Mulla Sadra and the Unity and Multiplicity of Existence

Karim Aghili

Manchester, UK



This paper is an attempt to critically analyse some of the versions of the oneness of existence (wahdat al-wujud)1. It seeks to argue that according to Mulla Sadra, the concept of “existence”2 is one, and its extra-mental reality, then, must also be one, because one single concept cannot be obtained from a number of “realities” “Existence” is one single “reality” compre­hending everything.3 The “reality” behind the veil of many different things is “pure existence” without even a trace of multiplicity, and the “quiddities” which are the source of this multiplicity are but different degrees of the one single “reality’’.

The Univocity of the Concept of Existence


The concept of existence is a single primary and self-evident concept which is applicable to all existents without discrimination between the Necessary Being and the contingent being and between substance and accident.4


A group of the Ash`arites hold the view that the concept of existence is equivocal among all existents including the Necessary Being and the contingent being and among the species of the contingents. This group hold that the existence of each entity is identical with its concept. Another group hold that the absolute existence is equivocally applied between the Necessary Being and the contingent being, but it is univocally applied to all the species of the contingents.5 The reason why the Ash`arites maintain that existence is equivocal is that they consider existence to be identical with quiddity, and as quiddities are disparate from one another, existents are also distinct from one another, and we will soon prove the invalidity of this view. According to Mulla Sadra, and Sabziwari, existence is additional to quiddity but not identical with it, and as it is not identical with quiddity, it is not thereby equivocal.


Affirmative and Negative Intuitive Judgements on the oneness of the concept of Existence


Surely, Intuition is the best witness to the fact that when we see various species of things, we generally form affirmative judgements on their existence, and sometimes we form negative judgements on the non-existence of certain other things; however, the affirmative and negative judgements in all these cases are used in the same sense. For example, `Man exists and plants exist’. `The co-existence of two contradictories and the co-existence of two contraries do not exist’. Therefore, the concept of existence is univocally applied within the context of affirmative and negative judgements, and for this reason, Sadr al-Muta`allihin says:


That the concept of existence is something shared by all quiddities appears to be self-evident. Verily the intellect finds an affinity and similarity between one existent and the other, the like of which it does not find between the existent and the non-existent, therefore, if existents did not share a single concept but were distinct in every respect, the relation in which some stand to some others would be, [then], like that of existence to non-existence because of a lack of affinity.6 Accordingly, the concept of existence is univocally applied to quiddities.


Nasir al-Din al-Tusi says: The concept of negation [i.e., non-existence] is `one’, and there is no plurality and distinction in it, therefore, the concept of its contradictory, which is existence, is one.7


The contradictory of one is necessarily one; otherwise, if the contradictory of one were many and manifold, that would entail the removal of two contradictories.


Also, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi says: We become certain about the existence of a quiddity and doubt its characteristics, while we are still certain about its existence. When we observe an effect, we form a judgement on its cause. When we are convinced that it is a contingent being, and then our conviction that it is a possible being disappears and is changed into the conviction that it is a necessary being, the first judgement will not disappear. Therefore, being still convinced of the existence [of the quiddity] despite the change of our conviction about its characteristics indicates that existence is [univocally] shared by all quiddities.8

The Unity and Multiplicity of the Reality of Existence

There is a disagreement over the reality of existence among the Muslim philosophers.9 Some positions are directly attributed to the Muslim philosophers proper who dealt with it in their capacity as philosophers, while some others are attributed to some other authorities who have been

cited in the works on Islamic philosophy. Anyway, in sum, it can be said that there are four basic positions on the reality of existence.


1. The Position of the Sufis

The first position is the one as attributed to the Sufis and their words appear to imply it, and it is such that existence has an individual unity, and the reality of existence is the very existence of the Sacred Divine Essence. He is existent in the true sense and there is nothing really existent other than He. Other existents have a metaphorical existence: “There is nothing in the world but He”. Therefore, existence is specific to God alone.10




Doubtless, this view is not rationally acceptable with respect to that which is indicated by the apparent meaning of the words of its proponents. We all realize that we exist and the existence of each individual is other than that of the other one just as the existence of humans are other than that of other entities and that the existence of all creatures is other than that of God. Therefore, holding that there is nothing existent other than God seems to be more fallacious than philosophical. Of course, they themselves also admit that this is a matter which is not comprehended by reason (`aql) but rather it is one which, owing to being supra-rational, should be discovered intuitively.


Well, if anyone claims that they accept something that is not accepted by reason, we cannot argue with them philosophically, since philosophy deals only with those matters which are rationally understandable. Now, it can be asked if it is possible for something to be negated by reason and to be affirmed by something else.


We can discover our rational incomprehension whenever something is beyond the ken of our rational comprehension. For instance, it is rationally understandable that the reality of external existence cannot be rationally understood, since the function of reason is to know concepts. In this case, it is rationally understandable that it cannot be comprehended. However, sometimes, something is negated by reason. So, can it be said that this very rational comprehension is incorrect? It should be said that such a view is unacceptable and that we cannot accept that a truth which is negated by reason can be proved in a different way. Accepting such a view is tantamount to denying the validity of reason and holding that reason is not entitled to comprehend truths. This view is contrary to intuition and rational self-evidence. Therefore, as is apparently understood, this position is not acceptable.


It may be argued that the words of the proponents of this position do not apparently convey what they mean; furthermore, they were not concerned with technical vocabulary; they could not express in exact words the matters which they comprehended, and what they wished to express was not contrary to reason; however, the words which they have employed clearly convey that which is contrary to reason. Of course, this sort of argument is just a justification, and such a justification itself is not compatible with the view that `reason does not comprehend the meanings of such words’ unless this very expression is also justified in that what is meant by reason (`aql) in this regard is the untrained mind and common sense.


Anyway, this position cannot be accepted, and should it be justified correctly, it might be interpreted based on one of the other positions, which itself is a different issue.


The Doctrine of the Unity of Existence and the Multiplicity of Existents


Some other philosophers hold that the reality of existence is specific to God, but existent is not exclusive to God only, and it is really applied to other existents as well. This position is contrary to that of the Sufis, who hold that other existents are of a metaphorical nature. According to the proponents of this position, `existent’ is also applied to other existents, but the meaning of real existent when applied to other than God differs from the meaning of real existent when applied to God. This position appears to be based on the equivocity or homonymy of existent. The proponents of this position assert that when God is said to be existent, it means that He Himself is the reality of existence itself, but when it is said that creatures are existent, it means that they are related to existence, not in the sense of having real existence. Therefore, being-existent with regard to God means `He is existent’, and with regard to other than God, it means `being related to existence’. Then, in order to justify the various aspects of the existent being related to existence, they assert that many examples can be given to illustrate this doctrine in such derivatives as `tamir’ (date seller), which is derived from `tamr’ and which is related to `tamr’ (date). These derivatives are not like the ones that are derived from a verb or verbal noun (i.e. infinitive) and which denotes an agent which does an action. Another example which can be given is mushammas meaning the water which is heated when exposed to the light of the sun, that is, being related to the sun and having no internal relationship with it.11


It is seen that these derivatives just mean being related to the source of derivation. As the case may be with `existent’.  By existents (mawjudat) are meant essences which are related to existence. The reality of existence [i.e., real existence`] belongs to God, the Blessed and Exalted, alone, and all others are related to it. This very relation is sufficient for applying `existent’ (mawjud) to them.


This doctrine has been interpreted as `the unity of existence and the multiplicity of existents’. This position was taken by Jalal al-Din Dawani, and he asserted that this position was attributed to the `tasting of theosophy’ (dhawq al-ta`alluh), that is, if one fathoms the depth of Divine knowledge, one will come to know that the only true existent that is existence itself is God, and all others are related to Him.




This position cannot be accepted either, because we are not dealing with the expression `existent’. In other words, the question is not whether the application of `existent’ to creatures is lexically or conventionally a real or metaphorical one or whether there are any other expressions which mean being related to their origin. The very expressions given as examples, notwithstanding, are debatable. May a time, it is said that the expression `tamir’ has not been derived from `tamr’ (date) but rather, for example, it is derived from the verb `tamara’ meaning to sell dates. As is the case with `mushammas’ which is derived from `tashmis’ meaning to expose something to the sun.

Supposing that there were certain derivatives which are semantically related to their sources, this is still a lexical debate and can not be a solution to the philosophical problem under discussion. This position will ultimately lead to the confirmation of the position of the Sufis in that there is no other existent save God.


The Position attributed to the Followers of the Peripatetics


In contrast to the above-mentioned positions, there is another position which has been attributed to the Peripatetics. It is worth noting that by the Peripatetics, their followers, such as al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and Bahmanyar, are meant. Otherwise, it will not be known what position the Peripatetics themselves, that is, Aristotle and his students, took in this regard in that whether they believed in the principality [i.e., fundamentality] of quiddity or in the fundamentality of existence.12


The argument for this position on the part of its proponents


It is deduced, especially, from the words of  Ibn Sina (Avicenna)13 that he considers existence to be fundamentally real, but he considers existents to be really multiple. He considers the existence of each existent to be other than that of another one. He maintains the plurality of existence and of existents. That is, God’s existence is other than the existences of creatures, the existences of intellects are other than those of souls and the existences of souls are other than those of material substances, and by `existent’ is meant an existent quiddity. Every existence differs from every other one in its entirety, and there is nothing in common among them, as there is a common aspect just among quidditative concepts. Two quiddities can have either totally or partially an essential aspect in common. However, existence is simple and has no genus and differentia.


Therefore, according to this position, there is no univocity among existences. If it is said that they are exactly alike, it will entail that there be no more than one existence, while it is necessarily seen that existences are disparate and multiple. If it is said that they are partially and essentially distinct from one another, it will entail that existence should be composed of a common aspect and a distinguishing aspect. The slightest objection to this view is that it implies the compositeness of the existence of God, the Exalted, because it entails that His existence should have a common aspect and a distinguishing aspect, while the Necessary Being is simple [i.e., indivisible] in all respects.


Therefore, it should be said that existences, according to this position,  are disparate with the totality of their essences.14 That is, both existence and existent are multiple, and each one is disparate from every other one totally and essentially. In other words, on this view, disparity among existents is self-evident. Now, the question which can be posed is: Is this disparity, i.e., the disparity among existences, is totally essential or partially essential. If it is totally of an essential nature, it will be that which is sought. If it is partially essential, it implies that extra-mental existences have a common aspect and a distinguishing aspect in the extra-mental world. Therefore, every extra-mental existent should be composed of a common aspect and a distinguishing aspect. Its common aspect can be supposed to be of a generic nature, which can be actualized by the addition of a number of differentiae, such as animal-ness (hayawaniyyah), which is the common genus among its species, and by the addition of certain differentiae to it, different kinds of quiddities are constituted. Or the common aspect should be of a specific nature, hence, the distinction among existents will be of an individual nature. Anyway, something should be added to the common aspect so that a distinction can be made. This view is problematic in certain respects.


If it is said that existence constitutes the generic aspect, it implies that the concept of existence is a common genus among all existents, while existence is not of a generic nature, because it has been proved in its proper place that quiddities lead to the highest genera, above which there is no common genus. Furthermore, this view necessitates that the Divine Essence be composed of genus and differentia, while the Divine Essence is simple in all respects. If it is said that existence is of a specific nature, and its distinction is due to its individuating accidents, the Divine Essence  still should possess accidents so that It can be distinct from other existents. However, this is not a correct view either. Therefore, as existence is neither of a generic nor of a specific nature, it is not part of the quiddities of things either, and things do not have a common quiddity. That is, the existences of things in the extra-mental world do not have a common generic or specific quiddity called `existence’. Therefore, it should be said that what is understood from the meanings of genus, species and differentia is that they pertain to the quiddities of things, and objective realities are not known by genus and differentia. In sum, according to this position, existences are unknown realities which are known only by their signs; otherwise, we cannot know the very objective reality of existence.’ It can be concluded that existences are distinct from one another with the totality of their essences.


