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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.

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

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