Although most people are preoccupied with earning their livelihood and pay little attention to spiritual matters, yet every man has an inherent desire to know the absolute truth. This dormant power, when awakened in some people and comes to surface, they gain a number of spiritual perceptions.
Despite the claim of the sophists and the atheists that every truth is an illusion, everybody believes in the existence of one eternal truth. When man with a pure heart and a pure spirit looks at the permanent factuality of the universe and at the same time observes the instability and transience of its various parts, he realizes that this world and its manifestations are a mirror which reflects the existence of one eternal truth. With this realization his joy knows no bounds and he is so elated that in his eyes everything else becomes insignificant and worthless.
This spectacle forms the basis of that impulse of the gnostics1 which draws the attention of the godly people to a world beyond perception and cultivates the love of Allah in their hearts. The pull which they feel towards this spectacle makes them forget everything and removes many desires from their hearts. This pull leads man to the worship of the Invisible
1 The Islamic esoterics known as Irfan or gnosis is sometimes associated with Tasawwuf or mysticism whose certain rites and rituals are repugnant to Islam. However Shi'ism considers Islamic acts of worship to be sufficient for gaining proximity to Allah.
Being who is more manifest than all that is visible or audible. It is this pull which gave birth to many a religion based on Allah's worship. The real gnostic is he who worships Allah not because he hopes for any reward or is afraid of any punishment, but only because he knows Him and loves Him.1
It is clear from the above that gnosis is not a religion like other religions. It is to be regarded as the central and the most vital part of all religions. Gnosis is a perfect way of worship, based on love, not on fear or hope. It is a way of understanding the inner facts of religion instead of being contented' with its outward and perceptible form. Among the followers of all revealed religions, even among those who believe in idol-worship there are individuals who follow the path of gnosis. The gnostics are found among the followers of polytheistic religions2 as well as among the Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and Muslims.
Appearance of Gnosis in Islam
Out of the companions of the Holy Prophet Imam Ali is known for the eloquent description of gnostic truths and the stages of spiritual life. His sayings on this subject are a treasure of knowledge. As for the other companions of the Holy Prophet, their sayings which have come down to us do not contain enough material on this subject. The majority of the mystics and gnostics, whether Sunni or Shi`ah consider the chain of their spiritual leaders going to Imam Ali through such companions of his as Salman Farsi, Uways Qarani, Kumayl bin Ziyid, Rashid Hujari, Mitham Tammar, Rabi` bin Khaytham and Hasan Basri.
1 Imam Ja`far Sadiq has said: "There are three categories of the worshippers: 'Those who worship Allah out of fear; their worship is that of the slaves. Those who worship Allah for the sake of a reward; their worship is that of the wage-earners. Those who worship Allah out of love and earnestness; their worship is that of the freeman. This last is the best form of worship." (Biharul Anwar, vol. V, p. 208)
2 Here the learned author has in his mind the religions of India and the Far East in which different aspects of divinity are represented by gods and goddesses in a mythical and symbolic form
Next to this group some other persons like Taus Yamani, Shay ban Ra'i, Malik ibn Dinar, Ibrahim bin Adham and Sharif Balkhi appeared in the second century. They were considered holy men by the people. These persons were apparently ascetics. They did not talk openly of gnosis or mysticism, though they conceded that they introduced to spiritualism by the first group and trained by it.
Towards the end of the second century and the beginning of the third some other individuals like Bayazid Bistami, Ma`ruf Karkhi and Junayd Baghdadi appeared. They openly talked of gnosis. Some of their esoteric sayings based on their spiritual intuition were apparently so obnoxious that they were strongly denounced and condemned by some jurists and theologians. Consequently several of these gnostics were imprisoned and flogged and a few of them were even put to death.1 Nevertheless this group continued to flourish and maintained its activities despite all opposition. Thus the development of gnosis or mysticism continued till this system reached the zenith of its popularity and expansion in the seventh and the eighth centuries. During the later periods its popularity fluctuated from time to time, but it has been able to maintain its existence in Islamic world till today.
It appears that most of the mystic leaders whose names are found in biographies and memoirs belonged to the Sunni school of thought and the current sufi system that comprises some ceremonials and rituals not consistent with the teachings of the Qur'an and Sunnah, is the heritage transmitted by these gnostics and mystics, although their system has subsequently adopted a few Shi`ah rites also.
Some spiritual leaders hold that no mystic or gnostic system or programme was prescribed by Islam. The present gnostic system was invented by the mystics themselves; yet it has the approbation of Allah in the same way as monasticism was sanctioned by Allah after it had been introduced by the Christians into their religion with a view to propagate Christianity.
1 Refer to the books on the biographies of the sages, such as the Tazkiratul Awliya' by Attar and the Taraiqul Haqaiq by Ma'sum 'Ali Shah.
Anyway the mystics trace the chain of their spiritual leaders to Imam Ali through their early preceptors. (This chain of spiritual descent resembles a genealogical tree). The account of the visions and intuitions of the early gnostics also which has come down to us, mostly contains those elements of spiritual life which we find in the sayings, and teachings of Imam Ali and other Imams of the Holy Prophet's Household (Ahlul Bayt). We can clearly observe these facts provided we study their teachings patiently and calmly and are not carried away. by their fascinating sayings which are often obnoxious and blasphemous.
(i) The sufis (Muslim mystics) regard the holiness acquired by following the spiritual path as human perfection. According to the Shi`ah belief, this quality is possessed by the Imams1 and through them can be acquired by their true followers.
(ii) The sufi doctrine that there must always be a Qutb2 in the world and the qualities they attribute to him, correspond to the Shi`ah doctrine of Imamat. According to the "People of the Holy Prophet's Household" the Imam (in Sufi terminology the perfect man) is a manifestation of Allah's names2 and is responsible for supervising and guiding all human activities. This being the Shi`ah conception of Wilayat, the great sufis may be regarded as the proponents of the Shi`ah doctrine, though apparently they followed the Sunni school. What we mean to say is that the Shiites being the followers of an infallible Imam, already possess all that is indicated by the mystics. As a matter of fact the Qutb or the perfect man conceived by the mystics does not actually exist anywhere outside the Shi`ite world. Mere presumption is obviously quite a different thing.
1 The twelve successors explicitly expressed by the Holy Prophet of Islam through Divine Will.
2 When a gnostic becomes totally oblivious of himself, in the Sufi parlance, he is said to have passed away in God, for he completely surrenders himself to the will and guidance of Allah.
3 The gnostics maintain that the world has derived its entity from the names of Allah and its existence and continuity depend on them. The source of Allah's all names is His most perfect and loftiest name. This name is the station of the perfect man, called the Qutb of the universe also. The world is never without a Qutb.
It may be mentioned here that some authentic Sunni books state that the outward form of the Islamic law and Islamic teachings does not explain how to perform spiritual journey.1 On this basis the Sufis say that they have individually discovered certain methods and ways which facilitate this journey. They also claim that their methods have gained Divine sanction in the same 'way as previously monkery had gained.2 As such the sufi leaders included in their programme of spiritual journey whatever rites, rituals and formalities they deemed fit, and asked their disciples to observe them. Gradually a vast and independent system came into being. This system included such items as total obedience, liturgy, special robes, music and ecstasy and rapture at the time of repeating the liturgical formulas. Some orders of the Sufis went to the extent of separating the tariqah (the sufi way) from the shari'ah (Islamic precepts). The adherents of these sufi orders practically joined hands with the Batinites (Those who believe that in Islam everything is allegorical and has a hidden meaning). Anyhow according to the Shi`ah point of view the original source, of Islam, namely the Qur'an and Sunnah indicate what is absolutely contrary to all this. It is not possible that the religious texts would not guide to the truth or would ignore to explain an essential programme. Nor is anybody, whosoever, he may be, allowed to ignore his duty in regard to what is obligatory or is prohibited according to injunctions of Islam.
What do the Qur'an and Sunnah say about Gnosis?
At a number of places in the Holy Qur'an Allah has directed people to ponder over the contents of the Holy Book and not to pass by them cursorily In a large number of verses, the universe and the entire creation have been described as Allah's signs. They have been called so because they indicate a great truth. When a man sees red light as a sign of danger, his attention is
1 In Islam spiritual journey is called Sair wa Suluk, which signifies a journey towards Allah.
2 Allah says: But monkery the Christian invented, We ordained it not for them. We ordained only seeking Allah's pleasure, but they observed it not. (Surah al-Hadid, 57 27)
concentrated on the danger and he ceases to pay attention to the light itself. If he still thinks of the shape, colour and nature of light, then these things will absorb his attention and he will not be able to attend to the impending danger. Similarly the universe and its manifestations are the signs of their Creator, an evidence of His existence and His power. They have no independent existence. We may look at them from any aspect, they indicate nothing but Allah. He who looks at the world and the people of the world from this angle under the guidance of the Qur'an, he will perceive Allah alone. He will not be fascinated by the borrowed charms of this world, but will see an infinite Beauty, a Beloved manifesting Himself from behind the curtain of this world. No doubt, as we have explained by citing the example of red light, what the signs indicate is not this world, but the person of its Creator. We may say that the relationship between Allah and this world is not that of 1 + 1 or 1 x 1, but is that of 1 + 0. In other words, this world in relation to Allah is a nonentity and does not add anything to His Essence.
As soon as man realizes this fact, his notion of having an independent existence is smashed and he suddenly feels imbibed with love of Allah. Obviously this realization does not come through eyes, ears or any other sensory organs or mental faculties, for all organs themselves are mere signs and cannot play any significant role in providing the guidance we are talking about.1
When a man having access to Divine manifestation and desiring to remember Allah alone, hears the following passage of the Qur'an, he comes to know that the only path of perfect guidance is that of knowing himself:
O you who believe, you have charge of your own souls. He who errs cannot injure you if you are rightly guided. (al-Maldah, 5:105)
He understands that his true guide is Allah alone who enjoins upon him to know himself and to seek the path of self-knowing, leaving all other paths. He must see Allah through
1 Imam Ali has said: 'Allah is not that who may be comprehended by knowledge. Allah is He Who guidess the argument to Himself.' (Biharul Anwar, vol. II, p. 186)
the window of his own soul and thus achieve his real objective. That is why the Holy Prophet has said: He who has known himself, has known Allah.1
He has also said: 'Those of you who know Allah better, better they know themselves.'2
As for the embarking on spiritual journey there are many verses of the Qur'an which urge the people to remember Allah. For example at one place the Qur'an says: Remember Me, I will remember you. (al-Baqarah, 2:152)
Man has been ordered to do good deeds also, which have been explained in the Qur'an and the Sunnah. Mentioning the good deeds Allah says: Surely in the Messenger of Allah you have a good example. (al-Ahzab, 33:21)
How can it be imagined that Islam would declare that there was a path leading towards Allah without appraising the people what that path is?
And how can it be that Allah would mention a path without explaining how it is to be traversed?
Allah says in the Holy Qur'an: Messenger, We have revealed this Book to you. It contains the details of every thing. (Surah an-Nahl, 16:89)
Allamah Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai
1 A well-known tradition repeatedly quoted in the books of both the Sunni and Shi`ah gnostics.
2 Mother tradition cited in the books of the Sunni and Shi`ah gnostics.
Science of Gnosis
The science of gnosis is one of the sciences which were born and grew on the lap of Islamic culture.
