Muslim Women Fasting Sawm Method


Islamic laws and rules for Women Ramadan Fasting

♣ What is Fasting?

​Fasting is the fourth of the five pillars of Islam. It is called in Arabic as “Sawm” meaning abstain.

Fasting means one should abstain herself from eating, drinking and all the actions which will nullify the fasting from true dawn (time of fajr prayer) to sunset (time of maghrib prayer) in the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.

♣ What is Islamic verdict for those who reject fasting?

​If anyone rejects any of the five pillars of Islam, she will be considered as an unbeliever (Kafir). Therefore, fasting should not be rejected or should not be called as it is not an obligatory. Otherwise, the one who says it will become an unbeliever according to the Islamic Law. If someone is unable to fast in the month of Ramadan for any reason, she is obliged to fast those missed fastings as qadaa (Due fasting) later.

​♣ ​​What are the types of Fasting in Islam?

​There are two major types.

​1. Compulsory Fasting (Fard)

It can be further divided into three types:

​a. Ramadan Fasting:

It is the duty of every sane and adult Muslims to fast in the month of Ramadan. Whoever fulfills this duty will be awarded merits and obtained the love and mercy of Allah Almighty.

​b. Nadhr Fasting (Oath Fasting)

If a person took an Oath that she will be fasting for specified number of days if her particular wish is fulfilled. In case of her wish is fulfilled, then she must complete her oath. She is not obliged to fast if her wish is not fulfilled.

​c. Kaffara Fasting (Compensation Fasting)

Islam has imposed fasting as the compensation for certain criminal acts.

Example: If one took an Oath and if she breaks it, she is obliged to feed for 10 poor persons or should provide clothes to 10 poor persons or should free a slave or should fast for three days.

2. Additional Optional Fasting

This can be divided into two types:


a. Sunnat Fasting

These are the additional fasting observed by beloved prophet ﷺ in some particular days and commanded to his nation to fast as an additional fasting. This is not compulsory to fast. But whoever fast it, will get the abundant rewards and love of Allah Almighty and his beloved prophet ﷺ

Example – Ashura fasting which is observed in 9th & 10th day of month of Muharram, Nisf As-Shaban fasting (Bar’at) on 15th day of month of Sha’ban. 

​b. Nafl Fasting

These are the additional fasting which is observed by a servant of Allah voluntarily for the sake of love and blessings of Allah Almighty. These fasting can be observed as to show the gratitude to Allah Almighty or to seek rewards from Him. These fastings can be fasted on any days as the person wishes, provided not the days which were forbidden by Islam.

​​♣ On whom is Fasting compulsory?

One should have attained the following qualification for Fasting becomes compulsory upon her.

1. She must be a Muslimah

2. She must have reached puberty

3. She must be a Sane

4. She should possess the ability (power) to fast

5. She must be cleaned from menstruation or post childbirth bleeding

6. She is not in the state of travel

♣ On whom is Fasting not compulsory?

1. For Non-Muslims

2. For children

3. For an insane

4. People who are in serious illness

5. Women who are in the state of menstruation or post childbirth bleeding

6. Travelers

However (3), (4), (5), (6) are required to fast those missing fasts later after Ramadan (qadaa)

♣ What are Fard (Compulsory) of Fasting?

The following two things has to be done compulsorily for fast to be valid. 


​1. Intention (Niyyah of Fasting)

The person who supposed to fast should intend her intention of fasting. It is compulsory. Without an Intention, Fasting will not be valid.


Nawaitu sawma ghadin an adai fardhi ramadani hazihis sanati illahi taala​

​“I intend to fast the compulsory Ramadan fast tomorrow”

​The time for intention starts from Maghrib. It is sunnah to intend between Maghrib and Fajr for that day fasting. The time for intention lasts up to midday.

​According to Shafie Fiqh, The time for intention is between Maghrib and Fajr. If one forgets to intend at that time, he may, based on the Hanafi Fiqh, intend before the midday.

2. Abstain

The one who fast should abstain herself from eating, drinking and all the actions which will nullify the fasting from true dawn (time of fajr prayer) to sunset (time of maghrib prayer). The acts which will break the fast has been given below.

♣ ​What are Sunnat of Fasting?

Sunnat of fasting means a woman will earn more rewards and love of Allah by performing these following acts. ​

1. Partaking (Eating) Suhoor. (Suhoor means the meal consumed early in the morning before start fasting) 

2. Completing the Suhoor before to the Fajr Prayer Call with the time lapse where 50 ayat (Phrases of Al Quran) can be recited.

(Normally it is called Imsak or Suhoor End Time)

3. Starting Suhoor with dates.

4. Partaking Suhoor at least with a cup of water, in case nothing is available.

5. Stopping the Suhoor if the time is doubtful.

6. Breaking the fast immediately after sunset.

7. Breaking the fast with dates. If not available, then with water.

8. Breaking the fast with three dates.

9. Inviting people to join in the break-fast (Iftar).

10. Reciting Iftar Dua (Prayer at the time of breaking fast).

11. Giving charity, donations and helping poor and relations.

12. Reciting Al Quran and performing I’tikaf in the last ten days of Ramadan.

13. Taking obligatory bath before Fajr, if it is needed.

14. Avoiding from telling lies, bad words and erotic desires.


♣ What are the things should be considered at the time of Iftar?

Once the time of Maghrib (Sun-set) comes, one should break the fast immediately without unnecessary delays.

Allah’s Messenger ﷺ said, “The people will remain on the right path as long as they hasten the breaking of the fast.”

Book – Sahih al Bukhari – 1957

♣ What is the dua to be recited at the time of breaking the fast (Iftar Dua)?

​​It is Sunnah to recite the following dua (supplication) once breaking the fast. (IFTAR DUA)

“Allahumma laka sumtu wa bika amantu wa `alayka tawakkaltu wa `ala rizqika aftartu fata kabbal minnee”

‘O Allah, I have fasted for You, believed in You, placed my trust in You, and broken my fast on your provision, accept it ’

♣ What are the things that break (nullify) the fast?

• Intentionally eating, drinking or smoking without a valid reason.

• Having sexual intercourse (even though semen does not come out).

• Menstrual bleeding (Haiz) begins. 

• Anything put by force into the mouth of a fasting person.

• To vomit mouthful intentionally or to return vomit down the throat.

• Water going down the throat whilst gargling.

• Intentionally swallowing a pebble, piece of paper or any item that is not used as food or medicine.

• Inhaling snuff into the nostrils.

• Dripping oil into the ear canal.

• Swallowing the blood from the gums if the color of the blood is more than the saliva with which it is mixed.

• Swallowing the spittle before washing the dirty mouth.

These all above will invalidate the fast and make up (doing qadaa) is compulsory.

♣ What are the things that will not break the fast?

1. Eating or drinking unintentionally or forgetfully

​The Prophet ﷺ said:

“If somebody eats or drinks forgetfully then he should complete his fast, for what he has eaten or drunk, has been given to him by Allah.”

Sahih al Bukhari – 1933

​2. Vomiting unintentionally

3. Semen discharge in the sleep

4. Water entering the ears

​5. Swallowing one’s own saliva

6. Rubbing oil onto the body or hair

7. Applying surma; however, it is better to avoid it

♣ What are the matters should be noted in the fasting?

1. If the fast is broken for any reason, It is wajib to be as fasting in the remaining hours of the day to honour the Ramadan.

2. If a patient is recovered or if a traveler reached his place or if a woman cleaned herself from menstrual and post childbirth bleeding or if one embraced Islam, at the day time, it is sunnah upon them to be fasting in the remaining time of that day according to Shafie Fiqh. However, it is wajib (obligatory) to be fasting according to Hanafi Fiqh.

3. Travelers and women who are in the state of menstrual and post childbirth bleeding can have meals at the day time. However, they must not disclose it out.

♣ What should you do if your menstrual flow has stopped anytime between sunrise and sunset in the month of Ramadan?

Out of respect for Ramadan, you should stop eating and drinking from that time until sunset. However, it is not compulsory and it will not be considered as a fast. Therefore, you should do Qadaa (Redo) that fast later.

♣ What should a fasting woman do if her Haiz (Menstrual bleeding) begins just before breaking the fast at Maghrib?

Her fast will be nullified and she has to make up for that day (keep Qadaa) after Ramadan.

♣ Is sexual intercourse with husband allowed in Ramadan?

Sexual intercourse with ​husband and wife allowed in the month of Ramadan after breaking the fast at Maghrib until next day Fajr to start the next fast. Once started the fasting at Fajr, then it is forbidden to have sex until the break the fast at Maghrib. If both husband and wife did not fast, then it is not forbidden to have sexual intercourse.

​♣ ​​Can a woman begin the fast at dawn after having sexual intercourse last night and without having compulsory bath?

