Wahda and Kasra (Unity and Multiplicity)

by Fethullah Gülen on . Posted in Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism-3

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Heavenly or Elevated RealmsLike the Divine Names the First and the Last, and the All-Outward and the All-Inward, the concepts of unity and multiplicity are, with respect to their literal meanings, opposite to one another, but in reality, they complement and are associated with one another.

As a concept, wahda (unity) means that initiates attribute all things and events to God in origin and creation; they observe His Attributes like His Knowledge, Power, and Will in every thing, state, or movement in the universe; they see and perceive the manifestations of the Divine Names behind the entire realm of acts; in short, they are always aware of Him and they always feel Him, they turn to Him and attain His company in spirit. Moreover, they desire Him and pursue His good pleasure alone, living a life in strict accordance with His commandments and decrees. These are, in fact, the actions that true believers must carry out in their relationship with God, the Ultimate Truth.

When used in relation with God Almighty, unity means that God is One, Unique, and absolutely free of having any partners, likes, and helpers. It also denotes that while every thing and every being is in constant need of Him, He is absolutely independent of all, and He is the Sacred Being Who has such Attributes of perfection as absolute Knowledge, absolute Power, absolute Dominion, and absolute Rule; this also denotes that He is called by the All-Beautiful Names He possesses. Although all the occurrences, changes, colorings, forms, and states in the universe finally end in Him in origin and creation, He is absolutely free of any of these qualities which are peculiar to the created.

As for multiplicity, it denotes all existent things and events on which there is the stamp or seal of an all-encompassing Knowledge, an all-overwhelming Power, and all-dominating Will. It also signifies the entire book of the universe, on the face of each letter, word, sentence, paragraph, and part of which initiates observe the All-Manifesting by One by reading and evaluating the Divine laws of the creation and operation of things and events correctly but each according to their horizon of belief and knowledge of God.

We Muslims understand and deal with the subjects of unity and the way of unity, and of multiplicity and the way of multiplicity from the above points. All travelers who follow the way to God in the light of Prophethood have understood them to be the same. For this reason, their attribution of every thing and event to God Almighty with respect to their origin, creation, and administration, and their consideration of them in relation to Him, should never be confused with the thoughts or approaches of some philosophers. Such philosophers regard our view of Divine Unity as monotheism; the view of unity that is based on the affirmation that everything comes from and is dependent on Him as monism; and our consideration of multiplicity as pluralism. This view is completely incompatible with and different from the considerations and approaches of Muslim Sufis.

With the two basic sources of Islam, the Qur'an and the Sunna, and the branches of religious knowledge such as Theology, Jurisprudence, and Sufism, which are founded upon these two sources, Islam accepts that it is God Who eternally knows, destines, and creates everything and Who sustains everything; it accepts that all acts of coming into and departing from this world are by His command, creation, rule, and administration. Again it is He Who will eternally maintain those whom He judges to subsist eternally in another world. Islam judges considerations that are contrary to these basic doctrines to be deviant and heretical. The doctrine of the Unity of Being, maintained by a very few among the Sufi saints—which is in essence an assertion expressed in spiritual intoxication and immersion or absorption—was discussed before. This doctrine, confused with pantheism and monism, is the exact opposite of these two philosophical assertions. For while the latter two assertions deny God on behalf of the universe, the doctrine of the Unity of Being ignores the universe on behalf of God's Existence. All the leading scholars of the basic religious sciences and Sufism absolutely believe that God is the Creator, Administrator, and Sustainer of everything. Considerations such as those wherein creatures are from or included in the Essence of the Creator, or that all the universe existed in the Essence of the Creator and has come into existence as the materialization of this Essence, or that existence is nothing but the materialization of the Divine Essence are all assertions of pantheists, who have no knowledge of the truth about the Divine Attributes, the characteristics of the Divine Names, or the nature of the Divine acts. In terms of the emanation or the material manifestation of the Divine Being, these ideas date back as far as Heraclitus and Parmenides, and even as far back as Plato and Plotinus, and the philosophies of the Ten Intellects.

There may be some Sufis who confuse the All-Manifesting with the manifestation, the All-Original with the shadow, and the Self-Subsisting with the sustained and maintained; others, due to insufficient words to express themselves, may have to use the same phrases as the pantheists and monists use. These should never be taken for the philosophical assertions mentioned above. While the philosophers who defend monism, pantheism, and similar views are unaware of the Divine truths, and they are those who try to look at the transcendental truths that can only be seen in the light of the Divine Revelation with the dim light of their reason, the Muslim Sufis who maintain the Unity of Being are modest ones who try to live in strict obedience to the Divine commandments, and in profound devotion to the Almighty, spiritually absorbed and intoxicated with the manifestations of His Existence and other Attributes. The map of their beliefs and spiritual experiences shows that the relationship between God and all other existent things and beings is the relationship of the Creator and the created, as well as that of the Self-Subsisting and Sustainer and the sustained; whatever they say in sobriety is essentially based on the Qur'an, the Sunna, and on the knowledge given by scholars of basic religious sciences.

