Imam Ghazali may have lived over 900 years ago, but in the true spirit of Islam his work, analysis and thoughts are as relevant today as they were when the scholar waited for his ink to dry on the paper he wrote on in the 11th century.
We may like to think of ourselves as continually evolving over hundreds of years as the world around us also transforms, but essentially, we are the same as our ancestors. We have similar hands and feet, eyes and ears, a heart, lungs, a mind and a soul.
Ghazali’s analysis of people and society is based on the Qur’an, the hadith and Islamic history. His ability to break down complex information and ideas about our very nature make his books a powerful tool, which are breathtaking to read. People of all faiths have over the centuries talked about Ghazali’s brilliance, but the impact can only be fully felt when his books are opened and his thoughts are shared.
On the basic subject of a person’s character, he writes: “Goodness of character was the attribute of the master of messengers, and is the fruit of the pious and self-discipline of the people of constant worship. Bad character is a mortal poison, which set a distance between man and the proximity of the Lord of the Worlds, and induced him to follow the path of Satan the accursed. Foul characteristics are the very sickness of hearts and the diseases of the soul, constituting an illness which deprives man of everlasting life. It is reported that the messenger of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) was once told that a certain woman fasted all day and prayed all night, but was possessed by bad character, so that she injured her neighbours with her words. ‘There is no good in her,’ he said, ‘she is of Hell’s people’. It is also reported that the last of God’s prophets said ‘You will not be able to suffice all people with your wealth; suffice them therefore with a cheerful face and a goodly character.’”
So what is good character? In his search for the answer, Ghazali turns to a host of ahadith, including, ‘A man once asked the Prophet of God about character, and he recited His statement: Hold to forgiveness, and enjoin kindness, and turn aside from the ignorant ones. Then he said, ‘It is that you should seek reconciliation with those who avoid you, give to those who withhold from you and forgive those who deal with you unjustly.’
“Therefore the fundamental good traits of character are four in number: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. By ‘wisdom’, we mean a condition of the soul by which it distinguishes true from false. By ‘justice’, a condition of the soul by which it controls anger and desire. By ‘courage’, we refer to the irascible faculty of the intellect, while by ‘temperance’ we have in mind the disciplining of the intellect and the Law. It is from the equilibrium of these four principles that all good traits of character proceed. When the intellect is balanced, it brings forth discretion, excellence and an understanding of the subtle implications of actions and the hidden defects of the soul. When unbalanced, in excess, then cunning, swindling, deception and slyness result. An example is thus: ‘Courage’ gives rise to nobility, endurance, dignity and suppression of rage. When unbalanced, this same trait came give rise to recklessness, arrogance, conceit, pride and quickness of anger. ‘Temperance’ is a quality that gives rise to generosity, modesty, patience and tolerance, but in excess it leads to greed, cupidity, ostentation and immorality.”
“All human traits constitute branches of Wisdom, Courage, Temperance and Justice and a perfectly just equilibrium in these four has been attained by no one but the emissary of God; other people are of divergent degrees of proximity and distance from them.”
Even though Ghazali identifies the various aspects of character, he also considers the excuses people use for not adopting good character and changing traits about themselves. He tackles this issue head on.
“Know that the man who is dominated by sloth will consider unpleasant any spiritual struggle and discipline, or any purifying of the soul and refinement of the character. He will claim that the traits of a man’s character cannot conceivably be altered, and that human nature is immutable. Firstly, he will say that character is the form of the inward in the same way that the created form of man is the form of the outward. No one is able to alter his external appearance: an ugly man cannot render himself handsome, and vice versa; and thus a person who is ugly on the inside, cannot change. Secondly, he will assert that goodness of character proceeds from suppressing one’s desire and anger, and that he has tested this by means of a long inward struggle which demonstrated to him that these things are part of one’s character and nature, so busying oneself with such struggling is profitless and a waste of time.
