A native of Khorasan, of Persian origin, the Muslim theologian, sufi mystic, and philosopher Abu-Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali is one of the great figures of Islamic religious thought, as well as a critical figure in the debates over the preservation of classical Greek and Roman thought during the Dark Ages in the Christian West. Al-Ghazali taught at in Baghdad between 1091 and 1095, but, allegedly suffering from a nervous illness that made it physically impossible for him to lecture (“God put a lock unto my tongue,” he wrote in his autobiography), he gave up his teaching position in order to live a life of mystical asceticism. He describes his spiritual crisis:
One day I would determine to leave Baghdad and these circumstances, and the next day change my mind. . . . The desires of this world pulled at me and entreated me to remain, while the voice of faith cried out “Go! Go! Only a little of your life remains, yet before you there lies a lengthy voyage. All the knowledge and works that are yours today are but eye service and deceit. If you do not prepare now for the Afterlife, then when shall you do so?”
Al-Ghazali embarked on a two-year period of wandering, teaching, and writing. He traveled to Damascus on the pretext of making a pilgrimage, then to Jerusalem, finally making the hajj or Pilgrimage in 1096 as he pursued the Sufi path of self-purification and a quest for direct knowledge of God.
Al-Ghazali’s extensive writings include The Just Mean in Belief, written before his wanderings, and The Revival of the Religious Sciences, written during them. The latter shows a distrust of scholastic theology and intellectualism. In The Precious Pearl, a reworking of Book 40, al-Ghazali describes the four categories of persons who will be questioned in the grave by interrogating angels and affected by personifications of their good and bad deeds: the most learned and pious, the ulama, who are allowed into the Garden after questioning; those who did good works but were not fully spiritually advanced are made to gaze upon Hell before being released into the Garden; those who have succumbed to temptations at death, waywardness, or doubt are punished through the intermediate time they spend in grave; and finally the profligates, those unable to answer even the first of the angels’ questions, “Who is your Lord?”—their punishment in the grave is the most severe. The first selection here, a short passage from Book 26 of the Revival of the Religious Sciences, affirms Islam’s rejection of suicide and describes two forms of suicide or para-suicidal activity that are unacceptable: suicide motivated by a desire to avoid suffering and to reach heaven, and the delayed or “slow suicide” that results from extreme asceticism and self-mortification. The second selection, from Book 40 of the Revival, “The Remembrance of Death,” describes the Angel of Death asking Muhammad if he may enter Muhammad’s house and thus take him; the Angel gives Muhammad the choice of whether to die now.Muhammad replies that he is ready to go, that is, that he is willing to die. Book 40 also describes “the most perfect of delights” that is the reward of martyrdom in the afterlife; martyrs are rewarded with entrance to the Garden immediately after death. It portrays a man already in Heaven weeping, because he can only be slain for God’s sake once, but wishes he could be martyred many more times than this.
Al-Ghazali, The Revival of the Religious Sciences. Book 26 from Al-Ghazali, Al-Ghazali’s Ihya’ulum al-Din (Revitalization of the Sciences of Religion), abridged by Abd el Salam Haroun, rev. and tr. Dr. Ahmad A. Zidan, Vol. 1, Cairo: Islamic Inc. Publishing and Distribution, 1997, pp. 394-397. Book 40 from Ai-Ghazali, The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife. Kitab dhikr al-mawt wa-ma ba’dahu, Book XL of The Revival of the Religious Sciences, Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din. tr. T. J. Winter, Cambridge, UK: The Islamic Texts Society, 1989, pp. 65-67, 128-129; quotation in biographical note, p. xvii. See also Jane Idleman Smith and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981, pp. 43-45. Comments from Salman Bashier.
from THE REVIVAL OF THE RELIGIOUS SCIENCES
He who is aware in what respect these means and occupations are needed and what is truly intended from them, let him not engage himself in an occupation, profession, or labor until he is fully knowledgeable of their meaning, what part he takes in them, and what falls to his lot from them. Let him know that the ultimate purpose for engaging in these matters is attending his body with nutrition and clothing so that it does not perish. For if he follows in this affair the course of moderation, his occupations will be driven away, his heart will be cleared and overcome by the remembrance of the abode of the hereafter, and his concentration will be turned to the preparation for it. But if he exceeds the limits of necessity, his occupations will multiply, leading him from one occupation to another, and the affair will be endless. Then his worries shall branch out, and one whose worries have branched out in the valleys of this world even God will be careless in which one of these valleys he shall perish. Such is the situation of those who are absorbed in the occupations of this world.
