Wahdat al-Wujud, Wahdat al-Shuhud and the Safest Position

Translated by Zameelur Rahman

Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn al-Sabbah and ‘Ali ibn Hujr al-Sa’di narrated to me: both from Sharik. Ibn Hujr said: Sharik informed us: from ‘Abd al-Malik ibn ‘Umayr: from Abu Salamah: from Abu Hurayrah: from the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace): he said:

“The truest word spoken by a [pre-Islamic] Arab in poetry is this verse of Labid: Behold! Apart from Allah everything is vain.” (Sahih Muslim)

Some people adduce the poem of Labid (Allah be pleased with him) as proof that the doctrine of the Oneness of Being (Wahdat al-Wujud) is correct. This doctrine along with its corresponding doctrine of the Oneness of Perception (Wahdat al-Shuhud) is not among the doctrines that are necessary in the religion to know or to believe in their validity or invalidity. Rather it is best not to be preoccupied with it and not to discuss it, because it is a dangerous subject, discussion of which may lead to heresy (zandaqah) and apostasy (ilhad).

The reality is that it is a philosophical and dialectical question, the true nature of which human minds are incapable of comprehending.  We have not been commanded in the religion to fine-tune these matters. The safest path in the like of them is what the pious predecessors practiced by consigning (tafwid) their reality to Allah Most High while leaving preoccupation with the like of these philosophical fine-tunings which have no clear ruling in the texts of the Shari’ah.

Due to this we did not wish to discuss this topic nor increase the length of the book in verifying its reality. However, since discussions on this topic have become more frequent as has occurred among the philosophers and Sufis of the Muslims, and many kinds of extremism have surfaced in it from various sides, it behooves us to write a short essay here on the different positions on this issue, in order to caution people against extremism, whether that extremism is in the matter at hand, or in declaring the adherents of these positions as right or wrong. And Allah Most High is the Helper.

The article [of faith] which the adherents of Islam, rather the adherents of all heavenly religions, have agreed upon is that independent beginningless eternal existence belongs to none besides Allah Most High, and that He Most High is the One who created the cosmos and originated it, and that all creatures were non-existent and came into the domain of existence by the creation of Allah Most High and His origination. However, they differed in the manner in which the creatures are characterised by “existence”, according to four positions:

[1] The majority of the ‘ulama of the Shari’ah took the position that the existence of possible creatures is a real existence that is acquired, in the sense that it is dependent on the will of Allah Most High, His creation and His origination.

[2] Some of the Muslim philosophers expressed the view that their existence is relative (idafi).

[3] The adherents of the doctrine of the Oneness of Being, and the foremost of them is Shaykh Ibn ‘Arabi (Allah have mercy on him), expressed the view that their existence is purely imaginary (khayali).

[4] The adherents of the doctrine of the Oneness of Perception, and the foremost of them is Mujaddid al-Alf al-Thani[1] (Allah have mercy on him), expressed the view that their existence is a shadow existence (wujud zilli).

As regards to the difference between real acquired existence (al-wujud al-haqiqi al-muktasab) and relative (idafi), imaginative (khayali) and shadow (zilli) existence, it will become clear with [the help of] an illustration or an analogy, and that is if we were to put a glass before the sun, the sun would produce four changes in the glass:

The first change is that the glass would become warm due to the heat of the sun. The existence of heat and warmth in the glass in this state is a real existence different to the existence of the heat of the sun. This is proven by the fact that if the glass’s opposition to the sun was removed, the heat of the glass would remain for a while. Hence, this is a proof for the difference between the reality of heat and the reality of warmth. However, the warmth of the glass is acquired from the heat of the sun and is dependent on it. This is an illustration or analogy of real acquired existence.

The majority of the ‘ulama have taken the view that the existence of possible entities and creatures is a real acquired existence, in the sense that Allah Most High is the One that created its existence. However, real existence is different from the existence of Allah Most High. Moreover, the existence and existent are both complete and separate. Real existence is divided into two types: the beginningless independent existence by Itself, and this existence belongs to none besides Allah Most High; and an acquired temporal existence, and this is a quality of all possible entities. Likewise the existent is divided into two types: the beginningless independent existent and this is none besides Allah Most High, and a contingent created existent, and this includes all possible entities.

The second change in the glass facing the sun is that it emits light due to the radiation of the sun but this light which the glass emits is not different to the light of the sun. Rather, it is the same as the light of the sun, but it is distinguished from it by a specific relation acquired by it due to the ascription of the glass to it. And the proof of it being from the light of the sun is that it disappears when the opposition between the sun and the glass is removed. This is an analogy of relative existence since the existence of the light of the glass, from the perspective that it is the light of the glass, is not real, and it is only the light of the sun by which the glass acquires a specific attribution by it. Hence, the light of the glass is the same as the light of the sun, although it is distinguished from it by this specific relation.

