A Thinking Person’s Guide to Our Times by HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad
Excerpted Foreword by Sheikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson
We live in an age of accelerated change and global upheavals, including myriad revolutions, uprisings, and uncivil wars across the world, all of which have produced immense human suffering and political instability. Our recent history has been littered with the failed attempts of communists, fascists, neo-conservatives, and Islamists to remake the world in their idealized images. Much of this was driven by the efforts of people who believe that we must change the conditions of the world in order to improve our own conditions as individuals. This, they posit, will make us happy and save our souls. That view, however delectable and however well-intentioned, is hubristic in nature and appeals to our vanity, and it comes directly from the devil: “For God knows that when you eat from [the tree], your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis, 3:5). That demonic lie—that by changing the conditions of our world we will finally be happy and in control of our lives—veils the reality that happiness is only attainable once we reject the devil and rule our own souls, which then enables us to submit fully to God, in Whom alone we find peace and tranquility.
Thankfully, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, an accomplished and erudite philosopher and author, has written this guidebook which starts at the right place: the individual self. While chronicling the troubles of our times—which have reached the current level of trial and tribulation from what our “own hands have wrought” (Al-Shura, 42:30)—this book points to a pathway out of the morass, not collectively but individually, through a regimen of self-discipline. Too many people want to change the world, yet those very people are often completely incapable of self-maintenance, of resisting temptations—whether it be a caloric cake, a cancer-causing cigarette, or the alluring prattle of most human conversation. History’s most dangerous characters have been those literally hell-bent on changing the world even as they neglected their own souls. Such characters should serve as cautionary tales.
The Qur’an asks us to look inward at ourselves, to be introspective, both individually and collectively. The Qur’an states, “Surely God does not change the conditions of a people until they change what is in themselves” (Al-Ra‘d, 13:11). In another verse, we are reminded, “God will not remove a blessing among a people until they change [from better to worse]” (Al-Anfal, 8:53). The current zeitgeist, on the other hand, leans towards extroversion, towards outrage over injustice and oppression—much of it driven by a sincere desire to alleviate suffering among the less fortunate and the downtrodden—and towards a relentless charge up the hill against the powers that be as a way to improve our conditions. The Qur’an, however, is clear that changing the world’s conditions remains God’s domain; our concerns should primarily focus on our own selves and on those near and dear to us. The Qur’an states, “O you who believe, save yourselves and your family from a Fire whose fuel is men and stones” (Al-Tahrim, 66:6). A prophetic tradition reminds us, “Each of you is a shepherd, and each of you is responsible only for his own flock” (Bukhari; Muslim). And perhaps most importantly, “From the beauty of a man’s submission to God: minding one’s own business.”
In this book, Prince Ghazi reveals to us how bad things are—and they are bad enough that future generations may be reduced to eating jellyfish and crickets for sustenance—and he calls us to not despair or get depressed, which are, as Heidegger astutely pointed out, expressions of profound self-indulgence. Prince Ghazi points us instead to actual practices that can make a difference in our lives. We must begin by confronting questions about ourselves: Why do we find it so difficult to deal with reality, especially tragedies and tribulations, big and small, which are bound to inflict us? Why are we so quick to critique others but not ourselves? Why do we constantly crave distractions and frivolities? Why do we strive to acquire and possess the stuff of the world that we know will eventually come to naught? The great subject of our most brilliant minds was never the material world, despite our modern obsession with materiality—the great subject always hides in plain sight; it reveals itself in every instant. It is found in the story of the older fish passing by two young fish and asking them, “How’s the water?” After swimming past the older fish, one of the two says to the other, “What is water?” In the same way, God remains hidden in plain sight, with every moment revealing acts and attributes that dazzle, bewilder, and excite with an ineffable ecstasy for those who live in the wonder of being, in the presence of the Divine. If we can restrain our baser appetites, discipline our desires, keep our self-obsessions and ego in check, we might begin to cultivate the sense of wonder and awe, to see clearly the signs of the Divine all around us.
Diving deeply into tradition—real tradition—reveals to the diver pearls and coral of immense beauty and worth. Over time, one comes to understand, through study of the countless experiences of the greatest minds of human history—Chinese, European, Indian, African, or Arab; Jew or Gentile; Muslim or Christian—that the world has certain features permanently imbedded in its DNA. History gives us a crystal ball that can show us the future by revealing the repeated patterns of the past; classical literature and poetry have much wisdom to impart to us about the world. In reading Shakespeare, one finds every archetype and human quality, whether noble or base: the contented Duke Senior, exiled to the Forest of Arden, finds “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything,” while the ambitious and murderous Macbeth concludes the world is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” A virtuous and rightful man sees the goodness of the world while a vicious and spiteful man sees nothing but an empty meaninglessness. In reading Rumi, we learn of the men returning from China: each paints a completely different portrait of China based upon what was in his own heart.
