Firasa (discernment) can be defined as profundity, productivity and coherence in thought and the forming of opinions, the ability to penetrate the meaning of existence, and acting on conscious insight. It is a light that God puts into a person when they have purified their heart of spiritual ailments such as vengeance, hatred, resentment, hypocrisy, and conceit and a light that adorns one with belief, knowledge and love of God, and zeal to serve His cause.
Those who are favored with discernment become unique among people: their feelings and perceptions are deepened, they gain familiarity with the mysteries that others cherish in their hearts, and they can see the truths inscribed on their faces. In proportion to their discerning the truths and meanings that lie behind things, they can become a polished mirror in which the One Who has full knowledge of all that is beyond the reach of human senses and perception manifests and reflects Himself. Pointing to such a degree of discernment, the master of creatures, the articulate voice of the visible and invisible worlds, upon him be peace and blessings, said: Beware of the discernment of a believer, for he looks with the light of God.1 The close relationship between discernment and the light of belief is also expressed in the Qur'anic verse (8:29), If you keep from disobedience to God in reverence for Him and piety, He will make a criterion arise in your heart to distinguish between truth and falsehood, and right and wrong.
However we approach the topic of discernment—whether from the viewpoint that it indicates that the heart is open to the knowledge and inspirations of the One Who has full knowledge of all that is beyond the reach of human senses and perception and that those favored with it are usually right in their thinking, opinions, decisions and judgments, or from the viewpoint that discernment is the true conclusions that we draw based on our information, experiences, practices, the depth of our perception, and ability to read character—discernment is purely a gift of God. Those who have the greatest share in this gift are, each according to rank and capacity, the Prophets, saintly scholars, and saints. The one who is the first and foremost of all is the master of the Prophets, and the embodiment of the First Intellect.2 While God refers to all people of discernment and high perception in the words (15:75), Surely in this are manifest signs (of truth) for the people of discernment and acumen, in the verse (47:30), If We willed (that they should be known,) We would surely show them to you and you would surely know them by their faces and you would surely know them by the style of their speech, He particularly alludes to the superiority of the one who is the highest in discernment.
Discernment gets sharper and stronger in proportion to the depth of belief and the greatness of certainty. Sometimes it even rises to such a degree that by virtue of certain special gifts from God, one can see with God's sight. The following observations of some important Sufi leaders and their comments on discernment point to this fact:
Abu Sa'id al-Harraz says: "If you say that one looks with the light of discernment, it means that one looks with the sight of God."
Al-Wasiti3 comments: "Discernment is a God-given ray of light which appears in the heart like lightning and illuminates the incorporeal worlds visible to some in certain circumstances, and causes one to rise to the rank of being able to see the whole existence as it is."
Ad-Darani defines discernment: "Discernment means discovering the depths of the human self and that the invisible worlds become visible and secrets obvious."
Shah Kirmani4 reminds: "If a person blinds him or herself to religiously forbidden things, holds back from the influence of carnal desires and provocations, improves his or her inner world with self-supervision and outer world with adherence to the Sunna, and is able to always keep within the limits of the religiously lawful, he or she is always infallible in discernment."
All those aspects of discernment develop through belief and do not lead one who is favored with them to err. What reason is there for them to err while it is He Who causes one to see and the eyes that see are from Him?
As it was due to God's gift of discernment to His Messenger that he was able to know people very well and to employ everyone in a suitable position, it was also the same Divine gift which we are able to observe in many of the wonderful summations, evaluations, decisions, and judgments of Abu Bakr, 'Umar, 'Uthman, and 'Ali.5 It would take many volumes to explain their discernment.
In addition, there are wise purposes for the creation of reason and spirit. So, God may favor some spiritually ordinary people with instances of discernment, either because of the value He attaches to the reason and spirit that He has granted to humanity, or as a reward in advance for the good things that they will do in the future. Such instances of wisdom may be regarded as a special gift from the Creator of causes, granted before these people have deserved them. Now, based on 'Abdullah ibn Mas'ud's6 exposition, let us mention some examples:
- The vizier who bought Joseph in Egypt said of him to his wife: "Give him honorable, goodly lodging. It may be that he will prove useful to us or we may adopt him as a son." (12:21)
- One of Prophet Shu'ayb's daughters said to her father concerning Moses: "O father! Hire him! For the best man that you can hire is that strong, trustworthy one." (28:26)
- The wife of the Pharaoh expressed to him her opinion about Moses, whom they found in the river: "He will be a consolation for me and for you. Kill him not. He may be of use to us, or we may choose him for a son." (28:9)
There is another kind of discernment which is obtained through austerity. If that discernment is not based on accurate belief and righteous deeds, it can be a means of gradual perdition for the one who possesses it. Whether the one who has it is a believer or unbeliever, a Muslim or a Christian, or a saint or layman, everyone can achieve certain (spiritual) discoveries or wonders through austerity.
Some regard reading someone's character from their physical traits as another kind of discernment. However, it obviously has nothing to do with the discernment that we are dealing with here.
O God! Guide my carnal soul to the piety necessary for it, and purify it. You are the best to purify it, and You are its guardian and master. And bestow blessings and peace on Your Messenger Muhammad, the pure, chosen one, and on his Family and Companions.
1. at-Tirmidhi, "Tafsiru'l-Qur'an," (15) 6.
2. The First Intellect is the archetypal being or the archetype of Prophet Muhammad who receives the gifts of God first of all and then transfers them to others. (Tr.)
3. Abu Bakr Muhammed ibn Musa al-Wasiti (d. 932). A Sufi who associated with al-Junayd and an-Nuri in Baghdad and who later moved to Merv where he died. He was also an authority on fiqh. (Tr.)
4. Sayyid Ahmad Shah Kirmani was a Sufi shaykh who followed the way of Shihabu'd-Din as-Suhrawardi. He lived in Kashmir in the sixteenth century. (Tr.)
5. Abu Bakr, 'Umar, 'Uthman, and 'Ali were the four foremost among the Companions of God's Messenger (Muhammad) and his first four successors called "The Rightly Guided Caliphs." (Tr.)
6. 'Abdullah ibn Mas'ud was one of the early Muslims who was well-versed in the Qur'an and Islamic sciences. He was also very close to the Messenger. He died during the Caliphate of 'Uthman. (Tr.)