Yes, if husband and wife had sex in the night and they can begin the fast in the next Fajr (dawn) without having the compulsory bath. However, compulsory bath anyhow will be required to perform the Fajr prayer.​

​​​♣ ​What are the things that make compulsory to break the fast?

• It is wajib to break the fast if one strongly thinks that the fasting will cause the death or increase his suffer from illness.

• Also it is wajib to break the fast, if a pregnant woman fears of risks for her pregnancy

​• If a breastfeeding mother fears for her milk production

​♣ What are t​he Expiatory Payment (Fidya) for missed Fasting?

​A very old person who does not have the strength to fast or a very sick or diseased person who has no hope of recovering after Ramadan must make an expiatory payment for each fast missed in Ramadan. One “mudd” of grain should be given as Fidya. One mudd means the amount one can hold in both hands when cupped together. The grain should be the main staple in the place where it is given.

If, however, an old or sick person gains strength or recovers after Ramadan, he must keep the missed number of fasts and whatever was given as fidya will be a reward for him from Allah Almighty.

​Each missed fasting in Ramadan should be made up before the next Ramadan, otherwise, One Mudd of grain should be given as Fidya in addition to makeup those missed fasts.

​One cannot observe fasting on behalf of another one who is still alive even though he is a very old person. However, family members can fast on behalf of a deceased person.

♣ Which are the forbidden days to fast?

It is prohibited (haram) to fast in the following days:

1. Eid ul Fitr (Ramadan Festival Day)

2. Eid Ul Adha (Hajj Festival Day)

3. 11th, 12th & 13th day of Dhul Hijjah (i.e following three days from Hajj Festival)

4. Doubtful Day (Yaumul Shak) – 30th day of Sha’ban

5. Only in Friday (Fasting in Thursday plus Friday or Friday plus Saturday is permissible)

♣ ​​Which are the Sunnat Fastings?

Beloved Prophet ﷺ has shown us lot of Sunnat Fastings in addition to the compulsory Ramadan Fasting. One can get abundant rewards and blessing through observing those fasts.

1. First six days fasting in the month of Shawwal (Following six days from Ramadan Festival)

2. Arafat Fasting (9th day of Dhul Hijjah)

3. Ashura Fasting (9th & 10th day of Muharram)

4. 13th, 14th & 15th day of every month except Dhul Hijjah

5. 27th, 28th & 29th day of every month

6. Fasting on Monday and Thursday is Sunnat Mu’akkadah

♣ Can a woman fast sunnat fastings? 

​​​An unmarried woman can freely fast as she wants. However, a married woman should get permission from husband if he is at the home town, except for the sunnat fastings of Ashura and Arafat. If he permitted then can fast.

​​​♣ Can we fast Qadaa (missed) fast with the Sunnat fast together?

Yes, if you fast your missed qadaa fast in the same date of any sunnat fast, then you will get rewards for both.​ For example, if you fast your qadaa fast at the 13th, 14th and 15th day of a month, then your qadaa will be completed and you will get the rewards for the sunnat fasting of 13th, 14th and 15th. However, you should keep intention for the qadaa fasting.

​♣ Should pregnant women and ​breastfeeding mothers fast?

• If a pregnant woman fears of risks for her pregnancy and if a breastfeeding mother fears for her milk production, then they can leave their fasts and redo (qadaa) them later.

​​Allah has given concession for them to leave the fast while they are pregnant and breastfeeding. So they can miss the fast, however, they must redo (qadaa) later.

Beloved Prophet ﷺ said: “Allah has exempted women from fasting and praying during their menses and exempted them from fasting when pregnant or nursing.”

Narrated by – Anas bin Malik (RadhiAllahu Anhu)

Book – Al Nasai 2276​​

• However, if they find themselves healthy and they do not fear that fasting will cause any risks to their pregnancy or breastfeeding, then they must fast. It is obligatory upon them. ​​​For this they can consult with Muslim doctors and get medical advice for it.


The Virtues, from Philosophy to Scripture: Refining Character Traits in Miskawayh and Ghazālī

The Virtues, from Philosophy to Scripture: Refining Character Traits in Miskawayh and Ghazālī

This book sits at a meeting place of two ethical traditions that did more than merely borrow from one another. Philosophy and Sufism were, in terms of ethics, rivulets of shared streams of knowledge. Borrowings, correspondences, and deviations between them appear in the case of the philosopher Miskawayh and the Sufism-inclined theologian Abū Ḥāmid Ghazālī. This is because Miskawayh’s virtue ethics deeply affected Ghazālī’s ethics, and Ghazālī’s ethics affected countless Sufi writers. Although many Sufi writers opposed the epistemological foundation of philosophy and rejected rationalism as a way to ultimate reality, they tended to be well read and broadly educated. For this reason, they often had no qualms about engaging with philosophical thought to extract that which supported or enhanced their view of the world.

The juxtaposition of philosophy and Sufism has assumed a larger category of ethical writings: Islamic virtue ethics. As discussed in this book’s introduction, this category is nothing new. Nevertheless, since relationships between philosophical and Sufi approaches to virtue will henceforth surface repeatedly, some discussion of established categories of ethical writing might benefit the reader, for context. We can see, thereby, how Miskawayh and Ghazālī might fit into one category of ethical writing here, while—using a different typology—they can also be seen as markedly distinct.

Perhaps the best-known categorization of Islamic ethics is that of George F. Hourani. Hourani divides classical Islamic ethical writings into “normative” ethics (relying on received wisdom) and “analytical” ethics (relying on reasoning). He also divides such writings into “secular” ethics (relying on nonscriptural sources) and “religious” ethics (relying on scripture). This allows Hourani to classify genres of Islamic ethics into four categories:

  1. Normative religious ethics. This includes the Qurʾan, the Hadith, books of jurisprudence and positive law (which are based on the Qurʾan and the Hadith), as well as books about character (akhlāq) or spiritual self-betterment that rely on religiously received wisdom, such as Sufi manuals.1
  2. Normative secular ethics. This includes extra-scriptural sources that use received wisdom: proverbs, poetry, books of advice to kings, treatises that popularize Greek thought, and books of character that are neither clearly religious nor sufficiently philosophical to belong in any other category.
  3. Ethical analysis in the religious tradition. This is what we might call a philosophical approach to religious sources. It includes writings of theologians and legal scholars who, whether they upheld or denied the validity of rational thought as a path to ultimate truth, did so using the tools of rational argument.2 This is the category that interests Hourani the most, on account of its originality in terms of contemplating the nature of good and bad.
  4. Ethical analysis by philosophers. This includes those figures who had less interest in religious sources and either continued the work of the ancient Greeks or combined mystical elements with classical philosophy.3

Hourani comments that Miskawayh’s writings belong to “normative secular ethics” rather than to “ethical analysis by philosophers.” This is because his works tell us much about the social norms of that age, especially of the court, but little about original philosophical thought. This is even more the case for those whose ethics derive heavily from Miskawayh’s, namely Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī and Jalāl al-Dīn Dawwānī (d. 1502). Hourani tells us that “their philosophical framework is taken from Aristotle, the Peripatetics, and Neoplatonism,” which is certainly true.4 Yet part of Miskawayh’s ingenuity was to present a “Greek” virtue ethics that was “Islamic” enough for Ghazālī to incorporate his insights into a monumental book that aimed to revive the entirety of religious learning. After all, Ghazālī’s ethical writings would belong to “normative religious ethics” in Hourani’s system.

Miskawayh’s book on character became the framework by which Ghazālī constructed a very original and long-lasting amalgam of “secular” ethics, scriptural ethics, and the teachings of Sufis. It is true that Ghazālī devoted far more consideration than Miskawayh to scripture and normative theology, but Miskawayh also grounded his ethics in a God-focused view of the human being.5 The transition from Miskawayh (and other philosophically minded writers) to Ghazālī, despite their differences, is exciting from a historical perspective. It was part of a larger socio-historic process, in which authors took Greek sources and harmonized them with Arabic scripture, leading to offshoot after offshoot, reconfiguration after reconfiguration, as interrelated sciences pertaining to virtue then began to appear in literary, mystical, legal, folkloric, and other contexts. Hourani’s categories do not allow us to see the common concerns of Miskawayh, Ghazālī, and the many other writers who pondered the nature of human character and virtue. While Hourani’s focus on genre is historically valid, the pursuit of self-perfection crossed the many genres Hourani lists. Such genres, moreover, were less invested in the most debated questions about good and bad. Consequently, “virtue genres” correspond to the very categories of ethical writing that interested Hourani least (that is, normative religious ethics, normative secular ethics, and ethical analysis by philosophers). Yet, despite the variety of their backgrounds, Muslim writers within manifold genres offered insight into the cultivation of virtues through self-control and habit.


ahmad-miskawayhAs a relatively early figure in Arabic philosophy, the librarian Abū ʿAlī Aḥmad Miskawayh (d. 1030) is open about his indebtedness to Greek sources. He does not strive to be original; he strives, rather, to be correct. Because of his careful approach, his ethical works are important contributions to the history of Islamic thought. He presents Greek virtue ethics in a manner that is detailed and orderly, and in a framework congruous with the Qurʾan, as well as the sayings of the Prophet and other early saintly figures. In that last regard, he enjoyed much help, for Miskawayh inherited a philosophical tradition that had already passed through monotheistic and even Abrahamic filters. This includes the Neoplatonists and earlier Muslim philosophers, such as al-Kindī, whom Miskawayh mentions by name in his most important ethical treatise.6 Again, then, Miskawayh’s writings are part of a gradual coming-to-be of an Islamic philosophical tradition that will be increasingly distinctive from the Greek side of its lineage.

