Sufism and the Perfect Human – Book Sample
Al-Jīlī’s life and thought 7
- Al-Jīlī’s life and work 9
- Al-Jīlī’s Sufi metaphysics 33
The Perfect Human 49
- A ‘synthetic being’: the Perfect Human as locus of
divine manifestation and a microcosm 51
- The Pole 83
- The Muhammadan Reality 97
- The identity of the Perfect Human 117
Conclusion: influences and impact 142
Introduction – Sufism and the Perfect Human
The idea of the ‘Perfect Human’ (al-insān al-kāmil) is one of the most important ideas in the history of Sufism. Indeed, given the centrality of Sufism within Islamic thought and piety, particularly prior to modern times, it can be deemed a significant idea in the history of Islam as a whole. General works on the history and culture of Islam and the Arabs often make at least passing reference to the idea.
Most often, they connect the idea to the names of two medieval Sufi think- ers, namely, the extremely influential – and often controversial – Andalusian Sufi metaphysical thinker Ibn ‘Arabī (d. ce 1240), and his later interpreter, ‘Abd al-Karīm al-Jīlī (d. 1408).
Thus Albert Hourani informs the reader of his popular History of the Arab Peoples (1991), “The idea of the ‘Perfect Man’ (al-insan al- kamil) put forward by Ibn ‘Arabi was carried further by one of his followers, al-Jili (d. c. 1428).” A. Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, intr. M. Ruthven (London: Faber & Faber, 2013), 177
A more recent and also influential work, the late Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (2016), similarly describes al-Jīlī as “the elaborator from Muḥyi al-Dīn Ibn ‘Arabī (1165–1240), possibly the most influential Sufi in history, of the transfiguring Sufi concept of the ‘Perfect Human’ (al-insān al-kāmil)” S. Ahmed, What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 21. See also ibid., 79.
These scholars are not wrong to draw attention to the idea of the Perfect Human as a significant one in the history of Sufi thought. Nor are they mistaken to suggest that its origins, as a Sufi technical term and concept, lie in the works of Ibn ‘Arabī, or that Ibn ‘Arabī’s treatment of the idea was taken on and developed by al-Jīlī.
Nevertheless, while Ibn ‘Arabī’s idea of the Perfect Human has been treated in several modern studies, little attention has in fact been given to the precise nature and specific qualities of al-Jīlī’s treatment of the idea. As such, we have little idea of the history of the idea of the Perfect Human in the two centuries between Ibn ‘Arabī and al-Jīlī, or of the exact nature of the latter’s ‘development’ of this Ibn ‘Arabian idea.
The distinctive elements of al-Jīlī’s idea of the Perfect Human, in other words, have largely been overlooked or forgotten, and his thought has instead been blurred into a common Ibn ‘Arabian or ‘Akbarian’ tradition.
It is the goal of this book, then, to unravel the distinctive qualities of al-Jīlī’s treatment of the idea of the Perfect Human, and of his thought more generally, and in so doing to tell the history of the idea of the Perfect Human.
‘Abd al-Karīm al-Jīlī can justifiably be regarded as one of the most important Sufi theorists of the medieval Islamic intellectual tradition. His major work, al-Insān al-kāmil fī ma‘rifat al-awākhir wa-al-awā’il (The Perfect Human in the Knowledge of the Last and First Things), is a key text in the Sufi metaphysical tradition associated with Ibn ‘Arabī, probably the most important Sufi thinker of any age. Written in Yemen at the beginning of the fifteenth century, al-Jīlī’s magnum opus has been read by Sufis from West Africa and the Maghreb to Southeast Asia, passing through the Arabic, Persian, and Turkish speaking regions, up to modern times. Yet, despite this historical significance, both al-Jīlī and his key text are little known today, either in the West or the Muslim world.
In the case of the latter, this is perhaps due in part to a general waning in the popularity and acceptability of Sufism, particularly of the more theoretical, metaphysical kind represented by al-Insān al-kāmil and Ibn ‘Arabian works more generally. As for the modern West, our ignorance of al-Jīlī is a consequence both of a general lack of awareness of the medieval Islamic intellectual and religious traditions, and of an absence of trans- lations (particularly into English) and scholarly studies of al-Jīlī’s work.
Relatively little progress has been made in this regard since R.A. Nicholson’s pioneering 1921 descriptive overview of al-Insān al-kāmil Al-Jīlī, al-Insān al-kāmil fī ma‘rifat al-awākhir wa-al-awā’il, ed. Ṣ. ʿUwayḍah (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-‘ilmiyyah, 1997). In the … Continue reading, and Titus Burckhardt’s 1952 French translation of extracts from the first half of the book. De l’homme universel: extraits du livre al-Insân al-kâmil, tr. T. Burckhardt (Paris: Dervy-livres, 1956).This translation was in turn … Continue reading
To attempt to fill this gap, the present book offers the first extended study in English of al-Insān al-kāmil; indeed, I believe it is the first monograph treatment of al-Jīlī’s thought in any European language. Specifically, this book focuses on al-Jīlī’s treatment of the idea for which he became famous and which gives his major work its title: the Perfect Human. According to one of the leading Arab scholars of the Ibn ‘Arabian intellectual tradition, al-Jīlī is “the specialist (ṣāḥib al-ikhtiṣāṣ), in the history of Islamic mysticism, on this topic” Al-Jīlī, Ibdā‘ al-kitābah wa-kitābat al-‘ibdā‘ (‘ayn ‘alá al-‘ayniyyah: sharḥ mu‘āṣir li-‘ayniyyat al-imām al-ṣūfī … Continue reading).
That the idea is indeed the central focus of al-Jīlī’s writing is indicated not only by the title of his most important work See also the titles of some of his lost works, e.g. al-Mamlakah al-rabbāniyyah fī al- nash’ah al-insāniyyah (The Lordly Kingdom in the Human … Continue reading),but also by his statement in chapter 60 of that work, which is specifically devoted to the idea of the Perfect Human: “This chapter is the basis (‘umdah) of the [other] chapters of this book; indeed, the whole book, from begin- ning to end, is a commentary (sharḥ) on this chapter.”
In light of this, as well as the aforementioned neglect of the distinctive features of al-Jīlī’s treatment of the idea, it makes sense to focus this, one of the very first book-length studies of al-Jīlī’s thought, on his treatment of the idea of the Perfect Human.10
My discussion of al-Jīlī’s treatment of the idea of the Perfect Man is them- atic, meaning that I break down the idea into its constituent parts, presenting and analysing the key passages from al-Insān al-kāmil in which he treats those different elements of the idea. Moreover, I set al-Jīlī’s treatment of these different key elements of the idea of the Perfect Human within the context of:
- his broader Sufi metaphysics, which I set out at the beginning of the book, based on my reading of al-Insān al-kāmil as a whole;
- earlier treatments of the various key aspects of the idea by the leading repre- sentatives of the Ibn ‘Arabian tradition, beginning with Ibn ‘Arabī himself and passing through the various representatives of what I call the Qūnawī tradition,
i.e. the intellectual chain of transmission issuing from Ibn ‘Arabī’s son-in-law, leading student and successor (khalīfah), Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī (d. 1274).
I cite passages from the major texts of this tradition, beginning with Ibn ‘Arabī’s two great works, the massive and encyclopaedic al-Futūḥāt al-makkiyyah (The Meccan Revelations) and the more concentrated and concise and more purely metaphysical Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam (The Gemstones of Wisdom), and passing through the key works of the Qūnawī tradition, including, to take only the books cited most often here, al-Qūnawī’s own major works, Miftāḥ ghayb al-jam‘ wa-al-wujūd (The Key to the Unseen Realm of Synthesis and Existence) and I‘jāz al-bayān fī tafsīr umm al-Qur’ān (The Inimitability of Expression in the Exegesis of the Mother of the Qur’an), al-Qūnawī’s student Sa‘d al-Dīn al-Farghānī’s (d. 1300) Ibn ‘Arabian commentary on Ibn al-Fāriḍ’s famous Tā’iyyah poem, and the commentaries on the Fuṣūṣ by ‘Abd al-Razzāq al-Qāshānī (d. 1329) and his student Dāwūd al-Qayṣarī (d. 1350/1351). Since these texts are not very widely known or access- ible, I quote directly from them, generally allowing them to speak for themselves.
This contextualisation allows us to build up a picture not only of how al-Jīlī conceived of the idea of the Perfect Human, but also of what makes his concep- tion both similar to and distinct from other treatments of the idea. As we shall see, while al-Jīlī certainly was an adherent of the Ibn ‘Arabian tradition, there is much that is distinctive about his idea of the Perfect Human. In this way, the book seeks to problematise the tendency to view the idea of the Perfect Human as a perennially fixed idea, and the Ibn ‘Arabian Sufi metaphysical tradition – and Sufi thought itself – more broadly as a homogeneous and unchanging world- view. This book is therefore written from the standpoint of the history of ideas, rather than from within that Sufi metaphysical tradition or as part of an attempt to uncover perennial truths located in Sufi texts.12
The term ‘Perfect Human’ is an arresting one, and one which raises a number of important questions. In the following pages, for instance, we shall consider what makes the Perfect Human ‘perfect’. This will involve considering the Perfect Human’s metaphysical status as well as his or her human nature and powers within this world.
After introducing al-Jīlī’s life and times and his general Sufi metaphysics in Chapters 1 and 2, our focus in Chapter 3 will be on the idea of the Perfect Human as a ‘synthetic being’, that is, as someone who is both a locus of divine manifestation, on the one hand, and a microcosm of the cosmos, on the other.
