Chapter Ten: Knowledge of the Sacred as Deliverance
As by a jar is meant the clay and by cloth the threads of which it is composed, so by the name of the world is denoted consciousness; negate the world and know it.
Śankara, APAROKSHANUBHUTI 1
And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
Gospel of John
Knowledge of the sacred leads to freedom and deliverance from all bondage and limitation because the Sacred is none other than the limitless Infinite and the Eternal, while all bondage results from the ignorance which attributes final and irreducible reality to that which is devoid of reality in itself, reality in its ultimate sense belonging to none other than the Real as such. That is why the sapiential perspective envisages the role of knowledge as the means of deliverance and freedom, of what Hinduism calls mokśa. To know is to be delivered. Traditional knowledge is in fact always in quest of the rediscovery of that which has been always known but forgotten, not that which is to be discovered, for the Logos which was in the beginning possesses the principles of all knowledge and this treasury of knowledge lies hidden within the soul of man to be recovered through recollection.2 The unknown is not out there beyond the present boundary of knowledge but at the center of man's being here and now where it has always been. And it is unknown only because of our forgetfulness of its presence. It is a sun which has not ceased to shine simply because our blindness has made us impervious to its light.
The traditional concept of knowledge is concerned with freedom and deliverance precisely because it relates principial knowledge to the Intellect, not merely to reason, and sees sacred knowledge in rapport with an ever-present Reality which is at once Being and Knowledge, not with a process of accumulation of facts and concepts through time and based on gradual growth and development. Without denying this latter type of knowledge which in fact has existed in all traditional civilizations,3 tradition emphasizes that central knowledge of the sacred and sacred knowledge which is the royal path toward deliverance from the bondage of all limitation and ignorance, from the bondage of the outside world which limits us physically and the human psyche which imprisons the immortal soul within us.
While considering the ordinary knowing function of the mind connected with what we receive through the senses and the rational analysis of this empirical data,4 tradition refuses to limit the role of knowledge to this level, or that of the intelligence to its analytical function. It sees the nobility of the human intellect in its being able to attain that knowledge which is beyond time and becoming, which, rather than engrossing us ever further in the accumulation of details and facts, elevates man to the level of that illimitable Being which is the source of all existents yet beyond them. To know that Being is to know in principle all that exists and hence to become free from the bondage of all limitative existence.5 Ordinary knowledge is of properties and conditions of things that exist. Although legitimate on its
own level, it does not lead to freedom and deliverance. On the contrary, when combined with passion, it can engross man in the web of māyā and, while leading him to ever greater knowledge of details and facts which would appear to be an expansion of his knowledge, in reality imprison him further within the limits of a particular level of cognition and also of existence. The knowledge which delivers, however, is of the root of existence itself. It is based on the fundamental distinction between Ātman and māyā and the knowledge of māyā in the light of Ātman. It is principial knowledge, the Lā ilāha illa‘Llāh, which containing all truth and all knowledge, also delivers from all limitation. To know existence through the piercing light of intelligence is to be free from concern with the limited type of knowledge which engrosses but does not liberate the mind.
In order for knowledge to deliver, it must be realized by the whole man and engage all that constitutes the human microcosm. Intellectual intuition, although a precious gift from Heaven, is not realized knowledge. The truth held in the mind, although it is the truth and therefore of the highest value, is one thing and its realization another.6 Realized knowledge concerns not only the intelligence which is the instrument par excellence of knowing but also the will and the psyche. It requires the acquisition of spiritual virtues which is the manner in which man participates in that truth which is itself supra-human. Realized knowledge even affects the corporeal realm and transforms it. The physical radiance of the sage, of the one delivered through gnosis, is a reflection on the physical plane of the light of sacred knowledge itself. Realized knowledge resides in the heart, which is the principle of both the mind and the body and cannot but transform both the mind and the body. It is a light which inundates the whole being of man removing from him the veil of ignorance and clothing him in the robe of resplendent luminosity which is the substance of that knowledge itself. As the Prophet said, “Knowledge is light” (al-‘ilmuu nūrun), and realized knowledge cannot but be the realization of that light which not only illuminates the mind but also beautifies the soul and irradiates the body while, from the operative point of view, realization itself requires as its necessary and preliminary condition the training of both body and soul, a training which prepares the human microcosm for the reception of the “victorial light”7 of sacred knowledge.
Man is imprisoned by his own passions which usually prevent the intelligence within him from functioning in its “normal” fashion according to man's primordial nature, or what Islam calls al-fiṭrah.8 Such infirmities as pride, pettiness, and falsehood are deformations of the soul which are obstacles that stand before the realization of knowledge. The sapiential perspective sees these evils or sins not only from a moral point of view related to man's will but also from an ontological point of view related to being and knowledge. Man should not be proud but humble because God is and we are not and the neighbor possesses certain perfections which we do not possess. The basis of humility is therefore not sentimental but intellectual.9 The same is true of charity, truthfulness, and the other cardinal virtues whose absence or inversion marks the deformities of the soul and, theologically speaking, leads to the commitment of sin. To realize knowledge man must cultivate these virtues and embellish the soul in such a
manner that it will become worthy of the visitation of the angel of knowledge. To speak of sacred knowledge without mentioning the crucial importance of the virtues as the conditio sine qua non for the realization of this knowledge, is to misunderstand completely the traditional sapiential perspective.10 The virtues are so important that many a Sufi treatise which is concerned with gnosis deals most of all with the virtues rather than with pure knowledge itself,11 thus preparing the soul for the reception of pure gnosis which is then described in terms of Unity or tawḥīd.
The sapiential perspective reduces all sins or deformities of the soul to ignorance of one kind or another or false attribution whose cure is knowledge, but that does not mean that the illness is not present and that the cure must not be administered. The fact that the sapiential perspective sees the root of pride in our ignorance of the truth that God is everything and we are nothing does not mean that we can continue to be proud with this theoretical knowledge in mind. That would be like reading in a book that a particular medicine is the cure for a certain illness. That knowledge in itself would not cure the illness. Somewhere along the way the medicine has to be actually swallowed no matter how bitter the taste. Likewise, man must actually cultivate the virtue of humility even after he has become aware theoretically of its intellectual rather than sentimental meaning. Only in actually becoming humble does man realize in his own being the reality which underlies and necessitates humility. The same holds true for the other virtues. Of course the emphasis upon different sets of virtues depends upon the structure of each tradition and the spiritual reality of the founder who is always emulated in one way or another as exemplar and model. But the cardinal virtues such as humility, charity, and truthfulness are present everywhere since they correspond in depth to the very reality of the human state and the stages of spiritual realization.12
The virtues are our way of participating in the truth. As already mentioned, the sacred demands of man all that he is. This is most of all true of sacred knowledge. Hence the necessity of the virtues which are the embellishment of the soul in conformity with the truth. Needless to say, metaphysically speaking, the attainment of supreme knowledge which delivers means the realization of the relativity of all that is relative including the soul and the virtues and the presenting of the soul as a gift to God. But this going beyond the realm of the soul is not possible save through the transformation of the soul itself, for one cannot present to God a gift not worthy of His Majesty and not reflecting His Beauty. The Sacred which is the Divine Presence itself transmutes the soul and bestows upon it beauty, power, and intelligence but then and only then does it take these gifts away to open the door to the inner chamber of the Sacred Itself wherein man receives that illuminating and unifying gnosis which melts away all otherness and separation. To overlook or belittle the significance of virtues in the name of the Supreme Identity is as much a fruit of ignorance or avidyā as rejecting forms on their own level in the name of the formless, as if one could ever cast aside what one does not possess or go beyond where one is not even located.
The association of realized knowledge with the spiritual virtues indicates how far removed this knowledge is from the purely mental grasp of concepts and judgments made upon them. This difference is to be seen also in the organic and inalienable nexus which exists between knowledge as here understood and love in contrast to purely mental knowledge that can and in fact does exist without any relation to love or to qualities of the person who holds such a knowledge as far as love is concerned. In the attainment of sacred knowledge there cannot but exist the element of love because the goal of this knowledge is union and it embraces the whole of man's being including the power of love within the human soul. Although the path of love and knowledge are markedly different, the gnostic, the jnîāni or al-‘ārif bi'-Llāh, cannot be devoid of what love implies although his path does not limit itself to the I-thou duality with which the spiritual way based purely on love or bhakti is concerned. Christian mysticism is for the most part a mysticism of love13 but, within the Christian tradition as elsewhere, the gnostic perspective where it has existed has certainly not been devoid of the dimension of love as seen in the case of a Dionysius or Eckhart.
Furthermore, in those traditions whose spirituality is predominantly gnostic such as Islam, the element of love is constantly present as is evident in the works of an Ibn ‘Arabī or Rūmī. The element of love is in fact present even in the sapiential perspective of a tradition such as Hinduism where the path of knowledge is more clearly delineated and separated from that of love. It should never be forgotten that the supreme master of Hindu gnosis, Śankara, who is the father of the Advaita Vedanta school for which only Ātman is ultimately real, all else being māyā to be pierced through by the light of knowledge and discernment, composed devotional hymns to Śiva. As for Islam, an Ibn ‘Arabī, who formulated the doctrine of the Transcendent Unity of Being (waḥdat al-wujūd), composed works based on the language of love which were permeated with what the yearning through the power of the lover for the Beloved implies, as can be seen in his Tarjumān al-ashwāq (The Interpreter of Desires). Furthermore, he asserted that finally, after the attainment of the highest state of realization, “the Lord remains the Lord and the servant, the servant.”14 The pole of union, which is related to the realization of the One through knowledge and by virtue of passing through the gate of annihilation and nothingness, does not abrogate the other pole based upon the relation between the lover and the Beloved or the servant and the Lord, to use the expression of Ibn ‘Arabī. It is only through realized knowledge that man can reach this truth and taste the actual experience of the One, which yet allows the servant to have the awareness of his own nothingness in the light of the One.15 Only gnosis can make possible the attainment of that sacred knowledge, although pure knowledge is inseparable from love like the sun itself whose rays are at once light and heat, the Sun which both illuminates and vivifies. There is no common ground between the knowledge of Ultimate Reality of which the gnostics speak and the philosophical monism which would reduce the One to a mental concept logically opposed to the I-thou duality and all the other principial differentiations of which scientia sacra speaks, as there is no
common ground between the realization of the Truth and mental discourse about it. The rapport between knowledge and love and the distinction between theoretical knowledge of even a traditional character and realized knowledge are brought out in Sufism in the manner in which such masters as Rūmī, ‘Aṭṭār or Najm al-Dīn Rāzī16 speak of knowledge or “intellect” (‘aql) and love (‘ishq). At first sight it seems that they are simply speaking about the path of love, that their concern is with a kind of mysticism based on love until we come across a verse of the Mathnawī such as,
We are non-being displaying existence;
Thou art Absolute Being, our very being.17
Then we realize that when such Sufis denigrate “knowledge” in the name of “love,” they are trying to indicate the crucial importance of realization and the lack of common measure between theoretical and realized knowledge. For them there is the stage of theoretical knowledge, there is love, and then there is realized knowledge which includes the element of love and which they call ‘ishq or love itself in order to distinguish it from theoretical knowledge or ‘aql. Their perspective, therefore, far from being opposed to the supremacy of knowledge, is based on that knowledge as it has become actualized and has consumed the totality of man's being. The whole rapport between traditional knowledge of a theoretical kind, but in the positive sense of theory as theōria or vision, and realized knowledge which the Sufis of this school call ‘ishq is summarized by Ḥāfiẓ in a single verse,
The possessors of “intellect” [‘āqilān] are the pivotal point of the compass of existence,
But love [‘ishq] knows that they are wandering in this circle in bewilderment.18
Traditional knowledge, even of a theoretical kind, is related to the center of existence and not to a peripheral point, but only realized knowledge is aware of the relativity of every conceptualization and every mental formulation vis-à-vis the Absolute and of that bewilderment which is not the result of ignorance but of wonder before the Divine Reality. For this bewilderment is none other than the one to which the Prophet of Islam referred when he prayed, “O Lord, increase our bewilderment in Thee.”19
Sacred knowledge is also not opposed to action but incorporates it on the highest level as it encompasses the dimension of love. Today, contemplation is often conceived of as being opposed to action. In the modern world in which contemplation has been nearly completely sacrificed for a life of totally exteriorized action, it is often necessary to emphasize the independence and even opposition of contemplation vis-à-vis action as currently understood. Yet, there is no innate contradiction between them. The highest form of action is the invocation of the Divine Name associated with the prayer of the heart which requires the complete pariticipation of man's will and concentration of the mind and which enables man to accomplish the most perfect and powerful action possible, an action whose ultimate agent is God Himself.20 But this action is also the source of knowledge and inseparable from contemplation.21 On the highest level, therefore, knowledge and action meet while on the level of action itself, the gnostics and contemplatives have often produced prodigious feats of action
ranging from the writing of voluminous works to the construction of great works of art, not to speak of the founding of institutions of a social and political nature. The prototype of this wedding between knowledge and action is to be found of course in those plenary manifestations of the Logos which are the great prophets and avatārs who have both perfect and total knowledge and transform the life of a whole humanity. The path of action, or what the Hindus call karma yoga, cannot embrace that of knowledge because the lesser can never comprehend the greater. But since knowledge is the highest means of spiritual attainment, it embraces the path of action as it does that of love and delivers man from the limitations of both concordant actions and reactions and the duality associated with love understood as sentiment, while incorporating unto itself all that is positive in the power of both love and action which, like knowledge, belong to that theomorphic being called man.
