Al-Insān al-Kamil: The Human Perfection, a Gender-Neutral Spiritual Paradigm
In Islamic theology, an accurate English interpretation of the expression al-insān al-kāmil, Arabic الإنسان الكامِل , translates as “the perfect human” or “the perfect being.” In Sufism, this expression is closely linked to Ibn ʿArabī, who identified The Prophet Muḥammad as “the perfect man” and is viewed by Muslims as the archetype of the perfect human. We find al-insān al-kamil perhaps first developed by Ibn ʿArabī in Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam, Bezels of Wisdom (also translated as The Precious Stones of the Wisdoms or Ringstones of Wisdom) where he notes: “God manifests Himself to the heart of the Perfect Man, who is His vicegerent. And the reflection of the lights of His self-manifestation overflows into the world, which remains in existence by receiving this effusion” of full human realization. Such a union between God and the perfect human being is of profound significance in Sufism. With that in mind, and due to the multilayered, rich, and historically diverse views within this tradition addressing the subject of gender, my proposal will focus on this particular concept of the al-insān al-kāmil, or “the perfect human,” disclosed by Ibn ʿArabī as gender-neutral. Simply put, the conquest to full human realization of spiritual perfection is fully available to both men and women.
In this case study I will offer a close account of Ibn ʿArabī’s al-insān al-kāmil, “the perfect human,” as an endorsement of the equal ontological capacity for full spiritual completion by men and women. It will be followed by an analysis, within the broader Sufi tradition, of Ibn ʿArabī’s historical frame where criticisms against his proposals kick off. In addition, it will have a succinct analysis of why Ibn ʿArabī, despite the controversies surrounding his work, is worth reading. Assisted by key scholars of Islam such as William Chittick, Sa‘diyya Shaikh, Jawad Anwar Qureshi, Souad Hakim, Peter Adamson and William R. Dickson, among others, I intend to deconstruct Arabī’s main thesis on the subject of gender equality where he upholds al-insān al-kāmil as a clear paradigm over dominant narratives of gender-binary relationship that assume a male-centric view. Lastly, I will offer a brief, critical response to some notes from feminist scholars such as Sa’diyya Shaikh (a Muslim scholar) that find Ibn ʿArabī’s perspectives on gender equality yet embedded with male subjectivity.
When Ibn ‘Arabī speaks of humanity in its archetypal capacity, he calls the al-insān al-kāmil, or The Perfect Human, “who integrates all forms of the devine names,” traditionally referred to as the ninety-nine names, qualities, or attributes that reside within God’s state of unity, or oneness (tawhid). Of course, all these qualities remain as a “rather the ideal or the potential that all humans do in fact possess, which is realized in some beings and not others;” this is an ideal for which all human beings strive toward. When Ibn ‘Arabī speaks of ‘man,’ he does not mean what classical philosophers would define as the “rational animal.” This notion of man does not infer to his perfection, but rather:
the most basic form of man that distinguishes him from other creatures. Ibn ‘Arabī is concerned primarily with “the Perfect Man” [the Perfect Being] (al-insān al-kāmil), the man that reflects the names and attributes of God. Ibn ‘Arabī speaks of the Perfect Man in two different ways. The first is as an archetype of man’s perfectibility, what he calls the Muḥammadan Reality, man’s primordiality as manifesting the attributes of God in a single reality. The second is the Perfect Man [the Perfect Being] as a telos, as the ultimate point of human existence.
