Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111) wrote his greatest work, The Revival of The Religions Sciences, while lie was living the life of an ascetic in Damascus c. 1096 A.D. He had been prostrated by a tremendous inner crisis and had been swamped by intellectual doubt and spiritual debility. Relinquishing his theological chair in Baghdad and turning his back on a brilliant academic career, he gave up wealth and position and announced his intention of going on pilgrimage to Mecca. The aim of the itinerary which he now purposed, in the course of which he was to submit himself to the most rigorous of ascetic disciplines, was to follow the Sufi path to "the light of unveiling", and to discover a `knowledge' which had eluded him while he was employed with the categories of systematic theology. It was thus he came to Damascus and found leisure to write his magnun opus. [See especially W. M. Watt, The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazali, 1953. This contains a translation of al-Ghazali's autobiographical work, al-Munqidh min ad-Dalal (pp. 19-85).]
The plan of the work is that of four 'quarters' or volumes each containing ten books. The general title of the first volume is Worship, and all the books (with the exception of I and II which contain an epistemological and theological introduction) can be subsumed under this head. Similarly with the second volume whose general title is Personal Behaviour and the third which deals with Mortal Sins. The fourth volume, of which The Book of Fear and Hope is the third book, is concerned with The Means of Salvation, that is, the techniques or therapies by which the cure of the soul is achieved. This book is an interesting sample of al-Ghazali's work in his fourth volume [See especially the digest of the contents of The Revival of The Religious Sciences in G. H. Bousquet, Ghazali, Ih'ya Ouloum ed-Din ou Vivification des Sciences De La Foi, 1955. Also the plan of the work in S. 81-82.]
There are practically no textual difficulties. I have translated from the 1939 Cairo edition, and, in the few places where I thought textual corruption to be possible, I have consulted the 1908 Cairo edition. The one or two examples of incorrect copying which I have found in the 1939 text are noted in the course of the translation. The translation omits all honorific ascriptions. The references in the margins are to the pagination of the 1939 edition.
I propose to say nothing at all here about the historical relationships of The Book of Fear and Hope, either about its indebtedness to antecedents or its influence on the subsequent course of thought. My intention is to give an account of the argument of the book and to indicate where its intrinsic value may be thought to lie.
The Book of Fear and Hope might well be described as an essay in the tactics of propagating the Faith to the community at large. The principal objective is to outline the salutary employment of fear and hope in the cure of the soul. The book may be said to deal with a topic of pastoral psychology and is a good sample of the work of al-Ghazali in so far as it illustrates some of the reasons why he has attained so commanding a position within Islam and exercised so great an influence on the course of theological thought. He is in the best sense a popular theologian. His primary concern is to secure practical results on the broadest front, and, in his thinking, his paramount consideration is to promote the most salubrious climate for the whole community of Faith. He consequently disposes of other claims according to the way in which they react on this supreme demand.
The Scholars are only a small part of the community and their liberty must not be a liberty to create confusion among the rank and file by throwing doubt on the clear-cut simplicity of their affirmations of faith. The spiritual diet of the general run of believers is best kept in balance by feeding them judiciously on the Qur'an and the Traditions. When scholars communicate their predilections to the people, this has the effect of blurring the simplicity of categorical statements of faith and of introducing a dialectic with which minds of ordinary calibre cannot cope [pp. 68-70] This is the gravamen of his charge against the systematic theologians, and it rests partly on a careful empirical examination of the actual levels of mental endowment in the community and a sober assessment of what can be expected from it of intellectual endeavour. In his polemic against the theologians the virtues of al-Ghazali's style, his power and incisiveness, are seen to their best advantage. He is a shrewd and entertaining polemicist and he writes with the gusto of a talented pamphleteer. Whatever judgement is passed on the substance of these passages, no one is likely to complain that they are dull or wanting in distinction of style.
If observation led al-Ghazali to conclude that men vary greatly in their intellectual capacities and that most men are but modestly endowed, the same activity prompted him to conclude that there are great differences of temperament among men and that this must be seriously reckoned with in any attempt to fashion effective machinery for the propagation of the Faith. This insight is applied to the instruments of fear and hope [P. 1] On the one hand al-Ghazali discourages hope where the proper basis for it does not exist; on the other, he indicates that it is a therapy which can be applied with profit to two classes of men, those overcome by fear and those paralysed by despair. His stringent formulation of the conditions of hope is directed against such as suffer from a false sense of security and are deluded as to their true condition by a brash self-assurance [PP 44-5]
Hope then has therapeutic value for men so burdened with a sense of sin as almost to despair of God's pardon, and it is particularly valuable at the onset of death [P- 49], since it encourages a man to be optimistic about his prospects with God and to fasten his thoughts on His pardon rather than on his own sinfulness. There is a sense in which hope is a higher motive than fear, since hope is dominated by love and the creatures nearest to God are those who love Him most. [PP. 6-7, 45] Yet hope can only operate beneficially within a very limited area of human life, because it is not a therapeutic technique well-adapted to the condition of most men. The most of men are so temperamentally poised that to treat their condition with hope would simply increase their peril and hasten their passage to perdition [pp. 9-10, 25]. The aim of the therapeutic techniques of fear and hope is to repair deficiencies and to correct excesses, and so restore a proper balance to the soul. This is the desiderated posture and hope and fear should be employed, as a skilful and discriminating physician would use the materials of medicine, in order to compensate for harmful eccentricities and bring back the soul to the point of equilibrium [pp. 10-11, 17].
