What is “Unity of Being” (Wahdat al-Wujud)? Does it Conform in Any Way to the Teachings of Islam?”

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Wahdat al-wujud (literally, oneness or unity of being) is a teaching mostly spoken of in connection with mystics and Sufis. Although the phrase refers to a subjective state or direct, inward experience attained by Sufis, it has also been understood and discussed as a philosophical concept and, as such, interpreted in different ways. Some have even considered it practically indistinguishable from wahdat al-mawjud (the oneness or unity of existents), a philosophy known in the West by the name monism.

As with much else, wahdat al-wujud has reached us with excesses and extremes in the use and understanding of it. In some cases because of lack of suitable words to express the experience to which it alludes; in others because of inadequacies in the manner in which the phrase has been applied to the ordinary, visible reality of this world; in yet others because it inclines to a line of thought very like another philosophical doctrine, namely pantheism—the phrase wahdat al-wujud which, strictly speaking, can only be referred to God Himself, has been conceived and interpreted in diverse ways and led to a variety of unsound speculations and controversies.

Those who uphold the teaching of wahdat al-wujud distinguish three modes of tawhid (oneness):

1. Tawhid al-af’al (oneness or unity of the Agent): Meaning that, of every act, the sole and only, the absolute, Agent is God. It follows from this view that there is no need to look for any cause for whatever exists or happens in the universe; everything everywhere is directly the work of God. (Since we dealt with the issue of kasb (the performance or doing of acts) and khalq(the createdness of acts), matters pertaining to kalam (theology), in the questions related to destiny, we shall not repeat that discussion here.) Those who argue for tawhid al-af’al cite the following verses to support their view:

But God has created you and what you do. (Saffat 37:96) . . . All is from God . . . (Nisa 4:78)

2. Tawhid al-sifat (oneness or unity of the Subject): Meaning that of all predicates the sole and only Subject is God. According to this view, all volition, all forces and powers, all knowledge and faculties, belong to God only; they are an intelligible expression, or a work, or a realized state of Him.

3. Tawhid al-dhat (also, tawhid al-wujud) (oneness or unity of Essence or of Being): Meaning that in essence all existence is One; and everything visible or knowable around us, other than Him, is a manifestation and disclosure of Him in certain states.

There is much to say and dispute about here, from the modes of tawhid to the subtle nuances between manifestation and disclosure. However, since the question asked here concerns only the third mode of tawhid, we will only dwell upon the tawhid al-dhat (oneness or unity of Essence or Being).

Given that such a view of tawhid, as noted above, is the result of an inward state or direct, inward experience (dhawq), many scholars do not consider the subject amenable to rational discussion.

In fact, when existents and events are not referred ultimately to God and His Names, it is impossible to explain them fully. That is acknowledged by all people of sound learning who reflect seriously and pursue their reflections fully. There is considerable similarity between the understanding of tawhid of those who use rational methods of inquiry, and those who follow the disciplines of Sufism. Sa’d al-Din Taftazani, in his Sharh al-Maqasid (Explanation of Purposes), distinguishes two groups among those who argue wahdat al-wujud, of whom one he assesses to be within the bounds of the ahl al-Sunna, i.e. orthodox: there is no dispute about or with this group.

According to Taftazani, the two groups are the sufiyya and mutasawwifa. The former hold to the plurality in wujud as is in mawjud, in essential being as in existence. However, when the Sufi reaches God, he is immersed in the ocean of ‘irfan (perception, direct knowing); he experiences fana’, the perishing or loss of the self in God and of his attributes in God’s attributes. As a result of this mystical experience, he believes that nothing exists other than God; he regards himself as the focus (mikhraq) of all manifestation (tajalli) of the Divine Attributes: this is the state the Sufis call fana’ fi l-tawhid or perishing into the Oneness. Unable at this point to understand the reality of the situation, the Sufis may exclaim in ecstatic utterances a condition of in-dwelling (hulul) in God or of “union” (ittihad) with God.

According to some Sufis, such an understanding of tawhid is the result of that stage or degree of union with God (maqam al-jam). But this is firstly a matter of ‘irfan, and then a matter of experience or tasting (dhawq). In this degree, attributing real existence to things could not but be contradictory to the Sufis’ visions (mushahadat). That is why, to acknowledgeasbab (causes) in that state would be, in a sense, to acknowledge an associate with God (i.e. to do shirk). On the other hand, to deny the asbab without really attaining such a degree of consciousness, without really experiencing it fully, is hypocrisy and a merely theoretical assertion. Therefore, one who denies union (jam’) is considered ‘irfan-less (unknowing, unperceiving) and one who denies the difference between God and humankind (farq) which the Sufi overcomes in the experience of jam’ is considered far away from the secrets of servanthood to God. The mature person is one who comfortably accepts both farq and jam’, each in its necessary place.

