We live in a world where perfectionism is rampant. We continually feel pressure to be the best in all areas of our lives: a great professional but also the most sociable person, a wholesome individual who finds time to rest, cook the best banana bread, but also disciplined enough to leave it and go for a run.
Even in the midst of a global pandemic we continue to put pressure on ourselves to be as productive as possible by learning new languages and mastering sourdough. It is no surprise that our wellbeing ends up paying the price; perfectionism is linked to many mental health conditions. In our quest for perfection, we attempt to sculpt ourselves into ideal beings, stripping away the parts of our characters which we perceive to be contrary to our own internalized definition of perfection, all under the name of self-improvement.
The notion of self-improvement and indeed, the quest for perfection is implicit within Sufism, the inner[i] or spiritual dimension of Islam in which the Sufis, driven by love, seek to meet God in this world. However, this quest for perfection differs substantially from modern perfectionism as it encourages the acceptance, rather than the rejection of one’s truest self.
This quest for perfection differs substantially from modern perfectionism as it encourages the acceptance, rather than the rejection of one’s truest self.
The notion of perfection is addressed in the Sufi tradition through the concept of the Perfect Man — in Islamic theology called al-Insān al-Kāmil (Arabic: الإنسان الكامل). While God’s true essence ultimately remains hidden, His attributes are revealed in the Qur’an through His 99 names.[ii] Since humans are made in God’s form, they have the potential to manifest all the characteristics revealed by the names, making the Perfect Man the one who has done this fully. The Prophet Muhammad is considered to be the only Perfect Man in the truest sense, yet Sufis strive to acquire these traits in order to gain proximity to God and attain the only true perfection.
A crucial part of this notion is the apparent disparity between the names and corresponding attributes referring to His beauty or jamal (including those of grace, generosity, compassion, and mercy) and His majesty or jalal (including those of power, wrath, and authority).[iii]
While it is easy to associate the names relating to God’s beauty with perfection, it is a greater challenge with such designations as power, wrath, and authority which relate to God’s majesty. Hence, the two sets of names and attributes may at first glance appear contradictory. Yet God’s perfection comes from the combination of both sets of attributes which compliment rather than oppose each other, as affirmed by the master poet of the Islamic mystical tradition Jalaluddin Rumi when he writes: “God is not a king whose kingdom can be known by one thing.”[iv]
As we are made in God’s image, we may also display qualities and behaviors which we may not understand and deem undesirable, contradictory, and frustrating. However, the very notion of the Perfect Man emphasizes the need for the conflicting aspects of ourselves to be united and reconciled. Humans are considered unique and able to draw close to God precisely because they embody both sets of attributes.
This merger of opposites breaks down the false dichotomy between what we perceive to be perfection and imperfection. Just as God’s perfection transcends our understanding, so should our own. It is this very contrast between the two sets of names and attributes which allows their meaning to be fully realized. As Rumi explains: “Defects are the mirror of the quality of perfection. . . . Because (every) contrary is certainly made evident by its contrary; because honey is perceived (to be sweet by contrast) with vinegar.”[v]
The rejection of the notion that perfection is something we can comprehend fully is both profoundly humbling and liberating.
This holistic way of viewing our individual characters also precludes the accusation of egocentricity which has recently been associated with spiritual practice. The rejection of the notion that perfection is something we can comprehend fully is both profoundly humbling and liberating. Since the acquisition of God’s attributes is considered a divine unveiling or gift,[vi] we renounce our ability to completely understand perfection and so too our ability to attain it by fulfilling certain criteria. According to Rumi, “There is no worse malady in your soul . . . than the conceit of perfection.”[vii]
Just as God’s perfection is revealed through His qualities of beauty and majesty, our own inherent value arises as a result of our own supposed internal contradictions. Just as God cannot be known by one set of attributes, neither can we. Rumi expresses this exquisitely when he writes that “The lovers of the Whole are not those who love the part: he that longed for the part failed to attain unto the Whole.”[viii]
These conflicting traits add depth, vibrancy, and excitement to our personalities by making us multi-faceted and multi-dimensional beings. They make our conversations and connections genuine, unpredictable, and unscripted. One may be harsh and blunt in one situation yet loving and compassionate in another. This does not signify disingenuity but its opposite.
Indeed, we do not hold the potential to grow in spite of the inherent contradictions in our personality but because of them, we expand in their embrace. It is in this way that self-acceptance and self-improvement are inextricably linked. “Yet these two opposites, who seem to be at strife, are one of the mind and acting together in agreement,”[ix] Rumi insists.
We do not hold the potential to grow in spite of the inherent contradictions in our personality but because of them, we expand in their embrace.
The Sufi tradition highlights again and again that perfection and its supposed antithesis often appear in close proximity to each other. This is expressed poetically by Farad al-Din Attar, “I make my home/ in ruins/ How often/ the ruin hides/ a treasure.”[x]
Rumi likewise highlights that “The healing/ was from the light/ The wound/ is where the light/ enters you,”[xi] and Hazrat Inyat Khan observes that “A diamond must be cut/ before/ its light/ can shine out.”[xii] Thus, the dichotomy expresses the need for supposed imperfections which transcend our understanding as it is only then that beauty can be revealed fully. In Rumi’s words: “hidden things are revealed by (their) opposites.”
The concept of the Perfect Man reveals that the very presence of our contradictory attributes makes us paradoxically closer to perfection than if we only manifested and displayed clichéd attributes of perfect beauty devoid of physical and character flaws. It is these apparent contradictions, the aspects of ourselves which we question, dislike, call imperfect, and even berate ourselves for, that make us human, and in this way, the very beings which hold the potential to make God known. It is this duality within us, even as its purpose transcends our understanding, which makes us whole, enabling us to live in the world and to feel, love, cry, and laugh.
Rumi’s famous poem “The Guest House” beautifully illustrates this point. He reminds us to “welcome and entertain” “each arrival” in our minds, even though some may “violently sweep your house/ empty of its furniture” as they might be “clearing you out” for “some new delight,” as all have ultimately been sent “as a guide from beyond.”
[i] Annemarie Schimmel, Deciphering the signs of God: A Phenomenological Approach to Islam, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), pp. xiv-xvi
[ii] Carl W. Ernst, Sufism: An Introduction to the Mystical Tradition of Islam, (Boston and London: Shambhala, 2011, pp.93-97
[iii] Ernst, Sufism: An Introduction to the Mystical Tradition of Islam, p.97
[iv] Jalaluddin Rumi, Signs of the Unseen, The Discourses of Jalaluddin Rumi, Thackston, W. M Jr. (trans) (Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, 1994), p.184
[v] Jalaluddin Rumi, The Mathnawi of Jalalu’din Rumi, Translation of Books I &II, Reynold A. Nicholsan (ed + trans.), (Cambridge: E. J. W. Gibb Memorial Trust, 2015), pp.174-175
[vi] ‘Abd Al-Karīm. Jīlī. Al-, Universal Man, Titus. Burckhardt (trans + commentary) Angela. Seymour. Culme (English trans.), (Paris: Beshara Publications, 1983), p.46
[vii] Rumi, The Mathnawi of Jalalu’din Rumi, Translation of Books I &II, p.175
[viii] Rumi, The Mathnawi of Jalalu’din Rumi, Translation of Books I &II, p.153
[ix] Rumi, The Mathnawi of Jalalu’din Rumi, Translation of Books I &II, p.168
[x] Omid Safi, Radical Love, (Yale: Yale University Press, 2018), p.138
[xi] Safi, Radical Love, p.222
[xii] Safi, Radical Love, p.123