The Perfect Man?
Sufism has a concept called “The Perfect Man” which as the Persian Sufi, ‘Abd al-Rahman Jami states, is the ontological prototype of creation which incorporates three aspects: first, the Perfect Man is the locus of manifestation for the name Allah (who holds all the Names or attributes), is the goal of creation, and thirdly is God’s vicegerent. Regarding the Names, Chittick states “God in His Essence cannot be known, but we can know Him in so far as He has revealed His names, and therefore his attributes, in the Koran. The primary knowledge of God revealed through the Book becomes the basis for all other knowledge. Without the names and attributes we cannot know cosmos. The whole of the cosmos in fact is nothing but the manifestation or self-disclosure of God’s names.” (1) According to the Qur’an, Allah taught Adam all His names, as well as commanding the angels to prostrate themselves before Adam because the angels did not know all of the names that Adam was taught. Because the angels are purely spiritual they have no true perception of Allah’s attributes that relate to human physicality. Allah created “man” from clay and spirit which gives “man” attributes based upon their physicality in the world of form and matter. It is only humans who can incorporate all the aspects of the physical with the spiritual for the purpose of free will, so the “man” who intentionally seeks and submits to Allah ascends to Allah thereby incorporating all of the Names of Allah into his heart to then become transformed and perfected.
Many of the Sufi Mystics and Philosophers adhere to the esoteric teachings of Ibn al-Arabi, with its descriptions of the multiplicity of Allah deriving from the Divine Unity of the One Being which is only manifested and understood in the Created World as the many attributes of the One Being. The attributes of Allah are referred to as His Names, or in other words, the descriptors of His nature. As humans, we too are understood by others by specific character traits which we reveal to others. For example, others may perceive us as kind or compassionate, or alternatively as insensitive or cruel. Since Allah incorporates all of the Names, then His attributes may reveal dark and light, masculine and feminine, positive and negative in opposing forces. All things are created in balance, so this incorporates the duality of opposites.
However, after reading numerous Sufi Mystics writings, the concept of the balance between the masculine and the feminine appears to be missing. How can only “man” be perfect, and incorporate all of the attributes of the One who encapsulates the entire multiplicity of Creation? Certainly the term “man” is used in some cases to mean all of humanity, but when the Sufi’s discuss the “Perfect Man” in detail it appears to only be referring to men. In my extensive reading of Sufi mysticism I have yet to read any teachings about the attributes of the feminine, the aspect of feminine and masculine attributes being within one gender, or how human perfection would present itself in the feminine form, other than a few references by the well known Sufi Poet, Rumi, who praises the creative aspect of women which refers to the importance of the womb as being the carrier for new life. Hence I sought information online about Sufism and women. The most relevant article, “Women of Light in Sufism,” written by Sachiko Murato, briefly states that “femininity and masculinity play essential roles in the Muslim conceptualization of God, the cosmos and the human soul,” and that the Arabic word for “mercy,” rahma is almost identical to the word for “womb” — rahm. Additionally, Marato explains that “All human beings, both women and men, have the same goal in life. It is to know the supreme Light and to become illuminated by it.” “Light” in the mystical context of Sufism refers to the intellect in the importance of obtaining knowledge to increase understanding of the Divine to further spiritual growth. Murata states that according to the Sufis the intellect is believed to be the highest level of the soul, and reports the Prophet stated that the first thing that God created was his light and also the first thing God created was his intellect. Hence, the “Sufis call this first light the ‘First Intellect‘ and the ‘Muhammadan Reality,’ and they consider it the protoype of both the universe and the individual soul, both the macrocosm and the microcosm.” (7)
The conundrum is that culturally and historically women were denied the same access as men to learning and knowledge so because of their deficit of spiritual knowledge were perceived as less intelligent, or of not having the same capacity to learn as men. This prejudicial viewpoint is clearly evident in some of the hadith referring to the Prophet stating there are more women in the hellfire than men (4), and that a woman’s testimony is half of a man’s because of her lack of intelligence (5). In fact, many contemporary Muslim men will debate that women are not as logical or rational as men based upon these hadiths. However, Zainab Bint Younus, writing in “Women, Men, and Intellectual Deficiency” explains that these particular hadith have been erroneously interpreted, and provides evidence in support of a different interpretation which leads to the better understanding of women not having less intellect than men, but a different intellect which is expressed more intuitively. (6)
However, placing the seeking of knowledge in a sociological context, one finds that a woman’s role was primarily to bear and raise children, and to take care of the household. The traditional role of women did not include the scholarly pursuit of knowledge, and women were denied or discouraged from learning. This was true in early Judaism and Christianity as well. Therefore, this explains why many male Sufi’s did not acknowledge the importance of the feminine in their mystical theology and philosophy of the “Perfect Man.” There were a small number of Sufi women, such as abi’a al-Adawiyya (717–801 A.D.) (one of the first Sufi’s to refer to Allah as the “Beloved,”), and a few mentioned by Ibn al-Arabi that he visited and learned from, but otherwise Sufi women’s impact has been minimal.
The importance of the balance and uniqueness of the masculine and feminine is clearly symbolized in the Qur’an and is evident in physical signs. For example, human beings DNA strands are formed in a double helix (the appearance of a twisting ladder), which incorporates an equal amount of genetic code from both the male and the female. Additionally, without the nourishment from the mothers provided by wombs for the developing fetus, and breast milk for the infant, human life wouldn’t exist. Also, it is the mother’s nurturing in infancy and early childhood which enables healthy physical and emotional growth. Men can’t feasibly fully take over this task until the toddler is able to eat solid food and has become more independent. Additionally, due to gender specific roles within marriage, it was necessary for the woman to be attentive to child raising and managing the household which didn’t leave her time or inclination to seek knowledge relating to the spiritual. Additionally, many married Sufi men were wayfarers whose primary goal was to seek Masters to learn from and to use physical travel as a means to grow spiritually. The better known Sufi Masters were oftentimes the spiritual advisers of Kings and other leaders and were frequently paid and retained for years, leaving their wives and children behind. Based upon the specified gender roles it is understandable why Sufi men only saw the goal of spiritual perfection within the male form.
The very nature of learning spiritual truths in the Qur’an is beautifully symbolized in its classical Arabic word usage which expresses the feminine/masculine balance. For example, in Surah 3 (Family of Imran), are numerous feminine word forms that reveals Allah’s intention of the importance of combining the feminine with the masculine for the purpose of completeness. This theme is interwoven through the Surah, and as Allah wills, is becoming apparent through revelation. The word “scripture” in ayat 7 is presented in the feminine form in the Arabic as I-kitabi, translating as “Mother of the Book.” Preceding ayat 7 in ayat 6 is reference to being shaped “in the womb as He pleases.” Directly after the expression of the word “scripture” in the feminine (7b) is an explanation that some of the ayats in the Qur’an have clear or definitive meanings, and those are the “foundation” of the Scripture, while other ayats are allegorical or are more ambiguous. The Arabic for “foundation” is ummu which is a feminine singular noun in the nominative case which also has as one of its meanings, “the Mother of the Book.”
When there are different meanings of the same Arabic word with the form of the feminine which refers to “the Book” only in specific cases, then there is reason to look deeper. What Allah revealed is the feminine form being used for “scripture” and “foundation” is spiritual symbolism of our relationship with Allah and His Word. A woman’s womb is the place where human life is formed, hence, Allah shaping us “in the womb as He pleases,” which acknowledges Allah as the Determiner of all life. He is the Giver of All Life, and the Sustainer of Life. He is the Nurturer and holds all the Feminine Names along with the Masculine. He is all the Names of all of Creation. The “book” being referred to as the “Mother of Books” is revealing the true representative nature of the Allah’s Word, which is to nurture us to help us grow spiritually. It is life-giving and sustaining. This is explained further by referring to the “clear” ayats as the “foundation” of the Word. Again we see the feminine form, because the foundation of any of the monotheistic religion’s Scriptures are the external, surface meanings that most often refer to the simpler, basic comprehension of Allah’s truth which is the beginning of spiritual understanding. This is the sustenance of mother’s milk. A mother doesn’t feed a newborn solid food, as they can’t chew and digest food in the solid form — it is the same with us when first learning spiritual truths — we can’t fully comprehend more advanced truths that are presented in symbolism. First we must drink the milk of knowledge and grow in understanding before we can eat the solid food of the more complicated, esoteric meaning in which the sole purpose is to fill the outer form with inner meaning (which is represented in the masculine.) Adhering to the outer form only of scripture is like continuing to drink mother’s milk when you are too old. At some point the child will stop growing because their mother’s milk will not have enough nutrients and calories for further development.
This is the same spiritual growing process as seen within the Christian Bible. First, there is the form, or the external understanding of Allah’s truth presented in the basic ten commandments sent down to Moses:
1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
2. You shall not make idols.
3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
5. Honor your father and your mother.
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet.
This is the Mother’s milk of clear, basic understanding. Unfortunately, the Hebrews attempted to survive off the milk of the Law much longer than they should and became corrupted because they stopped growing spiritually. Subsequently, Allah sent a Prophet to provide solid food to “fill in” the form of the Law to establish much needed new growth. When looking at another instance of the Book in the feminine form in Surah 13:38–39, “There was a Scripture for every age: God erases or confirms whatever He will, and the source of Scripture is with Him.” Referring to the “source” is identified with a “preserved Tablet” (see 85:22, 43:4), and “Scripture” after “source of” is “ummu” and then I-kitabi which literally translates, “Mother of the Book.” Abdel Haleem (translator), states the “preserved Tablet” means “God keeps this with Him.” (8) 43:2–4, “By the Scripture that makes things clear, We have made it a Quran in Arabic so that you [people] may understand. It is truly exalted in the Source of Scripture kept with Us, and full of wisdom.” The ayats refer to clearness and understanding, and then again the word, “source“ (“preserved Tablet”) with the Arabic form of “Scripture” in the feminine, Ummi. It is clear from the usage of the feminine before referring to the Tablet, that it most likely doesn’t just refer to the Scripture being kept with Allah, but is a direct reference to the ten commandments inscribed on stone tablets by Allah given to the Prophet Moses. The ten commandments as mentioned previously are the clear, basic foundation of spiritual understanding; the mother’s milk which explains the use of the feminine after the mention of the Tablet.
