Theoretical Gnosis and Doctrinal Sufism and Their Significance Today

~Seyyed Hossein Nasr 


There is a body of knowledge in the Islamic tradition which, while highly intellectual in the original sense of this term, is neither theology (kalām) nor philosophy (falsafah) while dealing with many subjects of their concern although from another perspective. This body of knowledge is called doctrinal Sufism, al-tasawwuf al-‘ilmī in Arabic, to be contrasted to practical Sufism, al-tasawwuf al-‘amalī, or theoretical (and sometimes speculative) gnosis (this term being understood in its original and not sectarian sense), especially in the Persian-speaking world, where it is referred to as ‘irfān-i nazarī. The seekers and masters of this body of knowledge have always considered it to be the Supreme Science, al-‘ilm al-a‘lā, and it corresponds in the Islamic context to what we have called elsewhere scientia sacra.

This corpus of knowledge is implicit in the Quran, Hadīth, and the writings of early Sufis. It becomes somewhat more explicit from the 4th /10th century onward in works of such masters as Hakīm Tirmidhī, Abū Hāmid Muhammad and Ahmad Ghazzālī, and ‘Ayn al-Qudāt Hamadānī and receives its full elaboration in the 7th /13th century in the hands of Ibn ‘Arabī, not all of whose writings are, however, concerned with this Supreme Science. This corpus is distinct 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 kalām.

Despite its immense influence in many parts of the Islamic world during the last centuries, doctrinal Sufism or theoretical gnosis has also had its opponents over the centuries, including certain scholars of the Quran and Hadīth, some of the more exoterist jurists, many of the theologians (mutakallimūn), some of the more rationalistic philosophers and even some Sufis associated with Sufi centers (khānqāh or zāwiyah) and established orders. The latter have opposed the theoretical exposition of truths which they believe should be kept hidden and which they consider to be associated closely with spiritual practice and inward unveiling (kashf). Still, this body of knowledge has been preserved and has continued to flourish over all these centuries, exercising immense influence in many domains of Islamic thought while remaining for many the crown of all knowledge.

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