The subject of this meeting was a book called “The Alchemy of Happiness” by the Islamic philosopher Al-Ghazzali. The Alchemy of Happiness was written toward the end of al-Ghazali’s life, in the early 12th century. It contains al-Ghazzali’s advice on how to become more godly and wise, and shows how piety is the path to happiness. It also contains several arguments to prove the existence of the God. In the meeting, Alex first talked a little about the cultural context of al-Ghazzali’s life and works, and then Shannon reviewed the highlights of the book and led a discussion of his outlook and arguments.

Al-Ghazzali was a very intelligent theologian who lived during the Golden Age of Islam. At thirty-three, he was appointed as the director of a large mosque in Baghdad – a very prestigious position. However, al-Ghazzali was very concerned with finding an indubitable certainty of the existence of God; he entered into a crisis of faith, and eventually abandoned his lucrative job to seek a resolution. In al-Ghazzali’s time, there were four main spiritual schools of thought in Islam: Kalam, which is standard, rational theology; Falsafah, which is a highly scientific approach to theology; Shia, a messianic sect of Islam; and Sufiism, which is Islamic mysticism. Here is a very, very brief overview of each of these schools of thought.

After the death of the Prophet in 632 CE, the early Muslims were led by the Rashidun, the first four “rightly guided” caliphs. After the fourth caliph, Ali, was murdered, there was a brief power struggle, and a family called the Umayyads took power. At this point, the first split in Islam occurred: the Sunnis accepted the leadership of the Umayyads, and the Shia rejected the Umayyads, saying that only the blood relatives of the Prophet could be the caliphs. The Shia were a much smaller group, but over time, Shia theology became highly sophisticated and mystical, and developed a messianic element: Shia believe that there is a true Imam (spiritual leader), who has a divine knowledge of God and who will someday reveal himself to inaugurate a new Golden Age.

During the Umayyad dynasty, the political/spiritual leadership became worldly and wealthy, and two strains of dissent developed. The first strain is the Traditionists. The traditionists looked back to the recorded sayings a deeds of the Prophet, and strive to emulate the Prophet in daily life – this is the origin of Sharia. By emulating the Prophet, who is thought of as the ideal Muslim, ordinary Muslims can become godlier through daily piety. The other strain of dissent, the Mutazilis, took a different approach: they wanted to learn about the nature of god through the application of rational argument to the Scriptures. Now Traditionists and Mutazilis shared a disdain for the ruling class and their luxurious lifestyles, but they did have strong disagreements with one another: Traditionists were more likely to take the Scripture literally and didn’t believe in free will, whereas the Mutazilis saw metaphor in the Scripture and upheld free will. The animosity grew when the caliph al-Mamun sided with Mutazilis and started torturing Traditionists. A philosopher named al-Ashari sought a compromise between Traditionists and Mutazilis, so he created Kalam, which comes from the Arabic word for “word” or “discourse.” Kalam became the dominant approach to theology during the Golden Age of Islam.

The other two schools of thought that were available to al-Ghazzali were Falsafah and Sufiism. Falsafah was the result of Islamic interaction with Greek philosophy. Like the Jews a thousand years earlier, Muslims sought to reconcile their faith with the rationalism of Plato and other Greek philosophers. Falsafah posited that the nature of God could be learned through scientific inquiry. The Sufi approach was that of mysticism – through ritual and symbolism, they sought to experience God directly.

Al-Ghazzali mastered each of these disciplines (Kalam, Shia, Falsafah, and Sufiism) in his quest to seek God, and ultimately declared that the mystical approach of the Sufis is the only way to apprehend the nature of God. His major work “The Incoherence Of The Philosophers” massively condemned Kalam, Shia, and especially Falsafah, and advocated mysticism. Al-Ghazzali is one of the most influential philosophers in history.

Here are some highlights from The Alchemy of Happiness:

  • The cause of suffering is detachment from God. God wants your devotion, so when you live faithlessly or impiously God sends afflictions and misfortune to you. If you find that you are suffering, it is because God is seeking your attention, attempting to remind you that you should surrender yourself.
  • Materialism is useless. Happiness cannot be found in worldly things – the only happiness is perfect devotion to God.
  • Women are not to be trusted. If they are given any freedom, they will become impudent and perverse, and it will be difficult to reduce them back to order. Nice.
  • Al-Ghazzali addresses the Sufi practice of reciting erotic poetry as part of their mystical endeavor. He notes that many Muslims object to the practice, but he says that the erotic language of the poetry is metaphorical, and symbolizes intense longing for and ecstatic union with God.

Here are some proofs of God that al-Ghazzali offered as advice for dealing with non-believers:

  • The perfect design of the human body is evidence of God’s design. To paraphrase, if all the sages of all time came together to create a human body, they could not possibly create a better design than God has made. This is the basic design argument, or argument from complexity. To be fair, al-Ghazzali couldn’t have had the evidence to suggest the theory of evolution, and he had a limited knowledge of human physiology. Today we know that there are many inefficiencies in the bodies of Earth organisms, and the way that organisms interact with their environments is the result of evolution.
  • In the Qur’an, the Prophet says that there are (or will be) 124,000 prophets and messengers from God over the course of existence. Al-Ghazzali says, do you really think that many wise men could be wrong about God and the afterlife? It is an argument from authority.
  • Al-Ghazzali writes about how a Muslim might cause a non-believer to give pause, and basically outlines Pascal’s Wager: it’s less risky to believe in God, because if you’re wrong nothing happens but if you don’t believe you could go to hell. Maybe we should stop calling it Pascal’s Wager and call it Al-Ghazzali’s Wager instead. Interesting note: unlike the Jewish and Christian texts, heaven and hell are described with great precision in the Qur’an.

We were interested in the Sufi erotic poetry, so we looked some up:

  • Here’s an erotic poem by the Islamic mystic al-Arabi. There is some sexual overtone, and mentions of body parts like the neck, breasts, and buttocks, but it’s not really pornographic.
  • This poem by the Sufi Rabia Basri (go to page four, the poem’s title is “If I Worship You”) came up, and seemed relevant to Al-Ghazzali’s mention of Pascal’s Wager. Her poem is basically a total refutation of Pascal’s Wager, and implies that God should be love for its own sake, rather than out of fear.
  • Speaking of erotic religious poetry, we did a little reading from the Song of Solomon, out of the Tanakh (we read chapter 4). This poetry is way more explicit than the Sufi poetry we read. We noticed the emphasis on sight and smell, and the reference to cunnilingus in verse six. We don’t know what to make of the “my sister, my spouse” bits.
  • We wondered if there was any erotic poetry from the perspective of women, and the only thing we could think of was the Greek lyric poet Sapphos. Fun fact about Sapphos: when Victorian English anthropologists were translating Sapphos’s poetry, they changed all the pronouns so that the poems were written about men; in reality, Sapphos was a lesbian, and all of her poems were written about other women.
  • We ended the meeting with something a little different: a really intense list of curses from the Book of Deuteronomy in the Torah. We read chapter 28. It contains 52 verses of extreme curses on the Israelites if they disobey God after entering the promised land.