The Alchemy of Happiness II
The Alchemy of Happiness
By Imam Muhammad Al-Ghazali
CHAPTER II – THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD
IT is a well-known saying of the Prophet that “He who knows himself, knows God”; that is, by contemplation of his own being and attributes man arrives at some knowledge of God. But since many who contemplate themselves do not find God, 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 smiting, 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 God’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, “God is more tender to His servants than a mother to her suckling-child.”
Thus from his own creation man comes to know God’s existence, from the wonders of his bodily frame God’s power and wisdom, and from the ample provision made for his various needs God’s love. In this way the knowledge of oneself becomes a key to the knowledge of God. Not only are man’s attributes a reflection of God’s attributes, but the mode of existence of man’s soul affords some insight into God’s mode of existence. That is to say, both God 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, God 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 God 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, “God created man in His own likeness.” And, as we arrive at some knowledge of God’s essence and attributes from the contemplation of the soul’s essence and attributes, so we come to understand God’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 God. 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 “God” 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 “God” is traced on paper exactly as it had been conceived in the writer’s brain. Similarly, when God wills a thing it appears in the spiritual plane, which in the Qur’an is called “The Throne” (al-`Arsh); from the throne it passes, by a spiritual current, to a lower plane called “The Chair” (al-Kursee); 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 God, 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 God 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, God’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 God 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 God’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 master. 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.” [Qur’an, chap. 6]
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 God 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 God, 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: “God is holy,” “Praise be to God,” “There is no god but God,” “God is great.”
Concerning the last we may say that it does not mean that God 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 God’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 “God is great” means that His greatness far exceeds all our powers of comprehension. Moreover, such imperfect knowledge of God 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 God 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 God is fostered and developed by worship. Such worship and constant remembrance of God 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 are the prophets, and the laws which they have laid down under divine inspiration prescribe the limits (i.e. the Shariah) 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 God, do transgress these limits, and this ignorance may be due to several different causes: Firstly, there are some who, failing to find God by observation, conclude that there is no God 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 God and a future life but with a weak belief. They say to themselves, “God 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 God 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 God said, “I am a man like you, and get angry like others”; and in the Qur’an it is written. “God loves those who swallow down their anger,” not those who have no anger at all.
A fifth class lay stress on the beneficence of God, and ignore His justice, saying to themselves, “Well, whatever we do, God is merciful.” They do not consider that, though God 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, “God is merciful,” but must exert himself. Although the Qur’an says, “Every living creature’s support (sustenance) comes from God,” 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 (the Shariah). He who endeavours, on whatever pretext, to ignore its religious obligations is certainly under Satanic influence, and should be talked to, not with a pen, . 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 servants.
© 2012 As-Sunnah Foundation of America