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The Alchemy of Happiness by Al Ghazzali was written a thousand years ago. Al Ghazzali asserts his fundamental belief that a connection to God was an integral part of the joy of living. The author discusses knowledge from four different perspectives, namely self, God, this world, and the next world.
Perhaps Al Ghazzali’s idea was that through knowledge, one could gain happiness. Is it true that if you are to be happy, you must have knowledge of self, knowledge of God, knowledge of this world, and knowledge of the next world? The meaning of the word Alchemy as used by the author has not had unanimity. The modern dictionary describes Alchemy as Chemistry. When Al Ghazzali (or Al-Ghazali) used it, he meant substances changing state even though the term Chemistry had not yet been coined then.
Attempts can be made to purify an impure substance through the process of addition and removal until a new pure state is achieved. Man is considered the impure compound, while the impurities to get rid of are the manly passions and vices. God is the substance that is added to help man weed off such impurities to achieve perfection.
In the Alchemy of Happiness, Al Ghazzali begins by writing that “He who knows himself is truly happy.” Self-knowledge consists in realizing that we have a heart or spirit which is absolutely perfect, but which has been covered with dust by the accumulation of passions derived from the body and its animal nature. The essence of oneself is likened to a perfect mirror which, if polished would reveal one’s true divine nature. The key to this polishing is the elimination of selfish desires and the adoption of a contrary desire to do what is right in all aspects of one’s life. As he writes, “the aim of moral discipline is to purify the heart from the rust of passion and resentment till, like a clear mirror, it reflects the light of God.”
Such a task is not easy. Thus it would seem that genuine happiness is not a state most people can attain. Indeed, Al Ghazzali emphasizes that only a few people have attained this supreme happiness, which is the ecstasy of union with the divine. These people are the prophets, which appear in all times and places, as messengers to remind mankind of their true purpose and their ultimate goal. The prophets are those who have succeeded in cleansing their inner mirrors of all the rust and dirt accumulated by bodily desires and comparisons with others. As a result, they can see in their waking moments what other people only see haphazardly in their dreams, and they receive an insight into the nature of things through an immediate flash of intuition rather than through laborious learning.
The most striking claim that Al Ghazzali makes about the prophets is that they are the happiest people, for they have achieved the ultimate goal of human existence. Al Ghazzali writes 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. But physical pleasure cannot relieve a pain that is essentially spiritual. The only answer to our condition is a pleasure that comes not from the body but from self-knowledge.
This self-knowledge is not to be attained by mere thinking or philosophy, however. Indeed, as a practicing member of Sufism, Al Ghazzali refers to two ways of achieving the ultimate state of happiness: through dance (the whirling dervishes) and music (Qawalli, as represented in modern times by the songs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, for example). One of the basic dances of the Sufi dervish consists of simply spinning around a large nail placed between the first two toes of the left foot. This symbolizes the idea that everything revolves around God, that He is the center, as well as the circumference of every activity. As one spin, the boundaries of the self begin to fade away, and one becomes completely absorbed in pure love. Euphoria is achieved when we lose consciousness of the self and become focused on something we are completely and ultimately related to. In this way, the Sufi dance or music is similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “Flow,” except on a higher level– the level of absorption not to a mere task, but to that task which is a metaphor for one’s commitment to Ultimate Reality.
In the process of arguing for this conclusion, Al Ghazzali makes many other interesting observations about the nature of happiness. He points out that there are different faculties within the soul, and that corresponding happiness is connected with each faculty. Each part of the soul delights in that for which it has been created. But the highest function of the soul is the perception of truth; hence it is the greatest happiness one can obtain. Al Ghazzali uses an analogy to describe this; one would be much happier to meet the King of a country than its Prime Minister. Similarly, one should be much happier to discover the Ultimate Reality than some conditional lesser truth.
In a similar vein, Al Ghazzali writes that unhappiness is created by enslavement to desire and the belief that one should satisfy only one’s desires (as governed by base instincts and appetites). He maintains that everyone perceives, even in that bewildering state, that something is amiss, that we are living an inauthentic life that needs correction. This nagging feeling is the source of our greatest joy, for once we become conscious of it, we can be led in the opposite direction, towards the life of meaning and self-transcendence.
