A note on Al-Ghazali’s Views on Earthly Life (Dunyia)


Al-Ghazali the one that I am going to focus on is the Sufi. The reason for this is that when one speaks about al-Ghazali in particular I believe one should specify which facet that we mean. This is not a new concept, scholars such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna), that general category that is sometimes referred to as renaissance men who wrote on more than one field. For example, Avicenna is famous for medicine, philosophy and Sufism to a lesser degree. In Al-Ghazali’s case, he excelled as a Jurist, a Theologian and as a Sufi to name just a few of them.

With that said Al-Ghazali is generally lumped with Sufis who have low opinions of the earthly life who discouraged followers from being involved in it. This has generally filtered down in studies of al-Ghazali’s writings.

For example one scholar takes issue with al-Ghazali with a scathing character attack by remarking that: “when the Muslim world was under attack by the crusaders while al-Ghazali lingered about in Sufi lodges. He should have been rallying the troops against this grave danger.”  (al-akhlaq ‘anda al-Ghazali, Zaki Mubarak).

It did not help his case any as he made use of quotation attributed to Jesus. The Muslim version of Jesus in his works becomes another Sufi figure to quote.

The late Margaret Smith also did a study of this facet of al-Ghazali, she states:

“The purpose of the Sufi path is to enable the soul to free itself from the veils which hinder it from seeing God.

She goes on to state:

This purification of the heart … is accomplished by ascetism and renunciation, so that the heart shall be freed of the ties which attach it to this world.” (pp. 228-9)

It is this understanding that I want to address here namely the renunciation of the ties to this world.

But before we can do so allow me one more quote on the role that al-Ghazali played and his place in history of Sufism. She says: …is that of a great theologian and an original thinker who … desired to reconcile orthodox Islam with the Sufial ideas of Sufism which were widely prevalent in his day. (p. 230)

The renunciation of this world by Sufis was legendary and infamous at the same time. There are many examples and we need not go into details or at length, suffice to say that for some renunciation was not only wealth, but food, and for some even clothing. This is not to mention others who would be seen by the general public as a character flaw that would lead them to be outcasts while others would be executed for seemingly heretical pronouncements. (né al-Hallaj)

What did al-Ghazali call for? Or to be specific what sort of renunciation and spiritual exercises did he advocate? Was it a total rejection of the world and its pleasures? How far did he veer away from mainstream Islam (I know this term is loaded and troublesome) of his day? Was his project (or methods) a veiled heresy in orthodox trappings?

Since this is a preliminary work that is a research in progress I will limit my comments to one work by al-Ghazali and that is al-Ihya’. The work is virtually encyclopedic in scope and breadth of the subject matter that it covers it is also the book in which this controversy centers.

            It is by far al-Ghazali’s largest work in 4 volumes totaling some 1500 large pages in length, in English translation that would be around 2 million words.

It is divided into 4 parts, two of which deal with external practice and two which deal of internal life. Each of the 4 parts is further subdivided into 10 chapters giving us 40 chapters in total.

            In each of the 40 chapters al-Ghazali is concerned with proper practice, appropriate internal attitude, coupled with knowledge and an understanding of the mysterious workings of the practice or the actions.  (c.f. Appendix bellow)

In this work, you have the interplay of both the secular and spiritual. The material effects the spiritual and vice versa. This unity of being in the combination of the body and soul is where secular actions that lead one to the path of either spiritual growth or degradation. There is this holistic action throughout the work that with correct external practice, and appropriate inner attitude, understanding of the deeper reasons of the external practice as a means of getting nearer to God as a preparation for the next (and permanent) life.



            From this encyclopedic work, or more aptly his project to reform Sufism, we get a sense of al-Ghazali’s ideas on the earthly life, as a gateway to the hereafter. And that actions and attitudes in this life affect true happiness in this life and the attainment of bliss in everlasting life in paradise in the next. In essence, this gateway to the final abode becomes the nexus to higher (elevated) status in the next or becomes a trap door leading to the pit of eternal pain, suffering and misery. (i.e. hellfire).



Table of contents of the Ihya’

Section I: Worship

Book I: Book of knowledge

Book II: Foundations of Belief

Book III: Mysteries of Purity.

Book IV: Mysteries of Worship.

Book V: Mysteries of Zakat (Charity). 

Book VI: Mysteries of Fasting.

Book VII: Mysteries of Pilgrimage.

Book VIII: Etiquettes of Qur'anic Recitation. 

Book IX: On Invocations and Supplications.

Book X: On the Arrangements of Litanies and Divisions of the Night Vigil.

Section II: Habits.

Book XI: On the Manners Relating to Eating.

Book XII: On the Etiquettes of Marriage.

Book XIII: On the Etiquettes of Acquisition and Earning a livelihood.

Book XIV: The lawful and prohibited

Book XV:  On the Duties of brotherhood.

Book XVI: On the Etiquettes of Seclusion.

Book XVII: On the Etiquettes of Travel

Book XVIII: On Music and

Book XIX: On Enjoying good and forbidding evil.

Book XX: Etiquettes of living and the Prophetic Mannerism

Section III: Destructive Behavior.

Book XXI: The Marvels of the Heart.

Book XXII: On Disciplining the Soul.

Book XXIII: On Breaking the Two Desires. 

Book XXIV: Defects of the Tongue

Book XXV: Condemnation of Rancor and Envy

Book XXVI: Condemnation of the World

Book XXVII: Condemnation of Miserliness and Condemnation of the Love of wealth.

Book XXVIII: Condemnation of Status and Ostentation.

Book XXIX: Condemnation of Pride and Conceit.

Book XXX: Condemnation of Self-Delusion.

Section IV: Actions leading to Salvation

Book XXXI: On Repentance.

Book XXXII: On Patience and Thankfulness.

Book XXXIII: On Fear & Hope.

Book XXXIV: On Poverty and Abstinence.

Book XXXV: Faith in Divine Unity and Trust in Divine Providence.

Book XXXVI: On Love, Longing, Intimacy and Contentment.

Book XXXVII: On Intention, Sincerity and Truth. 

Book XXXVIII: On Holding Vigil and Self-Examination.

Book XXXIX: On Meditation.

Book XL: On the Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife.



Muhammad Hozien


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