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Studies in Islamic Mysticism

By Reynold A. Nicholson

The Perfect Man-Introduction

Man, is not he Creation's last appeal,
The light of Wisdom's eye? Behold the wheel
Of universal life as ’twere a ring,
But Man the superscription and the seal.
                                      Omar Khayyam.
Ο?τως, φησ?ν, ?στι π?νυ βαθε?α κα? δυσκατ?ληπτος ? το? τελε?ου ?νθρ?που γν?σις. ?ρχ? γ?ρ, φησ?ν, τελει?σεως γν?σις ?νθρ?που? θεο? δ? γν?σις ?πηρτισμ?νη τελε?ωσις? Hippolytus.
?νθρωπος θεο? το? ??δ?ου λ?γος. Philo.

What do ?úfís mean when they speak of the Perfect Man (al-insánu ’l-kámil), a phrase which seems first to have been used by the celebrated Ibnu ’l-‘Arabí, although the notion underlying it is almost as old as ?úfisim itself 2? The question might be answered in different ways, but if we seek a general definition, perhaps we may describe the Perfect Man as a man who has fully realised his essential oneness with the Divine Being in whose likeness he is made. This experience, enjoyed by prophets and saints and shadowed forth in symbols to others, is the foundation of the ?úfí theosophy. Therefore, the class of Perfect Men comprises not only the prophets from Adam to Mohammed, but also the superlatively elect (khu?ú?u ’l-khu?ú?) amongst the ?úfís, i.e., the persons named collectively awliyá, plural of walí, a word originally meaning "near," which is used for "friend," "protégé," or "devotee." Since the walí or saint is the popular type of Perfect Man, it should be understood that the essence of Mohammedan saintship, as of prophecy, is nothing less than Divine illumination, immediate vision and knowledge of things unseen and unknown, when the veil of sense is suddenly lifted and the conscious self passes away in the overwhelming glory of "the One true Light." An ecstatic feeling of oneness with God constitutes the walí. It is the end of the Path (?aríqa) in so far as the discipline of the Path is meant to predispose and prepare the disciple to receive this incalculable gift of Divine grace, which is not gained or lost by anything that a man may do, but comes to him in proportion to the measure and degree of spiritual capacity with which he was created.

Two special functions of the walí further illustrate the relation of the popular saint-cult to mystical philosophy—(1) his function as a mediator, (2) his function as a cosmic power. The Perfect Man, as will be explained in the course of our argument, unites the One and the Many, so that the universe depends on him for its continued existence. In Mohammedan religious life the walí occupies the same middle position: he bridges the chasm which the Koran and scholasticism have set between man and an absolutely transcendent God. He brings relief to the distressed, health to the sick, children to the childless, food to the famished, spiritual guidance to those who entrust their souls to his care, blessing to all who visit his tomb and invoke Allah in his name. The walís, from the highest to the lowest, are arranged in a graduated hierarchy, with the Qu?b at their head, forming "a saintly board of administration by which the invisible government of the world is carried on 1." Speaking of the Awtád—four saints whose rank is little inferior to that of the Qu?b himself—Hujwírí says:

It is their office to go round the whole world every night, and if there be any place on which their eyes have not fallen, next day some flaw will appear in that place; and they must then inform the Qu?b, in order that he may direct his attention to the weak spot, and that by his blessing the imperfection may be remedied 2.

Such experiences and beliefs were partly the cause and partly the consequence of speculation concerning the nature of God and man, speculation which drifted far away from Koranic monotheism into pantheistic and monistic philosophies. The ?úfí reciting the Koran in ecstatic prayer and seeming to hear, in the words which he intoned, not his own voice but the voice of God speaking through him, could no longer acquiesce in the orthodox conception of Allah as a Being utterly different from all other beings. This dogma was supplanted by faith in a Divine Reality (al-?aqq), a God who is the creative principle and ultimate ground of all that exists. While ?úfís, like Moslems in general, affirm the transcendence of God and reject the notion of infusion or incarnation (?ulúl), it is an interesting fact that one of the first attempts in Islam to indicate more precisely the meaning of mystical union was founded on the Christian doctrine of two natures in God. ?alláj, who dared to say Ana ’l-?aqq, "I am the ?aqq 3," thereby announced that the saint in his deification "becomes the living and personal witness of God." The Jewish tradition that God created Adam in His own image reappeared as a ?adíth (saying of the Prophet) and was put to strange uses by Mohammedan theosophists.