In speaking of language and the difficulty of proper translations, many translators automatically translate to the masculine form due to the preponderance of the use of exclusive language so can easily make errors in translation because of the subtlety of the Arabic language. For example, Abdel Haleem’s English translations have some errors due to his desire to translate more true to the gender exclusiveness nature of our language.
The form or foundation is the passive element, or the feminine, while the infilling of the form, or the building up from the foundation with meaning is the active, or masculine. Both are needed in equal measure in balance for spiritual growth.
Initially, Adam walked alone with Allah in the Garden and Allah taught him all His Names. After Adam was taught Allah’s Names, he was blessed with the woman who was made from one of his ribs. The very substance of Adam is the same substance of Eve. However, she was made from his rib, which comes from his side which creates opposing forms — her right arm is next to his left arm, etc. Hence from the One comes multiplicity — two forms. The two human forms must leave the Garden of Innocence (the Garden is the place where Allah dwells) to create a third, and so on and on. However, their two sons represent the determinate of Allah’s free choice created within His multiplicity — one son displays corruption, and the other son goodness.
So, the concept from the early Sufi Mystics, beginning with Ibn al-’Arabi, presents the masculine human form capable of being perfect by incorporating all of the Names of Allah in equal balance. Once he is able to accomplish this he moves to the center of the circle as the “Perfect Man.” However, the man can only complete the circle of fullness or completeness as a half. Because of his masculine gender and identity it is not possible for him to fully incorporate all of the Names of Allah — that is for Allah only, as the One Being and the Unity of the All. The feminine Names will never be equal with Allah’s other Names within the human male. His masculinity will present the masculine Names in greater amounts. Allah made humans as two — He is the only One, not manifested or created. All that is created makes up more than one, so it is the feminine that creates the balance needed in the universe to complete the circle. Together in opposing forms and balanced are the perfected humans.
Just as Adam and Eve left the garden to multiply (representing the manifestation of multiplicity coming from duality), it will be the same duality at the end of the age. Since presently the world is in a state of chaotic unbalance due to the dominance of the masculine, Allah is creating balance with the feminine. Allah revealed to me that the best wine is being saved for the end of time. (link to full revelation: https://medium.com/@reflectAllah/crushed-grapes-f4ad711a3bab) The Wedding in Cana was a true event that is also a full prophecy of the end times. The water is turned into wine (water symbolizes spiritual knowledge) and wine symbolizes knowledge combined with Allah’s Spirit. The wedding couple symbolizes the return of Adam and Eve to Allah, or the complementary perfect balance of the feminine and the masculine completing the circle of perfection in the fullness of time. The wedding guests proclaim that the best wine was saved for last — the best wine has perfect balance; this is indicative of the balance found in the masculine with the feminine. The circle of Time and Fullness is only complete with the perfect balance of the masculine with the feminine. All things were created by Allah to be in balance, this is His Will for Creation. When His Creation falls out of balance, then chaos and destruction follows.
(1) In Search of the Lost Heart: explorations in Islamic thought, William C. Chittick, Chapter Jami on the Perfect Man, p. 145–146. Jami’s interpretation of Ibn al-’Arabi’s concept of the Perfect Man.
(2) Women of Light in Sufism, Sachiko Murata (Professor of Religion and Asian Studies at State University of New York at Stony Brook University. Obtained Ph.D in Persian Literature at Iran’s Tehran University and was the first woman ever to study Islamic jurisprudence. Murata is presently married to William C. Chittick (above reference).
(3) Women and Sufism, The Threshold Society, (https://sufism.org/sufism/writings-on-sufism/women-and-sufism-by-camille-adams-helminski-2)
(4) Sahih Bukhari, volume 1, Book 6, #301
(5) Sahih Bukhari, volume 7, Book 62, #126
(6) Women, Men, and Intellectual Deficiency, Zainab Bint Younus, al Jumuah: A Hadith Explained, March 21, 2016 (http://aljumuah.com/women-men-and-intellectual-deficiency/)
(7) Women of Light in Sufism
(8) Abdel Haleem Qur’an translation: http://www.kaskas.com/home/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Quran-Abdel-Haleem-Translation-1.pdf
Such extreme difficulty finding a painting of Adam and Eve that isn’t only Caucasian.