The Secrets of the Self (1)

Asrar-e Khudi (1915) was Iqbal’s first attempt at presenting a comprehensive statement of his mature philosophy. The fact that it was composed in Persian verse rather than in academic prose was partly due to the poet’s desire for reaching a wider audience in the Muslim world, and partly because the Persian poetic tradition had provided him with a range of ready-made expressions. Iqbal believed that many of the ideas expressed in Asrar-e Khudi were completely original; they had never been expressed before “either in the East or in the West.”

I feel that Asrar-e Khudi provides one of the “easiest” approaches into Iqbal’s inner world, mainly because it is one continuous poem in which a single theme is examined from different perspectives, but also because Iqbal has left us with a key that is supposed to unlock the contents of this long poem.

When Prof. Reynold Nicholson started translating the masnavi into English, he ran into problems of interpretation that he thought only Iqbal could solve.  In response to Prof. Nicholson’s query, Iqbal wrote a series of notes in English that were meant to summarize the masnavi as well as indicate its most important points. Subsequently, these notes found their way into the introduction of Prof. Nicholson’s English translation, The Secrets of the Self (1920).

Iqbal begins by quoting Bradley.

“That experience should take place in finite centres and should wear the form of finite this-ness is in the end inexplicable.” These are the words of Prof. Bradley.  But starting with these inexplicable centres of experience, he ends in a unity which he calls Absolute and in which the finite centres lose their finiteness and distinctness. According to him, therefore, the finite centre is only an appearance. The test of reality, in his opinion, is all-inclusiveness; and since all finiteness is “infected with relativity,” it follows that the latter is a mere illusion.

F. H. Bradley (1846–1924) was a British philosopher and the author of Appearance and Reality (1893). In the statement quoted above, Bradley appears to be saying that only individuals can have experiences, which seems correct. It is always particular men and women, or particular animals, that experience anything at all. On the other hand, it also seems true that concepts, abstractions, and generalizations do not experience anything.  How else could it be?  But Prof. Bradley, as paraphrased by Iqbal, believes in a larger whole, or totality, which he calls the “Absolute.”  All the particular individuals, the so-called “finite centers” of experience, are supposed to merge and dissolve into this larger totality by losing both their finiteness and their distinctiveness. The “Absolute” is all-inclusive; all the individuals are in it, which is precisely what makes the “Absolute” ultimately real. According to Prof. Bradley, the “Absolute” is real because it includes everything and excludes nothing; the individuals, however, are only relative and therefore nothing more than illusions, for each individual excludes everyone else by definition. In other words, even though individuals “appear,” yet they are not “real.” Consequently, Prof. Bradley finds it inexplicable as to why experience should take place in “finite centers” even though they are relative and illusory.

I may not be doing justice to Prof. Bradley, but in the present context my aim is to understand Iqbal, who continues as follows . . .

To my mind, this inexplicable finite centre of experience is the fundamental fact of the universe. All life is individual; there is no such thing as universal life. God himself is an individual: He is the most unique individual. The universe, as Dr. McTaggart says, is an association of individuals; but we must add that the orderliness and adjustment which we find in this association is not eternally achieved and complete in itself.  It is the result of instinctive or conscious effort.  We are gradually travelling from chaos to cosmos and are helpers in this achievement. Nor are the members of the association fixed; new members are ever coming to birth to co-operate in the great task. Thus the universe is not a completed act: it is still in the course of formation. There can be no complete truth about the universe, for the universe has not yet become “whole.” The process of creation is still going on, and man too takes his share in it, inasmuch as he helps to bring order into at least a portion of the chaos.  The Koran indicates the possibility of other creators than God.  فَتَبَارَكَ اللَّهُ أَحْسَنُ الْخَالِقِينَ

Disagreeing with Prof. Bradley, Iqbal insists that reality is a collection of individuals who do not merge and dissolve in the larger whole or totality, or a “universal life.” In fact, life always appears as particular individuals, as “finite centers” of experience. But if there is no “universal life,” how can there be any order in the structure of reality? If there is no whole, why do parts appear to work together by adjusting themselves to each other? Iqbal answers that the “orderliness” that we find in the universe is not something given or inherent in the structure of reality; on the contrary, it is the result of the efforts and initiatives (which may or may not be conscious) of the particular individuals that make up the universe. I suppose this would explain the fact that we not only find “orderliness” in the universe but we also, frequently, encounter disorderliness and chaos. Prof. Bradley can explain the existence of order but not the existence of disorder. Iqbal’s view, on the other hand, can presumably explain both.

Reality, in Iqbal’s view, is not yet complete; it is a work in progress. Existence in an incomplete universe is like living in a house that is still under construction; in such a house, the lights may work in one room but not in the other room; the doorbell usually rings, but sometimes it goes silent; hot and cold water may come out from the same tap. It’s obviously frustrating to live in a house like that, but there is no other house to move into. This is the only reality we have. Thankfully, however, the imperfection is not permanent. Things are constantly changing, and, regardless of what may happen in the short-term, the overall pattern of change is towards improvement. In the meantime, we may feel less frustrated if we drop the expectation that everything should work out perfectly according to our wishes. This requires our recognition that reality is not characterized by complete “orderliness,” either in the past or at this moment, though it is certainly moving towards that goal.

According to Iqbal, then, the universe is not a finished product. This is so because the universe is made up of particular entities, both animate and inanimate, and each of them enjoys a certain degree of freedom. It could not have been otherwise since freedom is a defining feature of individuality. A stone has less freedom than a leaf; a leaf has less freedom than a cat; and a cat has less freedom than a human baby. Yet, the difference between the lowest to the highest is always a matter of quantity; for each and every constituent of the universe is qualitatively identical insofar as it is an individual. Furthermore, the number of individuals in the universe is continuously increasing, since God is busy creating more and more of them at each moment. That’s what God does, since God is the most perfect individual and creativity is another defining feature of individuality.

For Iqbal, creation is not something that happened only once; instead, creation is ongoing. God is the best Creator, but He is not the only one! Everything that God has created is a conscious or unconscious partner with God in the ongoing creative process. Put differently, everything other than God is simultaneously a creature and a creator, though not all creatures have the same capacity to create. Since the universe is incomplete, and since creation is an ongoing process in which the entire universe is participating, we cannot be sure what form it will take in the future. Consequently, we cannot pronounce the last word on the nature of the universe. We can certainly guess how things are likely to turn out, just as we educated guesses about how a child’s future will unfold, but in both cases we cannot be absolutely sure.

Iqbal goes on to say:

Obviously this view of man and the universe is opposed to that of the English Neo-Hegelians as well as to all forms of pantheistic Sufism which regard absorption in a universal life or soul as the final aim and salvation of man. The moral and religious ideal of man is not self-negation but self-affirmation, and he attains to this ideal by becoming more and more individual, more and more unique. The Prophet said, Takhallaqu bi-akhlaq Allah, “Create in yourselves the attributes of God.”  Thus man becomes unique by becoming more and more like the most unique Individual.  What then is life?  It is individual; its highest form, so far, is the Ego (Khudi) in which the individual becomes a self-contained exclusive centre.  Physically as well as spiritually man is a self-contained centre, but he is not yet a complete individual. The greater his distance from God, the less his individuality. He who comes nearest to God is the completest person. Nor that he is finally absorbed in God. On the contrary, he absorbs God into himself. The true person not only absorbs the world of matter by mastering it; he absorbs God Himself into his Ego by assimilating Divine attributes.

Iqbal seems to be concerned most of all with being, or rather with becoming, and not so much with doing. Actions are impermanent, but personality or character—while also essentially impermanent—has the potential to achieve eternal life. Ultimately, what counts the most is not what I do but who I am, or, perhaps, what I could become.

This seems to be true at the empirical level. If I do not take care of the state of my soul, and focus exclusively upon fixing my habits and improving my outward behavior, then the changes I may achieve are likely to be superficial and transient. I may do the right thing, but I may not do it for the right reasons. Or I may do the right thing once or twice, but revert back to doing the wrong thing when no one is watching. Indeed, even the best of my actions may not produce the desired consequences if the personality or character from which they flow is diseased in some way. Moreover, if I am focused exclusively on the outward form of my actions, then I am also likely to need a great deal of external guidance to determine the appropriate course of action. On the other hand, if I focus first upon taking care of my soul then I may not have to worry about anything else, including the rightness or wrongness of my actions. By taking care of what’s inside me, I would simply allow the outside to take care of itself. I may even reach a state in which right action will flow effortlessly without much deliberation or inner conflict.

For Iqbal, achieving authentic selfhood is more fundamental than performing right actions. The performance of right actions is initially the means to achieve authentic selfhood and, subsequently, it becomes the evidence of its achievement–for the tree is known by its fruits.

This view is in harmony with a well-known hadith, according to which Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) once said: “Beware!  There is a piece of flesh in the body that if it becomes wholesome the entire body becomes wholesome, but if it gets corrupted the entire body gets corrupted. And know that it is the heart.”

In a similar vein, achieving authentic selfhood for Iqbal is more important than the enjoyment of spiritual awakening, enlightenment, or visionary experience. Iqbal would reiterate this position more than ten years later in the seventh lecture of The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, where he said: “The ultimate aim of the ego is not to see something, but to be something” (p. 156, italics in the original).