This science can be studied and investigated from two angles, one of them being sociological and the other scientific. There is one important difference between the gnostics and the scholars of other Islamic sciences such as traditionalists, commentators of the Qur'an, jurists, theologians, men of letters and poets. Although the gnostics also belong to a scholarly class, have invented the science of gnosis and have produced great scholars who have written important books on the subject of gnosis, yet unlike other scholars they have chosen to form a separate social sect in the Islamic world. Other learned groups like the jurists etc. are only scholarly groups and are not considered to be separate sects.
From scientific point of view the adepts in gnosis (Man) are called gnostics (A rifs) but from social point of view they are mostly known as sufis.
Anyhow, the gnostics and sufis are not an organized separate religious sect, nor do they claim to have formed any such cult. They are scattered over all Muslim sects. But from social point of view they form a separate group and a separate body, having its characteristic ideas and special manners of life. They wear a particular type of dress and grow their hair in a particular style. They live in hospices etc. Thus the sufis have to a certain extent become a separate sect from religious as well as social point of view.
Anyhow there have always been and there are still, especially among the Shi`ah, gnostics who are not apparently distinct from others, yet they are closely associated with gnosis and spiritual journey. In fact it is they who are the real gnostics, not those who have invented hundreds of rituals and innovations.
Here we propose to discuss gnosis only as a branch of Islamic sciences and have nothing to do with the sufis as a social sect or with the rituals they have adopted.
If we had intended to discuss the social aspect of mysticism, it would have been necessary to deal with the causes which originated this sect and would have told how it positively and negatively influenced Muslim society, how this sect and other Muslim sects reacted upon each other, what complexion it put on the Islamic sciences and what effects it produced on the propagation of Islam. But at present we are not concerned with these subjects and propose to discuss gnosis as a science only.
From scientific point of view gnosis has two aspects: one practical and the other theoretical.
The practical aspect of gnosis is that part of it which describes man's relation with the world and with Allah. It determines these relations and explains the duties which these relations devolve on man.
Being a practical science this part of gnosis resembles ethics. The difference between the two we will explain later.
This part of gnosis is called Sayr wa Suluk (spiritual journey). It explains wherefrom the man desiring to attain to the goal of humanity, namely monotheism, should begin his journey, in what order he should traverse the intervening stages and 'stations' and what 'states' he is expected to undergo during his journey. For the purpose of journey it is essential that it is undertaken under the supervision of a fully experienced spiritual guide who may be conversant with the procedure of the journey and who himself might have passed through all its stages. Without the guidance of such a perfect preceptor (sometimes called Khizr) the Salik? (the traveller or the novice) may lose his way and go astray.
A poet says: 'Do not try to proceed without being accompanied by a Khizr. Dark is the track; so beware of losing your way.'
The monotheism or the Oneness of Allah which a gnostic seeks and which is the highest goal of humanity is quite different from the monotheism of the common people. To a philosopher unity of Allah means that there is only One Essential Being, not more than one.
The gnostic maintains that Oneness of Allah means that Allah is the only really existing Being. The existence of every thing else is illusory.
The monotheism of a gnostic lies in making a spiritual journey and by means of it reaching the stage where he may not see anything except Allah.
The opponents of the gnostics not only do not believe in any such stage, but they sometimes also call such an idea purely heretic. On the contrary, to the gnostics only attaining to this stage is the real monotheism and all other grades of belief in one God are heterodox. According to the gnostics man cannot reach this stage by means of intellectual thinking. He can reach it only through the cleansing and purification of his heart, by suppressing his base desires and undertaking a spiritual journey.
This is the practical side of the science of gnosis and in this respect it resembles ethics, which also deals with the question as to what one should do. The difference between these two sciences is that:
(i) Besides his relations with himself and with the world gnosis deals with man's relations with God, but no ethical system cares to deal with man's relation with Him. It is only the moral system of religion that deals with this aspect.
(ii) The spiritual journey of gnosis as these words indicate, is a moving condition, but the moral principles are static. Gnosis talks of a starting point and then mentions various stages which the novice has to traverse to reach the final stage.
From the viewpoint of a gnostic the spiritual path is a real path not a figurative or a phenomenal one. It is necessary to traverse every stage of it and it is not possible for anyone to reach the next stage without passing through the previous stage.
In the eyes of a gnostic human soul is like a child or a plant which has to be nurtured in accordance with a fixed
system. On the other hand, in ethics only certain qualities are stressed, such as truthfulness, amity, justice, chastity, charity and sacrifice — the qualities that polish and beautify the soul. From moral point of view human soul can be compared to a house which is to be painted and decorated, but while doing so it is not necessary to observe any order and the work can be begun from any point.
In gnosis also morals are discussed, but in it the morals are moving elements.
(iii) The spiritual elements in ethics are limited. All know what they signify. On the contrary the spiritual elements of gnosis are comparatively quite vast.
In connection with spiritual journey such states and emotional phases are discussed in gnosis which are met with by the novice personally. His experience is not shared by others.
Another part of the science of gnosis explaining the nature of the universe. It deals with God, the world and man.
This part of gnosis resembles philosophy, for it tries to interpret the universe in a philosophical manner, where as the first part mentioned above had similarity to ethics, for it wanted to change man's moral condition. But just as the first part despite its close resemblance to ethics is different from it, similarly this second part is different from philosophy despite having some features in common with it. We will further elucidate this distinction later.
We now come to the theoretical aspect of gnosis. The theoretical gnosis deals with the nature of the universe and discusses man, God and the world.
As such this part of gnosis has a close resemblance to theosophy, for both of them interpret the nature of the universe. Just as philosophy has its own problems and principles, similarly mysticism also has its own problems and principles. The difference between the two is that philosophy bases its arguments on its postulates whereas the science of mysticism or gnosis bases its arguments on visions and intuition and then enunciates its theories in a logical way.
The reasoning of philosophy may be compared to the
study of an essay in its original language and the reasoning of gnosis to the study of an essay translated from a different language.
What the gnostics themselves claim is that they state in the language of reason what they see with the eyes of their heart and their entire physical existence.
The gnostic conception of existence is quite different from its philosophical conception.
From the viewpoint of a philosopher the existence of the non-God is as real as the existence of God. The difference is that God is self-existing and essentially-existing Being, whereas everything non-God is neither self-existing nor essentially existing. It is the self-existing Being who brings it into existence. But according to the gnostics the existence of the non-God is absolutely insignificant in comparison to God's in existence even if it is admitted that it is Allah who is the bringer of the non-God into existence. From the viewpoint of the gnostics Allah's existence pervades everything and everything is a manifestation of His names and attributes. Nothing else exists at all as He exists.
The viewpoint of a philosopher is different from that of a gnostic. The philosopher wants to understand this universe. In other words he wants to have in his mind a correct, comparatively complete and comprehensive picture of the universe. In the eyes of a philosopher the highest attainment of man is to be able to perceive the world in such a way that in his own existence the existence of this world is set up and he himself becomes the world. That is why philosophy has been defined as: 'Man's becoming a mental world similar to the existing world.' But a gnostic is not interested in reason and intellect. He wants to have access to the reality of existence, that is Allah Himself. He wants to meet with this reality and to observe it.
According to the gnostic man's highest attainment is to return to his origin (that is from where he has come), to wipe out the distance between himself and Allah and to pass away of human attributes to seek survival in Allah.
A philosopher uses his reason and intellect whereas a gnostic for his purpose makes use of his purified heart and soul and constant spiritual effort.
Later when we discuss the gnostic conception of the universe, the difference between this conception and the philosophers' conception of the universe will become clear.
Gnosis and Islam
Both the practical and theoretical aspects of gnosis are closely related to Islam, for like every other religion or rather more than any other religion Islam determines and explains man's relation to Allah, to the universe and to other man.
Now the question arises as to what is the nature of the relation between what gnosis puts forth and what Islam says.
The Muslim gnostics do not admit that any of their views or practices is repugnant to Islam. They vehemently contradict it if anybody else imputes any such thing to them. On the other hand they claim to know Islamic truths better than anybody else and assert that actually only they are the true Muslims. The gnostics quote chapter and verse of the Qur'an, Sunnah and the life account of the Holy Prophet, the Imams and the prominent companions of the Holy Prophet.
But others hold opinions about the gnostics which are quite different from what they themselves claim. We mention below some of these opinions.
(i) Some traditionalists and jurists hold that generally speaking the sufis do not abide by Islam and that they quote the Qur'an and the Sunnah only to deceive or cajole the Muslims. They say that basically mysticism has nothing in common with Islam.
(ii) A group of the modernists is of the opinion — and these modernists are not much concerned with Islam and take delight in describing anything which they do not like as an anti-Islamic movement of the past deviation from Islam — that the gnostics practically do not believe in Islam and that mysticism was an anti-Arab and anti-Islam movement launched by the non-Arabs who used spirituality as a cover.
As far as opposition to mysticism and gnosis is concerned, this group holds the same view as the first one. The difference between the two is that the first group reveres Islam and out of respect for Islamic sentiments, looks down upon the sufis and wants to remove gnosis from the list of Islamic sciences. In contrast the second group criticizes and disparages some
worldly sufis simply to find a pretext to make propaganda against Islam itself. It thinks that a subtle and lofty spirituality does not befit Islam and as such must have been imported from outside. It believes that the level of Islam and Islamic ideology is too low for gnostic ideas.
According to this group the sufis and gnostics quote the Qur'an and Sunnah only to save themselves from the wrath of the masses.
(iii) The third group is of those impartial people who maintain that the practical form of mysticism, especially when it assumes the colour of a sect, is so full of abominable innovations and deviations that it cannot be reconciled with the Qur'an and Sunnah. Anyhow the sufis and the gnostics like other learned classes of the Muslims are sincere about Islam and do not want to say anything repugnant to Islam intentionally.
The sufis might have made some mistakes, but such mistakes have been committed by all scholarly classes including the scholastic theologians, philosophers, commentators of the Qur'an, jurists etc. This does not mean that they have any evil designs against Islam.
Only those who are hostile to Islam or mysticism and gnosis talk of the anti-Islamic sentiments of the gnostics and sufis. They do so only to serve their own nefarious objectives. Anybody who knows their language and special expressions if studies the books of the gnostics he may find many errors in their books, but cannot suspect their sincerity to Islam.
In our opinion this third view is the best because we are sure that the intention of the gnostics has not been bad. Anyhow, it is necessary that those who have a deep knowledge of gnosis and are at the same time proficient in other Islamic sciences also should impartially look into the theories and doctrines of the sufis and determine how far they conform to Islam.
Shari`at, Tariqat and Haqiqat (Islamic law, Spiritual path and Truth)
Another important cause of disagreement between the gnostics and others especially the jurists, is the special view that the gnostics hold about shari'at, tariqat and Haqiqat.
The gnostics and the jurists agree that the rules of Islamic
law are based on truth and good reason implying definite advantages. Generally the jurists interpret the good reasons as those things that ensure man's maximum material and spiritual well-being. But the gnostics believe that all paths go to Allah and all truths and good reasons pave the way for reaching Him.
The jurists say that all rules of Islamic law have certain implicit advantages which may be considered their rationale or spirit. These advantages can be gained only by acting according to these rules. The gnostics, on the other hand, say that these good reasons are a sort of stages which lead man to the station of proximity to Allah and guide him to having access to the Truth.
