Al-Ghazali on Poverty and Abstinence is the thirty-fourth chapter of the Revival of the Religious Sciences. It falls in the section dealing with the virtues. Ghazali here considers two themes dear to Islamic devotional literature: poverty and abstinence. Most authoritative collections of prophetic traditions connect them so closely that merely to love ‘poverty’—the most obvious characteristic of the poor—may be held up as a sign of abstinence. This attitude is traceable to the words of the Prophet Muhammad exhorting the faithful to love the poor and describing this love as a key to heaven. The poor, he taught, shall enter paradise before the rich ‘by five hundred years’. But behind his love of the poor lay his legendary humility.
The life of poverty on which Ghazali expatiates in this treatise refers, in short, to what every devoted follower of the Prophet is meant to adopt, not simply an accidental state of destitution that might befall anyone.
What is true piety? What spiritual infirmities impede the path of poverty? These are the questions that preoccupy him in the Book on Poverty and Abstinence. Here, Ghazali regards the conscious act of abstinence as a supererogatory duty, so long as the devotee does not exchange the spirit of piety for mere form.
Ghazali composed his treatise for two main reasons: to teach the ordinary believer about inner purification, but partly also to dispel a fear expressed by some sceptics that Sufism might trade outward religious observances for moral licentiousness. The result is a rich tapestry of practises, thoughts, concepts and anecdotes drawn from some of the most fascinating figures in the tradition of practical ethics in Islam, a tradition that harks back to the enduring examples of pre-Islamic prophets like Jesus, Moses and Joseph.
Dr Anthony Shaker holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from McGill University and is the author of Thinking in the Language of Reality: Sadr al-Din Qunawi and the Philosophy of Reason. He writes on the philosophical traditions of Islam, contemporary developments around the world, and is a professional consultant and researcher.