al-Ghazali: The Seven Obstacles

The Seven Obstacles

The following brief description of the path that the devotee travels in his journey to Jannah (Paradise) is taken from the introduction of Imam al-Ghazali’s Minhaj al-‘Abidin ila Jannati Rabb al-‘Alamin (The Path that the Devotee has to traverse in order to reach the Garden of the Lord of the Universe). This path to Jannah is no more than the devotee’s actual worship and servitude of Allah, the Almighty. However, in undertaking this journey the devotee is confronted with Seven Obstacles which he needs to overcome if he is to accomplish his goal and reach his destination. These Seven Obstacles are:

  1. the Obstacle of Knowledge
  2. the Obstacle of Repentance
  3. the Obstacle of the Barriers
  4. the Obstacle of the Four Distractions
  5. the Obstacle of the Forces
  6. the Obstacle of the Nullifiers
  7. the Obstacle of Praise and Gratitude

Each of these Obstacles marks a stage in the devotee’s spiritual development and progress, and an improvement in his worship and servitude of Allah. It is these Seven Obstacles that Imam al-Ghazali goes on to explain in the rest of his book by devoting a whole chapter to each of the Seven Obstacles. Thus, what is presented here is merely a summary of the devotee’s path of worship and servitude taken from Imam al-Ghazali’s introduction to his book. I hope that through this summarised description of the devotee’s path of worshipping and serving Allah the reader will see his purpose in this transitory life more clearly and direct all his efforts and energies to achieve this single purpose while at the same time asking Allah to guide him to the path of worship and servitude and to help him to continue on it until he has reached his destination.

How It All Begins
(the Beginning of Guidance)

The devotee is first awakened to the idea of worship and to tread its path through a Divine thought planted in his mind and special guidance from Allah. This is what Allah means when He says: “Is he whose heart Allah has opened to Islam and he who is on a light from his Lord (like the one who remains a non-Muslim lost in darkness)”. It is also this meaning that the Messenger of Allah Peace be upon him refers to when he says: “The light (of Allah) when it enters the heart spreads and unfolds”. It was then said to him: ‘O Messenger of Allah, is there any sign by which that can be known?’ So he said: “Yes, detachment from the Abode of Deception (i.e. the present world), turning towards the Abode of Eternity (i.e. the Afterworld) and preparing for death before it descends”.

The Obstacle of Knowledge

Thus, the first thing that crosses the mind of the devotee (when Allah wishes to guide him to Islam) is the following realisation: “I find myself being showered with all kinds of bounties, such as life, ability, intellect, speech and all the other noble attributes and pleasures, as well as being protected from all kinds of harm. Surely, all these bounties have to have been bestowed (on me) by a Bestower who expects me to thank and serve Him … so if I neglect to do that and He ceases to shower me with His Bounties and makes me taste His Punishment and Vengeance since He has sent a Messenger whom He armed with supernatural miracles which are beyond the power and ability of human beings and who informed me that I have a God who is Powerful, Knowledgeable, Living, Willing, Speaking commanding and prohibiting, capable of punishing me if I disobey Him and rewarding me if I obey Him, Knowledgeable of my innermost secrets and what goes on in my thoughts ?and He has truly promised (the obedient Paradise) and threatened (the disobedient with Hell) … and ordered me to adhere to the laws of the Shari’ah”, then it will dawn upon his heart that all of this (i.e. reciprocating Allah’s Generosity with gratitude) is in fact possible since the mind does not see it as being impossible and absurd at all. At this point he begins to fear for himself and is overcome by anxiety.

It is this thought of fear and anxiety that awakens the devotee (from his slumber) and forces him to accept the evidence and renders all his excuses invalid and (it is this thought which) persistently drives him to inquire and investigate. Consequently, the devotee becomes agitated and anxious and looks for a way to rid himself (of this agitation and anxiety) and achieve peace from what crossed his mind or fell on his ears. However, he finds no other way except to search and inquire with his mind into the signs (pointing to Allah’s existence) and to infer from creation the existence of the Creator with the result that he obtains thereby certain knowledge of the Unseen and realises that he has a Lord who has made him duty-bound and who has issued to him commandments and prohibitions.

This is the first Obstacle that confronts him in his path of worship and servitude, that is, the Obstacle of Knowledge, in order that he be knowledgeable and informed about the matter. He, therefore, sets out in search of knowledge (without any delay or making any excuses) by delving into the evidences and through profuse pondering and learning as well as asking the Scholars of the Afterlife who are the Torch Bearers and Guides of the Path, the Shining Lamps of the Ummah (Community), the Leaders of the Imams – benefiting from them and requesting from them a good prayer for success and assistance in overcoming this Obstacle with the Guidance of Allah.

