The dog, the horse and the king. Lessons from Al Ghazali on how to behave.
June 25, 2021
Religion is a journey to Allah
Ghazali defines religion (deen) as travelling to Allah. Hence Arabs have a saying as safaru yusfiru an akhlaq ar rijaal – travel (safar) reveals and exposes people’s character. If you give testimony, in order to establish how well you actually know someone, you are asked if have you travelled with them? If you haven’t travelled with them, you do not really know them. The second acid test of knowing someone is dealing with them financially. These two aspects are very revealing about people’s true character.
Getting on with fellow travellers on your journey
Part of travel is companionship, and good companionship is when you agree with each other and have a good understanding in your group of travellers. Without a good relationship with your fellow travellers, your journey will be a nightmare. During the pandemic, you may actually have experienced such painful journeys and travel chaos.
Ghazali is saying that all creatures are, knowingly or unknowingly, travellers to Allah. We are like passengers in a boat and the years are passing us by.
Once upon a time we were children climbing trees and now many of us are parents or grandparents.
Ghazali has usuli mentality, he likes to divide things into categories and branches. Here is says that our dealings can be:
Private: With ourselves alone or with people our family.
Public: With the general public (everyone else).
Why are these categories important? It is worth spelling this out, because some people focus on one category and neglect the others. These categories are like three circles, which ripple outwards, with you in the middle, then your family and then everyone else. You have to begin with the one in the centre. You cannot jump to the others before focusing on that.
The centre of the circles – Yourself
You should know that there is a whole world inside you. Before you get concerned about your relationships with others, you must get to know yourself, as you are so complex yourself. You must look after yourself first, ‘Your body has a right over you’ inna linafsika alaika haqqa.
عَنْ عَائِشَة رضي الله تعالى عنها، : أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم بَعَثَ إِلَى عُثْمَانَ بْنِ مَظْعُونٍ فَجَاءَهُ فَقَالَ : ” يَا عُثْمَانُ أَرَغِبْتَ عَنْ سُنَّتِي ” . قَالَ : لاَ وَاللَّهِ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ، وَلَكِنْ سُنَّتَكَ أَطْلُبُ . قَالَ : ” فَإِنِّي أَنَامُ وَأُصَلِّي، وَأَصُومُ وَأُفْطِرُ، وَأَنْكِحُ النِّسَاءَ، فَاتَّقِ اللَّهَ يَا عُثْمَانُ، فَإِنَّ لأَهْلِكَ عَلَيْكَ حَقًّا، وَإِنَّ لِضَيْفِكَ عَلَيْكَ حَقًّا، وَإِنَّ لِنَفْسِكَ عَلَيْكَ حَقًّا، فَصُمْ وَأَفْطِرْ، وَصَلِّ وَنَمْ ” .أبو داود.
Aisha narrated that the Prophet (peace be on him) called ‘Uthman bin Maz’un. When he came to him, he said: ‘Uthman, did you dislike my Sunnah? He said: No, by Allah, but I seek your sunnah. He said: I sleep, I pray, I keep fast, I (sometimes) leave fast, and I marry women. Fear Allah, ‘Uthman, your wife has a right on you, your guest has a right on you, your self has a right on you; you should keep fast and (sometimes) leave fast, and pray and sleep. [Abu Dawoud].
You can’t look after others unless you look after yourself. Sometimes we forget this. We might convince our self that we are putting them first, and that we can look after them at the expense of our own self, but this is wrong. We are not saying be selfish or self-centred, but stating the fact that unless you are well in yourself, you will not be able to look after others well or your relationship with Allah.
What controls you?
When Ghazali zooms into the complex self which is an entire world, is place of a myriad competing forces. You are a whole realm being besieged by contradictory forces. If you do not know how to manage it, you will have internal chaos. You will be Mr Grumpy, because you are not able to control the anger inside you, or it might be desire or needs.
Bringing your internal forces under control
If you do not have ‘good companionship’ with your internal forces, they will haunt you, attack you or backfire on you. There are many internal forces and Allah stated in Surat al Tahreem:
And none knows the forces of your Lord but He. [74:31]
In the chapter, The Marvels of the Heart which has been translated into English as a stand alone book, from Ihya Ulum ad Deen he covers more details on this.
Ghazali identifies three main controlling forces within us:
Anger – this can protect you from harm.
Desire – through this you have a natural inclination towards what you need to survive, food, drink and intimacy. These are all necessary and beneficial for us. However, we need to keep these drives under control, otherwise if we allow them to rule us, we exceed our needs and cause harm to our self.
Intellect – Your aql enables you to manage and look after yourself.
The dog, the horse and the king
Imam Ghazali says your anger is like a ravenous dog, your desire is a dumb beast like a horse, and your intellect is like a king. If you go out hunting, you go on your horse, you take your ravenous dog and you use your intellect to guide you and hunt your prey. The dog aids you, and your horse transports you but if you do not subjugate them, they will not obey you and will run riot. The king has to take charge, otherwise he is ineffective. He needs to train desire and tame anger. You can not obey them they have to obey you.
If the intellect manages the two forces properly, then you will get the eternal pleasure in dunya and akhirah. If you let your anger control you, then you will not reach your destination safely.
Your horse is for transport and your dog is for protection, they are not suitable to lead you, that is why you cannot hand over the reins to them.
Work hard and there is a chapter in the Ihya Ulum ad Deen dedicated to training the lower self, which is riyadatu al nafs – how you deal with yourself.