To such an objection we would say: Were the traits of character not susceptible to change, there would be no value in counsels, sermons and discipline, and the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) would not have said, ‘Improve your characters!’ It is possible to improve the character even of an animal: a falcon can be transformed from savagery to tameness; a dog from mere greed for food to good behaviour and self-restraint, and these constitute a change in character.”
Ghazali practically informs us that certain human traits like anger and desire cannot be entirely suppressed or dominated, but we can make these characteristics obedient and submissive through means of self-discipline and struggle. He says we must endeavour to control these traits as “we have been commanded to do, for it constitutes the means of our salvation and our coming to God.”
However, Imam Ghazali believes we have been weakened when it comes to dealing with ourselves because we have been “plunged into the desires of the world and fallen into slumber.” This was his view of Muslims over 900 years ago, since then we have seen the rise and fall of a Muslim empire; Muslim scientists and philosophers leading the world through their knowledge; and Islam spreading to every part of the world.
It is evident that Ghazali was able to identify the tiny roots of a widespread problem centuries before it would take root in the form we have today. The world may be a very different place to the one it was hundreds of years ago, but our personal challenges and distractions have remained enclosed within us, still waiting to be challenged – with the help of the books we are still fortunate to have.
Extracts taken from Al-Ghazali on Disciplining the Soul and on Breaking the Two Desires. Books XXII and XXIII of The Revival of the Religious Sciences, first published by the Islamic Texts Society 1995.
Answered by Ustadha Sulma Badrudduja
Question: As’Salamu Alaykum,
I don’t get along with my stepmother. She treats her own children better than my own siblings. I do everything I can to make her happy. Most the time she is nice but sometimes she can make my life a misery. When she doesn’t get her way she curses at me and my father. She also tells people outside the family about our family issues. I worry about how she will treat my father and my other siblings if I get married and move out of the house. Please can you give me advice on how to deal with her.
Answer: Wa alaikum assalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,
I hope you are doing well inshaAllah. May Allah grant your family ease in this difficult situation. There are several points that I would like to share with you. I pray that Allah puts benefit in them for you.
1. Allah commands us to, “repel [the evil deed] with one which is better.” [Quran 41:34]. Based on the Qur’anic teachings and the prophetic guidance, you should not respond to your stepmother’s bad deeds with similar bad deeds. Rather, you should model the behavior of a righteous Muslim, who upholds his manners and honorable behavior in a way that is suitable to each situation he is in.
2. Being respectful towards your stepmother does not mean that you allow her to continue hurting you. The Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, reminded us that a believer “does not get stung from the same hole twice.” This practical advice teaches us to be aware of our circumstances and the causes of our troubles. If you know that having close interactions with your stepmother will inevitably lead to problems, then you are justified in keeping your distance, without being rude.
3. You should recognize what is within your boundaries to change and what is not. If you are able to talk to your father and reach some solutions this would be good. However, it would be out of your boundaries to directly cause trouble with your stepmother because this would put more of a strain on your father and his relationship with his wife. Your father is ultimately the one in a position to resolve the situation.
4. Be patient and make du`a. Remember the harm that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, patiently bore and despite it how he prayed for guidance for his people.
And Allah knows best.
Answered by Ustadha Sulma Badrudduja
Question: My parents tend to fight very often. What should I do?
Answer: Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah,
I hope you are and your family are in the best of states inshaAllah.
The essential role that good character holds in one’s faith and practice, in general, and a priori towards family, is clear from the words of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace: “There is nothing heavier in the believer’s scale on the day of Judgement than good character.” [Tirmidhi]
Thus, at the level of one’s personal religious obligations, in addition to the level of family and interpersonal relation, allowing one’s marriage to continue in a tense and argumentative fashion is unacceptable.
You are in a difficult position because, as the child, you may not have much direct influence over your parents’ behavior, and they may not be likely to want your interference. Nevertheless, if you think they may listen to how you are feeling about the situation and benefit from your input, then you should try speaking to them. Professional help should be seriously considered. You, or another close individual to the family, should suggest this to your parents. In addition to this, there remains some important steps you can take:
(1) Make continuous supplication that Allah turns their relationship into a healthy one. Your du`a is special, as you are in need and you are supplicating for your parents.
