IBN ARABI AND SIRHINDI
by Farzana Hassan-Shahid, June 2005
God, the ineffable Force, Creator of the Universe, Self-Subsisting, All powerful, all Merciful, reveals Himself to human beings, sometimes as Yahweh, the jealous, Vengeful God; Brahman, the underlying unity behind plurality; Allah, the One and Only; The Trinitarian Godhead comprising the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost; and also Sometimes as Wahdatul Wajud, The Only Being; or Wahdat ul Shuhud, the Only Real Being, whose reality is undeniable as opposed to the illusory world that the Being creates.
He is therefore a spirit residing sometimes with us, and sometimes above and beyond us, sometimes within us, and other times, all around us. But whether He is Judaism’s jealous God, or part of the Christian Trinity, or Hinduism’s many physical manifestations of the one God, He is consistently the focus of many theistic philosophies.
These varying views and understandings of God are also reflected in Islam’s philosophical and mystical thought. Although radical monotheism, or the belief in One Indivisible Diety is equated with Islam’s theology more than with any other existing belief system, the philosophical and mystical traditions within Islam, have attempted to understand the nature of that indivisibility and transcendence in different ways, generating controversy and debate as to whether these conform with the Qur’anic exposition of monotheism or not While belief in the Oneness and Uniqueness of God is central to Qur’anic theology, that Oneness has been understood and perceived in ways that are both complex and diverse philosophically, and we see that the concepts of Tauhid, discussed in Islam’s Mystical discourse are not much different from certain types of pantheism or the Hindu philosophy of Haum Ust, which asserts that all things created are of the same divine Essence as the Divine Being. Religious purists assert that these ideas are not rooted in the Qur’an. Which expounds both the numerical and metaphorical unity of God, but comprise the thought of later times and are therefore to be regarded as accretions to Islam’s pristine core beliefs?
The two leading thinkers from Islam’s mystical tradition were Mohiuddin Ibn Arabi and Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi. Both their philosophies focus on the nature of the divine, but are vastly different from each other in several respects. Nonetheless they both derive their ideological framework from the mystical folklore and philosophy of Islam. The role of the latter it appears was to purge Sufism from what he regarded as doctrines that were alien to the Quranic discourse. The philosophies of the two leading thinkers revolved around the concept of Wahdutul Wajud in the case of Ibn Arabi and Wahdatul Shuhud, a competing concept within Sufism, expounded by Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi.
Wahdut ul Wajud.
Wahdat ul Wajud as explained by Ibn Arabi, recognizes the existence of Only One Being, negating the existence of all other Beings. As the term is self-explanatory, “Wahdut ul Wajud” means there is only One Being and the physical world is a manifestation of the One Being. Nothing exists beside the One Being. The essential components of the philosophy of Wahdat ul Wajud can be listed as follows
1) There is in realty only One Being
2) The One Being has no parts.
3) The One Being is neither more here, nor less there.
The next question that must be answered is how the One Being manifests itself or through what process does it become a physical form? According to Ibn Arabi, the One Being knows how to create plurality from its unity and such a form of creation is known as “Ta’ayyun”. The physical forms and manifestations begin to occur through this recess of Ta’ayyun. This does not mean that the Being is divisible in the sense of the Christian Trinity. The manifestations of the One Being in whichever form they appear are the representation of the One Being in its entirety. Ibn Arabi explained his concept by way of analogy, giving the example of water, ice or vapor as different manifestations of the Being in its entirety.
The stage prior to the multiplicities appearing as physical forms is known as “Ahadiya” or the stage of Absolute Unity. The second stage is known as the “Wahdah” or “uincity” when internal distinctions begin to emerge. These have not yet assumed physical form and are the mere conceptual prototypes of future material manifestations.
This stage is followed by intermediary stages but the final stage involves the actual physical representations of the prototypes in their existential state. According to the concept of Wahdatul Wajud, there are three types of manifestations i.e spiritual, symbolic, or physical of the One Being. Thus the unity and the plurality are the same Being in various forms manifesting as spiritual, symbolic or physical. According to this, there would be no essential difference between the plurality that we see and the transcendental unity from which it emerged. According to this, God in the physical form Suffers, Wills and takes pleasure in the enjoyment of the physical world as a part of it.
His transcendence is still maintained in so far as he is infinite and eternal in the “Ahadiya” stage. These attributes are not expressed as corporeal determinations and would not be demonstrated in any physical forms that the Being may assume.
This plurality of physical forms, based on the realization that it is truly one with the Divine, also strives to achieve union with the Being again, and this begs the question: what is the driving force behind this movement towards unity?
Upon examination of the Sufi philosophy one learns that what propels this movement towards union is the force of Love, God intoxication or “Ishq”. It is this force that motivates union with the Divine as an intensely powerful feeling compelling the Sufi to acknowledge that the his soul is Divine, but that it is trapped in a physical body. The Sufi therefore attempts to seek the Divine by denying the body the physical or worldly pleasures. He hopes that by denying himself the worldly pleasures the love of the Divine will increase.
The Sufi observes “zikr” or the remembrance of Allah, which will bring about the unitive experience. When the unitive experience is realized, the Sufi may declare himself or herself God because he begins to see that there is in reality only One Being and also begins to believe in the unity of existence or the concept of “Wahdat-ul Wajud”. As we will see in our examination of Tauhid Shuhudi or Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi’ competing view, the realization of Whadutul Wajud is actually only the first stage in the mystical experience, the ultimate objective being to attain realization of Wahdutul Shuhud.
Wahdut ul Shuhud,
The two competing views around the concepts of Wahdatul Wajud and Whadut ul Shuhud, revolve around the nature of the mystical experience. The mystical experience itself is primarily focused on the union with the Divine and how this union with the Divine is interpreted in terms of either oneness of existence or duality of existence.
