Rafed English

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.

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.


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 Imams2 and through them can be acquired by their true followers.

(ii) The sufi doctrine that there must always be a Qutb3 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 names4 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.

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.5 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.6 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.



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.

2 The twelve successors explicitly expressed by the Holy Prophet of Islam through Divine Will.

3 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.

4 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.

5 In Islam spiritual journey is called Sair wa Suluk, which signifies a journey towards Allah.

6 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)

Adaptd from: "Light Within Me" by: "Allamah Mutahhari, Allamah Tabataba'i and Imam Khumayni"

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