Bakri Aladdin

Reproduced from the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Society, Volume 51, 2012.

Oneness of Being (waḥdat al-wujūd)

The term and the doctrine

by Bakri Aladdin


There is broad agreement amongst Ibn ʿArabī specialists that he did not use the term waḥdat al-wujūd (Oneness of Being or Unity of Existence) in his own writings, and hence did not employ this expression in his Sufi philosophical doctrine. The first to have used it, several decades after the death of Ibn ʿArabī in the late 7th century and early 8th century of the Hijri calendar, was Ibn Taymiyya, who employed the term negatively, as a critique and condemnation.

Far from denoting unbelief, the term has come to refer to the School of Ibn ʿArabī, with followers keen to reject any suggestion that it could form the basis of a materialistic Oneness of Being, i.e. pantheism. Clear evidence of this is provided by the most prominent adherents to the Akbarian movement such as ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, who in his Al-Wujūd al-ḥaqq responded to the charges of Ibn Taymiyya and ʿAlāʾ al-dīn al-Bukhārī (d. first half of the 9th/15th century). In the early 10th/16th century, we find a new kind of criticism targeting the same term/school. Aḥmad Sirhindī (d.1034/1624) defended himself against the 'charge' of association with Oneness of Being after having been one of its adherents. He consciously and carefully shifted to another movement, that of waḥdat al-shuhūd (Oneness of Witnessing), and may indeed be considered its founder. However, at the end of his life he adopted a softer tone towards waḥdat al-wujūd, leading his followers to regard the difference between the two movements as merely a difference in terminology. 

Sirhindī stated very explicitly that the founder of waḥdat al-wujūd was Ibn ʿArabī: 'The one who formulated the idea of the Oneness of Being, analysed it and set down its syntax and grammar, is Shaykh Muḥyī al-dīn Ibn al-ʿArabī.'[1] This statement gives the impression of being a sarcastic eulogy and a vindication for not adopting the views of Ibn ʿArabī, which were labelled as unbelief (kufr) by Ibn Taymiyya and dozens of jurists (fuqahāʾ) who followed in his wake. By contrast, there were also many jurists, historians and Sufis who defended Ibn ʿArabī, and tried to provide an explanation of waḥdat al-wujūd in line with the Quran and Sunna, and far removed from the understanding of Ibn Taymiyya, who had spread the idea of a materialistic Oneness of Being for the purpose of criticizing it. Let us mention here the view of a contemporary Sufi, Mahmud Ghurab, who promulgates the ideas of Ibn ʿArabī, despite having reservations regarding some of his books such as Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam:

Anyone who has tried to express Ibn ʿArabī's understanding of the Oneness of Being has obscured it. Had they restricted themselves to the Shaykh's words as they appear, the latter would not require any clarification, for they themselves reveal their meanings, not to mention the lucidity of their structure. Ibn ʿArabī's understanding of waḥdat al-wujūd in Islam is founded on a Quranic text and two authentic traditions (ḥadīth). The Quranic text is the verse: 'Everything is perishing save His face' (28:88). The authentic hadiths are the Prophet's saying, 'God was and nothing was with Him', and, 'The most truthful statement uttered by the Arabs is the saying of Labīd: "is not everything other than God vain?"' Whoever has read the Shaykh's explanation of the meaning of these texts, will not find anything in them to contradict the Divine Law (sharīʿa) and Unity of God (tawḥīd)...[2]

There are countless views on waḥdat al-wujūd, but in order to try to solve the puzzle of this complex phenomenon, we suggest returning to the roots of the matter, from which it stemmed and grew, in the hope that we may draw closer to the meaning of waḥdat al-wujūd. As the late Osman Yahia put it, 'Ibn ʿArabī is the grammarian of Islamic esotericism'.[3]


Going back to the original root meaning of the word wujūd, we can begin with the views of the theologian Fakhr al-dīn al-Rāzī (d.606/1209), which he put forward in his Tafsīr al-kabīr:

The word wujūd is used equally in two different meanings. Firstly, what is meant by wujūd is consciousness (wijdān), perception (idrāk) and awareness (shuʿūr). And when I say wujūd means consciousness and perception, what I have in mind is actually the existent/found thing (al-mawjūd), which is perceived and felt. Secondly, what is meant by wujūd is attainment (ḥuṣūl) and verification (taḥaqquq) in itself. You should know that there is a difference between these two [i.e. ḥuṣūl and taḥaqquq], since wujūd's being known in terms of being attained in concrete things [ḥuṣūl] is dependent upon its appearance in itself [taḥaqquq], but not vice versa… There remains here a further question: is the term 'wujūd' primarily used for perception and consciousness, and thereafter for the attainment of the thing in itself? Or perhaps the other way round? Or again, should they be posited simultaneously?

Al-Rāzī answers these questions by saying:

This is a matter of terminology. The first proposition is indeed the most likely, since if it were not for a man's awareness of a given thing, then he would not have known of its attainment in itself. Therefore, it must be the case that the term wujūd is employed to mean awareness and perception prior to being used for the attainment of the thing in itself.

Al-Rāzī continues his valuable and authoritative analysis, as far as our topic is concerned, by stating:

Once you understand these preliminary remarks, we say: the use of the term mawjūd to refer to God Most High is from two points of view:

(a) that He is known and the object of awareness;

(b) that in Himself He is immutable and self-realized.

As to the first meaning, it is mentioned in the Quran: God Most High says, 'They would have found God' (4:64), in which case the term wujūd here has the sense of finding and recognizing (wijdān wa ʿirfān). The second meaning is not to be found in the Quran.[4]

Al-Rāzī concludes his discussion by responding to those who objected to his analysis, stating that this 'discussion is nothing but a matter of terminology', making it unnecessary to derive another meaning from the word qua.

