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Delphic Maxim 01 "Know thyself!" Greek: γνῶθι σαὐτόν = gnōthi seauton

Know thyself!

Greek: γνῶθι σαὐτόν = gnōthi seauton

Shaykh Amad al-Aḥsā’ī  on an Islamic form of the Delphic Maxim. Introductory Notes on Hellenistic, Graeco-Islamic, Shi`i-Shaykhi and Babi-Baha'i versions of the delphic maxim.

Stephen N. Lambden - in progress 2015.

Revised and expanded from the Lambden 1982 [2002] Ph.D thesis.

Last revised and expanded 10-1-2016.


The Delphic maxim, "Know thyself!"
Froms and varieties of ancient Greek aphorisms associated with the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (some said to have been inscribed onto the wall of the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi), have come to be known as Delphic maxims. An especially famous example, is  γνῶθι σαὐτόν, "Know thyself". This latter maxim has been attributed to numerous ancient Greek writers or to such philosophersas Thales of Miletus (c. 620- c. 546 BCE.), Pythagoras (c. 570-495 BCE) and Chilon of Sparta (fl. c. 550 BCE). It came to be closely associated wth Socrates (c. 470-399 BCE) and Plato (c. 428-347 BCE). Plato cited this maxim several times and put it into the mouth of his teacher Socrates. There seems no reason to doubt that such an aphorism as "know thyself" has been well-known from pre-Christian antiquity, prior to the time of Philo of Alexandria (d.c. 50 CE), who commented thereon in several of his numerous extant writings (see his Spec. Leg. 1.43ff; Mut. 7.10; Westra, 1992:89-102). In his On the Migration of Abraham (7–8), for example, Philo states:

But it is the same as saying, Be alienated from them in your mind, allowing none of them to cling to you, standing above them all; (8) they are your subjects, use them not as your rulers; since you are a king, learn to govern and not to be governed; know yourself all your life, as Moses teaches us in many passages where he says, “Take heed to thyself.”
Yonge, C. D. with Philo of Alexandria. (1995). The works of Philo: complete and unabridged (p. 253). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.


In numerous Islamic sources developed forms of the Delphic maxzim such as the above have been ascibed to the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632) and the first twelver Shi`i Imam, Imam `Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 40/661). Numerous later Muslim mystics, philosophers, thinkers and `irfani (theosophical) thinkers cited and interpreted versions of this  ancient maxim. It came to be viewd by many Islamic writers as a citation  from the Injil (Gospel),again  often in expanded or rewritten forms.

An example of rewritten extended versions of the Delphic maxim can be found in the writings of the Imāmī Shī`ī historian al-Mas`ūdī (d. 345/956), an amazingly prolific one-time student in Baghdad of the renowned historian and Qur'an commentator al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/ 923). He had frequent dialogue with Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians as well as the Sabeans of Harran. In his two digests of larger works, the Murūj al-dhahab wa ma`ādīn al-jawhar (Meadows of Gold and Mines of Jewels) and the K. al-Tanbīh wa’l-ishrāf (`The Book of Indication and the Verificstion'; completed c. 955-6 CE) which are "both part of a series of seven works in which al-Mas`ūdī combined history, geography, astronomy, ethnography and religion" (Adang, 1993:46 ; Shboul, 1979:68ff). He drew heavily on biblical history and associated Abrahamic religious traditions and was influenced by Greek, Hellenistic philosophies. Perhaps influenced by Plato's I Albiacides 133b-c, at one point in his  K. al-Tanbīh wa’l-ishrāf (??), al-Mas`ūdī   cites the saying, man 'arafa dhāta-hu i ta'allaha, "He who knows his essence (dhāt) becomes divine" as well as the version,  man 'arafa nafsa-hu haqiqat al-ma`rifati ta'allaha, "He who knows himself with true knowledge becomes divine" (K. al-Tanbīh wa’l-ishrāf, X; see Van Bladel, The Arabic Hermes, 74, fn. 46).

The towering intellect of the great theologian, philosopher and mystic, Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-`Arabi (d.1240 CE) in his  الرسالة الوجودية  (al-Risala al-wujudiyya), his brief `Treatise on Existence', basically wrote a commentary on   مَن عَرَفَ نفسَه فقد عَرَفَ ربَّه  as if it were a hadith qudsi (sacred God inspired tradition) or saying ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad. 

The renowned Hanbalite Sufi of Herat, Khwaja `Abd-Allah al-Ansari  (1006-1089 CE) made considerable use in his Arabic and Persian writings of the mystical or spiritual implications of  مَن عَرَفَ نفسَه فقد عَرَفَ ربَّه  "He who hath known himself hath indeed known his Lord", as is especially clear in his Munajat (Prayerful Intimations") which exhibit the marked influence of this allegedly prophetic tradition (noted Thackston Jr. CWS: 1978:172).  

