SPIRITUALITY:  Oneness of Being: Fact or Fiction?

Dr. Robert Dickson Crane

Posted Aug 9, 2004      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Oneness of Being: Fact or Fiction?
by Dr. Robert Dickson Crane

I. Origin of the Issue in Contemporary America

Throughout history in all religions people have been tempted to invent distant gods or to anthropomorphize the divine in order to bring the gods closer.  In order to avoid these extremes, in all religions the spiritually aware have developed the concept of tawhid not in the sense of the coherence of the universe as a reflection of the Oneness of God but in the sense of the Oneness of all existence and all being.

Perhaps the most universal symbol of this third approach is the color green, which is known especially among Muslims as the Green-Man archetype, otherwise known in the Quran as Khidr, a mysterious figure who taught Moses that there is higher knowledge than he was or even could be aware of.  This, in turn, reflects the quest in all religions through this universal symbol of esotericism to go beyond the limitations of the rational intellect toward the source of knowledge that transcends it.  This in turn can lead to the search for union with the One, known in Arabic as wahdat al wujud.

The internet has many web-sites dedicated to illuminating this symbolism.  Perhaps the most erudite discussion may be found in David CatherineҒs The Green Fingerprint: Exploring a Critical Signature in the Quest for the Authentic Self.Ӕ  His thesis is that, The mythological manifestations of the Green-Man archetype appear as counterweights to the institutionalized tendency to suppress gnosis [direct experience of the Divine] and to instead erect fragile concepts of distant gods through mental abstraction and fear. Ӆ Abandonment and the existential guilt-soup that ensues from our distant and disapproving thought-gods is often what forms the basis of a spiritual market trading in a fragmented culture characterized largely by drug-dependency, hyper-entertainment, and a host of personality disorders.Ŕ

Catherines cure for this cultural degeneration in the modern world is spiritual ecology or Holism, in which the person is regarded as part of, rather than separate from, nature.  This can lead to pantheism in the sense that all nature is God or to panentheism in the sense that God is in all nature and hence to the belief that the purpose of every person is to become God.  The extremes in modern American culture include well-known celebrities, such as Shirley McClaine who is famous for running along California beaches shrieking ғI am God!  I am God.  This search for gnosis or direct experience of the Divine can also lead to denial of the very existence of nature and of oneself so that God is the only being and the Gnostic therefore becomes God.  This was the well-known case of Hallaj, the Sufi of the classical period of Islam who exclaimed ԓAna al Haqq!  Ana al Haqq! [I am God! I am God!], for which he was crucified.

The issue debated intensely in and among many Sufi orders in America is whether Oneness in the sense of denial of all other than the Ultimate (la illaha ille Allah) is an objective reality (wahdad al wujud) or merely a subjective experience (wahdad al shuhud), the former typified by the more radical Shadhili and the latter by the more orthodox Naqshbandi.  The Naqshbandi contend that taking the Oneness of Being literally denies the infinite difference between the Creator and the created, which they insist is essential to monotheistic religion.  They contend that la illaha ille Allah refers to the denial of anything ultimate other than the Ultimate, which means that all objects of worship other than Allah are false gods.

Failure to appreciate the distinction between subjective experience and objective reality can lead to the search for spiritual ԓexperiences as a goal in itself, without the higher purpose of applying higher understanding to promote justice in the world.  The lures of this false path of spiritual consumerism may constitute the major cultural baggage of so-called ԓAmerican Islam.

II.  Secrets of the ԓWhirling Dervishes
The issue of Sufi secrets to Reality was popularized by Rafi ZaborԒs article in the June, 2004, issue of Harpers, entitled “The Turn: Inside the Secret Orders of Istanbul,” which allegedly outedӔ the secrets of the “whirling dervishes.”  In his travelogue style, Rafi Zabor reveals much wisdom in his both informative and critical assessment of the real and the less real in the spiritual life.

