Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Al-Ghazali's concept of Lataif

              Islamic epistemology offers a special role to qalb in attaining to knowledge of the wonders of creation in general, and the knowledge of Allah in particular. The Holy Quran is dotted with appeals to man’s realization of significance, resourcefulness and vitality of qalb in matters of “belief” and cautions man of the sealing of his qalb in case he fails to employ it to seek maarifat and yaqeen in Allah. [1]The Traditions of the Prophet also attest to the pivotal nature of qalb to an extent that one even finds the Prophet himself invoking Allah to make his qalb steadfast on religion[2] and direct it towards His obedience.[3]  A reading through Islamic epistemology also shows that out of all the parts of a human body, it is the heart which has been specialized to “contain” [4]the knowledge of Allah, and hence, it is this organ through which revelation ( which is in turn, the way towards knowledge of Allah) is received. Imam Ghazali too accords a significant role to qalb in his epistemology: for him, qalb is the real essence or the asl of man.[5]
               Moreover, when he aims to understand the concept of qalb in particular, or tasawwuf in general, in matters as pertain to getting to knowledge and certainty, he leaves no room whatsoever for non-Islamic epistemology in a sense that he makes revelation and prophecy the “essence” of his discourse on the matter, on the pretext that spirituality or tasawwuf emanates exclusively from wahy and nubuwwat. However, he includes another thing in his treatise which is not explicitly mentioned in the Quran and is only metaphorically alluded to as being a special characteristic of the qalb, and that is, intellect/intelligence/reason or aql. Moreover, a reading through Ghazali’s books verifies the fact that his discussions on the function and properties of qalb are never devoid of an allusion to the significance of aql as being the receptacle of the special characteristics of the qalb. This paper is an attempt to explore the concepts of aql and qalb in Quran and Ghazali’s epistemology and argue that aql resides in the spiritual qalb. That is to say, aql dwells in the latifa of qalb. The discourse will end with a concordance between the two epistemologies. To this end, section one of this discourse will put forth various verses from the Holy Quran which are relevant to the concepts of aql and qalb. Section 2 will present and analyse Ghazali’s understanding of the two afore-mentioned terms and his explication of the subtlety which the aql enjoys with qalb by giving some analogies. The last section will attempt to harmonize the two frameworks of attaining knowledge: the Holy Quran and Ghazali.
I- Seeing, sight, insight and qalb from the Holy Quran :
          A careful glance at the approaches employed towards the Quranic sciences, the way the exegetes have expounded on the Quranic verses, and also the way various translators have translated the Holy Book shows that a word may have assorted meanings and it could mean differently at different occasions, and hence, could be translated in a horde of meanings depending on the context. The way Quran has dealt with the concept of aql is very interesting to notice, for the reason that it has used several words connoting aql , other than the word itself. Sometimes, it has also used qalb to denote aql, which will be demonstrated in due course. Notwithstanding there exist a whole myriad of ways the word aql could be used and interpreted,  the following discourse will only mention those ways which are relevant and equally helpful in establishing that aql takes place in the latifa of the qalb. 
               The Quran highlights the means by which knowledge can be attained to and the means with which a human’s will-power may be directed towards the obedience of Allah. For example, it pinpoints and appeals to the usage of sight, hearing, aql and qalb in order to ponder at the Signs of Allah. However, some of these words are often been used to connote intellect or aql as well, alongside carrying their original meaning.  Their description in terms of their connotation of intellect with examples from the Holy Quran is in order:
1) Sight: The Holy Quran uses different words such as ayn, basar etc to connote sight.  At some places, the word sight refers to the eyes, at others, it refers to the faculty of physical sight while at still others, it connotes insight or intellect.
 For example,
a) And again, you shall see it with certainty of sight! ( 102: 7 )  {عَيۡنَ}
b) Then look again and yet again, your sight will return unto you weakened and made dim. ( 67: 4 )   { الۡبَصَرُ}
c) (Remember also) the `Ad and the Thamud (people): clearly will appear to you from (the traces) of their buildings (their fate): the Evil One made their deeds alluring to them, and kept them back from the Path, though they were gifted with Intelligence and Skill. (29:38)  {   مُسۡتَـبۡصِرِيۡنَۙ‏  }

d) And commemorate Our servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, possessors of Power and Vision. ( 38:45 )  { وَالۡاَبۡصَارِ }

