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The True Believer is Saved Through Works, not Learning

The Muslim mystic and jurist al-Ghazâlî exalts the opposition  between abstract and formal knowledge which is connected with ‘gratifying [the] ego and with worldly exploits,’  and spiritual endeavour, which, instead, generates good actions

This article was published in Oasis 11. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-06-19 14:41:47

In the name of God, the Infinitely Good, the Merciful. Praise belongs to God, the Lord of the worlds, and the outcome become to the God-conscious, and blessings and peace be upon His Prophet Muhammad, and all his family. Know that one of the advanced students devoted himself to the service of the master, the imam, the Ornament of Religion and Proof of Islam, Abû Hâmid ibn Muhammad al-Ghazâlî (may God sanctify his spirit) and occupied himself with the acquisition and study of knowledge under him, until he mastered the details of the sciences and filled out the good qualities of the soul. Then one day he considered his situation, and it occurred to him, “I have studied various kind of science, and I have spent my life learning and mastering them. I now ought to find out which kind will be of use to me on the morrow, to keep me company in my grave, and those which are not of use to me, so that I may give them up. As God’s Messenger (God bless him and give him peace) said, ‘O God, I take refuge in Thee from knowledge which is not useful!’” This thought persisted to the point that we wrote to the honourable master, the Proof of Islam, Muhammad al-Ghazâlî (may God the Exalted be merciful to him), seeking a ruling, asking questions, and requesting both advice and a prayer, “Even though the works of the master such as The Revival [of the Religious Sciences (Ihyâ’ ‘ulûm al-dîn)] and others contain the answers to my questions, what I want is for the master to write down what I need in a few pages to be with me for the rest of my life, and I will act in accordance with what is in them during my term, if God the Exalted wills.” So the master wrote him this message in reply, and God knows best. Know O beloved and precious disciple – may God prolong your days in obedience to Him and travel with you on the path of those He loves – that public advice should be quoted from the goldmine of messengerhood [the Prophet]. If you have received advice from him, what need do you have of my advice? And if you have not received it, then tell me what you have achieved in these years gone-by! O disciple, included in what God’s Messenger (God bless him and give him peace) advised his community, is his statement, ‘An indication of the withdrawal of God the Exalted from the worshipper is his busying himself with what does not concern him, and if an hour of a man’s life slips by in other than that for which he was created in the way of worship, then it is proper that his affliction be protracted. Whoever passes forty without his virtue overpowering his vice, let him get ready for hellfire!’ This advice contains enough for people of knowledge. O disciple, advice is easy – what is difficult is accepting it, for it is bitter in taste to those who pursue vain pleasures, since forbidden things are dear to their hearts. [This is] particularly so for whoever is the student of conventional knowledge, who is occupied with gratifying his ego and with worldly exploits, for he supposes that his knowledge alone will be his salvation and that his deliverance is in it, and that he can do without deeds – and this is the conviction of the philosophers. Glory be to God Almighty! This conceited fool does not know that when he acquires knowledge, if he does not act on the strength of it, the evidence against him will become decisive, as the Messenger of God (God bless him and give him peace) said, “The man most severely punished on the Day of Resurrection is a scholar whom God did not benefit by his knowledge.” It is reported that al-Junayd [1] (may God sanctify his heart) was seen in sleep ¬after he had died, and was asked, “What is the news Abû ‘l-Qâsim?” He said, “Those expressions were wide of the mark, and those counsels came to nothing. Nothing was of benefit to me except some small prayers I made in the middle of the night.” O disciple, be neither destitute of good deeds nor devoid of spiritual states, for you can be sure that mere knowledge will not help. It is as though a man in the desert had ten Indian swords and other weapons besides – the man being brave and a warrior – and a huge, terrifying lion attacked him. What is your opinion? Will the weapons repel this danger of his from him without their being used and being wielded? It is obvious they will not repel it unless drawn and wielded! Likewise, if a man studied a hundred thousand intellectual issues and understood them, but did not act on the strength of them, they would not be of use to him except by taking action. Or it is as though a man had a temperature and jaundice, which is treated by oxymel and barely infusion – no recovery will take place except by using them. Though thou pour two thousand measures of wine, unless thou drink, no oblivion is thine! Even if you studied for a hundred years and collected a thousand books, you would not be eligible for the mercy of God the Exalted except through action. [As God says,] ‘Man does not receive other than that for which he strives’ [Koran 53:39]; ‘So let him who hopes for the meeting with his Lord act righteously’ [Koran 18:110]; ‘…a reward for what they used to earn’ [Koran 32:17]; ‘Verily, those who believe