Gnosis and Reason
One of the fundamental problems which is a matter of contention between the supporters and opponents of gnosis is whether reason can make any judgment about what is given through gnosis, which is supposedly acquired by interior unveilings and witnessings, or whether, for example, reason can refute some of them or not.
The answer to this question is important with regard to the fact that many gnostics make assertions which cannot be given any rational explanation. They claim that they discovered these things through the esoteric way, and that reason does not have the capacity to understand them, and naturally, that reason thus has no right to refute or reject them.
The most important subject of this kind of controversy is that of the unity of existence (wahdat al‑wujud), which has been propounded in various forms. One is that, basically, there is nothing, has been nothing and shall be nothing but God, the Exalted. Whatever has been called other than Him, is said to be nothing more than illusions and fantasies.
Another form of this proposition is that nothing exists outside the essence of God or outside the vessel of His knowledge. In this way, a sort of multiplicity in oneness may be accepted. Another form of this claim, which is more prevalent, is that the wayfarer at the end of his journey, reaches the station of annihilation (land ), and nothing remains of him save a name.
Finally, the most moderate form of the claim is that the wayfarer reaches a station in which he sees nothing but God, and all things fade away into God. In more exact terminology, he witnesses the fading of all things into the existence of God, the Exalted, like the fading of a weak light before the light of the sun.
In such cases, the opponents generally take advantage of rational arguments, and the proponents eventually say that these sorts of matters transcend the limits of reason. In this way they shirk the burden of the rational explanation of their claims. Considering these developments, this basic question will be posed: Are there truths about which reason is incapable of comprehending and has no right to reject?
What may be said in summary here is that although reason is concerned with concepts and the function of reason is not to recognize the truth of the objective existence or origin of any objective thing, let alone the divine exalted existence, but the positive and negative judgments of reason, when they are self‑evident or may lead to self‑evidence, are undeniable and through concepts may be applied to objective things.
The assumption of the error of such judgments involves contradiction. In other words, although the function of reason is not knowledge of the origins of existence, with the above‑mentioned qualifications, there can be no doubt about the validity of judgments about phenomena.
As for the issue of the unity of existence, it must be said that the denial of existence of things other than God and the absolute denial of multiplicity not only imply the denial of the validity of the judgments of reason, but also involve the denial of the validity of knowledge by presence belonging to the active and passive aspects of the soul.
In this way, how can we hold that witnessings and unveilings have any validity, regarding the fact that the best evidence for their validity is their being present to consciousness? So, the unity of existence, on this interpretation, is not acceptable at all. However, we may consider an acceptable interpretation which is propounded in transcendent philosophy2 from which it is obtained that the existence of creatures in relation to God, the Exalted, is a relative and dependent existence, and to be precise it may be said that they are the very relation and dependence, and they have no independence of their own. That which is discovered by the gnostic is this very denial of the independence of other things [than God], which they call the denial of their real existence.
Here the question may be posed in another form: Can we consider the judgment of reason prior to intuition and unveiling? In reply, it should be said that pure knowledge by presence is in truth the discovery of reality itself. Thus, it is irrefutable.
However, knowledge by presence is usually accompanied by a subjective interpretation in such a way that any distinction between them requires great care. These subjective interpretations which involve conceptual knowledge, are fallible.
What are rejected by rational proofs are incorrect subjective interpretations of observations and knowledge by pretence, not the objects of knowledge by presence themselves. In the case of the unity of existence, that which is realized through witnessings is restricted to the independent existence of God, the Exalted, which due to inattention is called true existence, according to which true existence is denied of other existents.
It is worth mentioning that the great Islamic gnostics have explicitly claimed that some unveilings are Satanic, invalid, and may be recognized through some evidence, and ultimately may be distinguished from others by placing them under the scrutiny of rational certain arguments, the divine Book and the Sunnah.
It is clear that an investigation into all the kinds of unveilings and witnessings and the types of knowledge by presence and the ways‑in which they are qualitatively reflected in the mind, the causes for the incorrectness of some subjective interpretations and the way to distinguish the correct from the incorrect, are beyond the scope of this article.