Major ideas in Sufi metaphysics have surrounded the concept of weḥdah (وحدة) meaning “unity”, or in Arabic توحيد tawhid. Two main Sufi philosophies prevail on this topic. waḥdat al-wujūd literally means the “Unity of Existence” or “Unity of Being.” The phrase has been translated “pantheism.” Wujud (i.e. existence or presence) here refers to Allah’s wujud (compare tawhid). On the other hand, waḥdat ash-shuhūd, meaning “Apparentism” or “Monotheism of Witness”, holds that God and his creation are entirely separate.
Some Islamic reformers have claimed that the difference between the two philosophies differ only in semantics and that the entire debate is merely a collection of “verbal controversies” which have come about because of ambiguous language. However, the concept of the relationship between God and the universe is still actively debated both among Sufis and between Sufis and non-Sufi Muslims.
Waḥdat al-Wujūd (Unity of Existence)
Main Article: What Is “Unity of Being” (Wahdat al-Wujud)?
The philosophy of Wahdat al-Wujud was first ever prevailed by Husayn ibn Ali in his book Mir’āt ul-ʿārifīn which he wrote in response to the question of his son Zayn al-Abidin about the explanation of Surah Al-Fatiha. In this book, he interpreted the ideology of Wahdat al-wujud for the first time in the most comprehensive way. After that, the mystical thinker and theologian Abu Saeed Mubarak Makhzoomi discussed this concept in his book called Tohfa Mursala. An Andalusian Sufi saint Ibn Sabin is also known to employ this term in his writings. But the Sufi saint who is most characterized in discussing the ideology of Sufi metaphysics in deepest details is Ibn Arabi. He employs the term wujud to refer to God as the Necessary Being. He also attributes the term to everything other than God, but he insists that wujud does not belong to the things found in the cosmos in any real sense. Rather, the things borrow wujud from God, much as the earth borrows light from the sun. The issue is how wujūd can rightfully be attributed to the things, also called “entities” (aʿyān). From the perspective of tanzih, Ibn Arabi declares that wujūd belongs to God alone, and, in his famous phrase, the things “have never smelt a whiff of wujud.” From the point of view of tashbih, he affirms that all things are wujūd’s self-disclosure (tajalli) or self-manifestation (ẓohur). In sum, all things are “He/not He” (howa/lāhowa), which is to say that they are both God and other than God, both wujud and other than wujud. In his book Fasus –al-Hikam, Ibn-e-Arabi states that ” wujūd is the unknowable and inaccessible ground of everything that exists. God alone is true wujūd, while all things dwell in nonexistence, so also wujūd alone is nondelimited (muṭlaq), while everything else is constrained, confined, and constricted. Wujūd is the absolute, infinite, nondelimited reality of God, while all others remain relative, finite, and delimited”.
Ibn Arabi’s doctrine of wahdat ul wujud focuses on the esoteric (batin) reality of creatures instead of exoteric (zahir) dimension of reality. Therefore he interprets that wujud is one and unique reality from which all reality derives. The external world of sensible objects is but a fleeting shadow of the Real (al- Haq), God . God alone is the all embracing and eternal reality. Whatever exists is the shadow (tajalli) of the Real and is not independent of God. This is summed up in Ibn Arabi’s own words. “Glory to Him who created all things, being Himself their very essence (ainuha)”
To call wujud or Real Being “one” is to speak of the unity of the Essence. In other terms, it is to say that Being—Light in itself—is nondelimited (mutlaq), that is, infinite and absolute, undefined and indefinable, indistinct and indistinguishable. In contrast, everything other than Being—every existent thing (mawjûd)—is distinct, defined, and limited (muqayyad). The Real is incomparable and transcendent, but it discloses itself (tajallî) in all things, so it is also similar and immanent. It possesses such utter nondelimitation that it is not delimited by nondelimitation. “God possesses Nondelimited Being, but no delimitation prevents Him from delimitation. On the contrary, He possesses all delimitations, so He is nondelimited delimitation”  On the highest level, wujūd is the absolute and nondelimited reality of God, the “Necessary Being” (wājib al-wujūd) that cannot not exist. In this sense, wujūd designates the Essence of God or of the Real (dhāt al-ḥaqq), the only reality that is real in every respect. On lower levels, wujūd is the underlying substance of “everything other than God” (māsiwāAllāh)—which is how Ibn Arabi and others define the “cosmos” or “universe” (al-ʿālam). Hence, in a secondary meaning, the term wujūd is used as shorthand to refer to the whole cosmos, to everything that exists. It can also be employed to refer to the existence of each and every thing that is found in the universe.
