Happiness in the Qur’an refers to happiness in this world and the hereafter. Happiness in the hereafter, or everlasting felicity, is the ultimate goal of the believer. All the joys that humans experience in this world are a means to ultimate happiness in the next world, and they acknowledge God with gratitude for the blessings granted them.
Happiness that is associated with the word sa’adah in the Qur’an is a permanent state and refers to otherworldly happiness or the happiness of the hereafter. This eternal happiness is mentioned twice in the Qur’an, as an adjective and as a verb. God says:
“The day it comes, no soul shall speak except by His permission. Some of them will be wretched, and some happy” (Qur’an 11:105).
“And as for those who are happy, they will be in Paradise, abiding there so long as the heavens and the earth endure, unless your Lord wills, as uninterrupted giving” (Qur’an 11:108).
The word ata’ (giving) appears 14 times in the Qur’an, and nowhere else is uninterrupted giving mentioned. Thus, we may conclude from this that happiness comes from uninterrupted giving from God, but it does not exclude the happiness from the giving of humans. Divine giving is a result of human giving, which means that when humans give freely they will become the recipients of divine giving. God says:
And give good tidings to those who believe and perform righteous deeds that theirs shall be Gardens underneath which rivers run; whenever they are with fruits therefrom, they shall say, ‘This is the provision we received before’; and they were given a likeness of it… (Qur’an 2:25).
This verse refers to the inhabitants of heaven who remember that they experienced similar provisions in this world. This is the perspective of the inhabitants of paradise, who remember the world. However, since the provisions in the two worlds cannot really compare, it also refers to a state of wonderment. It is therefore clear that the inhabitants of paradise have not forgotten this world. Thus, the giving that people receive in heaven is akin to the provisions that they experienced on earth. This includes the true provisions of the righteous deeds in this world, which is to give freely of one’s possessions and of one’s self, as God states: ‘Go forth in the way of God, lightly or heavily, and strive with your wealth and yourselves in the way of God. That is better for you if you but knew” (Qur’an 9:41).
This kind of happiness, whether of an otherworldly nature or what is akin to it in this world, should be distinguished from mere physical enjoyment (mut’a), which is the pleasure that originates purely from the physical senses. Human beings share the latter form of pleasure with animals, as God states: “As for those who disbelieve, they take their enjoyment and eat as the cattle eat” (Qur’an 47:12). This kind of physical pleasure is short-lived because bodily health and external qualities such as wealth and friends are but transient and cannot provide permanent happiness. Thus, God states: “Are you content with the life of this world, rather than with the hereafter? Yet the enjoyment of the life of this world compared with the hereafter is but little” (Qur’an 9:38). So, happiness in the Qur’an refers to a permanent state in paradise and not a state of mere physical joy in this world.
So the otherworldly happiness is not equal to the joy or happiness of this world. Otherworldly happiness is of a higher order, and cannot be identical to worldly joy. The joys (farah
) in this world, however, are of two types: negative (blameworthy) joy and positive (praiseworthy) joy. Blameworthy joy is worldly joy as God states: “They rejoice in the life of this world, yet the life of this world compared to the hereafter is but a fleeting joy” (Qur’an 13:26). Praiseworthy joy, however, is to enjoy the bounties of God and to be grateful to Him for those bounties. God states: “Say: In the bounty of God, and in His Mercy—in this, then, let them rejoice. That is better than what they hoard (of worldly goods)” (Qur’an 10:58). Thus, if one rejoices in these material bounties purely for the sake of worldly acquisition, then it is a blameworthy joy. However, if one rejoices in it as a gift from God, and for the benefit it brings, then it is a praiseworthy joy.1
As mentioned, people will be held accountable on the Day of Judgment. If they have done good, they will obtain otherworldly happiness, and if they have done evil, they will obtain otherworldly misery. Good people will be given the book of righteous deeds, and they will be happy:
As for him who is given his book in his right hand, he shall say, Come! Read my book! I knew I was going to face my accounting. He shall be in a happy life, in an exalted garden whose fruit-bunches are nigh [to be plucked]. [It shall be said to them:] Eat and drink to your satisfaction in consideration of what you had left in previous days. (Qur’an 69:19-25; see also: Qur’an 56:27-44; 17:71-72; 74:39)
The Qur’an portrays the exalted garden in vivid terms: “God has promised believing men and believing women gardens beneath which rivers flow wherein they shall abide forever and good homes in the gardens of eternity. And God’s pleasure is the greatest. That is the supreme success” (Qur’an 9:72). The believers and the virtuous will have their greatest reward in the pleasure (ridwan
) of God. The faces of the believers on that day will be “fresh with joy and will be looking at their Lord” (Qur’an 75:22).2
Philosophers have reinterpreted the Qur’anic expression Yawm al-Qiyamah (Day of Resurrection) (Qur’an 9:105-109) to mean Yawm al-Sa‘adah (Day of Happiness). Happiness is a key concept in Islamic philosophy and connotes humans' highest striving for eternal happiness in paradise. We earn this supreme happiness through the purification of the soul. All the bounties that God granted us, whether it be wealth, health, or good friends, we employ to assist us in the purification of the self. In the end, we can only achieve the ultimate happiness through God’s Grace. Thus, if we pursue worldly pleasures in moderation and with the proper intention, we serve the immortal soul and not merely our base desires.
