Friday, December 14, 2007

The Alchemist of Happiness

During dinner after a lecture I gave tonight, someone commented how surprised she was that I did not make an entry on the recent screening of this wonderful documentary: Al-Ghazali - The Alchemist of Happiness.

The truth is: I have been extremely busy last week. But it has indeed been a true blessing for me to be in the company with the erudite scholar for a full week here in Singapore, who was also the executive director of this documentary, whom we had the great honour to hear and respond to questions to the screening of this documentary last weekend. Even after a few days of his return to Cambridge, I am still organising the gems of wisdom he has shared with me while in Singapore. Insya-Allah, if time and situation permits, I will share them in future entries.

In one of the earlier scenes of this documentary, the famous story of Imam al-Ghazali was told:

"There is a very instructive story about one of the greatest of the Islamic scholars, Al-Ghazali, who lived in the tenth century. He had been to the great university of Ray in Persia and, in his four years in the university, he had studied all the courses - philosophy, metaphysics, mathematics - and everything that could be learnt there. He was on his way back to his native town, hoping to make a career for himself, and, being a poor student, he attached himself - as an individual traveller would have had to do - to a caravan. As they were travelling along, a set of Bedouins attacked the caravan and robbed them of everything. Al-Ghazali had kept all his course notes in a little leather bag which was about all he had, and they took that too. So he went to the Bedouin chief, caught his stirrups and begged him to return this bag, saying that it was of no use to the Bedouins who could not read and that it was the fruit of his four-year learning at the university. The Bedouin cheif threw the bag at him and said, 'I thought you went to the university to learn, not to take notes.' Al-Ghazali was very struck with this and went back to the university for a further four years, taking no notes at all but really thinking about it all to such good purpose that he became the leading philosopher."

Herein lies a lesson for us: to understand the purpose of knowledge. The last few entries I have made were directly related to the importance of knowledge. But, knowledge in itself is not the end, it is the means to an end. Similar stories as al-Ghazali, such as of Rumi, are also known to us. The obvious follow-up question is therefore: what is this end?

To me, it is towards knowing the Unknown - ie, God. Admittedly, it is not possible for us to completely understand Him, as our faculties are limited in nature. But, as we have philosophized on this matter earlier, it aids us in our journey towards reaching Him. Knowing Him allows us to know ourselves, to know our challenges ahead, to know our relationship with Him, to know of His other creations - to know how we manouvre and keep ourselves on track towards returning to Him. That knowledge is our 'friend' in our journey - it is the Light showing us the way out of a dark tunnel.

We kept mentioning that our life is a journey. But what is that 'journey' that we spoke of? Indeed, it is the return to our fitrah - and that is to return to Him, in the original purpose of the story of our creation. In a philosophical sense, it is to return to where we came from, before the Fall. In a practical sense, it is simply to return Home from where we came from.

There are many ways to decipher al-Ghazali's The Alchemist of Happiness. But to me, the simplest way is to appreciate all that he wrote as the tools which we need to facilitate our return journey Home.

And again, therein lies his genius: all of us are making this return journey Home whether we realise it or not, but most of us are not equipped with the appropriate provisions to go Home. Al-Ghazali managed to capture this spirit simply and left his legacies through his works. In this troubled times that we live, al-Ghazali understood that a prepared slave of The Almighty, with sufficient provisions to make his way Home, is a happy, peaceful and confident slave. To many, being a slave is degrading. To those who know, it is an honour.

To me, that makes al-Ghazali, amongst many other things and accolades attributed to him, a true alchemist of happiness. And we don't have to think very much of the position of a happy slave in the eyes of the One Who Creates.


No comments: