Tell me Muslims, what should be done? I don’t know how to identify myself. I am neither Christian nor Jewish, neither Pagan nor Muslim. I don’t hail from the East or from the West, I am neither from land nor sea. I am not a creature of this world...
- Jalaladin Rumi
All things have their interior and exterior, the apparent, open or exoteric meaning and a hidden, concealed or esoteric meaning. One relates primarily to the legalistic or material, the other to the spiritual or metaphysical. So it is with the great religions of humanity, particularly Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Holy Books of all these Faiths have both an inner (esoteric) and an outer (exoteric) meaning.
Professor Huston Smith points out in his introduction to The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam:
Religiously, people tend to fall into two categories. Some find the meaning they seek in religious forms – commandments, observances, and texts straightforwardly, largely literally, interpreted – while others, without bypassing or abandoning these, sense their provisional character and reach out for meanings that the forms contain but which cannot be equated with those forms. If we call the first type of person exoteric, out of his concern for meanings that attach to outward or manifest forms, the second type that is drawn to the meanings that underlie those forms is conveniently designated esoteric. Both types turn up in all the historical religions and very likely in tribal ones as well.
When we examine the life of Jesus, as presented in the New Testament as well as the so called apocryphal Gospels, we discover he made a clear distinction between the inner, hidden or esoteric teachings and outer, external or exoteric ones. There are several places in the Gospels where Jesus publicly gave exoteric teachings to the masses of the people, while privately instructing his trusted disciples in the inner meaning. After the manner of the apostles, the early Spiritual Christians preached openly to the public the Gospel message, while preserving the esoteric doctrines for those who became initiated disciples.
The distinction between outer doctrines and their higher inner meaning was known to Moses, an initiate of Egyptian wisdom, and the Israelite prophets. The exoteric form of the Mosaic revelation contained laws and commandments supremely suited to the people and conditions of that era. While the esoteric doctrines, explaining the meaning behind the external forms and rituals, were preserved by inspired prophets.
By the time of Jesus, the esoteric spiritual side of the Hebrew religion had been corrupted and almost lost. People were enslaved to the “letter of the law,” kept in the bondage of ignorance by false teachers, not realising that “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” Thus the Essenes, being the true Israelite priests and the mystic precursors of the first Spiritual Christians, concerned themselves with rediscovering the inner meaning of the Mosaic Law.
Within the first four centuries after the time of Christ, the teachings of Jesus underwent the same corruption and loss as those proclaimed by Moses. Christianity emerged as a powerful institution dominated by a clerical hierarchy largely ignorant of the original esoteric truths. The Gospels, like the books of the Old Testament before them, underwent editing and revision to comply with the exoteric Christian creed. The many Christian Gnostic texts that spoke of secret doctrines were denounced and confined to the flames.
Religious fundamentalists, be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim, are all concerned with a literal interpretation of their Holy Books, and unanimously reject the mystical or esoteric approach. History shows it is often from the ranks of these self-proclaimed fundamentalists, obsessed as they are with outward observance and a one dimensional reading of sacred scripture, that intolerance, bigotry and violence emerge.
Too often in the West, Islam is equated exclusively with the narrow interpretation upheld by the likes of Osama bin Laden and the vocal Islamist groups of the Middle East and South Asia. Few Western commentators highlight the fact that what the Western media identifies as “Islamic fundamentalism” is a relatively modern development in Muslim history, originating largely with Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al Wahhab in the early eighteenth century. Ibn ‘Abd al Wahhab branded all who disagreed with him as heretics and apostates, even declaring ‘holy war’ (al-jihad) against fellow Muslims (something forbidden by traditional Islamic law). The austere, puritanical interpretation of Islam preached by the Wahhabis came to dominate the Islamic Holy Places of Saudi Arabia, and was embraced in the 1920s by the Muslim Brethren (al-lkhwan al-Muslimun). With the backing of the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Wahhabi influence spread internationally. Yet the truth and purity of Islam eludes those believers obsessed with law, theology and exoteric practices, which are at best only the outer forms of religion. To discover the Islam of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) we have to retrace the path taken by some of the greatest Seekers of Wisdom and search out the inner dimension, the lost key to understanding the divine religions.
The initiatic journey to Islamic soil has been a repeated theme of European esotericism, ever since the Templars settled in Jerusalem and the mythical Christian Rosenkreuz learnt his trade in “Damcar” (Damascus). We find it in the lives of Paracelsus and Cagliostro, then, as travel became easier, in a whole host that includes P. B. Randolph, H. P. Blavatsky, Max Theon, G. I. Gurdjieff, Aleister Crowley, Rene Guenon, R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, and Henry Corbin. There was very likely some element of this in Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign of 1797, when he announced to an astounded audience that he, too, was a Muslim….
- Joscelyn Godwin, The Theosophical Enlightenment
Some of Europe’s leading seekers after hidden knowledge were convinced that in the Muslim lands of the Orient could be found representatives of a hidden wisdom transmitted from generation to generation within closed communities of initiates. They sought inspiration in a cultural and religious milieu long denounced as the ‘enemy’ by European Christianity.
