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The Universal Man

by Fethullah Gülen on . Posted in Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism-2

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Also known as the perfect man, the universal man is the brightest mirror of God's acts, Names, Attributes, and even His Essential Qualities that qualify Him as God. There is a rule that when an attribute is mentioned without it being specified who the one or ones that have it are, then such an attribute belongs to the one who has it at the most perfect level. So, when we talk about the universal man, we mean, first of all, Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings. Then come other Messengers and Prophets, and the greatest spiritual guides who are known as "means of Divine help" (ghaws) and "pole" or "axis" (qutb), and "those made near to God" (muqarrabun), and godly ones (abrar), and other saintly people, each according to their rank or degree.

Each group being based on their particular considerations, philosophers, theologians, and Sufis approach the universal man by a different rubric. In the language of philosophers and some theologians, he is the first intellect, the universal intellect, the comprehensive word, the encompassing point, the point of unity, the Divine mystery, the mirror of the Divine mystery, the greatest means, and so on; while he is mentioned by some Sufis with titles such as the guide, the one leading to truth, the perfect scholar, the perfecting one, the mature and perfect, and the greatest cure, etc. All these definitions or titles can be summed up in a single sentence, which is that the universal man is the mirror of the Divine Existence and the two worlds. Being the essence, juice, voice, and translator of existence, he not only demonstrates "the hidden treasure" in all realms of existence and connects everything to the Divine Being, but he is also an articulate expression of the Being that is in the depth of his consciousness and the richness of his nature.

The universal man is such a polished mirror that God's Essential Qualities qualifying Him as God are reflected in him at almost every moment, beyond all concepts of modality, and the earth becomes more valuable than the heavens because it is his residence. The universal man functions in effect as the intellect, heart and spirit of existence, without whom nothing can be understood correctly, no information can be developed into knowledge about God, and the mystery of the life of any thing cannot be perceived. The whole physical realm when not viewed from his perspective is devoid of spirit, and any part of time which is not enlightened by him is in darkness. So, those who live in such a realm and at such a time are deprived of the light and the true life with respect to the heart and spirit, and cannot develop their human nature to its true and full potential.

People have only been able to continuously turn to God without failure by means of universal men. Masses have discovered their true goals under their guidance and interpreted things and events correctly by means of the lights that they have disseminated. For this reason, those who have found and followed them have found the truth and those who have been able to penetrate their inner world have observed the Face of the Truth to the extent of the transparence of their heart and spirit.

The universal man is an example in the name of religion and religious life. Belief, Islamic life and perfect goodness constitute his way; obtaining God's good pleasure, his goal; loving God and making Him loved by others, his duty; Paradise and God's vision are the surprising fruit of his thought, belief and life, provided he is not cast in the role of the goal of his devotion.

The universal man always pursues a way to help others and to increase his knowledge of God. Since he lives in accordance with good morals, he always displays good and excellence. He always sees things from a beautiful perspective and therefore as beautiful, he thinks and acts beautifully, and speaks beautiful, useful things. In quest of God's approval and good pleasure in all his acts, words, and manners, he always feels His company. He thinks of Him, mentions Him, speaks about Him, reminds others of Him with all his attitudes and expressions, and lives as the most articulate voice of truth. The greatest of the universal men, the master of creation, was foremost in having every good quality that could be found in a universal man. Seeing him once was enough for an unbiased one to be able to discern the Divine mystery lying in the essence of Islam. As stated by 'Abd al-Karim al-Jili,[1] there has never been nor ever will be a second one qualified with human perfections to the degree of Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and God's blessings.

If perfection lies in purifying the spirit and cleansing the carnal self with the Divine Revelation and inspiration, and in developing the human faculties, overcoming bodily appetites and animal impulses, and attaining subsistence by the subsistence of His particular blessings in utmost submission and obedience to Him, so as to become thereby the most polished mirror to the Divine Names, Attributes, and Essential Qualities, then the only one who was able to achieve all these without the least imperfection, and whose servanthood or devotion was at the level of "the distance of two bows," is the master of creation, upon him be the most perfect of blessings and salutations. He is foremost and unparalleled in perfection and, in the words of Bediuzzaman, the pride of humankind and the whole of creation, and the seal of Prophethood.