Even the orthodox Ghazálí hints that here is the key of a great mystery which nothing will induce him to divulge 1. According to ?alláj, the essence of God's essence is Love. Before the creation God loved Himself in absolute unity and through love revealed Himself to Himself alone. Then, desiring to behold that love-in-aloneness, that love without otherness and duality, as an external object, He brought forth from non-existence an image of Himself, endowed with all His attributes and names. This Divine image is Adam, in and by whom God is made manifest—divinity objectified in humanity 2. ?alláj, however, distinguishes the human nature (násút) from the Divine (láhút). Though mystically united, they are not essentially identical and interchangeable. Personality survives even in union: water does not become wine, though wine be mixed with it. Using a more congenial metaphor, ?alláj says in verses which are often quoted:

I am He whom I love, and He whom I love is I.
We are two spirits dwelling in one body 3,
If thou seest me, thou seest Him;
And if thou seest Him, thou seest us both.
The markedly Christian flavour of the ?allájian doctrine condemned it in Moslem eyes, and while later ?úfís develop its main ideas and venerate ?alláj himself as a martyr who was barbarously done to death because he had proclaimed the Truth, they interpret his Ana ’l-?aqq in the light of an idealistic monism which reduces all antitheses—including láhút and násút—to necessarily correlated aspects of the universal Essence. His doctrine in its original form has only recently been recovered and given to the world by M. Louis Massignon, to whose learned and brilliant monograph every student of ?úfisim is deeply indebted.

‘Abdu ’l-Karím ibn Ibráhím al-Jílí, author of al-Insánu ’l-kámil fí ma‘rifati ’l-awákhir wa ’l-awá’il ("The Man perfect in knowledge of the last and first things"), was born in a.d. 1365-6 and probably died some time between a.d. 1406 and 1417. His surname, which is derived from Jílán or Gílán, the province south of the Caspian, commemorates his descent from the founder of the Qádirite order of dervishes, ‘Abdu l-Qádir al-Jílí (Gílání), who died almost exactly 200 years before the date of Jílí's birth 1. In the Insánu ’l-kámil he more than once refers to ‘Abdu ’l-Qádir as "our Shaykh," so that he must have been a member of the fraternity. The Moslem biographers leave him unnoticed, but he himself tells us that he lived at Zabíd in Yemen with his Shaykh, Sharafu’ddín Ismá‘íl ibn Ibráhím al-Jabartí, and had previously travelled in India 2. Of his mystical writings twenty are known to be extant, and it is not unlikely that as many have been lost.

Jílí begins his work with a statement of his object in composing it 3. That object is God (al-?aqq): therefore he must treat in the first place, of the Divine names, then of the Divine attributes, and lastly of the Divine essence. "I will call attention," he says, "to mysteries which no author has ever put into a book 4, matters concerning the gnosis of God and of the universe, and will tread a path between reserve and divulgation." He writes throughout as one reporting what has been communicated to him in mystical converse (mukálama), so that "the hearer knows it intuitively to be the word of God 1." These private revelations are supported, he asserts, by the Koran and the Sunna, and he warns his readers not to charge him with errors which may arise from their own want of understanding; but while he professes belief in the Mohammedan articles of faith 2, he interprets them by an allegorising method that yields any and every meaning desired. As a writer, he is not without talent, though his work belongs to mysticism rather than to literature. Besides many poems which he seems to have admired inordinately 3, he introduces maqámas in rhymed prose and specimens of the Platonic myth. Thus he tells how the stranger, whose name is the Spirit, returned from long exile and imprisonment to the world known as Yú?, and entered a spacious city where Kha?ir rules over "the Men of the Unseen" (rijálu ’l-ghayb)—exalted saints and angels, of whom six classes are described 4.

The characteristic of the Insánu ’l-kámil is the idea of the Perfect Man, "who as a microcosmos of a higher order reflects not only the powers of nature but also the divine powers `as in a mirror' (comp. the γενικ?ς ?νθρωπος of Philo) 5." On this basis Jílí builds his mystical philosophy. It will be better grasped as a whole, if before coming to details I endeavour to sketch it in outline.

