Mahiyya - Asking What It Is?

The Ontological Argument

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, edited by Omar KN

The value of the ontological argument (which deals with the nature of being or reality) is of course first of all that it is true, furthermore that it allows to open the mind to the often forgotten dimension of the nature of reality, and in consequence to absolute, Supreme Reality, which is none other than God. It is illogical to presume two absolutes or two supreme realities in the world - it is self-evident that there is the Real, One God, Allah (may His Majesty be exalted).
  No True Reality but the Reality of the Real


Transcript part 1

In Islamic philosophy especially, Being which in Arabic is called wujud plays a central role. Usually when you and I look at something, let's say that table is there, that tree is in the garden, we don't think about it anymore, we think we have a kind of ’big cake’ of existence within which there are different pieces and different places.

However, if you look at more deeply the way your mind can understand and analyze this experience of the world out there, you can ask two fundamental questions:

One is: Does that thing exist or does it not exist?

and the other is: What is it?

And these two questions are very distinct, because you can right now think of a pink cow in your mind and answer the question ’what is it?’ you can answer, but if you say “is it?” you have to say ’no’, because it [the pink cow] has no external reality, it’s only in your mind.

Or vice versa: you can ask whether something is or not without really inquiring about what it is.

Now outside [in the sensible existence] they were together, you never find separate essence, separate existence, but within the philosophical mind it's possible to separate one from the other.

Does that distinction in Islamic philosophy help us to understand God or how God created the world more richly?

Very much so.

A thing in itself has no existential effect, it doesn't exist. For example, right now you ask what is grapefruit? Or what is aspirin? But that aspirin cannot cure your headache and that grapefruit - you cannot have for breakfast. There has to be this element of wujud, that has to be ’added’ to the quiddity, to the mahiyya [essence], in order to existentiate it fn1 and enable it to have effect.

 Seyyed Hossein Nasr - Arguing God from Being? - YouTube

existentiate: to bring into existence.


Wujud [pronounced: wojood] is what can be found, and it can be found because it exists, in the outer as well as in the inner. fn2

”The gnostics look with both eyes, and they perceive wujud as both absent,
because it is none other than the Divine Essence, and present,
because it is none other than God's self-disclosure as the selfhood of the knower.”
”In Ibn 'Arabi's terminology, then, wujud means not only being and existence
(the 'objective' side of reality), but also finding and awareness
(the 'subjective' side of reality).”

IA37: Ibn Arabi: Heir to the Prophets; W. C. Chittick

:and there is more to it.

Things of this world which we consider to be objects, have no being of their own, they are not independent. ”They are possible things as they exist in the cosmos, and on the other hand they are possible things nonexistent in the cosmos but existent in God's knowledge.”
SPK84: LI-Booklist

Transcript part 2

Now where does that [wujud] come from? It doesn't come of the thing itself, and everything in the universe shares in this balanced equality between being or not being - that's called a possible being, or contingent being.fn3

contingent on/upon: occurring or existing only if (certain circumstances) are the case; dependent on.

{ Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth…}

The Light verse 24-35

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Now that's something, which comes from ’the outside’, then necessitates the existence of something. But everything is a contingent being, there is only one exception: something whose very quiddity [essence] is Being, so it could not not be [→ it must be, because it is Being]. That is the most powerful proof of the existence of pure Being, which is God.

That is the heart of this argument, the ontological argument, that things of this world, what we considered to be objects, have no being of their own, but receive being from something other than what defines in our mind what they are, gives an opening into accepting the Being from which the existence or lower being of everything comes.

By distinguishing between the quiddity [essence] of something and existence, which is ’added’ to that quiddity, you're already positing [putting forward as fact or as a basis for argument] the reality of something outside of that what you consider that object to be - its ’whatness’ [quiddity - essence, mahiyya].

This is a road that takes us to the realization of pure Being whose character it is to emanate, to give of itself, like light - it is the character of light to illuminate, and so if you discover that there's some light in this room - you will immediately say that it must have a source. This chair is not by its nature luminous, so our intelligence - as we soon as we see this chair is lit - is looking for the light which has lit this chair and this is how Being is seen in Islamic philosophy.fn4 So the very existence of you and I is proof that God is.

In fact the famous saying of Descartes ‘I think therefore I am’ "cogito ergo sum" was answered by a great metaphysician by saying he should have said "cogito ergo est" that is ‘I think therefore God is’ and the very fact that we're thinking beings, who think, is proof of that pure Being - which enables us to exist.

 Seyyed Hossein Nasr - Arguing God from Being? - YouTube

The logical clarity of the ontological argument (asking about reality, being) should not distract from the fact that there are ways to know Allah ﷻ, which are more likely to succeed: The path of the mysteries of Divine Love.

No one can know Allāh, except by loving Him ﷻ


3. More on māhiyya

The name māhiyya comes from the Arabic ’māhiyya’:

This is the question “what is it?” where “it” is anything in the universe, visible and invisible, in the empirical or in the imaginal world.

In other words it is the question “what is its essence?” “what is its reality?” (quiddity).

So it is about the investigation into everything else than God – Allah: The creation, the cosmos, macro- as well as micro ~.

To know God – Allah through His signs, His names, His creation (al-wujūd ), His Sunna, not the least through ourselves (our souls), and to serve Him is the highest, most noble endeavour; – we can never know His essence and we don’t need to.

A quote:

”A thing’s “reality” (haqīqa), is its “whatness” or “quiddity” (māhiyya). This is determined not by our definitions, but by God’s knowledge, because He knows the thing always and forever, whether or not it exists in the cosmos.”
Muḥyiddīn Ibn `Arabi

SPK80; The Sufi Path Of Knowledge, Ibn Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination; W C Chittick; p.80

 Being and Existence - Mahiyya


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