The French poet and historian Gerard de Nerval (1808-1855) believed secret Islamic communities, principally the Druze, the Ismailis and the Nusairis, had been responsible for transmitting hidden knowledge to Europe through their influence on the Knights Templar.
Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, the nineteenth century historian of Persian and Arabic literature as well as a chronicler of secret societies, claimed the Knights Templar (and through them the Freemasons) derived their doctrines and practices from the Ismaili Assassins, who in turn inherited them from the ancient Gnostics.
Godfrey Higgins (1772-1833), whose books influenced Madame Blavatsky and the early Theosophists, also came to the conclusion the Ismaili Assassins passed their mysteries onto Europe’s Templars, Rosicrucians and authentic Freemasons. Higgins resolutely defended Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, while expressing the hope to visit the Moorish lands of Egypt, Palestine and Syria before he died.
The writer and mystic Laurence Oliphant (1829-1888) reasoned the Druze and Nusairi sects of Islam were the custodians of the most complete system of esoteric knowledge. In The Treasure of Montsegur, an authoritative book on the medieval Gnostic Cathars, the scholar R.A. Gilbert argues the doctrines of the Nusairis are identical to those of the Cathars.
Wherever we look we find historians and researchers seeking for the key to spiritual enlightenment among the Orient’s arcane Muslim communities. Elaborate myths may guard the source of the teachings of Europe’s occult fraternities, but they all point to the Muslim lands of North Africa and the mysterious East. A view endorsed by one of Europe’s greatest occultists, Gerard Encausse, known as “Papus”, who wrote that “the Gnostic sects, the Arabs, Alchemists, Templars” form a chain transmitting ancient wisdom to the West.
The early Rosicrucians claimed sources in Arabia for their secret wisdom. Indeed, a central Rosicrucian myth tells how young Christian Rosenkreuz [Rosie Cross] journeyed to “the mystic Arabian city of Damcar” in search of lost knowledge. According to Manly P. Hall:
C.R.C. [Christian Rosie Cross] was but sixteen years of age when he arrived at Damcar. He was received as one who had been long expected, a comrade and a friend in philosophy, and was instructed in the secrets of the Arabian adepts. While there, C.R.C. learned Arabic and translated the sacred book M into Latin, and upon returning to Europe he brought this important volume with him. After studying three years in Damcar, C.R.C. departed for the [Moorish] city of Fez, where Arabian magicians declared further information would be given him.1
Returning to Europe from his sojourn in the Moorish lands, C.R.C. is said to have established a secret “House of the Holy Spirit” modeled on the Muslim “House of Wisdom” he visited at Cairo in Egypt. Even the name ‘Rosicrucian’, a follower of the path of the Rose Cross, is remarkably similar to the common Moorish Sufi phrase “Path of the Rose.” One has only to intelligently study Rosicrucian rituals and legends to see the borrowing of Moorish imagery and the debt to Islamic esotericism.
Sir Francis Bacon is held to be one of the pioneers of Western science and philosophy. Many Western esotericists believe him to be the real author of Shakespeare’s works. Within the writings attributed to Shakespeare can be found Sufi ideas placed there by Francis Bacon.
Roger Bacon, called the “miraculous Doctor,” received his knowledge of medicine and the natural sciences from North African Moorish teachers. He often wore Arab dress at Oxford, knew the Arabic language, and translated Sufi texts. Bacon asserted that his knowledge was only part of a whole body of ancient wisdom known to Noah and Abraham, to Zoroaster, to the Chaldean, Egyptian and Greek masters, and to Muslim mystics.
At the end of the eighteenth century, Napoleon invaded Egypt. The French Emperor “held long discussions with the Ulema [religious scholars] of Cairo on Moslem theology, holding out to them the possibility of the whole French Army being converted to Islam.”2 The French writer Gourgaud noted in his Memories, “the Emperor reads the Koran in silence. He raises his head and says, as in a dream: ‘Muhammad’s religion is the most beautiful’.” Under Napoleon’s patronage, one of his generals embraced Islam and founded the secret ‘Order of the Seekers of Wisdom.’
Like Christian Rosenkreuz, the Sicilian magus Alessandro Cagliostro (1743-1795) is rumored to have traveled to the Moorish lands in pursuit of ancient wisdom. And like Rosenkreuz, Cagliostro – dubbed the ‘Noble Traveler’ – was received as the emissary of a powerful secret society. He claimed to have been initiated into arcane mysteries at the pyramids of Egypt. Cagliostro wore Moorish robes and worked to establish a universal esoteric Order “above all sects and schisms, which would restore the patriarchal religion under which Adam, Seth, Noah, Abraham, etc., were in direct communion with God, and eventually lead mankind back to the state enjoyed before the Fall.”3 After spreading his ideas throughout Europe Cagliostro ended up in Rome, where he was arrested by the Catholic Inquisition and died in prison.
