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Shaykh Aḥmad al-Aḥsā’ī on an Islamic form of a Delphic Maxim

Know thyself!

Greek: γνῶθι σαὐτόν = gnōthi seauton

Shaykh Amad al-Aḥsā’ī  on an Islamic form of a Delphic Maxim.

Stephen N. Lambden

In progress and under constant revision 2015 -last revised 05-11-2016.







The Risala of Shaykh Amad al-Aḥsā’ī  on the saying of the Prophet [Muhammad], man `arafa nafsa-hu faqad `arafa rabba-hu ("Whoso knoweth his nafs (self-soul), assuredly knoweth his Lord (al-Rabb)".  

Translation Stephen Lambden

In progress 17-09-2015

In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.

Praised be to God the Lord of all the worlds and may God give peace unto Muhammad and his purified family....       Now regarding what  the  musk-laden servant Ahmad ibn Zayn al-Din al-Ahsa'i saith ...

Such is his utterance, man `arafa nafsa-hu faqad `arafa rabba-hu ("Whoso knoweth his nafs (self-Soul), assuredly knoweth his Lord (al-rabb) which is other than inimitable (ijaz) ...


On the meaning of al-nafs.

I [Shaykh Ahmad] declare that this meaning was transmitted from the Prophet - may the blessings of God be upon him and his family - for he stated, "Thou shalt come to know thyself (bi-nafsihi) just as thou come to know thy Lord (bi-rabbihi)". And [likewise as recorded] from the Commander of the Faithful (amir al-mu'minin = `Ali ibn Abi Talib d. 40/661) [for he also] said : man `arafa nafsa-hu faqad `arafa rabba-hu ("Whoso knoweth his nafs (self-soul), assuredly knoweth his Lord (al-rabb)". And this is the intention of this doubly transmitted tradition. One will hardly see any differences regarding [the import of] these two traditions; neither from the early nor the later sages [philosophers] (al-hukama') nor from the generality of the divines (`ulama'), for the Book [the Qur'an] (al-kitab), the tradition (al-sunna) and the intellect (al-`aql) all bear witness to this [unitative] meaning.

Nevertheless, the `ulama' did differ regarding the  meaning or import of the [abovementioned] tradition(s) for some supposed that by the al-nafs (self-Soul) the [transcendent] Lord [God] [Himself] (al-rabb), may He be exalted and glorified, was [directly] intended! Among them were such as reckoned that it was indicative of something inseperable from the Divine Essence, the One True God (lawazim al-dhat al-haqq). These [persons] thus thought that whoso knoweth this nafs [self-soul] hath assuredly known the Essence of the True Godhead (al-dhat al-haqq), exalted be He! Additionally, there were such as understood these traditions to be indicative of [there being] a [localized] repository for Him (mahall an), exalted be He. Then there were such as made it to be indicate of a [unitative] repository for it (the self-Soul) [and Him]. There were also such as made this [tradition] to be indicative of a [untitative] form-image for the One True God (surat li'l-haqq), exalted be He. Other opinions simply multiply these suppositions expressive of erroneous utterances.

So know furthermore, that sound opinions (al-aqwal al-sahih) and those virtually sound regarding this matter can be on literalistic lines (zahiri) though they may tend to veil things ( iqna`i) or express but a trace (athari) [of the real meaning]. Yet there are [deeply meaningful] real interior senses (haqiqi). These real [inner]  senses (haqiqi) are [also] diverse (mukhtalaf) and we shall merely indicate some of them at the same time being corrective [of erroneous notions] (al-tanbih).   

Regarding the surface [literal] meaning (al-zahiri) [p.14f].

