Shaykh Dato’ Dr. Afifi al-Akiti’s Response on Ibn Arabi and Wahdatul Wujud

Shaykh Dato’ Dr. Afifi al-Akiti’s Response on Ibn Arabi and Wahdatul Wujud

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Assalamu ‘Alaykum Wa-Salat wa-Salam ‘ala Rasulillah.

Dear fulan,

Thank you for your letter. May you be in fine health and spirit. I think your long question on Wahdat al-Wujud (and whether Kiyai Haji Sirajuddin Abbas (1401 H / 1980; all dates in brackets are dates of death) (may Allah be pleased with him!) was right or wrong) deserves a long reply.

The doctrine of Wahdat al-Wujud (literally, ‘the oneness of being’) is perhaps one of the most famous controversy that is associated with scholars like the mujtahid and Imam, Ibn al-‘Arabi (638 H / 1240) (may Allah be pleased with him!). I will remind you that this issue is one that is called by the ‘ulama as mas’ala khilafiya and is therefore subject to khilaf and differences of opinion among our ahl sunna ‘ulama for hundreds of years. It is enough for us to know that because it is a khilaf issue, we should not spend too much time discussing it especially if it will distract you from learning some other more important fard ‘ayn / fard kifaya knowledge, since knowledge about Wahdat al-Wujud is clearly not wajib, despite it being related to matters of ‘aqida. Only students who have studied (at a sufficiently high level) and have understood ‘ilm tawhid and ‘ilm tasawwuf well, will be able to understand the reasons behind this khilaf and why it is so controversial. So my advice to you now is, even after reading this letter, you find that you are unable to understand (who is right and who is wrong for instance) about wahdat al-wujud, you must not busy yourself with this question and instead ask Allah that He might open your heart one day as to make sense of it.

According to some scholars, the first person who is said to have used the term ‘Wahdat al-Wujud’ is the famous Sufi, Abu Yazid al-Bistami (261 H / 875) (may Allah be pleased with him!). That is why the term Wahdat al-Wujud is properly a tasawwuf istilah than a tawhid one, because from the beginning, it has been used by ahl-tasawwuf. So its subject proper [mawdu’] is tasawwuf (not tawhid). However, later on, when the term Wahdat al-Wujud become a source of controversy as a result of misunderstanding the real meaning [haqiqa] of ‘Wahdat al-Wujud’ by the ‘awamm (and scholars alike), it became necessary for the mutakallimun and scholars of tawhid to explain the meaning of Wahdat al-Wujud in a tawhid framework. One such scholar, the Hanafi Imam and Mufti, ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nablusi (1143 H / 1733) (may Allah be pleased with him!) wrote a number of books including Idah al-Maqsud min Wahdat al-Wujud, al-Radd al-Matin ‘ala Muntaqid al-‘Arif billah Ibn al-‘Arabi, and Wujud al-Haqq to explain the real meaning of Wahdat al-Wujud and he provided the hujja to show that from the point of view of tawhid, there is nothing wrong with Wahdat al-Wujud.

Briefly, his argument is as follows (all intermediate students of Tawhid should be able to understand this):

  1. The Existence [wujud] of Allah is wajib al-wujud. The Existence and wujud of Allah is something that is essential and Wajib. Also Allah is the First, since He is Qidam and He has no beginning, and nothing exists before Him as the Hadith says: kana Allahu wa lam yakun shay’un ghayruhu [Allah was there and there was nothing else with Him].
  2. The existence of the created world [‘alam] is only ja’iz al-wujud. This is because the world is subject to non-existence [‘adam], it has a beginning and was created [huduth], and it is subject to end [fana’]. As Allah says: kullu shay’in halikun illa wajhahu [everthing is perishable except His face [i.e. Allah’s dhat or self]] (al-Qasas, 28:88).
  3. Therefore, it is mustahil that one of these two types of existence (the Existence of Allah and the existence of the world) could in any sense be the other or are the same existence. In other words, the wujud of Allah (which is wajib) and the wujud of the ‘alam (which is ja’iz) are different. Rather, the wujud of the world depends and needs [iftiqar] the wujud of Allah in order for the world to exist (for without the wujud of Allah there will be no creator of the world). So in a sense (and in a real sense) there can only be one existence, the wujud of Allah because without it we will not be here and our wujud is only temporary (or tentative) because our wujud is not Wajib.

