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SUFI Ebno'I-'Arabi's Doctrine of the Oneness of Being

Ebno'l-'Arabi's Doctrine of the


Oneness of Being
by William C. Chittick

the most famous of his books, the

E
bno'l-'Arabi, known as the wal)da (derived from the same root
'Greatest Master', was the Fo$U$ al-bekam (The Bezels of as tawi)id) and from a second word
most influential of all those Wisdom'). His numerous students which delineates the central concern
Sufis who employed the language of spread his doctrines throughout the of philosophy - should alert us to the
philosophy to express the teachings of Islamic world; within two centuries, fact that we are dealing with a
Islam. Born in Murcia in Muslim there was no expression of Islamic in- synthesis of the religious and the
Spain in 560/1165, he exhibited his tellectuality untouched by his genius. philosophical traditions. But in Ebno'l-
outstanding spiritual gifts at an early He has continued to influence Muslim 'Arabi's own works, passages dealing
age. In a frequently quoted passage, intellectuals down to the present with wojud - a term which is not
he recalls his meeting with the century, and even today many Mus- found in the Koran - play a relatively
famous philosopher Averroes when lims consider him the most important small role. Like most earlier Sufis
the latter was an old man. Averroes thinker ever produced by Islam. and in contrast to the philosophers
perceived in Ebno'l-'Arabi, a youth and theologians, he derives the greater
with only fuzz for a beard, the wisdom The Oneness of Being part of his key terminology from the
for which he had been searching all Koran and the sayings of thc Prophet
his life. The meeting is highly sym- In the later literature, Ebno1-'Ar- (l;adith), and he constantly shows
bolic in that the works of Averroes abi is most often characterized as the how these sources of Islam are the
- which were largely forgotten in the founder of the doctrine of wal)dato'l- fountainhead of the established sci-
Islamic world itself - became one of wojud, the 'Oneness of Being' or the ences, such as jurisprudence, kelsm
the major factors influencing the West 'Oneness of Existence'. This doctrine or scholastic theology, philosophy, and
to move in the direction of a ration- expresses Islam's basic teaching, grammar.
alism closed to the intermediate tswhid or the 'affirmation of God's The history of the term wal;dato1-
realms of existence, while Ebn01- Unity', in the ontological language of wojud has only recently been inves-
'Arabi's writings harmonized the ra- philosophy. Ebno1-'Arabi himself tigated. Preliminary research has
tional and spiritual modes of percep- never employs the expression shown that Ebno'l-'Arabi's disciple
tion and helped keep the minds of wsbdeto'l-wojud, and it was singled Qonawi uses the term on at least two
Muslim intellectuals open to the out as typifying his point of view not occasions in his works, while Qonawi's
luminous presence of the angels and so much because of the content of his disciple Sa'ido'd-Din Farghani (d. 695/
spirits. writings, but because of the concerns 1296) employs it many times in his
In the year 597/1200, Ebn01- of his followers and the direction in two influential commentaries on the
'Arabi was told in a vision to go to which Islamic thought developed after Ta'iyya. of the Arabic poet Ebn01-
the East. In 599/1202 he performed him. Many important students of Faredh. But neither Qonawi nor
the pilgrimage to Mecca, and from Ebno'l-Arabi, beginning with his Farghani uses the term wslulsto'l-
then on he traveled from city to city most influential disciple, Sadro'd-Din wojud in the technical sense which it
in the central Islamic lands, eventu- Qonawi (d. 673/1274), tried to bring gained in later centuries. For them,
ally settling in Damascus, where he the intellectual expression of Sufism the expression does not connote a
died in 638/1240. He left behind into harmony with Peripatetic phi- whole perspective on the nature of
some 500 works, including the losophy, and wojud or 'existence? things but refers instead to the self-
enormous Fotul)at al-makkiya (The was the primary concern of the phi- evident fact that wojud is a single
Meccan Openings') and a short sum- losophers. Thus the very term reality. At the same time, certain fig-
mary of his teachings which became wstuietol-wojud - built from the word ures peripheral to Ebno'l-'Arabi's

6 Issue 4
William C. Chittick SUFI

school, such as Ebn Sab'in (d. 669/


1270) in Arabic and 'Azizo'd-Din
Nasafi (d. before 700/13(0) in Per-
sian, were employing the term to
allude to the world view of the sages
and the Sufis. Then the Hanbalite
jurist Ebn Taymiya (d. 728/1328),
famous for his attacks on all schools
of Islamic intellectuality, seized upon
:1 ' I1
the term wabdato7-wojud as a syno-
!I! i: ~!
nym for the well-known heresies of
~
I! .'
ette1)ad (,unificationism') and bolul 1 I
i I
('incarnationism'). From Ebn I
I. :1
Taymiya's time onward, wa l)dato '1- ,I·
'1 ;
'>f\' I
, I

wojud was used more and more com-


:11
monly to refer to the whole doctrine
taught by Ebno'l-'Arabi and his fol- :,:'
lowers. For jurists like Ebn Taymiya .j i ,.1.
I'

i
the expression was a term of blame,
synonymous with 'unbelief and 'her- I'
1 •

esy', but most Muslim intellectuals :~;