(2) Do not allow the negativity from your parents’ relationship to affect your relationship with each of them or to cause you to feel like the source of their problems. This is a common feeling that children will face. They will blame themselves for their parent’s marital problems. It is important that they realize they are not the problem, even if the parents are fighting over matter related to the children. The parents’ inability to reach an amiable compromise in an amiable manner is from their own shortcomings.
(3) Initiate healthy and joyful family activities. If you put in the extra effort to make one night in the week special, for example, you may find that your concern and input into the family’s happiness reminds your parents that they are the ones who should be working towards creating a harmonious family environment.
Allah places each one of us in the situations that we are in for a specific wisdom. Strive to do what you believe is right and you will find relief inshaAllah.
Allah knows best, and success is with Him alone.
Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani
Answered by Ustadh Faraz A. Khan
Question: I heard this narration from someone where the Prophet said if a person laughs excessively it makes the person’s heart hard. I am not sure whether its authentic or not. I was wondering, does it really make the person’s heart heard physically or is it referring to the spiritual condition of the heart. I have also heard in contemporary times, that excessive laughter also has benefits as well, can you please clarify.
Answer: Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah,
I pray this finds you in the best of health and faith.
The Hadith in Question
It is narrated with a sound chain of transmission that our Beloved Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Do not laugh too much, for verily excessive laughter kills the heart.” [Bukhari, Adab al-Mufrad; Sunan Tirmidhi; Sunan Ibn Maja; Musnad Ahmad]
And in some narrations, there is an addition, “For verily excessive laughter kills the heart and removes the light of one’s face,” or in another version, “For verily excessive laughter corrupts the heart.” [Bayhaqi, Shu’ab]
This latter version helps explain what is meant by the version of “killing the heart,” namely, that the death of the heart refers to its spiritual corruption. As Imam Mubarakpuri explains in his commentary of Sunan Tirmidhi, “For verily excessive laughter kills the heart, i.e., engulfs it in layers of darkness, akin to a dead person that cannot benefit from anything beneficial nor ward off from himself any harm. This is indeed from vast yet concise prophetic speech [jawami’ al-kalim].” [Tuhfat al-Ahwadhi]
Imam Munawi gives a more detailed explanation of the spiritual death of one’s heart as he states, citing various Imams, “Excessive laughter leads to a hardening of the heart, which in turn leads to heedlessness [of the Divine], and the death of the heart occurs not except by heedlessness.”
He further comments, “Getting accustomed to laughter distracts one from reflecting on matters of significance…one who laughs excessively does not have a respectful demeanor [hayba]; he does not command respect at all. One who is characterized by it has no meaningful thought nor worth.”
He adds, “Excessive laughter and excitement regarding worldly affairs is a lethal poison that flows in one’s veins and removes from the heart fear [of divine punishment], sadness [over one’s sins], and remembrance of death and the terrors of the Day of Arising; this, then, is the death of the heart. ‘And they rejoice over the life of this world, yet the life of this world with respect to the afterlife is nothing but temporary, paltry amusement’ (Qur’an 13:26).”
Elsewhere in his masterful commentary, Imam Munawi states, “Laughter that kills the heart is that which occurs due to rejoicing over this life and being prideful in one’s joy thereof. The heart has [spiritual] life and death—its life is by continuous obedience, while its death is by responding to the call of other than Allah, such as of one’s ego, stubborn whims, or Satan.”
Finally, Imam Munawi states that the reason why excessive laughter kills the heart is because the root of excessive laughter is love of this world, which is the cause of every sin; and once the heart is dead, it does not respond to Allah when He calls him [to obedience].
