Book Review: Al-Ghazali – Letter to a Disciple

Al-Ghazali Letter to a Disciple

Title: Al-Ghazali – Letter to a Disciple Ayyuha’l-Walad
Author: Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali
Translator: Tobias Mayer
Publisher: Islamic Texts Society – 2005, 2010, 2011

This work is a short collection of letters containing profound advice from The Proof of Islam, Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, sent to one of his students. The back cover sheds light of its contents.

Considered to be the spiritual last will and testament of [Imam] al-Ghazali, Letter to the Disciple is a summary of the spiritual teachings of he who was regarded as the ‘Proof of Islam’. Written towards the end of his life, Letter to a Disciple was composed in response to the request by a disciple for the master to write down a few pages, a summary of all his teachings. The main ideas running throughout the work is on acquiring knowledge which is of spiritual benefit, purifying the intention, and acting on the basis of acquired knowledge. Referring extensively to the example of the Prophet [peace be upon him] and to that of the early Sufis, [Imam] al-Ghazali gives us a work of great depth, beauty and simplicity.

This new translation is presented here as a bilingual English-Arabic edition. The Arabic text is fully vocalised and the whole book is therefore suitable as a reader for students of Arabic.

The first few pages of the book summarizes the intent of the disciple:

Know that one of the advanced students devoted himself to the service of the master, the Imam, the Ornament of Religion and Proof of Islam, Abu Hamid ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali (May God sanctify his spirit) and occupied himself with the acquisition and study of knowledge under him, until he mastered the details of the sciences and filled out the good qualities of the soul. Then one day he considered his situation, and it occurred to him, ‘I have studied various kinds of science, and I have spent my life learning and mastering them. I now ought to find out which kind will be of use to me on the morrow, to keep my company in my grave, and those which are not of use to me, so that I may give them up. As God’s Messenger (God bless him and give him peace) said, ‘O God, I take refuge in Thee from knowledge which is not useful!.’

This thought persisted to the point that he wrote to the honourable master, the Proof of Islam, Muhammad al-Ghazali (may God the Exalted be merciful to him), seeking a ruling, asking questions, and requesting both advice and a prayer, even though the works of the master such as The Revival [of the Religious Sciences (Ihya Ulum al-din) and others contain the answers to my questions, what I want is for the master to write down what I need in a few pages to be with me for the rest of my life, and I will act in accordance with what is in them during my term, if God the Exalted wills.’ So the master wrote him this reply, and God knows best.

The first letter is very unique, embodying the humility of Imam al-Ghazali and his reverence for the Beloved of Allah, the Noble Prophet (peace be upon him):

Know O Beloved and precious disciple – may God prolong your days in obedience to Him and travel with you on the path of those He loves – that public advice should be quoted from the gold mine of messengerhood [the Prophet (peace be upon him)]. If you have received advice from him, what need do you have of my advice? And if you have not received it, then tell me what you have achieved in these years gone-by!

The second letter reads:

O disciple, included in what God’s Messenger (God bless him and give him peace) advised his community, is his statement, ‘An indication of the withdrawal of God the Exalted from the worshipper is his busying himself with what does not concern him, and if an hour of a man’s life slips by in other than that for which he was created in the way of worship, then it is proper that his affliction be protracted. Whoever passes forty without his virtue overpowering his vice, let him get ready for hellfire!’ This advice contains enough for the people of knowledge.

Imam al-Ghazali’s call is to raise up against our base desires, to take our knowledge and apply it in practical action and hope for pardon from our Lord. Imam Ghazli writes:

Even if you studied for a hundred years and collected a thousand books, you would not be eligible for the mercy of God the Exalted except through action.


O disciple, knowledge without action is madness and action without knowledge is void. Know that the knowledge which does not remove you from sins today and does not convert you to obedience, will not remove you tomorrow from hell-fire. If you do not act according to your knowledge today, and you do not make amends for your days gone-by, you will say tomorrow on the Day of Resurrection, ‘Send us back and we will act virtuously!’ and it will be replied, ‘Fool! You have just come from there!’

and lastly, Imam al-Ghazali describes the path of wayfaring to Allah:

…travel on this path should be by way of self-exertion, severing the ego’s appetite and killing its passions with the sword of discipline…

In regards to the format of the book, I found the corresponding Arabic texts on the opposite page to be quite helpful while going through the book to appreciate the original words of the hadiths and that of Imam al-Ghazali. The book concludes with an appendix containing brief biographies cited in the text and an index.

May Allah grant us all the propensity to act upon Imam al-Ghazali’s advice and make us among those who are resolute in their wayfaring to Allah. Ameen.

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