Ancient Wisdom

Between the Knower and the Known: An Exploration Into Islamic Mysticism

“Between the knower and the known.

There lies a distinction by one who

Has awakened from the sleep of heedlessness.” — Nasir-i Khusraw

Islamic mysticism is as diverse and complex as the history of Islam itself. Many people in the Western world—myself included—are familiar with the surface features of Islamic mysticism through popular translations of Sufi literature, such as the erotically charged and beautiful Persian poetry of Hafez or Rumi. Sufism is not a specialized sect of Islam, but a general term used to describe a series of ascetic and devotional practices found in both the Shia and Sunni. Interestingly, the term “sufi” originated through British imperialists—suf meaning the “woolen clothes” sufis wore, but also safa, or “purity.” Sufis were also called Tasawwuf, which also derives from “wool.” For this article, I will be referring to the popularized nomenclature of Sufi. It is accurate to claim that they are the mystics of Islam, with origins in the religion’s earliest days—specifically the bayan (“pledge”) given by the Prophet Muhammad’s Sahaba (followers and companions). Sufi practices are diverse, but can be generally said to be ascetic, using forms of concentration, devotional spiritual exercises, and physical movement—like the whirling dervishes of Rumi’s Mevelvi order—to attain mystical identification with God: fanaa (self annihilation or dissolution). These practices involve many stages, or maqam, that the novice, or Salik, undergoes for inner purification on the way to God-union. The novice works to abandon nafs, or egoic, personal desires and focuses their attention completely on God. The Naqshbadi lineage describes what the novice must do:

“He is to collect all of his bodily senses in concentration, and to cut himself off from all preoccupations and notions that inflict themselves upon the heart.”

The novice must be “vigilant,” developing a contemplative consciousness to attune themselves, and their hearts, to the presence of the divine. (This stirring, beautiful form of devotional practice shares kinship with the Christian mysticism found written in The Cloud of Unknowing: “beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.”)

Mystical, devotional practices are aimed at aligning the human will with divine love, or ishq. Sufis understand that it takes a laborious effort to do so, but in doing so, their soul is restored to its primordial and true nature: fitra, where nothing one does is in defiance of divine love. Yet another central practice is that of Dhikr, or reciting the names of God, after prayer. (There are ninety-nine names.) It is also important to mention, at the outset, that Sufism has historically retained a place within its societies. Many renowned Sufis were also important figures—jurists, lawmakers, and even rulers of dynasties, like the Safavids in Persia. Indeed, It is only more recently—since modernity, and the rise of Salafism and Wahhabism—that Sufism has experienced a decline in prominence.

Flight of the Gnostic Soul

Photo by Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji










Islamic philosophers, likewise, were also mystically inclined. Jabir Ibn Hayyan, for instance, wrote The Book of Stones, a commentary on esoteric letters and mathematics and Pythagorean geometry. Abu Ya’qub Sijistani wrote The Book of Wellsprings, a gnostic themed commentary on the flight of the soul and the oneness of God. Many early philosophers also helped to articulate the exoteric (outward) and esoteric (inner) meanings of the Koran. This is a form of spiritual hermeneutics, or Ta’wil, seeing through to the inner and hidden meanings. It should also be noted that Islamic civilization retrieved much of the philosophy of the ancient Hellenistic world—especially the syncretic mysticism of Alexandria—hundreds of years before the European Renaissance. Gnostic mysticism—with its initiative structure—would especially gain favor.

Hermeticism and gnosticism, which typically viewed the body as a kind of prison for the soul, as well as the concept of spiritual gnosis, became especially important in the religious imagination of Islamic mysticism. When it came to metaphysics, Neoplatonism and its emanationism was also useful for Islamic philosophers to help explain the relationship between the God and creation (how the One becomes many). Islamic philosophers were generally concerned with how to reconcile the exoteric and esoteric, intellectual or rational understanding and mystical insight, material reality and divine reality, and, of course, the human being and God. Esoteric meaning could never be attained by intellect alone. Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in the West) wrote that the goal of philosophy was to “unveil the mystery of creation.” Philosophy can’t be divorced from spiritual gnosis. Hamid al-Din Kirmani, for instance, proposed that that philosophy was important for spiritual preparation, but one must also live a virtuous life. (It’s worth noting that not all sufis were philosophers, nor the opposite. Al-Ghazzali, a profound mystical writer and practicing Sufi, wrote a famous–scathing– critique of philosophers that many college undergrads would probably appreciate: The Incoherence of the Philosophers.)

The Living Word

Art in Nasīr al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran










Let’s return to spiritual hermeneutics for a moment. Seeing the world-as-word is perhaps the central, esoteric concept. “Recite!” was the command Gabriel gave to Muhammad upon appearing to him. Muhammad, like many in his time, was illiterate. The word, Koran, itself means “to recite” or “gather together.” “The Book is the direct unmediated Word of God,” writes Tom Cheetham. Seyyed Hosseein Nasr writes:

“It is neither like a highly mystical text nor a manual of Aristotelian logic, though it contains both mysticism and logic. It is not just poetry, although it contains the most powerful poetry. The text of the Quran reveals human language crushed by the power of the Divine Word. It is as if human language were scattered into a thousand fragments like a wave scattered into drops against the rocks at sea. One feels through the shattering effect left upon the language of the Quran, the power of the Divine whence it originated. The Quran displays human language with all the weakness inherent in it becoming suddenly the recipient of the Divine Word and displaying its frailty before a power which is infinitely greater than one can imagine.”

