al-Ghazzali’s Letter to the Seljuq Vizier

al-Ghazzali’s Letter to the Seljuq Vizier


By Shaykh Jonathan AC Brown

In 504AH/1110CE, the head of the Baghdad Nizamiyya college, ‘Ali Kiya Harasi, died, and Seljuq officials felt that the only suitable replacement would be the great scholar and former rector of the school, Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali. Muhammad b. Fakhr al-Mulk b. Nizam al-Mulk, fully the third generation of his family to serve as Seljuq vizier and call al-Ghazzali to teach, sent word to the aging Sufi master in his native city of Tus. In his response, al-Ghazzali hints that his end is near, giving the vizier one final lecture on the mystical path and the duties of just government before refusing the position. His excuses stem from his devotion to a strictly principled ascetic regime, his obligations to his disciples as well as logistical considerations. Like many of his personal correspondences, al-Ghazzali wrote the letter in Persian. He himself dates it as 504AH, a year before his death. Harasi died in the first month of 504AH, a year and a half before al-Ghazzali. Assuming that the correspondence between al-Ghazzali and the Seljuq officials took place in the months following Harasi’s death, it is probable that al-Ghazzali wrote this letter approximately one year before he died. 

The letter is a fitting end to a great career, as it draws on two traditions of which al-Ghazzali was a master: Islamic mysticism and political counsel. In the letter’s vehement refusal to again associate with the government or participate in scholarly debate, we see how much al-Ghazzali’s attitudes had changed from his days as an argumentative professor at the state-sponsored Nizamiyya. In the letter’s division of mankind into three tiers according to their desire to worship and encounter God, we see how al-Ghazzali expresses the Islamic mystical idiom as it had emerged from the wider milieu of Muslim high culture.

Although such a personal communication written during the last year of al-Ghazzali’s life offers an insightful glimpse into his mindset, this letter was probably not his last composition. His work Iljam al-“awamm “an “ilm al-kalam, a warning about the damage that dialectical theology could wreck when wielded by the uneducated masses, was written a month before his death

Representing a synthesis of various roles al-Ghazzali had played in his life, the letter weaves together the strands of ritual piety, mysticism and Islamicate political ideals. The letter is also a personal testament that sheds light on aspects of al-Ghazzali’s life passed over in grand evaluations of his scholarship. We catch a glimpse, for example, of his family and the nature of his Sufi lodge in Tus.

In general I have transliterated this letter according to Persian pronunciation. Any Arabic portions more significant than Arabic phrases commonly used in Persian have been rendered in italics and transliterated according to the Arabic pronunciation. Al-Ghazzali wrote the letter according to the perennial structure of Persian diplomatic correspondences. I have thus placed the standard
names for the various parts of such letters in small font at the beginning of each section


Text of the Letter :

From the Pinnacle of souls, the Proof of Islam, Sultan of the World’s
Scholars, Master of Unveiling and Inspiration, Advisor to Kings and Rulers,
Guide of Noble Men at large, Imam Mohammad Ghazzali, to the Sultan of
Viziers, Protector of the People, Khawaje [Mohammad b.] Fakhr al-Molk b.
Nezam al-Molk, may God comfort their souls and cleanse their spirits
(ashbahahum) with the pure waters of virtue (bizulal al-afdal), concerning
the refusal to head his madrase in Baghdad and some small moral advices.

Arrenga / Hosn-e Matla

In the name of God, the most Gracious, the most Merciful.
God has said “to everyone there is a direction presided over by God, so
vie in doing good deeds (khayrat)” (Qur’an 2:148). God, may His truth be
magnified, says that no man applies himself to a matter without it being his
objective, his qeble. [O mankind, He says], devote yourself to that which is best
and race to contend with one another in doing so. Now, those who have made
some objective their qeble fall into three groups. The first are the vulgar masses
(“avamm) who are the people of heedlessness (ghaflat). The second are those
elite (khavass) who are characterized by intelligence and perspicacity
(keyasat). The third are the elite of the elite (khass al-khavass), who are the
people of true perception and understanding (basirat).

