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A READER'S JOURNAL

The Alchemy of Happiness
by
Al-Ghazzali
Translated by Claud Field
Published by The Octagon Press/UK in 1980
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2004

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Al-Ghazzali packs a lot of amazing ideas into the 122 pages of this small book. Claud Field, who translated the text from Hindustani, says that Al-Ghazzali wrote an abridgment of his own 12th Century classic work, Ihya, in Persian for popular use, and eight sections of that work comprise the text of this book.

Al-Ghazzali disdained those who repeated dogmatic prayers as if that were to protect and save them, such as those who hourly said the prayer, "I take refuge in God." He said:

[page 9] "Satan laughs at such pious ejaculations. Those who utter them are like a man who should meet a lion in a desert, while there is a fort at no great distance, and when he sees the evil beast, should stand exclaiming, 'I take refuge in that fortress', without moving a step towards it. What will such an ejaculation profit him?

His piety is red-hot and the words he writes sets ablaze the pages of the book and the fires the hearts of those who read the words therein. The Preface writer tells us of him:

[page 9] It is related of some unknown Sufi that when asked for definition of religious sincerity he drew a red-hot piece of iron out of a blacksmith's forge, and said, "Behold it!"

This was the characteristic of Ghazzali, and he scoffed those whose piety was only lukewarm or who uttered empty phrases. He preferred stories, metaphors, or allegories in the manner of Emerson who said, "Whoever thinks intently will find an image more or less luminous rise in his mind." (From the Preface, page 9). Here is one such image that he summons luminously into our minds: the story of the Chinese and Greek artists.

[page 10, 11] "Once upon a time the Chinese having challenged the Greeks to a trial of skill in painting, the Sultan summoned them both into edifices built for the purpose directly facing each other, and commanded them to show proof of their art. The painters of the two nations immediately applied themselves with diligence to their work. The Chinese sought and obtained of the king every day a great quantity of colors, but the Greeks not the least particle. Both worked in profound silence, until the Chinese with a clangor of cymbals and of trumpets, announced the end of their labors. Immediately the king, with his courtiers, hastened to their temple, and there stood amazed at the wonderful splendour of the Chinese painting and the exquisite beauty of the colors. But meanwhile the Greeks, who had not sought to adorn the walls with paints, but labored rather to erase every color, drew aside the veil which concealed their work. Then, wonderful to tell, the manifold variety of the Chinese colors was seen still more delicately and beautifully reflected from the walls of the Grecian temple, as it stood illuminated by the rays of the midday sun."

Ghazzali understands the heart is not just a piece of meat through which our blood flows in the center of our chest.

[page 18,19] The first step to self-knowledge is to know that thou art composed of an outward shape, called the body, and an inward entity called the heart, or soul. By "heart" I do not mean the piece of flesh situated in the left of our bodies, but that which uses all the other faculties as its instruments and servants. In truth it does not belong to the visible world, but to the invisible, and has come into this world as a traveler visits a foreign country for the sake of merchandise, and will presently return to its native land. It is the knowledge of this entity and its attributes which is the key to the knowledge of God.

The heart is much more than materialistic science would have us believe -- rightly understood, it is our window into the spiritual world.

[page 22] Our five senses are like five doors opening on the external world; but, more wonderful than this, our heart has a window which opens on the unseen world of spirits.

The physicist and the astronomer provide explanations for events in the world like the ant in this next simile by Ghazzali:

[page 35] The mere physicist is like an ant who, crawling on a sheet of paper and observing black letters spreading over it, should refer the cause to the pen alone.

If you only see the world of phenomena your explanations must necessarily stop at the boundaries of phenomena. You mistake the servants of the lowest rank of the king for the king.

In this next passage, Ghazzali talks about "the First Cause" of illness. This is often overlooked by folks when an illness or disease comes upon them. Instead of looking for the first cause, they instead focus on "combating the disease" -- not realizing that the One they are really fighting is the One who brought the disease upon them to help them remember what they came to Earth to do.

[page 37] For instance, if a man ceases to take any interest in worldly matters, conceives a distaste for common pleasures, and appears sunk in depression, the doctor will say, "This is a case of melancholy, and requires such and such a prescription." The physicist will say, "This is a dryness of the brain caused by hot weather and cannot be relieved till the air becomes moist." The astrologer will attribute it to some particular conjunction or opposition of planets. "Thus far their wisdom reaches," says the Koran. It does not occur to them that what has really happened is this: that the Almighty has a concern for the welfare of that man, and has therefore commanded His servants, the planets or the elements, to produce such a condition in him that he may turn away from the world to his Maker. The knowledge of this fact is a lustrous pearl from the ocean of inspirational knowledge, to which all other forms of knowledge are as islands, in the sea.

People no longer keep camels, at least not those reading these words, so you may not think the words of admonition in the next passage apply to you. You may own a Maxima or a BMW, however, and spent a lot of your income paying for it and its upkeep. I heard a story about a young professional who crashed his new BMW and was thrown from the wreckage. The State Policeman came up to him and noticed that his left arm had been torn off in the crash. The man was holding the stub of his left arm and crying inconsolably and mumbling about something he had lost. As the policeman got closer, he heard the man saying, "My Rolex! My Rolex!" Here was a man who spent his time on Earth "adorning his camel."

[page 45] Thus the occupations and businesses of the world have become more and more complicated and troublesome, chiefly owing to the fact that men have forgotten that their real necessities are only three -- clothing, food, and shelter, and that these exist only with the object of making the body a fit vehicle for the soul in its journey towards the next world. They have fallen into the same mistake as the pilgrim to Mecca, mentioned above, who, forgetting the object of his pilgrimage and himself, should spend his whole time in feeding and adorning his camel. Unless a man maintains the strictest watch he is certain to be fascinated and entangled by the world, which, as the Prophet said, is "a more potent sorcerer than Harut and Marut."

Like the man with his camel, worldly things appear at first as a convenience, but too soon they can grow to occupy all of a person's time and energy. The things of the world are like the ugly hag who dresses up in beautiful gowns and jewelry and veils her face. She seduces men to be her husband and then kills them. And yet she is never wanting for a new suitor.

[page 46] The deceitful character of the world comes out in the following ways. In the first place, it pretends that it will always remain with you, while, as a matter of fact, it is slipping away from you, moment by moment, and bidding you farewell, like a shadow which seems stationary, but is actually always moving. Again, the world presents itself under the guise of a radiant but immoral sorceress, pretends to be in love with you, fondles you, and then goes off to your enemies, leaving you to die of chagrin and despair. Jesus (upon whom be peace!) saw the world revealed in the form of an ugly old hag. He asked her how many husbands she had possessed; she replied that they were countless. He asked whether they had died or been divorced; she said that she had slain them all. "I marvel", he said, "at the fools who see what you have done to others, and still desire you."

The world can be divided into four classes of human according to how attached they are to the world. In this next story, Ghazzali likens the world to a stop made by a cruise liner at an island. The passengers all get off, but few heed the words of the captain of the ship as they depart.

[page 48] The captain of the ship tells the passengers he will stop a few hours there, and that they can go on shore for a short time, but warns them not to delay too long. Accordingly the passengers disembark and stroll in different directions. The wisest, however, return after a short time, and, finding the ship empty, choose the most comfortable places in it. A second band of the passengers spend a somewhat longer time on the island, admiring the foliage of the trees and listening to the song of the birds. Coming on board, they find the best places in the ship already occupied, and have to content themselves with the less comfortable ones. A third party wander still farther, and, finding some brilliantly colored stones, carry them back to the ship. Their lateness in coming on board compels them to stow themselves away in the lower parts of the ship, where they find their loads of stones, which by this time have lost all their brilliancy, very much in their way. The last group go so far in their wanderings that they get quite out of reach of the captain's voice calling them to come on board, and at last he has to sail away without them. They wander about in a hopeless condition and finally either perish of hunger or fall a prey to wild beasts.

Ghazzali tells us that "children who die before their parents intercede for them on the Day of Judgment," and pulls out a story to illustrate his point.

[page 92] It is related of a certain celibate saint that he once dreamt that the Judgment Day had come. The sun had approached close to the earth and people were perishing of thirst; a crowd of boys were moving about giving them water out of gold and silver vessels. But when the saint asked for water he was repulsed, and one of the boys said to him, "Not one of us here is your son." As soon as the saint awoke he made preparations to marry.

In the final chapter, "Who Are Thy Lovers", Ghazzali explains how God treats those who are so caught up in the world as to ignore their Creator:

[page 120] The fifth test is, he will be covetous of retirement and privacy for purposes of devotion; he will long for the approach of night, so that he may hold intercourse with his Friend without let or hindrance. If he prefers conversation by day and sleep at night to such retirement, then, his love is imperfect. God said to David, "Be not too intimate with men; for two kinds of persons are excluded from My presence: those who are earnest in seeking reward and slack when they obtain it, and those who prefer their own thoughts to the remembrance of Me. The sign of My displeasure is that I leave such to themselves."

Such is the "alchemy of happiness" that Al-Ghazzali brewed up for us and served it in a small teacup, hot, steaming, and refreshing of our souls, if we but take the cup into our hands and drink deeply.




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Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne

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