Jílí belongs to the school of ?úfís who hold that Being is one 6, that all apparent differences are modes, aspects, and manifestations of reality, that the phenomenal is the outward expression of the real. He begins by defining essence as that to which names and attributes are referred; it may be either existent or non-existent, i.e., existing only in name, like the fabulous bird called ‘Anqá. Essence that really exists is of two kinds: Pure Being, or God, and Being joined to not-being, i.e., the world of created things. The essence of God is unknowable per se; we must seek knowledge of it through its names and attributes. It is a substance with two accidents, eternity and everlastingness; with two qualities, creativeness and creatureliness; with two descriptions, uncreatedness and origination in time; with two names, Lord and slave (God and man); with two aspects, the outward or visible, which is the present world, and the inward or invisible, which is the world to come; both necessity and contingency are predicated of it, and it may be regarded either as non-existent for itself but existent for other, or as non-existent for other but existent for itself 1.

Pure Being, as such, has neither name nor attribute; only when it gradually descends from its absoluteness and enters the realm of manifestation, do names and attributes appear imprinted on it. The sum of these attributes is the universe, which is "phenomenal" only in the sense that it shows reality under the form of externality. Although, from this standpoint, the distinction of essence and attribute must be admitted, the two are ultimately one, like water and ice. The so-called phenomenal world—the world of attributes—is no illusion: it really exists as the self-revelation or other self of the Absolute. In denying any real difference between essence and attribute, Jílí makes Being identical with Thought. The world expresses God's idea of Himself, or as Ibnu ’l-‘Arabí puts it, "we ourselves are the attributes by which we describe God; our existence is merely an objectification of His existence. God is necessary to us in order that we may exist, while we are necessary to Him in order that He may be manifested to Himself 2."

Jílí calls the simple essence, apart from all qualities and relations, "the dark mist" (al-‘Amá). It develops consciousness by passing through three stages of manifestation, which modify its simplicity. The first stage is Oneness (A?adiyya), the second is He-ness (Huwiyya), and the third is I-ness (Aniyya). By this process of descent Absolute Being has become the subject and object of all thought and has revealed itself as Divinity with distinctive attributes embracing the whole series of existence. The created world is the outward aspect of that which in its inward aspect is God. Thus in the Absolute we find a principle of diversity, which it evolves by moving downwards, so to speak, from a plane beyond quality and relation, beyond even the barest unity, until by degrees it clothes itself with manifold names and attributes and takes visible shape in the infinite variety of Nature. But "the One remains, the Many change and pass." The Absolute cannot rest in diversity. Opposites must be reconciled and at last united, the Many must again be One. Recurring to Jílí's metaphor, we may say that as water becomes ice and then water once more, so the Essence crystallised in the world of attributes seeks to return to its pure and simple self. And in order to do so, it must move upwards, reversing the direction of its previous descent from absoluteness. We have seen how reality, without ceasing to be reality, presents itself in the form of appearance: by what means, then, does appearance cease to be appearance and disappear in the abysmal darkness of reality?

Man, in virtue of his essence, is the cosmic Thought assuming flesh and connecting Absolute Being with the world of Nature.

While every appearance shows some attribute of reality, Man is the microcosm in which all attributes are united, and in him alone does the Absolute become conscious of itself in all its diverse aspects. To put it in another way, the Absolute, having completely realised itself in human nature, returns into itself through the medium of human nature; or, more intimately, God and man become one in the Perfect Man—the enraptured prophet or saint—whose religious function as a mediator between man and God corresponds with his metaphysical function as the unifying principle by means of which the opposed terms of reality and appearance are harmonised. Hence the upward movement of the Absolute from the sphere of manifestation back to the unmanifested Essence takes place in and through the unitive experience of the soul; and so we have exchanged philosophy for mysticism.

Jílí distinguishes three phases of mystical illumination or revelation (tajallí), which run parallel, as it were, to the three stages—Oneness, He-ness, and I-ness—traversed by the Absolute in its descent to consciousness.

In the first phase, called the Illumination of the Names, the Perfect Man receives the mystery that is conveyed by each of the names of God, and he becomes one with the name in such sort that he answers the prayer of any person who invokes God by the name in question.

Similarly, in the second phase he receives the Illumination of the Attributes and becomes one with them, i.e., with the Divine Essence as qualified by its various attributes: life, knowledge, power, will, and so forth. For example, God reveals Himself to some mystics through the attribute of life. Such a man, says Jílí, is the life of the whole universe; he feels that his life permeates all things sensible and ideal, that all words, deeds, bodies, and spirits derive their existence from him. If he be endued with the attribute of knowledge, he knows the entire content of past, present, and future existence, how everything came to be or is coming or will come to be, and why the non-existent does not exist: all this he knows both synthetically and analytically. The Divine attributes are classified by the author under four heads: (1) attributes of the Essence, (2) attributes of Beauty, (3) attributes of Majesty, (4) attributes of Perfection. He says that all created things are mirrors in which Absolute Beauty is reflected. What is ugly has its due place in the order of existence no less than what is beautiful, and equally belongs to the Divine perfection: evil, therefore, is only relative. As was stated above, the Perfect Man reflects all the Divine attributes, including even the Essential ones, such as unity and eternity, which he shares with no other being in this world or the next.

The third and last phase is the Illumination of the Essence.

Here the Perfect Man becomes absolutely perfect. Every attribute has vanished, the Absolute has returned into itself.

In the theory thus outlined we can recognise a monistic form of the myth which represents the Primal Man, the first-born of God, as sinking into matter, working there as a creative principle, longing for deliverance, and, at last finding the way back to his source 1. Jílí calls the Perfect Man the preserver of the universe, the Qu?b or Pole on which all the spheres of existence revolve. He is the final cause of creation, i.e., the means by which God sees Himself, for the Divine names and attributes cannot be seen, as a whole, except in the Perfect Man. He is a copy made in the image of God; therefore in him is that which corresponds to the Essence with its two correlated aspects of He-ness and I-ness, i.e., inwardness and outwardness, or divinity and humanity. His real nature is threefold, as Jílí expressly declares in the following verses, which no one can read without wondering how a Moslem could have written them:

If you say that it (the Essence) is One, you are right; or if you say that it is Two, it is in fact Two.
Or if you say, "No, it is Three," you are right, for that is the real nature of Man 2.
[paragraph continues]Here we have a Trinity consisting of the Essence together with its two complementary aspects, namely, Creator and creature—God and man. Now, all men are perfect potentially, but few are actually so. These few are the prophets and saints. And since their perfection varies in degree according to their capacity for receiving illumination, one of them must stand out above all the rest. Jílí remains a Moslem in spite of his philosophy, and for him this absolutely Perfect Man is the Prophet Mohammed. In the poem from which I have quoted he identifies the Three-in-One with Mohammed and addresses him as follows:

O centre of the compass! O inmost ground of the truth! O pivot of necessity and contingency! p. 87
O eye of the entire circle of existence! O point of the Koran and the Furqán! 1
O perfect one, and perfecter of the most perfect, who have been beautified by the majesty of God the Merciful!
Thou art the Pole (Qu?b) of the most wondrous things. The sphere of perfection in its solitude turns on thee.
Thou art transcendent; nay, thou art immanent; nay, thine is all
that is known and unknown, everlasting and perishable.
Thine in reality is Being and not-being; nadir and zenith are thy two garments.
Thou art both the light and its opposite; nay, but thou art only darkness to a gnostic that is dazed 2.
Jílí also holds that in every age the Perfect Men are an outward manifestation of the essence of Mohammed 3, which has the power of assuming whatever form it will; and he records the time and place of his own meeting with the Prophet, who appeared to him in the guise of his spiritual director, Sharafu’ddín Ismá‘íl al-Jabartí. In the 60th chapter of the Insánu ’l-kámil he depicts Mohammed as the absolutely perfect man, the first-created of God and the archetype of all other created beings. This, of course, is an Islamic Logos doctrine 4. It brings Mohammed in some respects very near to the Christ of the Fourth Gospel and the Pauline Epistles. But if the resemblance is great, so is the difference. The Fatherhood of God, the Incarnation, and the Atonement suggest an infinitely rich and sympathetic personality, whereas the Mohammedan Logos tends to identify itself with the active principle of revelation in the Divine essence. Mohammed is loved and adored as the perfect image or copy of God: "he that has seen me has seen Allah," says the Tradition 1. Except that he is not quite co-equal and co-eternal with his Maker, there can be no limit to glorification of the Perfect Man 2. I need hardly say that Mohammed gave the lie direct to those who would have thrust this sort of greatness upon him: his apotheosis is the triumph of religious feeling over historical fact.