In addition to the problem of 'equivocation'[5] between the two meanings of wujūd, the second meaning of wujūd mentioned by al-Rāzī, namely 'appearance and verification', also has its problems. Father Farid Jabre speaks of the 'ambiguity' that comes about when using the word wujūd in Arabic, saying: 'The Arabic language is the loyal interpreter of the ideas it expresses, but despite the richness of the language, we are lacking suitable terms to translate the ontological and existential nuances of the word wujūd with flexibility and facility, along with its derivatives on the three planes: the verb, the noun and the adjective.'[6] Indeed, wujūd in the ontological sense faces the same problem in both Latin and Arabic philosophy, as they inherited the same ambiguity from Greek philosophy. As Henry Corbin put it, 'A disaster happened long ago because of the confusion between wujūd (esse) and mawjūd (ens).'[7]


We have seen with al-Rāzī that the first literal meaning of the word wujūd is awareness, perception and cognition. We may also trace the word's derivative forms back to its tripartite root wajada (to find). The linguistic definition gives a precise explanation of the term's root. Aḥmad b. Fāris (d.ah 395) says in his dictionary Mujmal al-lugha:

wajada: I found the stray [camel] through the act of finding. I found in sadness a very intense pain. Also, I found in anger a very intense resentment. I found [acquired] wealth by earning it.[8]

Furthermore, the term wajd, which was used by the ʿUdhri poets (named after the Arab tribe Abū ʿUdhrā) for expressing grief, sorrow and yearning, is known to have been taken up in the field of Sufism in the 3rd/9th century. In fact, its usage in both areas – Sufism and love poetry – continued. As the ʿUdhri poet Jamīl Buthayna (d.c.80/699) put it:

Did those lovers who preceded us undergo such a thing
in what they found, or perhaps none felt the intensity of my grief (wajdī)?

Or in another poem:

They heaped reproaches upon me for loving her
if only they had suffered (wajadū) the like of what I have!


Whenever lovesickness afflicts me, remembering her,
my passion (wajd) is revived, confusion overtakes me.[9]

The use of the word wajd in the poetic tradition has never ceased, even when the poet is not in love. As Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-­Maʿarrī says:

Better for a suffering lover than the pain (wajd) he feels
is a patience that returns the fire to whence it came.[10]

On the other hand, in the field of Sufism, we may consider Junayd and, in his footsteps, Ḥallāj, amongst the Sufis who gave the psychological and terminological dimensions of the word its greatest articulation. By going back to the earlier usage of the term and its development, we can identify an increase in its emotional tone, and understand how this became widespread and how wujūd became linked to wajd (ecstasy).

Let us take note here of the words of Dhū'l-Nūn al-Miṣrī (d.245/859), who used the present tense of the verb wajada (to find) in his famous sentence: 'At the first step of seeking Him, you will reach Him and find Him.' And amongst the sayings of Abū Saʿīd al-Kharrāz (d.c.279/892) on the one who finds (wājid): 'One of the signs of intimacy with God Most High and nearness to Him is that a person always finds the remembrance of God in his heart, and that he always finds Him near to him, never losing Him in any state.'[11] And his saying: 'The meaning of union (jamʿ): that He has caused them to find His Self within their selves, or rather that He has made their existence in themselves non-existent by their existence in Him.'[12]

When we arrive at the generation of Junayd, Ḥallāj and al-­Shiblī, we come across the finest expressions of the experience of ecstasy (wajd). Junayd says: 'Nearness through ecstasy is union (jamʿ), while absence through humanity is separation (tafriqa).' Likewise, we find in his K. al-Mīthāq one of the most beautifully written pieces on the subject:[13]

Now God has a group of chosen people from amongst His servants... whom He elected for sainthood... they have recourse to none save Him and find no rest except in Him. He brought them into existence for Himself within the plane of Eternity in Him, and in the vessels of Uniqueness before Him: when He called upon them, they hastened to answer Him, a bountiful act of grace from Him upon them. He answered them when He brought them into existence... He brought them out as created beings by His Will, and lodged them within the loins of Adam. God says: 'When thy Lord drew forth from the children of Adam from their loins, their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves: "Am I not your Lord?" (7:172). Thus He related, glory to His mention, that He had spoken to them when they were not existent beings save through His Existence for them, as they were existent for the Real [God] without being existent in themselves...'.[14]

Junayd goes on to describe, at the end of his K. al-Mīthāq, the saints in the state of annihilation (fanāʾ), using terms related to the development of the word wajd, such as existence (wujūd) and witnessing (shuhūd):

and then He brought them annihilation in their annihilation and caused them to witness existence in their existence, so that what He brought them was from themselves, and their witnessing of existence in their existence was as a hidden cover and subtle veil through which they perceived the greatness of their loss.[15]

In the same text, Junayd gives wujūd the sense of 'taste' (dhawq), which is the domain of Sufi gnosis.

This growing relationship between ecstasy and being, on the one hand, and between annihilation and witnessing on the other hand, can be found poetically condensed in al-Shiblī's Dīwān, where it culminates in 'the witness of the Real' (shāhid al-ḥaqq):           

To me ecstasy is just effort and exertion
unless it springs from my witnessing;
To me the witness of the Real
annihilates witnessing existence.

Junayd's way of speaking of ecstasy is unmatched except by al-Ḥallāj (d.309/922). His many discussions of ecstasy emphasize the importance of this fundamental term at the very core of the Sufi mystical experience. For example, wajd is 'to be witnessing the Real at all times'; 'emotional burning'; 'a flame that arises in the secret hearts ignited with longing, so that the bodily limbs are struck down in fear or joy and sad at the influx [of inspiration]'. Since wajd is a state, it is therefore 'connected with transiency', while the term wujūd means for him the existence of the Real in the heart, which is more permanent:

Ecstasy delights whoever finds in ecstasy his rest
yet when the Real is found ecstasy is lost
My ecstasy kept me longing, but also kept me consoled
that with the vision of ecstasy comes He who in ecstasy is to be found

