Does the Spirit Matter?
In 1932, Iqbal published a book of Persian verse, titled Javid Nameh (The Book of Eternity). He had started working on this book in the wake of his 1928 lectures, later published as The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. The composition of Javid Nameh took approximately four years and left the poet-philosopher feeling thoroughly exhausted, according to his own admission. The chronological proximity is noteworthy because there is much overlap between the themes found in Javid Nameh and those found in the “Reconstruction.” A comparative approach can therefore help illuminate Iqbal’s meanings.
The topic for this post is the relationship between spirit/mind and body/matter. In the sixth chapter of his “Reconstruction,” Iqbal notes that “matter is spirit in space-time reference.” Iqbal’s aim is to recognize this most fundamental of all conceptual dichotomies for what it really is, i.e., a figure of speech. Ontologically, he seeks to show that these two cannot be coherently regarded as two distinct substances or entities; we should regard them instead as two modes in which the same reality manifests or expresses itself. For Iqbal, there is no essential dichotomy or dualism in the nature of reality; when we do perceive such an opposition in our experience, we should recognize it as resulting from the ego’s own projection. After suggesting that “matter is spirit in space-time reference,” Iqbal writes:
The unity called man is body when you look at it as acting in regard to what we call the external world; it is mind or soul when you look at it as acting in regard to the ultimate aim and ideal of such acting.
The purpose and perspective of the observer plays a key role in whether the human being is to be seen primarily as a body or primarily as a spirit. Just as modern physics recognizes that light can be regarded with equal justification as being composed of particles as well as of waves, depending upon the purpose and perspective of the observer, the human being can also be conceived in two apparently opposite ways -body as well as spirit.
When the subject of research is the human being, the viewpoint of biology would be necessarily different from the viewpoint of ethics; Iqbal’s solution removes the unnecessary rivalry between them by recognizing the validity of each viewpoint. It does not, however, establish clear and firm boundaries between natural sciences and humanities. Since reality is ultimately one, and even though biology and ethics have to function in their own respective spheres, to regard matter as “spirit in space-time reference” is also to acknowledge that there will inevitably be some overlap between these two domains of knowledge. Even though for most practical purposes both biology and ethics would have to recognize each other’s distinct zones, in many cases they would also have to listen to what the other has to say. In other words, biologists would not be able to explain away purpose and meaning, and ethicists would not be able to disregard the embodied existence of life.
Iqbal takes a similar position with reference to the material world as a whole. He discusses the nature of the material world in detail in chapter two of the “Reconstruction,” and refers to his conclusions again in chapter four. The following quote is from the latter.
…space, time, and matter are interpretations which thought puts on the free creative energy of God. They are not independent realities existing per se, but only intellectual modes of apprehending the life of God.
Thought, taking a sectional view of experience, leads us into the illusion that space, time, and matter are ultimately real and independent entities existing on their own, that there is no way to transcend the tyranny of the ordinary systems of cause-and-effect, that there is no freedom of choice for the human individual. Newtonian physics established this illusion as fact, but twentieth-century science has systematically dismantled it. Iqbal’s claim, while having a religious motive and foundation, is hardly un-scientific. It takes into account the observed facts of nature, but goes beyond them by daring to synthesize these facts on the basis of an intuitive insight.
The ego’s main epistemological tool is thought, or logical understanding, which is analytical by definition; it understands by using the only method it knows -divide and conquer. Science is the most rationalized and systematic formulation of this method. Once science itself begins to acknowledge that space, time, matter, and causality are not independently existing realities, religion becomes justified in taking another step in the same direction in order to assert a truth it knew all along. Emboldened by science, religion can now argue that what the ego confronts is actually “the free creative energy of God.” Unable to comprehend “the free creative energy of God” as such, the ego resorts to using logical understanding for the purpose of conceptually (and then practically) mastering its environment. In the process, it gives birth to the concepts of space, time, matter, and causality. These are indeed very useful concepts; but nothing more.
Here, finally, are two couplets from Javid Nameh.
چشم بگشا بر ز ما ن و بر مکا ن
این دو یک حال است از احوال جاں
تا نگہ از جلوہ پیش ا فتا د ہ است
ا ختلاف دوش و فردا زادہ است
Open wide your eyes upon time and space; these two are merely one state from among the many states of the soul. Since the ego’s vision was weak before the divine self-disclosure, it gave birth to the distinction of yesterday and tomorrow.
And two more, from the same poem…
ا ے کہ گوئی محمل جان است تن
سر جان را در نگر بر تن متن
محملے نے ، حالے از احوال اوست
محملش خو اند ن فریب گفتگوست
You who say that the body is a vehicle for the soul; do consider the secret of the soul, and don’t tangle with the body. The body is not a vehicle, it is a state of the soul; to call it the soul’s vehicle is merely an illusion of the speech.