The gnostics believe that the inner side of the Islamic law is that spiritual path which is called tariqat and the end of this path is Truth, that is unity of Allah in the special sense we mentioned earlier. According to them, this position can be attained only by annihilating "self". The gnostic believes in three things: shariat, tariqat and haqiqat. The shari`at is a means of reaching the tariqat and the tariqat is a means of reaching the haqiqat. Thus the shari`at is the husk in comparison with the tariqat and the tariqat is the kernal. Similarly the tariqat is the husk in comparison with the haqiqat and the haqiqat is the kernel.
From the view point of the jurists (Fuqaha) the Islamic teachings are divided into three parts. The first part consists of the fundamentals (`Aqa'id) which are dealt with in scholastic theology. As far as the questions relating to the fundamentals are concerned, one must have a firm belief in all Islamic fundamentals and basic tenets at least intellectually.
Another part of Islamic teachings concerns with morals (Akhlaq). This part deals with good morals and bad morals which are discussed in ethics.
The third part of Islamic teachings deals with the rules of law which are mentioned in Islamic jurisprudence.
All these parts of Islamic teachings are independent of each other. The fundamentals are related to reason and thinking; the morals are related to the habits and leanings; and the rules of law are related to the limbs and organs. (Articles of Acts)
As far as the fundamentals are concerned, the gnostics do not consider the mere intellectual belief to be enough. They say
that it is necessary to ponder over the truths in which a man believes and also to do something to remove the curtain existing between him and these truths. Similarly the gnostics do not consider the limited range of good moral, enough. Instead of abiding by philosophical and scientific morals they suggest the undertaking of spiritual journey which has its own special characteristics.
As far as the rules of law are concerned, the gnostics are not opposed to them. There are only a few questions about which their opinions may be considered to be contrary to the accepted principles of Islamic law.
The gnostics call the above-mentioned three components of the Islamic teachings shari'at, tariqat and haqiqat.
They maintain that just as man is composed of three parts, body, soul and intellect, which cannot be separated from each other and in spite of each part having a separate entity, all the three parts form a unified whole, the same is the case with shari'at, tariqat and haqiqat. The relation existing between them is that of inside and outside. The shari'at is outside; the tariqat is inside and the haqiqat is inside of the inside. The gnostics also believe that the human existence has many stages and grades and that some of these grades are beyond human comprehension. We shall return to this question later and explain it further.
Material of Islamic Gnosis
To gain knowledge of a science it is necessary to know its history and the developments which took place in it from time to time. It is also necessary to be conversant with the basic books of that science and with the personalities who invented or developed it. Now we come to these questions.
The first question which may be mentioned here is whether the science of Islamic gnosis has developed in the same way as that of Islamic jurisprudence, principles of jurisprudence, Qur'anic exegesis and Ahadith(traditions). The basic material of which was acquired by the Muslims from Islam and the principles and rules of which were subsequently discovered by themselves; or is the nature of Islamic gnosis similar to that of mathematics and medicine, the sciences which in the beginning
came to the Muslim world from abroad and then the Muslims developed them to the utmost? Or is there any third possibility?
As for the gnostics, they uphold the first alternative and totally reject all other possibilities. But some orientalists have been insisting and still insist that the subtle ideas of gnosis and mysticism have entered the Muslim world from outside.
Sometimes they allege that the origin of the gnostic ideas is Christian and they have penetrated the Muslim Circles as the result of a contact between the Muslims and the Christian monks. Sometimes they describe gnosis and mysticism as a reaction of the Iranians against the Arabs and Islam. Sometimes they call mysticism a by-product of neo-Platonic philosophy, which is an amalgam of the views of Aristotle, Plato and Pythagoras on the one hand and Judo-Christian tenets on the other. Sometimes these Orientalists assert that Islamic mysticism has taken its inspiration from Buddist ideas. Strange as it may seem in the Muslim world also the opponents of gnosis in Islam have been constantly trying to prove that its origin is non-Islamic and it is alien to Islam.
According to the third theory gnosis both in its theoretical and practical aspects has been basically derived from Islam only, although subsequently it has been influenced by other sources also, especially by scholastic theology, philosophy and illuminism, which all have considerably changed its complexion.
Now the question is whether like the jurists the gnostics also have been successful in arranging on correct lines the basic material which they originally obtained from Islam and whether they have been able to frame the working rules accordingly. If so how far have they been able to ensure that they do not deviate from the true Islamic principles? Has the outside influence on Islamic gnosis been limited to a reasonable extent?
Has Islamic gnosis assimilated the extraneous influences or have they turned it away from its original direction?
All these questions require deep thinking and thorough discussion. Anyhow, it should be admitted that Islamic gnosis owes its inspiration to Islam. The proponents and supporters of the first and to a certain of the second theory also, hold that Islam is a simple, plain and unequivocal religion. It does not contain anything mysterious or unintelligible.
Monotheism is the most fundamental belief of Islam, which maintains that as every house has a builder who is distinct and separate from the house itself, similarly this world also has a builder who is separate from this world and is totally independent of it.
In the eyes of Islam asceticism (zuhd) is the basis of property and other worldly goods. Asceticism means to shun transitory luxuries of this world for the sake of ever lasting spiritual and next worldly benefit. For this purpose one has to abide by certain rules of law mentioned in Islamic jurisprudence.
This group is of the opinion that what the gnostics mean by unity of Allah is quite different from Islamic monotheism for according to the gnostics unity of Allah means unity of existence. In other words they believe that there exists nothing except Allah, His names and attributes and their manifestations.
The spiritual journey of the gnostics is also different from Islamic asceticism, for in connection with their spiritual journey the gnostics talk of certain things such as love for Allah, annihilation of self and abiding in Allah and the revelation of Allah's glory on the heart of the gnostics, the things of which there is no trace in Islamic asceticism.
The tariqat of the gnostics is also different from the shari`at (Islamic law). The rules of personal behaviour and life style discussed in the tariqat are not found in Islamic jurisprudence.
This group holds that the virtuous companions of the Holy Prophet whom the gnostics and mystics claim to follow, were only ascetics and they knew nothing of the gnostics' spiritual journey nor were they conversant with the gnostic unity of Allah. All that they did was that they were indifferent to the worldly goods and concentrated their attention on the other world. They feared the punishment of Hell and hoped for the reward of Paradise. But the theory of this group is not acceptable in any way. The early period of Islam is more profound than these people intentionally or out of ignorance suppose. Islamic Monotheism is not so simple or so hollow as they think, nor is Islam limited to dry asceticism. Neither the Holy Prophet's virtuous companions were so simple as these people assert, nor are the Islamic injunctions limited to external acts of devotion.
Here we would like to point out briefly that in the original teachings of Islam there are many things which hint at the lofty and nice points of both practical and theoretical gnosis.
As for the question as to how far the Muslim gnostics and mystics have benefited from these teachings and what mistakes they have committed, it is not possible to deal with these points in this brief discourse.
As for the unity of Allah, the Holy Qur'an has not anywhere compared Allah and His creation to a house and its builder. The Qur'an declares that Allah is the Creator of the whole world and that He is everywhere and with everything.
The Qur'an says: Wherever you turn your face, Allah's face is there. (Surah al-Baqarah, 2:115)
We are closer to you than yourselves. (Surah Qaf, 50:16)"
He is the First and the Last (every thing begins from Him and ends at Him), and the Manifest and the Hidden. (Surah al-Hadid, 57:3)
It is obvious that such verses of the Qur'an draw the mind to a form of monotheism better and higher than the monotheism of the masses. There is a tradition in the Kafi which says that Allah knew that during a later period there would be people who would go deep into monotheism, and that is why he revealed the surah, al-Tawhid and the initial verses of the surah al-Hadid.
To prove the validity of spiritual journey and gaining proximity to Allah, it is enough to keep in mind the verse speaking about "meeting Allah" and "gaining His good pleasure". Moreover there are verses which speak of revelation and inspiration or say that the angels talked with some persons other than the Prophets, for example with Maryam (Mary). In this connection the verses relating to the Holy Prophet's ascension to heaven are also important.
In the Qur'an the appetitive soul, the admonishing soul and the contented and calm soul have been mentioned. There is also a mention of the knowledge imparted direct by Allah as well as of guidance as the result of one's striving. Those who strive for our sake, We guide them to Our paths. (Surah alAnkabut, 29:69)'
Similarly the Qur'an has described the purification of the soul as the cause of success. Indeed he is successful who causes
the soul to flourish; and indeed he is a failure who stunts it. (Surah ash Shams, 91:7 - 8)
At several places in the Qur'an the love of Allah has been described as superior to all human relations and affections.
The Qur'an says that every particle of the universe glorifies Allah. This has been stated in a way that suggests that if man perfects his `tafaqquh' (understanding) he can understand their glorification. Furthermore, in connection with human nature it has been said that Allah has breathed His spirit in man.
These things are enough to draw attention to the existence of vast spiritual relations, especially to the relation between man and Allah.
As mentioned earlier the question is not whether the Muslim gnostics used this material rightly or wrongly. What is important is that this material exists and it is potentially capable of suggesting very fine ideas. Even if it is admitted that the Muslim gnostics did not use this material rightly, some other people, not known as gnostics or mystics have correctly used it.
Furthermore, the Muslim traditions, reports, sermons, supplications, 'protests'1 and the life accounts of eminent personalities of Islam clearly indicate that dry asceticism and mere worship in the hope of the next worldly reward were not considered enough in the early period of Islam.
These reports, sermons, supplications and 'protests' contain highly sublime points. The life accounts of early eminent Muslim personalities throw enough light on their lofty spirituality, enlightened heart, burning passion and spiritual love. Here we relate only one story:
There is a report in the Kafi that one day after performing his prayers the Holy Prophet saw a weak and lean young man whose colour had turned pale, whose eyes were sunken and who could balance himself with difficulty. The Holy Prophet asked him who he was. He said: 'I carry conviction.' `What is the sign of your conviction?', said the Holy Prophet. In reply he said: `It is my conviction that has grieved me, that keeps me awake during the night (night vigil) and that keeps me thirsty during
1 The books composed in protest against wrong tenets and views like al Ihtijaj by Tabrasi.
the day (on account of fasting). It has made me oblivious of every thing in the world. I see as if the Throne of Allah was set up for the purpose of reckoning the deeds of the people who were assembled in the Assembly Square, I being one of them. I see the dwellers of Paradise enjoying themselves and the dwellers of Hell undergoing punishment. It appears as if even now I was hearing the blast of Hell flames with my own ears.' The Holy Prophet turned to his companions and said: 'He is the man whose heart Allah has enlightened with the light of faith.' Then the Holy Prophet turned to that young man and said: 'Keep up this state of yours, lest you lose it.'
The young man said: 'Please pray to Allah to grant me martyrdom.' Before long a battle took place. The young man took part in it and was martyred.
Even the life account of the Holy Prophet himself and his sayings and supplications are full of spiritual fervour and gnostic hints. The gnostics often quote his prayers as their authority.
Imam Ali's sayings also are replete with spirituality and almost all mystics and gnostics trace the origin of their orders to him. Here we quote two passages from Nahjul Balaghah:
There is no doubt that Allah the Almighty has made His remembrance the polish of the hearts. By means of it the deaf begin to hear, the blind begin to see and the arrogant become submissive. In every age and period Allah the Almighty has created men in whose minds He puts His secrets and through whose intellect He talks to them.' (Sermon — 220)
A godly person enlivens his heart and annihilates his ego till what is coarse becomes soft. A bright light like lightning shines in front of him, shows him the way and helps him in advancing towards Allah. Many doors push him forward till he reaches the gate of peace and safety and arrives at the destination where he has to stay. His feet are firm and his body contented, for he uses his heart and pleases his Lord.' (Sermon — 218)
Islamic supplications, especially those which have been taught by the Imams of the Holy Prophet's Progeny are a source of knowledge. The Supplication of Kumayl, the Supplication of Abu Hamzah Thumali, the Munajat Sha`baniyyah and the Sahifah Sajjadiyyah contain most sublime and heart warning spiritual expressions.