To put it differently, no other being can truly know God in the way that the human being does. Now, here is where Ibn ʿArabī’s attempts to wander about the higher epistemological levels of mystical insight that transcend rational logic. Reason can lead a thinker to the knowledge that God is not knowable through rational faculties, and our rational limitations can distort the spiritual experience of reality. Nevertheless, Ibn ʿArabī is certainly “not making blanket statements against rationality and speculative reasoning” as he himself clearly states that the intellect is a divine gift, uniquely given to human beings. Here is where Ibn ʿArabī’s idea of the pursuit of knowledge shifts from Muslim philosophers, jurists, and theologians; not because they believe the pursuit of knowledge can be aquired through the rational intellect or inherited tradition, but for their position that these are the only means by which knowledge can be achieved. In short, there are different ways of knowing and therefore different kinds of knowledge and in many ways, “the most important and fundamental dimension of perfection is knowledge, which entails discernment and putting things in their proper places.” What we find is that for Ibn ʿArabī, full human realization does include knowledge, but this knowledge can be aquired thought one’s spiritual experience coming from al-qalb, or the heart, which is is “the human faculty that can embrace God in the fullness of his manifestation. In Ibn ʿArabī’s terms, the heart alone can know God and the realities in a synthetic manner embracing both rational understanding and suprarational unveiling.” What’s more, and using the Qur’an as a foundational point in Islamic tradition, Ibn ʿArabī sees the Holy Book as “all prophetic knowledge in a synthetic manner while addressing the two primary modes of human understanding, “reason” (‘aql) and “imagination” (khayal).”  In short, to comprehend God’s message, rational knowledge could have its limitations that reflection and observations might not. For example, “visual unveiling may discover things where rational arguments stumble, because the arguments have left their proper domain.”
According to Ibn ʿArabī, human beings ‘access different dimensions of reality through the five senses, the rational mind (reason), and our heart;’ these faculties allow us to access different aspects of existence. In short, to truly undertand reality, one must attempt to use one of these faculties of knowing outside of its appropriate domain. For Ibn al-‘Arabi, to conquer full human realization one must be aware of all of these faculties, though the knowledge of the heart is higher as it has knowledge of higher dimensions such as the unseen, known as God. This awareness or undertanding (wujud) as used in early Sufi tradition implied that “finding God, that is, coming to direct awareness and consciousness of the Divine Reality,” is a prominent expression in Ibn ʿArabī’s writings:
When man contemplates the Reality in woman he beholds [Him] in a passive aspect, while when he contemplates Him in himself, as being that from which woman is manifest, he beholds Him in an active aspect. When, however, he contemplates Him in himself, without any regard to what has come from him, he beholds Him as passive to Himself directly. However, his contemplation of the Reality in woman is the most complete and perfect, because in this way he contemplates
the Reality in both active and passive mode, while by contemplating the Reality only in himself, he beholds Him in a passive mode particularly.
The spiritual experience of reality is at the core of Ibn ʿArabī’s concept of al-insān al-kāmil, the Perfect Human or the Perfect Being, as the human purpose and “the most comprehensive standard for human realization” that speaks from an inclusive-ungendered demand where “there is no spiritual qualification conferred on men which is denied [to] women.” The Perfect Human, al-insān al-kāmil, as representing a universal standard for human perfection, is “ultimately linked to his vision of gender. It represents the universal and genderless ethical self toward which all aspirants, male and female, are to aspire.” Ibn ‘Arabī backs his statement by referencing the Qurʾānic verse 33:35, in Surat Al-'Ahzāb, which reflects the various virtues of Muslim believers in both genders:
Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so - for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.
Based on this verse alone, Ibn ʿArabī appears pretty assertive that the Holy Qurʾān confirms his point. Simply put, the process of spiritual refinement is equally accessible to men and women. In addition, he points out that “this gender-inclusive verse reflects a central Qurʾānic teaching on the complete ontological equality of men and women.” What we see is that he remains faithful to the text of the Qurʾān, while at the same time rereading words “within a dynamic and fluid cosmological framework that allows for radically different, even subversive understanding of gender.” It is worth noting that Ibn ʿArabī fundamentally appears as a visionary mystic instead of a philosopher or a theologian, though Ibn ʿArabī himself might not know how to define himself within these parameters. That will remain as an assumption. He did not associate himself with the philosophers, albeit “he recognized the legitimacy of their pursuits, he saw the human reality as much more extensive than what they envisaged” and saw the limitations within philosophy “though his historical influence would be enormous, it is not as if Sufism and later Islamic philosophy are identical.” Within the broader Sufi tradition, Ibn ʿArabī is usually called a Sufi, but “he does not apply this word to himself, nor does he often use it to speak of others.” Because he addresses a range of spiritual experiences, Ibn ʿArabī utilizes a wide, detailed vocabulary that appeared as visionary within Sufism of the thirteenth century onward; this shaped Islamic thought, which then went on to influence Muslim poetic traditions, folk music, and popular religiosity. With that said, and due to the limitations of this essay, I am mainly observing the philosophical and deconstructive side of Ibn ʿArabī rather than his theological propositions, i.e. ‘the oneness of being.’ Specifically, my aim centres on how al-insān al-kāmil, a genderless proposal of spiritual equality by Ibn ʿArabī in the thirteenth century, can be addressed in contemporary discourses of gender equality.