To understand better this point, let us quote the poem related by Imam al-Sawi (may Allah be pleased with him!) in his Hashiya to the Tafsir of Jalalayn (4:321, commenting al-Qasas verse 88):

fa likulli duna Allahi inna haqiqatahu ‘adamun ‘ala al-tafsili wa’l-ijmali

Everything besides Allah is in its reality; not existing, whether in particular or universally.

In other words, non-existence, realistically speaking, is our asl, our original state; our existence becomes real only through the help of Allah (that is, until He created us). We and the world and everything else exist by virtue of Allah’s existence, so the existence of everything has to refer to the Existence of Allah. So ultimately or in reality, the existence of the world is also the Existence of Allah. This is the meaning of Wahdat al-Wujud from the point of view of Tawhid.

  1. Therefore, what the the mutasawwif mean by Wahdat al-Wujud is not that the created world is Allah.

(Idah al-Maqsud min Wahdat al-Wujud, 8-10)

So the claim by some people that Wahdat al-Wujud means that we are united with Allah or that Allah is in us, and so on, is wrong; rather, this believe is not called ‘Wahdat al-Wujud’, but it is called (in Tawhid): Ittihad [created things can unite with Allah] and Hulul [that Allah can stay in created things] (we seek refuge in Allah from believing such things!). Now, it is aggreed by all ahl sunna ‘ulama [ittifaq] that Ittihad and Hulul are Haram and Shirk and those who believe in Ittihad and Hulul are Kafirs. Imam al-Ghazali (505 H / 1111) (may Allah be pleased with him!) for example, provides a detail discussion regarding the problems with Ittihad and Hulul in his kitab al-Maqsad al-Asna fi Sharh Asma’ Allah al-Husna. In fact, he even allows Ittihad to be used (in speech and in language) if it is used in a metaphorical sense [isti’ara] such as is done by some mutasawwif and poets (p. 165). In any case, I think the point is made clear here that Wahdat al-Wujud is not the same thing as Ittihad and Hulul.

Now, I think you can begin to see the reason behind the khilaf among our ‘ulama on this issue. Those who say Wahdat al-Wujud is shirk, misunderstood it as Ittihad and Hulul; while those who do not see anything wrong with Wahdat al-Wujud is because they understand the Tawhid explanation of it, like Imam al-Nablusi (may Allah be pleased with him!) and others.

Now, because some Shi’a believe in Ittihad and Hulul, it is not surprising that K. Sirajuddin Abbas wrote in his book (pp. 137-9) that the Shi’a believed in Wahdat al-Wujud. However beneficial his book, “I’tiqad Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama’a” is for the Ummah today, K. Abbas was inaccurate when he equated Wahdat al-Wujud with Ittihad and Hulul and he was clearly mistaken (may Allah forgive him!) by concluding that Ibn al-‘Arabi was a Shi’a! After all, even some of the most famous Shi’a scholars such as al-Hilli (726 H / 1325) condemned (takfir) Ibn al-‘Arabi. This is an instance, I believe, of no matter how useful and good a book may be (for the ahl sunna), a student cannot read any book independently without the guidance and the correction of a reliable teacher.

In order to strengthen his claim, K. Abbas mentioned the supposed disapproval of Ibn al-‘Arabi by the Shafi’i Mujtahid, ‘Ulama al-Sultan, ‘Izz Ibn Abd al-Salam (660 H / 1262) (may Allah be pleased with him!) What K. Abbas forgot to mention is that there were other equally reputable scholars (Shafi’iyya and others) who approved of Ibn al-‘Arabi (and Wahdat al-Wujud) such as Imam al-Nawawi (676 H / 1277), Imam Ibn ‘Ata Allah al-Iskandari (709 H / 1309), Imam al-Subki (756 / 1355), Shaykh al-Islam al-Bulqini (805 H / 1403), Imam al-Suyuti (911 H / 1505), Shaykh al-Islam Zakariyya al-Ansari (926 H / 1520), Imam Ibn al-Hajar al-Haytami (974 H / 1567) (may Allah be pleased with them all!) and others.

