Philosophical Sufism

by Mohammed Rustom

Quotes From the Original Text

By Omar K Neusser

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Similitude of the Waves and the Sea

The waves, insofar as they are waves, are real, but since they belong to the sea and will inevitably ebb back into it, they do not have their own independent and abiding [being]: “Many and disparate waves do not make the sea a multiplicity; no more do the names make the Named more than one.”[13]


Here presented are quotes from the original text : Philosophical Sufism by Mohammed Rustom, which can be dowloaded from the link below.[24] The idea is to allow an overview of this text while selecting some highlights. Footnotes are used to show more explanations from the text itself.


[In Islam] “philosophy” and “mysticism” are not mutually exclusive,… are not necessarily watertight categories to begin with… [Even if the] approach to things was “philosophical,” [there was among muslim scholars] little interest in the actual discipline of philosophy.

[Some of them] had a good grounding in philosophy proper, [with] a sort of wedding between philosophy and mysticism[1] → AbūḤāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111) and ‘Ayn al-Quḍāt Hamadānī (d. 525/1131) (Izutsu 1994: 98–140).

[In this presentation by Mohammed Rustom the] focus is on what in Persianate Islam has traditionally been referred to as “theoretical gnosis” (‘irfān-i naẓarī ) → due to the influence of Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabī (d. 638/1240)[2].…

The term “school of Ibn ‘Arabī” thus describes a particular approach—largely colored by the thought of Ibn ‘Arabī himself—to the major philosophical and religious issues which confronted medieval Islamic thought.


Two reasons why limiting our discussion of philosophical Sufism to the school of Ibn ‘Arabī

1.) First, the writings of this school, represented by a plethora of figures, has shaped the intellectual contours of Islamic civilization from North Africa to Malaysia for well over five centuries.

2.) Second, the central concern of the school of Ibn ‘Arabī is with being or wujūd, which is also the central concern of Islamic philosophy.[3]

Regarding the term waḤdat al-wujūd, or the “Oneness of Being” …, it is well-known that Ibn ‘Arabī did not use this expression himself.[4]


The Main Features of the School of Ibn ‘Arabī

How the worldview of the school of Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabī tackles the central problems of philosophy: the philosophical and the mythic.[5]


When speaking of God Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabī often employs the term the “Necessary Being” (wājib al-wujūd ) God, whose being cannot not be.

That which exists and whose existence depends upon Him is referred to as “contingent being” (mumkin al-wujūd ).

All that we can inquire into is either Necessary Being—namely, God—or contingent being—namely, everything in existence apart from God.

Since God is the source of all things that exist, His being is the most apparent and pervasive.[6]

Being, therefore, cannot be defined, nor can its “reality” be grasped in any fashion whatsoever.
[It is] the most general of things and the most apparent of them as well, as it is a self-evident reality, while at the same time remaining the “most hidden of all things in its quiddity and reality.”[7]

The Nature of Things

Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabī and his followers … want to explain the nature of things with reference to God as a concrete reality - [they] take the usual philosophical categories of necessary and contingent being and graft them onto the plane of theology or religion proper.[8] Thus, to call God the Necessary Being in philosophical terms is to speak of what is known in Islamic theology as the Divine Essence (dhāt ). Another common name for the Divine Essence in the writings of the school of Ibn ‘Arabī is the “Essence of Exclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya )”.


Al-Kāshānī (d. 730/1330), another key figure in the school of Ibn ‘Arabī, puts it this way: “The Reality called the Essence of Exclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya ) in its true nature is nothing other than being, pure and simple, insofar as it is being”.

Like the Necessary Being, the Divine Essence also does not have a quiddity (māhiyya ) (Chittick 1989: SPK80–1)[25], and is completely indeterminate in every respect. Since it is completely simple, unqualified, and unqualifiable, it contains no multiplicity in its reality. This is why MaḤmūd Shabistarī (d. 740/1339) says the following in his famous Persian poem on Sufi metaphysics, the Rosegarden of Mystery (Gulshan-i rāz):

In God’s Presence there is no duality—
in that Presence there is no “I,” “we,” or “you.” “I,” “we,” “you,” and “it,” are one thing,
for in Oneness, there are no distinctions at all.
(Shabistarī 1976: lines 116–17)

Now, if the Divine Essence is pure simplicity, how does multiplicity emerge from It without introducing change into Its nature?[9]

For Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabı, contingent being is colored by non-being on account of its contingency. It does possess a type of existence, but an existence which is purely relational.[10]

The Immutable Entities

The immutable entities turn out to be nothing more than the quiddities (mahiyyāt ) of Islamic theology and philosophy.


