Friday, 27 February 2009

Gnosis and Wisdom


"Islamic Gnosis and Wisdom"

By: Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi Misbah Yazdi


Gnosis in the Islamic World
Concepts of Gnosis, Sufism, Wisdom and Philosophy
Originality of Islamic Gnosis
Gnosis and Intellect
Gnosis and Religious Law (Tariqa and Sharia)



In the Name of God, the Kind, the Merciful.

In the cosmic realm, human beings are like balls
released into space which have within them a hidden
potential energy for flight into an infinitely sublime
world. But the gravitational attraction of worldly
pleasures draws them toward the depths of the material
world, as a result of which they fall and become
degenerate; and the selfish tendencies and Satanic
temptations which have become embodied in
materialistic civilizations and cultures increase the
speed of their downfall. Amidst all this, there are a
few individuals and groups of people the eyes of whose
hearts are open to spiritual truths and the ears of
whose souls have become familiar with divine messages
who have the resolution to turn aside from the
pollution of their animalistic desires, who open their
wings to the illuminated horizon of the angelic domain
and in the course of their evolution they begin an
ascent to the origin of all beauties, splendours,
powers, and raptures and the infinite source of
perfections, and in a word, ascend toward God. Like
balls which have bounced down to the ground, they are
disillusioned with the dead?end of materialism and
once again, with the same speed with which they
descended, they move in the opposite direction and
rise toward the sublime world. It is quite likely that
this process will recur repeatedly

This reaction may be well observed, nowadays, among
groups of people who have become disillusioned with
corrupt Western culture and who feel within themselves
a great thirst and longing for spiritual values, and
wander to and fro in order to find the fountainhead of
this lucid water. But, alas, most of them fall into
the traps laid by sorcerers who in place of the nectar
of gnosis pour the poison of perdition down their
throats. They lead them from pitfall to abyss, and
through a rear door to the realm of ruin and

The centrifugal motion of materialistic culture and
the turn back toward spiritual culture is not merely
restricted to individual tendencies. We are now
witnessing movements toward Islam in all corners of
the world, even in the most polluted and corrupt of
afflicted lands. These movements have been accelerated
by a great Islamic revolution led by a prominent
gnostic, who, taking advantage of the flourishing
talents of the people, was able to gain victory over
the Satanic forces in the rays of the lights of
Islamic teachings. Despite the great obstacles put in
its way on all sides, it still gallops forward. But,
although this is not the first time that a divine man
and gnostic of the Lord has undertaken the leadership
of a popular movement, it is not easy to find another
example with such scope and depth and with such
firmness and stability.

In any case, this phenomenon, in turn, also can be a
very strong motive for the investigation of the role
of spiritual tendencies, especially the role of
Islamic gnosis, in the positive and desirable changes
in the lives of human beings.

Gnosis in the Islamic World

From antiquity, in the Islamic world there have been
tendencies by the names of gnosis (irfan) and sufism
(tasawwuf), and from the 10th-14th centuries they
reached their summit in many countries such as Iran
and Turkey. Today, there are various sufi sects all
over the world. Similar tendencies also may be found
among the followers of the other religions.
Considering this common aspect, it is natural for the
question to be raised as to whether there really is
any such thing as Islamic gnosis to be found in Islam,
or whether Muslims have taken this from others, so
that what is called Islamic gnosis is really the
gnosis of Muslims, not a truly Islamic gnosis. If
there is such a thing as gnosis in Islam, is this the
very thing which currently exists among Muslims, or
has it been subjected to changes?

In answering these questions, some have absolutely
denied the existence of gnosis in Islam and have
regarded it as heretical innovation to be repudiated.
Others consider it to have come from outside the
context of Islam, while holding it to be compatible
with it. In this line, some have said that sufism is
an acceptable innovation in Islam, like monasticism in
Christianity. In this regard, the Glorious Holy Koran

And as for monasticism, they invented it themselves;
We did not prescribe it for them, except for seeking
the pleasure of God. (57:27)

Finally, there is a group who consider gnosis to be
not only a part of Islam, but the kernel and spirit of
it which comes from the Holy Koran and prophetic
sunnah, just as the other parts of Islam. It is not
that it was adapted from other schools of thought and
trends, and the aspects common to gnosis in Islam and
other religions is no reason to hold that Islamic
gnosis was derived from them, just as the similarities
between the religious law (sharia) of Islam and the
heavenly religious laws of the previous religions does
not mean that the former was derived from the latter.