Futhermore, as Imam al-Suyuti pointed out, there are conflicting reports whether Imam Ibn Abd al-Salam did condemn Ibn al-‘Arabi. The Shafi’i faqih and muhaddith and ‘inventor’ of the Qamus, Imam al-Fayruzabadi (817 H / 1415), even said: “If the report whereby [Imam] Ibn ‘Abd al-Salam and our Shaykh al-Bulqini ordered the books of Ibn al-‘Arabi to be burnt were true, not one of his books would have remained today in Misr or Sham, and no one would have dared copy them again after the words of these two Shaykhs.” (al-Hilmi, al-Burhan al-Azhar, 32).

Imam al-Suyuti says in Tanbih al-Ghabi fi Tanzih Ibn al-‘Arabi (pp. 17-21): “The scholars past and present have differed concerning Ibn al-‘Arabi. One group considered him a Wali – and they are correct – such as [Imam] Ibn ‘Ata Allah and [Imam] al-Yafi’i. Another group considered him a heretic (zindiq) such as a large number of fuqaha’. While another group expressed doubts concerning him, such as [Imam] al-Dhahabi in al-Mizan. Two conflicting opinions are reported from [Imam] ‘Izz Ibn Abd al-Salam: one attacking him, and one describing him as the Master (al-Qutb)…Our Shaykh, Shaykh al-Islam, the last remaining Mujtahids, Sharaf al-Din al-Munawi (871 H / 1467) replied, concerning Ibn al-‘Arabi, that silence (tawaqquf) was safest. And this is the stance that befits every true muttaqin. For me [i.e. al-Suyuti], the last word concerning Ibn al-‘Arabi – and this is accepted neither by his contemporary admirers nor by his attackers – is that he be considered a Wali, but reading his books is forbidden.”

Some of the fuqaha’ who were closer to the time of Ibn al-‘Arabi were either (1) condemning him [taraddud]; or (2) quiet and silent [tawaqquf] about him; or (3) affirmed his sainthood [wilaya]. Note that tawaqquf here does not mean that one’s silence implies a ‘yes’ as in the case of the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless him and grant him peace!) because tawaqquf simply means in the istilah of the ‘ulama: a suspension of judgement for the benefit of good opinion [husn al-zann], implying instead, taslim, an approval (therefore not a condemnation). It is like a neutral position but it is not in reality neutral, so we will call it: crypto-nuetral. The student to Imam al-Suyuti (note that his teacher is a different al-Munawi (above) and his student is another al-Munawi; or in other words, the blessed al-Suyuti is surrounded by the two al-Munawis!), Abd al-Ra’uf al-Munawi (1031 H / 1622) (may Allah be pleased with him!) identifies the Shafi’i Mujtahid and Imam, al-Nawawi (may Allah be pleased with him!) as the main faqih supporting this opinion (of tawaqquf and taslim):

“A group of scholars professed tawaqquf and taslim…their Imam being Shaykh al-Islam al-Nawawi who replied, when asked about Ibn al-‘Arabi [he recited the verse:] tilka ummatun qad khalat, laha ma kasabat walakum ma kasabtum, wa la tus’aluna ‘amma kanu ya’malun [Those are people who have already passed away. Theirs is that which they earned, and yours is that which your earn. You will not be asked of what they used to do] (al-Baqara, 2:134).” (Ibn ‘Imad, Shadharat al-Dhahab, 5:192).

It is true that historically, some fuqaha’ condemned Ibn al-‘Arabi; but it is also true that some of them changed their minds in the end. It is possible therefore that the conflicting reports concerning Imam Ibn Abd al-Salam could mean that he had changed his mind in the same way that Imam al-Subki, Shaykh al-Islam al-Bulqini and others had. The student of Shaykh al-Islam al-Bulqini, Siraj al-Din al-Makhzumi (885 H / 1480) (may Allah be pleased with them both!) says:

“Our Shaykh, Shaykh al-Islam al-Bulqini and likewise Shaykh Taqi al-Din al-Subki used to criticise Ibn al-‘Arabi in the beginning, then they changed their opinion after they realised what he was saying and the explanation of his intent.”

