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Gnosticism/Irfan in Shia Faith

Q:

Could an average Muslim/non-scholar Shia learn irfan or do he/she have to be a scholar first?

In Shia irfan are the concepts and realities of waliullah (sainthood) and wadatul wujud (unity/union with Allah) possibilities to be experienced just as in tasawwuf/Sufism?

When a Shia scholar learns irfan is he/she guided by a spiritual guide/sheikh as in Sufism or does he learn irfan from books only?

Is the Shia irfan a secret restricted to certain ones?

Khuda hafiz.

A:

Salaamun alaykum

Thank you for your questions. 

1) There is a strong correlation between knowledge and ʿirfān. However it is not
necessarily a condition that a person take the formal path of Islamic studies to be
an ʿārif. The main issue is to practice what a person knows. At the same time the
path of scholarship is a great help in the attainment and understanding of ʿirfānī
knowledge. Studying ʿirfān in a formal setting also introduces the wayfarer to other
people and ideas in the field which helps them in their own pursuit both in terms of
action and insight. So yes, an average person can be an ʿārif, but learning the
theoretical aspects of ʿirfān may be difficult for them if they haven’t studied some
introductory Islamic sciences and this may be a hindrance in their path as they
progress. But Allah can also choose whoever He wishes for Himself from among His
servants.

2) Wilāyat is a system central to the Shiʿi understanding of Islam and so there is
no doubt that Shiʿi ʿurafāʾ are within the system of wilāyat and are the friends of
Allah. They have attained this through walking into that system through its correct
door which is the Prophet (saw) and the Maʿsūmīn (as) and so what is opened for them
is beyond the understanding of many. 

As for waḥdat al-wujūd I was interested in your translation. Unity/union with Allah
is the translation for another concept known as liqāʾ Allah. Every person will meet
Allah but the ʿurafāʾ experience something similar in this world at the station of
annihilation (fanāʾ). This is common for all types of ʿurafāʾ that attain this
station be they Shiʿi or any other sect.

Waḥdat al-Wujūd on the other hand is translated as the oneness of Existence, where
Existence means Allah. It is a concept in theoretical ʿirfān that needs some
explanation and so here is not the place for that. But in simple terms it is how the
ʿurafāʾ explain tawḥīd.

3) ʿIrfān is split into two parts: theoretical (naḍarī) and practical (ʿamalī).
Theoretical ʿirfān is studied in books but practical ʿirfān is usually under the
guidance of a Shaykh. 

Perhaps the difference between Shiʿi ʿirfān and Sufism in this respect is that the
real Shaykh of the wayfarer is the Prophet (saw) and the Maʿsūmīn (as) and a Shaykh
in Shiʿism is that one who leads you to them (as) by their (as) guidance; until your
relationship with them is strong enough not to require the involvement of another.
It is the Prophet (saw) and the Maʿsumīn (as) that take a person to Allah. The
wayfarer who does not require a Shaykh is the one that already has that relationship
with the Prophet (saw) and the Maʿsūmīn (as) and these are very few indeed. Like I
mentioned previously it is going to the city through its gate. This is different to
the Sufi concept of a Shaykh as being the one who takes the wayfarer to Allah.

4) The nature of ʿirfān in its specific sense is that only a few will be able to do
it. It is also secretive for many reasons. However spirituality in a more general
sense is universal to all people and Shiʿism stressed the importance of spirituality
in all aspects of life.

n.b. The translation of ʿirfān as Gnosticism and and ʿārif as a Gnostic is clumsy as
Gnosticism is a varied intellectual movement within Christianity that was popular at
the time of the formation of the church that had certain beliefs such as the reality
of evil and the needlessness of following the prescripts of the bible. It is
therefore very different to ʿirfān in an Islamic setting which does not hold similar
beliefs and while some earlier translators (or translators who are not aware of the
connotations of these words in the English language) may have chosen to use
Gnosticism and Gnostic; the current academic trend is not to seek an English
equivalent and leave the term as ʿirfān. 

May you always be successful

Zoheir Ali Esmail