A quiddity is defined as that by virtue of which a thing is what it is, or its “what-it-is-ness.” In other words, the quiddity of horse is horseness [‘das Pferd an sich’ FL270],[25] the quiddity of book is bookness, etc. When we look at a particular horse shorn of its accidents, it is still characterized by the quiddity of horseness, but by virtue of being a particular horse, it is not any other horse, and thus is unique in terms of its particular “what-it-is-ness.”

An immutable entity, likewise, when brought into existence, is a particular instantiated object of God’s knowledge which is completely unique in its “what-it-is-ness” apart from anything else. Since “existentiation” (ījād ) refers to the manner in which things come to “be” in concrete existence, I will henceforth refer to the instantiations of the immutable entities by this technical philosophical term.


The Divine Names

The divine names are technically speaking, relationships (nisab ) (Ibn ‘Arabī 1968: 4:294) between what we can call the manifest face of the “Essence of Exclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya )” (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya ) and the loci of manifestation, that is, the existentiated immutable entities which “receive” particular modes of being or God’s manifestation.[11]

This means that what we normally call “God” is not, for the school of Ibn ‘Arabī, God qua God at the level of the Essence of Exclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya ). Rather, the term “God” as commonly understood in religion and philosophy is that face of the Essence of Exclusive Oneness that is turned to the cosmos, namely the Essence of Inclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-wāḥidiyya ).[12]

Since the entire cosmos is nothing other than a conglomeration of the divine names as displayed through the existentiated immutable entities, each thing in the cosmic order points to the divine names, and, by extension, the divine qualities to which the names refer.


Thus, all things in the cosmos reveal an aspect of the Essence of Exclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya ) by “naming” or pointing to aspects of Its manifest face, that is, the Essence of Inclusive Oneness. At the same time, the multiplicity of the Essence of Exclusive Oneness’s manifestations does not imply any plurality in Its nature (al-Qayṣarī 2002: 1:16).

Because the names are nonexistent entities, we cannot speak of any kind of multiplicity. Thus, the Essence of Exclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya ) is made manifest by that which is paradoxically nonexistent on the one hand, but which has existence in a relative sense on the other.[13]

Cosmology and Anthropology

Manifestation - Self-Disclosure

The term “manifestation” (ẓuhūr ) denotes the manner in which the “Essence of Exclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya )” (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya ) turns to the cosmos; that is, how God qua Divine Essence reveals Itself.

The term “self-disclosure” (tajallı, derived from 7:148 of the Qurʾan) is etymologically related to the idea of “illumination.” Since God is identified with light in the Qurʾān (24:35) and in the sayings of the Prophet MuḤammad ( sallAllahu ’aleihi wa sallam ), it became commonplace to speak of Him as being light, a fundamental insight out of which Suhrawardī develops his philosophy.

Thus, “self-disclosure” is a reflexive verbal noun which conveys the sense of God (qua “Essence of Exclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya )” (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya )) disclosing Himself to Himself by displaying the intensity of His being/light to the “dark” and “contingent” immutable entities, that is, the objects of His knowledge.

The common imagery of the sun and its rays is particularly apt here, which is why it is often used to explain the relationship between God and the cosmos: although the sun is one, it has many rays which reveal aspects of the sun but which do not detract from its nature in any manner whatsoever, and which cannot be said to exist independent of it. Just as the rays of the sun illuminate the earth, so too do God’s self-disclosures illuminate the cosmic order, revealing the presence of the divine Sun in each thing.

Why Is There Something

[For the question:]
“Why is there something rather than nothing?”
This report, referred to as a sacred tradition (Ḥadīth qudsī ), says that God was a Hidden Treasure who loved to be known, and, as a result of this desire to be known, He created the cosmos and all that is in it (khalq ).[14]

The cosmos thus becomes an objectivized reflection of God’s self-knowledge[15] in which God qua Essence of Exclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya ) can witness Himself qua Essence of Inclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-wāḥidiyya ).

The jewels contained in this Hidden Treasure are nothing other than the immutable entities. The existentiation of these entities would thus present to God an externalized aspect of His self-knowledge, which would not have been a possibility had He not existentiated them.

The Breath of the All-Merciful

Wujūd (from the same root as existentiation, ījād ) does not only mean “being,” but also “finding.” The account of the Hidden Treasure thus means that God qua being sought objectivized knowledge of Himself through the very objects of His own self-knowledge, and thus brought some of the objects of His knowledge into a relative state of “being” so that He could “find” Himself in them.