Miskawayh’s most important book, The Refinement of Character Traits and Purification of Hereditary Dispositions (Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq wa Taṭhīr al-Aʿrāq), parallels the writings on ethics by the Brethren of Purity, to a large extent. Using the writings of the Brethren, we earlier established that the three most powerful centers of human life are also the three most powerful centers of inclination, action, and hence ethical choices: The liver, heart, and brain are physical counterparts to the appetitive faculty, the irascible faculty, and the rational faculty, respectively. There is one more important, immaterial counterpart to these faculties, namely the intellect (al-ʿaql). Miskawayh describes the intellect as the very essence (dhāt) and substance (jawhar) of the soul.7 One might think of Miskawayh’s distinction between the intellect and the rational soul as like that between electricity and an electrical grid; the former is realized through the latter. One must imagine, however, that this electrical grid draws upon and transmits the electricity of the intellect only when it strives to do so, because the rational soul must become an intellect through the process of contemplation.8 Miskawayh explains this in a treatise written prior to The Refinement that treats the metaphysics of the soul in greater depth. In Miskawayh’s Neoplatonic view of the universe, all things emanate from the First Intellect (al-ʿaql al-awwal) and derive eternal existence through it. For that reason, and since the human is a universe in miniature, the human intellect is the origin of all things human, including the soul itself.9 The soul’s ethical flight to the virtues and thus to true happiness is in fact a movement toward the intellect, a movement toward its own metaphysical origins.10

training-2Using Miskawayh’s treatise on virtue ethics, we can establish the virtues related to these four faculties. Miskawayh’s presentation of the virtues (faḍīla/faḍāʾil) focuses on four cardinal virtues (al-faḍāʾil al-raʾīsa), namely temperance, courage, wisdom, and justice, but includes other virtues. Those other virtues are subdivisional; they are virtues associated with the cardinal virtues. Subdivisional virtues are dispositions of the soul that are more initial or “proximate” than the cardinal virtues. Often, subdivisional virtues require less moral proficiency in the social sphere. Virtue is more complete, for Miskawayh, the more it necessitates measured and often unselfish interactions with others. When a person masters the initial virtues in the social domain so that they become permanent dispositions of the soul, they correspond to the cardinal virtues. The anomaly is liberality. Liberality—which is a subdivision of temperance—is treated almost as if it were a “fifth” cardinal virtue. It is given associated, subdivisional virtues of its own.11 Miskawayh organizes the cardinal virtues in terms of the human faculties and builds on them to discuss other virtues and vices:

  1. The virtue of the appetitive faculty is temperance (al-ʿiffa), which occurs when the soul is able to overcome or control its passions and desires. Temperance requires balance: Excessive license of the appetitive faculty would lead to intemperance, or profligacy (al-sharah). Yet excessive control over the appetitive faculty would be extinguishing desire completely (khumūd al-shahwa), which opposes both the needs of the body and reason.12 Even though temperance is the term for the genus (jins) of this cardinal virtue, it leads to liberality (al-sakhāʾ) when it becomes a more complete disposition in the social domain. Liberality is, therefore, the more complete virtue of the appetitive faculty or the appetitive soul.13
  2. Then there is magnanimity (al-ḥilm), which leads to courage (or “bravery,” al-shajāʿa) when it becomes a more complete disposition in the social domain. Thus courage is the true virtue of the irascible faculty.14 A lack of courage is cowardice (al-jubn); an excess of this faculty of the heart would be recklessness (al-tahawwur).15
  3. Wisdom (al-ḥikma) belongs to the rational faculty. When the virtue of knowledge (al-ʿilm) becomes a disposition of constructive contemplation and judicious decision-making—again, especially in the social domain—this leads to wisdom.16 It occurs when there is a balance in the soul’s pursuit of knowledge, such that the soul has avoided ignorance but not veered into extraneous, useless, or even deceptive knowledge. It has achieved the balance between a lack of use of the rational faculty, which we would call stupidity (al-balah), and an improper or excessive use of it, which we might call insolence (al-safah) or deviousness (al-jarbaza).17 It should be noted that the rational faculty can be used excessively only in practical matters, matters pertaining to human action and social interactions. In terms of theoretical matters, there is no ethical limit to its application.

Of the cardinal virtues mentioned so far, those of the appetitive and irascible faculties benefit the individual on earth, whereas wisdom lives on into the afterlife, as does knowledge.18 In point of clarification, an individual who has liberality and courage will be sought and feared by others; sought because the “liberal” (or “generous”) are inclined to give, feared because the courageous are prepared to fight. Yet because these are “animal” virtues, that is, they proceed from the two faculties that humans share with animals, they do not benefit us after death.


Miskawayh, then, makes room for what we might call “worldly” and “otherworldly” (or “bodily” and “spiritual”) virtues in a manner similar to the distinctions that medieval Christian theologians made between moral, theological, and intellectual virtues.19 Wisdom, when spread to others, will benefit the individual in the afterlife, because it is a “human” virtue. It is a pursuit of the intellect for further enlightenment, which is the very purpose of human existence and which is exclusive to humans. It is for this reason that the “way of wisdom,” and not the way of pleasure or the way of honor, brings about ultimate happiness (al-saʿāda).20

  1. Justice (al-ʿadāla) is the virtue of the intellect (al-ʿaql). It is the soul’s ability to keep the three virtues mentioned above in harmony and to manage them.21 Thus, we can say that justice is the soul’s ability to administer, that is, to administer for itself as well as for others in a balanced manner. A lack of justice is injustice (al-ẓulm) or tyranny (al-jawr).22 An excess of justice is servility (al-mahāna). One is excessively just when one forgoes one’s rights too easily and has an inclination to allow others to do injustice to oneself (al-inẓilām).

In discussing justice, Miskawayh is aware that there are more than merely philosophical discussions preceding and surrounding his work. Justice, after all, is one of the names of God according to a famous Prophetic narration, and it is an important theme in the Qurʾan. As such, justice features prominently in the earliest Islamic theological debates.23 Miskawayh, nevertheless, is careful to keep his writings within the confines of his own discipline, philosophical virtue ethics. He only hints at larger implications. One such implication is theological, political, and quite important: Aristotle himself, according to Miskawayh, upheld the need for a wise and virtuous person (ḥakīm fāḍil) to occupy the position of leadership for all. Such a leader would be both “caliph” (the recognized authority) and “imam” (the just leader), as opposed to rule by caliphs given authority merely because of lineage.24 Divine law, as the legislative balance ordained for all, is the embodiment of the virtue of justice. For such law to function, it must be upheld by an imam who has achieved that balance within the soul.

Miskawayh describes justice as the very principle of intermediateness; we might say “virtue” or “virtuousness” itself.25 As a virtue, justice is more of a benchmark or standard than a completed ideal. To justice can be added excesses, good and bad, of other virtues. Thus, a just person may have met a necessary measure of liberality to be considered “just,” while a more generous person may still exist.26 Justice does not correspond to perfection; it is a way to describe those who give others and themselves their due and consistently avoid wrongdoing and vice. Such an understanding of justice is especially important when considering someone characterized by benevolence (tafaḍḍul). Miskawayh points out that benevolence is a quality added to the qualities of the just. Upon consideration, this makes sense. We do not expect a person’s benevolence to contradict his or her sense of justice, but rather to buffer it. That is, we expect the benevolent person to make merciful allowances within what would still be “just” and certainly not “unjust.”27 Moreover, benevolence cannot be a universal standard of law, while justice can. If benevolence were required universally, then a person would be required to forgo his or her claims against a transgressor. Someone whose property was stolen, for example, would be required to forgive a thief and could not charge the thief in court. Benevolence would, in such a scenario, be an unjust demand, giving no real claims of recompense or requital to anyone.28 When benevolence occurs in the context of justice, however, it is a voluntary and virtuous waiver of one’s dues.