Thus, happiness in Islamic philosophical ethics, as expounded by eleventh-century Islamic philosophers, including al-Isfahani and al-Ghazali, concerns two kinds of happiness: happiness in this world and the happiness of the hereafter. The happiness of this world pertains to three aspects: the soul, the body, and the external virtues. The happiness of the soul relates to virtues such as wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. The happiness of the body relates to virtues such as health, strength, and beauty. The happiness of the external virtues relates to virtues such as wealth, status, friends, etc. For Aristotle, these external virtues contribute to the happiness of the soul in this world, and for the Islamic ethicists, they contribute to the happiness of the soul in this world and the hereafter.
For the sake of brevity, I will focus mainly on the external virtues, and particularly on wealth, as it is the primary aspiration in the contemporary age of materialism. Alain De Botton, the Swiss-born British philosopher, argues that the primary driving force today is status, and that wealth is just a means to achieve status. Status makes us famous, influential, and accepted by society. We earn the love of others through high status, and we seek it more than anything else after we have secured our biological needs for food, shelter, and clothing. People of rank are observed by all the world, and everyone is eager to look at them. Rank here is connected to high income and what is owned.3
. Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations
, however, placed self-interest as the primary motive for the division of labor and the economic development that is the consequence of this division of labor. Smith, however, admits that great wealth does not always bring about happiness: “Riches leave a man always as much and sometimes far exposed to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow.”4
For Smith, the belief that opulence will make you happy is an illusion, but it is a necessary illusion as it motivates the tradesman to accept a division of labor for the sake of the greater production of material goods. Smith knew that the key to happiness lies in virtue. His anti-materialist strand of thought is best contained in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where he called for the stoical attitude of self-restraint to temper the excesses of commercial society. It all depends on how one conceives of wealth.
Smith, like the Stoics, knew that it is not wealth that makes one happy, but virtue. Smith belongs to the anti-compassion tradition started by the Stoics, who tend to be indifferent to the misfortunes of this world and the misfortunes of others. Compassion insults the dignity of the person who suffers. The Stoics see Socrates as a true hero, because of his “calm, self-sufficient demeanor in misfortune, his low evaluation of worldly goods.”5
The Stoic repudiation of compassion appears to be hard-heartedness, but it is meant to express the idea of human dignity. The Stoic indifference to the deaths of loved ones should be seen as closely linked to their egalitarian cosmopolitanism. That means that we should have equal concern for all. The problem with compassion is that we attach importance to worldly goods; so if someone loses those goods, we are compassionate because we place value on those goods. Being compassionate does not mean one cannot be merciful. Mercy does not mean that one is not responsible for one’s actions, but one is more tolerant of people’s faults and will plead for mitigation in sentencing, not a verdict of non-guilt.6 Islamic moral philosophers, however, have not been indifferent to the misfortunes of others. While they acknowledge like the Stoics that wealth and other external goods are not the central sources of virtue and happiness, they hold that the basic material well-being of a person is still important, and can contribute to a person’s happiness. They may be Stoic in the sense of accepting Divine Providence, but cannot be indifferent to worldly helplessness. They will call for compassion in the face of losses of truly basic goods, such as life, loved ones, nourishment, and shelter. The Prophets were not indifferent to their own suffering; they expressed their emotions, not out of self-pity, but genuine feelings of loss. Prophet Jacob lost his son Joseph and suffered from grief for many years until he became blind because of his tears. Yet, he knew that these trials were all a test from God, and so never ever despaired of God’s Mercy.
