Al-Ghazali and the Golden Rule: Ethics of Reciprocity in the Works of a Muslim Sage
Published: March 20, 2017 • Updated: May 30, 2023
Author: Justin Parrott
بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ
In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
Al-Ghazali and the Golden Rule
Al-Wadūd—The Loving-kind—is one who wishes all creatures well and accordingly favors them and praises them. In fact, love and mercy are only intended for the benefit and advantage of those who receive mercy or are loved; they do not find their cause in the sensitiveness or natural inclination of the Loving-kind One. For another’s benefit is the heart and soul of mercy and love and that is how the case of God—may He be praised and exalted—is to be conceived: absent those features which human experience associates with mercy and love yet which do not contribute to the benefit they bring.
If God wishes benefit for all of his creatures, then it logically follows that a worshiper should also wish benefit for God’s creatures in accordance with the golden rule:
One is loving-kind among God’s servants who desires for God’s creatures whatever he desires for himself; and whoever prefers them to himself is even higher than that. Like one of them who said, ‘I would like to be a bridge over the fire [of hell] so that creatures might pass over me and not be harmed by it.’ The perfection of that virtue occurs when not even anger, hatred, and the harm he might receive can keep him from altruism and goodness.
[The first is] that you make your relations with God the Exalted such that were a servant of yours to behave thus with you, you would be content with him and not weary of liking him, nor get angry. Whatever would dissatisfy you for yourself on the part of this hypothetical servant of yours, should dissatisfy you also for God the Exalted, and He is actually your Lord!
[The second is] whenever you interact with people, deal with them as you would wish yourself to be dealt with by them, for a worshiper’s faith is incomplete until he wants for other people what he wants for himself.
The envier is one who is distressed by God Almighty’s bestowal of blessings from the treasures of his omnipotence upon a servant among his servants, such as knowledge, wealth, love in the hearts of people, or any kind of fortune, to the point that he loves for them to be taken away… Rather, the worshiper will not reach the reality of faith as long as he does not love for all Muslims what he loves for himself. Rather, he should join with the Muslims for better or for worse. For the Muslims are like a single structure whose parts strengthen each other, or as a single body; if one of its limbs complains, the entire body complains.
Indeed, [arrogance] becomes a veil over Paradise as it sets up a block between the servant and the character traits of the believers entirely. These character traits are the gates of Paradise, and arrogance and self-pride close all of these gates as he will not be able to love for the believers what he loves for himself while within him is something of pride. He will not be able to be humble, although it is the head character trait of the God-fearing, while within him is pride. He will not be able to leave malice while within him is pride. He will not be able to always speak the truth while within him is pride. He will not be able to leave anger while within him is pride. He will not be able to suppress his rage while within him is pride. He will not be able to leave envy while within him is pride. He will not be able to give kind advice while within him is pride. He will not be able to accept advice while within him is pride.
I never debated anyone and loved for him to be wrong. And he said: I never spoke to anyone except that I loved for him to be guided, to be given direction, to be supported, and for the protection of God Almighty to be over him and preserve him. And I never spoke to anyone and cared whether God clarified the truth on my tongue or his tongue.
And among [the evils of polemics] is joy by what is bad for people and despair by their happiness. Those who do not love for their brother Muslim what they love for themselves are far away from the character of the believers. For all who seek to boast by the display of superiority will inevitably be pleased by what is bad for his peers and rivals, those who seek to surpass his superiority. The hatred between them is like that between co-wives.
All by which the dealer harms others is injustice. Indeed, justice is to not harm his brother Muslim and the entire standard for it is that he should not love for his brother except what he loves for himself. For if anything in his own dealings would cause hardship for himself and heaviness over his heart, then he should not deal with others the same way. Rather, he should consider his own money (dirhams) equal to the money of others.
