The Alchemy of Happiness by al-Ghazali: Book Review

The title of the book sounded like it would have something to do with finding or creating happiness. An overview of the index revealed the following contents: Knowledge of Self, Knowledge of God, Knowledge of this World, and Knowledge of the Hereafter. This was all about Knowledge. So does knowledge of all these things give you happiness? To find out, I started reading.

I was introduced to Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058 A.D.), a Muslim theologian, jurist, philosopher and mystic of Persian descent. Although al-Ghazali’s major work is Ihya’ Ulum al-Din (The Revival of The Religious Sciences) which is a comprehensive (spanning over forty books) guide to every aspect of Muslim life and death, “The Alchemy of Happiness” (Kimiya-yi sa’adat) is the gist of it.

Ghazali’s interesting use of allegories not only made reading enjoyable but also served as an excellent explanatory tool. So what did Ghazali mean by Alchemy? Alchemy (which we know today as Chemistry) involves substances changing state. An impure compound might be subjected to various steps of purification by means of addition and removal of other substances, resulting in a new pure state. Ghazali describes the impure compound as being man himself, the impurities to be removed being his lowly passions and vices, the substances added being virtues to be acquired and the pure state being the state of human perfection that makes him worthy to face God. For Ghazali, the Alchemy of Happiness is about the processes involved in achieving that state of purity thereby gaining happiness in the form of nearness to God.

In Book 1 “Knowledge of Self”, Ghazali urges us to contemplate the meaning, origins and purpose of our existence. It is only by self-examination that we can understand the relationship and function of the body, soul, heart and mind and discover the reality and attributes of God. Knowing ourselves is the key to knowing what really makes us happy.

In Book 2 “Knowledge of God”, we discover how knowing our self leads to knowing God; knowing why only God can truly make us happy and how. God is our origin and our destination. On our return to God, our level of devotion and affection will determine the state of our happiness upon reunion. God is our eternal Benefactor, Friend, the most Merciful, the most Loving. It is natural to show our love for Him through His obedience and worship.

In Book 3 “Knowledge of this World”, Ghazali uses allegories to explain how the world is nothing but a middle stage in our journey to God. We are not meant to get lost in this island while the boat leaves. We are not meant to be deceived with what the beautiful sorceress offers. We are pilgrims and we must keep the destination in mind and not be occupied with feeding the camel. The challenge is to keep the needs of the body to a bare minimum and target the needs of the soul. We should be focused on acquiring purity of the soul and constant communion with God for therein lies the ultimate happiness.

In Book 4 “Knowledge of the Hereafter”, Ghazali explains the meaning of death and resurrection in the real spiritual sense. His notions of death and the angel of death are described as states of the soul in relation to the body. There are chapters containing vivid descriptions of the spiritual hell and the difference between spiritual and physical pain. The three kinds of fire he describes are the fire of separation from worldly desires, the fire of repentance and shame and lastly the fire of disappointment from the favor of God.

In summary, Ghazali details the many pitfalls and distractions, internal and external, which lie in wait to divert the traveler of the Path from attaining the goal which Ghazali calls spiritual happiness. In “The Alchemy”, Ghazali has provided the traveler of the Path with a detailed guidebook to guide him safely to that goal. For Ghazali, it is the returning to, seeing and observing of the Loving Divine Presence that brings absolute happiness. Happiness, as I understood, was ultimately in knowing and loving God and being loved by Him in return.

By Shamsa Abid

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