A Criticism


In contrast, it can be said that the argument advanced for the above position is not sufficient to prove that which is claimed by its proponents. Because it can be argued from another perspective that existence is not a generic or specific reality that can be individuated by differentiae and accidents. Of course, it does not mean that the unity which is attributed to existence is invalid in any sense. Existence can have a unity different from generic or specific unity which is applied to quiddities and which is not negated based on this very argument in which we are involved now. In other words, in response to the view that if existences have a common aspect, it should be either genus or species, it can be said that there is another unity which is neither of a generic nor of a specific nature. It is a unity that is specific to the reality of existence and which is not relevant to quiddities. Quiddities either have a common species or genus. However, it is not correct to hold the view that if anything in common is supposed to be among existents, it is either of a specific or of a generic nature. There may be another kind of unity which can be different from the ones mentioned above.

The Gradation of Existence

The Position of Sadr al-muta`allihin


It is a position which Sadr al-muta`allihin (foremost among the theosophers) attributed to the ancient Persian philosophers, and then he adopted, proved and formulated it in a philosophical fashion. Of course, we are not concerned here with whether the attribution of this position to the Pahlavi philosophers is correct or not.15


According to Mulla Sadra, the reality of existence is a single reality, and this unity, viz. the unity of the reality of existence, as meant by him is such that it does not negate multiplicity but rather in the same way that existence possesses unity, which can be proven through demonstration, it also possesses an undeniable multiplicity from the philosophical point of view.16 That is to say, philosophically, it cannot be said that the existence of contingent existents is identical with the existence of the Necessary Being. All the existents are really multiple, but their multiplicity is not such that it is incompatible with unity and that it causes every existent to be different from another one. While existents are multiple, they also possess unity, but this unity is other than whatish, i.e. quidditive unity. It is a sort of unity which is specific to existence and which is called graded unity.


Two existents may also possess real unity at the same time that they are numerically two in the sense that their difference is by virtue of the difference of the stages and degrees of existence. When we consider only intense existence, we see that it is other than weak existence. When we consider weak existence, it is other than intense existence, but we come to see through a deep and comprehensive survey that weak existence is a level of strong existence and a mode of its modes and a ray of its rays, and it itself has no independence of its own.


There is one independent existence and existent in the true sense of the word, and it is the Divine Sacred Essence, and there is no independent existence and existent other than It, but it does not mean that there is no other existent absolutely. There are also other existents, but their existences are dependent ones.


Mulla Sadra likens the gradation of existence to light, of whose reality both intense and weak grades and stages partake. The light of the sun is truly light, and so is the light of a candle, and their difference is not due to anything other than the intensity and weakness of light. At one level, there is the light of the sun, and at the other, there is the light of the candle. As is the case with existence. The existence of the Necessary Being is other than the existence of man, and both are truly existents. However, the existence of the Necessary Being is an extremely intense level of existence, and the existence of man is a weak level of it.


Therefore, all the existents partake of existence itself, because all refute  non-existence. Man, who is created by God, exists, and he did not exist when He had not created him, and it cannot be said that he did not exist then, and he does not exist now. He is not nonexistent, so he is really existent, but it does not mean that his existence is totally distinct from the existence of God but rather the difference is in virtue of the various levels of existence. The Divine Essence is an independent Being, and other existences are relational (lit. copulative) ones. They are needy and their existence is the very relation.


In short, the distinguishing factor and the identifying factor of existents are the same, and this is the meaning of gradation.


Further Explanation


At this point, it should be explained that the analogy of light as other analogies serves just as an approximation. First, both a weak light and a strong light share the luminous nature of sensible light, but that which is shared is quiddity, that is, they are the individuals of a quiddity, and the application of quiddity to them  is of the sort of graduated universal, such as white. Whiteness is a concept, but whiteness in external reality consists of various degrees. Anyway, whiteness is a quiddity, and white is an accidental concept which is abstracted from this quiddity, viz. whiteness. As is the case with light. It is an accidental concept. Light is a qualitative accident of the sort of quiddity, and it consists of various individuals which differ in terms of intensity and weakness, and priority and posteriority like other graduated quiddirties. However, such is not the case with the reality of existence, because existence has no quiddity.


Second, intense light and weak light are not dependent on each other. A weak light is independently a light itself, and an intense light is also independently a light itself. The light of a candle is not related to the light of the sun, and the light of the sun is separate from the light of a candle. However, the gradation of existence is of a different nature. The gradation of existence is such that a level of existence subsists through another level in the sense that if there were no intense level, there would be no weak level either. One subsists through the other and not vice versa.


To use a more exact analogy, we can suppose that the level of a one watt light is contained within the level of a thousand watt light in that one watt light is dependent on a one thousand watt light, but light as used in this analogy is very different from existence to which it is likened, because a one thousand watt light is in fact composed of a thousand one-watt lights. However, most of the ancient philosophers thought that as light was an accident (arad), that is, as it cannot exist independent of matter, it is thus simple. Based on traditional physics, this example is not an improper one; however, based on modern physics, it has been proven that light is a substance (jawhar). That is, it can exist independent of matter. Furthermore, it consists of units of energy. That is, it consists of tiny packets called photons. Anyway, the example given is not an improper one for making it easier for the mind to understand.