God’s ‘names’ or ‘attributes’, on the other hand, are the relationships which can be discerned between the Essence and the cosmos. They are known to God because he knows every object of knowledge, but they are not existent entities or ontological qualities, for this would imply plurality in the godhead. Ibn ‘Arabî used the term “effusion” (fayd) to denote the act of creation. His writings contain expressions which show different stages of creation, a distinction merely logical and not actual. The following gives details about his vision of creation in three stages: the Most Holy Effusion (al-fayd al-aqdas), the Holy Effusion (al-fayd al-muqaddas) and the Perpetual Effusion (al-fayd al-mustamirr). Waḥdat al-wujūd spread through the teachings of the Sufis like Qunyawi, Jandi, Tilimsani, Qayshari, Jami etc.
The noted scholar Muhibullah Allahabadi strongly supported the doctrine.
Sachal Sarmast and Bulleh Shah two Sufi poets from India, were also ardent followers of Waḥdat al-wujūd. It is also associated with the Hamah Ust (Persian meaning “He is the only one”) philosophy in South Asia.
Tashkīk or gradation is closely associated with Sadrian interpretation of waḥdat al-wujūd. According to this school, the reality and existence are identical which means existence is one but graded in intensity. This methodology was given a name of tashkik al-wujud and it thus explains that there is gradation of existence that stand in a vast hierarchical chain of being (marāṭib al-wujūd) from floor (farsh) to divine throne (ʿarsh), but the wujūd of each existent māhīyyais nothing but a grade of the single reality of wujūd whose source is God, the absolute being (al-wujūd al-mutlaq). What differentiates the wujūd of different existents is nothing but wujūd in different degrees of strength and weakness. The universe is nothing but different degrees of strengths and weaknesses of wujūd, ranging from intense degree of wujūd of arch-angelic realities, to the dim wujūd of lowly dust from which Adam was made.
Criticism of the concept
Sufi metaphysics has been a subject to criticism by most non-Sufis; in Al-Andalus, where most of the Muslim scholars were either Zahirites or Malikites preferring the Ash’arite creed, Sufi metaphysics was considered blasphemy and its practitioners blacklisted. Followers of the Ash’arite creed in the east were often suspicious of Sufism as well, most often citing Sufi metaphysics as well. However, it is important to note that Ibn Arabi was influenced by Al Ghazali, who himself was an strong supporter of the Ash’arite creed.
Criticism from within Sufism
Some Sufis, such as Ahmad Sirhindi, have criticised wahdat-al-wujud. Ahmad Sirhindi wrote about the sayings that universe has no existence of its own and is a shadow of the existence of the necessary being. He also wrote that one should discern the existence of universe from the absolute and that the absolute does not exist because of existence but because of his essence.
Response to criticism
Pir Meher Ali Shah and Syed Waheed Ashraf have countered that the two concepts differ in that wahdat-al-wujud states that God and the universe aren’t identical. They hold real existence to be for God only and the universe to have no existence on its own.
Waḥdat asḥ-Shuhūd (or wah-dat-ul-shuhud, wahdat-ul-shuhud, or wahdatulshuhud) has often been translated into English as Apparentism. In Arabic it literally means “unity of witness”, “unity of perception”, “unity of appearance” or “oneness of manifestation”.
Out of those who opposed the doctrine of waḥdat al-wujūd, there were those who substituted the pole of subject for the object, formulating the doctrine of Waḥdat asḥ-Shuhūd. This school was formulated by ʿAlāʾ ad-DawlahSimnānī, was to attract many followers in India, including Ahmed Sirhindi who provided some of the most widely accepted formulations of this doctrine in the Indian sub-continent.
According to Ahmed Sirhindi’s doctrine, any experience of unity between God and the created world is purely subjective and occurs only in the mind of the believer; it has no objective counterpart in the real world. The former position, Shaykh Ahmad felt, led to pantheism, which was contrary to the tenets of Sunni Islam. He held that God and creation are not identical; rather, the latter is a shadow or reflection of the Divines Name and Attributes when they are reflected in the mirrors of their opposite non-beings (aʿdām al-mutaqābilah). Abu Hafs Umar al-Suhrawardi and Abd-al-karim Jili were also proponents of apparent-ism.
