Al-Ghazali letter to Nizamuddin Ahmed bin Ishak

Al-Ghazali letter to Nizamuddin Ahmed bin Ishak
by Abu Hamid al-Ghazālī

This letter was translated by, who releases them into the public domain.

To His Excellency Nizamuddin Ahmed bin Ishak, bin Ali bin 'Ati ibn Ishak

Allah says: "And for everyone is a direction for which he turns. So race in goodness." Koran, Chapter 2 verse 148. By these words He means that we should set out own unconventional pattern or honest purpose in life and a steady obedience to the rule which we know to be right.

If true holiness is true mindedness, that is the best purpose of life, fitting the individual best in all his relationships as a social being. The wise person who would make for himself the best and most out of life will take good care of this purpose and gratify every sense as well in as many ways as he can because the highest happiness exists as the only consolation in the deep and habitual feeling of devotion.

Those who set the best purpose in life may be divided into three groups:

  1. Those who are indifferent to the realities of life are the most common.
  2. Those who are wise and live in conformity to nature.
  3. Those who are enlightened on the mysteries of Divine affairs, and whose hearts live the secrets of Allah.

The first group look at the world which is a fast-fading shadow, and believe that the pleasures in the world are everlasting. Being over-powered by pleasures and receiving impressions of forms by means of appearances, they become worshippers of wealth and power. It was of such that the Prophet, praise and peace be upon him, warned that two wolves could not cause as much destruction to a flock of sheep as wealth and power could to Muslims. The world is a prison and these men of the world are its prisoners. How strange that prisoners should revel in misery? Whosoever prides himself upon this world is lowly; he who is rich is in fact poor and he whose power rests upon it is frail. The Holy Prophet, praise and peace be upon him, said: "Allah will inflict punishment on those who worship wealth and wear expensive clothing." It is a characteristic of the spirit to hoard wealth and to adore decoration of the exterior in all phenomena. This is a curtain that closes to the heart to all perceptions of the unknown.

The second group of men, the wise, compare this world to the next, and prefer the latter to the former. The true meaning of the following verse in the Holy Koran says: "But the Hereafter is better, and more enduring." Koran, Chapter 87 verse 17. They attain a higher position by discarding the world by occupying themselves with the Hereafter, for their ideal lies in the next world which is higher, more honorable and lasting. They will be satisfied with whatever they get in the next world, yet they are not enlightened on the mysteries of Divine affairs, which is indeed a pity.

The truly enlightened are those belonging to the third group and are they who care nothing for this world or the next, and purge their heats of everything except Allah. They know that the final purpose of man's life is to love and to know, and to be united with the Creator, the Almighty Allah. They worship Allah for the sake of Allah, not for any personal end or reward. They realize that to be pulled by the strings of desire belongs both to wild beasts and to men, and that they should not yield to the persuasions of the body. They believe that for those desirous of the life in the Hereafter, it is incumbent on them to be indifferent towards the world, and that whosoever desires Allah, it is incumbent on them that they should be indifferent towards the life of the Hereafter. Thus, they should discard their worldly life for the sake of their life in the Hereafter, and discard their life Hereafter for the sake of their Lord. So he should seek recompense or reward for his love of Allah. The truth is contained in this verse from the Koran: "Allah is better, and more lasting." Koran, Chapter 20 verse 73 and appeals to them as they know that: "Indeed, the cautious shall live amid a gardens and a river, in a secure abode, in the presence of the Powerful King." Koran, Chapter 54 verses 54 - 55. They are those that reach above the summit of heavens and once there will barter this experience for nothing the universe holds.

To such, the secrets of the witnessing of faith "There is no god except Allah" are disclosed. To express the Oneness of Allah in practice is to know what it is and to know it is to practice it. For this reason, whosoever knows it put it into practice and whosoever acts in accordance with it knows it. So let your declaration of the Oneness of Allah be "There is no god except Allah."

There are many classes of worshippers. Some worship themselves, others their wealth, some their wives, others their children, others their officers or professions. All these are worshippers of their self and follow its behest. Whereas the real worshipper is one who does not obey the carnal self (nafs) and is always taking it to task. These people subject themselves to the verdict of a balance and discover whether their scale will rise or fall. They have their hearts balancing their progress, lest either one of their scale be found lacking, for it is with these two scales that they acquire two wings which they can set out in accordance with righteousness in this world.

When the first group is compared to the second, it is called common and vulgar, likewise the second group, when compared to the third group is the common sort that cannot understand the hidden things revealed to the select few.

As your Excellency invites me to a place of new and unimaginable possibilities of development, in the like manner, I invite your Excellency to the attainment of the elevation of your life and its spiritual progress. When you rise from the platform of commoners, you will be made to plunge into one of the oceans of favors and kindness and mercy, and will be clothed with the robes of light and Divine secrets and rare knowledge of the Divine.

