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Wahdat al-Wujud: a fundamental doctrine in Sufism


The concepts of al-Insan al-Kamel, the perfect man and Wahdat al-Wujud, the transcendent Unity of God are seen as two fundamental doctrines in Sufi 1 Islam. God is the ground of all being and there is nothing except Him. Thus our goal is to go back and be absorbed in Him. It is believed that there is essential unity between humanity and God. Both doctrines are, in fact, complementary. However in this essay we will concentrate on Wahdat al-Wujud.

The doctrine of Wahdat al-Wujud asserts that everything that exists can only exist because it is an aspect of Divine Reality, hence an aspect of Divine Unity itself. However, Sufi doctors assert that although Wahdat al-Wujud may be interpreted that Sufism see the face of God everywhere, it does not mean that it has reduced God to everything. God remains supremely transcendent, even though everything which arises and exists resembles him (tashbih). He resembles nothing but himself (tanzih).2

From the philosophical point of view God is pure; from the mystical and devotional point of view He is Absolute Beauty, of which earthly beauty, whether it be of form, or thought, or action, is but a dim reflection. Our finite minds cannot comprehend the Infinite: we can only speak in metaphors. Overwhelmed by His Beauty, Sufi Muslims conceive of Him, above all things, as the eternally Beautiful. Hence Sufi hymns borrow the impassioned language of the lover. He is all Beautiful, and the whole universe is the mirror of His Beauty. It is said that seventy thousand veils separate the Absolute Being, or Beauty, from the world of matter and sense.

Sufism speaks of advancement in the spiritual life as a journey and the seeker after God as a salik or a traveller. Its teaching is intended to guide the traveller to the attainment of the perfect knowledge, marifat of God, the only Reality diffused through all things. A believer is led onwards by slow stages, maqamat and through the experience of certain stages, ahwal, along a Path, at-tariqat, to the desired goal of union with God called fana f'il-haqiaqat, absorption (lit. extinction) in Reality.

A Sufi in his journey along the Inward Path breaks through these veils and passes in time through seven "stages" during each of which ten thousand more are encountered. During this progress his conception of the Absolute Being changes from that of an objective reality to One having identity with himself and with the universe. The changes in the perception so reached may be expressed as follows: At the first phase the simple creed, "There is no god but Allah," implies three things: there is no agent but Allah, there is no object of worship outside Allah, and there is no existence save Allah. In the later phase the creed takes the form, "There is no god but Thou." In the final stage the creed becomes, "There is no god but I." This is the final goal of the Sufi's journey along the Path.

The doctrine of Tawhid in Sufism

The concepts of al-Insan al-Kamel, the perfect man and Wahdat al-Wujud, are both linked to the doctrine of Tawhid and thus in Sufi Islam Tawhid means, first, faith and belief in the unity of God; second, discipline of the internal and external life in the light of that faith; third, experience of union and oneness with God; and fourth, a theosophical or philosophical conception of reality in the light of the mystical experience.

The first two senses are accepted by all Muslims. However the third and fourth senses are the particular teaching of Sufi Islam. For them Tawhid in the third sense is to have the perception of the One Being through mystical experience. It is the highest experience of the unity of God. In the fourth sense, one loses his own identity and becomes one with the One being. In this sector, though several formulations exist, the most elaborate and forceful formulation of the doctrine of Tawhid wajudi or wahdat al-Wujud is from Ibn Al-Arabi3 (discussed later)

The background

In Sufism all doctrine is related to the mind. The divine name Allah is the synthesis of all truth and therefore the root of all doctrine. Though the doctrine of Wahdat al-Wujud has been developed and extended over the period of several centuries, Sufi Muslims believe that it has its origins in Qur'anic passages, as interpreted by Sufi exegetes. In the circumstances of the second and third centuries (A.H.), the Muslim religious intelligentsia was divided into two groups: the Ulema or pure theologians and jurists on the one hand, and on the other those who gave to religion a more personal basis in religious devotion. The materialistic ways of those in power and later the various debates and controversies between groups, for example, Mutazila and the Hanbalites encouraged further development of Sufi ideas.

The beginning

For the first two centuries of Islam Sufi doctrine and practice was a spontaneous phenomenon which had its beginning in the activity of individuals who themselves were influenced by the earliest believers known as 'ascetics (Zuhhad). It is believed that the first and greatest sufis were the first and the fourth caliphs, Abu Bakr, the Prophet's close friend and father in-law, and Ali the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law.