With the achievement of authentic selfhood comes the honor of acting in partnership with God. For Iqbal, knowing the nature of the universe pales into insignificance when compared with the possibility of directing its forces. Instead of speculating about the direction in which the evolution of the universe is progressing, he suggests that we can do something much more substantial—we can direct the course of its evolution by becoming conscious and deliberate co-creators with God. The universe seems more like a democracy from this viewpoint than a monarchy, at least potentially.  Imagining ourselves as conscious participants in the evolution of the universe, alongside God, definitely gives us much more power than the traditional hierarchical worldview offers. If Iqbal is right, then God may not have an agenda for us other than to allow us the freedom to create and execute our own agenda. We don’t always have to obey God according to this philosophy; it would seem that we may get to bring God over to our side. To reach that point, however, we must learn to dye ourselves divine. We must acquire divine qualities in accordance with the Prophetic imperative: تخلقوا باخلاق الله

The human ideal in relation to God is not self-negation to the point of dissolution, but self-affirmation to the point of becoming divine. By default, there is a great distance separating the human being from God; according to Iqbal, this distance is not a cause for despair but represents a challenge and an invitation from God. The distance is neither a punishment nor an insurmountable obstacle; it is, in fact, the very path that we are called upon to traverse. Traveling on the “path of God” is a metaphor for acquiring the attributes of God; to become increasingly like God is the same as moving closer to God.  Since God is the most unique individual, human beings pay the highest possible tribute to God when they try to absorb God’s attributes within their own personalities and when they try to mold their character so that it begins to reflect some of God’s own qualities. This does not make them identical to each other, however. The closer they get to God, the more unique they become. For Iqbal, uniqueness and individuality are highly desirable goods, but God is the only source for these qualities. Furthermore, the degree of a being’s reality is proportional to the degree of its uniqueness. It is our distinctive individuality, our particularity, that confers upon us some measure of reality. God is most real because God is most unique. As we become increasingly like God, we not only increase in uniqueness but we also rise in the ontological hierarchy. We may even become eternal.

Iqbal continues as follows:

Life is a forward assimilative movement. It removes all obstructions in its march by assimilating them. Its essence is the continual creation of desires and ideals, and for the purpose of it its preservation and expansion it has invented or developed out of itself certain instruments, e.g., senses, intellect, etc., which help in to assimilate obstructions. The greatest obstacle in the way of life is matter, Nature; yet Nature is not evil, since it enables the inner powers of life to unfold themselves. The Ego attains to freedom by the removal of all observations in its way. It is partly free, partly determined, and reaches fuller freedom by approaching the Individual who is most free—God. In one word, life is an endeavour for freedom.

By identifying “life” as a movement that creates ideals and assimilates obstacles, Iqbal is referring to the spiritual aspect of reality—which is, in reality, not an “aspect” at all but is synonymous with reality as such. Depending upon the needs of the context, Iqbal may also use other terms such as khudi, ego, or self. He would contend in the second lecture of Reconstruction that “the ultimate nature of Reality is spiritual, and must be conceived as an ego.” This, indeed, is the alpha and the omega of Iqbal’s philosophy.

Iqbal’s ultimate reality—I prefer the term Self—may be understood as a playful and restless wave or current of consciousness that is constantly on the move; its main, or perhaps only, recognizable characteristic is an irrepressible desire for fresh creation. The Self is in the business of continuously creating new ideals and setting them up as its goals; in striving to reach these goals, the Self inevitably encounters various obstacles that challenge it to come up with creative ways of overcoming them. Sooner or later, the Self overcomes all obstacles that appear in its path by absorbing or assimilating them. The evolution of the physical universe, the evolution of life on earth (and perhaps in other places), and the evolution of human consciousness and culture are some of the stages in the ongoing creative process through which the Self has been expressing its love for certain ideals and seeking them in a variety of innovative ways.

Both the Self and the ideals that it seeks are of a spiritual quality, which means they are radically different from—and in some ways opposed to—the world of material objects. Yet, there is no enmity between spirit and matter. At one level, the world of matter is nothing other than a concrete manifestation of the Self; at another level, matter acts as an obstacle to the Self and offers resistance to the realization of its goals. By acting as an obstacle, however, the world of matter does not intend to frustrate the purposes of the Self; instead, it makes it possible for the actualization of the dormant and hidden potentials of the Self.

In this view, matter and spirit are complementary because the Self thrives on meeting and conquering obstacles. In the last analysis, however, matter is only one of the many forms that the Self takes in the course of its never-ending journey.

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