The relationship between the ʿUdhri-type ecstasy and Divine love remains based upon describing the pain of the lover and his suffering, stemming from his separation from his beloved. The story of al-Ḥallāj calling for his own execution so that he could meet his Beloved, is well known: 'Kill me! Then you may be rewarded and I may rest.' When he was being lifted up to be crucified, he said: 'It is enough for the ecstatic (wājid) to be singled out by the One (wāḥid).'[16]

Sufi ecstatic love is distinguished from ecstasy in love poetry by the force of its intensity, giving rise to a widespread and diversified expression, which is not found in love poems. However, on one thing they are agreed: the total impossibility of finding any definition of love and ecstasy. According to ʿAmr b. ʿUthmān al-Makkī, 'There is no way of describing the state of ecstasy, because it is the mystery of God.'[17] Nonetheless, in ecstasy (as in love) there are distinguishing characteristics to which al-Sarrāj (d.378/988) drew attention in his al-Lumaʿ, many of which appear during 'the overwhelming dominion of ecstasy'. The ecstatic Sufi 'may be struck with a sword without feeling anything'. He alternates, according to how this state affects him, between weeping, fainting, moaning, loss of consciousness, screaming and shouting. Or as reported by al-Tustarī, he may 'remain twenty-four or twenty-five days without eating anything' and without feeling cold.[18] More on the hallmarks of ecstasy can be found in the chapter on the subject in al-Lumaʿ, and in al-bāb al-jāmiʿ where he summarizes K. al-Wajd by Abū Saʿīd b. al-Aʿrābī. Although Ibn Aʿrābī here attempts to make several definitions for ecstasy in order to plumb its depths, he is unable to go beyond the psychological signs and physiological phenomena it gives rise to in the mystic's body. These definitions are in fact those of al-Sarrāj:

1 – wajd: what occurs upon receiving bad news, being perturbed by fear or being reprimanded for a slip, witty conversation or an indication of benefit, a longing for someone absent or sorrow over something gone, regret for something past or seeking to bring about a particular state...

2 – wajd in this world is not an unveiling (kashf) but a witnessing of the heart ... If he awakens from being submerged [in it], he loses what he has found, but the knowledge of it still subsists in him, and that is what makes his spirit rejoice...

3 – wajd: the immediacy of refreshment and the threshold of more, something for which one has no patience when it is a little, and no capacity when it is a lot... this brings about grief and sometimes a kind of destruction (talaf). As for weeping and bursting into tears, that increases with the proximity of wajd. Trembling, loss of consciousness, extinction of bodily senses and the loss of reason, are all caused by the magnifying of that inspiration [i.e. wajd]... And this is indicative of its strength and power.[19]

The same meaning is at the heart of the definition by Abū Ṭālib al-Makkī (d.386/996), who writes in his description of the psychic and physical effects of ecstasy: 'the power of ecstasy has a searing heat, resulting in the destruction of the soul and the effacement of reason'.[20]

Thus, according to this, wajd is a psychic agitation that convulses the Sufi and may even cost him his life. In fact, al-Qushayrī's Epistle (Risāla) records several instances where a Sufi died after hearing a verse of poetry. The idea of someone slain by love, as in the ʿUdhri lovers, is repeated in the Sufi world in the context of Divine love. Al-Sarrāj informs us of the state of such Sufis, saying that 'The closest thing they may be likened to is the madman',[21] and adding, 'if someone asks for more of a description of wajd, such a thing is far from possible! It is only through tasting that it is sensed, and to the one who possesses it is unveiled what he desires.'

Nonetheless, later Sufis did add to these descriptions certain ideas that are worth mentioning. Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad b. Abī al-Khayr al-Yamanī, better known as al-Ṣayyād (a Sufi of the 7th/13th century) stated:

wajd is one of the secrets of God, stirred by the winds of intimacy from the oceans of holiness. No expression can capture what it is really like. It spreads itself through the limbs: that which comes upon the hand makes it clap, while that which comes upon the leg makes it dance; that which comes upon the heart makes it cry, whereas that which comes upon the spirit makes it shriek, and that which comes upon the deepest recesses of the secret heart results in loss of consciousness.[22]

 The most beautiful composition describing the psychical and physical effects of ecstasy (wajd) was written by Ibn ʿArabī in about ah 593, in al-Andalus. We shall attempt to summarize this interesting and original text from his book al-Tadbīrāt al-ilāhiyya ('The Divine Governance'):

Know that when God desires to bring the divine sciences down upon a servant's heart through one of the types of wajd, He sends the coolness of closeness upon the intelligible heart. Thus the heaven of the heart is cooled, causing it to descend, whereby it finds the natural heat ascending to the brain, upon which it relies. The heat then reverses and takes a downward course until it reaches the surface of the heart. From this friction is generated fire, which then ascends.

Because of the 'resistance' (muqāwama) this fire encounters, various different movements, parturitions and agitations are generated, starting with sighing and ending with what is least expected. That is due to the fact that if the rising fire is unable to come out, it turns back on itself. As Ibn ʿArabī says: 'And it fries the heart and liver instantly, and burns them, causing the man who possesses this state to die on the spot.' Between sighing and death are successive stages of panting, weeping and sighing, as the liver becomes well cooked on the fire; and from this sighing a special spiritual fragrance (rāʾiḥa) can be smelled. 'In the hollow of the heart when it is in a state of compression' can be heard a simmering sound, called throbbing (wajaba), clamouring (ṣayḥa) and shuddering (rajfa). This is when shouting occurs. 'When the fire is driven up from the heart to the brain, the person in that state begins to move about and utter things (shaṭḥ). As what comes out of it [the state of wajd] is mostly sinuously intermixed, the person's movements are not measured or coherent in any way. They usually manifest in a whirling or circular motion (dawarān), because the form of the human being in reality is spherical, and the fire flows in accordance with his form.' When the fire subsides, the mystic may be overcome by laughter.[23]


