Time is a Sword (1)

Included in Asrar-i Khudi, Iqbal’s first book of Persian verse, is a poem titled “Al-Waqt Sayf,” time is a sword. The title comes from a saying attributed to the famous scholar and jurist Imam Ahmad bin Idris Al-Shafi’i (767-820 CE).  Iqbal’s poem has three parts.  Here I will attempt a paraphrase of the first part of this poem and offer some remarks.

May the grave of Al-Shafi’i remain green
For an entire world has quenched its thirst for knowledge from his vine.
His thought plucked a star from the heavens
When he called time a cutting sword.

“Time” was one of Iqbal’s life long fascinations, a topic that he thought and wrote about a great deal throughout his intellectual career, in both prose and poetry.  Imam Al-Shafi’i’s metaphor for time—a sharp, cutting sword—turned out to be very well suited for Iqbal’s own purposes.  Iqbal was able to use this metaphor to explain what he knew about time’s nature, both from his intuitive experience and in light of his philosophical training.  He gives due credit to Imam Shafi’i for calling time a sword, before moving into his own interpretation of what that might mean.

It may be noted that “sword” is an archetypal image that represents a number of concepts and experiences, foremost among them being power.  If sword is a metaphor for power and for time simultaneously, it seems to follow that both Imam Al-Shafi’i and Iqbal are emphasizing the relationship between time and power in their claim that time is a sword.  Iqbal, in particular, associates time not only with power but also with freedom, i.e., the freedom to create.

How can I explain the mysteries of this sword?
In its sharp edge is the vital essence of life.
The owner of this sword transcends both hope and fear
His hand becomes brighter than the hand of Moses.
With a single stroke of this sword
Water gushes forth from the rock and the ocean parts to offer a path.
This is the sword that Moses held in his hand
It freed him from planning and contriving.
He parted the bosom of the Red Sea
Turning its waters into dry land.

The poem starts by attributing all power to time, making the reader suspect that Iqbal is not really dealing in this poem with ordinary, everyday “time” that we measure with our clocks and calendars.  The suspicion is soon confirmed.

Time is a sword, Iqbal tells us, that contains the vital essence of life.  Anyone who owns this sword attains true freedom, for such a person is able to transcend the two major obstacles that keep most of us imprisoned—hope and fear.  In other words, true freedom is the product of enjoying a certain kind of power or confidence that makes one unconcerned about consequences, which is to say, about the future outcomes of one’s efforts and plans.  It is, after all, our attachment to desired outcomes that makes us hope as well as fear.  This attachment causes us to be anxious and worried about what will happen next, and it also causes us to get lost in our anticipations of future pleasures and joys.  But fears and hopes, anxieties and anticipations, are all mental projections.  They are mental traps in which we fall all too easily, not knowing that we have ourselves concocted them in the first place.  Our attachment to outcomes makes us think too much of the future, and so it imprisons us in our own mind-made fantasies, both the kind we enjoy and the ones we dread.  By becoming so occupied, we remain far away from where we really are . . . in the present.

Iqbal evokes one of his favorite images, that of Moses parting the Red Sea.  He also mentions Moses striking his staff on a rock in the desert, which causes streams of water to gush forth from the rock, as mentioned in the Qur’an.  Where did Moses get this incredible confidence?  How was he able to strike the waters, knowing that they would part for him?  How was he able to strike the rock in the desert, knowing that fountains of fresh water would flow as a result of his apparently unrelated action?  Where did he draw all this incredible, miraculous power?  Iqbal’s answer: The secret of Moses’ power lies in the sword of time.  The same, he says, is true of the incredible physical prowess that popular Islamic folklore attributes to Ali.

Ali, whose bare hand conquered the fortress of Khaybar
His strength came from the same sword.

In the battle of Khaybar, legend has it that Ali bin Abi Talib, the nephew and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was single-handedly able to bring down the main gate of the enemy’s prized fortress .  After the battle was over, as many as a dozen men were needed to move the same door.  What, Iqbal asks, was the source of Ali’s confidence when he attempted to break down the huge barrier of a military fortress with his bare hand?  It was nothing other than the sword of time, he responds, from which Ali had drawn his legendary strength.

Today, we read about the incredible stories of individuals like Moses and Ali with our typical modern skepticism, wondering about the historical accuracy of these reports.  Iqbal, however, is rarely concerned with the past as such, even though he evokes it a great deal in his poetry.  What is much more important for Iqbal is always the present; for it is the present, rather than the past, that is capable of changing the future.  In the stories of Moses and Ali, Iqbal finds no reason to be skeptical.  What he finds, instead, are clues to how we too can attain this kind of legendary power and confidence now.  He uses these stories and images not to make us stand in awe of someone else’s superhuman achievements, but to emphasize that these are not superhuman achievements at all; instead, they are manifestations of the vast human potential which is available to each one of us, should we pay attention to their source.

