3 Pieces of Advice From Imam al-Ghazali’s “O My Beloved Son”

[These are rough notes of a talk delivered by Shaykh Kamaluddin Ahmed (db) on October 28, 2010]

وَذَكِّرۡ فَإِنَّ ٱلذِّكۡرَىٰ تَنفَعُ ٱلۡمُؤۡمِنِينَ
And keep reminding, because reminding benefits the believers. [51:55]

* The script within square brackets are Shaykh Kamaluddin Ahmed [db]’s personal comments on the text of the letter.

Imam Al-Ghazali (rh) wrote a letter to one of his students and this student was a graduate from the Madrassa (Islamic Institution of Learning) that Imam Al-Ghazali was teaching at. The Student actually wrote Imam Al-Ghazali a letter asking him for some final words of advice, which he promised in his letter, that he would bind close to his heart and do his utmost effort to practice upon throughout his life. Imam Al-Ghazali wrote him a very long letter which has been printed in the Arab world as a small Risala or an epistle.

Imam Al-Ghazali (rh) begins this letter to his student, whom he affectionately calls walad (=Son), by saying Ya ayyuhal walad al-mehboobi i.e. O my beloved Son. And, in the course of this long letter, one of the things that Imam Al-Ghazali (rh) mentions are: 8 particular pieces of advice which are taken from a very famous story of a Shaykh of the Muslim Ummah by the name of Shaykh Shaqiq al-balkhi (rh):

Shaykh Shaqiq-al-balki (rh) had a student named Hatim al-Asam (rh). Hatim al-Asam was once in the company of his Shaykh, when Shaykh Shaqiq asked him:

You have had my company for thirty years, what have you learnt in the 30 years that you have been with me?

[This also gives us an insight into the way people in the early Islamic period organized their relationship – it was a long term commitment. One could only imagine what it would be like to associate with a Shaykh, a wali of Allah swt, somebody like Shaykh Shaqiq rah for 30 years!]

So, after 30 years of having the student, the Shaykh asked him what have you learnt or got out from these 30 years, Hatim rah responded that:

Shaykh, there are 8 useful lessons that I have learnt from you and I hope that they will be enough for me, and they will be sufficient to bring about my nija’at, my forgiveness and salvation, on the Day of Judgement.

So the Shaykh asked him, what are they? [And this is how he replied. Imam al-Ghazali included this story in his letter so as to counsel his student.]

First Lesson

I learnt that to be human is to Love. So, Instead of loving the temporary things (like other human beings do), I fell in love with aimal as-saleh (righteous actions).

When I was in your company, what I learnt from your company is how to observe humanity. [All of the lessons have this common feature: it shows that one of the things he learnt from his Shaykh was how to understand humanity.

  • It is interesting how even in the West and all over the world in general, Humanities is a major area of study.
  • The secular tradition was to study  philosophy,  history, literature,  liberal arts, fine arts etc.  in order to understand what the human experience was.
  • However, in our Deen, or the Sacred Sciences, it means to drown yourself in Qur’an, in the Seerah (Life of Nabi-e-karim saw), in the Sunnah Ahadith, Teachings and Kaifiat (States) of Nabi-e-karim saw to look at the path of the Siddiqin (The Righteous), the Shuhada (The Martyrs), and Saliheen. And, the basis of all these sources is to understand Humanity.
  • Hatim al-Asam begins every lesson with that: I learnt from you, what to learn from humanity itself and from human beings.]

So, he says that I observed humanity and I saw that it is the very part of human nature that every single human being is in love with something or someone or some idea. [He reflected on the human experience that: to be human is to love.] When I looked at the people around me, I realized that all of them had different objects of love.

But, I noticed what was common to all of them, was that whatever they chose to love- whatever they chose to give their heart to – they could only take it up to the grave. But when they entered their grave, none of their beloveds could enter with them – none of their beloveds could take the next step in the journey with them. So, Hatim says that I learnt how to understand humanity from you and when I saw this about humanity that:

  1. Every human being loves something
  2. The objects that people love don’t go past their grave

…I realized that what I should do, since I am also human, and I will also inevitably love something, I should love what is best i.e. that which would enter ones grave and be a friend to one in the grave, and be a companion to a person on the next stage of the journey. When I reflected on what that was, I realized that nothing could lay claim to that except: aimal as-saleh (Righteous Actions, Ibadat/worship etc) And so, I fell in love with aimal as-Saleh. I gave my love, my muhabbah to aimal as-saleh.