From another perspective, multiplicity is the assembly of the manifestations of the Divine Names in the mirrors of different natures according to the forms given by Destiny. That is to say, everything has been and is created dependent on the united manifestations of the Divine Names, and the whole of existence, composed of innumerable mirrors, expresses the same meaning with the essential characteristics of unity, solidarity, harmony, and mutual assistance it displays, as well as with its different sounds, melodies, and songs. As all things and events announce His Unity and Oneness or his Uniqueness with their positions, so too, being a relative mirror to the Divine Being—as God Himself says: "Time is My relative mirror"—time clearly indicates the Unique One of Unity in the uninterrupted chains of mirrors of multiplicity.

Travelers on the way to God gaze upon all things and events with these considerations, and see and feel the absolutely Unique One on the face of everything, whether corporeal or incorporeal, material or spiritual; they are exhilarated by the designs, colors, and languages, all of which are interrelated and interconnected with one another and therefore indicate unity; and they go into raptures with the observation of the works of His Knowledge, Will, and Power in every thing and event. As if standing at every moment on a new platform or ramp, prepared to leap to meet with the All-Beloved, they utter,

One who wishes to see Your All-Beautiful Face
Through innumerable faces,
Should split into numerous parts like broken mirrors.

and feel that they stand just before the door of beholding Him, with the exhilarating hope that a new start will be given to a never-ending observation.

God is absolutely One and Unique; there is none who resembles Him in any way. The mirrors that reflect His different Attributes and Names, with the distinctive features of each, are countless. These mirrors, although countless, display a unity in multiplicity and therefore indicate the One of absolute Unity. All the scenes and sounds that belong to or are exhibited by multiplicity express Him, show and speak about Him, and present messages from Him. The multiplicity of the mirrors in this world of formation and dissolution displays differences and causes different views to arise in minds; however, they never contradict the Unity of the Original Source. Every thing, with its every state, is connected with Him, moving dependent on His Will, and following the way that is bound to end in Him. Because of this, we can describe multiplicity as the manifestation of the unfolding of the Unique, All- Hidden Treasure.

All these considerations are not for those who remain distant from Him despite His infinite nearness to everything; they are for those who have been able to build sound relationships with Him in the awareness of their being His created servants and His being their Creator and Lord. An ascetic says:

He is nearer to you than your own self; so never remain distant from Him;
Give up multiplicity, find unity, and look through knowledge of Him in your heart.

For those who have reached a life at the level of the heart and spirit, and who have set up their thrones at the peaks where spirit beings fly, and who have escaped from the restrictions of time and space, and day and night, neither multiplicity nor unity constitutes a problem. For them, both multiplicity and unity are only mere conceptions that have certain, important meanings.

Even though the darkness of human nature surrounds humanity's horizon of perception, the light of truth and unity removes this darkness. Those who rise high enough to go beyond the atmosphere of their corporeality and to remove the veil from their eyes so that they can see the realms beyond become familiar with the lights of the realm of unity; they find themselves in showers of surprises through their perceptions, sensations, and observations. However, if the initiates who are favored with such showers cannot preserve the harmony of religious faith, thought, and life, but fall away from the basic principles of the Religion, they may lose out on the way to cycles of attainment. Just as the Names the All-Outward and All-Inward are two dimensions of the same, single truth, so too, is it vitally important to observe the balance between the rules of multiplicity and unity.

