The Greatest Master Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi
The Greatest Master Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi

Most of these introductory articles are exracted from Volume I of the Single Monad Model of the Cosmos: Ibn al-Arabi's View of Time and Creation... more on this can be found here.

The Oneness of Being

The 'oneness of being' (wahdata al-wujud) is one of Ibn al-Arabi's most controversial doctrines which many later Muslim scholars attributed to him, usually with very different (and often more polemic than philosophical) meanings and interpretations. Although Ibn al-Arabi himself never mentioned the precise term 'wahdata al-wujud' in his writings,[1] it is quite evident that Ibn al-Arabi's books are full of statements that develop notions related to the oneness of being in one way or another, in many places quite explicitly and rigorously. This is especially the case in his most controversial book, Fusus al-Hikam, for which he was widely criticized, but related discussions are also to be found throughout the Futuhat and his other shorter works. Indeed the possible misunderstandings of this conception clearly underpin Ibn al-Arabi's distinctive multi-layered, intentionally 'scattered' rhetoric and writing style throughout the Futuhat and other works, as he explained quite clearly in the key Introduction to the Futuhat itself.

The basic ontological issue for Ibn al-Arabi is very clear and simple: in many places throughout his writings, such as the long chapter 198 of the Futuhat [II.390-478] he follows the established Avicennan distinction, familiar to all students of Islamic theology and philosophy by his time, in dividing all conceivable things, in terms of existence, into three basic categories (see also section II.3 above). There he says:

Know that the matter (of the nature of the reality) is the Real (al-haqq) and the creation (al-khalq): that is the absolute Existence that has always been and always is (existing); and absolute (contingent) possibility (imkan) that has always been and always is (possible to exist); and absolute non-existence that has always been and always is (non-existing). Now the absolute Existence does not accept non-existence, (and that applies) eternally and perpetually. The absolute non-existence does not accept existence, (and likewise that applies) eternally and perpetually. But the absolutely possible does accept existence through an (ontologically determining) cause, and it also accepts non-existence through a cause - and (that contingent ontological status also applies) eternally and perpetually.

So the absolute Existence is Allah, nothing other than Him. The absolute non-existence is the impossible-to-exist, nothing other than it. And the absolutely possible (of existence) is the world, nothing other than it: its (ontological) level is between the absolute Existence and absolute non-existence. So insofar as some of it faces non-existence, it accepts non-existence; and insofar as some of it faces Existence, it accepts existence. So some of it is darkness, and that is the Nature. And some of it is light, and that is the 'Breath of the All-Merciful' [that is the 'real-through-whom-creation-takes-place' (al-haqq al-makhluq bihi), see sections VI.3 and VI.5 below] which bestows existence upon this possible (realm of created beings).[2]


 After that Ibn al-Arabi explains the different types of Creation according to this creative Spirit - or the divine Name 'Light', which he often uses as synonymous with the divine creative and existentiating power - is attached to the 'dark', contingent form of the creatures. Then he goes on to gives the crucial analysis which clearly explains his profound view of the oneness of being in the most explicit and direct way, based on evident verses in Qur’an. He says:

So the possible (contingent) existence became manifest between light and darkness, nature and spirit, the unseen and the visible, and the 'veiled' and unveiled. Therefore that which is close to (waliya) absolute Existence, from among all that (contingent realm) we have mentioned is light and spirit, and all of what we have mentioned which is close to absolute non-existence is 'shadow' and body - and from the totality (of those different kinds of contingent existent) form (sura: of the whole of creation) comes to be. So when you consider the world from the side of the Breath of the All-Merciful, you say: 'It is nothing but Allah'. But when you consider the world with regard to its being equally balanced and well-proportioned (i.e., between existence and non-existence), then you say these are creations (makhluqat). So [in the famous Qur’anic expression of this fundamental ontological reality, addressed to the Prophet]: you (Muhammad) did not throw', inasmuch as you are a creation [so that it is God who was really acting], 'when you did throw', inasmuch as you are real (haqqan), 'but Allah threw' (8:17), because He is the Real (al-Haqq).