I,

'.
accepted wabdato'l-wojud as a syno- ,

• 'I
"

nym for tewhid in a philosophical and ; ;~


mystical mode.' :: I I

.
~;

(
I1 :
Though Ebno'l-Arabi never em-
ploys the expression wehdsto'l-wojud
itself, he frequently makes statements
which approximate it, and wc are cer-
tainly justified in claiming that he
supported wshdsto'l-wojud in the lit-
eral sense of the term. However, we
cannot claim that 'Oneness of Being'
is itself a sufficient description of his
ontology, since he affirms the 'ma-
nyness of reality' with equal vigor.
Hence, we find that in many passages
he refers to wojud in its fullness as
the One/Many (al-wa/;ledo'l-kathir).
Ebno'l-Arabi employs the term
wojud with a variety of meanings in
different contexts; simply put, wojud
is a single reality which can be
perceived on many different levels,
like its near synonym, 'light' (nur),
A cflOgram of Ebno'~'Arabl'stheory of ethical and spiritual development. found in the second volume of
which is a Koranic name of God. On the Fofuhoto'~mokJdyo. 16th century. Courtesy of the Brijish Library (Arabic manuscript. OR 132).
'the highest level, wojud is the abso-
lute and nondelimited reality of God, define wojud itself, since in itself it which all things come into existence
the 'Necessary Being' (wajebo'1- is indefinable and unknowable. But and are found in the universe, though
wojud) which cannot not exist. On he does provide many analogies in itself it remains invisible and
lower levels, wojud is the underlying through which we can grasp the nature beyond reach.
substance of 'everything other than of wojud. For example, light is in In short, if we say that Ebno'l-
God' (ma sawa' Allah) - which is itself a single, invisible reality, but 'Arabi believed in wsiuistol-wojud;
how Muslim thinkers define the through it, all colors, shapes, and this is correct, since he affirms that
'cosmos' or 'universe' (al-'aJam). objects are perceived; in the same wojud is a single reality and that
Ebno'l-'Arabi does not attempt to way wojud is a single reality through there cannot be two wojuds. Like

