Ghazali on Zuhd – levels and motivation

Ghazali on Zuhd - levels and motivation

Ghazali lived in 5th century Hijri and his 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 the last ten principles of the forty, he looks at good traits. The first is tawbah. The second is khawf and the third is Zuhd. There is no good translation of the word zuhd, which is commonly translated as asceticism, so we will stick to zuhd.


Zuhd is about renouncing the dunya and focusing more on the akhirah. Ghazali has his own take on the topic – the definition, the levels and the minimum requirements and application of zuhd. Ghazali mentioned that zuhd comes from knowledge and based on that knowledge one can develop it. Without knowledge you cannot practice zuhd.

Living and consumption

The fruits of this knowledge are that it gives you direction. Ghazali says we need necessary provisions in this life, as we have needs and we live in this world and zuhd is about seeking the necessary provision – shelter, clothes, food, and furniture which is sufficient and not more. To this end, Ghazali advocates eating basic food- not luxury food. He does not recommend storing more food than one needs for a day or a month depending where you are, or for your journey if you are travelling. He goes into detail about which foods one should consume including the amount based on the units of measurement which they used in their time. This is not relevant to us today, but his main point is that one should not eat the highest quality food nor the worst – but the medium, which was barely, rather than white flour which was a luxury.

Ghazali also makes recommendations on what one should wear – to protect oneself from the elements. He even goes into how many outfits one should own. He suggests having just one – washing and wearing it. However this is unthinkable for us, as we are accustomed to having cupboards full of clothes. The one who has hundreds of clothes and shoes is not a person of zuhd.

Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) showed the humble and modest material of the clothes the Prophet (peace be on him) wore. Yet at the same time, he also had top quality clothes which he used to wear when he received delegations and at Eid and on Jummuah. This is the prophetic application of zuhd.

Omar (may Allah be pleased with him) used to have patches on his clothes and Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) also used to wear clothes of cheap material. However this does not mean that having patches makes one a Zahid, as patched clothes can be a fashion or a way of portraying to others that you are a person of zuhd. If that is the motivation behind wearing torn clothes and patched clothes, it is punishable.

The Prophet (peace be on him) once passed some companions who were plastering a wall and he said the matter is quicker than that, meaning that the Final Hour could come faster than it took them to complete their plastering. He was drawing their attention to the akhirah.

When it comes to accommodation, the Prophet (peace be on him) did not have his own room, but used to stay with his wives in turn who used to have their own rooms (hujuraat) 2×2 metres, without decoration. Some people in Madinah have made models of these rooms, which were very simple and their minimal contents. The Prophet (peace be on him) was satisfied with the bare minimum, which provided the necessity rather than luxury.

Ghazali suggests that one does not concern oneself with decorating one’s accommodation, so one can focus on the akhirah. This does not mean you cannot have a good home. It means that you should not neglect your akhirah or your responsibilities in the pursuit of the best home.

Since the time of the Prophet (peace be on him) there have been shelters for homeless people known as zawiya (plural zawaya), which literally means a corner and tikkiyas. In Madinah, those who had no job or money or food and shelter would stay at the back of the masjid, in the portion known as As-Suffa, which was dedicated for them, and was slightly higher so it was visible to those who came to mosque so they could donate clothes and food to them.

Ghazali specifies that the essential homeware consists of a small selection of utensils as the luxury is ahead of us, in the akhirah inshallah.

Is it haram to have luxury?

If you earned luxury in a halal way, it is not haram, but it should not come at the expense of your family or akhirah. Your car and your home should not be your sole purpose in life or the only reason for your occupation. Miserable is the slave of dinar.

Abu Hurayrah reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ رضى الله عنه قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم تَعِسَ عَبْدُ الدِّينَارِ وَالدِّرْهَمِ وَالْقَطِيفَةِ وَالْخَمِيصَةِ إِنْ أُعْطِيَ رَضِيَ وَإِنْ لَمْ يُعْطَ لَمْ يَرْضَ

“Wretched is the slave of gold, silver, fine clothes, and garments. If he is given, he is pleased, but if he is not given, he is displeased.” (Buhkari)

In our time, we are the slaves of our jobs. It is no longer a 9-5 day but for some it’s 9-9 and for bankers  11 hours a day is not unusual. Sadly, we are enslaved to our desks and screens and jobs. Is this what we really want?  Do you want your job to be your life? Or are you content to what is sufficient for your family and invest in the akhirah?