The implications of these ideas for the Perfect Human’s this-worldly nature will also be explored, through a focused discussion of the miracles and sinlessness of the Perfect Human in al-Jīlī’s thought. Chapter 4 will explore the important concept, closely related to the idea of the Perfect Human, of the ‘Pole’ of existence. And following that, in Chapter 5 we will consider another important and closely connected Ibn ‘Arabian concept, namely, the idea of the ‘Muhammadan Reality’.
We shall also consider the related question of who this Perfect Human is, or was, from al-Jīlī’s and his predecessors’ point of view, the subject of Chapter 6. I hope that by structuring the discussion in this way, I will be able to draw out both the key elements of al-Jīlī’s treatment of the idea and what is distinctive about his treatment.
To anticipate my conclusions, we shall see that al-Jīlī goes further than his Ibn ‘Arabian predecessors in laying emphasis on the divine aspect of the Perfect
Human; that he was more explicit than his predecessors in identifying the one true Perfect Human with the Prophet Muhammad; and that, much more than the earlier thinkers in the Ibn ‘Arabian tradition, he put the idea of the Perfect Human at the very centre of his Sufi metaphysics. In the conclusion, finally, I shall briefly consider both the possible reasons for these distinctive elements of al-Jīlī’s treatment of the idea of the Perfect Human, and the impact that his con- ception had on later Sufi thought. The present book therefore serves not only as a comprehensive introduction to the Ibn ‘Arabian idea of the Perfect Human, but also makes a contribution to our understanding of the historical development of this key idea, from Ibn ‘Arabī to al-Jīlī and beyond. In this way, it seeks to make a novel contribution to the study of Ibn ‘Arabian Sufism and the history of Islamic thought more generall
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References / Footnotes
|⇧01||A. Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, intr. M. Ruthven (London: Faber & Faber, 2013), 177|
|⇧02||S. Ahmed, What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 21. See also ibid., 79|
|⇧03||Al-Jīlī, al-Insān al-kāmil fī ma‘rifat al-awākhir wa-al-awā’il, ed. Ṣ. ʿUwayḍah (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-‘ilmiyyah, 1997). In the absence of a critical edition of al-Insān al-kāmil, I use the 1997 Beirut edition because it seems to me the easiest both to access and to navigate|
|⇧04|| De l’homme universel: extraits du livre al-Insân al-kâmil, tr. T. Burckhardt (Paris: Dervy-livres, 1956).|
This translation was in turn translated into English by Angela Culme-Seymour of the Beshara School (a contemporary ‘New Religious Movement’ that takes Ibn ‘Arabī as its guide) in 1983. For translations of al-Jīlī’s more minor works into European languages, see: Das Buch der vierzig Stufen, nach einer Bagda- der Handschrift hrsg, tr. E. Bannerth (Vienna: R.M. Rohre, 1956); Die Risāla arbaʿīn mawāṭin des ʿAbdalkarīm al-Ǧīlī, tr. D. Mann (Doctoral thesis, Saarbrücken, 1970); Göttliche Vollkommenheit und die Stellung des Menschen: die Sichtweise ʿAbd al-Karīm al Ǧīlīs auf der Grundlage des “Šarḥ muškilāt al-futūḥāt al-makkīya”, tr. Angelika Al-Massri (Stuttgart: Deutsche Morganländische Gesellschaft, 1998); Un commentaire esoterique de la formule inaugurale du Coran: Les Mystêres Cryp- tographiques de “Bismi-Llâhi-r-Rahmâni-r-Rahîm: Al-Kahf wa-r-Raqîm fî Sharh Bismi-Llâhi-r-Rahmâni-r-Rahîm, tr. J. Clément-François (Paris: Editions AlBouraq, 2002); I Nomi divini e il Profeta alla luce del sufismo (Al-Kamālāt al-ilāhiyyah fī al-ṣifāt al-Muhammadiyyah), tr. C. Marzullo (Turin: Il leone verde, 2015).
|⇧05||Al-Jīlī, Ibdā‘ al-kitābah wa-kitābat al-‘ibdā‘ (‘ayn ‘alá al-‘ayniyyah: sharḥ mu‘āṣir li-‘ayniyyat al-imām al-ṣūfī ‘Abd al-Karīm al-Jīlī) [= al-Nādirāt al-‘ayniyyah], ed.S. al-Ḥakīm (Beirut: Dār al-Burāq, 2004|
|⇧06||See also the titles of some of his lost works, e.g. al-Mamlakah al-rabbāniyyah fī al- nash’ah al-insāniyyah (The Lordly Kingdom in the Human Organism), Insān ‘ayn al-wujūd wa-wujūd ‘ayn al-insān al-mawjūd (The Human is the Source of Existence and Existence is the Source of the Human Being|