Al-Ghazali's analysis of fear is more elaborate than that of hope, and he takes up the greater part of the book with it. This is due partly to his conviction that fear has the greater relevance in the contemporary situation [pp. 48-50], but it is also accounted for by its place in his gnostic or mystical teaching, and its importance for his theology of which predestination is the keystone [pp. 33-36]. Fear may be the consequence of 'knowledge' [Formations from Ilm I have translated as know and knowledge or science; formations from ‘rf as 'know' and 'knowledge'.] of God or of the 'knowledge' of one's sins, or of both of these together. Among those who fear there is an elite who make up one class, and believers of more ordinary calibre who compose the other. These two groups are distinguished in various ways. The spiritual aristocrats are the Gnostics; the members of the less exalted group are 'The Sound in Faith' or, more literally, the Healthy. The gnostic fears what is not abhorrent in itself (i.e. abhorrent to God); the man who is healthy fears God because of his sins. The fear of the gnostic is the fruit of 'knowledge' of God, and the chief objects of his fear are predestination and the evil of the Seal. The fear of the man who is healthy derives not from what he 'knows' by insight, but from what he accepts on authority. In so far as the gnostic fears what is abhorrent in itself he fears the veil, that is, permanent alienation from God [pp. 26-7, 53]. In another passage al-Ghazali offers an alternative classification and contrasts the fear of the gnostics with that of the practitioners, the healthy, the ascetics and the body of the people [p. 37]]
To indicate that fear is a mature gnostic trait al-Ghazali relates a tradition concerning Muhammad and Abu Bakr which shows that fear of the strategems of God is a more advanced station than reliance on the promises of God, because it can derive only from perfection of 'knowledge' [p. 59] Here again, however, his characteristic insistence on balance and moderation reappears. This gnostic fear has to be kept in balance, for excess of it would lead to mental deterioration and death [p.27].
Of wider application than this gnostic fear which is the preserve of the few is the fear employed as a therapeutic instrument in the pastoral care of the many. This fear may be deficient or excessive and what is desiderated is the middle way between these two extremes. Deficient fear produces no more than sentimental regret; effective fear restrains the members from disobedience and binds them to obedience and "whatever does not take effect in the members is no more than an impulse and fleeting motion which does not deserve the name of fear" [p. 30]. al-Ghazali's dislike of extravagance and immoderation appears again in his citing of a pungent aphorism of Sahl, at-Tustari, an earlier Sufi, who used to say to novices who persisted in fasting: "Keep your wits. God has never had a saint who was mentally deficient" [p. 32]..
Fear, which is worthy of the name only if it has an effect on behaviour, is differentiated into different ranks or degrees according to its mode of regulating behaviour. If it is an incentive only to chastity, it possesses a degree. Higher in merit is the fear which produces abstinence and higher still that which produces piety. "And the most ultimate of its degrees is to product; the degrees of the Sincere which is the tearing of one away, outwardly and inwardly, from what is other than God; and this is the most ultimate of its commendable characteristics, and it is accompanied with preservation of health and mind" [p. 32].
As a therapeutic device fear is directed particularly against those who suffer from the disease of fancied security [pp. 41-42]. Yet here again there is counterpoise in al-Ghazali's thinking, for he says that ordinary mortals must not be too aware of the nature of God and that an admixture of negligence is a mercy for them. What negligence does to maintain the equilibrium in ordinary believers hope does for the gnostic [pp. 60-61].
