Sufism

Al-Ghazali – On Disciplining the Soul and Breaking the Two Desires : Books XXII and XXIII of The Revival of the Religious Sciences

T. J. Winter

$35.99

The spiritual life in Islam begins with riyadat al-nafs, the inner warfare against the ego. Distracted and polluted by worldliness, the lower self has a tendency to drag the human creature down into arrogance and vice.

Only by a powerful effort of will can the sincere worshipper achieve the purity of soul which enables him to attain God’s proximity.

This translation of two chapters from The Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din) details the sophisticated spiritual techniques adopted by classical Islam. In the first step, On Disciplining the Soul, which cites copious anecdotes from the Islamic scriptures and biographies of the saints, Ghazali explains how to acquire good character traits, and goes on to describe how the sickness of the heart may be cured.

In the second part, Breaking the Two Desires, he focusses on the question of gluttony and sexual desire, concluding, in the words of the Prophet, that ‘the best of all matters is the middle way’.The translator has added an introduction and notes which explore Ghazali’s ability to make use of Greek as well as Islamic ethics. The work will prove of special interest to those interested in Sufi mysticism, comparative ethics, and the question of sexuality in Islam.

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Excerpt from: “On Disciplining the Soul and Breaking the Two Desires”

An Exposition of the Merit which is in Having Good Character, and a Condemnation of Bad Character

God (Exalted is He!) said to His Prophet and loved one, in praise of him, and in order to make manifest His blessing upon him, Assuredly, thou art of a tremendous character.

And A’isha (may God be pleased with her) said, ‘The character of the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) was the Qur’an.’

A man once asked the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) about good character, and he recited His statement (Exalted is He!): Hold to forgiveness, and enjoin kindness, and turn aside from the ignorant ones. Then he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘It is that you should seek reconciliation with those who avoid you, give to those who withhold from you, and forgive those who deal with you unjustly’.

And he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘I was sent only to perfect the noble qualities of character’.

And he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘The heaviest things to be placed in the Scales shall be the fear of God and good character’.

A man once came to the Emissary of God (may God bless and grant him peace) from before him, and asked, ‘O Emissary of God! What is religion?’ ‘Good character’, he replied. Then he came to him from his right hand side, and asked, ‘What is religion?’ ‘Good character’, he replied again. Then the man approached from his left, and asked, ‘What is religion?’ to be told, ‘Good character’. He then came to him from behind, and asked, ‘What is religion?’ ‘Have you not grasped it?’ the Prophet replied. ‘It is that you do not become angry’.

It was once asked, ‘O Emissary of God! What is inauspiciousness [shu’m]?’ And he replied, ‘Bad character’.

A man said to the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘Give me some advice’. ‘Fear God,’ he replied, ‘wherever you may be.’ ‘Give me more’, he said. ‘Follow a sin with a good deed,’ he replied, ‘and you will erase it’. ‘Give me more’, the man said, and he replied, ‘When you deal with people, do so with goodness of character’.

He was asked (may God bless him and grant him peace) which was the best of deeds, and replied, ‘To have a good character’.

He said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘Never shall God make good the character [khuluq] and created form [khalq] of a man and then allow him to be devoured by Hell’.

Said al-Fudayl, ‘The Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) was once told that a certain woman fasted all day and prayed all night, but was possessed of a bad character, so that she injured her neighbours with her words. “There is no good in her,” he said, “she is of Hell’s people”.’

Said Abu’l-Darda’, ‘I once heard God’s Emissary (may God bless him and grant him peace) say, “The very first thing to be weighed in the Scales shall be good character and generosity. When God created faith, it said, ‘O Lord God! Strengthen me!’ and He strengthened it with good character and generosity. And when He created disbelief, it said, ‘O Lord God! Strengthen me!’ and He strengthened it with avarice and bad character’.”

And he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘Verily, God has chosen this religion for Himself. Thus nothing is appropriate for your religion except generosity and good character. Ornament, therefore, your religion with them’.

He said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘Goodness of character is God’s greatest creation’.

He was once asked, ‘O Emissary of God! Which believer is the best in faith?’ and he replied, ‘He who is best in character’.

And he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘You will not be able to suffice all people with your wealth; suffice them therefore with a cheerful face and a goodly character’.

