The Alchemy of Happiness is a book written by Imam Al-Ghazali. In a chapter entitled ‘Knowledge of God’, he described seven types of people who are in error regarding their faith. I found this very truthful and full of wisdom. It is a translation of original Persian text by Henry A Homes.
Those careless and indifferent persons, O seeker after the divine mysteries, who from ignorance, stupidity and sin have turned away from God and his prophet, and have wandered from the path of religion, may be arranged in seven classes.
To the FIRST class belong those who do not believe in God. They had desired to find him out in his essence and attributes, by speculations and fancies, by comparisons and illustrations. And because they have not succeeded in understanding him, they have referred his acts and his government to the stars and to nature. They have fancied that the soul of man and of other animals, and this wonderful world with its marvellous arrangements came of themselves, and that they are eternal; or that they are effects from natural causes, and that there is no creator beyond the sphere of the world. This class of people resembles the man who seeing a writing, fancies that it was written of itself, and infers that it was not written by a penman or by a super-natural power : or else that it is eternal and that no one knows whence it comes. It is impossible to recover from the path of delusion, persons whose ignorance, error and stupidity have reached such a degree as this.
The SECOND class of errorists are those who deny a day of resurrection and assembly. They allege that man and other animals are like vegetables, and do not enter into another body when they die. They say, that a resurrection, in which spirits and bodies shall be reassembled in one place, is impossible, and that there will be neither discipline or punishment, recompense or reward. The errors of this sect arise from their inability to understand of themselves their own souls. They imagine that the spirit is an animal spirit only, and that the heart, which is in reality the spirit of man, is the place for the knowledge of God, and that no evil can happen to it_ except that it will be separated from the body. They call this separation, death. This sect is unconcerned about this spirit, and in proof of this we shall discourse, if it please God, in the fourth chapter.
The THIRD class of errorists are those who indeed believe in God and a future life, but whose faith is weak, because they do not understand the requirements of the law. They say that “God is able to do without our worship. There is neither any profit to God from our worship, or any injury done him by our disobedience. If we worship God, we shall learn what good it did in the future world; and if we do not worship him, there will neither be any advantage or harm. God himself so declares in his holy word, “Whosoever keep himself pure, does it for his own advantage,” 1 and in another place, “He who does well, does it for his own profit.” 2 Although it is better to worship God, yet as God has no need of our worship, therefore if we do not worship him, what harm is there in it ?” These ignorant people resemble the sick man, who when the physician says to him, “you should be abstinent, if you wish to be cured of your malady,” should answer, “what advantage is it to you whether I am abstinent or not”? Now though the sick man is right when he says that there is no advantage to the physician from his abstinence, yet if he is not abstinent, he will perish. This class regards obedience and transgression as of the same degree in value. But in the same manner as disease may occasion a man’s destruction, so transgression defiles the heart, and will cause it to appear in the future world in a state of woe. And just as abstinence and medicine restore the body to health, so to avoid acts of transgression and sin and to be obedient to God, are means of securing salvation.
The FOURTH class of men who indulge in error, are those who indeed receive the law, but in some peculiar and erroneous sense. They wrongly say, “The law commands us to keep our hearts pure from pride, envy, hatred, anger and dissimulation. But this is a thing which it is impossible to do. For the soul has been created with these qualities and affections, and human nature cannot be changed. It is just as impossible to make a black material white by scraping it, as for the human heart to be free from these qualities.” These ignorant men do not know and understand, that the law does not command that these qualities should be entirely effaced and expelled from the heart, but rather requires that they should be brought under subjection to the heart and the reason, to the end that they may not act presumptuously, go beyond the limits set by the law, and indulge in mortal sins. It is possible even to change these qualities, by doing only what reason requires, and by respecting the restrictions of the law. Many devout men in past times have secured this change of the affections of the soul. These qualities once existed in the prophet of God, but they were corrected, as we learn from the tradition: “I am a man like you. I become angry, as a man becomes angry.” And God speaks in his holy word of “those who control their wrath, and who pardon the men who offend them.”1 Notice, that in his eternal word, God praises those who dissipate their anger and irritation : he does not praise those who had no anger or rage, since man cannot be without them.