The Prophet (peace be on him) could have had a life of luxury and piles of wealth but he did not want it. Abu Umamah reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

عَنْ أَبِي أُمَامَةَ عَنْ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ عَرَضَ عَلَىَّ رَبِّي لِيَجْعَلَ لِي بَطْحَاءَ مَكَّةَ ذَهَبًا قُلْتُ لاَ يَا رَبِّ وَلَكِنْ أَشْبَعُ يَوْمًا وَأَجُوعُ يَوْمًا فَإِذَا جُعْتُ تَضَرَّعْتُ إِلَيْكَ وَذَكَرْتُكَ وَإِذَا شَبِعْتُ شَكَرْتُكَ وَحَمِدْتُكَ

“My Lord presented me with the valley of Mecca that He might turn it into gold for me. I said: No, O Lord, rather I will be satiated some days and hungry some days. When I am hungry, I will humble myself to You and remember You. When I am satiated, I will be grateful to You and praise You.” (Tirmidhi)

Ghazali mentions 3 levels of zuhd.

1.    The trainee Zahid – started on the journey but has a long way to go

The trainee zahid – renounces the dunya but deep down is still connected to dunya, though he is trying to break this attachment. He is a mutazhid rather than a zahid. He is like someone who has no sabr, but is practicing to have sabr. Thus he is a novice who has not yet reached the real level of zuhd, at the beginning of his journey to zuhd. Ghazali calls this Bidayaat azuhdhi tazahud. We are at this level, as we trying to not let the dunya control us and cloud our vision, though we are not zahid/zuhaad.

2. Disgusted by dunya

The one who has renounced the dunya from his heart completely as he knows that it is not possible to combine the luxury of dunya and the luxury of akhirah. If he were to be given a choice between the two, he would definitely choose the akhirah. It is like paying for a jewel (the akhirah) with the dunya, sacrificing dunya gains and luxury for the akhirah. He is not at all interested in the dunya, even disgusted by the dunya. The example of this Haritha who felt no attachment to dunya as he could visualise the akhirah so clearly.

3.    Perfect (kamal) zuhd – complete indifference to dunya

He is neither in level 1 or 2. He is not attached or connected to dunya – he does not love the dunya nor is he disgusted by the dunya. He is neutral. He is indifferent whether he has the dunya or not. Money is like water, which one drinks when one needs it, otherwise one does not think about it.

This is the inner reality of zuhd. They are not all the same level. Ghazali says the 3rd level is the level of kamal- perfection, as the one who hates something is in fact similar to one who loves something. The one who is in the third level is not wasting his time fighting it or chasing it.

Use wealth as a bridge to the akhirah

Aisha said that she received 100,000 dirhams and she distributed it the same day. Her servant asked why she had not kept any for them, and she replied that she forgot, had he reminded her she would have kept some to buy food. She did not reject it nor did she keep it – she used it as a bridge to the akhirah, without loving or hating it. This is top level it takes a lot to get there.

Dunya and akhirah

Comparing dunya to akhirah is nothing. A drop in the ocean. Then Ghazali says zuhd regarding the motivation behind it as well is divided into three levels. You might practice zuhd.

The perfect level of zuhd is when you do not consider leaving the dunya zuhd, as you are so detached from it you do not even notice that you left it. If you notice that you are depriving yourself of it, shows that it is still valuable to you. 

Dunya for the people of insight is nothing. It is like a mere drop in the ocean.

Ghazali identifies three underlying motivations for practicing zuhd.

Motivation for level 1 – zuhd out of fear of hellfire (zuhd al khaifeen)

The first reason one might practice zuhd is out of fear of hellfire. Those who fear Allah’s punishment and do not want to get into trouble in the akhirah because of what they could have in dunya, avoid what the dunya has to offer to stay out of trouble.