Having spoken of the structure and content of sacred knowledge in its relation to the totality of the human state, it is necessary to say a few words about the manner through which such knowledge is attained, although the full treatment of such a subject requires a separate extensive study of its own. How can one gain access to that knowledge which sanctifies and delivers? Based on all that has been said so far, our obvious response would be through tradition. But this answer, although necessary, is not sufficient by itself since sacred knowledge deals with matters of a veritable esoteric nature which, even in a traditional context, cannot be taught to everyone and which can even be harmful if transmitted to a person not prepared for its reception. Moreover, such a knowledge can never be divorced from ethics. The moral qualifications of the person who is to be taught must be considered, in complete contrast to the situation in the modern world where the transmission of knowledge has become divorced from considerations of the moral qualifications of the recipient of such a knowledge. The traditional view is completely otherwise, not only as far as sapience is concerned but for every kind and form of knowledge. One can see that even in the realm of the teaching of the arts and the crafts where the training of the student is ethical as well as technical. No one can be taught the knowledge associated with a particular craft without possessing the required moral qualifications and also being trained to practice certain ethical virtues along with the trade associated with the craft itself. If the teaching of the techniques of a craft is based on the moral qualifications of the pupil whom the master craftsman deems fit to instruct, how much more is this true of sciences which are ultimately of a divine character and which are not strictly speaking man's to dispense with as he wishes? Also, to teach this type of knowledge in an effective manner requires the actualization of certain potentialities and energies in the human being to which ordinary man does not have access and which can be reached only if, with the aid of certain keys, the doors to the inner recesses of the soul and the higher levels of being and of consciousness are unlocked.
All of these and many other considerations, which are in the very nature of things, have led to the necessity, within traditions which possess the possibility of providing means to attain sacred knowledge, of channeling
these means through persons, orders, and organizations of an esoteric character and initiatic nature. There is the need for spiritual training, hence the master who knows and who can teach others, the master who has climbed the dangerous path of the cosmic mountain to its peak and who can instruct others to do the same. There is the indispensable need for a special power or grace which cannot but come from the source of the tradition in question and which can remain valid only if there is regularity of transmission or in any case access to the source of the tradition.22 There is the necessity of preserving and protecting a teaching which cannot be taught to everyone and which, as mentioned, can be harmful for those who are not qualified to receive it. There is the necessity of preventing this kind of knowledge from becoming profaned. All of these considerations have necessitated within traditions belonging to the historical period, when cosmic conditions have necessitated the separation of the exoteric and esoteric views,23 the creation within themselves of appropriated initiatic organizations, means of transmission, instruction, and the like which one can still observe in worlds as far apart as those of Japanese Zen and Moroccan Sufism.
In normal times in fact, sacred knowledge was rarely divulged in books and if it were, it appeared in a form which necessitated the traditional oral commentary to unveil its true import.24 As Plato, himself a master of gnosis, said, serious things are not to be found in books. Over the millennia sacred knowledge survived not because the manuscripts by the masters were preserved in well-kept libraries, but because the oral transmission and a living spiritual presence continued, because in each traditional world in which such a knowledge survived the Logos continued to illuminate the minds and in fact the whole being of certain people who belonged with all their heart and soul to the religion lying at the heart of that traditional world. The realization of sacred knowledge could not but be according to a disciplined practice kept hidden to protect both that knowledge and those who, not ready to receive it, might be harmed by it as a small child might suffer mortally from the consumption of the food which constitutes the regular diet of adults.
The realization of sacred knowledge, therefore, has always been tied to the possibilities which tradition makes available. Obviously, therefore, if sacred knowledge is taken seriously both in its essence and as it has existed in human history, it cannot be separated from revelation, religion, tradition, and orthodoxy. The army of pseudo-masters who roam the earth today cannot make a plant whose roots have been severed to bloom no matter how many beautiful words or ideas they seek to draw from the inexhaustible treasury of sapience to be found in both East and West. The possibilities in the human intellect, which must be actualized in order for man to attain in a real and permanent manner sacred knowledge, cannot be actualized save by the Intellect, the Logos, and those objective manifestations of the Logos which constitute the various religions. Anyone who claims to perform such a function by himself and independent of a living tradition is in reality claiming to be himself the Logos or the manifestation of the Logos which, with what is to be observed in the current scene, is as absurd as to claim to
be lightning without possessing either the light or the thunder which must accompany it. In any case, a tree is judged by the fruit which it bears. The scientia sacra which has issued from tradition and which is the fruit of realization is imbued with the perfume of grace and robed with forms of celestial beauty in total contrast to that type of pretentious esoterism and occultism rampant today which, even if possessing bits of traditional knowledge drawn from sundry sources, is characterized by a singular lack of that grace and beauty which liberate and which are inseparable from all authentic expressions of the Spirit.