The FIFTH class of persons in error are those who say that, “God is merciful and ready to pardon, loving and compassionate, and more pitiful to his servants than a father and mother to their children, and therefore he will pardon our faults and cover our transgressions.” They do not consider that notwithstanding God is bounteous and merciful, there are still multitudes of poor and miserable people in the world, multitudes who are infirm and helpless, and many who are subjected to suffering. This is a mystery which is known only to God. But it shows us, that though God is disposed to cover and hide sin, still he is an absolute sovereign and an avenger. While he is bounteous and beneficent, he is at the same time dreadful in his chastisements : while he is a benefactor, and provides the necessaries of life, at the same time he who does not seek to gain, obtains no store: and he who is not industrious, accomplishes nothing in the world. Beloved, these ignorant men, in the affairs of the world, in their schemes of living, and in their business, manifest no trust in the bounty of God, nor do they leave off for one moment their buying and selling, their trades or their farming, although God has decreed the means of their existence many years before they were born, and has made himself surety that it should be provided for them. He announces in his eternal word and book of mighty distinctions, that “there is no creature on the earth, for whom God has not taken upon himself to provide nourishment.” 2 Still they make not the least exertion in reference to their relations and condition in eternity, but merely rely upon the mercy of God, notwithstanding God declares in his holy word, “man can have nothing without exertion.” 1 When they say that God is gracious and merciful, they speak correctly. But they are not aware that Satan is deceiving them with it, hindering them from obedience and worship, and preventing them from engaging in that cultivation and commerce that would prepare them for eternity.
The SIXTH class who indulge in error, are those who, exalted with pride, think that they have already attained and are perfect: and they say, “we have reached such a state that transgressions do us no harm: we are like the sea, which is not polluted by filth falling into it.” These foolish people are so ignorant, that they do not know that “to be like the sea,” means to attain such a degree of calm that no wind can put them in movement and that nothing can cause any perturbation in their minds. These persons on the contrary, if an individual fail to treat them with honor and respect, or if in conversation the individual do not address them as, my lord or dear sir, or speak a word that touches their reputation, they bear him a grudge for a long time, and even perhaps attempt to do him an injury. And if a person take a piece of money or a morsel of bread from them, the world becomes too straight for them, and every thing looks dark. These foolish people have not even yet reached manhood. They are weak in their own souls, and are in subjection like slaves to passion and anger. If it were not so, how could they be so inconsiderate and presumptuous? Beloved, the falsehood and error of these people appear from this consideration. When inadvertently any of the prophets fell into sin, even a little and venial sin, they would spend years in mourning and lamentation over it, and occupied themselves in endeavours to obliterate their faults, and to obtain pardon and forgiveness. Filled with fear and dread, they became blind from their tears; from their long continuing perturbation and distraction of mind, yon would think they had lost the use of their reason. As for the companions of the prophet, and their immediate successors who were faithful witnesses for the truth and the beloved of God, they were so afraid in their suspiciousness of doing wrong, that they abstained in their anxiety, from doing even what was lawful. Do not these ignoramuses know that their degree of attainment does not equal that of the prophets and apostles, and that they are even at a great distance from them ? Why then do they not shrink in fear and awe from the shining vengeance of the glorious God ? If they urge, however, that the transgressions of the prophets were doing them no injury, but that they were exercising prudence and carefulness for the sake of other people, we then reply, that you also ought to be careful, lest other people seeing your actions, should imitate your example. And if they respond, we do not belong to the rank of prophets, that men should walk in our steps, or that any injury should befall us, on account of the sins which they may commit, we would again reply,/that it is better that no injury should come to you in consequence of the sins done from imitating you, than that injury should not befall the prophets from the sins done in consequence of imitating them; for they are the praised and accepted servants of God;their earlier and their later sins have been pardoned, and