Within sectio 5 of the Persian Bustān al-qulūb (Rose Garden of the Hearts) of the Shaykh al-Ishrāq, Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi (1154–1191) we find the following lines and citation central to our theme :

Know that the Knowledge-Intellect-Understanding (shinakht) of the True One (haqq) -exalted be He- is someting established [determined] (mawquf) by virtue of the Knowledge-Intellect-Understanding of His own Self (bar shinakht-i nafs-i khud). Thus the chosen one (mustafa) [Muhammad] said : "   مَن عَرَفَ نفسَه فقد عَرَفَ ربَّه  "He who hath known himself hath indeed known his Lord".  Also, Bāyazīd [al-Bisṭāmī = Abū Yazīd Ṭayfūr ibn ʿĪsā ibn Surūshān al-Bi[a]sṭāmī, d. c. 261/874–5 or c. 234/848–9], may God be pleased with him, narrated that he claimed, relative to the True One [God] (haqq), exalted be He, `I so say, "They journey from themselves (min anfusikum) until they discover Us with their first footstep" (fi awwal qadam)".  Now, the journey from the self (nafs) is difficult since it begins  with the journey to the self (nafs); to the self (nafs) that is, through Knowing-Understanding (shinasand). After that the journey may [truly] commence.  (Nasr Corbin, ed. 1977, pp.374-5)

See Bustān al-qulūb, ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr + Henry Corbin, Œuvres philosophiques et mystiques. 3 /III Œuvres en Persan. Teheran : Acad. Impériale Iranienne de Philosophie, 1977, pp. 333-401.

Rajab al-Bursī (d. c. 814 /1411) likewise commented upon Arabic versions of the Delphic maxim in his Mashariq anwār al-yaqīn fī asrār Amīr al-mu’minīn (The Dawning-Places of the Lights of Certitude in the mysteries of the Commander of the Faithful’).

It has been observed that the monumental al-Ḥikma al-`arshiyya (Wisdom of the Throne) of Mullā  Ṣadrā, Ṣadr al-Din al-Shirazi  (d.1050/1640) is essentially an “extended commentary on the famous saying of Imam `Ali: `He who truly knows (`arafa) his soul/Self (nafsahu), knows his Lord’’ (Morris,1981:62 fn.69; 78 fn. 88). Numerous other Safavid and Qajar era Shī`ī writers, including both Shaykh Aḥmad al-Ahsa'i (d.1826) and Sayyid Kāẓim Rashti (d.1259/1843), the twin generators of the Kashfi or Shaykhi religious phenomenon, cited and commented upon Arabic, Islamic forms of the Delphic maxim.

The Safavid era philosopher, `irfani thinker and mystical exegete, Muhsin al-Fayd al-Kashani (d. 1090/1679) in his Anwar al-hikmat (The Lights of Wisdom) had occasion to comment upon Islamicate versions of the `delphic maxim' or related maxims ascribed to the Phophet Muhammad and/ or Imam `Ali. Commenting on the ma`rifat Allah (gnosis of God) and things being in or through Him [God] (al-ashya' bi'llahi), Kashani refers to a hadith ascribed to the Prophet in response to a question about the manner in which God is known, since "in [through] God everything is known (bi'llah `arafta al-ashya'". Imam `Ali is next cited as having stated, "Know God, through God! (`arafu Allah bi'llah)" as is recorded in the al-tawhid (Divine Unity) section al-Kāfī fī `ilm al-dīn ( [The Book of] What is Sufficient for the Knowledge of Religion’ ) of Abū Ja`far Muhammad ibn Ya`qūb al- Kulaynī [Kulīnī] (d. c. 329/941) and which has also been ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad (Kulayni, al-Kafi vol. 1:85). al-Fayd al-Kashani subsequently refers to  the Pathway of the Gnosis of the Self" (tariqa ma`rafat al-nafs) which is indicated in the maxim, "man `arafa nafsahu fa-qad `arafa rabbahu, "Whoso hath known his self hath indeed known His Lord" and alluded to in another very similar statement,  `araf-kum bi-nafsihi `arafkum bi-rabbihi, "Such as know through their [own] self, are such as know through their Lord!".

Kashani further observes in this connection that the path of the gnosis of the human self (tariqat ma`rifat al-nafs) involves the mystic wayfarer in the essence of the  spiritual path (`ayn al-tariqa) which is related to implications of the Qur'anic verse from the Surat Ha-Mim (41), verse 53, "We shall shown them Our signs in the horizons and in their own selves (anfusihim) until it is established for them that He is the True One (al-haqq)..." (Anwar al-hikmat, 26-8). 

Extended forms of an Islamicate `Delphic maxim' Know thyself have been associated with the New Testament in Islamic and Babi-Baha'i sources. Versions have been cited as if from the Injil (Gospel(s). The presence of this pseudo- Gospel divine utterance in the Bāb's writings is obviously not indicative of his direct knowledge of the NT. Its source in his writings is most probably the writings of the first two Shaykhī leaders who also occasionally quote forms of it as deriving from the Injīl. These first two foundational Shi`i-Shaykhi writers,  most probably quote it from the Mashāriq al-anwār of al-Bursī. There, in a slightly longer version, it is reckoned to be that which the "Glorious Lord" (al-rabb al-jalīl) uttered in the Injīl. The text, as cited by al-Bursī along with another two versions ascribed to Muhammad, the “Master of the [Islamic] Law” (ṣāḥib al-sharī`a), and the rightly guided Imām reads :

The Glorious Lord says in the Injīl:
Know thyself, O thou humankind (al-insān)! then thou shalt know thy Lord. Thine outer being (ẓāhir) is for mystical annihilation (li-l-fanā') while your interior reality (bāṭin) is I Myself (anā).
The master of the Law [= Muhammad] said: `Know thyself through thy Lord and thou shalt know thine own self.’ And the rightly guided Imam [`Alī] said:` Whoso knoweth himself assuredly knoweth his Lord’ (Bursī, Mashāriq, 188). 