Among other companions of the prophet there were some like Abu Dharr who practised asceticism. There were reciters (Qurra) who wept as they recited the Qur'an and preached. These popular preachers, also known as Qusas or storytellers, exerted a powerful influence on the masses by expounding Qur'anic stories with the aid of materials from other sources including Jewish and Christian.4 As the Sufi way of life became common as a recognised practice, the term Sufi slowly replaced the older names Zuhhad and nussak applied to this group of believers.

With the development of the formal disciplines of Islamic law and theology, there gradually grew up, with them, the "knowing ones" Ulema. They rapidly developed into an institution with tremendous power. It appears that with growing divergence between Sufi practice and its implicit ideology on the one hand and the emerging orthodox system on the other, Sufis, in order to justify their stand, also started to refer more to Qur'anic verses and statements from Muhammad and some of his companions.5 Thus from the third century onward there arose a whole series of important innovative Sufis who both by their practice and teaching sought to integrate orthodoxy and Sufism in this way.

During the third and fourth century of Islam Sufism developed a doctrine of Gnosis (marifa), of an inner experiential knowledge. The 'unity of God' was transformed through the Sufi mystical experience into 'union' with God. The term Tawhid was taken to mean both 'regarding something as one' and also 'unification of something with something else'. Sufis propagated the doctrine that God alone really exists and from there on moved to the belief that 'God is the sole reality of everything.'

Qur'anic passages & Wahdat al-Wujud

To support and elaborate their doctrine, Sufi Tafsirs and other writings quote Qur'anic passages which assert, e.g., that God is 'closer to him (man) than the vein of his neck' (Surah 50:15). 'Everything will perish except His own face' (Surah 28:88; 55:26-7). 'whithersoever Ye turn, there is Allah's countenance' (Surah 2:115).

Earlier signs of the doctrine of Wahdat al-Wujud

In just two hundred years from the beginning of Islam, the ascetic movement gave way to mysticism proper, that is, experiences which might be described as ecstatic leaps of the spirit into oneness with God, 'passing away (fana) into God'. The way to this ultimate goal of the Sufi life was by self-denial, purifying the soul and mystical knowledge of God, as distinguished from formal knowledge. But fana was thought of in various ways: in the extreme, some would abandon themselves to be filled with the Glory of God. This transcendental bliss of abandonment was called 'intoxication', a dying-to-self. In the progress towards fana, some mystics described their experiences in such extravagant language as to appear heretical and un-Islamic to the orthodox ulema.

For example, Abu Yezid al-Bistami (d. 875) used to utter in a state of trance 'Glory be to Me! How great is my Majesty!', and claimed to have ascended to Heaven in a dream. It was a spiritual union with God, attained through ecstasy, in which the Sufi claimed to become God himself. To distinguish between 'I' and 'God' is to deny the unity of God. However, the more sober Sufis such as Muhasibi (d. 857), Dhul Nun (d. 861), Kharraz (d. 899) and al-Junaid (d. 910) expressed their mystical experiences in less intemperate language and thus avoided giving fatal offence to the orthodox, although even they did not entirely escape suspicion and disapproval.

Al-Ghazali, the mediator

The characteristic tendency of the Sufis to disregard outward conformity with Islamic laws, and their extreme utterances made them obnoxious to the orthodox Sunnis. It was the great Persian jurist, philosopher and theologian, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), who finally succeeded in reconciling Sufi doctrine with the formal framework of Islam. As a result of his work, 'Sufi' was not a term of reproach. Al-Ghazali, though Persian, wrote his works in Arabic. His work Ihya Ulum-id-Din is concerned with disciplining the character and investing it with all the spiritual courtesies. The work is also a means of reminding the whole community of the mystical basis on which he wrote. However, it was Al-Ghazali's younger contemporary, Abdal Qadir al-Jilani (d. 1166) who won respect and recognition for Sufi Islam.

Sufism had always been both a great stimulus and a persistent strain in Islamic literature. From this period on, many prolific writers and Persian poets of the first-rank, in particular, were mystics. It can be seen, for instance, in the work of the great Persian poets Umar Khayyam (d.1124), Rumi (d.1277), Sa'di (d.1292) and Hafiz (d.1390).