2) Aql: Quran uses this word normally to connote the intellectual faculty native to humans, and that characteristic in man which drives him to obey Allah and turn away from passions and lustful desires.
a) We have made it a Qur'an in Arabic, that you may be able to understand (and learn wisdom). ( 43: 3)  { تَعۡقِلُوۡنَۚ‏ }
b) They will further say: "Had we but listened or used our intelligence we should not (now) be among the Companions of the Blazing Fire!" ( 67: 10 ) {  نَعۡقِلُ }
3) Qalb and Af’idah: It is the part of a human body which contains the knowledge of Allah., that is, it is that organ which receives wahy.
a) Do they not travel through the land, so that their hearts (and mind) may thus learn wisdom and their ears may thus learn to hear? Truly it is not their eyes that are blind, but their hearts which are in their breasts. ( )  { قُلُوۡبٌ يَّعۡقِلُوۡن بِهَا }
b) But their hearts are in confused ignorance of this; and there are, besides that, deeds of theirs, which they will (continue) to do. ( 23: 63 ) {  قُلُوۡبُهُمۡ }
c) Verily in this is a Message for any that has a heart and understanding or who gives ear and earnestly witnesses (the truth). ( 50: 37 )  { قَلۡبٌ }
d) It is He Who brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers when ye knew nothing; and He gave you hearing and sight and intelligence and affections: that ye may give thanks (to Allah). ( 16: 78 )  {  وَالۡاَفۡـِٕدَةَ‌ }
e) And We had firmly established them in a (prosperity and) power which We have not given to you (ye Quraish!) and We had endowed them with (faculties of) hearing, seeing, heart and intellect: but of no profit to them were their (faculties of) hearing, sight, and heart and intellect, when they went on rejecting the Signs of Allah; and they were (completely) encircled by that which they used to mock at! ( 46 : 26 ) {   اَفۡـِٕدَتُهُمۡ }
f) The which doth mount (Right) to the Hearts:  { الۡاَفۡـــِٕدَةِ }
II- Seeing, sight, insight and qalb according to Ghazali:
 One of the salient features of Imam Ghazali’s mizaaj is his methodology of classifying concepts into sub-categories or types. His writings are dotted with examples illustrating this trait of his. Hence, one finds a categorization too, when he discusses aql and qalb. Imam Ghazali has put forth a framework in his book Maarij whereby he explicates animals’ faculties and human’s faculties and then asserts that the innate characteristic which distinguishes a man from animals is his intellectual faculty or aql.[6] He does so by establishing that it is the intellect which governs all other faculties so much so that it controls the animalistic characteristics such as shahwah and ghadab[7], that a man may also possess. Ghazali then divides this intellect into four levels such that three of them serve to acquire the “real” nature of things, successively either by way of theoretical sciences, axiomatic truths or empirical knowledge [8]while the fourth, if allowed to mature and develop fully enables an individual to conquer his carnal desires and inculcate in him a will-power to obey Allah. Moreover, the first type of intellect is what distinguishes man from animals: it serves as guiding light for the heart to understand and grasp concepts and things. It is this form of aql from which all other intellects originate and by which their respective attributes are enhanced and controlled. Also, the first two levels of intellect are native to a human being while the other two acquired and developed to an extent that all the first three intellects grow and evolve into the fourth level of intellect, which is      
                           the fruit and the ultimate aim.[9]
One should bear in mind that these are four levels of intellect and not categories, and hence, an individual will have to develop his intellect and undergo all these levels if he wants to inculcate in him a mature intellect. This is because only a mature intellect will help him perceive the knowledge of the Divine and realities of the nature of things seemingly hidden from him and previously unknown to him. Here a question could be raised as to the realities which transcend reason, because of Ghazali asserting in one of his books Maqsad[10] that there may be some truths which exceed reason. The answer to this is as follows: this reason could be at the level of one of the three intellects mentioned above, because of Ghazali stating elsewhere that intellect helps attaining to the knowledge of the hidden realities. Needless to say, intellect, be it of any type or level, is the place where knowledge resides, be it axiomatic or acquired, and that, the fact that a mature intellect is capable of perceiving the consequences of an action with the help of the knowledge acquired through the other three levels and as a result, is able to exert himself in attaining the benefits which accrue from  that act, or striving against his appetite to avert the evilness of the action, proves that an intellect engenders a certain will-power in man and channels it towards a right direction based on its knowledge and the perceptibility of the benefits or the evils of an act. Thus, in short, this could be said: an intellect is the makaan of knowledge and will-power.
               Furthermore, in “Wonders of the Heart” Ghazali asserts that knowledge and will-power are special characteristics of the heart. From this and what we have mentioned above, either of the two things could be inferred: 1) aql resides in the spiritual qalb, 2) the spiritual qalb resides in the aql. Ghazali argues the first notion without taking into consideration or explaining his elimination of the second interpretation from any discussion whatsoever. We would attempt to prove or disprove his stance by using the analogies which he uses to establish the relation between heart and knowledge.
A) King and his Kingdom:[11]
