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Sayyed Hossein Nasr - Theoretical Gnosis and Doctrinal-Sufism

Sayyed Hossein Nasr - Theoretical Gnosis and Doctrinal-Sufism

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04/07/2012

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Transcendent Philosophy 1, 1-36 © London Academy of Iranian Studies
Theoretical Gnosis and Doctrinal Sufism and TheirSignificance Today
Seyyed Hossein Nasr 
 
George Washington University
Abstract
This essay examines the meaning, role and structure of that supremescience of the Real which came to be known as al-tasawwuf al-'ilmi or 'irfan-i nazari in Islamic civilization. It then turns to the history of thisscience beginning with Ibn 'Arabi and his immediate circle and thenconsiders each region of the Islamic world separately from Morocco to theMalay world. Special attention is paid to the great masters of 'irfan-i nazariin Persia from the earliest teachers to those of the present day. The relationof this science to philosophy, kalam, and other intellectual disciplines isdiscussed and its spiritual significance is studied in itself and in its relationto the operative and practical aspects of Sufism. At the end of the essay asection is devoted to the significance of 'irfan today and its role in providing solutions for some of the most important intellectual andspiritual issues facing the contemporary Islam world.
Introduction
There is a body of knowledge in the Islamic tradition which,while highly intellectual in the original sense of this term, is neither theology (
kal 
ā
m
) nor philosophy (
 falsafah
) while dealing with manysubjects of their concern although from another perspective. This body of knowledge is called doctrinal Sufism,
al-ta
s}
awwuf al-‘ilm
ī 
inArabic, to be contrasted to practical Sufism,
al-ta
s}
awwuf al-‘amal 
ī 
, or theoretical (and sometimes speculative) gnosis (this term beingunderstood in its original and not sectarian sense), especially in the
 
2 Seyyed Hossein Nasr 
Persian-speaking world, where it is referred to as
‘irf 
ā
n-i na
z}
ar 
ī 
. Theseekers and masters of this body of knowledge have alwaysconsidered it to be the Supreme Science,
al-‘ilm al-a‘l 
ā
, and itcorresponds in the Islamic context to what we have called elsewhere
 scientia sacra
.
1
This corpus of knowledge is implicit in the Quran,
H{
ad 
ī 
th
, and the writings of early Sufis. It becomes somewhat moreexplicit from the 4
th
/10
th
century onward in works of such masters as
H{
ak 
 ī 
m Tirmidh
 ī 
, Ab
ū
 
H{
ā
mid Mu
h}
ammad and A
h}
mad Ghazz
ā
l
 ī 
, and‘Ayn al-Qu
d}
ā
t Hamad
ā
n
 ī 
and receives its full elaboration in the7
th
/13
th
century in the hands of Ibn ‘Arab
 ī 
, not all of whose writingsare, however, concerned with this Supreme Science. This corpus isdistinct from other genres of Sufi writing such as manuals for the practice of Sufism, works on spiritual virtues, Sufi hagiographies,Sufi poetry, etc. but during the past seven centuries this body of knowledge has exercised great influence on most other aspects of Sufism and also on later Islamic philosophy and even
kal 
ā
m
.Despite its immense influence in many parts of the Islamicworld during the last centuries, doctrinal Sufism or theoretical gnosishas also had its opponents over the centuries, including certainscholars of the Quran and
H{
ad 
ī 
th
, some of the more exoterist jurists,many of the theologians (
mutakallim
ū
n
), some of the morerationalistic philosophers and even some Sufis associated with Suficenters (
kh
ā
nq
ā
h
or 
 z
ā
wiyah
) and established orders. The latter haveopposed the theoretical exposition of truths which they believe should be kept hidden and which they consider to be associated closely withspiritual practice and inward unveiling (
kashf 
).
2
Still, this body of knowledge has been preserved and has continued to flourish over allthese centuries, exercising immense influence in many domains of Islamic thought while remaining for many the crown of allknowledge.
A Brief History of the Tradition of Theoretical GnosisThe Earliest Foundation
 
Theoretical Gnosis and Doctrinal Sufism and Their Significance Today 3
Before turning to theoretical gnosis itself and its significancetoday, it is necessary to provide a brief history over the ages in theIslamic tradition of the expressions of this Supreme Science whichitself stands beyond history and temporal development, being at theheart of the
 philosohia perennis
as understood by traditionalauthorities,
3
and not being bound in its essence by the local coloringof various epochs and places. Of course, the wisdom with which thisSupreme Science deals has always been and will always be, but it hasreceived distinct formulations in the framework of various traditionsat whose heart is to be found this wisdom concerning the nature of reality. In the Islamic tradition this knowledge was handed down in a principial manner by the Prophet to a number of his companions,chief among them ‘Al
 ī 
, and in later generations to the Sufi mastersand of course the Shi‘ite Imams, many of whom were in fact also poles of Sufism of their day.
4
Besides being transmitted orally, thisknowledge was often expressed in the form of allusions, ellipticalexpressions, symbolic poems and the like.Gradually from the 4
th
/10
th
century onward some Sufis suchas
H{
ak 
 ī 
m Ab
ū
‘Abd All
ā
h Tirmidh
 ī 
(d. circa 320/938) began to writemore systematically on certain aspects of Sufi doctrine. For example,Tirmidh
 ī 
wrote on the central Sufi doctrine of 
wal 
ā
 yah/wil 
ā
 yah
, thatis, initiatic and spiritual power as well as sanctity. During the centuryafter him, Ab
ū
 
H{
ā
mid
Muh}
ammad
Ghazz
ā
l
 ī 
(d. 505/1111) wrote ondivine knowledge itself in both the
I}
hy
ā
’ 
and such shorter treatises as
al-Ris
ā
lat al-laduniyyah
(only attributed to him according to somescholars) as well as writing an esoteric commentary on the LightVerse of the Quran in his
Mishk 
ā
t al-anw
ā
. His brother A
h}
mad (d.520/1126) expounded gnosis and metaphysics in the language of lovein his
Saw
ā
ni
h}
. Shortly afterwards, ‘Ayn al-Qu
d}
ā
t Hamad
ā
n
 ī 
(d.525/1131) dealt with the subject of divine knowledge and a philosophical exposition of certain Sufi teachings in his
Makt 
ū
b
ā
and
Tamh
ī 
ā
while in his
 Zubdah
he criticized the existing rationalisticcurrents in the thought of some philosophers and pointed to another way of knowing which is none other than gnosis. These figures in

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