Some of the Islamic philosophers have taken the position that the characterisation of possible entities by existence is but analogous to the description of the glass with light in this illustration. When Allah Most High wanted to create the possible entities He gave them a specific connection, whose true nature is unknown, to the existence that is subsisting in itself. He did not give it an existence different from that existence, but it is described as [having] existence by virtue of this connection which Allah Most High gave to it. Hence, the existence according to them is real and partial, and the existent is complete and separate.

The third change in the glass facing the sun is that the disc of the sun appears in the glass as though it is located in it. However, the reality is that the image of the sun which appears in the glass does not have a real existence since it is not the same as the sun, as is clear, or an apparition of it or a replication of it, rather it is purely fantasy and imaginary. Its reality is nothing except that the visual rays, when it descends on the glass, it turns to the sun, so the sun appears in those visual rays. Thus the image of the sun reflected in the glass is an imaginary image, generated only by visual rays. Hence, if one were to close his eye, the image of the sun will no longer remain in the glass. If, therefore, it had an actual existence in the glass, that existence would not disappear upon closing the eye. This is an illustration of imaginary existence.

One of the adherents of the doctrine of the Oneness of Being, and the foremost of them is Shaykh Ibn ‘Arabi (Allah Most High have mercy on him), would say that the existence of Allah Most High is eternal and beginningless, and there was nothing before the creation of the world besides this beginningless eternal existence along with His names and attributes, and this is what is called in their terminology “external existence” (zahir al-wujud). All the possible entities were non-existent in the exterior but its detailed knowledge was available to Allah Most High. These possible entities from the perspective of their being known to Allah Most High are called in the terminology “the immutable entities” (al-a’yan al-thabita). Hence, when Allah Most High intended to remove the world from pure non-existence, He manifested these immutable entities upon external existence, by different levels of manifestation and in a manner whose true nature is known only to Allah. Thus, the reflections of these immutable entities were manifested into external existence, whereby they do not acquire an existence from the outside, nor do they acquire the ability to penetrate into external existence, and it only acquires an imaginary existence that appears from the outside as though it is an external existence, just as the disc of the sun acquired an imaginary existence in the glass without it acquiring a real existence externally. Thus, the real existent is none other than Allah Most High and the entire world is a reflection of the immutable entities and is nothing but pure imagination, which appears to be existent externally, but is not existent with a real existence.

Moreover, although Shaykh Ibn ‘Arabi (Allah have mercy on him) claimed that the existence of the world in its entirety is purely imaginary, he nevertheless believed that the imagination has different levels. Hence, from the imaginary existent is that which disappears by stepping up the imagination, thus rules do not pertain to them; and from it is that which does not disappear by stepping up the imagination, so it is proper that some rules pertain to it. The existence of the world is from the second type of imaginary existence which does not disappear by stepping up the imagination, and for that reason it is correct for the rules of the Shari’ah to pertain to it. So, what some people raise as an objection to him that the view of the entire world being purely imaginary necessitates the view of the negation of laws and rules, is an objection not brought about by what Shaykh Ibn ‘Arabi said.

The fourth change in the glass facing the sun is that the shadow of the glass falls on the earth. This shadow does not have a real existence. It is but an original darkness encompassed by light, and by this encompassment it becomes an image from the outside called a shadow. This is an illustration of shadow existence.

The adherents of the theory of the Oneness of Perception, and the foremost of them is Shaykh Mujaddid al-Alf al-Thani (Allah have mercy on him), would say before the creation of the world there was nothing existent besides Allah Most High and all the possible entities were non-existent. Thus, the names of Allah Most High and His attributes were existent with a beginningless existence, and these are an expression of the attributes of perfection. In contrast to them are the non-existent imperfect entities, like incapacity in contrast to power, and ignorance in contrast to knowledge. When Allah Most High intended to create the world, He manifested the attributes of His perfection on these non-existents, so the image of the perfections reflected on these non-existents, and by this reflection emerged the realities whose substance (maddah) are the non-existents and their forms (surah) these reflections. Thus they are not existent with a real existence, due to originally being non-existents and imperfect entities, but they are by virtue of this reflection not considered pure non-existents. Hence, their existence is not a real existence, because the real existence is none besides Allah Most High, and not a purely imaginary existence as Shaykh Ibn ‘Arabi said, but it has a level between the two levels, like the existence of a shadow, and is called a shadow existence.

