Imam al-Ghazali رحمه الله and the signs of the ‘Ulama

By Mawlana Muhammad Zakariyya Kandhalawi رحمه الله 

Editor’s note – In his masterpiece, Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din, Imam al-Ghazali writes passionately about the evils of not acting on knowledge and the signs of the ‘ulama of the hereafter. A condensed version of this lengthy passage was rendered into Urdu by Shaykh al-Hadith Mawlana Muhammad Zakariyya Kandhalawi and produced in part two of Fada’il-i-Sadaqat, which was subsequently translated from Urdu into English by M. Tayyab Bakhsh Badayuni.

These twelve signs have, under the instructions of Dr. Hanif Kamal, been edited and are now being reproduced ; this is primarily for the benefit of the editor, the ‘ulama in general, and — since we live in confusing and delicate times — for the general lay populace to allow them to identify the true inheritors of the prophets (peace be upon them).

I pray Allah Most High grants us all, through His divine accordance, the correct understanding of His din, the ability to live according to His noble wishes and desires, and acceptance to serve His din with sincerity. Ismaeel Nakhuda.

Imam al-Ghazali (may Allah mercy him) writes: An ‘alim who is enamoured of the world is meaner and lower in spiritual status than an ignorant person; he will be punished in the hereafter more severely. Successful indeed are the ‘ulama who have been favoured with nearness to Allah Most High and who are ever concerned about the hereafter. There are certain distinguishing signs of such ‘ulama:

The First: an ‘alim is one who does not try to acquire wealth through his learning. The lowest of rank among the ‘ulama is one who is fully aware that this material world is despicable, mean, polluted and temporary; and that the life hereafter is vast, everlasting and glorious beyond imagination, the bounties whereof are absolutely pure. Besides, every true ‘alim fully understands that this world and the hereafter are opposed to each other. They are, so to say, like two wives married to one and the same husband — when one is pleased with him, the other is naturally displeased. To give another example, they are like two scales of a balance, when one goes down, the other goes up automatically. Indeed, the present world and the world hereafter are poles apart. They are like two wives of a person — if you seek to get closer to one, it will be at the expense of the other. He who does not realise that this material world is of low value and impure, the pleasures of which are gained at the cost of hardships in this world and in the hereafter, is not of sane mind.

It is a common experience that all worldly joys involve taking pains in this world and unavoidable sufferings in the hereafter. How can a person of such insane mind become an ‘alim? Furthermore, a person who has no idea of the magnificence of the hereafter and its everlastingness is not a believer. How can such a person be an ‘alim? If a person does not realise that this world and the next have opposing interests and wishes to combine both, then he is trying to do something that is undesirable. Such people are in fact ignorant of the code of life of all of the prophets of Allah Most HighIf a person knows all these facts and still gives preference to his worldly interests, he is a slave of Satan, ruined by lusts and facing an evil fate. Such a lost soul cannot, obviously, be counted among the ‘ulama.

Sayyiduna Dawud (peace be upon him) relates that Allah Most High says, “If an ‘alim prefers worldly desires to My love, the least I do to him is that I deprive him of the bliss of having communion with Me, he cannot experience the sublime joys inherent in the remembrance of Allah Most High and in supplications to Him. O Dawud, have no regard for an ‘alim who has been intoxicated by his lust for this world, for he would lead you astray from My love. Such people are robbers. O Dawud, if you find someone who really seeks My countenance, become his servant. O Dawud, if anyone comes to me running, I record his name as a sane wise person and I do not punish such a man.”

Yahya bin Mu’adh al-Razi (may Allah mercy him) said, “When knowledge and wisdom are employed for gaining worldly advantages, then they are divested of lustre and glory.” Sa’id bin al-Musayyib (may Allah mercy him) said, “If you find an ‘alim remaining constantly with princes, then consider him a thief.”

Sayyiduna ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) said, “If you find an ‘alim enamoured of this material world, then he must be blameworthy in religious matters, for everybody occupies himself with things which are dear to him.”