Far from gleaning the pearls from the past, modern life lures us towards an obsession with freedom, which in the prevailing lexicon has come to mean not freedom from our appetites but freedom to indulge in them. Everyone wants to be free to do what they want, to satiate their desires, to buy and consume more and more, and to follow the materialist ethos down the lizard hole. The pre-modern sages, whether Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jew, or Buddhist, under- stood that a true education enables a person to engage one’s soul in the activity of virtue, to tame one’s savage nature and make gentle the way of the world. Those who neglect this path of perfection—the perfection of the soul within the constraints of a human life—find their lives marred with emptiness, vacuity, and ultimately a narcissistic obsession with self. On the other hand, those who discipline themselves and search for higher, more difficult, paths of practice that result in achievements in many areas of human excellence find their lives filled with great satisfaction and often with profound joy.
Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad has written a number of books and guides for thinking people, and this small but potent work before you sums up many of his most keen and cogent insights and conclusions; for that reason, this may be his most impactful and motivational work to date. As an advisor to King Abdullah ii of Jordan and as someone who has interacted with some of the most influential people in the world, in both the public and private sectors, Prince Ghazi is privy to perspectives most of us are not. The vast majority of us have no experience in governing a small shop, let alone a country. And neither work is easy. The book was written over a twenty-five-year period by a direct descendant of an illustrious line of sharifian leaders who has spent his life studying and practicing what he has learned. Though written primarily for Muslims, it will greatly benefit any thinking person, irrespective of his or her commitment to faith or lack thereof. Among his sage advice, the author gently reminds us to make wise use of our time and to learn from the past, “read and rise,” as the Prophet put it. Societies characterized by, among other things, reading and the pursuit of knowledge tend to have higher happiness indices than ones that don’t. A wise man once said that “the truly happy man is happy despite knowing all the reasons why he shouldn’t be happy.” We have a duty—a responsibility—to be happy and hopeful, both because it benefits us and because it tends to be contagious. In this book, Prince Ghazi has set down a simple course of action, readily accessible and easily accomplished, to make us happier people, better people, more thoughtful people—but most of all, people who know that what sets us apart from the rest of the world’s creatures and makes us unique as a species has always been the ability to use our minds in ways that transcend our material world itself—to contemplate the unseen world and the Afterlife.
Prince Ghazi calls us to an ancient truth: a little practice every day—consistent, relentless, and thoughtful—will bear great fruit in due time. The ancient Chinese believed we have a duty to preserve our health, as life’s secrets are revealed to us in our later years. Prophesy comes at the age of forty for a reason, and Aristotle’s argument that the mind reaches the zenith of its powers at forty-nine rings true. Only a man of middle age could write a book such as this. It reflects a wealth of accumulated experience, not only in the life of the mind but also in the affairs of the world. For most people, the vanity fair wears thin at a certain age, the afterlife emerges on the horizon, and it dawns on us that we are all mortal, that this abode is more like a tent than a palace—temporary and easily uprooted by a sandstorm. The remedies that Prince Ghazi has provided seem almost facile, too easily arrived at, and certainly not enough to change the world. But therein lies the rub: the world will never be changed until we change ourselves. The first level of mastery involves disciplining one’s self, and the greatest discipline involves the virtuous use of our most precious and limited resource in our lives on earth, a resource that diminishes with every breath we take. The art of time management eludes almost every human being. We are masters at wasting time, whether through mindless and unedifying entertainment, sleeping too much, or simply not minding our own business. These are simply squandered opportunities that cannot be reclaimed. Our Prophet stated, “Most people are cheated out of two precious gifts: health and leisure.” Leisure was once the pursuit of people of means everywhere. Wealth enabled one to pursue the goals of a gentleman (adib in Arabic); adib means to become erudite and polished, to use one’s time wisely in self-improvement in order to leave this world as people of virtue, people who know why they came into the world and where they are headed next.
I know Prince Ghazi personally and his commitment to the practices he asks of us. He recognizes that only through practices he has outlined in this book can we truly transform ourselves and, in the process, transform our world. Those of us, like Prince Ghazi, who have been fortunate enough to have actually witnessed and learned from sanctified souls, know with certainty that the open secret which enabled such souls to achieve the heights of human potential lies in the deliberate, consistent, and systematic practices that lead to a fully realized human being. In this book, you will find the pillars of those practices. Self-transformation must be the sine qua non that improves our beleaguered world.