Living Islam - Islamic Tradition





The Great Chain of Consciousness

Do All Things Possess Awareness?

Mohammed Rustom

Now, what would a philosophical argument that advances the notion of the great chain of being look like?

This [i.e. what is mentioned in the original text] is true of all things that exist: each is possible in itself and necessary through other simultaneously existing, sustaining causes. If all things are part of an essentially ordered series of causes, then what is the ultimate cause of this series? It is impossible to have an infinite regress of essential causes because there cannot be derived things that exist that themselves are ultimately underived.
This, then, means there is a cause that is neither possible in itself nor necessary through another; rather, it is necessary in itself and is the cause of all other causes. That which is necessary in itself must exist, and do so without a cause because it is the cause of all other causes. All other things ultimately depend upon it for their existence. This being is referred to as the Necessary Being (wājib al-wujūd)—namely God—and is akin to Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover.

An answer to this objection [re: the word 'being' - mentioned in the original text] is that what we actually witness are modes of being, and being in its deployment (al-wujūd al-munbasiţ) has various grades not only when it is predicated of a particular subject, but in its reality itself. In this view, being remains a term that has both gradations and actual unity. Thus, it is a term that applies to God and to everything else (synonymy), but in varying degrees of its meaning; the cosmos therefore consists of the various degrees of intensity and diminution of being (modes of being).

Another way of framing this—because being is identified with light by some major schools of Islamic metaphysics—is to say that all things are rays of God’s light, albeit some rays being stronger than others. The reality of being, however, is identified as the aspect of God that does not manifest Itself, or what is called in Islamic philosophy “absolutely unconditioned being” (wujūd lā bi-sharţ maqsamī). It is as if the sun as such never manifests itself but only its rays do. Another term for being in its state of non-manifestation is “essence of exclusive oneness” (al-dhāt al-aĥadiyyah).

… [And] because the order of time, change, and causation is only related to being when It manifests, change is never introduced into the divine nature. As the sage Maĥmūd Shabistarī (d. 740/1339) puts it in his Persian metaphysical poem The Rosegarden of Mystery (Gulshan-i rāz),

“Since God’s Light neither moves nor transforms,

It is not affected by alteration and change.”

“There is a deep connection between being, finding/consciousness, and bliss: that which is “finds” Itself, and, through this Self-awareness (consciousness), is in bliss.”

Where Existence and Consciousness Meet

Another aspect of the term wujūd, which we have been translating as “existence” and “being,” is that from the root of this word we get terms such as “finding/consciousness” (wijdān) and “joy” or “bliss” (wajd). This is why Ibn ʿArabī (d. 638/1240) defines wujūd as “finding God in ecstasy.” We can therefore argue that  there is a deep connection between being, finding/consciousness, and bliss: that which is “finds” Itself, and, through this Self-awareness (consciousness), is in bliss. Some important understandings about reality emerge from this argument: one is that the cosmos is the theater of God’s manifestation and displays the different modes of being in which God sees Himself objectively rather than purely subjectively.

This [re: 'being' having both gradations & actual unity - as mentioned in the original text] explains why Afđal al-Dīn Kāshānī (d. 606/1210) links existence with awareness when he says, “The seed of existence is awareness, and its fruit is also awareness.”

That many if not most Muslim metaphysicians view all things, even seemingly inanimate ones, as alive should be taken quite literally. That is to say that every element in the cosmos, from stones to plants and everything in between, are living beings, the same as are animals. Everything that is part of the great chain of consciousness is an alive, aware, and conscious agent. Ibn ʿArabī offers a very clear explanation of this point:

The name Alive [al-Ĥayy] is an essential name of God—glory be to Him! Therefore, nothing can emerge from Him but living things. Hence, all of the cosmos is alive, for indeed the nonexistence of life, or the existence in the cosmos of an existent thing that is not alive, has no divine support, whereas every contingent thing must have a support. So, what you consider to be inanimate is in fact alive.

Consciousness is the root of all things, and pervades all of reality. The more real a thing is, the more consciousness it has. God, who is Supreme Consciousness, is the most real, whereas beings lower than God have a share of consciousness commensurate to their cosmic rank and level. A conscious person is therefore more conscious than a tree, but a tree is more conscious than a rock. This is tantamount to saying that since God is absolute awareness and life, all else derives its relative awareness and life from Him. 

Consciousness as a Path to God

The great chain of consciousness allows us to discern the multiple orders of consciousness that result from the manifestation of the Supreme Consciousness. This can lead to a gradual awakening in an individual to not only the reality of the abstract concept of being, but also to the concrete and all-pervading reality of consciousness.

Thus, he who does not have knowledge of self, his self does not have existence, since the self’s existence is identical with light, presence, and awareness (shuʿūr).

“Between the lover and Beloved there is no barrier.

Ĥāfiż, you yourself are the veil. So lift what stands in between!”