For instance if you get a business offer that is too good to be true, you read the terms and conditions and find something doubtful in it. What do you do? Some people feel uncomfortable deep down and reject the offer based on that concern, after doing their research and making istikhara. This fear of doubtful matters leading to something regretful, makes us cautious and less likely to accept a short gain over a longer term and lasting loss.

Motivation for level 2 – the desire for Jannah (zuhd ar-rajeen)

The next motivation for people to be zahid is that they yearn for Jannah. They are motivated less by fear and more by hope that they will attain Jannah so they strive for Jannah. Ghazali says to worship with hope is better to worship with fear. Hope engenders love and love brings you closer to Allah Almighty.

Motivation 3 – the highest level – to want nothing but the pleasure of Allah (zuhd al-arifeen)

The highest level of zahid is the one whose motivation is neither fear of hellfire nor desire for Jannah, but the sole purpose of gaining Allah’s pleasure. They are ready to leave everything except Allah, and their only concern is Him. These are people of knowledge and insight. This is a very high level. Their life choices are centred on whether they please Allah or displease Allah. They are not bothered by the dunya, but only take what they need to survive. They spend the rest of their time with Allah.

The Prophet (peace be on him) was the highest level of zuhd. His heart was attached to Allah and he felt that anything that did not was a diversion from Allah, was like clouds over his heart. Scholars said that this cloudiness came from being with his wives, companions and dealing with dunya issues and for this they would make istighfar (seek repentance).

The well-known statement of Rabia al-Adawiyyah, the very famous righteous woman, in the second century (three centuries before Ghazali) stated that she did not worship Allah out of fear of hellfire or desire for Jannah but because He deserves to be worshipped. She said:

“O Allah! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.”

In another statement she said:

“I keep my heart attached to Allah Almighty and my body converses with people, but the true love is in my heart and my communication is with people.”

Her level is very high. The perfect level is to focus on Allah and leave everything else. Lower than this is to practice zuhd in the dunya, without being a zahid in working for the akhirah.

Wealth and status

Lower than that level is to have zuhd in wealth, but not in status. Some people may renounce wealth, but crave status. This is not a perfect level. Ghazali says status can be more important than money, and often brings money and the rest of the dunya with it. This is why in order to be considered a person of zuhd you need to renounce money and status (mal wal jah).

The difference between being a zahid and a faqir (poor person)

To the world the ascetic and the poor person may look the same but there is clear distinction between them when you look closely. The difference is the that the one who is zahid has the opportunity to acquire wealth but rejects it, whereas the poor person has no choice. His circumstances are not constrained out of his choice but his situation. It may be that he desires dunya, but simply cannot attain it. On the surface they look the same but in reality they are different as one rejects dunya while the other wants it.

The faqir has a higher level than a rich person as he is not enjoying any of the luxuries of the dunya so if he follows the guidance of the shariah and deals with his situation with sabr he will have a high level in the akhirah.

Sabr vs shukr

Whos is at a higher level – the one who has little but practices sabr or the one who has much and practices shukr? There are different evidences and opinions on this much debated topic. If one is tested by poverty and they try their best to improve their life and their family’s situation however their income remains limited so then they practice sabr and ihtisab, they will be rewarded greatly for getting through these difficulties in dunya. They are not like somebody who never faced any hunger or difficulty because they were tested on a daily basis.

By contrast, the rich person is also tested on a daily basis but in a different way – through how they earn their wealth and spend it. As this wealth is in their hand they may be tempted to focus too much on making their wealth and be a person of dunya not zuhd.

There are many narrations of varying authenticity that say that poor people will be entered into Jannah before wealthy people.

It also important to realise, that by withholding material wealth and pleasures, Allah protects some people from the dunya as He protects some people from some food and drink. Therefore if you find you are tested in poverty at times, know that Allah wanted you to experience something that and protect you and prepare you for something better.

Some people may enjoy wealth but then find it is taken from them, if they do not show gratitude and pay their obligations towards their family and the poor.


If the faqir is content with what he has, then his level of poverty is close to zuhd.

 ‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr bin ‘As narrated that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said:

حَدَّثَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ رُمْحٍ، حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ لَهِيعَةَ، عَنْ عُبَيْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ أَبِي جَعْفَرٍ، وَحُمَيْدِ بْنِ هَانِئٍ الْخَوْلاَنِيِّ، أَنَّهُمَا سَمِعَا أَبَا عَبْدِ الرَّحْمَنِ الْحُبُلِيَّ، يُخْبِرُ عَنْ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ عَمْرِو بْنِ الْعَاصِ، عَنْ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ ـ صلى الله عليه وسلم ـ أَنَّهُ قَالَ ‏ “‏ قَدْ أَفْلَحَ مَنْ هُدِيَ إِلَى الإِسْلاَمِ وَرُزِقَ الْكَفَافَ وَقَنِعَ بِهِ ‏”‏ ‏

“He has succeeded who is guided to Islam and is granted sufficient provision and is content with it.” (Ibn Majah)

The content faqir can be close to Allah, but so can the wealthy person if he fulfils his obligations, pays his zakat and looks after the needy in his family and beyond, and can become even higher than the faqir. We have the example of Uthman who was very wealthy but the dunya wasn’t in his heart. He used the dunya to serve Allah.

Ghazali finishes the chapter by mentioning that we cannot reach this level without patience. Not every believer can be a zahid, but every believer has to be abid (obedient).

Can a Zahid ever be happy because he is always longing for the akhirah, as in the hadith the world is a prison for the believer?

Happiness is an eternal status which is in the heart and reflected by your limbs and face and actions and words, however finds Allah finds real happiness. Abu Dharr Ghifari came to Makkah in the early years of Islam and he was searching for the Prophet (peace be on him). When he found him, he listened to the Quran and took his shahada and then he went to the Kaaba where he started reciting it loudly, much to the fury of the Quraysh who beat him for this. However it did not deter him at all, and he kept reciting it, because he was filled with the euphoria of finding Allah. He could not contain this joy and it made him immune to the pain of being beaten even to the point of death. When Abu Bakr came to rescue him, he went back the Prophet (peace be on him) and said he was prepared to go back to the Kaaba again the ext day and continue reciting it, but the Prophet (peace be on him) told him to go back to his tribe.

What sort of parents are those who are Zahid? Do their children lack ambition?

We need to understand the concept of zuhd properly. There is no correlation between zuhd and laziness. Some people think the one who sits in the corner doing dhikr is Zahid, but Uthman was a person of zuhd and he ran his business and he made his business trips between Makkah and Yemen and Sham and other regions. He had to deal with the dunya but his heart was attached to Allah Almighty. This is how we create the balance. Allah Almighty said in the Quran:

وَٱبْتَغِ فِيمَآ ءَاتَىٰكَ ٱللَّهُ ٱلدَّارَ ٱلْـَٔاخِرَةَ ۖ وَلَا تَنسَ نَصِيبَكَ مِنَ ٱلدُّنْيَا ۖ وَأَحْسِن كَمَآ أَحْسَنَ ٱللَّهُ إِلَيْكَ ۖ وَلَا تَبْغِ ٱلْفَسَادَ فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ ۖ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَا يُحِبُّ ٱلْمُفْسِدِينَ

But seek, through that which Allah has given you, the home of the Hereafter; and [yet], do not forget your share of the world. And do good as Allah has done good to you. And desire not corruption in the land. Indeed, Allah does not like corrupters.” (28:77)

How much does a parent need to provide their children, as parents want the best for their children but want to raise them not to be materialistic?

A parent has to ensure that they look after their children and their education and provide for their children’s tarbiya and deen. They should not work extra hours to achieve this at the expense of being with them and giving them their time and attention. If you ask a child what they need, education is important but they want the love and compassion of their parents. We live in the dunya and are inspired to do the best we can, as Allah loves excellence, but remember that dunya is a path to the akhirah.

If the dunya chases the one who renounces the dunya, does that mean they will do well materially? Or that there will be more barakah in their rizq? Or that they will be more content with what they have?

It can be a variety of ways. The main point is that if you serve Allah, the dunya will serve you. If you chase the dunya the dunya will kick you.