Winter 1989- 1990 7


SUFI Ebno'!-'Arabi's Doctrine of the Oneness of Being

others before him, he frequently cosmos, since existence does not istence and the nonexistent things in
glosses the Islamic declaration of belong to it. But each entity has two a wide variety of contexts. Here we
tawl)id - the statement, There is no states or situations. When an entity can look briefly at two of these ex-
god but God' - to mean, 'There is is found within the phenomenal world, planations, the first metaphysical and
nothing in wojud but God: Never- it displays a certain borrowed exis- the second more cosmological. The
theless, Ebnol-'Arabi devotes most of tence, which it gives back to God Koran (57:3) affirms that God is the
his writings to explaining the reality when it disappears, as when a man Manifest (a~-~aher) and the Non-
of manyness or multiplicity (kathra) dies, or a stone turns to dust Nev- manifest (aI-baien). This means that
within the context of the Divine Unity. ertheless, the reality of the entity what we see manifest before us is
It would be a great error to suppose never changes through its apparent God or wojud. We know that wojud
- as some short-sighted critics have existence; it did not exist in the first is one, but in fact we see a cosmos
supposed - that he simply affirms that place - it only borrowed existence of infinite multiplicity, not one God.
wojud is one and attributes the ma- from God for a moment - so it does How then do we account for the ma-
nyness we perceive in the world to not cease to exist in the second place. nyness which we see? Ebno'l-Arabi
illusion or human ignorance. Multi- It stays in its original state of 'per- explains that when wojud becomes
plicity is almost as 'real' as unity. manence' or 'immutability' (thobut). manifest in the cosmos, it displays
However, by affmning the 'reality' But how can we speak of the itself to us within a 'locus of mani-
(haqiqa) of multiplicity, Ebno'l-'Arabi immutability of an entity that does not festation' (ma:(,har), which is the
does not mean to imply that multiplic- exist? Briefly stated, Ebno'l-'Arabi cosmos itself; it does not display itself
ity exists in the same sense that God explains these 'immutable entities' (al- as the Nonmanifest, since by definition
exists, since there is only one wojud. a'yano'th-thabeta) as follows: The wojud as the Nonmanifest is incon-
To return to the analogy of light, we 'existence' and 'nonexistence' of the ceivable and unknowable. Moreover,
can affirm the reality of colors with- entities about which we have been within this one locus of manifestation
out claiming that each color is an speaking pertain to the cosmos, the known as the cosmos, there are many
independently existing thing. Red phenomenal world. But the phe- lesser loci of manifestation, known as
and green exist only through light; so nomenal world is the manifestation of the things or entities found within the
they are one in their luminous sub- the non-phenomenal world, which is cosmos. These loci of manifestation
stance and two in their specific ultimately wojud itself. In Koranic are nonexistent in themselves, since
realities. terms, God 'creates' the universe and only God has wojud. So what we
If on the one hand, the universe each thing within it. And God is not perceive is wojud permeated by the
exists through God's wojud, on the only infinite wojud; He is also infinite properties of the entities, which
other hand, the 'things' (shaYJ or and eternal knowledge. He knows all themselves remain immutable in
'entities' ('ayn) found within the uni- things forever, even before He cre- nonexistence. The situation is analo-
verse possess their own specific ates them, and He knows them in all gous to what happens when light
.properties. These things are 'other the details which they will manifest passes through a prism: We perceive
than God', and, as we have seen, God during their sojourn in the cosmos. many different colors, but the only
is wojud. It follows that in them- God's knowledge of the things corre- thing that exists is the one light
selves the things do not exist. Ebno'l- sponds precisely to the things as they Hence, says Ebno'l-Arabi, in respect
'Arahi maintains that everything we are in themselves. The 'thing in itself to Himself God is Nonmanifest, but
perceive in the cosmos is nonexistent is known as the 'reality' (/;Iaqiqa) of in respect to His loci of manifestation
in itself, but existent in some sense the existent thing or its 'immutable He is Manifest. The loci are plural
through the wojud of God. In the entity'. Hence the entities remain for- in themselves, but not in respect to
same way, every color we perceive ever immutable in the knowledge of the wojud which is Manifest within
is nonexistent in itself, but existent God, which never changes. while in them. Unity lies in their manifesta-
through the existence of light. relation to the cosmos they may be tion - which is wojud - while multi-
If we ignore the existence of the either existent or nonexistent The plicity lies in their entities. which do
things for a moment, we can ask .things within God's knowledge are not exist in themselves. Hence, God
about the things 'in themselves'. What sometimes called the 'nonexistent ob- is identical with the existence of the
is an entity - a rock, a tree, a human jects of knowledge' (aJ-ma1umato7- things, but He is not identical with the
being, a sun, a world' - in itself, ma'dwna);their plurality cannot bring things.
without reference to its existence'; about plurality in wojud any more In a context which pays more at-
Ebno'l-'Arabi tells us that no entity than the plurality of our own ideas tention to the structure of the cosmos,
possesses real existence, so the reality causes our minds to have many parts. Ebno'l-Arabi explains the relation-
of the entity stays exactly the same, Ebno'l-Arabi explains the myste- ship between wojud and the entities
whether or not it is found in the rious relationship between cosmic ex- in terms of the Breath of the AlI-

