The author increases appreciation of Islamic views by presenting an in-depth analysis of several other philosophies and contrasting them with Islam.
Throughout history and until now, the description of what a “perfect” human being is has been given differently by different people. The variations in these definitions bring forth several different societies in today’s world, none of which have yet achieved perfection. In his book Perfect Man Ayatollah Murtadha Muttahari examines the subject of perfection from the viewpoint of various philosophers and points out their deficiencies using the Islamic ideology and standard for perfection. He explains what the route towards self-perfection is and what therefore leads into a perfect society.
The perfection of every creation depends upon its in-built nature. The perfection of an animal is different from that of an angel, which is different from that of a human being. Although human nature has several facets to it, the very basic and fundamental aspect of its nature is to seek God. Man is constantly in pain of being separated from his Source and Creator. Love of Allah is innate in the nature of man, and even those people who deny God in actuality love Him unconsciously from the depth of their souls. A startling fact that the author points out is that every other creation inclines towards following the path of its innate God-given nature. It is man alone, however, who can deviate from the nature of humanity!
In order to see how Islam views perfection, one does not only have to look towards the Qur’an and narrations, but also at the real-life and practical models of perfection such as the Infallibles (peace be upon them). For example, if we study the life of Imam Ali (peace be upon him), we will find him to be an embodiment of high levels of knowledge and understanding of every matter, a valiant warrior on the battleground, a serenely devoted worshipper especially in the nights, and along with all of this, the most cheerful, polite, and friendly personality among the people. This illustrates that a perfect man is actually the one who is balanced and moderate in lifestyle.
The struggle towards perfection lies in self-renunciation, which is unlike self-mortification (killing the self.) The beauty of self-purification is not only that it removes vices and increases sincerity of the heart, but it also adds to one’s wisdom and internal knowledge. The method of self-purification involves self-renunciation (Jihad an-Nafs) and self-respect. Man has two types of selfs, and the “self” that needs to be rejected is the irrational and evil self. Allah has granted man two basic sources of guidance: one is his internal messenger, or the conscience, and the second is the external messenger, or the Prophet of God (peace be upon him and his progeny). The good “self” is the internal messenger, and if crushed or ignored, makes the journey towards perfection impossible.
A major obstacle in the process of self-purification is the problem of delusion. Often times, the evil self tries to deceive one’s conscience by beautifying and justifying negative qualities so that one is not even aware of the presence of such a vice or evil within him-/herself. This is why we are advised never to trust our “self” or Nafs, which can turn against us without us being aware! It is only when subject to test and trial that the concealed negative qualities or the vices become evident. This proves the necessity and the philosophy behind tests and trials in life.
The key to perfection lies in devotion, and the key to devotion lies in communication with Allah. Prayer restores faith; its utterance makes one realize that everything other than Allah is insignificant, unpredictable, and perishable. This does not mean that prayer alone can lead to perfection. Just as the lack of a certain value destroys a person/society, similarly the excess and overemphasis of one value over many others bring equal damage. A perfect believer is the one who not only cares about self-development but also about the people of his society.
Perfect individuals are crucial to forming a perfect society. Members of such a society will show care and concern about each other and look towards the improvement of their affairs with justice and harmony. The least that the members of an Islamic society should do is be able to talk or rise for the sake of their rights. Imam Ali quotes the Prophet in Nahj al-Balagha: “No people rise to the level of sanctity unless the weak stand up against the strong without a stammer.”
In this book, the author increases appreciation of Islamic views by presenting an in-depth analysis of several other philosophies and contrasting them with Islam. Although there are many schools of thought that he discusses, the main ones are the intellectuals, the Gnostics, and Sophists. According to intellectual philosophers, perfection results from logical and intellectual development through knowledge and reasoning. If that were to be true, then perhaps Satan would qualify as the most perfect being. Opposite to this, in the view of the Gnostics, perfection is solely the measure of love of God in which there is no interference of the intellect. Since the basis for Islamic faith lies in intellect, this thought cannot hold true either. The Sophists are another group of people who think that perfection belongs to the most powerful one of the society, in other words, “survival of the fittest”. This school of thought does not believe in equality, but rather that “might is right” in every sense.
In Islamic terms, the measure of one’s power lies in nothing but his/her ability to fight the carnal desires. In terms of physical power and strength, we believe in developing it so that it acts as our defense against our enemies and to resist oppression. Imam Ali says in Nahj al-Balagha: “Let your strength be used in aiding the oppressed and in fighting the oppressor.”
In short, the book was a wonderful read and was able to bring out a precise definition of both a “perfect man” and a “perfect society”. May Allah help us realize our deficiencies and to embark upon the infinite path of perfection for our own sake and for the sake of our society.
The book is available online.