As for the people of heedlessness, their vision is limited to transient goods,
for they think that the greatest blessings are the blessings of this world which
one harvests by seeking wealth and prestige. They devote themselves to this
quest, and wealth and prestige become the most beloved objects in their eyes
(qorrat al-“ayn). The Prophet, may God’s peace and blessings be upon him,
said: “there are no two wolves let into a pen of sheep more destructive than
the love of money and honor released into the faith of a believer (al-mar”
al-muslim).” So it is that these heedless people have not separated the wolf
from its prey and have not properly distinguished between what is most dear
to them and what brings them the greatest pain (sokhnat al-“ayn). Thus have
they attached dignity to the path of despondency. Of this misfortune the
Prophet once said, “Woe unto the slave of the dinar, woe unto the slave of
the dirham.”10

As for the second group, they are the elite who have grasped [the nature
of] the world through intelligence and perspicacity and are sure of the
superiority of the afterlife. The verse “the life to come is better and more
enduring” (Qur’an 87:17) has manifested itself to them. It does indeed take
some intelligence to realize that eternity is better than obliteration and
annihilation (fana”),11 so they turn their faces from the world and make the
hereafter their qeble. And although these people are at fault for not seeking
only the Absolute Good, they have at least contented themselves with
something better than this earthly world.

As for the third group, the elite of the elite who are the people of truly
perceptive understanding, they realize that everything that is possessed of
good cannot be the ultimate good. Such things are therefore transitory, and no
discerning person is pleased with things that fade (al-“aqil la yuhibbu al-afilin,
based on Qur’an 6:76). They realize that this world and the next are both
created, and they understand that the best aspects of these two realms are the
twin pleasures of eating and conjugal intercourse, both of which animals also
enjoy.12 This could never be a sufficient station [for them], for the Lord and
Creator of the world and the hereafter is greater and more lofty. For [the elite
of the elite] the verse “and God is better and more enduring” (Qur’an 20:73)
has become manifest and they have chosen a place in “an assembly of truth
in the presence of an omnipotent Lord” (Qur’an 54:55), for “the companions
of the garden are ever occupied with joy” (Qur’an 36:55). Indeed the truth of
“there is no deity but God” (la ilaha illa Allah)  has revealed itself to them,
and they have realized that any person who is bound to something, he is the
slave of that object, and it becomes his god and object of worship. This is why
[the Prophet] said “woe to the slave of the dirham.” Everyone whose objective
is something other than God most high, his profession of God’s transcendental
unity (towhid) is neither complete nor free from subtle acts of granting other
than God that place reserved for God alone (sherk-e khaf i). This group has
therefore divided all existence into two opposing groups: God and other than
God. They hold up these two groups against each other, like the two weighing
pans of a balance, making their innermost heart (del) its measure (lesan-e
mizan). When they see their hearts, out of their very nature and obeisance
[to truth] leaning towards the best side, they conclude that “indeed the scale
of good deeds is more heavy.” If they see it tilting away from that side they
conclude “the scale of bad deeds is heavier.” They have realized that whatever
does not pass this test will not pass the test on the Day of Judgment. And just
as the first level were mere vulgar masses (“avamm) compared to the second,
so is the second group mere rabble (“avamm) in relation to the third level; they
do not understand their words and do not grasp the true meaning of gazing
at the face of God most high.


Since the Grand Vizier (sadr-e vezarat), may God most high grant him the
loftiest of stations, calls me from a lower position to a higher one, I also call
him from the “lowest of the low” (asfal al-safilin; Qur’an 95:5) to the “highest
of the high” (a“la al-“iliyyin). The lowest station is that of the first group, and
the highest of the high is that of the third group. The Prophet, may God’s
peace and blessings be upon him, said “he who treats you with beneficence,
repay him with equal treatment.” Yet I find myself incapable of such
reciprocation and am without the means to reply in kind. [The vizier should]
make preparation to move with all due haste from the depths of the masses
(hadid-e dareje-ye “avamm) to the acme of the elite of the elite (beqa“-e [sic!]-
dareje-ye khavass-e khavass).15 For the roads from Tus and Baghdad and any
land to God’s Truth most high (Haqq-e ta“ala) are all one. None is shorter or
longer than the others. As for the path from this position [that you are offering
me], it is [also] no better. In truth, he should know that if he should omit even
one religious obligation (fara”ed ), commit any major sin (kaba”er) from
amongst those things that the sacred law has forbidden, or enjoy one peaceful
night when in all of his realm there is one person suffering injustice, regardless
of what excuse he might proffer, his station would be none other than the
lowest, and he would be counted amongst the people of heedlessness. “Those
heedless ones, certainly they are the losers in the Hereafter” (Qur’an 11:22). I
ask God most high to awaken [the vizier] from the sleep of heedlessness so that
he might look to the morrow before his fate escapes his control.