[Fayd al-Qadir Sharh Jami’ al-Saghir]
A Point of Reflection
On a side note, with minimal reflection one can readily appreciate how contemporary Western society revolves almost entirely around excessive amusement which, as we noted above from Imam Munawi’s commentary, “distracts one from matters of significance.” The plethora of grave maladies and ills that plague us today—including wars, disease, famine, crime, economic crises, the waning of the planet’s resources, corporate hegemony, moral degradation, and the looming catastrophe of global warming and overall environmental damage—are all lightly brushed aside from public discourse and mass media to make room for reality TV shows, football games, and unending advertising.
As the late cultural critic Neil Postman so insightfully titled his book, we as a society are “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” i.e., to the extent that we fail to benefit from the beneficial nor recognize and ward off real harms such as those just listed. And as Chris Hedges has titled his own recent book on the subject, we have unfortunately become an “Empire of Illusion,” too distracted to give serious thought to real problems, let alone anything related to our Creator, the afterlife, or the death of our spiritual hearts.
Humor in Moderation: A Prophetic Sunna
Having said that, we must bear in mind that the corruptive element of such amusement and laughter is the fact that it is extreme, and the fact that it stems from love of this world. On the contrary, a cheerful countenance and humor in moderation is an established sunna of our Beloved Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him).
He was known to have a wonderful sense of humor, as confirmed in many prophetic reports, yet without excess nor lying. Scholars mention that his intention thereby was always to please Allah Most High, as he would do so to cause happiness to enter the hearts of those around him; it was never for the sake of this fleeting life. [Muhammad ibn ‘Alawi al-Maliki, Muhammad al-Insan al-Kamil]
When our Mother Aisha (Allah be pleased with her) was asked how our Beloved Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) used to be when alone with her in the house, she responded, “He was the sweetest of people; always smiling and joyful.” [Musnad Ibn Rahawayh] Smiling and being in a pleasant mood are confirmed sunnas that are most pleasing to our Lord, to the extent that they are considered charity. Our Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Do not deem any good deed as insignificant, even if only meeting your brother with cheerful face.” [Sahih Muslim]
It is narrated in one of the descriptions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) that he was “always in a cheerful mood and very easy-going, ” yet “not excessive in joking.” [Bayhaqi, Dala’il al-Nubuwwa] And sometimes the Companions would mention things they would do before becoming Muslim and laugh together, to which the Messenger would smile. [Sahih Muslim]
Laughter and Good Health
What you allude to in your question with regards to some of the health benefits of humor and laughter, such as reducing stress hormones and increasing endorphins and overall strength of the immune system, is interpreted in the light of the Qur’an and Sunna as the cheerful personality and balanced, moderate sense of humor taught to us by the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him).
That is, one can attain such positive health benefits by practicing the Prophetic Sunna of a noble intention and moderation, without having to resort to the excessiveness and trivial nature of amusement that leads to the aforementioned spiritual vices.
Examples of His Beautiful Yet Moderate Sense of Humor
(a) A man once came to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to ask for a riding animal, to which the Prophet responded, “I will give you a child of a she-camel.” The man said, “Oh Messenger of Allah! What will I do with a child of a she-camel? [i.e., it being too small to ride or carry things on]” To which the Prophet responded, “Isn’t every camel the child of a she-camel?” [Sunan Tirmidhi, Sunan Abu Dawud, Musnad Ahmad]
(b) Our Beloved Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) used to call his servant Anas, “Oh Possessor of two ears!” [Sunan Abu Dawud, Sunan Tirmidhi]
(c) An old woman once came to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and asked him to pray to Allah to let her enter Paradise, to which he responded, “Oh Mother of so-and-so, verily old women do not enter Paradise.” So she left crying, and then he said to his Companions, “Tell her that she won’t enter it as an old woman, for verily Allah states, ‘Then We will make them [the female inhabitants of Paradise] virgins; loving; equal in age [i.e., young!]’ (56:36-7)” [Shama’il Tirmidhi]
(d) A woman named Umm Ayman once came to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and said, “My husband wants to invite you,” to which he responded, “Who is he again? Is he the one with some whiteness in his eyes? [i.e., as if he had an eye defect]” She replied, “What Oh Messenger of Allah? By Allah, he has no whiteness in his eyes!” He said, “No, he does have whiteness in his eyes.” She replied, “No, by Allah!” He said, “Doesn’t everyone have some whiteness in their eyes? [i.e., the normal whiteness around the pupils]” [Ibn Bakkar]
(e) The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was once with his two wives, ‘Aisha and Sawda, seated between the two. ‘Aisha had brought a dish of food that she had cooked, and said to Sawda, “Eat some.” Sawda refused, to which ‘Aisha responded, “I swear, you will either eat it or I’ll rub your face with it!” She still refused, and so ‘Aisha put her hand in the food and wiped Sawda’s face with it. The Prophet touched Sawda with his blessed leg and said, “Rub her face in return.” So Sawda did the same to ‘Aisha, and the Prophet started laughing. [Ibn ‘Asakir, Abu Ya’la]
To summarize, there is nothing at all wrong with light amusement and a balanced sense of humor, as such was from the noble character of our Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Our intention therein should be to fill the hearts of our brethren with happiness, for the sake of Allah.
