What is Ismā‘īli Gnosis?

Gnosis – Arabic: ma‘rifah, Persian: shinākht, Sanskrit: jnāna, Hebrew: hokmah

Gnosis is that ‘supreme knowledge’ ‘which unifies and sanctifies’ the human being. (Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Knowledge and the Sacred, 41)

Gnosis is not acquired by discursive learning, but it is innate to the human soul and intellect.  Gnosis is ‘the basis of the intellect (‘aql)’ and is ‘unwavering in man’.   Gnosis is not merely a discursive or rational (fikrī) knowing, but rather, it is direct awareness or recognition. (Sayyidnā Nāsir-i Khusraw, Jami‘ al-Hikmatayn, Chapter 22)

The highest level of gnosis is the gnosis of the Ultimate Reality (God, Allah, Tao, Brahman, Ayn Soph, Nirvana, etc.) which is called tawḥīd in Islam:

“The gnosis (ma‘rifah) of God, glory be to Him, is the highest of the knowable truths.”

– Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib,
(The Scale of Wisdom, ed. Rayshahri, 707)

Tawḥīd is both the root and the goal of all gnosis.  It is the root because tawḥīd is expressed by all forms of gnosis and it is the goal because tawḥīd is realized only after one has ascended through the limits (ḥudūd) of gnosis.

Human beings have come into existence to attain the gnosis of God, as expressed in the Qur’an and the Ḥadīth:

Wa mā khalaqtu al-jinna wa al-insa illā li-ya‘budūni’
“I have not created the jinn and man except that they might worship Me.”

– Holy Quran 51:56

According to the commentary of Imām ‘Alī ibn Abi Ṭālib transmitted through Ibn Abbas, the words ‘except that they might worship Me’ (illā li-ya‘budūni’) actually mean ‘except that they might recognize Me’ (illā li-ya‘rifūni’) which refers to the gnosis (marifah) of God.

Kuntu kanzan makhfīyan, fa-aḥbabtu an u‘rafa, fa-khalqtu al-khalaqa li-kay u‘rafa
“I was a Hidden Treasure and I loved to be known, so I created the creation so that I would be known.”

man ‘arafa nafsa-hu fa-qad ‘arafa rabba-hu
“He who knows his soul knows his Lord.”

Indeed, the gnosis of tawḥīd is innate and lies deep within the human soul.  The Qur’an indicates that all human souls, upon their initial creation in the World of Particles (‘alam al-dharr), were endowed with the recognition or gnosis of God:

When thy Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam – from their loins – their descendants (dhuriyyatahum), and made them testify concerning their souls (anfūsihim), (saying): “Am I not your Lord?”– They said: “Yea! We do testify!” (This), lest ye should say on the Day of Judgment: “Of this we were never mindful.”

– Holy Qur’an 7:172

Gnosis is attained through self-knowledge, and the human soul is the mirror of the Cosmos.  Thus, gnosis embraces both the self and the Universe – both the inner world and the outer world.  Through gnosis of both the microcosm and the macrocosm, one attains the gnosis of the Ultimate Reality (Metacosm).

Gnosis is universal to all human beings, but it has been expressed through different forms stemming from various prophetic revelations, religions and spiritual traditions.  Thus one can speak of a Greek gnosis, a Jewish gnosis, a Christian gnosis, an Islamic gnosis, etc.  Gnosis is the inner dimension of religion and the core of spirituality.

This blog is dedicated to the study of Ismā‘īlī Gnosis – the forms and manifestations of universal gnosis (ma‘rifah, shinākht, jnāna, hokmah) found in the tradition of Shī‘ī Ismā‘īlī Islam – and its relationship to other forms of gnosis.  Ismā‘īlī Gnosis is expressed by a variety of religious and intellectual disciplines including metaphysics, philosophy, history, theology, cosmology, scriptural hermeneutics, spirituality, comparative religion, and eschatology – all of which will be featured in this blog.  All the different forms of gnosis found in various religions and traditions are but branches of a single root – the sophia perennis which contains the eternal truths (haqā’iq) that underlie all revelations, religions, and spiritual paths.

In a spiritual path (ṭarīqah) of Shī‘ī Islam, the gnosis (ma‘rifah, recognition) of tawḥīd is attained through the gnosis (ma‘rifah, recognition) of the Imām

For Shī‘ī Muslims, the Imām is divinely-ordained spiritual successor/legatee (waṣī) of the Prophet Muhammad, the inheritor of the prophetic knowledge (‘ilm) and authority (amr), and most importantly, the bearer of the gnosis (ma‘rifah).  The Imām is the direct lineal descendent of the Prophet Muhammad through his cousin and son-in-law Imam ‘Alī ibn Abī Talib and Faṭimah al-Zahra, the Prophet’s daughter.

The institution of the Imāmat is present in the world in every age and epoch even to the present day.  An uninterrupted lineage of Imāms has existed through all the periods of human history including the epochs of the Vedic, Greek, Persian, Asian, and Abrahamic traditions, safeguarding and transmitting gnosis to the seekers of enlightenment from age to age.

The Shī‘ī Muslim disciple (murīd) seeks the gnosis (ma‘rifah, recognition) of tawḥīd – the gnosis of God – through the gnosis (ma‘rifah, recognition) of the Imām:

Imām al-Husayn called out to his companions: “God – may His Mention be glorified – did not create the servants except to know Him, and by knowing Him to worship him, and by worshipping Him to be satisfied only by His worship, and to never find satisfaction in worshipping other than Him.” And a man said to him: “O Son of the Prophet, may my father and mother be sacrificed for you. What is this Gnosis (ma‘rifah) of God?” The Imam said:  “The Gnosis (ma‘rifah) every people have of the Imam of their Time…”

(Shaykh Saduq, Ilal al-Sharā‘i’, Vol. 1, 19)

Everyone must know God through knowing me, since a person becomes a knower (‘ārif) through my knowledge and becomes a unifier (muwaḥḥid) through my tawḥīd.  Then the reality of ma‘rifat, union (ittiḥād), and unity (waḥdat) comes completely into existence, and the reality of worship becomes evident.”

– Imam Hasan ‘ala-dhikrihi al-salām,
(Nasīr al-Din al-Tusi, Contemplation and Action, 44)

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