Ibn al-Arabi's concept of Wahdat al-Wujud

After Al-Ghazali, the next important figure to appear, this time in Spain was Muhyi al-Din Ibn Al-Arabi (d. 1240). He was an influential Sufi mystic and writer. Ibn Al-Arabi is known as 'the greatest shaykh' al-shaykh al-akbar. "His thought and terminology have formed the foundation of most subsequent Sufi intellectual discourse, and his voluminous literary output, as famous for its abstruseness as for its content, has been the subject of numerous commentaries in many languages.'6

He wrote some 400 works.7 His major contribution was in the field of tasawwuf. Of his 20 main Sufi works, the most important two are: 1.al-Futuhat al-Makkiya fi asrar al-malikiyya wal'l-mulkiyya (The Meccan revelations). The autograph text in 37 volumes is preserved in Istanbul. 2. Fusus al-hikam wa khusus al-kilam (The Bezels of Wisdom). These two collections constitute the standard Sufi encyclopaedia on mystical doctrine.8

According to Ibn Al-Arabi's theory, the being of all things is God: there is nothing except Him.9 He argued for the doctrine of Wahdat al-Wujud, where certain implications seem hard to avoid.10 For example: Being and existence are all one and are combined in God; being which is apart from God exists only by virtue of His will, but was, prior to its being made separate, one with God; the perfect human (al-insan al-kamil) is the one who knows oneness with God, who loves God and who is loved by God.11

In his writing Ibn Al-Arabi seems to be concerned with mysteries being unveiled but some think that his line is too abstruse for anyone to understand who has not shared his experience in some degree. His interpretation made him a radical humanist and rationalist almost three full centuries before any such advanced thinking was established in Europe during the peak of the Renaissance.

Ibn Al-Arabi's ideas have been disseminated via commentaries on his work and by his disciples such as Sadr al-Din al-Qunawi (d. 1274). His doctrines were taken up in Persia by the great Sufis Abd al-Karim al-Jili (d. 1417)12, the Imam Shadhili, and Jalal ad-Din Rumi. Through them his teachings extended to all parts of Islam.

Wahdat al-Wujud versus Wahdat al Shuhud

It is self-evident that any exposition on the person of God is incomplete and can be misunderstood; the doctrine of Wahdat al-Wujud and its interpretation is no different. For example some thought that this doctrine could be misinterpreted as meaning a continuity or identity of substance between the world and God, that the world is God in disguise. Thus against this danger there arose the idea of Wahdat al-Shuhud (Unity of Consciousness or Unity of Being in vision).

Although Sufism is divided and subdivided into many groups, in regard to their speculation concerning God, some believe that Sufis can be divided into two main groups. The larger of these is composed of those to whom everything is of the same essence. For them the creed, There is no God but God, means that beside Allah there is no existence. They are called itihadiya or alternatively, Wahdatal Wajudiya.

Those forming the second group, in their anxiety to conform to monotheistic teaching, explain the pantheistic expressions of mystic writers, interpreting them in the sense that the existence of the universe and all that it contains is so far transcended by the reality of God that these things count for nothing. Sufis of this class are called Ilhamiya, inspired; they generally uphold the doctrine of Wahdat al-Shuhud, a belief that all existence is One; unity of Being in vision or the unity of consciousness. Due to restriction on length of the essay we consider only Sirhindi's view.13

Sirhindi's criticism of Wahdat al-Wujud

Ibn Al-Arabi's mysticism was widely taught in the Yemen, Turkey, Iran and India. Ibn Taymiyya (d.1327),14 Taki al-Din al-Subki, Ibn Khaldun criticised his mystical ideas, claiming they were meaningless. However, Ibn al-Arabi found defenders in Suyuti, al-Idris and others.15

In Iran and India some Ulama did write against his explanation of Wahdat al-Wujud, the important being Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1624), an eminent Indian Sufi whose ideas shaped the second or Mujaddidi phase of the Naqshbandi order. Some of his claims, for instance that he had surpassed Ibn al-Arabi in reaching the last divine manifestation, aroused powerful opposition from colleagues. In his pre-Sufi phase, he wrote work typical of a scholar of his time, refuting Shiism; in his Sufi phase, he produced a range of works suffused with spiritual insight. The most important of these is the collection of 534 of his letters known as Maktubat-i- imami rabbani.16

