Knowledge and the Sacred [04]

~Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Turning to Western Asia, we discern the same concern for knowledge as the key to the attainment of the sacred and the doctrine that the substance of knowledge itself is sacred in Zoroastrianism and other Iranian religions such as Manichaeism which bases the whole of religion on the goal of freeing, through asceticism and knowledge, the particles of light scattered through the cosmos as a result of the sacrifice of the primordial man. Besides mystical tales of the quest of the gnostic after knowledge which abound in Mazdaean literature, the whole of Mazdaean angelology is based on the doctrine of illumination of the soul by various agencies of the Divine Intellect. All religious rites are an aid in creating a closer link between man and the angelic world, and man's felicity resides in union with his celestial and angelic counterpart, the Fravarti. The religious life and all contact with the sacred are dominated by angelic forces which are elements of light whose function it is to illuminate and to guide. Concern with knowledge of the sacred and sacred knowledge is at the heart of Zoroastrianism while the more philosophical Mazdaean religious texts such as the Dēnkard have dealt in greater detail with the question of knowledge, thereby developing more fully the doctrine of innate and acquired wisdom and their complementarity and wedding which leads to the attainment of sacred knowledge.

Nor is this concern in any way absent from the Abrahamic traditions although because of the desacralization of the instrument of knowing itself in modern times, modern interpretations of Judaism and Christianity have tended to neglect, belittle, or even negate the sapiential dimensions of these religions. This process has even taken place to some degree in the case of Islam which is based completely on the primacy of knowledge and whose message is one concerning the nature of Reality.

In Judaism the significance of ḥokhmah or wisdom can hardly be overemphasized even in the legal dimension of the religion which is naturally concerned more with correct action than with knowledge. In Genesis (3:22) knowledge is considered as an essential attribute belonging to God alone, and the wisdom writings emphasize praying to the “Lord of Wisdom.” The Jewish people accepted the Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes as books of wisdom to which the Christians later added the Psalms and the Song of Songs. In the Jewish wisdom literature although wisdom belonged to God, it was also a divine gift to man and accessible to those willing to submit to the discipline of the traditional teaching methods consisting of instruction (musar) and persuasion (‘eṣah). This means that Judaism considered the attainment of wisdom or sacred knowledge as a possibility for the human intellect if man were to accept the necessary discipline which such an undertaking required. This doctrine was to be elaborated by later Jewish philosophers, Kabbalists, and Hasidim in an elaborate fashion, but the roots of all their expositions are to be found in the Bible itself where, in the three books of Job, the Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, the term ḥokhmah (later translated as sophia) appears nearly a hundred times. Long before these later elaborations were to appear, the maskilim of the Qumran community were considered as recipients and dispensers of sacred knowledge of the Divine Mysteries like the pneumatikoi mentioned by Saint Paul.

The Jews also believed that the Torah itself was the embodiment of wisdom and some works like the Wisdom of Ben Sira identified the Torah with the preexistent wisdom of God while the Kabbalists considered the primordial Torah to be the Ḥokhmah which is the second of the Sephiroth. The whole Kabbalistic perspective is based on the possibility for the inner man to attain sacred knowledge and the human mind to be opened to the illumination of the spiritual world through which it can become sanctified and united with its principle

The famous Chabad Chassidus text, the Liqquṭei Amarim [Tanya], says, “Every soul consists of nefesh, ruaḥ and neshamah [the three traditional elements of the soul]. Nevertheless, the root of every nefesh, ruaḥ and neshamah, from the highest of all ranks to the lowest that is embodied within the illiterate, and the most worthless, all derive, as it were, from the Supreme Mind which is the Supernal Wisdom (Ḥokhmah Ila‘ah).” The same text continues.

In like manner does the neshamah of man, including the quality of ruaḥ and nefesh, naturally desire and yearn to separate itself and depart from the body in order to unite with its origin and source in God, the fountain-head of all life, blessed be He.
This propensity to unite with the One is “its will and desire by nature,” and “this nature stems from the faculty of ḥokhmah found in the soul, wherein abides the light of the blessed En Sof.”

No more explicit expression of the presence of the spark of divine knowledge in the very substance of the soul of man and the attainment of the sacred through this very supernaturally natural faculty of intellection within man could be found in a tradition which, although based on the idea of a sacred people and a divine law promulgated by God for this people, possessed from the beginning a revelation in which the primacy of wisdom was certainly not forgotten. This doctrine was, however, emphasized sometimes openly as in the Proverbs and sometimes symbolically and esoterically as in the Song of Songs where the verses “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine” and “I am black, but comely.…” certainly refer to esoteric or sapiential knowledge (to Sophia identified later with the Virgin Mary) and its transmission, although other meanings are not excluded. In the day of profane knowledge certainly sacred wisdom appears as dark, and it is through the mouth that the Name of God is uttered, the Name whose invocation is the key to the treasury of all wisdom, the Name which contains within itself that sacred knowledge whose realization is accompanied by that supreme ecstasy of which the ecstasy of the kiss of the earthly beloved is but a pale reflection.