Sadr al-muta`allihin on the Unity of Existence


In contrast to the Peripatetics who hold the realities of existence to be different, he advanced an argument: If all existences possessed distinct realities, and each existence were distinct in its entire essence from the other one, we would never be able to abstract a single concept from them, whereas we abstract the concept of existence and existent from them. This single concept is proof of the fact that all these realities have a common aspect from which we can abstract a single concept; otherwise distinct existences qua distinct cannot be the source of abstraction of a single concept qua single. If a single concept is abstracted from a number of things, the reason is that they possess a common aspect. If we abstract a single concept called man from among Zayd, `Amr and other human individuals, the reason is that there is a common aspect, which is being-man, that is, Zayd, `Amr and other human individuals possess human characteristics. In other words, man and cow are animals, although they are different realities, and that is because they possess a common aspect in that they are all animate, sensible, voluntary movers, and so on. With respect to this common aspect, the single concept of `animal’ can be abstracted from them; otherwise if they had no common aspect, we could not abstract a single concept totally or partially in respect of their essences. Finally, if there were no single source of abstraction, no single concept would be obtained unless it was a homonymous (i.e. equivocal) one, and in each case, then, it would have a special meaning. For instance, we call the sun, gold, fountain, and so on “ayn’’. They have something in common, but this sharing is an equivocal sharing; however, the concept of existence is not a homonymous (i.e. equivocal) one.


Therefore, according to Mulla Sadra, the concept of existence is a univocal one. For instance, in the propositions Zayd exists; God exists; and in all other instances, existence is used as a contradictory of non-existence.


In the perspective of Sadr al-muta`allihin, the disparity of existents is evident, and the multiplicity and plurality of existents is undeniable. Were it to be proved that these existents are multiple at the same time that they possess a kind of unity, it implies that a kind of unity should be proved which is not incompatible with disparity. In order to make it easier to understand, Mulla Sadra employs the term gradation (tashkik), which is inherent in graded concepts. First, he divides these concepts into two parts: uniform and graduated.


1. The Uniform Concept


A uniform concept is a universal concept which applies to all instances equally and uniformly without there being any priority or posteriority, intensity or weakness, deficiency or increase. For example, the universal concept of tree applies to two apple trees equally without there being any priority or posterity between them.


2. The Graduated Concept


Graduated concepts are those which apply to their instances in terms of priority and posteriority, intensity and weakness, deficiency and increase, like the concept of length which applies both to one meter and to the distance between the earth and the sun, while one is less long and the other longer. Or the concept of whiteness which applies both to the whiteness of paper and to the whiteness of snow, but the whitenesses of these two are different from each other. This kind of gradation is called general gradation. Gradation is of various kinds, but we are only concerned with two kinds of it: general and particular. As for general gradation, two individuals of a universal are independent of each other. For instance, the whiteness of snow together with the whiteness of paper are two whitenesses. However, gradation can be also taken to apply to two individuals, one of which is dependent on the other and which has no independence of its own. Gradation of this kind is called “gradation in a particular sense’’.17


If we maintain a kind of gradation in the reality of existence, whose criterion is intensity and weakness, which are not independent of each other but one is dependent on the other, in this assumption, then, the common aspect which obtains between these two degrees of intensity and weakness, one of which is independent and intense, and the other dependent and weak, is existence itself.


In other words, existence is one single reality possessed of various degrees in terms of intensity and weakness. That which differentiates these degrees is that which unites them. In other words, the cause of the diversity is exactly the very cause of identity.


Therefore, the identifying factor is existence, and the distinguishing factor of its degrees is intensity and weakness. For example, as regards  intense and weak light, intense light is only light, not light in addition to something else, and weak light is also light, not light in addition to darkness. Both are light, but they are different from each other in terms of intensity and weakness. This difference between them goes back to that which is the principle of identity and unity. This gradation is one in a specialized sense in which the identifying factor and the distinguishing one are of the very same root. In this regard, there occurs a kind of plurality and distinction, but it does not entail composition and lack of simplicity, because there is nothing else which can be mixed with existence. It is the very existence that is both intense and weak.


Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume something in common between two entities which does not impair their unity, and the argument of Avicenna that if there is something in common among existents, it should be either of a specific or generic nature is invalid. Because there is

a third kind of sharing (ishtirak) based on which the reality of existence acts as both the principle of unity and diversity among existents and thus does not result in composition. So, it can be rationally said that weak existence is composed of existence and weakness, but this is just a mental analysis, whereas  in the extra-mental world, there is nothing other than existence.



Up to this point, it has been proved that it is possible to assume a third kind of unity as mentioned above, but in order to prove its actualization, we should refer to a point that is proved in the section on cause and effect in al-Asfar in that an effect is a ray of the existence of cause and has no independence of its own, as, according to Sadr al-muta`allihin, it is the very relation to the cause. The existence of an effect in relation to its real cause, by which is meant the existence-giving cause but not the material and preparing causes, has no independence whatsoever, and it is the very relation to the cause but not in the sense that it is an independent thing that is related to another independent one, as in the domain of existence, there is a cause-effect relationship. Therefore all the contingent existents in relation to the Exalted Necessary Being, which is the source of emanation, are in such a state that their existence is the very relation. Therefore, the gradational difference which we have already discussed applies in this regard. The Necessary Being and the contingent being are both existences, but the existence of the Necessary Being possesses complete independence and is infinitely intense, while the existence of the contingent is very weak, but neither the Necessary Being nor the contingent being is anything other than existence. Therefore, it can be proven that such a gradation can obtain between the Necessary Being and the contingent being.



The Gist of Sadr al-muta`allihin’s Argument


Sadr al-muta`allihin advanced this argument for the main part of his contention. His contention is that both existence and existent are “one’’ and “many’’-a sort of metaphysical coincidentia oppositorium. Unity is multiplicity and multiplicity at the same time unity. That is, in one respect, they are one, as they share the act of existence (mawjudiyyah), and in another respect many, as the degrees of existence are multiple. Therefore, existence is a single reality possessing multiple degrees.


Thus, the main point which should be proved in opposition to the Peripatetics is that existence possesses a single reality, and we have already explained that existence is a single concept, and a single concept qua single is not abstracted from the multiple qua multiple; otherwise, it would imply that any concept could be abstracted from anything. If there were no criterion, the concept of man can be abstracted from stone, but such is not the case. There should be a common aspect, and the common aspect cannot be a quiddity, as quiddities are distinct from one another, and the Exalted Necessary Being, for instance, has no quiddity, so a single concept should be considered from a different point of view. This is a proof of the fact that all existences partake of the reality of existence.


