An Exposition Detailing the Method Used in Refining the Character

Continued from the Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din of Imam al-Ghazali.

You have learnt from the foregoing that an equilibrium of the traits of character causes the soul to be healthy, while any deviation from this equilibrium constitutes a sickness and a disorder within it, just as an equilibrium of the humours of the body leads to its health, and an imbalance entails its sickness. Let us therefore take the human body as our metaphor, and proceed with our discourse as follows. The soul, in being divested of ugly traits and qualities and given virtuous and beautiful ones, is like a body, which may be cured through the removal of diseases and the restoration of health. Just as the basic constitution is usually in equilibrium, which a transforming disorder afflicts through the effects of food, air and other circumstances, so also every child is born in equilibrium and with a sound innate disposition: it is only his parents who make of him a Jew, a Christian or a Zoroastrian; that is, it is through familiarity and education that ugly customs are acquired. And just as the body is not initially created complete, but rather moves towards completion and strength through its growth (provided by nourishment) and upbringing, so too the soul is created deficient, with its completion and perfection being present in a latent form, and will only become perfected through training [tarbiyah], the refinement of the character, and being nourished with knowledge. Just as when the body is healthy the physician should establish the canon which will maintain this health; and when it is ill he should restore it to health: similarly, when your soul is pure, clean and of good character you should strive to keep it in this way and strengthen and purify it yet further, and when it is not, you should struggle to make it so. And just as a disorder which changes the body’s equilibrium and brings about its sickness may only be treated through its opposite (if it proceeds from heat then through something cooling, and vice versa); similarly, the ugliness which is the heart’s sickness can only be treated by education, that of avarice by giving money away, that of pride by self-effacement, and that of greed by forcibly restraining oneself from the thing one craves.

The curing of a sick body requires that one endure the bitter taste of the medicine and persevere in renouncing certain things one desires; and in like fashion, in the treatment of the heart’s sickness one must endure the bitterness of struggle and steadfastness – this is even more the case, in truth, since one can escape a bodily illness through death, whereas the sickness of the heart (and we seek refuge with God!) is a sickness which abides even after death and for all eternity. A cooling medicine will not be sufficient to effect the cure of a disorder caused by heat unless it be administered in a certain measure, which will vary according to the severity or mildness of the complaint and the length of time for which it has been present. It is essential that there be a standard measure for this by which the efficient amount to be given may be known, since if the wrong quantity is administered the disorder will be exacerbated. The opposites with which the traits of character are treated must also be provided with a standard measure: just as the quantity of medicine used is taken in accordance with the sickness, so that the physician will not give any treatment until he knows whether the disease is caused by heat or cold, and has ascertained the degree to which the temperature is high or low, and will only then turn to the conditions of the body and the weather, the profession, age and other circumstances of the patient, and will then, in accordance with all this, begin his treatment; so also the guiding Shaykh, who is the physician of his aspirants’ souls and the treater of the hearts of those who wish for guidance, should not impose any specific duties and forms of self-discipline upon them until he has learnt about their characters and ascertained the diseases from which they suffer. Were a physician to treat all of his patients with a single medicine he would kill most of them; and so it is with the Shaykh who, were he to charge all his aspirants with one kind of exercise, would destroy them and kill their hearts. Rather, attention should be paid to the illness of each aspirant, his circumstances, his age, his constitution, and the capacity of his body to perform such exercises, which should be prescribed on this basis. If the aspirant is a beginner, and is ignorant of the provisions of the Law, he should first be taught about ritual purity and prayer, and the external acts of worship.

If he is occupied in gaining money from forbidden sources or is regularly perpetrating some wrongdoing, he should be asked first to forsake this. And when he is made outwardly beautiful through acts of worship, and his members have been purified from external transgressions, the Shaykh should look, through the evidence provided by his states, to what lies within him in order to ascertain his character and the diseases of his heart. At this point, should he perceive that he has wealth in excess of his needs he should take it from him and give it in charity in order to empty his heart of it and to prevent him from being distracted. Should he perceive that frivolity, pride and self-esteem have taken hold of him he should instruct him to go to the marketplace and beg, since self-esteem and love of authority can only be broken by humiliation, of which begging is the most intense form.

He will require him to persist in this for a period until his pride and self-esteem are destroyed, for pride, and also frivolity, are among the illnesses which lead to destruction. Should the Shaykh see that the body and dress of the aspirant are usually clean, and that his heart inclines to this and is pleased with it, he will give him a job as a latrine attendant and cleaner, and instruct him to sweep filthy places, and to remain in the kitchen and places where there is smoke until the attachment he has to cleanliness departs. For someone who cleans and adorns his clothes, and makes requests for clean patched garments [muraqqa’at] and coloured prayer-carpets is no different from a bride who spends the entire day decorating herself. There is no difference at all between a man who worships himself and one who worships an idol: inasmuch as one worships anything other than God one is veiled from Him.

Therefore, anyone who pays attention to anything in his dress, apart from its being from a legitimate source and ritually pure, in a way which turns his heart towards it, is occupied with his own self. It is one of the subtle aspects of discipline that if an aspirant does not permit himself to renounce frivolity or some other trait at all, and will now allow himself its opposite all at once, he should move from one blameworthy trait of character to another which is less harmful, in the manner of a man who washes off blood with urine, and then rinses off the urine with water, if water would not have removed the blood; and like a schoolboy who loves to play with balls and sticks and suchlike things, and then is progressively drawn from such play by being encouraged to improve his appearance and to wear fine clothes, and then from this by being encouraged to seek influence and authority, and then by being encouraged to long for the Afterlife.

The case of the man whose soul does not permit him to abandon his illusion all at once is similar: let him move on to a lesser form of this vice. And so it is with the remaining traits. Should the Shaykh see that the aspirant is usually under the influence of greed for food, he should oblige him to fast and to reduce the amount he eats. Next, he should instruct him to prepare delicious meals and serve them to others without tasting them himself, until his soul becomes stronger and he becomes used to forbearance, whereupon his greed will have been subjugated. And he should see that the aspirant is a young man longing to be married, but cannot afford to do so, he should instruct him to fast. Should this not do away with his sexual desire, he should tell him to break his fast with water and no bread or vice versa on alternate evenings, and forbid him to eat meat or any other thing with his bread, until his soul is reduced to submission and his sexual desire broken. For the beginning of aspirancy there is no cure more effective than hunger. If he sees that his is a predominantly irascible disposition he should oblige him always to be gentle and quiet, and should make him serve and keep the company of an ill-mannered man in order that he might train his soul to tolerate him.

One of the Sufis habituated his soul to mildness and freed himself from excessive anger by hiring a man to insult him in public: he forced himself to be forbearing and to suppress his anger, continuing in this way until his nature became characterized by a proverbial gentleness. Another of them felt the presence of cowardice and faint-heartedness in his soul, and, wishing to acquire the trait of bravery, made it his practice to put to sea in the wintertime when the swell was at its roughest. The ascetics of India treat laziness in worship by standing up all night on pillars. And one of the Shaykhs at the outset of his own aspirancy, finding that his soul was lazy during his night devotions, for this reason forced himself to stand on his head all night so that his soul would willingly accept standing on his feet. Another treated his love of wealth by selling all that he owned and throwing the proceeds into the sea, fearing that if he gave it to other people he would be afflicted by self-satisfaction and a desire to be seen doing this. These examples should teach you the way to treat hearts. It is not our intention to mention the medicine for each sickness, for this will be done in the remaining Books; rather what we intend to do here is to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that the general technique consists in doing the opposite of everything that the soul inclines to and craves.

God (Exalted is He!) has summed up all of these things in His statement: And whoever fears the standing before his Lord, and forbids his soul its whim, for him Heaven shall be the place of resort (Qur’an, 79:40,41) The important principle in the spiritual struggle is to carry out what one has determined upon: if one determines to renounce a desire, then the means to pursue it will be made easier; this is a trial and a test from God, and one should therefore have fortitude and perseverance. If one habituates oneself to violating one’s own resolution the soul will come to take pleasure in this and will be corrupted. Should it happen that a man does violate his resolution, he should compel his soul to accept a punishment for this, as we have already mentioned in [the section on] the chastisement of the soul in the Book of Self-Examination and Vigilance: if he does not intimidate it through the presence of a punishment it will defeat him and make the following of the desire seem good, and this will corrupt his self-discipline entirely.

Hujjatul Islam, Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, The Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya’ ‘Ulum ad-Din) Translated by Shaykh ‘Abdul Hakim Murad (may Allah reward him for his effort and initiative)


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