In this regard, Miskawayh promotes an idea of justice influenced by the Qurʾan, in which justice is a balance that exists in all of creation as an act of God’s wisdom. This sense of balance in the universe has led to divine commands regarding humans (al-sharīʿa), commands that place certain limits on human actions and require those who do wrong to others to face retribution.29 In the Qurʾanic moral landscape, humans are called to justice (ʿadl) as well as to “doing what is best” (iḥsān), a virtue even more desirable than justice (Q 16:90). “Doing what is best” includes forgiving others and forgoing one’s rights. Indeed, the Qurʾanic reading of “an eye for an eye” offers two choices to a moral actor. One can impose equal—but never greater—retaliation. Or, one can practice iḥsān, by offering one’s right of retaliation as an act of goodwill, which is the better, more merciful option (Q 5:45 and 2:178). According to Miskawayh, victims of crimes or families of victims should practice benevolence, although they cannot be required to do so. Conversely, a judge must practice justice and not benevolence, because he deals in the rights of others, not of himself.30 Of course, observing the rights of others first involves observing one’s own rights, such that becoming a just person requires becoming just to oneself. A person does justice to himself or herself by acquiring virtue and achieving a sense of balance vis-à-vis character traits. Then, this just person will do justice to others, to friends, family, and even animals.31 Miskawayh acknowledges that a city founded on relationships of love (if that is possible) is more nearly ideal than one founded merely on justice.32


Miskawayh uses Aristotle’s mean and Plato’s (d. 347 BCE) virtues to organize numerous virtues as branches of the four cardinal virtues.33 In this, he had some help from his sources. He and other Arabic-language philosophers had access to an Arabic translation of Galen’s ethics, the original Greek of which has been lost. Galen emphasized Plato’s four cardinal virtues; integrated Plato’s three faculties (appetitive, irascible, and rational) with Aristotle’s three souls (vegetative, animal, and rational); and also incorporated the medicine of Hippocrates (d. ca. 460 BCE).34 This ethical tradition inherited from Galen and the ancients provided the framework by which Miskawayh and his contemporaries categorized, ordered, and ranked the universe. For Miskawayh, minerals are beneath plants; plants are beneath animals; animals are beneath humans; and humans are beneath angels. So too, in the internal universe of the human being, there is ranking. The appetitive soul is as a pig; it ranks beneath the irascible soul, which is as a lion; and the irascible soul ranks beneath the rational soul, which is as a king.35 Within these rankings there are multiple subdivisions, finer designations and degrees, with a climactic ending: In a successful life, the rational soul allows the human being to achieve the rank of angels.36 To do this involves the full realization of two different branches of philosophy, theoretical philosophy and practical philosophy, which reflect two different facets or faculties of the soul, the intellectual or theoretical faculty (al-quwwa al-ʿālima) and the practical faculty (al-quwwa al-ʿāmila).37 This division parallels Aristotle’s “intellectual virtues” (aretai dianoētikai) and “character virtues” (aretai ēthikai).38

The distinction between these two faculties is an important part of Miskawayh’s ethics, just as it is for Avicenna, who—as we saw—discusses the theoretical and practical as two intellects. Miskawayh describes the difference between the branches of knowledge associated with these faculties in a way that differs slightly from Avicenna, although the broader outline is the same. “Virtue ethics” is still the science of practical philosophy, and thus the domain of the practical faculty. Theoretical philosophy is still a matter of acquiring knowledge of the essences and universal qualities of all existences—the domain of the theoretical faculty. Miskawayh, however, describes in more detail an intertwined relationship between the two. Practical philosophy is about putting theoretical knowledge into action, conducting one’s life according to the knowledge that one has. Theoretical philosophy is the “form” (ṣura) of human perfection, while practical philosophy is the “matter” or “substance” (mādda).39 One might say that the theoretical is the plan, and the practical is its execution. Ultimate happiness lies in achieving both. Miskawayh’s division reflects scenarios we all see in our lives, cases of those who might have developed their theoretical strengths without developing their practical ones. One might imagine a biologist who studies the lungs of various mammals, and yet who smokes. Conversely, it is possible to have a person who knows little and yet succeeds in the realm of action. Imagine a person who has read very little about health, but acts so devotedly and consistently upon the little known that he or she is quite healthy; or knows little, conceptually, about ethics, but is a much more upstanding person than an academically trained ethicist. The practical faculty needs repeated action, habituation, before it pays dividends of virtue in daily affairs.

When a person combines the theoretical and practical intellects, then he or she can become a world in himself or herself, a “microcosm.”40 The person thereafter becomes “God’s representative,” a position first occupied by Adam according to the Qurʾan (Q 2:30).41 If the person succeeds, then, unified with the divine intellect, he or she lives on eternally after death. If, however, the person fails, then his or her afterlife is nonexistence, a dying away much like animals and plants.42 Theoretical and practical philosophy together yield a life of eternal felicity. This last point places Miskawayh with many other philosophers who adhered to sweepingly metaphorical interpretations of Qurʾanic verses describing the afterlife as either bliss or torment, which they interpreted as either union with the intellect or nonexistence. For this reason, many Muslim theologians (such as Abū Ḥāmid Ghazālī) and traditionalists saw the views of philosophers as outside the boundaries of normative Islam.

In terms of practical philosophy, Miskawayh holds an Aristotelian view that every virtue is a mean (waṣaṭ) between extremes.43 Courage, for example, is the perfect balance between cowardice (a lack of courage) and recklessness (excessive courage). This results in eight vices that are extreme counterparts to the four cardinal virtues, two extremes for each mean.44 The idea of the “mean” can be illustrated by a circle. The mean is the middle of the circle, because it is the point furthest from the circumference. The circumference represents all the extremes—the vices—that veer from the mean in the center. To hit the mark of modesty (al-ḥayāʾ), for example, a virtue that is an offshoot of temperance, you must avoid shamelessness (al-waqāḥa), which is a lack of modesty, but also social awkwardness (al-khurq), an excess of modesty.45 You can see, then, how difficult a venture it would be to achieve this, namely to hit the target once and keep hitting it, but that is what Miskawayh’s virtue ethics asks us to do. The good news is that this becomes easier over time.

Human character, according to Miskawayh, is malleable, a point that he makes by referring to the opinions of his predecessors. The ancients, he tells us, debated the nature of the human being. The Stoics held that humans are good by nature, but are corrupted by those around them.46 Those before the Stoics held that humans are congenitally evil because of the physical “clay” (al-ṭīna) from which the human body generates, only to be rendered good through training. Galen, however, disproved both by pointing out that “good” and “bad” must come from somewhere within the human being. If people are corrupted or reformed by others, then there must have been both good and bad in human nature to begin with. A few might be born “good,” and many might be born “bad” or somewhere in between the two, but most are subject to reform, according to Galen.47 Miskawayh sides with Galen, mainly because he has observed that some (the bad) are much more difficult to train than others (the good); his experience as an ethical tutor for the sons of powerful men and women emerges clearly in this text.48 Like Galen, Miskawayh sees human beings as having different innate potentials and inclinations, which are not a static part of that person’s nature. Rather, referring to Aristotle in support of his view, Miskawayh envisions human reform as on a spectrum of malleability affected by inborn inclination, not solidified in some unchangeable nature.49 Since there are innate degrees of rapidity or resistance to forming good habits, some youngsters might need more work or might inherently achieve more, in ethical terms, than others, but practice makes it possible for most to acquire some degree of virtue.50 Miskawayh, who will be followed in this regard by many Muslim virtue ethicists, upholds Aristotle’s view that virtue is cultivated through habituation.51 He also echoes Aristotle’s view that legislation—for Miskawayh, divine commands or Shariais necessary for aiding a person in the difficult act of developing a noble disposition.52

The reason that the human soul is subject but also resistant to reform is that its character traits (khulq/akhlāq) are twofold. Miskawayh, echoing Galen, defines the character trait as “a state of the soul that calls it to its actions without contemplation or deliberation.”53 The character trait is either natural, coming from the very origins of the constitution (the particular balance of elements in the form of humors that constitutes each person), or procured, coming from repeated practice and habituation, “even though its original source might have been deliberation and thought, such that the person repeated the actions of that trait over and over until it became a disposition (malaka) and character trait (khulq).”54 Two hundred years after Miskawayh, Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī wrote a Persian expansion—and, in some ways, a commentary—on Miskawayh’s The Refinement of Character Traits. His more detailed comments about disposition and traits can help us understand how classical Muslim virtue ethicists saw the relationship between character traits and habits:

The character trait (khulq) is a disposition (malaka) of the soul that necessitates the appearance of spontaneous action, without either thought or deliberation. Theoretical philosophy has made clear that those qualities of the soul quick to disappear are states (ḥāl), and those slow to disappear are dispositions (malaka). Therefore, the disposition is a quality from among the qualities of the soul; this is the quiddity of the character trait. Its existence in the soul, that is, the cause of its existence, comes from one of two things, either nature or habit.55

The disposition is a fixed quality of the soul. When it becomes realized or made manifest, we call it a trait. Traits are thus fixed habits, not passing moods or the sort of character fads that one sees among adolescents. Some traits are, moreover, “natural” or inherited, while others are “habitual” or adapted. “Inherited” does not refer to the genetic process defined by science today, but rather to the body’s predispositions toward certain psychological tendencies and moral behaviors. For Miskawayh, “inherited” means “inborn,” built into the very constitution by a variety of factors, including lineage, but also including geographical climate and zodiacal positioning, both at the time of birth.56 These would make a person readily inclined to one of the four humors, and thus different character traits, to such an extent, Miskawayh comments, that he or she might become angry, afraid, happy, or sad at the slightest prompting, because the body’s very makeup so readily inclines in that direction.57 That traits can be procured, acquired, or changed through habit over time leaves room for the science of virtue ethics.