This is the simplest analogy Ghazali employs to explain his position that aql dwells in the heart. He relates aql to a king: an aql governs all the faculties such as imagination, memory etc as its aides in controlling the affairs of the kingdom i.e. hearts. This can be understood thus: aql governs all other faculties, motor or apprehending or speculative and through some, it gathers knowledge and using this knowledge, it becomes capable of perceiving the possible outcomes of an act, thereby, creating in man a desire and will-power which he in turn applies towards performance of that act. Conversely, the intellect, by means of its perceptive faculty, enables man to ward off the enemy, that is, the carnal desires, following which result in evil consequences, that is, disobedience to Allah, His Wrath and eventually to the utter loss of man, in the form of Hell-fire as his permanent abode. Moreover, since for Ghazali, heart is the asl of man, any loss faced by a man is in fact a loss for the heart. This explains the analogy and thus, it follows that aql is to qalb as a king is to his kingdom. One should also notice that the king is of no value or importance without his kingdom and the converse also holds true. Similarly, aql is of no value without a qalb which receives the knowledge, and vice-versa. A qalb without a mature aql is vulnerable to attacks from the enemies and aql without its dominion loses its control over it and in turn, loses its importance. So aql and qalb have to be related to each other in a way that the heart receives knowledge in the form of wahy and the mature intellect then processes, justifies it, and makes it comprehensible for the heart, thereby making the “belief complete.” [12] Hence, it could be said that according to Ghazali, aql, qalb and wahy together constitute the equation for certainty of belief in Allah, and none can be dispensed with, if kamil yaqeen and kamil maarifat are to be acquired. Also, since for Ghazali, knowledge and will are the special properties of the heart, this leads him to imply that aql which is the makaan or place of origin of knowledge and will, actually dwells in the spiritual qalb, that is, latifa-e-qalb.
2) The horseman and his mount[13]:
Here aql is likened to a horseman who controls his mount, i.e the horse. The blindness of the horse is not that destructive or dangerous as the blindness of the horseman. If the horseman is well-trained, he is able to succeed even if his mount is undisciplined, but if he himself is unruly and stupid, he will not be able to control his mount. Similarly, a person whose intellect has not matured yet, will not be able to fully acquire the knowledge and perceive the consequences of an act, and hence, will not be able to control his passions. The weakness of a horseman in commanding and restraining his mount is indicative of his own ignorance and weakness of his insight. Having said this much, a point which needs worth iterating is as follows: Ghazali posits this analogy in a chapter titled “Exposition of relation of heart to knowledge”. But in this analogy, he has not even once alluded to the heart, or analogized anything to the heart as in the previous case. Thus, it could be inferred that his including this analogy in the above-mentioned chapter presumes the intimate relationship between aql and heart. Also, he emphasizes on the harnessing of aql or intellect to the reins of the obedience to revelation “contained” by the heart in way that aql is
            at the service of faith…It will be a way of practice and interiorization. [14]
These two analogies if understood together suffice to conclude that for Ghazali, aql resides in the spiritual qalb.
III-Seeking concordance between the Holy Quran and Imam Ghazali:
The Quranic verses mentioned above are only a few in the multitude that pertain to the topic under consideration. These aayaat nonetheless evoke a certain attitude towards approach to reading and understanding the Quran in a way that it appeals it audience to use their sense-perception and intellect in order to believe and then attain to its certitude. For instance, whenever it invites reflection on the Signs of Allah, it calls for the usage of the senses such as sight and hearing as in the case of the aayat (67:4).However, when it refers to the disbelieving peoples of the Aad and Thamud, it invokes the readers to attend to the fact that although these people were bestowed with “intelligence”, they were not able to overcome the lures of the “Evil”, and hence, faced their dreadful “fate”. Moreover, the aayat regarding the Prophets Ibrahim, Moses, etc, signifies the importance of the utilization of the intellectual and physical faculties. [15]Similarly, when it uses the word aql, it uses it as understanding as well as a means to understand the articles of belief, so much so that it makes it a criterion for somebody to deserve Paradise or Hell-fire: If a man uses his intelligence (that is, mature intellect ), he will always be guided towards obeying Allah and will ultimately come to deserve eternal bliss and happiness in Paradise. Ghazali’s concept of happiness is similar: God’s Pleasure and Wrath are in accordance to man’s capacity of understanding and engaging in intellectual activity which in turn leads to an improvement of his soul. The author of the Lughaatul-Quran defines aql as the following: a) knowledge, b) the quality to perceive the goodness or the evil nature of things and to judge their benefits and risks, c) to tell the better one between two good things and the worst between two bad things, d) knowledge of universal principles, e) it is the trait which sets the decisive criterion between right and wrong, f) the intellectual activity with which the objectives and aims of a human being are channeled to a right direction, g) the noble trait in man which translates into his actions and speech.[16] Ghazali also understands aql as a means of perceiving knowledge and the goodness of an act, and instilling in man a will to translate his knowledge into action i.e. obedience of Allah.
Moreover, the Quran uses two words to connote heart: qalb and af’idah. A careful perusal of the translation and the exegesis of the Holy Book shows that by af’idah is meant the physical heart which is the seat of the spiritual heart and intellect, which in turn, is the seat of knowledge and will, which motivate a man to believe and obey Allah. This is the reason why in some instances such as in the case of the verse (16:78), the word af’idah has been translated as “intelligence and affections”. Thus, it becomes clear that af’idah is the place where the qalb and aql reside. Harmonizing it with Ghazali’s standpoint on the issue, we could say that af’idah would mean the physical cone-shaped heart which he mentions in the Wonders of the Heart, and to which is the spiritual qalb connected. Furthermore, the Holy Quran regards the qalb as the part of a human body which receives knowledge and “learns wisdom” and in case it fails to process this knowledge into firm conviction and certainty, it has been rebuked as being blind and ignorant. This shows that the absence of a faculty which would explain and understand the knowledge received by the heart in form of revelation is tantamount to the blindness of the heart. Moreover, if devoid of such a quality, heart will continue to be overcome by evil desires, thereby continuing to sin against the commands of Allah. This proves the criticality of the relationship between aql and qalb: qalb is the centre of the intellectual activity and it cannot attain knowledge of Allah without the aid of aql. Since the spiritual qalb for Imam Ghazali is the latifa-e-qalb, synchronizing his discourse on aql and qalb with that in the Holy Quran it can be concluded that aql takes place in the latifa of qalb. .