[ Now, if we just take this one lesson:

  • It shows how much one learns when they associate themselves for a long period of time with the Ullema and Mashaikh
  • Now, one thing is to say that I want to do amaal-e-salih, one thing would be to say that I want to be regular and consistent in amaal-e-salihaat ; Here, he is saying that I fell in love with amaal-e-salih! That person whose human state  is such that the greatest object of their love (in terms of  things) are those things that are pleasing to Allah swt; those actions that are righteous and pious – then imagine what type of life that person would lead!
  • This is something that we have to learn, but we can learn it gradually – like a piece-meal: We should start with some amal-e-salih and try to fall in love with them.
  • For most of us, there would be no better amal to start with than our Salah.
  • Now, the  question is: How can I fall in love with Salah? That is going to be when you enjoy Salah.How to enjoy Salah? A person will be able to enjoy Salah, when they feel Allah swt in their prayer.How can we feel Allah swt in our Prayer? That is called dhikr; by feeling Allah swt outside our prayer. The more and more a person remembers Allah swt outside their Salah, the more they  will be able to remember Him inside their Salah –> When they remember Allah Ta’ala inside their Salah –> they will start enjoying their Salah –> once they start enjoying their Salah, they will be passionate about their Salah; they will love their Salah.
  • And, that is how our pious elders were and that is what they were trying to train people to become like –  and it is one of the major aspects of Tazkiya and Tasawwuf –  to take a person who is cold, dispassionate and habitual about his/her amaal and to make her/him passionate and loving about their amaal and their ibadaat towards Allah swt.
  • One way in which we could begin to learn and practice this advice is: Try to think in terms of love; that I have to love these amaal.
  • That is why there are so many adaab in our Deen for all of the acts of worship, so that the acts become more enjoyable and we perform them with love. For example, Adaab of Salah include: praying at a clean place, making wudhu externally and trying to purify ourselves of all types of  worldly thoughts and distractions before we pray, to dress in good clothing, to apply perfume etc. Why? To make it a more  pleasurable experience, and to make it an act of love!
  • Just like we see in this world,  when people do an act of love, they try to gift wrap it, give out an invitation, make sure the table is clean, prepare the meal nicely, put up candles, flowers for decoration etc i.e. these little etiquettes not only manifest love but are actually creating and amplifying the feeling of love.
  • So, if we want to make our Salah an act of love, we need to start focusing on the adaab of Salah. As opposed to praying like most of us do it: hastily, rapidly, praying as an obligation only – Imam An-nawwawi calls it the prayer of Ibaad and he means it in a negative sense like the concept of enslaved humans is that they are forced to do what their masters tell them. We don’t want our salah to be like that, instead we should focus on beautifying it; making it an act of love.

The first way, then, for us, is to try to do amal on this advice that we need to focus on our salah.

Second Lesson

I learnt that to be human is to desire. So I kept my nafs away from unlawful desires. And I kept making this mujahida until my nafs was pleased with only that which Allah swt was pleased with.

The second lesson that Shaykh Hatim (rh) says that he learnt from his Shaykh – Shaykh Shaqiq (rh) – is that again he said that I saw humanity, I reflected upon the human condition and I saw that to be human is to desire. I thought that every human being is also guided by their desires, their pleasures, by what their nafs desires. And he says that I specifically thought of this ayah in the Qur’an:

وَأَمَّا مَنۡ خَافَ مَقَامَ رَبِّهِۦ وَنَهَى ٱلنَّفۡسَ عَنِ ٱلۡهَوَىٰ فَإِنَّ ٱلۡجَنَّةَ هِىَ ٱلۡمَأۡوَىٰ
Whereas for the one who feared to stand before his Lord, and restrained his self from the (evil) desire, the Paradise will be the abode. 

That indeed for that person who fears the status and the exalted rank of their Rabb – of Allah swt – and due to that fear and awe and reverence of Allah swt’s Might and Majesty – wa nahaya nafsa anil hawa – they prevent and they keep their nafs from following its vain and idle pleasures; from following its whims and fancies; fa innal jannata hiya al-ma’wa – that indeed Jannah will be that person’s eternal abode.