We approve of the last response to the question, and
we add that the assertion of the originality of
Islamic gnosis is not to condone whatever has been
called gnosis or sufism in Islam. Likewise, it is not
just any sort of creed or conduct found among groups
related to Islam that can be considered truly Islamic
beliefs and practices; otherwise, Islam would
necessarily be a contradictory set of beliefs with a
conflicting set of values, or there would be
conflicting and contradictory Islams! In any case,
with our admission of the originality of Islamic
gnosis, a gnosis whose highest degree was reached by
the Noble Prophet, may the Peace and Blessings of God
Almighty be upon him and his kinfolk, and his true
successors, we do not deny the existence of foreign
elements among the Muslim gnostics and sufis. Many of
the views and manners of behaviour of the sufi orders
are disputable.

The Concepts of Gnosis, Sufism, Wisdom and Philosophy

Before explaining the originality of Islamic gnosis,
in order to avoid confusion and misunderstanding it is
appropriate here to give an explanation of the terms
gnosis (irfan) and sufism.

The term gnosis, like another term of the same family,
gnosticism, literally means knowledge, but its
technical meaning is specific to knowledge of a
certain kind which can be achieved neither through the
senses nor experience, nor through reason nor
narration, but rather is acquired by inner witnessings
and interior unveilings. Then, these are generalized
to some propositions which describe these witnessings
and unveilings. Considering the fact that the
acquisition of such witnessings and unveilings which
depend on special exercises and spiritual discipline
are also called gnosis, it is known with the
qualification of practical, i.e., as practical gnosis, or
the manner of spiritual journeying, just as the
propositions which describe the witnessings are called
theoretical gnosis, and also, like the Philosophy of
Illumination is mixed to some extent with
rational argumentation.

[Notes: The Philosophy of illumination was formulated
by Shihab al-Din Yahya Sohravardi (1153?1191).]

The expression sufism, which, according to the most
likely possibility, is derived from the word suf
(wool), meaning wearing woolen garments, which
symbolizes the hard life far from comforts and
hedonism, is more appropriately used for practical
gnosis, as the term gnosis is more appropriate to
theoretical gnosis. In this way, in the realm of
gnosis, at least three elements can be identified. One
is the specific practical instructions which are
alleged to lead man to intuitive and interior gnosis
and conscious knowledge by presence related to God,
the Exalted, and the Most Beautiful Names and His
sublime attributes and their manifestations. The
second is the specific spiritual and psychic states
and traits of character, and ultimately, the
unveilings and witnessings achieved by the wayfarer.
The third is the propositions and statements
indicating these intuitive direct findings, and even
for those who personally have not travelled the pant
of practical gnosis, can be more or less understood,
although finding their truth and essence is specific
to the true gnostics.

By attending to these explanations it becomes clear
that the true gnostic is the one who follows a
specific practical programme and attains an intuitive
and direct gnosis of God, the Exalted, and His
attributes and actions. Theoretical gnosis is, in
fact, an account and interpretation of this gnosis,
which, naturally, has many shortcomings. If we are not
very exact about the terminology and expand its scope
we can use the term gnosis for all spiritual
journeying (wayfaring), which is undertaken to find
the truth and attain felicity, as well as the
resulting spiritual states and witnessings. In this
way, gnosis will include even the kinds of gnosis
found in Buddhism and Hinduism and the gnosis of some
of the tribes of Siberia and the native tribes of
Africa, just as the term religion may be applied, with
the same sort of extended meaning to Buddhism,
totemism, and the like.

Here it is appropriate to indicate the concepts of
wisdom and philosophy, too.

The expression “wisdom”, which is an originally Arabic
word, means a firm and certain gnosis (enlightment),
and it is often applied to practical gnosis, as the
sense in which it is used in the Glorious Koran
(17:39). However, in current terminology it has the
meaning of divine philosophy as well as practical
philosophy and the science of ethics, and in ethics
itself it is used in the sense of a trait of the soul
related to the use of reason, and as the mean between
the extremes of cunning and stupidity. In any case, it
is not applied to atheistic philosophies or
skepticism, to the contrary of philosophy which is
derived from Greek roots meaning any intellectual or
rational efforts to understand the problems of all
existence, even if this leads to the rejection of
certain and established gnosis, or even the rejection
of objective existence.

The Originality of Islamic Gnosis

Anyone who attends carefully to the verses of the
Glorious Koran, the words of the Noble Prophet, and
the pure people of his household, may the Blessings of
God Almighty be upon them, all of them, without a doubt
will be able to find many sublime and profound
subjects in the realm of theoretical gnosis, as well
as numerous prescriptions and practical instructions
in relation to the spiritual wayfaring of the gnostic.
For example, we can refer to the verses related to the
unicity of the divine essence, attributes and actions
in chapter of Tawhid as well as the beginning of
chapter of al?Hadid, and the last verses in chapter of
al Hashr, and likewise the verses indicating the
divine presence throughout the world of being, and His
comprehension over all existents, and the existential
glorification and prostrations of all creatures for
God, the Exalted.

