Chapter 4: Ali And Positive Gnosticism (Irfan)

قُلْ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ تُحِبُّونَ اللَّهَ فَاتَّبِعُونِي

Say: If you love Allah, then follow me. (Surah aali-Imran, 3:31).

This is the true Irfan (Gnosticism) that Imam Ali has taught us:

“O my Allah! Thou are the most attached to Thy lovers and the most ready to assist those who trust in Thee. Thou seest them in their concealments, knowest whatever is in their consciences, and art aware of the extent of their intelligence. Consequently, their secrets are open to Thee and their hearts are eager for Thee. If loneliness bores them, Thy remembrance gives them solace. If distresses befall them, they beseech Thy protection, because they know that the reins of affairs are in Thy hands, and that their movements depend upon Thy commands.1

Any person who has impartially studied the principles and the laws of Islam from the Qur’an or the authentic traditions will acknowledge the fact that Islam has shown human beings all the paths towards gnosis and perfection or rather has set gnosis as the true goal of his existence. If it is claimed that Islam has even a slight inadequacy in showing the path of perfection to humanity then such a person either lacks sufficient knowledge of Islam or spiteful of it. The claim that Islam does not have any imperfection in its reality has been clearly announced to the world by the leaders of Islam not only in this century but since the rise of Islam until today. Is there any eternal truth that the human mind has nourished and Islam has not touched upon it?

All that is important and conforms to reality in fields of philosophy, science, ethics, sociology, economics, metaphysics (life after death) is explained by Islam in one form or another even though in general terms. If theology is considered, Islam has presented the most sublime intellectual and spiritual ways in this regard. With regard to philosophy Islam has mentioned that amount which the human intellect has the capacity to deal with. Islam also has made available to the world the best ethical prescriptions in the form of short and eloquent expressions and aphorisms. It has opened the doors of knowledge for everyone and has considered search for the outer and inner aspects of nature a necessity of faith. Islam has explained permanent social principles with such a high degree of precision and perfection that never before Islam nor after Islam has reached the mind of anyone, and anything people to come might say will not be superior than it. It has set forth and explained the fundamental principles related to economics such that no other school of economic thought has reached the level of care taken by Islam in a manner that when these schools of thought tried to patch one aspect of the society, the garment of society was torn from other sides. It has elucidated the events of the Day of Resurrection in such a manner that humans see the hereafter personified despite being in this world.

We do not consider it necessary to fill these pages with evidence from the people of the East and the people of the West and prove that the origin of any true gnosis about humanity and the world of existence should be searched in Islam. Islam has approved all the lofty teachings that have reached us from the heavenly books and sound human intellect from before the advent of Islam and, from after the advent of Islam, it can be said that Islam was the fountainhead of every reality said in relation to theology, physical sciences and gnosis of humanity in prose or poetry. Today when people read Sa’di’s poetry they are fascinated by its sublime contents whereas if you exclude the odes and stories specific to his style you would see that he has taken these sublime human and divine themes either directly from the Qur’an or Islamic narrations or from the previous poets and philosophers like Mutanabbi, Syed Radhi Sharif, Mihyar Daylami and others who themselves had benefited from the teachings of Islam. For example, one of the best couplets recited regarding spirituAl-independence from an individual and social perspective are from Taghrai which can be found in his famous book Lamiatul Ajam.

Certainly the only free person in this world is
A man who takes refuge with no one in the world.

Or (as expressed in this Persian couplet):

I am a servant of he who under this blue sky
Is free from anything that takes on the taint of attachment.

You should know that the meaning that is expressed in these couplets has been repeated many times in the verses of Qur’an and narrations where we are asked to seek refuge only with Allah. We will present some more examples in relation to this in coming discourses, but it was a shortcoming on the part of our predecessors that when they narrated for us these sublime teachings in the form of prose or poetry, they did not point out for us that this meaning is what is understood from a certain verse of the Holy Qur'an or a certain narration. In addition, the language in use in Iran is Persian and, therefore, the knowledge of Qur’an and Hadith does not go beyond the surface meaning of the words that was heard from the pulpits at gatherings. As a result of this, the general public started thinking that all that was said by these poets and sages was originally from themselves and therefore the poetry of these sages has been more popular amongst the people than the verses of Qur’an and the narrations whereas if these writers had mentioned the source of these lofty teachings not only would nothing decrease from their respect but rather their words would have acquired Divine approval.

This mistake on the part of our predecessors has caused two harms to the Islamic society. The first one is that it has led people away from the verses of Qur’an and the narrations and it has led them to believe that our poets and sages were directly inspired from the heavens with these lofty teachings. The second one being that due to the attractiveness of these sublime teachings other baseless and whimsical ideas have infiltrated the society.

It is from the signs of loftiness of the soul of a Gnostic who has tasted true Gnosticism that at the time of conveying a certain meaning that has appeared in Qur’an or the narrations he acknowledges that the Qur’an and the narrations are the original sources of these teachings.

In any case, that which was desired from matters mentioned previously was to show that Islam has not neglected anything that is necessary for the progress and perfection of humankind.

The service that our Islamic poets and sages have performed was to render these sublime teachings in the form of pleasing and artistic expression or in the form of poetry which would arouse the sentiments of common people.

Positive Gnosticism, which is the topic of our discussion, is a school and a path whose true leadership after the Prophet (S) lay with Ali (‘a) and his purified progeny.

We have used the term Positive Gnosticism because this school or path recommends that everyone—or rather, considers recognition and knowledge of all the fundamentals and means of gnosis of God, the lofty attributes of the soul and a path in accordance with these necessary and, similarly, it considers the knowledge of other realities and events in the world of existence necessary to the extent possible for a human being.

In this path of true gnosis the positive aspect of the human soul is taken into consideration. In other words, only the realities that find their way to the heart through intellect and enlightenment are considered effectual. In Positive Gnosticism any reality that is outside this positive aspect of the human soul is considered fancy, illusion and imagination. Positive Gnosticism does not consider the Divine grandeur and the infirm natural world alike. It considers acquiring lofty attributes and perfections which have been taught to us by the leaders of Monotheism necessary for human souls. It considers the teachings of the Prophets the only way for reaching proximity of God. It considers everyone capable of reaching the peaks of human perfection and spiritual stations and it considers inclusion of any intercessor in the station of attention towards the source of Existence as polytheism even if that included being is the Holy Prophet (S).

The first and the last true embodiment of this true Gnosticism is Ali ibn Abi Talib (‘a) who during the day is busy farming, planting trees and irrigating gardens and in the darkness of the night after taking account of his soul and becoming attentive of only the one Lord has become unaware of himself, desiring His nearness and fearing separation from Him. The true Gnosticism that we have mentioned in our discussion till now is the only path of Gnosticism that leaders of the Higher Realms have taught us. Although there are other schools of Gnosticism, they lead us to nothing but forgetting our own selves and wasting our lives.

In this true Gnosticism of Ali (‘a) self-praise for the sake of self-praise is identical with polytheism and also it is not true that everyone has a share of this true connection with God.

At this point it appears necessary to narrate a small incident about the Commander of the Faithful Ali (‘a). Ali (‘a) gave five Wasq2 of dates to a certain person from his garden. A person who was sitting next to these pleasant date palms said to Ali, “This person did not ask you for the dates. Why are you sending them to him?” Ali (‘a) replied “May Allah not increase those like you among the believers. I am ready to give and you desire to be stingy. If I would have sent these dates after his asking me then I would have exchanged them for a price because after his asking me he would have been forced to lose face in exchange for these dates, while one’s face should only be tinged by earth in prostration and worship of our Lord!3 Now, you yourself think about the universal significance of this beneficent sentence.

This is the same true Gnosticism that gives one a true taste of duty in relation to other individuals and society. This is the same true Gnosticism which—if the children of Adam become conscious of themselves and think about rectifying relations between individuals, societies and governments in all their aspects—everyone would be compelled to make it their model and code of action.

This is the same true Gnosticism that the leaders of spirituality have driven mankind towards. This Gnosticism is from the teachings of Islam which day and night are proclaimed in a loud voice by the Holy Qur’an to the heavy ears of the sons of Adam,

قُلْ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ تُحِبُّونَ اللَّهَ فَاتَّبِعُونِي

Say: If you love Allah, then follow me. (Surah aali-Imran, 3:31)

True Gnosticism considers all the people to be different parts of one single body. It says that every part should put in maximum effort for the comfort and well-being of the other parts. If someone can relieve another’s pain at night and can fulfill his need but leaves this duty for the morning, they have not understood this true Gnosis.

True Gnosticism gives foremost importance to order and discipline in the affairs of life and says,

وَمَنْ كَانَ فِي هَٰذِهِ أَعْمَىٰ فَهُوَ فِي الْآخِرَةِ أَعْمَىٰ وَأَضَلُّ سَبِيلًا

“And whoever is blind in this, he shall (also) be blind in the hereafter” (Surah al-Israa’ 17:72).

and also says, “There is no hereafter for one who does not have an organized life in this world”. In addition, “I advise you (both) and all my children and members of my family and everyone whom my writing reaches, to fear Allah, to keep your affairs in order…4

It considers intellect and reflection about creation one of the necessary principles of life.

إِنَّ فِي خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافِ اللَّيْلِ وَالنَّهَارِ لَآيَاتٍ لِأُولِي الْأَلْبَابِ

Most surely in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of night and day there are signs for men who understand.”(Surah al-‘Imraan 3:190)

الَّذِينَ يَذْكُرُونَ اللَّهَ قِيَامًا وَقُعُودًا وَعَلَىٰ جُنُوبِهِمْ وَيَتَفَكَّرُونَ فِي خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ رَبَّنَا مَا خَلَقْتَ هَٰذَا بَاطِلًا سُبْحَانَكَ فَقِنَا عَذَابَ النَّارِ 

Those who remember Allah standing and sitting and lying on their sides and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: Our Lord! Thou hast not created this in vain! Glory be to Thee; save us then from the chastisement of the fire.” (Surah al-‘Imraan 3:190)

So this true Gnosticism does not constitute only some momentary efforts which are carried out for purification of the soul while the rest of the time of one’s life is spent in the slavery and entanglements of lowly desires in such a way that a person does not attach importance to the weak and does not benefit from this life which is a path and a way for reaching true proximity of Allah and considers himself excused from all upright behavior and duties.

Certainly, true Gnosticism is not of this kind. In positive Gnosticism humankind is the intended existence that constitutes the highest and most sublime goal of the whole of creation and none of the material and outwardly impurities of this world can become an obstacle in his path. The whole of creation is not worth a penny in comparison with the greatness of the human soul and despite all this it considers organizing the outwardly life of this world the best way for purifying one’s soul and actualizing its greatness.

Therefore, in reality one of the indisputable principles of this true Gnosticism is to give attention to this world of change and extinction and the necessity of making the maximum use from events and realities in the path of human perfection.

The path of love in positive Gnosticism which consists of practices for purifying the soul from worldly attachments is something the beloved God has himself invited us towards because love in positive Gnosticism is only directed straight towards the one God, and other attachments—if they are the result of observing the commands of God—are in reality love of God Himself. If you are fond of someone you sympathize with him in difficult times and try to relieve him from the trouble that is bothering him. If he is sick, you visit him to soothe his heart and this, in reality, springs from the love of God. On the Day of Judgment Allah will ask, ‘I was sick. Why you did not come to visit Me?’ The servant will ask, ‘O Allah! How do You become sick?’ Allah will answer, ‘A servant from among my servants was sick and you did not go to visit him.’ We have so many narrations of this kind from the Prophets and the Ahlul Bait (‘a) that they cannot all be mentioned here.

We all know that Allah is not in need of a loan from anyone but He says in the Qur’an,

مَنْ ذَا الَّذِي يُقْرِضُ اللَّهَ قَرْضًا حَسَنًا

“Who is it that will offer Allah a goodly loan.”(Surah al-Baqara 2:245).

Therefore, such bonds of affection and permissible social relations are, in fact, love of Allah Himself; hence, such bonds are among the undeniable principles of positive Gnosticism.

Do not think that the love which the true mystics acquire with regard to Allah is material or sensual; rather, it is a spiritual and pure love. To explain more about the meaning of spiritual or pure love we state a short introduction first.

Gnosis And Spiritual Love

The same destiny which befell other words has befallen this elegant word of Gnosticism (Irfan). Words of this kind throughout the history of science and philosophy have searched in every direction in order to gain their true meaning. This word has become like those sly idols which take any form they like and appear in any attire they desire and this has been one of the irremediable problems throughout history. The word Irfan (Gnosticism) is another infinitive form of the word ma’rifat which means gnosis and knowledge, so an ‘Arif (Gnostic) is a person possessing gnosis and knowledge.

In Arabic literature and etymology two differences have been mentioned between the meanings of the words ‘Arif (Gnostic) and ‘Alim (scholar). Firstly, ma’rifat is knowledge that was preceded by ignorance while it is possible that ‘ilm was not preceded by ignorance. As a result, it is incorrect to say that Allah is Arif (but he can be called ‘Alim). Secondly the word ma’rifat is used mostly in individual and particular issues while the word ‘ilm has a more general meaning and is used in both individual and particular issues and general and universal issues.

In the terminology of philosophers from Avicenna onwards, however, the word ‘Arif (Gnostic) has acquired a specific meaning which is stated with different expressions. It is outside the scope of this discussion to quote all the different meanings and expressions related to this word. The general meaning which can be considered the comprehensive common denominator of all these expressions is as follows:

‘Arif or a Gnostic is a person who has cut his inner self off from all attachments and has approached the exalted station of lordship ﻣﻘﺎﻡ ﺷﺎﻣﺦ ﺭﺑﻮﺑﯽ (by traversing specific journeys that are mentioned in the books related to spiritual wayfaring). Slowly this proximity reaches the station of ‘annihilation in Allah’ ﻓﻨﺎﺀ ﻓﻲ ﺍﷲ which in the terminology of philosophers is called the ‘station of identity ﻫﻮ ﻫﻮ ﺑﻌﻴﻨﻪ and you will read further in this book that this meaning is agreed upon by all the scholars of the science of Irfan in their poetry and their prose.

On the other hand, all questions like the following should be discussed in detail in Negative Gnosis: Is love the first of the initial steps in this path or not? Does it originate from instability of creation? Is it just delusion or imagination?

In a certain sense Irfan should not have any deniers. Which sensible person would distance himself from knowledge and gnosis and which logical human being would deny it?! However, we must understand the meaning carefully so that it does not lead us to inappropriate suppositions. This Gnosis and true Irfan which is the only way of reaching the highest perfections possible for a human being is called Positive Gnosis. Allah himself has taught the meaning of Irfan to mankind in these words:

قُلْ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ تُحِبُّونَ اللَّهَ فَاتَّبِعُونِي

Say: If you love Allah, then follow me. (Surah aal_Imraan 3:31)

Two types of love can be identified in human beings:

1. Carnal or material love: The origin of which is the pleasing nature of the attributes of the object of love such that these attributes are agreeable to the soul in the eyes of the lover.

2. Spiritual or true love: The origin of which is presence of perfection in the object of love such that this perfection is agreeable to the soul of a person and he is also desirous of reaching that perfection.

For example, knowledge is perfection and therefore love of knowledge and learning is spiritual love and contrary to this is the love of money, physical beauty and personalities which is carnal love. That thing which plays a central role in Positive Gnosis (Irfan) is spiritual love. The reason being that the object of love in Positive Irfan is the Absolute and the All-Perfect Allah for Whom no imperfection can be imagined or, in the words of the philosophers, ‘He is the perfection that is entirely complete and the complete that is entirely perfect.’ The object of love in carnal love is always disposed to annihilation and extinction while the object of love in spiritual love is eternal—if someone desires to love.

Every alluring face that attracts to you
its beauty desires to captivate you from afar.
Turn your heart towards the One who
always was and always will be with you.

For those given to carnal-love, spiritual love is like arrhythmic music and, on the contrary, carnal love in the eyes of those possessing spiritual love is like the love of a bird confined to a cage who expresses its love through the gaps between the bars of the cage while the poor bird is unaware that these gaps will never lead him to true freedom. So, the mention of spiritual love to corrupt people is actually a kind of injustice. O Spiritual Love:

Your praise is a pity if mentioned to the caged
So I mention it only in the gathering of the free.

Carnal love is always in state of change and alteration with change in the object of love. Even if this love moves towards perfection, inevitably one day the heart must detach itself from the object of love. On the other hand, spiritual love—when it begins in accordance with the laws of intellect and the heart—can reach eternal and infinite perfection. If the soul is attentive of the object of this spiritual and true love it would inevitably say, O God:

From Adam’s clay I sensed Your fragrance
long distances travelled I along Your path.
Whatever I gave on Your way was from You
My soul remains and that too is Yours.

But if the soul becomes the victim of carnal love it would say, O destiny:

For a while in childhood we had teachers;
For a while we took pleasure in being teachers;
What was the result in the end?
We came from dust and left on the wind.

One who has tasted the nectar of Positive Irfan and has acquired eternal love is very pleased, desiring to see his Beloved, and he says: like a bubble that bounces from place to place

Like a bubble bouncing from place to place to see the visage of the Beloved
We go around and seek and become water.

Certainly, the other—who submitted to carnal desires— would say the following in his heart even if he does not express it on his tongue: to build it

Whoever has come to better the world, his work is like a whirlwind
He exerts himself, leaves everything behind and disappears.

This is the meaning of Positive Irfan the first sign of which is to obey the commands of the eternal and All- Perfect Beloved. In Positive Irfan a person proclaims the phrase, ‘There is neither power nor might except in Allah’4 from the depths of his heart. This phrase makes its
proclaimer adherent to Allah’s commands and prohibitions. As a result, his whole existence manifests the meaning of this phrase; that is, when he starts his prayer with Takbir (Allahu Akbar) he is ready to welter in his own blood for Allah’s sake. This phrase purifies the saintly spirit of the ‘Arif from self and selfishness. ‘I will do this’; ‘I have done that’ is meaningless for him (except for acts that are performed as a result of free will which are the axis of religious duties). He knows very well that:

Unless you scatter the dust of your Self on the wind
You will never see the beauty of the One.

Regarding the Arif in Positive Irfan: “He (the believer) kept his mind alive and killed (the desires of) his heart till his body became thin, his bulk turned light and an effulgence of extreme brightness shone upon him. It lighted the way for him and took him on the (right) path. Different doors led him to the door of safety and the place of (his permanent) stay. His feet, balancing his body, became fixed in the position of safety and comfort, because he kept his heart (in good acts) and pleased his Allah.”5

“O Abu Dharr! You showed anger in the name of Allah; therefore, have hope in Him for whom you became angry, the people were afraid of you in the matter of their (pleasure of this) world while you feared them for your faith. Then leave to them that for which they are afraid of you…
Only rightfulness should attract you while wrongfulness should repel you.”6

This section was ended with selections from a masterpiece of true Irfan—the words of Hussein ibn Ali (‘a) during the day of ‘Arafah in which he is praising his Lord.7

  • 1. Nahj Al-Balaghah, Sermon 227: vol. 2, page 214.
  • 2. Wasq is a unit of measurement of weight used by Arabs. One wasq is approximately equal to 170 kg.
  • 3. Jame’ us Sa’adat, Mulla Ahmed Naraqi, vol. 2, page 98.
  • 4. Nahjul Balagha, Will 47, vol. 2, page 422.
  • 5. Nahj Al-Balagha, Sermon 220: vol. 2, page 190.
  • 6. Nahj Al-Balagha, Sermon 130: vol. 1, page 490.
  • 7. See Dua Arafah of Imam Hussein (‘a), A Shi'ite Anthology, Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i, Translated by William C. Chittick.