Ghazali on love of status vs true perfection
Imam Ghazali’s book, Kitaab Al-Arba’in Fi Usul ad-Din, ‘The Forty Principles of the Religion,’ which he wrote before his death, is a summary of Ihya Ulumuddin, and his life’s works and thoughts.
In purification of the heart, Ghazali mentions 10 principles. Love of status is the sixth principle.
Love of status (Al Jah)
Love of status affects the heart. Ghazali shares his experience with us and give clarification of this principle. He wrote this book after the Ihya Ulumudin, so while he summarised it he also added to it.
That is the abode of the afterlife. We have made it for those who want neither high status nor corruption on earth. (28:83)
The topic is derived from the ayah. The word for status is uluwan which is connected to the adjective aliyah which is high, like the sky above us.
The hereafter is for those who do not seek a high status and are not corrupt. The ayah shows us their intention. There is a difference between those who seek fame and those who gain it without it seeking it or are born into it. This is one of the diseases which Ghazali will talk about how to control it.
The wolves and the sheep
The Prophet (peace be on him) said:
Love of wealth and status is more ruinous to a Muslim’s religion than two vicious wolves in a stable of a sheep. (Ibn Hibban)
Instantly this powerful image conveys that love of wealth and status is more dangerous to a Muslim and his religion than two ferocious wolves in a stable of sheep. Everyone is familiar with farms and the threat that wolves pose to sheep and chickens etc. Clearly two ravenous wolves in a sheep enclosure will attack them viciously. Similarly, seeking status can wreak havoc with our deeds and our deen, so we have to be careful not to fall into this trap. It can ruin your character and give you false hope.
The lowly people whose status with Allah is high
In another beautiful narration, praising low-profile people, the Prophet (peace be on him) said:
There are dishevelled, dusty people in tattered clothes whom nobody pays attention to. If they were to swear to Allah, He would fulfil it for them.’ (Muslim, Ibn Hibban)
There are similar narrations to this. Here, the Prophet (peace be on him) is talking about ‘the nobody’ who wears old clothes. The word of old clothes is timrain (the dual of timr) as refers what is worn on the top and bottom. Though no one pays attention to these people, the Prophet (peace be on him) talks about them. In Surat Abasa, Allah Almighty draws attention to Abdullah ibn Umm Maktoom, who was both blind and poor, therefore had a very low standing in society. Yet Allah Almighty gave him prominence and reprimanded the Prophet (peace be on him) for ignoring him, while he was in a meeting with someone of high status and influence.
Changing people’s perception
Allah Almighty is changing how we evaluate people in this world. He is showing that it is not one’s material possessions, the watch they wear, their postcode or their connections which makes them important. There are certain watches which can even run to £250,000! But what is in their heart. Don’t misunderstand this. The hadith is not suggesting that you should wear clothes that are dusty and patched up. In fact, the Prophet (peace be on him) was the best in his appearance. He was clean, perfumed and well-groomed. His beard and hair were trimmed, and he urged his companions to also look after themselves.
Islam came to change the perception that people’s worth is not measured by their external appearance. The Prophet (peace be on him) expounded in another narration that the lowliest of people may have a highly elevated status:
Verily the person of paradise is every dishevelled, dusty person in tattered clothes whom no one pays attention to. The one who, if he seeks permission to visit a leader, is denied; if he proposes to a woman is not accepted for marriage, and if he says something, he is not listened to. Concern fo his needs reverberates in his chest. If his light were spread out over people on the Day of Resurrection, it would encompass them for sure. (Bayhaqi)
Thus, this poor person may be much more important to Allah than another man who is wealthier.
Those who are close to Allah, are known as the awliya ullah. Their rank and closeness to Him is not visible according to the societal formula we use in the dunya to assess their rank. Rather the key to their status is inward.
It may be that someone happens to have a matching high inward and outward status, but this is not very common. Shaykh Younis (rahimahullah) used to say that the awliya of today wear suits and ties, in other words they are concealed among everyday people. They do not necessarily wear thobes and have long beards.