8 Issue 4
William C. Chittick SUFI

merciful (mfaso'r-Ralpnan). In Ko- bringing the 'other' into existence. of wojud in itself corresponds to a
ranic language, God is the All-mer- If we pursue the analogy of the certain type of philosophical approach,
ciful, and His mercy 'embraces all divine Breath with the human breath and although Ebno'l-Arabi does not
things' (7:156). Ebno'l-Arabi points a little further, we come across another neglect this approach, he is far more
out that the only reality which em- primary teaching of Ebno'l-Arabi, concerned with investigating the self-
braces each and every thing in the concerning which we will have more revelation of wojud in human lan-
cosmos is existence, so existence is to say in what follows. Is the breath guage, that is, the holy scriptures. In
God's mercy, since through it He of a human being the same as himself? practice, the 'holy scriptures' are the
brings all things from the state of One cannot answer this question Koran and the Hadith (though not in
nonexistence within His knowledge - simply by saying 'yes' or 'no'. In one theory, since Ebno'l-Arabi acknowl-
where they enjoy no bounties what- respect, the person's breath is not the edges the validity of the scriptures of
soever - to a state of existence within same as himself, since he is a human other religions). Through scripture
the world, where they are able to being and his breath is a breath. But wojud - God Himself - reveals itself
perceive, enjoy, and experience their a human being without breath is a to man in a linguistic mode in order
own realities. Building on /)adiths in corpse, and breath without a human to inform him of its nature. This
which the Prophet refers to the 'breath' being is moist air. So, in fact, the 'information' concerning God which
of the All-merciful and Koranic verses two terms, human being and breath, we receive through the scriptures is
in which God's 'breathing' is men- are somehow inseparable. 10 the summarized in terms of the names of
tioned, Ebno'l-'Arabi compares the same way, the Breath of the A11- God, traditionally said to number
process of creation to the breathing merciful is the same as God; yet it ninety-nine. Each name of God men-
of a breather. The breath itself is like is different from God. Likewise, the tioned in the Koran and the Hadith
the underlying substance within which words which become articulated within tells us something of the ultimate
all things assume their specific char- the Breath are the same as the Breath, reality of wojud, though that ultimate
acteristics; through it the 'immutable yet different. Hence, there is no reality in itself can never be known.
entities' (a1-a'yano'th-thabeta) become absolute identity between an existent Most of Ebno'l-'Arabi's writings deal
'existent entities' t el-e'y ano'l- entity and God, nor is there an absolute with the explication of the Koran and
mawjuda) (without losing their difference. The exact relationship Hadith, since he is constantly con-
immutability in God's knowledge aIlg always remains a mystery,· even cerned to find the 'divine roots' (a1-
without gaining true existence)," In though we can gain a certain grasp osulo']-elahiya) or 'divine supports'
the same context Ebno'l-Arabi also of it through investigation and God's (a1-mostanadato'1-elahiya) of all phe-
refers to many Koranic verses which help. nomena in the universe through the
mention the creative act of God in help of scripture. God in Himself -
terms of His speech and allude to the Perfect Man: The Onto- often called the 'Essence' (adh-dhat)
infinite 'words of God'. These words logy of the Divine Names - transcends phenomena absolutely,
of God, says Ebno'l-Arabi, are the in- but there is something about the way
dividual entities or creatures. When What do we know about wojud in which God brings the existent
God exhales the Breath of the AlI- as such? First, we know nothing; or things into the cosmos which tells us
I merciful, He also speaks. Within the rather, we know that wojud is inde- about God and makes clear for us the
Breath the whole cosmos takes spe- finable and inconceivable, since we nature of wojud. On the one hand,
cific form. Since the words of God can only know of it what we have of this something is expressed linguisti-
I
r-
are individual and distinct realities, it in our hands, yet, strictly speaking, cally by the Koran; on the other, it
multiplicity is real; but since the we have nothing, since we are nonex- is expressed ontologically and epis-
Breath of God is the reality of exis- istent. Put otherwise, how can the temologically through the universe
Ii tence, all things share in that reality words encompass the speaker? How and our own self-knowledge. Ebn01-
I inasmuch as they exist within the cos- can a visible calor comprehend the 'Arabi frequently quotes the Koranic
mos. Words depend absolutely upon reality of invisible light? Yet, in spite verse which tells us to gaze upon the
i the Breath, but the Breath has no of this, we can, indeed, know some- cosmos and within ourselves in order
need for the words; God speaks not thing of wojud, precisely because we to perceive the 'signs' (ayat) of God's
I
I
because some external factor forces have a certain knowledge of our- Reality (41:53).
Him to speak, but because He is selves and the cosmos around us, and What, then, do we know about
merciful and generous by nature and all these realities give us intimations wojud! We know what the Koran has
wills to bring creatures into existence. of the Absolute Reality from which told us. Hence we know, for ex-
Hence, absolute wojud displays its they have issued forth. ample, that wojud is Alive, Knowing,
innate qualities of mercy and com- Analyzing the qualities of wojud Willing, Powerful, Speaking, Gener-
passion through overflowing and within the cosmos to grasp the nature ous and Just. These seven Koranic

Winter 1989- 1990 9

t
SUFI Ebno'I-'Arobi's Doctrine of the Oneness of Being

then, refer to God on the one hand;


but they also refer to the things or
entities, since, in order to come into
the world, the things must reflect
wojud in some manner, or else they
could not exist in any sense.
For Ebn01-'Arabi, the divine
names are the bridge between the
Non-phenomenal and the phenome-
nal, both epistemologically and onto-
logically. In other words, without the
divine names and attributes as re-
vealed in scripture, we could have no
certain knowledge of the nature of
wojud. At the same time, these
names denote the actual reality of
wojud, and hence, they delineate the
modes in which wojud comes to mani-
fest itself through its 'signs: the things
of the cosmos. On the one hand, only
God possesses true life, true knowl-
edge, true will, true power, and so on.
On the other hand, each thing in the
cosmos manifests certain aspects of
God's life, knowledge, will and power
by the very fact that it manifests
wojud. The life which we possess is
not true life, since true life belongs
only to God. But at the same time,
our life does possess a certain reality,
or else we would neither know nor
perceive.
When God grants existence to
the entities, they come into existence
according to their own realities, This
means, for example, that God gives
existence to a particular tree, and it
enters into the cosmos exactly as He
has known it for all eternity, with all
the specific qualities relating to that
particular tree in that particular time
and place. The immutable entities
cannot be compared to the Platonic
ideas, because the ideas are univer-
sals rather than particulars. But we
can compare the divine names to the
Platonic ideas, since each Koranic
name of God denotes a specific
The opening page from the second volume of the Fotuhato'l-mak/dya, by Ebno'l
'Arabi, 16th century, Courtesy of the British library (Arabic monuscript, Or 132),
ontological attribute in which the
entities share to some degree. Some-
names of God are frequently cited as which flow forth from wojud and times, however, Ebno'l-Arabi declares
the key attributes upon which all the which belong to wojud, but we can that God's names are infinite, for
other divine names depend. Through never grasp wojud itself, which tran- each entity displays a property of
these and other divine names, we can scends all its attributes while possess- wojud, thereby signifying wojud and
grasp many of the characteristics ing each of them fully. These names, 'naming' it; in this sense each thing

