Iqbal’s Challenge to Psychology

This short poem by Muhammad Iqbal is included in his second collection of Urdu verse, Bal-i Jibril (Gabriel’s Wing), published in 1935. It is titled “To the Psychologist.”

Go beyond the world of thought, if you dare
There are still unexplored islands in the ocean of the self;
This silent sea will keep all its mysteries hidden from you
Until you strike to part its waters
With the staff of Moses.

The ocean is self; unexplored islands are those regions of the self that modern psychology does not recognize as real or as worth investigating on their own terms. The poet suggests that existing scientific methods may not be adequate for reaching these hidden regions of the self; something unorthodox and more daring is therefore required, viz., the strike of Moses.

Modern psychology, despite its great achievements, is too concerned with the surface layers of the ego to be able to make any informed judgement about what really lies underneath. Iqbal’s complain is that the discipline of psychology seems to have restricted its inquiry to the dynamics of the “efficient self,” i.e., the inner realm of thinking, feeling, willing, and so on. While the dynamics of the efficient self are important in their own right, they do not tell the whole story about the reality of the self. There is much more to the self that is still undiscovered and unexplored from the viewpoint of psychology. If modern psychologists could gather the courage to take seriously the insights and experiences of the prophet, the mystic, and the poet, they would be able to discover new worlds precisely where they now think absolutely nothing exists. They would then be forced to revise and reconsider a great deal of their knowledge. Science is unaware of these new worlds in the depths of the self because psychology has not yet taken the necessary risk of letting go of its own assumptions and expectations.

Iqbal has expressed similar opinions in the lectures he delivered in 1928. In the first chapter of “Reconstruction,” while discussing the nature of mystical experience, Iqbal has this to say:

Modern psychology has only recently begun to realize the importance of a careful study of the contents of mystic consciousness, and we are not yet in possession of a really effective scientific method to analyze the contents of non-rational modes of consciousness.

In chapter five, while discussing the significance of the assertion “I am the creative truth,” as uttered by Husayn bin Mansur Al-Hallaj (executed in 922 CE), Iqbal notes:

The true realization of his experience, therefore, is not the drop slipping into the sea, but the realization and bold affirmation in an undying phrase of the reality and permanence of the human ego in a profounder personality.  The phrase of Hallaj seems almost a challenge flung against the Mutakallimun [orthodox theologians].  The difficulty of modern studies of religion, however, is that this type of experience, though perhaps perfectly normal in its beginnings, points, in its maturity, to unknown levels of consciousness.  Ibn Khaldun, long ago, felt the necessity of an effective scientific method to investigate these levels.  Modern psychology has only recently realized the necessity of such a method, but has not yet been able to go beyond the discovery of the characteristic features of the mystic levels of consciousness.

These passage illuminate what Iqbal means by the metaphor of “islands hidden in the ocean of the self.” He is referring to deeper levels of consciousness that mystics have been aware of for thousands of years but which do not seem to make much sense within the reigning paradigms of mainstream psychology. For Iqbal, what is most relevant about these deeper levels of consciousness, as revealed in the bold claim made by Hallaj “I am the creative truth,” is that beyond the transient rise and fall of thoughts and feelings there is something with a very different character. There is a “profounder personality” in each one of us, something whose “reality and permanence” is in diametric opposition to the transience and impermanence of our inner “world of thinking.” Elsewhere, Iqbal has used the term “appreciative self” for this inner reality, and suggested that we become aware of it only in moments of deep meditation when the otherwise incessant chatter of the efficient self calms down.

Iqbal made these observations in the late 20s and early 30s of the last century. Psychology, of course, has come a long way since then, and so the extent to which Iqbal’s critique still holds is a matter of some debate. Only a detailed survey of the developments in the psychology of religion during the last eighty years or so can establish whether or not any significant progress has occurred along the lines suggested by Iqbal. Ideally, only those scholars who are trained in this particular field and also have a sympathetic understanding of Iqbal’s philosophy are in a position to determine if Iqbal’s critique needs to be updated, and in what ways.

For now, I would like to pose a different question, viz., what is Iqbal’s own proposed methodology for a scientific understanding of the deeper levels of consciousness? In the poem quoted above, Iqbal uses one of his favorite metaphors — Moses striking the sea with his miraculous staff and parting the waters. The psychologist who is too caught up in the world of thought must use the strike of Moses to part the waters of the ocean that is the self; only then will he/she discover the hitherto unexplored islands. What Iqbal leaves for his reader to figure out is the meaning of the strike of Moses.

What does it mean to strike the ocean of the self with the staff of Moses? Since Iqbal has used this particular image rather frequently in his poetry, I suggest that a comparative study of his various uses of this metaphor will tell us something about his intended meaning. That’s a task for another day.


  1. Beautiful poem (I consider Allama Iqbal one of my all–time favourites), and a wonderfully indepth look at it and the world of psychology. You’re a very thoughtful writer. Thank you!

  2. Excellent notes.

    I would recommend very highly Jiddu Krishnamurti”s writings. I think there are a lot of common thoughts. Would be nice to know what you think the staff of Moses could be!


  3. I suspect “the staff of Moses” refers to the relevatory nature of poetry.

    Very nice article in the December 2010 issue of “The Sun”, interview with Kim Rosen. Article called “Written on the Bones” by Alison Luterman. Deserves a careful read.

  4. Arg. I can’t believe I wrote the word “relevatory”. Welcome to the George W. Bush Spelling Bee. Ack.

    What I meant was, and I’m sure there is a polysyllabic English word to describe exactly this but I don’t know it, poetry can have a powerful revealing/ epiphany/ ‘ah-hah’ moment on individuals as well as on groups. These moments of clarity can be far more empowering than traditional psychotherapy treatments.

    The Luterman article describes in much better.

  5. Allama Iqbal (a.r) surely knew things which are beyond the ambit of modern psychology and science.He had unraveled many mysteries of the self…He was a great visionary and seer.His predictions are the truth of today.

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