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THE twelfth-century philosopher and Sufi El-Ghazali quotes in his Book of Knowledge this line from El-Mutanabbi: 'To the sick man, sweet water tastes bitter in the mouth.'

This could very well be taken as Ghazali's motto. Eight hundred years before Pavlov, he pointed out and hammered home (often in engaging parables, sometimes in startlingly 'modern' words) the problem of conditioning.

In spite of Pavlov and the dozens of books and report of clinical studies into human behaviour made since the Korean war, the ordinary student of things of the mind is unaware of the power of indoctrination.1 Indoctrination, in totalitarian societies, is something which is desirable providing that it furthers the beliefs of such societies. In other groupings its presence is scarcely even suspected. This is what makes almost anyone vulnerable to it.

Ghazali's work not only predates, but also exceeds, the contemporary knowledge of these matters. At the time of writing informed opinion is split between whether indoctrination (whether overt of covert) is desirable or otherwise, whether too, it is inescapable or not.

Ghazali not only points out that what people call belief may be a state of obsession; he states clearly, in accordance with Sufi principles, that it is not inescapable, but insists that it is essential for people to be able to identify it.

His books were burnt by Mediterranean bigots from Spain to Syria. Nowadays they are not put into the flames, but their effect, except among Sufis, is perhaps less; they are not read very much.

He regarded the distinction between opinion and knowledge as something which can easily be lost. When this happens, it is incumbent upon those who know the difference to make it plain as far as they are able.

Ghazali's scientific, psychological discoveries, though widely appreciated by academics of all kinds, have not been given the attention they deserve because he specifically disclaims the knowledge or logical method as their origin. He arrived at his knowledge through his upbringing in Sufism, among Sufis, and through a form of direct perception of the truth which has nothing to do with mechanical intellection. This, of course, at once puts him outside the pale of scientists. What is rather curious, however, is that his discoveries are so astonishing that one would have thought that investigators would have liked to find out how he made them.

'Mysticism' having been given a bad name like the dog in the proverb, if it cannot be hanged, can at least be ignored. This is a measure of scholastic psychology: accept the man's discoveries if you cannot deny them, but ignore his method if it does not follow your beliefs about method.

If Ghazali had produced no worthwhile results, he would naturally have been regarded as only a mystic, and a proof that mysticism is educationally or socially unproductive.

The influence of Ghazali on Western thought is admitted on all hands to be enormous. But this influence itself shown the working of conditioning; the philosophers of medieval Christendom who adopted many of his ideas did so selectively, completely ignoring the parts which were embarrassing to their own indoctrination activities.

Ghazali's way of thought attempted to bring to a wider audience than the comparatively small Sufi one a final distinction between belief and obsession. He stressed the role of upbringing in the inculcation of religious beliefs, and invited his readers to observe the mechanism involved. He insisted upon pointing out that those who are learned my be, and often are, stupid as well, and can be bigoted, obsessed. He affirms that, in addition to having information and being able to reproduce it, there is such a thing as knowledge, which happens to be a higher form of human thought.

The habit of confusing opinion with knowledge, a habit which is to be met with every day at the current time, Ghazali regards as an epidemic disease.

In saying all these things, with a wealth of illustration and in an atmosphere which was most unconducive to scientific attitudes, Ghazali was not merely playing the part of a diagnostician. He had acquired his own knowledge in a Sufic manner, and he realized that higher understanding - being a Sufi, in fact - was only possible to people who could see and avoid the phenomena which he was describing.

Ghazali produced numerous books and published many teachings. His contribution to human thought and the relevance of his ideas hundreds of years later are unquestioned. Let us partly repair the omission of our predecessors by seeing what he has to say about method. What was the Way of El-Ghazali? What does man have to do in order to be like him, who was admittedly one of the world's giants of philosophy and psychology?

Ghazali on the Path

A human being is not a human being while his tendencies include self-indulgence, covetousness, temper and attacking other people.

A student must reduce to the minimum the fixing of his attention upon customary things like his people and his environment, for attention-capacity is limited.