Having come to the subject of the Baghdad madrase and [my] excuse
(“odhr) for desisting from obeying the direction of the Grand Vizier, it is that
nothing eases the inconvenience [of moving away] from [one’s] homeland and
place of refuge except the prospect of an increase in either faith or worldly
advantage. As for worldly increase, praise be to God’s grace, it has been
removed from [Ghazzali’s heart]. Even if Baghdad were brought to Tus with
no movement on [Ghazzali’s] behalf, its affairs fully arranged and given to
Ghazzali as property, his heart would not heed it. For recognizing this
[temptation] would be the fate of those weak in faith. My remaining days
would be disturbed and no affair would come easily to me. As for an increase
in faith and religion, by my life this does warrant some seeking and movement
on my part. [Indeed,] there is no doubt that to inundate oneself in knowledge
would be much easier there [in Baghdad], that the means to do so would be
much more elaborate and that the number of students there would be much
greater. In the face of all this increase, however, there are excuses and religious
reasons that would fall into ruin, such that this increase could not compensate
for [so great] a loss.

One reason is that there are one hundred and fifty students here busy with
learning and living in pious abstinence (motavarre“). Transferring them [to
Baghdad] and providing means for them [there] would not be feasible. The
hope of having more students in another place is no license to neglect these
students or cause them harm. This would be equivalent to someone who was
responsible for the care of ten orphans leaving them lost and hungry out of
the hope that he could tend to twenty orphans somewhere else.

The second excuse is that, at the time that the noble martyr Nezam
al-Molk, may God sanctify his soul, called me to Baghdad, I was alone and
without family or relations. Presently, because I have such relations and
children, moving them, neglecting them or injuring their hearts would likewise
not be feasible.

The third reason is that since I attained the grave of God’s Intimate (khalil)
[Abraham, in Hebron], may God’s peace and blessings be upon him, in the
year 489 [AH] (it has been almost fifteen years since then,) I have made three
oaths that I have so far fulfilled. The first is that I not accept any Sultanic
money; the second is that I not call on any sultans; and the third is that I not
engage in any scholarly debate. If I were to break this oath my heart and days
[vaqt] here would be greatly disturbed and no religious act would be
accomplished for me. In Baghdad there is no escaping debates, and one
cannot avoid visiting the Caliphal Abode (dar al-khelafe). In that period since
I returned from Syria (Sham) I have not paid a visit to Baghdad, have
surrendered myself to not holding any position and have been in reclusion.
Should I take some job I would not be at peace, for my soul would not be free
denying such reclusion, and this would have its consequences.

Finally, the greatest excuse is that of livelihood. If I do not accept any of
the sultan’s money, and since I have no property or means of sustenance in
Baghdad, the path of livelihood would be closed off to me. Furthermore, this
trifling property here in Tus, which suffices my children only after our
excessive efforts at parsimony and contenting ourselves [with what we have],
would not prove sufficient in our absence from this place. These are all
religious excuses that are very significant to me, although the majority of
people would consider these matters quaint.


