If gnosis were to
take visible shape all who looked thereon would die
at the sight of its beauty and loveliness and
goodness and grace, and every brightness would
become dark beside the splendour thereof.
– Sufi saying
Today Gnosticism is
generally regarded as the heart of the Western esoteric
tradition. But the Gnostic way of thinking is not
confined to the West and Christian forms. Within Islam,
that other great monotheistic religion to emerge from
the Middle East, there is a vibrant esoteric tradition
represented principally by the Sufis, the Gnostics of
Sufis believe along with
exoteric or ‘outer’ teachings, the Prophet Muhammad
(570-632 CE) imparted to his closest companions esoteric
or ‘inner’ teachings. The Prophet’s secret teachings
were passed down through a line of enlightened masters.
From the earliest days of Islam it was also said the
Quran, the sacred book of Muslims, has both an ‘outer’
or apparent meaning as well as a secret or ‘inner’
meaning. Like the Christian Gnostics, the Sufis are
known for emphasising the spirit of the text over the
The world’s great
religions and spiritual traditions are respected by the
Sufis as sharing in the same essential Truth. Suhrawardi
of Aleppo, known as the ‘Master of Illumination’,
executed for heresy in 1191 CE, revered the sages of the
ancient world (including Pythagoras and Plato) and
studied their writings.
Sufis hold Jesus in the
highest regard, hailing him as virgin born and an
inspired prophet of God. His life of pure devotion is
celebrated prominently in Sufi poetry and numerous
stories. Some Sufis were even moved to announce “There
is no God but Allah and Jesus is His prophet.”
The Sufis share with
Christian Gnostics the conviction that Man in his
ordinary state of consciousness is literally asleep
(“and when he dies he wakes,” as Prophet Muhammad said).
He lives in a dream, whether of enjoyment or suffering –
a phenomenal, illusory existence. To the Sufi, God is
the One Reality, and in turning away from the Divine,
Man is exiled on earth. The great Sufi master Rumi
The mind sees
things inside-out. What it takes to be life is
really death, and what it takes to be death is
The Sufis of the Rifai
order explain that in coming to earth the soul passes
through seventy thousand veils:
Veils separate Allah, the One Reality, from the
world of matter and of sense. And every soul passes
before his birth through these seventy thousand. The
inner half of these are veils of light: the outer
half, veils of darkness. For every one of the veils
of light passed through, in this journey towards
birth, the soul puts off a divine quality: and for
every one of the dark veils, it puts on an earthly
quality. Thus the child is born weeping, for the
soul knows its separation from Allah, the One
Reality. And when the child cries in its sleep, it
is because the soul remembers something of what it
has lost. Otherwise, the passage through the veils
has brought with it forgetfulness (nisyan): and for
this reason man is called insan. He is now, as it
were, in prison in his body, separated by these
thick curtains from Allah.
But the whole
purpose of Sufism, the Way of the dervish, is to
give him an escape from this prison, an apocalypse
of the Seventy Thousand Veils, a recovery of the
original unity with The One, while still in this
body. The body is not to be put off; it is to be
refined and made spiritual – a help and not a
hindrance to the spirit. It is like a metal that is
to be refined by fire and transmuted.
Imprisoned in the cage of
the world, Man is exiled and forgetful of his true home.
The rebellious angel Iblis, who according to the Quran
refused to obey the divine command to bow down before
Adam, is identified as the power which seeks to hinder
Man from knowing God as He really is.
Man’s purpose on earth is
therefore to set out on the path from sleep to
awakening. By abandoning the limited personal self the
Sufi strives to become an empty nothingness filled with
The Sufis often refer to a
traditional saying of the Prophet: “He who knows himself
knows His Lord.” That God resides in the loving heart is
expressed by another favourite tradition in which the
Almighty declares: “Heaven and earth contain Me not, but
the heart of my faithful servant contains Me.” The heart
is like a mirror in which – when highly polished and
free of tarnishing – God reflects Himself.
“When the gnostic’s
spiritual eye is opened,” say the Sufis, “his bodily eye
is shut: he sees nothing but God.” Gnosis (marifah) is
superior wisdom, an attunement with God and the Truth.
The way to this knowledge of Reality finds no better
expression than in the words addressed by Rumi to a
scholar of legalistic religion:
Do you know a name
without a thing answering to it?
Have you ever plucked a rose from R,O,S,E?
You name His name; go, seek the reality named by it!
Look for the moon in the sky, not in the water!
If you desire to rise above mere names and letters,
Make yourself free from self at one stroke.
Become pure from all attributes of self,
That you may see your own bright essence,
Yea, see in your own heart the knowledge of the
Without book, without tutor, without preceptor.
The place where
Christian Gnostics and Sufi Muslims meet is ultimately
beyond all words and doctrines being one of shared
experience. “He who tastes knows” say the Sufis,
reminding both the East and the West that “Gnosis is
nearer to silence than to speech.”
© Copyright 2005 by New
Dawn Magazine. The above article originally appeared in
New Dawn No. 88 (January-February 2005).
Mehmet Sabeheddin is a
researcher, writer, spiritual teacher and global
traveller. He is a longtime contributor to New Dawn
magazine. A “spiritual swaggie”, his areas of interest
are wide ranging and include Sufism, Islam and esoteric
Christianity. He can be contacted c/- of New Dawn
Magazine, GPO Box 3126FF, Melbourne VIC 3001, Australia