10 Issue 4
William C. Chittick SUFI

is a name of God; so the names are manifestation for wojud, wojud can act. The Koran tells us that God is
particulars. These two views of the manifest itself in its full splendor only Generous, Just, Forgiving, Kind,
divine names led some of Ebno'l-Ar- in a human being. This can easily Patient, Clement, and so on, and
abi's followers to distinguish between be seen if we look again at the seven these are precisely the attributes which
the ninety-nine names of God and the primary names of God referred to a human being must gain in order to
immutable entities by calling the first above. Humans share with animals reach moral and spiritual perfection.
the 'universal names of God' and the the fact that they manifest life, Hence, Ebno'l-Arabi identifies the
second the 'particular names of God: knowledge, will and power. But Sufi path with the 'assumption of the
According to Ebno'l-Arabi, each human beings can manifest these character traits of God' (at-takhalloq
existent entity shares in all divine at- attributes with much greater intensity be akhliiqe11iih), and he identifies
tributes, since each displays exis- than animals. Who would compare these character traits with the divine
tence, and existence is God, the the power of an elephant to that of names. In other words, there are
Essence named by all the names. But a Genghis Khan? Or the knowledge absolute standards for ethics and social
every entity does not manifest all of a bee to that of Buddha? More- behavior grounded in the same prin-
attributes, and hence the whole cosmos over, only humans can manifest the ciples which govern the natural world.
is ranked in degrees of excellence remaining three attributes within the As a result, wojud can find its full
(tafar,fhoI) in accordance with the sensory world. 'Speech' is a specifi- manifestation only in a proper moral
extent to which the existent entities cally human quality, while 'generos- order established among human
display the attributes of God within ity' and 'justice' cannot be applied to beings.
the universe. Some creatures have animals except metaphorically. Ebno'l-Arabi connects the full
a greater life, some a lesser life, and But not all human beings employ manifestation of wojud to human
some seem to have no life whatso- their speech in a manner appropriate beings most clearly in his famous
ever - though the Sufis can perceive to the full perfection of wojud, and doctrine of 'perfect man' (al-cnsano7-
an invisible life even in stones, through few people are generous and just. kiunel), In one respect, perfect man
the eye of mystical 'unveiling' (kashi). Nor do men possess knowledge, will, (who is contrasted with 'animal man',
So also each and every attribute of power, or any other divine attribute al-ensano1-l;!ayawan) is the embodi-
God manifests itself in varying inten- in equal measure. Since people ment of every praiseworthy human
sities - knowledge, will, power, actualize the divine attributes and quality; he is the exemplar of human
speech, generosity, justice, mercy, for- manifest them in their lives in varying wisdom, compassion, and all moral
giveness, and so on. Each entity has manners, Ebno'l-Arabi distinguishes and spiritual good. He guides indi-
a specific 'preparedness' (esle'dad) five basic categories of human beings: viduals and society to an ideal equi-
which allows it to manifest the attrib- unbeliever (kafer), person of faith librium with the ultimate Good. He
utes of wojud to a greater or lesser (mo men), friend of God (waJi), represents God among human beings,
degree. A stone manifests power in prophet (nabi), and messenger (ra- leading them to their supreme happi-
a certain passive way. A plant suI). He devotes hundreds of pages ness in the next world. In his human
manifests traces of life, knowledge, to explaining how different kinds of manifestation he is found in the form
will, and active power. An animal people manifest the divine names in of the prophets and the great friends
manifests all these attributes with different degrees. Thus, his anthro- of God (akabero1-awjia).
much greater intensity. At the top of pology is in fact an ontology, frrmly In another respect, perfect man is
the visible hierarchy of existence, based on the Koranic doctrine of the goal of the cosmos, since God
human beings have the potential to God's names and attributes. manifests all His attributes only
manifest every divine name. It is worth stressing that for Ebno'l- through perfect man; in him alone
A famous btuiitl: tells us that God 'Arabi, as for most other Muslim does wojud come to a full flowering.
created Adam upon His own form, thinkers, morality and ethics, like an- No creature other than perfect man
and Ebno'l-Arabi makes much of the thropology, are rooted in ontology. In possesses the requisite preparedness
fact that here the name 'Allah' is other words, a human being who (este'dad) to manifest all God's moral
employed, since Allah is the 'all-com- wants to actualize his full humanity traits within the cosmos. If wojud in
prehensive name of God' (el-esmo'i- must bring out the divine qualities itself is the absolutely non-phenome-
jame), to which all the other names which are latent within himself. The nal, it only attains to its full manifes-
refer. Hence human beings were qualities of a true human being are tation within the phenomenal world
created with the potentiality of God's qualities, which is to say that through perfect man, who displays
displaying all names of God, while they belong to wojud itself. These every name of God in perfect har-
other creatures in the cosmos can divine qualities are moral qualities in mony and equilibrium. This is why
only manifest some names of God. that they provide the model for every Ebno'l-Arabi says that the 'Moham-
Though all creatures are loci of proper, compassionate and humane madan' friends of God - that is, those