    Although he admits that he is a tourist in the world of Sufi tariqas, including the tariqat of the Turkish tekkes and their sama, he has learned, as he puts it on page 57, that, “Ecstasies are the sugar candy of the spiritual diet, and if all you do is gratify your sweet tooth you’ll spoil your appetite for dinner, or your palate sugared over won’t even taste dinner when it’s served.”  He comments on the next page, “What was crucially important to such practice [the Mevlevi whirling zikr of the Rumi followers designed cosmologically to center a person in the heart rather than the head] was the understanding one brought to it.”  In other words, does the “tidal signature of primary light” inspire one to be exclusivist and condemn all others to hell, which can be the first step in becoming a suicide bomber; or does it do exactly the opposite and inspire one to be merely a better person in submission to Allah?  Zabor relates his meeting at a secret Sufi gathering with a well-dressed businessman who proudly announces that he has graduated from selling shotguns to trading and smuggling high-powered automatic weapons.  As Zabor puts it, “I wondered, did the glow and smiles and embraces of the aftermath savor of accustomed orgasm reliably achieved and not some fresh intellection or intuition of the unmodified absolute?”

    Zabor asks himself whether the private lives of the people he has met at the secret Sufi hadarat has anything to do with the teachings of Sufism.  He suggests that the primary profession of Islamic faith, la ilaha ille Allah, means esoterically, “That there is no reality but the Reality, i.e. nothing in manifest or non-manifest existence but the Divine Itselfness, so that all subsequent individuation is therefore an itemized declension, or, to cut to the chase, there is only One Unique Being, period, for Whom everything apparently other than He is His particularized self-expression, which does not constitute an actual Otherness.”  The question is, what does this statement of belief mean both in theory and in the lives of those who believe it.

III.  Frithjof Schuons Critique of Wahdat al Wujud

    This statement is simple, but it is only the beginning of wisdom, because it raises more questions than it answers.  Perhaps the most learned student of this issue, because he spent a lifetime studying the inner and outer dimensions of all world religions, was Frithjof Schuon, who published a shelf of books on comparative religion.  Among them, one of the most pertinent to the issue of wahdat al wujud is his Sufism: Veil and Quintessence, which like all of his books uses the analogy of the circle with the forms of religion on the circumference and their paths as radii converging toward oneness at the center.  As he puts it on page 55 of Veil and Quintessence, “God is the same for all the religions only in the Divine ‘stratosphere,’ and not in the human ‘atmosphere.’  In this sense, it could be said that esoterism alone is absolutely monotheistic, it alone recognizing only one religion under diverse forms.  For if it is true that form, in a certain manner,  ‘is’ the essence, the latter on the contrary is in no wise the form; the drop is water, but water is not the drop.” 

    Commenting on page 89 on the teaching of Jesus Christ that “No one cometh unto the Father but by me,” Schuon observes that, “Christ said [this] on the basis of an inward absolute truth, which nevertheless does not prevent other religions from being valid in their turn, independently of Christ, but on the basis of the same truth, insofar as it is essential and thereby universal, and not insofar as it assumes in the case of Christ a particular extrinsic significance personified precisely by Jesus.”

    The true path of all spiritual wisdom, according to Schuon on page 88 and basically by all the great spiritual teachers, is conception, meditation, concentration, and conformation.  That is to say, the concept of Unity with its intrinsic and extrinsic mysteries; assimilating meditation and unitive concentration on Unity and its mysteries; moral conformation to Unity, to its mysteries and its demands; these together with the appropriate traditional supports, are the [five] constituent elements of the Way.”

    The point that Rafi Zabor perhaps intends, but has not expressed, is that zikr of whatever form is merely a means at best in a process that leads not only to enlightenment but to its application in moral conformation within a particular tradition.  By analogy, one might say that orgasm is pleasant, but the ultimate purpose is conception in the form of both love and new life.  This is a gift from God, and should be appreciated as such.

    Philosophically, Schuon explains this in terms of the Universal Law, which one may also call “transcendent law” or “transcendent justice.”  In his discussion of the typological castes in Hinduism, as distinct from the social expressions, on page 107-108, he compares the higher castes with verticality and the lower one with horizontality.  In reference to this lower caste he states, unfortunately only in a footnote: “It could be said that this mentality looks upon the whole from the starting point of the details - whence its specific moralism - whereas the higher mentality looks upon the details from the starting point of the whole.  In the first case, analysis takes precedence over synthesis; in the second, synthesis takes precedence over analysis.”