It is because of the inability to preserve this balance that those who consider only the inward dimension of both their own and the universe's existence and are based on their observations and spiritual discoveries during their spiritual journeying feel compelled to express the Divine Unity and the unity in multiplicity that emanates from this Unity by saying, "There is no existent being save He." On the other hand, those who restrict themselves to the outward dimension of existence are usually immured in naturalism and drown in different ways of associating partners with God. There are still others who, although they consider the Inward and the Outward and their manifestations together, have given priority to the Inward and His manifestations under the influence of their spiritual state and pleasures, and basing the true, perfect concept of Unity on their own observations, have limited their horizon of belief despite the limitless profundity of belief in the Unseen, by saying, "There is nothing witnessed (or observed) save He." As for those who base their considerations on the Divine Attributes and Names, and look at existence from this perspective, they never restrict their considerations of Unity to any specific dimension of existence or to the manifestations of only one or some certain Divine Names. Without confusing the manifestations and principles of the Inward and the Outward with one another, and considering the differences between the observations of the states of "awareness" and "immersion" or "absorption,"[1] they have proclaimed the true nature of the Divine Unity and unity in multiplicity coming from this Unity by saying, "There is no object of worship, truly besought and desired, save He." This concept of Unity is based on the Qur'an and the Sunna, and it is free of any confusion or misunderstanding. It preserves balance between the Inward and the Outward with the manifestations of each, and it stresses both the Unity of the Divine Essence and the Unity of Divine Attributes. That is, God is One, both in His Essence in the sense that there is no Divine Being save He, and He is One in His Attributes in the sense that He has all the attributes of perfection and is absolutely free from any defect, and in that all the positive attributes shared by creation belong to Him to an infinite, perfect degree.

Unity in the inward dimension of existence can be seen as a seed, and unity in its outward dimension is the tree that grows from it. The former is felt by conscience, while the latter is reached, observed, and experienced by studying the realm of multiplicity—the realm of corporeal existence. This difference of perception and perspective causes some other differences. For example, when we mention the Absolutely One, Eternally-Besought-of-All in view of our relationship with multiplicity through our external senses, and when we want to draw attention to these relationships— as during the Hajj and the Prayers of the religious festive days—we mention Him out loud. But when we mention Him from the perspective of the sensations of our conscience or inner faculties, or with respect to our innermost relationship with Him, we mention Him silently in the secrecy of our hearts.

When we inwardly call ourselves to account for whatever we say and do and for our inner relationship with Him, be it in our individual recitations and supplications in the privacy of our houses or in houses of worship, we try to remain devoted to the horizon of the heart and other inner senses or faculties. But especially during the Hajj and the congregational Prayers on Fridays and religious festive days, where we should proclaim the public symbols or marks of Islam, we mention Him in a loud, enthusiastic voice. We both try to give voice to some truths concerning Him on our account and try to make them heard by the conscious beings that travel between the heavens and earth. Without being entangled in His mirrors, we penetrate through the atmosphere of multiplicity far into immaterial realms, and show that we always turn to and pursue unity. This manner of mentioning Him means both observation of the rules that must be observed at the beginning and end of the journeying toward Him, and using the tongue of our inner experiences together with our external sensations.

To explain this point more, everything is given an immaterial nature and form—I use the words "nature" and "form" because we lack the exact words in this material world to express the truths that belong to the immaterial dimension of existence, particularly those concerning the Divine Being—while it exists only in the Divine Knowledge. The Divine Destiny appoints these forms, that are dependent on the Most Sacred Effusions, through the Sacred Effusions, and the Divine Power clothes them in external existence or bodies. That is to say, according to the dictates of the all-encompassing Knowledge, every thing and being receives a particular identity and becomes a particular mirror. Explaining the matter with a simple comparison, every thing or being, in its initial existence in the Divine Knowledge, is like the essence or spirit of the letters that form words and sentences. In the same way that they indicate certain meanings when they form words, things or beings take on different identities and forms. Their silhouettes on the immaterial tablets of the World of Representations or "Ideal" Forms can be likened to the verses of the Qur'an, while their physical forms, particular to each, are like its chapters.

With respect to its inner aspect, everything transcends the horizon of the perception of most of us; it is transparent and displays unity. Causality has a part of its own in its coming into external existence, which exhibits multiplicity. In the same way that the Qur'anic chapters are composed of verses, and verses are formed of words, and words of letters, and letters of points and lines—the whole of existence, animate or inanimate, constitutes the sentences, paragraphs, booklets, and books that the Divine Will and Power create from "ideal" tablets according to the eternal program of Destiny. The "ideal" tablets are formed of non-physical words which are in turn composed of the letters that exist in Divine Knowledge. Those who are distinguished with knowledge of God and perceive this reality always observe unity beyond multiplicity, and God's Unity manifested by the whole of existence beyond the manifestations of His Uniqueness or Absolute Oneness exhibited by each existential entity. They experience deeply the awe-inspiring manifestations of Divine Majesty through the observatories of His Grace. All types or acts of worship, including primarily the Prayer, are extraordinarily important in that they define their responsibilities to those talented with the capacity to experience such manifestations, and warn them about performing these responsibilities carefully.

