Gnosis or Direct Knowledge of God
--From the Persian Kashf al-mahjub--
by Data Ganj Bakhsh, al-Hujwiri, from Ghazna in Afghanistan (d. in Lahore between 465 and 469 AH/ 1072 and 1077 CE)
The Apostle said: "If ye knew God as He ought to be known, ye would walk on the seas, and the mountains would move at your call."
Gnosis of God is of two kinds: cognitional ('ilmi) and emotional (há1i). Cognitional gnosis is the foundation of all blessings in this world and in the next, for the most important thing for a man at all times and in all circumstances is knowledge of God, as God hath said: '' I only created the jinn and mankind that they might serve Me (Koran, 51:56), i.e. that they might know Me. But the greater part of men neglect this duty, except those whom God hath chosen and whose hearts He hath vivified with Himself.
Gnosis is the life of the heart through God, and the turning away of one's inmost thoughts from all that is not God. The worth of everyone is in proportion to gnosis, and he who is without gnosis is worth nothing.
Theologians, lawyers, and other classes of men give the name of gnosis (ma'rifat) to right cognition ('ilm) of God, but the Súfi Shaykhs call right feeling (hál) towards God by that name. Hence they have said that gnosis (ma'rifat) is more excellent than cognition ('ilm), for right feeling (hál) is the result of right cognition, but right cognition is not the same thing as right feeling, i.e. one who has not cognition of God is not a gnostic ('arif) but one may have cognition of God without being a gnostic. Those of either class who were ignorant of this distinction engaged in useless controversy, and the one party disbelieved in the other party. Now I will explain the matter in order that both may be instructed.
[p. 268] SECTION. You must know that there is a great difference of opinion touching the gnosis and right cognition of God. The Mu'tazilites assert that gnosis is intellectual and that only a reasonable person ('áqil) can possibly have it. This doctrine is disproved by the fact that madmen, within Islam, are deemed to have gnosis, and that children, who are not reasonable, are deemed to have faith. Were the criterion of gnosis an intellectual one, such persons must be without gnosis, while unbelievers could not be charged with infidelity, provided only that they were reasonable beings. If reason were the cause of gnosis, it would follow that every reasonable person must know God, and that all who lack reason must be ignorant of Him; which is manifestly absurd.
Others pretend that demonstration (istidlál) is the cause of knowledge of God, and that such knowledge is not gained except by those who deduce it in this manner. The futility of this doctrine is exemplified by Iblis, for he saw many evidences, such as Paradise, Hell, and the Throne of God, yet they did not cause him to have gnosis. God hath said that knowledge of Him depends on His will (Koran, 6, 3).
According to the view of orthodox Moslems, soundness of reason and regard to evidences are a means (sabab) to gnosis, but not the cause ('illat) thereof: the sole cause is God's will and favour, for without His favour ('inayat) reason is blind. Reason does not even know itself: how, then, can it know another? Heretics of all sorts use the demonstrative method, but the majority of them do not know God.
On the other hand, whenever one enjoys the favour of God, all his actions are so many tokens of gnosis; his demonstration is search (talab), and his neglect of demonstration is "resignation to God's will" (taslim); but, in reference to perfect gnosis, resignation is no better than search, for search is a principle that cannot be neglected, while resignation is a principle that excludes the possibility of agitation (idtirab) and these two principles do not essentially involve gnosis.
In reality Man's only guide and enlightener is God. Reason and the proofs adduced by reason [p. 269] are unable to direct anyone into the right way. If the infidels were to return from the place of Judgment to this world, they would bring their infidelity back with them (cf. Koran, 6:28). When the Commander of the Faithful, 'Ali, was asked concerning gnosis, he said: " I know God by God, and I know that which is not God by the light of God."
God created the body and committed its life to the spirit (ján), and He created the soul (dil) and committed its life to Himself. Hence, inasmuch as reason and human faculties and evidences have no power to make the body live, they cannot make the soul live, as God hath said: "Shall he who was dead and whom We have restored to life and to whom We /have given a light whereby he may walk among men . . . ? ' (Koran, 6:122), i.e. "I am the Creator of the light in which believers are illumined." It is God that opens and seals the hearts of men (Koran, 39:23; 2:6): therefore He alone is able to guide them. Everything except Him is a cause or a means, and causes and means cannot possibly indicate the right way without the favour of the Causer.
He it is that imposes the obligation of piety, which is essentially gnosis; and those on whom that obligation is laid, so long as they are in the state of obligation, neither bring it upon themselves nor put it away from themselves by their own choice: therefore Man's share in gnosis, unless God makes him know, is mere helplessness. Abu 'I-Hasan Nuri says: " There is none to point out the way to God except God Himself: knowledge is sought only for due performance of His worship."