Al Ghazzali loved to tell the following parable as one that illustrates the secret to genuine happiness. Bayazid was a famous “drunken Sufi” who was accosted by an unhappy man who claimed that he had fasted and prayed for years but had found no joy. Bayazid told him that even with three-hundred years of ascetic devotion, he would still find no happiness. “Why?” the man asked. “Because your selfishness stands between you and God,” Bayazid replied. The man pleaded to be taught the way to overcome his selfishness. Bayazid answered that if he were to shave his beard, wear a loincloth, put on a feeding bag full of walnuts, and stand in the marketplace shouting “A walnut for everyone who slaps me,” then he would be truly happy. Of course, the man went away disappointed, for he was unable to carry out this suggestion. But Bayazid knew there was no other way. We cannot imagine how to be happy, but such wild imagination is the secret to happiness.
In summary, Al Ghazzali teaches us the following about achieving true happiness. Happiness comes from Self-Knowledge, the knowledge that we have a heart or spirit that is originally perfect but has become obscured by passions and desires. Happiness depends on our faculties: if we exercise our higher faculties (like Reason, Imagination), we will be happier than if we exercise our lower ones (mere physical pleasures). There are examples in the history of truly happy people, and they were “prophets”—people who have attained a perfect union with Ultimate Reality. We are happy to the degree to which we can emulate these prophets.
We are all born with a “knowing pain in the soul,” which causes us to seek happiness, but most of us seek substitute pleasures deriving from the body which cannot resolve a pain that is essentially spiritual.
The knowledge of self
Al Ghazzali begins the first chapter by asserting that when you understand yourself, you can easily understand God. This assertion is backed up by the saying that “He who knows himself knows God.”
Knowing oneself can be one of the hardest things to do. That’s because the process of seeking this knowledge is marred with lots of bias. One may pretend to be of a certain behavior to satisfy their ego.
The truth of the matter is that you have to maintain objectivity if you are to ever know yourself as is truly required. Self-honesty plays a central role here.
Written in not-so-conventional English, Al Ghazzali profers different tips on how you can best know yourself. He explains that the first step towards doing so is to know that you have an outward shape referred to as the body and an inward entity known as the soul or heart. He explains that the ‘heart’ he is referring to here is not the piece of flesh responsible for pumping blood. Rather, it is one that the physical world cannot see, and neither does it belong to this world.
Al Ghazzali proceeds to advise on how one can truly know their heart as part of the process of seeking self-knowledge. You may obtain some idea by closing your eyes and letting go of everything else apart from your individuality. This will pave the way for you to have a glimpse of the ever-evolving individuality.
The knowledge of God
Once again, Al Ghazzali references the Prophet’s saying that “He who knows himself, knows God” in this section. However, this time around, he is more critical of the phrase than the first time he uses it. He asserts that there are so many people out there who contemplate themselves but are yet to find God. According to the author, there are two ways in which you can arrive at this knowledge. One of the methods is so mysterious that ordinary intelligence cannot adopt. For that reason, Al Ghazzali does not explain.
The second method prescribed for gaining God’s knowledge may be rather to be easy to follow. And the author explains this in the simplest manner possible. You gain the said knowledge when you begin acknowledging that there was a time when you did not exist. As the Koran puts it: “Does it not occur to man that there was a time when he was nothing?” Furthermore, man gets to understand that he was made out of the water, which lacked intellect, sight, head, hands, and hearing. As he thinks of this, he realizes that any kind of perfection he may have achieved is a result of the creator. Man did not make himself; neither is he able to make a single hair.
The fact that one is made out of water gives you the realization that you must have been so helpless and still are unless there is God in your life. Therefore, you find your way as being a reflection of a Supreme Being, who is God.