Lastly, according to Miskawayh, humans must live with other humans for these virtues to be realized. Seclusion does not work ethically. A person is not practicing the virtues, perfecting them, without others, whereby one practices liberality, for example, or justice. Indeed, someone who is liberal vis-à-vis himself or herself is merely a spendthrift; someone who is protective vis-à-vis himself or herself is merely jealous. These traits become virtues when the element of selflessness decrees that the person acts for the benefit of others. Humans are communal by their very nature (madanīyūn bi-l-ṭabʿ) and should ideally live, according to Miskawayh, in cities, so that it is clear that Miskawayh is writing from a metropolitan perspective, indeed a courtly one.58 Divine law brings people together. Therefore, it legislates communal love, as exemplified by three compulsory religious gatherings, (1) the weekly Friday prayers, (2) the yearly ʿĪd prayers, and (3) the once-in-a-lifetime Hajj rituals, which bring together the people of (1) the city, (2) its larger surrounding area, and (3) the world, respectively.59 Miskawayh very clearly rebukes the ascetics of his day, who seek acts of renunciation in “mountains and caves,” and hence never foster the virtues in social settings, as humans are supposed to do.60 Virtues require actions and interactions; they are more than simply avoiding vice.


One preeminent figure who did not take Miskawayh’s advice about remaining in the city, living among others to perfect virtue, is the theologian Abū Ḥāmid Ghazālī. Ghazālī, in fact, fled from the capital of the Sunni Muslim world at the time—Baghdad—and assumed a life of isolation, relinquishing his prestigious post at the university because he felt the whole affair to be disingenuous. He feared that the fame he had come to love endangered his very soul. While teaching, he had lost the ability to speak, apparently a psychosomatic symptom of the crisis he endured internally. He told his patrons that he would make the pilgrimage to Mecca, implying a return to his post, but probably never intended to. Instead, he adopted the sort of life of renunciation, contemplation, and isolation that he associated with the Sufis of his day, the very kind of isolation that Miskawayh opposes. The reflective fruits of his period of withdrawal were manifold, but they are best captured in his The Revival of the Religious Sciences (Iḥyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn).61

Ghazālī sought to bring the Muslim community back to life by reviving the study of Islam itself, because Islam—like Ghazālī—was on the verge of spiritual death. These grand aspirations appear in the very title of The Revival, a book that is lengthy but, as any reader interested in classical Islamic thought will admit, never tiresome. In four major sections, Ghazālī analyzes religious worship and obligations (ʿibādāt), social customs and relations (ʿādāt), the heart and what threatens its eternal felicity (muhlikāt), and those virtuous acts and stations—often described by Sufis—that can salvage the heart and return it to contemplating God (munjiyāt). In this book, Ghazālī brings together what he considers to be the redeeming parts of the learning of his day. For that reason, he places the sources of knowledge he values most, the Qurʾan and Hadith, at the forefront, buttressed by the sciences of jurisprudence, theology, and Sufism, while often making his case by employing the arguments and insights of philosophers. It is not that philosophy is a mere dressing for Ghazālī’s work. Ghazālī is incredibly indebted to philosophers, but hopes to use philosophy to uncover or explain the doctrines of Sufism, thereby providing his Muslim readership with a science that is—in his view—the interior dimension of Islam itself, as opposed to something both alien to revelation and subject to the fallibilities of reason. Lenn E. Goodman hits the mark when he describes Ghazālī’s appropriation of philosophical virtue ethics as comprising an “almost invisible weave of virtue ethics into the fabric of a scriptural command ethics.”62 Even though the foundations of his virtue ethics are philosophical, Ghazālī constructs upon those foundations a system that puts the development of character at the service of contemplating, worshiping, and obeying God in a manner congruent with scripture.

Nowhere is Ghazālī’s debt to philosophical virtue ethics more apparent than in the second book of The Revival’s third volume (Book 22). Its title is The Book of Discipline for the Soul, and the Refinement of Character Traits (Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq), and Treatment for the Diseases of the Heart. The phrase “Refinement of Character Traits” that Ghazālī uses is common to (and indeed defines) philosophical virtue ethics. It is found, for example, in the title of Miskawayh’s manual. Here, while most of the evidence and citations are from the Qurʾan, the Hadith, and the sayings of early saints, everything hangs upon the theoretical skeleton of emanation, the mean, the faculties, and the humors that Miskawayh (and others) adapted from the Neoplatonists, Plato, Aristotle, and Galen.63 Ghazālī’s ethics differs from Miskawayh’s in that it bears the conspicuous influence of Sufi renunciation (zuhd). While Miskawayh advocates a balanced life, Ghazālī advocates a more rigorous and self-denialist ethics that eventually leads to a discussion of “shattering” (in the sense of subduing) the body’s main sources of desire: the stomach and the genitals.


As with Miskawayh and the Brethren, the close connection between the body and virtue appears in the writings of Ghazālī. Ghazālī points out that the Prophet, whose character was morally beautiful, was also beautiful in his physical appearance. For that reason, Muhammad prayed, “God, you have perfected beautifully my physical formation, so perfect beautifully my character!”64 In an ideal situation, the inner should reflect the outer: Both should be beautiful. On one hand, the body indicates one’s spiritual symptoms. On the other hand, properly managing the body can contribute to its spiritual cure. The relationship between the bodily and the spiritual can be seen, for example, when Ghazālī discusses the need for hunger. Hunger purifies the heart (al-qalb) by lessening its blood, hence brightening it, and melting away the fat around its outer portion (al-fuʾād). This will render both the physical and the spiritual heart more tender, lifting the veils from both, and allowing the aspirant to witness his or her Lord.65 This occurs because the physical heart is a nethermost reification of the subtle, spiritual heart. Ghazālī even suggests that the reduction of blood through hunger will reduce the ability of demonic suggestive powers to flow through one’s veins, because a hadith describes Satan as flowing through a human like “blood through the body” so that his passageways are best straitened by hunger.66

For Ghazālī, while the body contributes to temporal and thus spiritual knowledge, it does so from the bottom of a hierarchy of awareness: The body exists to serve the senses; the senses exist to gather information for the intellect; the intellect exists to contemplate God’s creation, which it does in service to the heart; the heart exists to witness divine beauty.67 Despite its humble rank in this hierarchy, the body pervades Ghazālī’s metaphors for character ethics, so that he often refers, for example, to “diseases of the heart” in his The Revival, a modified Qurʾanic phrase (e.g. Q 2:10) that has since become well known and commonly used in Islamic ethics. Certain salient thematic resemblances brought Ghazālī to use the body and its sicknesses as a metaphor (mithāl) for the soul and its imperfections. Both body and soul begin as incomplete; both require nourishment (whether food or training); both are harmed by excesses and deficiencies; and thus both require balance.68 They resemble one another because they are interdependent—one (the soul) the interior counterpart of the other (the body). Ghazālī and other Sufism-inclined ethicists shared this metaphor with philosophers like Miskawayh, who also refers to “diseases” (al-amrāḍ). For Miskawayh, however, concern is for diseases of the soul (al-nafs) and not the heart (al-qalb).69 Such bodily language in ethics was part of a much larger existing trend, as discussed in this book’s introduction.