The fact that sacred knowledge is by definition for the few does not mean either that other human beings are deprived of salvation in the religious sense or that the significance and import of such a knowledge is thereby limited to the few. All traditions are based on a way of living and dying which is for everyone in the humanity embraced by that tradition and a way which enables each human being to live a life that leads to either felicity in the hereafter or damnation, to the paradisal or infernal states. The paths of action and love are accessible to all. In religions with a Divine Law such as Islam, this Law or Sharī‘ah knows of no exception and must be followed by everyone in his right mind from the gnostics and sages like Junayd and Ḥallāj to the simple peasant in the fields or cobbler in the bazaar. Divine Justice is therefore not denied or negated if the sapiential path remains for an intellectual elite, because there are other paths for those whose nature is not given to what the path of knowledge requires.25
Nor is the significance of sacred knowledge limited because only a few can follow its call. This is in fact true of all knowledge, even of the profane kind. How many physicists are there in the world and how many people can comprehend what goes on at the frontiers of physics today? Yet the effect of what those few who deal with the frontiers of physics theorize, devise, and discover has a far-reaching impact upon the life of the planet. In the 1920s and 30s, when one could fit practically all the physicists who were doing new work in physics into a single auditorium or large lecture hall, new theories and techniques were devised which soon shook the world, both figuratively and literally. In the case of sacred knowledge the rapport between the impact of the knowledge of the few and the lives of the many has always been even much greater for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that modern physics does not deal with ethics whereas sacred knowledge has been always related to the ethical foundations of the religion in which the particular form of sapience in question has flowered. Esoterism in each tradition has been the esoteric dimension of the tradition in question, not of something else. That is why the relation of the Taoist sage to the life of Chinese society as a whole or of a Clement of Alexandria to the Christian community or of a Sufi saint and gnostic like Shaykh Abu'l-Ḥasan al-Shādhilī to the Islamic world is far more profound and their influence far more extensive and enduring than that of contemporary scientists vis-à-vis modern society. One need not even speak of modern philosophers whose impact upon the world about them has become reduced to practically nil unless they become propagators of pseudoreligious ideologies such as Marxism, which would seek to replace religion itself. In the latter case we
are no longer dealing with science or philosophy in the usual sense of the word but ideologies of mass appeal whose very popularity excludes their remaining of a strictly “intellectual” nature or concerned with the realm of knowledge alone.
In any case, the quantitatively limited expansion of the domain of sacred knowledge and the fact that its proponents have always been few does not at all imply any limit upon its influence within a whole world. A single lamp can illuminate a large area around it. In the same way the very existence of sacred knowledge provides not only the possibility for total liberation and deliverance for those who are able to follow its demands and pursue a path of a sapiential nature, but also makes available certain keys and answers which any religious collectivity needs in order to preserve its equilibrium. Such a knowledge makes available certain intellectual supports and props for faith and thereby helps even those who are unable to heed its call directly to live in a religious world protected from the mental doubt and skepticism which finally turn against faith itself. This knowledge alone can engage the mind in its totality and enable reason to become wed to faith rather than the mind and its rational powers becoming servile to that insatiable rationalism which devours and which like an acid burns the living tissues of the world of man and nature. The bitter experience of the modern world is categorical proof, if proof be needed, of what happens to a world in which such kind of knowledge is so eclipsed as to become practically inaccessible and, in any case, of such peripheral concern that it no longer has a role to play in either what is called the intellectual life or even the religious life of the community.
But let us return to the question of the realization of sacred knowledge itself. The goal of this knowledge is the Ultimate Reality, the Substance which is above all accidents, the Essence which is above all forms. Since man lives in the world of forms, however, even for the path of sapience which seeks the Highest Reality, forms are of great significance and as already mentioned, it is in fact only the sapiential perspective which can provide the key for the true significance of forms and symbols. The lover of God can claim indifference to forms in his state of spiritual drunkenness but the gnostic whose aim is to know cannot but pierce into the meaning of forms in order to go beyond them. That is why the metaphysics of sacred art in various traditions has been expounded by the Platos, Plotinuses, Dionysiuses, Shih-T'aos, and the like-all of whom belong to the sapiential perspective of their tradition. Metaphysically speaking, the understanding of forms is an aspect of the intellectual journey of the gnostic toward the formless, while initiatically and operatively also forms play a crucial role as support for this journey. Whether it be a particular symbol sanctified by the tradition to which the gnostic in question belongs or a particular work of sacred art or a natural feature such as a mountain, tree, or lake with which he “identifies” himself, forms play a central role in the life of those who have sung most eloquently and forcefully of the formless. Śri Ramana Maharshi who asked simply, “Who am I?” in a most direct jnîani manner, “identified” himself with the sacred mountain Arunachala,26 while Ibn ‘Arabī wrote one of his most powerful works on gnosis upon beholding the
beautiful face of a young Persian woman circumambulating the Ka‘bah.27 Those masters of sapience who have reached the other shore, the shore of the formless, have done so on the wing of forms of whatever nature these forms might have been. They have also been usually the type of spiritual persons most sensitive to forms and those who have created works of great beauty in their exposition of knowledge of the formless, as if they wanted to demonstrate in their own being to the world about them the metaphysical principle that beauty is the splendor of the Truth.