they are blessed in Paradise. Why, then, was it so necessary that they should abstain from forbidden things, from things of a doubtful nature and even from permitted things ? It is said that one day some ripe dates were brought to the prophet, and he took one and put it in his blessed mouth. But immediately a doubt entered his mind, as to the manner in which the dates had been obtained, and he took it out of his blessed mouth and would not eat it. On another occasion a cup of milk was brought to the faithful witness Abu Bakr by his slave, and he took it and drank it. After drinking it, he inquired, “where did yon get the milk ?” The slave said, “I told a man his fortune, and he gave me the milk in return.” As soon as the faithful witness heard this, he frowned severely upon his servant, inserted his blessed finger down his mouth, and threw up the whole of the milk, so that none of it remained on his stomach. He then said, “I fear that if any of the milk should remain on my stomach, God would expel knowledge and love from my heart.” Now what harm could result to other people from their eating those dates or drinking that milk, that they should have been so careful about such little things ? And since they did abstain from such little things, regarding them as injurious, how should it be otherwise than injurious to these foolish people to drink wine, in full bowls and even by the jar full ? They know that the wisdom, piety and abstinence of the prophets and saints were not less than their own. Can there be any more astonishing folly than that of these men who dare to compare themselves with the sea, because they are not disturbed by drinking several bowls of wine, while they compare the prophet of God, to a little water, which is changed in its taste by a single date ? They are just worthy that Satan should seize hold of them by the beard and mustachios, and drag them after him both in this world and the next, making them a shame and reproach. Now the faithful, truthful and experienced in religion, who are mindful that the soul is treacherous, deceptive, perfidious, malicious and false, always watch carefully over their own souls, lest they should do something that transcends the commands of the law, or that is contrary to reason. The soul is always disposed to say to itself, “I am obedient to the truth : I am submissive to the holy law : and I am well instructed in knowledge.” But thou, without being puffed up by this deceitful language of the soul, must constantly look to all its thoughts and states. If it is walking in the path of the law and of the prophets and saints, it is well! and happy is he that is faithful to his word ! But if the soul begin to have an inclination for self-indulgence, to explain away or exceed the limits of the law and to contradict clear and plain knowledge, you must regard it as a machination of the devil and a temptation to the soul. In short, man, until he descends to the grave, must always watch over his soul with attention, to discover in what degree it is obedient to the holy law and in harmony with knowledge. Whoever does not thus watch over and guard himself, is most surely in a delusion and in the way of a just destruction. It is the first step in Islamism, that a man should keep his soul subject to the law.
The SEVENTH form of error, beloved, is that of the class whose mistakes arise from ignorance and carelessness, while they have never heard any thing of these doubts of which we have been speaking. They merely wear the garments, cap and quilted robes of the mystics (soofees), and after learning some of their words and phrases, they pretend to have attained saintship and supernatural powers. And although apparently they have no evil intentions, yet because they do not properly respect the holy law, but practice their devotions in a lax way, their course leads them to corrupt doctrines and errors. They are always inclined to do whatsoever their corrupt disposition would lead them to do, such as yielding to the love of frivolous practices, or to sensual indulgences, or assenting to transgression and sin. In the presence of the multitude, they put on a holy mien and do not approve of error and sin, but they do not withdraw their hearts from the pleasure of wine, nor from adulterous and licentious society, nor withdraw their hands from the business of gaining the world. Although in these associations there may be no overt sin, yet they do not consider that such thoughts are but satanic suggestions and sensual importunities. They are not capable of distinguishing actions and circumstances, or right and wrong. Beloved, to this class belong those of whom God declares in his holy word, “We have covered their hearts with more than one envelop, that they may not understand the Koran and we have put deafness upon their ears. Even if thou shouldst call them to the right way, they would never follow it.” 1 It is better to talk with a sword, than to talk with this class of people, for they are not open to conviction….