As for Islam, which like Judaism remains in its formal structure within the mold of Abrahamic spirituality, the message of the revelation revolves around the pole of knowledge and the revelation addresses man as an intelligence capable of distinguishing between the real and the unreal and of knowing the Absolute. Although the earthly container of this message, that is the Semitic Arab mentality, has bestowed upon certain manifestations of this religion an element of emotional fervor, impetuosity, and a character of inspirationalism which on the theological plane have appeared as an “antiintellectual” voluntarism associated with the Ash‘arites, the content of the Islamic message remains wed to the sapiential perspective and the primacy of knowledge. The testimony of the faith ilāha illa’Llāh (There is no divinity but the Divine) is a statement concerning knowledge, not sentiments or the will. It contains the quintessence of metaphysical knowledge concerning the Principle and its manifestation. The Prophet of Islam has said, “Say ilāha illa’Llāh and be delivered” referring directly to the sacramental quality of principial knowledge. The traditional names used by the sacred scripture of Islam are all related to knowledge: al-qur’ān “recitation,” al-furqān “discernment,” and umm al-kitāb “the mother of books.” The Quran itself refers in practically every chapter to the importance of intellection and knowledge, and the very first verses revealed relate to recitation (iqra') which implies knowledge and to science (‘ilm—hence ta‘līm, to teach-‘allama, taught),

Recite [iqra']: In the name of thy Lord who createth,
Createth man from a clot.
Recite: And thy Lord is the Most Bounteous,
Who teacheth [‘allama] by the pen,
Teacheth man that which he knew not.
[XCVI; 1–5, Pickthall translation, slightly modified]

Even the etymology of the Arabic word for Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) is related to intellection or knowing. In Islam and the civilization which it created there was a veritable celebration of knowledge all of whose forms were, in one way or another, related to the sacred extending in a hierarchy from an “empirical” and rational mode of knowing to that highest form of knowledge (al-ma‘rifah or ‘irfān) which is the unitive knowledge of God not by man as an individual but by the divine center of human intelligence which, at the level of gnosis, becomes the subject as well as object of knowledge. That is why the gnostic or illuminated sage is called al-‘ārif bi‘Llāh, the “gnostic who knows through or by God” and not only the gnostic who knows God. The Arabic word for intellect al-‘aql is related to the word “to bind,” for it is that which binds man to his Origin; etymologically it could be compared to religion itself, for in this case religio is also what binds and relates man to God. Even the Arabic word for poetry (al-shi‘r) is related to the root meaning consciousness and knowledge rather than making as is the case with poiēsis. The Islamic tradition presents blinding evidence of the ultimately sacred character of knowledge and the centrality of the sapiental perspective in the spiritual life, a perspective which remains faithful to and aware of the saving function of knowledge and the nature of intelligence as a precious gift from God which, once actualized by revelation, becomes the most important means of gaining access to the Sacred, intelligence being itself ultimately of a sacred character.

Before turning to the Christian tradition which is of special concern in this study because of the rise of a purely secular concept of knowledge within a civilization which was Christian, a word must be said about the Greek tradition. Usually this tradition is seen today either from the point of view of modern rationalism or of the mainstream of early Christianity which, having to save a whole humanity from the excesses of rationalism and naturalism, emphasized more the contrast between Greek wisdom as knowledge of a this-worldly nature and love and redemption associated with and issuing from the grace of Christ and his incarnation in human history. A reevaluation of the meaning of the Greek sophia and philo-sophia as sacred knowledge in contrast to the sophistic and skeptical forms of rationalism during the later life of Greek civilization and religion will be carried out later, as will the Christian appreciation of this aspect of the Greek legacy. Here suffice it to say that the Orphic-Dionysian dimension of the Greek tradition, which was to become crystallized later in the Pythagorean-Platonic school, and also Hermeticism, which resulted from the wedding between certain aspects of the Egyptian and the Greek traditions, must be studied as sacred knowledge much like the metaphysical doctrines of Hinduism, and not only as profane philosophy. These forms of wisdom are related to the Greek religious tradition and should be viewed as such and not only in opposition to “revealed truth.” In the more universal sense of “revelation,” they are in fact the fruit of revelation, that is, a knowledge which derives not from a purely human agent but from the Divine Intellect, as in fact they were viewed by the long tradition of Islamic, Jewish, and Christian philosophy before modern times. There is an aspect of Greek philosophy which is sapientia without whose appreciation one cannot understand those sapiential schools within Christianity and even Judaism which were based on a unity above and beyond the current dichotomy between so-called Greek “intellectualism” and Hebrew “inspirationalism.” A major problem in the rediscovery of the sacred root of knowledge and knowledge of the sacred is the type of interpretation of Greek philosophy which has dominated the mainstream of Western thought in modern times and which has caused an eclipse of the sapiential quality of certain aspects of the Greek intellectual heritage and obliterated the real nature of the content and meaning of the message of many Christian and Jewish sages who are simply excused away as being “Neoplatonic,” as if this term would somehow magically annul the inner significance of doctrines of a sapiential character.