Those who cannot look at existence with all its dimensions through the lens of Divine Uniqueness, with the illuminating torches of Divine Grace, have been entrapped in the veils of causality, and live in longing for light, despite innumerable sources of light. Just as those who cannot go beyond the voices and melodies while reciting the Qur'an consume their lives with logical and philosophical chatter in the name of its interpretation, so too, those who are unable to read the book of the universe correctly and are entangled in apparent means and causes have never been able to get into its concentric levels of meaning; they live devoid of the illuminating lights of the Divine Revelation and are dragged hither and thither through the unsparing waves of multiplicity without ever reaching the shore of unity.

* * *

The reason why the Prophet Adam, upon him be peace, was favored with vicegerency was his comprehension of the Divine Names, and the fact that he was able to "read" the things that were the results of the manifestations of those Names. He proceeded to the All-Holy One Who is called by these Names, and perceived everything's true nature and reality. He "read" the names taught to him, together with the things and beings that are called by them, and comprehended these things and beings with the particular characteristics of each. Thus, observing the reality of unity on the face of everything—on each and every member or part of multiplicity—he was saved from the turbulence of multiplicity, and advanced to the Divine Being in the light and guidance of the All-Hidden Treasure in his heart. In other words, he correctly read the mysteries of Divinity on the face of the operations of God's commands of creation and absolute control of things and events, and in awareness of the fact that things have established realities or real essences, proclaimed the effects of the Divine Knowledge and Existence. In the face of his capacity, the angels, who are the gorgeous beings of the spiritual realms, could not help but declare to God Almighty: "All-Glorified are You! We have no knowledge save what You have taught us. Surely You are the All-Knowing, the All-Wise" (2:32). This declaration meant that God might have servants more noble and virtuous than His noble, virtuous servants—the angels—thus emphasizing the vicegerency of humanity.

Although the faculty of reason may make it seem possible to have glimpses of unity in multiplicity, like having glimpses of the All-Inward in the outward aspect of existence, actually it is not within the capacity of everyone to perceive and experience it in its true reality or profundity. The Prophet Adam, the first human being on earth, lived in the world of multiplicity. As he was able to comprehend multiplicity, he was also the first guide who summoned people to the highest point of the perception of unity. Without being dazzled by the almost unlimited extensiveness, variance, and mixture of multiplicity, he always saw the manifestations of the beauty and grace of Divine Uniqueness amidst the manifestations of His Unity. By observing the concentrated manifestations of certain, particular Divine Names on each entity, which we call the manifestations of Divine Uniqueness or Absolute Oneness, he perceived God's special favors on himself as a representative of humanity, and by fully opening the doors of his heart to the All-Holy Being, he read the stamp of unity on the face of everything with the eyes of his heart, through the lights coming from Him. He fully comprehended that everything owes to Him whatever it was favored with, and observed that everything was fully controlled and directed by the Divine Power, and proclaimed with a deep conviction that He has neither a partner nor a helper in His Divinity and Lordship. Having used his full capacity in the correct way, he outdid the angels and left the door open for every talented one to arrive at the same achievement.

This door is open to everyone who sincerely intends and resolves to follow the way of unity. Insightful souls who always close and open their eyes in reflective thought, whose hearts continuously beat with compassion, and who make their innate weakness and helplessness a dynamic for reaching His Power, and their poverty and destitution a means for arriving at His infinite Wealth can observe unity in multiplicity, and God's Unity in the mirrors of multiplicity; they feel His existence through the rays of the light of His Existence manifested on every face; they are cooled with the breezes of the manifestations of His Grace even in the face of the all-overwhelming showers of the manifestations of His Majesty; and they sip the pleasures of being in His company beyond all concepts of modality.

It has occasionally been observed that those who have reached this point have not been able to save themselves from confusion or choose words well in expressing their states; or as they have been overwhelmed by the breezes of the manifestations of His "Face," they have made utterances which might be interpreted as Incarnation or Union. But this has happened only occasionally, and in particular those who make their journeys in the light of the Prophethood of the Master of creation, upon him be perfect blessings, have never been and, in fact, will never be witnessed to do so.

This is the station where a full light is perceived or a voice is echoed from the manifestations of the Necessarily Existent Being's declaration, Whose is the absolute Sovereignty on that Day? It is God's, the One, the All-Overwhelming (40: 16), in the hearts of the travelers on the way to the Ultimate Truth. In other words, it is observed in this station that the Unity of the Divine Being, which lies in the essence and origin of all existence, has completely surrounded multiplicity, which is accidental or contingent, and colored everything with unity. Therefore, those lost in spirituality and living in "immersion" may be excused for the utterances incompatible with the essentials of the Islamic creed. This station is also where initiates who have reached a certain point of nearness to the Divine Being feel overwhelmed by the manifestations of the All-Beautiful Names, catch "glimpses" of the All-Holy Being, Who is called by these Names with all their faculties, and sense the manifestations of His Attributes with their hearts, which begin beating with contemplations of the One Who is qualified with these Attributes. Heroes of spirituality who are invaded by such degrees of feeling and sensation experience with joy the manifestations of Unity that devastate everything. So they should not be expected to act like those who live in sobriety.