The pupil must regard his teacher like a doctor who knows the cure of the patient. He will serve his teacher. Sufis teach in unexpected ways. An experienced physician prescribes certain treatments correctly. Yet the outside observer might be quite amazed at what he is saying and doing; he will fail to see the necessity or the relevance of the procedure being followed.

This is why it is unlikely that the pupil will be able to ask the right questions at the right time. But the teacher knows what and when a person can understand.

The Difference between Social and Initiatory Activity

Ghazali insists upon the connection and also the difference between the social or diversionary contact of people, and the higher contact.

What prevents the progress of an individual and a group of people, from praiseworthy beginnings, is their stabilizing themselves upon repetition and what is a disguised social basis.

If a child, he says, asks us to explain to him the pleasures which are contained in wielding sovereignty, we may say that it is like the pleasure which he feels in sport; though, in reality, the two have nothing in common except that they both belong to the category of pleasure.

Parable of the People with a Higher Aim

Imam El-Ghazali relates to tradition form the life of Isa, ibn Maryam: Jesus, Son of Mary.

Isa one day saw some people sitting miserably on a wall, by the roadside. He asked: 'What is your affliction?' The said: 'We have become like this through our fear of Hell.'

He went on his way, and saw a number of people grouped disconsolately in various postures by the wayside. He said: 'What is your affliction?' They said: 'Desire for Paradise has made us like this.'

He went on his way, until he came to a third group of people. They looked like people who had endured much, but their faces shone with joy.

Isa asked them: 'What has made you like this?' and they answered: 'The Spirit of Truth. We have seen Reality, and this has made us oblivious of lesser goals.'

Isa said: 'These are the people who attain. On the Day of Accounting these are they who will be in the Presence of God.'

The Three Functions of the Perfected Man

The Perfected Man of the Sufis has three forms of relationship with people. These vary with the condition of the people.

The three manners are exercised in accordance with
(1) The form of belief which surrounds the Sufi;
(2) The capacity of students, who are taught in accordance with their ability to understand;
(3) A special circle of people who will share an understanding of the knowledge which is derived from direct inner experience.

Attraction of Celebrities

A man who is being delivered from the danger of a fierce lion does not object, whether this service is performed by an unknown or an illustrious individual. Why, therefore, do people seek knowledge from celebrities?

The Nature of Divine Knowledge

The question of divine knowledge is so deep that it is really known only to those who have it.

A child has no real knowledge of the attainments of an adult. An ordinary adult cannot understand the attainments of a learned man.

In the same way, an educated man cannot yet understand the experiences of enlightened saints or Sufis.

Love and Self-interest

If one loves someone because it gives pleasure, one should not be regarded as loving that person at all. The love is, in reality, though this is not perceived, directed towards the pleasure. The source of the pleasure is the secondary object of attention, and it is perceived only because the perception of the pleasure is not well enough developed for the real feeling to be identified and described.

You Must be Prepared

You must prepare yourself for the transition in which there will be none of the things to which you have accustomed yourself, says Ghazali. After death your identity will have to respond to stimuli of which have a chance to get foretaste here. If you remain attached to the few things with which you are familiar, it will only make you miserable.


People oppose things because they are ignorant of them.

Ceremonies of Music and Movement

Such meetings must be held in accordance with the requirements of time and place. Onlookers whose motives are not worthy shall be excluded. The participants in audition must sit silently and not look at each other. They seek what may appear from their own 'hearts'.

The Sterile Woman

A man went to a doctor and told him that his wife was not bearing children. The physician saw the woman, took her pulse, and said:
'I cannot treat you for sterility because I have discovered that you will in any case die within forty days.'
When she heard this the woman was so worried that she could eat nothing during the ensuing forty days.
But she did not die at the time predicted.
The husband took the matter up with the doctor, who said: 'Yes, I knew that. Now she will be fertile.'
The husband asked how this had come about.
The doctor told him:
'Your wide was too fat, and this was interfering with her fertility. I knew that the only thing which would put her off her food would be fear of dying. She is now, therefore, cured.'
The question of knowledge is a very dangerous one.

