Esoteric Islam

Al-Ghazali – Philosophy on Self, God, and the World

Al-Ghazali – Philosophy on Self, God, and the World

Who is Al-Ghazali?

Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali is perhaps one of the most influential people in Sufism because he is considered to be a Mujaddid – a person who brings renewal, who transforms Islamic orthodox rituals and who changes the way Muslims think and live.

Al-Ghazali lost his parents at an early age and was brought up by Sufis, who are the mystics in Islam. There are many articles saying that he is one of the greatest theologians, mystics, and philosophers during the 11th century.

His philosophy and teachings have been considered to bring light, warmth, and richness to the dry study of law that Muslims follow. Al-Ghazali understands that behind the veil of religion, there is a much deeper meaning lying inside human beings. This essence of being is the root of every religion around the world. According to Al-Ghazali’s philosophy, religions are just the outer form that hides the same inner truth.

One of his most influential books is the Revival of Religious Science, in which he guides every Muslim to take the path of spiritual truth. This book includes almost every matters about life, death, prayer, marriage, and so on.

There are many of his philosophy and teachings that have exerted great influence in both Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. In this post, we are going to focus on 3 fundamental philosophy and teachings that are considered to be the most crucial philosophy for any human being on this earth. These teachings are translated in his book named the Alchemy of Happiness, which is the extraction from his book the Revival of Religious Science.

Al-Ghazali Portrait
Al-Ghazali Portrait

Al-Ghazali’s Philosophy and Teachings

  1. Philosophy of Self
  2. Philosophy of God
  3. Philosophy of the World
  4. Al-Ghazali’s Story of Wisdom
  5. Summary of Al-Ghazali’s teachings

1. Philosophy of Self

The first important principle that he teaches us is the philosophy of self.

He states that in order to know ourselves, we need to answer 3 important questions:

  1. Where did we come from?
  2. Where are we going?
  3. What is the purpose of our life on this planet?

Al-Ghazali said that our”selves” (nafs) are made up of 3 elements: one is of animals, one is of devils and another is of angels. The animal self concerns much about our eating, sleeping, and fighting. The devils are busy doing mischiefs, deceit, and lies. The angels are the best of all who contemplate on the signs of God and being under His protection from lust and anger.

Al-Ghazali also teaches that the body is our outer appearance, which is only the vehicle for our inner faculty to function. These hidden faculties are the heart and the soul. If we put this in an analogy, the body will be the horse while the soul and the heart will be the rider of the horse.

Notice here that the heart is the spiritual heart, which is not the physical heart inside our chest. The spiritual heart is the subtle organ that directly connects itself to the divine realm because it is where we originally came from.

When we get an idea to start to do something on this physical planet, it first starts from the spirit, coming from the inner, invisible and higher dimension:

“The Spirit comes by the command of my Lord.” (Quran 17:85)

The spirit then sends the message to the spiritual heart, upon which it sends the signals to the mind and the brain. The brain thereby sends signals to our 5 senses to exercise the command. Therefore, the spiritual and material realms are interconnected, and it is the inner that causes the outer to perform its command.

According to Al-Ghazali’s philosophy, it all depends on the purity of your heart that reflects the qualities of the world we live in. The heart is like the mirror in a sense that it only reflects what is inside itself. If you see life with happiness and joy, it is those qualities that your heart contains. If you see life with misery and suffering, it is also those qualities that your heart contains.

The heart is the key to our intuition or prophetic inspiration. Unless we purify our hearts, we are like a knight being deprived of the sword.

He also teaches that in order to attain spiritual truth, we need to learn to acquire the knowledge inwardly from the heart instead of externally through the 5 senses. Every human faculty always have something to take delight in. For example, our eyes take delight in beautiful objects, our ears enjoy hearing harmonious sounds, and our lusts delight in achieving desire.

The highest human function is that of the soul, which finds its special delights in the remembrance of God. By remembering God, we have a chance to gain some knowledge of God, thereby strengthen our perception of truth. It is also through the remembrance of God that we can attain divine knowledge called baraka.

2. Philosophy of God

The second important teaching of Al-Ghazali is about the philosophy of God. He said that the knowledge of God only comes after the knowledge of self has been acquired. This is recorded in a hadith as followed:

“He who knows himself knows God.”

According to Al-Ghazali, an important part of the knowledge of God comes from our contemplation of our own being. In Islam, God created man and the jinns to worship Him alone and to Him all matters shall be returned.

“I have only created the jinns and man that they may worship me.” (Quran 51:56)

It is a fact that we, as human beings, do not create ourselves, nor can we grow a single hair. Through contemplation, we can realize that it is the power, love, and wisdom of God that helps us function; it is the power of God that commands the sun and the moon to follow a particular order, and it is the power of God that helps the seed in the ground growing up the be a tree. That’s why He has Himself said “My mercy is greater than my wrath” when he created the heavens and the earth.

Moreover, Al-Ghazali teaches us that the human attributes are a reflection of God’s attributes:

“God created man in His own image” (Genesis 1:27)

By contemplating our soul’s essence and attributes, we can arrive at some knowledge of God’s essence. The human being is regarded as the microcosm of the universe, which means we contain within ourselves a little world while living in a bigger world outside of ourselves. In the esoteric teachings, the occultists call this principle “As above so below.”

In Sufism, the knowledge of God is associated with the third and fourth stages of Sufism.

According to Al-Ghazali, there are many levels of knowledge. For example, when a man is sick and appears to be distress and miserable.