Some of them said, ‘Whoever sells his brother something for a dirham and he would not buy it himself except for five-sixths of a dirham (khamsah dawāniq), then he has departed from the good will with which he has been commanded in his dealings and he has not loved for his brother what he loved for himself.’ This is the whole of it.
They understood it is part of sincerity (al-nuṣḥ) that one should not be pleased for his brother to have except what pleases himself. They did not believe it was [merely] virtuous and an increase in [spiritual] ranks. Rather, they believed it was a condition of Islam within their pledge to him.
Know that the faith of a person is not complete as long as he does not love for his brother what he loves for himself. The least degree of brotherhood is that he treats his brother as he would love to be treated by him. No doubt, he expects him to cover up his defects and to be silent about his faults and shortcomings. Were he to display the opposite of what he expected, his anger and rage for him would be severe. How far away from fairness he would be if he expected from him what he himself divulged and determined not to do for his sake!
[Among his rights are] prayer for his brother in his life and after his death for everything that he loves for himself, his family, and everything related to him. Thus, you pray for him as you pray for yourself, without distinction between yourself and him. Indeed, your prayer for him is a prayer for yourself in reality.
On the whole, he should treat him [his companion] the way he would love to be treated by him. For whoever does not love for his brother what he loves for himself, then his brotherhood is hypocrisy and the ruinous consequence will be against him in the world and in the afterlife.
Know that it is not only the right of the neighbor to be free from harm. Rather, harm should be endured… It is also not enough to endure harm. Rather, he must be gentle and offer charity and good conduct.
Ibn al-Muqaffa’ heard that a neighbor of his was selling his house because of a debt that burdened him. He was sitting in the shade of his house and he said, ‘I have not respected the sanctity of the shade of his house if he sells it to fulfill the debt.’ Thus, [Ibn al-Muqaffa’] paid the price of the house to him and told him not to sell it.
And one of them complained about the abundance of rats in his house. It was said to him, ‘If only you had a cat!’ So [Ibn al-Muqaffa’] said, ‘I am afraid that the rats would hear the voice of the cat and flee to the house of the neighbors, for then I would have loved for them what I do not love for myself.’
And to pardon one who does wrong and to be good to one who does evil is among the character traits of the truthful. Indeed, benevolence may be shown to the one who wrongs you, but as for one who harms another and disobeys God by it, then he should not be shown benevolence because benevolence to the wrongdoer is evil to the wronged. And the right of the wronged is to be considered first, and to strengthen [the innocent’s] heart by turning away the wrongdoer is more beloved to God than strengthening the heart of the wrongdoer. As for when you yourself are wronged, then benevolence, pardon, and excuse is within your right.
For in gentleness and looking with the eye of mercy to the creation is a type of humility, and in harshness and turning away is a type of rebuke. The one to consult is the heart. So whatever he sees is inclined to his caprice and in accordance with his [sinful] nature, then the first thing is to oppose it; whether his contempt and harshness had been out of pride, vanity, enjoyment of showing superiority and taking liberty with righteousness, and whether his gentleness had been out of flattery, to persuade [the wrongdoer’s] heart by it to arrive at some purpose, or the fear of the effect of his disaffection and aversion on his status or wealth by a suspicion likely or unlikely. And all of that is due to the signals of Satan and is far from the deeds of the people of the Hereafter.
1 Hertzler, J O. “On Golden Rules.” The International Journal of Ethics. 44.4 (1934): 418.
2 Neusner, Jacob, and Bruce Chilton (eds.). The Golden Rule: The Ethics of Reciprocity in World Religions. (London: Continuum, 2008), 99.
3 Smart, Ninian. Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 11.
4 Wattles, Jeffrey. The Golden Rule. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 5.
5 Volf, Miroslav, Ghazi bin Muhammad, and Melissa Yarrington (eds.). A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor. (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2010), 3; see also www.acommonword.com.
6 Sūrat ‘Āli `Imrān 3:64; Abdel Haleem, M. A. S. The Qur’an: English Translation with Parallel Arabic Text. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 59.
