The Mother of All Spiritual Maladies | Abu Hamid al-Ghazali

THE FOLLOWING ARE some remarks inspired by my perusal of an insightful passage by the towering Muslim theologian and jurist Abû ±âmid Al-Ghazâli, may Allah shower His soul with mercy. The passage has opened my eyes to a truth I have long tried to fathom and whose secrets I have been laboring to unlock.

Maintaining the Health of the Heart

We all know for sure that the fu’âd (the heart, the spiritual one, that is) is the focal point of Allah’s observation of us, and that caring for this heart, installing checkpoints along its walls, and jealously preserving it from all sorts of hazards is a sure indication of the slave’s success.

On the other hand, neglecting the heart—even for a few hours, let alone days and nights—seriously compromises its wellbeing. Al-Ghazâli states:

Knowing the heart and the reality of its qualities is the foundation of dîn (religion) and the bedrock of the path of those who seek [Allah’s pleasure] I^yâ’ ¢Ulûm Al-Dîn, 5:11).

Pursuing Obedience

That the spiritual heart is vulnerable to spiritual “diseases” is common knowledge. Knowing the subtleties and relative intensity of these diseases of the heart, however, is the province of the spiritually intelligent. As with our bodily ills, ailments of the spiritual heart come in varied severity.

As a disease of the heart deepens and spreads, disobeying Allah and contradicting [the express commandments of] His Will becomes the only occupation wherein the person finds comfort. One grows so corrupted that one no longer feels or sees the pain of the enormities one is committing. Nor does one find delight in acting righteously.

Yet even when the disease abates, still, the heart continues to exhibit an array of appalling symptoms, including oblivion toward obedience [to the Creator], thorough engrossment in distracting pursuits, and disregard for everything consequential, to name just a few.

Avoiding Pitfall Diseases

But back to the main thrust of my treatise. When you look for the diseases of the heart that afflict someone who has distanced himself from lewd acts (fawâ^ish) and obscenities (ghâdhûrât)—and yes, even the heart of such a person can be afflicted by numberless maladies—you will, for instance, come across the “purely internal” heart ailments. These include vain pride (kibr), self-aggrandizement (¢ujb), unfairness in dealing with others, love of praise, indolence, and so on.

You will also find external heart problems that compromise the rectitude of the heart and inhibit its elevation to lofty stations, like gluttony, too much sleep, and excessive socializing (khul~a), among other syndromes that negatively affect the heart in strange ways.

Uncovering Layers of Maladies

Now, the following question arises: What is the first among the maladies of the heart that frustrate the slave’s efforts to be obedient to his Lord and vitiate his laboring toward spiritual advancement? In other words, what is the ailment that causes a person who is righteous inside out, averse to sinning, keen on upholding religious duties, ¢ilm-loving, and persistent in performing supererogatory acts of worship, to be so hard-hearted, so spiritually sapped, that he seldom controls himself or keeps that ‘self’ within the path of worship?

Put differently, do you feel like I do, that notwithstanding your intense desire to be an obedient slave, you still feel as if a powerful force were holding you back? Are you like me, able to enlarge upon the merits of qiyâm al-layl (the night vigil), the great rewards which Allah reserves for its practitioners, and the keenness of our pious founding fathers to uphold it, but still you fail, like I do, to stand up at night to offer a two-rak¢ah voluntary |alâh that will not exact from your time more than few minutes? What, then, is the heart disease that is responsible for this failure?

Al-Ghazali’s Struggle for Spiritual Progress

Abû ±âmid surprised me by relating his personal experience with this disease and his experimentation with a number of remedies and solutions. (Al-Ghazâli is a master in this art. He has made important contributions to, and is credited with, original insights into this ¢ilm—insights that came as the fruit of his own lengthy practice of renunciation (zuhd), hermitage, self-mortification (mujâhada, that is, striving under self-imposed restrictions of certain hardships), and desertion of the outer forms of ¢ilm (which have veiled many from beholding the reality of ¢ilm).

Many of the learned that wrote on sulûk (spiritual progress toward Allah) are, in diverse ways, beholden to Al-Ghazâli in this field. Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim—who is more knowledgeable of the conditions of the pious predecessors and who understood the Islamic ¢aqîda better than Al-Ghazâli—was so influenced by Al-Ghazâli’s ideas and style in the area of the fiqh of w⢷ (“the art of preaching” moral and religious conduct) that he sometimes quoted Al-Ghazâli at length without acknowledgement. Whoever reads Al-Ghazâli after reading Ibn Al-Qayyim, or vice versa, cannot fail to see the immense influence of the former on the latter. This does not mean Al-Ghazâli was immune to errors of thought or of kalâm (May Allah forgive him).