Extending the metaphor of healing, Ghazālī follows Miskawayh (and thus Aristotle) in prescribing a treatment of opposition for those who suffer from character imbalances. Just as an excess in the body’s humors must be treated by its opposite, such that excessive heat needs cold, so too, Ghazālī says, do the diseases of the heart require treatment by opposites: The miser should force himself or herself to be liberal and spend (al-tasakhkhā), for example.70 Regular “correcting” of the soul results in habituation, much like any repeated action will become second nature. Ghazālī clearly also adopts Miskawayh’s mean in ethics.71 Yet Ghazālī’s use of the mean veers from Aristotelian ethics toward an understanding grounded in his reading of normative Islam and the spiritual path. The “mean” is identified with the Qurʾan’s “straight path,” which gives to the mean and humoral ethics a large degree of eschatological and scriptural force (Q 1:6–7). As mentioned in the Hadith, the “straight path” is a post-resurrection bridge thinner than the blade of a sword, over which all must pass for salvation, and it is also an exemplar for proper living mentioned in the first chapter of the Qurʾan, upon which believers pray to be guided in every daily and supererogatory ritual prayer.72

Ghazālī’s use of evidence proving that the Qurʾan advocates an ethical mean is resourceful. In terms of spending, the Qurʾan declares that believers are to be balanced, to be neither prodigal nor miserly (Q 25:67). In terms of appetite, believers are to eat and drink, but are to avoid waste (Q 7:31). Finally, in terms of anger, believers are to be resolute toward those who actively and obstinately cover the truth, but merciful toward other believers, and, in all circumstances, they are to subdue their anger, habitually pardoning others (Q 48:29, Q 3:134). Nevertheless, as Ghazālī points out, they should not completely lose the ability to be justifiably angry.73

Moreover, Ghazālī’s mean often does not seem very moderate, because of the ascetic impulses behind his ethics. (The Sufi framework of Ghazālī’s asceticism, or “renunciation,” which is more stringent than Miskawayh’s, will become clearer in Chapter Seven.) Ghazālī’s trepidation concerning the most basic objects of human desire—such as food or sex—is based on the premise that humans naturally incline toward excess and indulgence. Therefore, the soul will desire the forbidden if allowed to indulge in the permissible.74 Even if it happens not to desire the forbidden, the indulgent soul will be heedless by nature and will fail to remember and contemplate God adequately. Self-discipline, after all, has an ultimate objective: the heart’s continuous residing in the presence of God.75


Another notable difference between the ethics of Ghazālī and that of Miskawayh is that Miskawayh only considers childhood and adolescence in his discussion of ethical guides and tutors. Ghazālī, however, has aspirations for training the Muslim community well into adulthood, hoping that the Sufi model of shaykh and murīd (master and pupil) can become both effective and commonplace. He leaves the reader with no doubt that Sufism is, by definition, the epitome of good character.76 As he proclaims in his autobiographical essay The Deliverer from Error (al-Munqidh min al-Ḍalāl):

I came to have certain knowledge that Sufis, in particular, are the foremost on the path of God, the Exalted; their way of life (sīra) is the best; their path the most correct; their character traits (akhlāq) the purest. Indeed were the intellect of the intellectuals, the wisdom of the wise, the knowledge of those scholars who are masters of the law’s secrets, all gathered to improve anything from the ways or traits of the Sufis, they would find no means to do so, for their very movements and stillnesses, their outsides and insides, are drawn from the light of the lamp of prophethood, to which no other light on the face of this earth can lend illumination.77

The pious Sufi master is best equipped to inform a person of his or her faults, though Ghazālī admits that such masters are lacking in his time and that Muslim scholars are too corrupt to improve the situation.78 Thus, he advises his readers deprived of the shaykh, who is the finest of all physicians, to refer to the honesty of friends, the insults of enemies, and the study of the faults of others, to discern their own faults.79 Were one to find a qualified doctor of the heart, that master would probably prescribe hunger at the beginning of the path, because nothing else is more effective.80 He or she might have the pupil take recourse to the fourfold “sabers of asceticism” (asyāf al-riyāḍ.a) as described by the early Sufi preacher and ascetic Yaḥyā ibn Muʿādh (d. 871–2). To allow oneself only the necessary minimum in terms of eating, sleeping, and speaking, respectively, are three of these sabers. As for the fourth saber of asceticism, Yaḥyā ibn Muʿādh (and thus Ghazālī) advise a person to do all of this while bearing the injuries (al-adhā) that all of society might heap upon her.81 This contrasts starkly with Miskawayh, who counts suffering injustice as a vice. In addition to renouncing the worldly, certainly formulaic remembrance of God and isolation would be prescribed. It is Ghazālī’s aim that the rational and scriptural foundations of Sufism’s goals and methods of spiritual training seem indisputable.

Ghazālī seeks to draw the Muslim community back to a spiritually revived Islam, placing the human heart at the center of his discussion. His use of the word “heart,” which implies vision instead of intellection, matters greatly. For those seeking a scripturally grounded Islamic spirituality (whom historian Marshall Hodgson calls “Sharia-minded” Muslims), the philosophers’ emphasis on the metaphysical pursuits of the intellect would have sounded quite foreign. Conversely, Ghazālī’s emphasis on the health of the spiritual “heart” would have rung true, because it is a focal point of the Qurʾan and Hadith. This important shift in language has given longevity and relevance to the many assertions Ghazālī borrows from philosophical virtue ethics. More than simply a matter of language, the heart is truly center stage in Ghazālī’s ethics. His attention to human psychology and the states of the heart is meticulous, drawing from Sufism and other sciences as well. According to Ghazālī, the heart must be monitored carefully and constantly, because it is in a constant state of fluctuation—like a fluttering bird, a boiling kettle, or a feather being blown around the desert, as the Hadith canon reports.82 Moreover, Satan and his armies attack the heart relentlessly, so that only death brings relief for the believer.83 The gateways through which they can enter the heart are many, including greed, lust, envy, anger, and rashness, multiplied by the desires of the body. Were those Satanic forces to disperse completely from the hearts of human beings, another hadith tells us, we would “gaze upon the hidden dominions of the sky,” that is, we would see the hidden realities of things and would have eyewitness-like conviction about the unseen, as described to us in the scriptures.84

Thus, a person must actively polish the heart as one would polish a mirror. In Ghazālī’s use of this metaphor, the mirror can be polished by good deeds and remembrance of God, or dulled by the tarnishing vapor of sins and forgetfulness.85 The heart covered by such rust or turned in toward itself cannot reflect God’s light, so it understands little. It cannot receive inspiration, so it strays. On the other hand, avoiding sin and developing good character will give the heart more reflectivity, so that knowledge of divine mysteries and awareness of God increase. Avoidance of sin and contemplation of God, in other words, lead to more avoidance of sin and higher contemplation of God. Thus, while Miskawayh advocates the intellect’s reflecting upon the true nature of things to bring it into a state of conformity with the Active Intellect, Ghazālī advocates polishing the heart, orienting it toward God, removing all barriers until it receives via unveiling and inspiration the true reality of everything.86

To illustrate the priority of spiritual purification over rational exertion, Ghazālī tells a story about a competition between the Chinese and the Byzantines in which polishing upstages decorating, a narrative that reappears in the poetry of Rūmī.87 Artisans from China and Byzantium contend with one another as to which of the two groups is superior in terms of painting and decorating. They agree that a certain king will settle their dispute. He decides to have each embellish facing walls of a vestibule (ṣuffa) in his palace, with a curtain hung between them. The Byzantines begin painting using the rarest colors available, while the Chinese enter the vestibule without any paint, and simply begin to clean their wall, polishing it. When the curtain is lifted, the Chinese side has become a “polished mirror.” It reflects the artistry of the Byzantines, but, in being a reflection, adds “radiance and glimmer” to their paintings. Ghazālī’s point is that knowledge is not about adding things to one’s intelligence; it is not about the accumulation of facts or proofs. Rather, knowledge comes from stripping down the heart, removing those traits and traces of selfishness that are excessive, so that it can reflect the divine light from which comes all true knowledge.

The rational sciences, for Ghazālī, are merely a starting point. In knowing the truth, the rational sciences cannot rival divine inspiration, nor the monitoring of one’s heart that leads to such inspiration. That monitoring can be quite painstaking. To give an example, even a simple action—such as turning around to see a pretty woman in the street (a forbidden action)—is preceded by four internal movements within the heart or soul. As these internal movements become actualized into an action, a person becomes increasingly responsible for them: First, there is a bestirring in the heart that a person experiences as a suggestion coming from outside of the heart, followed by an inclination to act that involves movement within the body’s natural desires, followed by the decision to act that is the heart’s choosing between multiple possibilities, followed by the actual intention—a sort of promise to oneself—to act, which all culminates in the actual turning of the head.88


alchemy_of_happinessFrom a literary perspective, Ghazālī’s writings remain valuable for more than their historical influence. Ghazālī is a masterful writer. In fact, one might say that Ghazālī’s major legacy is his ability to consolidate more effectively and summarize more articulately a body of views shared by many others in his time. He excels particularly in the use of metaphorical writing to make his point clear, often using extended metaphors in the form of allegories. Ghazālī uses metaphors frequently in The Revival as well as in another book, The Alchemy of Happiness (Kīmīyā-yi Saʿādat), which reflects much of the content of The Revival, but with two major differences. First, it is written in Persian, not Arabic, allowing the nonscholarly audience from his home region of eastern Iran to understand. Second, and probably for the same reason, it is presented and organized very differently. It begins with a study of the self and the heart, leaving legal matters until later, and lacking the detailed scriptural references and philosophical details of the longer, Arabic Revival. For this reason, Ghazālī’s allegories, many of which appear in both books, carry The Alchemy in a way that they do not in The Revival. While metaphors and allegories appear in the Qurʾan and in the Hadith, Ghazālī’s lengthy allegories, sometimes with esoteric implications, might be a tool he acquired from the Brethren and other Arabic translations of writings attributed to Hermes, in which such allegorical writing is a common feature.89 Many metaphors in The Revival and The Alchemy exist only to clarify Ghazālī’s basic ethical teachings. For example, in a paradigm borrowed from the Brethren of Purity, the heart appears as the ruling prince of a city, with the intellect as his vizier, the faculty of anger as his chief of police, and the faculty of desire as his tax collector.90

