God Most High says, "They have not estimated God as He deserves to be estimated" (6:91). It is written in commentaries on this verse that it means "They have not known God as He deserves to be known."
On the authority of 'A'isha (may God be pleased with her), the Prophet (may God's blessing and peace be upon him) is reported to have stated, "The support of a house is its foundation. The support of religion is direct knowledge of God, certainty, and intelligence that safeguards against error." At this 'A'isha asked, "May my father and mother be ransomed for you, what is intelligence that safeguards against error?" He replied, "Refraining from disobedience to God and being eager to obey Him."
In the usage of the scholars, ma'rifa is 'ilm (knowledge). Thus in their opinion all 'ilm is ma'rifa, all ma'rifa is 'ilm, and everyone who is 'alim (knowledgeable) with respect to God is an 'arif (gnostic) and vice versa. But among the Sufis, ma'rifa is the attribute of one who knows God (may He be exalted) by His names and attributes and is truthful toward God by his deeds, who then purifies himself of base qualities and defects, who stands long at the door, and who withdraws his heart continually (from worldly matters). Then he enjoys a goodly nearness to God, who verifies him as true in all his states. The temptations of his soul stop, and he does not incline his heart to any thought that would incite him to other-than-God for, when he becomes a stranger to men and is free of the calamities of his soul, when he is purified of joy in, and concern for, other-than-God, when his intimate prayers with God Most High in secret are constant, when he is sure in every glance of Him of his return to Him, and when God inspires him by making him aware of His secrets concerning his destiny, he is, at that time, called a "gnostic" ('arif) and his state is called "Gnosis" (ma'rifa). In short, the degree of Gnosis he will reach is determined by the degree to which he is estranged from his self.
When the sheikhs spoke on Gnosis, each spoke of his own experience and indicated what came to him at a given moment. The master Abu 'Ali ad-Daqqaq (may God grant him mercy) said, "One of the signs of Gnosis is the attainment of awe. For one whose Gnosis increases, awe of God increases." He also stated, "Gnosis brings about utter tranquility to the heart, just as knowledge brings about peacefulness. So for one whose Gnosis increases, tranquility increases." Ash-Shibli commented, "For the gnostic there is no attachment, for the lover there is no grievance, for the servant there is no claim, for the one who fears God there is no rest, and for no one is there escape from God." When ash-Shibli was asked about Gnosis, he answered, "The first of it is God Most High and its last has no end."
Abu Hafs said, "Since I have attained Gnosis, neither truth nor falsehood has entered my heart." This expression of Abu Hafs is not easily understood. He indicates, most probably, that in the Sufi's view Gnosis causes the servant to be absent from his self because he is overwhelmed by His remembrance and so does not see other-than-God (Glorious and Majestic), nor does he have recourse to other-than-Him. Just as the intelligent man has recourse to his heart and his reflective and retentive faculties concerning thoughts that come to his mind or states he encounters, the gnostic's recourse is to his Lord. If a person is occupied with his Lord alone, he has no recourse to his heart. Furthermore, how might the matter enter the heart of one who has no heart? There is a difference between the one who lives by means of his hearty and the one who lives by means of his Lord. When asked about Gnosis, Abu Yazid replied, "Kings, when they enter a country, corrupt it and make the noblest of its people its meanest" (27:34). This is the meaning Abu Hafs intends.
Abu Yazid observed, "Mankind has states, but the gnostic has none. His human traits are effaced, and his essence has passed away into the essence of another. His traits are gone because the traits of another have taken their place." Al-Wasiti said, "Gnosis is not sound while there remain in the servant satisfaction with God and need of Him." By this al-Wasiti intends that need and satisfaction are signs of sobriety in the servant and of the abiding of his traits, need and satisfaction being among his traits, but the gnostic is effaced in the object of his Gnosis. How might his Gnosis be sound, while he is consumed in His existence or immersed in witnessing Him, but has not totally attained existence and is still separated by awareness of whatever attributes he may have? For this reason al-Wasiti also said, "Whoever has direct knowledge of God is cut off; he is rendered mute and impotent." The Prophet (may God's blessing and peace be upon him) declared, "I cannot praise You enough." This refers to those whose goal is far away. As for those who are content with something more easily attainable, they have spoken about Gnosis at greater or lesser length.
