The books one reads, very much like the people one meets, are stuff of destiny. It was a sunny afternoon in London, many years ago, when I stopped by an old bookstore that I had previously all but ignored. Perhaps, it was the hurriedly printed ‘Closing Down’ notice, juxtaposed somewhat incongruously with the rather proud ‘Rare Books’ sign that caught my attention. Whatever the reason, I walked in, and within 15 minutes, walked out again, with only one book in hand. It was almost as though it was with the express intention of getting that specific book that I had entered the store in the first place.
This book was Al Ghazali’s Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of God. I was surprised to realise that I held it with an odd excitement, even though I was only dimly aware of the identity, or indeed, the pre-eminence of Al Ghazali, and also had no real understanding of what he could have written about the 99 names. It was only after I had read the book that I realised that these names that I had believed only to be descriptions of a few of the many attributes of Allah, to be recited as a form of prayer, were in fact, guiding lights for the development of the human character, and, therefore, not merely to be recited, but to be understood, imbibed and lived.
Reading this book marked the beginning of a journey: outwardly, it was a journey in search of Al Ghazali, the man, the scholar, the Sufi, but inwardly, it was a journey of the soul. The more I discovered about Al Ghazali’s life, the more I felt drawn to his writings. Sadly, however, his writings remained difficult to find in Pakistan. But whenever I did find something, I realised that it was Al Ghazali, who, with his measured, rational and practical expositions of faith, had the power to touch my soul most deeply. And so, it was that over time, I came to look upon Al Ghazali as a mentor and a guide. The only difficulty was that my guide had been dead for nearly 900 years!
Al Ghazali (or Algazel, as he is known in the West) was born in 1058 in Tus in modern Iran. As a young man, he became a distinguished professor of Fiqh and was bestowed with titles such as ‘Brilliance of the Religion’ and ‘Eminence among the Religious Leaders’. Destiny, however, had other plans for him. As he neared the magical age of 40, he underwent a spiritual crisis, which has been described as a “violent internal conflict between rational intelligence and the spirit, between the world and the hereafter”. So terrible was his anguish that he became physically ill and could neither speak nor teach. When he finally recovered, he renounced his post, wealth, fame and influence and took up the life of an ascetic.
Although the second part of his career was cut short by his death in 1111 at the age of 53, it was for this that he attained immortality. He left behind almost 400 works, the most famous being his Revival of the Religious Sciences. His most important principle, perhaps, was the emphasis on knowledge and awareness rather than blind faith. In his view, only a disciplined and educated seeker could attain knowledge of the divine, and through it, true happiness. For Al Ghazali, seeking of knowledge was itself the highest form of worship — a concept that appears to have become alien to the present-day proponents of combative Islam.
Many years after my first encounter with Al Ghazali, I found him in London again. I am now reading, On Meditation, and am surprised at the mastery with which he rivals the most modern of psychologists: believe (he says) that, everything happens for a reason, there is no such thing as failure — only outcomes, take responsibility for whatever happens, learn from others, believe in excellence and know that there is no success without commitment. I read his words carefully, so that I come to know them not through the intellect, but through the true seat of learning, the heart.
This article was previously published in The Express Tribune, August 7th, 2013.