ʿAbd Allāh al-Anṣārī's Manāzil al-sāʾirīn provides his views on the word wujūd in the gnostic sense. By way of introduction, he cites three Quranic verses: 'God the Mighty and Majestic uses the word wujūd in the Quran explicitly in a number of places: "…he will find Allah oft-forgiving, most merciful" (4:110); "…they would have found Allah indeed oft-returning, ever merciful" (4:64); and "…But he finds Allah (ever) with him" (24:39).' Subsequently, al-Anṣārī defines wujūd as:

a noun which means conquering the reality of a thing. It is a word comprised of three meanings: the first is finding a God-given knowledge (wujūd ʿilm ladunī), which removes all derived knowledge by virtue of the soundness of God's unveiling to you. The second is finding the Real (wujūd al-ḥaqq) by means of immediate vision, which excludes all possibility of allusion. The third is finding a station in which the form of finding vanishes by virtue of being drowned in primordiality.[24]

One of Ibn ʿArabī's contemporaries, Abū Ḥafṣ ʿUmar al-Suhrawardī, makes an important distinction between wajd and wujūd: 'wajd is what is brought to [one's] interior from God... and it is an "aperture"[25] which is found by the one overwhelmed by his own attributes and through which he looks towards God Most High'. On the other hand, wujūd is a 'widening of the aperture of ecstasy which leads out into the open space of awareness (wijdān). There is no ecstasy alongside awareness, no knowledge (khubr) alongside direct vision. Ecstasy's aim is extinction, while finding (wujūd) is established as solid as the mountain.'[26]

Ibn ʿArabī dedicates Chapter 237 of the Futūḥāt al-Makkiya to the topic of wujūd, after his treatment of wajd in the preceding chapter. We may mention the similarity Ibn ʿArabī notes between ecstasy (wajd) and revelation (waḥy): 'According to the people of our way ecstasy (wajd) as a spiritual state is like revelation received by the Prophets, in that it comes upon them unexpectedly at the beginning… that which comes upon him [the man in ecstasy] suddenly, comes to him from God to benefit him with a [particular] knowledge he did not possess.'[27] When Ibn ʿArabī deals with wujūd, he starts by defining it as: 'the awareness of the Real in ecstasy (wijdān al-ḥaqq fī al-wajd)', and recounts the views of certain Sufis who said: 'If you are a possessor of ecstasy, but you do not witness the Real in that state – for it is witnessing Him which annihilates you from witnessing yourself and witnessing those present – then you are not a [real] possessor of ecstasy, since you do not possess the finding of the Real in it.'[28]

We may conclude from this gradual relationship between wajd and wujūd that wujūd is 'the complete finding of the finder', as Abū Manṣūr Muʿammar al-Isfahānī puts it.[29] Al-Isfahānī adds that 'the people of reality/truth witness the states through finding'. And from the aforementioned view of Suhrawardī we understand that wujūd is a more expansive horizon than wajd.

Equally, there is the expression, frequently repeated by Ibn ʿArabī, that the Sufis are 'people of unveiling and finding' (ahl al-kashf wa al-wujūd), who are 'gnostics, the people of taste', as the late Abu ʿAlaʾ al-ʿAfifi put it. They possess knowledge of:

the world aside from what is unveiled to them from the secrets of the unseen. They are thus people of unveiling and finding, that is to say, people who have a direct experiential gnosis of the inner reality of things as well those who know the outer world... Sufis have 'a state' they call 'finding' (wujūd), a state which follows the state of ecstasy (wajd). In the state of wajd, the Sufi is annihilated from himself, and in the state of wujūd, he is in the state of subsistence with his Lord.[30]

This progression from wajd to wujūd is followed by another ascent through wijdān (consciousness). The three terms express a Sufi mystical experience, which increases in frequency and strength, and brings the mystic closer to witnessing and certainty. Al-Kāshānī disagreed with this ordering, considering wijdān to be more specific than wajd and wujūd more so than wijdān.[31]

Although Ibn ʿArabī follows the views of his Sufi predecessors, with the aim of reproducing the central concepts of Sufism cumulatively, beginning with Junayd and al-Ḥallāj up to al-Ghazālī and his own spiritual masters in the Maghrib, such as Abū Madyan and ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Mahdawī, he is nonetheless distinguished from all of them by integrating this system of compilation within the broader context of his own Sufi philosophical doctrine. Here he connects the two concepts of wajd and wujūd into his view of the Divine Names, which embraces the entirety of his doctrine:

The finding of the Real in ecstasy is diverse among the finders because of the property of the divine names and the engendered preparedness. Each breath of the engendered existence possesses a preparedness not possessed by any other breath... the engendered thing possesses nothing of Allāh but being related to His names and His solicitude... It is known that the states of existence in 'the weighty-ones' (al-thaqalayn) changes only because the properties of the Divine Names change, and the forms and Divine self-disclosures change because of the changing states of engendered existence... the occurrence of ecstasy is unknown to the one upon whom it comes until it happens to him. Hence, the way each possessor of ecstasy finds the Real is in accordance with his ecstasy.[32]

Here we are simultaneously at the core of a Sufi mystical experience and within the framework of a two-stage doctrine: the intellect (ʿaql) and what lies beyond the intellect. Ibn ʿArabī says: 'All our sciences are from Divine disclosures to the heart when overcome by the dominion of ecstasy, and the state of annihilation in finding.'[33] The self-disclosures do not repeat themselves, and 'the way of God cannot be verified by syllogistic reasoning as every day He is upon some task'.[34] Since the finding of the Real in each possessor of ecstasy is in accordance with his wajd, we are in the presence of a unique Sufi mystical experience, one which cannot be captured by reason and cannot be turned into a consistent and logically coherent theory.


