Sufi metaphysics

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Major ideas in Sufi metaphysics have surrounded the concept of waḥdah (meaning "unity"). Two main Sufi philosophies prevail on this controversial topic. waḥdat al-wujūd literally means the "Unity of Existence". On the other hand, waḥdat ash-shuhūd, meaning "Apparentism" or "Unity 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[edit]

Ibn Arabi is most often characterized in Islamic texts as the originator of the doctrine of waḥdat al-wujūd, however, this expression is not found in his works and the first who employed this term was the Andalusian mystical thinker Ibn Sabin.[1] Although he frequently makes statements that approximate it, it cannot be claimed that "Oneness of Being" is a sufficient description of his ontology, since he affirms the "manyness of reality" with equal vigor.[2]

In his view, 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.[3]

Since wujūd is nondelimited, it is totally different from everything else. Whatever exists and can be known or grasped is a delimitation and definition, a constriction of the unlimited, a finite object accessible to a finite subject. In the same way, wujūd's self-consciousness is nondelimited, while every other consciousness is constrained and confined. But we need to be careful in asserting wujūd's nondelimitation. This must not be understood to mean that wujūd is different and only different from every delimitation. The Shaykh is quick to point out that wujūd's nondelimitation demands that it be able to assume every delimitation. If wujūd could not become delimited, it would be limited by its own nondelimitation. Thus "He possesses nondelimitation in delimitation" Or, "God possesses nondelimited wujūd, but no delimitation prevents delimitation. Rather, He possesses all delimitations, so He is nondelimited delimitation, since no single delimitation rather than another rules over Him.... Hence nothing is to be attributed to Him in preference to anything else" . Wujūd must have the power of assuming every delimitation on pain of being limited by those delimitations that it cannot assume. At the same time, it transcends the forms by which it becomes delimited and remains untouched by their constraints.[3]

Only He who possesses Being in Himself (wujūd dhātī) and whose Being is His very essence (wujūduhu ʿayn dhātihi), merits the name of Being. Only God can be like that.[4]

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" (mā siwā Allāh)—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.[2]

God's 'names' (asmāʾ) or 'attributes' (ṣifāt), 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.[5]

For the creatures, Being is not part of their essence. So a creature does not own its being, that it can never be independent in itself . In this sense, the created does not deserve the attribution of Being. Only God is Being, and all the rest is in reality a possibility (imkān), a relative, possible non-existence.[4]

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).[4]

Waḥdat al-wujūd spread through the teachings of the Sufis like Qunyawi, Jandi, Tilimsani, Qayshari, Jami etc.[6] The noted scholar Muhibullah Allahabadi strongly supported the doctrine.[7] 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.

Today, some Sufi Orders, notably the Bektashi sect and the non-traditional sects of Universal Sufism, place much emphasis on the concept of waḥdat al-wujūd.


Tashkīk or gradation is closely associated with Sadrian interpretation of waḥdat al-wujūd. According to this school, not only 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 māhīyya is 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.[8]

Criticism of the concept[edit]

Sufi metaphysics has been 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.[9] Followers of the Ash'arite creed in the east were often suspicious of Sufism as well, most often citing Sufi metaphysics as well.[9]

Criticism from within Sufism[edit]

Some Sufis, such as Ahmad Sirhindi, have criticised wahdat ul-wujood. 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.[10]

Response to criticism[edit]

Pir Meher Ali Shah and Syed Waheed Ashraf have countered that the two concepts differ in that wahdat ul-wujood states that God and the universe aren't identical.[11][12] They hold real existence to be for God only and the universe to have no existence on its own.

Waḥdat asḥ-Shuhūd[edit]

Waḥdat asḥ-Shuhūd (or wah-dat-ul-shuhud, wahdat-ul-shuhud, or wahdatul shuhud) 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 doctorine of Waḥdat asḥ-Shuhūd. This school was formulated by ʿAlāʾ ad-Dawlah Simnānī, 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.[6][13]

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.[citation needed] 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).[citation needed]

Abu Hafs Umar al-Suhrawardi and Abd-al-karim Jili were also proponents of apparentism.

Ashraf Jahangir Semnani's and Shah Waliullah's view of Waḥdah[edit]

Ashraf Jahangir Semnani was the first Sufi saint who demonstrated that the two seemingly opposite doctrines of waḥdat al-wujūd of Ibn Arabi and waḥdat ash-shuhūd of Sheikh Alauddala Semnani and its proponents in India such as Gesu Daraz Banda Nawaz are not but verbal controversies.[14] Shah Waliullah later also 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 metaphysicians, 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.[15]

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 (fī marṭabat 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.[16]

Waḥdat al-Maqṣūd[edit]

Sultan Bahu a famous Sufi Saint of Islam, first introduced the concept of 'waḥdat al-maqṣūd,' the 'intention of Unity' or the 'necessity of unity.' Sultan Bahu did not sufficiently elaborate on this idea, focusing his interest and attention towards the concept of 'fanāʾ fi-llāh, baqāʾ billāh' (Annihilation in GOD, Lasting with GOD). He is the only Sufi Scholar to establish the concept of lasting forever with Allah (GOD) by ceasing, or annihilating ones self in Allah (GOD). His followers wrote many books explaining his ideas and thoughts.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ a b Imaginal worlds, William Chiittick(1994), pg.15
  3. ^ a b Imaginal worlds, William Chiittick(1994), pg.53
  4. ^ a b c Souad Hakim – Unity of Being in Ibn 'Arabî
  5. ^ Ibn al-'Arabi, Muhyi al-Din (1164–1240)
  6. ^ a b Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Philosophy from Its Origin to the Present(2006), pg76
  7. ^ Hadi, Nabi (1995). "Muhhibb ullah Ilahabadi, Shaikh". Dictionary of Indo-Persian Literature. Abhinav Publications. p. 427. ISBN 978-81-7017-311-3. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  8. ^ Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Philosophy from Its Origin to the Present, pg 78
  9. ^ a b Alexander D. Knysh, Ibn Arabi in the Later Islamic Tradition. Pg. 169. State University of New York Press: Albany, 1999.
  10. ^ Maktoobat Rabbaniyah
  11. ^ Tehqiq ul Haq fi Kalamat ul Haq a book by Pir Meher Ali Shah
  12. ^ 'Tasawwuf' a book in Urdu by Syed Waheed Ashraf
  13. ^ 'Tasawwuf' book in Urdu by Syed Waheed Ashraf
  14. ^ 'LATĀIF-E-ASHRAFI' in Persian by Syed Ashraf Jahangir Semnani (Edited, Annotated) by Syed Waheed Ashraf
  15. ^ Shah Wali Allah (Qutb al-Din Ahmad al-Rahim) (1703–62)
  16. ^ G. N. Jalbani, The Teachings of Shah Waliyullah of Delhi, pg98
  • God Speaks, The Theme and Purpose of Creation. Meher Baba, Dodd Meade, 1955. (second edition, p. 280)

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