Ahmad b. 'Asim al-Antaki said, "The more one knows God, the more one fears Him." One of the Sufis stated, "Whoever knows God Most High is pained by his [own] existence, and the earth, for all its spaciousness, becomes confining for him." It is said, "Whoever knows God, living is joyous for him and life is pleasant for him; all things stand in awe of him, he fears nothing among created beings, and he becomes intimate with God Most High." It is said, "Whoever knows God, desire for things leaves him, and he is neither detached from them nor attached to them." It is also said, "Gnosis brings about shame and glorification of God, just as asserting the divine unity brings about satisfaction and submission to God."
Ruwaym commented, "Gnosis is the gnostic's mirror. When he gazes in it, his Master is shown." Dhu'n-Nun al-Misri related, "The spirits of all the prophets raced in the plain of Gnosis, and the spirit of our Prophet [may God's blessing and peace be upon him] led them all [peace be upon them] to the meadow of union." He also said, "The conduct of the gnostic [toward others] is like the conduct of God Most High―he endures you and is forebearing with you because he imitates the characteristics of God." Ibn Yazdanyar was asked, "When does the gnostic witness God [may He be exalted]?" He answered, "When the Witness is manifested, the means of witnessing pass away, the senses depart, and sincerity dissolves."
Al-Husayn b. Mansur said, "When the servant reaches the station of Gnosis, God makes even his stray thoughts a means of inspiration, and He guards his innermost being lest thoughts of other-than-Him occur there." He also observed, "The sign of the gnostic is that he is empty both of this world and of the Hereafter." Sahl b. 'Abdallah declared, "The utmost degree of Gnosis is dismay and perplexity." Dhu'n-Nun al-Misri asserted, "The ones who know God the most are those whose bewilderment concerning Him is greatest."
A man told al-Junayd, "There are some among the Gnostics who say, 'Abandonment of any kind of activity is a part of righteousness and piety.'" Al-Junayd replied, "These are the ones who profound suspension of [all] works, which is a serious error in my opinion. The thief and the adulterer have better states than they, for the Gnostics obtain the works from God Most High and they return by means of them to God. If I were to live a thousand years, I would never reduce performing works of righteousness by one atom."
It was asked of Abu Yazid, "By what means did you attain this Gnosis?" He responded, "By a hungry stomach and a naked body." Abu Ya'qub an-Nahrajuri related, "I inquired of Abu Ya'qub as-Susi, 'Does the gnostic grieve over anything other than God [Glorious and Majestic]?' He retorted, 'And does he perceive anything other than Him over which he might grieve?' So I asked, 'Then with what eye does he see things?' He answered, 'With the eye of passing away and extinction.'"
Abu Yazid said, "The gnostic flies and the ascetic travels afoot." It is said, "The gnostic's eye weeps, but his heart laughs." Al-Junayd declared, "A man will not be a gnostic until he is like the earth―both the righteous and the sinner tread on it―and until he is like the rain―it waters all things, whether it loves them or not." Yahya b. Mu'adh stated, "The gnostic leaves the world without having fulfilled his aim in two things: weeping over himself and praising his Lord [Glorious and Majestic]."
Abu Zayd said, "They attain Gnosis only by forfeiting what they have and remaining with what He has." Yusuf b. 'Ali asserted, "A man will not be a true gnostic until, if he were given Solomon's kingdom [peace be upon him], it would not take his attention away from God for one instant." Ibn 'Ata' explained, "Gnosis is built on three pillars: awe, shame, and intimacy." Dhu'n-Nun al-Misri was asked, "By what means do you know your Lord?" He replied, "I know my Lord by my Lord. If it were not for my Lord, I would not know my Lord." It is said, "The scholar is a source of imitation, an the gnostic is a source of guidance." Ash-Shibli observed, "The gnostic does not look to anything other than Him, does not speak by the speech of anything other than Him, and does not perceive any protector for himself other than God Most High."
