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the Message Continues ... 11/136


Newsletter for December 2012


Article 1 - Article 2 - Article 3 - Article 4 - Article 5 - Article 6 - Article 7 - Article 8 - Article 9 - Article 10 - Article 11 - Article 12


Article 11



The Concepts of 'Irfan, Sufism, Hikmat and Philosophy

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

The term gnosis (`irfan), like another term of the same family, ma`rifah, [also translated as gnosis] literally means knowledge, but its technical meaning is specific to knowledge of a certain kind which can be achieved neither through the senses nor experience, nor through reason nor narration, but rather is acquired by inner witnessing and interior unveilings. Then, these are generalized to some propositions which describe these witnessing and unveilings. Considering the fact that the acquisition of such witnessing and unveilings which depend on special exercises and spiritual discipline are also called gnosis (`irfan), it is known with the qualification `amali (practical), i.e., as practical gnosis, or the manner of spiritual wayfaring (sayr wa suluk), just as the propositions which describe the witnessing are called theoretical gnosis, and also, like the Philosophy of Illumination, [1] is mixed to some extent with rational argumentation.

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

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

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

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


[1]. The Philosophy of illumination was formulated by Shihab al‑Din Yahya Sohravardi (1153‑1191).






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