Consequently, he obtains certain and definitive knowledge about the Unseen, namely, that he has only one God who has no consort and who created him and bestowed upon him all kinds of bounties, and that He has made it incumbent upon him to thank Him. Likewise, He has commanded him to serve and obey Him outwardly and inwardly and warned him against Kufr (Unbelief) and all forms of disobedience and decreed for him reward if he obeys Him and eternal doom if he disobeys and turns away from Him. Having reached this point, this knowledge and certainty of the Unseen now motivate him to serve and worship this Beneficent and Munificent Master Whom he sought and found and Whom he now knows after having being ignorant of Him.

The Obstacle of Repentance

However, he does not know how to worship Him nor (does he know) his duties and obligations as regards serving Him inwardly and outwardly. After having already gained this knowledge of Allah – Glorified is He – he now strives hard mustering all his energies until he learns the inward and outward religious duties and obligations incumbent upon him.

After acquiring the knowledge of what is obligatory (upon him vis-?vis his Lord) he continues his quest to worship and serve Allah and becomes absorbed in it. Then he takes a deep pondering look and suddenly finds himself immersed in crimes and committing sins which is the state of the vast majority of people. He then says to himself: “How can I ever embark on serving and worshipping Allah while I persist in my disobedience of Allah and I continue to be soiled and contaminated with it? My first obligation is therefore to repent in order that Allah may forgive me my sins and free me from their shackles and that I be cleansed from their filth and thus be worthy serving Allah. Here, then, the devotee is confronted with the Obstacle of Repentance which he is obliged and compelled to overcome in order that he may realise the true objective behind it. He thus sets about making sincere repentance meeting all of its requirements and fulfilling all its conditions until he surmounts this Obstacle.

The Obstacle of the Barriers

After performing sincere repentance and overcoming this Obstacle he directs himself to the worship and servitude (of Allah) in order that he may get started with it but then he takes another deep pondering look and all of sudden he finds himself surrounded by high barriers each one of which—in its own unique way—bars him from realising his intention to worship (Allah). He ponders (over the matter) and suddenly realises that these barriers are four: worldly life, creation (i.e. people), Shaytan and the ego. He has no choice but to overcome these barriers if he is to realise his goal of worshipping Allah. Here, then, he is confronted with the Obstacle of the Barriers, which he needs to overcome with four things: disengaging from the world , seeking seclusion from people (at a time when crime and corruption are rife) , fighting Shaytan and opposing the ego.

As for the ego it is the toughest and highest barrier of them all since he cannot renounce it (all together), nor can he vanquish it in one go and be rid of it as he does with Shaytan because ego is the riding-animal as well as the instrument. Likewise he cannot strive to bring the ego in harmony with the worship that he sets out to perform or embarks on since the ego is by nature disposed and inclined to the opposite of good like lust with the desire to follow it. Thus, the ego requires to be reigned in by the reigns of Taqwa (God-consciousness) with the aim of having it under his control and not having it run amok and for it to be led by him and not rebel against him so that he uses it in the way of good and righteousness and prevents it from evil and corruption. Thus, he sets out to overcome this Obstacle and seeks Allah’s Aid therein.

The Obstacle of the Four Distractions

After surmounting this Obstacle he returns to continue his quest for worship and servitude just to be confronted by impediments which distract him from properly executing his intention to worship (Allah) and preventing him from availing himself for that purpose as required. He ponders for a moment and finds them to be four in number:

The first is sustenance (rizq) which the ego is now demanding from him, saying: sustenance and livelihood are necessary especially now that I have been deprived of this worldly life and isolated from people, so from where am I getting my livelihood and sustenance?

The second is danger from everything that the ego fears or hopes, desires or detests not knowing whether its well-being or its destruction lies therein for the final state of things is vague and uncertain. So his mind becomes preoccupied with this because it might end up in destruction or annihilation.

The third is difficulties and calamities which afflict him from every angle especially now that he has set himself up to be on the opposing side of creation, fight Shaytan and oppose his ego, for how many lumps (in his throat) does he not have to swallow, how many difficulties does he not have to encounter, how many worries and concerns does he not have to go through and how many calamities does he not have to face?

The fourth is the types of Divine Decree in the form of sweet things and bitter things that befall him time after time while the ego is quick to flare up and quick to succumb to temptation. Here he is confronted with the Obstacle of the Four Distractions which he is required to overcome with four things: Relying on Allah as regards sustenance, placing his affairs in Allah’s Hands as regards danger, exercising patience when calamities befall him and being satisfied when Allah’s Decree comes to pass. He thus sets out to overcome this Obstacle with Allah’s Permission, Guidance and Support.

