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Home Articles Articles The Islamic Concept of Human Perfection

The Islamic Concept of Human Perfection

The Goal of Human Life: Those dimensions of Islam dedicated to providing the guidelines for the development of the full possibilities of human nature came to be institutionalised in various forms. Many of these can be grouped under the name ‘Sufism’, while others can better be designated by names such as ‘philosophy’ or ‘Shiite gnosis’.

In general, these schools of thought and practice share certain teachings about human perfection, though they also differ on many points. Here we can suggest a few of the ideas that can be found in most of these approaches.

1. Human beings are God’s vicegerents (Khalifa) or representatives in this world. The cosmos as a whole represents an infinitely vast display of the signs of God. All the divine attributes are reflected in unfathomable diversity through the myriad worlds and the creatures scattered therein. But human beings are microcosms. Just as the universe reflects all the divine attributes in an infinitely vast display, so also human beings reflect all the divine attributes in a concentrated unity. Man is the mirror image of both God and the cosmos. Since man finds all things within his own being and awareness, he is able to rule the outside world. He recognises all things within himself, and knowing them, is able to control them. This provides him with the necessary qualities to be God’s vicegerent. But by the same token, he is responsible for the manner in which he interacts with the creatures under his power.

2. Without following the guidance set down in the Scriptures, human beings will fall short of their full humanity and fail to reach ultimate happiness, which depends upon being true to their own nature. The divine guidance revealed in the Qur’an is embodied in the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.s.). Thus his wife Aisha remarked that those who wanted to remember the Prophet should read the Qur’an, since ‘his character is the Qur’an’. But emulating the Prophetic model does not mean simply conforming to the Prophet’s outward activity: it demands assimilation of his moral and spiritual traits as well. In other words, the Qur’an and the Sunna represent God’s guidance for the full actualisation of human perfection on every level, from the outward levels - those of activity and social concerns - to the more inward levels, such as knowledge, morality, love, spirituality and every human virtue.

3. All human attributes are in truth divine attributes. Just as the cosmos and everything within it are nothing but the signs of God, so also man and everything within him are God’s signs. Every positive trait displayed by a human being derives from God. All human knowledge represents a dim reflection of the divine knowledge, just as all virtues - generosity, justice, patience, compassion, gratitude, love - are manifestations of divine qualities. A human being possesses nothing positive which he can claim as his own, since everything belongs to God. The fact that most of them dwell in heedlessness (ghafla) of what they owe to God will not excuse them from being called to account.

4. The only thing human beings may rightfully claim as their own are those attributes that define the distance that separates them from God. Existence and everything that goes along with it - such as life, knowledge, will and power - belong strictly to God, whilst non-existence and its concomitant qualities - such as ignorance, need, death and weakness - belong specifically to the creature.

5. Perfect human beings manifest all divine attributes, so they are defined by none of them. They employ each divine attribute in the appropriate circumstances, recognise all things for what they are, and interact with all creatures in accordance with the creatures’ realities.

6. Though in theory any human being can achieve the fullness of human perfection, in practice only a tiny minority will reach it. Nevertheless, the majority will benefit from the human state if they observe the Law and strive to the extent of their own capacities, and they will benefit from all those who achieve human perfection, since it is the vicegerents who act as intermediaries between God and the cosmos, serving as channels for the divine replenishment that sustains the world.

7. The purpose of the social order is to provide a stable framework within which human perfection can be achieved, and all other goals are secondary. The more a society forgets the purpose of human existence, the further it moves from legitimacy. It is the duty of the learned to preserve to the fullest extent possible the teachings and practices of religion in order that the greatest number may attain ultimate happiness and the door to human perfection may always remain open.

Extract from an article by William C. Chittick, originally from ‘The World & I’ published by The Washington Times Corporation, 1991.


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