The second group comprise those who argue an absolute wahdat al-wujud. For them Being is One, which is nothing other than God. The multiplicity of the visible is only imaginary or illusory.

While wahdat al-wujud is for the sufiyya a matter of affective state (hal) or direct experience (dhawq), the mutasawwifa seem to hold to it as an established conviction and philosophy. In fact, not a few theologians have shared that conviction. Some of them, such as Jalal al-Din Dawwani, have defended it vigorously. However, the general consensus of ahl al-Sunna scholars is that the (separate) reality of things in the world is thabit (securely established).

Sheikhulislam M. Sabri in his Mawqif al-‘aql (The Station of Reason) indicates that the concept of wujud al-haqq (unity or oneness of reality) is behind that of wahdat al-wujud. But, as is known and accepted by scholars and theologians, wujud is an addition to mahiyya (quiddity); this is so both in that which is wujub (necessary) and that which is mumkin (possible). However, Imam al-Ash’ari held the opposite, namely that wujud is the same as mahiyya both in wujub and mumkin. While the Philosophers agree with al-Ash’ari in regard to wujub, they side with theologians in regard to mumkin. Since the schools of al-Ash’ari and the Philosophers consider wujud to be ultimately from God Himself and from His Being (Wujud), they accord a derivative, relative wujud to everything and see all existence as ultimately from One, God Himself.

In fact, whether the Being of God or His Attributes are the same as or other than God in Himself is a matter which has long been discussed. Some people, including very great scholars of Islam, considerwujud al-Bari’ (oneness or unity of the Author) as the same as the Divine Being in Himself. To conclude from this that these people affirm the teaching of wahdat al-wujud and even of wahdat al-mawjud (monism) may lead one to claim that they are in error (dalala)—but that is a charge of such moment that we should not wish to bear the responsibility of it.

Jalal al-Din Dawwani, in his Risalat al-Dawwani, remarked that the being of the Real (al-Haqq) is the same as His Essence (Dhat) and that there is no real being or existent other than Dhat al-Haqq; and that since wujud is wujud (since “being” is precisely that which “is”), it cannot but be the being of the Real, wujud al-Haqq. That entails that the being of all existents is not real but itibari (derivative, relative). Dawwani goes a step further and observes that it is impossible to consider the creation as comprising existents that are independently, fully existent (mustaqil) both in their being (wujud) and in their outward manifestness: “Regarding wujud, it is impossible to attribute [independent] existence to ‘alam (the universe); it is impossible for anything to exist in itself. Regarding outward manifestness, it is impossible to attribute an independent existence to mumkinat, because a thing can only be manifest relatively to the Real Being, to the Wujud who is al-Haqq (the Real). No actual existent (mustaqil haqiqa) has its real being except in relation to Real Being, its being depends upon His Being—on that dependence it can be said to exist. Therefore, we should not consider entities that we know to be conjectural (wahm) and imaginary (khayal) as actually existent (mawjud).”

Ibn al-‘Arabi goes still further and insists that what is visible in the universe is a manifestation and reflection, it is never a mawjud (existent), not even derivatively. God constantly and continually manifests Himself and the universe is constantly and continually renewed. These manifestations succeed one other and the universe constantly and continually goes back and forth between existence and non-existence because of these consecutive manifestations. These manifestations succeed one another so rapidly that no interval or gap is perceived in the continuous hierarchy of beings.

Mawlana Jalal al-Din al-Rumi shares the same views and expresses them in a colorful way: “O Soul of our souls! Who are we that dare to attribute existence to themselves? (in comparison to You, what or who are we that dare to make such a claim.) We are a large number of nothing. Our existences are nothing, either. As to You, You are the Wujud al-Mutlaq, who exhibits all the fani’ (the transient, perishable entities) on a mirror in which everything is going to appear. Each of us is a lion, but one that is not real—one such as might be embroidered on a flag is moved by the blowing wind. Its movements are seen in the movements of the flag but the wind that moves them is not seen—may that Unseen never withhold His blessings from us! Our existence is bestowed by You and we are Your creation only. You made non-existence taste the flavor of existence, and made it in eternity Your enraptured (lover).” Such a view which holds everything to be the manifestation of al-Haqq cannot attribute being to anything. While Rumi considers that the universe does have being, that it exists, it does so figuratively (majazi) and because of its being a manifestation of al-Haqq.

Yet there is a multiplicity and variety in the visible world. Some Sufis, as we have just noted, consider this multiplicity and variety as manifestation of al-Haqq and explain it as dependent upon the skills (istidat) of the mirrors; and they hold that such a view is not contrary or harmful to the unity of Divine Being.

Junayd al-Baghdadi conveys the same view in his well-known remark: “The water takes on the color of the cup.” True or Real Being is One. Just as the Light is One, for all that it illumines—all creatures are reflections and ripple-waves of this Light. Just as rain droplets, which appear in different forms, as water, ice and vapor, are different states of one substance. Similarly, things and events, which flow by and are differently manifest, are the manifestations of the same Reality.

Unlike the early Sufis whose views lead to a sound belief in tawhid, those of the mutasawwifa group who treat wahdat al-wujud in a philosophical way have not been able to stay clear of expressions and utterances which incline to hulul and ittihad. In fact, when they expand on the subject scientifically and philosophically, they cannot be thought free from such a consequence. Indeed, they even seek evidence for their position in verses of the Qur’an and the hadiths of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him.

The verses are:

It is not you who slew; it was God. When you threw (a handful of dust), it was not your act, but God’s . . . (Anfal 8:17)

Verily those who plight their fealty to you do no less than plight their fealty to God . . . (Fath 68:10)

It was We who created man, and We know what dark suggestions his soul makes to him: for We are nearer to him than his jugular vein. (Qaf 50:17)

The hadiths are:

God the All-Mighty says, “O man! I was ill, but you didn’t visit me.” Man says, “My Lord! You are the Lord of all the realms, how can I visit You?” God says, “Do you not know that so-and-so of my servants got ill, but you did not visit him. If you had visited him, you would have found Me with him.”[1]

God the All-Mighty says: “. . . My servant does not draw near to Me with anything more loved by Me than the religious duties that I have imposed upon him, and My servant continues to draw near to Me with supererogatory works so that I shall love him. When I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes, his foot with which he walks. . .”[2]

It would be possible to narrate many more such hadiths and other Qur’anic verses. However, believing that to do so would not add to the argument, we keep the discussion short. Also, the remarks on this subject of the great men of Sufism, of which we have mentioned only a few so far, are too many to ignore. However, as dealing with them fully in the scope of this question-answer would be impossible and, perhaps, unnecessary, we have limited our attention to only a few.

First of all, characterizing the first two verses quoted above among the muhkamat (the clear truths) of the Qur’an and thus closing the door to any contradiction of the Muslim creed, is the surest way of right interpretation to which many great mufassirs (interpreters of the Qur’an) have adhered.

It does not make much matter whether the action mentioned in the verse is ascribed to God or to His Prophet; either it is a miracle or an action that is attributed by God to His most glorious servant to assure his glory; or it expresses his might and power, confirming his truth.

In fact, in the above verses, what is used to justify an extreme interpretation of wahdat al-wujud, rather emphasizes and confirms the (separate) reality of what exists in the world. For, the difference of unbeliever and believer, of slayer and slain, and muhatab (third person), are mentioned: it is possible to deduce unity of being only by means of elaborate and far-fetched interpretations. Especially to deduce from “. . .We are nearer to Him than his jugular vein, a meaning in favor of wahdat al-wujud is impossible.

In the hadiths, what is obvious is separateness and multiplicity, not unity, of being. To acknowledge that a servant (‘abd) is a distant, secondary creature until he acquires nearness (qurbiya) to God, and then to talk about unity of the two is a rather crude form of belief in hulul and ittihad (in-dwelling and union) which even the mutasawwifa do not accept. Moreover, even in the words of the “people of God,” uttered to affirm Oneness of Being, a duality is evident:

You are either the sun or the sea; either the Mountain Qaf  or Phoenix.
O Being, who is beyond the comprehension of mind!
You are the Eternal and Limitless.
However, since You manifest Yourself in countless chapters (forms), both those who unite with or liken themselves to You are all enraptured.

Without needing further comment and interpretation, it is obvious that everything there said or aspired to rests on duality and multiplicity. Although other people look for evidence for wahdat al-wujud in the words of the mutasawwifa, the mutasawwifa themselves are always seen to affirm the realm of multiplicity by their actions, such as to annihilate their nafs (selfhood, carnal self). Except for the separateness from God, what is the meaning of all the hardships and disciplines of those who hold to the teaching of wahdat al-wujud, of their striving for perfection, their seeking to be rid of their deficiencies? Moreover, the profound sincerity in the servanthood to God of those great people absolutely contradicts the extremist, philosophical understanding of wahdat al-wujud.