For it is through the (divine creative) Breath that the whole world is 'breathing' (animated with life), and the Breath made it appear. So (this creative divine Breath) is inner dimension (batin) for the Real, and the manifest dimension (zahir) for creation: thus the inner dimension of the Real is the manifest dimension for creation, and the inner dimension of creation is the manifest aspect of the Real - and through their combination the generated existence (al-kawn) is actualized, since without that combination it would would (only) be said to be Real and creation. Thus the Real is for the absolute Existence, and creation is for the absolutely possible. So what becomes non-existent of the world and its form that disappears is through what is close to the side of non-existence; and what remains of it and does not allow for non-existence is through what is close to the side of Existence. Hence these two things (Existence and non-existence) are continually ruling over the world, so the creation is always new with every Breath, both in this world and in the hereafter.

Therefore the Breath of the All-Merciful is continually directed (toward the Act of creation), and Nature is continually taking on existence as the forms for this Breath, so that the divine Command does not become inactive, because inactivity is not appropriate (for It). So constantly forms are newly appearing and becoming manifest, according to their states of readiness to accept the (divine creative) Breath. And this is the clearest possible (description) of the (divine) origination (ibda‘) of the world. And Allah says the truth and He shows the way (33:4).


To summarize, therefore, this expression implies that the world can be conceived symbolically as a mixture of light and 'darkness'. For Ibn al-Arabi, this darkness is quite literally nothing: it is simply the absence of light.[3] Light, on the other hand, is ultimately the Real (via the divine Name 'The Light', al-nur), and the Real is One. So all existence is in essence one. Multiplicity appears through creation as a result of mixing the oneness of light with the darkness of non-existence. In other words, we can say - since darkness is nothing - that the creation is the constantly repeating relative appearance (manifestation) of the Real. The Real manifests most perfectly in the Perfect Human Being, and relatively in other creatures, and these manifestations happen through the Universal Intellect. So in real existence there is only the Real Who is Allah and this Universal Intellect who is the Messenger of Allah. So there is in fact no ontologically self-subsistent 'evil', since the creation is all good - an aspect of this cosmological conception which, taken out of context, could easily give rise to obvious religious and ethical objections. Hence what we perceive as evil is in reality the absence of good, just as darkness is the absence of light.[4]

Thus this is the basic principle, but in order to understand it we need to explain how the mixing between light and darkness is done, which is again to say: 'how is the world created?' - which raises the question of time yet again. Ibn al-Arabi's understanding of this process of creation or cosmogony will be developed further below and in sections VI.7-8.

 Given the possible confusions and misunderstandings surrounding this understanding of creation, it is clear why Ibn al-Arabi never declared these ideas in overly simplistic terms in his books, but rather scattered them throughout his writings - as he explains quite explicitly at the very beginning of his Futuhat [I.38.25] - so that the common people would not misunderstand them (as indeed happened in later times) and so that only those properly 'prepared' would be able to discover their profound intended meanings.

Moreover, we have to admit that Ibn al-Arabi takes it a courageous step further: although the Universal Intellect, and hence the entire manifest world, is created by Allah, Ibn al-Arabi emphasizes that it also is not 'other than Allah' (SDK: 113), because ultimately only Allah has real absolute and necessary (independent) existence [I.194.8], and the world exists by and through Him not by itself. As Chittick has summarized this perspective (SDK: 81), if Ibn al-Arabi was asked the question: 'Are the things the same as God?', his answer would be: 'Yes and No'. That is to say, they are, in his own words, 'He/not He' (Huwa la huwa);[5] or equally, one could say: 'they are not Him, and they are not other than Him' (La hiya huwa wa la hiya ghayruh).[6] For if we say 'Yes' (alone), then this would require us confining Allah, the most Exalted, in objects, which is an obvious misconception. And if we say 'No' (alone), then this would require the assertion of other separate andself-subsistent) existents, and this - for Ibn al-Arabi - is also wrong. So the ultimate truth requires combining both ontological views and saying that the things are in essence 'not other than Allah' - although in the forms that we see, they also are not (identical with) Allah. These forms do not have real independent existence, since otherwise Allah would not be 'the One (alone)' (al-wahid) - but He is the One (alone), and the created things exist by and through Him, not by themselves. For Ibn al-Arabi, this is in fact 'the secret of sincerity' (sirr al-ikhlas), which is also 'the secret of destiny' (sirr al-qadar) that makes clear the fundamental distinction between the Creator and the creation, the Eternal and the created - and this secret, he explains, has been hidden from most people [III.182.11].