Quoted here at length for effect, Nasr displays the hermeneutical nature of Islamic mysticism: it is a reading of a divine language, so often charged with symbolic imagery and poetic heights, demanding its reader raise their own consciousness to spiritual heights capable of receiving its secrets. Perhaps no other Islamic Sufi and scholar is capable of expressing a mystical hermeneutics than Ibn Arabi. Shaykh Muhyi al-Din Ibn Arabi, also known as The Great Master or Saykh al-Akbar is one of the great theologians of the Islamic world. (Incidentally he lived in the 11th and 12th century, at least for a few years, in the same time as Dogen Zenji of Japan, as well as Thomas Aquinas. A minor note for the syncretic seeker of erudite mystic-philosophers.) Bezels of Wisdom, and Meccean Victories are some of his most notable mystical works. Generally, he referred to his mystical thought as the “Doctrine of the Unity of Being,” offering a formal synthesis of Sufi doctrine. It incorporated the metaphysical, cosmological, and psychological dimensions of gnosticism, and provided spiritual hermeneutics on the symbolism of the Koran.

Nasir Al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz, Iran










For Ibn Arabi, the whole cosmos is constituted by living signs—ayat—which yield to symbolic exegesis (interpretation). All things shine with the symbolic world of divine creativity, if we have the inner eyes to see. Every bird and tree, every thing, living or not, is alive in the holy imagination. (William Blake comes to mind, here.) Ibn Arabi is frequently labeled a pantheist for these ideas, but it’s more accurate to describe his mysticism as panentheist. He was careful to discern that although God dwells in all things, the world is not “in” God. A central image in Ibn Arabi’s writing is the Universal Man. We, humanity, are the microcosm of the divine creator, God. In his conception of the Sufi path, the novice works to realize that aspect of God within their own soul in order to attain unity.

“There is no existence save His existence… This means that the existence of the beggar is His existence and the existence of the sick is His existence. Now, when this is admitted, it is acknowledged that all existence is His existence; and that the existence of all created things, both accidents and substances, is His existence; and when the secret of one particle of the atoms is clear, the secret of all created things, both outward and inward, is clear; and you do not see in this world or the next, anything except God.” —Ibn Arabi 

“Wheresoever you turn, there is the face of Allah.”

Gnostic Lights









Suhrawardi, known as Shaykh Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi, was a Persian mystic-philosopher and founder of the school of Illuminationism (Ishraq). Suhrawardi drew heavily from platonic, Zoroastrian, and gnostic concepts, so he could be considered a “Gnostic-Illuminationist,” adapting prior thinkers, like Avicenna, into his innovative work. He is known for his tragic death—execution for heresy—but for what, exactly, is contested. More so, however, he had a tremendous influence on Islamic thought and mysticism for centuries to come (The “School of Shiraz” would revive Suhrawardi’s Illuminationist ideas in the 16th and 17th centuries.)

Suhrwardi is unique in his revival of Zoroastrian spirituality—particularly its metaphysics concerning light. In this esoteric cosmology, there is a divine “Light of Lights,” the primordial and invisible light, from which outpours all levels of being in a descending, cascading order. These lights spill into each other—creating the dazzling, horizontal plane of Platonic ideals. We may call them archetypes. The lights of creation finally emanate into our own realm. The goal of the initiative, as we’ve seen in other Sufi and mystical schools, is to return to that primordial Light of Lights. In this beautiful metaphysical vision, Suhrawardi also proposes Zoroastrian angelology, where every soul is, in a sense, split in two.


Before we are born, our souls exist in an angelic state—a part of that soul splits off, becoming ensnared in the gnostic dungeon of the material body. In this tragic, gnostic mythos, the individual is in a state of spiritual longing—estrangement, from their state of wholeness. Like a good, gnostic mythos, the only way out of this entrapment is detachment from the material body; the soul must return to the higher, subtler realms of immaterial lights. Beautifully, in the angelology of the Ismaili tradition, this Zoroastrian idea of an “angel up ahead,” or a Celestial Twin, takes on even grander proportions: angels even have their own angels up ahead, and so on up into the Light of Lights. Suhrawardi also espoused the alam-i mithal, the Imaginal World, as one of the intermediary realms between ours and the higher, angelic ones. This idea would become popularized in the West, and in general Western esotericism of the 20th century, by religious scholar Henry Corbin (see Henry Corbin’s essay: “Mundus Imaginalis,” and also see Corbin’s book on Suhrawardi: The Man of Light. A challenge, but, as we can say with much winking and nudging, illuminating text.)

There are many, many more examples—and far better authorities than my own—on Islamic mysticism that could be provided, but the aim of this essay was to emphasize, at the very least, two central ideas: the first, the ascetic, mystical practice in all sufism as the attainment of God-consciousness, or unity with the divine. The second is the beautiful, imaginal, gnostic vision of a world that is, in fact, infinite, and suffused with images—icons—inward shining lights that offer our souls a means to take flight. Islamic mysticism is suffused with gnostic and esoteric insights, and should be read alongside any other great mystical writers from other traditions. In some ways, Islamic mysticism’s embrace of gnosticism did not end with a world-denial, but seems to sweep up the best of the human being—the heart and soul—and pronounce with a mystic sweetness the kind of divine love that is possible in us. The images of eroticism in Sufi poetry wonderfully capture a kind of true, spiritual eroticism that speaks to us in our desire to possess, and be possessed by, divine love.

Further Reading









I can’t offer much beyond what I’ve recommended already, but, as an esoteric-minded reader, I’ve found Tom Cheetham’s The World Turned Inside Out: Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism, and All the World an Icon: Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings to be profoundly influential for my own gnostic-tinged spiritual aspirations. They may be for you, too. Inayat Khan, the founder of The Sufi Order in the West, now called the Inayati Order, may be helpful if you’re looking for a contemporary starting place.

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