 Works Cited:

  • Al-Jalali, Maulana Syed Abdul Daim, and Maulana Mohammad Abdul Rasheed Nomani. LughaatulQuran. Delhi: Union Printing, 1953. Web.

  • Al-Ghazali.The Alchemy of Happiness.Trans. Claud Field. 1909.Web.

  • Al-Ghazzālī. Wonders of the Heart. Trans. Walter James Skellie. Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust, 2007. Print.

  • Burrell, David B. "The Unknowabilty of God." Religious Studies 23.2 (1987): 171-82. JSTOR. Web. 06 Mar. 2010. <>.

  • Ghazzālī. Al-Ghazālī's The Ascent to the Divine through the Path of Self-knowledge = Maʻārij Al-quds Fī Madārij Maʻrifat Al-nafs : Being a Psychological Approach to Theology. Trans. Yusuf Easa. Shammas. 1958. Print.

  • Ghazzālī. The Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of God = Al-Maqṣad Al-asnā : Fī S̲h̲arḥ Asmāʼ Allāh Al-ḥusnā. Trans. David B. Burrell and Nazih Daher. Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 1995. Print.

  • Quasem, Muhammad Abdul. "Al-Gazali's ConceptIion of Happiness." Arabica T.2.Fasc.2 (1975): 153-61. BRILL. Web. 10 Apr. 2010. <>.

  • Muḥammad, Shafīʻ. Maʻariful-Quran. Ed. Muḥammad Taqī. ʻUs̲mānī. Trans. Muhammad Hasan Askari and Muhammad Shamim. Karachi: Maktaba-e-Darul-Uloom, 2005. Print.

  • The Holy Quran

[1] Quran, 63:3
[2] Tirmizi
[3] Muslim
[4] A Tradition reads: Allah said: My earth cannot contain Me, neither My heaven, but the tender anc calm heart of My servant., in Wonders of the Heart, p 46
[5] Al-Ghazzālī. Wonders of the Heart. Trans. Walter James Skellie. Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust, 2007.p. 6
[6] Ghazzālī. Al-Ghazālī's The Ascent to the Divine through the Path of Self-knowledge = Maʻārij Al-quds Fī Madārij Maʻrifat Al-nafs : Being a Psychological Approach to Theology. Trans. Yusuf Easa. Shammas. p. 174
[7] Ibid., p. 175
[8] Ghazzali. The Book of Knowledge. Trans. Nabih Amin, Faris. p.218-220
[9] Ibid,. p. 220
[10] Ghazzālī. The Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of God = Al-Maqṣad Al-asnā : Fī S̲h̲arḥ Asmāʼ Allāh Al-ḥusnā. Trans. David B. Burrell and Nazih Daher. Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society. 1995. p. 157

[11] Wonders of the Heart, p. 28-29
[12] The Book of Knowledge, p. 221
[13] The Ascent to the Divine through the path of Self-Knowledge, p. 286
[14] Burrell, David B. "The Unknowabilty of God." Religious Studies 23.2 (1987): 171-82. JSTOR. Web. p.  174
[15] Maariful Quran, p. 535
[16] LughaatulQuran, p. 336

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed this long, detailed and interesting article, as engaging as the previous one.