Book of Counsels: Imam Ghazali’s translated treatise is a spiritual treat

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali aka Imam Ghazali may be considered as the 11th century’s mujaddid [a renewer of the faith], but his relevance hasn’t been lost in translation. The Persian polymath’s translated work is currently making him a topic of academic discourse. 

First published in August 2021, Ghazali’s Book of Counsels is seeking to retain the literary aspects of his works. It is a compilation of thirty-eight ahadith that seek to encourage the believer into taqwa, especially if he/she covets the world.

The treatise was translated by Tarek Alhariri, Yaseen Christian Andrewsen, Aamir Bashir, Imane El-Marzouki and Arthur under Turath’s Young Translators’ Program. Established in 1998, Turath is a Publishing House which commissions translations of important texts on jurisprudence and spirituality, especially related to the Hanafi school of thought. 

Also known as Hujjat al-Islam for his remarkable work, Imam Ghazali headed the Nizamiyya University in Baghdad at the time of his spiritual awakening. Despite holding the most prestigious academic position in the Muslim world at the time, Ghazali disappeared for over a decade. It was during this period where many of his great works were written.

In his Book of Counsels, Imam compiles powerful spiritual lessons and reminders. What lends this text its power is that it is a compilation of Hadith Qudsi, i.e. hadith where Prophet Muhammad ﷺ attributes the content directly to Allah ﷻ.

The Practice of a Believer

Imam believed that the Islamic spiritual tradition had become moribund and was largely forgotten. This belief made him ink his magnum opus entitled Iḥyā’ ‘ulūm ad-dīn – The Revival of the Religious Sciences. His other work, the Tahafut al-Falasifa [Incoherence of the Philosophers] advances the critique of Aristotelian science.

In the Book of Counsels, Imam emphasises the dissonance between knowledge and the desire to act. We might constantly desire to seek what we do not know (23). But do we desire to act on what we know already? The text invites the reader to ask if their faith is just Islam or ʾīmān, i.e. an outer compliance or an inner true belief that shows itself as action. By focusing on the realm of action, the text shifts the understanding of faith into a way of being in the world.

Failure to act on an understanding of our temporality and the nature of the fitrah is an injustice we do to ourselves. We might keep on spending sustenance recklessly while having hope for the hereafter. We might hope for a good end without actually acting the part. 

Allah ﷻ details the misguided idea of freedom which underscores such acts. He ﷻ describes a person who believes himself to be free, yet acts to please the creation; beautifies his deeds to please others while his faith rots inside him (27). The affected piety of such a person may even push him to forbid evil to others while indulging in it (34). Allah ﷻ describes such a person as an oppressor– not to others but towards himself.

The Ticking Clock

The Earth is a speaker in the fifth counsel. It calls on the Son of Adam and names itself the house of accountability and desolation (26), invoking its status as an eventual home, although a very difficult one. The desolation of the grave is only made easier by the witness provided by one’s righteous acts.

This text diagnoses the relationship between time and folly in great detail. Allah ﷻ details the futility of being lulled by the blessings of life when salvation is not promised (35). The reminder of death and impending judgment upsets one’s assumption of having infinite time to think of the afterlife, all while gorging on limited fancies. Clarity about one’s way of life arrives in asking oneself how we would like to die. Meditating on the mode of one’s death creates freedom from the onslaught of worldly possession and distraction that we encounter from the very moment we open our eyes.

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