A General Exposition of the Means by which Good Character may be Acquired

Continued from the Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din of  Imam al-Ghazali

You have come to know that goodness of character proceeds from an equilibrium in the rational faculty brought about through sound wisdom, and in the irascible and appetitive faculties through their submission to the intellect and the Law. This equilibrium may come about in two ways. One of these is through Divine grace, and completeness of innate disposition [kamal fitri], whereby a man is born and created with a sound intellect and a good character, and is preserved from the powers of desire and anger, which are created in him moderate and submissive to the intellect and the Law. Thus he becomes learned without an instructor, and disciplined without being subject to any discipline, in the manner of Jesus, the son of Mary, and John, the son of Zacharias, and all the other prophets (may the blessings of God be upon them all).

Yet it is not to be deemed improbable that certain things should exist in a man’s nature and disposition which can be obtained through acquisition: some children are created truthful, generous and courageous, while in others the opposite characteristics have been set, so that [in this case] good qualities can only be acquired through habituation and associating with those who possess them, and also through education. The second is the acquisition of these traits of character by means of spiritual struggle and exercise. By this I mean the constraining of the soul to perform the actions which necessarily proceed from the trait desired.

For example, a man who wishes to acquire the quality of generosity must oblige himself to do generous things; that is, to give of what he owns, and must continue in this wise, affecting this thing and struggling with his soul until his nature conforms to it and it becomes easy, at which point he will have become a generous person. Similarly in the case of the man dominated by arrogance who wishes to inculcate in his soul the quality of modesty: he should persist for a lengthy period in imitating the behaviour of the modest and struggling against his soul until such behaviour becomes one of his traits and part of his nature, at which time it will come easily.

Every one of the qualities which the Law deems praiseworthy is acquired by these means, the end point of which is that the act should be pleasurable. For the generous man is he that takes pleasure in giving money, not he who gives it reluctantly; and in the same way, the modest man is he who finds modesty delightful. The religious traits of character cannot take firm root in the soul until it has grown accustomed to every good habit, renounced every evil one, and persevered in this in the wise of one who feels a love for and takes pleasure in beautiful deeds, and loathes and is hurt by ugly ones. As God’s Emissary (may God bless him and grant him peace) said: ‘Prayer has been made my delight’.

As long as worship and the renunciation of forbidden things are felt to be unpleasant and burdensome their performance will be defective, and cannot bring one to full felicity. Certainly, to struggle to persevere with them is a good thing, but only in comparison with abandoning them, not in comparison with doing them willingly. It is in this context that God (Exalted is He!) has said, Seek help in perseverance and in prayer, and truly it is hard save for the humble-minded (Qur’an, 2 :45). And His Emissary (may God bless him and grant him peace) has said, ‘Worship God with pleasure, and if you cannot, then with perseverance, for perseverance in something which you dislike contains much good’. Neither is it sufficient to obtain the felicity consequent upon good character that obedience to God should be found delightful and disobedience unpleasant at some times and not others; rather this should be constant and remain with one throughout one’s life, so that the longer a man’s life extends, the more solid and complete will be his virtue. This is why the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) replied, when asked about felicity: ‘It is a long life in the obedience of God’. This is also why the Prophets and the Saints disliked death, for ‘this world is the sowing-ground of the next’.

The more acts of worship one performs through living a long life, the greater will be the reward, the purer and clearer the soul, and the stronger and more deeply-rooted the good traits of character. For the sole purpose of acts of worship is to influence the heart, and this influence will only grow strong when they are persistently repeated. The purpose of such traits of character is to cut the love of this world away from the soul and to set firmly therein the love of God (Exalted is He!), so that one would love nothing so much as the meeting with Him. Such a man will then employ his wealth only in ways which will bring him to Him; likewise with his anger and desire, since these will be under his command, and weighed up in the scales of the intellect and the Law so that he is contented and happy with them. It is wrong to deem it unlikely that one’s delight might be in prayer and that one’s worship might become delectable, for everyday life draws even more wondrous things from the soul: we see kings and the voluptuous rich in constant misery, and the bankrupt gambler so overcome with delight and joy during his gambling that one might well discount the possibility of man’s gaining any pleasure without this practice, even after it had taken away his wealth, ruined his home and left him quite penniless, for he will still love and enjoy it by reason of his soul’s long familiarity with it.

Similarly with the man whose hobby is pigeons, who may stand all day in the hot sun without feeling any pain due to the pleasure he takes in his birds, and their movements, flight and soaring around in the sky. And there is the sly criminal who boasts of the blows and stabs he receives, and of his steadfastness under the whip, and who goes up to the cross or the gibbet bragging about his endurance of these [punishments], considering this to be a source of pride: he may be torn limb from limb in an attempt to make him confess to his crime or to that committed by another man with his knowledge, and persevere in his denial, and pay no heed to the punishments because of his joy at what he considers to be his courage and virility.

Despite the torment provided by his circumstances, he is delighted by them and finds them a source of pride. And there is no condition more ugly and despicable than that of an effeminate man, who imitates women by plucking out his hair, tattooing his face, and keeping their company, so that you see him rejoicing in his state and boasting of the perfection of his effeminacy to other such men. Even the cuppers and sweepers can be seen boasting to one another just as much as the kings and scholars. All of this is the result of habit and persisting on one course for a long period and seeing the same thing in one’s acquaintances. Since the soul commonly takes pleasure even in vain things and inclines towards ugliness, how could it not take pleasure in the Truth were it to be restored to it for a while and made to persevere therein? The soul’s inclination to these disgusting things is unnatural, and resembles an inclination to the eating of mud; yet even this may gain control over some people and become a habit.