We have to look after our intellect. It is our source of wisdom. This is why intoxication is haram in Islam because it blocks our ability to reason, judge and make wise decisions.
Your anger has to be tamed. The Prophet (peace be on him) said the strongest person is the one who controls his anger. Controlling anger is more important than having muscles.
Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (peace be on him) as saying:
عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ رضي الله تعالى عنه أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ “ لَيْسَ الشَّدِيدُ بِالصُّرَعَةِ إِنَّمَا الشَّدِيدُ الَّذِي يَمْلِكُ نَفْسَهُ عِنْدَ الْغَضَبِ ” . متفق عليه.
The strong-man is not one who wrestles well but the strong man is one who controls himself when he is in a fit of rage. (Bukhari and Muslim)
Tame the wild beast
The wild beast is your desire. It might for junk food or intimacy or an addiction. You need to control the wild beast. You can channel desire in a good way so you it is beneficial for you, and helps you reach your destination safely.
Ghazali mentioned that you can use the whip of anger to tame desire and the tricks of desire to break the extremes of anger.
You can’t live without desire, but don’t neglect it or over feed it or underestimate it. Islam does not abolish desire, that is why we do not have celibacy in Islam. Nor are we allowed to go wild. Marriage is the halal way to control it. Do not prohibit what is halal for yourself. Some companions tried to do this out of a good intention that this was a high level of piety but the Prophet (peace be on him) warned them against this.
Anas bin Malik narrated:
A group of three men came to the houses of the wives of the Prophet (peace be on him) asking how the Prophet (peace be on him) worshipped (Allah), and when they were informed about that, they considered their worship insufficient and said, “Where are we from the Prophet (peace be on him) as his past and future sins have been forgiven.” Then one of them said, “I will offer the prayer throughout the night forever.” The other said, “I will fast throughout the year and will not break my fast.” The third said, “I will keep away from the women and will not marry forever.” Allah’s Messenger (peace be on him) came to them and said, “Are you the same people who said so-and-so? By Allah, I am more submissive to Allah and more afraid of Him than you; yet I fast and break my fast, I do sleep and I also marry women. So he who does not follow my tradition in religion, is not from me (not one of my followers). (Bukhari)
Dealing with others
Apart from knowing how to put ourselves in order, we need to know how to deal with others. Here Ghazali gave us three categories of dealing with others.
Level one – do not harm others
The most basic level is to control yourself from harming anyone. This is called Kafful adha.
It was narrated from Abu Hurairah that the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) said:
“The Muslim is the one from whose tongue and hand the people are safe, and the believer is the one from whom the people’s lives and wealth are safe.” (Bukhari)
This is the minimum level. Everyone can do this. The least you can do as a good companion is not to offend or harm others.
Level two – benefit others
Once you have fulfilled this level, you can go up to the next level which is to benefit others and do them good. The most beloved people to Allah are those who are the most beneficial to others.
Ibn Umar reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:
“The most beloved people to Allah are those who are most beneficial to people. The most beloved deed to Allah is to make a Muslim happy, or to remove one of his troubles, or to forgive his debt, or to feed his hunger. That I walk with a brother regarding a need is more beloved to me than that I seclude myself in this mosque in Medina for a month. Whoever swallows his anger, then Allah will conceal his faults. Whoever suppresses his rage, even though he could fulfill his anger if he wished, then Allah will secure his heart on the Day of Resurrection. Whoever walks with his brother regarding a need until he secures it for him, then Allah Almighty will make his footing firm across the bridge on the day when the footings are shaken.” (Tabarani in al Muʻjam al-Awsat).
Being good to others is a form of charity and the way to gain Allah’s love.
Level three – to tolerate their hardships and be good to them.
The highest level is to connect those who disconnect you and forgive those who wrong you. It is to show mercy.
This is not our default position. Our norm is to snap at someone who snaps at us. It is to return the same treatment we receive from others back to them, rather than to be good to the one who harms us.
If you want to be a better person, do not be like the ones who are mean or nasty to you. Take the moral high ground. Forgive those who wrong you. The longer you carry the grudges and pain in your heart the weightier they become. Until they become so heavy, they weigh you down unbearably make it hard for you to function.
You become haunted til you are paralysed by it. You keep rewinding what has been done to you and you inflict even more pain on yourself. If you do not stop this, it can affect your mental state. It is for your own sake you need to forgive.
Forgive for your own sake. Have mercy on yourself. You will feel lighter. Forgive, forget and move on. This is how you polish your heart.
I am not saying this is easy. It is a struggle. Jannah is not free of charge. Strive to forgive everyone who wronged you.
Shaykh Haytham Tamim – The Thursday Knowledge Circle on Al Ghazali’s Forty Principles of Religion. Kitaab Al-Arba’in Fi Usul ad-Din.
This book is the last book Ghazali wrote. Towards the end of this life, after he had accomplished and completed Ihya Ulum ad Deen, he summarised the Ihya in 40 principles.
Taken from chapter 8 on the rights of Muslims and good companionship with them. This is an interesting topic. He is talking about the main principles, without which we cannot live – wealth and people.
The number 40 is significant and holds a secret. Imam Nawawi (may Allah be pleased with him) and others collated collections of 40 ahadith and sticking to this number has been a popular choice among scholars. Ghazali of course, came long before Imam Nawawi. 40 is a middle number, not 5-10 not 100.
- Al Ghazali on the 7 benefits of feeling hungry
- Culture vs Islam
- Children in the mosque
- Ghazali on how to organise your wird
- When you make room for others, Allah makes room for you
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.
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