Sunday, 3 April 2011

The Alchemy of Happiness Imam al-Ghazali or Kimiya e Sa'adat

more of his books in english

Kimiya e Sa'adat : The Alchemy of Happiness Imam al-Ghazali : Abridged Edition (Claude Field)

Kimiya e Sa'adat : The Alchemy of Happiness Imam al-Ghazali : Abridged Edition (Claude Field)

The Alchemy of Happiness

According to Al-Ghazali, the principal way to achieve happiness is through contemplation: of self, of God, and of life in the world, and beyond.

The philosopher, mystic, and theologian, Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) is often quoted as the greatest scholar of the Islamic world. Alongside practical observations of religion, his key philosophical ideas were related to the attainment of knowledge and wisdom, both of which could be gained through meticulous self-reflection and spiritual progress. For Al-Ghazali, the way toward happiness was to recognise and understand the greater potentials of the human through the mystical idea of transformation of heart. Hence, in order to attain happiness we must change the condition or state of our being by addressing the condition or state of our heart.

The heart can be viewed as a vessel which carries thoughts and feelings. We express these through emotions. In order to be able to change our condition from a negative state to a more compassionate, sympathetic, or positive one, we must learn to understand how the heart works. The heart is often considered to have an intellect of its own; the word qalb in the Arabic assumes this connotation. The heart or qalb therefore has a memory and a faculty which enhances intuition or intuitive responses. For the purposes of transformation, the heart must be rid of negativity so that it can obtain a state of purity; this can be done through introspection and self-reflection. When the heart has reached a peaceful state, it is able to receive and respond with the highest quality of emotions. As such it becomes the precept toward a happier and more contented life.

Al-Ghazali speculated the following four ideas which would help open the gateway of happiness:

  1. knowledge of self,
  2. knowledge of God,
  3. knowledge of this world as it really is, and
  4. knowledge of the next world as it really is.

The Knowledge of Self

In the Alchemy of Happiness Al-Ghazali opens up the chapter on the 'Knowledge of Self' through an adaptation of a saying from the prophetic tradition: “knowledge of self is the key to the knowledge of God”i.

Self-knowledge is considered the fundamental proponent toward transformation as it opens up the heart so that we are able to acknowledge our existence amid variety and complexity. Self-knowledge is not merely about one’s outer appearance or the surface idea of understanding what one likes or dislikes, but consists in understanding the innermost depths of our selves. Approached within terrains of humility, this sort of reasoning inevitably leads one to contemplate God.

Al-Ghazali proposes a set of questions to ponder: Who are we within ourselves? Where have we emerged from? Where are we going? What is our purpose in the world? Where does happiness and misery emerge from?ii

For Al-Ghazali the body is composed of both animal and angelic qualities. Our purpose is to recognise and distinguish between the two and understand that the way toward happiness and freedom, is to focus on our angelic qualities since they provide the best source of nourishment to the body and soul.

The Knowledge of God

The importance of self-knowledge is emphasised with the opening of the second chapter referring again to the prophetic saying, “he, who knows himself, knows God”iii. Self-knowledge is therefore vital in the progress towards the knowledge of God.

Although knowledge of self does not implicate God consciousness, a study of self will establish that we are the subject of forces beyond our control. Al-Ghazali points toward Divine providence as one factor that should contribute to the evidence of God’s existence. In terms of ethics, the acknowledgment of God usually builds characters who observe the world as a temporary home that must be respected. In terms of morality, it should help to make human beings become more peaceful and tolerant toward one another as the awareness of God makes one realise the unimportance of the individual self and the importance of community and cooperation.

The Knowledge of this World as it really Is

Recognising that this world is a temporary abode is another prerequisite of the contented or satisfied soul. Al-Ghazali writes that “this world is a stage or market-place passed by pilgrims on their way to the next.”iv

The purpose of each of us is to protect and nurture our bodies and souls, for one cannot last in the world without proper care, and the other will not be able to progress far in the next if it has not received the nourishment necessary in this. Part of the problem with modern living is that it is difficult to recognise what things might be harmful to the body and mind, and as such to the heart and soul. However the awakening of the spiritual self establishes the union and connections between body, heart, mind, and soul, and perpetuates the desire to recognise what is harmful to it as opposed to what is not.

The Knowledge of the Next World as it really Is

The knowledge of the next world as it really is assumes a belief in heaven and hell. The contented soul is the one which has attained a high level of spirituality and is therefore unafraid of death, while the unhappy soul has not found its peace in the world and as a consequence is afraid of death. Heaven and hell are therefore the places we imagine from within our state of being now.

Al-Ghazali's Alchemy of Happiness teaches us to reject what is wrong and bad for us, and to harness what is good and right by recognising how our actions can affect us. Happiness in this world and a contented view of the next can therefore be obtained through clear objectives and an observation of the spiritual life.


i Al-Ghazali, The Alchemy of Happiness, trans. By Claud Field, Forgotten Books, 2008, p. 11

ii Ibid p. 11

iii Ibid p.20

iv Ibid p.29

Read more at Suite101: The Alchemy of Happiness

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