Chittick goes on to show that, for Ibn al-Arabi, everything in the world is a divine name of Allah (SDK: 94); or rather, the things are the manifestations of the Names. From the general Qur’anic verse: O people, you are truly in need of Allah (35:15), Ibn al-Arabi easily concludes that everything (that is a cause, and everything is a cause) is a divine Name, because we are in need of these causes, so they may not be other than Him [I.288.16]. Again we can not say that these secondary and intermediate causes (asbab) are Him - though in their most ultimate essence and Source they are all one, and this one is not other than Him. But of course someone simply hearing such an expression will initially think that they mean that the particular shape or body of the created objects that are the causes: that is why we can not simply stop at saying (as many later Sufi poets sometimes did) that 'all things are Allah'. Ibn al-Arabi explained these key ontological distinctions most clearly and extensively in his Fusus al-Hikam, especially in chapter 3 'on the wisdom of transcendence (al-hikma al-subuhiyya) in the word of Noah';[7] but he also took up this same subject at many places throughout the Futuhat [I.90.17, and the extensive references cited in the previous paragraph].

In a similar manner, Ibn al-Arabi often describes the world of all creation as a kind of 'mirror' on which Allah's Image is reflected [IV.430.1]. If someone looks at the world from the real side of actual existence, then he will see the Image of the Real, Allah the most Glorious; but if he considers the world only from the side of its non-existence (if we suppose this is possible), then he will see an image of the unreal:

Therefore the reason why this (ontological) 'isthmus' (al-barzakh) - which is the possible (realm of contingent existence ) between (pure) non-existence and Existence - is the occasion (sabab) for its being attributed both permanence and non-existence, is because it corresponds to both those things by its essence. That is because the absolute non-existence stood up like a mirror for the Absolute Existence, so the (divine) Existence saw His Image in it, so that this Image is the essential reality (‘ayn) of the possible. That is why this 'possible' (as the Perfect Human Being/First Intellect) had a permanent individual-essence (‘ayn thabita) and state of (definable) 'thing-ness' already in the state of its non-existence. And that is why it emerged (in its contingent, created existence) according to the Image of the Absolute Existence. This is also that is why it was also describable as non-finite, so it is referred to as infinite.

 But the Absolute Existence is also like a mirror for the absolute non-existence. So the absolute non-existence saw itself in the mirror of the Real, but the image that it saw was itself the essential reality (‘ayn) of non-existence by which this possible (existence) is described. Therefore it is also described as infinite, just as the absolute non-existence is infinite - hence the possible is described as (inherently) non-existing (ma‘dum). So it is like the image that appears between the mirror and the person looking in the mirror: that image is not that very person himself, but it is not other than him. Likewise the possible, with respect to as its (very limited kind of) permanence, is not the very essence of the Real Himself; yet it is not other than Him. Similarly, with respect to its (only relative) non-existence, it is not the same thing as of the (absolutely) impossible, yet it is not entirely other than it. So it is as though it is something relative (depending on how it is viewed).


He also says:

If the unreal (non-existence) had a tongue (to speak), it would tell you: 'you are according to my image', because it sees in you nothing but its own shadow, just as the Existence has speech and has said: 'you are (created) according to My Image' [Kanz: 1141-1150, and 15129], because He saw in you His own Image.


So the world may not have a constant real (self-subsistent) existence, because only Allah may be described by that; and at the same time the world is not in constant non-existence, or it would not be there at all. Instead it is perpetually fluctuating, at every instant of creation, between existence and non-existence. And in fact, Ibn al-Arabi points out [II.303-4], this is the real meaning of the Qur’anic symbols of the 'daytime' and the 'night': when the Universal Intellect (Allah's Messenger) faces the Real, this would be a kind of 'night' for us, but when the Intellect/Messenger faces us - in each divine Act of creation - this is our manifest day (shahada: what is 'seen' or manifest - see also the related discussions in sections II.14 and VI.8 [Spreading the Shadows]). What makes sense of this distinction, of course, is Ibn al-Arabi's assertion of the central cosmogonic principle of perpetual re-creation, that we shall discuss next. From that perspective, the world is actually continually created 'in series', bit by bit, one entity at a time; so no two entities may gain real existence at the same time, because they gain their existence only through their constant re-creation by the Real who is One.