These ideas in part go back to ?alláj but were first worked out and systematised by the most prolific of Moslem theosophists and one of the most original, Mu?yi’ddín Ibnu ’l-‘Arabí, of whose influence on the course of later ?úfí speculation the traces are so broad and deep that he well deserves the honorary title of doctor maximus (al-shaykhu ’l-akbar), by which he is frequently designated. Although Jílí does not follow him everywhere, he has learned much from his predecessor's manner of philosophising; he looks at things from a similar standpoint, and his thought moves in the same circle of mystical phantasies struggling to clothe themselves with forms of logic. Ibnu ’l-‘Arabí would be better known to us, if he had written more briefly, lucidly, and methodically. In all these respects Jílí has the advantage: we can say of the Insánu ’l-kámil what cannot be said of the Futú?átu ’l-Makkiyya or the Fu?ú?u ’l-?ikam—that the author is not so difficult as the subject. The philosophy of Ibnu ’l-‘Arabí requires a volume for itself, but I will attempt to give my readers some account of the Fu?ú?, where he treats particularly of the Divine attributes displayed by the prophetic class of Perfect Men 3.

The Insánu ’l-kámil, though strongly marked with a character and expression of its own, is one of those books which gather up the threads of a whole system of thought and serve as a clue to it. After having explored the visionary world of reality through which the author conducts us step by step, we at least know where we are when hierophants of the same guild beckon us to their company and bid us soar with them

Into the height of Love's rare universe.
[paragraph continues]I trust that the following analysis and exposition is full enough to bring out the principal features of the work and open an avenue for further study. The subject-matter of Jílí's sixty-three chapters has been arranged under a few heads in the way that seemed most suitable.

77:1 The title is borrowed from Jílí's work, the Insánu ’l-kámil, of which a brief but illuminating exposition will be found in Dr Mu?ammad Iqbál's Development of metaphysics in Persia (London, 1908), p. 150 foll. I may also refer to two articles written by myself: "A Moslem philosophy of religion" (Muséon, Cambridge, 1915, p. 83 foll.) and "The ?úfí doctrine of the Perfect Man" (Quest, 1917, p. 545 foll.); passages from both have been incorporated in this essay, with or without alteration. The following abbreviations are used: K = the edition of the Insánu ’l-kámil published at Cairo in a.h. 1300; Comm. K = the commentary by A?mad ibn Mu?ammad al-Madaní on chapters 50-54 of the Insánu ’l-kámil (Loth's Catalogue of the Arabic manuscripts in the Library of the India Office, No. 667); M = the commentary by Jílí on the 559th chapter of Ibnu ’l-‘Arabí's Futú?átu ’l-Makkiyya (Loth's Catalogue, No. 6931).

77:2 In the first chapter of the Fu?ú?u ’l-?ikam (Cairo, a.h. 1321) Ibnu ’l-‘Arabí (ob. a.d. 1240) says that when God willed that His attributes should be displayed, He created a microcosmic being (kawn jámi‘), the Perfect Man, through whom "God's consciousness (sirr) is manifested to Himself." Abú Yazíd al-Bis?ámí (ob. a.d. 875) defines "the perfect and complete man" (al-kámilu ’l-támm), who after having been invested with Divine attributes becomes unconscious of them (Qushayrí, Risála, Cairo, a.h. 1318, p. 140,1. 12 foll.), i.e., enters fully into the state of faná; but here the term does not bear the peculiar significance attached to it by Ibnu ’l-‘Arabí and Jílí.

79:1 Prof. D. B. Macdonald, The religious attitude and life in Islam, p. 163.

79:2 Hujwírí, Kashf al-Ma?júb, p. 228 of my translation.

79:3 Massignon renders, "I am the Creative Truth" (Kitáb al-?awásín, p. 175). Al-?aqq is the Creator as opposed to the creatures (al-khalq) and this seems to be the meaning in which ?alláj understood the term, but it is also applied to God conceived pantheistically as the one permanent reality. Cf. the article "?a??" by Prof. D. B. Macdonald in Encycl. of Islam.

