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




This world is a

stage or market-place passed by pilgrims on their way to the next. It is here

that they are to provide themselves with provisions for the way; or, to put it

plainly, man acquires here, by the use of his bodily senses, some knowledge of

the works of Allah, and, through them, of Allah Himself, the sight of whom will

constitute his future beatitude. It is for the acquirement of this knowledge

that the spirit of man has descended into this world of water and clay. As long

as his senses remain with him he is said to be “in this world”; when they depart,

and only his essential attributes remain, he is said to have gone to “the next


While man is in this world, two things are necessary for him: first, the

protection and nurture of his soul; secondly, the care and nurture of his body.

The proper nourishment of the soul, as above shown, is the knowledge and love of

Allah, and to be absorbed in the love of anything but Allah is the ruin of the

soul. The body, so to speak, is simply the riding-animal of the soul and

perishes while the soul endures. The soul should take care of the body, just as

a pilgrim on his way to Mecca takes care of his camel; but if the pilgrim spends

his whole time in feeding and adorning his camel, the caravan will leave him

behind; and he will perish in the desert.

Man’s bodily needs are simple, being comprised under three heads: food, clothing,

and a dwelling- place; but the bodily desires which were implanted in him with a

view to procuring these are apt to rebel against reason, which is of later

growth than they. Accordingly, as we saw above, they require to be curbed and

restrained by the divine laws promulgated by the prophets.

Considering the world with which we have for a time to do, we find it divided

into three departments – animal, vegetable, and mineral. The products of all

three are continually needed by man and have given rise to three principal

occupations – those of the weaver, the builder, and the worker in metal. These,

again, have many subordinate branches, such as tailors, masons, smiths, etc.

None can be quite independent of others; this gives rise to various

business-connections and relations and those too frequently afford occasions,

for hatred, envy, jealousy, and other maladies of the soul. Hence come quarrels

and strife, and the need of political and civil government and knowledge of law.

Thus the occupations and businesses of the world have become more and more

complicated and troublesome, chiefly owing to the fact that men have forgotten

that their real necessities are only three – clothing, food, and shelter, and

that these exist only with the object of making the body a fit vehicle for the

soul in its journey towards the next world. They have fallen into the same

mistake as the pilgrim to Mecca, mentioned above, who, forgetting the object of

his pilgrimage and himself, should spend his whole time in feeding and adorning

his camel. Unless a man maintains the strictest watch he is certain to be

fascinated and entangled by the world, which, as the Prophet said, is “a more

potent sorcerer than Harut and Marut.”

The deceitful character of the world comes out in the following ways. In the

first place, it pretends that it will always remain with you, while, as a matter

of fact, it is slipping away from you, moment by moment, and bidding you

farewell, like a shadow which seems stationary, but is actually always moving.

Again, the world presents itself under the guise of a radiant but immoral

sorceress, pretends to be in love with you, fondles you, and then goes off to

your enemies, leaving you to die of chagrin and despair. Jesus (upon whom be

peace!) saw the world revealed in the form of an ugly old hag. He asked her how

many husbands she had possessed; she replied that they were countless. He asked

whether they had died or been divorced; she said that she had slain them all. “I

marvel,” he said, “at the fools who see what you have done to others, and still

desire you.”

This sorceress decks herself out in gorgeous and jewelled apparel and veils her

face. Then she goes forth to seduce, men, too many of whom follow her to their

own destruction. The Prophet has said that on the Judgment Day the world will

appear in the form of a hideous witch with green eyes and projecting teeth. Men,

beholding her, will say, “Mercy on us! who is this?” The angels will answer, “this

is the world for whose sake you quarrelled and fought and embittered one

another’s lives.” Then she will be cast into hell, whence she will cry out, “O

Lord! where are those, my former lovers? Allah will then command that they be

cast after her.

Whoever will seriously contemplate the past eternity during which the world was

not in existence, and the future eternity during which it will not be in

existence, will see that it is essentially like a journey, in which the stages

are represented by years, the leagues by months, the miles by days, and the

steps by moments. What words, then, can picture the folly of the man who

endeavours to make it his permanent abode, and forms plans ten years ahead

regarding things he may never need, seeing that very possibly he may be under

the ground in ten days!

Those who have indulged without limit in the pleasures of the world, at the time

of death will be like a man who has gorged himself to repletion on delicious

viands and then vomits them up. The deliciousness has gone, but the disgrace

remains. The greater the abundance of the possessions which they have enjoyed in

the shape of gardens, male and female slaves, gold, silver, etc., the more

keenly they will feel the bitterness of parting from them. This is a bitterness

which will outlast death, for the soul which has contracted covetousness as a

fixed habit will necessarily in the next world suffer from the pangs of

unsatisfied desire.

Another dangerous property of worldly things is that they at first appear as

more trifles, but each of these so-called “trifles” branches out into countless

ramifications until they swallow up the whole of a man’s time and energy. Jesus

(on whom be peace!) said, “The lover of the world is like a man drinking

sea-water; the more he drinks, the more thirsty he gets, till at last he

perishes with thirst unquenched.” The Prophet said, “You can no more mix with

the world without being contaminated by it than you can go into water without

getting wet.”

The world is like a table spread for successive relays of guests who come and

go. There are gold and silver dishes, abundance of food and perfumes. The wise

guest eats as much as is sufficient for him, smells the perfumes, thanks his

host, and departs. The foolish guest, on the other hand, tries to carry off some

of the gold and silver dishes, only to find them wrenched out of his hands and

himself thrust forth, disappointed and disgraced.

We may close these illustrations of the deceitfulness of the world with the

following short parable. Suppose a ship to arrive at a certain well-wooded

island. The captain of the ship tells the passengers he will stop a few hours

there, and that they can go on shore for a short time, but warns them not to

delay too long. Accordingly the passengers disembark and stroll in different

directions. The wisest, however, return after a short time, and, finding the

ship empty, choose the most comfortable places in it. A second band of the

passengers spend a somewhat longer time on the island, admiring the foliage of

the trees and listening to the song of the birds. Coming on board, they find the

best places in the ship already occupied, and have to content themselves with

the less comfortable ones. A third party wander still farther, and, finding some

brilliantly coloured stones, carry them back to the ship. Their lateness in

coming on board compels them to stow themselves away in the lower parts of the

ship, where they find their loads of stones, which by this time have lost all

their brilliancy, very much in their way. The last group go so far in their

wanderings that they get quite out of reach of the captain’s voice calling them

to come on board, and at last he has to sail away without them. They wander

about in a hopeless condition and finally either perish of hunger or fall a prey

to wild beasts.

The first group represents the faithful who keep aloof from the world altogether

and the last group the infidels who care only for this world and nothing for the

next. The two intermediate classes are those who preserve their faith, but

entangle themselves more or less with the vanities of things present.

Although we have said so much against the world, it must be remembered that

there are some things in the world which are not of it, such as knowledge and

good deeds. A man carries what knowledge he posseses with him into the next

world, and, though his good deeds have passed, yet the effect of them remains in

his character. Especially is this the case with acts of devotion, which result

in the perpetual remembrance and love of Allah. These are among “those good

things” which, as the Qur’an says, “pass not away.”

Other good things there are in the world, such as marriage, food, clothing, etc.,

which a wise man uses just in proportion as they help him to attain to the next

world. Other things which engross the mind causing it to cleave to this world

and to be careless of the next, are purely evil and were alluded to by the

Prophet when he said, “The world is a curse, and all which is in it is a curse,

except the remembrance of Allah, and that which aids it.”


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