In the Alchemy of Happiness, al-Ghazali begins by writing that “He who knows himself is truly happy.” Self-knowledge consists in realizing that we have a heart or spirit which is absolutely perfect, but which has been covered with dust by the accumulation of passions derived from the body and its animal nature. The essence of oneself is likened to a perfect mirror which if polished would reveal one’s true divine nature. The key to this polishing is the elimination of selfish desires and the adoption of a contrary desire to do what is right in all aspects of one’s life. As he writes, “the aim of moral discipline is to purify the heart from the rust of passion and resentment till, like a clear mirror, it reflects the light of God.”
Such a task is not easy, thus it would seem that genuine happiness is not a state most people can attain. Indeed, al-Ghazali emphasizes that only a few people have attained this supreme happiness, which is the ecstasy of union with the divine. These people are the prophets, which appear in all times and places, as messengers to remind mankind of their true purpose and their ultimate goal. The prophets are those who have succeeded in cleansing their inner mirrors of all the rust and dirt accumulated by bodily desires and comparisons with others. As a result, they can see in their waking moments what other people only see haphazardly in their dreams, and they receive an insight into the nature of things through an immediate flash of intuition rather than through laborious learning.
Al-Ghazali writes that every person is born with a “knowing pain in the soul” resulting from a disconnection from the Ultimate Reality. The tragic condition of Man is that our eyes have been so distracted by physical things and pleasure, that we have lost the ability to see the unseen. This is why people are so unhappy: they are trying to relieve this pain in the soul by recourse to physical pleasure. But physical pleasure cannot relieve a pain that is essentially spiritual. The only answer to our condition is a pleasure which comes not from the body but from self-knowledge.
This self-knowledge is not to be attained by mere thinking or philosophy, however.
Al-Ghazali writes that unhappiness is created by enslavement to desire and the belief that one should satisfy only one’s own desires (as governed by base instincts and appetites). He maintains that everyone perceives, even in that bewildering state, that something is amiss, that we are living an inauthentic life that needs correction. This nagging feeling is the source of our greatest joy, for once we become conscious of it we can be led in the opposite direction, towards the life of meaning and self-transcendence.
Al-Ghazali teaches us the following about achieving true happiness:
- Happiness comes from Self-Knowledge, the knowledge that we have a heart or spirit that is originally perfect but has become obscured by passions and desires.
- Happiness depends on our faculties: if we exercise our higher faculties (like Reason, Imagination), we will be happier than if we exercise our lower ones (mere physical pleasures)
- There are examples in history of truly happy people, and they were prophets — people who have attained a perfect union with Ultimate Reality
- Most of us seek substitute pleasures deriving from the body which cannot resolve a pain that is essentially spiritual.
Al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid. The Alchemy of Happiness. Trans. And ed. Claud Field and Elton I. Daniel. London: M.E. Sharpe, 1991.
A Brief Introduction to Islamic Philosophy. Blackwell: 2007.