Some describe the degree of the expansion of the heart as the body being engulfed by the heart to its very depth, while others see it as the human spirit's attainment of its essential power that emanates from its being a Divine "breath." Heroes of spirituality, who have attained this rank wherein they have gone beyond the limits of their existence, no longer feel the difference between the earth and the heavens, or this world and the worlds beyond. They are in the worlds beyond the heavens with their hearts and "secrets" at the same time as they are in this world with their bodies—and they are in the highest realms with their spirits while they are in this realm with their physical existence.

Since they always live on the horizon of life at the level of the heart and spirit, they constantly experience the manifestations of Divine Uniqueness—the manifestations of Grace—within the manifestations of Divine Unity—the manifestations of Majesty. They continuously observe the manifestations of Unity through the windows of their inner senses, and are no longer aware of anything other than the One of Unity and Uniqueness. As mentioned before, when they reach this horizon, overwhelmed by the All-Encompassing One's Majesty and Magnificence, and observing the complete disappearance of the encompassed realms under the devastating manifestations of Majesty and Magnificence, they may endure excusable confusions and say, "I see nothing other than Him," or "What you see is but an illusion."

Thinking that something exists or does not exist is partly dependent on the perception of the thing by the inner senses. Especially when things and events are viewed through the windows of those senses that have attained the utmost refinement, the scope of outer existence becomes extremely narrowed. It can even completely disappear in the sight of the travelers who are on the way to the Ultimate Truth and able to view everything with their innermost senses. Even if some pictures of multiplicity sometimes attract the attention of such people, they have no effect on the feeling of Unity that has developed in the bosom of knowledge of God and become a dimension of the experiences of the heart. For this reason, heroes of spirituality, who observe existence from this horizon, may sometimes utter, "I am the Ultimate Truth," under the overpowering influence of their inner sensations, when actually they should say instead, "I am a servant, and You are the Ultimate Truth." Perhaps they may state, "Glory be to me! How grand I am in respect of my essential qualities!" instead of saying, "All-Glorified is God, the Supreme!"

Such utterances and considerations are not only incompatible with modesty and humility, which are the essence and requirements of servanthood and religious life, but they are also contrary to the doctrine of Divine Unity which was taught by Prophets. If they are uttered by those who do not live immersed in the overwhelming manifestations of Divine Unity and intoxicated with His love, they are completely opposed to the basic principles of Islamic faith and represent a deviation from the Straight Path. Similarly, utterances that express Incarnation and Union are also incompatible with the spirit of Islam.

Those who follow the Prophet's way strictly have always observed unity amidst multiplicity, and considered the Divine Being from the perspective of His Attributes and All-Beautiful Names, while approaching the whole of creation within the framework of its own characteristics. They have always admitted that the Ultimate Truth is an all-transcendental Being, and all other beings, whose realities issue from His being the Absolute, Ultimate Truth or Reality, owe their existence to His Creativity and their subsistence to His Self-Subsistence and Maintenance. In addition, in order to always avoid confusion in concepts, thought, reasoning, and belief, they have never made utterances that are incompatible with the truth of Divinity. Seeing all the relative truths as originating from and being dependent on an essential, absolute truth, they have always stressed that things have established realities or real essences, even though they are shadows of the shadow of the light of the Ultimate Truth's Existence.

In conclusion, all the things we see with our eyes and experience with our hearts are an exhibition brought into existence by God's Will and Power; the earth with whatever is in it is a vast, magnificent palace that has been made on the loom of His Knowledge, Will, and Power, and presented to the view of observers; and humanity is an official charged with observing all things to know them with their meanings and the essential purpose of existence. We see the undulation of multiplicity throughout the universe, and we feel and experience the spirit of unity in the essence of every thing and event. Wakeful souls have always had this conviction and followed the way that leads to the Ultimate Truth, while those who have gone to extremes have fallen halfway.

O God! Show us the truth as truth and enable us to observe it, and show us falsehood as falsehood and enable us to avoid it. And bestow Your blessings and peace upon the leader of the Prophets and the commander of the cavalry of Messengers, and on his pure Family and Companions, altogether!

[1] For these conceptions see, M. Fethullah Gülen, Emerald Hills of the Heart – Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, The Light, NJ, 2004, vol. 2, pp. 199–209. (Tr.)