The term gnosis (‘irfan), like another term of the same family, ma`rifah, [also translated as gnosis] 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 witnessing and interior unveiling. Then, these are generalized to some propositions which describe these witnessing and unveiling.
Considering the fact that the acquisition of such witnessing and unveiling which depend on special exercises and spiritual discipline are also called gnosis (`irfan), it is known with the qualification ‘amali (practical), i.e., as practical gnosis, or the manner of spiritual wayfaring (sayr wa suluk), just as the propositions which describe the witnessing are called theoretical gnosis, and also, like the Philosophy of Illumination, is mixed to some extent with rational argumentation.
The expression sufism (tasawwuf), 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 (‘irfan) 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 unveiling and witnessing achieved by the wayfarer. The third is the propositions and statements indicating these intuitive direct findings, and even for those who personally have not traveled 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 wayfaring which is undertaken to find the truth and attain felicity, as well as the resulting spiritual states and witnessing. 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 hikmah (wisdom), which is an originally Arabic word, means a firm and certain gnosis (ma`rifah), and it is often applied to practical gnosis, as the sense in which it is used in the Glorious Qur’an (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 ayat of the Glorious Qur’an, the words of the Noble Prophet, and the pure people of his household, may the Blessings of Allah 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 ayat related to the unity of the divine essence, attributes and actions in Surat al‑Tawhid (Ikhlas) as well as the beginning of Surat al‑Hadid, and the last ayat of Surat al-Hashr, and likewise the ayat indicating the divine presence throughout the world of being, and His comprehension over all existences, and the existential glorification and prostrations of all creatures for God, the Exalted.
Likewise, there are ayat which include special prescriptions and manners which can be called the way of Islamic spiritual wayfaring, such as the ayat pertaining to contemplation and meditation, constant remembrance (dhikr) and attention, rising in the pre‑dawn hours and remaining awake at night, fasting, prolonged prostrations and glorification during nights, humility and resignation, crying and falling down when reciting and listening to the ayat of the Qur’an, 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 ayat 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 Allah bless all of them, and in their supplications and intimate devotions related to the above topics are uncountable.
In view of these explicit ayat 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 ayat, and even consider God as having mutable states and physical ascent and descent, and they empty the ayat 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 discussion.
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Authored By: Ayatullah Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi