The Doctrine of the Perfect Man (Al-Insan al-Kamil) and its Significance Today

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By Anisah Bagasra
Anisah Bagasra MA, is a Instructor of Psychology, Claflin University Orangeburg, South Carolina. She is a contributing Editor of  ISRA News Nexus™ and a regular speaker at ISRA events.

We often hear the term Perfect Man used to describe The Prophet Muhammad (SAW), but most of us don’t know where the term originates and what it really means. The goal of my talk is to explore a few major points regarding this doctrine, specifically: what the doctrine of the perfect man is, what it tells us regarding our relationship with God and the Prophet, and what it tells us about ourselves.

What is the Doctrine of the Perfect Man?

The phrase Perfect Man, is often said to have first been used by Ibn Arabi, though the concept of the Perfect Man is much older, possibly going back to the origins of Sufism, as the doctrine is integral to much Sufi belief and practice. The Doctrine of the Universal Man” (al-Insan-al-Kamil) states that the primordial, archetypal man embodies within him all the divine attributes of God, and man has essentially fallen from this perfect state (see Nicholson, 1984), which has resulted in man’s separation from His Creator. This separation begins with the theological concept of Adam’s fall from Paradise. Reflection on this separation led to the Sufi development of the Doctrine of the Universal Man (al-Insan al-Kamil). The doctrine contends that the universal, primordial, archetypal man which was "Adam” before the fall, was in touch with the creator and vicegerent on earth. Sufis believe that all people have the potential to regain this perfect primordial state. Ibn Arabi, when writing about the Perfect man in his thirteenth century writings used 22 terms to describe the same thing as insa al-kamil, such as the reality of realities, the reality of Mohammad, the Vicegerent, God’s representative, and the Pole.

Thus, the Perfect Man can be defined as a person who has fully realized his essential oneness with the Divine Being, God. Those who achieve this level of the Perfect Man are usually called awliya (translated as friend of God) or saint.

Chittick and Murata (1994), in their book Vision of Islam explain the basis of Sufism and the goal of Sufism in a way that encapsulates the above concepts, saying, “To be fully human is to actualize the divine form. In order to achieve this, Sufis follow the Sunna of the Prophet and seek to embody the Koran. They want the Koran to be their character, just as it was the Prophet’s character” (p. 304).

What does the doctrine tell us about our relationship to God?

The doctrine of the Perfect Man influences our concept of God and our relationship to Him because we no longer view God as remote and inaccessible. Through this doctrine it is established that we contain within ourselves a reflection of the divine qualities and characteristics. The doctrine can bring us closer to understanding God through an understanding of His qualities, though we must always realize that there is a distinction between divine and human nature. Human beings derive their existence from God and subsist through God. The divine attributes of God that human beings must try to emulate are typically broken down into four categories: Attributes of Beauty, attributes of Majesty, attributes of Perfection and attributes of the Essence. When a human being becomes a Perfect Man he reflects all the Divine attributes. Those who achieve this level are sometimes called the Preserver of the Universe. The attributes of God are aspects in which God reveals to human beings Himself.

The divine names and attributes (asma al-husna) are derived from the Quran. These attributes are called the most beautiful names, and the Prophet mentioned in a hadith that God has ninety-nine names, though some say this number should not be taken too literally, as there are more than 99 attributes in the Quran that could be interpreted as names of God. Common names and attributes in the Quran include Merciful,

Compassionate, Desiring, Powerful, Creator, Forgiver, and Loving.

What does the doctrine tell us about our relationship to the Prophet Muhammad?

For Muslims the primary example of the Perfect Man is the Prophet Muhammad. Sufis believe that if they follow the example of the Prophet closely, then perhaps they can reach the level of spiritual enlightenment which Muhammad possessed. Sufis believe that prophets and saints have been able to achieve a higher level closer to their original nearness to God in this life and are able to regain the perfect state that man fell from. Thus, they turn to Muhammad as a prime example and hope to achieve the same level.

Prophet Muhammad is the ideal leader and it is the duty of every Muslim to emulate him. The Prophet Muhammad is a model of correct attitude and behavior as described to us in the Quran, as he is considered the living example of the Quran. Our relationship to the Prophet, therefore, according to the doctrine of the Perfect Man is as a teacher and student. Thus anyone trying to achieve a Perfect level should closely examine the life and actions of the Prophet. The Prophet’s life has been recorded better than that of any other human being who has achieved the state of Perfect Man, therefore he is the best model of the spiritual life.

What does the doctrine tell us about human behavior?

The doctrine of the Perfect Man is closely tied to the development of Sufi psychology, known as the "Sufi science of the soul." The basic belief of Sufis is that the separation of man from his creator is the origin of suffering and the basis of all anxiety. Ajmal (1991), in an essay on Sufi psychology elaborates, “The Islamic tradition points out that the origin of every soul is paradise. This archetypal reality is a primordial idea that is veiled in every soul” (p. 214). Prophets and saints are believed to be those who have achieved and function in this life on that level. Thus the Sufis believe that only those who have achieved this level are normal and everyone else is subnormal. Everyone else is “ill” and suffers from the sickness of the heart originating with separation from the Creator. Thus, in order to cure the sicknesses of the heart, we as human beings must learn to incorporate the divine qualities into our own lives as they were originally meant to be represented.

Some Sufis feel that only one person during a specific period of time can become a Perfect person or pole as God’s representative to humanity, and this individual usually remains unrecognized. Most Sufis however feel that the potential for achieving the level of a universal human being is in every person.

Dr. Mohammad Shaafi, who has written about Sufi psychology, calls the insan al-kamil, an integrated human being rather than a perfect human being. I think this term is particularly reflective of our modern understanding of what it means to be perfect. Perfect does not mean to be invincible. As we know, the Prophet (SAW) himself was very human. It does not mean that we are still not capable of making mistakes or having strong feeling about people and other creatures. To be integrated is to be whole, to feel cured of all ills, and to feel in touch with our origins and our current reality.

Aziz Nasafi, another 13th century Sufi described in his book on insan al-kamil the meaning of the term. He felt that the person who has achieved the state of insan al-kamil has reached the highest degree of four attributes: good works, good deeds, good manners, and true insight. According to Nasafi an insan al-kamil can become aware of the hidden laws of nature and can communicate with animals, birds, and plants beyond the use of words, because that person is in touch with all aspects of nature. An insan al-kamil is also able to transcend time, space, and place. Psychological qualities of a person who has achieved the perfect state include freedom from fears, greed, aggressive impulses, total integration of the nafs, experience of the stages of human development which include repentance, abstinence, renunciation, poverty, patience, trust in God and contentment. (Shaafi, 240).

In sum, all human beings can potentially achieve the level of Perfect, but few actually achieve this level. Those who do are recognized as prophets and saints. The doctrine of the Perfect Man is about our origins as human beings and our current potential. Though this is what is considered a cosmological doctrine, and is a much deeper doctrine than the simple way I have presented it here, it is actually very practical in terms of its application. The doctrine of the Perfect Man can be viewed as a recipe for how to reach our fullest human potential. The doctrine tells us to look back to our origins where we enjoyed a close status with our Creator, but through our desires for aspects of the worldly life we have failed to reflect all of the divine attributes. However, there are human beings, such as the Prophet Muhammad, and other prophets and saints, who have achieved the Perfect State and reflect the divine qualities. By observing and emulating the example of such individuals, particularly the prophet, we can work on correcting our own flaws and embodying the divine characteristics that we innately possess. The doctrine also makes clear that we can never rest on our achievements, because there are many improvements that we must make to our own character if we want to reflect all the divine qualities. The doctrine of Insan al-kamil is an inspiring concept that should serve as a guide and encourage awareness of our potential and the best that we can achieve in this life.

For Further Information on the Doctrine of the Perfect Man see:

Mystical Dimensions of Islam by A. Schimmel

The Vision of Islam by Chittick & Murata

The Sufi Doctrine of the Perfect Man by R.A. Nicholson

Three Muslim Sages by S.H. Nasr

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