Al-Ghazali and the Alchemy of Happiness

Al-Ghazali was a famous Islamic-Persian polymath and philosopher of the early medieval era.  He wrote a variety of texts but one of his most famous was the Alchemy of Happiness.  Islam understands man in through a teleological anthropology: That is, humanity has an end and that end is happiness which comes about by self-knowledge, knowledge of God, and obedience to the Sharia (Law) which serves as a sort of anchoring point of reference to measure oneself.  Whereas in Christianity, due to Augustine and the doctrine of the incarnation, knowledge of self comes from knowledge of God first, Islam’s far more thorough-going Neoplatonism, even present in someone like Al-Ghazali, arrives at the opposite conclusion – knowledge of self (first) is what leads to knowledge of God.  Again, this is the introspective flight of the alone to the alone that Plotinus famously speaks of in his Enneads.

Beginning the process of self-knowledge is the recognition that one is not a purely “spiritual being” (a la Manicheanism or Gnosticism).  Humans have a body – a corporeal substance – as Al-Ghazali states which has various components and faculties to it: Head, Soul, Sensations, etc.  The question we now must ask is why?  He relates this to political and militaristic language where the soul is the king (head) from which the rest of the body takes its orders from, and the rest of the body in its totality represents the “soldiers” of the body (and the body is the kingdom as a constitutive whole) that take the orders from the king  (soul) and begin the process of movement.  Human reason is like the prime minister, guiding and giving advice to the king (soul).  Passion is like the revenue collector, inasmuch as passion is a drive to satiation (to take in something) much like how a revenue collector is driven to collect what is due.  Anger, he says, acts like a law-officer who enacts actions in response to violation – anger, in this metaphor, is something reactive towards transgression.

The body exists, Al-Ghazali tells us, in its wholeness for a higher end: Intellectual actualization through knowledge and movement which begins the road to happiness and shedding one’s carnal desires and appetites (bodily appetites and sensations are properly meant to foster the spirit of intellectual inquisitiveness that propels the soul/mind to motion and attainment of knowledge of the higher things and higher order in life).  Human perfection is the ultimate end in Islamic anthropology.  The Law embodies the perfection that humans strive for and is that which humans can measure themselves against to see how they’re progressing in this perfection and eventual state of bliss.

Like the Greco-Roman and Christian anthropological traditions, the soul is the rational part of the mind which possesses knowledge of self and God and grows in its knowledge of self and God.  The purpose, as is written in the Qur’an, is to seek knowledge since the coming to knowledge is moving closer to God (who knows all things) whereby the intellect is fully active and eventually actualized in its growth and consummation.  Human senses exist for coming to knowledge – but also to highlight how the sensations and happiness derived from the body are nothing compared to the happiness found in knowledge.  This is not to say that the body and bodily senses are bad, per se, but being trapped in pure sensation and bodily movement is to be like an animal rather than a human.  Humans are called to be higher than the animals who simply make use of their senses for the daily grind of life whereas humans have senses to bring actualization to the soul (rational mind) in the mind’s pursuit of knowledge.  In other words, senses exist to be experienced in the world so as to lead one to coming to understand why one has sensation in the first place.  Readers of Plotinus’s Enneads will recall the first Ennead dealing with this subject of relationship to senses to the active and living man and what purposes human senses serve.

As Al-Ghazali states, man’s rational soul is called to greatness – to come to knowledge of the world, of the self, and as a result, knowledge of God.  To reject this call to greatness is to become a debased human, more like an animal-like creatures more than a human.  Such people degrade themselves and never come to proper understanding of who they are, and as a such, fail to come to an understanding of God and settle for lower forms of happiness available only to the body which always dissipate over time.  They become animals, “like dogs,” as he says.  However, through knowledge, Al-Ghazali tells us, humans are transformed from “beasts to that of angels.”

Turning to knowledge of God, Al-Ghazali warns of the perils of specialized knowledge.  Specialized knowledge is not whole.  It is separate.  He uses the analogy the physician and astrologer.  They understand different things, different components, different parts of the world and body.  In diagnosing a depressed soul they will reach different conclusions.

Here is where the importance of the Qur’an, and the Law, come into play.  God has a reason for everything that happens in life according to Al-Ghazali.  In his manner God is always active in the world and therefore Al-Ghazali is remembered as an occasionalist.  Occasionalism is the theological proposition that all sensation and bodily activities are the result of interventions of God for some sort of purpose.  For Al-Ghazali that purpose is knowledge, but  that coming to know comes through different ways pending on individual character and activity: Knowledge can be gained from wealth and good fortune (reward), it can be gained from ailment or affliction (punishment), it can come from bringing the haughty and proud low to recognize the suffering of the poor (teaching), and so forth.  Through these experiences, when taken in totality, we come to an understanding of God which is superior than pure self-knowledge since man is beneath God in the cosmic hierarchy or order.