As long as any believer in wahdat al-wujud accepts his own answerability to God, his servanthood to God, it means that he is acknowledging the difference of ‘amir (the superior) andma’mur (the subordinate). After acknowledging subordination, to insist literally on unity of wujud is sheer self-contradiction. And, bar a few unbelievers who reject servanthood, no believer has ever dared to reject servanthood to God. Therefore, whereas the understanding of wahdat al-wujud of the sufiyya—which in reality concerns wahdat al-shuhud (the unity or oneness of witnessing)—is a result of the affective state in Sufism, istighraq (absorption in ecstatic contemplation, beatitude), and of a lack of words and phrases to express what they feel, the understanding of wahdat al-wujud of some of the mutasawwifa derives from the frailty and insufficiency of rendering in philosophical concepts and arguments what the Sufi experiences as inward consciousness and witnessing: moreover, these philosophical concepts and arguments have their origin less in Islam than in a school of thought developed out of a Western-Christian/Greek philosophy.

The allegation should not be accepted that, under the influence of Neo-Platonist, some great Muslims sought to introduce a doctrine of “pantheism” into Islam. The most that could be said is that those Muslims may have considered it not dangerous temporarily to borrow some terms from the Neo-Platonist since they could not find the words they needed to express what they experienced in their mushahadat (visions) and perceptions. Otherwise, there is a world of difference between those two groups of people in terms of their understanding of the Divine Essence.

A group of people who had found the balance of the world and the Hereafter as that balance is conveyed by the Qur’an can never be considered to agree on an understanding of wahdat al-wujud such as is attributed to the mutasawwifa:

  1. A belief in One God who is everything everywhere means accepting the most unsuitable and irrelevant things to be “God,” the absurdity of which any sense must reject.
  2. The Qur’an adduces evidence from the universe and creation for the Oneness and Existence of God, which indicates that the reality of the created world is thabit (securely established).
  3. In the Qur’an, many verses reiterate that the universe is going to be destroyed, after which a new world will be established. The destruction and extinction of something is meaningless unless it first exists. To talk about the destruction of something whose reality is not thabit is absurd and futile. And the Qur’an is altogether free from of absurdity or futility.
  4. All the Prophets, peace be upon them, teach that all beings, great or small, were created second, and insistently reiterate the doctrine that the relation between God and all other existents is only a relation between the Creator and what He created. In the understanding of wahdat al-wujud attributed to the mutasawwifa, the Prophets and the truths given to them by revelation have to be declared false and denied, which is an abomination to heart and mind.
  5. Every piece of evidence adduced to support a simple, literal understanding of wahdat al-wujud, in fact gives support to the argument for multiplicity of being.
  6. A great number of verses in the Qur’an affirm that the obedient will be rewarded and the rebellious will be punished. From a literal understanding of unity of being, any judgment of this kind is an impossibility, since it would be impossible to answer such questions as, “Who is obedient?” “What is a blessing (ni’ma) and where is it?” “Who is guilty?” “What is punishment?” and so on.
  7. If all things are accepted to be of God and events to be some sort of manifestation of Him, it would be injustice to criticize idols and the idolatrous. For, as all events are manifestations of Him, idols and the idolatrous cannot be reckoned other than Him. On the other hand, it is obvious that the Qur’an and Sunna, which establish tawhid, are the greatest enemy of unbelief and idolatry.
  8. If wahdat al-wujud is accepted as the mutasawwifa accept it, it necessitates the idea that matter is qadim (eternal), which is, by the consensus of the community (bi-l-ijma’) tantamount to kufr (unbelief) and those who are truly “people of God” are absolutely far from and free of committing such a kufr.

There are clear differences between the mutassawwifa understanding of wahdat al-wujud and a literal-philosophical understanding of the concept which declines into pantheism. There is, to be sure, an outward similarity between the two. The philosophical understanding holds that God and the universe have the same being, a position divides into two:

  1. God is a Real Being and the universe is nothing but an assemblage or arrangement or composition of some manifestations (tazahurat) or emanations (sudurat). This is a view held by Spinoza and his followers.
  2. Only the universe is real. God is the majmu’ (sum/whole) of all existents (mawjuds). This is the view of a naturalist pantheism sometimes associated with Hegel and his followers.

In short, the difference is this: As a result of having experienced fana’ (extinction) the mutasawwifa deny the reality of the universe, the philosophical group ignore the Creator of the universe and try to put Him aside. While the mutasawwifa understanding of wahdat al-wujud implies wahdat al-shuhud (oneness of witnessing), the others’ understanding of it inclines to wahdat al-mawjud (monism). The first group, unable to express their affective state (hal), visions (mushahada) and istighraq (absorption), resort to mutashabihat (metaphors, allegories) due to lack of words to express what they experience. The other group theorize the concept, and try to make a formal philosophy, a science, out of it. While the first start with God and then evaluate existents and events from this respect, the latter start to deal with the experiencing subject, thus making God dependent on the existents. While there is direct experience (dhawq) of God with the first, there is only theory and speculation with the latter. While the first deny and lose their selves in humility before God, the latter make the philosophy of their being like wajib al-wujud.

God knows best.

[1] Muslim, Birr, 43
[2] Bukhari, Riqaq, 38