For Ibn al-Arabi, this rule or principle of serial creation and re-creation is in fact a direct implication of the verse each day He is upon some task (55:29); at the same time, it is for him the actual underlying meaning of the familiar philosophical maxim 'from the one there might proceed only', which we discussed in section 2 above. We have seen, however, that for Ibn al-Arabi this creative procedure is not therefore imposed on the Real; rather, it remains His choice which He makes when He creates the world.

We also must remember that this divine oneness manifest in the Act of creation that we can know and observe - which grounds our own experience of reality and the cosmos - is clearly rooted in the Single Monad. Yet this Single Monad (the First Intellect, 'Muhammadan Reality', etc.) is itself but one of an unknown number of divinely 'originated' (ibda‘) 'Roaming Spirits' (see section I.4 above), so there is indeed some kind of (for us) further unknowable multiplicity on this higher ontological level. However, it would appear that again we can apply the same judgment to those Roaming Spirits, according to our own human logic, that they may not be 'other than' Allah, nor the same as Him (since He originated them): so they also are in this ontological status of 'He/not He', which again indicates an ultimate Oneness on the highest divine level.

We have actually already summarized the basic themes of this section right at the end of section II.1, when we recalled Ibn al-Arabi's conclusion that 'time is defined by motion, and motion is defined by the different positions of the formable monads, and those monads are different states (times or instances) or forms of the Single Monad, that alone has a real existence'. Therefore, 'there is no god but Allah' and this highest created entity (i.e., 'the Single Monad') is the (all-encompassing) Messenger of Allah. Allah sent this Messenger 'to take us (and the whole created world) from the darkness' of non-existence 'into the light' of existence (Qur’an 57:9). But although this Single Monad is not Allah, he is not other than Allah: he is some sort of fundamental manifestation of Allah, and it is through this primordial manifestation that Allah can accurately and meaningfully be described, in the famous Qur’anic expression, as 'the First and the Last, the Manifest and the Hidden' (57:3).


[1] It is most likely that this term was first used by Ibn Taymiyya himself, although he criticized Ibn al-Arabi for that. See: Madhkur, I. B. (1969) 'Wahdat al-Wujud bayna Ibn al-Arabi wa Spinoza', in: Al-Kitab al-Tadhkari, Muhyi ed-Din Ibn al-Arabi ('The Commemorative Book of Muhyi ed-Din Ibn al-Arabi'), Ed. Ibrahim Bayyumi Madhkur, The General Egyptian Book Organization: Cairo: 365-80 [370]. See also: Al-Mu‘jam Al-Sufi: 1145-55, and: SDK: 79.

[2] Ibn al-Arabi alludes here, among other things, to the Qur’anic accounts of the inbreathing of the Spirit into Adam: 'So, when I have made him and breathed into him of My Spirit…' (15:29, 38:72).

[3] This is also evident in physics, where it is known that the difference between colours is due to the shorter or longer wavelength of the electromagnetic waves that constitute light. The red colour has a specific wavelength, and the blue colour for example has another distinctive (range of) wavelength(s). Although we call it a colour, there is no wavelength for a colour that is called 'black' or 'dark': it is simply the absence of any light-waves.

[4] For more details about this subject, see: Ormsby, E. (1984) Theodicy in Islamic Thought: The Dispute over al?Ghazali's "Best of All Possible Worlds", Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[5] See Ibn al-Arabi's discussions of this conception in the Futuhat: [II.168.23, II.343.28, II.379.9, II.444.16, II.501.4, III.343.23, III.471.13].

[6] See Ibn al-Arabi's discussions in the Futuhat: [I.42.21, I.204.12, I.284.32, I.680.7, III.275.32, IV.46.6, IV.129.31, IV.228.12, IV.236.15].

[7] See: The Wisdom of the Prophets (Fusus al-Hikam), translated from Arabic into French with notes by Titus Burckhardt; translated from French into English by Angela Culme-Seymour (TAJ company: New Delhi, revised edition 1984): 32.

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