The basic form which carries the gnostic to the shore beyond all forms is of course that central theophany at the heart of revelation which constitutes prayer in its most inward and universal sense. The aspirant to sacred knowledge prays like all human beings who are aware of their human vocation. But he also performs that quintessential prayer which is the prayer of the heart, the invocation of the Divine Name with its appropriate meditative and contemplative techniques. Although there are certainly other ways of spirtual realization based on different forms as images and symbols, the meditation upon and invocation of the Name of the Divinity, as found in the prayer of the heart of Orthodoxy, the nimbutsu of Jodo-Shin Buddhism, japa yoga in Hinduism, or the dhikr in Sufism, provides in this period of the cosmic cycle the primary path of spiritual realization and the most accessible means for the attainment of that knowledge which is sacred and which sanctifies.28 This quintessential prayer which is the prayer of the gnostic is not in reality the prayer of man to God. Rather, God Himself “prays” in man. The invocation of the Divine Name is not by man qua man but by the Divinity who invokes His own Name in the temple of the purified body and soul of his theomorphic creature. In the same way the sacred knowledge of God is not attained by man as such. Rather, man knows God through God, he is the knower (or gnostic) by and through the Divinity and not of the Divinity (the al-‘arif bi'Llāh of Islam).29
The great mystery of the operative aspect of the path of knowledge, as in fact of all spirituality, is the power of sacred form to enable and aid man to reach the formless, and this mystery is nowhere more directly and powerfully manifested than in the case of that supreme sacred form which is the Name of the Divinity as manifested through revelation in a particular sacred, or sometimes liturgical, language. Here, a sound system or mantra and a combination of letters unite in a cluster of visual and sonorous forms which, while belonging in their external aspect to the world of multiplicity and form, contain a presence which transmutes the being of man and possess a power which carries man beyond the formal order. In a sense, one can say that in His Blessed Name, God provides, amidst the very waves of the sea of forms, the vessel which enables man to pass beyond the sea of all forms and all becoming. The formless Essence “becomes” form in order for form to “become” the formless Essence. The gnostic seeks the formless but the gate to the Infinite Empyrean of the formless is sacred form at the heart of which lies the quintessential prayer associated with the invocation of the Divine Name in its proper traditional and liturgical settings.30 The Name is both the means toward knowledge and Knowledge itself; it is the gate that opens toward the abode of the Truth in its ultimate sense and the Truth
Itself. Through that inner mystery of the union of the Name and the Named, of God and His Blessed Name, the attainment of the sacred form is the attainment of the formless, for to live always in the Divine Name is to live in God and to see all things in Him, as they really are. Sacred form, especially the Divine Name, is thus not only the support of the seeker of sacred knowledge but also his goal. Being the direct “form of the Formless,” it not only leads to the abode beyond forms but is itself in its inner infinitude the beyond here and now. In it the gnostic rediscovers his original abode toward which all creatures wander in their long cosmic journey but which only the realized human being reaches even in this life while living among men and in this world.
Precisely because of the awareness of his origin and of his home, the person in whom the fire of sacred knowledge has become inflamed and in whom the search and quest for the knowledge of the sacred has become a central concern is already a stranger to this world. He is an exile constantly in quest of that land of nowhere which is yet the ubiquitous Center and which constitutes his original homeland. The theme of the stranger or exile runs like a golden thread through the sapiential and gnostic literature of all traditions.31 As in the Hermetic Poimandres or the Avicennan Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, the adept in quest of knowledge encounters a luminous being, the Intellect, who recalls him to his own origin and reminds him of his own estrangement in a world which is not his own and in which he cannot but be a stranger and an exile.32 He must therefore seek the fountain of life, led in this quest by the figure whom Islamic esoterism calls Khiḍr, the guide upon the spiritual path, the representative and symbol of the Eliatic function33 which cannot but be always present. Having drunk of the water of immortality, which is also the elixir of Divine Knowledge, man regains his original consciousness and primordial abode. His wandering ceases and he arrives after his long cosmic journey at that home from which his true self never departed. The homeland of the gnostic is forever that spiritual country that is nowhere and everywhere, the land about which Rūmī says,
That homeland is not Egypt, Iraq or Syria,
That homeland is the place which has no name.34
For man to become an exile in this world is already a sign of spiritual awakening. To depart from the prison of limitation which this world is in comparison with the illimitable expanses of the spiritual world and finally the Divine Infinity is to be delivered through sacred knowledge.
The theme of the exile of the comtemplative and spiritual person in this world is elaborated in combination with the theme of the Orient and the Occident in the celebrated treatise Qiṣṣat al-ghurbat al-gharbiyyah (The Story of the Occidental Exile)35 by Suhrawardī, the master of the School of Illumination (al-ishrāq) in Islam. In this remarkable initiatic narrative, the hero, who is the gnostic, hails from Yemen, the land of the right hand, hence by implication the East and the place of the rising sun or of light which is also being.36 But he is imprisoned in a well in Qayrawān in the western extremity of the Islamic world, in the world of the setting sun and of shadows. Only when the hoopoe, the bird which symbolizes revelation, brings him news of his father, the king of Yemen, is the hero awakened to
his call and he succeeds through numerous perils in reaching his original abode.
The story of the “Occidental Exile” is that of every contemplative imprisoned in the limited world of the senses and of physical forms. The soul of man and the intellect which shines at the center of his being come from the Orient of the universe, that is, from the spiritual world.37 In this sense all men are Orientals; only the gnostic is aware of his Oriental origin and hence remains in exile in a world which is not his own, in that Occident which symbolizes the darkness of material existence in its aspect of opacity and not symbol. The Prophet of Islam has said, “The world is the prison of the faithful and the paradise of the unbeliever.”38 The sapiential interpretation of this well-known ḥadīth is that the person who possesses the intellectual intuition which enables him to have a vision of the supernal realities cannot but be alienated in a world characterized by material condensation, coagulation, separation, and most of all illusion. For him, knowledge is both the means of journeying from this world to the abode which corresponds to his inner reality, and which is therefore his home, and of seeing this world not as veil but as theophany, not as opacity but as transparence. Whether the gnostic speaks of journeying to the Reality beyond or living in that Reality here and now does not change the significance of the condition of the spiritual man being in exile in this world, for such a man is in exile as long as he is what he is and the world is what it is. Now, through knowledge he can either journey beyond the cosmos to that Metacosmic Reality in the light of which nothing else possesses separative existence, or he can realize here and now that the world as separation and veil did not even possess an independent reality and that the experience of the world as prison was itself a result of ignorance and false attribution. In either case the realization of sacred or principial knowledge delivers man from the bondage of that limitation which characterizes man's terrestrial existence and makes him an exile removed from his original abode and his true self.