The rotations of the heavens are worth watching
And worth knowing are the alternations of day and night.
But, O prisoner of yesterday and tomorrow!
Look within your heart, and discover another world inside.
You have sowed the seed of darkness in your own soil
By making time into a straight line.
Your thought has fragmented time into day and night
And that is how it measures the long and short of it.
Out of these threads you have made yourself an infidel’s girdle
Like the idols, you’ve become a seller of falsehood.

Iqbal suggests that time may be regarded in two different ways.  For the sake of simplicity, we may assume that these represent two kinds of time.  All of us are familiar with the ordinary, everyday variety of time that is of particular interest to physicists and astronomers.  This is the time that we measure with our clocks and calendars; this is the time that is associated with succession, with one thing happening after another, with the passage of tomorrow into yesterday and the present into the past.  Einstein famously said about it that the “only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen all at once.”

There is, of course, nothing “wrong” with regarding time as a succession of moments.   After all, the alternation of days and nights is frequently mentioned in the Qur’an, and is, no doubt, one of the great signs of God.  Our interest in this kind of measurable and historical time, which Iqbal elsewhere calls “serial time” (following Bergson), is therefore perfectly natural and justifiable.  Investigating this time, measuring it, determining its qualities—all of these are worthwhile activities.  Furthermore, clock time is absolutely necessary for managing our practical lives.

What we must never forget, however, is that clock time or serial time is not the only kind of time available to us.  There is much more to reality, in other words, than this understanding of time.  In the final analysis, serial time is a mental projection, the product of human interpretation projected onto reality for the sole purpose of managing practical life.  It is undeniably useful, but also fictitious when looked at from a higher perspective.

The Qur’an tells us that the default condition of humanity is forgetfulness and heedlessness.  This means an inability or unwillingness to pay full attention to divine signs.  By not paying attention to the signs of God, we forget who we really are.  As a result, we get caught up in the world of serial time, in the world of yesterday and tomorrow, and lose sight of what is infinitely more real than this.  Iqbal advices the person who is imprisoned in serial time to look within.  There is a whole different world within our own hearts, a world waiting to be discovered by those who would pay attention to it by freeing themselves of the tyranny of yesterday and tomorrow, i.e., those who would transcend serial time.  This world within, infinitely more real, is far beyond the fragmented sense that we normally have of past and future, and yet this world is always already available to us.  Finding, experiencing, and enjoying this world is nothing more than a matter of paying attention.  This world within is the source of power, confidence, freedom, and creativity.

For Iqbal, we are imprisoned in the world of serial time because we have convinced ourselves that time is a straight line.  To take time as a straight line is to fall for an illusion—albeit a necessary and useful one—that the thinking mind creates in order to meet the practical needs of the human organism.  Thought, or what Iqbal elsewhere calls “logical understanding,” is an essential tool for human flourishing on earth, a tool that has an inherent tendency to “pulverize” time into past and future by imagining it as a straight line.  When time is conceived of as a straight line, we imagine ourselves as standing at a particular point on that line, with something called the “past” existing behind us and something called the “future” lying ahead of us.  This view of time as a straight line gives rise to the metaphor of life as a “journey.”  Such a linear understanding of time comes almost naturally to us; it allows us a great deal of practical advantage in negotiating and managing our existence here on earth.  And yet, it is a fiction . . . ultimately unreal.  Failing to recognize serial time as a fiction is what Iqbal means by our  “imprisonment” in the fetters of yesterday and tomorrow.

You were the elixir, but became a handful of dust
You were born as God’s truth, but grew up to became a lie.
Are you Muslim?  Then free yourself from this girdle
Be the candle in the company of the free!
Not knowing the reality of time
You remain unaware of the meaning of eternal life.
How long will you remain a prisoner of day and night?
Learn the secret from the Prophet’s words
“I have a time with God.”

Most people, most of the time, are imprisoned in the world of serial time.  This state of imprisonment is sometimes described as “suffering” (as in Buddhism), as “original sin” (as in Western Christianity), as “exile” (as in Judaism), and as “forgetfulness” (as in Islam).  Irrespective of what image or metaphor we choose to describe our condition, we know that the default human condition is highly undesirable.  It is a serious obstacle, a frustrating limitation, to the full flowering of our divinely bestowed potential.  Iqbal tells us that our potential is inconceivably grander than what most of us are able to actualize.  We are born as nothing short of “God’s truth,” but very often we fail to realize that potential and end up as nothing more than our fragile, transient bodies.  Trapped in serial time, we find the stories of Moses parting the Red Sea or Ali bringing down the gate of a fortress with his bare hand to be nothing more than myths or legends . . . for we see such feats as simply “impossible.”  They are indeed so, but only from the narrow viewpoint of an intellect that is itself restricted by serial time.