In the language of Sufism, the universal man is a substance or an essence which has combined in his being without any contradiction the spiritual or metaphysical and physical realms of existence, as well as its original and the shadowy or reflected, and its particular and universal, and its substantial and accidental dimensions. According to Sayyid Sharif al-Jurjani, the holy person who is the pride of humankind was such a mysterious and precious book, and such a missive containing the truths related to Divinity and creation, that no one other than the fortunate who have been able to be purified of all corporeal dirt can perceive and recognize him perfectly. We see the universe as the macrocosmos, but in truth and in God's sight, humanity is greater than the universe. In the words of 'Ali, the Fourth Caliph, his nature is more sublime than even the angels, with the worlds hidden in it. The fact that the universal man is a comprehensive mirror to God's Existence and Essential Qualities, that the inner side or dimension of his being is the focus of the manifestation of all the Divine Names, Attributes and Essential Qualities, and that the outer dimension of his being, with all its words, lines and paragraphs, is a summary or index of all existence, in part explicitly, and in part allusively. As the Holy Existence is manifested on him in the universal, detailed form, that is, as he carries a couplet or a word from everything, even if in a very abbreviated form, every being is in one respect immanent in the mirror of his being. He finds the Divine Being in his heart as a hidden treasure. It is highly probable that one of the reasons why angels were commanded to prostrate before the first universal being-Prophet Adam-was because of the rich attributes he had in his being. Such richness as this required that the one endowed with it should respond with serious devotion. This was manifested as religion and religious life, which is a representation of the Divine way of acting and of His laws in the universe. God attaches special importance to us, and in return, we should try to please Him by practicing Islam in all its dimensions throughout our lives.

With respect to his relation with existence and events, the universal man is the vicegerent of God on the earth, who observes and knows the meaning of His acts and orders, and is His witness. God looks at His creatures through his eyes, hears them through his ears, and gives them support through his hands. He is a man of perfect compassion, who embraces everyone in need of attention, support and maintenance. He feels compassionate toward everyone, and like blood circulating in all the veins and arteries, his compassion is present in the body of society, keeping an eye on it to protect it against all harmful things and to meet its needs, controlling all its activities like the soul. As declared in the Qur'an, We have not sent you save as a mercy for the whole creation (21:107), and We have not sent you save as a bearer of good tidings and warner for the whole humankind (34:28), God's Messenger, who is the greatest of the universal men, upon him be peace ad blessings, is a mercy for all creation, living or non-living, and a guide and leader for all humankind, and a bearer of good tidings (in return for belief and good deeds) and a warner (because of humankind's deviations in belief and their evil deeds). As for other universal men, each of them is, in adherence to the Messenger, also a mercy for all creation, and a guide and leader for humankind.

The universal man radiates the spirit of the people, enlightening them concerning their nature and God, guiding them to the truth, purifying their spirits and cleansing their carnal selves, and awakening their faculties to the Truth. People find their "direction" through him, and know their goals in life and advance straight to them with his guidance. He leads to perfection the souls that have aptitude for perfection. Anyone who is favored with recognizing him and entering his aura will have entered the way leading to God, closing up the distances in their nature between them and Him. Everyone who overcomes their corporeality by such guidance, feels at heart His nearness beyond all concepts of modality, and according to their capacity are able to taste the pleasure of the "seeing" of Him with their insight, attaining His friendship with their spirit. Although everyone who has the necessary capacity and aptitude can feel certain degrees of pleasure of nearness to and friendship with Him, only the universal man favored with the universal manifestation of Him can be a perfect, spotless and bright mirror to Him.

As all conscious beings feel the mysteries of Divinity in the universal man, the Divine Being, in a particular sense, observes all His manifestations in the other mirrors in that one polished mirror. This means that the universal man is such a comprehensive mirror that reflects the All-Permanent One among mortal beings that one who sees him knows what it means to have seen the Truth, one who loves him knows what it means to love the Truth, and one who follows him knows what it means to be on the way of devotion to Him. We should point out once again that all these distinctive excellences belong, first of all, to God's Messenger in the universal, perfect form. All other universal men can be favored with them in his footsteps in particular forms and degrees. They are heirs to God's Messenger in learning, knowledge and in their love of God, in zeal, in feeling, in attractiveness to others and their attraction to God. Being called by the Messenger to the table where all these Divine blessings are offered, they call others to join them.

God always observes Himself and has others to observe Himself in different mirrors on the earth. Since the universal man is the most comprehensive and brightest mirror that perfectly reflects the acts and Essential Qualities of the All-Merciful, he functions as one who "sees" and causes others to "see" Him. The places where and the times when there is not a universal man are orphaned in one respect. For this reason, every time and space needs the universal man as much as it needs air and water. Since God manifests Himself in the most comprehensive way, it is extremely important for existence that a universal man should be present in every time and place. For such a one is the mirror of the Divine Being, with his knowledge being a ray of His Knowledge and himself being a mysterious key to His secrets.