The journey to the spiritual Orient by the person in quest of sacred knowledge is the journey to the Tree of Life, to that tree whose fruit bore for man the unitive knowledge from which he became deprived upon tasting of the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil or separative knowledge. That is why Lurian Kabbala identifies the Orient with the Tree of Life itself.39 To taste the fruit of this tree, which fallen man has forgotten as a result of the series of descents from the primordial perfection that mark his origin, is to experience that knowledge which is “tasted knowledge,” savientia (literally from the Latin root meaning “to taste”), the ḥikmah dhawqiyyah (the “tasted knowledge”) of the Muslim sages such as Suhrawardī. To jouney to this Orient is to return to the Origin, the Orient in its metaphysical sense, being none other than the Origin.40
Moreover, the knowledge of this Orient is itself Oriental knowledge, that is, one based on the sacramental function of the Intellect and its illuminating power. To gain such a knowledge is to gain certitude, to be saved from the doubt that causes aberration of the mind and destroys inner peace. Sacred knowledge is based upon and leads to certitude because it is not based on
conjecture or mental concepts but involves the whole of man's being. Even when such a knowledge appears as theory, it is not in the modern meaning of theory, but in its etymological sense as vision. It imposes itself with blinding clarity upon the mind of the person who has been given the possibility of such a vision through intellectual intuition. Then as the process of realization of this knowledge unfolds, it begins to encompass the whole of man and to consume him, leaving no locus wherein doubt could linger. That is why Islamic gnosis, basing itself directly upon the message and terminology of the Quran, which speaks so often of certitude (‘al-yaqīn), envisages all the stages of the acquiring of sacred knowledge as steps in the deepening of man's certitude. It speaks of the “science of certainty” (‘ilm al-yaqīn), “the vision of certainty” (‘ayn al-yaqīn), and the “truth of certainty” (ḥaqq al-yaqīn) which are compared to hearing about the description of fire, seeing fire, and being consumed by fire.41 Of course only he who has been consumed by fire knows in the ultimate sense what fire is, but even the description of fire provides him with some knowledge of it which, coming from the source of traditional authority, is already combined with an element of certitude. Therefore, from the beginning of the process of acquiring knowledge of a sacred order, certitude is present.
This knowledge by its very nature encompasses all that man is and cannot exclude either love or faith which are the participation of man in what he does not know with immediacy but which he yet accepts with his mind and heart. Knowledge which removes the veil of separation does not annul this faith but comprehends it and bestows upon it a contemplative quality.42 In any case he who has realized sacred knowledge and gained certitude participates in it with the whole of his being and with all that faith contains and implies in the religious sense. Far from being opposed to faith, sacred knowledge is both its support and its protector before that doubting mind which, cut off from both the Intellect and revelation, loses the security and peace of certitude and, in its attempt to embrace everything within the fold of its directionless agitation, turns upon faith itself.
If sacred knowledge involves the whole being of man, it also concerns the giving up of this being for its goal is union. The miracle of human existence is that man can undo the existentiating and cosmogonic process inwardly so as to cease to exist;43 man can experience that “annihilation” (the fanā' of the Sufis) which enables him to experience union in the ultimate sense. Although love, as the force “that moves the heaven and the stars,” plays a major role in attracting man to the “abode of the Beloved” and realized knowledge is never divorced from the warmth of its rays, it is principial knowledge alone that can say neti neti until the Intellect within man which is the divine spark at the center of his being realizes the Oneness of the Reality which alone is, the Reality before whose “Face” all things perish according to the Quranic verse, “All things perish save His Face.”44 This knowledge, as already stated, is strictly speaking not human. Man qua man cannot have union with God. But man can, through spiritual realization and with the aid of Heaven, participate in the lifting of that veil of separation so that the immanent Divinity within him can say “I” and the illusion of a separate self, which is the echo and reverberation upon the
planes of cosmic existence of principial possibilities contained in the Source, ceases to assert itself as another and independent “I,” without of course the essential reality of the person whose roots are contained in the Divine Infinitude ever being annihilated.
Between I and Thou, my “I-ness” is the source of torment.
Through Thy “I-ness” lift my “I-ness” from between us.45
The goal of sacred knowledge is deliverence and union, its instrument the whole being of man and its meaning the fulfillment of the end for which man and in fact the cosmos were created. During the long millennia of human history when men everywhere lived according to the dicta of tradition, this knowledge was present as an ubiquitous light in the inner dimension of various religions along with the appropriate means of realization tied, through their doctrine, symbols, formal homogeneity, and especially grace, to the source of the revelation in question. In the unfolding of the history of the world it could not but be, symbolically speaking, in the geographical West that this knowledge would be first lost, leading to the desacralization of knowledge and ultimately of all of life, including certain schools of theology. But the shadows resulting from this setting of the Sun of gnosis were to spread to the geographical Orient itself in reversal of the cosmic movement of the sun from the East to the West, weakening but not destroying the sources of such a knowledge even in those traditional worlds of the East which have survived to this day.
Before the complete setting of the Sun, however, the seed of this Tree of Life which is the spiritual Orient could not but be transplanted from the geographical Orient to the soil of the land from which the desacralization of knowledge had begun. Paradoxically enough, as those lands of the Orient, which were Oriental both geographically and symbolically, were to be covered completely by this shadow spreading from the land of the setting sun, something of that Oriental knowledge had to be reborn within the Occident itself. And as lands and areas of the East considered as sacred by various traditions became more and more desecrated in one way or another, the sacred land and spiritual homeland has had to be carried to an ever greater degree within the hearts and souls of human beings. The reinstatement of the traditional conception of knowledge as related to the sacred cannot but be a step in the rediscovery of that Orient which, although becoming ever more inaccessible as a definable geographical area, remains a blinding reality in the world of the Spirit.46 In that sense, all those who seek such a knowledge are pilgrims to that Orient which will never cease to be, an Orient which cannot but attract more pilgrims from the Occident itself, pilgrims who, in making such a journey, resuscitate at the same time the “Oriental knowledge” or sapiential dimension of the Western tradition itself with all its depth and richness.