No created being is capable of leading anyone to God. Those who rely on demonstration are not more reasonable than was Abu Tálib, and no guide is greater than was Muhammad; yet, since Abu Talib was preordained to misery, the guidance of Muhammad did not avail him. The first step of demonstration is a turning away from God, because demonstration involves the consideration of some other thing, whereas gnosis is a turning away from all that is not God. Ordinary objects of search are found by means of demonstration, but knowledge of God is extraordinary.
Therefore, knowledge of Him is attained only [p. 270] by unceasing bewilderment of the reason, and His favour is not procured by any act of human acquisition, but is miraculously revealed to men's hearts. What is not God is phenomenal (muhdath), and although a phenomenal being may reach another like himself he cannot reach his Creator and acquire Him while he exists, for in every act of acquisition he who makes the acquisition is predominant and the thing acquired is under his power.
Accordingly, the miracle is not that reason should be led by the act to affirm the existence of the Agent, but that a saint should be led by the light of the Truth to deny his own existence. The knowledge gained is in the one case a matter of logic, in the other it becomes an inward experience.
Let those who deem reason to be the cause of gnosis consider what reason affirms in their minds concerning the substance of gnosis, for gnosis involves the negation of whatever is affirmed by reason, i.e. whatever notion of God can be formed by reason, God is in reality something different. How, then, is there any room for reason to arrive at gnosis by means of demonstration?
Reason and imagination are homogeneous, and where genus is affirmed gnosis is denied. To infer the existence of God from intellectual proofs is assimilation (tashbih), and to deny it on the same grounds is nullification (ta'til). Reason cannot pass beyond these two principles, which in regard to gnosis are agnosticism, since neither of the parties professing them is Unitarian (muwahhid).
Therefore, when reason is gone as far as possible, and the souls of His lovers must needs search for Him, they rest helplessly without their faculties, and while they so rest they grow restless and stretch their hands in supplication and seek a relief for their souls; and when they have exhausted every manner of search in their power, the power of God becomes theirs, i.e. they find the way from Him to Him, and are eased of the anguish of absence and set foot in the garden of intimacy and win to rest.*
And reason, when it sees that the souls have attained their desire, tries to exert its control, but fails; and when it fails it becomes distraught; and when it becomes [p. 271] distraught it abdicates. Then God clothes it in the garment of service (khidmat) and says to it: " While thou wert independent thou wert veiled by thy faculties and their exercise, and when these were annihilated thou didst fail, and having failed thou didst attain." Thus it is the allotted portion of the soul to be near unto God, and that of the reason is to do His service.
God causes Man to know Him through Himself with a knowledge that is not linked to any faculty, a knowledge in which the existence of Man is merely metaphorical. Hence to the gnostic, egoism is utter perfidy; his remembrance of God is without forgetfulness, and his gnosis is not empty words but actual feeling.
Others, again, declare that gnosis is the result of inspiration (ilham). This also is impossible, because gnosis supplies a criterion for distinguishing truth from falsehood, whereas the inspired have no such criterion. If one says, "I know by inspiration that God is in space," and another says, "I know by inspiration that He is not in space," one of these contradictory statements must be true, but a proof is necessary in order to decide where the truth lies. Consequently, this view, which is held by the Brahmans and the inspirationists (ilhamiyan), falls to the ground. In the present age I have met a number of persons who carried it to an extreme and who connected their own position with the doctrine of religious men, but they are altogether in error, and their assertion is repugnant to all reasonable Moslems and unbelievers.
If it be said that whatever conflicts with the sacred law is not inspiration, I reply that this argument is fundamentally unsound, because, if inspiration is to be judged and verified by the standard of the sacred law, then gnosis does not depend on inspiration, but on law and prophecy and Divine guidance.
Others assert that knowledge of God is intuitive (daruri). This also is impossible. Everything that is known in this way must be known in common by all reasonable men, and inasmuch as we see that some reasonable men deny the existence of God and hold the doctrines of assimilation (tashbih) and nullification [p. 272] (ta'til), it is proved that knowledge of God is not intuitive. Moreover, if it were so, the principle of religious obligation (taklif ) would be destroyed, for that principle cannot possibly be applied to objects of intuitive knowledge, such as one's self, the heaven and the earth, day and night, pleasure and pain, etc., concerning the existence of which no reasonable man can have any doubt, and which he must know even against his will.