One who finds the universal man and shares the same atmosphere with him attains many mysteries and lights that others cannot, and becomes a source of lights for others. The universal man is aware of his position and task. He sees himself like a mirror reflecting the Divine lights, and never attributes to himself his abilities and merits, or the tasks he performs. He attributes to God his every accomplishment in sincere conviction of the fact, You did not kill them but God killed them (8:17), and feels deeply in his consciousness the meaning of When you threw, it was not you who threw, but God who threw (8:17). Not merely attributing to God all his accomplishments, merits, and abilities, he rather regards them as His extra favors, saying:

That which I have-I am not worthy of it;
This favor and grace-why are they bestowed on me?

He never deviates into believing such doctrines as union and incarnation. In fact, in order to assert such doctrines, there must be two independent, self-existent beings, whereas, the universal man is not a self-existent being independent of God. The Divine Being is absolutely independent and Self-Existent, while all other existing beings exist and subsist by the lights of His Existence. Regarding any created, mortal being as God's incarnation or as one united with Him in the name of exalting that being is sheer deviation.

The universal man is perfectly conscious that he is one created by God and is extremely aware of his being a servant. He never utters words of pride because of the favors he receives, nor does he fall into the error of regarding himself as being identical with God because of his being a mirror to Him. He regards, feels and experiences whatever blessing he is favored with as a manifestation of the Divine Names or Attributes and is humble to the utmost degree before God. This is the state of his annihilation with respect to the carnal self and egoism and the attainment of a new existence in heart and spirit. We can regard this as one who is not self-existent tasting the true existence by His Existence. In his Diwan, Mawlana Jalal al-Din al-Rumi says about the heroes of this favor:

In that station, one who exists has seemed to me as non-existent,
And another one who does not exist as existent.
Beyond the world which has the characteristic of a soul,
I have seen many dazzled and intoxicated with love of Him,
All of whom are beings of pure faithfulness and delight.

The universal man is a polished mirror for the True Being and, in his relation to other beings, is like a star which stands still in its place or rotates around itself, and around which satellites turn. While rotating around himself, he flies around his axis in utmost devotion to Him and, as stated in the verse (16:16), As well as various other means of finding direction, and by the stars they guide themselves, he guides others to the straight path and directs them along it. Like a compass, he causes others to find their direction, and like a door or window he shows others the truth, and like a bridge he makes others pass from the darkness of their own world into the spacious world of eternity. When people enter his aura, they begin to feel the breezes of friendship with God; on reaching that door, they quiver with calls from the realms beyond, and on crossing that bridge, they rise to the horizon of having a relationship that consists of worshipping servants and the Sole Object of Worship with the Unique, Besought-of-All in the perfect manner. This horizon signifies God's Throne (of absolute dominion over all things) in the universal sphere with respect to His manifestation of all His Names throughout the universe, and the human heart (which corresponds to God's Throne) in the particular sphere with respect to His manifestation of His particular Names on particular things. The most important food of the travelers to this horizon is maintaining the purification of their hearts, and hunting the special Divine gifts and favors in prostration on their rugs in the mysterious world of nights that are regarded as blessed times when no one sees us. Concerning this, Ibrahim Haqqi says:

The heart is the home of God; purify it from whatever is there other than Him.
So that the All-Merciful may descend into His palace at night.

Mawlana also has something beautiful to say concerning the corridor or spiral of nights which extends to the Hidden Treasure:

If you seek that peerless Sovereign, and have set out to reach Him,
You should not sleep during that journey.
Good, fortunate ones sleep in the shadow of God's love and mercy.
O brother, beware that you should not sleep in another place.

We should spend nights, which draw us to deep thoughts and heavenly considerations, in humble devotion by standing, bowing, prostrating, and reciting His Names and making humble petitions to Him.

According to some Sufis, everything has an outward, visible aspect, which is called the outward. This material world is the outward or external world. It has also an inner or inward aspect, which we call the inward. It consists of all metaphysical worlds, including the spiritual ones and the hereafter. There is another (intermediate) world which has both the inward and outward aspects and which lies between them and the Divine Names, separating the two (outer and inward) worlds from each another. This intermediate world is the world of the universal man. God's knowledge of Himself is the true, substantial mirror to Himself, and the Divine Being is manifested and known in that mirror beyond all concepts. The knowledge of the universal man is a mirror to himself that is dependent on Divine Knowledge, and he is manifested and known in that mirror of his knowledge. Never-theless, whatever he has, including his knowledge, is a gift to him and therefore does not belong to him. For this reason, with whatever he has he indicates the One Who has everything absolutely and originally.