In this situation in which, as the shadows of a world marked by the loss of the sense of the sacred extend to lands beyond the Occident, sacred knowledge belonging to the Orient of universal existence becomes implanted in an authentic fashion and despite countless aberrations in the West and even the “Far West,” the Quranic image of the Blessed Olive Tree
that is neither Oriental nor Occidental becomes particularly meaningful.47 As the Quran asserts, it is the light emanating from the oil of this celestial Olive Tree, which is neither of the East nor of the West and which is the Light of God, that illuminates all realms of existence. This Light is still accessible to man despite its apparent eclipse. The knowledge which this Light makes possible can still be realized and through it the sum of errors, which comprise modern thought and which have resulted in the unparalleled disequilibrium that characterizes the modern world, made to evaporate as the sun evaporates the morning fog. It is still possible to realize that knowledge which cannot and does not only resuscitate our minds and thoughts but which transforms our being and finally delivers us from the limitations of ourselves and of the world. Through such sacred knowledge, man ceases to be what he appears to be to become what he really is in the eternal now and what he has never ceased to be. Through this sacred knowledge man becomes aware of the purpose for which he was created and gains that illimitable spiritual freedom and liberation which alone is worthy of man if only he were to realize who he is.
Qūlū lā ilāha'Llāh wa tufliḥū
Say there is no divinity but the Divine and be delivered.
Ḥadīth of the Prophet of Islam
1975, p. 51.
to external, cumulative knowledge which is identified for the most part with science today. Moreover, the former is the root of the latter to the extent that the latter represents some degree or kind of authentic knowledge. To know the root is to know the whole in principle, if not in detail, and hence to be delivered for ever from the never ending process of the accumulation of details, of the knowledge of particulars or the various applications of principles to the indefinite reverberations of the One in the cosmic labyrinth.
called science today existed in traditional societies along with the, properly speaking, traditional sciences whose significance is usually misunderstood today, except that such “profane” sciences were never able to occupy the center of the intellectual stage. Nevertheless, it is only fair to add that not all the sciences cultivated in traditional civilizations were traditional and cosmological sciences with symbolic and metaphysical significance. Some were mere mental speculation or imperfect empirical knowledge corrected by more perfect observation and study in later centuries. One should not confuse the measurement of the distance between the earth and the sun by Alexandrian astronomers, which later astronomers were to refine, with the symbolic significance of geometry and arithmetic as expounded by Proclus or Nicomachus.
has a divine aspect since logic is the reflection upon the mind of the Logos and its categories are not at all arbitrary but ontologjcal.
contrary to how he is seen in the West, a gnostic rather than a hedonist, discussed various types of seekers of knowledge and modes of knowing. He came to the conclusion that the best way to know, since life is short and knowledge extensive, is to purify oneself so that the heart becomes itself the mirror of all knowledge. He writes, after describing other classes of knowers, “The Sufis do not seek knowledge by meditation or discursive thinking, but by purgation of their inner being and the purifying of their dispositions. They cleanse the rational soul of the impurities of nature and bodily form, until it becomes pure substance. It then comes face to face with the spiritual world, so that the forms of that world become truly reflected in it, without doubt or ambiguity. This is the best of all ways, because none of the perfections of God are kept away from it, and there are no obstacles or veils before it.” Nasr, Science and Civilization in Islam, pp. 33-34. The text is from the treatise of Khayyam on being (Risala-yi wujud)-our translation.
mind quite another. All the knowledge which the brain can hold, even if it is immeasurably rich from a human point of view, is nothing in the sight of Truth.” Schuon, Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts, p. 9.
Suhrawardı who refers to the Divine Lights which illuminate the mind of man as al-anwar al-qahirah (the “victorial lights”) and to the soul of man himself as it is illuminated as al-nur al-isbahbadı (the “signeurial light”). See Suhrawardı, Opera metaphysica et mystica, vol. 2, ed. by H. Corbin, Tehran-Paris, 1977, prolegomena pt. 3; and Corbin, En Islam iranien, vol. 2, pp. 64-65.
concept which constitutes the heart of the Islamic doctrine of man. The fit.rah refers to what is essential and primordial in man and what remains permanent and immutable despite all the different veils that have covered this nature as a result of the gradual fall of man from this perfection, which he nevertheless contains within himself.
Perspectives and Human Facts, pp. 171ff.
this question, it is because our subject has been knowledge itself in its rapport with the sacred. But one should not gain the impression that this knowledge can in any way be divorced from the moral and spiritual virtues which the traditional texts never cease to emphasize.
asin al-majalis of Ibn al-‘Arıf. But many an early treatise such as the Kitab al-luma‘of Abu Nas.r al-Sarraj, the Qut al-qulub of Abu Turab al-Makkı, and the celebrated Risalat al-qushayriyyahof Imam Abu’l-Qasim al-Qushayrı would fall into the same category.
paths of spiritual realization, there is in every process of realization the three grand stages of purification, expansion, and union. Something in man must die, something must expand, and only then the essence of man is able to achieve that union concerning whichH.allaj said (Dıwan, p. 46),
In my annihilation my annihilation was annihilated,
And in my annihilation I found Thee.
These three universal stages of spiritual realization correspond to humility, charity, and truthfulness if these virtues are understood in the metaphysical and not simply moralistic sense. See Schuon, Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts, pt. 1:
ofmysticism in Christianity that makes the term mysticism itself difficult to translate into Oriental languages, for example, Arabic, in which neither ma‘rifah nor tas.awwuf means exactly mysticism; although in its most universal sense, mysticism can be understood to incorporate that reality which is tas.awwuf.
pp. 114-16;Burckhardt, Introduction to Sufi Doctrine, pp. 79ff; and Ibn al-‘Arabı, Bezels of Wisdom, esp. pp. 272ff. See also H. Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabı, pt. 1, chap. 1.
Transcendence, chap. 14, “The Servant and Union.”
masterpieces of Sufism;he is also known for his treatise ‘Aql wa ‘ishq which deals directly with the relation between love and knowledge.