This is the essence of the distinctions that can be made among legal systems, whereby the holistic systems, best represented by the maqasid or universal principles or goals developed by scholars over the centuries in Islamic jurisprudence but functionally dead for six hundred years, can be compared with the positivist systems whereby law is what human precedent says it is.  The holistic system is primarily educational and inspirational, focused on transcendent justice, whereas the positivist system usually serves primarily to consolidate the status quo with all of its injustices.  The holistic regards the use of any force to assure compliance as a failure of the system, and it reveres non-violence though not to the extent of absolute pacifism, whereas the positivist regards the monopoly of violence and its application by the power of established government as the very definition of rule by law. 

        The critical philosophical issue for Muslims is the real meaning of the concept of “Oneness of Being” or wahdat al wujud.  Is it ontologically and objectively real or is it only intellectually a subjective impression.  Is it a message from Allah or is it only an experience like a trip on drugs? 

For most Muslims the simple answer is “who cares?”  For many intellectuals, however, this leaves two questions: what purpose does Allah have in giving persons enlightenment, and how and to what extent must this purpose be fulfilled in the world of existence.  Do truth and transcendent justice come from God, not from man; or, more radically, is truth God, as suggested by the QurҒanic word haqq, which means simultaneously God, truth, and human rights?

    In l982, two newly arrived Tibetan Buddhist monks summarized their own wisdom on this subject in less than one minute in Baca, Colorado, at a big conference sponsored by the Aspen Institute.  According to them, the process of the spiritual life is modeled by the Hinayana Buddhists, who seek to separate themselves from the physical world, the Mahayana Buddhists, who then seek union with the ultimate (nirvana, nothing, no-thing), and finally the Tantrayana Buddhists, who say that such enlightenment requires the introduction and practice of justice in the world.  Each part of this trinity of process requires the other two.  This, according to the Tibetan Buddhists, is what wahdat al wujud should mean both in concept and practice.

    Schuon discusses this in different ways in eight different places in his book Sufism: Veil and Quintessence, as well as throughout his library of published works.  On page 42 he translates wahdat al wujud as “ontological monism,” but this merely raises the question of what this is.  He states that, “Whereas for Platonism, as for all true metaphysics, the true, the beautiful, and the good are such because they manifest qualities proper to the Principle, or to the Essence if one prefer, and because God, though supremely free, cannot be free in opposition to His nature, Asharism [the origin of Salafi fanatics today] on the contrary proclaims that the true, the beautiful, and the good are such because God wills it so, without our being able to know why.  In this system, which is voluntaristic because it is moralistic and therefore individualistic, God and man are defined as will.”  Schuon notes on page 43 that this “immanent moralism doubtless coincides with moral and social opportuneness [and] the ontologically absurd.”  On page 56, he explains that the Qur’anic expression, ‘God does what He wills’ means above all that ‘God is what He is’.”

    Some Muslims have problems with the Qur’anic references to one’s purpose in being close (qarib) to Allah, such as “We are closer to him [each person] than is his own jugular vein” (wa nahnu aqrabu ‘alayhi min habil warid).  Closeness is seen to exclude oneness, but it should not because oneness, wahhdat al wujud, is to some extent metaphorical.

    The issue of closeness versus union involves also the definition of a “personal God.”  When people ask whether one believes in a personal God, one can answer by asking in return whether they mean anthropomorphically or ontologically, because the one leads to chaos and the other to cosmos.

IV. The Wisdom of Kabir Helminski

    One answer to the question about a personal god, is given by Shaykh Kabir Helminski in his two articles reproduced in Sheila Musaji’s www.theamericanmuslim.org, specifically his “What is a Truly Universal Spirituality?” in the Jan-Feb, 2003, issue, and “Alienation and Faith: the Postmodern Situation” in the issue of July 2002.  In the latter essay, Shaykh Kabir writes, “In most traditional cultures, which place so much emphasis on unity and continuity, the modern preoccupation with personalizing a religion or path would have seemed insane.”  This is particularly true in the postmodern atmosphere of alienation from tradition and the resulting vulnerability to cultism, whereby the would-be adepts lose the wisdom of the past in the pursuit of an exclusivist and therefore false universality.  Shaykh Kabir writes, “In the name of transcending forms, beliefs, and identifications, they seem to acquire many of the characteristics of a cult - especially a focus on a single charismatic figure without whom the whole enterprise would dissolve.”  He adds, “It is a particularly modern and Western (and especially American) notion that we can customize our spirituality in a ‘self-service’ way.”  This utilitarian approach resembles the worship of the anthropomorphic self or a compulsive escape from this self in the worship of a false identity.

