In reflecting upon "the Straight Path, the path of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed favors," I came across this excerpt from a lecture delivered, circa 1922, by renowned Cambridge scholar, R.A. Nicholson at the Univeristy of London on "The Idea of Personality in Sufism:"
"According to the Egyptian Sufi Dhu'l -Nun (ob. A.H. 245 = AD 859), Divine Love is a mystery that must not be spoken of, lest it come to the ears of the vulgar. Dhu'l-Nun took a very important step in the development of Sufism by distinguishing the mystic's knowledge of God (ma'rifat) from traditional or intellectual knowledge ('ilm) and by connecting the former with the love of God (mahabbat).
"True knowledge of God, " he says, "is not the knowledge that God is One, which is possessed by all believers; nor the knowledge of Him derived from proof and demonstration, which belongs to philosophers, rhetoricians, and theologians but it is the knowledge of the Divine Unity, which belongs to the Saints of God, those who behold God with their hearts in such wise that He reveals unto them what He revealeth not unto any one else in the world."
And again: "Real knowledge is God's illumination of the heart with the pure radiance of knowledge, " i.e. the sun can be seen only by the light of the sun. Hence "the more a man knoweth God, the deeper and greater his bewilderment in God," because (as the commentator explains) the nearer he is to the sun the more he is dazzled, until he reaches a point where he is not he.
"They that know God, " Dhu'l Nun continues, "are not themselves and subsist not through themselves, but in so far as they are themselves they subsist through God. They move as God causes them to move, and their words are the words of God which roll upon their tongues, and their sight is the sight of God which hath entered their eyes. The Prophet, on whom be peace, told of those qualities when he related that God said: 'When I love a servant, I the Lord an his ear, so that he hears by Me, and his eye, so that he sees by Me, and his tongue, so that he speaks by Me, and his hand, so that he takes by Me.' "
These quotations show that what the Sufis call ma'rifat, knowledge of God, resembles the gnosis of Hellenistic religion: it is an immediate experience in which the intellect has no share, an ecstatic contemplation of God by the divinley illuminated heart. Moreover, it involves the effacement of the individual self and the substitution of divine qualities for human; yet all this is the act of God."