Previously I stated that Ibn Arabi expounded his doctrine of Wahdatul Wajud as centered round the belief in the unity of existence which negates the independent reality of the physical world. Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi, refuted that claim systematically in his doctrine of Wahdatul Shuhud, by stating that while the former expounded by Ibn Arabi was antithetical to the Qur’an, the latter, his own view, was in complete conformity with the Qur’an, which as authenticated scripture would have to be the ultimate arbiter between opposing viewpoints. He thus came up with another concept which would explain the mystical experience in a slightly different way. Sirhindi states that while there are other beings beside the One Deity, the mystical experience enables the Sufi to perceive only One Being. He explains the difference between the two competing views in his own words as follows:
“Tauhid Shuhudi is to see One Being that is in his perception. The Sufi has nothing but One Being. Tauhid Wujudi on the other hand is to believe that there is only One Being there, that other things are nonexistent and that in spite of their non existence, they are the manifestations and appearances of One Being”
For proponents of Tauhid Shuhudi or Wahdutul Shuhud, the perception of the one Being does not negate the existence of other beings as it does in Wahdatul ul Waujud. The Sufi in other words sees only One Being but is cognizant of the fact that there are other beings in existence as well. Wahdutat ul Shudhud does not necessitate the denial of the existence of other beings. Thus the seeing of one Being is a mere subjective observations of the Sufi.The defining feature of Wahdut ul Shuhud is the recognition that God is above and beyond his creation and therefore transcendent, not immanent as he is in Wahdult ul Wajud. God therefore is One Being who is distinct from his creations. He creates by the power of His words, not Ta’aayun as suggested by proponents of the doctrine of Wahdutl Wajud. Sirhinid therefore maintains that the world is not God (huma ust) but proceeds from God (huma uz ust) and has an existence independent of the Divine Being, but that it is only an illusory existence. In reality therefore Sirhindi also asserts that there is only One Real Being who is God. The created world being imaginary is therefore not of the same Divine essence. In Sirhindi’s view, the world is in essence non- existent and therefore unreal.
The world although unreal and illusory, has an identity of its own because reflections and attributes of God elevate it form non existence. The illusory object in the world therefore has free will, and the ability for self-direction. Man therefore has free will. His actions are his own and not of God. Wahdutul Shuhud therefore recognizes dualism as its defining characteristic because of the distinctiveness between the nature of God and the nature of the created world.
Perhaps, the distinctions between the doctrines of Wahdat ul Wajud and Wahdut Shuhud can be better understood through a discussion of the concepts of “fana” and “baqa”.
“Fana “and baqa are both stages in the mystical experience. “fana billah” is understood as merging with the Divine Essence or unification with God.or the “existence of the self in God”.
This is the first stage in the mystical experience and only a stepping stone toward the ultimate goal of attaining “baqa billah” or “eternal life in union with God” . When fana is experienced by the mystic, he forgets his self but when he reaches the stage of experiencing “baqa” he regains some of his individuality and therefore the distinction between him and the Divine again becomes apparent to him.
The two concepts: namely “fana billah” or “baqa billah” are again interpreted differently by those who subscribe to Wahdualt Wujud and those who believe in Wahdat ul Shahud.
According to Sirhinid for example, the experience of “fana”, or the forgetting of the self in order to merge with the Divine is an imagined, not a real experience. It is therefore only “fana shudhudi” or perceived annihilation and merging.with the Divine. According to exponents of Wahdatul Wajud on the other hand, “fana” is a real existential experience.
“Fana” is the first stage in the mystical journey and also the unitive experience in the quest for union with the Divine. Sirhindi believed that some mystics remain trapped in the first unitive stage. Those who cannot proceed to the next stage are prevented from Acknowledging separation from the Divine and it is these Sufis who according to Sirhindi, preach the doctrine of Wahdat ul Wajud. It is at this stage of the mystical experience that heresies such as the one Mansoor Hallaj was guilty of when he declared he was “Anul Haqq, or ‘I am Truth”, begin to occur. According to Sirhindi, Ibn Arabi was one such mystic who could not proceed beyond this first stage and therefore expounded his theory of Wahdatul Wajud. That is why he saw the world and God as essentially One Being.
According to Sirhindi, real “fana” means something different. In his own words he states:
“Real fana is to forget the “not Divine”, to free oneself from the love of this world, and to purify the heart from all desires and wishes as it is required of a servant. And real “baqa” is to fulfill the wishes of the Lord, to make his Will one’s own, without losing one’s self identity”.
Sirhindi believes that his ideas were more consistent with the Quranic discourse of belief In a transcendent God, submission to His will, recognizing human limitations of seeking God’s forgiveness. Sirhindi’s discourse on “fana Shudhdi” rather than “fana Wajudi” gives him the assurance of being consistent with pristine Islamic theology.
To wrap up, as two distinct visions of Tauhid, it is easy to conclude that Sirhindi’s view which appeared much later in Sufi thought, came as a reformative movement within Sufi philosophy. As stated earlier, Sirhindi’s objective was mainly to purge Sufism of doctrines that he perceived as contradicting the Quran’s simple theology centred around The belief in one Transcendent Divine Being. Although Ibn Arabi’s concept of tauhid Wajudi or Wahdat ul Wajud, can be interpreted both as a pantheistic philosophy which acknowledges God’s physical presence in all things material or created, it can just as easily be construed as an ideology that takes monotheism to the extent of totally negating the existence of the material world and therefore upholding correct Islamic belief. .That is not however how Sirhindi viewed Ibn Arabi, and he felt compelled to discredit the doctrine of Wahdat Wajud as heretical, and replace it with his own vision of Tauhid, calling his doctrine Wahdatul Shuhud.
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