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Question 15: Attaining Perfection

Question: How can perfection be attained?

Brief Answer

This topic needs to be discussed in three parts.

1. Definition of Kamal (Perfection) and How It Differs from Tamam (Completion) and Progress

Completion applies when speaking about the parts of a thing, as in the case where a thing is composed of several parts and all the parts are put together, it is said that that thing is complete. In other words, completion pertains to the parts that are necessary to bring something into existence. But perfection pertains to the levels and stages of something. When something reaches completion, there still might be more perfect states for it. Thus a thing could be complete but not perfect. Also, the term progress could apply to a movement that is merely horizontal. However, elevation is embedded in the meaning of perfection. For, perfection is meaningful only in the context of an ascending and vertical movement. Hence, it is possible to achieve progress without attaining to perfection.

2. Human Perfection from the Point of View of Islam

a. Perfection is in vision and acquisition. One must fully comprehend the Divine sciences and act accordingly.

b. Perfection is dependent on sensing, for the human being is compelled to action when feeling threatened and realizing one’s own imperfection.

3. Different Views on Perfection

a. Ideology of Power

According to this ideology, the perfect human being is synonymous with the powerful human being. The more powerful one is, the higher the level of perfection he has attained to. Even if knowledge is of value, it is due to the fact that it enables the human being to strengthen himself and to subjugate the surrounding environment.

This view has two problems. First, knowledge in this ideology has no intrinsic value and sanctity. It is power alone that is considered perfection. Second, not only is knowledge not perfection and a means to transcendence, it serves as grounds for war and the exploitation of the weak.

From the point of view of Islam, power is not intrinsically negative. There are instances where it has been promoted, but with the condition that it be employed in the way of advocating moral values and social reformation.

b. The View of the Philosophers

From the perspective of the philosophers, perfection can be sought in two things: wisdom (which is the comprehension of the universal truths of the cosmos) and justice (which is the tempering of the instincts and the human faculties by the intellect, or in other words, the intellect dominating the human faculties)

Islam also considers wisdom a virtue. The Qur`an refers to wisdom as “abundant good” (2:269) and recognizes it as a means of perfection. Justice is also emphasized by Islam. However, in Islam the intellect’s domination over the sensual and psychic faculties is considered effective only when it is reinforced by Revelation.

c. The Mystic Ideology

Mystics are of the opinion that reality is nondual. Reality is God and all else is the radiance of His existence. Thus, the human being attains to perfection when he comes to view only Him and nothing else, when he reaches annihilation in the Truth. The closer one ascends to the Truth, the more perfect he becomes. And the path of this journey is the heart, and one must combat one’s ego and overcome it and belittle it so as to erase any trace of egoism.

Although Islam approves of the path of the heart and vision, it also supports the intellect and has referred to the latter as the “inward prophet”. In contrast to mysticism, both the personal and the social aspects of life have been recognized, and so the perfect human being is he who perfects himself in both aspects.

Another defect of the mystical perspective is that it undermines self-esteem and self-worth to the extent of demeaning the individual. Islam does not allow such excessive self-humiliation. From the view point of Islam, at the same time that the believer must combat his ego and tame it, he must avoid ignoble and unbecoming acts.

Detailed Answer

Definition of Perfection

First, we must define perfection. Tamam (completion) is contrasted with naqs (deficiency) and so is kamal (perfection). In the Noble Qur`an we read:

Today I have perfected your religion for you, and I have completed My blessing upon you1.

That is, the Qur`an considers tamam and kamal different in meaning: it employs tamam in the context of deficiency in blessing and kamal in the context of deficiency in religion.

At this point it is necessary to explain how kamal (perfection) differs in meaning from tamam (completion) and pishraft (progress). If an object is composed of several parts, such as a building, until all the parts are put together, it is said that the object is deficient and incomplete and when all the parts have been assembled, it is said that the object is complete.

However, perfection applies to levels and stages. For instance, a new born child, although healthy and complete with all the natural parts and organs, is in one respect deficient and must pass through the various levels of perfection by means of training and education in order to attain to perfection.

In other words, tamam is used where all the necessary parts for composing a whole are present, otherwise that whole is deficient in its essence. On the other hand, kamal is used when an object has reached completion but has the capacity to improve and acquire higher degrees. Thus, an object could be complete but not perfect.

But as to the difference of kamal (perfection) from pishraft (progress), it can be said that the idea of elevation is embedded in the meaning of perfection. Perfection is a movement but a vertical one, from lower degrees to higher and loftier degrees, unlike progress which can also apply to a horizontal movement.

For instance, if an army is at war and is conquering enemy territory and moving ahead, it is said that the army is progressing, not perfecting. Therefore, social perfection denotes human elevation in the social context not merely progress, for there are many changes that might be considered as progress for the human being or the society but might not necessarily indicate perfection or elevation.

Human Perfection from the Point of View of Islam

1. Perfection Dependent on Vision and Acquisition

One must endeavour to fully understand the Divine sciences and conduct himself accordingly. That is, he must put his knowledge into action. Just as virtues are interrelated with perfect and complete acts of worship, vices are interrelated with deficient and ineffective acts of worship.

2. Perfection Contingent on Sensing Danger

He who knows that something dangerous is threatening him and might result in his being left hungry and thirsty in the middle of nowhere will embark on solving the dangerous situation. The person who constantly reminds himself of the hardships of the hereafter and the chastisement of hell, realizing the danger, will struggle to attain to perfection and avoid all deficiencies. For unless one feels the deficiency and insufficiency of his state, he will not advance toward perfection. By the same token, deficiency and backwardness are the results of ignorance and the complacent and self-deceiving notions of being perfect.