Likewise, there are verses which include special
prescriptions and manners which can be called the way
of Islamic spiritual wayfaring, such as the verses
pertaining to contemplation and meditation, constant
remembrance and attention, rising in the pre?dawn
hours and remaining awake at night, fasting, prolonged
prostrations and glorifications during nights,
humility and resignation, crying and falling down when
reciting and listening to the verses of the Holy
Koran, sincerity in worship, and the performance of
good deeds out of love and affection toward God in
order to achieve nearness to Him and His satisfaction,
as well as verses pertaining to trust in God, divine
pleasure, and submission before the Lord.

The points which can be found among the narrations
attributed to the Noble Prophet and Pure Imams, may
God Almighty bless all of them, and in their
supplications and intimate devotions related to the
above topics are uncountable.

In view of these explicit verses and dear explications
of the Noble Prophet and his immaculate household, May
God's infinite blessings be showered upon them, two
groups have gone to opposite extremes. One group of
narrow minded and superficial people give a trivial
and simple meaning to these verses, and even consider
God as having mutable states and physical ascent and
descent, and they empty the verses and narrations of
their noble and sublime contents. These are the sort
of people who generally reject the existence of
anything by the name of gnosis in the Islamic texts.

Another group under the influence of various social
factors have discovered and accepted some strange
foreign elements from others, as a result of which
they have come to believe things which one cannot
consider to originate from religious texts and the
contents of the divine Book and Sunnah. Rather, some
of them might be in opposition to the explicit texts
which are not capable of exoteric interpretation.
Likewise, regarding practice, they have invented their
own rites and customs, on the one hand, or have
borrowed them from non?Islamic sects. On the other
hand, they believe in the suspension of duties for the
accomplished gnostic.

Of course, those who have an exceptionally favourable
opinion of all gnostics and sufis have given excuses
and interpretations for all of these issues. But it is
fair to say that at least some of these contentions do
not have an acceptable justification, and we should
not be so over impressed with the scholarly and
spiritual greatness of some figures that we accept
whatever they say or write with closed eyes and ears
and confirm them, and deny others any right to
criticize and inquire into their works. Of course, it
is clear that the acceptance of the right to criticize
does not mean to condone unrefined or ill considered
judgments, or the unfair expression of bias, nor the
failure to pay due heed to positive and valuable
points. In any case, one should seek what is right and
true, and travel the way of justice and fairness and
avoid extreme and unreasonable optimism and pessimism
and seek help from God to recognize the truth and to
be persistent in the way of the Truth.

It is self?evident that to observe all the issues
pertaining to gnosis, sufism, wisdom and philosophy
and their interrelations and each of their relations
with Islam is not a task to be performed within the
confines of a single article. Thus, considering the
summary nature of the remarks, we shall be concerned
with the most significant points, and postpone further
investigation to the occasion of more extensive

Gnosis and Intellect

One of the fundamental problems which is a matter of
contention between the supporters and opponents of
gnosis is whether reason can make any judgment about
what is given through gnosis, which is supposedly
acquired by interior unveilings and witnessings, or
whether, for example, reason can refute some of them
or not. The answer to this question is important with
regard to the fact that many gnostics make assertions
which cannot be given any rational explanation. They
claim that they discovered these things through the
esoteric way, and that reason does not have the
capacity to understand them, and naturally, that
reason thus has no right to refute or reject them.

The most important subject of this kind of controversy
is that of the unity of existence (wahdat al-wujud),
which has been propounded in various forms. One is
that, basically, there is nothing, has been nothing
and shall be nothing but God, the Exalted. Whatever
has been called other than Him, is said to be nothing
more than illusions and fantasies. Another form of
this proposition is that nothing exists outside the
essence of God or outside the vessel of His knowledge.
In this way, a sort of multiplicity in oneness may be
accepted. Another form of this claim, which is more
prevalent, is that the wayfarer at the end of his
journey, reaches the station of annihilation (complete
enlightment or fana), and nothing remains of him save
a name. Finally, the most moderate form of the claim
is that the wayfarer reaches a station in which he
sees nothing but God, and all things fade away into
God. In more exact terminology, he witnesses the
fading of all things into the existence of God, the
Exalted, like the fading of a weak light before the
light of the sun.

In such cases, the opponents generally take advantage
of rational arguments, and the proponents eventually
say that these sorts of matters transcend the limits
of reason. In this way they shirk the burden of the
rational explanation of their claims. Considering
these developments, this basic question will be posed:
Are there truths about which reason is incapable of
comprehending and has no right to reject?

What may be said in summary here is that although
reason is concerned with concepts and the function of
reason is not to recognize the truth of the objective
existence or origin of any objective thing, let alone
the divine exalted existence, but the positive and
negative judgments of reason, when they are
self-evident or may lead to self-evidence, are
undeniable and through concepts may be applied to
objective things. The assumption of the error of such
judgments involves contradiction. In other words,
although the function of reason is not knowledge of
the origins of existence, with the above mentioned
qualifications, there can be no doubt about the
validity of judgments about phenomena.

