Man’s Highest Happiness

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Man’s Highest Happiness  (1921) 
by Abu Hamid al-Ghazālī, translated by Syed Nawab Ali

The constitution of man possesses a number of powers and propensities, each of which has its own distinctive kind of enjoyment suited to it by nature. The appetite of hunger seeks food which preserves our body and the attainment of which is the delight of it, and so with every passion and propensity when their particular objects are attained. Similarly the moral faculty-call it inward sight, light of faith or reason-any name will do provided the object signified by it is rightly understood-delights in the attainment of its desideratum. I shall call it here the faculty of reason (not that wrangling reason of the Scholastics and the dialecticians)—that distinctive quality which makes him lord of creation. This faculty delights in the possession of all possible knowledge. Even an expert in chess boastfully delights in the knowledge of the game however insignificant it may be. And the higher the subject matter of our knowledge the greater our delight in it. For instance we would take more pleasure in knowing the secrets of a king than the secrets of a vizier. Now delights are either (a) external, derived from the five senses, or (b) internal, such as love of superiority and power, love of the knowledge, etc enjoyed by the mind. And the more the mind is noble the more there will be a desire for the second kind of delights. The simple will delight in dainty dishes, but a great mind leaving them aside will endanger his life and his honour and reputation from the jaws of death. Even sensuous delights present an amusing example of preference. An expert in chess while absorbed in playing will not come to his meals though hungry and repeatedly summoned, because the pleasure of check-mating his adversary is greater to him than the object of his appetite. Thus we see that inward delights and they are chiefly love of knowledge and superiority are preferred by noble minds. If then a man believes in a perfect being, will not the pleasure of His contemplation be preferred by him and will it not absorb his whole self? Surely the delights of the righteous are indescribable, for they are even in this life, in a paradise which no eye has seen and no ear has heard.

Abu Sulaiman Darani,[1] the renowned Sufi, says: “There are servants of God whom neither fear of hell nor the hope of heaven can deviate from the divine love, how can the world with its temptations come in their way?”. Abu Mahfuz Karkhi was once asked by his disciples: ”Tell us what led you to devotion” but he kept quiet. “Is it the apprehension of death.” said one of them. “It matters little” replied the saint “Is it due to hell or to paradise”. inquired another. “What of them” said the saint” “both belong to a supreme Being, if you love him you will not be troubled by them”. Saint Rabia[2] was once asked about her faith: “God forbid”, answered Rabia: “If I serve him like a bad labourer thinking of his wages only”. And then she sang: “Love draws me nigh, I know not why”. Thus we see that the hearts of those who ate and drank and breathed like us felt delights of divine love which was their highest happiness.

If we think over man’s gradual development we find that every stage of his life is followed by a new sort of delight. Children love playing and have no idea of the pleasures of courtship and marriage experienced by young men, who in their turn would not care to exchange their enjoyments for wealth and greatness which are the delights of the middle aged men who consider all previous delights as insignificant and low. These last mentioned delights are also looked upon as unsubstantial and transitory by pure and noble souls fully developed.

The Quran says: “Know that this world’s life is only sport and play and boasting among yourselves, and vying in the multiplication of wealth and children”. “Say, shall I tell you what is better than these?” For the righteous are gardens with their Lord, beneath which rivers flow, to abide in them and pure mates and Allah’s pleasure and Allah sees the servants”. “Those who say: Our Lord, surely we believe, so forgive us our faults, and keep us from the chastisement of fire; the patient and the truthful and the obedient and those who spend (benevolently) and those who ask forgiveness in morning times”.[3]

Let us now point out some drawbacks which hinder the path of the divine love.