In order to grant relief to the distress of the immutable entities, -
we are told, God “breathed out” or “exhaled”, thereby granting relief and hence mercy to the constriction within His self. This means that the underlying stuff of the cosmos is mercy, since it is the result of the Breath of the All-Merciful.[16]

(So) the Breath of the All-Merciful is that which allows for God’s self-love to come about: “The Breath of the All-Merciful made the cosmos manifest in order to release the property of love and relieve what the Lover found in Himself” (Ibn Arabī cited in Chittick, SPK131)


Since the “Breath of the All-Merciful” is to religious language what “being” is to philosophical language, the root of existence is nothing but mercy. Thus, since all things have come about through mercy, are engulfed in mercy, and are themselves instantiations of mercy, they experience nothing but mercy.[17]

One of the implications of this position is that in their posthumous state, all people will eventually end up in mercy.

The question of God’s originating the cosmos as a result of His seeking self-knowledge finds its perfect analogue in the human quest to seek self-knowledge.

Hadith: “He who knows himself, knows his Lord.”

Since human existence is nothing other than a delimited mode of God’s being—that is, since the very substance of the human state is nothing but the self-disclosure of God—the act of gaining self-knowledge on the part of the human subject results in coming to know God in a more concrete and real way.[18]

The key to gaining access to self-knowledge, which lies at the heart of Sufi praxis, is the remembrance of God (dhikr ). By remembering God, one comes to know one’s true self, since one returns to what one has always been.

”God’s remembering the self is identical with the self’s existence (wujud), since God’s knowledge is presential (Ḥuḍurı ) with all things.”[19]


By virtue of the fact that one becomes more real and characterized by being, presence, and light the more one remembers God, and thus increases in self-knowledge, he who knows his self most will also come to know God most, since it is through him that God will come to know His objectivized self.[20]

Five Divine Presences

0. God as He is to Himself = the Essence of Exclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya )[21]
→ The “Five Divine Presences” (al-Ḥaḍrāt al-ilāhiyya al-khams ) = God’s Presence, which accounts for all that there “is,” is “there” in five different modes:

1. The first of these is uncreated (the divine Presence);
2.3.4 the next three are created (the spiritual, imaginal,
and the sensory);
5. and the last (the human) takes in the previous four Presences
(Chittick 1982: 124).

The first Presence corresponds to the level of the first delimitation of God, namely the Essence of Inclusive Oneness or what is known as the “First Entification,” which corresponds to what we normally refer to as “God,” i.e. the divinity that can be known.

In general, other names for the second Presence,
the spiritual world, can be the “MuḤammadan Spirit,” “Highest Pen,” “First Intellect,” and “Divine Spirit” (Jılı 2000: 153).

The third Presence corresponds to a plane of existence that stands between the spiritual and the corporeal worlds, what is technically known as the “world of imagination” (‘ālam al-khayāl ) (Chittick 1989: SPK115–18).[25]

The fourth Presence is the corporeal world, or the world of matter. And
the fifth Presence is the Perfect Human. The Perfect Human takes in all the other Presences because his Presence brings together all of the divine names in which God reveals Himself.[22]


In accordance with the well-known Prophetic saying, “God is beautiful, and He loves beauty,” the school of Ibn ‘Arabī, much like Plotinus (d. 270) (Hadot 1993: 64–73), maintains that the full actualization of the human state is nothing other than to live a life of virtue and beauty.


Analyzing the teachings of the school of Ibn ‘Arabī in a unified perspective, it becomes clear that their emphasis upon mythic[23] formulations is largely a means by which they can present well-known philosophical concepts in an accessible and concrete fashion.

Philosophical language is, in so many ways, itself a symbolic representation of religious or mystical truths.

  1. Mysticism is what cannot be expressed, only hinted at in symbolic language  ↩
    (More on ’myth’ [23])

  2. Ibn ‘Arabī himself became conversant in philosophical arguments not by way of the Islamic philosophical tradition, but through his educational background in general (Rosenthal 1988: 21) and the discipline of “philosophical theology” in particular (see Addas 1993: 102–10). [Also] Qūnawī took the Peripatetic and Illuminationist strands of Islamic philosophy, which were the mainstream philosophical traditions current in his day, very seriously.  ↩

  3. Members of the school of Ibn ‘Arabī did not invent an entirely new philosophical vocabulary to explain their teachings. Many of the technical terms and concepts with which they were working had been bequeathed from the well-developed traditions of Islamic philosophy and theology.  ↩

  4. Yet in very broad outlines, we can say that the Oneness-of Being generally summarizes the philosophical outlook of the school of Ibn ‘Arabī.  ↩