Shaykh al-Islam al-Bulqini (may Allah be pleased with him!) himself said: “We seek refuge in Allah from saying that Ibn al-‘Arabi affirms hulul and ittihad! He is far above that. Rather, he is one of the greatest Imams and among those who have probed the oceans of the sciences of the Qur’an and the Sunna.” (al-Hilmi, al-Burhan al-Azhar, 32-4)

What seems clear is that through time, the opinions of the fuqaha’ regarding Ibn al-‘Arabi changed from a ‘crypto-neutral’ or tawaqquf stand to one of open support (wilaya). By the time of the famous Shafi’i Imam, Ibn Hajar al-Haytami (may Allah be pleased with him!), for example, our ahl sunna scholars have come to an agreement on the issue (by following the lead of Imam al-Suyuti) as is shown by the following fatwa:

“The truth is that Ibn al-‘Arabi and his followers are the elite of the Umma. [Imam] al-Yafi’i, [Imam] Ibn ‘Ata Allah and other scholars have declared that they considered Ibn al-‘Arabi a Wali, noting that the istilah which mutasawwif use is appropriate among the experts in its usage and that the ‘Arif (gnostic), when he becomes completely absorbed in Wahdat al-Wujud, might make some statements that are liable to be misunderstood [by us] as hulul and ittihad – while in reality there is neither hulul nor ittihad.” (Fatawa al-Hadithiyya, 331)

Perhaps, the reason why Wahdat al-Wujud is so controversial is due to its name: the Unity of Being or the Oneness of Being, or the Oneness of Existence. Hence the ‘awamm and scholars alike who read this phrase literally (without reading the intent and maqsud of this theory) will think that it is something that involves Hulul or Ittihad; but this, as is clearly shown by Imam al-Nablusi, does not compromise the Wahdaniyya of Allah but rather, strenghtens the Tawhid and supplements ‘Ilm Tawhid. That is why, later ahl sunna scholars including Imam al-Sha’rani (973 H / 1565), Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (1034 H / 1624), and Imam al-Nablusi (may Allah be pleased with them all!) have rephrased Ibn al-‘Arabi’s expression of ‘Wahdat al-Wujud’ as ‘Wahdat al-Shuhud’ (literally, the oneness of perception or the unity of perception) in the sense in which our Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace!) defined Ihsan as: an ta’buda Allaha kaannaka tarahu [to worship Allah as if you see Him]. I think it would be appropriate to quote here, the illustration by Shaykh Ramadan al-Buti (may Allah protect him!) of Wahdat al-Shuhud / Wahdat al-Wujud from his Sharh of the Hikam of Ibn ‘Ata Allah (vol. 1, p. 196):

“What is the meaning of the expression: Wahdat al-Shuhud? [It is as follows:] When I interact with causes with full respect to Allah’s ways, His Commands, and His Shari’a, knowing that rizq comes to me is from Allah; the happiness that enters my home is from Allah; my food is readied for me by Allah – I mean even the smallest details; the wealth with thich I have been graced, comes from Allah; the sickness that has been put in my existence or that of a relative of mine comes from Allah; the cure that follows sickness is from Allah the Most High; my success in my studies is by Allah’s permission; the results which I have attained after obtaining my degrees and so on, are from Allah’s permission. Now when the causal efficacy [asbab] melts away in my sight and I no longer see, behind them, other than the Causator [musabbib] Who is Allah: at that time, when you look right, you do not see except Allah’s attributes [Sifat], and when you look left, you do not see other than Allah’s Sifat. As much as you progress in the world of causes, you do not see, through them, other than the musabbib, Who is Allah. At that time you have become raised to what the mutasawwif have called Wahdat al-Shuhud. And this Wahdat al-Shuhud is what the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace!) expressed by the word Ihsan [in the Hadith]: “That you worship Allah as if you see him.” You do not see the causes as a barrier between you and Allah. Rather, you see causes, in the context of this theory [i.e. Wahdat al-Shuhud], very much like pure, clear glass: the glass is present (and no one denies it) and as much as you stare at it, you do not see anything except what is behind the glass. Is this not so? You only see what is behind the glass. The world is entirely made of ‘glass’ in this fashion. You see through them, Allah’s Qudra [power] in permanence, so you are always with Allah! None has tasted the sweetness of Iman unless he has reached that level of perception [shuhud].”