In the eighteenth century Europeans opposed to the domination of Church and State were sympathetic to Islam and Moorish culture. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was moved to write:
Christianity has cheated us out of the harvest of ancient culture; later it cheated us again, out of the harvest of the culture of Islam. The wonderful world of the Moorish culture of Spain, really more closely related to us, more congenial to our senses and tastes than Rome and Greece, was trampled down (I do not say by what kind of feet). Why? Because it owed its origin to noble, to male instincts, because it said Yes to life even with the rare and refined luxuries of Moorish life.
Dr. Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825-1875), the influential Black American Rosicrucian author, also followed in the footsteps of the legendary Christian Rosenkreuz. He journeyed over much of the old Moorish lands through Ireland, North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Arabia, Palestine and Turkey. His encounters with Sufis, Dervishes and other Muslim mystics undoubtedly influenced much of his writings. In these Randolph refers to the Muslim “Ansairs” (also known as the Nusairi and Alawis), the “Ansairetic Mysteries”, and the secrets of “the Syrian mountaineers.” From his solitary travels in the Orient, he claimed to have brought back arcane knowledge and practices that revolutionised Western esotericism. Randolph’s biographer says his ideas “left their traces on Madame Blavatsky, her Theosophical Society, and many practising occult organizations in Europe and America today.”4
The enigmatic teacher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1872-1949), who travelled Central Asia and North Africa in search of hidden knowledge, mentions the mysterious “Aissors” in his book Meetings with Remarkable Men. At least one writer speculates they are the same as the secret community of Muslim mystics encountered by Randolph. Today Gurdjieff’s students believe his system to be derived from centuries old arcane traditions, whose representatives he met in the Muslim lands of Central Asia. The Russian journalist P.D. Ouspensky, perhaps Gurdjieff’s greatest disciple, thought his teacher had derived his ideas from the hidden wisdom found among the Muslim Sufis. The British author and mystic J.G. Bennett attempted to replicate Gurdjieff’s journeys in Central Asia. In Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Persia he sought out the company of Sufi masters and wandering Dervishes.
Early in the twentieth century another ‘Noble Traveler’, Noble Drew Ali (born Timothy Drew in 1886), the self-taught son of former Black slaves, took a job as a merchant seaman and found himself in Egypt. According to one legend, Noble Drew Ali traveled around the world before the age of twenty-seven in an effort to discover all he could about the heritage of his people and the tenets of Islam. It is commonly said he received a mandate from the king of Morocco to instruct Black Americans in Islam. At the Pyramid of Cheops his followers believe he received initiation and took the Muslim name Sharif [Noble] Abdul Ali; in America he would be known as Noble Drew Ali. On his return to the United States in 1913 he founded the Moorish Science Temple, “to uplift fallen humanity by returning the nationality, divine creed and culture to persons of Moorish descent in the Western Hemisphere.”
After the manner of the Sufis and mystics of Islam, Noble Drew Ali emphasised that Islam is pre-eminently the religion of peace requiring man only to recognize his duties toward Allah, his Creator and his fellow creatures. The very name, Islam, means peace.
The goal of a man's life, according to Islam, is peace with everything. Peace with Allah and peace with man. Noble Drew Ali said that a follower of Islam in the true sense of the word is one whose hands, tongue and thoughts do not hurt others. He taught that the object of life is its complete unfoldment. Islam teaches man is born with unlimited capacities for progress and does not support the idea that man is born in sin. It teaches every one has within him the seed of perfect development and it rests solely with himself to make or mar his future. In the words of Noble Drew Ali:
Allah who is All Good, All Mercy and All Power. He is perfect and holy. All Wisdom, All Knowledge, and All Truth. These are some of His great attributes so far as we can understand. He is free from all defects, holy and transcendent. He is personal to us in so far as we can see His attributes working for us; but He is, nevertheless, impersonal. Because He is infinite, perfect, and Holy, we do not believe that death, decay, or sleep overtake Him, neither do we believe that He is a helplessly inactive and inert force. Nothing happens without his knowledge and will. He neither begets nor is He begotten, because these are the traits of frail and weak humanity. This unity of Allah is the first and foremost pillar of Islam and every other belief hangs upon it.
A charismatic leader, Noble Drew Ali taught the true origin of Black Americans is ‘Asiatic’, and Islam their original religion. “The fallen sons and daughters of the Asiatic Nation of North America,” he wrote, “need to learn to love instead of hate; and to know of their higher self and lower self.” Allah, the True God, has been known by many names, “but everywhere His is the causeless cause, the rootless root from which all things have grown”.
Noble Drew Ali acknowledged Prophet Muhammad as “the founder of the reuniting of Islam” as the promised one foretold by Jesus. All prophets came with basically the same message, and Islam was the original divine faith to which Muhammad called people to return.
Noble Drew Ali laid the foundations of the Islamic movement in the United States. He showed how knowledge of one’s own identity – one’s self, community and religion – is indispensable to a creative life for the individual and community.