Is it necessary in the presence of all these sources that we roam about looking for alien sources?
A similar question arises in connection with the protest campaign launched by the holy Prophet's prominent companion Abu Zar Ghifdri, against the tyrants of his time. He strongly criticized tyranny and discrimination committed by them and as a result under went many hardships. At last he was exiled and he died in exile.
Some orientalists have raised the question as to what Abu Zar's motive was. They look for the motive of his campaign outside the Muslim world.
An Arab Christian George Jordaq in his book Imam Ali — The Voice of Human Justice, says:
`We are surprised at these people. Will it be reasonable if we see a man sitting at the bank of a river or at the coast of a sea and then try to find out from which stream he got that water with which he filled his pot? If we do so, we will be overlooking the river or the sea and will be looking for a stream from where he might have brought water."
Evidently Abu Zar could have no motive other than Islam. What other motive could have persuaded him to agitate against the tyranny of Mu'awiyah etc.?
Exactly the same case is with gnosis. The Orientalists have shut their eyes to the great source of Islam and are looking for some other source which they may describe as the motivating force of the spirituality of Islam.
Can we reject the sources of the Qur'an, traditions, sermons, supplications and the lifestyle of the Holy Prophet and the Imams simply to authenticate the theory of the Orientalists and their Eastern disciples?
In the beginning the pseudo-orientalists were bent upon proving something extraneous to Islamic teachings as the source of Islamic gnosis. But later some genuine orientalists such as Nicholson, the Englishman and Massignon, the French who had made a vast study of Islamic gnosis and mysticism and were not unaware of Islam also frankly admitted that the Qur'an and sunnah were the fountain-head of Islamic gnosis.
Here we quote a few sentences from Nicholson. He says: We find in the Qur'an that Allah says:
(i) Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
(ii) He is the First and He is the Last.
(iii) There is no god but He.
(iv) Everything other than Allah is transitory.
(v) I breathed in man My spirit.
(vi) We created man and We know what his soul says, because We are closer to him than his jugular vein.
(vii) Wherever you turn, Allah's face is there.
(viii) He whom Allah has not provided light, has no light.
There is no doubt that the roots of gnosis lie deep in these verses. For early gnostics the Qur'an was not only Allah's word but it was also a means of gaining proximity to Him. By pondering over the Qur'anic verses, especially the verses hinting at the Holy Prophet's Ascension, the mystics tried to absorb the Holy Prophet's spiritual quality.
The principle of unity found in mysticism is also mentioned in the Qur'an. In addition to that there is Hadith al Qudsi (tradition quoting Allah's words) according to which the Holy Prophet has said that Allah says: 'When My bondman comes close to Me by means of his acts of worship and good deeds; I begin to love him, and when I love him, become his ears with which he hears, his eyes with which he sees, his tongue with which he speaks and his hand with which he holds.'
As we have repeatedly pointed out, the question is not whether the gnostics have or have not properly utilized these verses, traditions and reports. The question is whether the original source of gnostic ideas is Islamic or non-Islamic.
Brief History of Gnosis
The leaders of Islam whose life replete with Islamic ideas and spiritual manifestations has given birth to deep spirituality in the Muslim world, were not technically mystics or gnostics.
Now we propose to give a concise account of the development of this branch of Islamic sciences. For this purpose it appears to be proper to give first of all a brief history of gnosis and mysticism from the first century of Hijri era to the tenth century. After that we shall discuss some questions relating to gnosis as far as the space at our disposal allows us and then we shall analyse these question.
It is an admitted fact that in the early period of Islam, and at least during the first century there existed among the Muslims no group known as the gnostic or the sufi. The word sufi came into existence during the second century.
It is said that Abu Hashim of Kufah was the first man to be called by this name. He lived in the second century, and is reputed to have founded the first monastery (khanqah)1 at Ramlah in Palestine for the exclusive use of a group of ascetics and worshippers. it is not known when Abu Hashim died but we know that he was the teacher of Abu Sufyan Thawri who died in 161 A.H. The well-known gnostic and sufi Abu al-Qasim Qushayri says that the word, sufi was not in vogue prior to 200 A.H. Nicholson is of the opinion that this word came into use towards the end of the second century.
There is a report in the Kali, vol. V which indicates that during the time of Imam Jalar Sadiq, that is during the first half of the second century there were some persons who were known as sufis.
If it is true that the name sufi was first applied to Abu Hashim of Kufa and if it is also true that he was Sufyan Thawri's teacher, that means that this epithet came into vogue in the first half of the second century, not towards the end of the second century as claimed by Nicholson and others. It also appears to be certain that the sufis were named so because they wore woolen garments (garments of suf).
Being ascetics the sufis (mystics) avoided soft dress and preferred coarse woolen garments.
Nothing can be said for certain since when these people assumed the epithet `Arif (gnostic). Anyhow there is no doubt that this term was in vogue in the third century as the sayings of Sari al-Saqati (d. 243) indicate. An utterance of Sufyan Thawri quoted in the Kitab al-Lum'ah by Abu Nasr Sarraj Tusi, an
authentic book of tasawwuf or mysticism, shows that this term appeared in the second century.
At any rate there was no class named sufi in the first century. The sufis appeared in the second century and apparently in this very century they became an organized group. It is not correct, as some people suggest, that this event took place in the third century.
Although in the first century there existed no group bearing the name of Sufi (mystic) or 'Aril (gnostic), yet it is not correct to say that the Holy Prophet's eminent companions were simple ascetics and had no spiritual life.
Perhaps some of the virtuous companions were ascetic only, but some others enjoyed the spiritual life to the utmost. Even all these were not alike. Salman Farsi and Abu Zar Ghifari did not have the same degree of faith. The degree of faith which Salman Farsi had, was unbearable to Abu Zar Ghifari.
Several traditions say: "If Abu Zar had known what was in Salman's heart, he would have killed him (thinking him to be an infidel).1
Now we talk about the mystics and gnostics of the period from the second century to the tenth century.
Gnostics of Second Century
Hasan Basri: Like that of scholastic theology the history of gnosticism and mysticism also begins with Hastri Basri who died in 110 A.D.
Hasan Basri was born in 62 A.H. and died at the age of 88. He passed 90 per cent of his life in the first century.
Hasan Basri was not known as a sufi, but he is counted among the sufis because he is the author of a book named Ri`Ayat Huqtiq Allah, which is considered to be the first book on tasawwuf or mysticism. The Oxford Library has the only extant copy of this book. Nicholson says: "Hasan Basri is the first Muslim who wrote about the sufi way of life. The programme of sufism proposed by the later authors for reaching, high spiritual positions consists of repentance (taubah) followed by some other rituals. Each ritual is performed to reach a position higher than the preceding one."
1 Safinatul Bihar by Muhaddith Qummi, root SLM.
It is important to note that certain orders of the sufis, for example that of Abu Said Abul Khayr, trace the chain of their preceptors to Hasan Basri and through him to Imam Ali. Ibn Nadim traces Abu Muhammad Ja`far Khadi's chain of preceptors to Hasan Basri and says that Hasan met the Holy Prophet's 70 such companions who had taken part in the Battle of Badr.
Another point worth mentioning is that certain stories show that Hasan Basri practically was a member of the group which was subsequently known as the sufis. We shall relate some of these stories.
Malik ibn Dinar: He was one of those who practised a very high degree of asceticism and austerity. In this connection many stories are related of him. He died in 135 A.H.
Ibrahim bin Adham: The story of his life which resembles that of Mahatma Budh is well-known. In the beginning he was a ruler of Balkh. Then as the result of certain events he repented and joined the sufi order.
The gnostics and sufis attach great importance to him. In the Mathnawi of Mawlana Rum his story has been related in a very fascinating way. He died approximately in 161 A.H.
Rabi'ah 'Adwiyyah: She was a wonder of her age. Being the fourth daughter of her parents she was named Rabi`ah. She is different from Rabi`ah Shamiyyah who is also counted among the sufis. Rabi`ah Shamiyyah was a contemporary of Jami and belonged to the ninth century.
Rabi`ah Adwiyyah's utterances are lofty and her verses are a masterpiece of gnosis. The events of her life are prodigious.
Abu Hashim Sufi of Kufah: The date of his death is not known. All that we know about him is that he was a teacher of Sufyin Thawri who died in 161. It appears that he was the first to become known as sufi in the history of Islam. Sufyan Thawri says: "If there had not been Abu Hashim, I would not have been able to understand the subtle points about ostentation and pretended piety.
Shaqiq Balkhi: He was a disciple of Ibrahim ibn Adham. Quoting the Kashful Ghummah by 'Isa Arbali and the Nur al-Absar by Shablanji, the author of the book Rayhanatul Adab says that Shaqiq Balkhi met Imam Musa ibn Ja`far on his way to Makkah. Several miracles of the Imam are reported by him. The
year of his death is either 153 or 174 or 184 A.H.
Ma`ruf Karkhi: He is one of the most renowned gnostics. It is said that his parents were Christian and he himself embraced Islam at Imam Riza' hands. The chain of the preceptors of many sufi order goes up to Ma`ruf Karkhi, from him to Imam Riza, through him to the preceding Imams and from them to the Holy Prophet. This chain is called the 'golden chain'. At least so is claimed by the adherents of his sufism.
Fuzayl bin Ayiz: He was an Iranian of Arab origin and lived in Marv. He is said to have been a bandit in the beginning. One night when he climbed the wall of a house with evil intentions, he heard someone who was keeping vigil, reciting a verse of the Qur'an. Fuzayl was so moved that he at once repented. A book named Misbah al-Shari`ah is ascribed to him. This book is said to be the collection of the lessons imparted to him by Imam Sadiq.
The late Haji Mirza Husayn Nuri, erudite scholar of tradition (hadith) of the last century regarded this book as reliable. Fuzayl bin Ayaz died in 187 A.H.
Gnostics of Third Century
Bayazid Bistimi: His name was Tayfur ibn `Isa and he is one of the most prominent sufis. He is said to be the first who talked about the doctrine of `fana' (dying to self and staying in Allah)
Bayazid Bistami once said: "I came forth from Bayazidness as a snake from its skin." Some people have declared him an infidel on account of his ecstatic utterances. The sufis themselves admit that he is a "man of intoxication" and that he made heretical and outwardly un-Islamic statements and false claims in a state of ecstasy and unconsciousness.
Bayazid died in 261 A.H. Some people assert that he served Imam Ja`far Sadiq as a water carrier, but this is historically wrong because he was not alive during the time of Imam Ja`far Sadiq.
Bishr Hafi: He is one of the most prominent sufis. In the beginning he was a libertine and lax in morals. Then he repented. The late Allamah Hilli in his book, Minhijul Karamah has related a story, according to which he repented at the hand of
Imam Musa ibn Ja'far. As he was without shoes at that time, he came to be known as Hafi or bare foot. Some other people give some other reason as to why he is called Hafi. Bishr Hafi died in 1226 or in 227.