Sirhindi's prime concern was to integrate his Sufi ideas with a Sunni framework. He accepted most of al Arabi's teachings but elevated the concept of Wahdat al-Shuhud (unity of witness) over Ibn Al-Arabi's Wahdat al-Wujud (unity of being) as believed by the majority. According to him believers had to realise that "Everything is from HIM" rather than "Everything is HIM." However, his interpretation did not replace Wahdat al-Wujud in Naqshbandi- Mujaddidi thinking except that his emphasis "on obedience to shariah and sunnah as a means of achieving spiritual realisation was widely accepted by the Naqshbandiyah and was carried by his successors into Central Asia, Turkey, and the Arab lands, where it has been a source of inspiration."17

Most Sufi believers try to interpret the Qur'an and Sunnah in the light of the doctrine Wahdat al-Wujud. However, there are others who do not approve of it. Wali Allah (d. 1762) for instance who believed in the fundamental doctrine of Wahdat al-Wujud said, "One who interprets the words of the prophets on the lines of wahdat al-wajud, does not know them, nor their ways."18 He believed that prophets spoke in the natural language, tawr al-fitrah, and did not indulge themselves in the ontological language associated with Wahdat al-Wujud.19

In spite of some opposition in Sufi circles, most Sufi teachers today stress this doctrine wholeheartedly because to them, as Shaikh Ahmad Al-Alawi said, "It is natural that Spiritual Masters should stress Wahdat al-Wujud above all, because it is the Supreme Truth and therefore the ultimate goal of all mysticism."20


1 Nowadays, to most scholars the title Sufi seems to be originally derived from suf or wool, the coarse material these people used for clothing as a sign of asceticism and renunciation. Some suggest that Sufi comes from the root safa, to be pure or from suffa , the raised platform in the Prophet's mosque in Madina where poor people used to sit and exercise devotion. Hujwiri says that in the time of the Companions of the Prophet of Islam and their immediate successors, this name did not exist but its reality was in everyone. (Kashf al-Mahjub, p. 34-35; 81-82). Others believe that the word is derived from sophia, wisdom (Hughs, Dictionary of Islam, p. 608), but this has little reliable foundation. Some scholars identify it with Sophos in the sense of "theosophist" (Idris Shah, Special problems in the study of Sufi idea, p. 11).

2 Glasse, The Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam, p.379

3 Ansari, Sufism and Shariah, p.101

4 Fazalur Rahman, Islam, p. 132

5 Fazalur Rahman, Islam, p.134

6 Esposito, John. (Ed.) The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World, Vol. 2, p. 160

7 The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. III, p. 708.

8 "Although Ibn Al-'Arabi is considered to be one of the most intellectual of Sufis, for him mahabbah, love, and not ma'rifah, knowledge, is the summit of mysticism, for it is love which actually makes Divine union, tawhid, possible." (Glasse, p. 168)

9 Macdonald, The Development of Muslim Theology, Jurisprudence and Constitutional Theory, p. 262

10 Even though by some the doctrine of Wahdat al-Wujud is ascribed to him, there are indications in the Sufism history that this has been the fundamental and central doctrine of all Sufism throughout the Muslim era. What Ibn Al-Arabi did was to respond to the needs of his age by writing down and making explicit what was taught before him orally. (Glasse, p. 414)

11 Rippin, Muslims: Their religious Beliefs and Practices, Vol. 1, p. 128

12 He also wrote the book al-Insan al-Kamil, a treatise on the doctrine of realisation of the true self.

13 Sirhindi seems to have improved on the idea of the great Sufi Junayad of Baghda (d. 910) who was one of its exponents.

14 Esposito, John. (Ed.) The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World, Vol. 4, p. 219

15 The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. III, p. 711

16 Sirhindi, Shaykh Ahmad, Maktubat-i- imami rabbani, ed. Nur Ahmad, Vol. I and II

17 Esposito, John. (Ed.) The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World, Vol. 4, p. 79

18 Wali Allah, Hama'at, p. 64.

19 Wali Allah, Al-Tafhimat 'l-Ilahiyah, Vol. II, pp. 266-7.

20 Lings, A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century, p. 126


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Idris Shah. Special Problems in the Study of Sufi Ideas, (Kent: The Society for the Understanding of the Foundation of Ideas, 1968).

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__ The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol.10 "Tasawwaf", (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1990).