It will have been observed that al-Ghazali makes large use of the medical idiom. This is more than an accident of style; it points to the nature and area of his concern. He is not interested in theological discussion, in the inspection of premises or the reappraisal of fundamental positions. This is a kind of activity to which he is antipathetic, and which, in his view, is full of pitfalls and perils. His concern is with the correct and judicious employment of fear and hope as therapies in the cure of souls. He is consequently interested in the discriminating diagnosis of spiritual ills, since it is the mastery of such skills that will keep the community in good spiritual health. He is a kind of medical officer of health; his sense of responsibility ranges over the entire community and his province is the soul. Some of the most colourful passages of the book are, as a consequence, couched in the idiom of medicine. There is the division of the community of believers (already noted) into gnostics and healthy (salih); there is his disapproval of the category of more meritorious in relation to fear and hope and his assertion that to ask whether fear or hope is the higher good is to ask what is, for the most part, a spurious question. The category of greatest utility and widest application in this connection is that of more salutary (aslah)-again a formation from slh [p. 46] Fear and hope are not contradictory to each other, but are interdependent and complementary therapies. Supposition derives from the imbalance of fear and hope, representing an intensification of either fear or hope, depending on which is the dominant partner. Supposition is therefore either a hoping for the best or a fearing the worst [pp. 41-42].
al-Ghazali's method throughout his work is to employ the Qur'an, Traditions and Reports [p. 11, n.2], in association with his original observations, as additional incentives to fear and hope. It may be conjectured that it was also his intention to demonstrate in this way his own conformity with these canons of orthodoxy. His procedure is thus Reflection, Qur'an, Traditions and Reports. This is in fact not so serious a handicap as might be supposed and does not subdue the force of his originality nor weaken the sinewy predilections which are a feature of his writing. It is true, however, that, when he embarks on theology proper his freedom of manoeuvre is somewhat reduced. I am not suggesting that he found this confinement irksome. All the indications in this book are that he considered it expedient and salutary to close the door forever on any speculative re-exploration of those fundamental questions to which normative answers had been given. The 'health' of the community required this, and for him that was far and away the most compelling consideration. Thus it seems to me that in the section on 'The Evil of the Seal' [pp. 64-80], which is more directly theological than other portions of the book, there may be detected in places a certain diminution of vigour and incisiveness and a tendency to be less impressive than elsewhere. al-Ghazali says the gnostic's fear is such that he is sandwiched between predestination and the Seal, and this, in another connection, describes rather well his own theological boundaries and lack of elbow room.
The evil of the Seal has two degrees, a major and a minor; the first derives from apostasy and doubt, and the second from the domination of the heart by worldly affairs and lusts. Everything hinges on the state dominating a man's heart at the instant in which death finds him, but, whereas the major Seal is irrevocable [p. 64], it is not entirely impossible to make amends, where the Seal does not involve apostasy and doubt [p. 65]. The Seal is the confirmation of what has been predestined for a man, and its terror is multiplied by this tie-up with the mystery of predestination, for it may come as a sudden and unique reversal initiated by God, the Reverser of hearts, impressing on a man's life the Seal of doom [pp. 59-61, 76-78].
Two causes of the major Seal are specified; the first, erroneous belief concerning God which cannot be mitigated by practical piety; the second, weakness of faith in the root and the mastery of the love of the world. With respect to the first cause it may operate through a man's active participation in speculative theology or through his acceptance on authority of the results of speculation. Here the extremely serious view which al-Ghazali takes of intellectual error in relation to the doctrine of God is clearly seen. Such error taints not only the thinking of a few speculative minds, but the beliefs of the many, before whom the Scholars exhibit the wares of their intellects [pp. 66-70]. It is these considerations which regulate his generally unfavourable attitude to speculative theology. The minor Seal also has two causes, much disobedience and weakness of faith. This is elucidated with reference to the state of sleep, since death is akin to sleep, and the throes of death, as a time of disclosure, akin to dreams. As the images of dreams reflect the objects seen in waking-life, so the images associated with the throes of death will reflect those activities and preoccupations which have been the familiars of a man throughout his life, for a man dies as he has lived [pp. 72-75].
It will now be obvious, therefore, that we are not to expect from al-Ghazali a treatment of hope, amounting to an eschatological discussion, since this was the kind of activity which he was condemning in the theologians. There is no attempt to assess what the ultimate ingredients of hope are. There are the concrete descriptions of the Garden and the Fire in the Qur'an with their uncompromisingly corporeal imagery; there is the Day of Resurrection and judgement, inescapable and final. It would have been about this kind of material that a theologian might have employed himself in order to initiate an eschatological discussion and ask fundamental questions about the nature of hope and its implications for the individual and the community. In al-Ghazali's view the premises were finally settled and were not a subject for further enquiry. It was enough to assert belief in the judgement, the Garden and the Fire, and then to devote all his energies to devising effective pastoral techniques for bringing men to safety and the Garden. There is consequently nothing of the debating of the problems of theodicy which is inseparable from the topic of eschatological hope in the Jewish apocalyptic literature, where the End is essentially the moment of comprehensive and retrospective forensic readjustment by which all the wrongs of historical existence will be righted and its unresolved contradictions satisfactorily removed. al-Ghazali's point of view is correctly conveyed by his juxtaposition of fear and hope. He knows that despair and not fear is the opposite of hope, but these are not the two poles between which his discussion moves [p. 6]. He mentions despair only in so far as it is a pathological condition which is to be treated with the therapy of hope in the same way as excessive fear is to be treated. He does not contrast despair with hope after the fashion of an eschatological discussion in the context of Christian theology, where the polarity of hope and despair is the point of departure.