Many of Ghazālī’s most powerful and profound metaphors provide his readers with a stimulus for ethical living that does not appear in Miskawayh’s The Refinement or in philosophical virtue ethics more broadly: the fear of agony after death. Miskawayh, you will recall, proposed that the imperfect soul dies away upon the annihilation of the human frame. Ghazālī famously countered such views of the philosophers as illogical and heretical in his book The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahāfut al-Falāsifa). For Ghazālī, the resurrection is not only real, it is the completion of an ethical process that would make no sense otherwise. Ghazālī also counters those Muslim thinkers who took scriptural descriptions too literally, who dismissed the deeper psychological implications of the Qurʾan and Hadith’s vivid descriptions of life after death. For Ghazālī, much of that which a sinful person encounters after death emanates from the soul itself, so that there is a psychological torment far more dire than the bodily torment of the afterlife. When a disbelieving and ungrateful person encounters the ninety-nine snakes promised by the Hadith to be in his or her grave, for example, physical snakes do not become reified in the place of burial. Rather, they have already become reified in the soul, as representations of all the foul traits the soul has created within itself during life.91

Purifying one’s soul acquires a sense of urgency because, after death, all that remains for a person is the world of the soul. Everything that had once been a mere instrument for the soul’s success will disappear, and the “[outward] forms will conform to spirits and realities.”92 Death will be excruciating for the person severely attached to the world. For this, Ghazālī has us imagine a man who receives news that his horse has been stolen. The torment in his soul will be less than if he comes to learn that ten horses have been stolen, or all of his wealth, or everything he loves, including his wife and children. Yet upon death a person loses absolutely everything.93 While a person might deem himself or herself unattached, sometimes the heart has unyielding attachments to something that one realizes only upon losing it. For this, Ghazālī relates a scenario that brought fascination to the men of his day: A man might sell his slave-concubine and, upon losing her, suddenly realize that he was madly in love with her, feeling so much pain that he wants to be submersed in water or fire to forget, suffering an internal anguish that resembles the anguish of the immediate stages after death for those attached to worldly things.94 One should not suppose that death will bring a sudden cure for all the attachments and ills that exist within the soul. If a person has come to know God, then such knowledge will be magnified and without hindrance when death removes the barriers and the soul’s sight becomes “sharp,” to use a phrase that Ghazālī often borrows from the Qurʾan (Q 50:22). Yet that clarity of sight occurs for everyone upon death, so that the heedless will see very clearly and experience firsthand the full extent to which they have wasted their lives. One should not imagine that, upon death, the soul will suddenly become improved in some ideal way. Using another metaphor, Ghazālī says that if the body is a horse and the soul is a rider, the horse’s death does not mean that the rider becomes infused with knowledge, such that the sackcloth-wearing mendicant (jūlāha) will magically become a master of jurisprudence (faqīh). The horse’s death only means that the rider must walk. The soul will have to use whatever it has of itself; there is only God and the soul, light and the mirror’s ability to reflect, and the knowledge and traits one toiled to gain while alive.95


– Al-Ghazali: The Alchemist of Happiness: Exploring the life and impact of the greatest spiritual and legal philosopher in Islamic history, this film examines Ghazali’s existential crisis of faith that arose from his rejection of religious dogmatism, and reveals profound parallels with our own times. Ghazali became known as the Proof of Islam and his path of love and spiritual excellence overcame the pitfalls of the organised religion of his day. His path was largely abandoned by early 20th century Muslim reformers for the more strident and less tolerant school of Ibn Taymiyya. Combining drama with documentary, this film argues that Ghazali’s Islam is the antidote for today’s terror.

Al-Ghazali – The Alchemist of Happiness (2004) from SAT Admin on Vimeo.

Describing torments beyond the earlier stages of death, Ghazālī provides another allegory (one that does not appear in The Revival) to help the reader grasp how “spiritual hell” can be even more painful than physical hell. (It is a tale that appears in the epistles of the Brethren of Purity.96) The story has been told—Ghazālī narrates—of a king who marries off his son, who had enjoyed much wine on his wedding night. Drunk, he searches for his bride, but veers in the wrong direction. The prince finds a home that he believes to be the place of residence of his new wife. He sees people lying around, all asleep, which would presumably not be unusual after a lively, wine-filled, royal wedding. He searches for his bride among them and comes across one covered in a draping garment, who he figures must be her. The prince notices, upon pulling aside the chador, that her fragrance is lovely, and her use of perfume convinces him that this is his wife. He makes love to her until the morning, sticking his tongue in her mouth. As day arrives, he comes to his senses. He looks around and notices that he is in a Zoroastrian burial tomb. The drunken guests were actually dead bodies. The one he thought to be his bride was an elderly woman who had recently been buried. The perfume was aromatics used on corpses, and the liquids that had come to his mouth from her were the fluids of a decomposing body. Filled with agitation and shame, the prince wants to die, but this is just the beginning. He now realizes that his father, the king, and his host of soldiers will come looking for him. As these thoughts cross his mind, the king and a retinue of his high-ranking generals appear and see him in this state. The prince wishes he could hide beneath the earth to escape his choking sense of disgrace.97

Ghazālī describes a realization brought upon by death, namely, that one has traded one’s lofty birthright—knowing God—for that which is base. It is so base, in fact, that it will later seem disgusting. Regret and shame not only become permanent states of the soul after death, they take on forms and images as real or realer than those seen in life. What happens after death resembles, in a way, Ghazālī’s manner of constructing allegories. Ghazālī aims to capture otherworldly meanings in the more vividly grasped form of storytelling. Form and meaning correspond in these stories; the externalities of things match their internal realities. This is not the case during life, when appearances can veer from reality, but Ghazālī tells us that this is what happens after death. After death, we encounter a symbolic realization of what we have earned in life. We encounter the truth that we have fashioned within ourselves. Hence a person should not fear God in the way one fears an irrational punisher or an irritable judge. Rather, one should fear the most momentous of personal failures: a disappointment of God’s expectations for His most noble creation, the human being. More seriously, one should fear the ultimate solidification of this failure in the afterlife. The cultivation of virtues becomes, in Ghazālī’s eschatology and in the allegories he uses, a terrifyingly critical preoccupation.


1 Hourani, Reason and Tradition in Islamic Ethics, pp. 15–16.

2 Ibid., pp. 16–21.

3 Ibid., pp. 21–2.

4 Ibid., pp. 21. Hourani’s reasons for placing Miskawayh in “normative secular ethics” appear on p. 16.

5 Richard Walzer describes Miskawayh as a “Muslim” who was also a “convert to philosophy,” such that “his arguments in favour of communal prayer and the pilgrimage to Mecca are worthy of his Stoic predecessors.” Walzer, Greek into Arabic, pp. 232, 233–4.

6 Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, p. 190. This refers to the Arabic edition. References to Constantine Zurayk’s translation or notes from that translation will be titled The Refinement of Character.

7 Ibid., p. 9.

8 Adamson and Pormann, “More than Heat and Light,” p. 489.

9 Miskawayh, al-Fawz al-Aṣghar, pp. 67–8.

10 Ibid., p. 109.

11 Zurayk observes that this might be because of the importance placed on liberality (or “generosity”) in Book IV of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. See Miskawayh, The Refinement of Character, p. 198, n. 14. On the other hand, the opposite might be the case: Considering the salience of temperance in Aristotle’s ethics (as opposed to liberality/generosity), Miskawayh might have given it prominence as a cardinal virtue, even though liberality is the more socially applied virtue of the appetitive faculty and thus would be a more consistent choice as a cardinal virtue within his arrangement.

12 Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, p. 27.

13 Ibid., p. 16. It should be mentioned that the terms “soul” and “faculty,” or nafs and quwwa, are often interchangeable in Miskawayh’s treatise, not on account of any slip of the pen, but because he does not wish to enter here the debate about whether the soul has many faculties or many manifestations (ibid., p. 51).

14 Ibid., p. 16.

15 Ibid., p. 27.

16 Ibid., p. 16.

17 Ibid., p. 26.

18 Ibid., p. 85.

19 Bejczy, The Cardinal Virtues in the Middle Ages, p. 163.

20 Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, pp. 93–4. For Miskawayh’s views on true and ultimate pleasure (as opposed to lower, bodily pleasures), see Adamson, “Miskawayh on Pleasure.” Miskawayh’s view in On Pleasures and Pains ( al-Ladhdhāt wa-l-Ālām) echoes that of Aristotle, as Adamson states.