This argument is controvertible, although Mulla Sadra considers it a cogent one, and his followers have adopted it.


A Criticism of Mulla Sadra’s Argument


There is a difference between whatish [i.e., quidditative] and secondary intelligible concepts. If we abstract a whatish concept from an object, it should be definitely abstracted in respect of an external object which is an instance of that concept, as its occurrence is external. For example, `man’ represents an existential limit which is attributed to an object in the extra-mental world, so that we say: Zayd is man. The occurrence of being-man to Zayd is in concreto, and in respect of the specific limits of this existence, his quiddity is abstracted from it. Therefore, these limits should existent in the extra-mental world even accidentally and should be different from other limits of existence from which another quiddity is abstracted. The examples which have been given are of this very kind. It is because of the selfsame existential limits of Zayd and `Amr that man is in common between them. As for the quiddity of animal, it is also in common between man and cow, because they both share a genus (i.e. being-animal) which is in common between them and which forms part of their existential limits, but such is not the case with the secondary philosophical intelligibles. The secondary philosophical intelligibles can never be abstracted in respect of their external occurrence, because the “occurrence’ happens in the mind. The common aspect, i.e. genus, is mentally posited.


There can be other instances of contradiction. For example, a single concept is abstracted from a number of things, while they have no common aspect.


The Muslim philosophers hold that the highest genera have no essential common aspect. Substance and various kinds of accidents have nothing in common, and all the identifying factors lead to one of the intelligibles. We abstract a concept called genus from these quiddities consisting of the generic quiddity of substance and the generic quiddity of the nine accidental categories. The question which can be raised is if the abstraction of this concept, i.e. genus, which is applied to all of them means that they possess something in common in the external world or it means that it is a particular aspect of them that is posited in the mind.


If it is said that genera have an external common instance, then they should be composite and they themselves should have another genus on the assumption that they are the genus of genera. Therefore, the concept of genus which is abstracted from them does not mean that they possess a common instance in the external world, because the assumption is that they do not possess one and are essentially distinct in their entirety. Therefore, the unity of such a concept does not imply that it has a common external instance.


It may be, then, asked why a single concept is abstracted. In response, it can be said that the concept of existence, according to Mulla Sadra, is one of the secondary philosophical intelligibles18 and represents an existential mode. If we assume that the external existence of an existent is entirely distinct from another existence and that they do not have a common aspect in terms of their existential modes in the external world either. Otherwise expressed, if it is assumed that objective realities are completely disparate and that they do not have a common aspect in terms of their existential modes, the mere abstraction of the concept of existence does not imply that the concept of existence can have an external instance in one case which completely corresponds to another one in another case, as the concept of existence is abstracted through a rational analysis. Although the concept of existence is not a purely subjective one, and its qualification happens in the extra-mental world, the unity of such a concept whose occurrence happens in the mind does not represent a common external instance.


In other words, if a concept were of the secondary philosophical intelligibles which did not have an external instance, neither does its unity indicate a unity common among the sources of its abstraction nor does its multiplicity indicate their multiplicity, as the concept of unity, that is the concept which is of the sort of the secondary intelligibles, does not imply having external common instances. For example, the concept of quiddity is both applied to substance and to the nine divisions of accident, though it is a single concept and indicates an aspect of unity. However, it does not mean that its aspect of unity is external and that substance and accident have a common instance in the external world, as they are entirely disparate quiddities. So, when we perceive that the answer to the question asked about `substances’ is `substance’, and the answer to the question about `accidents’ is `accident’, we rationally conclude that they have a common aspect which is itself the very answer to the question asked about `What is it?’, therefore they are all quiddities.


As for the concept of accident, it is not a genus, since the Muslim philosophers are unanimously agreed that the accidental categories are the highest genera and do not consider the concept of accident a common genus. Quantity and quality and other accidental categories are totally and essentially disparate from one another. The concept of accident does not indicate that quantity and quality have a common aspect in the extra-mental world. It is the intellect that abstracts the single concept of accident, and since quantity and quality are both are accidents, they need a substratum. In fine, the accidental categories are abstracted by the intellect, and it does not imply that they have a common aspect in the external world.19


The opposite is also true. Sometimes, numerous concepts are abstracted from a single simple reality without any multiplicity whatsoever. The best example is the Divine Necessary Essence, which is a Simple Essence. There is no sort of multiplicity, even rational multiplicity conceivable in the Divine Essence. That is, the Essence of the Necessary Being cannot be divided into quiddity and existence either, therefore it is said that the Necessary Being has no quiddity, but the concepts of existence, necessity, oneness, knowledge, power, life and other attributes are abstracted from that essence, and nothing other than the Divine Essence is considered for the abstraction of these concepts.


With respect to the attributes of Divine action, it can be said that the relation of God with a specific act is considered, whereas the attributes of the Essence are abstracted from the Essence of the Necessary Being without considering anything else. The attributes of the Necessary Being are multiple concepts which are abstracted from a single reality, but this abstraction, which is the function of the intellect, indicates no multiplicity whatsoever with respect to the Divine Essence in the extra-mental world. The multiplicity of concepts is due to the multiplicity of the viewpoints of the intellect. Therefore, in the same way that the multiplicity of concepts does not indicate the multiplicity of the instances of these concepts in the extra-mental world, its unity doe not indicate an objective common aspect of their instances.


The plurality and unity of secondary intelligibles is subject to the unity and plurality of the viewpoints of the intellect, not to real and external unity and plurality.


Therefore, if a single concept called existence is abstracted from among multiple objects, it does not imply that its instance has an objective common aspect, as existence, according to the view of Mulla Sadra, is of the sort of the secondary philosophical intelligibles. Therefore, this argument is completely rejected, because neither does the unity of the secondary concepts indicate the unity of the instances nor does their multiplicity indicate multiplicity.  It is simply because the occurrence of these concepts is mental, whereas the occurrence of the primary intelligibles is external. Therefore their unity indicates unity in the external world just as their multiplicity indicates multiplicity in the external world. As the occurrence of the secondary philosophical intelligibles is mental, it is abstracted from different points of view. Neither does their unity indicate external unity nor does their multiplicity indicate external multiplicity.