As for the issue of the unity of existence, it must be
said that the denial of existence of things other than
God and the absolute denial of multiplicity not only
imply the denial of the validity of the judgments of
reason, but also involve the denial of the validity of
knowledge by presence belonging to the active and
passive aspects of the soul. In this way, how can we
hold that witnessings and unveilings have any
validity, regarding the fact that the best evidence
for their validity is their being present to
consciousness? So, the unity of existence, on this
interpretation, is not acceptable at all. However, we
may consider an acceptable interpretation which is
propounded in Transcendent Philosophy from which
it is obtained that the existence of creatures in
relation to God, the Exalted, is a relative and
dependent existence, and to be precise it may be said
that they are the very relation and dependence, and
they have no independence of their own. That which is
discovered by the gnostic is this very denial of the
independence of other things [than God], which they
call the denial of their real existence.

[Note: Transcendent philosophy refers to the philosophy of
Sadr al-Din Shirazi, known as Mulla Sadra (1640).]

Here the question may be posed in another form: Can we
consider the judgment of reason prior to intuition and
unveiling? In reply, it should be said that pure
knowledge by presence is in truth the discovery of
reality itself. Thus, it is irrefutable. However,
knowledge by presence is usually accompanied by a
subjective interpretation in such a way that any
distinction between them requires great care. These
subjective interpretations which involve conceptual
knowledge, are fallible. What are rejected by rational
proofs are incorrect subjective interpretations of
observations and knowledge by pretence, not the
objects of knowledge by presence themselves. In the
case of the unity of existence, that which is realized
through witnessings is restricted to the independent
existence of God, the Exalted, which due to
inattention is called true existence, according to
which true existence is denied of other existents.

It is worth mentioning that the great Islamic gnostics
have explicitly claimed that some unveilings are
Satanic, invalid, and may be recognized through some
evidence, and ultimately may be distinguished from
others by placing them under the scrutiny of rational
certain arguments, the God’s Book and the Practices of
Divine Messenger.

It is clear that an investigation into all the kinds
of unveilings and witnessings and the types of
knowledge by presence and the ways in which they are
qualitatively reflected in the mind, the causes for
the incorrectness of some subjective interpretations
and the way to distinguish the correct from the
incorrect, are beyond the scope of this article.

Gnosis and Religious Law - (Tariqa and Sharia)

Another important problem worthy of consideration at the end
of this article is the relation between practical
gnosis and the precepts of religious law, or the
relation between Gnostic Path and God’s Law. A group
has imagined that practical gnosis is an independent
way to discover truths, to be used without regard to
religious law, and that Islam either corroborates it
(by acceptable innovation) or; at the very least,
poses no obstacle to it. And they have continued in
this direction to the point of holding that
basically, they considered it to be unnecessary to be
committed to any religion in order to reach gnostic
stations, and others have considered commitment to any
one of the religions, and in a more moderate form,
commitment to one of the divine religions, to be

However, from an Islamic point of view, gnostic
spiritual wayfaring is not along a way independent of
and aside from that of religious law; rather it is a
more exact and subtle part of it. If we restrict the
term God’s Law to the outward precepts, it must be
said that Gnostic Path is along with God’s Law, or in
its interior, and it may only be realized with the
observation of the precepts of God’s Law. For example,
God’s Law determines the precepts for the ritual
prayer; and Gnostic Path undertakes the ways of
concentration and the presence of the heart in prayer;
and the conditions for the perfection of worship. In
God’s Law the performance of worship in order to avoid
divine chastisement and to reach the blessings of
heaven is sufficient. However, gnosis emphasizes the
purification of intentions of everything other than
God. This is what is known in the language of the Holy
Family, Peace be upon them, as "the worship of the
free." Likewise, idolatry according to God’s Law is
exoteric idolatry by worshipping idols and the like;
however, in Gnostic Path there are more precise types
of hidden idolatry and levels of hiddenness. Having
any hope in anything other than God, fear of other
than God, seeking the help of other than God, and love
for other than Him, if all of these are taken as
fundamental and independent, and not based on
obedience to the divine commands, they will be
considered kinds of idolatry.

Therefore, all kinds of innovations in religion and
arbitrary rites are not only undesirable but may be
obstacles to the achievement of true gnosis, let alone
the use of things which have been explicitly and
definitely prohibited and forbidden. Although it may
be the case that some works may bring about transient
so-called gnostic states, they do not have a good
result. They may be a Satanic trap for ultimate
downfall, and we should not be deceived by them. It is
to be concluded that the way of Truth is the one that
God, the Exalted, has stated:

And what is there after the truth but error? (10:32)

And Peace be upon those who follow the Guidance.

-- The End --


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