Al-Ghazali’s Ethical Order: How to Restore the Fiṭrah through its Understanding


This article deals with the (Neo)-Ghazalian framework pertaining to the internal ethical system of human existence. It seeks to understand how our innate fiṭrah (primordial nature) can get clouded and how can we restore it by comprehending different aspects of ourselves. 

Imam al-Ghazali divides human existence into the following four categories:

  • Rūḥ (Soul/Spirit) 
  • Nafs (Lower Desires) 
  • Qalb (Heart)
  • ‘Aql (Intellect) 

Once we comprehend the true nature and role of these facets of our existence, we are able to achieve a spiritual/psychological balance (or moderation) in our lives. 

  1. The Rūḥ (Spirit): Rūḥ is what you are. It is the essence of your primordial existence. When your body dies in the material world, it is said that you have moved towards the next world, as you are still existing in the Divine immaterial reality. The appointed clothing (body) for your rūḥ in this world has reached its expiry. You do not have a rūḥ; you are a rūḥ. It is the true self, which since its inception, is completely cognizant of the Ultimate Reality and Lordship of Allah. Owing to its God-conscious nature, the rūḥ is the only aspect that is pure of the worldly diseases. 

  2. The Nafs (Lower Desires): Although al-Ghazali further distinguishes the nafs into four categories, we shall only discuss them in the context of lower desires here. It is responsible for all the disliked natural tendencies that impel us to commit evil, e.g., anger, greed, lust, etc. The nafs can be understood as an internal tool of Satan through which he instigates us to act selfishly against God’s law for short-term satisfaction. Persistent obedience of the nafs by the qalb (heart) causes the fiṭrah to become clouded.

  3. The Qalb (Heart): In Islamic epistemology, qalb is not simply the physical organ that pumps blood throughout your body. Qalb is integral when it comes to matters of faith. The qalb deals and interacts with the Revelation from God; it is the spiritual decision-maker for human beings. The qalb governs our spiritual state, as it can incline towards either the rūḥ or nafs. The qalb’s true function is to prefer a connection with the rūḥ over nafs. It is an internal mirror, which if connected to the rūḥ, reflects the light of the Divine Attributes through our good actions. If it becomes covered with dust, when connected to the nafs, it becomes incapable to reflect any goodness or purity. The state of qalb affects our conduct in matters of Islam and Ihsan (spiritual excellence). 

  4. The ‘Aql (Intellect): The definition of ‘aql in Ghazali’s terminology is quite the same as it is today. The ‘aql performs the role of perceiving and interpreting every input through our bodily senses. It seeks to rationalize various aspects of material existence in order to help us live and progress in the dunyā. Most importantly, in the Islamic philosophy of mind, ‘aql is utilized to connect the nafs-inclining qalb to the rūḥ—so that a person may recognize their true Lord and their true self. This is achieved by contemplating and reflecting upon the Signs of God in His Creation, i.e., the universe and one’s own self, and thereby recognizing the Divine Attributes of God, viz. Mercy, Love, Wisdom, Justice, etc. The reflection of ‘aql can help us to cleanse our dusty hearts and let the light of God’s guidance flow through them.

Understanding the Fiṭrah:

The above exposition might have cleared the respective roles of these four elements of our existence. Let’s proceed to understand the relation of these elements in the restoration of fiṭrah and reaching a state of spiritual equilibrium.

At birth, our qalb is completely pure and is integrated with the rūḥ, making us fully cognizant of our Creator and Master. However, over the course of time, by succumbing to the inclinations and demands of our lower nafs—which are often influenced by societal tendenciesthe mirror of our qalb turns dusty. With every moment of sin and heedlessness, the mirror keeps getting dustier and fails to reflectin actionsthe light it receives. We become ignorant of our Lord, and by constantly complying with the demands of the nafs, we unknowingly worship our desires and turn them into our Lords. Owing to such conduct, the innate fiṭrah becomes clouded.

Have you seen he who has taken as his god his [own] desire, and Allah has sent him astray due to knowledge and has set a seal upon his hearing and his heart and put over his vision a veil? So who will guide him after Allah? Then will you not be reminded?

(Qur’an, 45:23)

Consequently, the qalb becomes a fortress for the nafs. Whenever someone claims that they always follow their heart, one should first inspect if the heart is even connected to the right source of guidance, i.e., the rūḥ. It is very possible that what you consider the voice of your heart is merely a mouthpiece for your nafs. If the qalb has lost its connection with the rūḥ—thereby losing the connection with God—and has taken the nafs as its Master, the ‘aql can remove the dust from the qalb’s mirror via reasoning and contemplation (tafakkur) upon the Truth of our Lord and His sole right to be worshipped.

Indeed, it is true that the mirror can also be cleansed via other methods, for example, with the help of another rūḥ-inclined qalb that can comprehend the state of a dusty qalb. However, the ‘aql helps cleanse the qalb by unveiling the wisdom of God and facilitating obedience to His Law. Once we commence our journey of abiding by God’s Law and replace the connection of the qalb from nafs to the rūḥ, we attain a sense of spiritual equilibrium. Thus, a heart that is connected to its true self does not only accept God’s Existence and Wisdom but experiences it through the primordial covenant taken by the rūḥ in its pre-earthly existence.

Work(s) consulted:

Iḥyā′ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn (The Revival of the Religious Sciences), Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazali.

  1. Faisal Khan says

    Your explanation is clear and easy to understand. The emphasis you placed on the balance between worldly and spiritual goals and the importance of virtues, self-control, and self-purification is well-articulated. The way you linked it with the teachings of Quran was also very insightful. Excellent work!

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