It is because of the mystic-philosophical intersection that “his writings are packed with technical terms borrowed from the philosophical tradition” as well as personal spiritual experiences. For the reader, the philosophical and the spiritual could appear in constant conflict with one another, this is why his proposals can be hard to grasp, even by scholars of the field. Anyone who claims the opposite is not being honest. Put differently, a critical starting point for Ibn ʿArabī “is not reasoning from creation to the creator, but in the other direction, reasoning from the creator to creation.” That is to say, rather than coming into learning particular doctrines that shape one’s view of the divine, “Ibn ‘Arabī experienced a spiritual opening first and then sought out theoretical knowledge.” The point of departure from the spiritual has been the subject of centuries of backfire, especially from other scholars. We can observe in Muslim literature refutations of his work intertwined with “accusation of dangerous heresy–a heresy that many of his accusers saw as the combination of a riotous mystical imagination with a pantheistic philosophy that threatened to destroy the foundations of Islam.” Taqi al-Din Ahmed Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), one of Islam’s most forceful and controversial theologians, was a younger contemporary of several of Ibn ‘Arabī’s heirs. Ibn Taymiyya was familiar with his writings and “attacked Ibn ʿArabī’s exposition of the ‘oneness of being’ as a blameworthy innovation (bida’a), one deviating from the beliefs of the early Muslim community.” As just stressed, his writings are not precisely easy to follow, due to perhaps the difficulties in addressing a self-realization of reality; his most important and influential disciple, “his stepson Sadr al-Dīn Qunawī refers to their perspective precisely as mashrab al-tahqīq, or the school of realization.”
When discussing the subject of insāniyya (being human), which culminates in the ideal archetype of human, or al-insān al-kāmil, Ibn ʿArabī makes clear that insāniyya “applies to men and women alike, with no level of difference.”Nonetheless, I find the notion of ‘no difference’ only applicable to mirror the spiritual notion of genderless equality. In brief, the idea of genderless equality seems that can only be achieved spiritually; the social and legal aspects must be left for another chapter. It is worth noting that Ibn ʿArabī, while offering a hermeneutical analysis of genderless concept of al-insān al-kāmil as the ultimate human realization, also advocates for women’s social and ritual equality in many respects. Not all of course; we are aware of the sociological-politico-religious contraints of the thirteenth century of Andalusia and Syria. However, some contemporary Muslim feminist scholars such as Sa’diyya Shaikh stress that the spiritual equality between men and women must also be linked to social realities and legal debates. Yet, on the one hand Ibn ʿArabī offers a universal and equally attainable spiritual condition in the perfect human being, al-insān al-kāmil; on the other hand, he highlights attributes uniquely found in women and in men that set their superiority within their own side of the gender spectrum. The reader might see that in Ibn ʿArabī’s writing, there are instances where “he prioritizes one sex over the other, [while] further writing follows in which he prioritizes the other; he then subverts the previous position.” Shaikh finds that:
... he [Ibn ʿArabī] is constantly employed in unsaying any form of gender privileging. At other times, the reader might discover all three different conceptions of gender interwoven within in a single passage in a work; as if that were not enough, Ibn ʿArabī then impishly further confounds the more categorically bent among his readers by at times blurring the borders among three seemingly contrary gender perspectives.
Based on Shaikh’s claim, the different articulations of gender by ʿArabī might destabilize most readers’ assumptions about gender. One particular instance involves Ibn ʿArabī’s multiple narratives of the Qur’anic creation accounts of Adam and Eve. He draws hadith and Qur’anic sources into “his cosmological framework, allowing for expansive readings of gender,” that is to say, the degree in which man is above women to the manner of Eve’s creation from Adam. First, being human, or insāniyya, is something in common between male and female, although later ʿArabī underlines that “men do have a priority (daraja) over women” illustrating the superiority of the heaven and earth over humans by extrapolating the advantage or priority (daraja) “the heaven and earth enjoy of humanity [as] identical to the superiority of the male over the female.” Second, Eve is seen a recipient of Adam’s act as she originated from the short rib. She falls short to reach the level of the male bounded by the limit inscribed in the rib. The comparison here infers that “human being[s] will never reach the level of cosmos in its totality” and that the woman can never reach the level of the man, infers Shaikh. If Ibn ʿArabī’s interpretations appear conflictive for the reader, it is a shared sentiment. The conflict remains in the different categories on his work, be it philosophical, analytical, or hermeneutical on the one hand, and the personal mystic experience on the other hand. Ibn ʿArabī reflective analysis of man and woman, as in the example of Eve being the recipient of Adam’s act and Eve analogy, stresses the notion that “the human being comprises the epitome of creation,” the ultimate goal of creation where male-female role appears as a supplement of one-another, as an interweaving creation that steps out of a binary dispute. As such, this man and woman intersection should not assume superiority or inferiority. ʿArabī recalls the Prophet Mohammed addressing the “three things have been made beloved to me in this world of yours,” where women, perfume, and prayers were his choices. The Prophet begins, stressesʿArabī, by mentioning women and leaves prayer until last, because, “in the manifestation of her essence, woman is a part of man.”
As for the subject of controversies that Ibn ʿArabī awoke among his peers, a scholar of religion is aware that any major historical thinker will trigger a certain level of rejection among groups. Ibn ʿArabī is not a unique case. I argue that there is always something worth highlighting from any thinker, especially from Ibn ʿArabī; even if the reader condones his self-references of prophetic dreams or visions as appearing blasphemous, such as dream-vision of three prophets, Moses, Jesus, and Muḥammad, where ʿArabī claims they offered him guidance. Stated politely, rejecting thinkers entirely because some of their proposals do not fit into our own idiosyncrasies could only mean the end of all possible dialogue that holds mutual tolerance. Namely, and setting aside idiosyncratic disputes, we could unquestionably feature Ibn ʿArabī’s notion of al-insān al-kāmil as an endorsement of spiritual equality for men or women. Furthermore, this certainly could help us utilize the concept of equality addressed by Islam, profoundly discussed in literary narratives, that tackle the role of women in our twenty-first-century society. Among all, al-insān al-kāmil explicitly shows “the humanity of Islam, cleansed of all the oppression, coercion and persecution of women that has been attributed to it.” As for the conflicting images of Ibn ʿArabī throughout centuries of ideological agendas, his “positive and unadulterated view of woman is astonishingly modern when compared to contemporary perspectives, be it those of some Muslim extremists who treat women as a lesser being”
Al-insān al-kāmil, “the perfect human,” represents Ibn ʿArabī’s manifesto that addresses the equal ontological capacity for full spiritual completion by men and women. The thirteen-century frame from which this idea emerged reveals a radical view that it is astonishingly modern when compared to contemporary perspectives. Criticism arose, as is always the case when a critical thinker shakes up the mainstream stablishment, and yet after eight centuries, his work is still contemporary in many means. Within the broader Sufi tradition, Ibn ʿArabī parted ways from philosophers who for centuries stressed the subject of rational knowledge as the only way to address reality. Although he does not discredit reason per se (it is a divine gift), he insists that spiritual experience of reality (al-qalb, or the heart) is crucial in order to reach the full human realization. In the end, knowledge can be aquired through one’s spiritual experience embracing God in the fullness of his manifestation. Ibn ʿArabī’s concept of al-insān al-kāmil, the Perfect Human, is at the centre of this human realization, which overlooks gender. He reads gender in innovative ways, considering the thirteenth-century frame of a male writer, both asserting difference and maintaining an underlying shared humanity.
