Bismillaah ir Rahmaan ir Rahiim
In the name of Allah, The Merciful, The Compassionate
KNOWLEDGE OF REALITY AND IGNORANCE OF REALITY
What is Knowledge of Reality?
By Fleur Nassery Bonnin
Traditionally what is now called Sufism was known as ‘Irfan’. Irfan comes from the same root as the
word ‘ma'rifa’ which means ‘knowledge’. It does not mean informational knowledge, rather it means knowledge in relation to
the Creator. It is a knowledge that requires knowledge of self and the created things in relation to God. That is what the
word ‘ma'rifa’ connotes. This is why the path of journeying to God - knowledge of God - is called ‘Irfan’, and in
some Islamic countries Sufism is still called Irfan, particularly in order to maintain a distinction between the path to God and the modern
western alterations to Sufism that are not grounded in ma’rifa based on Islam and the Qur’an.
The goal and fruit of knowledge is explained by the Prophet's saying: "He who knows (arafa) himself knows his Lord".
As the hadith suggests, this sort of knowledge requires a simultaneous realisation of both self-knowledge and God-knowledge.
The reason that we need to specify the ‘knowledge of Reality’ when we think or speak about knowledge is due to the lack of spiritual
light mentioned in our last article. This lack of light means that spiritually speaking we are in the dark, blind to the presence of God in our
life, and therefore ignorant of that Reality, seeing only the outer forms of things and believing in them.
We do not realise that the outer forms of things are really ‘mazaher’, places of manifestation for His presence.
This kind of knowledge, which is placed deep in the heart of mankind and to which access becomes blocked through ignorance,
forgetfulness and preoccupation with worldly life, requires self transformation and following the path of human perfection so that man,
having gone astray, finds his way back, connecting with his heart and becoming once again God conscious and
assuming the role of Allah's vicegerency1, while still in this world.
In earlier times, man was more in tune with his spiritual self and God. He has since moved down the path of separation, away from his spiritual
self and more and more towards his false self and unreality. We can get a sense of this in an aya in the Qur'an that says:
“... man was created in the best of form but was sent to the lowest of the low” - Qur'an 95:4-5
It is clear that as time has gone by, we have fallen lower and lower, meaning further and further away from the reality. This lower
level knowledge takes us away from true Reality and true Knowledge, falsely packaged so as to divert and separate the created beings
from their Creator, replacing God with man's knowledge. This kind of packaging has become more and more attractive to man’s
When the Prophet (pbuh) said: "In search of knowledge you must travel as far as China”, he was not talking about the knowledge of worldly subjects. He was pointing to Irfan, knowledge of man and God which would require the hardship of journeying - the journey to China from Saudi Arabia would have been extremely difficult 1400 years ago. It is the kind of goal which would require that kind of hardship, as we have already mentioned in some detail in the previous article about spiritual journeying.
In the Qur'an after the first very short sura (chapter) of The Opening, comes the Sura Baqarah, a very detailed sura, where Allah, in the first few verses, points out clearly what the main signs and characteristics of the guided ones are, versus those of the lost and misguided ones. Those signs are repeated with some variations for further understanding throughout the Holy book. He says:
“The God-conscious ones are those who believe in the unseen; and who believe in the Revelation sent to you (O Messenger)
and sent before you to other Messengers,
And in their heart they have attained the certainty of faith about the hereafter” - Qur’an 2:2 and 2:4
Here lies the dilemma of man. The spiritual teaching always puts faith and belief in the unseen at the highest level (this by itself is something to ponder upon), whereas man is trapped in the knowledge of ‘what is seen’ and what is tangible, to the point where a common phrase is “I’ll believe it when I see it”. This may sound reasonable to the mind, but it tells us how misplaced our beliefs have become - particularly in the light of the instruction from our Creator being the opposite of that which the fallen man is holding on to. The reality therefore is “you will see it when you believe it”! This really means that our faith and belief in the unseen will open us to certainty of the knowledge of reality. A spiritually enlightened person takes it to a higher level and would say: “What you can see with your eyes is not real and what is not seen is real”.
In a beautiful sermon that speaks of the immediacy of spiritual reality despite its immateriality, the fourth Caliph of Islam, Imam Ali (a.s.) said when asked if he could see the Lord that he worshipped:
“Eyes see Him not through vision, but hearts see Him through the verities of faith” - Nahjul Balagha Sermon 179
One of the most revered contemporary commentators of the Qur'an Ayatollah Javadi Amoli helps us on the journey towards this high vision by explaining that the correct knowledge is the one that strengthens one’s faith, or at least keeps the faith intact, while there are many so called brands of knowledge that have the opposite effect.