[Here he is looking at this human condition and he is getting hidayah from the Qur’an al-Kareem.] Then he thinks that I need to stop; I’m also a human being, I also have a nafs, my human nafs is also going to have pleasures and desires, what is Allah swt telling me in the Qur’an; that you should stop, forbid, and keep your nafs back from following its unlawful desires and pleasures.

So what I learnt from you, Shaykh, was that I have to keep my nafs away from my unlawful desires and pleasures. And he says that he kept making this mujahida (effort) until his nafs was pleased with only that which Allah swt was pleased with.

[It means that:

  • Ultimately in our deen, watch this carefully, ultimately in our deen we do refer back to doing what we please. And the most ultimate stage of life in which we do that is akhirah. Allah swt actually will endow us with a purity that we will do anything and everything that pleases us, but now we are so pure that whatever is pleasing us is exactly what’s pleasing to Him.
  • This second nature and attribute of humanity, or aspect of human nature, is something that’s going to be with us for an eternity. That is why Allah swt uses these different phrases in constructs, over and over again in Qur’an; la tashtari anfusa hum – the ahl al-Jannah will do in Jannah what their nafs desires. So nafs having desires, and human beings wanting to do what their nafs desires, this is actually the aspect and attribute of Jannah.
  • Allah swt wants in this world for us to do our tazkiyah, and to purify that nafs so much that it becomes nafs al-mutma’inah (purified soul), that it is radhiya tam mardhiyyah (pleasing and well pleased with Him) – it is pleased with Allah swt, its pleasure lies with which Allah swt is pleased. That nafs also desires. It doesn’t mean that nafs al-mutma’inah does not feel desire. It feels desire. But the difference between this and nafs al-ammarah (the commanding nafs) is that the nafs al-mutma’innah desires those things that Allah swt desires. That is why it’s in a state of ‘itminan, in a state of tranquillity.]

So what he does is that he says that I realized that I’m a human, I have a nafs, to be human is to have a nafs, to have a nafs means to have desires, so:

1. I have to prevent my nafs from desiring.

  • [Part of the reason we end up back in sin is because we haven’t tried to prevent our nafs from desiring that sin. What we are trying to do is wage a very difficult battle, and that is to let our nafs keep desiring it, and we only try to prevent our nafs from acting on the desires – and that’s a very difficult thing to do. Sooner or later the nafs is going to overcome us.
  • What we really need to do is prevent our nafs from having those desires. That’s what Allah swt is saying that nahaya nafsa anil hawa – that the person prevents the nafs from having desires.
  • If we can prevent the nafs itself from having unlawful desires, then the question of us acting on those desires, or thinking along those lines, or yearning for those things is completely gone. This is something that the mashaikh of tasawwuf understood so well that how deeply we have to purify ourselves.]

2. I worked on my nafs to make it have good desires.

  • This is another battle that we are trying to wage and that is our nafs does not desire to pray. Despite my nafs not desiring it, I’m still going to try to do it.
  • Sooner or later we are going to slip. We have to go deeper and make our nafs desire those things. We want to take our nafs away from desiring things we don’t want to do and for the things that we want to do, we have to go deeper and try to make our nafs desire them. When our nafs desires them itself, then doing those things becomes very easy.
  • We can here see the depth of these people, and their understanding of deen, one can see how deeply they were able to engage themselves in this ibadat and dhikr of Allah swt, and how intensely they were able to train their students to do that.

Third Lesson

I learnt that to be human is to acquire. I looked around and saw that everybody was trying to acquire things of the world. And I realized that the things of the world are necessarily bound to fade away, so I started giving away my extraneous wealth and possessions (to get the eternal rewards of the akhirah).

Third thing that Shaykh Hatim (rh) mentions which he learnt from keeping the company of his shaykh, that I saw humanity has another thing to them and that is that they all strive for something. They are always striving, yearning, seeking, acquiring something. To be human is to strive, to be human is to acquire, to be human is to achieve, to be human is to attain. Then I looked around and I said that let me see what is it that all these people are acquiring, what is the object of their acquisition?