It is quite possible that the one you look down on, or despise or even shut the door in their face out of fear that they will attack you because they look so down-trodden, may be most honourable before Allah. Allah Almighty said in Surat Hujarat:
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُمْ مِنْ ذَكَرٍ وَأُنْثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ
O humankind! Surely We have created you from a single (pair of) male and female, and made you into tribes and families so that you may know one another (and so build mutuality and co-operative relationships, not so that you may take pride in your differences of race or social rank, and breed enmities). Surely the noblest, most honourable of you in God’s sight is the one best in piety, righteousness, and reverence for God. Surely God is All-Knowing, All-Aware. (49:13)
Thus Allah evaluates people by how much taqwa (obedience) they have and who is best in their conduct and deeds, not by their appearance or wealth.
The power of the awliya
Those who are close to Allah have their duas answered swiftly by Allah. When they ask Him to make something happen, He makes it happen. Is this possible? Yes. Among the companions of the Prophet (peace be on him) there were many of them and he named some of them in his narrations. One of these was Bara bin Malik, the brother of Anas bin Malik, who served the Prophet (peace be on him).
Bara bin Malik
Bara bin Malik, was a distinguished student of the school of Suffa in ilm and along with his brother served Islam throughout his life. He had a very special status with Allah before being eventually martyred. The Prophet (peace be on him) said:
“There are so many people with dishevelled hair, covered with dust; if they swear by Allah then He shall fulfill it. Among them is Al-Bara bin Malik.” (Tirmidhi)
Haritha bin Wahb Al-Khuza`I (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated:
I heard the Prophet (ﷺ) saying. “May I tell you of the people of Paradise? Every weak and poor obscure person whom the people look down upon but his oath is fulfilled by Allah when he takes an oath to do something. And may I inform you of the people of the Hell-Fire? They are all those violent, arrogant and stubborn people.” (Bukhari)
Ghazali quoted Ayyub as-Sikhtiyani (66-131 AH/685-748 CE) who said that no one who is truthful wants his status with Allah to be known by people. This means that anyone who has a high status with Allah does not reveal this to others, or advertise it. And hence once should be wary of anyone who claims they or their teachers are from the awliya. Being an awliya is between you and Allah.
Ghazali says that seeking fame is blameworthy not praiseworthy. It is a slippery slope. In our time, social media has opened the gates to an instant global audience. Youtubers have the potential to reach thousands of people and anyone can upload glittering images of themselves (albeit heavily made-up and filtered). The desire to be admired and liked is much more prevalent and has been fuelled even more by the growth of celebrity culture.
People go to any lengths to get followers. They will take absurd risks and go to extremes to get the ‘best’ selfies. They may even fall off a cliff literally or metaphorically in pursuit of their ultimate selfie. The desire for fame can therefore be fatal.
Why do we crave fame and status?
Ghazali explains that the reason behind craving fame and status is to have the possession of people’s hearts, and to be able to use them. The more praise and likes you get, the more followers you get, the happier you feel, and the more potential you have to earn wealth. Having wealth makes you happy because it enables you to fulfil your desires, and fame makes it easier to acquire wealth. However, wealth disappears and the happiness does not last.
There is a deeper secret behind our attachment to fame and status, and that is that the status of loftiness is a divine attribute and therefore naturally loved by humans. There is a subtle connection between the soul and the divine.
Allah gave us the soul, and He told us that only He knows its reality, as He stated in Surat al-Isra’:
وَيَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الرُّوحِ ۖ قُلِ الرُّوحُ مِنْ أَمْرِ رَبِّي وَمَا أُوتِيتُم مِّنَ الْعِلْمِ إِلَّا قَلِيلًا
They ask you about the spirit. Say: The spirit is among the affairs of my Lord, you have been given little knowledge of it. (17:85)
Ghazali’s advice on what constitutes perfection
There is no other existence than what Allah created. He created the universe and everything in it, and all of this is like a mere shadow from the light of His power. It all has the position of subordination, not parity. We are therefore instinctively attached to these divine attributes and we like it by default. However we can use this desire for loftiness for good or for evil. We saw in the example of Firaun, who said ‘I am your supreme Lord’ (79:24) that he desperately wanted this divine attribute and how it drove him to evil. Many do not say it but act with it because of this innate desire. This is dangerous.
Yet we are limited in our power, we cannot subjugate the heavens and the earth or the people around us so we think that if we achieve status we will be able to control people. However, this is a trap.
Status does not confer perfection, but the illusion of perfection.