The relationship between wujūd and shuhūd is quite complex, and we cannot arrive at a logical separation between the two terms or judge the superiority of one over the other. Sometimes wujūd seems more important and superior to shuhūd; at other times shuhūd appears as the ultimate goal of wujūd. Junayd says: 'I do not find the taste of wujūd nor do I find delight from the fixity of shuhūd', and 'from the reality of wujūd one comes upon the reality of witnessing by becoming absent to one's own wujūd.'[35] Here, the gradation appears relatively clear, as the transition to the reality of witnessing is connected with absence, suggesting that shuhūd is higher in degree to wujūd. At the same time, in the text of Abū Madyan, another Sufi who had a great influence on Ibn ʿArabī, we find the contrary: 'Whoever says "dates" without finding the sweetness of dates in his mouth, has not actually said "dates". For the state of shuhūd is such that wujūd is united with every existent (mawjūd) in the witnessing of the witnesser, and so he sees everything in everything.'[36]

Ibn ʿArabī's writings do not provide us with a decisive answer as to which term is higher. He says: 'There is nothing that moves the creatures and the great gnostics except the hope of obtaining the station of witnessing (maqām al-shuhūd), for this is the desired finding (al-wujūd).'[37] Here it is self-evident that witnessing is the final and higher stage. Ibn ʿArabī relates and comments on a story about Abū Yazīd al-Basṭāmī, the substance of which is:

Abū Yazīd asked his Lord: 'My Lord, by what means can I draw near to You?', to which He replied: 'By something that I do not possess.' He asked: 'O Lord, what is it that You do not possess, when everything belongs to You?' and He answered: 'Lowliness and neediness.' He then came to know what belongs to the selfhood (aniyya, 'I-ness') of the Real and what belongs to the selfhood of the servant. Thereafter he entered into this station, attaining the most perfect nearness, and thus bringing together shuhūd and wujūd.[38]

Clearly, the coming together of shuhūd and wujūd confers upon them the same force in the hierarchy and makes them equal in status. We find the same synonymity in another passage which gives the same meaning to each of the following terms: kashf (unveiling), shuhūd (witnessing), dhawq (taste) and wujūd (finding).[39]

The synonymy certainly makes it easier for us to understand, but there remains the more serious problem of ambiguity of meaning for the reader of Ibn ʿArabī's texts: thus the simple meaning, where kashf (unveiling) and dhawq (taste) are identified with finding (wujūd), has become conflated with the second meaning, which is ḥuṣūl (arising), thubūt (fixity) and taḥaqquq (verification), or what today we would call the ontological meaning (being).

Ibn ʿArabī describes his Al-Shāhid as a book 'comprised of those divine sciences which are brought into the heart by the proofs (shawāhid) of the Real... and these proofs are what remain in the heart of the servant after separating from the station of witnessing. By this the gnostics experience pleasure, so that the [divine] address comes back to them, from their own being due to their finding (min wujūdihim li-wujūdihim).'[40]

Are reverberations of this address transferred from the taste-finding to the individual being that is established and realized in the outer world? We can find no other explanation, and yet is this the only correct meaning? Our need today to determine and understand the meanings of these terms becomes more urgent whenever we move away from the core mystical experience that spares the mystic the hardship of investigation by providing him with a direct existential experience and an intuitive understanding of it. The issue becomes even more complex if we wish to broaden our understanding of the doctrine.


It is well established that Ibn ʿArabī did not use this term in the sense or senses commonly used today, nor in the way that it is used by his admirers and detractors. If we go back to what was written prior to him, we find the term used without reference to a specific doctrine, for example in the writings of the martyr, Suhrawardī al-maqtūl. It can also be found used by a Sufi contemporary of Ibn ʿArabī, ʿAbd al-Munʿim al-Jilyānī (d.602/1205) in Adab al-sulūk,[41] as well as in the writings of Ibn ʿArabī's early students, such as al-Qūnawī (d.673/1274) in his Miftāḥ al-ghayb and other works, and in those of Ibn Sabʿīn (d.669/1270) in his Rasāʾil.[42] It is well known that the term waḥdat al-wujūd was not used to denote a particular doctrine except by Ibn Taymiyya (d.728/1328) who employed it to attack Ibn ʿArabī and his early students and declare them unbelievers.[43] Ibn Taymiyya understood it as a doctrine that unifies God and the world. His example was followed, albeit with less understanding and more wide-ranging accusations of unbelief, by ʿAlāʾ al-dīn al-Bukhārī (d.841/1438).[44]

The researcher finds two important issues in Ibn ʿArabī's own writings. The first, which may be surprising to some, is that Ibn ʿArabī is critical of what might be called waḥdat al-wujūd, but in the context of the term 'ontological unification' (al-tawḥīd al-wujūdī). This critique is found in a philosophical book by Ibn ʿArabī, entitled al-Ḥikma al-ilhāmiyya, which he appears to have written during the very early period of his life. The only two manuscript copies that remain extant are held in the Leiden Oriental Manuscript Library. While Asin Palacios accepted the possible attribution of the work to Ibn ʿArabī,[45] Osman Yahia did not include it in his classification due to its philosophical nature.[46] However, careful readings of the book's contents show no contradiction with the views of Ibn ʿArabī, but, on the contrary, serve to strengthen the attribution.

Ibn ʿArabī says there, discussing 'the ontological question', that 'ontological unification (tawḥīd al-wujūd) is an idea adopted by certain Sufis, signifying the unity of the Creator and the created'. He condemns this idea and calls on the reader to go back to the Quranic texts that clearly distinguish between them.[47] Elsewhere, in his al-Iʿlām bi ishārāt ahl al-ilhām, Ibn ʿArabī uses the same term in a similarly critical vein when he cites certain Sufis who say on the subject of unification (tawḥīd): 'Ordaining Power and Will negate unification, for unification means no otherness. But He is not what is ordained nor what is willed, hence "ontological unification" is invalid because it is the unification of act (tawḥīd al-fiʿl) that is established.'[48]

Although he does not name it explicitly, he is critical of the concept of waḥdat al-wujūd that was widespread in Andalusia, in a letter addressed to his friend, Abū al-Qāsim al-ʿImād Ibn al-Sukarī, where he draws attention to the gravity of the situation that befell a student of al-Sukarī's, Abū al-ʿAbbās al-Khayyāṭ, because some of his friends plotted against him and made him believe that he is the 'same as the One whom he worships'. Ibn ʿArabī comments that 'there is no concealing his ignorance' and asks al-Sukarī to address the matter.[49] In his K. al-Masāʾil we find the same firm tone, denying waḥdat al-wujūd as understood by Ibn Taymiyya and his followers. Ibn ʿArabī writes: 'Here the feet of some people have slipped from the path of realization, so that they say: "There is nothing but what you see", making the world God, and God the same as the world, not something else.' Ibn ʿArabī then comments: 'But how could the property of the possible ever unite with the Necessary through Himself?'[50]