He saw that basically almost everybody was trying to acquire things of the dunya. He reflected on another ayah of the Qur’an al-Kareem:

مَا عِندَكُمۡ يَنفَدُ‌ۖ وَمَا عِندَ ٱللَّهِ بَاقٍ۬‌ۗ
What is with you shall perish and what is with Allah shall last. [16:96]

That that which is with you, that which is in your possession, that which you can acquire in this world, is fading, is ephemeral; it dwindles away, passes away. And, wa ma indallah – that which lies with Allah swt, that which is in the possession and dominion of Allah swt is eternal, it is subsisting, it is never ending.

He said that once I realized this, that the things that I can acquire in this world aren’t going to be everlasting, are bound to, necessarily, fade away then what I’m going to do is that I’m going to distribute them. And what he did was that he gave away all of his extraneous money and possessions. He did not give away everything. But he gave away what we call zayed an al-zarurah – that was beyond his needs, as he perceived them to be, he gave them away.

[This is one of the early teachings of tasawwuf that a lot of people in contemporary times have a difficulty with. They say that why do you have to give things away, why can’t we enjoy this world? Why can’t we be of this world and why can’t we seek this world? Certainly, the later tradition of tasawwuf is a bit more soft on this, and even in the early tradition of tasawwuf you do have mashaikh who, in terms of their own lives and in their teachings, were quite well off.

Some Sahaba karam (ra) like Syedna Uthman al-Ghani (ra) were very well-off. He gave a lot of money and goods in charity. But both in the lifetime of Nabi e Kareem (sws) and after the Beloved Messenger (sws) passed away from this world, even after giving away so much in charity, he remained well-off. So here you have two different possibilities of tasawwuf.

The way that I think we can do amal on this is that we don’t have to give away everything absolutely that is beyond our need, but we should have a habit of giving. It is very important to have that. I think a lot of us were so settled and content in our worldly lifestyles. We were very convinced and quite certain that we don’t have to give away everything, that we don’t need to have zuhd anymore, we don’t have to renounce the world. We use that as an excuse to give away nothing.

What I have heard from our mashaikh, ulema and elders, and which Prophet sws himself says in a hadith is that you should try to give from that which you love. It can also mean that to to give charity from that which you are attached to, that which you are fond of. In other words, for this type of tazkiyah, for this type of purification, we have to give something that we don’t want to give.

Sometimes somebody does some fund raising for some cause. You are sitting there, and you are moved by it. In your heart you feel that I only want to give $10 or $20. And, if you think about it, you don’t want to give $30. That’s an opportunity for you to go and give the $30. It’s an opportunity to do that 3rd lesson which Shaykh Hatim (rh) has mentioned i.e. to give away what we are attached to.

A lot of us give away those things that we are not attached to. We give away things that we don’t have muhabbat for. That type of giving is easy for us. This means that the whole notion of inda kum – that which you possess, that which is attached to you and you are attached to it, that is about which Allah swt is saying that all of that is going to be nothing. This whole world, every single thing that people have, is going to come to nothing when they pass away, and certainly when the world ends itself.

So it means to give away from those things that we always thought of keeping with us. Not just to give away the extra money, not just to give something that we view as extra. Rather to give away something that we though that indeed that was mine, and we never imagined that it could ever be other than mine, to give something like that away. That is what Hatim (rh) is saying which had a big impact on him and that played a very big role in his tazkiyah.]

We have mentioned 3 of those 8 lessons that Imam al-Ghazali (rh) wrote to his student in his letter. And we make du’a to Allah swt that may He enable us as well to make aimal as-Saleh the passion of our heart, to make it the object of our love, and to help us first and foremost do that in our salah, and to do that by bringing us to the adaab, the ettiquetes of ibadat and dhikr that befits Allah swt’s status. And then secondly, may Allah swt help us to not just avoid the bad desires, but to actually go deeper and take out those bad desires and bad pleasures. And also not just to outwardly do good acts, but to try to go deeper and try to make our nafs desire the good acts.

And thirdly, may He enable us to be among those people who give away some things, even just a few things, that we viewed always to be ours, may He enable us to give a part of that away in His name and for His sake, for the khidmat and benefit of His deen, for the people of His deen, so that we will also be able to feel and respond to the ayah – that everything that is with us is actually going to fade away. And may Allah swt enable us to benefit from the advice of Shaykh Shaqiq (rh), Shaykh Hatim and Imam al-Ghazali (rh).