Knowledge of The Next World
THE ALCHEMY OF HAPPINESS
IMAM AL-GHAZALI Q.S
As regards the joys of heaven [Paradise] and the pains of hell which will follow this life, all believers in the Qur’an and the Traditions are sufficiently informed. But it often escapes them that there is also a spiritual heaven and hell, concerning the former of which God said to His Prophet, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive the things which are prepared for the righteous.” In the heart of the enlightened man there is a window opening on the realities of the spiritual world, so that he knows, not by hearsay or traditional belief, but by actual experience, what produces wretchedness or happiness in the soul just as clearly and decidedly as the physician knows what produces sickness or health in the body. He recognises that knowledge of God and worship are medicinal, and that ignorance and sin are deadly poisons for the soul. Many even so-called “learned” men, from blindly following others’ opinions, have no real certainty in their beliefs regarding the happiness or misery of souls in the next world, but he who will attend to the matter with a mind unbiased by prejudice will arrive at clear convictions on this matter.
The effect of death on the composite nature of man is as follows: Man has two souls, an animal soul and a spiritual soul, which latter is of angelic nature. The seat of the animal soul is the heart, from which this soul issues like a subtle vapour and pervades all the members of the body, giving the power of sight to the eye, the power of hearing to the ear, and to every member the faculty of performing its own appropriate functions. It may be compared to a lamp carried about within a cottage, the light of which falls upon the walls wherever it goes. The heart is the wick of this lamp, and when the supply of oil is cut off for any reason, the lamp dies. Such is the death of the animal soul. With the spiritual, or human soul, the case is different. It is indivisible, and by it man knows God. It is, so to speak, the rider of the animal soul, and when that perishes it still remains, but is like a horseman who has been dismounted, or like a hunter who has lost his weapons. That steed and those weapons were granted the human soul that by means of them it might pursue and capture the Phoenix of the love and knowledge of God. If it has effected that capture, it is not a grief but rather a relief to be able to lay those weapons aside, and to dismount from that weary steed. Therefore the Prophet said, “Death is a welcome gift of God to the believer.” But alas for that soul which loses its steed and hunting weapons before it has captured the prize! Its misery and regret will be indescribable.
A little further consideration will show how entirely distinct the human soul is from the body and its members. Limb after limb may be paralysed and cease working, but the individuality of the soul is unimpaired. Further, the body which you have now is no longer the body which you had as child, but entirely different, yet your personality now is identical with your personality then. It is therefore easy to conceive of it as persisting when the body is done with altogether, along with its essential attributes which were independent of the body, such as the knowledge and love of God. This is the meaning of that saying of the Qur’an, “The good things abide.” But if, instead of carrying away with you knowledge, you depart in ignorance of God, this ignorance also is an essential attribute, and will abide as darkness of soul and the seed of misery. Therefore the Qur’an says, “He who is blind in this life will be blind in the next life, and astray from the path.”
The reason of the human spirit seeking to return to that upper world is that its origin was from thence, and that it is of angelic nature. It was sent down into this lower sphere against its will to acquire knowledge and experience, as God said in the Qur’an: “Go down from hence, all of you; there will come to you instruction from Me, and they who obey the instruction need not fear, neither shall they be grieved.” The verse, “I breathed into man of My spirit,” also points to the celestial origin of the human soul. Just as the health of the animal soul consists in the equilibrium of its component parts, and this equilibrium is restored, when impaired, by appropriate medicine, so the health of the human soul consists in a moral equilibrium which is maintained and repaired, when needful, by ethical instruction and moral precepts.
As regards its future existence, we have already seen that the human soul is essentially independent of the body. All objections to its existence after death based on the supposed necessity of its recovering its former body fall, therefore, to the ground. Some theologians have supposed that the human soul is annihilated after death and then restored, but this is contrary both to reason and to the Qur’an. The former shows us that death does not destroy the essential individuality of a man, and the Qur’an says, “think not that those who are slain in the path of God are dead; nay, they are alive, rejoining in the presence of their Lord, and in the grace bestowed on them.” Not a word is said in the Law about any of the dead, good or bad, being annihilated. Nay, the Prophet is said to have questioned the spirits of slain infidels as to whether they had found the punishments, with which he had threatened them, real or not. When his followers asked him what was the good of questioning them, he replied, “They hear my words better than you do.”
