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 Islam.

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 letter.

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 writes:

The mind sees things inside-out. What it takes to be life is really death, and what it takes to be death is really life.

The Sufis of the Rifai order explain that in coming to earth the soul passes through seventy thousand veils:

Seventy Thousand 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 God.

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 Prophet,
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). www.newdawnmagazine.com.

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



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