  5. By the former I mean that approach which is colored by the mainstream and largely abstract discourse of Islamic philosophy and philosophical theology. By the latter I mean the concrete portrayal of the same philosophical concepts, but in the language of myth, dogma, and religious symbolism.  ↩
    (More on ’myth’ [23])

  6. This is because all other instantiations of being, all other existents, must necessarily be subsumed under the wider category of His being, which itself escapes all definition, since the moment we attempt to explain it, we can only do so with reference to one of its particular modes and instances.  ↩

  7. [In other words, not so clear], being “becomes absolute and delimited, universal and particular, general and specific, one and many without acquiring change in its essence and reality” (al-Qayṣarī 2002: 1:13)  ↩

  8. check_ not this way, I don’t like this way to express it. Why is this irritating? To graft:verb [with object and adverbial]
    1 insert (a shoot or twig) as a graft: it was common to graft different varieties on to a single tree trunk.
    • insert a graft on (a trunk or stem).
    2 Medicine transplant (living tissue) as a graft: they can graft a new hand on to the nerve ends.
    3 combine or integrate (an idea, system, etc.) with another, typically in a way considered inappropriate: old values have been grafted on to a new economic class.

    What does this misfortunate expression ‘to graft sth on sth’ else imply? First of all, it implies a dichotomy of language or epistomological systems. As if there is on one side is the language of ’religion’ of Islam, on the other side the language and understanding of the Muslim philosophers. Even if this may be true regarding some Muslim philosophers, not so for Muhyiddin Ibn ’Arabi. As mentioned in fn2 he was educated in the discipline of “philosophical theology,” and the philosophical traditions were current in this epocḤ There is nothing negative to use those philosophical concepts for a Muslim scholar, as long as they are emploid in their holistic sense, i.e. not in the reductionist sense, used by many philosophers, especially today. Muhyiddin Ibn ’Arabi used the language and concepts of those two systems.  ↩

  9. Or: how do instantiations of
    being emerge from being without any alteration taking place in the fundamental
    reality of being itself? Ibn ‘Arabī points out that “contingent being” is what stands -
    between being as such and nonexistence as such.

  10. Or: contingent things stand in an intermediate position between being and non-being. With respect to being, they are nothing. But with respect to non-being, they are real. Their intermediate status thus guarantees that contingent things have existence, but only in a relative manner. In order to understand how contingent things take on a relative type of existence (but also remain relatively nonexistent), we must turn to a concept which lies at the heart of the metaphysics of the school of Ibn ‘Arabī, namely the “immutable fixed entities” (al-a‘yān al-thābita ).
    + Or: they are nothing but the objects of knowledge forever fixed in God’s “mind.” Or: they are the latent possibilities which inhere in the very structure of Being itself.  ↩

  11. Ibn ‘Arabı says that the divine names do not “inhere” in God’s Essence in any fashion since they are not actually ontological entities. Rather, they are, technically speaking, relationships (nisab)…  ↩

  12. When the Essence of Exclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya ) existentiates the immutable entities, It manifests Itself to them in accordance with their own natures, as has already been mentioned. What come about through the concretization of the immutable entities are the divine names; that is, the relationships that obtain on account of the Essence of Exclusive Oneness’s manifestation to the immutable entities, thereby bringing them out of a state of non-externalized contingency into a state of externalized contingency, or, put differently, from a state of relative nonexistence into a state of relative existence. Indeed, if it were-not for these relationships, God as apprehensible would not be “God” (Ibn ‘Arabı 1946: 81). Notice also how carefully the terms are cast, such that neither the names nor the immutable entities are given absolute ontological status. At the same time, their relative reality assumes that they do take on some mode of existence.  ↩

  13. This explains why Fakhr al-Dīn ‘Irāqī (d. 688/1289) says that the divine names do not compromise God’s Unity (at the level of the Essence of Exclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya ) in any fashion, just as the waves of the sea do not make the sea a multiplicity.

    Rather, the waves, insofar as they are waves, are real, but since they belong to the sea and will inevitably ebb back into it, they do not have their own independent and abiding ontological status: “Many and disparate waves do not make the sea a multiplicity; no more do the names make the Named more than one” (‘Irāqī 1982: 78, tr. mod.).  ↩

  14. We are told by Sa‘īd al-Dīn Farghānī (d. 699/1300) that this desire on God’s part to want to be known was a “fundamental inclination,” deeply rooted in His nature to gain a type of objectivized knowledge of Himself, since before creating the cosmos He only had a subjective knowledge of Himself.  ↩

  15. The cosmos thus becomes an objectivized reflection of God’s self-knowledge in which God qua Essence of Exclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya ) can witness Himself qua Essence of Inclusive Oneness. (Farghānī 2007: 1:21)  ↩