In conclusion, since [my] time has drawn long (dowr dur dar keshid), it is
time to bid farewell rather than travel to Baghdad. It is expected from one so
bounteously endowed with good character (makarem-e akhlaq) [like the
Grand Vizier] that he accept these excuses. Also, he should suppose that if
Ghazzali came to Baghdad and then the term [set for his life] set by God
(Haqq), may He be glorified and elevated, also came to pass, plans would
again need to be made for [finding] another teacher. [The vizier] should
consider as if this [had happened] today. Peace be unto him who has followed
God’s guidance. May God (Izad) most eminent adorn the universal minister
(sadr-e jahan) with the essential truth of faith (haqiqat-e iman) which lies
beyond faith’s outward form (surat-e iman) that he might become one of its
Knowers. Praise be to God for His favors, and may His blessings be upon the
Prophet and his family. May God endow us with a loathing for the Abode of
Delusion (dar al-ghurur) and assign us to the Abode of Bliss (dar al-surur)
by His mercy and the breadth of His generosity, indeed He is the most merciful
of those who grant mercy





10. This hadith was a staple in al-Ghazzali’s writings. He also used it in an advice letter to the Seljuq courtier and treasurer Sa‘adat al-Khazin; see Homa’i, 369.

11. This is no doubt a play on words. For al-Ghazzali the obliteration of the self and its union with the Divine, fana”, was the highest aspiration of the mystic. His use of the same word for the bodily death so feared by the masses represents an instance in which Sufis invert the meaning of word as it moves from the level of the common man to the ranks of the initiated.

12. This description correlates with al-Ghazzali’s description of the people veiled by darkness in his Mishkat al-anwar; see Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, The Niche of Lights, trans. David Buchman (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1998), 45.

13. The truth to which al-Ghazzali refers is probably “there is no He except He (la huwa illa huw),” what the great mystic terms the Testimony of Unicity for the Elect (tawhid al-khawass) as opposed to the standard testimony of the masses (tawhid al-“awamm), “there is no deity but God.” The former he deems more befitting God’s unique singularity (fardaniyya); see al-Ghazzali, Niche, 20. The phrase tawhid al-khassa also appears in ‘Abd al-Karim al-Qushayri’s Risala; see ‘Abd al-Karim al-Qushayri, al-Risala al-qushayriyya, ed. Ma‘ruf Zurayq and ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Hamid Bal†aji (Beirut: Dar al-Khayr, 1408/1988), 301; for a more detailed explanation, see ‘Abdallah Ansari al-Harawi, Manazil al-sa”irin, ed. Ibrahim ‘A†wa ‘Awad ([Cairo]: Maktabat Ja‘far al-Haditha, [1977]), 80–82; and Mahmud Abu al-Fayd al-Husayni, Kitab al-tamkin fi sharh manazil al-sa”irin (Cairo: Dar Nahdat Misr, [1969]), 354.

14. The correct English term for the indicator on this type of scale, the equal-armed beam scale, is the pointer. I have rendered lesan-e mizan as ‘measure’ simply because it seems more befitting the spiritually poignant context. For a helpful discussion of the traditional scale used in Islamicate lands; see J. D. Latham, The Interpretation of a Passage on Scales (Mawazin) in an Andalusian. Hisba Manual, Journal of Semitic Studies 23 (1978): 283–290; and “Mizan” in EI 2

15. This sentence must have caused copyists a great deal of trouble. The Farayed-e gheyathi version of the letter features the word “beqa“,” which one can at best translate as “ground” and does not fit the intended juxtaposition of ‘depths’ (hadid) and ‘high’ in the metaphor that al-Ghazzali employs. Jalal al-Din Homa’i’s edition of the letter has the word “refa“,” a word that does not actually exist but seems to indicate ‘heights,’ instead of beqa“. This is most probably a confused but benevolent copyist’s attempt to restore the overall stylistic balance of the sentence. Fortunately, al-Ghazzali uses the same metaphor in his Mishkat al-anwar. There he describes how the gnostics (“arifun) rise from the ‘depths of metaphor (hadid al-majaz) to the elevation ( yafa‘) of the Real (al-haqiqa)’; see alGhazzali, Niche, 16. It seems very probable that yafa“ was the original word al-Ghazzali used in the letter, and that a copyist mistook this rare word for beqa“.

16. Al-Mas‘udi noted a horde of Persian texts dated 113/[731–2]. Ihsan ‘Abbas feels that this may have included the “Ahd Ardashir, the political wisdoms of the great Sassanid ruler Ardashir. At the very latest this work entered the Arab-Islamic corpus by 218/[833–4]; see Ihsan ‘Abbas, ed., “Ahd Ardashir (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1967), 33–4.

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