Those pre-eminent Sufis who founded the doctrine of the "unity of existence" [wahdat al-wujud] never intended by this term the universally predicated existence which is conceived by the mind. For such an existence is but an accident among others occurring in association with the realities of things. That is to say, these realities are the substance [jawhar], whereas that existence which is conceived by the mind, the universally predicated existence, is but an accident associated with them.
Rather, what these pre-eminent figures have alluded to is an existence compared to which the realities of all things are mere accidents. By this is intended an existence that is pre-eternal [qadim] whilst all other things are contingent [hadith]. Thus, the existence to which they refer is that ineffable Reality whereby all things are realized, or, in other words, by virtue of which all things subsist, but which itself remaineth self-subsistent above the heavens and the earth. The words "He is the Ever-Living, the Self-Subsistent" [Qur'an 2:255 and 3:2] bear witness to the truth of this utterance. And since that existence whereby all things are realized is one, there is "unity of existence."
The generality of the Sufis, however, conceive of that ineffable Reality as having resolved itself [hulul] into countless forms, as hath been said:
The sea hath ever been the sea.
And all contingent things its waves and forms
This world resembleth ice, and Thee
Thou art the water at its very source.
In other words, although that ineffable Reality defieth all description, they found themselves obliged to describe it, and hence termed it "existence." In brief, the generality of the Sufis hold that the existence which is above all description and beyond all understanding is like unto the sea, and the realities of all things are even as its waves. Although the waves continually ebb and flow, the sea remaineth ever the same and unchanged.
But in the eyes of the people of Truth, the Baha'is, that unseen and unknowable Being is like unto the sun, which hath dawned above all things and from whose rays all creatures, whether mineral, plant, animal, or human, obtain illumination. That is to say, its effulgent rays shine upon them all and they, in turn, reflect faithfully its light. Thus, if thou dost gaze upon the stone, the earth, the plant, the animal, and man, thou wilt find them one and all to be partaking of the bounty of the sun. In like manner, although the realities of all created things are the recipients of the bounty of the Daystar of Truth, the latter doth not descend from its heights of holiness and sanctity, nor doth it resolve itself into contingent beings. "No thing is there but that it containeth a sign betokening His oneness."[Attributed to Abu'l-'Atahiyah]
In sum, the generality of the mystics imagine that existence is limited to two conditions: God [al-haqq] and creation. They believe God to be the inner reality of all things and creation to be the outward appearance thereof. The people of Truth, however, recognize three realms of existence: God, Command (which is the Primal Will), and creation. The Primal Will, which is the realm of Command, is the inner reality of all things, and all beings are therefore the manifestations of the Divine Will, not the manifestations of the Divine Essence and Reality itself. "His are the realms of Command and creation." [Qur'an 7:54]
As to the station of the Godhead, it is exalted above and sanctified beyond the understanding of all created things, how much more above resolving itself into their realities! His Holiness the Báb (may my life be a sacrifice unto Him) hath stated that the meaning of the verse "The sea hath ever been the sea, and all contingent things its waves and forms" is fulfilled in the Primal Will, not in the Divine Essence.
The generality of the Sufis venture even to imagine that ineffable Reality to be like the number "one," and all creation to constitute the repetitions thereof. Thus, "one" hath repeated itself and produced "two," hath repeated itself twice and produced "three," and so on for all numbers. Furthermore, numbers are a matter of convention: though they are fixed [thabit] [in the mind], they have no objective existence.
As to the "fixed archetypes" ['ayan thabita] spoken of by the mystics, the argument is this: Numbers, although fixed, have no definite existence and are a mere convention. As they say: "East and west, north and south, possess a fixed character, yet they have no objective existence. Likewise, the fixed archetypes are the forms of God's knowledge: they have a fixed character, but have not inhaled even a breath of real existence." God forbid that it should be so! Were such conceptions to be held, the Eternal would become the contingent, and the contingent the Eternal, and the universal Reality would be compelled to descend and resolve itself into infinite forms in the realities of all things. Whereas ascent and descent, egress and regress, dissolution and decline, composition and commingling are among the characteristics of material bodies. Even incorporeal things are freed and sanctified above such imaginings, how much more than that universal Reality! The aforementioned attributes are indeed those of corporeal, not of incorporeal things.
In brief, the pre-eminent Sufis mean by "existence" that through which all things are realized, and which is one, unknown in its attributes, unseen, inaccessible, and severed from all human understanding. But even then, they believe in two stations: God and creation; and they further claim that God Himself hath two stations: that of sanctity and transcendence [tanzih] ("Nothing is like unto Him" [Qur'an 42:11], and that of similarity and resemblance [tashbih] ("He is the Hearing, the Knowing" [See, for example, Qur'an 5:76, 26:220, and 44:6]. Thus Rumi saith:
O Traceless One of Myriad Ways!
Those who confound Thy signs with Thee
And those who espouse Thy unity
Thou dost alike amaze.
Thou dost one day the former make
To recognize Thy oneness, while
On another, with amazement, Thou
The latter's heart dost shake.
Yet in Thine Essence Thou art not
Alike to this or that; to each
Thou standest far beyond the reach
Of mortal mind and thought.
Thus Hasan's father in his rapture
Of Thy contemplation born
Doth call to Thee: "O young of years!
O delicate of form!" [Mathnavi 2:55, 57-59]
His meaning, in brief, is this: Thou hast two manifestations [tajalli]: one that entaileth an intermediary, and one that admitteth of none. When, unintermediated by Thy mirrors, Thou revealest Thyself unto one who is wont to compare Thee to Thy creation, Thou makest him a believer in Thy transcendent unity. And when Thou revealest Thyself, through the intermediary of Thy mirrors, unto a believer in Thy unity, Thou inclinest him to comparison, in such wise that he addresseth Thee saying: "O young of yeas! O delicate of form!"
The truth, however, is that the reality of that sanctified Essence can in no wise descend into the realm of creation. For him there is no egress or regress, no descent or dissolution, no composition or commingling; only infinite transcendence. He is even as the sun whose rays shine upon all earthly beings. All things are invigorated and made visible by Him, and reflect His light, whilst He remaineth, in the heights of holiness, exalted above and sanctified beyond all conditions, determinations, and distinctions, even beyond the very comprehension of His creatures. Rather it is the Primal Will, which consisteth of the radiance and bounties of that Sun, that causeth the manifestation, appearance, and visibility of all beings. "This is the truth, and naught lieth beyond the truth but error." [Cf. Qur'an 10:32]
The Glory of Glories rest upon thee.
27 October 1919
(Published in "The Journal of Baha'i Studies, Vol. 11, Number 3/4, September-December 2001)