The Great Battle

“He surrenders himself to the forces of the devils, and he does not struggle because of his despair of the battle. These are the heedless (ghafilun) and they are the greatest in number.”

Our April/May Book Club read was Book 32 of the Ihya Ulum ud-Deen by Imam al-Ghazali i.e. his book on Patience. It was a fitting read for Ramadan but the lessons and gems extracted from the Imam’s illustrious writings go beyond Ramadan and apply to every moment.

It is impossible to summarise this book in a blog-post and so I urge every person to read the book. I will attempt, however, to pull out some benefits to whet your appetite and encourage you to get your own copy.

The Imam divides the book into various chapters and what is interesting is that he does not begin with a definition of patience, in fact he leaves the definition until Chapter 2. Rather he begins with the merits of patience which builds up the reader’s desire to be patient first and foremost. The Imam’s books are manuals of how to live rather than academic discourses. He brings verses from the Quran first:

And be patient; surely Allah is with the patient!

Quran: Al-Anfal v46

He then follows up with Prophetic narrations:

Patience is half of faith


Finally he brings narratives attributed to the Companions and Righteous:

The pinnacle of faith is patience in the judgement of Allah and contentment with the divine pre-destination.

Abul-darda – the Companion (ra)

Of course the Imam brings a large volume in each of the three categories above and having now stirred the heart of the reader he moves on to the nature and meaning of patience. One quality of the Imam’s writings is that he allows you to visualise everything he talks about – hence the title of this post being “The Great Battle” because he allows us to visualise patience as a battle – but more on this later.

Patience is a characteristic of mankind, and it cannot be imagined to occur in beasts or angels. As for beasts, this is due to their incompleteness. While for angels, it is due to their perfection. The explanation is that the beasts are governed by their appetites, which dominate them. They have no power to oppose or turn appetite back from its desired goal. The power to persevere in confronting the desired goal of the appetite is called patience.

Chapter 2 page 13 Book on Patience

So when we as humans are unable to rein in our appetites – we are essentially beasts i.e. we have fallen short of being human. It’s fascinating to reflect on this in our daily lives when it comes to our appetite to shop, be on social media, listen to music…everything is feeding our appetites – this links back to our previous Book Club read – Dopamine Nation

The Imam distinguishes humans from animals by mentioning our “religious impulse”. So he says,

Let us understand that the struggle and warfare between the religious impulse and the impulse of desire are alternately successful. The battlefield of this struggle is the heart of the servant.

Chapter 2 page 15 Book on Patience

The allusions to battles and warfare are found throughout his book. In this case it is the war which occurs in our heart against our desires/appetites. Sometimes our religious impulse wins, sometimes our desire impulse wins and thus the battle rages back and forth. Like most battles, the more one dominates the more one will be in control. If you are continuously losing in the battle to your desires, the religious impulse will become weaker and less able to be victorious. We then become beasts, fit for nothing but consumption of the dunya and not realising our purpose of creation!

This battle, the Imam says in Chapter 5, is not for the masses. The masses he says are those who are heedless i.e. in a state of ghafla. These are the people who have capitulated to the enemy and are enslaved to their appetites. This is what is alluded to in the title above. The few are those who enslave their appetites rather be enslaved by them – these are the Righteous. The minority, therefore, are those where this battle between good v evil occurs i.e. our religious impulse v our desire impulse.

The Imam then summarises this point by saying;

Patience is the constancy of the religious impulse that opposes the impulse of appetite. The power of knowledge and faith also make the evil consequences of the appetite appear odious.

Chapter 2 page 15 and 16 Book on Patience

An interesting point the Imam brings is that a child is unable to exercise patience, “like the beasts, childhood has only the power of desire…the beginning of the light of guidance occurs upon the age of discernment (7-10) and grows gradually to the age of physical maturity, just as the morning becomes clear when the disk of the sun rises.” Reflect now how the light of guidance is becoming more and more delayed amongst Muslims. How children are becoming physically mature earlier but men and women in their twenties are very immature mentally and nothing but slaves to their desires! The marshmallow test is interesting in children because it makes them choose delayed gratification for a better deal i.e. you can have 1 marshmallow now or if you wait 5 minutes you can have 2. As adults, we are also given this choice by Allah. You can enjoy the dunya or wait till after death and have what no eye has ever seen, no ear has ever heard and no mind has ever conjured – jannah is delayed gratification for those who have patience in the dunya!

Chapter 3 and 4 are very short chapters. Chapter 3 deals with the understanding that patience is half of faith and the Imam breaks this down by alluding to patience on doing righteous actions and patience in staying away from sins – one can understand this in looking at tafseer on Sural al-Asr. Chapter 4 looks at the different terms used for patience.

The book gets very interesting from Chapter 5 where the Imam brings the three camps as mentioned above. Those who have overcome their appetites, those who are enslaved by their appetites and those who are in a state of jihad with their appetites. This struggle is a struggle between the forces of the angels and the forces of the devils – this struggle is patience.

Chapter 6 deals with patience in different scenarios i.e. patience in the face of luxuries, patience in the face of worship, patience in the face of disobedience etc. This chapter is extremely important to understand in what circumstances patience must be used i.e. it isn’t just being patient when something bad happens. The Imam also brings some examples from the Righteous who exercised patience in some mind-blowing situations which leave us speechless and in awe.

Chapter 7 is the final chapter of his book and is essentially the remedy i.e. how do you increase your patience. In this chapter he discusses how to weaken your appetite impulse i.e. fasting because it makes you weak or staying away from places where your desire will increase. We can think of staying away from the shopping centre or not log onto certain websites for people who can’t stop buying or staying away from the cake shop for those who love cakes. Again the Imam uses the example of a dog for us to visualise the beast and how it can be trained. The second way is by increasing the religious impulse so that it can gain victory over the appetite impulse (again notice how he uses the vocabulary of battles). This is strengthened by performing litanies with awareness and presence to busy the heart and mind from the appetite.

One of the Imam’s concluding remarks in Chapter 7 is very important, for he says:

The third [kind of action] is to heed this carefully and gradually, for [the servant] does not transform [himself], in one instant, to devotion from the opposite extreme. Nature is averse [to change], and it is not possible to transform one’s character except gradually.

Chapter 7 page 70 Book on Patience

The Imam ends this chapter and this book with some couplets of poetry on patience. This is a book which has to be read a few times, especially chapters 5-7 and one needs to strive to work at and implement the advice given and become people of patience, being from those who fight against the impulse of appetite and desire which is the great battle.

Mohamed Suleman 07.05.2023

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