A human being is indicative of the Divine Being, while his or her attributes are indicative of the Divine Ones. The restriction and particularity of human nature and its attributes (as humans being created and of relative character) indicate the universality, originality and infinity of the Divine Being and His Attributes (as the Divine Being being the Creator and of absolute character).

It is because of this type of relation with the Divine Being that a traveler who has reached the rank of universal man is considered to have reached the rank of perfect vicegerency of God. Above this rank is the station of "or nearer" that lies between the Necessary and the contingent. The only one who has reached this station and who has represented it throughout the whole of human history is the master of creation, who represents the greatest rank which any mortal being can reach and the (most) perfect manifestation of the Divine Names as concentrated on a single being. He has reached this greatest rank because of his most laudable virtues or matchless excellence in spirituality and morality, the straightforwardness of his acts, the depth of his relations with his Lord, the perfect balance he was able to establish between the affairs of this world and the next, and his insight into the mysteries of Divinity and creation. The perfection of all other perfected beings is relative when compared to his and is dependent on allegiance and submission to him. All other Prophets and Messengers, who rose in the heavens of humanity, diffused the light only before he honored the world. Pointing to the fact that that greatest being is like the sun and all the other Prophets and Messengers are like its satellites or "stars" which diffuse light only before it rises, Busayri says:

Surely, he is the sun of virtues with others being stars,
Giving out light for human beings only when it is night.

As the master of creation, upon him be the most perfect of blessings and salutations, he is both the seed and the fruit of the Tree of Creation. The Tree of Creation has always been related with him from the beginning to the end, and has grown in connection with him. More than being the seed and fruit of the Tree of Creation, he is also its essence and spirit. He can also be viewed as the basic element of the "soup" of existence.

As the basic aim in the creation of the universe,
That most exalted sun came into existence.

The heavens and earth shrank from being a mirror to the abstract nature of Divine Existence, which comprises all of the Divine Names, because they were unable to reflect it. Yet, humanity was endowed with the potential to do this. Thus, humanity was given external (material) existence in order to realize this aim. However, most people are ignorant and are caught up in wrongdoing, in that they cannot fulfill this task of reflection; in order for a human being to not be an ignorant one or a wrongdoer, he or she should be extremely careful, sensitive, and conscious of the responsibility of being a mirror to Him. In other words, a human being will make good the gap of ignorance and wrongdoing in his/her nature by setting his/her mechanism of consciousness to move in harmony with the Divine Revelation, and so change the field of loss into a market of profit. The following Qur'anic verse (33:72) expresses this fundamental task of humanity: We offered the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they declined to bear it, and shrank from it, but humanity undertook it. Surely, he is a wrongdoer, and ignorant.

Nothing in the universe-whether it be the heavens or the earth and the mountains-except humankind has a heart, willpower, consciousness, internal senses, or faculties, all of which are essential to seeing, making others see, and reflecting the greatest truth in existence. They have neither the ability nor physical possibility to represent and reflect that truth. It is only humankind who, by reinforcing and deepening their innate endowment from God by fulfilling their religious responsibilities, can perform this mission. Those among human beings who can do this are saved from ignorance and wrongdoing.

It is true that, in practice, every human being has not been and is not able to succeed in fulfilling this task. But it is also true that there have been and are many who are conscious of the aim of their creation and who improve themselves by fulfilling their religious responsibilities on the way to becoming a universal human being. They develop their potential and knit the laces of eternity to fulfill the Divine purpose for their creation out of belief in God, knowledge and love of Him, yearning, zeal, the feeling of attraction and being attracted toward God, and spiritual pleasures. Those conquerors of hearts who have set up their thrones at the intersection of the worlds, of both this and the next realm, have gained a second, transcendent nature beyond their own, with souls that are extremely alive and active through the breezes of the All-Beloved, and their horizons airy with breezes of friendship with Him. In his enchanting style, Mawlana depicts these mythical birds of the heaven of perfection as follows:

Heroes of journeying on the way to God are alive with a soul other than that known soul;
The birds that fly on the air that "emanates" from Him have nests other than the nests known.
Do not try in vain to see them with those eyes of yours; with these you cannot see them.
They dwell in another realm beyond both this world and the next.