Thus we [Shaykh Ahmad] declare that it is reckoned that His saying, man `arafa nafsa-hu faqad `arafa rabba-hu ("Whoso knoweth his nafs (self-Soul), assuredly knoweth his Lord (al-Rabb)" expresses an avenue of conditionality (bab al-ta`liq) relative to something established (mahall). The gnosis of the al-nafs (self-Soul) is something established (al-mahall). It is thus the case that the the gnosis of his [His] Being (kawn) is that of the very Essence of the Ultimate Reality (dhat al-haqq), exalted and glorified be He! What is intended by this is the condition of the prophets, the Messengers of God and the chosen ones [Imams] (hall al-anbiya' wa'l-rusul wa'l-awsiya') - upon them be peace - respecting the gnosis (al-ma`rifa). They are aware of their own selves (anfus = pl. of nafs) and a proof of this is the [non-literal]  understanding of the [Qur'anic] verse (aya) indicative of this for He, exalted be He, saith,

"I made them not witnesses of the creation of the heavens and earth, neither of the creation of themselves (anfusihim); I would not ever take those who lead others astray to be My supporters" (Q. 18, Surat al-kahf The Surah of the Cave), 51, trans. Arberry).

This is indeed a proof by virtue of the [correct] understanding of the [Qur'anic] verse (aya) and of the [specified] attribute (al-sifat) since God, Glorified be He, testifies to the fact that the rightly Guided Ones (al-hadin), upon them be peace, testify to "the creation of the heavens and of the earth" and to the "creation of their own selves" (anfusihim) for powers of assistance (a`dad an)  seized them such as are alotted to His creatures. This just as the Hujjat (Proof) [occulted twelfth Imam], upon him be peace, mentions in the 'Supplication (du`a) for [daily use during] the Month of Rajab', in his statement, "[        ] assistence ( a`dad) and testimony (ashhad); bestowals (al-mannat), protection (adhwad), preservation [rancor] (hifza) and purpose [indignation] (rawad) which is in them shall fill Thy heaven and Thy earth until it be made manifest that there is no God except Thee". ** And [the tradition(s)] is also reflected in His saying "We shall show them our signs in the horizons and in themselves [until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth]" (Qur'an 41:53) for in this manner shall they understand "their selves" (anfusihim) and thereby know "their Lord" (rabbihim). Where then is there any relationship to something [a Lord God] localized (mahall)? 

It is thus reckoned that its [the traditions] meaning is just as is indicated by David the [Israelite] prophet, upon him be peace, since he stated that 'its meaning is [indicated in the following] :

"Whoso knoweth himself does so in ignorance (man `arafa nafsahu bi'l-jahl) and whoso hath known his Lord does so through knowledge (faqad `arafa rabbahu bi'l-`ilm)! And whoso knoweth himself does so in incapacity [weakness] (man `arafa nafsahu bi'l-`ajz) and whoso hath known his Lord does so through the [Divine] Power (faqad `arafa rabbahu bi'l-qudrat)! It is so [Amen]".

This gnosis [of the nafs] is [still on] its surface [literal] meaning which is [merely] approximate (qarib) relative to modes of comprehension and ignorance. Through it theological discourse (kalam) is [unduely] lengthened. Its outcome is made apparent in the light of what is disclosed according to the Will of God. 

And, furthermore, it is stated that "whoso knoweth his self-soul" (man `arafa nafsahu) does so in a manner animalistic (al-hayawaniyya), sensate (al-hissiyya) and [bounded] by the lower spheres (al-falakiyya) for it is not in any place within the body (makan min al-jasad). It is entirely disassocited from bodily locale (makan) or having any direct relationship therewith. Relative to it there is not any possibility of it being bounded by place (al-hulul);  neither is there  anything which exudes (??) therefrom. Nay rather! What is in it [the nafs = self-soul] is not like any liquid (`water', al-ma') in existence. It is not even like an entity (shay') which  exudeth from some some other entity, comparable to a liquid which [might exude from] the green reed (al-`ud al-akhsar). Indeed! there is nothing which cometh forth therefrom [the nafs = the self-soul] such as an entity (ka-shay') which protrudes.  Neither any    nor any     



On the real inner meaning (al-haqiqa) [p.14f].

Know that these [previous] statements are a testimony to outward gnosis (al-ma`rifa al-zahira). As for the ma`rifa ("gnosis") which is inward (al-haqiqa), it is the ma`rifa ("gnosis") of the nafs (self-soul), the very being (kawn) of which is an entity [something] (al-shay') from "his Lord" (rabbuhu). This since He, exalted be He, when He created humanity (al-insan) it was firstly his "being" (kawn) and there subsequently came about a reality from his Lord (haqiqat min rabbihi), namely, a reality from [expressive of] his nafs ("self-Soul"). Thus that [nafs-self-Soul] which was from his Lord was a Light (al-nur) directly related to Him. It is mirrored in the Cosmic Water (al-ma') from which He made everything (kull shay') living (al-hayy)" (Q. 21:30). And it [the nafs-self-Soul] can be observed in existence (al-wujud) and observed in the Light (al-nur) just as he [the Prophet Muhammad] says, upon him be peace, "Fear ye the insight (al-farasa) of the true believer (al-mu'min) for he seeth through the Light of God" (bi-nur Allah)". And Imam  Ja`far [al-Sadiq] saith, upon him be peace, "God created the believers (al-mu'minin) from His Light (al-nur) ....

[p.15] As for the primary significance. Know that the nafs (soul-self) is thy reality (haqiqa) which is of "thy Lord" (min rabbika). Since you know it [thy self] you do indeed know "thy Lord". When He was unknown to anyone other than Himself  ...

On the manner of knowing thyself" [p. 18].

Now as for the second level of the interpretation [of the nafs = self-Soul], it involves the clarafication of the manner of  attainment unto the gnosis (al-ma`rifat) of that _____ exemplar (dhalik al-anmudaj alfahwani ?) and the restorative, Lordly depiction (al-wasf al-shifa'hi al-  rabbani). Such was indeed realized at the very moment when the Commander of the Faithful [= Imam `Ali] according to the Hadith Kumal [ibn Ziyad al-Nakha'i = the Hadith al-haqiqa] was asked about al-haqiqa (Reality); namely, about the "gnosis" (ma`rifat) of this Reality (al-haqiqa). We shall thus, in this connnection, provide an exposition of his [Imam `Ali's] discourse [with Kumayl about al-haqiqa]:

[Kumayl ibn Ziyad asked `O my Lord and my  Master [the Commander of the Faithful, Amir al-Mumunin, Imam `Alī, d. 40/661]

Kumayl asked `Ali, upon him be peace, What is al-Ḥaqīqa? (The Real /  Reality' / `Ultimate Reality [God]'). He [`Alī] replied, upon him be peace, `What have you to do with al-Ḥaqīqa (Reality)?'. So Kumayl replied, `Is it not that I am a [sharing] companion [custodian] of your secret (sahib sirrika)?' He [Imam `Alī] replied, `Yes! But what [gnosis merely] sprinkles down upon you, billows over [in abundance] through me'.

He, the Imam, upon him be peace, [then] said, al-Ḥaqīqa [ Reality is] `The disclosure of the splendors of the Majestic One [God] (subuḥāt al-jalāl) devoid of intimation (min ghayr al-ishāra)'.

He [Kumayl] said, `Expound it to me further'.

He [`Alī] said, `It [al-Ḥaqīqa `Reality' ] is the annulment of speculation (mahw al-mawhum) [consonant] with an awareness of [what is] the established' (saḥw al-ma`lūm)'.

He [Kumayl] said, `Expound it to me further.'

He [`Alī] said, `It [al-Ḥaqīqa `Reality'] is the rending of the [Divine] veil (al-sitr) through the mastery of the secret (ghalabat al-sirr)'.  

He [Kumayl] said, `Expound it to me further.'

He [`Alī] said, `It [al-Ḥaqīqa `Reality'] is the Enticement  (jadhb) of the Divine Unicity (al-aḥadiyya) through the instrumentality of the Divine Oneness (al-tawhid)'.

He [Kumayl] said, `Expound it to me further.'