Some Sufis have had the unseen world of heaven and hell revealed to them when in a state of death-like trance. On their recovering consciousness their faces betray the nature of the revelations they have had by marks of joy or terror. But no visions are necessary to prove what will occur to every thinking man, that when death has stripped him for his senses and left him nothing but his bare personality, if while on earth he has too closely attached himself to objects perceived by the senses, such as wives, children, wealth, lands, slaves, male and female, etc., he must necessarily suffer when bereft of those objects. Whereas, on the contrary, if he has as far as possible turned his back on all earthly objects and fixed his supreme affection upon God, he will welcome death as a means of escape from worldly entanglements, and of union with Him whom he loves. In his case the Prophet’s sayings will be verified: “Death is a bridge which unites friend to friend,” and “The world is a paradise for infidels, but a prison for the faithful.”
On the other hand, the pains which souls suffer after death all have their source in excessive love of the world. The Prophet said that every unbeliever, after death, will be tormented by ninety-nine snakes, each having nine heads. Some simple-minded people have examined the unbelievers’ graves and wondered at failing to see these snakes. They do not understand that these snakes have their abode within the unbeliever’s spirit, and that they existed in him even before he died, for they were his own evil qualities symbolised, such as jealously, hatred, hypocrisy, pride, deceit, etc., every one of which springs, directly or remotely, from love of the world. Such is the doom of those who, in the words of the Qur’an, “set their hearts on this world rather than on the next.” If those snakes were merely external they might hope to escape their torment, it if were but for a moment; but, being their own inherent attributes, how can they escape?
Take, for instance, the case of a man who has sold a slave girl without knowing how much he was attached to her till she is quite out of his reach. Then the love of her, hitherto dormant, wakes up in him with such intensity as to amount to torture, stinging him like a snake, so that he would fain, cast himself into fire or water to escape it. Such is the effect of love of the world, which those who have it often suspect not till the world is taken from them, and then the torment of vain longing is such that they would gladly exchange it for any number of mere external snakes and scorpions.
Every sinner thus carries with him into the world beyond death the instruments of his own punishment; and the Qur’an says truly, “Verily you shall see hell; you shall see it with the eye of certainty,” and “hell surrounds the unbelievers.” It does not say “will surround them” for it is round them even now.
Some may object, “If such is the case, then who can escape hell, for who is not more or less bound to the world by various ties of affection and interest?” To this we answer that there are some, notably the faqirs, who have entirely disengaged themselves from love of the world. But even among those who have worldly possessions such as wife, children, houses, etc., there are those, who, though they have some affection for these, love God yet more. Their case is like that of a man who, though he may have a dwelling which he is fond of in one city, when he is called by the king to take up a post of authority in another city, does so gladly, as the post of authority is dearer to him than his former dwelling. Such are many of the prophets and saints.
Others there are, and a great number, who have some love to God but the love of the world so preponderates in them that they will have to suffer a good deal of pain after death before they are thoroughly weaned from it. Many profess to love God, but a man may easily test himself by watching which way the balance of his affection inclines when the commands of God come into collision with some of his desires. The profession of love to God which is insufficient to restrain from disobedience to God is a lie.
We have seen above that one kind of spiritual hell is the forcible separation from worldly things to which the heart cleaves too fondly. Many carry about within them the germs of such a hell without being aware of it; hereafter they will feel like some king who, after living in luxury, has been dethroned and made a laughing stock. The second kind of spiritual hell is that of shame, when a man wakes up to see the nature of the actions he committed in their naked reality. Thus he who slandered will see himself in the guise of a cannibal eating his dead brother’s flesh, and he who envied as one who cast stones against a wall, which stones, rebounding, put out the eyes of his own children.
This species of hell (i.e., of shame) may be symbolised by the following short parable: Suppose a certain king has been celebrating his son’s marriage. In the evening the young man goes off with some companions and presently returns to the palace (as he thinks) intoxicated. He enters a chamber where a light is burning and lies down, as he supposes, by his bride. In the morning, when soberness returns, he is aghast to find himself in a mortuary of fire worshippers, his couch a bier, and the form which he mistook for that of his bride the corpse of an old woman beginning to decay. On emerging from the mortuary with his garments all soiled, what is his shame to see his father, the king, approaching with a retinue of soldiers! Such is a feeble picture of the shame those will feel in the next world who in this have greedily abandoned themselves to what they thought were delights.