and do righteous deeds will have gardens of Paradise, do dwell in forever, whence they will not seek change’ [Koran 18:107-8] ‘Descendants have replaced them who neglected prayer and followed passions. They shall come to perdition – except for whoever repents and believes, and acts righteously, for these will enter the Garden and not be harmed at all’ [Koran 19:59-60]. What say you regarding this Tradition, “Islam is based on five things: testimony that there is no god but up the formal prayer; paying alms; the fast of Ramadân; and pilgrimage to the House for whoever is capable of the journey?” Faith is verbal declaration, consent by the heart, and action in accordance with the [five] pillars – and the evidence of deeds is incalculable, even though the worshipper attains Paradise by the bounty and grace of God the Exalted. Nevertheless [this is] consequent to his being predisposed through obedience to Him and worship of Him, since ‘The Mercy of God is near to those who do good’ [Koran 7:56]. If moreover it is said, “He gets there by faith alone,” we reply: “Yes, but when will he get there? How many difficult obstacles must he overcome before arriving? And the first of these obstacles is that of faith [itself]; and will he be safe from the denial of faith or not, and when he arrives, will he be unsuccessful and destitute?” Al-Hasan al-Basr [2] said, ‘God the Exalted will say to His worshippers on the Day of Resurrection, “O worshippers of Mine, enter the Garden by my Mercy and divide it between you according to your deeds.”’ O disciple, insofar as you do not act, you will not find recompense. It is related that a man from the tribe of Israel worshipped God the Exalted for seventy years. Thus God the Exalted wished to show him to the angels, so He sent an angel to him to inform him that in spite of this worship he did not deserve to enter paradise. When the angel informed him he said: “We have been created to worship God and it is incumbent on us to worship Him!” When the angel went back he said, “My God, you know best what he said.” God the Exalted replied, “Since he did not turn away from worshipping Us, We will not turn away from him with [Our] grace! Witness O angels of Mine, that I have forgiven Him.” God’s Messenger (God bless him and give him peace) said, “Call yourselves to account before you are called to account, and weigh up your deeds before they are weighed for you.” And ‘Alî [3] (may God be pleased with him) said, “Whoso believes that he will attain his goal without effort is a wishful thinker. And whoso believes he will reach his goal by the expending of effort is presumptuous.” Al-Hasan [4] (may God the Exalted be merciful to him) said, “Seeking the Garden without action is a sin,” and he said, “An indication of the true state of affairs is to give up paying attention to action, not to give up action.” And the Messenger of God (God bless him and give him peace) said, “The astute man is one who passes judgment on himself and works for what is after death, and the fool is one who pursues vain pleasures and counts on God the Exalted to realize his wishes.” O disciple, how many nights have you spent rehearsing your learning, reading books, and depriving yourself of sleep? I do not know what the motive was in this – if it was winning the goods of the world, the allure of its vanities, getting its peers, woe to you and woe again! But if your objective in it was the revival of the Prophet’s Law (God bless him and give him peace), the cultivation of your character and breaking the ‘soul that inciteth to evil,’ blessing upon you and blessing again! He has told the truth who spoke the verse: Sleeplessness of the eye but for Thy sake is vain, their crying but for Thy loss inane. O disciple: ‘Live as long as you want, but you must die; love whatever you want, but you will become separated from it; and do what you want, but you’ll be repaid for it!’ O disciple, what result have you had from studying the science of scholastic theology, rhetoric, medicine, collections of poems, astronomy, metrics, grammar and inflections, other than wasting your life in opposition to the Lord of Majesty? I have seen in the Gospel of Jesus (upon him be blessings and peace), ‘From the moment the dead man is put on the bier till he is put at the graveside, God in His Majesty will ask him forty questions. The first of them is, “Worshipper of Mine, for years you purified yourself in view of men and not for one hour did you purify yourself in view of Me.” And every day He looks into your heart He says, “What is this you are doing for others than Myself, when it is My goodness with which you are -surrounded? But as for you, you are deaf and heedless!’” O disciple, knowledge without action is madness and action without knowledge is void.Contents not available yet.




[1] Abû-l-Qâsim al-Junayd was a jurist and famous mystic. His family came from Persia but he was born and lived in Iraq. In mysticism he was the pupil of his uncle Sarî as-Saqatî, another famous figure. In Baghdad he was linked to al-Muhâsibî. Around him there formed a circle of pupils. He created a system of mystical theosophy that was a point of departure for further speculation. Small books and letters of his have come down to us. [2] Al-Hasan al-Basrî was a great teacher (d. 728) whose personality dominated his epoch at all levels of religious life. [3] ‘Alî, a cousin and brother-in-law of the Prophet, was the fourth caliph and was assassinated in 40/661. Ghazâlî relates many of his sayings (or sayings attributed to him?). [4] This must have been al-Hasan al Basrî, on whom see note 2.