If this seeking status is so blameworthy, then why is it praised to seek a high status with Allah? We should seek a high status with Allah but not with people. The better our connection with Allah the more we are reach kamal (perfection), the more we erase bad traits and polish our character and perfect our deeds. As the Prophet (peace be on him) said:
“I have been sent to perfect good character.” (Malik, Al Muwatta)
If we define true perfection it is composed of three parts: knowledge, power and freedom.
Power: The servant of Allah does not have real power, because it is only Allah who has real power. We are just like a light bulb, which has no light unless it is plugged into the socket, so we substitute this by seeking wealth and status. You imagine that this is perfection, and it makes you feel haughty, but do not be fooled by that. This is why Ghazali called this chapter ‘Foolishness and Love of Status’, for status and wealth will disappear. What lasts is baqiatu salihaat (your good deeds and character).
Knowledge: True perfection is related to knowledge of Allah and His attributes. Knowledge makes you closer to Allah. What really lasts and stays with you is your good deeds and character. These do not disappear after your death, rather they increase, from the seeds you planted, the knowledge you disseminated or the waqf you left behind.
Freedom: The definition of real freedom is the disconnection between you and dunya. It allows you to break free from the shackles of dunya. When you are not attached to the dunya, it is easy for your to prepare for the akhirah and focus on what will last. You make your main aim Allah Almighty.
By contrast we are deluded by our wealth and children, and we boast about them:
ٱلْمَالُ وَٱلْبَنُونَ زِينَةُ ٱلْحَيَوٰةِ ٱلدُّنْيَا ۖ وَٱلْبَقِيَتُ ٱلصَّلِحَتُ خَيْرٌ عِندَ رَبِّكَ ثَوَابًۭا وَخَيْرٌ أَمَلًۭا
Wealth and sons are allurements of the life of this world: But the things that endure, good deeds, are best in the sight of your Lord, as rewards, and best as (the foundation for) hopes. (18:46)
Losers are those who have a twisted grasp of reality and are seeking imaginary perfection. They will discover the true reality in the akhirah. They are not living in dunya. The dunya is living in them.
The obsession with fame
It is an obsession, the best example is checking how many likes and followers you have on social media. Rather than being connected to this, be connected to knowledge and good actions, which are baqiatu salihaat (what stays with you in the hereafter).
Praise makes you feel better about yourself and feel faultless, and it makes you feel like people are under your spell.
If someone praises you, and they are not a person of knowledge or a good heart, then their compliments may not be genuine, so you should not let praise go to your head.
Ibn Atta al Iskandari said people praise you for what they think you have, yet you know your shortcomings better than them. Therefore, do not leave the certainty of what you know, and believe the assumptions people hold about you. You know yourself better than they do. Do not believe all the praise you receive. Be truthful to yourself.
If you are praised and the praise is genuine and you do have the quality that you were praised for, then thank Allah, because He gave you this. Why should you be praised for something Allah gave? Be humble and ask Allah to keep this quality in you.
Ghazali is telling us that longing for praise and being in the public arena will break your back. We have seen celebrities are miserable, and many suffer from depression and addiction due the pressures of being famous.
When you are praised for something you don’t have, you have created an avatar of yourself. It is not really you. Reality is different from the virtual world. The social media world is fake and imaginary. We cannot reach perfection, but we can aim to improve ourselves, our character and our knowledge, rather than live in an imaginary world. For instance when you are praised for courage when you do not have it, or the magnificent work which you did not actually do, or your encyclopaedic knowledge when you do not have it.
Knowledge and imaan do not depart on your death. You can fight the love of status in your heart. Look after what will lasts and do not swap them. If all people on earth follow you, but you are nothing to Allah, they cannot benefit you. You need Allah’s recognition, not theirs.
Possessing people’s hearts and gaining their love is like possessing material things. You need to have it to a degree to protect yourself from enemies, but do not chase this. Deal with it according to your needs and do not attain status through the back door, such as from hypocrisy and lying and fake praise. This is haram. Do not be obsessed by it.
Ghazali is sharing his insight from his own life. As he reached the pinnacle of fame, so he has practical knowledge as well a theoretical knowledge. He experienced the transition from being an ordinary person, and then ten years of seclusion in Damascus when he underwent a paradigm shift. He also reached 50 and knew that the reminder of his lifespan would be less than what he had lived.
Some of us are born with status, but having humility is vital. The opposite of humility is kibr, and no one with an atom’s weight of kibr (arrogance) can enter Jannah.
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