It is said, "The gnostic gains intimacy with His remembrance, and flees in terror from His creation. He is in need of God, and God makes him independent of His creation. He is humble toward God, He ennobles him among His creation." Abu't-Tayyib as-Samarri stated, "Gnosis is the rising of the Truth [like the sun] over the innermost being by means of a continuous effusion of light."
It is said, "The gnostic is more than what he says, and the scholar is less than what he says." Abu Sulayman ad-Darani observed, "God Most High reveals for the gnostic in his bed what He does not reveal for another who stands in prayer." Al-Junayd declared, "God speaks out of the innermost being of the gnostic while he is silent." Dhu'n-Nun stated, "For everyone there is a [certain form] of punishment, and the punishment of the gnostic is being cut off from His remembrance." Ruwaym said, "The hypocrisy of the gnostic is better than the sincerity of the seekers." Abu Bakr al-Warraq commented, "The silence of the gnostic is most beneficial, and his speech is best and most pleasant." Dhu'n-Nun asserted, "Even though ascetics are kings in the Hereafter, in comparison to the Gnostics , they are beggars."
When al-Junayd was asked about the gnostic, he replied, "The color of the water is the color of its container." That is, the nature of the gnostic is always determined by the nature of his state at a given moment. Abu Yazid was asked about the gnostic. He said, "He sees nothing other than God in his sleep and nothing other than God in his waking hours. He does not conform to other-than-God, and he does not look to other-than-God."
One of the sheikhs was asked, "By what means do you know God Most High?" He answered, "By a burst of light that flashes through the tongue of one who is taken away from normal modes of discernment and by a word that flows on the tongue of one who is destined to perish and be lost. This speaker points to a clear ecstasy and relates an obscure secret; he is himself by virtue of what he reveals, and other than himself by virtue of what he leaves obscure." Then the sheikh recited:
"You spoke without speech. This is the true speech.
Speech belongs to You whether verbal or distinct from speech.
You appeared when before You had been hidden.
You made a lightning flash appear to me, making me speak."
When asked about the sign of the gnostic, Abu Turab explained, "He is not made impure by anything, and all things are by him made pure." Abu 'Uthman al-Maghribi said, "The lights of knowledge shine for the gnostic, so he sees by knowledge wondrous things of the unseen." The master Abu 'Ali ad-Daqqaq declared, "The gnostic is drowned in the seas of inner reality. As one of the Sufis has said, 'Gnosis is like the surging waves―they raise up and they set down." Yahya b. Mu'adh was asked about the gnostic, and he replied, "He is a man who is both with creation and separated from it." Another time he said, "First he was; then he separated." Dhu'n-Nun al-Misri observed, "There are three signs of the gnostic: the light of his Gnosis does not block out the light of his abstemiousness; he does not believe in any inward knowledge that contradicts an outward ordinance; and the abundance of the blessings of God [Glorious and Majestic] upon him does not impel him to rend the veils that cover God's hidden sanctity."
It is said, "The one who speaks of Gnosis in the presence of people attached to the Hereafter is not a gnostic, and he would be even less a gnostic if he were to speak about Gnosis in the presence of people attached to this world." Abu Sa'id al-Kharraz stated, "Gnosis comes from an eye that weeps abundantly and from expending effort."
When asked about the words of Dhu'n-Nun al-Misri concerning the sign of the gnostic, "He was here but now he has gone," al-Junayd replied, "One state does not hold the gnostic back from another state and one station does not veil him from changing stations. Thus he is with the people of every place just as they are, he experiences whatever they experience, and he speaks their language so that they might benefit by his speech." Muhammad b. al-Fadl stated, "Gnosis is the heart's life with God." Abu Sa'id al-Kharraz was asked, "Does the gnostic end in a state wherein he never weeps?" He affirmed, "Yes. Weeping belongs to the time they are traveling to God. When they dismount and halt in the inner realities of nearness and experience the taste of attaining this favor, they no longer weep."
Excerpted from "Principles of Sufism" by Al-Qushayri. Published by Mizan Press (1990), translated from the Arabic by B.R. Von Schlegell