From a religious and spiritual point of view, knowledge that is not intertwined with sacred knowledge and belief in God is not real knowledge. In essence, the reason for us not ‘seeing the reality’ is because of our deficiency in knowledge of God, ‘Irfan’, since we are so preoccupied with only what we can see with our eyes and are not mindful of all the levels of reality that is not seen by the eyes, and we rarely stop to ask why is it that we do not ‘see’ beyond the sensory level. What prevents us from doing so is our active ego-self, 'Nafs al-Amarrah', unless and until it is subdued and transformed.
How did we get into this place of mistaken belief, and what is the way out according to God and His Messengers? For this, we turn to the Qur'an, again using the commentaries to throw the light of Allah on our pathway. Qur’anic language often uses parables and symbols to prompt us to consider the whole spectrum of reality, since both eternal truths and their manifested levels are being played out in our souls and in our daily lives.
We are all familiar with the story of Adam and his fall, yet God is also revealing to us what took place in the unseen as an example of what is continually taking place here and now, and at times the Qur'an repeats: “so that you take heed”, or “for those who are mindful”, or "so that you learn". The story of Adam, Shaytan and the knowledge of reality and the fall is also the story of the children of Adam. Insha'Allah, we will be writing about it soon.
Javadi Amoli, in his commentaries, describes the action of Shaytan, likening it to the poison of snake and spider. He says Shaytan cannot physically hurt the body of a person like a snake or spider. The way that Shaytan injects his poison is by whispering and infiltrating into people's minds and changes the reality in their thinking.
“Verily, he and his tribe are lying in wait for you where you cannot perceive them!” - Qur'an 7:27
Since Shaytan works through one's thoughts, then Nafs al-Amarrah (the ego-self) certainly is the best vehicle for Shaytan. The Qur'an alludes to this and in fact in a couple of ayat the attributes that have been related to Shaytan have also been related to Nafs al-Amarrah.
He explains that for a poison to affect a person it needs to enter into one's digestive system otherwise no matter how strong the poison, if it stays out of his digestive system, for instance in one’s pocket, it has no effect, or if the digestion does not accept it by bringing it up, still it will not kill the person. To prevent being poisoned, we must empty our minds from the temptations of Nafs al-Amarrah, which is the real meaning of polishing the heart, so that through the gradual transformation of the Nafs our hearts come to reflect The Real and therefore The Reality as is, not our distorted self created reality.
Moulana Rumi, in his monumental book The Masnavi, continually opens our eyes to the spiritual reality and points out Sufi teachings through story telling as a means to take us to the places we have not gone. Sometimes the stories can be quite humorous at an outer level. This following story which is relevant to the problems of thinking, conjecture and surmise, is about a deaf man who is told by a friend that his neighbour is sick and he should go and pay him a visit.
When considering how to deal with the conversation the deaf man surmised that it is very likely to go something like this:
I will say “How are you O my suffering friend?” and he will reply “I’m fine!” or "I am pretty well"
I will say “Thanks to God, and what have you had to drink?”
He will probably reply: “Some sherbet” and I’ll reply “May you enjoy health”.
I will then ask “Who is your doctor”.
Most likely the man will say “so and so”.
Then I’ll say; “He is the one who brings great luck with him. Wherever he goes, the desire is attained.”
Having prepared himself in this manner the deaf man visits the sick man and the conversation unfolds:
“How are you?” “I’m dying!”
“Thanks to God, and what have you had to drink?” “Poison!”
“May it do you good, and who is your doctor?” “Azrael (the Angel of Death)!”
“May his steps be sanctified! Wherever he goes, the desire is attained.”
Rumi continues his teaching on the subject of presumption of what reality is versus the distortion of the mind:
“Even if you learn the note of a nightingale,
How will you know the feelings it has towards a rose?”
“If you do know, it will be from surmise and make believe,
Like the conjectures formed by
deaf people from those who move their lips.”
Masnavi, Book 1:3358-59
“O brother how could assumption by the lower senses
Be of any help for unlimited revelations
If your sensory ear is fit for the literal
Know that your inner ear is deaf to receiving the unseen meanings.”
Masnavi, Book 1:3394-95
Hopefully these three inter-related articles give a better picture about what the purpose of our life is and how our ego personality and our thinking are the enemy within us, and the biggest obstacle to our spiritual union. Perhaps it might have become clearer why spiritual paths emphasise meditation in order to stop the thinking and why the Sufi work is based on dealing face to face with the Nafs, the ego-self which is our Shaytan. This journey cannot be accessed through reading books although that is helpful at the beginning. One needs to become a traveller on the path of facing one's ego-self and this requires not being guided by one's own thinking and one's own mind which is a very difficult thing to do. This is why very few manage to do so.
May Allah give us insight for the realisation of the reality and the power to undertake the journey.
1. Vicegerency is the common translation for the Arabic “Caliphate” which means a deputy who stands in for a King. In Islam this is the proper relationship that mankind is supposed to aspire toward in relation to God and His creation.