    Helminski asks whether there is still need for spiritual guides and for what purpose.  “To what extent,” he asks, “is it desirable and possible to distill the spirituality from a religious tradition, receiving what is most pure and essential while leaving behind the dregs of cultural relativity and historical bias?  In a sense this is a task that must be done by every generation: restoring the essential message, the living impulse, the spirit of a tradition.”  He emphasizes that this must be done within every tradition, because each is a valid path to the truth and the truth must be pursued within established tradition in order to avoid post-modern insanity.

    Shaykh Kabir takes Ibn ‘Arabi as a model of practicing a universal faith through a particular path, which was Islam as a “matrix of Truth in a unique sense.”  In his article, “Alienation and Faith: The Postmodern Situation,” Shakyh Kabir begins by quoting Al Ghazali: “Human perfection resides in this, that the love of God should conquer a man’s heart and possess it wholly, and even if it does not possess it whole, it should predominate in the heart over the love of all things.”  Shaykh Kabir explains, “To grasp this statement, we must understand that this word ‘God’ has the following synonyms: Reality, the Source of Life, The Most Subtle State of Everything.  The love of God is the love of the greatest Truth.  This quest concerns Reality not religion.  The ‘love of God’ is our essential relationship with what is most real.”

    This answer to the question whether one believes in a personal God does not satisfy those who associate love with the relationship between finite human beings?  They cannot conceive of love between the finite and the infinite, and perhaps only those can who have experienced it.

    Due to our very nature as beings created “before” the origin of the physical universe, this so-called oceanicӔ experience may be very common in one degree or another or even almost universal.  One’s response is important, because the experience is not the end of wisdom, though it may seem to be, but rather only the beginning.  Love almost by definition is centered on the “other” to the extent that there is none other and in its place is union.  This raises the question whether this union between the human person and the ultimate is actual and objective or metaphorical and whether even the pursuit of an impression of oneness is desirable.

V.  Frithjof Schuons Conclusions

    Although Rafi Zabor clearly answers “yes” to both of these questions whether the Oneness of Being is real and whether one should abandon oneself to it, Frithjof Schuon gives more qualified answers.  He explains that even the impression of oneness is an ideal and not factual.  He writes on page 57, “A Sufi author was able to write without hesitation that the supreme state, with regard to which every other state is but a veil (hijab) and a drawing away (b’ud), is that there is no longer any place in one’s consciousness for any created thing, and in so saying he is not speaking of ecstasy; he means it with regard to man’s habitual state, as if this were not to ruin the very notion of the human being or of the creature as such, and as if any saint, beginning with the Prophet himself, had ever shown an example of such a sublimity, which in fact is as impossible as it is unnecessary.  This sublimity nevertheless offers an ‘ideal’ image, which is very suggestive in its fashion of union with God; this we concede in taking account of temperaments that are sensitive to this type of hyperbolism.” 

    On page 81, Schuon praises the Sufi whose aim is to be “one who is extinguished before the world to the point of no longer seeing anything but God; or one who sees only God to the point of no longer seeing the world. This Sufi did not realize [accomplish] this, for on the one hand, it is not realizable and on the other hand for this reason it does not have to be realized; this ideal nevertheless bears witness to a heroic intensity toward the Divine, and this is what counts here.”  In a footnote he suggests that the Christian theological expression applied to Christ, “true man and true God,” can mean the realization of the “Self” without excluding individuality, an individuality liberated from concupiscence.  He adds on page 82 that, “We would not dream of reproaching a Hallaj or a Niffari for the obscureness of their expressions, any more than we would dream of reproaching the Song of Songs for such an obscureness.  It suffices us a priori, in the absence of keys [to this particular language], to perceive the beauty, the grandeur, the profundity, the power of language, its perfume and majesty, quite apart from the fact that the incomprehensibility cannot be total and that, moreover, there are keys that end by delivering their secrets, depending on their nature and on our receptivity.”