The Dance

A disciple had asked permission to take part in the 'dance' of the Sufis.

The Sheikh said: 'Fast completely for three days. Then have luscious dishes cooked. If you then prefer to "dance", you may take part in it.'

A Quality must have a Vehicle

Speed, which becomes a virtue when it is found in a horse, by itself has no advantages.

The Idiot Self

If you cannot find in a man an appropriate example of dedication, study the lives of the Sufis. Man should also say to himself: 'O my soul! You think yourself clever and are upset at being called idiotic. But what else are you in reality? You make clothes for winter, but no provision for another life. You are like a man in winter who says: " I shall not wear warm clothes, but place trust in God's kindness to protect me form the cold." He does not realize that, in addition to creating cold, God placed before man the means to protect himself from it.'

Man was made for Learning

A camel is stronger than a man; an elephant is larger; a lion has greater valour; cattle can eat more than man; birds are more virile. Man was made for the purpose of learning.

The Price of Knowledge

'Assuredly there is a price on this knowledge. It is to be given only to those who can keep it and not lose it.'

Book of Knowledge, quoting Ikrima

Commentary of Junubi:

This knowledge is of course the Sufi knowledge. It does not refer to book-knowledge, something which an be written down or preserved in factual form; because such material would not be diminished by exposing it to someone who might fail to benefit from it. It is the knowledge given in the time and manner which verifies and makes live the book-knowledge. 'Giving knowledge which will be lost' refers to allowing certain 'states' of recognition of truth to be engendered in an individual before that person is in a condition to preserve that state; hence he loses its advantage and it is lost.

Comment by Ahmad Minai:

Because of the difficulty of grasping this fact, and due to an understandable laziness, intellectuals have decided to 'abolish' any learning which cannot be contained in books. This si not to say that it does not exist. It makes it more difficult to find and teach, since the above-named types (intellectuals) have trained people not to look for it.


You possess only whatever will not be lost in a shipwreck.

Gain and Loss

I should like to know what a man who has no knowledge has really gained, and what a man of knowledge has not gained.


From 'The Way of The Sufi' by Idris Shah

Further Reading:

Al-Ghazali's Path to Sufism by Abu Hamid Al Ghazali, et al ( January 2001)
The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife : Kitab Dhikr Al-Mawt Wa-Ma Badahu Book Xl of the Revival of the Religious Sciences, Ihya Ulum Al-Din by Ghazzali, et al
On Disciplining the Soul by Abu, H. Al-Ghazali (Translator), T. J. Winter,- 1995
Deliverance from Error : An Annotated Translation of Al-Munqidh Min Al Dalal and Other Relevant Works of Al-Ghazali by Ghazzali, et al
The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Islamic Translation Series) -- Michael E. Marmura, Al-Ghazali
Al-Ghazali on the Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God -- Al-Ghazali, et al.
Remembrance and Prayer : The Way of the Prophet Muhammad by Shaykh Muhammad Al Ghazali, Y. T. Delorenzo (Translator) (Paperback - August 1996)
Al-Ghazali on Invocations and Supplications : Book IX of the Revival of Religious Sciences (Islamic Texts Society) by Nakamura, Kojiro Nakamura (Translator) ( January 1990)
Imam Abu Hamid Ghazali : An Exponent of Islam in Its Totality by Hamid Algar
The Proper Conduct of Marriage in Islam (Adab an-Nikah): Book 12 of Ihya 'Ulum ad-Din
by Imam Al-Ghazali
On Faith in Divine Unity and Trust in Divine Providence: Kitab at-tawhid wa tawakkul by Iman Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali
Al-Ghazali's Letter to a Disciple (Islamic Texts Society) by Tobias Mayer (Translator) (- July 1999)
Ethics of Al Ghazali : The Composite Ethics in Islam by Muhammad Quasem ( June 1975)


Last updated: May 9, 2004