For Iqbal, the real human tragedy is that we fail to achieve eternal life because we remain unaware of what time, real time, truly is.  Elsewhere, Iqbal uses the term “pure duration” (following Bergson) to describe real time, that is to say, time that is unadulterated by the divisiveness of past and future.  Pure duration is eternal life; it represents a higher reality that is always available to us, within our own hearts.   The eternal life that we project onto a future existence after death is better understood as a continuation of the world that we are capable of experiencing here and now.  There is no beginning and no end in pure duration; there is neither yesterday nor tomorrow.  And yet, the experience of this time is more real than the “normal” experience of clock time; it is also the source of all power, as opposed to clock time which is the cause of our weakness, frustration, impotence, and lack of choice.  When Imam Al-Shafi’i said “time is a sword,” he was referring to pure duration, to the eternal now.

In a famous hadith, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said to his companions “I have a time with God in which neither a God-sent prophet nor an angel drawn near has room.”  This hadith describes, or rather points towards, an experience of pure duration, an experience in which one has transcended the limitations of linear, serial time, and therefore an experience in which there is nothing left of the past and future; there is only the eternal, ever-present now.  This is a taste of eternal life.  It is also an experience of what it feels like to be God, for pure duration is identical with divine time.

All phenomena are born from the movement of time
Life itself is a mystery among the many mysteries of time.
The rising and setting of the sun do not give birth to time
For time is eternal and the sun is transient.
Time is joy and sorrow, festivity and mourning
Time is the light of the sun and of the moon.
You have spread out time, extending it like space
Creating thereby the distinction of yesterday and tomorrow.
Like scent, you fled from your own garden
Making your prison with your own hands.

Events (literally, this and that) are the products of the movement of time.  If time is a sword, life is its sharp edge.  But do not confuse the time that is the creator of all phenomena with the time that you measure with the rising and setting of the sun.  Serial time is impermanent and contingent, a created thing, merely an interpretation that you project on reality in order to make some sense out of it.  Your mind, or “logical understanding,” has imagined time as something spread out like a rug, extended in space, as if time were a mere dimension of space!  This is a useful fiction as far as it goes.  In order to be free, however, you must realize that your experience of past and future as distinct chunks that you locate on a time-line is ultimately unreal.  This experience is only the result of a conceptual extending out of time, an artificial spatialization of dynamic activity and experience.  Its spurious nature is revealed as soon as you get a taste of pure duration, of eternal life, which is totally devoid of the past/future distinction.  If clock time is a creature, pure duration is the Creator.

For Iqbal, serial time is fictitious but it is not an error.  It is born out of the creative movement of the Self/God from appreciation to efficiency, a movement that represents the unfolding or actualization of the inherent possibilities of the Self/God.  Events in serial time are precisely how the “Hidden Treasure” that is Self/God expresses some of its potentialities out of its love to be known.

Our time has no beginning and no end
It arises out of the garden of our heart.
Every life-form becomes more alive when it recognizes its own nature
Its being becomes brighter than the brightest morning.
Life is from time, and time is from life
The Prophet commanded: “Do not vilify time!”

Iqbal asserts that the reality of a thing is proportional to its state of self-consciousness.  The more self-conscious you become, the higher you ascend in the hierarchy of being. Existence in serial time, as Iqbal notes elsewhere, is spurious; it is closer to a fiction or an illusion than it is to reality as such.  Yet, to exist in serial time is necessary, for such existence allows us innumerable opportunities for becoming conscious of who we really are.  For this reason, the world of serial time is to be experienced fully, as well as embraced and accepted exactly the way it is.  One cannot transcend the world of serial time without first embracing it in its totality.  There is no escape from this world, nor is there any need to look for an exit. One doesn’t become free by running away from the world of serial time, but only by becoming self-aware through encountering its innumerable, ever-changing forms . . . each of which affords a unique opportunity for realizing who one truly is.

The phenomena of serial time, spurious as they may be, are ultimately rooted in the reality of pure duration.  Insofar as these phenomena are manifestations of pure duration, they are to be taken as “real,” albeit in a penultimate sense.  As such, they are to be honored and taken seriously.

In the final couplet, Iqbal alludes to a hadith, according to which Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is reported to have said: “Do not vilify time, for time is God.”  Classical authorities have explained this prophetic saying by referring to the common tendency of cursing and blaming fate for one’s perceived misfortunes.  Arabs were fond of identifying time as a villain who takes away our youth, our strengths, our possessions.  The Prophet forbade this habit of blaming or vilifying time as if it were one’s enemy or adversary.  Time, the Prophet seems to imply, is identical with what happens in life, which is always a reflection of divine will.  Cursing time is tantamount to saying “no” to reality; as such, it is the futile and self-defeating act of rejecting what is already the case.

