The Limits to Human Freedom

The following is in response to Tahir’s comments on my previous post (“Freedom and Responsibility”).

Most limitations on human freedom are actually self-imposed.  As such, they are vulnerable to appropriate adjustments in beliefs and attitudes.  When we change our beliefs, what has so far been impossible to achieve in the material world suddenly becomes possible.  The four-minute mile is a well-known example of how mind can triumph over matter.  The scientific literature on this subject is already immense, and is rapidly spilling over into the popular imagination (sometimes resulting in gross over-simplifications).

To say that the spiritual world offers virtually unlimited possibilities for human action and creativity is relatively easy to accept, since, for instance, it is a common experience that our imagination knows no limits.  What most people find incredible, however, is that this unlimited freedom to imagine whatever we choose also extends to what we can accomplish or create in the material world.

We could literally walk on water if we had sufficient faith.

The possibility of “conquering” the very spatio-temporal order within which we seem to be currently imprisoned is an important theme found in Iqbal’s work, both prose and poetry.  From Iqbal’s viewpoint, there is nothing mystical or magical about such a claim; in fact, the conclusion becomes unavoidable once we acknowledge the essential similarity and continuity between the material and the spiritual.  In the fourth chapter of his “Reconstruction,” Iqbal had this to say about the nature of the self:

. . . the causal chain wherein we try to find a place for the ego is itself an artificial construction of the ego for its own purposes. The ego is called upon to live in a complex environment, and he cannot maintain his life in it without reducing it to a system which would give him some kind of assurance as to the behavior of things around him.  The view of his environment as a system of cause and effect is thus an indispensable instrument of the ego, and not a final expression of the nature of Reality.

For Iqbal, not only time, space, and matter but the very system of cause-and-effect that we encounter in the universe are to be understood as the convenient mental constructions of the ego.  These are not rigid, impenetrable, and inflexible realities that cannot be overcome but are more like mind-stuff which are, for this reason, quite responsive to human initiatives.  Put differently, time, space, matter, and causality are the  “interpretations” that the ego projects onto the flow of divine energy in order to make that flow comprehensible and therefore controllable.  These categories do not represent the final view of the nature of reality.  Consequently, other-equally legitimate-ways of imagining reality are also possible, ways that allow us even greater freedom to shape not only human but also cosmic destiny.  The limitations on our freedom in the material world are therefore self-imposed in a very literal sense.

What, then, is the true nature of reality?  In chapter six of his “Reconstruction,” Iqbal wrote:

The truth, however, is that matter is spirit in space-time reference . . . .   The Ultimate Reality, according to the Qur’an, is spiritual, and its life consists in its temporal activity… The greatest service that modern thought has rendered to Islam, and as a matter of fact to all religion, consists in its criticism of what we call material or natural – a criticism which discloses that the merely material has no substance until we discover it rooted in the spiritual.

What we call “matter” is not as radically different from “spirit” as was once thought.  Even though the “Ultimate Reality is spiritual,” matter cannot be denigrated because it is merely a particular manifestation of that same reality.  According to Iqbal, there is but a single reality, which is labeled either matter or spirit depending on the purpose and perspective of the observer.  Consequently, the more we investigate matter, the more it reveals itself as spirit.  The so-called “new physics” was relatively young when Iqbal wrote these lines in 1928; the scientific criticism of the Newtonian view of matter has advanced so much in the intervening decades that, realistically speaking, religion can justifiably consider itself as having the same epistemological status as that of science.

At the risk of crude over-simplification, let me wrap up this discussion so that it may fit in a nutshell.  Science is now in possession of the full aresenal with which the Cartesian mind/body dichotomy can be erased for ever.  The essential nature of matter is best described in terms of energy, waves, and even thoughts.  So conceived, it is easy to see why the material world is eminently responsive to the creative effects of energy patterns like beliefs, thoughts, intentions, and faith.

To Iqbal, it makes perfect sense that if human beings were to align themselves with the aims and aspirations of the Ultimate Reality, they would experience a complete absence of all limitations on their creative freedom.  At that point, the Ultimate Reality would cooperate with them to such an extent that it would be difficult to differentiate human will from divine will.  In a sweet reversal of roles, it would be God who would inquire the human beings as to what will satisfy them.

There is much in Iqbal’s poetry that can be quoted here, but I will limit myself to one couplet.

کی محمد سے وفا تو نے تو ہم تيرے ہيں

یہ جہاں چيز ہے کيا، لوح و قلم تيرے ہيں

This is the final couplet of “Javab-i Shikva” and a favorite of preachers and orators; rarely do they realize the radical nature of its message.  As in the rest of this poem, God is speaking to the disgruntled Muslim:

If you remain loyal to Muhammad, I will be yours; this world will be yours; and even the pen and the tablet will be yours.

In Islamic theology, the “pen” writes human and cosmic destiny on the “tablet.”  A fatalistic attitude is satisfied in being told that the pen has already written down everything and so the future is determined and fixed; what’s more, even the ink on the tablet has dried so no revisions are possible.  Taking the same theological symbols that sometimes produce fatalism, Iqbal gives them a very different twist.  If human beings fulfill certain conditions, he tells us, God promises them nothing short of control over His creation, i.e., the ability to write, and therefore shape, not only human but also cosmic destiny.

Indeed, it is only then that the potential vicegerency of Adam would become real and actual.


  1. The first part of this essay is getting a little too “New Agey” for me. Yes there is spirit, but the piano falling out of the window in direct proximity to my person is also a real manifestation of matter that I am unlikely to “pray” away.
    Better to use the matter of my feet and jump away.

    My interpretation of the couplet is very different. When I see “loyal to Muhammad” I think of the the very direct and personal relationship that one is capable of having with another human being. If I interact with you in a very genuine and honest way, this will help me to witness the Divine. It’s not about “Us vs Them” it is about “I and You”.

    1. There is hardly anything genuinely novel in the so-called “New Age” movement. For the most part it is old wine in old bottles, perhaps with a few shiny labels here and there. For this reason, not everything that goes under the category of “New Age” is to be treated as a superficial fad or worship of the ego. Truth may be incompletely presented here, or even grossly distorted on some occasions, but I doubt if we are dealing with falsehood. I did mention “gross over-simplifications,” didn’t I? A truth that has been hammered into something simplistic does not turn into its opposite.

      The point is not that “there is spirit,” but that, from a certain viewpoint, “there is nothing but spirit.” Also, since reality is hierarchical, truths that seem to contradict each other may not be mutually exclusive. Each truth has value in relation to its corresponding level of reality. You should certainly jump out of the way of the falling piano, but this doesn’t change the fact that the piano is still mostly empty space.

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