Ignorance of God becomes a major theme.  Ignorance leads to transgressions of the law which, not only bringing misery to one’s soul, but having negative ramifications to others as well.  They harm themselves in pride or error, but this can also cause them to harm others through interactions via no recognition of God, resurrection, judgment, etc.  In a famous passage Al-Ghazali reminds his readers much of what he laid out in the first chapter on self-knowledge: Lack of knowledge of God leads to a dim view of the Cosmos, Earth, and of humanity – people view themselves as no different than plants and animals.  Plants and animals are all perishable and only have vegetative and animalistic instincts and desires.  As a result, such people are claiming that humans are irrational animals since rationality is the gift of God and to be like God.  (This is also found in Greek and Roman philosophy prior to both Christianity and Islam.)  This leads to a cyclical and detrimental downward spiral where human ignorance – wrapped up in the veil of truth – causes serious harm to the self.  The happiness that man seeks will never be consummated to those who live in ignorance of God and of higher things: Beauty, Wonder, Praise, etc.

Turning again to the Law, Al-Ghazali notes that the Law does not advocate the eradication of the passions or sensations.  It commands boundaries and limits to be set on them.  The Law, in this case, acts as the ordering force of one’s deepest desires (which are properly given to humanity by God for the purpose of experiencing which should, ideally, lead to the intellect becoming active in search of knowledge – searching for the Source from which those senses derived).  To be controlled by desire or passion is to be a slave to sin.  To control one’s desires and passions is the result of coming to understanding desire/passions and direct them to the higher Good in life.  That requires a coming to know God.

Al-Ghazali then turns from introspection (knowledge of self and of God) to outward things: Knowledge of the world (and of the next world).  From the first chapters of the Alchemy, however, we see Al-Ghazali’s anthropological theology forming before us:

  • Humans exist for the purpose of happiness
  • Happiness is derived from self-knowledge and knowledge of God, which allows the person to act in accordance with the Law which rises humanity from being like an animal to becoming like an angel – a purely rational and intellectual being
  • Ignorance leads to unhappiness
  • Ignorance will try to veil itself as that which is reasonable and understands the world
  • Reason, per se, while highly valued, cannot produce the happiness humans seek. Rather, it is more a gateway to the happiness that is already enshrined in the Law.  Reason, then, is that which grows the human being to be in service to the Law
  • In a very neo-Platonic way, human bodies and senses exist to be experience in the world, but their experience in the world is meant to propel one to attempt to come to understand the why

Moving onward into Al-Ghazali’s Alchemy of Happiness, we turn to knowledge of the world and why knowledge of this world is important for coming to understand a knowledge of the next.  This builds on his previous chapters of knowledge of the self leading to a knowledge of God and understanding of judgment.

One of the most famous Qur’anic injunctions is to seek understanding and knowledge in the world.  Contrary to popular and inaccurate Orientalists tropes, the history of Islam is one of rich, rife and contentious learning.  Philosophy, calculus, and early science all flourished in that bid to find knowledge.  In Islamic orthodoxy this attainment and seeking of knowledge is supposed to magnify self knowledge, knowledge of God, and point to the world to come.  This is what is meant by coming to an understanding of this world in Al-Ghazali’s Alchemy.  So again, contrary to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, no, Al-Ghazali is not responsible for the sudden “dark age of Baghdad” that the Islamic world has yet to recover from.

Continuing with anthropological knowledge, Al-Ghazali builds from self-knowledge of man as a corporeal body leading him to have understanding of what the world exists for: His satiation of bodily desires and needs.  However, in man’s bid for food, clothing, and a place to call home, Al-Ghazali states less rational peoples are prone to conflict and disorder.  Thus, God revealed the Sharia as a means to prevent complete and total bloodshed between man.  Therefore, the Law illuminates man’s needs for food, clothing, and a place to call home.  Man’s pursuit of understanding why he needs such things points him to the Law.

Al-Ghazali also discusses the division between nurturing the body and nurturing the soul.  Nurturing the body, while to be promoted and necessary unless one die a painful and lonely death, should not become man’s primary and only task.  Nurturing just the body neglects self-knowledge which recognizes man has a soul and is, therefore, also a spiritual being.  This is a common tension in ancient dualistic and unitive anthropologies. Thus, failure to recognize the importance of the soul within this world will lead to negative practices in the pursuit of bodily needs.