In spite of his denial of the doctrine of waḥdat al-wujūd in the sense expressed by Ibn Taymiyya, there are ambiguities in Ibn ʿArabī's terminology and views that might suggest that he is 'the founder of this doctrine'. He uses a very similar term in his statement: 'Affirm multiplicity in immutability but negate it from existence (wujūd). Affirm oneness in being (al-waḥda fī al-wujūd) but negate it from immutability.'[51] However, we should understand from this the unity of the divine essence at the level of absolute transcendence. We also find something close to this meaning in the Friday eve prayer of his Awrād, where he speaks to his Lord with the phrase waḥdati wujūdika ('the Oneness of Your Being').[52] But these expressions or ideas cannot be taken out of context. For example, when he says in K. al-Jalāla 'the whole of existence is one in reality, and there is nothing with Him', he is specifically referring to the One Divine Being and none other than Him.[53] The same phrase can be found almost verbatim in K. al-Alif: 'Everything in existence is one'.[54] These statements should be connected to the general coherence of Ibn ʿArabī's thought. As he writes in his Futūḥāt:

His Wish, glory to Him, His Will, His Knowledge and His Power [are] His Essence. God is exalted above being multiple in His Essence, far transcendent and great beyond that indeed. To Him belongs absolute Oneness. He is the One (al-wāḥid), 'the Only One, Allāh the Eternal Refuge, He neither begets', that He would be a premise, 'nor is He begotten', that He would be a conclusion.[55]

These assertions help us exclude the attribution to Ibn ʿArabī of waḥdat al-wujūd in its materialistic sense. ʿAfifi was right when he said:

What kind of Oneness of Being, then, is represented in the doctrine of Ibn ʿArabī? It is certainly not a materialistic doctrine that limits the discourse to what can be verified by the senses and subjected to experience, and considers God as a name without a real referent. On the contrary, it is a spiritual doctrine both as a whole and in detail, putting Divinity in the first place of being. It considers God as the Eternal Reality and the Absolute Necessary Being, which is the origin of all that was, is and will be. If being is attributed to the world, it is like the existence of a shadow... and the forms in a mirror... real being is the Being of God... Ibn ʿArabī's view is categorical in confessing the Oneness of God.[56]

Up to this point we can agree with one of the leading scholars of Akbarian studies in the last century. However, we will not suggest, as ʿAfifi does, that Ibn ʿArabī is the one who gave the doctrine of waḥdat al-wujūd its 'complete formulation'. ʿAfifi's opinion here is reminiscent of Sirhindī's, as we shall see.


We also have to disagree with ʿAfīfī with respect to what he attributed to such Sufis as al-Basṭāmī, Junayd and al-Ḥallāj, in making them adherents to the doctrine of waḥdat al-shuhūd. We reject the sharp doctrinal separation he makes between a fully constructed philosophical theory and a mystical experience based upon love. Here we should ask two questions: firstly, about the role of love and sentiment, and 'the dominion of ecstasy, its arousal and overpowering' according to Ibn ʿArabi. Would it not be better to say that the most complete theory of divine love is that which we find in the poetry and prose of Ibn ʿArabī (as well as the poetry of Ibn al-Fāriḍ)? Have love and mystical utterances ever been absent from the writings of Ibn ʿArabī? His Mashāhid al-asrār al-qudsiyya consists of composed and dazzling mystical utterances, reminiscent of the extraordinary intensity of Junayd. What we call Ibn ʿArabi's doctrine of waḥdat al-wujūd is essentially based upon the mystical experience, and it derives its origin from the power of ecstasy.

As al-Sharīf al-Jurjānī (d.816/1413) writes, as if in direct response to ʿAfifi's remarks in the section entitled Al-Qaḍiyya al-kubrā ('the main issue') in his introduction to the Fuṣūṣ:

What would you say to someone who says that Being (though it is identical with the Necessary and is not subject to fragmentation and division) overflows over the forms of existent things and appears in them and that nothing at all is devoid of Him – rather, He is its very reality and essence; and that things became differentiated and multiple by virtue of subjective delimitation [and particularization], and that this can be represented by the ocean and its appearance in the form of multiple waves, even though there is absolutely nothing save the reality of the ocean? I would reply: as we have previously said, this is 'a station beyond the limit of reason', which cannot be reached except through unveiling and witnessing, without rational consideration. [Everyone is guided to the path for which he was created] and God is the One from whom we seek help...[57]

The second question concerns the term waḥdat al-shuhūd, and whether we accept it as no more than an experience, with divine love as its ultimate end. Indeed, a study of the history of this term enables us to trace its origin back to ʿAbd Allāh al-Anṣārī al-Harawī (5th/11th century). He is the first to make a distinction between Oneness in Being (al-tawḥīd al-wujūdī) and Oneness in Witnessing (al-tawḥīd al-shuhūdī), although he does not mention two opposing currents. In 10th-/16th-century Shādhiliyya writings we come across an expression emphasizing 'oneness of witnessing, not of being' (al-waḥda al-shuhūdiyya lā wujūdiyya).[58] From this one can conclude that waḥdat al-shuhūd is being given precedence, without any further explanation.