Therefore, with respect to the reality of existence, according to Sadra, there is a unity among multiple existences which is not incompatible with their multiplicity. That is a graded unity in that the reality of existence is a single graded reality. All creatures in relation to their own creating causes, and ultimately to the Sacred Divine Essence are the very relation and dependence.  With respect to their own levels, they differ in terms of intensity and weaknesses, priority and posteriority, and some of them are relatively independent of some others, but they are the very relation and dependence vis-a-vis the Divine Essence, who is absolutely independent.


Obviously, adopting the thesis of the gradation of existence does not mean that any existence has such a relation with another one. Therefore, it is necessary that there be a fifth position.


The Fifth Position


Wherever there is a causal or a cause-effect relationship in the extra-mental world, there is a gradation. All the existents have such a relation with the Necessary Being. However, as for the effects which are horizontally independent of one another and among which there is no intensity or weakness, they are completely distinct from one another irrespective of whether a single quiddity applies to them and they may be two individuals of the same quiddity, such as two drops of water or their quiddities may be different from one another, such as cow and donkey, but existences in relation to their real cause are existentially graded, though they are different in terms of their quiddities, as there is a causal relationship among them.


Of course, maintaining a fifth position is possible if we come to hold that the words of Mulla Sadra apparently imply that there is a gradational difference among all existences even where there is no causal relation. If that is what he means, then there will be no need for a fifth position.


The Influence of Ibn `Arabi on Mulla Sadra


There is no doubt that existence, in Mulla Sadra’s view, is a single graded reality in a specialized sense, because he explicitly states this view in certain chapters of al-Asfar20. However, it is somewhat disputable whether gradation from his point of view is applied to the reality of existence itself or to its manifestations.


Most of his words and expressions in al-Asfar and in some of his other works seem to indicate that existence is graded in its manifestations. He most often asserts that the Necessary Being is the reality of existence itself and the contingent beings are the loci of manifestation or self-disclosure of Its Being as he says:


In the same way that God granted me success by His Grace and Mercy in becoming aware of the everlasting non-existence and eternal unreality of contingent quiddities and metaphorical entities, He also guided me through the luminous demonstration deriving from the Throne to the straight path in that existent and existence are specific to the Single Individual Reality, Who is Unique in His being the Real Existent and Who has no like in the extrta-mental world, and there is no nothing in the world of being save He, and whatever is visible in the world of being is indeed other than the Necessarily Worshipped One and is a necessary concomitant of His Essence and a manifestation of His Qualities, which are indeed identical to His Essence as the mouthpiece [i.e., Ibn `Arabi] of some of the gnostics stated it explicitly and said:` What is other than the Real or that which is called the world is, in relation to God, the Exalted, like the shadow to a person, therefore it is the shadow of God… All we perceive is but the being of the Real within the essences of contingent beings, so that with reference to the Ipseity (huwiyyah) of the Real, it is Its being, whereas with respect to the variety of its forms, it is the essences of contingent beings, which are unreal in essence as understood and abstracted through speculative reason and the sense powers. Just as it is always called a shadow by reason of the variety of forms, so is it always called the world and “other than the Real’’. If what I say is true, the world is, then, illusory and has not a real existence21, and this is an account of that which is held by the divine gnostics and the spiritually realized saints.22


Elsewhere in the Asfar, he says:


The gnostics have agreed on applying the absolute existence and determined existence to that which is not commonly used among the people of speculation [i.e., the philosophers]. Verily, existence from the perspective of the gnostics consists in being that which is not limited to [the limit of] a determined entity and to a specific limit, and in contrast to it, determined existence consists of such (existents) as humans, the planet, the soul, and intellect. Therefore, absolute existence embraces all things in its simplicity, and thus it is the agent (fa’il) of every determined existence and its perfection and the Origin of every excellence to which it is more entitled than that which derives its existence from the Origin. Therefore, the Origin of all things and of their effusion should be itself all things at a higher and loftier level as is the case with intensive blackness in which are found all weak limits of blackness whose levels are lower than that of that intensive blackness in a most simple manner. [Also] as is the case with the great quantity in which are found all the quantities which are less than it in respect of their quantitative nature, not in respect of their determinations having the nature of non-existence, such as the extremities [of a line]. Therefore, a single line which is, for instance, ten meters long, includes one, two, and nine meters of it in a continuous inclusive manner. Though it does not include their extremities [i.e. limits]

which have the nature of non-existence and which occur after their separation from that all-inclusive existence, and those extremities having the nature of non-existence are not intrinsic to the nature of the line which is the absolute length, which, even if assumed to be the existence of an infinite line, would be [considered] more appropriate and worthier, because it is a line [consisting of] these limited lines, and surely the extremities having the nature of non-existence are intrinsic to the nature of these imperfect limitations, not in respect of their linear nature but in respect of the imperfections and deficiencies which are their concomitants. As is the case with all-intensive blackness and its inclusion of the blacknesses which are of a lower degree than it. The same is true of intensive heat and its inclusion of weak heat. The same holds true of existence itself and the encompassment of the Necessary all-comprehensive existence than which nothing is more complete by analogy with the determined existents which are limited to certain limits. The non-existences and imperfections included in it are extrinsic to the reality of the absolute existence and intrinsic to determined existence.23




As a summary of the foregoing, we can say that the issue of the unity and multiplicity of existence which is one of the oldest philosophical issues has passed through a harmonious path of development both in philosophy and gnosis. Essentially, four major and remarkable theories have been put forward in this regard:


  1. The extreme individual unity of existence


  1. The transcendent unity of existence


  1. The pure multiplicity of existence


  1. The graded unity and multiplicity of existence


Some of the Sufis maintain that pure unity requires that there should be no multiplicity at all in the world, therefore, they tended towards a naïve unity of existence and consider all the multiplicities to be illusory. The naivety of this theory is due to the fact that they disregard the observable multiplicity of existence altogether, and without an interpretation of their data of consciousness or a proof, they tended towards a pure individual unity and sacrificed multiplicity for the sake of unity.