7 El-Ansary, Waleed A, and David K. Linnan. Muslim and Christian Understanding: Theory and Application of “A Common Word”. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 7-11.
8 al-Dhahabī, Muḥammad A., and Shu’ayb Arnā’ūṭ, et al. Siyar A’lām al-Nubalā’. (Dimashq: al-Risālah al-‘ālmiyah, 2014), 19:322.
9 al-Kāshī, Fayḍ M. M., and ‘Alī A. Ghaffārī. Al-Maḥajjah al-Bayḍā’ fī Tahdhīb al-Iḥyā’. (Ṭihrān: Maktabat al-Ṣadūq, 1939).
10 Abul Quasem, Muhammad. The Ethics of al-Ghazali: A Composite Ethics in Islam. (Petaling Jaya: Quasem, 1975), 43.
11 Hourani, George F. Reason and Tradition in Islamic Ethics. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 166.
12 Sūrat al-Burūj 85:14; Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an, 591.
13 al-Ghazzālī, David B. Burrell, and Nazih Daher. The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God: Al-Maqṣad al-Asnā fī S̲h̲arḥ Asmā’ Allāh al-Ḥusnā. (Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 2011), 118-119.
14 Neusner, Jacob, and Bruce Chilton (eds.). Altruism in World Religions. (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2005), 74.
15 al-Ghazzālī, and Tobias Mayer. Letter to a Disciple: Ayyuhā’l-Walad. (Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 2005), 56.
16 Luke 10:27; Coogan, Michael D, Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins. The New Oxford Annotated Bible: With the Apocrypha. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 1851.
17 al-Ghazzālī, and Timothy Winter. On Disciplining the Soul = Kitāb Riyāḍat al-Nafs, & On Breaking the Two Desires = Kitāb Kasr al-S̲h̲ahwatayn: Books XXII and XXIII of the Revival of the Religious Sciences = Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn. (Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 1995), 68.
18 al-Ghazzālī, and ‘Abd H. M. Darwīsh. Bidāyat al-Hidāyah. (Bayrūt: Dār Ṣādir, 1998), 131.
19 al-Ghazzālī, and ‘Abd Q. S. ‘Aydarūs. Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn. (Jiddah: Dār al-Minhāj lil-Nashr wa-al-Tawzī’, 2011), 6:491-492.
20 Ibid., 1:99.
21 Ibid., 1:173.
22 Ibid., 3:292.
23 Ibid., 3:296.
24 Ibid., 3:323.
25 Ibid., 3:308.
26 Abul Quasem, The Ethics of al-Ghazali, 212.
27 al-Ghazzālī, Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn, 4:88-89.
28 Ibid., 4:102.
29 Ibid., 4:103.
30 Ibid., 5:525.
31 Ibid., 4:121.
33 al-Ghazzālī. Bidāyat al-Hidāyah, 163.
34 Abul Quasem, The Ethics of al-Ghazali, 214.
35 al-Ghazzālī, Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn, 4:150.
36 al-Ghazzālī, Jay R. Crook, and Laleh Bakhtiar. The Alchemy of Happiness (Kimiya al-Saadat). (Chicago, IL: Great Books of the Islamic World, 2008), 1:342.
37 al-Ghazzālī, Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn, 4:151.
38 Ibid., 4:163.
39 Ibid., 4:197.
40 Ibid., 4:212.
41 Ibid., 4:215.
42 Ibid., 4:215-216.
43 Ibid., 4:47.
44 al-Ghazzālī, and Anthony Shaker. Al-Ghazali on Intention, Sincerity and Truthfulness = Kitāb al-Niyya wal’l-Ikhlāṣ wa’l Ṣidq: Book XXXVII of the Revival of the Religious Studies = Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn. (Cambridge, U.K.: Islamic Texts Society, 2013), 58.
45 al-Ghazzālī, Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn, 4:56.