A doctor will say: “This is the case of depression, you need to take this medicine and that medicine to cure the problem.”

The physicist will say: “This is caused by the dryness of the brain suffered from hot weather, so you need to have more fresh air in your room.”

The astrologer will say that “the conjunction of this planet and that planet cause you to have this condition.”

“That is as far as the knowledge can reach them.” (Quran 53:30)

However, Ghazali states that what really happens is this: the Almighty One is concerned about some matters of that man, and has therefore commanded His servants, which are the planets and elements, to produce such a condition in him so that he will be more aware of His Lord and turn away from the world.

In other words, the doctor, physicist, and astrologer attribute their knowledge to the derivatives of the cause, which are the planets, stars and environment. The master who possesses the knowledge of God, however, addresses the problems to the Real cause of the problem (coming from God).

In his book The Alchemy of Happiness, Al-Ghazali also shows us several causes of the ignorance of God.

Firstly, there are some people who fail in observation of the world, conclude that there is no God and become atheists. This is the most ignorant of all because he is like a man who sees a house on the road and supposes that the house is built by itself without any builder.

The second type of ignorance is about not knowing the true quality of the soul (the soul is eternal). This kind of person sees himself as no more than animals or vegetables, which are equally perishable when the body decays. He doesn’t know that he is not a body, but the soul who will leave the body when the “appointed time” comes.

The third type of ignorance is the one who believes in God but relies too much on His mercy and His forgiveness. This is the one who says to themselves: “God is All-Merciful, he will forgive my sins with whatever I do”. Yet, they forgot to consider the fact that: Although God is All-Merciful, thousands of people die miserably in hunger and illnesses.

3. Philosophy of the World

Lastly, al-Ghazali teaches us about the philosophy and knowledge of this world, which tells us 2 necessary things we need to do while we are living.

  1. First, we need to protect and develop our nafs (soul) to gain the knowledge of self and of God.
  2. Second, we need to nourish our body like a caravan who nourishes his camel on the journey to Mecca.

Although the soul will last and the body will perish after we die, taking care of our body is essential. Al-Ghazali regards the body as the animal which carries our burdens to the next life. The burden in here is our free will:

“We proposed a burden to the Heavens and the Earth and the mountains, but they refused to undertake it, being afraid thereof, but man undertook it – He was indeed ignorant.” (Quran 33:72)

Neither the angels nor animals can change their appointed rank and place, but human beings can either ascend to heaven or descend to hell. This is because of the burden that he carries, which is the free will. It is about the choices that we make that can change our destination, and we need to follow the guidance coming from the above to return back to our home.

“Go down from hence, all of you; there will come to you guidance from Me, and those who obey the guidance need not fear, neither shall they grieve.” (Quran 2:36)

Ghazali further teaches us that we should not serve the body, but we should teach the body to serve us. Our bodily needs are very simple, including food, clothing, and a dwelling place, and that’s all we need for our survival.

However, the world deceives us in a way that it pretends to always stay with us, while nothing in this world lasts forever. Everything in the physical world is destined to perish because this is only a temporary place for our soul to learn and to experience.

The things that will remain when we leave this world are ourselves, the knowledge of ourselves, and the character that we acquired through our deeds. This truth can be observed from our changes in appearance from the time we are young to the time we are old. Our character, however, may not be changed because it doesn’t belong to this world.

We are born in this world to be a master of our body, not to have a mastering body. We are here because we are all destined to become The Perfect Man who resembles the qualities of the divine.

4. Al-Ghazali’s Story of Wisdom

There is an amazing story about the human life in his book the Alchemy of Hapiness that I want to share with you:

Suppose our human journey is like a ship arriving at an island. The captain of the ship tells the passengers that they will only stay there for a few hours, then everyone has to come back to the ship to move on.

The wisest ones will return after a short period of time, finding the most comfortable seats on the ship because the ship is now empty.

The second class of passengers wanders a longer time on the island because they want to eat some fruits and listen to the song of the birds. When they come on board, there are not many seats left, so they have to be content with the less comfortable ones.

The third type of passengers even wanders further because they are amazed by the beauty of the island. Therefore, when the captain calls them to go on board, they couldn’t hear him so he has to sail away without them. The people who stay on the island are now in hopeless condition because there will not be any supply of food and they are prone to be eaten by wild animals.

The first group represents the faithful believers who are conscious of God and being aware of their deeds. The second class represents those who have faith but attach themselves more with the vanities of the present world. The last class symbolizes the ones whose only concern is about this world and nothing for the next.

From this story, we can now understand the wisdom of the prophet when he said: “The world is a curse, and all which is in it is a curse, except the remembrance of God, and that which aids it.” By understanding our human destination, we are now being more conscious of what we do on this planet.

5. Summary of Al-Ghazali’s teachings

In summary, there are 3 important teachings that Al-Ghazali has left for us for contemplation:

  1. The philosophy of self reminds us about our origins, our nature, and our human destination after the life of this earth.
  2. The philosophy of God will only come after the knowledge of self, through which we acquire it by contemplation on the signs of God, such as the trees, mountain, universe, and even ourselves.
  3. The philosophy of the world tells us that this world is only a temporary place for our soul to learn and to experience. Our true home is in the Hereafter and it totally depends on our deeds on this life that will determine our ranks in the Afterlife.

A Seeker Of Truth - A Student Of Life - A Master Of Self

error: Content is protected !!