The gnostics who are attracted  to Unity and who also value the data of consciousness and rational proof regard as perfect the reconciliation between these two realities. However, they were not negligent of other data other than inner witnessings. Therefore, they established theoretical gnosis as a cosmological system based on mystical unveiling and reason, and thus, they interpreted the world.


Even, in certain cases, they recognize reason as the arbiter or criterion for evaluating inner witnessings. Since love plays a pivotal role in gnosis, and since love revolves around Unity and knows no duality, from the perspective of a gnostic, the unity of existence is imperative.


The question is that either multiplicity cannot be absolutely put forward or it should be interpreted in such a manner as not to damage unity. Thus, the gnostics interpreted multiplicity and at most they regard multiplicities as the loci of manifestations and modes of the One in which they are annihilated.


However, philosophy like any other exoteric science starts from multiplicity, and multiplicity is of an observable nature and confirmed by reason and revelation. If there is a unity, it is not observable but rather it is hidden and should be extracted from within multiplicity. This is not an easy task. Therefore, most of the ancient philosophers consider existence to be purely multiple and disparate realities. According to the Peripatetics, that is, the followers of Aristotle, the application of the single concept of existence to disparate existents does not indicate, in the least, the commonality of existential realities. However, philosophy, during its maturity could not remain faithful to this common view. Especially, because of its contiguity to gnosis, while preserving the multiplicity of the extra-mental world, it succeeded in finding a strand of unity in multiplicity, whose subsistence depends upon unity. This is that which was actualized in the philosophy of Mulla Sadra. Without disregarding multiplicity, he founded the most magnificent system of the unity of existence. Not only did he reconcile unity and multiplicity which were always opposed to each other but rather he proved that they are both identical with each other and are a single reality. In this way, we see that how gnosis and philosophy came closer to each other. This proximity reaches the zenith of its unity through Mulla Sadra in his discussion of causality.




The unity of existence in Islamic philosophy is other than the unity of existence in Islamic gnosis. There is a unity of existence which is maintained by Muhyidin ibn `Arabi, which is not compatible either with the multiplicity of existence or with the multiplicity of existents but rather he maintains the unity of existence and existent and considers the reality of existence to be a single one. The difference between existence and existent is one between the source of derivation and the derivative, such as knowledge and the knower or knowledge and object of knowledge. In fact, he considers the multiple existing things such as planets, angels, heaven, earth and so on to be of a subjective, metaphorical or similative nature24, and according to the tasting of theosophy, as already explained, the multiple existents are metaphorically related to the real existence and existent; otherwise there is no more than one real existence and existent in the same way that when we call someone perfumer or date-seller, it does not mean that his existence consists in date but rather it means that he is in a sense related to the date even if he sells dates. Selling dates means being, in a metaphorical sense, related to dates; otherwise the date-seller is in himself simply a man not a date. Therefore, in the same way that the date-seller is metaphorically related to the date, the existent other than God is also metaphorically but not really related to the reality of existence. This point can be illustrated by giving an example. In the same way that a squinting eye sees a second image as imaginary and unreal, we also see all the multiple existents as illusion and imagination. This is the true meaning of the gnostic unity of existence as proposed by Muhyi al-Din Ibn `Arabi , and this is what he means by the unity of existence.25 This may be one of the Islamic commentaries upon the thesis of Parmenides26 whom Socrates met in his youth in Athens, and it is he who is the founder of the unity of existence.


Within the system of Islamic thought, the view of Muhyi al-Din Ibn `Arabi can also be considered to be outside the domain of philosophy, because philosophy is based upon the assumption of a sort of multiplicity, which can be minimally illustrated by the triad of knowledge, the knower and the known, which is itself a logical necessity. In logic and philosophy, we have to make a distinction between the knower and the known so that we can carry out our enquiries. We think as thinking beings, and our thinking is directed at something. In general, knowledge involves both the knower and the known, both of which are not the same. Therefore, we cannot acquiesce in the gnostic view of Muhyi al-Din from the philosophical point of view. Thus, when we start thinking, we must distinguish that which we think about from both our existence and from the existence of our knowledge, and this mode of thought is different from the perspective of Muhyi al-Din, which is based on the absolute unity of existence. On the other hand, we cannot and do not wish to abandon the philosophical unity of existence. Therefore, Sadr al-Din Shirazi found a solution to this problem, which is `unity in multiplicity and multiplicity in the unity of existence’. According to him, that type of multiplicity that is not inconsistent with unity at all is acceptable. That is to say, at the same time that we can maintain the unity of existence, we can accept a multiplicity which not only is not inconsistent with unity but it also corroborates it. Of course, Muhyi al-Din does not accept this type of multiplicity either. However, paradoxically, as already explained, Mulla Sadra27 is also influenced by the gnostic unity of existence from the perspective of Ibn `Arabi.28




1. On Wahdat al-wujud, see also Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Philosophy from its Origin to the Present Day, New York: SUNY, 2006, pp. 74-84; See also Toshihiko Izutsu, the Concept and Reality of Existence, Tokyo: Keio, 1971, pp. 35-55, and William Chittick, Imaginal Worlds, New York: SUNY, 1994, pp. 15-29, and Sayyid Muhammad Kazim `Assar, Wahdat-i wujud wa bada’, Tehran, 1350 (A.H. solar), part I.


2. See See also Toshihiko Izutsu, op. cit., pp. 132-133, and Sayyid Jalal al-Din Ashtiyani, Hasti az Nazar-i falasafah wa irfan, Qum: Bustan-i Kitab, 1386 (A.H. solar), pp. 23-31.


