In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Compassionate
أَوَّلُ الدِّينِ مَعْرِفَتُهُ
Imam Ali in the first sermon of Nahjul Balagha says “The foremost (first) in religion is the acknowledgement (knowledge) of Him.”
In the part of the speech, the Imam clearly defines the most important and fundamental step that one must begin with. This is the knowledge of God. Interestingly, the Imam says the first (أَوَّلُ) but does not mention a second or third later in his sermon. This demonstrates that this opening step is of huge importance, such that no second or third can rival its importance. However, it suffices to mention for now, that this is just the beginning, the start, the means to reaching the end and not the end itself.
This leads us onto the next question. How does one begin to know God? We find that the ways to knowing God generally fall under two categories.
The first method involves looking at the effect to try and discern the effector. One looks at the inferential mediates to reach the conclusion that there is a Necessary being. For example, physicists, mutakallimun and such may use the contingency of quiddities, motion of the world and so forth to prove the existence of the Almighty. Here, the created leads to the creator. This method has been indicated in the Quran, “Soon will we show them Our signs in the horizons and in their souls until it becomes manifest unto them that He is the Real.” (41:53)
Whilst the former method is valid there is a more reliable, nobler path to God. This method is more direct, without the any intermediates to God. This is to know God through God. This is the more illuminated path, also indicated by the Quran, “Is it not sufficient for thy Lord that He is a witness over all things.” “God is manifest in everything so much so that even if you want to know yourself, you first witness God and then yourself.” (A Commentary on Theistic Arguments, Ayatollah Jawad Amuli)
This method has been displayed by many narrations and supplications from our Imams, peace be upon them. Imam Ja’far al Sadiq (AS) says ” a creature does not discern anything but through Allah and cognition of Allah cannot be attained but through Allah.”
In Dua As’Sabah, (the supplication of the morning) Imam Ali (AS) says, يَا مَنْ دَلَّ عَلَىٰ ذَاتِهِ بِذَاتِهِ ‘Oh He who demonstrates His essence by His Essence.’
In Dua Abu Hamzah, Imam Al Sajjad (AS) says: بك عرفتك وانت دللتني عليك ولولا أنت لم أدرما انت ‘Through You I have known You. You showed me the way to you and invited me to come towards You. Had it not been for you I would have never known who You are.’
This noble way is summarised beautifully in Dua Arafah by Imam Hussain,
كَيْفَ يُسْتَدَلُّ عَلَيْكَ بِما هُوَ فى وُجُودِهِ مُفْتَقِرٌ اِلَيْكَ، اَيَكُونُ لِغَيْرِكَ مِنَ الظُّهُورِ ما لَيْسَ لَكَ، حَتّى يَكُونَ هُوَ الْمُظْهِرَ لَكَ، مَتى غِبْتَ حَتّى تَحْتاجَ اِلى دَليل يَدُلُّ عَليْكَ، وَمَتى بَعُدْتَ حَتّى تَكُونَ الاْثارُ هِىَ الَّتى تُوصِلُ اِلَيْكَ
How can you be figured out through that whose existence relies on You? Can any thing other than You hold a manifestation that You lack and thus act as an appearance for you? When have You ever been so absent that You may need something to point to You? When have You ever been far-off so that traces may lead to You?’
The narrations are plenty regarding this noble way. Mulla Sadra says when explaining his Burhan Al Siddiqeen (The proof of the sincere) “Know that the greatest of proofs and firmest of ways, the brightest path, the most noble and most secure is reasoning to the essence (dhat) of a thing by its essence (dhat). And that which is the most manifest of things is the nature of absolute existence (al-wujud al-mutlaq) in so far as it is absolute, and it is the Truth (haqiqah) of the Necessary Itself, the Exalted, and there is nothing except the First Truth (al-Haqq al-Awwal) which is the Truth (haqiqah) of existence itself, for whatever is other than It is either a whatness (mahiyyah), or an imperfect existence mixed with imperfection, or impotence and nothingness.”