Someone asked a divine, “Can anyone who takes pleasure in sinful deeds become an ‘arif (a gnostic) of his Lord”? The divine replied, “I can say, without hesitation, that he who prefers this world to the next cannot be an ‘arif; relishing sins is a far greater evil.” It should also be borne in mind that no ‘alim can be regarded as one concerned about the hereafter merely due to his rejection of worldly wealth, unless he also has no ambition for worldly honour or status. For these ambitions are more harmful to the soul than the lust for wealth.

In other words, all of those warnings that have been mentioned above about giving preference to the world and seeking it not only include earning wealth but also include even more the seeking of grandeur. This is because the pitfalls and harms of seeking glory are greater than seeking wealth.

The Second distinguishing characteristic of a true ‘alim is that there should be no contradiction between his knowledge and his practice of din. He preaches good to others and does not practice himself.

Allah Most High says: “Do you enjoin righteousness upon others while you ignore your own selves, although you keep reciting the Book?” (Al-Baqarah: 44)

He says elsewhere: It is severely hateful in Allah’s sight that you say what you do not do.” (Al-Saff: 3)

Hatim al-Asam (may Allah mercy him) said, “On the day of Resurrection, none will be more grieved than an ‘alim who imparted knowledge to others which they acted upon and were granted eternal success, while he himself did not act upon his knowledge and, therefore, failed miserably.” Ibn Simak (may Allah mercy him) said, “There are many who enjoin the remembrance of Allah Most High upon others, but do not remember Him themselves; they admonish others to fear Allah, but they themselves disobey Him most audaciously; they persuade others to cultivate proximity to Allah, but are remote from Him themselves; they invite others unto Allah, but themselves flee from Him.”

‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Ghanam (may Allah mercy him) said that ten Companions of the Prophet (may Allah be pleased with them) related to him the hadith, “We were once sitting in Masjid Quba and learning (religious) knowledge when the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) came and said to us, ‘Acquire as much knowledge as you will but Allah Most High will not reward you unless you act upon what you know.’”

The third distinguishing characteristic is that he is always concerned with such branches of knowledge that are beneficial for the hereafter and which exhort one to perform good deeds. He is least interested in that branch of knowledge that has no or little use in the hereafter. In our foolishness, we also regard that type of knowledge as ‘ilm, the purpose of which is only earning the world, even though it is sheer ignorance for such a person to consider himself educated [of the religious sciences]; it is then the case that such a person is not particular about learning religious knowledge. An illiterate person, on the other hand, is in the least conscious of his ignorance and therefore tries to acquire religious knowledge. Great indeed is the loss of a man who believes himself to be an ‘alim though he is steeped in (sheer) ignorance.

Hatim al-Asam (may Allah mercy him) was a renowned saint and favourite pupil of Shaqiq al-Balkhi (may Allah mercy him)Once the shaykh asked him, “Hatim, how long have you been here in my company?” He replied, “Thirty-three years.” The shaykh said, “What did you learn during these years from me?” Hatim (may Allah mercy him) replied, “I have learnt eight issues.” At this, Shaqiq (may Allah mercy him) out of sheer disappointment recited, “We are surely Allah’s and we shall surely return unto him.”

He said regretfully, “You learnt only eight lessons during these long years of association with me? I have wasted all my life in associating with you.” Hatim (may Allah mercy him) said, “I have learnt only eight lessons — I cannot lie to you”. The shaykh said, “Tell me, what are those eight lessons?” Hatim (may Allah mercy him) answered:

1] “I have found that everybody loves someone or something (wife, children, property, friends, etc.), but I know that as soon as he is laid in the grave, the loved ones part company with him. Consequently, I have cultivated love for good deeds so that when I do pass into the grave my loved ones accompany me and after death I am not alone.” Shaqiq (may Allah mercy him) said, “You have done well.”

2] “I have read in the Holy Qur’an that Allah Most High says: ‘Whereas for the one who feared to stand before his Lord, and restrained his self from the (evil) desire, Paradise will be the abode.’ (Al-Nazi’at: 40-41)

“I know that whatever Allah Most High says is true. Therefore, I have restrained myself from worldly desires until I became steadfast in devotion to Him.