Al Ghazzali’s explanation in this chapter is on point. As you read them, you might find yourself looking into Koran 96:1-3, which asks us to read in the Name of our Lord who created us and all that exists. Just like the Prophet was in search of the truth, so should we.
The knowledge of this world
Have you ever sat down and wondered how you could obtain all the knowledge in this world? Well, that is something you might want to look into as it might be one of the most exciting things to do. Wanting all the knowledge of this world could suggest a life that is embroiled in fear of the unknown. This is the type of person who would argue that if they had the entire world’s knowledge, they would be best-placed to defend themselves.
The basic thing to know is that having this amount of knowledge is not an indicator that we will be able to more fulfill. That is why religions such as Christianity start off in Genesis, with man hungering for knowledge on Good and Evil. This shows that man has always desired to have an intellectual understanding of opposites. Even in creation itself, we see both man and God being created, who are basically opposites. These have nothing to do with each other, yet they are strongly attracted to one another.
Al Ghazzali is of the perspective that this world is not our home. It is a passage for pilgrims. During man’s existence in this world, there are two crucial things. The first entails protecting and nurturing his soul. The second has to do with caring and nurturing the body. Knowledge and love of God are associated with proper soul nourishment. The body, on the other hand, is more of an enabler for the soul. Thus, the soul has a duty to take care of the body for it to be properly facilitated.
The knowledge of the next world
Most religions believe in the existence of two different but coherent worlds – the physical (natural) world and the spiritual world. The natural world comprises everything that is seen by our eyes including houses, the sky, the grass, people, our bodies, among others. On the other hand, the spiritual world is made up of unseen realities that we only get to experience after death. This could be heaven, hell, and the spirits world between the two.
For all those who believe in life after death, their ultimate goal is to head to the next life. The belief is that present life prepares one for the next realm of existence. That is why when someone dies, their body is washed and wrapped in a clean white cloth. A special prayer is then said, after which one is buried. That is according to the Islamic religion.
In the book The Alchemy of Happiness, Al Ghazzali talks of the “joys of heaven and the pains of hell,” which will come after this earthly life. He notes that all believers are fully aware of this, but they still forget about spiritual heaven and hell that God told the Prophet that no eye has seen. An enlightened man is more open to the spiritual world so that he has experience of what brings despair or happiness to the soul. This is similar to the way a physician fully understands what interferes with the health of the body.
If you are enlightened, Al Ghazzali believes that you will recognize God’s knowledge and worship to be medicinal to the soul. You will also know that sin and ignorance are deadly poisons.
All the Prophets of God called upon their followers to worship God and wait upon life after death. The fact that these Prophets have confidently dealt with the metaphysical question for thousands of years makes their assertions a Divine revelation.
Music and dancing in Religion
Devotional dance is an integral element in human belief systems regarding creation, nature, the universe, and the general mystery of our existence. To be categorized as a dance, the bodily movements must be aligned with significant symbolic, decorative, or athletic values. Dance is seen as a priceless form of expression which encompasses symbolism, emotion, and movement. The moment one dances is the time when they get to translate their thoughts, feelings, and actions into a purposeful sequence of action. It is a vehicle that is made up of ideas not visible to the human form and expresses your inner experiences and social action. The efficiency at which dance creates a world view and impacts human behavior is reliant on the participant’s beliefs.
Al Ghazzali explains that man’s heart is made by God in such a manner that it has a hidden fire that is evoked by music and harmony. These harmonies, Al Ghazzali believes, are the echoes of the higher world, which we have since time memorial referred to as the world of the spirits. They are a reminder of our relationship with that world. They produce in us an emotion that is so powerful that we ourselves cannot explain.
The effect of music is immensely powerful, given that they act on natures that are simple and can easily become emotional. “They fan into a flame what ever love is already dormant in the heart.”
The Alchemy of Happiness is a must-read for believers and atheists alike. The book has practical advice on how to develop one’s higher self to command the lower self in order to attain timeless happiness. For atheists, the first couple of chapters are the most beneficial. The believers, on the other hand, will find themselves reading all the way to the end as the book progressively looks for theoretical support of arguments presented.