The third spiritual hell is that of disappointment and failure to reach the real objects of existence. Man was intended to mirror forth the light of the knowledge of God, but if he arrives in the next world with his soul thickly coated with the rust of sensual indulgence he will entirely fail of the object for which he was made. His disappointment may be figured in the following way: Suppose a man is passing with some companions through a dark wood. Here and there, glimmering on the ground, lie variously coloured stones. His companions collect and carry these and advise him to do the same. “For,” say they, “we have heard that these stones will fetch a high price in the place to which we are going.” He on the other hand, laughs at them and calls them fools for loading themselves in the vain hope of gain, while he walks free and unencumbered. Presently they emerge into the full daylight and find that these coloured stones are rubies, emeralds, and other jewels of priceless value. The man’s disappointment and chagrin at not having gathered some when so easily within his reach may be more easily imagined than described. Such will be the remorse of those hereafter, who, while passing through this world, have been at no pains to acquire the jewels of virtue and the treasures of religion.
This journey of man through the world may be divided into four stages — the sensuous, the experimental, the instinctive [and] the rational. In the first, he is like a moth which, though it has sight, has no memory, and will singe [singe: burn (something) lightly] itself again and again at the same candle. In the second stage he is like a dog which, having once been beaten, will run away at the sight of a stick. In the third he is like a horse or a sheep, both of which instinctively fly at the sight of a lion or a wolf, their natural enemies, while they will not fly from a camel or a buffalo, though these last are much greater in size. In the fourth stage man altogether transcends the limits of the animals and becomes capable, to some extent, of foreseeing and providing for the future. His movements at first may be compared to ordinary walking on land, then to traversing the sea in a ship, then, on the fourth plane, where he is conversant with realities, to walking on the sea, while beyond this plane there is a fifth, known to the prophets and saints, whose progress may be compared to flying through the air.
Thus man is capable of existing on several different planes, from the animal to the angelic, and precisely in this lies his danger (i.e., of falling to the very lowest). In the Qur’an it is written, “We proposed the burden (i.e., responsibility of free will) to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, and they refused to undertake it. But man took it upon himself: Verily he is ignorant.” Neither animals nor angels can change their appointed rank and place. But man may sink to the animal or soar to the angel, and this is the meaning of his undertaking that “burden” of which the Qur’an speaks. The majority of men choose to remain in the two lower stages mentioned above, and the stationary are always hostile to the travellers or pilgrims, whom they far outnumber.
Many of the former class, having no fixed convictions about the future world, when mastered by their sensual appetites, deny it altogether. They say that hell is merely an invention of theologians to frighten people, and they regard theologians themselves with thinly veiled contempt. To argue with fools of this kind is of very little use. This much, however, may be said to such a man, with the possible result of making him pause and reflect: “Do you really think that the hundred and twenty four thousand  prophets and saints who believed in the future life were all wrong, and you are right in denying it?” If he replies, “Yes! I am as sure as I am that two are more than one, that there is no soul and no future life of joy and penalty,” then the case of such a man is hopeless; all one can do is to leave him alone, remembering the words of the Qur’an, “Though you call them to instruction, they will not be instructed.”
But, should he say that a future life is possible but that the doctrine is so involved in doubt and mystery that it is impossible to decide whether it be true or not, then one may say to him: “Then you had better give it the benefit of the doubt! Suppose you are about to eat food and someone tells you a serpent has spat venom on it, you would probably refrain and rather endure the pangs of hunger than eat it, though your informant may be in jest or lying. Or suppose you are ill and a charm-writer says, ‘Give me a rupee and I will write a charm which you can tie round your neck and which will cure you,’ you would probably give the rupee on the chance of deriving benefit from the charm. Or if an astrologer says, ‘When the moon has entered a certain constellation, drink such and such a medicine, and you will recover,’ though you may have very little faith in astrology, you very likely would try the experiment on the chance that he might be right. And do you not think that reliance is as well placed on the words of all the prophets, saints, and holy men, convinced as they were of a future life, as on the promise of a charm-writer or an astrologer? People take perilous voyages in ships for the sake of merely probable profit, and will you not suffer a little pain of abstinence now for the sake of eternal joy hereafter?”
Sayyidina Ali Zainal Abidin (the son of Husein bin Ali bin Abi Thalib, grandson of Rasulullah SAW) Ali once, in arguing with an unbeliever, said, “If you are right, then neither of us will be any the worse in the future, but if we are right, then we shall escape, and you will suffer.” This he said not because he himself was in any doubt, but merely to make an impression on the unbeliever. From all that we have said, it follows that man’s chief business in this world is to prepare for the next. Even if he is doubtful about a future existence, reason suggests that he should act as if there were one, considering the tremendous issues at stake. Peace be on those who follow the instruction!