Al-Wujūd Al-Munbasiṭ (Self-unfolding Being)
Shah Waliullah Dehlawi tried to reconcile the two (apparently) contradictory doctrines of waḥdat al-wujūd (unity of being) of Ibn Arabi and waḥdat ash-shuhūd (unity in conscience) of Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi. Shah Waliullah neatly resolved the conflict, calling these differences ‘verbal controversies’ which have come about because of ambiguous language. If we leave, he says, all the metaphors and similes used for the expression of ideas aside, the apparently opposite views of the two metaphysicians will agree. The positive result of Shah Wali Allah’s reconciliatory efforts was twofold: it brought about harmony between the two opposing groups of meta-physicians, and it also legitimized the doctrine of waḥdat al-wujūd among the mutakallimun (theologians), who previously had not been ready to accept it.
In his books Lamahat and Sata’at, he discusses stages of being, the perceptive faculty, the relation of the abstract with the universe, the universal soul and the souls of man, after death, essence, miracles, the scope of man, the soul of the perfect, universal order, source of manifestation, and the transformation of mystics from quality to quality. He also demonstrated that the long-standing assumption that Sufi doctrine was divided between Apparentism and Unity of Being was a difference of expression alone, the latter doctrine being seen as merely a less-advanced stage of projection.
In his opinion this whole universe has also self (nafs) as an individual person has a self, which is called the Universal Soul (an-nafs al-kullīyyah). The multiplicity of the whole universe has originated from it. When Ibn Arabi says that everything is God, he thereby means the Universal Soul. This Universal Soul, or the Self-unfolding Being (al-wujūd-al-munbasiṭ), subsists by itself. This existence pervades the whole universe, both the substance and the accident, and accepts the form of everything. It is both immanent and transcendental. Beyond this existence (al-wujūd al-munbasiṭ: Universal Soul) towards the original existence (God) none has access to. In other words, man’s progress ends with the Universal Soul or the Self-unfolding Being. He cannot move a step further. The Universal Soul and God are so intermingled that the former is often taken for the latter.”
As for the question of the relation that this existence (al-wujūd al-munbasiṭ) has with the essence of God itself. This relation is, however, known only in its reality (anniyyah: I-ness); its quality is unknown and can never be known. Thus when Ibn Arabi says that the realities of the existing things are the names and the attributes of the Universal Soul (Self-unfolding Being) in the stage of knowledge (fīmarṭabat al-ʿilm, in the Divine Consciousness) or when Imam Rabbani asserts that the realities of existing objects are sheer nothingness on which the lights of the names and attributes of the Universal Soul (al-wujūd al-munbasiṭ) are reflected is exactly the same thing. The difference in their language is so little that it needs no consideration.
Sultan Bahoo first introduced the concept of ‘waḥdat al-maqṣūd,’ the ‘intention of Unity’ or the ‘necessity of unity.’ Sultan Bahoo did not sufficiently elaborate on this idea, focusing his interest and attention towards the concept of ‘fanāʾ fi-llāh, baqāʾbillāh’ (Annihilation in God, Lasting with God). He was the only Sufi scholar to establish the concept of lasting forever with Allah by ceasing, or annihilating one’s self in Allah.
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- S.H. Nasr (2006), Islamic Philosophy from Its Origin to the Present: Philosophy in the Land of Prophecy, State University of New York Press, p. 156
- Ibn al-‘Arabi, Muhyi al-Din (1164–1240)
- Imaginal worlds, William Chiittick (1994), pg.53
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- “A History of Muslim Philosophy, pg. 409”.
- “(Ibn ‘Arabî, al-Futûhât”.
- Imaginal worlds, William Chiittick(1994), pg.15
- “Names and Relations”.
- Souad Hakim – Unity of Being in Ibn ‘Arabî
- Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Philosophy from Its Origin to the Present(2006), pg76
- Hadi, Nabi (1995). “MuhhibbullahIlahabadi, Shaikh”. Dictionary of Indo-Persian Literature. Abhinav Publications. p. 427. ISBN978-81-7017-311-3. Retrieved 10 November 2014.
- “Tashkik al Wujud”.
- Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Philosophy from Its Origin to the Present, pg 78
- Alexander D. Knysh, Ibn Arabi in the Later Islamic Tradition. Pg. 169. State University of New York Press: Albany, 1999.
- TehqiqulHaq fi KalamatulHaq a book by PirMeher Ali Shah
- ‘Tasawwuf’ a book in Urdu by Syed Waheed Ashraf
- ‘Tasawwuf’ book in Urdu by Syed Waheed Ashraf
- Shah Wali Allah (Qutb al-Din Ahmad al-Rahim) (1703–62)
- G. N. Jalbani, The Teachings of Shah Waliyullah of Delhi, pg98
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