Man from his infancy is accustomed to enjoy sensual delights which are firmly implanted in him. Blind imitation of the creed with vague conception of the deity and his attributes fails to eradicate sensual delights and evoke the raptures of divine love. It is the dynamic force of direct contemplation of his attributes manifested in the universe that can prove an incentive for his love. To use a figure: a nation loves its national poet, but the feeling of one who studies the poet will be of exceeding strong love. The world is a masterpiece; he who studies it loves its invisible Author in a manner which cannot be described but is felt by the favoured few. Another drawback which sounds like a paradox, should be deeply studied. It is as follows: when we find a person writing or doing any other work, the fact that he is living will be most apparent to us: that is to say, his life, knowledge, power and will will be more apparent to us than his other internal qualities, e.g. colour, size, etc. which being perceived by the eye may be doubted. Similarly stones, plants, animals, the earth, the sky, the stars, the elements, in fact everything in the universe reveals to us the knowledge, power and the will of its originator. Nay, the first and the foremost proof is our consciousness, because the knowledge that I exist is immediate,[4] and more apparent than our perceptions. Thus we see that man’s actions are but one proof of his life, knowledge, power and will, but with reference to God the whole phenomenal existence with its law of causation and order and adaptability bears testimony of him and his attributes. Therefore, He is so dazzlingly apparent that the understanding of the people fails to see Him just as the bat pereeaes at night fails to see in daylight, because its imperfect sight cannot bear the light of the sun, so our understanding is blurred by the effulgent light of his manifestations. The fact is that objects are known by their opposites but the conception of one who exists everywhere and who has no opposite would be most difficult. Besides, objects which differ in their respective significances can also be distinguished but if they have common significances the same difficulty will be felt. For instance if the sun would have shone always without setting, we could have formed no idea of light, knowing simply that objects have certain colours. But the setting of the sun revealed to us the nature of light by comparing it with darkness. If then light, which is more perceptible and apparent would have never been understood had there been no darkness notwithstanding its undeniable visibility, there is no wonder if God who is most apparent and all pervading true light (Nur)[5] remains hidden, because if he would have disappeared (which means the annihilation of the universe), there would have been an idea of him by comparison as in the case of the light and darkness. Thus we see that the very mode of his existence and manifestation is a drawback for human understanding. But he whose inward sight is keen and has strong intuition in his balanced state of mind neither sees nor knows any other active power save God omnipotent. Such a person neither sees the sky as the sky nor the earth as the earth-in fact sees nothing in the universe except in the light of its being work of an all pervading True One. To use a figure: if a man looks at a poem or a writing, not as a collection of black lines scribbled on white sheets of paper but as a work of a poet or an author, he ought not to be considered as looking to anything other than the author. The universe is a unique masterpiece, a perfect song, he who reads it looks at the divine author and loves him. The true Mowahhid is one who sees nothing but God. He is not even aware of his self except as servant of God. Such a person will be called absorbed in Him; he is effaced, the self is annihilated. These are facts known to him who sees intuitively, but weak minds do not know them. Even Ulamas fail to express them adequately or consider the publicity of them as unsafe and unnecessary for the masses.

  1. Daran, a village near Damascus, where he died in 215 A.H.
  2. A famous Muslim woman saint of Basrah, considered to be an authority on Sufiism. She died in 801
  3. LVI 0 and III. 14-16.
  4. Compare Descartes’: Cogito ergo sum.
  5. Compare Quran XXIV 35. “Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth: a likeness of his light is a pillar on which is a lamp, the lamp is in a glass (and) the glass is as it were a brightly shining star lit from a blessed olive tree, neither eastern nor western, the oil whereof almost gives light though fire touches it not (heads daffor.) Allah guides to his light whom he pleases and Allah sets forth parables for men and Allah is cogniscant of all things.” Al Ghazzali has written a separate treatise called Mishkat ul Anwar dealing exhaustively with the above passage. An excellent summary of his views is given by Razi in his Commentary, vol. VI. 393-408. (Stamboul edition). In the above parable Islam is represented as a likeness of the divine light, a light placed high on a pillar so as to illumine the whole world, a light guarded by being placed in a glass so that no puff of wind can put it out, a light so resplendent that the glass itself in which it is placed is as a brillinnt star. Just as a fig tree stands for a symbol of Judaism (see St. Matthew XXI 19) the olive stands for Islam, which must give light to both the East and the West, and does not specifically belong to either one of them.

    The doctrine of Fana is misunderstood by many Western scholars. Tennyson puts it:

        * “That each, who seems a separate whole,
        * Should move his rounds and fusing all
        * The skirts of self again, should fall
        * Remerging in the general soul,
        * Is faith as vague as all unsweet.”
          (In Memoriam XLVII)

    Ghazzali’s vivid description is neither vague nor unsweet. To him Fana is “a prayer of rapture”. “In that state man is effaced from self, so that he is conscious neither of his body nor of outward things, nor of inward feelings. He is rapt from all these, journeying first to his Lord and then in his Lord, and if the thought that he is effaced from self occurs to him, that is a defect. The highest state is to be effaced from effacement”. [Editor: illegible character] Whinfield: Masnavi Introduction p. xxxvii.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.