But some aspirants to Sufism, considering the absolute certainty (yaqin) which they feel, say: "We know God intuitively," giving the name of intuition to this certainty. Substantially they are right, but their expression is erroneous, because intuitive knowledge cannot be exclusively restricted to those who are perfect; on the contrary, it belongs to all reasonable men. Furthermore, it appears in the minds of living creatures without any means or evidence, whereas the knowledge of God is a means (sababi).
But Master Abu 'Ali Daqqáq and Shaykh Abu Sahl Su'luki (*1) and his father, who was a leading religious authority at Nishapur, maintain that the beginning of gnosis is demonstrative and that its end is intuitive, just as technical knowledge is first acquired and. finally becomes instinctive. "Do not you perceive," they say, " that in Paradise knowledge of God becomes intuitive? Why should it not become intuitive in this world too? And the Apostles, when they heard the word of God, either immediately or from the mouth of an angel or by revelation, knew Him intuitively."
I reply that the inhabitants of Paradise know God intuitively in Paradise, because in Paradise no religious obligation is imposed, and the Apostles have no fear of being separated from God at the last, but enjoy the same security as those who know Him intuitively. The excellence of gnosis and faith lies in their being hidden; when they are made visible, faith becomes compulsory (jabr), and there is no longer any free will in regard to its visible substance ('ayn), and the foundations of the religious law are shaken, and the principle of apostasy is annulled, so [p. 273] that Bal'am(*2) and Iblis and Barsisa(*3) cannot properly be described as infidels, for it is generally allowed that they had knowledge of God. The gnostic, while he remains a gnostic, has no fear of being separated from God; separation is produced by the loss of gnosis, but intuitive knowledge cannot conceivably be lost.
This doctrine is full of danger to the vulgar. In order that you may avoid its evil consequences you must know that Man's knowledge and his gnosis of God depend entirely on the information and eternal guidance of the Truth. Man's certainty in gnosis may be now greater and now less, but the principle of gnosis is neither increased nor diminished, since in either case it would be impaired.
You must not let blind conformity enter into your knowledge of God, and you must know Him through His attributes of perfection. This can be attained only through the providence and favour of God, who has absolute control of our minds. If He so will, He makes one of His actions a guide that shows us the way to Himself, and if He will otherwise, He makes that same action an obstacle that prevents us from reaching Him. Thus Jesus was to some a guide that led them to gnosis, but to others he was an obstacle that hindered them from gnosis; the former party said, "This is the servant of God," and the latter said, " This is the son of God." Similarly, some were led to God by idols and by the sun and moon, while others were led astray.
Such guides are a means of gnosis, but not the immediate cause of it, and one means is no better than another in relation to Him who is the author of them all. The gnostic's affirmation of a means is a sign of dualism (zunnar), and regard to anything except the object of knowledge is polytheism (shirk). When a man is doomed to perdition in the Preserved Tablet, nay, in the will and knowledge of God, how can any proof and demonstration lead him aright ? The most high God, as He pleases and by whatever means He pleases, shows His servant the way to Himself and opens to him the [p. 274] door of gnosis, so that he attains to a degree where the very essence of gnosis appears alien (ghayr) and its attributes become noxious to him, and he is veiled by his gnosis from the object known and realizes that his gnosis is a pretension (da'wa). Dhu 'I-Nun the Egyptian says: " Beware lest thou make pretensions to gnosis," and it has been said in verse:
Therefore do not claim gnosis, lest thou perish in thy pretension, but cleave to the reality thereof, that thou mayest be saved. When anyone is honoured by the revelation of the Divine majesty, his existence becomes a plague to him and all his attributes a source of corruption. He who belongs to God and to whom God belongs is not connected with anything in the universe. The real gist of gnosis is to recognize that to God is the kingdom. When a man knows that all possessions are in the absolute control of God, what further business has he with mankind, that he should be veiled from God by them or by himself? All such veils are the result of ignorance. As soon as ignorance is annihilated, they vanish, and this life is made equal in rank to the life hereafter.
SECTION . Now, for instruction's sake, I will mention some of the numerous sayings which the Shaykhs have uttered on this subject.
'Abdalláh b. Mubarak says: "Gnosis consists in not being astonished by anything," because astonishment arises from an act exceeding the power of the doer, and inasmuch as God is omnipotent it is impossible that a gnostic should be astonished by His acts. If there be any room for astonishment, one must needs marvel that God exalts a handful of earth to such a degree that it receives His commands, and a drop of blood to such an eminence that it discourses of love and knowledge of Him, and seeks vision of Him, and desires union with Him.
[p. 275] Dhu 'I-Nun the Egyptian says: "Gnosis is in reality God's providential communication of the spiritual light to our inmost hearts," i.e., until God, in His providence, illuminates the heart of Man and keeps it from contamination, so that all created things have not even the worth of a mustard-seed in his heart, the contemplation of Divine mysteries, both inward and out- ward, does not overwhelm him with rapture; but when God has done this, his every look becomes an act of contemplation (mushahadat).