3] “I saw in the world that those things which are most dearest and precious to men are preserved with great care and protected with diligence.

“Then I read in the Qur’an that Allah Most High says: ‘What is with you shall perish and what is with Allah shall last.’ (Al-Nahl: 96)

“Accordingly, whenever I came by something which was of great value to me, or which I prized above other things, I consigned it to the custody of Allah (spent it for the cause of Allah Most High)so that it should be preserved forever.

4] “I have observed that (for honour and glory) some men turn to wealth, some to nobility of parentage and others to other things of pride. That is, they take pride in wealth, high parentage etc., and assert their superiority over others.

“But I have read in the Qur’an that Allah Most High says: Surely the noblest of you, in Allah’s sight, is the one who is most pious of you.’ (Al-Hujarat: 13)

“I have therefore cultivated piety in myself, so that I should become the noblest of men in the sight of Allah Most High.

5] “I have noticed that people upbraid others, revile them or find fault with them. This is all out of jealousy in that one is jealous of the other.

“Then, I read in the Qur’an that Allah Most High says: ‘We have allocated among them their livelihood in the worldly life, and have raised some of them over others in ranks, so that some of them may put some others to work.’ (Al-Zukhruf: 32) (That is to say, if all men were alike and equal in rank, no one would work for others or serve anybody and, consequently, there would be disorder and chaos in the affairs of the world.)

“Therefore, I have restrained myself from jealousy and ceased to concern myself with other people’s affairs. I know for certain that the distribution of livelihood is entirely in the hands of Allah Most High and He grants as much as He pleases to whomsoever He likes. I therefore ceased to harbour enmity against anyone, realising that a man’s personal effort has little to do with his prosperity or adversity. It has rather been foreordained by Allah Most High Who is the Sovereign Lord of the worlds. So, I do not feel angry with anyone.

6] “I have observed that nearly everyone in this world is hostile to someone or the other. Having paid attention, I noticed that Allah Most High says in the Qur’an: Surely Satan is an enemy for you. So, take him as an enemy. He only invites his group (to falsehood) so that they become inmates of the blazing fire.’ (Al-Fatir: 6)

“So, I have directed all my hostilities against Satan alone and I try to keep away from him by all possible means. Since Allah Most High has commanded us to treat him as an enemy, I bear no enmity against anyone save Satan.

7] “I have observed that all people are struggling hard to seek livelihood, so much so that they disgrace or abase themselves before others and adopt unlawful means for procuring their daily bread.

“But I have read in the Qur’an that Allah Most High says: ‘There is no creature on earth whose sustenance is not undertaken by Allah.’ (Hud: 6)

“Considering that I am also one of the creatures that move on earth whose sustenance depends upon Allah Most High, I occupied myself with paying what I owe to Allah Most High and ceased to worry about what Allah Most High has taken the responsibility to provide.

8] “I have observed that all men have faith upon and put their trust in things which have themselves been created by Allah Most HighSome have faith in their estates or businesses, others in their own craftsmanship, and there are still others who trust their health and strength. In short, all people have put their trust in things that are created like themselves.

“I have read in the Qur’an that Allah Most High says: ‘And whoever places his trust in Allah, He is sufficient for him.’ (Al-Talaq: 3)

“I have, therefore, put my trust and faith in Him alone.”

Shaqiq (may Allah mercy him) thereupon said, “Hatim, may Allah bless you with tawfiq (divine aid for performance for good deeds). I have seen the teachings of the Torah, the Injil, the Zabur and the Holy Qur’an, and I believe that these eight moral lessons form a gist of all that is really good and beneficial for man. Therefore, anyone acting upon these precepts will be deemed to have practised the learning contained in all of the four scriptures revealed by Allah Most High.

Such learning can only be attained by those ‘ulama who are really concerned about the hereafter (‘ulama al-akhirah). These truths lie too deep for those (so-called) ‘ulama who are ambitious for material wealth and who hanker after worldly honour and recognition.