While there is an obvious similarity between the Sufi concept of the "Perfect Man" and the Bahá'í concept of the "Manifestation of God," there are also striking differences; the theologies of at-Tirmidhí, Ibn al-'Arabí, Dáwud-al-Qaysarí, and Haydar Amulí.
Presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #28, London School of Economics (July 14-6, 2000).
published in Lights of Irfan, Book 2, pages 53-68 Wilmette, IL: Irfan Colloquia, 2001
Abstract: This paper aims to trace some of the analogies and essential differences between the concept of the "Perfect Man" (Pole) in Sufism and the Bahá'í notion of the Manifestation of God based on the Bahá'í Writings and the works of prominent Sufi scholars-theologians: At-Tirmidhí, Ibn al-'Arabí, Dáwud-al-Qaysarí, Haydar Amulí etc. What underlies both these notions is the idea that at all times the Divine Will manifests Itself to humanity through or in a certain Person, whose purpose is to be a shepherd, guardian and educator of humankind, directing it towards the good and keeping it from what is wrong.
This idea is expressed in Sufism by the teaching about the "Muhammadan Essence" or "Muhammadan Light" (analogous to the "Logos" of Neoplatonians and the "Word" of the Christians), the first emanation from God, also going by the name of the Primal Intellect. This is the Image of God in its undifferentiated (undivided) unity, by Whom and from Whom all things were created and Which preexisted all things in creation (not in time but as a cause to the effect). This "Muhammadan Essence" is realized successively in Adam, the Prophets and the Poles each of whom is "The Perfect Man of the age."
The philosophic development of this issue in the form of a doctrine is associated with the name of the great Sufi philosopher from Andalousia (Southern Spain) Ibn al-'Arabí (11651240), though clear allusions to the same idea can be traced in the work of an earlier Sufi writer--at-Tirmidhí (IX c.).
In the Bahá'í teaching there is also a notion of the Divine Will making Itself manifest at certain intervals in a special Person, divinely preordained for this Mission. The similarity of the characteristics applied to the "Perfect Man" in Sufism and the Manifestation of God in the Bahá'í teaching is obvious. However, in spite of these remarkable analogies there are also striking differences between the Sufi and the Bahá'í notions. What is implied by the Divine Manifestations in the Bahá'í Faith is a special category of created Beings who are sent down to humanity with a new Revelation from God at more or less definite intervals. These are the Great Prophet-Founders of' the Religions. In contrast to this the Sufi concept reflects the predominant Moslem view that Prophethood was terminated in the Prophet Muhammad, consequently there can be no prophet after Him. From this point in history the "Muhammadan Essence" is realized in the "saints," specially chosen by God, who are called "Wali." The latter act on behalf and within the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad.