By Shazia Ahmad
I came across Risalat Sharh as-Sadr at the Dar as-Salaam Bookstore in Cairo a few months ago. It was a tiny booklet hidden away on a corner shelf, tucked in-between much larger volumes, as if it was patiently waiting to be discovered. It drew my attention because it was a small work written by the esteemed Imam Al-Ghazali, rahimahullah (may Allah have mercy on him), author of the magisterial Ihya Ulum ad-Din (Revival of the Religious Sciences), spiritual master and scholar, and the individual who has been historically credited with merging the outward and inner sciences of Islamic law.
Due to its brevity I assumed that the booklet was an excerpt taken from one of Imam Al-Ghazali’s more substantial works. With further study, however, I came to see that it was in fact an independent text, and was actually a short letter of advice and wisdom on preparing for death. The letter was written in a concise and almost simplistic style, though the message imparted was one of great spiritual depths. I found it very appealing, and thought almost immediately that it would be a beautiful work to translate.
I have attempted to do so in the following pages, and I hope that the author’s wisdom and eloquence has penetrated through the transformation from Arabic to English. I ask Allah Most High to accept this effort from me, and I seek His forgiveness for any mistakes I may have made in writing it.
The phrase sharh as-sadr is a common Arabic expression used to refer to a spiritual expansion of the heart or chest that gives rise to inner enlightenment, tranquility, and relief from anxiety and worry. It is a phrase that is used in a number of places in the Quran. When going to face the Pharoah and convey to him the message of Islam, the noble prophet Musa (alayhis salaam) prayed to Allah, “My Lord, expand for me my chest, ease my task for me, and remove the impediment from my speech so that they may understand what I say.” (Taha, v. 25-28) In reminding the Prophet r of the great blessings He had bestowed upon him, Allah says, “Have we not expanded for you your chest?” (Al-Inshirah, v.1) Imam As-Sabouni says in explanation of this verse:
“His chest was expanded with true guidance, faith, and the light of the Quran. Ibn Kathir states that [the phrase sharh as-sadr means] ‘We have filled your chest with light and made it expansive and unconfined.’ And just as Allah has made the Prophet’s r chest expansive, He has made His Shar’ (Law) generous, tolerant, easy, and without difficulty or narrowness.” (Safwat at-Tafaseer, pp. 553-554).
Imam Al-Ghazali entitled his letter Sharh as-Sadr because properly preparing for death is a means of attaining that spiritual expansion, illumination, and comfort. May Allah make us among those who experience that state, and who ready and beautify themselves properly for the journey to His Divine Presence, Ameen.
[I begin] with the name of Allah, Most Merciful, Most Loving. We rely on Him, and seek help from Him alone. All praise is due to Allah, and may blessings be upon the Messenger of Allah Muhammad, his family, and his companions one and all.
Allah the Exalted said,
أَفَمَنْ شَرَحَ اللَّهُ صَدْرَهُ لِلْإِسْلَامِ فَهُوَ عَلَى نُورٍ مِنْ رَبِّهِ فَوَيْلٌ لِلْقَاسِيَةِ قُلُوبُهُمْ مِنْ ذِكْرِ اللَّهِ أُولَئِكَ فِي ضَلَالٍ مُبِينٍ
“Is one whose chest Allah has opened to Islam [sharaha Allahu sadrahu] so that he has received light from his Lord (no better than one hard-hearted)?” (Az-Zumar v. 22)
The Messenger of Allah r was asked about sharh as-sadr and he said, “It is a light cast into the heart by which the chest is opened and expanded.”
He was asked, “Is there a way of recognizing one who possesses that light?”
He r responded, “Yes. [Such people can be recognized by their] indifference towards the abode of delusions [i.e., the life of this world], their constant turning towards the abode of eternity [the hereafter], and their preparation for death before it arrives.”
He was asked, “How does one prepare for death?”
He r said, “Those of you who remember it the most are the best prepared for it.”
You have asked – may Allah grant you success – about readiness for death, and the conditions and means [of attaining that spiritual state]. When is a servant (of God) ready for death? What should one strive to achieve so that he or she is fully prepared for this path?
Know that death is an expression used for the journey from this world to the Divine Presence, for to Allah is the ultimate return. Anyone traveling to a royal court is in need of three things for his journey: a severing of the ties that keep him from advancing; a preparation of provisions for the road; and an acceptable gift for the king, to present to him and by which to attain his pleasure. Similarly, the traveler journeying to the Divine Presence is in need of three things: preparation of his provisions, a cutting of ties, and the offering of a gift.
The traveler’s provision refers to a deep consciousness of God [taqwa]. Allah says, “…And take a provision with you for the journey, but the best of provisions is taqwa.” (Al-Baqara, v. 197)
The cutting of ties means a severing of the heart from the pleasures of this world. This is what was meant by the Prophet’s r words, “an indifference towards the abode of delusions”.
The gift to be presented to the King is love, the origin of which is in true gnosis [ma’rifah] and faith [iman].
We will explain these three essential matters in further detail.
1. Provisions for the Road:
There is no provision for the journey to the hereafter except taqwa. Taqwa means obeying the commandments of Allah Most High and avoiding that which He has prohibited to such an extent that one fulfills all of Allah’s commandments and remains far removed from all of His prohibitions.
If one has always done so, then this is a type of excellence and inner strength that is without equal. If, however, a person has some deficiencies in this matter, then he or she will not be ready [for the hereafter] except by rectifying them. This can be done by analyzing and reflecting on one’s state from when one first reached the age of legal responsibility [bulugh]. The servant must then busy himself with making up for what has passed, and seek to correct those matters in which one had erred.
In regards to the commandments of Allah, the servant should begin with the fundamental pillars of Islam, such as the ritual prayer, the poor-due and the pilgrimage. If one finds a shortcoming in his or her performance of one of these acts, one should seek to remove the burden of responsibility from oneself by making up for them. One should continue doing so until he or she is certain that no obligation remains undone.
As for the prohibitions, [they are of two types]. The first type is entirely related to the rights of Allah [and not the rights of other people], such as fornication, drinking alcohol, listening to musical instruments, and engaging in [other] forbidden acts. [Disobeying a prohibition of this type] can be remedied by sincerely repenting, feeling intense regret for the sin, seeking Allah’s forgiveness and pardon, and resolving strongly and with determination to never return to it again. [Know that] sincere repentance is a remedy for every sin, and a penitent person is like one who has not sinned at all.
The second type of prohibition is related to the rights of other servants, such as wronging someone in terms of wealth or reputation. [Violating a prohibition of this type] can be rectified by giving the oppressed person back his or her due right. The servant should seek to do this in all of one’s dealings with others, and should scrutinize personal relationships carefully [to make sure that one has not been unjust to others].
One should seek to liberate himself from others’ rights upon him by returning what is in one’s possession of their wealth, compensating for what one may have consumed from it, and making amends for backbiting or speaking ill of others. This type of harmful speech is a great wrong, and a person cannot be freed from it except by [seeking the pardon of] the oppressed. The servant must ask forgiveness from every person he has harmed in his life through backbiting or other hurtful words. If a person who has been wronged refuses, then one should be kind to him so that his heart will eventually lean towards forgiveness.
If the oppressed person passes away or becomes otherwise unreachable, the servant should increase in good deeds until he has performed an amount that he believes would be sufficient for the oppressed if it went to him on the Day of Judgment.
Know that sufficient provision for this journey is in obeying Allah’s commands, abstaining from His prohibitions, and striving to perform numerous extra good deeds. Good works are a means of elevating one’s spiritual rank. The more good deeds one performs, the more one increases in safety and faith.
In conclusion, provision for this journey consists of commission or omission of acts in accordance to Allah’s commands and prohibitions.
2. Severing the Ties that Prevent One from Advancing
A traveler may be tied down by his or her debtors, as if they were holding on to the very tails of his clothing and preventing him from moving towards his destination. In order to advance on his journey, the traveler must [free himself from them] and break all ties with them.
Similarly, the attachments that prevent one from journeying towards the hereafter are numerous. Yet all of them are connected to the love of this world, longing for it, and the inclination of the lower self towards it.
One who has no beloved in this world is completely ready for death. One who loves someone in this world, but finds that the love for Allah is stronger and more intense in his heart is also ready, though his level is not like that of the former.
A sign that a servant has true love for Allah is that he or she does not have any feeling of dislike towards death, no matter when it may come. An aversion to death is a sign that this world and one’s status in it is more beloved to a person [than meeting Allah in the hereafter]. One who dislikes death because he has not yet rectified the wrongs he has committed against others or overcome weaknesses within himself may be excused for his dislike, however, this servant cannot be considered ready [for the journey ahead]. One who is ready would have already exerted himself in these matters, and would not have left any task undone that would distract and busy his heart.
Disconnecting one’s heart from the life of this world is not fully achieved unless one also possesses a balanced character and a sound and upright heart. This occurs by purifying the heart from ostentation, envy, hatred, arrogance, and all of the negative qualities that we have mentioned in our work al-Muhlikaat (in the third section of Ihya Ulum ad-Din). These are the ailments of the heart [that must be cured], for an ill person is not one prepared for travel.
It is not a requirement that the servant be entirely free of these negative qualities, but that they remain weak inside a person and are not intensified by actions or words that are contrary to the path of God-consciousness. The Prophet r said: “The child of Adam will never be safe from three things: envy, fearing evil omens, and having bad opinions of others. I will inform you of a means of escaping from them. If you feel envious towards someone, do not seek to attain what he or she has. If you observe an omen said to be evil, continue without any change in your behavior. And if you think ill of someone, do not try to confirm your thoughts [by discussing them with others.]”
Thus removing these elements entirely from one’s inner self is not a necessary condition for being saved. It suffices that one does not manifest them by acting in accordance to them. A balanced character is what is really essential, and is what is meant by the expression khuluq al-hasan. One does not attain such character except through struggle, hard work, and recognition of the areas in which one has been self-deluded.
All of the [negative] qualities we have mentioned here are produced by love of this world. If a servant realizes that the hereafter is better and everlasting he or she would certainly prefer it over the life of this world. Such a realization is a fruit of this knowledge, and such knowledge is what comprises the branches of faith.
3. Presenting a Gift to Allah Most High
The gift [that a traveler to the hereafter should prepare to present to the Divine] is faith [iman] that engenders love for Allah Most High. We mean here by faith a gnosis [ma’rifa] that overwhelms the servant completely and overtakes his heart entirely, until it is as if the servant actually sees Him. Faith then becomes something vital to the heart, persistent and constant in it, to such an extent that nothing comes to the servant’s mind except Allah, neither in deeply-rooted thoughts nor in fleeting ones. [A constant awareness and focus on Allah, to the extent that not even a fleeting thought enters one’s mind] is the highest state [of faith].
The first [and lowest] level of faith is like believing that someone named Zaid is inside a house because one has been told so by a person one trusts. The second level is like believing Zaid is inside because one hears the sound of his voice. The third [and highest level] is like actually seeing him. Each level produces an increased amount of happiness and delight [for the servant, as compared to the one lower than it]. These feelings cannot be precisely described [but can only be experienced with the heart]. Such are the varying degrees of faith.
As for the branches of faith, they are numerous, while its roots are three: to have belief in Allah, belief in the Last Day, and belief in the truthfulness of the Messenger of Allah r.
Complete faith in Allah includes belief in His attributes as they are elucidated in the Quran without being combined with innovations, uncertainty, wavering or doubt. One should believe that He has perfect knowledge and absolute ability, that His will is always realized and effectual [with no exceptions],and one should affirm with certainty whatever one can of His noble attributes.
One should believe in regards to the Last Day that one will be recompensed in accordance to one’s actions, rewarded for obedience [to Allah] and punished for disobedience. [If one understands and believes this,] then this suffices for the servant, and it is not obligatory upon him or her to know more details [of the Day of Judgment than this].
One should believe that the Messenger of Allah r was truthful in everything that he taught. If one believes in this, even if one does not know his r teachings in detail other than what is obligatory, it suffices for the servant.
This is what it means to prepare for death; and Allah grants success to those who seek to ready themselves [for the journey ahead].
To Allah belongs success and protection. All praise is due to Allah in the beginning and the end, and may peace and blessings be upon the Noble Messenger Muhammad, his family and companions.
This letter was completed by Allah’s help and good favor, and may blessings be upon Muhammad and his family.