When Imam Ali was asked, “O Commander of the Faithful! Do you see the Lord when you devote yourself to worship?”, he replied, “Beware! I would not worship a God that I could not see.”
In order to understand the Irfan of Imam Ali (peace be upon him), we have to know what Irfan is, and how it is related to Imam Ali. I assume that there is no need to introduce Imam Ali. Irfan is knowledge, but it is used in the sense of a special esoteric knowledge (Ma’rifah) of God and the way toward him. The knowledge sought by those who follow the way of Irfan is ultimately knowledge of God. The term Irfan is also used for the path that leads to this knowledge, as well as the theoretical speculation on theological topics based on the knowledge gained by those who have advanced on this path. Sometimes the term Sufism (Tasawwuf) is used in a manner synonymous to Irfan.
The ideas and practices that have come to be associated with Sufism (or Irfan) over the course of the centuries are rich and varied. Among them, there are some that should be rejected as heretical, and some that may be considered as permissible innovations in accordance with the Qur’an: “And as for monasticism, they invented it themselves; We did not prescribe it for them, except for seeking the pleasure of Allah.” (57:27) And, finally, some of these ideas and practices have been present in Islam from its origins and constitute its kernel and spirit. Likewise, with regard to the original elements of Irfan in Islam, some will be developed for the first time by Muslims, some will be found in common with other religions, and some might even be said to be reaffirmed by Islam while also found in Jewish or Christian traditions. For example, the idea of complete obedience to God was taught by Judaism and Christianity and reaffirmed by Islam, and this complete obedience is one of the elements of practical Irfan.
Irfan means knowledge, and knowledge can be of various types. The Muslim philosophers have divided knowledge into ilm al-huduri (knowledge by presence) and ilm al-husuli (acquired knowledge). Knowledge by presence is what is directly known through one’s experience of the object, while ilm al-husuli is representational or conceptual knowledge. There are philosophical debates among the Muslim philosophers about how exactly to understand the difference between these two sorts of knowledge; for example, Ibn Sina and Sohravardi had different views about what could be the object of knowledge by presence. The difference is often illustrated by the difference between knowing that sugar is sweet and knowledge through tasting the sweetness of the sugar. We have knowledge by presence when we taste the sugar. In tasting, we know the sweetness. Even if one had never tasted sugar, it could still be known from reports that sugar is sweet, but this would only be a theoretical or conceptual knowledge.
Given the difference between knowledge by presence and conceptual knowledge, we may ask: Which of these sorts of knowledge is Irfan? The answer is: both! The Arif (literally, knower) is one who achieves direct presentational knowledge of God. The literature through which the Arif attempts to communicate to others the path to such knowledge and its aim conveys conceptual knowledge. The term Irfan is used both for the immediate knowledge by presence of God and for the conceptual knowledge pertaining to what is uncovered by the Arif. The term Irfan is thus used ambiguously for the direct experiential knowledge of the Urafa, and for the theories they developed about how to acquire this knowledge and its theological significance.
Wisdom (hikmat) is customarily divided into theoretical wisdom (hikmat al-nazari) and practical wisdom (hikmat al-‘amali). Sometimes the term hikmat is also used for philosophy. Mulla Sadra’s philosophical view is called hikmat al-muta’aliyyah (transcendental wisdom). In this view, elements of philosophy and Irfan have been brought into harmony. Like hikmat, Irfan is also customarily divided into theoretical Irfan and practical Irfan. Sometimes the term Irfan is used for theoretical Irfan, and Sufism, or taswwuf, is used for practical Irfan. In Qom, if one says that one is studying Irfan with a professor, it is generally assumed that what is meant is theoretical Irfan, usually meaning the Sufi theory developed by Ibn Arabi and those who subsequently developed his ideas. Although Ibn Arabi’s views may constitute the most famous form of Sufi theory, there are many others. All of these views together are examined and debated by the students of irfan al-nazari.
Irfan al-amali, or practical Sufism, is often called sayr-o suluk (spiritual wayfaring). It is also called faqr or poverty. What is meant here is not being without sufficient money, but realizing one’s complete neediness before God. One who travels the path toward God is sometimes called a faqir, a poor person, or a salik, a wayfarer. The way that is followed is called the tariqat, and this term is also used for the various Sufi orders. As a term of honor, one who has advanced on the spiritual path is called an Arif, but authors who have written authoritatively on Irfan are also called Urafa. Today, the terms Sufi, faqir, and, less frequently, darvish, are usually reserved for those who have been initiated into any of the various Sufi orders, while salik is applied more generally.
Irfan has various stages, ranging from the elementary to the most profound. Practical Irfan, or tasawwuf, is the way by which a person moves from the superficial to the profound, from the exoteric to the esoteric, from the exterior to the interior, from zahir to batin. Sufis have compared this movement to the polishing of a mirror. The heart is like a mirror, and when it becomes purified of all pollutions and obstructions, it reflects the divine light. So, the pure soul sees God. Hence, when Imam Ali was asked, “O Commander of the Faithful! Do you see the Lord when you devote yourself to worship?”, he replied, “Beware! I would not worship a God that I could not see.” He was asked how he could see God, and he replied: “Beware! Eyes cannot see him with a glance; it is rather the hearts that see Him through the realities of faith.” (Al-Kafi)
Some of the main characteristics of the Irfan of the Commander of the Faithful are:
- Irfan consists of both knowledge by presence and conceptual knowledge of God. The conceptual knowledge may be divided into theoretical and practical knowledge as reflections upon the experiential knowledge of God and the way of achieving and deepening it.
- The way to Irfan is the path from the outward to the inward, from zahir to batin.
- Imam Ali is a fully realized human being who has achieved this knowledge at its most profound level and who serves as a guide in this quest for those who seek God.
- The knowledge possessed by the Imam makes him a place for the manifestation of the divine Names and Attributes.
- The way requires God-wariness (taqwa), renunciation of the world, setting one’s sights on the ultimate goal, worship, obedience, the acquisition of virtue, and self-knowledge. Through the remembrance (dhikr) and contemplation (fikr) of God one polishes the heart and sets out on the inner journey.
- The way is perilous. Misunderstandings occur when one learns of truths beyond one’s capacity.
- Different people are capable of various degrees of knowledge.
May Allah guide us to His proximity.