The docudrama Al-Ghazali – The Alchemist of Happiness brings the life and times of this pivotal figure from Islamic history to the screen, with a mixture of interviews, modern day explorations of the places he lived and dramatised re-enactments of events from his life.
A Brilliant Scholar
Known as Hujjat al-Islam, the Proof of Islam, and the Mujaddid, [religious renewer] of his age, al-Ghazali has had a great impact on the Islamic scholarly and spiritual tradition. Originally from Khorasan, he was recognised for his prodigious scholarship and called the “Brilliance of the Religion” by Nizam al-Mulk, the Seljuk vizier, and in 1091 was given a coveted position teaching at the Nizamiyya madrasa in Baghdad. A few years later he had a crisis, feeling that his high position and worldly concerns were having a disastrous effect on his soul. Unable to teach any more, he left Baghdad to make Hajj and didn’t return for over ten years. His well-known books include the Ihya’ Ulum al-Din, Deliverance from Error, and the Alchemy of Happiness.
Beginning as a student of knowledge after his father dies, al-Ghazali goes on to study in Nishapur under al-Juwayni, the most outstanding Muslim scholar of his day. Al-Ghazali had an insatiable curiosity about the nature of things, that led him to question everything sincerely, and eventually to reject hypocrisy he saw in the scholarship of his time.
An Inquiring Mind
The interviewees talking about al-Ghazali in the documentary include Hamza Yusuf, Seyyid Hossein Nasr and Abdal Hakim Murad. Commenting on al-Ghazali’s inquiring mind, Hamza Yusuf explains some of the conclusions he came to related to knowledge itself, “We can’t deny the knowledge of the senses, but he recognised that the knowledge was something that we could be deluded into thinking…and he realised that just as he had discovered that the sensoria were not infallible sources of knowledge, that the intellect could also be in a deluded state.”
During the time of al-Ghazali, as now, there were some narrow-minded interpretations of religion that strayed into zealotry. Abdal Hakim Murad says that “Ghazali repeatedly makes the point that one of the main veils that keeps people from seeing God is religious fanaticism… it’s necessary to be orthodox, but whatever you do don’t turn into some kind of zealot, so that religion just becomes a way of feeling that you’re better than everybody else.”
A Spiritual Crisis
Al-Ghazali’s words are used to narrate his life story in the documentary. He tells how after some years as the head of theology at the Nizamiyya college in Baghdad he became disillusioned by what he saw: “I was distressed by what was going on in the capital of the empire. I decided to speak out, and I condemned the hypocrisy of those surrounding the Caliph. I was critical of Islam’s religious and political leaders.” This leads to a spiritual crisis where he questions his extravagant lifestyle. “Despite my success, my wealth and my status, my doubts returned, not in what I believed but in the way I was living my life, surrounded by great material wealth.” Eventually he is unable to go on, and unable to even speak to give his lectures any more due to his distress at his own lack of spiritual alignment. “I examined my motives and realised that my work was not driven by a pure desire for the things of God. Instead I was motivated by the desire for an influential position and public acclaim.” This led to him leaving behind his life in Baghdad and travelling for many years, living incognito and seeking solitude in order to find his soul’s purpose.
Al-Ghazali – The Alchemist of Happiness is a refreshing look at al-Ghazali’s life, bringing the events of his day to life through historical dramatisations, and finding the relevance in his experiences and realisations in the challenges we face today, through the juxtaposition of shots from director Ovidio Salazar’s journey in the footsteps of al-Ghazali. Uplifting and atmospheric music by Dirk Campbell and Danny Hamza Thompson accompanies the scenes set both in the modern world and in the times of al-Ghazali.
Al-Ghazali’s book The Revival of the Religious Sciences has had a major impact on Islamic thought throughout the centuries and is still felt to this day. A new highly acclaimed project, explaining his ideas of the inner meanings of outward practices to children has been underway for the last few years, and is now being taught around the world. Al-Ghazali – Polishing the Heart is a documentary about the Ghazali Children’s project, with teachers, parents and children discussing its transformative effects.