The first part of Gnosticism in Islam focused on the Gnostic-themed sayings of Jesus found in Muslim tradition, as well as the theories on how Gnosticism found its way into the pan-Arabic civilization of the Middle Ages. The second part deals with Islamic Gnosticism itself. Lastly, it presents evidence that Mohammed might have been known and been influenced by this ancient heresy when formulating the last, major Abrahamic religion.
Besides the Manichaeans and Mandeans who thrived in Muslim culture, the latter still present today, there are several other Gnostic sects that either did or did not embrace Islamic theology. To delve into each one of them would take entire books, but their Gnostic pedigree was both known and often received the same bleak fate as their Christian counterparts. As Sean Martin writes in The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics (pg. 74):
Charges of heresy also befell Gnostic elements within Islam. These were the Shi’ite ghulats, meaning ‘exaggerators’ or ‘extremists’, whose most notable early figure was Abdullah ibn Saba,‘a figure comparable to Simon Magus in the history of Christian Gnosticism’. Other groups followed in ibn Saba’s wake: the Assassins (or Ismailis), the Druze, the Sufis, to name but three, all of whom could be said to have Gnostic aspects.
One of the most interesting Islamic Gnostic sects — which also still exist today in the same regions as the Mandaeans—are the Yezidi. Their origins are unclear, as Martin writes in his book, but they are perhaps an arcane Persian faith that bred with Sufism. Like with most of Gnosticism, the Yezidis believe that divinity emanates from a supernal Big Bang, man is truly a divine particle lost in the material universe, myths should be aggressively reinterpreted to suit a community’s spiritual appetite, and knowledge of the self ultimately leads to knowledge of the true God. Their cosmology could easily have been found in Classic Gnostic texts. Martin writes concerning their Creation narrative:
In the beginning, God creates a white pearl from his own essence that contains all the elements that are to form the universe. He then –some versions say 40,000 years later – creates a Heptad of angels to rule over the world and makes Melek Tawus the chief amongst them. God then creates the seven heavens, the earth, the sun and the moon, and it is left to Melek Tawus to create human beings and all the animals. Each member of the Heptad has dominion over one of the four elements or the plant, animal and human realms; all the elements must be respected and not polluted in any way. Melek Tawus is revered by the Yezidis as the greatest of the angels and is known as the ‘Lord of this World’ and also as the ‘Peacock Angel’, and all earthly affairs are said to be under his influence. (pg. 77)
Because of the Peacock Angel’s label of “Lord of this World,” a loose reference to Saint Paul’s moniker for Satan, the Yezidis have been persecuted throughout history by both Christians and Muslims for being devil-worshippers. As I write, this injustice has continued through modern times; and these ancient people, like the Gnostic Mandaeans, are currently struggling to avoid extinction.
But without a doubt, the most prominent Islamic Gnostic denomination is Sufism. Although the Sufis have branched out into many schools with varying philosophies, and their exact origins are in dispute, their core tenets lean heavily into Gnostic metaphysics. Some of the obvious parallels of Sufism and Classic Gnosticism are:
- An essential belief in salvific-knowledge of the Divine. The Classic Gnostics used the Greek word for knowledge, Gnosis. Sufis use the Arabic word for knowledge, Marifa.
- The reality that human beings have a shard of the Godhead that seeks its way to a supernal home. The Classic Gnostics knew it as the Divine Spark of the indwelling Pneuma (Spirit or Image of God). The Sufis often refer to it as the ‘longing’ to be coupled with The Beloved.
- These shards of the Godhead are covered in layers of false identity that need to be exfoliated. The Classic Gnostics were known to call it the Hylic self or Counterfeit Spirit. The Sufis call it the Naf. Modern Gnostics and occultists regularly call it the ego or the soul. Like the eleventh century Sufi poet, Ansari, expressed, “Know that when you learn to lose yourself, you will reach The Beloved. There is no other secret to be learnt, and more than that is not known to me.”
- That part of the process of Gnosis or Marifa not only entails self-knowledge but discerning between the spiritual realms and the material world (and its seductions). Divine presence can be sensed everywhere, but in the end, it is but the radiance of the Godhead or the Beloved calling for its children.