Winter 1989-1990 11
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SUFI Ebno'I-'Arabi's Doctrine of the Oneness of Being

who have inherited the sciences and 'signs' of God which appear in the enunes. Hence, the Breath of the
moral traits of Mohammad, the most cosmos. In fact, says Ebno'l-Arabi, All-merciful brings the invisible reali-
perfect of perfect men - possess 'the the theologians based their analysis ties out to the visible plane. In one
station of no station' (maqam la of the divine nature on reason (al- sense, the universe is other than God,
maqam). In other words, they have 'aqI), and reason functions such that since the Essence lies infinitely
actualized every perfection found in it can understand only what God is beyond it. In another sense, the
existence, so they cannot be identi- not On its own, reason can gain no universe is identical with God, since
fied ir a limiting sense with any spe- positive knowledge of God's attributes. nothing is found within it which does
cific perfection. Other friends of God Hence, the scriptures provide us with not name Him. The inexhaustible
are dominated by specific divine this positive knowledge, and reason words spoken by God are the same
names, or specific perfections of will not go astray if it follows the as the Breath, and the Breath is the
wojud, such as kriowledge, speech, scriptures. But most rational thinkers same as the All-merciful; so, the
generosity, justice, compassion, love, - theologians in particular - insist words are the same as the All-mer-
patience, perserverance, and so on. upon interpreting (ta'wil) scripture in ciful. Ebno'l-Arabi constantly moves
But the Muhammadan friends of God accordance with their own rational back and forth between these two
actualize every name and every perception of what can be attributed points of view, that of identity and
perfection; hence, they are dominated appropriately to God. As a result, difference. He sums up his position
by no name, no perfection, 'no sta- they refuse to accept the face value with the deceptively simple state-
tion'. On the contrary, they act in of any description of God which ment: 'He/not He' (howa la howa).
perfect accordance with the necessi- suggests that He is similar to the Each entity in the cosmos is identical
ties of every situation, since they things of the cosmos. with wojud and other than wojud at
manifest the ultimate reality of wojud If reason by its very nature wants one and the same time.
itself. Like the divine Essence, they to negate attributes from God and The reality of 'He/not He' can be
are unknowable and ungraspable, yet affirm His incomparability, 'imagina- perceived most clearly through imagi-
they overflow with every imaginable tion' (khayaI) has the power to grasp nation. Ebno'l-Arabi discusses imagi-
good. God's similarity (tashbih). Here we nation on many levels, and it plays
cannot begin to describe Ebn01- such an important role in his teach-
Incomparability and 'Arabi's extremely detailed compari- ings that he claims no one can gain
Similarity son of the two kinds of knowledge any true knowledge without under-
acquired through reason and imagina- standing it An imaginal (not 'imagi-
On the one hand wojud in itself tion, but we can summarize his con- nary') reality is one which dwells in
is unknowablc and transcends clusions: Perfect knowledge of God an intermediate domain between two
absolutely the existent and nonexistent must declare God both incomparable other realities, so that we must affirm
things, which are infinite in number. and similar. God in Himself - absolute and deny it at the same time. One
On the other hand, wojud shows itself wojud - is incomparable with all of the most common examples is a
through the existent entities and existent things, but God also mani- mirror image. Your reflection in a
through the revealed scriptures, so fests the properties of wojud in the mirror acts as a kind of bridge be-
human beings can acquire knowledge cosmos, and in this respect we have tween yourself and the mirror; you
of its qualities. In the terminology to say that God is somehow similar have to affirm that the image is both
developed by Islamic scholastic to the created things. yourself and the mirror, and that it is
theology, kelsm, God's unknowability What, then, is the cosmos? It is neither yourself nor the mirror. Like-
and transcendence are referred to as the 'other', since it is defmed as wise, dreams are imaginal realities.
tanzih, or 'incomparability'. In other everything other than the Essence of If you see your father in a dream,
words, God cannot be compared with God. But it is not other in every you have seen your father and not
anything; no existent thing stands on respect, since it is all the words your mother or brother; at the same
a par with wojud in itself. Our only articulated within the Breath of the time, what you have seen is nothing
knowledge about God is that we do All-merciful, and the Breath is but your own self. So the imaginal
not truly know anything about Him. somehow identical with the Breather. reality you have perceived is a bridge
This position was affirmed by Again, the cosmos is God's self-dis- or 'isthmus' (barzakh) between your-
theologians long before Ebno'l-Arabi, closure (tajalll) within His loci of self and your father. The most succinct
and he accepts it as true. However, manifestation. Through the cosmos, statement you can make about the
he points out that this description of wojud displays its characteristics and dream image is 'he/not he'.
the divine Reality does not provide us properties, that l..-i, its universal and Ebno'l-Arabi perceives imagina-
with a full picture of wojud, since it particular names, both the ninety-nine tion on three different cosmic levels.
does not account satisfactorily for the names of God and the immutable On the human level, man's world of