He [`Alī] said, `It [al-Ḥaqīqa `Reality'] is `A Light (nur) radiating from the Dawn of Eternity (subh al-azal) with its traces (athar) beaming forth [shimmering] upon the Embodiments [Temples] of the Divine Unity (hayākil al-tawhid)'.   

He [Kumayl] said, `Expound it to me further.' He [`Alī] said, `Quench the lamp (al-sirāj)! for the Dawn (al-subḥ) hath indeed arisen'" (trans. Lambden, 1998 rev. 2008, 2015).

On the disclosing of the Glories of the Divine Majesty (subuhat al-jalal) beyond allusion" [p. 19].

He [Imam `Ali] further states [in the Hadith al-haqiqa],"[Reality, al-haqiqa is] the disclosing of the Glories of the Divine Majesty (subuhat al-jalal) beyond allusion (bi-ghayr ishara)". He thus clarified all of the modes (anha') of the Divine Unity (al-tawhid). The intention of  al-subuhat ("the Glories")  is the glimmering rays of the Divine Majesty (ashi``at al-jalal) indicative of the grades (al- shu`un) and the [Divine] Attributes (al-sifat). By al-Jalal (The Divine Majesty) he here intended the essence of personhood [the Divine Identity] (dhat al-shaks), in other words, the nexus of his reality (haqiqatihi) from his Lord (rabb).


On the meaning of "the Light shone forth" [p. 23].

He  [`Ali ibn Abi Talib d. 40/661] saith [in the Hadith al-haqiqa] : "A Light (al-nur) shone forth from the morn of eternity (subh al-azal), its traces (athar) shimmering upon the Temples of the Divine Unity (hayakil al-tawhid)". The meaning here concerns that al-haqiqa ("Reality") which, he who knoweth it, "hath indeed known his Lord (rabbuhu)", through "a Light (al-nur) which shone forth from "the morn of eternity" (subh al-azal)". This [Light-Reality] is indicative of the mashiyyat Allah, the Will of God, and His [Divine] iradat ("Intention') for God, glorified be He, is One Eternal (al-azal). That is to say, this [Light-Reality] indicates the al-Haqiqa ("Reality") which is thine own self-soul from thy Lord indicative of thine existence (wujud) and thine inmost heart (al-fu'ad) which causes the illumination of the inner breast (nur sadr) through the very activity of God. Such is actualized through the singular loci of [Divine] Guidance (al-hadin al-mawhidin). Its "traces" (al-athar), that is to say, the traces of that Light (athar dhalik al-nur)  radiate forth (al-mashriq) or are [realized] through thee. Thou art indeed an expression of the traces of thy reality (athar haqiqatika) expressed according to its own Image [form] (suratiha).   

On the meaning of "Quench the lamp! " [p. 23-24].

Regarding his saying "Quench the lamp (al-siraj)! for the dawn (al-subh) hath indeed broken [shone] forth"; that is to say [shone forth], "in / through] Him" (bihi). Since you have desred that you might known what is [already] something known (al-ma`lum) then be scornful of thyself, of the self-gloryifying hybris of idle fancy (subuhat al-mawhuma) which is therein [within thy self]  outwardly [sensorily] experienced. Thine own existence (al-mawjud) is even as the "lamp" (al-siraj) which radiates forth of its own accord  during the nightime of the material bodies (fi layl al-ajsam) and the individual nature (al-tabi`at). The very dawntime of [thine] existence (subh al-wujud) hath risen up! So quench it out from thyself such that it [truly] is as the lamp (al-siraj)  since [it is essentially] what rises up at dawntime (al-subh). So comprehend this matter!

Then know that the blissful well-being (hana') of the ultimate personality (wajh an akhir) is, in every respect, other than what has been mentioned.

Select Notes

** The citation here is from a prayer or supplication attributed to the Hidden 12th Imam as transmitted in a letter to one of the first / second of the four gates or deputies named  `Uthman ibn Sa'is al-Amri /Abu Ja`far Muhammad ibn `Uthman al-Amri (d.c. 304/916)  and found in Shi`i books of devotion  and  eschatology or messianism. The full text can, for example be found in