Noble Drew Ali commented, “When we rely upon others to study the secrets of nature and think and act for us, then we have created a life for ourselves, one which is termed ‘Hell.’” Through his message thousands of Black Americans were exposed to Moorish history, culture, religion, as well as the Islamic principles of “Love, Truth, Peace, Freedom, and Justice.” But his meteoric success brought disaster. Noble Drew Ali died in 1929, in the words of one biographer, “some say from severe police beatings, others say he was assassinated by his rivals in the movement. In his sincerity and undoubted innocence, Noble Drew Ali met a martyr’s end.”5
Back in the seventh century of the Christian era, at the same time as the Church of Rome was extending and consolidating its power in the West, in the East a new prophet and Messenger of God arose. In the ancient land of Arabia, in fulfillment of age old prophecies, Muhammad began to proclaim complete surrender to the One God of all mankind. His message became known as Islam. After the manner of Moses and Jesus, the Prophet Muhammad distinguished between the exoteric and esoteric dimensions of religion. Being the last of the religions of the Book, Islam laid claim to the essential divine truths of all earlier revelations.
In his youth Muhammad spent time in the desert conducting caravans from Mecca to Syria. Here, according to some, he first encountered seekers looking for the “original religion of Abraham.” Later he began the practice of retiring each year to Mount Hira near Mecca for a time of meditation and prayer. During one of these periods he entered a level of higher consciousness and while in a sublime trance state the Archangel Gabriel revealed to him the first chapter of the Holy Koran, the sacred book of Islam and the direct Word of Allah (God).
At first Muhammad confided his experience only to a small group of friends. Soon, an inner circle or secret school of disciples began to form around him, and in time they publicly proclaimed the message of surrender to Allah.
Prophet Muhammad never claimed to found a new religion. In fact, he always said he was just continuing a tradition that was working long before him. Like Moses and Jesus, Muhammad came in a line of prophets who from time to time delivered to their people, under divine inspiration, the same revelation of God’s nature and of Man’s relationship to Him, as had been given to Adam. He spoke of 124 000 prophets who preceded him among every nation, people, tribe and culture. Muhammad came to reinstate this eternal pristine message that had been obscured by ignorance, idolatry, and used to enslave rather than liberate humanity.
From this perspective the Holy Koran teaches the primordial unity of all religions and the common origin of each:
For each of you we appointed a Divine Law and a way of life. Had God so willed, He could have made you one people; but so that He might try you by that which He hath bestowed upon you (He willed otherwise); so compete in doing good. Unto God ye will all return, and He will inform you concerning that wherein ye differ.6
The Koran states all the prophets were in reality Muslims, and each one of them had enjoined the people to submit themselves to God:
They say: ‘Become Jews or Christians if you would be guided (to salvation).’ Say thou: ‘Nay (I would rather) the Religion of Abraham the True, and he joined not gods with God.
It is the Religion (millah) of your father Abraham; it is he who called you Muslims aforetime.
The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: “Every man is born a Muslim; his parents make of him a Christian or a Jew”. Rene Guenon explains:
the proper meaning of the word Islam is ‘submission to the Divine Will’; hence it is said, in certain esoteric teachings, that every being is Muslim, in the sense that there is clearly none who can elude that Will, and accordingly each necessarily occupies the place allotted to him in the Universe as a whole.7
All Knowers of God are ‘Muslims’ – those who surrender – to the Almighty. Some have surrendered to God through the Gospels, others through the Koran and some through other forms of divine wisdom. The Sufi poet Mahmud Shabestari therefore declared: “If the Muslim only knew what Islam really means, he would become an idol-worshipper.”
The central message of Islam is the declaration of Faith (shahada): “There is no god but God [Allah] and Muhammad is the Messenger of God [Allah].” From the esoteric perspective this is also understood as “there is no reality except Reality”. The exoteric practice is summed up in the ‘Five Pillars of Islam’. These are Faith, Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving and Pilgrimage.
The Holy Koran has both an exoteric (zahir – the outer or apparent) meaning and an esoteric (batin – the inner or secret) meaning. Within Islamic esotericism, as in the original Mosaic and Christian revelations, knowledge is made accessible depending on the integrity and cognitive ability of its recipients, with the consequence of requiring the withholding of information from the uninitiated. This is why there has always been a gradual unveiling or communication of spiritual truths to mankind. What Muslim esotericists call the “wisdom of gradualness” (hikmat at-tadrij).
Spiritual knowledge, states a highly regarded Islamic esoteric text, is like food and light:
Just as a small child needs to be fed gradually, stage by stage, until it reaches adolescence, so that it may not eat something detrimental to its constitution, and just as light is appropriate only to persons with open, healthy and strong eyes, so that a person whose eyes have been shut, or had just emerged from darkness, will be severely dazzled by daylight, in the same way, those who get hold of this Letter should communicate it only to those who are in need of it.