Islamic scholars had a positive view of wealth and other external goods. Ibn Khaldun explains that the wealthy companions of the Prophet ﷺ
and the ascetic-minded Sufis, by contrast, saw wealth not as a means to opulence, but as a means to a higher spiritual end.7
Classical philosophers such as al-Isfahani and al-Ghazali, however, regarded wealth as the lowest value in the scale of external virtues. Friends were more highly ranked in value by these Islamic ethicists than money. Al-Isfahani reminds us that true friends are always there for you, whether in good fortune or bad fortune, but superficial friends are only there in good fortune. The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Count Leo Tolstoy is an excellent illustration of superficial friends. Ilyich, the main character, is more concerned with his status as a high court judge, but at the age of forty-five, he becomes so sick that he loses his appetite and can no longer go to work. It dawns upon him that he will soon die, but his friends no longer come to visit him. He realizes that he wasted his life trying to impress society and that his friends were only there to benefit from his high position and his wealth.
The opportunistic attitude of Ilyich’s friends is a characteristic of materialistic culture, which is now also affecting the Muslim world. We need to reorder our scale of values and place greater value on the soul than the body. Indeed, we do need to fulfill the needs of the body, as we cannot live without food, shelter, and clothing. These are biological necessities. If we cannot fulfill our bodily needs, we will become dehumanized and will turn to crime. This is not a justification for crime, but it partly explains why people beg, borrow, and steal. Fellow citizens should have respect for their basic terrestrial needs. It is a truism that ‘man does not live by bread alone,’ but it is equally true that without bread we cannot live. Abject poverty compels us into a state of vegetative existence.
The Qur’an identifies three goals for human beings, and al-Isfahani places the cultivation of the earth (‘imarat al-ard
) first on the list because production to provide for our needs is a matter of biological necessity.8 We require the crafts of agriculture, building, and weaving for the cultivation of the earth and the fulfillment of our bodily needs. These are fundamental needs, without which worship is not possible, and without which we would not be able to transcend our physical existence. Yet, this is not our higher purpose, which is of a spiritual order. In order to transcend our physical existence, we will have to control our desires by cultivating the virtue of temperance.
A temperate life is a life of frugality, self-discipline, and simplicity through the virtue of temperance, which is nurtured when our intellect predominates over our concupiscent faculty of the soul, namely, our desire. The eleventh-century Islamic ethicists did not promote the obliteration of desire, as they knew it is a very powerful desire and a biological necessity. What they did promote is the moderation of desire through reason and the guidance of the Qur’an. The key virtue is temperance. Our desires are only a means to an end, which is to serve the soul, and the soul is a means to serve God. The problem today is that the soul is more likely to serve desire; thus, the needs of the body have taken priority over the needs of the soul.
For al-Isfahani and al-Ghazali, the external virtues such as wealth, status, and friends are meant to assist ultimately in the cultivation of the soul, and not primarily to serve the needs of the body. Of all the external virtues, wealth is the lowest value. Although we need it, it cannot bring us happiness. It is only a means by which we fulfill our duties to God. Al-Ghazali says people should be financially self-sufficient so that they can give all their attention to the pursuit of knowledge. Thus, wealth and all other external virtues are only a means to an end, not ends themselves. Our focus should be on the justice of the soul, where reason prevails over the body, and the body becomes the servant of the soul and not the soul the servant of the body.
The pleasure derived from material goods is an illusion, and we are like thirsty people who imagine the mirage in the desert to be water: “As to the unbelievers, their works are like a mirage in level ground, which the thirsty supposes to be water, but when he comes close to it, he finds that it is nothing” (Qur’an 24:39).9
Happy are those who see material goods as a divine blessing, and miserable are those who cannot see them as such. These wretched people will be tormented by their attachment to worldliness, as the Qur’an states: “So do not let their wealth and their children win your approval, Allah only wishes to torture them therewith in the present life, so that their souls might depart while they are still unbelievers” (Qur’an 9:55).10
The problem lies in our insatiable desire, and the secret is to control it through temperance. Al-Ghazālī holds that if people discipline their desire (shahwah), they will attain the perfection that is distinctive of their nature, which is the heart’s knowledge of God (ma’rifah). This special perfection is unique to humans and because of it they are able to obtain the higher pleasure:
Know, the happiness of everything—its pleasure, its serenity—indeed the pleasure of everything accords with the needs of its nature. The nature of everything accords with what it has been created for. The eye delights in [seeing] pretty pictures and the ear delights in [hearing] harmonious sounds. Every limb can be described like this. The heart’s distinctive delight is in the knowledge of God, the Most High, because the heart is created from it [divine knowledge].11
Thus, the intuitive knowledge of God (ma’rifah) can only be attained through the purification of the soul, which includes cultivation of the virtues of temperance, courage, and wisdom. However, the knowledge of God and the happiness of the individual can only be attained if these virtues are directed at the happiness of the hereafter.