Everything about this world, for Al-Ghazali, and the broader Islamic tradition, beyond directing man to the Law, more importantly directs him to the world hereafter.  It is, in some sense, a preparation and foretaste for what the next world entails: Enduring happiness, enduring satisfaction, no more struggle for the attainment of perfection as one has now entered their state of eternal perfection, etc.  The striving in the world is that famous image of the pilgrim striving for perfection in this world as indicative of his calling for perfection innate to his being.

Unlike previous Islamic thinkers, and the broader Greek tradition, Al-Ghazali states man only has two souls: the animal soul and the spiritual (rational) soul.  There is no vegetative soul in Al-Ghazali’s outlook.  The issue of reductive unitive anthropology is this: In this life our souls are intertwined with each other – or, more properly, the spiritual is trapped within the animal soul which can either overwhelm the spiritual soul (bad) or can lead us to the perfection of the spiritual soul by coming to full understanding of ourselves, God, and the world, whereby we leave behind the animal soul and take on the purely spiritual soul and become angelic.  This is the process of perfection which all are called to according to Islamic tradition.  In this sense Al-Ghazali is not technically a dualist in much the same way that Christian anthropology is not dualistic despite dualist tropes and imagery.

Understanding the dichotomy of the human soul, and how one perishes, gives glimpses of the afterlife where hell is broken down into different levels corresponding with base animalism while heaven is the reward for the angelic souls.  This returns us to what I said about Al-Ghazali seeing the animal soul sublating the spiritual soul.  This indicates such a person – due to his ignorance and self-centeredness – rejected, in essence, the spiritual soul which calls one to heaven (perfection).  He would rather be miserable and make others share in his misery.  Rejecting both his own rationality and the Law, he brings damnation onto himself which is what hell is: The place of darkness (ignorance) and punishing torment (for rejecting one’s nature).  Heaven, in contrast, is the place where all the striving and pains labored in pursuit of happiness meet their reward of eternal bliss.

The pilgrimage state of man is poignantly summarized by Al-Ghazali in this passage:

This journey of man through the world may be divided into four stages — the sensuous, the experimental, the instinctive [and] the rational. In the first, he is like a moth which, though it has sight, has no memory, and will singe itself again and again at the same candle. In the second stage he is like a dog which, having once been beaten, will run away at the sight of a stick. In the third he is like a horse or a sheep, both of which instinctively fly at the sight of a lion or a wolf, their natural enemies, while they will not fly from a camel or a buffalo, though these last are much greater in size. In the fourth stage man altogether transcends the limits of the animals and becomes capable, to some extent, of foreseeing and providing for the future. His movements at first may be compared to ordinary walking on land, then to traversing the sea in a ship, then, on the fourth plane, where he is conversant with realities, to walking on the sea, while beyond this plane there is a fifth, known to the prophets and saints, whose progress may be compared to flying through the air.

Again, contrary to Islam’s critics, and Al-Ghazali’s critics, Islamic tradition promotes the pursuit and attainment of knowledge and moving into the rational stage of life (which is analogues to becoming like an angel since angels are purely rational beings).  It is a struggle, to be sure, and in this struggle this is what the Law exists to aid the individual pilgrim in these four stages of life growth.  Reason, again, points to the Law and the Law is fully rational.  As Al-Ghazali notes, however, the danger of man’s life cycles is that he can remain base and animalistic.  Horror, bloodshed, confusion, and chaos is what ensues from this.  On the flip side, the call to perfection (becoming perfectly rational) is a constant and lifelong struggle in which one must struggle with himself (his animalistic desires) and others (who may drag him down to their level).

For Al-Ghazali, knowledge of self and of God, which is what his treatise on happiness begins with, leads to an understanding of the world and whether there is a world after death.  Accordingly, we can understand Al-Ghazali as saying this: Those who do not truly know themselves do not know God, as a result they come to a flawed understanding of this world and therefore deny that there is a world after death; those who come to know themselves come to a knowledge of God, as a result they become more and more rational and come to a proper understanding of the world they exist in (corporeally) and what the challenges of life in this world are and, via their growth in understanding, know that there is a world after death.  At the same time there is bleak picture of animalistic barbarism.  “Reason” is often confused and fails to transcend the self beyond their animalistic soul.  Thus, the Law exists to pull human reason and rationality to it so that we come to understand by the Law.

In this, according to Al-Ghazali and the Islamic tradition, the Law is that which is fully and truly rational and is what we aspire to measure ourselves to and live by. The Law is what guides the religious and spiritual life and practices and eventually leads to the love of God for his benevolence and straight path guidance that the rest of the Alchemy deals with. Thus it is through the guidance of the Law and lifting one up to God where happiness is found: In the straight path to dwell in the love of God which reason and the heart seeks and the Law exists for guiding us to.

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