Prior to Muhammad’s birth Jewish and Christian mystics often journeyed to Arabia seeking a genuine Master Teacher. And mystics surrounded Muhammad during his life. These Companions, as they are known, he privately instructed in the doctrines of Islamic esotericism. Two of these Companions, the Prophet Muhammad’s close friend Abu Bakr and his son-in-law Ali, later inspired their own Orders.
Although Muhammad, as the last of the prophets, was the repository of a complete treasure of precepts, Islamic tradition asserts he publicly declared only some of them, leaving the rest undeclared. This was due either to their inapplicability at the time, or because of the expediency of disseminating them in that particular period of history. It is said even Prophet Muhammad himself mentioned certain secret moments of revelation, saying, “If the Muslims knew of them, they would stone me.” He therefore entrusted the undeclared precepts to the Companions and through them to the worthy of succeeding generations so that they would progressively reveal them at appropriate junctures according to their wisdom, whether by inferring the particular from the absolute, or the concrete from the abstract.
After the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E., the Companions, particularly Abu Bakr, Ali and Salman al-Farisi, continued to preserve the secret tradition within the outer forms of Islam. Abu Bakr became the first Caliph, the leader of the Muslim community. However in time, just as Muhammad had warned before his death, the thirst for power and political intrigue soon caused strife and division among the Muslims.
The mighty Islamic empire became divided as positions of authority were usurped by individuals bereft of deep spiritual understanding. Of course those who seized power and wealth did so in the name of the Prophet and the exoteric creed of Islam. The outer creed represented by the law (sharia), the accumulated customs of the Prophet (hadith), and a literal reading of the Koran, emerged as ‘orthodox’ Islam. Again, exotericism appeared to vanquish esotericism.
Many Muslim initiates, custodians of esoteric wisdom, went into hiding or exile. A number of Muslim spiritual teachers, considered by the people to be saints, did not conceal the fact they had been initiated by members of a school or brotherhood (tariqah) traced back to one of the Companions.
Our cause is the truth of truth. It is the exoteric, the esoteric of the exoteric and the esoteric of the esoteric. It is the secret of the secret; it is the secret of that which remains wrapped in secret.
– Saying of the Sixth Imam
At the end of the eighth century and the beginning of the ninth century, many Muslims who secretly followed the spiritual path openly declared their connection with Islamic esotericism. They divulged truths based on spiritual experience that, because of their outward appearance, brought on them the condemnation of orthodox Islamic jurists and theologians. Some were imprisoned, flogged, and even killed.
Historically, the practitioners of esotericism were associated with the descendants of the family of Prophet Muhammad. Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, is universally regarded as the fountainhead of divine wisdom. The relationship between the Prophet Muhammad and Ali is symbolic of the exoteric form and the esoteric core of divine religion. This is similar to the Christian Gnostic idea of the relationship between Jesus, representing the exoteric, and the beloved disciple John to whom the esoteric doctrine was divulged.
Over time, from this secret Islamic tradition, eventually emerged distinct Muslim groups such as the Fatimids, Ismailis, Nusairi (Alawis), etc. Certain mystical brotherhoods and Orders formed within Muslim communities and became known as Sufis, the mystics or esotericists. It is commonly thought the word Sufi comes from the Arabic word suf (‘wool’); the rough woolen clothing worn by early ascetics to demonstrate their detachment from the world.
The Sufi appeal and “…strength lay in the satisfaction which it gave to the religious instincts of the people, instincts which were to some extent chilled and starved by the abstract and impersonal teachings of the orthodox and found relief in the more directly personal and emotional religious approach of the Sufis.”8 Clearly, the growth of Sufism was in response to the conformist legalism of orthodox Islamic exoteric practice and the dry intellectualism of the mainstream Muslim thinkers.
The Sufi, like all genuine mystics, aims for a glimpse of the Eternal while still trapped by life in this world. To achieve such a personal encounter with their Divine Beloved:
The Sufis laid out the ‘path’ (tariqah) that would lead to gnosis (marifah) or mystic knowledge of the Lord. The ‘path’ of ascension to divine union with God passes through stages known commonly as ‘stations’ or ‘states’: the last stage is that of fana, or passing away in God, which is the ultimate desire of a successful mystic. The Sufi at this point ceases to be aware of his physical identity even though he continues to exist as an individual.9
Although most Sufi Orders meticulously observe the Islamic law (Sharia), they believe it to be only the outer clothing or external shell protecting the core, the esoteric truth. The Holy Koran calls those who know the essence of things “the possessors of the kernels.” The Sufis liken esoteric wisdom to a “kernel” hidden within a shell.
Exoteric Islam, experienced as a traditional way of life, creates the environment, the culture, the community, and necessary psychological orientation, from which certain individuals are called to initiation into esotericism. The authentic Gnostic and mystic is always a minority when compared to most of humanity who remain fully satisfied with exoteric religion.
