If you are lucky, at some point in your life, a tear will appear on the edges of your world. And if you are brave enough to pick at the tear, you will be given a glimpse into the great unknown, where angels, demons, hope, and darkness exist — not as delusional of one’s imagination but as real as you and I.
Once you are able to make some sense of what you witnessed, you will be forever transformed. In that instance, everything, although it looks exactly the same, is completely and utterly changed. You are changed. And, for a while, you are enveloped with a deep silence because if you opened your mouth, you would only scream because what you have witnessed is beyond words. Scream, because you are overwhelmed; scream, because they told you miracles do not happen, but you know they do because it has happened to you, and you wonder what other lies you have been told.
So, for a long time, there was nothing but silence; I can now speak.
I had started my research on Islamic mindfulness, expecting to find an array of beautiful uplifting quotes worthy of a thousand Instagram likes; a study that would do something like inspire me to swap my majority-black wardrobe with colours of pink and yellow, or maybe something that would make me smile a little more. I expected that now when my brother would tease me, instead of getting one up on him, I would smile sweetly back at him because now I was ‘enlightened’ and he was a mere unenlightened mortal — it was not his fault *hair flick-that fans the flames of hell*.
This it did not do. Instead, for a long time, I felt like I was ambushed. For I was not ‘changed’, I was more reconstructed, broken down into a million pieces then reassembled into something else, something better. This was not done willingly, I went through my P.h.D experience (thrashing) kicking, and screaming. Having your ego battered and bruised on a daily basis and having to analyse and write about the philosophy of what you are enduring in great detail, having nowhere to run, is not for the faint-hearted.
But despite it all, I would not change the experience. It was not what I wanted but it was what I needed. This experience was hated by my ego, but needed by my spirit and soul. This dynamic is what causes us much of our suffering; the ego will not let you let go of what tortures you, whilst the soul pleads with you for freedom from what the ego wants, and only when you are inflicted by pain do you displease the ego and appease your soul and then find peace. We do not do this willingly, it is a bitter pill to swallow, the realisation that much of your suffering is self-inflicted, through our unwillingness to let go and surrender.
Who thrashed this ego of mine? A man who made me believe in miracles, and I know one should not talk of such things, as people will start giving side glances at one another ‘poor girl all that time alone with books has turned her cray cray’. I have been advised to ‘not look at a book for at least a year and make a conscious effort to act like a bimbo’, as an antidote to these wows! I, therefore, proceed with this narrative at my own risk:
I accidentally stumbled upon the man; I call ‘The legend Gazza’ but who is referred to amongst the traditional Islamic circles as Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali. His life inspired me before his words did, being a broken man who had the courage to stare down not only his own shortcomings but also that of his community and emerge victorious, immortal even.
Born in the Persian city of Tuz in 1056, Al-Ghazali is known amongst the Muslim community as the ‘Proof of Islam’ and also holds the title of ‘The reviver of Islam’.
His Early years
In his early years, Al-Ghazali lived in the Persian city of Nashapur, where he was a student at the Nazimiya academy for twenty years, studying under the then renowned theologist and scholar Al-Jawayni. Here, Al-Ghazali became well versed in traditional Islamic teachings which would have included; the science of hadith, Islamic jurisprudence, Qur’anic interpretation, as well as the Ash’ari theology. It is also here, that Al-Ghazali would make first contact with philosophical reasoning, as Al-Jawayni is believed to be the first scholar to have seriously studied the philosophies of Aristotle.
It is reported that Al-Ghazali would divide his day between the traditional teachings of Islam and the rose gardens of the renowned scholar Abu Ali Al-Farmadhi, where he would learn the art of Islamic spirituality or mysticism.
Baghdad: Al-Ghazali’s Spiritual Crisis
In 1091, at the age of 35, following the death of his teacher Al-Jawayni, Al-Ghazali was appointed chair of theology at the Al-Nizamiyya academy in Baghdad (that’s today’s equivalent of being the head of theology at oxford at the age of 35!) where he became a well-paid and well-respected intellect, found usually in the service of the Sultans and Khalifs.
In his book ‘Deliverance from error: An annotated translation of al-Munqidh min al Dalāl’, Al-Ghazali reports, at some point during his four years in Baghdad, the realisation that his actions were not in harmony with his theoretical beliefs created in him a great sense of anxiety. And for the next six months of his life, he lived in turmoil between staying in Baghdad and leaving in pursuit of what he refers to as ‘salvation in the afterlife’.
Al-Ghazali recalls that at night, he would be plagued by the notion that Islamic teachings had been reduced to traditional and cultural activities that were propagated by Islamic scholars (himself included) to gain fame and fortune. As a result, he resolved to leave his position and power in the pursuit of the truth, only to find that by morning the devil had convinced him to delay this pursuit for his family’s wellbeing or reputation.
Al-Ghazali explains that this turmoil was eventually resolved through ‘compulsion’, that in the end choice was taken away from him by God:
‘For God put a lock upon my tongue so that I was impeded from public teaching. I struggled with myself to teach for a single day, to gratify the hearts of the students who were frequenting my lectures, but my tongue would not utter a single word: I was completely unable to say anything. As a result, that impediment caused sadness in my heart accompanied by the inability to digest; food and drink became unpalatable (…)’
So severe his depression, Al-Ghazali felt that he was left with no other alternative but to leave his status in Baghdad in pursuit of that which would restore peace to his heart. He travelled to Damascus then Jerusalem, where over a span of ten years he sought to cleanse his heart ‘for the remembrance of God’. During this time in seclusion, Al-Ghazali lived according to the writing and the philosophies of Islamic mysticism and wrote his most famous publication ‘The Revival of the Religious Sciences’ or ‘The revival’, the works I used for my research on Islamic mindfulness.
I call Al-Ghazali my miracle, because whilst I stood in oceans of darkness with my hand out, hoping and praying that someone, anyone, would be strong enough to take it, he reached out his hand and placed it into mine and held it through the darkness and fear and led me towards the eternal light of salvation. He did for me what no living man or woman was able to do. Never did I imagine that I would be saved and guided by someone who lived 951 years ago, and I don’t think he would have imagined that someday he would change the life of a girl who used to sing to all the Spice Girls songs in her teens and uses her Apple Watch to track she isn’t having a heart attack after every miserable Manchester United performance.
Al-Ghazali, in every sense of the word, is dead, but I swear, in these three years he has been with me like no other living, breathing human being. He has told me truths that would make me cry and then wiped my tears, he has broken me down and then given me the strength and courage to pick my pieces up and assemble them, this time placing them in their correct places. He has taught me the power of the word and of healing, and the importance of sharing our stories, it is why I share this one with you.
Most importantly, Al-Ghazali has made me understand that in matters of the heart, and in faith, there is no such thing as time and space, life or death; there are only miracles and those who are brave enough to believe in them and those who aren’t.