    The same applies to Qur’anic exegesis.  As Schuon notes on page 84, “Tafsir, ‘explanation,’ is the ґoutward (zahir), semantic, historical, and theological exegesis of the Qur’an; ta’wil,  ‘interpretation,’ is its ‘inward’ (batin), symbolist, moral, mystical, mythological, metaphysical commentary.  According to the Qur’an, ‘no one knows its interpretation but God.’  This means that man can know it only by divine inspiration, and not by reasoning alone - but inspiration and reason are not mutually exclusive since the one can produce or actualize the other.”

    The greatest challenge is how to express the inexpressible.  Schuon writes on page 78, “Some might take the view that the theological or philosophical framework of an idea that is both true and fundamental - such as ontological monism (wahdat al wujud) - is of little importance, even if this framework leaves much to be desired; it is true that in Islam - inasmuch as it is a world of dogma and faith - the thing that is important is ‘what’ one explains and not ‘how’ one explains it.  For the ‘what’ is divine, thus absolute, whereas the ‘how’ is human, thus contingent and provisional; here lies the whole opposition between faith and reasoning, or between Revelation and thinking.”

    One problem is the tendency of humans to avoid uncertainties and complexities by going to extremes.  Schuon writes on page 80, “Compared with the case of the fideists or inspirationists with their lack of concern for coherence, the case of the Greek sophists and scientists and their successors presents exactly the opposite excess: logic on the one hand and phenomena on the other are self-sufficient and they are therefore used as if they were cut off from their roots; whence the philosophical, scientific, and cultural monstrosities which made, and which make, the modern world.Ҕ

    The position apparently supported by Rafi Zabor is that of the ontological monism school of Ibn ‘Arabi, which Schuon calls the Wujudiyah, one of several monist schools in the Sufi world.  “According to the school of Wujudiyah,” writes Schuon on page 138, “To say that ‘there is no divinity (ilaha) if not the (sole) Divinity (Allah)’ means that there is only God, that consequently everything is God, and that it is we as creatures that see a multiple world where there is but one reality; it remains to be seen why creatures see the One in multiple mode, and why God Himself, in so far as He creates, gives laws, and judges, sees the multiple and not the One.”

    Schuon concludes with the more nuanced answer that, “Multiplicity is objective as well as subjective - the cause of diversifying contingency being in each of the two poles of perception - and that multiplicity or diversity is in reality a subdivision, not the Divine Principle of course, but of its manifesting projection, namely, existential and universal Substance; diversity or plurality is therefore not opposed to Unity, it is within the latter and not alongside it.  Multiplicity as such is the outward aspect of the world; but, it is necessary to look at phenomena according to their inward reality, and thus as a diversified and diversifying projection of the One.  The metacosmic cause of the phenomenon of multiplicity is All-Possibility, which coincides by definition with the Infinite, the latter being an intrinsic characteristic of the Absolute.  The Divine Principle, being the sovereign Good, tends by this very fact to radiate and thus to communicate itself; to project and to make explicit all the ‘possibilities of the Possible’.”

    This explanation may be as far as one can express or even imagine ultimate reality.  Schuon says on page 162: “It is true that we cannot imagine God, any more than we can hear light or see thunder.”  Higher understanding, like that of the angels, can come only from Allah, who responds to our awareness and awe of Him (makhafah), i.e., our recognition of reality, and to our love of Allah and of His prophets (mahabbah), and to our level of knowledge (ma’rifah).  As Schuon puts it on page 153, “The higher planes always include the lower planes, while the latter prefigure or anticipate the former, be it only by opening onto them, for reality is one, in the soul as in the Universe.  Moreover, Action joins Love to the extent that it is disinterested; and it rejoins Knowledge to the extent that it is accompanied by an awareness that God is the true Agent.”