The Sufi schools and brotherhoods are renowned for propagating Islam throughout the world. Their piety, profound spirituality and tolerance, enabled the Sufis to attract a large following. As one author says:
The brotherhoods rendered their incalculable, monumental services to Islam in three different ways: they prevented Islam from becoming a cold and formal doctrine, keeping it alive as an intimate, compassionate faith; they were mainly responsible for spreading the faith in east Asia and sub-Saharan Africa; and they were among the foremost leaders in Islam’s military and political battles against the encroaching power of the Christian West.10
By the tenth century, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah, and her husband Ali, established the Fatimid Empire over a large part of North Africa. Many Muslims saw this as a fulfillment of a prediction attributed to the Prophet that a time would come in which “the Sun [of Islam] would rise in the West.” Prior to accepting Islam, North Africa had been home to a number of Gnostic communities.
One historian speculates the Fatimid’s esoteric doctrines were widely received by the North African tribes “due to the fact that [they were called] to a contemporary version of their old beliefs, now clothed in the form of the newly dominant religion.”11 The dynasty’s enemies even claimed the Fatimids were the philosophical descendants of Bardesane, the renowned Gnostic Christian Master Teacher.
The Fatimids ushered in a ‘golden age’ of Islam. They established the city of Cairo in Egypt, calling it: “The Victorious City of the Exalter of the Divine Religion”. From the new capital the empire expanded to include Palestine. The public devotions of the Fatimids differed very little from the orthodox Muslims, the esoteric teachings being restricted to those of the community able to receive them. A proper understanding of their books required special education and years of training. At Cairo the Fatimids established the Grand House of Wisdom (Darul Hikmet) for the training of missionaries (dais) skilled in the propagation of Islamic esoteric philosophy.
Students came from all over the Orient to the House of Wisdom for instruction and initiation. Twice a week, every Monday and Wednesday, the Grand Prior convened meetings, which were frequented by adepts dressed in white. These gatherings were named ‘philosophical conferences’ (Majalis-al-Hikmet). The Fatimid Caliph was also the Grand Master of the House of Wisdom. One of the students who attended was Hasan Sabbah. On return to his native Persia, he formed the so-called “Assassins” with headquarters at the mountain monastery-fortress of Alamut.
From North Africa the Fatimid rulers dispatched missionaries (dais) throughout the known world. Under cover they even infiltrated Christian Europe. Accomplished in the esoteric doctrine, the dais could use any outer form – be it artistic, scientific, religious or secular – to impart universal and perennial truths. Even poetry, for which the Sufis are renowned, could be used to transfer spiritual insights from one culture or religion to another. Their use of allegory and cipher amounted to a secret language, the universal language of initiates. Together with wandering Sufi dervishes, they transmitted ancient wisdom to Europe.
A Celtic cross bearing the Islamic Arabic inscription Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim (“In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful”), suggests that the Celts were in close contact with North African Moorish initiates. The Fatimids also maintained communication with Persia, Turkestan and India through the secret networks of the dais.
So influential was the Fatimid House of Wisdom that, centuries later, European Freemasons copied its structure. In A Short History of the Saracens, the Muslim historian Ameer Ali says:
The account of the different degrees of initiation adopted in the [House of Wisdom] forms an invaluable record… In fact, the [House of Wisdom] at Cairo became the model of all the [Freemasonic] Lodges created in Christendom.
By the time of the Fatimid Empire’s demise in the twelfth century, it was famous for its tolerance, prosperity, love of knowledge and great cultural achievements. The Fatimids founded the renowned al-Azhar University, today the most venerable orthodox institution in the Muslim world.
The spectacular rise of the Fatimids in North Africa, together with the influence of their underground networks, provoked the Abbasid rulers in Mesopotamia to launch a campaign against ‘heresy’. With the backing of the hyper-orthodox scholars and the legalists of exoteric religion, Mansur al-Hallaj, the revered Muslim esotericist and Sufi saint, was condemned to death. Al-Hallaj had penetrated the outer shell that is exoteric Islam, to reveal the inner core. He realised illumination, fana, or what the Sufis know as ‘death to one’s self’ and ‘passing away in the Divine Beloved,’ exclaiming:
“I am He whom I love, and He whom I love is me.
We are two spirits dwelling in one body.
When thou seest me thou seest Him,
and when thou seest Him, thou seest us both.”
Viewed from the perspective of mainstream Islamic law, such a declaration appears shocking and forbidden. But understood esoterically it is nothing less than the sentiment of an illumined mystic. Al-Hallaj further offended the legalists with such statements as:
“To claim to know Him is ignorance,
to persist in serving Him is disrespectful,
to forbid yourself to struggle with Him is folly,
to allow yourself to be misled by His peace is stupid,
to discourse on his attributes is to lose the way.”
The public execution of al-Hallaj in Baghdad (922 C.E.) attracted large and sympathetic crowds. He was first scourged, gibbeted, and finally decapitated. As he died, he prayed for mercy for his executioners. Years after his murder he was openly hailed by Sufis, dissident Muslims, and even some highly respected orthodox writers, as a martyr of exoteric incomprehension.
