The difference between Irfan (Practical Gnosis) and Akhlaq (Ethics)

The difference between Irfan (Practical Gnosis) and Akhlaq (Ethics)

The Difference BetweenʿIrfān (Practical Gnosis)1 and Akhlāq (Ethics)*Translated by: Shia Translation


It is necessary to distinguish between Practical Gnosis (ʿirfān) and the science of ethics2. The science of ethics can be summarized in one phrase: “[What] ought to [be done] and ought not to [be done].” Likewise, we find that practical ʿirfān also constitutes this expression. Practical ʿirfān is what elucidates and clarifies a person’s connection, duties, and relationship with respect to himself, the [temporal] realm, and God. Practical ʿirfānis similar to ethics in the sense that they are both a practical/applied science, though they are not without disparities.  Martyr Mourtadha Mutahhari outlines the content and meaning of practicalʿirfān as follows:


The practical teaching of ʿirfān is also called the itinerary of the spiritual path (sayr wa sulūk; lit. ‘traveling and journeying’). Here, the wayfarer (sālik), who desires to reach the goal of the sublime peak of humanness – that is to say, tawīd – is told where to set off, the ordered stages and stations that he must traverse, the states and conditions he will experience at these stations, and the events that will befall him. Needless to say, all these stages and stations must be passed under the guidance and supervision of a mature and perfect example of humanity who, having traveled this path, is aware of the manners and ways of each station. If not, and there is no perfect human being to guide him on his path, he is in danger of going astray. The perfect man, the master, who must necessarily accompany the novice on the spiritual journey according to the ʿurafāʾ (Gnostics), has been referred to in their vocabulary as āʾir al-quds (the Sacred Bird) and Khidr.3


This, however, does not entail an overlap between the subjects of [practical] ʿirfān and the science of ethics, as in fact there exist numerous differences between them:


The First Difference

The science of ethics elucidates the path for the person unaware of the moderate path and of the direction to which he must turn. There exists a right and left path, in addition to a moderate path, as well as a “straight path.” The ethical theory which governs us till this day states that the best of paths is the moderate one, and that the path of negligence (ifrāṭ) as well as the path of exorbitance (tafrīṭ) are [equally] invalid. Hence, the correct path is one of moderation. Therefore, the aim of ethics is to place the wayfarer on the moderate path, towards the Exalted God, and this is where the role of the science of ethics concludes.

The [role of] practical ʿirfān initiates at the concluding point of the science of ethics, whereby it instructs the wayfarer to gradate on the pathways towards the Exalted God; that – after standing on the moderate path – how one ought to traverse and continue his/her journey, what barriers one may face, and how one can ascend to the Almighty and Exalted God. These are the roles of practical ʿirfān.

Hence, one must not suppose that there exists an overlap between these two sciences, for ethics places the human on the avenue and path, whereas ʿirfān guides and instructs one who is already on the path whereupon [the person] can elevate and ascend towards the Almighty and Exalted God. This is [what is referred to as] the stations of the travelers upon the path, the stations of the people of Gnosis, and travelling and journeying (sayr wa sulūk) to which our Sheikh and teacher Jawadi Amoli describes as being ‘the cord’ (The Book of God, a cord stretching between heaven and earth.4)5 God Almighty did not give the human this cord to cling on to and remain stationary, but rather, for the him/her to take [with] it and ascend to the [lofty] spiritual stations and levels.

Therefore, the first and foremost difference between ethics and practical ʿirfān, is that the former places the wayfarer on the moderate path, while the latter takes his/her hand [and helps them] to ascend to lofty stations.


The Second Difference

The science of ethics speaks on every matter and is not exclusive to those who believe in tawḥīd (Doctrine of Divine Unity), for there exists a number of theories which don’t believe in tawḥīd but believe in an ethical theory. The axis of practical ʿirfān, however, is to [establish] a connection between the human and God Almighty.

Hence, there is a fundamental aspect in practical ʿirfān which is absent in the science of ethics.


The Third Difference

The science of ethics is stationary, whereas practical ʿirfān is dynamic. Thus, the science of ʿirfān is described as “the science of sayr wa sulūk,” for it is void of stagnation and stillness, contrary to the science of ethics which is a set of principles, concepts, and issues confined to “[what] ought to [be done] and ought not to [be done].”


The Fourth Difference

Practical ʿirfān begins [only] with the elite (khawāṣṣ); for, if ʿirfān initiates at the concluding point of ethics, then it is necessary that the person first be ethical and [stationed] on the moderate path, and [only] thereafter may one become a gnostic (ʿirfāni).


[1] The meaning intended by the author is practical gnosis as opposed to theoretical gnosis. (Trans.)

[2] It seems that the author is referring to normative or prescriptive ethics which is defined as, “normative ethics, that part of moral philosophy, or ethics, concerned with criteria of what is morally right and wrong. It includes the formulation of moral rules that have direct implications for what human actions, institutions, and ways of life should be like.” Encyclopedia Britannica, “normative ethics” entry. (Trans.)

[3] An Introduction to ‘Irfan, Martyr Murtada Mutahhari.

[4] Biḥār al-Anwār, v. 10, section 20, hadith 18.

[5] This is an excerpt of what is known as Ḥadīth al-Thaqalayn (hadith of the two weights). (Trans.)

Source: العرفان الشيعي، رؤى في مرتكزاته النظرية ومسالكه العملية <Al-ʿIrfān al-Shīʿī: Ruʾā fī Murtakazātih al-Naẓariyyah wa Masālikih al-ʿamalliyah (Shi’i Gnosis, a Survey into its Theoretical Foundations and Practical Pathways), p. 82.>