Such a noble intention, coupled with moderation and balance, will surely be a means of illumination of our hearts, as with anything from the Noble Sunna. Yet we should be careful not to overindulge in amusement and trivial things, and not to laugh excessively for the sake of worldly matters, as doing so leads to corruption and heedlessness of the heart, eventually resulting in its spiritual demise.
May Allah Most High fill our hearts with light, joy, and happiness for His sake, out of emulation of our Master and Liegelord Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.
And Allah alone gives success.
Faraz A. Khan
Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani
Answered by Sidi Salman Younas
Question: I live in an environment full of Muslims. Although many of them can be either stubborn proud or just arrogant, I noticed that a number of my Muslim sisters do not pray right. Being one of the youngest I do not feel it my place to bring up this issue to discussion. If I did then everyone would have something “smart” to say back, even though I am telling them something for their own benefit. We do not exactly have a shaikh at the Masjid; what we do have is an inexperienced hot head learning to be a shaikh. My question is being in this situation how do I get other people, as well as myself, to be more informed of our religion? That is besides the pamphlets and the giving out papers that no one bothers with them.
Answer: assalamu `alaykum
I pray you are well.
The way one changes others is by changing his or her self. All of us need to be an embodiment of the sunna of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) who was sent as a mercy to all of mankind. We need to understand the precarious nature of the times we live in and take the most effective means possible to change things for the better.
Allah Most High states, “Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good admonition.” [16: 125] I
Ibn `Ajibah, one of the great Maliki scholars of Islamic spirituality, stated in his commentary of the Qur’an, “Calling with wisdom is calling through high aspiration (himma) and spiritual state… and calling with good admonition is calling through words that awaken good desires and cause yearning.” [Bahr al-Madid]
Looking down on others is contrary to the message of Allah and His Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace), regardless of how ignorant the other may be. Often times, in our desire to correct others, which no doubt is praiseworthy, we forget that the bigger sins and mistakes are not necessarily those that relate to the outward but rather those that relate to the inner-self; diseases such as frustration, arrogance, and not being free of rancor. These are all spiritual ailments that we need to recognize and rectify.
My advice to you is:
(a) Attach your heart to Allah Most High and work on purifying your own self, your intentions, and your worship.
(b) Be someone of good character: smile, be gentle in speech, and give everyone their rights as a Muslim.
(c) Turn your gaze away from the flaws of creation and look at them through the lens of mercy, compassion, good opinion, and love. You do not know their state with Allah so humble yourself and consider all of them better than you.
(d) Leave that which does not concern you. The Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) stated, “From the excellence of a man’s Islam is to leave that which does not concern him.” [Tirmidhi] Mulla `Ali al-Qari commented on this by stating that one should leave that which is not important or befitting “in speech, actions, or thought.” What people do and say is largely inconsequential to one and one’s next life, so do not concern yourself with it.
(e) Commanding the good and forbidding the wrong is only obligatory when you believe you will be listened to. However, if it can potentially lead to a worsening of the situation it should be avoided.