Some people had noticed this and turned away from the world altogether. Satan envied these people and did not leave them to themselves and misled them even in their shunning the world. Then they divided into groups. One group imagined that the world is an abode of affliction and hardship and that the hereafter is the abode of delight for whosoever comes to arrive at it, regardless of whether they perform the service of God or not. Hence they thought it was appropriate for them to kill themselves for the sake of fleeing from the ordeal of life. To this conclusion reached some sects from among the inhabitants ofIndia, who hurl into the fire and kill themselves while thinking that this would be deliverance for them from the afflictions of life. Another group believed that killing the body alone does not deliver and that there is a need first for annihilating the human qualities and severing them from the soul altogether, since they thought that happiness consists in oppressing desire and anger. Thus they embarked upon fighting the self and overburdened themselves so much so that some of them perished out of immoderation in exercising the toil. Some damaged their minds or became insane or sick so that the path of worshiping was blocked in their faces. Some failed to suppress their instincts completely and thought that what the Law had prescribed was untenable and that the Law was a baseless fraud, and consequently they became heretics….
And behind all this lie many erroneous doctrines and enormous falsehoods the mention of which may take long and their number amounts to seventy and some sects. From among all these sects only one will be saved and this is the one sect which follows the path which was followed by the Prophet (God bless him and grant him salvation) and his Companions. To follow this path means that one should not desert the world altogether and suppress his desires entirely. One should take from the world whatever provides him with provisions and suppress whatever desires distract him from obeying the Law and the reason. One should not pursue all desires nor abstain from all desires. But one should observe the correct measure and not forsake everything of the world and not seek everything of the world and know for what purpose things in the world were created and observe each thing according to the purpose for the sake of which it was created.
The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife. On the Death of the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace), and of the Rightly-guided Caliphs after Him
…And ‘A’isha said (may God be pleased with her), ‘When the day of the Emissary of God’s death came (may God bless him and grant him peace), the people saw an improvement in him at the day’s beginning, and the men went apart from him to their homes and tasks rejoicing, leaving him with the women. While we were there we were in a state of hope and joyfulness the likes of which we had never known. And then the Prophet of God said, “Go out, away from me; this Angel seeks leave to enter.” At this, everyone but myself left the house. His head had been in my lap, but now he sat up and I retired to one side of the room. He communed with the Angel at length, and then summoned me and returned his head to my lap, bidding the women enter. “I did not sense that that was Gabriel, upon him be peace,” I said. “Indeed, ‘A’isha,” he replied. “That was the Angel of Death, who came to me and said, ‘I am sent by God (Great and Glorious is He!), Who has commanded me not to enter your house without your consent. So if you should withhold it from me I shall go back, but should you give it me, then shall I enter. And He has enjoined me not to take your spirit until you so instruct me; what, then, might your instructions be?’ ‘Hold back from me’, I said, ‘until Gabriel has come to me, for this is his hour’.”
And ‘A’isha [continued, and] said, (may God be pleased with her), ‘So we came into the presence of a matter for which we had neither answer nor opinion. We were downcast; it was as if we had been struck by a calamity about which we could do nothing. Not one of the people of the Household spoke because of their awe in the face of this affair and because of a fear which filled our depths. At his hour, Gabriel came (I felt his presence) and gave his greeting. The people of the Household left, and he entered, saying, “God (Great and Glorious is He!) gives you His greetings, and asks how you are, although He knows better than you your condition; yet He desires to increase you in dignity and honour, and to render your dignity and honour greater than that of all creatures, that this may be a precedent [sunna] for your nation.” “I am in pain,” he said. And the Angel replied, “Be glad, for God (Exalted is He!) has willed to bring you to that which He has made ready for you.” “O Gabriel,” he said. “The Angel of Death asked for permission to enter!” and he told him of what had transpired. And Gabriel said, “O Muhammad! Your Lord longs for you! Has He not given you to know His purpose for you? Nay, by God, never has the Angel of Death sought permission of anyone, no more than is his permission to be sought at any time. It is only that your Lord is making perfect your honour while He longs for you.” “Then do not leave until he comes,” he said.