80:1 I?yá (Búláq, a.h. 1289), vol. IV, p. 294.

80:2 Massignon, Kitáb al-?awásín, p. 129.

80:3 Contrast this with the monistic expression of the same thought by Jílí (K I. 51, 1): "We are the spirit of One, though we dwell by turns in two bodies." So, too, Jalálu’ddín Rúmí (Divani Shamsi Tabriz, p. 153):

"Happy the moment when we are seated in the palace, thou and I,
 With two forms and with two figures, but with one soul, thou and I."
Cf. K II. 121, 11 foll.: "Essential love is love in Oneness, so that each of the lovers appears in the form of the other and represents the other. Inasmuch as the love of the body and the soul is essential, the soul is pained by the body's pain in this world, while the body is pained by the soul's pain in the other world: then each of them appears in the other's form."

81:1 I do not know on what authority Dr Goldziher in his article on Jílí in the Encycl. of Islam (vol. I, p. 46) connects the nisba with Jíl, a village in the district of Baghdád. Jílí calls himself  (Loth, Cat. of Arabic MSS. in the India Office Library, p. 182, col. I, l. 7 from foot). He traced his descent to a sib? of ‘Abdu ’l-Qádir, i.e., to a son of the Shaykh's daughter.

81:2 He mentions (K II. 43, 20 foll.) that in a.h. 790 = a.d. 1388 he was in India at a place named Kúshí, where he conversed with a man under sentence of death for the murder of three notables. The earliest date referring to his stay at Zabíd is a.h. 796=a.d. 1393-4 (K II. 61, 20), and the latest a.h. 805 =A. D. 1402-3 (Loth, op. cit. p. 183).

81:3 K I. 6, 4 foll.

81:4 Cf. K I. 63, penult. and foll.

82:1 Jílí often uses logical arguments, but "the paradoxes proved by his logic are really the paradoxes of mysticism, and are the goal which he feels his logic must reach if it is to be in accordance with insight" (Bertrand Russell, "Mysticism and Logic" in the Hibbert Journal, vol. XII, No. 4, p. 793).

82:2 K I. 4, 10 foll.

82:3 K I. 39, 20 foll.

82:4 K II. 34, 23 foll. Cf. K I. 8, 6 foll. In the Futú?átu ’l-Makkiyya, ch. 559. Ibnu ’l-‘Arabí likens the Divine Spirit in man to Yú?, "which is a name of the sun and refers to God (al-?aqq), for He is the light of the heavens and the earth, and Man is a perfect and complete copy of Him" (M 34 a).

82:5 Goldziher in Encycl. of Islam. The heavenly man is the summum genus, the earthly man the summa species (M 40 a).

82:6 This doctrine is called "the unity of Being" (wa?datu ’l-wujúd).

83:1 K I. 20, 23 foll.

83:2 Fu?ú? (Cairo, a.h. 1312), 29, 78, 181, etc.

86:1 See Bousset, Hauptprobleme der Gnosis, p. 160 foll.

86:2 K I. 10, 21 fol.

87:1 See Studies in Islamic Poetry, p. 174, note 3.

87:2 K I. ii, i foll.

87:3 So in the pseudo-Clementine writings Adam or Christ, the true prophet and perfect incarnation of the Divine spirit, is represented as manifesting himself personally in a whole series of subsequent bearers of Revelation. Bousset, op. cit. p. 172, quotes the following passages: "nam et ipse verus propheta ab initio mundi per saeculum currens festinat ad requiem," and "Christus, qui ab initio et semper erat, per singulas quasque generationes piis latenter licet semper tamen aderat." On the transmission of the Light of Mohammed see Goldziher's article cited in the next note.

87:4 An excellent survey of the doctrine concerning the pre-existence of Mohammed, of the consequences drawn from it, and of the sources from which it was derived, will be found in Goldziher's Neuplatonische und gnostische Elemente im Hadit_ (Zeitschrift für Assyriologie, vol. 22, p. 317 foll.).

88:1 Borrowed from St John, ch. xiv. v. 9.

88:2 Jílí declares that wherever in his writings the expression "the Perfect Man" is used absolutely, it refers to Mohammed (K II. 59, 6).

88:3 See Appendix II.



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