Sari Saqati: He was one of the companions and friends of Bishr Hafi. Sari Saqati was very kind-hearted. He was always willing to help others and to make sacrifice for them.
In his book Wafiyat al-A'yan Ibn Khallikan says: "Sari Saqati once said: 'Some thirty years ago I once said `Alhamdulillah, (Thank God) and since then I have been seeking Allah's forgiveness for that." "How was that", people asked. Sari Saqati said: "One night fire broke out in the market. I went there to see if my shop was safe. Somebody told me that the fire had not reached my shop. I involuntarily exclaimed Alhamdu lillah. At once I realized my mistake. It was all right that my shop was not damaged, but should I be indifferent to the fate of other Muslims?"
Sa'di has narrated this story with a slight variation.
"One night owing to the heat caused by the lamenting sighs of the people fire broke out. I have heard that as a result half of Baghdad was gutted by fire. While this destitution was going on one man said: Thank God. My house has not been damaged. Thereupon a wise man exclaimed: "Greedy man, you are too selfish. You want your own house to be safe and do not care if the whole town is burnt."
Sari was Ma`ruf Karkhi's pupil and disciple and Junayd Baghdadi's uncle and spiritual guide. Many of his utterances about unity of Allah and Divine love are quoted. Once he said: "The gnostic shines all the world over like the sun; he bears the weight of the virtuous and the wicked on his shoulders like the earth. He is like water; on him depends the life of hearts. Like fire his light reaches all."
Sari Saqati died at the age of 98 years in 245 or 250 A.H.
Harith Muhasibi: He was one of Junayd Baghdadi's friends and disciples. He is called Muhasibi because he was very keen on contemplation and self-checking. He was Ahmad bin Hambal's contemporary and friend. But Ahmad bin Hambal turned him away because Ahmad bin Hambal was opposed to scholastic theology while Muhasibi was very fond of it. As a result people
were estranged from him. Harith Muhasibi died in 223 A.H.
Junayd Baghdadi: Originally he was a resident of Nahawand. The sufis call him Sayyid (Chief of the tribe) just as Shi`ah jurists call Shaykh Tusi Shaykh al-Ta'ifah. Junayd is considered to be a moderate sufi. From him such ecstatic remarks have not been reported as from others. He did not wear the garb of the sufis and was always dressed like the jurists. Somebody asked him to wear the cloak of the sufis at least to please his friends. He said: 'If I had believed that the style of dress was of any significance, I would have worn the garments of molten iron. But the voice of the truth says: 'What is important is a burning heart and not a patched cloak.' Junayd was Sari Saqati's disciple, nephew and pupil. He was a pupil of Harith Muhasibi also. It is said that he died in 297 A.H.
Zun Nun al-Misri: He was a native of Egypt and was a pupil of the renowned jurist, Malik ibn Anas. Zun Nun was the first to use allegorical and symbolic language. Some people hold that it was he who introduce Neo-Platonic philosophy in Islamic mysticism. He died between 240 and 250 A.H.
Sahl bin Abdullah Tustari: He is counted among the great sufis. A sect of the sufis maintaining that the keynote of gnosis is self-mortification or a struggle against lower self, is called Sahliyyah after him. In Makkah he came into contact with Zun Nun of Egypt. He died in 283 or 293 A.H.
Husayn bin Mansur Hallaj: Among the Muslim mystics his personality is most controversial. Many ecstatic utterances and impious sayings are attributed to him. He was accused of heresy, apostasy and claiming himself to be a God incarnate. The jurists declared him to be an infidel. Accordingly he was crucified during the reign of Caliph Muqtadir. The sufis accuse him of betraying the spiritual secrets.
Some people think that he was nothing but a trickstar. Anyhow the sufis try to give an explanation on his behalf and say that his and Bayazid's utterances smacking infidelity were made by them in an ecstatic and unconscious state.
The sufis call him martyr. He was executed in 306 or 307 A.H.1
1 In the preface of his book 'Causes of Inclination to Materialism' Allamah Mutahhari has repudiated the statement of some materialists that Hallaj was a materialist.
Gnostics of Fourth Century
Abu Bakr Shibli : He was Junayd Baghdadi's pupil as well as his disciple, and was acquainted with Hallaj also. He is one of the renowned sufis. Originally he belonged to Khurasan. In the Rawzatul Jannah awl other biographical memoirs a large number of his verses and mystic sayings have been quoted.
Khwaja Abdullah Ansari says: "Zun Nun Misri was the first to talk in symbolic terms and in an allegorical way. Junayd arranged this science and developed it further. When Shibli's turn came, he carried it to the pulpits." Shibli died at some time between 334 and 337 A.H. at the age of 87.
Abu Ali Rudbari: He came of the Sasanian stock, and claimed to be a descendant of Nushirwan. He was one of the disciples of Junayd. He learned jurisprudence from Abul `Abbas bin Shurayh and received education in literature from Thalab. He is known as the one who combined in himself the knowledge of the Shari`at (law), Tariqat (the mystic way) and Haqiqat (truth).He died in 322.
Abu Nasr Sarraj Tusi : He is the author of the celebrated book Lum`ah, which is one of the earliest and reliable books of mysticism. He died in 378 A.H. Many of the prominent mystics are his direct or indirect pupils.
Abul Fazl Sarkhasi: He was Abu Nasr Sarraj's pupil and disciple and the renowned gnostic, Abu Said Abul Khayr's preceptor and teacher. Abul Fazl died in 400 A.H.
Abu Abdillah Rudbari: He was a nephew of Abu Ali Rudbari and a leading mystic of Syria. He died in 396 A.H.
Abu Talib Makki: His fame rests on his book Quwwatul Qultib, which has been published and is counted among the earliest and the most authentic books of sufism. Abu Talib Makki died in 385 or 386 A.H.
Gnostics of Fifth Century
Shaykh Abul Hasan Khirqani: He is one of the most renowned sufis. Many astonishing stories are related of him. It is said that once he went to Bayazid Bistames grave, made a contact with Bayazid's spirit and got his difficulties solved by Bayazid direct.
This story has been related in his celebrated Mathnawi
by Mawlawi, who has mentioned Khirqani at a number of places in his Mathnavi and appears to be especially devoted to him. It is also reported that Khirqani was personally acquainted with the renowned philosopher, Abu Ali Sina and the well-known gnostic Abu Sa'id Abul Khayr. Khirqani died in 425 A.H.
Abu Sa'id Abul Khayr: He is one of the most famous sufis and is reputed to have possessed a very fine spiritual condition. His quatrains are distinguished by elegance. Once somebody asked him what tasawwuf was. He said: "Tasawwuf means that you remove what is in your head; give away that which is in your hand; and do all that you can." One day Abu Ali Sina attended his sermon meeting. Abu Said was talking about the necessity of obeying Allah and doing good deeds. Abu Ali recited a quatrain which said: "We love Your forgiveness and rely on that, we have nothing do with obedience or disobedience. Wherever there is Your benevolence, the deeds done and the deeds not done are all alike."
Abu Sa`id at once retorted reciting a couplet saying: "Don't rely on forgiveness. The deeds done and the deeds not done can never be the same." He died in 440 A.H.
Abu Ali Daqqiq Nishapuri: He was proficient in both shari`at and tariqat, and was a preacher and a commentator of the Qur'an too. His orisions are full of lamentation. Hence, he is known as the lamenting shaykh. He died in 405 or 412 A.H.
Abul Hasan Ali bin Uthman Hejira: He is the author of the celebrated book of tasawwuf, Kashful Mahjub, which has recently been published. He died in 470 A.H.
Khwaja Abdullah Ansari: He was one of the renowned and the most devoted sufis. His fame rests on his brief sayings, orisions and his beautiful and elegant quatrains. One of his sayings is: "You are immature in childhood, intoxicated in youth and weak in old age. Then when will you adore Allah?" Another saying of his is: "To return unkindness for unkindness is dog-like; to return kindness for kindness is donkey-like; Abdullah Ansari returns kindness for unkindness."
In one of his quatrians he says:"It is very bad to brag or
"Khwdja Abdullah was born in Herat and died there in
481 A.H. That is why he is known as the Pir-e-Herat.
He is the author of many books, including his well-known and magnificent book Manzilus Sa'irin, which is a text book of sufism and gnosis. On this book many commentaries have been written.
Abu Hamid Muhammad Ghazali: He is one of the most outstanding scholars of Islam and is well-known throughout the East and the West. He was well-versed in all rational and transmitted sciences. For some time he was the head of the celebrated Nizamiyyah College which was the highest religious post of his time. After some time he felt that neither his knowledge nor his post was enough to provide him spiritual satisfaction. Therefore he retired to seclusion and engaged himself in the purification of his soul.
He passed 10 years in Jerusalem away from his friends and acquaintances. During this period his attention was absorbed by Islamic mysticism. After that till the end of his life he did not accept any post or position. The Ihyfi' Ulum ad-Din is his most famous work. He died in his native town Tus in 505 A.H.
Gnostics of Sixth Century
`Aynul Quzat al-Hamdfini: He was one of the most enthusiastic sufis and was a disciple of Muhammad Ghazali's younger brother Ahmad Ghazali, who was also a leading sufi. `Aynul Quzat was the author of many books. His verses are pleasing and beautiful, but contain many ecstatic statements, for which he was accused of infidelity and put to death. His dead body was burnt and ashes were scattered. He was executed at sometime between 525 and 533 A.H.
Sana'i Ghaznavi: He is a famous poet and in his verses he has alluded to the delicate questions of mysticism. In his mathnavi Mawlavi has quoted his sayings and explained them. Sana'i died in the first half of the sixth century.
Ahmad Jami Zhindah Pil: He is one of the renowned sufis and gnostics. His grave is in a town named Turbat-i-Jam on the border of Iran and Afghanistan.
In a four line poem he says:
"Do not be proud for it has so often happened that a fine rider was taken to a difficult tartarean track to tumble down.
At the same time do not lose heart for many a wicked person has unexpectedly been carried to destination."
Ahmad Jami died sometime about 536 A.H.
Abdul Qadir Mini: He is a controversial figure of the Muslim world. The sufi order known as Qadiriyya is attributed to him. His mausoleum in Baghdad is well-known. Abdul Qadir Rani was a descendant of Imam Hasan. He died in 560 or 561 A.H.
Shaykh Ruz Bahan Baqli of Shiraz: Because of his frequent ecstatic utterances he is known as Shaykh Shattah. The Orientalists have recently published some of his books. He died in 606 A.H.
Gnostics of Seventh Century
In this century also there were many eminent sufis. We mention here some of them in the order of the year of their death:
Shaykh Najmuddin Kubra: He is one of the well-known great sufis. Several sufi orders branch off from him. He was Shaykh Bahaan Bagli's pupil, disciple and son-in-law, and himself had many disciples. One of his disciples was Maulavi's father, Bah'uddin.
While Shaykh Najmuddin Kubra was living in Khawdrazm, the Mongols invaded that city. They sent a message to the Shaykh asking him to leave the city for safety along with his family. In reply Shaykh Najmuddin said: "I have lived with the people of this city during the days of peace and security. Now I cannot leave them alone at the time of a calamity." After that he took up arms and died bravely fighting along with the other people of Khawarazm. This event took place in 616 A.H.