3. See Mulla Sadra, Kitab al-Masha`ir (Le Livre de Penetrations Metaphysiques) edited and translated by Henry Corbin, Tehran/Paris, 1964, pp. 8-9.


4. See Sabziwari, Hajji Mulla Hadi, Sharhi-i Manzumah. Trans. M. Mohaghegh&T. Izutsu, The Metaphysics of Sabzavari, Tehran, Iran University Press, 1983, pp. 31-32 and Masha`ir, p. 6. See also, Ibn Sina, al-Shifa, Ilahiyyat, Chapter 5, pp. 39-40.


5. See Sharh al-Mawaqif, vol. 2, pp. 127 and 113, and Sharh al-Maqasid, vol. 1, p. 307.


6. See Shirazi, Sadra al-Din Muhammad, (Mulla Sadra) al-Hikmah al-muta`aliyah fi’l-asfar al-`aqliyyat al-arba`ah

(The Transcendent Theosophy concerning the Four Intellectual Journeys of the Soul), vol. 1, Ed. Muhammad Rida al-Mudaffar,  Beirut, Dar al-Ihya wa’l-Turath, 1410 A.H./1990A.D., p. 45


7. Kashf al-murad fi sharh-i Tajrid al-i`tiqad edited and annotated by Hasan-zadah Amuli, Mu’assisah al-Nashr al-Islami, 1427 (A.H. lunar), p. 34

8. ibid., p. 34


9. See Izutsu, op. cit., 134-137.


10. See Shaykh Muhammad Taqi Amuli, Durar al-fawa’id, Mua’ssisah Isma’iliyan, 1377 (A.H. lunar), pp. 87-94. See also Izutsu, op.cit., p. 135.


11. Mulla Sadra, op.cit., vol. 1, pp. 71-74, and 251, and vol. 6, p. 63, and Allamah Tabataba’i, Nihayat al-Hikmah edited and annotated by `Abbas `Ali al-Zari`i al-Sabziwari, Mu’assisah al-Nashr al-Islami, 1417 (A.H. lunar), p. 17.


12. All the major Muslim philosophers, such as Ibn Sina, al-Farabi, Nasir al-Tusi maintained the real fundamentality (asalah) of existence. See Ashtiyani, ibid., p. 81, and Mulla Sadra, Kitab al-Masha`ir, pp. 60 and 61.


13. See Ibn Sina, al-Shifa, Ilahiyyat, chapter 3, pp. 327-330.


14. See Qub al-Din al-Shirazi, Sharh Hikmat al-Ishraq, lithographed edition, Qum, Bidar Publications, pp. 303 and 304, Mulla Sadra, op. cit., vol. 1, pp. 108, 427, 432, and 433.


15. See Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, vol. I, pp. 35-37 and 108-109. See also al-Suhrawardi, Majmu`ay-i musannafat-i Shaykh Ishraq edited by Henry Corbin, Tehran, Mua’ssisah Mutala`at wa Tahqiqat-i farhangi, second edition, 1372 (A.H. solar), vol. II, pp. 10, 11, 107 and 108. See also Ashtiyani, op. cit., pp. 199-201.


16. See Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, vol. I, pp. 49 and 69-71.


17. See al-Tabataba’i, Nihayat al-hikmah, pp. 25-26


18. See Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, vol. I, pp. 34-37


19. Sharh-i Ghur al-Fara’id or Sharh-i Manzumah Part one: Metaphysics, Arabic text and commentaries, edited with English and Persian introduction and Arabic-English glossary by M. Mohaghegh and T. Izutsu, Tehran, 1969, Second Edition 1981, pp. 176-178.


20. See Mulla Sadra, vol. I., pp. 49, and 19-71.


21. See Ibn `Arabi, Fusus al-hikam, annotated by Abu’l-`Ala’ `Afifi, Dar al-kutub al-`Arabi, 1398 (A. H. lunar), second edition, p. 103. See also S. J. Ashtiyani, Sharh-i fusus al-hikam, Tehran, Shirkat-i intisharat-`ilmi wa farhangi, 1375 (A. H. solar), pp. 691-698.


22. See Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, vol. 2, pp. 292-294.


23. See Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, vol. 6, pp. 116 and 117. For further details

on the various positions on wahdat al-wujud, see Hamzah Fanari, Misbah

al-uns, Tehran, 1363 (A. H. solar), second edition, pp. 52-64 and 247; Ibn

Turkah Isfahani, Tamhid al-qawai’d, Tehran, 1360 (A. H. 1360), pp. 35-

48, 59ff. and 115; Naqd al-nusus fi sharh naqsh al-fusus, Tehran, 1370

(A. H. solar), second edition, pp. 29-30; Muhammad Mahdi Naraqi,

Qurrat al-`uyun, Tehran, 1357 (A. H. solar), pp. 59-63.


24. For instance, Rumi says: We and our existences are nonexistences. Thou are Absolute Existence showing Thyself as perishable things. (M I 602-603). See William Chittick, the Sufi Path of Love, Albany, SUNY, 1983, pp. 23-25.


25. See Toshihiko Izutsu, Sufism and Taoism, 1983, pp. 7-22.


26. See R. J. Hollingdale, Western Philosophy, an Introduction, London, 1993, p. 73. Also, see Murtada Mutahhari, sharh-i mabsut-i manzumah, Tehran, Intisharat-i hikmah, 1404 (AH lunar), vol. i, pp. 210-215. Also, see S. H. Nasr, op. cit., 2006, p. 303n9.


27. As for Sadr al-Din Shirazi (Mulla Sadra) see, for example, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Sadr al-Din Shirazi and His Transcendent Theosophy, Tehran: Iranian Academy of Philosophy, 1978, and Fazlur Rahman, The Philosophy of Mulla Sadra, Albany: State University of New York Press (SUNY) , 1975.


28. On Ibn `Arabi in general, see S. H. Nasr, Three Muslim Sages, chapter 3, and Izutsu, op. cit., pp. 7ff.

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