The Obstacle of the Forces

After having conquered this Obstacle he returns to continue his quest to worship Allah just to find the ego in a state of languidness and lethargy. It does not feel active or motivated to perform any good in the manner it should be performed. Instead it is for ever inclined towards negligence, abandonment, relaxation and apathy, nay it is even more inclined towards evil, extravagance, temptations and ignorance. Hence, he requires a driving force to drive and motivate his ego towards good and obedience, and a repelling force to repel and defend it against evil and disobedience. These two forces are hope and fear. Hope in Allah’s Great Reward and the goodness in what He has promised as regards the kinds of honour (that He will confer on His worthy servants) and calling all that to mind serve as the driving force that will drive and motivate the ego into obeying Allah while fear of Allah’s Painful Punishment and the difficulty in the threats He has made as regards the kinds of punishments and humiliation (that He will mete out to His unworthy servants) serve as a repelling force that will repel and defend the ego against disobeying Allah. This is the Obstacle of the Forces which he is confronted with and which he needs to overcome by bearing these two things in mind. So he sets about overcoming it with the goodness of Allah’s Guidance and ends up conquering it.

The Obstacle of the Nullifiers

After conquering this Obstacle he returns to resume his initial quest to worship (Allah). He does not spot any hindrance nor any distraction and he has found a driving force (behind his worship and servitude) and thus becomes active in his worship and establishes it firmly and embraces it with complete longing and desire making it everlasting. Then he takes another deep pondering look and all of a sudden his worship—for which he had to endure all this—lies exposed to two major destructive forces, viz. showiness and self-conceitedness. Sometimes he would show off his obedience to people and corrupt it in the process and other times he would refrain from doing so and blame himself (for not having showed off) thus aggrandising himself and rendering his worship null and void. Here he is confronted with the Obstacle of the Nullifiers, which he needs to overcome by means of sincerity and purity of intention and remembering Allah’s Generosity and so on and so forth in order to safeguard and secure the good that he has performed. Thus, he sets about overcoming this Obstacle with Allah’s Permission – Glorified and Exalted is He – in all seriousness and with complete caution and vigilance and with the Almighty’s good Protection and Aid.

The Obstacle of Praise and Gratitude

After having completed all of this he is now able to worship and serve Allah as required and is safe from all destructive forces but still he takes another deep pondering look and all of a sudden he realises that he is totally submerged in the Oceans of Allah’s Generosity and Munificence because of the numerous favours and bounties Allah has bestowed upon him such as having granted him Success and Protection and all kinds of Aid and Security. All of sudden he is consumed with fear that he might neglect to reciprocate (all this generosity) with gratitude and appreciation and thus plunge into the abyss of ingratitude and fall from this elevated station—the station of the sincere and pure-hearted servants of Allah, the High and Mighty. Consequently, all these generous favours such as the variety of Benevolence that Allah displayed to him and having looked upon him with favour. Here he is confronted with the Obstacle of Praise and Gratitude and he sets out to conquer it with all the praise he is able to celebrate and all the gratitude he is able display for the numerous favours Allah has bestowed on him.

After having surmounted this Obstacle and having descended he all of a sudden finds himself within reach of his goal and what he has all along strived for. It is not long that he travels before he falls down to the Land of Bounty and the Desert of Longing and Plains of Love.

Thereafter he descends further to the Gardens of Divine Contentment and the Gardens of Geniality leading to the Carpets of Cheerfulness and the Station of Proximity and the Council of Communion and obtaining the Robes of Honour. He delights and rejoices amidst these states being transformed in their goodness for the days he remains (in this world) and the rest of his life – with his person being in this world and his heart in the Next – anticipating more day by day, hour by hour until he tires of the whole of creation and begins to despise the worldly life and yearn for death. As his longing and yearning for the High Assembly become more complete then all of a sudden he is amongst the emissaries of the Lord of the Worlds dispatched to him approaching him with rest and provision, Glad Tidings and Divine Contentment from a Pleased not a Displeased Lord. They carry and transport him with good spirit and complete joy and geniality from this ephemeral abode full of temptation, to the Divine Presence and the settlement of the Gardens of Paradise. He envisions for his weak and poor soul (unimaginable) delight and a great kingdom. There he will meet from his Merciful and Munificent Master – Magnificent is His Mention – Kindness and Compassion, Reception and Proximity, Favour and Honour, the likes of which defy description and expression. Every day he draws closer to the Eternity of eternities. What Great Felicity! What High Power! What a fortunate devotee and an auspicious man and a praiseworthy affair! Absolute Happiness for him and a Beautiful Destination!

We ask and beseech Allah, the Most Kind and Most Merciful – Glory be to Him – to bestow on us this Great Favour and Enormous Bounty and this is not at all difficult for Allah, and not to make us of those whose share thereof is nothing but description, hearsay and empty and idle wishing, and not to make the knowledge that we learn serve as evidence against us on the Day of Resurrection. (We also ask and beseech Him) to guide us all to execute this and carry it out in the manner that He loves and approves of. Indeed, He is the Most Merciful of those who show mercy and the Most Generous of those who show generosity.