Combating the Soul’s Unruliness

The point of this passage of Al-Ghazâli to which I am referring is that he mentions an amazing experience he had in the course of his practice of mujâhada, in his attempt to unlock the secret of his own soul’s unruliness. In the following I quote, in slightly abbreviated form, Al-Ghazâli’s words as they appear in the book Al-Ma~âlib Al-¢Alîyyah fî Manâqib Al-Shâfi¢iyyah (High Points in the Merits of the Masters of Shafi¢i Jurisprudence) by Mu^ammad ibn Al-±asan Al-Wâ|iti.  In a missive he sent to one of his friends, Al-Ghazâli writes:

Wâ¢i· (an admonisher, or a reminder) is of two types: The uttered wâ¢i·, namely, the Quran, and the silent wâ¢i·, namely, death. These two admonishers are sufficient for the true believer. I for one have used these two admonishers with my own soul. I admonished it first with the spoken wâ¢i·, the Quran, and it believed in it and accepted it in principle, but refused to make good on that belief and acceptance. On the contrary, it indulged more and more in falsehood and clung obstinately to the fleeting things of this world. Then I reminded my soul with the silent wâ¢i·, death, and she responded by saying: “You have spoken the truth.” Still, that turned out to be just empty talk on the part of my soul, for it did not strive in amassing provisions for the hereafter as hard as it strove in hoarding worldly gain. Moreover, my soul did not struggle in seeking Allah’s pleasure the way it did in pursuing the pleasure of His creation!

But when I saw my soul sinking deeper and deeper into the abyss of rebellion, and saw that it paid no mind to the admonition of the Quran or death, it dawned on me: The most important course to follow is to examine the root causes of my soul’s increasing drift into deviation, in spite of its belief in, and recognition of, the truth of the remonstrations of both the spoken and silent admonishers. Ultimately, and after a lengthy investigation, I chanced upon the root cause: >ûl al-amal,’ long hopes,’ i.e., one’s belief that he has many more years to live, the result of which is his putting off tawba (penitence).

Thus do I warn myself and my friend to guard against ~ûl al-amal, for it is, indeed, the fatal malady, the root source of self-deception and negligence. Therefore have I come to realize with all certainty that whosoever wakes up in the morning with a hope to stay alive until evening, or whoever enters the evening with hope to remain alive when the morning breaks, will never leave the bounds of procrastination and lethargy, and will proceed only at a very weak pace! So, when one enters into a |alâh firmly believing that it could well be the last |alâh he performs, he will pray with full presence of heart, brace himself for death, and strive hard in worship and devotion. But if one fails to internalize the imminence of death, he will forever be entangled in heedlessness, sluggishness, and procrastination, until he is overtaken by death and overwhelmed by remorse for his undutifulness to Allah.

Softening Hard-Heartedness

How true, clear, and sound are the words of Al-Ghazâli! Testimony to the truth of Al-Ghazâli’s words is found in the Quran and in the Sunnah. Consider if you will, the divine rebuke addressed to the Prophet’s Companions only four years after their embrace of Islam. I am referring here to the discourse of âyahs 16 and 17 of Sûrat Al-±adîd on khushû¢ (humbling fear in front of Allah) and hard-heartedness. In these âyahs, Allah has linked ~ûl al-amal to hard-heartedness:

Is it not time, for those who truly believe, that their hearts be humbled at the remembrance of Allah and at [the utterance of] the truth that has been sent down! [So let them forsake excessive jesting and diversion] and not be like those who were given the Scripture before [them], for a long duration [of heedlessness] passed over them. Thus their hearts grew hardened. And many of them are now ungodly. Know, then, that [it is] Allah [alone who] gives life to the earth after its death. We have certainly made clear to you the manifest signs [of Allah’s creative power], so that you may [reflect on them and] understand. [Sûrat Al-±adîd, 57:16-17]

Dislodging Tul Al-Amal, “Long-Hopes”

Let us celebrate, too, Al-Ghazâli’s statement:

Whosoever wakes up in the morning with a hope to stay alive until evening, or whoever enters the evening with hope to remain alive when the morning breaks, will never leave the bounds of procrastination and lethargy, and will proceed only at a very weak pace!

Al-Ghazâli echoes here the words of the devoted worshipper and Companion ¢Abdullâh ibn ¢Umar:

If ever you find yourself alive when the evening comes, do not expect to be alive when the morning breaks, nor wait for the evening when the [next] morning shall come upon you.

This disease, I mean ~ûl al-amal, and attachment to the life of this fleeting world, as if it were going to last forever, is what hobbles our souls and prevents them from catching up with the true servants of Allah.

Nothing nourishes and nurtures ~ûl al-amal in the heart like sinfulness and heedlessness. For when sins accumulate on the heart, they encrust it, veiling it from perceiving the truth, causing one to take lightly the Hereafter, while magnifying worldly life and making it one’s sole concern. For such a person, words about the Hereafter and the terrible trepidations it involves go in one ear and out the other. They never lodge in his heart. They never stir him to make tawba (repentance) and to make amends. (I^yâ’ ¢Ulûm Al-Dîn, 5:45)

As for ghafla (heedlessness), Allah has warned His Prophet œ—the very best of His slaves—against it, saying to him:

And be not of the heedless. [Sûrat Al-A¢râf, 7:205]

Surmounting Heedlessness

Nothing uproots ghafla from the heart like remembrance of Allah and keeping the Hereafter in mind.

For whoso sees the Hereafter with his heart, it is that one who will of necessity become desirous of its rewards. He will long for it, take the paths leading to it, attach no or little importance to the goods and pleasures of worldly life. For if one has a bead in his hand but then his eye falls upon a precious jewel, he will lose all interest in the bead and try hard to exchange what is in hand for what he beholds. (I^yâ’ ¢Ulûm Al-Dîn, 5:263)

O humankind! Indeed, Allah’s promise is true. So do not let the life of this world delude you. And do not [in the least] let the Arch-Deluder delude you about Allah! [Sûrat Fâṭir, 35:5]


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