Gnosis (ma’rifah) is the perception of something as it is in its essence and attributes. The gnosis of the Creator, (may He be glorified and exalted!) is one of the most difficult of all types of gnosis, for God has no likeness. Yet in spite of that, God Most High has enjoined on the Creation, including mankind, jinns, angels, and devils, the gnosis of His Essence, His Names, and His Attributes: it is affirmed with respect to both the animal and non-animal kingdoms.
Everything which has being – except God Most High – is conscious of the Being of its Creator to the extent of its capacity. God Most High has said, …’there is not a thing but hymneth His praise…’ (17:44). That includes man, angels, animals, minerals, plants, air, earth, and water.
God Most High praises those who have gnosis of Him and censures those who are ignorant of Him and those who deny Him. Gnosis is of two types: general and particular. General gnosis of God Most High, which is incumbent upon all who must observe the precepts of religion, is to affirm His Being, to declare Him to be holy in a manner worthy of Him, and to describe Him as He actually is and in the manner in which He describes Himself; for He is known even if He is not subject to conditions and cannot be encompassed.
The second type of gnosis is particular gnosis. It has been said that it is a state that arises from contemplation. The gnostic (al-‘arif) is the one whom God Most High causes to contemplate His Essence, Attributes, Names, and Acts, while the knower (al-‘alim) is the one to whom God Most High makes that known, not through contemplation, but rather through certitude. It is said that gnosis is a type of certitude that occurs through serious effort in religious devotions.
The Imam al-Ghazali (may God Most High have mercy on him!), has said: God is much too great for the senses to reach Him or for reason and logic to plumb the depths of His Majesty. Indeed, He is much too great for anyone but Himself to plumb the depths of His Majesty or for anyone but Himself to know Him. Verily, no one knows God but God.
The highest degree of gnosis that His servants can attain is the realization that true gnostic knowledge of Him is impossible for them. Furthermore, no one can know that in its totality except a Prophet or a righteous saint (siddiq). As for the Prophet, he has clearly expressed this by saying, ‘I cannot enumerate the ways of praising Thee; Thou art as Thou has praised Thyself’. As for the righteous saint, he says, ‘The incapacity to attain realization is a realization’.
It has been said that souls, after leaving their bodies, are not distinguished from one another save as regards the type of gnosis and knowledge imprinted upon them; nor will you be able, after that separation, to find any kind of gnosis or knowledge except what was there originally. Human nature will be raised on the Day of Judgment in accordance with the form of its knowledge; physical bodies will be resurrected in accordance with the form of their deeds, whether good or bad.
When the soul leaves the world of religious commandments, the homeland for gaining the Hereafter and ascending thereto, it reaps the fruit of that which it has sown. Its discernment in the Hereafter is not greater than its discernment in this world except in terms of unveiling and clarity. Contemplation and vision will be commensurate with one’s knowledge of God Most High, His Names and His Attributes, because gnosis in this world will be transformed in the Hereafter as a contemplative vision just as a seed is transformed into a spike of grain.
Just as the one who has no seed will have no crops, so too the one who has no gnosis in this world will have neither vision nor contemplation in the Hereafter. The difference of vision as regards the degrees of illumination are due to the differences in the degrees of gnosis. Subtle point: Whosoever wants to light a lamp needs seven things: flint, stone, tinder, sulphur, a lampstand, a wick, and oil.
So when a servant seeks the lamp of gnosis, he must have the flint of effort: ‘As for those who strive in Us, We surely guide them to Our paths…’ (29:69), and the stone of humility: ‘Call upon your Lord humbly…’ (7:55). As for the tinder, it is the burning of the soul. God Most High has said, ‘…and restrained his soul from passion’ (79:40).
The fourth is the sulphur of turning to God repentantly: ‘Turn often in repentance unto your Lord…’ (39:54). The fifth is the lampstand of patience: ‘…But be patient! Verily God is with the patient’ (8:46). The sixth is the wick of gratitude: ‘…and be grateful for the blessings of your Lord…’ (16:114). The seventh is the oil of contentedness with the decrees of God, Who has said, ‘Bear calmly the judgment of thy Lord’ (68:48).
It was related that there was a good man whose brother had died. He saw him in a dream and said to him, ‘What did God do with you?’ He answered, ‘He had me enter Paradise where I eat, drink, and mate’. The other said, ‘I did not ask you about that. Have you seen your Lord?’ He answered, ‘No one sees Him except the one who knows Him’.
Imam Ibn ‘Ata’illah al-Iskandari, The Key to Salvation (Miftah al-Falah)