For many years al-Hallaj had traveled widely in Persia, India and as far as the borders of China. This has led some scholars to speculate that al-Hallaj presided over a secret network of missionaries and wandering Sufis. The universal appeal of al-Hallaj’s message can be gleaned from his words:
I have meditated on the different religions, endeavouring to understand them, and I have found that they stem from a single principle with numerous ramifications. Do not therefore ask a man to adopt a particular religion (rather than another), for this would separate him from the fundamental principle; it is this principle itself which must come to seek him; in it are all the heights and all the meanings elucidated; then he will understand them.
Three decades after Mansour al-Hallaj stood upon the gallows in Baghdad, a secret society emerged in the Iraqi city of Basra. Like the Fatimids, the group, known as the Brethren of Purity (Ikwan as-Safa), dedicated themselves to the pursuit of science as well as political action. They published a veritable encyclopedia of existing knowledge. Their works covered such subjects as philosophy, theology, astrology, metaphysics, cosmology, and the natural sciences, including botany and zoology.
The brotherhood recognised truth wherever found, accepting the wisdom in other religions. A seeker of truth must “shun no science, scorn no book, nor cling fanatically to a single creed.” They attempted to compile a common doctrine of Islamic esotericism beginning with self-knowledge and the emancipation of the soul from matter leading to a return to God. The first letter of the brotherhood restated the Sufi axiom: “He who knows himself, knows his Lord”. Condemned as ‘heretical’ and burnt by the authorities, their writings enjoyed a wide influence, even reaching Europe in the Middle Ages.
Thou wilt surely find the nearest of them in love to the believers are those who say ‘We are Christians’; that, because some of them are priests and monks [those devoted entirely to God], and they wax not proud.
– Koran 5:85
Holding to the esoteric wisdom of Islam, the Muslims came as liberators to a Christian world wallowing in ignorance, confusion and priest craft. The foremost historian of Eastern Christendom, Father Nicolas Zernov wrote that for many Christians, the Muslims “came as supporters and liberators”. In his definitive work on the origin and growth of the Eastern Orthodox Church we read:
Many Byzantine strongholds gladly opened their gates to the armies of the Prophet, welcoming them as their co-religionists... It is usually insufficiently realized how close Islam was in its early years to the Oriental version of Christianity. The Koran taught not only the virgin birth and Christ’s freedom from sin, but also regarded Him as the God appointed Judge of mankind at the Last Judgment.12
A study of the relations between medieval Christians and Muslims shows that they regarded each other as co-religionists who held to the same core, the same one foundation of truth. The religious scholar Benjamin Walker comments:
It is noteworthy that medieval Christian scholastics did not look upon Muslims as members of an alien or non-Christian faith, but rather as those who had broken away from a fundamentally Christian doctrine. They were regarded as heretics and seceders, and not as heathens. In denying the divinity of Christ, which Muslims did with consistent emphasis, they were not far from the position of many Christian theologians who were condemned on that score by the Church as schismatics.13
Islam acted as a conduit for the transmission of knowledge from East to West. When the crescent triumphed over the cross in southern Europe it was a harbinger of a civilisation that had no equal in its day. In Studies in a Mosque, Stanley Lane-Poole writes:
For nearly eight centuries under her Muslim rulers Spain set to all Europe a shining example of a civilized and enlightened state. Art, literature and science prospered as they then prospered nowhere else in Europe. Students flocked from France and Germany and England to drink from the fountains of learning which flowed only in the cities of the Moors. The surgeons and doctors of Andalusia were in the vanguard of science; women were encouraged to devote themselves to serious study, and a lady doctor was not unknown among the people of Cordova.
Another respected Orientalist Philip K. Hitti acknowledged the great impact Moorish civilisation had on Europe, stating in his book History of the Arabs:
Moslem Spain wrote one of the brightest Chapters in the intellectual history of mediaeval Europe. Between the middle of the 8th and the beginning of the 13th centuries…the Arab speaking peoples were the main bearers of the torch of culture and civilisation throughout the world. Moreover they were the medium through which ancient science and philosophy were recovered, supplemented and transmitted in such a way as to make possible the renaissance of Western Europe.
There are also numerous historical examples of chivalric honour and respect accorded to the European Christians by the Arab Muslims reflecting an appreciation of the essential ‘inner’ unity between the ‘people of the Book’. The Caliph Omar, after the capture of Jerusalem, renounced praying in the basilica that the patriarch had placed at his disposal, in order to avoid it being claimed later by the Muslims. In the midst of battle the great Muslim leader Saladin presented a richly caparisoned horse to his enemy the Christian King Richard-the-Lion-Hearted, whose horse had just been killed. No doubt the Muslims recalled the words of the Koran:
We believe in Allah, and in what has been revealed to us and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the descendants (of Jacob) and in what was given to Moses and Jesus and in what the other Prophets received from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we are those who submit to Allah.14
Muslims and Christians lived side by side in peace, while still maintaining their distinctive traditional exoteric forms and practices. Many of the early Muslim writers studied the Bible, Old and New Testaments. The historian Tabari in particular quoted the Bible frequently.
