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
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
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
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
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 three manners are exercised in accordance
(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
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.