Whenever I travelled to Alexandria from Cairo via the desert road, I pondered on the Gnosticism of Alexandria that existed in abbeys scattered across the Berbers desert where generations of monks practiced abnegation and secluded worship and are still doing to the present day.
As I passed through the Monastery of Anba Makar at Wadi El Natrun on my way to Alexandria, I yearned to know that monastic hermit aka Matthew the Poor (died 2004). He lived in the second half of the twentieth century but he was actually a man from the first century given the purity of his Gnosticism and spirituality. I spent a while in the accompaniment of his spiritual books, contemplations and lectures.
Joseph Iskandar (Matthew the Poor) nicknamed Matta El Meskeen, was a pharmacist by profession prior to taking up monastic living at Monastery of Saint Samuel in Qalamun.
He joined seven other monks at Wadi El Rayan from which he moved to a cave at Deir Al Surian until he settled down in the monastery of Anba Makaryus which became one of the most important monasteries in Egypt.
Speaking about Gnosticism may be marked with sensitivity which lies in the term itself.
According to Mustafa, Hindi Gnosticism is ‘An inner knowledge that emanates from the depth of man and seeks nothing from outside.’ Thus, Gnosticism is an internal spiritual activity that leads to the discovery of the human condition. As such, Gnosticism is capable of liberating the soul imprisoned inside the physical body and the material world and placing it back in the illuminated world where it originated.
One of the most important symbols of gnostic in Alexandrian in the first century was Basilides whose Gnosticism was based on the good-evil dualism and considers passion as the original source of sin and passion originates outside the body.
Hence, liberation from passion can be attained by depriving the soul from multiple pleasures. So, they deprived themselves from marriage, for example and by so doing they became closer to the Zoroastrianism Dualism and Buddhism self-torture.
Then came Valentinos whose Agnosticism is based on the body-soul dualism and the creator - God Vs benevolent God dualism with a mean existing in-between the bodily and the spiritual and that is why the image of Christ is a combination of body and soul.
The duality-based Gnosticism and the presence of a deity in the middle of it had been formulated later on by the Christian spiritualists and then Islamic Gnosticism and Sufism through the good-evil dualism represented by the body and the spirit.
The centrality of the soul is attached to supreme deity and lies therein.
There is a middle part between the upper spirit and the lower body which was later embodied in Christianity in the for the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).
The same goes for Gnostic ideas of body, soul and spirit and also in the Islamic Irfan (gnosis) we find the trilogy of the apparent, the concealed and the reality.
The Platonists, the Peripatetics, the Hermetics, and the Muslim mystics, all dealt with the theory of the Perfect Man or the heavenly man.
The theory is based on good and evil through the spirit and the body. For them the soul is immortal and never perishes upon death.
They were opposed by the materialists who believe that man is a mere body that vanishes with death. However, materialism also followed the path of dualism that is the Epicurean philosophy was based on the duality of pleasure which represents good and pain which represents evil.
The Perfect Man theory, first adopted among Muslim scholars by Ibn Arabi (died 638), a refinement and a manifestation of Gnosticism through duality on the one side and the central trilogy on the other side.
'A Grain of Wheat,' a booklet authored by Matta El Meskeen and published in 1977 summarises his Gnostic philosophy to which he was closely linked at an early age.
His Gnosticism was based on the Gospel of John which says: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25).
Matthew the Poor revolves between the spirit-body dualism with the soul fluctuating in between and sometimes unites with the body and other times takes the spirit’s side.