I summarised this synopsis of the four positions on this issue from the book Bawadir al-Nawadir by the teacher of our teachers Muhammad Ashraf ‘Ali al-Thanawi (Allah Most High have mercy on him).

As regards to the safest position in the like of these issues, it is what we set forth beforehand, in leaving discussion about it and consigning its reality to Allah Most High. Thus we believe generally in that the existence of Allah Most High is independent, complete, eternal and beginningless, while the existence of creatures in their entirety is a temporal existence dependent on the will of Allah Most High and it is imperfect in all respects relative to the existence of Allah Most High. As regards to the true understanding of this imperfect existence and the manner in which the creatures are characterised by it, we are not commanded to investigate this and arrive at its true nature. There is no way for us to have firm resolve in this at all.

It appears the position of the majority of the ‘ulama, which is the first from the four positions we mentioned earlier, is the preponderant one, due to it being closest [in keeping] to His statement Most High, “Verily, when He intends a thing, His Command is, ‘be’, and it is!” (Qur’an 36:82). As regards to what Shaykh Ibn ‘Arabi and Shaykh Mujaddid al-Alf al-Thani (Allah Most High have mercy on them) said, we assign its reality to Allah Most High, and we do not speak insolently about them, for indeed they spoke about these issues due to a reason they know best, and there is nothing in what they said that directly clashes with the texts. However, at the same time there is nothing in the texts which necessitate adhering to their views or being resolute about what they said. Whoever construes the texts of the Shari’ah to express one of these views, then his construal is not devoid of being a distortion (tahrif) or extremism (ghuluww), or forced interpretation (takalluf) and an aberration (ta’assuf), for indeed the texts of the Shari’ah are silent on these issues the true reality of which human minds are unable to comprehend.

So whoever holds, in regards to the discourse of this topic, to the correctness of the doctrine of the Oneness of Being from the perspective that Allah’s Messenger (Allah blessed him and grant him peace) approved the judgement of the vainness of all things besides Allah Most High, it is a fixation in the matter and far-off from acquiring any benefit, because it is not the intent of the poem to discuss the manner in which creation is characterised by existence. The intent is only that all things besides Allah are imperfect and death will overtake them, whereas imperfection or death does not occur in Allah Most High. How excellent is what the teacher of our teachers Al-Thanawi (Allah Most High have mercy on him) said in Bawadir al-Nawadir (p. 716):

“Indeed the issue of the Oneness of Being and Oneness of Perception is from the issues learnt through unveiling (kashfi), which are not indicated by a text, and the objective of these issues is not to oppose a text. As for struggling to establish them using the texts, if the text contains their possibility, then its mention is by way of supposition, and although this is not extremism, it is forced interpretation; and if it is elevated from the level of mere supposition to the level of firm conviction and confidence it is extremism; and if it is not contained as a possibility in the text then the claim of that issue being established by the text, whether as a supposition or as firm conviction, is a clear distortion (tahrif) of the texts.

“As regards to when this claim is not by way of an explanation (tafsir) and interpretation (ta’wil), rather it is by way of a consideration (i’tibar), if the asserted tenet is supported by another text, then this consideration is included in the boundaries of the Shari’ah. As regards to when the asserted tenet is not established by a text, then indeed mention of it by way of a consideration of it, is also forced interpretation.”

And Allah Most High knows best.

Takmilah Fath al-Mulhim 4:372-77

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  1. Shaykh Ahmad al-Sirhindi al-Faruqi (d. 1624) []

6 Comments

  • SubhanAllah ! What a great and brillant explanation on this topic !
    If only some people among those who like to discuss about this difficult and dangerous topic could read this article…
    May Allah reward Mufti Taqi(hafizahullah) and Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi(ra) for their efforts.

  • An excellent summary and, perhaps, as simple as it gets. May Allah(swt) reward you Shaikh Taqi Usmani.

  • SubhanALLAH ! a very easy to understand article on such a difficult topic. May ALLAH SWT shower His blessings upon Mufti Mohammad Taqi Usmani (may ALLAH preserve him).

  • all four possibilities which r mentioned for existance of creation are understandsble by their words,but the example of a sun and glass to portray relation between god and creation is extremely in appropriate and totally ruined and damadged the possibility of understanding of this concept for those who want to understand this. If someone has a query he can email me.

  • In this essay it should have been included on why there was an enmity among the adherents of different viewpoints. Anyway this concise thesis is enjoyable and enlightening.

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