12 Issue 4
William C. Chittick SUFI

inner experience is imagination. This made of 'fire', which is clearly a many through its names and self-dis-
is the 'soul' (nafs), which dwells at bridge between light and clay. Fire closures; it is both incomparable with
an intermediate stage, or 'isthmus', is luminous like light, yet it cannot do all the entities and similar to every
between the spirit, which according to without fuel from the world of clay. created thing. Wojud finds its most
the Koran (32:9) derives from God's It tries to ascend to light; yet it is complete outward expression in per-
Breath, and the body, which God attached by its root to the world of fect man, who manifests all the names
kneaded from clay. The spirit is one darkness. Angelic beings descend of God in their fullness. Just as God
reality composed of pure light, life, from the world of light into the world has two perfections, that of the Es-
knowledge and the other divine at- of imagination and are perceived in sence and that of the names, so also
tributes, while the body is a multiplic- visions by the prophets and the friends perfect man has two perfections, that
ity of parts, overcome by darkness, of God. Here also the prophets of his essential reality as the form of
inanimate matter, ignorance, and the receive the scriptures, which bring to- God Himself and that of his acciden-
lack of divine attributes. The soul is gether the cognitive luminosity of the tal manifestations, through which he
a mixture of the two sides. It is nei- upper world with a linguistic crystal- displays God's names in particular
ther pure light nor pure darkness, but lization through which human beings contexts. In respect of the first
an intermediate stage between light dominated by dispersion and dark- perfection, all perfect men are essen-
and darkness. It possesses every ness can perceive the light of the tially one, and one might speak of 'the
divine attribute to a certain ambigu- spirit. perfect man' as a unique reality or as
ous degree. Each human soul rep- In a third sense, 'imagination' re- the 'logos'. In respect of the second
resents a unique mixture of qualities fers to the greatest of all intermedi- perfection, each perfect man has a
and a unique possibility of ascension ate realities, which is the whole specific function to play within the
toward the perfection of 'no station', cosmos, or the Breath of the All- cosmos; so there are many perfect
where all the divine attributes arc merciful. The cosmos stands halfway men fulfilling the roles God has given
possessed in the fullest possible between absolute wojud and absolute to them. In respect of the essential
measure. But each human being may nothingness. Everything that 'exists' perfection of the perfect men, the
also descend toward multiplicity and in the universe is He/not He, itself/ Koran says that there is no distinction
darkness, thus becoming lost in dis- not itself. Moreover, this description among God's messengers (2:285), but
persion and passing into an infrahu- applies to the cosmos not only as a in respect of their accidental perfec-
man state. The whole intermediate static reality but also as a dynamic tion, it declares that God has ranked
domain of the soul is one of imagi- reality. In other words, each moment them in degrees of excellence (2:253).
nation and ambiguity, mixture and is both identical and not identical with In short, the perfect men are fixed in
perplexity. The only path of safety the preceding and following mo- their essences, which are not other
within this maze of affirmation and ments. Ebno1-'Arabi points to the than the essence of wojud itself; at
denial is the route set down by the infinity of wojud and cites the axiom, the same time, they undergo constant
prophets. 'Self-disclosure never repeats itself,' transformation and transmutation by
On a second level, Ebno'l-Arabi since God in His infinite effusion is participating in the ceaseless self-
perceives imagination in the macro- under no constraints; hence, no two disclosure of God and manifesting the
cosm, the world outside of man. There things and no two instants are exactly properties of the divine names in a
are two fundamental created worlds, the same. This is Ebno'l-Arabi's never-ending variety of cosmic situ-
the invisible world of spirits and the famous doctrine of the 'renewal of ations. The heart (qajb) of perfect
visible world of bodies, corresponding creation at each 'instant'. As Ebn01- man experiences endless fluctuation
to spirit and body in the microcosm. 'Arabi writes concerning the cosmos, (taqallob), since it is the locus within
The world of spirits is inhabited by which he perceives God's self-disclo-
angels, who are said, in the tradi- Everything other than the Es- sures, which never repeat themselves.
tional symbolism, to be created from sence of God stands at the station God created the universe to mani-
of transmutation, speedy and slow.
'light', while the world of bodies is in- fest the fullness of His own nature.
Everything other than the Essence
habited by animals and humans, whose of God is intervening imagination As the famous badith qodsi expresses
visible parts are made of 'clay'. and vanishing shadow ...undergoing it, God says, 'I was a hidden treasure;
Between these two worlds stand many transformation from form to form so I wanted to be known; hence, I
other worlds which combine the constantly and forever. And created the creatures, in order that I
imagination is nothing but this ....
qualities of the two basic worlds and might be known.' In other words,
So the cosmos becomes manifest
which are known collectively as the only within imagination. (Fotul;!at, through the cosmos, wojud discloses
'World of Imagination'. For example, vei n, n.d., p. 313) the infinite possibilities latent within
the 'jinn' are said to inhabit some of itself. Yet it manifests itself in its
these intermediary worlds. They are Wojud is one in its Essence and fullness only through perfect man.