 It was not until the beginning of the 11th/17th century that there first appeared a divergence between two different streams of thought. The first was that of waḥdat al-wujūd, which Aḥmad Sirhindī embraced at the beginning of his Sufi path. He then turned against it and replaced it with the term (which we cannot call a 'doctrine') waḥdat al-shuhūd. While there is a somewhat vague tendency to regard 'witnessing' as of a higher degree than 'finding' in the spiritual sense of taste, this needs proper investigation as it is possible to come across such expressions as 'shuhūd waḥdat al-wujūd' being used by one of the first followers of the School of Ibn ʿArabī, al-Farghānī.[59] Just as ambiguous and in need of detailed research is the statement by Ibn Sabʿīn: 'Finding/being (wujūd) overflows through what is known in union, and brings together the branch and the root, which is the moment of completion when the gaze is directed towards the oneness of the witnessed in the witnesser, and relates oneness [solely] to the One.'[60]

While the distinction between the two terms was established by Sirhindī, we find the same tendency amongst the Shādhiliyya of the same period, according to the testimony of Muḥammad ʿAlī b. Muḥammad al-Bakrī al-Ṣiddīqī who was born, raised and died in Mecca (d.1057/1647). He was a student of the great Meccan scholar al-Qaḍī ʿAlī b. Jār Allāh Ibn Ẓahīra (d.1010/1601). It is not known whether al-Ṣiddīqī met Sirhindī, who also lived in Mecca for several years. He writes:

Waḥdat al-shuhūd is the way of the Shādhiliyya. Its central tenet is a lack of paying attention to anything other than God most High, due to the way nonexistence (ʿadam) encompasses it [i.e. what is other than God] on both its sides... As for waḥdat al-wujūd, it does not mean... the understanding of the apostates 'that the Creator is the same as the existing creatures'. What is intended is that Being which subsists in Himself, the Necessary Existent through His own Existence, whose Essence is Himself, and who does not subsist through another. The Existence which subsists in Itself is sheer Being. There cannot be two things in the Necessary Existent: an Essence and an Existence accidental to It. Rather, the Necessary Existent is a pure Essence subsisting in Itself. The theologians and the Sufis agree on this.[61]

The only reason that seems to have turned Sirhindī against Ibn ʿArabī, in our opinion, was that he was trying to evade the charge of heresy that had persisted as a result of the vicious attacks on waḥdat al-wujūd by Ibn Taymiyya (8th/14th century), ʿAlāʾ al-dīn Bukhārī (9th/15th century), the historian ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sakhāwī and his contemporary Ibn al-Ahdal (10th/16th century). These attacks had alienated many people from the doctrine, a trend that Sirhindī seems to have picked up when he spent a period of his life in Mecca. The difference between Sirhindī and Ibn Taymiyya is that Sirhindī, who disagreed with Ibn ʿArabī over waḥdat al-shuhūd, did not turn against him personally. He explains his stance towards Ibn ʿArabī by saying: 'Those who oppose the Shaykh are in danger, and those who accept him and what he says are also in danger. The Shaykh should be accepted, but not his disputed expressions.'[62] In another letter[63] Sirhindī attributes the disagreement between himself and Ibn ʿArabī to a matter of semantics, and excuses himself and his followers thus: 'The comprehension of those who are overcome by that state [the ecstatic state of finding] should be completely excused; there should be no rejection of or accusation against someone who is compelled and justified.'[64] This prompted his students to find an agreement between the two streams.


We have spent a long time discussing wajd (ecstasy) in order to highlight the real quality of Ibn ʿArabī's mystical tasting. In addition, the Shaykh al-Akbar repeatedly mentions that all that he has written is divinely inspired. However, this inspiration need not oblige anyone to adopt it as a practice or a new religious injunction. It is an existential experience that provides the believer who is convinced by it with a determination and sincerity that will assist him in moving forward in seeking closeness to his Creator.

The task of re-assembling what Ibn ʿArabī scattered so intentionally throughout his writings helps to formulate an idea of his doctrine. However, before doing so, we should make one proviso: there is in fact no Sufi philosophical doctrine to be reconstructed. As Osman Yahia put it, 'Ibn ʿArabī tried, through his ideas, to islamize Neoplatonism, and to rework it by giving it a new form.' This is clearly seen in his views on the structure of the Divine Names. What the 'divine Plato', as Ibn ʿArabī and his predecessors referred to him, could not develop in his application of the theory of Forms, Ibn ʿArabī would refashion under the umbrella of the Divine Names.

Translated from Arabic by Ramzi Taleb

[1] Aḥmad Sirhindī, al-Maktūbāt, 1/287.

[2] Mahmud Mahmud Ghurab, Rasāʾil Ibn ʿArabī (Beirut, 1997) introduction, pp. 8–9.

[3]Histoire et classification de l'oeuvre d'Ibn ʿArabī (Damascus, 1964), p. 13.

[4] Fakhr al-dīn al-Rāzī, Al-Tafsīr al-kabīr (ah 1324), Vol. 1, pp. 61–2.

[5] As an example of this equivocation, see 'Kitāb al-Kindī ilā al-Muʿtaṣim fi al-falsafa al-ūlā' by al-Kindī, in Rasāʾil Al-Kindī al-falsafiyya, ed. Abu Al- Rayda, 2nd edn (Cairo, 1978), pp. 37ff. with Abu Rayda's commentary.

[6] Cf. F. Jabre, 'Etre et esprit dans la pensée arabe', Studia Islamica, XXXII (1970), p. 170.

[7] Cf. David L. Miller, 'La renaissance des dieux', in Henry Corbin, Cahier de l'Herne 39, ed. C. Jambet (Paris, 1981), p. 122.

[8]Manshūrāt maʿhad al-makhṭūṭāt al-ʿArabiyya, ed. Hadi Hasan Hammudi (Kuwait, 1405/1985), Vol. 4, p. 506.

[9]Dīwān Jamīl-Buthayna, ed. Amil Badiʿ Yaʿqub (Beirut, 1992), pp. 60, 74, 760. The Bedouin poet Jamīl loved Buthayna, who was from the same tribe and loved him, but her father married her off to another man. He celebrated loving her in his poems, and they are both said to have died of a broken heart.

[10] Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, Siqṭ al-zand (Cairo, 1947), p. 1006.

[11]Kitāb al-ṣidq, ed. ʿAbd al-Halim Mahmud (Cairo, 1975), p. 71.