(f) Realize that none of us control anything. Allah does. So turn to Him for all of your needs and sincerely supplicate for this ummah,
And Allah knows best
Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani
[Excerpt from “The Compendium of Knowledge and Wisdom” by Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali]
It was in this way that Imam Ahmad and Ishaq ibn Rahwayh explained good character as giving up anger, and that has also been related as a marfu’ hadith which Muhammad ibn Nasr al-Marwazi related in the Kitab as-Salah in a hadith of Abu’l-‘Ala ash-Shikkhir,
“That a man came to the Prophet (saw) from in front of him and said, ‘Messenger of Allah, which action is best?’
He said , ‘Good character.’
Then later he came to him from his right side and said, ‘Messenger of Allah, which action is best?’
He said, ‘Good character.’
Then later he came to him from his left side and asked, ‘Messenger of Allah, which action is best?’
He said, ‘Good character.’
Then later he came to him from after him, meaning from behind him and asked, ‘Messenger of Allah, which action is best?’
The Messenger of Allah (saw) turned to him and said, ‘What is wrong with you that you do not understand? Good character, which is that you do not become angry if you are able.’ This is a mursal hadith.”
Answered by Ustadha Sulma Badrudduja
Question: I often encounter rude behavior from sisters when I attend the mosque and other events. This burdens my spirit and I’ve concluded that Islam is the relationship between you and God and the ummah part is just extra if you can deal with it. In other words I don’t enjoy the company of many sisters and just rather be at home. Tonight from prayer I was walking towards my door and I thought “maybe I shouldn’t be Muslim anymore” and as soon as I thought it, I fell down a flight of steps, hurt my right hand and nearly broke the fingers on my left. If the shayateen are bounded during Ramadan where is all this from?
Answer: I pray that you are doing well inshaAllah and that Allah will ease the pain in your heart and safeguard and increase your faith.
The scholars of Ihsan (spiritual excellence) note that dealing with people is one of the greatest trials that a person can face. It tests one’s whole being — one’s physical, emotional and mental reactions. Dealing with the ill-treatment of a fellow Muslim and being forgiving is a great mujahada (spiritual struggle) whose reward is commensurate with the difficulty one finds in doing it.
You are right in that one should not have to expose oneself to verbal or emotional abuse. Try to put yourself in situations where you can avoid this. If you know certain people cause you harm, stay away from them. But seek out others who are kind and upright. Each community has members that are difficult to interact with, but each community also has members that uphold the excellence of Islamic character. Look for the good and you will find it.
When you see a person’s bad traits, make a sincere supplication for them, turn away from noticing their wrong actions, and remember that everyone has areas in which they need to improve. However wrong the actions of a Muslim may be, they still have an immense rank with Allah, because He has chosen for them faith (iman), which is the greatest of all deeds. The best way to not have rancour in one’s heart for a person is to replace every negative thought about them with a heartfelt prayer for the person.
The Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) told us that the weightiest deed on our scale on the Day of Judgement will be good character (husn al-khuluq). Try to embody this yourself and you will inshaAllah be a source of guidance and an example for others. During these special days and nights of Ramadan, make sincere supplication to Allah to help you find some good company.
In the meantime, do not completely discontinue your socialization and become isolated. There is blessing in the group, for the wolf comes after the lone sheep. I have seen Muslims who have distanced themselves because they were disillusioned by their community, and their connection with the religion became weaker and weaker. There is protection with being with the group, as the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “ِAllah’s hand is with the group.”
Lastly, Allah tells us, “If you are thankful, I will certainly increase you (Surah Ibrahim, 7).” Gratitude for something is the secret for being increased in it. Thank Allah that you have a masjid, a house of Allah, to attend and that you have other Muslims that you can see and spend time with and He will send you blessings and increase in your company and gatherings. This goes hand in hand with keeping a positive attitude. If one enters a gathering with a warm smile, looking for the good, they will find benefit inshaAllah.
May Allah grant you increase in all things good and grant you righteous company.
Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani
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