Islamic philosophy from its origin to the present

Philosophy in the land of prophecy 

~Seyyed Hossein Nasr

The Question of Existence and Quiddity and Ontology in Islamic Philosophy

There is no issue more central to Islamic philosophy and especially metaphysics than wujud (at once Being and existence) in itself and in its relation to mahiyyah (q
uiddity or essence). For eleven centuries Islamic philosophers and even certain Sufis and theologians (mutakallimun) have been concerned with this subject and have developed on the basis of their study of wujud worldviews that have dominated Islamic thought and have also had a deep influence upon Christian and Jewish philosophy. Islamic philosophy is most of all a philosophy concerned with wujud and hence with its distinction from mahiyyah. To understand the meaning of these basic concepts, their distinction, and relationship is, therefore, to grasp the very basis of Islamic philosophical thought.

It is true that Islamic metaphysics places the Absolute above all limitations, even beyond the ontological Principle as usually understood. It knows that the Divine Essence (al-Dhat al-ilahiyyah) stands above even Being, that it is Non-Being or Beyond-Being in that it stands beyond all limitation and even beyond the qualification of being beyond all limitation. Nevertheless, the language of this metaphysical doctrine revolves around wujud in most schools of Islamic thought.

Hence, the discussion concerning the distinction between wujud and mahiyyah and their relation remains central to Islamic metaphysical thought even while most Muslim gnostics and metaphysicians have remained fully aware of the supra-ontological nature of the Supreme Reality and have not limited metaphysics to ontology.
Only too often the concern of Islamic philosophers with wujud and mahiyyah has been traced back solely to Greek philosophy and especially to Aristotle. There is of course no doubt concerning the debt of al-Farabi, who was the first Muslim philosopher to discuss fully the distinction between wujud and mahiyyah to the Stagirite. The manner, however, in which he and especially Ibn Sina, who has been called the “philosopher of being” par excellence , approached the subject and the centrality that the study of wujud gained in Islamic thought have very much to do with the Islamic revelation itself. The Quran states explicitly, “But His command, when He intendeth a thing, is only that he saith unto it: Be! and it is (kun fa-yakun )” (36: 82); it also speaks over and over of the creation and destruction of the world. This world as experienced by the homo islamicus is, therefore, not synonymous with wujud. It is not “an ontological block without fissure in which essence, existence and unity are but one.”

Moreover, the origin of the “chain of being” is not simply the first link in the chain but is transcendent vis-à-vis the chain. The levels of existence (maratib al-wujud ) to which Aristotle and Theophrastus and before them Plato refer are, therefore, from the Islamic point of view, discontinuous with respect to their Source, which is above and beyond them. The Quranic teachings about Allah as Creator of the world played a most crucial role in the development of Islamic philosophy, as far as the study of wujud is concerned. On the one hand, it made central the importance of the ontological hiatus between Being and existents and, on the other hand, bestowed another significance on the distinction between wujud and mahiyyah by providing a meaning to the act of existentiation or the bestowal of wujud upon mahiyyah other than what one finds in Aristotelian philosophy as it developed among the Greeks.

The Meaning of Wujud and Mahiyyah

Traditional teachers of Islamic philosophy begin the teaching of hikmati ilahi (literally “theo-sophia”) as it is called in Persian, by instilling in the mind of the student a way of thinking based upon the distinction between wujud and mahiyyah. They appeal to the immediate perception of things and assert that man in seeking to understand the nature of the reality he perceives can ask two questions about it: (1) Is it (halhuwa)? and (2) What is it (ma huwa)? The answer to the first question relates to wujud or its opposite (‘adam or nonexistence), and the answer to the second question concerns mahiyyah (from the word mahuwa or ma hiya, which is its feminine form).

Usually in Islamic philosophy terms are carefully defined, but in the case of wujud it is impossible to define it in the usual meaning of definition as used in logic that consists of genus and specific difference. Moreover, every unknown is defined by that which is known, but there is nothing more universally known than wujud and therefore nothing else in terms of which wujud can be defined. In traditional circles it is said that everyone, even a small baby, knows intuitively the difference between wujud and its opposite, as can be seen by the fact that when a baby is crying, to speak to it about milk is of no avail, but as soon as “real” milk, that is, milk possessing wujud is given to it, it stops crying.
Rather than define wujud, therefore, Islamic philosophers allude to its meaning through such assertions as “wujud is that by virtue of which it is possible to give knowledge about something” or “wujud is that which is the source of all effects.” As for mahiyyah, it is possible to define it clearly and precisely as that which provides an answer to the question What is it? There is, however, a further development of this concept in later Islamic philosophy that distinguishes between ‘mahiyyah’ in its particular sense (bi’l-ma‘na’l-akhass ), which is the response to the question What is it?, and ‘mahiyyah’ in its general sense (bi’l-ma‘na’l-a‘amm ), which means that by which a thing is what it is.’
It is said that ‘mahiyyah’ in this second sense is derived from the Arabic phrase ma bihi huwa huwa (that by which something is what it is). This second meaning refers to the reality (haqiqah) of a thing and is not opposed to wujud, as is the first meaning of ‘mahiyyah.’

As far as the etymological derivation of the term wujud is concerned, it is an Arabic term related to the root wjd, which possesses the basic meaning “to find” or “come to know” about something. It is etymologically related to the term wijdan, which means “consciousness,” “awareness,” or “knowledge,” as well as to wajd, which means “ecstasy” or “bliss.” The Islamic philosophers who were Persian or used that language also employed the Persian term hasti, which comes from Old Persian and is related to the Indo-European terms denoting being, such as ist in German and is in English. 

‘Wujud’ as used in traditional Islamic philosophy cannot be rendered in English simply as existence. Rather, it denotes at once Being, being, Existence, and existence, each of which has a specific meaning in the context of Islamic metaphysics. The term Being refers to the Absolute or Necessary Being (wajib al-wujud ); being is a universal concept encompassing all levels of reality, both that of creatures and that of the Necessary Being Itself. Existence (capitalized) refers to the first emanation or effusion from the Pure or absolute Being, or what is called “al-fayd al-aqdas,” the Sacred Effusion in later Islamic philosophy; while existence refers to the reality of all things other than the Necessary Being.

Technically speaking, God is, but He cannot be said to exist, for one must remember that the English word ‘existence’ is derived from the Latin ex-sistere, which implies a pulling away or drawing away from the substance or ground of reality. The very rich vocabulary of Islamic philosophy differentiates all these usages by using ‘wujud’ with various modifiers and connotations based upon the context, whereas the single English term ‘existence’ cannot render justice to all the nuances of meaning contained in the Arabic term. Thus throughout this chapter we use the Arabic ‘wujud’ rather than a particular English translation of it. There are also terms derived from ‘wujud’ that are of great philosophical importance, especially the term mawjud or “existent,” which Islamic philosophy, especially of the later period, clearly distinguished from wujud as the “act of existence.” Muslim metaphysicians knew full well the difference between the terms ens and actus essendi or Sein and Dasein, and therefore followed a path that led to conclusions very different from those in the West, which finally led to modern Western Existenz Philosophie and existentialism.