Shaykh Fariduddin Attar: He is one of the first grade and most eminent sufis. His works are both in prose and poetry. He compiled a book named Tazkiratul Awliya, which contains the life-accounts of the sufis. The book begins with the biography of Imam Ja`far Sadiq and ends with that of Imam Muhammad Baqir (peace be on both of them). This book has served as a source-book for the subsequent books on the subject and is considered to be a reference book. His book Mantiqut Tayr is also a master piece of tasawwuf or sufi`ism.
In respect of him Mawlavi says:
Attar was the spirit and Sana'i his two eyes;
We follow in the foot step of Sana'i and Attar.
He has also said:
Attar has walked through seven cities of love;
We are still at the corner of a lane.
By seven cities Mawlavi means the seven vallies explained by Attar himself in the Mantiqut Tayr.
Mahmud Shabistari in his Mathnawi, Gulshan-e-Raz says: "I am not ashamed of my poor poetry:
Such wonderful men as was Attar are born only once in thousands of years."
Attar was Majduddin Baghdadi's pupil and disciple and Majduddin was a disciple of Shaykh Najmuddin Kubra.
Attar also received some gnostic training from Qutbuddin Haydar who was a great sufi of that time, and who is buried at Turbat-e-Haydariya a town named after him.
Attar was killed during the Mangol disturbances. According to a report he was killed by the Mongols at some time between 1626 and 628 A.H.
Shaykh Shihabuddin Suhrawardi Zanjani: He is the author of the celebrated book of Tasawwuf, `Awariful Ma'arif, and is a direct descendant of Abu Bakr. It is said that he visited Makkah and Madina every year for pilgrimage. He was aquainted with Shaykh Abdul Abdul Qadir Jilani and was his companion too.
Shaykh Sa`di Shirazi and the well-known poet Kamaluddin Isfahani were his disciples.
About him Sa`di says:
"My spiritual guide, Shaykh Shihabuddin, who was aware of spiritual mystics, gave me two counsels while travelling aboard a boat:
(i) Do not be self-conceited, and
(ii) Do not be fault-finding."
This Surhrawardi is different from his name sake Shaykh Shahabuddin Suhrawardi, who was a philosopher known as "Shaykhul Ishraq"1 and who was killed in Alapps some time between 581 and 590 A.H.
1 Ishraq signifies a school of philosophy known as the school of illumination.
The gnostic Suhrawardi died in about 630 A.H.
Ibnul Firiz of Egypt: He is counted among the first rate Sufis. His mystic verses in Arabic are exquisite. His Diwan (collection of poetical verses) has been published several times. One of those who have written a commentary on his Diwin is Abdur Rahman Jami, a well-known sufi of the ninth century.
His poems in Arabic can be compared to the lyrics of Haafiz in Persian. Muhyuddin 'Arabi once asked Ibn Fariz to write a commentary on his own verses. In reply he said: "Your book al-Futuhât al-Makkiyyah is a commentary on my Verses."
Ibn Fariz is one of those whose spiritual condition may be described as extraordinary. Perhaps he was possessed by a state of rapture and ecstasy and he composed most of his verses while he was in that state. Ibn Fariz died in 632 A.H.
Muhyuddin Ibn al-`Arabi: He was a descendant of Hatim Td'i. Originally he belonged to Andalus, but it appears that he passed the greater part of his life in Makkah and Syria. He was a pupil of the sixth century sufi, Shaykh Abu Madyan Maghribi. The chain of his spiritual preceptors goes with one intervening link to Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani, mentioned by us earlier.
Muhyuddin who is also known as Ibnul 'Arabi, was undoubtedly the greatest gnostic of Islam. No gnostic in Islam has ever reached that position which he occupies. That is why he is called al-Shaykh al-Akbar (the grand master).
Islamic gnosticism made progress century by century. In every century there were some people who made significant contribution to its development and promotion. But in the seventh century Muhyuddin brought about a complete revolution and gnosis and mysticism suddenly reached their zenith. He set a new goal for gnosis and laid the foundation of the scientific and philosophical aspect of mysticism. His personality was a wonder of his time. It is because of his marvellous personality that contradictory opinions have been expressed about him.
Some say that he was a perfect wali (saint) and favourite of Allah whereas some others degrade him so much that they say that he was an infidel. They distort even his name and call him Mumituddin or Mahiyuddin (suppressor of faith). The great Muslim philosopher, Mulla Sadra attached great importance to him. In his opinion he was higher in rank than Abu Ali Sina and Farabi.
The number of the books composed by him is more than two hundred and almost all those books the manuscripts of which are extant, have been published. The number of these published books is about 30. The most important of his books is al-Futuhât al-Makkiyyah, which is a voluminous book and is in fact an encyclopedia of tawsawwuf or mysticism.
Another book of his is Fusasul Hikam, which is a very important and valuable book though small in size. This book is difficult to understand and that is why many commentaries on it have been written. Perhaps at no time there have been more than two or three persons who could understand its text. Muhyuddin died in 638 A.H. in Damascus where his tomb still stands.
Sadruddin Muhammad Qunawi: He was a disciple and step son of Muhyuddin Ibn al-Arabi and a contemporary of Khwaja Nasiruddin Tusi and Mawlavi. Khwaja Tusi has had correspondence with him and Khwaja Nasiruddin held him in great respect. His relations with Mawlavi were very good and sincere. Qunawi used to lead the prayers and Mawlavi used to offer his prayers behind him. Mawlavi is said to be his pupil also.
It is related that Mawlavi one day came to the meeting place of Qunawi. Qunawi rose from the mattress on which he was sitting and offered his seat to Mawlavi who said: "If I sit on your mattress, what explanation shall I give to Allah?" Qunawi threw away the mattress and said: "If it is not fit for you, it is not for me also."
Qunawi is the best interpreter of Muhyuddin Ibnul `Arabi's ideas. Perhaps without him it would have been too difficult to comprehend Ibnul 'Arabi. Even Mawlavi became conversant with Ibn al-`Arabi's school of thought through Qunawi.
It appears that Mawlavi is called Qunawi's pupil only because he got to Ibnul `Arabi's ideas through him. Ibnul `Arabi's thinking is reflected in Mawlavi's Mathnawi as well as his Diwan known as the Diwan of Shams Tabriz. For the past six hundred years Qunawi's books have been used as text books in the teaching centres of Islamic philosophy and tasawwuf.
The most well-known of his works are Miftahul Ghayb, Nusus and Fukuk. Qunawi died in 672 or 673 A.H. Mawlavi and Khwaja Nasiruddin Tusi also died in 672 A.H.
Mawlana Jalaluddin Muhammad Balkhi Rumi: He is known by his epithet Mawlavi. Among the Muslim gnostics he was gifted with an extraordinary intelligence. He is a direct descendant of Abu Bakr. His Mathnawi is an ocean of philosophy and gnosis. It is replete with subtle points, spiritual, social and gnostic. He is counted among the most eminent poets of Iran. Originally he belonged to Balkh. When he was still a boy he went on a pilgrimage to Makkah along with his father. On his way he met with Shaykh Fariduddin Attar in Nishapur.
On return from Makkah he and his father migrated to Qoniya where they settled.
In the beginning Mawlavi was a religious scholar and like other religious scholars occupied himself with teaching and passed a respectable life. Then he met the famous gnostic Shams Tabriz and was impressed by him so much that he lost interest in every thing worldly.
The anthology of his lyric poems is known as the Diwan-e Shams Tabriz. In the Mathnawi also he has mentioned Shams Tabriz at several places with great pathos. Mawlavi died in 672 A.H.
Fakhruddin Iraqi of Hamdan: He is a well-known sufi poet of lyrics. He was Sadruddin Qunawi's pupil and the above mentioned Shahabuddin Suhrawardi's disciple. In 688 A.H. he departed this world.
Gnosis of Eighth Century
`Ala'uddin Simnani: In the beginning he was a senior government official. Later he relinquished that job and joined the fraternity of the gnostics. He spent all his riches in the way of Allah. Ala'uddin Simnani who is the author of a number of books, has a special theory of gnosis which is discussed in the books of tasawwuf. He died in 736 A.H. The famous poet Khwajwi Kirmani was one of his disciples. He composed a poem in his praise.
Abdur Razzaq Kashani: He was a great gnostic scholar of the eighth century. He wrote commentaries on Muhyuddin Ibnul `Arabi's Fusus and Khwaja Abdullah's Manazilus Sa'irin. Both these commentaries have been published and are used by the scholars.
In the course of giving a life account of Abdur Razzaq Lahiji the author of the Rawzatul Jannat has said that the Shahid Thani has paid glowing tributes to Abdur Razzaq Kashani. Heated discussions took place between Kashani and `Alaa'uddin Simnani regarding the questions of theoretical gnosis advanced by Muhyuddin Ibnul 'Arabi.
Abdur Razzaq Kashani died in 735 A.H.
Khwaja Hafiz Shirazi: Although he enjoys world fame, we know scarcely anything about his life. Anyhow it is an undisputed fact that he was a scholar, gnostic, memorizer of the Qur'an and a commentator of it. He has alluded to these facts at a number of places in his poetry.
He has referred to his preceptor and spiritual guide also, but it is not known who that spiritual guide was. The gnostic poetry of Hafiz is of the highest quality, but it is not easy for every one to get to its subtleties. All the subsequent gnostics admit that Hafiz himself passed through the high stage of gnosis personally,
Some distinguished scholars have written commentaries on some of the verses of Hafiz. For example the famous philosopher of the ninth century Jalaluddin Dawani compiled a whole book explaining one couplet of his. Hafiz died in 791 A.H.1
Shaykh Mahmud Shabistari: He composed an excellent mathnawi named Gulshan-e-Raz devoted to the subject of gnosis. This book is regarded as one of the best books of Tasawwuf, and it has made the name of Shabistari immortal. Several commentaries on it have been written. The best of them is perhaps that of Shaykh Muhammad Lahiji. It has been published and is available. Shabistari died in about 720 A.H.
Sayyid Haydar He is an eminent gnostic scholar. One of his books is Jimi`ul Astir, which is a deep study of Muhyuddin `Arabi's theoretical gnosis. This book has been recently published. Another of his books is the Nassun Nustis, which is a commentary on the Fustis. Sayyid Haydar was a
contemporary of Allamah Hilli. The exact year of his death is not known.
Abdul Karim Jili: He is the author of the well-known book, al-Insan al-Kamil (Perfect Man). Ibnul 'Arabi was the first to advance the theory of perfect man. Later it became an important doctrine of Islamic gnosis.
Ibnul `Arabi's pupil and disciple, Sadruddin Qunawi has elaborately discussed this doctrine in his book, Miftahul Ghayb. As far as we know two gnostics have independently written two books each named al-Insan al-Kama. One of them is Azizuddin Nasafi and the other is 'Abdul Karim Jili. Both the books have been published. Abdul Karim Jili died at the early age of 38 in 805 A.H.
Gnostics of Ninth Century
Shah Ni`matullah Wali: He is a direct descendant of Imam Ali and is one of the famous sufis and gnostics. At present the Ni`matuullah order is one of the most well-known sufi orders. His tomb at Mahan in the region of Kirman is a place of pilgrimage for the sufis.
He is said to have died at the age of about 95 years in 820 or 827 or 837 A.H.
Sa'inuddin Ali Tarkah Isfahani: He is a learned gnostic well-versed in Ibnul `Arabi's system of theoretical gnosis. His book Tamhidul Qawald, which has been published testifies to his erudity. Well-known scholars appreciate this book and regard it as authentic.