One can have knowledge of God through His acts and Names, and the Names are manifested on things and events. Humanity is both the seed and fruit of existence. As for the universal man, he is the essence and spirit of everything. For this reason, it is not possible to have a perfect knowledge of God without considering existence as far as its beginning or seed is concerned, or without turning to the horizon of the universal man, who is a comprehensive voice of the Divine Being, Attributes, Names, and acts. He is also a pattern of existence that contains all the ranks as he is the final link in the chain of existence. We can therefore say that the Almighty can be known and felt only through the universal man in accordance with His Grandeur and Majesty, and the universal man sees, knows, and holds everything by Him and builds relations with others in dependence on Him. The unique, greatest representative and hero of all instances of seeing, knowing, holding, and being in relation is Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, while all other universal men can attain what they will attain only in his footsteps. For the truth he represents-his truth as being Muhammad or the Truth of Muhammad-has its origin in God's manifestation of all His Names throughout the universe, which comprehends all truths. God-Allah, the proper Name of the Divine Being Which comprises all the Divine Names and Attributes-was his private tutor or Lord, Who brought him up especially. Since the proper Name of the Divine Being-God (Allah) -comprises all the Divine Names and Attributes, the master of creation, upon him be the most perfect of blessings and salutations, is the most polished or brightest mirror to the Divine Essential Qualities and Attributes and Names, as he is the most comprehensive mirror to Him reflecting all His Names and Attributes. The saying, "God is always seen in the mirror of Muhammad," is a reality. Other universal men, including all the other Messengers and Prophets, have not been and will not be able to receive the same degree of favor, for God bestows His blessing upon him whom He wills (62:4).

Each of the other universal men may have been and may be favored with the manifestation of one or a few Names and Attributes; the part of each one in the manifestation of each Name and Attribute differs according to his capacity. However great the moons and stars of the heaven of the Prophethood and the sainthood, the capacity of each restricts him. They will reach the final point of their rising when they have fully realized their potential. As saintly people differ in their knowledge and love of God and in their spiritual pleasures, the ranks of the universal men also differ according to the extent of their being favored with the manifestations of the Divine Names. This is one of the reasons why saintly people, pure scholars of religion, godly ones, and those made nearer to God by God Himself may also differ in their views and interpretations concerning the secondary matters of religion, which are open to different interpretations.

The difference of ranks between Messengers and Prophets, which is indicated in (2:253), Those Messengers: some We have exalted above others (in some respects), also arises from the manifestations of the Divine Names in different wavelengths and the degree of each being favored with them. For example, Adam in the brief or summarized knowledge of all things given to him, Abraham and Ishmael in the knowledge, forbearance and leniency with which they were favored, and Jesus in the (spiritual) power with which he was endowed, are higher in degree than others. As for the master of creation, upon him be the most perfect of blessings and salutations, he was honored with the full and detailed manifestations of all the Divine Attributes and Names, and therefore is the highest or most advanced of all in all virtues.

Each universal man is perfect according to his capacity and the degree of his knowledge of God. All of them have combined in themselves the knowledge of Divine Revelation, scientific and theological, or intellectual and spiritual proofs, and a knowledge of God in certain degrees. Lacking in one of these would be an important defect or imperfection in the name of perfection. The Qur'an and Sunna (Revelation) are the foundation, reasoning and logic or intellectual activities are the means with which one approaches the goal, and a knowledge of God and wisdom are the fruit of walking straightforwardly on the way.

O ascetic, do not think that everything is finished with fasting, prayer and pilgrimage;
What is necessary to be a perfect one is knowledge of God and wisdom. (Niyazi)

Our Lord, Our Master, the Goal of our endeavors! I implore you, O God, not to burn me in the Fire! We seek refuge in God from the chastisement of the Fire; and we seek refuge in God from all seditions, plain or hidden. And bestow Your blessings and peace on our master Muhammad, the intercessor for our sins, and on his family and Companions, so long as days and nights continue, afternoons follow each other, the moon reappears after its complete disappearance, and the Farkadan (the two stars b and Ursae Minoris) coincide.


[1] 'Abd al-Karim ibn Ibrahim al-Jili (1365-1417 ?) is the writer of the famous book, al-Insan al-Kamil ("The Universal Man"). He was from Baghdad. In his Sufi teachings he generally followed Muhy al-Din ibn al-'Arabi. (Trans.)