Sabr helps achieve zuhd but does sin then affect that station?

No station is permanent or guaranteed. Like anything in life you can go up or down, gain sabr and lose sabr, so you can leave the station or come back to it.

If a zahid does not save up for the future, do they live on the edge and do they live with a higher status of tawakkul?

Some people save for a month or a year, but it is not everyone’s cup of tea to live without savings.

Who came up with the concept of zuhd?

Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal wrote a book on zuhd in the second century and there were many books on this topic, at the time of Imam Hanifa. Ghazali mentioned zuhd three hundred years after that to renew the concept and give his own insight into this topic. Also Imam ʿAbdullah ibn al-Mubarak’s book covers over 50 important topics related to the topic of ascetism (az-Zuhd) and heart softeners (ar-Raqa’iq) in az-Zuhd wa ar-Raqā’iq.

How do we keep the balance between dunya and akhirah without justifying over indulgence as blessings Allah has given us?

Omar bin Abdul Aziz (may Allah be pleased with him) before and after he became a calipha was wealthy and lived within the limits of the shariah. But when he became the leader of the Muslims, he felt the burden of his responsibility to Allah and he sold everything and went back to basics and stripped his family of their wealth and positions. He was satisfied to live with the basics although he only ruled for just over two years, he set the example. Also Omar (may Allah be pleased with him) lived very modestly, as he was mindful of the greater obligation to the people in his care. We are all at different stages in our journeys, regardless of our age, but the core is not to make the acquisition of the dunya your prime concern and do not let it control your heart and your decisions.

What do you do when Allah gives you the dunya when you did not ask for it?

Deal with what you have been given within the boundaries, always recognise that it is a blessing and a test.

Shaykh Haytham Tamim – The Thursday Al Ghazali Class 

Related posts

Spring clean your life – simplify and prioritise your life with zuhd

Spring clean your life (2) – find contentment and resist the allure of dunya through zuhd

Ghazali on zuhd part 1

Ghazali on showing off (part 3)

Ghazali on showing off (part 1)

Ghazali on self admiration

Ghazali on pride

Ghazali on love of dunya

Ghazali on love of status

Ghazali on how much wealth is sufficient

Ghazali on stinginess

Ghazali on envy

Duas for protection

Ghazali on breaking free from anger

Evils of the tongue 5 – praise

Evils of the tongue 4 – joking

Evils of the tongue 3 – arguing

Evils of the tongue 2- backbiting

Evils of the tongue 1- lying

The benefits of feeling hunger

Why is following the sunnah the key to success. Ghazali’s secrets part 1

What is wrong with excessive laughter?

Do you have to practice what you preach?

Self righteousness when giving counsel

Command good and forbid evil

Brotherhood, friendship and wilayah

How to deal with difficult neighbours

The first 6 rules of how to deal with people

Dealing with gossip (7-8)

How to deal with people according to their status (9-11)

Cover the faults of others (12-13)

Shake hands (15 continued)

Defend others in their absence, be tactful, be cautious of the company of the rich (16-18)

Avoid the people of ghaflah

Be good to your relatives

Love they neighbour


Shaykh Haytham Tamim is the founder and main teacher of the Utrujj Foundation. He has provided a leading vision for Islamic learning in the UK, which has influenced the way Islamic knowledge is disseminated. He has orchestrated the design and delivery of over 200 unique courses since Utrujj started in 2001. His extensive expertise spans over 30 years across the main Islamic jurisprudence schools of thought. He has studied with some of the foremost scholars in their expertise; he holds some of the highest Ijazahs (certificates) in Quran, Hadith (the Prophetic traditions) and Fiqh (Islamic rulings). His own gift for teaching was evident when he gave his first sermon to a large audience at the age of 17 and went on to serve as a senior lecturer of Islamic transactions and comparative jurisprudence at the Islamic University of Beirut (Shariah College). He has continued to teach; travelling around the UK, Europe and wider afield, and won the 2015 BISCA award (British Imams & Scholars Contributions & Achievements Awards) for Outstanding Contribution to Education and Teaching.