Shibli says: "Gnosis is continual amazement (hayrat). Amazement is of two kinds: (1) amazement at the essence and (2) amazement at the quality. The former is polytheism and infidelity, because no gnostic can possibly be in doubt concerning the essential nature of God; but the latter is gnosis, because the quality of God lies beyond reason's scope. Hence a certain one said: "O Guide of the amazed, increase my amazement!" In the first place, he affirmed the existence of God and the perfection of His attributes, and recognized that He is the object of men's search and the accomplisher of their prayers and the author of their amazement; then he asked for increase of amazement and recognized that in seeking God the reason has no alternative between amazement and polytheism. This sentiment is very fine. It may be, again, that knowledge of God's being involves amazement at one's own being, because when a man knows God he sees himself entirely subdued by the Divine omnipotence; and since his existence depends on God and his non-existence proceeds from God, and his rest and motion are produced by the power of God, he becomes amazed, saying: "Who and what am I?" In this sense the Apostle said: "He who knows himself has come to know his Lord," i.e. he who knows himself to be annihilated knows God to be eternally subsistent. Annihilation destroys reason and all human attributes, and when the substance of a thing is not accessible to reason it cannot possibly be known without amazement.
Abu Yazid said: "Gnosis consists in knowing that the motion and rest of mankind depend on God," and that without His permission no one has the least control of His [p. 276] kingdom, and that no one can perform any action until He creates the ability to act and puts the will to act in his heart, and that human actions are metaphorical and that God is the real agent.
Muhammad b. Wasi' says, describing the gnostic: "His words are few and his amazement perpetual," because only finite things admit or being expressed in words, and since the infinite cannot be expressed it leaves no resource except perpetual amazement.
Shibli says: "Real gnosis is the inability to attain gnosis," i.e. inability to know a thing, to the real nature of which a man has no clue except the impossibility of attaining it. Therefore, in attaining it, he will rightly take nocredit to himself, because inability ('ajz) is search, and so long as he depends on his own faculties and attributes, he cannot properly be described by that term; and when these faculties and attributes depart, then his state is not inability, but annihilation.
Some pretenders, while affirming the attributes of humanity and the subsistence of the obligation to decide with sound judgment (taklif ba-sihhat-i khitab) and the authority maintained over them by God's proof, declare that gnosis is impotence, and that they are impotent and unable to attain anything.
I reply: "In search of what thing have you become so helpless?" Impotence ('ajz) has two signs, which are not to be found in you: firstly, the annihilation of the faculties of search, and secondly, the manifestation of the glory of God (tajalli). Where the annihilation of the faculties takes place, there is no outward expression ('ibarat); and where the glory of God is revealed, no clue can be given and no discrimination is conceivable. Hence one who is impotent does not know that he is so, or that the state attributed to him is called impotence. How should he know this? Impotence is other than God, and the affirmation of knowledge of other than God is not gnosis; and so long as there is room in the heart for aught except God, or the possibility of expressing aught except God, true gnosis has not been attained. The gnostic is not a gnostic until he turns aside from all that is not God. Abu Hafs Haddád says: " Since I have known God, neither truth [p. 277] nor falsehood has entered my heart."
When a man feels desire and passion he turns to the soul (*4)(dil) in order that it may guide him to the lower soul (nafs), which is the seat of falsehood; and when he finds the evidence of gnosis, he also turns to the soul in order that it may guide him to the spirit, which is the source of truth and reality. But when aught except God enters the soul, the gnostic, if he turns to it, commits an act of agnosticism.
There is a great difference between one who turns to the soul and one who turns to God. Abu Bakr Wásiti says: " He who knows God is cut off from all things, nay, he is dumb and abject (kharisa wa'nqama'a)," i.e. he is unable to express anything and all his attributes are annihilated. So the Apostle, while he was in the state of absence, said: "I am the most eloquent of the Arabs and non-Arabs"; but when he was borne to the presence of God, he said: "I know not how to utter Thy praise." [The] answer came: "O Muhammad, if thou speakest not, I will speak; if thou deemest thyself unworthy to praise Me, I will make the universe thy deputy, that all its atoms may praise Me in thy name."
From the Kashf al-mahjub (The Uncovering of the veiled) by 'Ali
ibn 'Uthman al-Jullabi al-Hujwiri, known as Data Ganj Bakhsh in the Indo-Pakistan
region. Translated by Reynold Nicholson. New Edition, London: Luzac,
1967, pp. 267-277.
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