I think it is clear by now why it’s mawdu’ is not properly tawhid but actually tasawwuf. It should also be clear by now that its real meaning and haqiqa does not conflict with Tawhid but rather supports it. As with its ‘controversial’ name, let us follow the advice given by Imam al-Ghazali: wa la mushahhata fi’l-asami ba’da fahami al-ma’ani “There is no need to squabble about names, once the meaning is understood.” (Iqtisad, 44).

In short, let me summarise for you the implications of believing in Wahdat al-Wujud:

(1) If by Wahdat al-Wujud (or by any other name) you understand it as Ittihad or Hulul; then this is clearly Haram (which according to Imam Ibn Hajar, Imam al-Suyuti, and other scholars, Ibn al-‘Arabi was free of).

(2) If by Wahdat al-Wujud (or by any other name) you understand it as Wahdat al-Shuhud or the Iftiqar of the creation’s wujud to the wujud of Allah; then this is clearly permissible and rather (for those are given the gift to understand this by Allah) it is desirable (mustahab) as it is a means of taqarrub. (Indeed, your teacher is correct in telling you that Wahdat al-Wujud is the 3rd degree or martaba of muraqaba: la mawjud illa Allah; instead of la maqsud illa Allah or la ma’bud illa Allah).

If at this point, you find that you still do not understand how this is so, then you should not worry or be concerned about Wahdat al-Wujud and think of it as a matter of khilaf among the ‘ulama. The safest course then is to be silent or suspend your judgement (tawaqquf) about it.

Remember, the Muslim scholars (even sunni ‘ulama) hold different opinions regarding this issue (especially so in the past than today); and whenever scholars fall into khilaf, we are not supposed to condemn the other opinion as ‘wrong’ and ‘kufr’ if we decide to follow the opinion that we think is the ‘right’ one. In short, because it is not an Ijma’ that Wahdat al-Wujud is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and also because it is not Wajib for Muslims to know about it (as a beginner; and even then, it is only mustahabb), we should not concern ourselves about it too much. The best thing to do when someone asks you about Wahdat al-Wujud is to say, ‘la adri’, until the day when you have been taught the khilaf and the reality about it (maybe not in your madrasa now but in another place).

I think the fatawas given by Imam Ibn Hajar al-Haytami and Imam al-Suyuti (may Allah be pleased with them both!) will be sufficient for you and me now. In fact, Imam Ibn Hajar reminds us that only the qualified (and especially not the ‘awamm) can read the works of Ibn al-‘Arabi. I will end by relating Ibn al-‘Arabi’s own warning as is related in the Fatwa al-Hadithiyya (p. 390) of Ibn Hajar:

“It is Haram ro read the books [of advance tasawwuf] unless one reaches their level of character [akhlaq] and learns the meaning of their istilahat, and this [station] can only be reached by those who have worked hard, by rolling up his sleeves, by abandoning the wrong, by tightening his belt, by being thoroughly familiar with the Zahir sciences [i.e. Fiqh], and by purifying himself from every low akhlaq connected with this world and the next world. Only such a person can understand what is being said [by the mutasawwifa] and is therefore allowed to enter [their books] while he [i.e., the unqualified] stands at the door!”

Wallahu ta’ala a’lam wa ahkam.

May this be of benefit and let us end by reciting the sura:

Qul huwa Allahu Ahadun!

I remain your brother,

Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti

18 Rabi’ I 1422

10 VI 2001


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[The original article is found on Jabatan Mufti Kerajaan Negeri Sembilan fanpage and is published here with permission from Dr. Ayman al-Akiti]

*Terjemahan makalah ini ke dalam Bahasa Melayu telah dibuat oleh al-Fadhil Ustaz Iqbal Zain dan dimuatnaik di laman fanpage beliau.

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