Muhammad ibn Hamzah Fannari Rumi: He was a scholar of the Uthmani Empire. He had the knowledge of many sciences and was the author of a large number of books. His fame in gnosis and mysticism rests on his book, Misbahul Uns, which is a commentary on Qunawi's Miftahul Ghayab.
It is not easy to write a commentary on Muhyuddin Ibnul `Arabi's books or those of Sadruddin Qunawi, but Fannâri has successfully done this job and his work has been appreciated by the later gnostic scholars. This book has been published with the late Mirza Rashti's notes by litho in Tehran. Unfortunately some of the notes are not legible owing to bad printing. Mirza Rashti was a gnostic scholar of the last century.
Shamsuddin Muhammad Lahiji Nurbakhshi: He is a commentator of Mahmud Shabistari's Mathnawi, Gulshan-e Raz, and was a contemporary of Sadruddin Dashtaki and Allamah Dawdni. He lived in Shiraz. In the Majalisul Mu'minin Qazi Narullah says that Sadruddin Dashtaki and Allamah Dawani who were distinguished scholars of their time held Muhammad Lahiji in great respect.
He was a disciple of Sayyid Muhammad Nur Bakhsh, who was a pupil of Ibnul Fand Hilli. The chain of his preceptors, as mentioned by him in his commentary on the Gulshan-e-Raz, goes from Sayyid Muhammad Nur Bakhsh up to Ma`rtif Karkhi and then through Imam Riza and his forefathers to the Holy Prophet. Shamsuddin Muhammad Lahiji calls this chain the "Chain of gold." (Silsilatuz Zahab).
Lahiji's fame rests largely on his commentary on the Gulshan-e-Raz. This book is regarded as one of the best books of sufism. As he has mentioned in the preface of his book, he started the compilation of it in 877. The exact year of Lahiji's death is not known. Apparently he died before 900 A.H.
Nuruddin `Abdur Rahman Jami: His ancestral line goes to Muhammad bin Hasan Shaybani, an eminent Jurist of the second century. Jami was an outstanding poet, and is regarded 1as the last great poet of sufi poetry in Iran.
In the beginning his nom de plume was Dashti. Later he changed it to Jami, first because he was born at Jam, a town in the province of Mashad and secondly because he was a disciple of Ahmad Jami known as Zhindah Pil. He himself says: "I was born at Jam and my writings are inspired by Shaykh al-Islam Jami. For these two reasons my nom de plume is Jami."
Jami was the master of several sciences, such as syntax (grammar), morphology, theology, principles of jurisprudence, logic, philosophy and tasawwuf. He was the author of a large number of books, including a commentary on Muhyuddin's Fususul Hikam, a commentary on Fakhruddin 'Iraqi's Lanffit, a commentary on Ibn Fariz's Ode rhyming in `ta', a commentary on Qasidatul Burdah, a hymn in praise of the Holy Prophet, a commentary on Farazdaq's panagyric on Imam Zaynul `Abidin, the Lawà'ih, the Bandristan, in which he followed Sa`cli's style and the Nafahatul Uns, a memoir of the sufis' lives.
Jami was a disciple of Bahà'uddin Naqshband, the founder of the sufi order known as the Naqshbandiya. Just as Muhammad Lahiji's personality was superior to that of his preceptor, Sayyid Muhammad Nur Bakhsh, similarly Jami was a more distinguished and better scholar than his preceptor, Baha'uddin Naqshband. As at present we are discussing the scientific aspect of gnosis and are not concerned with sufi orders, we have mentioned Muhammad Lahiji and Abdur Rahmân Jami, but not their preceptors. Jami died at the age of 88 in 898 of the hijrah.
This is a brief account of the development of mysticism in Islam from its beginning up to the end of the ninth century. In our opinion after that the history of mysticism and gnosis underwent a complete change. So far sufi scholars were considered to be the eminent sufis themselves. They were attached to regular orders and their books were standard books of mysticism and gnosis. But with the beginning of the 10th century the situation changed.
(i) Now even the most prominent sufis did not possess that amount of knowledge and capability as their predecessors did. Perhaps it would be correct to say that after the ninth century mysticism became a mixture of hollow rituals and self-made innovations.
(ii) Secondly some persons who did not belong to any sufi order acquired more proficiency in the gnostic ideas of the Muhyuddin school than regular sufis.
For example Mulla Sadra Shirazi (d. 1050 A.H.), his pupil, Fayz Kashini (d. 1091 A.H.) and his pupils' pupil Qazi Sa`id Qummi (d. 1103) had more knowledge of the theories and ideas of the Muhyuddin's school than the most prominent sufis of their age, although none of them belonged to any sufi order. Such examples still exist.
The late Agha Riza Qamsha'i and the late Agha Mirza Rashti were not practising sufis, but were among those philosophers and scholars of the past 100 years who were experts in theoretical gnosis.
It may be said that this practice has started since the time of Muhyuddin Ibn al-Arabi when theoretical gnosis was founded and it acquired the shape of a philosophy.
We mentioned earlier Muhammad bin Hamzah Fannari.
Perhaps he was also one of those who were not practising sufis, but were highly proficient in theoretical gnosis. Such a practice has become conspicuous since the 10th century onward when a class of such people came into existence who were experts in the theory of gnosis, but were not practising sufis or at least did not belong to any regular order of the sufis.
From the 10th century onward we meet many individuals who were really devoted gnostics and sufis, but not only they did not belong to any regular sufi order, but were indifferent to these orders and either denounced them totally or criticized some of their practices.
A characteristic of this group was that they were mostly jurists and divines and as such they were very particular about maintaining harmony between the mystic beliefs and practices and the rules of external religion and morality. This story also has a history, but this is not a proper occasion to narrate it.
Stages and Stations
The gnostics say that in order to attain to true gnosis it is necessary to pass through certain stages and stations, without passing through which, it would not be possible to attain to gnosis.
Gnosis and theosophy have one common feature, but each of them is distinct from the other in many respects. The feature which they have in common is that both of them in a way aim at gaining the knowledge of Allah, although the basic objective of theosophy is to gain the knowledge of the universe. Yet in its own way it aims at gaining the knowledge of Allah also, though that is not its sole aim.
On the contrary to the gnostics the knowledge of Allah is all that they want. They believe that in the light of Allah's knowledge from the angle of monotheism they perceive everything in its true perspective. In other words according to them, the perception of everything else depends on the knowledge of Allah.
Another difference between theosophy and gnosis is that a theosophist or a philosopher seeks mental and intellectual knowledge which can be compared to the knowledge that a mathematician gains through pondering over the mathematical problems. But the knowledge which a gnostic seeks is based on his personal and inner experience and his inward feeling and
observation, and may be compared to the knowledge gained by a researcher in his laboratory. The philosopher seeks that may be certain and definite knowledge but the gnostic seeks true and absolute knowledge.
The third difference is that the philosopher uses reasoning and arguments whereas the gnostic gains knowledge by the purification of his heart and changing his self. The philosopher wants to study the universe by using the telescope of his mind, whereas the gnostic stimulates his entire existence to teach the truth, and wants to pass away from his self by joining the Truth just like a drop of rain that passes away into the river.
From the view-point of a philosopher understanding the truth is the natural perfection that man is expected to attain, but in the eyes of a gnostic man's perfection is to gain access to the Truth. According to the philosopher the imperfect man is he who is ignorant, whereas according to the gnostic the imperfect man is he who is away from his origin and does not have access to the Truth.
The gnostic regards gaining access as perfection, not knowing and understanding. He considers it necessary to pass through several stages and stations in order to reach his goal and obtain true gnosis. It is passing through these stages which is called "spiritual journey".
In the books of tasawwuf these stages and stations have been elaborately discussed. To throw a brief light on the subject we here quote a summary of the ninth chapter of Abu Ali ibn Sina's book al-Isharat.
Abu Ali Sina is a philosopher, not a gnostic. Yet he is not a dry philosopher. Towards the end of his life he was drawn to gnosis and in al-Isharat, which is apparently his last book, he has devoted one whole chapter to the description of the stations of the gnostics.
Instead of citing any passages from the books of the gnostics we deem it better to give a summary of the ninth chapter of al-Ishirat, which is an exceptionally high standard work.
Definition of Zahid, `Abid and Arif
"An ascetic (zahid) is he who renounces wordily goods and pleasures and a worshipper (abid) is he who is strict in performing
such acts of worship as prayers, fast etc. He who diverts his attention from every thing other than Allah and concentrates his mind on the world of divinity with a view to illuminate his soul in the radiance of Divine light, is called gnostic (alif). In many cases one can simultaneously have all these three qualities or two of them."
Although Abu 'Ali Sina here has defined ascetic, worshipper and gnostic only, yet by implication he has also defined asceticism, worship and gnosis.
This definition shows that asceticism means the renunciation of worldly desires and vanities; worship means the performance of such acts as prayers, fast and recitation of the Qur'an; and gnosis means the diversion of mind from everything other than Allah and its concentration on Him with a view to enlighten the heart. The last sentence of Abu Ali Sina alludes to an important point, that is that one can simultaneously be an ascetic and a worshipper or an ascetic and a gnostic. One can also be an ascetic as well a worshipper and a gnostic both. Ibn Sina has not further elucidated his point, but what he means to say is that one can be an ascetic and a worshipper without being a gnostic but one cannot be a gnostic without being an ascetic and a worshipper.
To make this point more clear it may be mentioned that every gnostic is necessarily an ascetic and a worshipper also, but every ascetic or every worshipper is not necessarily a gnostic.
Ibn Sina points out that the asceticism of a gnostic is different from that of a non-gnostic, for each of them has a different philosophy of asceticism. Similarly the philosophy of a gnostic's worship is different from that of a non-gnostic's worship. The nature and spirit of the asceticism and worship of a gnostic are different from those of a non-gnostic.
Ibn Sina says that the asceticism of a non-gnostic is a sort of barter trade for he buys other worldly benefits in exchange for this worldly goods. On the other hand the asceticism of a gnostic means purging of his heart of everything that may obstruct his attention to Allah. The non-gnostic's worship also is a sort of business. He is a workman who works for wages. He adores Allah in this world so that he may be recompensed in the next. But to a gnostic the worship which he performs is a sort
of spiritual exercise and a constant practice of being attentive to the Divine essence and inattentive to the world.
Ibn Sina says: 'The gnostic seeks Allah alone. He is not concerned with anything else. In his eyes there is nothing more important and more valuable than gnosis. He worships Allah because worship is due to Him and because it is an appropriate and decent way of expressing man's relation to Him. The worship of the gnostic is free from any element of fear or hope of reward.'
In other words the gnostic is an absolute monotheist in his objective. He seeks Allah alone. He does not seek Him for the sake of gaining any benefits in this or the next world, for if he does so, his main aim would be these benefits and he would be seeking Allah only as a means of obtaining them, not as his sole objective. In this case his real deity would be his lower self to please and satisfy which he requires all the bounties and pleasures.
A non-gnostic seeks Allah for the sake of His bounties, and a gnostic seeks His bounties for the sake of Himself.
Here a question arises. If it was true that the gnostic did not seek anything except Allah, then why did he worship Him? He must have some objective. In reply to this question Abu Ali Sina says that the gnostic worships Allah for two reasons: Firstly because Allah deserves to be worshipped. It is a common practice that when a person finds any conspicuous good quality in another person or thing he automatically praises that person or thing, not in the hope of getting any benefit, but simply because that person or thing is praiseworthy. This rule applies to all commendable persons in all walks of life.