But in what does human perfection lie? What is the path to attaining to perfection? There are divergent views regarding this question. We will limit ourselves to three views in addition to Islam’s assessment of each of them.

The Ideology of Power

According to this view, the perfect human is the strong human. The stronger the human being is and the more firmly he controls his surroundings, the closer he is to perfection. Darwin’s theory of evolution—known as “competition to survive”—is based on this notion. For the exponents of this view, knowledge is valuable only in so far as it enables the human being to strengthen his grip on his environment, thus they exploit knowledge for the sake of power. In their view, truth and justice have no reality or meaning other than power.

Two criticisms come to mind regarding this viewpoint. First, knowledge enjoys no sacred place in this ideology, rather it is only a means for acquiring power, and it is power alone that can be considered perfection for the human being. Second, not only is knowledge not conducive to perfection or moral elevation, it prepares the grounds for conflict. It serves as a tool in the hands of the aggressors and oppressors. Therefore, humanity does not advance by employing knowledge as it should, for the imperialist powers utilize it to exploit the weaker nations.

Islam advocates the use of power, but the sort of power that is in harmony with lofty human values, with compassion and kindness. There are numerous verses in the Qur`an that encourage the Muslim community to strengthen itself, but the power intended in such verses is that which would be utilized in the way of fighting oppression and defending the rights of the oppressed, the sort of power that would pave the way for upholding justice and moral values.

Philosophers’ Perspective on Human Perfection

According to philosophers, human perfection lies in two things. The first is wisdom, which is comprehending the reality of things as they are in themselves and the general order of the cosmos. To corroborate this point, they cite the following verse,

He gives wisdom to whomever He wishes, and he who is given wisdom, is certainly given an abundant good2.

Thus they consider wisdom a Divine gift and a means to perfection.

The second truth which constitutes perfection in the view of the philosophers is justice. By that they intend moral justice, i.e., creating a balance among the human instincts and faculties, bringing them under the supervision of the intellect.

From the Islamic point of view wisdom is also seen as a means to perfection and, as was explained, more than just being beneficial to humanity, wisdom is a good in itself; meaning that it should be sought as an end in itself and not as a means for something else. Moreover, justice is also something which Islam underscores. It also stresses the importance of balancing the faculties and instincts and the intellect’s management of them. However, Islam does not consider this sufficient. According to Islam, the intellect must be complemented by faith, for reason alone is not potent enough. It is the intellect monitored by Revelation and faith that is desirable in the Islamic context.

Mystics’ Perspective on Human Perfection

Mystics are of the opinion that reality is nondual, i.e., God. All else is His radiance and a form of the reality. Whatever seems to be real as such is due to Him. The human being can reach perfection only after realizing the truth and attaining to it, to which they refer as “attaining to the Truth,” indicating annihilation in the Truth. He must be comprehended before anything else, even prior to comprehending oneself. Although the unity expounded by the mystics should not be understood as indicating incarnation or God becoming identical with the creation. Rather, what is meant is to see Him alongside everything, within everything, and prior to everything. And if the human being fails to attain to the truth, he is imperfect and veiled from the truth. The path leading to the truth is that of the heart, not reason, syllogism, nor philosophy:

Syllogists have legs of wood,

But legs of wood are dangerously unsteady.

The mount for this journey is love and intimacy. And the ego must be exterminated in this way.

In the mystical worldview, some issues have been disparaged with which Islam disagrees. Islam approves of love and spiritual wayfaring but at the same time supports the intellect, calling it the “inward prophet” and counting it as one of the Divine blessings. In mysticism esotericism has been overemphasized, thus undermining the outward aspects of spirituality and emphasizing seclusion and withdrawal from social life. Islam on the other hand, while stressing the importance of personal aspects, spiritual purification, and spiritual retreat in God, encourages the social aspects as well. Islam advocates worship but along with involvement in the society, hailing those who are worshippers by night and warriors by day.

According to Islam, the Universal Man is he who is a man of worship, of kneeling and prostration before the Lord, but also one who is dutiful vis-à-vis his social responsibilities—i.e., social reformation and enjoining good and forbidding evil.3

In the mystical worldview, attaining to the Truth and Unveiling and liberation from egoism requires the annihilation of the ego, belittling it to the very extreme without being disturbed by such practices. Rather one should consider them as the way to perfection. Islam, however, does not approve of such measures. For, it views the believer with respect and commands him to defend his dignity. Islam encourages combating one’s ego and self-esteem concurrently. That is, it approves of combating one’s ego so long as it does not lead to being disgraced and belittled. The value of the believer is very high in the Islamic value system, so much so that it has been considered equal to that of the Kaaba.

  • 1. Surat al-Ma`idah (5), Verse 3:
    } اَلْيَوْمَ أَكْمَلْتُ لَكُمْ دِينَكُمْ وَ أَتْمَمْتُ عَلَيْكُمْ نِعْمَتِي... {
  • 2. Surat al-Baqarah (2), verse 269:
    } يُؤْتِي الْحِكْمَةَ مَنْ يَشَآءُ وَمَنْ يُؤْتَ الْحِكْمَةَ فَقَدْ أُوتِيَ خَيْراً كَثِيراً وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلاَّ أُولُوْا الأَلْبَابِ {
  • 3. These traits can be found in the Noble Qur`an: Surat al-Tawbah (9), verse 112 and Surat al-Fath (49), veresse 29 are two examples.

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