The World and the Image of God

In Javid Nameh, published in 1932, Iqbal offers a dialogue between Zinda Rud and Hallaj.  Part of this dialogue is relevant to the contemporary discussions about secularism, secularization, resurgence of prophetic religion, and the chances for the emergence of a post-secular world.  It is also relevant to discussions about the so-called clash of civilizations, religiously motivated violence, terrorism, and Islam’s alleged plot to dominate the world.

The character of Zinda Rud (Living Stream) is the poet himself; Hallaj is the tenth century mystic who is famous for having claimed “Ana ‘l-Haq” (or “I am the Truth”).  In Javid Nameh, Zinda Rud travels through the celestial spheres in the company of Rumi.  His encounter with Hallaj takes place in the sphere of Jupiter.  Only part of the dialogue is being quoted here.

Hallaj: Do you posses the image of God within you?  If you do, you are the hunter and the world is your prey.  The reins of your strategy control the unfolding of destiny.  The present age seeks combat with you; go ahead and make an imprint of God’s image on the tablet of this unbeliever.

Several points are worth noting in these two couplets.  1. The present age is an unbeliever because its tablet is devoid of the image of God.  2.  Anyone who is aware of the image of God within his/her self is a believer.  3. The present age, having denied or erased the image of God from its own tablet, wishes the same fate for the believers.  4.  Since the believers resist, the present age seeks war against them in order to make them as ungodly as itself.  5.  The believers ought to welcome the struggle without fear.  6.  In addition to resisting the present age to erase the image of God from their own souls, the believers’ mission is to imprint that image on the tablet of the present age.
7. Since the aim of the believers is to establish the image of God on the present age, they are in greater harmony with the natural propensities of the cosmos; on the other hand, the goal before the present age is in discord with those propensities.  8.  The present age is in conflict not only with the believers, but also with the natural propensities of the cosmos; it is fighting against the inner urges of reality itself, and so it is doomed to fail in the long-run.  9.  The believers can be assured of their victory, because their goal is in perfect agreement with the inner urges of reality.  10.  Consequently, the forces of destiny are more than willing to cooperate with the believers; in effect, the believers do not just control their strategies in this war, they actually control cosmic destiny itself.

Zinda Rud: Imprinting the image of God on the world was accomplished in the past too; but I don’t know how it was done. 

This is a very practical question, the question of methodology.  In many ways it reflects the key dilemma of contemporary Islam.  There is no lack of self-proclaimed leaders who keep telling us what we already know.  The difficult question that remains unaddressed is precisely the one raised by Zinda Rud–exactly how do we do what we are supposed to do?  What is the best road to reach our destination?  Which of the innumerable courses of action should we choose?

Hallaj: There are two ways of imprinting the image of God on the world.  You can either do it with the power of domination or with the power of love.  Because God is more clearly manifested in love than in domination, the power of love is superior to the power of domination.

Iqbal’s key terms in the above couplets are most interesting, viz., zur-e qahiri and zur-e dilbari, translated here as the “power of domination” and the “power of love.”  Qahiri is from the Arabic word qahr, and “Al-Qahar” القھار  is well-known in the Islamic tradition as one of the “most beautiful names” of God, meaning “the Subduer” or “the Dominant.”  Iqbal’s phrase zur-e qahiri should be understood in the broader sense of coercion and forced submission rather than in the limited sense of physical violence, though actual violence or at least the threat of violence is certainly one aspect of its connotaion.  The other term, zur-e dilbari is entirely Persian; the word dilbar means a beloved.  Dilabri, then, is the way of the beloved, and is, by extension, the way of love.  When Iqbal uses Hallaj as his mouthpiece to identify these two ways, he is acknowledging that zur, or power, is not limited to political and military force; and that love too is a form of power.

Max Weber famously defined the modern state as that institution which successfully claims a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence.  Iqbal’s term for coercive force, zur-e qahiri, definitely includes such an ability, but it is best understood more generally as the power enjoyed by any form of established authority–whether traditional, legal, or charismatic–to enforce particular laws and policies.  That the image of God can be established in the world through zur-e qahiri seems to mean that various kinds of institutionalized authority can be legitimately used to help accomplish this goal; the term is broad enough to include all levels of political power from inter-personal relations right up to the state.  This clearly implies the use of coercive force–which can be social (such as excommunication), economic (such as fines), or violent (such as physical punishment, incarceration, and warfare).  Of course, there is always the possibility of abuse, which is why there must be appropriate limits and restrictions to be followed at each level as well as proper accountability;  the main point, however, is that there does exist a legitimate role for the use of coercion as an instrument of religious ethics.

Yet, the ability to influence people’s behavior through the use of coercion, with or without violence, is only one way in which zur, or power, manifests itself.  There is also the power of love, which Iqbal refers to as zur-e dilabri.  Love implies a soft approach; for love attempts to convince rather than enforce, and it seeks to attract rather than scare.   The power of love expresses itself in patience, kindness, gentleness, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and so on.  While in the short-run coercive force can be very effective, only the power of love can triumph in the long-run.

The climax of Iqbal’s point is as follows: Since the aim is to imprint the image of God on the world, the two kinds of power cannot be equal.

For Iqbal, and for the Islamic tradition more generally, God is manifested in a variety of ways, including as a coercive force that overpowers and subdues, but also as a loving attraction that gently melts away all resistance.  God is free to act in either of these modes as God sees fit; yet, according to a famous hadith qudsi, God’s mercy takes a definite precedence over God’s wrath.   There is, in other words, an asymmetry in divine attributes; the divine attributes of wrath and vengeance are ontologically less important than the divine attributes of mercy and forgiveness.  Since God is manifested more clearly as mercy than as wrath, it follows that for human beings too the way of love is superior to the way of coercion–this becomes particularly crucial when the aim is to realize the image of God in history.

Notice, however, that Iqbal does not exclude the role of coercion entirely; he seems to recognize that there are real situations in which the use of coercive force becomes an ethical necessity; indeed, no actual society can function without at least some element of coercion.  His point, rather, is that there happens to be a hierarchy of values in the structure of reality that cannot be ignored.  In the scale of values, it is indisputable that love takes precedence over coercion, and that forgiveness is superior to retribution.  Whatever may be the demands of any given situation, it is far better to establish the image of God in the world through the power of love, mercy, and compassion, as opposed to the power of coercion, domination, and punishment.

Revised July 18, 2010

One Comment

  1. This is more image than most of us can handle:

    “…If, making earth lovely, our end must be thus,
    Let me rather be changed to a flower-falling dewdrop,
    A speck in the gold-dust that paints a bride’s forehead,
    A spark in the sigh that a wounded heart breathes-
    Or why not the glistening tear-drop that rolls
    Down the long lashes fringing the eyes of a lady
    Whose lord, in chain armour emeshed, must set forth
    To the battlefield, hurried by love of his country,
    -A woman whose face like a picture shows hope
    And despair side by side, and whose silence shames speech:
    Her patient thoughts built on her husband’s firm soul,
    Her looks from their modesty borrowing eloquence,
    That hour of farewell when the rosy cheek pales
    And the sorrow of parting makes beauty more beautiful!
    There, though she lock up her heart, I would gleam,
    One waterdrop spilt from her eye’s brimming cup,
    To find in the dust an immortal new life,
    And teach to the world the long passion of love.
    -M. Iqbal
    “Morning Star” from Bang-i-Dara

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