Classical Sufi treatises dealing with spiritual states and stations speak often of the state of bewilderment orhayrah which the adept experiences in more advanced stages of the path.
the heart or quintessential prayer is practiced insist that it is ultimately God Himself who invokes His Name within the heart of man and through his tongue.
considered within different religions see Y. K. Ibish and P.Wilson (eds.), Traditional Modes of Contemplation and Action.
are based on the silsilah or chain going back to the Prophet of Islam. See J. Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam, Oxford, 1971, which despite a historical rather than traditional approach, contains a wealth of information on the Sufi orders and their chains. On the traditional meaning of the Sufi silsilah see M. Lings, A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century, Los Angeles, 1971, chap. 3, “Seen fromWithin.”
originally an esoteric teaching which had to externalize itself in order to become the religion of a whole civilization and thereby became an eso-exoterism. What can be more esoteric than eating the Body and
Blood of the God-Man, which is what the Eucharist is for traditional Christians. This particular situation did not prevent elements of a veritable esoteric nature from becoming distinct organizations from time to time as we see in the case of the Templars, Fedeli d’amore, Christian Rosicrucians, Kabbalists, Hermeticists, etc. But the life of such groups was always a precarious one as the history of Christianity has born out. The esoteric dimension of course also manifested itself within the body of Christian theology and philosophy as we had occasion to point out in chap. 1.
esoteric knowledge are closed for many people, books play a role very different from what they did in normal situations and certain teachings, which had been preserved orally, begin to appear in writing as means of guiding those for whom there is no other means of guidance. This dispensation is a compensation for the loss of the traditional means of transmission of knowledge of the sacred, at least in its theoretical aspect, without there being any implication that even in this situation all traditional knowledge somehow appears in books in a form readily available to all.
stranglehold of a leveling egalitarianism, even on the intellectual level, people do not consider it against justice and equality if someone is a good mathematician or musician and another person has no gift in these fields, but as soon as it comes to metaphysics, they have a disdain for any kind of knowledge which is not comprehensible to everyone, forgetting that in the domain of knowledge, even of a profane kind, there is always a selective principle. There are simply those who know and those who do not, which does not mean that the door to the Divine Presence is not accessible for everyone born into the human state.
A. Osborne, Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-Knowledge, London, 1970.
beholding the beauty of the face of the daughter of Abu Shaja’ Zahir ibn Rustam of whom he writes, “This shaikh had a virgin daughter, a slender child who captivated all who looked on her, whose presence gave luster to gatherings, who amazed all she was with and ravished the senses of all who beheld her. . she was a sage among the sages of the Holy Places.” From the Tarjuman al-ashwaq, quoted by E. Austin in his introd. to the Bezels of Wisdom, pp. 7-8.
namely, Islam, the technique of dhikr is the central means for spiritual realization and its centrality is confirmed in many verses of the Quran and Hadıth as well, as in such classical treatises as Miftah. al-falah. of Ibn ‘At.a’allah al-Iskandarı, while in the Vishnu-Dharma-Uttara, it is stated explicitly that at the end of the Kali-Yuga the most appropriate means of spiritual realization is invocation. The same truth is implied by certain Biblical passages. See Schuon, The Transcendent Unity of Religions, pp. 145-49, where many quotations from different traditions bearing on this subject have been brought together.
knows by God” rather than “he who knows God.”
by the Logos as founder of a religion and sanctified by the grace which issues from the revelation in question. Likewise, the quintessential prayer cannot be practiced save under the instruction of a master and a traditional cadre which goes back ultimately to the founder of the tradition. This is a metaphysical necessity which would be obvious to anyone with a knowledge of the nature of the spiritual life and completely irrespective of whether historical records can be found of such a link of transmission in time going back to the origin of the religion in question.
movement within early Christianity in which in fact this theme is also strongly emphasized. See H. Jonas, Gnosis und spätantiker Geist, 2 vols., Gottingen, 1954; and his The Gnostic Religion: the Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity, Boston, 1970.
and dissemination of sacred knowledge see L. Schaya, “The Eliatic Function,” Studies in Comparative Religion,Winter-Spring 1979, pp. 31-40.
(where the Arabic text is printed), and the analysis by Corbin of the treatise in the French prolegomena; Also Corbin, En Islam iranien, pp. 258ff., where he discusses extensively the gnostic significance of the treatise under the title “Le récit de I’exil occidental et la geste gnostique.”
the right hand, this land means symbolically the land of light, and in fact, if one stands facing the north, the right hand (al-yamın) is the direction of the rising sun, while if one faces the sun itself the right hand points at the direction of Yemen (of course from Arabia). This obvious geographical symbolism has caused Islamic esoterism to identify Yemen symbolically with the “Orient of Light” while even historically it remained until recent times a center for the survival of the Islamic tradition and many of its most authentic and precious spiritual and artistic aspects.
see Nasr, Three Muslim Sages, chap. 2; and Corbin, En Islam iranien, vol. 2, pt. 2 and pt. 8.
Mystery of the Tree of Knowledge in which he identifies the Tree of Life with the Orient. See G. Scholem, Von der mystischen Gestalt der Gottheit, Studien zu Grundlugriffen der Kabbah, Frankfurt, 1973, pp. 59ff.
al-Dın, The Book of Certainty, New York, 1974.
based on faith (al-h. ikmat al-ımaniyyah) and contrasted with rationalistic philosophy which some sources identify with Greek rationalism (al-h. ikmat al-yunaniyyah). Moreover, theımaniyyah is often assimilated phonetically into “yemeni” (ımaniyyah) and identified with it.
Quranic term “Face of God” (wajhallah) to mean the Divine Names and Qualities, the externalization of whose reality through multiple levels of existence-comprise the universe.
L. Massignon (ed.), Le Dîvân d’Al-Hallâj, Paris, 1955, p. [^90]:
The theme which has been echoed in the works of many Sufis including Ibn al-Farid. in his Naz.m al-suluk is also to be found in the famous poem of Hafiz.,
There is no veil between the lover and the Beloved;
Thou art thine own veil o Hafiz. remove thyself.
traditions despite the vicissitudes of history which have weakened, destroyed, or mutilated the various traditional civilizations of the East. Therefore, although the Orient is obviously not the perennial traditional Orient which it has been over the millennia, even now something remains in the geographical Orient of that Orient which has to a large extent returned to the luminous empyrean from which it had descended on earth.
‘Umar Khayyam who was at once a mathematician and poet and, ↩