This somewhat negative attitude to speculative theology is compensated for by a positive emphasis on a different kind of research into the nature of God, conducted not by means of the categories of speculative thought but by the "light of disclosure" (or: unveiling). The way to a complete 'knowledge' (or: gnosis) of God is along the Sufi path. This teaching is small in bulk in the work under review, but there are one or two explicit statements of it, while, always underlying his negative attitude to philosophical enquiry into the nature of God, there is the implicit contrast between knowledge or science (`ilm) and 'knowledge' or gnosis (ma'rifa). The first is a defective and dangerous mode of apprehending God, the second a self-authenticating insight. Among the items of positive Sufi teaching is his account of the stations by way of which the seeker attains to the goal of the Sufi path. "And no station can succeed the root of assurance except fear and hope and only patience can succeed these two, and accompanying it is spiritual combat and utter devotion to God outwardly and inwardly. And for the person to whom the Way has been opened up there can be no station after spiritual combat except guidance and 'knowledge', and only the station of love and intimacy can succeed 'knowledge'; and following necessarily on love is satisfaction with the action of the Beloved and confidence in His care which is trustfulness" [pp. 51-52, cf. 38]. There are also his definitions of state and station [p. 2] and his description of the man who has outgrown fear and hope, "whose heart is ruled by truth and who lives in the present through his seeing the majesty of truth perpetually" [p. 25].
Of esoteric or theosophical doctrines there are few traces. Sleep is believed to be a time of revelation, for in it a man is withdrawn from the cares and distractions of this world and has his inward eye focused on the Preserved Tablet [p. 68, n. 2] on which the undisclosed secrets of the future time are inscribed [pp. 68, 74] Also the Throne is represented as a kind of recording apparatus on which men's states are impressed to be reproduced at the End as a witness against them [p. 74] The lodging of the blessed soul in the interim period between death and the Last judgement is in the crops of green birds which are suspended beneath the Throne. Whatever the state of the soul, be it blessed or reprobate, it will be reunited to the body for the final forensic act [p. 66].
In conclusion it may be reiterated that the over-riding concern of al-Ghazali is to devise means by which the many may participate in religion and be exposed to its salutary effects. He consequently confronts courageously what moderns call the problem of communication, although, as I have tried to show, he has his own distinctive definition of the problem. He is not conscious that there is any difficulty in communicating to the rank and file the rudiments of the Faith; he is not interested in any essay in reinterpretation. His preoccupation is with effective and salutary pastoral procedures which will make religion a dominant force in the lives of people of whom too much is not to be expected. This is a serious consideration for every religious thinker, since the appeal and claims of religion must traverse the multiplicity of human life, and its word must go out in such a way that the common people hear it and are afforded a genuine opportunity of response and participation. Religion must not be so formulated as to become a fascinating intellectual exercise for the scholars, nor yet a sublime and other-worldly saintliness for the few who are cast in the mould of saints. The therapeutic virtue ascribed to fear may seem to us to be antique or even repulsive, but we ought to give al-Ghazali credit for his unfaltering awareness that this kind of pressing problem does exist, whatever we may think the solution to be. On this problem and its relevance to our modern society there is a gem of a digression in Chesterton's book on Chaucer:
Thus the Canterbury pilgrimage takes on a very symbolic social character and is indeed the progress which emerged out of the mediaeval into the modern world. All modern critics can take pleasure in the almost modern realism of the portraiture; in the veracity of types and the vigour of the quarrels. But the modern problem is more and more the problem of keeping the company together at all; and the company was kept together because it was going to Canterbury ....... As their counterparts stand today it is easier to imagine the Wife of Bath wanting to go sun-bathing. at Margate, or the Clerk instantly returning, with refined disgust, to Oxford, rather than to imagine either of them wanting to toil on together to a particular tomb in Canterbury. For the moment this division of heart is masked by a certain heartiness in the modern pursuit of mere games and pleasures, but you cannot make a complete social system out of games and pleasures. You cannot in some dark hour of peril ask thousands to die for the Derby, or even to be taxed to death for the International Golf Championship. A nation that has nothing but its amusements will not be amused for very long. Moreover the amusements are at least as narrow as the devotions and dedications. You will not persuade the Clerk of Oxford to go to Rams-gate merely to see the Miller win the Ram. You will not persuade the Miller to go to Oxford, which might well have been named, at that time, after the Dumb Ox of Philosophy: St. Thomas of Aquin. But they were both ready to go together to the shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury. The real modern problem is --- what pilgrimage have we on which these two different men will ride together? [G. K. Chesterton, Chaucer, 1948, pp. 182-183]