Another reason for the gnostic's worship is that worship in itself is a good thing, for it represents the relation between man and Allah. It is a job worth doing. Therefore it is not necessary that a hope of any reward or a fear of any punishment should be the motive of worshipping Allah.
Imam Ali has said: "Allah, I do not worship You because I am afraid of Your Hell or because I hope for Your Paradise. I worship You because I have found You worthy of being worshipped."
In this saying the worthiness of the worshipped has been mentioned as the reason of worship.
The gnostics stress the point that if man's objective in life, especially in acts of worship is anything other than Allah, then he is guilty of duality. The gnostics have stated this point in a very fascinating manner and elucidated it by quoting attractive stories. We give just one example here. This story of Mahmud and Ayaz has been related by Shaykh Sa`di in the Bostan.
Sa`di says: Somebody criticizing Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni once said that Ayaz was not handsome at all. It was surprising that the Sultan still loved him. Was there any sense in being enchanted by a flower having neither beautiful colour nor good smell? Somebody reported this incident to Mahmud. He said: "I love him because of his lovely habits and good manners, not because of his fine figure." Sa`di says: "I have heard that once upon a time a camel passing through a narrow passage lost its balance and fell. A box full of gold and jewelry which was on its back came down tumbling and was smashed. The Sultan did not care for the precious goods and left the place hastily. His retinue busied themselves with collecting and picking up the scattered gold and jewelry. No one except Ayaz went with the Sultan. The Sultan was pleased to see him and asked him what he had picked up out of that booty. Ayaz said: "I am following your Majesty. Being at Your Majesty's service I paid no attention to the precious stuff."
After relating this story Sa`di comes to his main point and says: "You are really selfish if you have an eye to the generosity of your friend and not to your friend himself. For the saints of Allah it is against the rules of "spiritual path" to wish Allah to grant them anything other than Allah."
The first stage of the spiritual journey is called by the gnostics "iràdah" (intention). Irezdah means emergence of a strong desire and wish to hold fast to the path that leads to Truth and stimulates the soul to attain to its real goal. This desire may be created by an argument or by faith.
This first stage of spiritual journey, which is the keystone of the entire structure of gnosis requires some explanation.
The gnostics have a maxim enunciating that the end is the return to the beginning.
Obviously there are only two ways, in which the end can exactly be the beginning. In one case the motion should be along a straight line and the moving thing should after reaching a particular point change its direction and come back to the point from which it had started. It has been proved in philosophy that a change of direction always involves a pause, though it may be very slight and imperceptible. Moreover these two movements would be in the opposite directions. According to the other hypothesis the motion should be along a curved line equidistant all along from a particular point. In other words the motion should be circular.
Obviously the circular motion will end at the same point from which it had begun. Anything moving along a circular line will at first be moving away from its starting point and will at last reach a point farthest from the starting point. This point will be the point at which the diameter of the circle drawn from the starting point will end. After reaching this point the moving thing will begin to return to its starting point without a pause.
The gnostics call the line of motion that goes from the starting point to the farthest point the 'descending curve' and the line of motion that comes from the farthest point to the starting point "the ascending curve". There is a special philosophy of the movement of things from the starting point to the farthest point. It is called by the philosophers the principle of causation and by the gnostics the principle of manifestation. When the things move along the descending curve it appears as if they were being pushed from behind. This philosophy is based on the doctrine that everything wants to return to its origin. In other words everything away from its home wants to come back to it. The gnostics maintain that this tendency exists in every particle of the universe including human beings, though in them this tendency sometimes is not very conspicuous, for they are often engrossed in other things which divert their attention from it. In man this dormant tendency is usually awakened only when his attention is repeatedly drawn to it. It is the awakening of this tendency that is called intention.
In his treatise named "Istilahat" which has been published
on the margin of Sharh Manazilul Sa'irin Abdur Razziq Kashdni defines intention as under:
"Intention is a flame of the fire of love. When it is kindled in his heart man begins to respond to the call of Truth."
In his book Manazilus Sa'rin Khwaja Abdullah Ansari defines intention as follows:
"Intention means responding to the call of Truth of one's own accord."
It is necessary to point out that although intention has been described as the first stage, in reality it is the first stage following a few preliminary stages of development known as Bidayar (beginnings), Abwab(doors), Mu'amlat (dealings) and Aakhlaq (good moral qualities). After the beginning of the state of real gnosis the first stage is intention. The gnostics call it and the subsequent stages the principles.
Mawlavi explains the maxim, "the end is the return to the beginning" in the following words:
"The parts turn to the whole like a nightingale longing for a flower. Anything that comes out of the sea and then goes back to it, returns to its origin."
Mawlavi in the preface of his Mathnawi has included a short poem entitled "the complaint of a flute". This poem which represents the pain of longing and a sense of nostalgia illustrates intention, the first stage of gnosis in the language used by the gnostics. Mawlavi says:
"Listen to what the flute says. It is complaining of separation. It says that since it has been cut off the jungle and brought here people are tired of its loud wailing. It wants its chest to burst open so that it could express the pain of its home-sickness. Whatever is separated from its origin is always in the- quest of the meeting time."
Ibn Sina defining intention says: "Intention is that longing which man feels when he finds himself lonely and helpless and wants to be united with the Truth so that he may not have a feeling of loneliness or of helplessness".
Riyazat (Spiritual Exercise)
Ibn Sina says that next to intention riyazat is essential for a gnostic. Riyazat has three aims:
(i) To remove every thing other than Allah from the path;
(ii) To make the appetitive soul submissive to the contented soul;
(iii) To soften the inner self with a view to make it fit for receiving enlightenment.
Thus the first stage is intention, which is the beginning of spiritual journey. The second stage is that of preparation, which is called riyazat. According to certain schools of thought riyazat means treating oneself harshly or inflicting physical pain on oneself as is practised by the jogis in India, but Ibn Sina has used the word in its real sense.
In Arabic riyazat originally meant breaking and training a young horse. Later this word was used and is still being used in Arabic in the sense of physical and athletic exercise. The gnostics apply it to the spiritual exercise done for preparing the soul for gnostic enlightenment.
In any case here riyazat means spiritual exercise, aiming at three objectives: The first objective is to get rid of all the causes of diverting attention from Allah; the second objective is to set the inner and spiritual faculties in a proper order with a view to gain inward composure. It is this process which is termed as subordinating the appetitive soul to the contented soul. The third objective is to change the inner condition of the soul, which is described as softening the inner ground of the soul (taltifus sirr).
Ibn Sina says that correct type of asceticism helps in achieving the first objective, for it removes all barriers and distractions. There are several factors which contribute to the achievement of the second objective, that is subordinating the appetitive soul to the contented soul. One such factors is the acts of worship provided they are performed with one's whole heart. Another factor is good voice used for the delivery of heart-warming spiritual words, such as Quranic verses, supplications or gnostic verses. The third factor is preaching and counselling provided the preacher or the counsellor has a pure heart, eloquent expression and effective voice and is able to lead the people to the right path.
Pure thoughts and platonic love are the things which help in the achievement of the third objective, that is softening the
inner self and purging the soul of all impurities. Love must be spiritual and intellectual aroused by moral qualities of the beloved, not by lust and cupidity.
Ibn Sina further says that when intention and riyazat of the gnostic have progressed to a particular extent, he beholds the glimpses of divine light and feels a reflection of the glory of Allah on his heart which he finds very pleasing but it passes away very quickly like a flash of lightning.
This state is called `awqat' (times) by the gnostics. The more a gnostic does riyazat the more often he is seized by this state. When he has made further progress this state may overcome him even without any riyazat. Whenever he thinks of the Divine world he is seized by a state in which he sees the manifestation of the glory of Allah in everything. At this stage sometimes the gnostic feels restless from within and his restlessness is felt by those sitting by him. Thereafter with further riyazat that occasional condition is changed into composure. The gnostic gets familiar with his 'state' and he does not feel restless or uneasy. He feels as if he is in permanent communion with Allah. The gnostic fully enjoys this condition and when this condition occasionally disappears he feels distressed and grieved. Perhaps up to this stage others around him also can know his inward feeling of happiness or grief. The more the gnostic becomes familiar with this state, the less perceptible become his inward feelings. At last a stage comes when people see him among themselves, but he is actually somewhere else, his soul at that time being in another world.
The last sentence reminds us what Imam Ali said to Kumayl bin Ziyad Nakhal about the walis (Muslim saints, friends of Allah). Imam Ali said:
"Springs of knowledge and wisdom gush out of their hearts. What appears to be difficult to those who live in ease and luxury, seems to be easy to them. They are familiar to what scares the ignorant. Their bodies are with the people, but their souls are in the higher world."
Ibn Sina says that so long as the gnostic is at this stage, perhaps this state comes over him occasionally but gradually he becomes able to bring it over him of his own accord whenever he likes. Then he goes a step further. He no longer needs to
bring this state over him, as he begins to see the manifestation of Allah's glory everywhere and in everything. This state be comes a permanent feature for him though the people around him remain completely ignorant of it and notice nothing queer to draw their attention.
So long this state of the gnostic mostly depended on spiritual exercises and the acts of self-mortification, but after passing this stage even without performing any act of self -mortification he finds his heart shining like a polished mirror in which he beholds the manifestation of Allah's glory every moment. He enjoys this position and feels happy and delighted at the establishment of his connection with Allah. In this position he has an eye to Allah and an eye to himself (like a man with a mirror who sometimes looks at the mirror and sometimes at his own reflection. At the next stage even his own existence gets out of his sight. He has an eye to Allah only. If he sees himself, he sees in the same way as a man looking into a mirror sees the mirror while his attention remains fixed on the reflection, for at this time he is not expected to pay attention to the beauty of the mirror. At this stage the gnostic attains proximity to Allah and thus his journey from the creation to the Creator ends.
This was a summary of a part of the chapter 9 of al-Isharat.
It may be mentioned here that the true Muslim gnostics believe in four journeys: (i) A journey from the creation to the Creator; (ii) A journey with the Creator in the Creator, (iii) A journey from the Creator to the creation; and (iv) A journey in the creation with the Creator.
In the second journey the gnostic or the novice gets acquainted with the Divine Names and Attributes and himself gets invested with these attributes. In the third journey he comes back to the creation for their guidance but is not separated from Allah. In the fourth journey he makes a journey among the people but accompanied by Allah. In this last journey the gnostic remains with the people and among the people and helps them gain proximity to Allah.
The summary which we have reproduced from Ibn Sina's 'shark relates to the first journey only. He has briefly discussed the other three journeys also, but we do not find it necessary to reproduce any more extracts.
In his commentary on the Sharat Shaykh Nasiruddin Tusi says that Ibn Sina has described the first spiritual journey in nine stages. Out of them three stages are related to the beginning of the journey, three stages to the journey itself and three stages to the end of the journey. These stages become clear if we carefully study the description given by Ibn Sina.
Riyazat literally means exercise. Ibn Sina means by it the rituals, liturgy and the acts of self-mortification carried out by gnostic. These rituals and acts are numerous and the gnostic has to traverse different stages while performing them. Ibn Sina has treated the matter briefly, but the gnostics have very detailed discussions on the subject, which can be seen in the books on sufism, for example al-Asffir al-Arba`ah by Mulla Sadra.