…Then he allowed the women to enter, and said, “Fatima, draw near.” She leaned over him and he whispered in her ear. When she raised her head again she was weeping, and could not bear to speak. Then he said again, “Bring your head close,” and she leaned over him while he whispered something to her. Then she raised her head, and was smiling, unable to speak. What we saw in her was something most astonishing. Afterwards we questioned her about what had happened, and she said, “He told me, ‘Today I shall die,’ so I wept; then he said, ‘I have prayed to God to let you be the first of my family to join me, and to set you with me,’ so I smiled.”
‘Then she brought her two sons close by him. He drew in their fragrance. Then the Angel of Death came, greeted him, and asked leave to enter. He granted it to him, and the Angel said, “What are your instructions, O Muhammad?” “Take me now to my Lord,” he said. “Yes indeed,” he responded, “on this day of yours. Truly your Lord longs for you. He has not paused over any man as He has paused over you, nor has He ever forbidden me to enter without permission upon anyone else. But now, your hour is come.” And he went out. Then came Gabriel, who said, “Peace be upon you, O Emissary of God! This is the final time I shall ever descend to the earth. Revelation is folded up, the world is folded up, and I had on the earth no business save with you. Upon it now I have no purpose save being present with you, after which I shall remain in my place. No! By He Who sent Muhammad with the Truth, there is no-one in the house able to change one word of what I have said. He will never be sent again despite the greatness of the discourse concerning him which shall be heard, and despite our affection and sympathy.”
…I would say to him when he came round, “May my father and mother be your ransom, and myself and all my family! How your forehead perspires!” And he said, “O ‘A’isha, the soul of the believer departs with his sweat, while that of the unbeliever departs through his jaws like that of the donkey.” At this, we were afraid and sent for our families.
‘The first man to come not having seen him was my brother, whom my father had sent. But the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) died before the arrival of anyone…
On the True Nature of Death, and what the Dead Man Undergoes in the Grave Prior to the Blast on the Trump
Said Ya’la ibn al-Walid, ‘I was walking one day with Abu’l-Darda’, and asked him, “What do you like to happen to those you like?” “Death,” he replied. “But if one has not died yet?” I asked, and he answered, “That his progeny and wealth should be scanty. I feel a liking for death because it is liked only by the believer, whom it releases from his imprisonment. And I like one’s progeny and wealth to be scanty because these things are a trial, and can occasion familiarity with the world, and familiarity with that which must one day be left behind is the very extremity of sorrow. All that is other than God, His remembrance, and familiarity with Him must needs be abandoned upon one’s death”.’
For this reason ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Amr said, ‘When his soul, or spirit, emerges, the believer is as a man who was in a prison, from which he was released and travelled about and took pleasure in the world.’
This [Narrative just] mentioned refers to the state of the man who withdrew from the world, being wearied of it and finding no pleasure in it save that which is the remembrance of God (Exalted is He!), and who was kept by the distractions of the world from his Beloved, and who was hurt by the vicissitudes of his desires. In death he found a release from every harmful thing, and won unrestricted solitude with his Beloved, who was ever his source of consolation. How right it is that this should be the pinnacle of bliss and beatitude!
The most perfect of delights is that which is the lot of the Martyrs who are slain in the way of God. For when they advance into battle they cut themselves off from any concern with the attachments of the world in their yearning to meet God, happy to be killed for the sake of obtaining His pleasure. Should such a man think upon the world he would know that he has sold it willingly for the Afterlife, and the seller’s heart never inclines to that which has been sold. And when he thinks upon the Afterlife, he knows that he had longed for it, and has now purchased it. How great, then, is his rejoicing at that which he has bought when he comes to behold it, and how paltry his interest in what he has sold when from it he takes his leave!
. . .Said Ka’b, ‘In Heaven there is a weeping man who, when asked, “Why do you weep, although you are in Heaven?” replies, “I weep because I was slain for God’s sake no more than once; I yearn to go back that I might be slain many times’.”