[12] Al-Kalābādhī, al-Taʿarruf li madhhab ahl al-taṣawwuf, ed. Mahmud Amin Nawawi (Cairo, 1969), p. 144.

[13] We may note here that Massignon did not understand what Junayd had written, and so he described it as obscure, the main reason being a lack of accuracy by the scribe of his only manuscript of the Rasāʾil.

[14]Rasāʾil al-Junayd, ed. Ali Hassan Abdel-Kader in The Life, Personality and Writings of al-Junayd (London, 1976), Arabic text, pp. 40–1.

[15] Ibid., p. 43.

[16]Essays on the Origins of the Technical Language of Islamic Mysticism, trans. Louis Massignon and Benjamin Clark (Notre Dame, Indiana, 1994), pp. 435, 439.

[17] Abū Naṣr al-Sarrāj al-Ṭusī, K. al-Lumaʿ, ed. R.A. Nicholson (Leiden, 1914), p. 30.

[18] Ibid., pp. 303ff.

[19] al-Sarrāj, K. al-Lumaʿ, p. 310.

[20] Abū Ṭālib al-Makkī, Qūt al-qulūb (Cairo, ah 1310), Vol. 1, p. 239.

[21] al-Sarrāj, K. al-Lumaʿ, p. 312.

[22] al-Yāfiʿī, Nashr al-maḥāsin al-ghāliyya (Cairo, 1961), p. 319.

[23] Ibn ʿArabī, al-Tadbīrāt al-ilāhiyya, ed. H.S. Nyberg (Leiden, 1919), pp. 224–6.

[24] S. de Beaurecueil, Khwadja ʿAbdullah Ansari, mystique hanbalite (Beirut, 1965), p. 251.

[25] Arabic furja, a word which suggests both an opening or gap through which one looks, and a state of delight or happiness that comes after sorrow.

[26]ʿAwārif al-maʿārif, on the margin of al-Ghazālī's Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn (Cairo, ah 1306), Vol. 4, pp. 350–1.

[27]Fut. II.537.

[28] Ibid., II.538, trans. William Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge (Albany, NY, 1989), p. 212.

[29] Abū Manṣūr Muʿammar al-Isfahānī, K. Nahj al-khāṣṣ, ed. S. de Beaurecueil, in Ilā Tāhā Ḥusayn fī ʿīd milādih al-sabʿīn, ed. ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Badawi (Cairo, 1962), pp. 45–7.

[30] Abu ʿAlaʾ al-ʿAfifi, Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam, Vol. 2, p. 310.

[31]Kashf al-wujūh al-ghurr, a commentary on Ibn al-Fāriḍ's al-Tāʾiyya al-kubrā, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Arabic 3163, fol. 17b.

[32]Fut. II.538, trans. Chittick, Sufi Path, p. 212.

[33]al-Masāʾil, in Rasāʾil Ibn ʿArabī, ed. Muhammad Shihab al-din al- ʿArabi (Beirut, 1997), p. 393, masʾala 4.

[34]Fut. II.538.

[35]Rasāʾil al-Junayd, pp. 31 and 25.

[36] Muhammad ʿAbd al-Raʾūf al-Munāwī, al-Kawākib al-durriyya, ed. Muhammad Adib Jadir (Beirut, 1999), 2/242.

[37]K. al-Waṣāyā, ed. Muhammad Saʿid Burhani (Damascus, 1964), p. 38.

[38]Fut. IV.41.

[39]Fut. III.344.

[40]Rasāʾil Ibn ʿArabī, p. 261.

[41] Ẓahiriyya MS 1442, fol. 9a.

[42]Rasāil Ibn Sabʿīn, ed. ʿAbd al-Rahman Badawi (Cairo, 1956), pp. 101–2, 369.

[43] See William C. Chittick, 'Waḥdat al-wujūd in Islamic Thought', in Bulletin of the Henry Martyn Institute of Islamic Studies, 10 (1991).

[44] See my introduction to Al-Wujūd al-ḥaqq by ʿAbd al-Ghanī al- Nābulusī (d.1141/1731) (Damascus, 1995), French pp. 9–84.

[45] See Ibn ʿArabī, ḥayātuhu wa madhhabuh, Arabic trans. by ʿAbd al- Rahman Badawi (Kuwait/Beirut, 1979), p. 85.

[46] See Histoire et Classification de l'Oeuvre d'Ibn ʿArabī, RG 281.

[47] Leiden MS fol. 10b ff.

[48]Rasāʾil Ibn ʿArabī, p. 98.

[49]K. al-Kutūb, in Rasāʾil Ibn ʿArabī, p. 349.

[50] Ibid., p. 402.

[51]Fut. II.502.

[52] See The Seven Days of the Heart, trans. Pablo Beneito and Stephen Hirtenstein (Oxford, 2000), p. 115.

[53]K. al-Jalāla, in Rasāil Ibn 'Arabī, p. 66.

[54] Ibid., p. 46.

[55]Futūḥāt, Osman Yahia edn (Cairo, 1975), 4/334, quoting from Ṣūrat al-Ikhlāṣ (Q.112).

[56] Introduction to Fuṣūṣ, pp. 26–7.

[57]Ḥāshiyat Sharḥ al-Tajrīd, Millet Fayzullah Ef. MS 5111, fol. 46a.

[58] Muḥammad b. Muḥammad Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī al-Bakrī (d.952/ 1545), Risālāt al-tawḥīd.

[59] See Sharḥ al-Farghānī ʿalā Tāʾiyyat Ibn al-Fāriḍ, Ẓahiriyya MS 7136, fol. 153a.

[60]Rasāʾil, ed. Badawi, p. 240.

[61]Al-ʿIqd al-farīd fi taḥqīq al-tawḥīd, Berlin MS Spr. 677, fols. 110–11.

[62]Maktūbāt, Vol. 3, p. 98, Letter 77.

[63] Ibid., Vol. 2, p. 72.

[64] Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 343.