He also said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘Bad character corrupts one’s works just as vinegar corrupts honey’.

It is related on the authority of Jarir ibn Abd Allah that he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘You are a man whose form God has made excellent; therefore make excellent your character also’.

Said al-Bara’ ibn Azib, ‘The Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) was of all men the most beautiful of face and the most noble of character’.

Said Abu Mas’ud al-Badri, ‘The Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) used to say during his prayers, “O Lord God! Thou hast made good my creation [khalqi], therefore make good my character [khuluqi]!”’

Said ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar, ‘The Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) used frequently to pray: “O Lord God! I ask Thee for health, contentment with my lot, and good character.”’

It is related on the authority of Abu Hurayra (may God be pleased with him) that the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) said, ‘The honour of a Muslim is his religion, his lineage is his good character, and his virtue is his intellect [aql].’

Said Usama ibn Sharik, ‘I once witnessed the bedouins asking the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace), “ What is the best thing that a bondsman can be given?” And he replied, “Good character”.’

And he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘The most beloved of you to me on the Day of Arising, and the ones who shall sit closest to me, will be the best of you in character’.

Said Ibn ‘Abbas, ‘The Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) once said, “There are three things which, when they are all absent from a man, should lead you to take no account of his works: a piety which restrains him from disobedience to God, a clemency which prevents him from harming the foolish, and a [noble] character with which he lives among men”.’

One of his supplications (may God bless him and grant him peace) when beginning the Prayer [salat] was, ‘O Lord God! Guide me to the better traits of character, for assuredly, no-one guides to the better traits of character but Thee. And preserve me from the bad traits of character, for assuredly, no-one may preserve me from them but Thee.’

Said Anas, ‘One day, when we were with the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace), he said, “Good character melts away sin just as the sun melts ice”.’

And he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘Good character is part of man’s saving felicity [sa’ada]’.

And he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘Good character is auspiciousness [yumn]’.

He said (may God bless him and grant him peace) to Abu, Dharr, ‘O Abu Dharr! There is no intelligence like foresight, and no lineage like good character’.

It is related on the authority of Anas that Umm Habiba once said to the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘O Emissary of God! What if a woman had had two husbands in this world, and she died, and they died also, and all were received into Heaven: whose wife would she then be?’ And he replied, ‘The wife of him whose character was best when in the world. O Umm Habiba! Good character brings all that is good in this world and the next.’

And he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘The rightly-guided Muslim attains the degree of him who fasts and prays at length merely through his good character and noble nature’. And in another version [we read], ‘the degree of him who is thirsty during the midday heat [through fasting]’.

Said Abd al-Rahman ibn Samura, ‘We were once with God’s Emissary (may God bless him and grant him peace) when he said, “Yesterday I beheld a remarkable thing. I saw a man from my nation crouching on his knees, being divided from God by a veil. Then his good character came, and brought him into God’s presence”.’

Said Anas, ‘The Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) said, “A bondsman may attain through his good character high and noble degrees in the Afterlife, even though he be feeble in his worship”.’

It is related that Umar (may God be pleased with him) once asked permission to enter of the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace), who had with him some women of Quraysh who were talking to him in voices loud enough to drown out his own. When Umar asked leave to enter they rushed behind a screen. And when he entered, God’s Emissary (may God bless him and grant him peace) was laughing, so that he asked, ‘What has made you laugh, may my father and mother be your ransom?’ And the Prophet replied, ‘I was surprised at those women who were with me, and who, when they heard your voice, rushed behind the screen!’ ‘It would be more proper for them to hold you in awe, O Emissary of God, Umar declared. Then he went over to them and said, ‘You enemies of your own selves! Are you awed by me and not by God’s Emissary (may God bless him and grant him peace)?’ And they replied, ‘Yes! You are sterner and harsher than him’. And the Prophet said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘O Ibn al-Khattab! By Him in Whose hand lies my soul, never does Satan meet you in one valley without turning off into another!’

And he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘Bad character is an unpardonable sin, and assuming the worst is a transgression which produces [evil]’.

And he said (may God bless him and grant him peace), ‘Through his bad character a man can sink to the lowest tier of Hell.’