- A stressing of asceticism, humility, and concern for the socially downtrodden in order to ignite one’s Divine Spark. The Sufi teacher Ahmad ibn Ajiba stated that Sufism is, “A science through which one can know how to travel into the presence of the Divine, purify one’s inner self from filth, and beautify it with a variety of praiseworthy traits.”
- Widely used terminology not found in other traditions regarding humanity’s plight in the cosmos, often with diverging meanings depending on the mythopoeia. These include: forgetfulness, soberness, drunkenness, remembrance of one’s godly nature, and several others.
Furthermore, it is interesting that although the term Sufism is linked to wool because of the plain white robes these mystics wear, the Persian scholar Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī wrote that the word is linked to the Greek word sophia, meaning “wisdom.”
The Sufi master, Shurawardi, in his book The Philosophy of Illumination, goes into great detail regarding Gnostic and also Neoplatonic influences on Sufism. But the evidence is found all throughout Sufi literature. A perfect example is this quote by the thirteenth-century master Abd’ al-Khâliq Ghijduwâni:
Your journey is towards your homeland. Remember you are traveling from the world of appearances to the world of Reality.
Gnosticism in Muslim writings and theology
Perhaps the most powerful Gnostic Islamic writing is the eighth-century Shiite text, Mother of Books (Umm al-kitab). Its cosmology could have easily come out of the Sethian or Valentinian theological womb. In this scripture, Mohammed and family members such as Fatima, Ali, and Hasan are presented as Aeons above Creation in a place called the Divine Realm of Five. The Demiurge figure is called Azazi’il, oddly similar to the Jewish fallen angel, Azazel. Also, the ultimate God is just as unknown and impersonal as in Gnosticism, portrayed as a king behind a curtain. Mother of Books claims that only through divine knowledge and prayer the ultimate God can become known, exemplified in this passage: The one who knows arises and testifies to the Holy Spirit as to himself.
A very interesting speculation is whether Mohammed himself knew of the Gnostic heresy. As mentioned, the first part of the article reveals that Gnostic theories were more than likely available in the Arabic regions during the seventh century. Here are some indications on why Gnosticism might have made its way into Islam from the very beginning, including the Koran:
- The Koran states that Jesus did not die on the cross. He was saved at the last moment, and a phantom left behind. This theology is only found in the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter, The Acts of John, and the teachings of Basilides, a second-century Gnostic sage. Some Muslim scholars even wrote that it was Judas who took the place of Christ in The Koran also contains a passage about Jesus turning clay doves into living animals. This is the exact narration found in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Although it’s not a Gnostic work per se, it certainly was deemed heretical by Orthodox Christianity, along with all Gnostic scriptures.
- Mohammed himself stated that Christianity destroyed the true gospels of Jesus and used corrupted ones instead. This seems to indicate he knew of heretical works, the Gnostic writings being the most infamous ones.
- The Satanic Verses that Mohammed edited out of the Koran because he believed they had been dictated by Satan (or Iblis in Islam) instead of the angel Gabriel, speak about intermediary and emanating female divine entities. Probably more of a Pagan influence, but it certainly could be a Gnostic one since salvific feminine and divine principles are common in Gnostic mythology.
- There are striking similarities between the Prophet Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, and Mohammed. Both saw themselves as the last messengers of the Godhead’s dispensation, as well as the greatest of all Abrahamic apostles. Both were claimed by their followers to be The Paraclete, or the comforter found in The Gospel of John. Both received their revelation from heavenly beings— Mani from his own divine twin or Daemon, while Mohammed from the angel Gabriel. Lastly, both stressed that their followers eschew mind-altering substances, although Mani mainly eschewed all material attachments while Mohammed often seemed to bask in them.
Ultimately, these are all suppositions. Any tangible historical evidence is likely forever lost. Orthodox Islam was as savage in their censorship, persecution, and re-writing of history as orthodox Christianity when it came to anything resembling Gnosticism. Moreover, no religion of antiquity or the Middle Ages existed in a vacuum, regularly cross-pollinating or claiming older traditions for themselves after altering them.
But the Gnostic influence cannot be denied in the Muslim religion, from the legends of the Islamic Jesus to the visionary mysticism of the Sufis, and so much in-between. This reality does not taint Mohammed and his dogma but adds breathless dimensions that have led and can lead multitudes astray into the very heart of the Gnostic Pleroma or the Sufi Beloved.
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