  16. From another perspective, the constriction within the divine self is, as we have seen, the result of a desire on the part of the Divine (qua Essence of Exclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya )) to see Himself (qua Essence of Inclusive Oneness), which is tantamount to God objectivizing His love for Himself. It is for this reason that Ibn ‘Arabī describes the Breath of the All-Merciful as that which allows for God’s self-love to come about: “The Breath of the All-Merciful made the cosmos manifest in order to release the property of love and relieve what the Lover found in Himself” (SPK131).  ↩

  17. Just as the breath marks the beginning in which the cosmos and its contents came about, so too is the end marked by the All-Merciful “inhaling” the objects of His self-knowledge; that is, when the quiddities return from their mode of relative existence to their original state of relative nonexistence. One of the implications of this position is…  ↩

  18. From another perspective, it is God who comes to know Himself through the knowing human self. Mullā Ṣadrā thus identifies the human need to gain self-knowledge as being configured in the very nature of being.  ↩

  19. ”Since forgetfulness of God is the cause of forgetfulness of self, remembering the self will necessitate God’s remembering the self, and God’s remembering the self will itself necessitate the self’s remembering itself: {Remember Me and I will remember you.} [Qurʾān 2–152]. God’s remembering the self is identical with the self’s existence (wujud), since God’s knowledge is presential (Ḥuḍurı ) with all things. Thus, he who does not have knowledge of self, his self does not have existence, since the self’s existence is identical with light (nūr ), presence (Ḥuḍūr ), and perception (shu‘ūr ).” (Mullā Ṣadrā 1961: 14)  ↩

  20. This type of self-knowledge is actualized by the “Perfect Human” (al-insān al-kāmil ), a term Ibn ‘Arabī and others use to refer to anyone who has achieved self-realization.  ↩

  21. Earlier members of the school of Ibn ‘Arabī do not usually associate the first Presence with God qua Essence of Exclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya ) (Chittick 1982:122; cf. the poem cited by Shabistarī above). Thus, above and beyond the first Presence we have God as He is to Himself, which corresponds to the Essence of Exclusive Oneness or what Mu’ayyid al-Dīn Jandī (d. ca. 700/1300) calls the “Non-Entified Essence” (Jandī 1982: 707).  ↩

  22. In the first Presence, God qua Essence of Inclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-wāḥidiyya ) contains all of the other Presences below it but in undifferentiated fashion (mujmal). As being becomes individuated within each Presence, it begins to become more differentiated (mufaṣṣal ) and hence the relationships that begin to emerge between the Essence of Exclusive Oneness (al-dhāt al-aḥadiyya ) and the loci of God’s self-disclosure begin to multiply. The multiplicity of relationships therefore means that the divine names become more widespread within each Presence. By the time we reach the fifth Presence, the Perfect Human, we have what was there in all of the Presences before it, but in completely differentiated form. This is why the Perfect Human is said to be a transcript (nuskha ) of the cosmos (al-Qūnawī 1969: 106) and the locus for the disclosure of the divine name “Allāh” (Chittick 2012: 144–7). Unlike all of the other divine names which denote specific aspects of the Essence of Inclusive Oneness, the name Allāh is technically known as an all-gathering name (ism jāmi‘), since it brings together all of the other divine names present in the cosmos. Since the Perfect Human embodies the all-gathering name “Allāh,” his Presence is the most all-gathering Presence. The Perfect Human is therefore the mirror image of God (qua Essence of Inclusive Oneness), and is described as being a Presence unto himself since he manifests, in being’s deployed and differentiated state, the fullness of being, and, hence, the fullness of God’s objectivized self-knowledge.  ↩

  23. ”Myths are among the most precise and complete forms of symbolic language.” René Guénon, DRG324.[25] Symbolic language is of a greater truth than the language of modern science which only accepts what can be measured.  ↩
    The term is sometimes used pejoratively as - for example - when the creation of Adam and Eve is called a ”myth”, by those for whom the supernatural and God is of no importance. (And if it were a myth, then modern science has no way to either prove or disprove the event, it's simply not within its scope.)
    Adam Is No “Myth”, Asadullah Ali

SPK - The Sufi Path Of Knowledge, Ibn Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination; W C Chittick
FL - Filosofilexikonet; Red. Poul Lübcke
DRG - Dictionnaire de René Guénon; Jean-Marc Vivenza

[24] The original text: Philosophical_Sufism-Mohammed-Rustom.pdf



link-out Muhyiddin Ibn `Arabi, Presentation of Some 30 Texts

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