21 Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, p. 18.

22 Ibid., p. 193.

23 Brockopp, “Justice and Injustice.”

24 Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, pp. 117–18.

25 Ibid., p. 125.

26 Ibid., p. 127.

27 Ibid., p. 130.

28 Ibid., p. 131.

29 Ibid., p. 131.

30 Ibid., p. 132. Compare this perspective to that of the Judge in Chapter Ten.

31 Ibid., p. 133.

32 Ibid., p. 134.

33 Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy, p. 194.

34 Fakhry, “Justice in Islamic Philosophical Ethics,” p. 244; see Ghazālī, On Disciplining the Soul (Kitāb Riyāḍ.at al-Nafs), pp. liii, lvii, lxi (Winter’s introduction), as well as p. 17, n. a.

35 Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, p. 51.

36 Ibid., p. 46.

37 Ibid., pp. 39–40.

38 NE 2.1, 1103a, p. 23.

39 Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, p. 40.

40 Ibid., p. 41.

41 Ibid., p. 41.

42 Ibid., p. 42.

43 NE 2.6, 1107a, p. 31.

44 Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, p. 193.

45 Ibid., p. 27.

46 See Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, p. 32. A discussion of Miskawayh’s sources appears in Walzer, Greek into Arabic, pp. 220–32. This resource and others are mentioned by Zurayk in his notes to the translation; see Miskawayh, The Refinement of Character, pp. 198–9, nn. 2 and 3.

47 Galen makes this clear in his “Diagnosis and Cure of the Soul’s Passions.” See Galen on the Passions and Errors of the Soul, pp. 54–6.

48 Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, p. 57.

49 Ibid., pp. 33–4.

50 Ibid., pp. 34–5.

51 NE 2.1, 1103a, p. 23.

52 NE 1.9, 1180b, p. 202.

53 See Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, p. 31. Galen, in his Character Traits, defines the character trait as “a state of the soul that induces someone to perform the actions of the soul without consideration or choice”; see Galen, Psychological Writings, p. 135.

54 Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, p. 31.

55 Ṭūsī, Akhlāq-i Nāṣirī, p. 101.

56 Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, p. 69.

57 Ibid., p. 31.

58 Aristotle, whose line of reasoning about virtue and social context mirrors Miskawayh’s, also says that “a human is a social being and his nature is to live in the company of others.” See Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, p. 115; NE 9.9, 1169b, p. 177.

59 Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, p. 141.

60 Ibid., p. 168.

61 An excellent and more detailed summary of Ghazālī’s life appears in Griffel, Al-Ghazālī’s Philosophical Theology, pp. 19–59.

62 Goodman, Islamic Humanism, p. 112.

63 See, for example, Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn, p. 3:52.31, where his definition of khulq, as well as his discussion of the four faculties, mirror that of Miskawayh. Ghazālī clearly abides by the fourfold humor scheme both in Iḥyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn (p. 4:425.23) and, more clearly, in Kīmīyā-yi Saʿādat (p. 1:87 and, less directly, p. 1:18).

64 Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn, p. 3:49.7.

65 Ibid., p. 3:73.28. Ghazālī’s alternating use of qalb versus fuʾād here indicates the inner heart (qalb) versus the outer covering of the heart (fuʾād), both in the physical and in the spiritual sense. According to Abū Hilāl al-Ḥasan ibn ʿAbdallāh al-ʿAskarī (d. ca. 1010), such usage is not a lexical distinction but one referenced by the “People of Hadith.” See al-ʿAskarī, Muʿjam al-Furūq al-Lughawiyya, p. 433, no. 1742.

66 Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn, pp. 3:73.30, 3:27.24.

67 Ghazālī, Kīmīyā-yi Saʿādat, pp. 1:20–1.

68 Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn, p. 3:59.9.

69 Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, p. 175.

70 Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn, p. 3:59.19.

71 Ibid., p. 3:56.3.

72 Ibid., p. 3:62.3.

73 The above passages appear ibid., pp. 3:55.28, 3:56.5.

74 Ibid., p. 3:65.30.

75 Ibid., p. 3:76.11.

76 Ibid., p. 3:51.19.

77 Ghazālī, Majmūʿat Rasāʾil, pp. 554–5. For an alternate English translation see Khalidi, Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings, pp. 80–1.

78 Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn, p. 3:72.29.

79 Ibid., p. 3:63.18.

80 Ibid., p. 3:60.21.

81 Ibid., p. 3:64.10.

82 Ibid., pp. 3:44.25–45.1.

83 Ibid., p. 3:29.22.

84 Ibid., p. 3:14.10.

85 Ibid., p. 3:11.18.

86 Ibid., p. 3:12.30.

87 Ibid., p. 3:21.3. In Rūmī’s version the roles are switched, and the Byzantines upstage the Chinese by choosing to polish. See MM 1:3467–99.

88 Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn, p. 3:40.18.

89 Bloomfield, “Allegory as Interpretation,” p. 306; see also van Bladel, The Arabic Hermes.

90 Ghazālī, Kīmīyā-yi Saʿādat, p. 1:19.21.

91 Ibid., p. 1:95.4.

92 Ibid., p. 1:105.7.

93 Ibid., p. 1:94.13.

94 Ibid., p. 1:96.6.

95 Ibid., p. 1:91.11.

96 Callataÿ, Ikhwan al-Safaʾ, p. 79. ʿAṭṭār versifies this tale, which he seems to have taken from Ghazālī’s version, as “the Story of the Prince and the Bride,” in Ilāhī-Nāma, pp. 353–5, ll. 5337–81.

97 Ghazālī, Kīmīyā-yi Saʿādat, p. 1:105–6.

Narrated `Abdur-Rahman bin Abu Bakr


We were one hundred and thirty men sitting with the Prophet. The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Have anyone of you any food with him?” It happened that one man had one Sa of wheat flour (or so) which was turned into dough then. After a while a tall lanky pagan came, driving some sheep. The Prophet (ﷺ) asked, ‘Will you sell us (a sheep), or give (it to) us as a gift?” The pagan said, “No, but I will sell it ” So the Prophet bought from him a sheep which was slaughtered, and then the Prophet (ﷺ) ordered that the liver, the kidneys, lungs and heart, etc., of that sheep be roasted. By Allah, none of those one hundred and thirty men but had his share of those things. The Prophet (ﷺ) gave to those who were present, and also kept a share for those who were absent He then served that cooked sheep in two big trays and we all ate together our fill; yet there remained a part of it in those two trays which I carried on the camel.

حَدَّثَنَا مُوسَى، حَدَّثَنَا مُعْتَمِرٌ، عَنْ أَبِيهِ، قَالَ وَحَدَّثَ أَبُو عُثْمَانَ، أَيْضًا عَنْ عَبْدِ الرَّحْمَنِ بْنِ أَبِي بَكْرٍ ـ رضى الله عنهما ـ قَالَ كُنَّا مَعَ النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم ثَلاَثِينَ وَمِائَةً، فَقَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏”‏ هَلْ مَعَ أَحَدٍ مِنْكُمْ طَعَامٌ ‏”‏‏.‏ فَإِذَا مَعَ رَجُلٍ صَاعٌ مِنْ طَعَامٍ أَوْ نَحْوُهُ، فَعُجِنَ، ثُمَّ جَاءَ رَجُلٌ مُشْرِكٌ مُشْعَانٌّ طَوِيلٌ بِغَنَمٍ يَسُوقُهَا فَقَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏”‏ أَبَيْعٌ أَمْ عَطِيَّةٌ أَوْ ـ قَالَ ـ هِبَةٌ ‏”‏‏.‏ قَالَ لاَ بَلْ بَيْعٌ‏.‏ قَالَ فَاشْتَرَى مِنْهُ شَاةً فَصُنِعَتْ، فَأَمَرَ نَبِيُّ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم بِسَوَادِ الْبَطْنِ يُشْوَى، وَايْمُ اللَّهِ مَا مِنَ الثَّلاَثِينَ وَمِائَةٍ إِلاَّ قَدْ حَزَّ لَهُ حُزَّةً مِنْ سَوَادِ بَطْنِهَا، إِنْ كَانَ شَاهِدًا أَعْطَاهَا إِيَّاهُ، وَإِنْ كَانَ غَائِبًا خَبَأَهَا لَهُ، ثُمَّ جَعَلَ فِيهَا قَصْعَتَيْنِ فَأَكَلْنَا أَجْمَعُونَ وَشَبِعْنَا، وَفَضَلَ فِي الْقَصْعَتَيْنِ، فَحَمَلْتُهُ عَلَى الْبَعِيرِ‏.‏ أَوْ كَمَا قَالَ‏.‏
e  : Sahih al-Bukhari 5382
In-book reference  : Book 70, Hadith 10
USC-MSA web (English) reference  : Vol. 7, Book 65, Hadith 294