfect knowledge of Allah as we can attain to is not a mere speculative

knowledge, but must be accompanied by devotion and worship. When a man dies he

has to do with Allah alone, and if we have to live with a person, our happiness

entirely depends on the degree of affection we feel towards him. Love is the

seed of happiness, and love to Allah is fostered and developed by worship. Such

worship and constant remembrance of Allah implies a certain degree of austerity

and curbing of bodily appetites. Not that a man is intended altogether to

abolish these, for then the human race would perish. But strict limits must be

set to their indulgence, and as a man is not the best judge in his own case as

to what these limits should be, he had better consult some spiritual guide on

the subject. Such spiritual guides arc the prophets, and the laws which they

have laid down under divine inspiration prescribe the limits which must be

observed in these matters. He who transgresses these limits “wrongs his own soul,”

as it is written in the Qur’an.

Notwithstanding this clear pronouncement of the Qur’an there are those who,

through their ignorance of Allah, do transgress these limits, and this ignorance

may be due to several different causes: Firstly, there are some who, failing to

find Allah by observation, conclude that there is no Allah and that this world

of wonders made itself, or existed from everlasting. They are like a man who,

seeing a beautifully written letter, should suppose that it had written itself

without a writer, or had always existed. People in this state of mind are so far

gone in error that it is of little use to argue with them. Such are some of the

physicists and astronomers to whom we referred above.

Some, through ignorance of the real nature of the soul, repudiate the doctrine

of a future life, in which man will be called to account and be rewarded or

punished. They regard themselves as no better than animals or vegetables, and

equally perishable. Some, on the other hand, believe in Allah and a future life

but with a weak belief. They say to themselves, “Allah is great and independent

of us; our worship or abstinence from worship is a matter of entire indifference

to Him.” Their state of mind is like that of a sick man who, when prescribed a

certain regime by his doctor, should say, “Well, if I follow it or don’t follow

it, what does it matter to the doctor?” It certainly does not matter to the

doctor, but the patient may destroy himself by his disobedience. Just as surely

as unchecked sickness of body ends in bodily death, so does uncured disease of

the soul end in future misery, according to the saying of the Qur’an, “Only

those shall be saved who come to Allah with a sound heart.”

A fourth kind of unbelievers are those who say, “the Law tells us to abstain

from anger, lust, and hypocrisy. This is plainly impossible, for man is created

with these qualities inherent in him. You might as well tell us to make black

white.” These foolish people ignore the fact that the law does not tell us to

uproot these passions, but to restrain them within due limits, so that, by

avoiding the greater sins, we may obtain forgiveness of the smaller ones. Even

the Prophet of Allah said, “I am a man like you, and get angry like others”; and

in the Qur’an it is written. “Allah loves those who swallow down their anger,”

not those who have no anger at all.

A fifth class lay stress on the beneficence of Allah, and ignore His justice,

saying to themselves, “Well, whatever we do, Allah is merciful.” They do not

consider that, though Allah is merciful, thousands of human beings perish

miserably in hunger and disease. They know that whosoever wishes for a

livelihood, or for wealth, or learning, must not merely say, “Allah is merciful,”

but must exert himself. Although the Qur’an says, “Every living creature’s

support comes from Allah,” it is also written, “Man obtains nothing except by

striving.” The fact is, such teaching is really from the devil, and such people

only speak with their lips and not with their heart.

A sixth class claim to have reached such a degree of sanctity that sin cannot

affect them. Yet, if you treat one of them with disrespect, he will bear a

grudge against you for years, and if one of them be deprived of a morsel of food

which he thinks his due, the whole world will appear dark and narrow to him.

Even if any of them do really conquer their passions, they have no right to make

such a claim, for the prophets, the highest of human kind, constantly confessed

and bewailed their sins. Some of them had such a dread of sin that they even

abstained from lawful things; thus, it is related of the Prophet that, one day,

when a date had been brought to him he would not eat it, as he was not sure that

it had been lawfully obtained. Whereas these free-livers will swallow gallons of

wine and claim (I shudder as I write) to be superior to the Prophet whose

sanctity was endangered by a date, while theirs is unaffected by all that wine!

Surely they deserve that the devil should drag them down to perdition. Real

saints know that he who does not master his appetites does not deserve the name

of a man, and that the true Muslim is one who will cheerfully acknowledge the

limits imposed by the Law. He who endeavours, on whatever pretext, to ignore its

obligations is certainly under Satanic influence, and should be talked to, not

with a pen, but with a sword. These pseudo-mystics some-times pretend to be

drowned in a sea of wonder, but if you ask them what they are wondering at they

do not know. They should be told to wonder as much as they please, but at the

same time to remember that the Almighty is their Creator and that they are His



Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: