Book Review: Al-Ghazali on Disciplining the Soul & Breaking The Two Desires

Al-Ghazali on Disciplining the Soul & Breaking The Two Desires

Title: Al-Ghazali on Disciplining the Soul & Breaking The Two Desires (Kitab Riyadat al-Nafs & Kitab Kasr al-Shahwatayn) Books 22 and 23 of the Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya ulum al-din)
Author: Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali
Translator: Timothy J. Winter (Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad)
Publisher: Islamic Texts Society; Originally printed in 1995, Reprinted in 1997, 2001, 2003, 2005

This book is simply a must read for all those wishing to understand the relationships and mechanisms of the internal struggle. Imam Ghazali never misses the mark in his explanation and uncovers facets of this internal struggle that are often not given much thought, and many otherwise would be left unaware. This is a book that will require revisiting and rereading for the precious lessons in this book only remain for a short duration, as we are prone to forgetfulness. As such, this book ought to be read over and over again throughout one’s life time, in order to be reminded of the importance and the way to success regarding this internal struggle. Imam Ghazali’s precision and depth of understanding reminds me of a spiritual heart surgeon. His analysis, and exact handling of the issues bring such clarity that led to deep self-reflection, which hopefully leads to placing our soul on the path to meeting God in the best state possible.

The full title of Book 22 is ‘The Book of Disciplining the Soul, Refining the Character and Curing the Sickness of the Heart’, containing 11 chapters. Book 23, Breaking the Two Desires, Imam Ghazali focuses on the question of gluttony and sexual desire, concluding with he words of the Prophet (peace be upon him) that ‘the best of all matters is the middle way’. Book 23 has 5 chapters on gluttony and 3 on sexual desires.

Book 21 (Marvels of the Heart), and Books 22 and 23 which are being reviewed here, appear to create the fundamental premise of the Ihya. The depth and penetrating exposition of nature of the soul, its ways and tendencies, and methods of discipline are all found here, in these three books in pristine clarity. Imam Ghazali was a eloquent writer in Arabic, and Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad does an spectacular job in conveying the spirit of the original text into the English language.

We have taken a few excerpts out below, however if all the awe-inspiring sections of the books were brought into this review, the entire book would necessitate being quoted here. Thus we limited it to the first few pages of the book and hope these excerpts are enough to encourage a person to seek out this book.

Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad writes in his Preface and Introduction to the book, ‘Al-Ghazali on Disciplining the Soul and Breaking the Two Desires: Books XXII and XXIII of The Revival of the Religious Sciences’:

Generations prior to our own took for granted the need for this inward labour.

To be able to respond to God’s language in both its modalities, the heart (qalb) of man thus needs His grace (Rahma) and providential guidance (huda); and although He singles out for His grace whom He will, and guides whom he will, man may render himself more deserving of this gift by cultivating a policy of inward strife against his hawa, the instinctive, animal propensity to immediate gratification, which is the domain and instrument of Satan.

Hawa is the cause of dalal, going astray, which may lead not only to moral depravity, but to the greatest sin of all: polytheism (shirk). The Prophet (peace be upon him) is told:

Who is further astray than the one who follows his own hawa without guidance from God? (Quran 28:50)

Obey not him whose heart We have made heedless of Our remembrance, who follows his own hawa. (Quran 18:28)

Have you seen him who takes his hawa to be his god? (Quran 25:43)

Imam Ghazali writes on page 24:

Know that a man who is dominated by sloth will consider unpleasant any spiritual struggle and discipline, or any purifying of the soul and refinement of the character. Because of his deficiency and remissness, and the foulness of his inward nature, his soul will not permit him to undertake such a thing; therefore he will claim that the traits of a man’s character cannot conceivably be altered, and that human nature is immutable.

Imam Ghazali writes on page 32:

As long as worship and the renunciation of forbidden things are felt to be unpleasant and burdensome their performance will be defective, and cannot bring one to full felicity. Certainly the struggle to persevere with them is a good thing, but only in comparison with abandoning them, not in comparison of doing them willingly.

Imam Ghazali writes on page 40:

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.

In regards to gluttony as being one the greatest of moral vices, Imam Ghazali writes on page 106:

After the belly, which is the very well-spring of desires of desires and the sources of disease and disorders, comes the desire of the sex and voracious appetite for woman, and then yearning after fame and wealth, which are no more than means which enable one to indulge one’s greed and desire in still greater measure. And after the acquisition of fame and wealth come the several kinds of frivolities, competitions and jealousies. They also give rise to the vices of ostentation, boasting, competition for wealth, and arrogance, which in turn lead to rancour, envy, enmity and hate, which go to cause iniquity, injustice and corruption. All of these things are the consequence of paying insufficient heed to the stomach, and of the arrogant exulting which is begotten of satiety and eating one’s fill. Were the bondsman only to humble his soul through hunger, and thereby narrow the courses which the devil pursues within him, it would give itself up to the obedience of God (Great and Glorious is He!) and would renounce the way of exultation and excess, so that he would be preserved from being dragged by these things into a preoccupation with the world and into preferring this present abode to that which is to come, and would never be so avid for worldly things.

Shaykh Yahya Rhodus has a few lectures on this which can be found here:

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