This line is immediately followed by a similar saying of the "bearer of the law (sāhib al-shari`a = Muhammad), "Whoso cometh to know his Lord best cometh to know his own self best" (Bursī, Mashariq,188).

As noted, Ibn al-`Arabī is another important source for Islamicate Bible citations. In his K. al-jalāl wa’l-jamāl (Book of the Divine Majesty and Beauty) he quotes the following Islamicate version of what God allegedly revealed (w-ḥ-y) in His tawrāt (Torah, Hebrew Bible):

O son of Adam! I created all things for thy sake and created thee for My sake. Then do not disgrace what I created for Myself through what I created for thy sake (Ar. text Rasā’il ibn `Arabī, I:15).

In similar fashion al-Aḥsā’ī in his Sharh al-ziyāra cites the following ḥadīth qudsī said to be contained in the Injīl but which is again related to the Islamobiblical citations already given:

I [God] created existing things (al-ashyā') for thy sake and I created thee for My sake for while thine inner reality (bātinuka) is I Myself (anā), thine outer self (ẓāhiruka) is for annihilation (li'l-fanā') (Sh-Ziyara 3:352-3; cf. Ibid 4:26).

After this quotation the Shaykh goes immediately on to quote al-Injīl (The Gospel) exactly as in Bursī’s Mashāriq (Sh- Ziyara, 3:363).
Finally, it should also be noted that in the course of commenting on the words "I saw God and Paradise" in his Sh.Tutunjiyya, Sayyid Kāẓim also quotes the saying of the Injīl exactly as registered in Bursī's Mashāriq but with the following addition,

"I am the theophany of the divine Essence (ẓuhūr al-dhāt) through the unique Word (bi'l-kalām al-mutafarrid)" (Rashtī, Sh-Tutunjiyya, 299 cf.185).

The Bāb and Baha'-Allah, the Injil (Gospel) and the Delphic Maxim

Siyyid `Ali Muhammad Shirazi (1819-1850), the Bāb and Mirza Husayn `Ali Nuri (1817-1892), Baha'-Allah.  both cited and commented upon versions of the Delphic maxim sometimes in connection with the Injil-Gospel (B* T.Man. 14: 468f). Baha'-Allah commented upon an Islamicate Delphic maxim, man `arafa nafsahu faqad `arafa rabbahu-  in his scriptural Tablet, Lawh-i Hajji Mirza Muhammad Qazvini (MAM:346-62) and, for example, in his c. 1861 Persian CE Kitab-i  īqān ("The Book of Certitude", KI:76/66).

In certain of his writings, the Bab distinguishes this alleged quotation from the injīl - sometimes extended forms of man `arafa nafsahu faqad `arafa rabbahu -from the two expanded Islamic forms of the Delhpic maxim found in the Sunni and Shi`i ḥadīth literatures. He usually attributes the words man `arafa nafsahu faqad `arafa rabbahu to Imām `Alī and a`rafukum bi-nafsihi a`rafukum bi- rabbihi to Muhammad. Commenting on these traditions and the alleged quotation from the Injīl he affirms that the world of creation or the human nafs (cf. Qur`an 41:53 ) may be the locus of the theophany of the names and attributes of God but underlines the impossibility of any relationship between the human nafs and the unknowable Godhead (cf. Baha-Allah's similar comments on man `arafa nafsahu faqad `arafa rabbahu in his Lawh-i Hadi Qazvīnī,.35f). In the light of the above, it is evident that the Bāb’s quotation of the typically Sufi, Islamicate “Gospel” citation, is his registering something derived from his Shaykhī teachers who were dependent upon al-Bursī or other mystically inclined philosopher theologians. None of this has anything to do with the Bāb’s knowledge of the New Testament.

In his Sharh al-Ziyara al-Ahsa'i quotes the al-Injīl (The Gospel) exactly as it is found in Bursī’s Mashāriq:

Know thyself, O humankind! then thou shalt know thy Lord for thine outer self (ẓāhir) is for destruction (li'l-fanā') while thine inner reality (bāṭin) is I Myself (anā) (ibid., III: 353).




Altmann, Alexander.

  • “The Delphic Maxim in Medieval Islam and Judaism.” In Von der mittelalterlichen zur modernen Aufklärung: Studien zur jüdischen Geistesgeschichte, 1–33. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1987. Reprinted from Biblical and Other Studies, edited by Alexander Altmann, 196–232. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963.