For Iqbal, the identification of time with God contains an even more profound insight.  The experience of pure duration, of eternal life, is nothing short of experiencing divinity within oneself.  The creative movement within the divine self from appreciation to efficiency that brings into being the phenomena of serial time is analogous to our own experience of free, conscious, and deliberate creation.

When we identify ourselves with the realm of efficiency alone, we trap ourselves in the world of serial time; in this state, all we can do is react on the basis of past conditioning in a more or less mechanical manner.  We lack power, so we resort to uttering obscenities at reality.  Anger, after all, is a sign of weakness, of being out-of-control.

On the other hand, existence in pure duration is the source of our own divinity; rooted in real time, in eternity, we experience a movement from the core of our being toward its periphery, i.e., from appreciation to efficiency.  We enjoy power, even unlimited power.  We then create events, as we like, in serial time.  When we hold the sword of time in our hand, we are no longer at the mercy of impersonal, external forces; we no longer feel any need to curse our fate, for we write our own destiny.  We become what we already are—creators.


  1. Essentially, Nirvana, Enlightenment, Iman. How does one realize one’s full potential and run their course according to Reality or the now? And what is the nature of that confidence? What does it entail? What are its characteristics? How does one identify or recognize it?

  2. Fantastic post by the way. I just can’t help but wonder if we assume the identity and play the part and eventually the realization dawns. What would Buddha say?

      1. Well a while ago I read a book on Spirituality and Psychology that in order to attain a pyschospiritual state you have to assume the role that you want to attain before attaining it. In other words an individual must play the part before actually reaching that level. So if a person wanted to be more religious than a person would have to assume the role of what they thought a religious person should be. The only issue I’m having with what you’re saying is I don’t know what a person at one with time would be like or think. I don’t think there would be any two saints a like, but with reference to the big unknown, this Real Time, there must be some overlaps between the various people who seem to be living by it. I don’t know if I’m making clear sense to you.

  3. Here is the passage taken from “Contemplation: An Islamic Psychospiritual study” by Malik Badri (I haven’t touched this books since 2002 and I’m surprised I used the term psychospiritual earlier). While the book itself is dated it quotes Ghazali’s Ihya. But summarizes what Ghazali says:

    the (person) who wants to adhere to good behavior has first to change his ideas about himself and imagine himself in the desired condition. Then he must gradually assume those good manners until they become part of him. Al-Ghazali affirms that interaction between the psychocognitive aspect and practical behavior is inevitable. One the individual behaves in a certain manner, even if he feigns what he does, the effect of that behavior will reflect on his thinking and emotions; and when his thinking and feelings change, his observable behavior and countenance will also change.

    1. I agree with Ghazali’s insight, which is now common sense. Feelings and behaviors are reciprocally influened. If you are feeling sad but choose to smile anyway, that can have a subtle effect on your feelings. But your question is relevant, I.e., how do you know how to act in advance? Brief answer: You don’t, until an actual situation arises to which you must respond. How would a wise, enlightened person act in a particular situation cannot be known or planned, for the simple reason that no two situations are ever identical. The only thing common among all wise, enlightened people is this lack of planned responses. They don’t know how they will act in hypothetical scenarios. In other words, they are committed to values but not to predetermined courses of action. They are free to choose their specific responses in a given moment. True freedom means that you cannot always predict their behavior.

  4. All living things have hard-wired into their system a sense of time, a biological clock so to speak. Rising and setting of the sun is a nice pattern for evolution to work it’s wonders on. However, factors other than light (temperature, nutrient fluctuations, etc) can also be used to entrain a biological clock. Doubt you have a biological clock? Tell me how you are doing with that jet lag after your return from Karachi! So part of life necessarily encodes a sense of serial time.
    What you didn’t say, or perhaps it wasn’t explicit enough, is that our sense of time can be momentarily suspended: talking with good friends, being lost in a dangerous neighborhood, your honeymoon, being consumed in a good book. We can loose all sense of time- in the good way (what! It’s midnight already?) or bad sense (that train is 5 minutes late? I can’t believe I have been waiting so long).

    Beautiful poem.

  5. This blog post is what something i consider explaining iqbal’s concept of the time or, to be more correct, Real time. I would be interested in knowing how much do you agree with this notion of “Real Time” and if you are to use metaphor (like one used “sword”) what it would be?

  6. Assalamualaikum. I am very thankful to you for writing this post. It is a very clear explanation in todays time that I have ever come across. Can you please give any references to read more about pure duration to understand it better?

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