As for the inclination to wisdom and the love, knowledge and worship of God, this resembles the inclination towards food and drink. It is the expression of the heart’s nature, and is a divine command, while an inclination to the demands of one’s desires is in itself something strange, and is not part of its nature. The heart’s food is wisdom, knowledge and the love of God (Exalted is He!), and it only diverges from the demands of its nature when afflicted by some disease, just as the stomach may be afflicted by an illness which prevents it from desiring the food and drink which give it life. Thus every man’s heart which inclines to anything but the love of God (Exalted is He!) is afflicted by a disease in proportion to this inclination, unless he love a thing because it helps him to love God and to practice his religion – which is not the symptom of an illness. From the foregoing you have come to know beyond all doubt that good traits of character may be acquired through self-discipline, by means of imitating, at the outset, the actions which result from such traits so that they may ultimately become part of one’s nature. This is one of the wonders of the relationship between the heart and the members [jawarih], by which I mean the soul and the body: the effect of every attribute which appears in the heart must emanate onto the members, so that these move only in conformity to it; similarly, every act performed by the members has an effect which makes its way up to the heart, thereby constituting a form of circular movement. To understand this thing a metaphor may be employed, as follows.

A man who wishes his soul to acquire the attribute of skillful calligraphy so that he becomes a calligrapher by nature and disposition must do with the member which is the hand those things which the calligrapher does, and devote himself assiduously to this for a long period, during which he imitates the calligrapher by copying his fine script. He continues to persevere in this until it becomes a firmly-rooted attribute in his soul, and, at last, he comes to write naturally with a beautiful hand, whereas he had earlier done so only artificially. It was fine calligraphy itself which rendered his own calligraphy fine, at first through a difficult simulation, the effect of which nevertheless rose to his heart and then descended again from the heart to the member in question to enable him to write well naturally. The case of a man who wishes to become a sage of the soul is similar: he is obliged to do the things which such sages do, namely, a constant application to sagacity, until this attribute becomes attached to his heart and he becomes a sage of the soul. The case of the man who wishes to become generous, continent, clement and unassuming is identical: he must perform by simulation the actions associated with these qualities until they become part of his habitual nature.

This is the only treatment available. And just as the one who wishes to become a sage of the soul does not despair of achieving his goal when he has wasted one night, but will not reach it if he does so repeatedly for many nights, similarly he who desires to purify and perfect his soul and to adorn it with good qualities will neither achieve his goal by worshipping for one day nor be barred from it because for one day he sinned. This is the purport of our [credal] statement that one mortal sin does not necessarily lead to eternal damnation. However, one day of idleness will invite [the student] to the next, and then, little by little, to others, until his soul take pleasure in laziness and abandons studying altogether so that the merit which attaches to being a sage passes him by. Similarly, one venial sin leads to another, until the basis for salvation is lost through the destruction of the basis of faith at the moment of death. And just as the effect of a single night on the acquisition of the status of sage of the soul is not felt, since this is something which appears little by little, like the growth and increasing height of the body; similarly the effect of one act of devotion on the purification and cleansing of the soul is not immediately perceptible. Nonetheless, one should not undervalue even a small amount of devotion, for a large quantity, which is made up of individual small acts, has an effect, so that each one of them must exercise an influence. There is not a single act of devotion but that it has an effect, even though it be concealed, and it must therefore necessarily entail some reward, since reward is in proportion to its effect; and this is the case with sin also.

How many sages there are who deem the wasting of a day and a night a paltry thing, and continue to do so, procrastinating day after day until at last their natures depart from the acquisition of understanding: likewise is it with the man who underestimates small sins, and procrastinates and delays his repentance day after day, until such time as death suddenly seizes him, or the darkness of his sins so builds up in his heart that he is unable to repent (for a little ever invites one to abundance), and his heart becomes loaded with the chains of desires, from which he is unable to release himself.

This is what is meant by the ‘closing of the gate of repentance’, and by God’s statement (Exalted is He!): And We have set a barrier before them and a barrier behind them [to the end of] the verse (Qur’an, 36:9) And in the same wise, ‘Ali (may God ennoble his face) said, ‘Faith appears in the heart as a white gleam. As faith grows, so does its whiteness, until, when the bondsman’s faith is complete, the whiteness covers his entire heart. And hypocrisy appears as a black speck, the blackness of which grows in proportion to it, until, when the hypocrisy becomes complete, the heart becomes entirely black.’ You have therefore come to know that good character proceeds sometimes from one’s nature and innate disposition [fitra], sometimes from accustoming oneself to beautiful deeds, and sometimes from seeing and keeping the company of people who perform them, who are the companions of charity and the brethren of righteousness. For one nature can purloin both good and evil from another.

The man in whom all three aspects are manifest, so that he is virtuous by nature, by habituation and by education, is possessed of the supreme virtue; similarly, he who is by nature ignoble, and chances to fall in with bad company from which he learns, and for whom the means of evildoing are readily available so that he grows accustomed to wickedness, is the most distant of men from God (Exalted is He!). Between these two degrees there are people of disparate participation in these three aspects, each of whom is possessed of a degree of proximity or remoteness in accordance with his quality and state. Whoso works an atom’s weight of good shall see it, and whoso works an atom’s weight of ill shall see it also (Qur’an, 99:7,8). And God wronged them not; rather did they wrong themselves (Qur’an, 16:33).
Hujjatul Islam, Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, The Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya’ ‘Ulum ad-Din) Translated by Shaykh ‘Abdul Hakim Murad (may Allah reward him for his effort and initiative)

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