Winter 1989- 1990 13

I
I
SUFI Ebno'l-Arobl's Doctrine of the Oneness of Being

since he alone actualizes every on- 'No station' is at once every station. 2. Translating the term wojud as 'exis-
tological quality - every name and Not He is He. Oneness becomes tence' rather than 'Being' or 'finding' (its
attribute of God. Perfect man alone manifest in the plurality of man's literal sense) in the context of Ebno'l-
has reached the goal of human life, perfections. 'Arabi's writings raises a number of
which is to manifest the divine form problems, which are discussed in Chittick,
in which man was created.
The Suii Path of Knowledge.
Ebno'l-Arabi devotes most of his
Notes
attention not to ontology but to 'an-
3. On the history of the term, see Chittick,
thropology', that is, describing the
1. For detailed explanations of the ideas "Rumi and Wahdat el-wujud', in The
nature of perfect man and the manner
discussed in this paper, see w.e. Chittick, Heritage of Rumi, edited by Amin Banani
in which human beings can reach
perfection. The practical sides of The Sufi Path of Knowledge: lbn sl- and Georges Sabagh, Cambridge: Cam-
Ebno'l-Arabi's teaching - which are i\rabl:S Metaphysics of Imagination, Al- bridge University Press, forthcoming.
far more detailed than the theoretical bany: SUNY Press, 1989.
side which we have been discussing
- describe how a human being can
discipline the intellect and the imagi-
nation in order to combine the vision
of incomparability with that of simi-
larity. A mere rational understand-
ing of the reality of He/not He will If You Wish
not aid a person to ascend to the
world of light. The inward world of
imagination cannot be transformed
into a place of the self-disclosure of by Alex Cowie
wojud unless we follow the guidance
of those human beings who have
reached perfection before us - the If you wish
messengers, prophets, and friends of
God.
In short, the ultimate reality of I will be the voiceless cry
wojud is both infinitely beyond us and in Your green house of falling stars
ever-present with us. In its
incomparability wojud is one with an
absolute oneness, but in its similarity I +.il! be the cave
it manifests itself through the real where Your wounded leopard sleeps
plurality which we perceive in the
cosmos. The Non-phenomenal re-
mains forever incomparable, just as I will be the light of peace
light remains forever light; but the upon all Your broken fences &
Non-phenomenal brings the phenome-
nal into existence through mercy and
the dancing fish in Your warm rivers
compassion toward everything that
has the potential to exist. The cosmos I will be the softest pillow
in turn displays all the properties of
wojud in a differentiated manner.
In Your sweet bed of night
Human beings are able to return by
way of their own selves to the Non- & You
phenomenal, thereby realizing their
original state as nonexistent immu-
shall be
table entities; but, by the same token,
the perfect men come to manifest the my only love
fullness of wojud, since their nonex-
istent entities were made in the divine
form, which is the form of wojud.

14 Issue 4