St. John of Damascus, who looked on Muslims as a Christian sect, held a high position at the court of the Muslim Caliph. He was not required to ‘convert’ to Islam, any more than were St. Francis of Assisi in Tunisia, St. Louis in Egypt or St. Gregory Palamas of Turkey. While a prisoner of the Ottomans for a year, St. Gregory had friendly discussions with the Emir’s son, but was not ‘converted’, nor did the Turkish prince become a Christian.
The Sufi Ibrahim ibn Adham had for a time as his Master Teacher a Christian hermit, without either being converted to the other’s religion. Only later centuries widened the gap between the two faiths and their sacred books. Crusades and wars, inquisitions and persecutions, alienated those who should have been ‘nearest in love’ to one another.
Say: O People of the Book! come to common terms as between us and you: That we worship none but God; That we associate no partners with Him; That we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and partners other than God.
– Koran 3:64
History is testimony to the noble impulses brought to humanity by the Great Educators – the prophets and sages. Jesus revealed the spirit behind the forms of the laws of Moses. Muhammad, like all the prophets, upheld the same one foundation. We can see the same purpose behind all the prophets of God. They were the sources of spiritual empowerment, elevation and order to the communities they were sent.
Islam, as the last of the revealed religions in the Abrahamic tradition, has an intimate relationship with the other two. A religion based principally on knowledge compared to its predecessor Christianity based on love. Here we have a vital example of unfolding revelation. Out of the Abrahamic ‘tree’, the Old Testament emphasised the Divine Law, preparing the way for the Gospels which emphasised the element of Divine Love. Islam, while acknowledging the two former revelations, emphasised Divine Knowledge. Hence Abdul Latif of Sind proclaimed: “Love and Intellect are the two wings of the bird.”
The Scriptures or Holy Books contain the primary Divine Revelations that of necessity are adapted in their style and expression to a given people at a given historical period, since “water takes on the colour of its container,” as the Sufi Junayd wrote. The essence of each of the Holy Books is precisely the base uniting them and making them one great movement of progressive revelation to humanity, despite all the particular differences which can be overarched by esotericism. The mystical dimension of religion offers inexhaustible metaphysical meanings, illuminating the inspired Word for those seeking the inner Truth.
The Religion of God therefore is one, but its forms and types vary in accordance with the variation of races, cultures, civilisations, and environments. All religious communities and spiritual schools in the world are necessary, serving as outer garments protecting the primordial wisdom. Precisely because humanity is diverse, different religions and schools are essential and this is why the true Gnostic always respects and appreciates the beliefs of others.
The mystical dimension of Islam, revealed in the Holy Koran, taught by the Prophet Muhammad and lived by the early generations of Muslims was the dynamic that spread the light of Islam throughout the world.
Confronted by what Rene Guenon aptly described as the ‘crisis of the modern world’, believers are calling for a revival and purification of the Faith. Such calls, however sincere, are incapable of meeting the challenges of the age.
In the twenty first century the only solution to the contemporary spiritual crisis is a rediscovery of the mystical path trod by all the prophets and inspired souls since the dawn of time. This requires a return to the esoteric core hidden within the shell of religion. For Muslims the challenge is to look beyond the outer forms and embrace the inner meaning of Islam, which for centuries was the source of their greatness.
The esoteric path leads us to the one universal Religion of the Prophets, offering us access to higher levels of Knowledge and an ever-widening vision of Reality. Then we appreciate the words of the Sufi Muslim teacher al-Ghazzali: “The higher one ascends a mountain, the farther one sees.”
1. Manly P. Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages
2. Napoleon and the Awakening of Europe
3. Joscelyn Godwin, The Theosophical Enlightenment
4. John P. Deveney, Paschal Beverly Randolph A Nineteenth-Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian, and Sex Magician
5. Peter Lamborn Wilson, Sacred Drift, Essays on the Margins of Islam
6. Koran, Sura 5 verse 48
7. Rene Guenon, Symbolism of the Cross
8. H.A.R. Gibb, Modern Trends in Islam
9. Caesar E. Farah, Islam
10. G.H. Jansen, Militant Islam
11. Cyril Glasse, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam
12. Nicolas Zernov, Eastern Christendom
13. Benjamin Walker, Gnosticism, Its History & Influence, 1983
14. Koran, Sura 2, verses 135-136)
This essay was originally prepared for a Christian Gnostic newsletter in the late 1990s. Parts of it were also published in New Dawn magazine and slightly revised, following the events of 11 September, 2001. An edited version appeared in New Dawn magazine in March-April 2002.
© Copyright 2005 by Moorish Science Academy
© Copyright 2005 Moorish Science Academy.
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