 The English-to-Arabic translations of this expression found in most of Ibn ʿArabī’s books are not entirely accurate. The Arabic al-insān al-kamildoes not imply “the perfect man,” rather “the perfect human” or “the perfect being.” The word insān has no gender. So, the reader must keep in mind as those translations reflect nothing more than a non-inclusive English interpretation of the time. It is crucial to clarify this historic male-center translation, commonly found in non-contemporary literature.  William C. Chittick, “Ibn Arabi’s Own Summary of the Fuṣūṣ,” Journal of the Ibn Arabi Society, vol. 1, 1982, pp. 30–93. https://doi.org/https://ibnarabisociety.org/wp-content/uploads/PDFs/Chittick_Fusus-summary.pdf.  Sa’diyya Shaikh, “In Search of ‘Al-Insān’: Sufism, Islamic Law, and Gender,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77, no. 4 (2009), 802.  Ibid.  Jawad Anwar Qureshi, “Ibn ʿArabī and the Akbarī Tradition,” In Routledge Handbook on Sufism, edited by Lloyd Ridgeon, (New York: Taylor & Francis Press, 2021), 93.  Sa’diyya Shaikh, Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn ʿArabī, Gender, and Sexuality, (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 66.  William C. Chittick, Makers of the Muslim World: Ibn 'Arabi Heir to the Prophets, (London: Oneworld Publications, 2005), 30.  Chittick, Makers of the Muslim World, 33.  Chittick, 35.  William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn ʿArabī’s Metaphysics of Imagination, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), 165.  Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge, 159-160.  Chittick, Makers of the Muslim World, 69.  Ibn ʿArabī, The Bezels of Wisdom, translated by R. W. J. Austin (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 275.  Shaikh, Sufi Narratives of Intimacy, 82.  Ibid.  Shaikh, “In Search of ‘Al-Insān’, 816.  “Surat Al-'Ahzab [33:35].” Accessed November 14, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/33/35.  Shaikh, Sufi Narratives of Intimacy, 82.  Shaikh, 155.  William C. Chittick, “Ibn ʿArabī: The Doorway to an Intellectual Tradition,” Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn ʿArabī Society, 59, (2016), 11.  Peter Adamson, Philosophy in The Islamic World: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Volume 3, 1st ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 195.  Chittick, “Ibn ʿArabī,” 9.  “The world with its true multiplicity and relative oneness comes into existence from an Originator who is the One in Essence, or One with an inherent and true Oneness, to which is attributed a Unity of the multiplicity of relations in respect to the Names and Qualities, because the realities of the world demand that, i.e., this Oneness of the multiplicity of the Names, from It, i.e., the Originator.” Chittick, “Ibn Arabi’s Own Summary of the Fuṣūṣ,” 55.  Adamson, Philosophy in The Islamic World, 200.  Qureshi, “Ibn ‘Arabi,” 93.  Ibid., 90.  The most significant dating from this early period of his life was his dream-vision of three prophets, Moses, Jesus, and Muḥammad, which still today is seeing as blasphemous by some Muslim circles. He claims that “each of them offered him a particular form of guidance.” Ibid.  Shaikh, 16.  William Rory Dickson, Living Sufism in North America: Between Tradition and Transformation (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015), 26.  Chittick, 10.  Ibid., 156.  Ibid., 151.  Ibid.  Ibid., 152.  Ibid., 153.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid., 158.  ʿArabī, The Bezels of Wisdom, 272.  Ibid.  Souad Hakim, “Ibn Arabs Twofold Perception of Woman: Woman as Human Being and Cosmic Principle,” Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society, 39 (2006), 12.  Hakim, “Ibn ʿArabī Twofold Perception of Woman,” 13.
Adamson, Peter. Philosophy In The Islamic World: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Volume 3. 1st ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Chittick, William C. “Ibn ʿArabī’s Own Summary of the Fuṣūṣ.” Journal of the Ibn Arabi Society, vol. 1, (1982): 30–93. https://doi.org/https://ibnarabisociety.org/wp-content/uploads/PDFs/Chittick_Fusus-summary.pdf.
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Ibn ʿArabī. The Bezels of Wisdom. Translated by R. W. J. Austin. New York: Paulist Press, 1980.
Shaikh, Sa’diyya. “In Search of ‘Al-Insān’: Sufism, Islamic Law, and Gender.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77, no. 4 (2009): 781–822. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20630157.
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