The Holy Prophet, praise and peace be upon him, said: "When a man treats you with kindness reciprocate with a better kindness." Since I am too poor to give you a suitable gift in reward for your most favored generosity, I invite you to spiritual lights so that you may be able to receive Divine gifts and rid yourself of your physical existence.

May you be able to behold beauty and splendor in your own self and recognize that you are a part of the sublime Divine world endowed even with a creative life! In this discovery of the self you will be able to enter as pure substance into your real self, turning away from all that is external to what is within.

Remember, the human mind, in longing to reach into the original source, works on the one fundamental and common principle of love. All mystics sing the same song of love for the beloved. There may be differences in detail or expression, but in the main principle, all are united as drops of one ocean or fingers of one hand.

All are seekers of Allah, and the ways leading to Him from Tus and Baghdad are many, but He is One. If you fail to perform a single religious duty, or sleep soundly at night, or are found guilty of committing a major sin, or if a single man throughout your vast empire is reported to have gone to sleep without food any night, remember the Wrath of Allah will descend upon you and you will have to lament your indifference in such matters for the rest of your days.

You should contemplate upon the trials, troubles, anxiety and sorrows of a vizier who has been entrusted to run the affairs of the Islamic state.

Now, I would like to turn to the affairs of the Niazmiyya College and regret very much my inability to comply with your Excellency's commands that direct me to accept the post of professor in this college. You do not know how infinitely my happiness has increased since my retirement to Tus. I have no other desire but the quietness I enjoy here. If I leave Tus and go to Baghdad, obviously my intention in undertaking the journey would be either to gain worldly wealth and glory or add to religious achievements. Al Hamdulillah, I have already renounced worldly pomp and glory. This world has nothing to give me and my heart, my hopes are in the next world. The glamour of the worldly life around me during the previous period at the Nizamiyya College accentuated the bitterness of my early tragedy which I cannot forget till my death. Even if the seat of the government of Baghdad, together with its vast properties is shifted to Tus, it would not be possible for me to dedicate myself to public affairs.

If I accede to your request, you would find that my influence over a good part of the public would be greatly diminished, for every one will say that I have sold myself for the Sultan's service. It is true that there are more chances and facilities in Baghdad for the advancement of knowledge than elsewhere and that the number of disciples to be taught there would also be more than those in Tus. However, in view of certain preventions both worldly and religious, my services to be rendered in Baghdad in the cause of knowledge, would not counterbalance the great loss which my disciples in Tus will suffer. Here, there are one hundred and fifty students studying under me, and it would be inconvenient for them to leave home and accompany me to Baghdad. It would be unjust on my part to hurt their feelings for no fault of theirs. Besides, to leave them in the darkness of ignorance in hope that a larger number of disciples in Baghdad would derive benefit, is contrary to reason and laws of natural justice.

An example to explain this. Suppose a man is expected to look after ten orphans. He leaves them uncared for and goes to another place to look after twenty orphans. Do you think his act would be justifiable in doing this? Another thing which you should take into account is this. When I first came to Baghdad at the invitation of your father Nizamul Mulk Shahid, I had no family. Now I have a large family to look after, and my children would never agree to my leaving home and it would be cruel on my part to offend or harm them.

I can live peacefully here in compliance with my children's earnest wishes. Were it not for them, I should wish to be in yonder graveyard. When I visited the tomb of Prophet Abraham, peace be upon him, fifteen years ago, I made a religious pledged to which I have been faithful to this day.

  1. That I would not attend the court of a king
  2. That I would not accept any emoluments from the government
  3. That I would not become entangled in religious controversy.

If I break this pledge for your sake, and accede to your request, I fear I shall feel the effect of my anxiety which will shake every fiber of mine.

In Baghdad one cannot avoid religious controversy and one has to pay homage to the Caliph, and I must in the most explicit and determined manner express my inability to do such things.

The most convincing explanation which I could offer in this regard is that I can never agree to accept any emolument from the government, and, you see, Baghdad does not contain my ancestral property which I could fall back upon in hard times.

If it should please Allah to take me soon from this world, my family would have resources in Tus quite sufficient for their maintenance. If I leave Tus at this stage, no one will look after my property properly and the result will be that the agricultural lands belonging to me will yield no harvest at all. I know there are people who would be gratified to accept such offer, but so far as I am concerned, they are unacceptable to me. You should know further that it is the evening of my life, and I have to prepare for death and not offer a journey to Iraq. Therefore, I humbly beseech you to accept my explanation and forgive my audacity for giving up a professorship for a mystical life. Suppose I die as soon as I reach Baghdad, would you not select someone else for the professorship in the Nizamiyya College. Consider my death as having taken place.

May Allah bless your heart with a Divine Light and enable you to work for the prosperity of the state and its people.

Your Excellency's humble servant,
Al Ghazali

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This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


This work is in the public domain worldwide because it has been so released by the copyright holder.