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Pathway to Happiness – Alchemy of Striving

umm Abdillah, Radio Islam Programming 


In an age where happiness seems way beyond reach or perhaps in a new relationship or handbag, Imam Ghazali (ra) reminded us that inner happiness is a reflection of how and with what we feed our hearts. In his work we find a struggle consensus – our inward battle makes no noise and has no weapons in it, but is more important in its results than the battles in which corpses decimate, and in which blood is spent.


Abu Hamid, Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali (450-505 AH/1058-1111 AD) was a theologian, Shafi’i jurist and philosopher from Tus (modern day Iran) who wrote more than 70 books on Science, Islamic philosophy and Sufism. He is not to be confused with Sheikh Mohammed al-Ghazali al-Saqqa (1917–1996) from Egypt.


Of al-Ghazali’s major works is Ihya’ Ulum al-Din (The Revival of Religious Sciences). It’s great achievement was to bring theology and Sufi mysticism together as a useful and comprehensive guide to every aspect of Muslim life and death. Via his writings it became possible for individuals to combine orthodox theology (Kalam) and Sufism, viz. readers became more acquainted with the ‘why’ we do what we do insofar as prescribed worship.


Critics aside, there is no taking away from his brilliance, his quest for self-annihilation, his desire to be sincere and true, and his mammoth contribution to finding the path to salvation. In this regard we turn to his prescription for happiness titledKimiyya as Sa’ada, wherein he describes and charts the pathway – Self Alchemy to Sa’aada (happiness).


This alchemy may be briefly described as turning away from the world to God, and its constituents are four:


  • The knowledge of self.
  • The knowledge of God.
  • The knowledge of this world as it really is.
  • The knowledge of the next world as it really is.


Imam Ghazali pointed us to the simple fact that until we know something about ourselves we cannot fulfill our potential. He wrote that every person is born with a “knowing pain in the soul” resulting from a disconnection from the Ultimate Reality. The tragic condition of Man is that our eyes have been so distracted by physical things and pleasure, that we have lost the ability to see the unseen. This is why people are so unhappy: they are trying to relieve this pain in the soul by recourse to physical pleasure. However, physical pleasure cannot relieve a pain that is essentially spiritual. The only answer to our condition is a pleasure which comes not from the body but from self-knowledge.


This self-knowledge is not to be attained by mere thinking or philosophy, rather the persistent remembrance of Allah and self-awareness in ritual worship prescribed in the Sunnah of Muhammad (saw).




It was a characteristic of al Ghazzali (ra) that he scoffed those whose who uttered lukewarm empty phrases or platitudes. He preferred stories, metaphors, or allegories that summoned luminosity into our minds. For example the story of the Chinese and Greek artists:


“Once the Chinese challenged the Greeks in painting. The Sultan summoned them both to edifices built for the purpose of judging. They directly faced each other and he commanded them to show proof of their skill. The painters of the two nations immediately applied themselves with absolute diligence to their work. The Chinese sought and obtained a great quantity of colours from the king every single day, but the Greeks nothing. Both worked in profound silence, until the Chinese with a clang of cymbals and trumpets, announced the end of their labour. Immediately the king and his courtiers hastened to their temple, and stood amazed at the wonderful splendour of the Chinese painting and the exquisite beauty of the colours. Meanwhile the Greeks, who had not sought to adorn the walls with paints, but laboured rather to erase every color, drew aside the veil which concealed their work. Wonderfully, the variety of the Chinese colours was seen still more delicately and beautifully reflected from the walls of the Grecian temple as it stood illuminated by the rays of the midday sun.”


Imam al Ghazzali tried to make us understand that the heart is not just a piece of meat through which our blood flows. The first step to self-knowledge is to know that we are composed of an outward shape, called the body, and an inward entity called the heart, or soul. The heart is much more than materialistic science would have us believe — rightly understood, it is our window into the spiritual world. Our deeds, thoughts, interactions, other faculties all reflect on to it (as with the Greek wall) determining our happiness in this world and the next. Quintessentially Imam al Ghazali’s Kimiya-yi Sa’ādat (Persian) emphasises the importance of observing the ritual requirements of Islam, the actions that would lead to salvation, and the avoidance and effacement of sin.


The pathway to happiness or sa’aadah is perpetual motion and constant and consistent hard work in progress. As Sydney J Harris rightly said:  “Happiness is a direction, not a place.” Hence, it behoves every happiness-seeker to look at what we’re feeding our hearts, who are hearts reflect and which direction we’re facing. Indeed a tug toward the Qibla and Fitra via prayer, fasting and patience allows for fortitude and strength no dumbbell can provide. To recognise the very illnesses our hearts may harbour – be it jealousy, anger, hatred, lust, ungratefulness, selfishness or greed – is a form or self-knowledge. Truthfully acknowledging what is really making us unhappy instead of filling the vacuum with ‘things’ and ‘feelings’ allows us to work them out, and inevitably turn the doorknob of our Eternal Home, Sa’adah – Happiness.


Note: The original Persian form of the Kimiya-yi Sa’ādat has been translated into many languages, mostly known as The Alchemy of Happiness. In 1910, Claud Field published an abridged translation utilising an Urdu translation of the Persian text and an earlier English paraphrase of a Turkish translation by Muhammad Mustafa an-Nawali. Field’s translation varies from the original Kimiya-yi Sa’ādat, where certain texts were omitted or condensed and given an Orientalist twist. The most recent translation of Kimiya-yi Sa’ādat was published in 2008 and was translated by Jay Crook. Most scholars agree that nothing can compare to the original Persian text.


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