The Secrets of the Self (2)

Iqbal gave us the key to his Asrar-e Khudi (1915) when he jotted down some quick remarks in response to Prof. Nicholson’s query. These remarks are supposed to summarize the philosophy that animates the poem, though they are quite challenging themselves, partly due to their brevity.

In the following sentences, Iqbal seems to offer a definition of khudi as applied to the human individual. The wave or current of consciousness that is moving and progressing by setting ideals, pursuing goals, and assimilating obstructions . . . when it finally manifests in the human form it expresses itself most fully as ego or personality.

In man the centre of life becomes an Ego or Person. Personality is a state of tension and can continue only if that state is maintained.  If the state of tension is not maintained, relaxation will ensue. Since personality, or the state of tension, is the most valuable achievement of man, he should see that he does not revert to a state of relaxation. That which tends to maintain the state of tension tends to make us immortal.

Our first challenge is to interpret Iqbal’s definition of the human ego as “a state of tension.” Note that the ego is supposed to be a “state” rather than a “thing.” As such, the ego is fragile and unstable, prone to disintegration in the absence of appropriate effort. The meaning of “tension,” however, is not immediately clear. Usually the word “tension” refers to a state of balance or equilibrium between two or more opposing forces; as soon as one force exceeds the other(s), the tension becomes resolved in its favor—and therefore ceases to be. If the human ego is “a state of tension,” what are the opposing forces that are being held in balance through it? What does “relaxation” mean in this context? What is the relationship between immortality and maintaining this state of tension? How, practically speaking, can we maintain the required state of tension? What happens to the human ego if the tension is relaxed completely?

As of today, I am not entirely sure how to answer these questions from Iqbal’s perspective. I did find a clue, however, in his discussion of the same problem in the Reconstruction (pp. 78-79).  According to Iqbal, Prof. Bradley had trouble dealing with the reality of the human ego because of his assumption that “freedom from contradiction” was the criterion for reality and his observation that the human ego was “infected with irreconcilable oppositions of change and permanence, unity and diversity.” Iqbal seems to agree that at the present stage of its evolution the finite ego is “imperfect as a unity of life” and that its nature aspires towards a unity that is more perfect, inclusive, effective, balanced, and unique. Is Iqbal’s understanding of the ego as a “state of tension” has something to do with balancing such oppositions as “change and permanence” and “unity and diversity”? Is he implying that the ego is real insofar as it maintains an inner “state of tension” between these opposing forces? Does that mean, then, that relaxing the delicate balance in favor of one or the other opposing forces is what dissolves the human ego?

Moving on . . .

Thus the idea of personality gives us a standard of value: it settles the problem of good and evil. That which fortifies personality is good, that which weakens it is bad. Art, religion, and ethics must be judged from the stand-point of personality. My criticism of Plato is directed against those philosophical systems which hold up death rather than life as their ideal-systems which ignore the greatest obstruction to life, namely, matter, and teach us to run away from it instead of absorbing it.

There are two shockingly powerful claims in the above quote. First, there is no value higher than the imperative to maintain the state of tension, otherwise known as the ego or personality, because it represents the highest of all human achievements so far. Second, the world of matter is spiritually meaningful, so much so that no spiritual achievement would be possible for those who turn away from the world of matter.

The importance of these two claims cannot be overstated. At least part of the reason for their importance is that these claims run counter to most of the religious and philosophical thought, whether premodern or modern. A great deal of moral thought has focused upon showing that the human ego is the root of all evil, and that it ought to be weakened or even destroyed completely; a great deal of religious thought has insisted that matter is evil in itself, and the goals of enlightenment and salvation can only be pursued by rejecting and transcending the material reality. Not so, according to Iqbal.

The first claims takes us to the heart of Iqbal’s philosophy, where we have to face questions like these: (1) what, exactly, is the human ego? (2) what are the implications of saying that the ego is real? (3) what is it about the ego that makes it the most valuable human achievement so far? (4) why is this ego worth preserving? I have no illusion that I can address these questions in a satisfactory manner, but I may be able to suggest a few pointers.

What does Iqbal mean by “ego”? The word itself is a minefield of negative connotations, particularly in Eastern cultures. The first edition of Asrar-e Khudi did attract a great deal of misinterpretations and criticisms.  Incidentally, Iqbal had written a preface to Asrar-e Khudi in Urdu, which he removed from the second edition because he felt its brevity would only add to the already rising tide of misunderstandings. At the end of that preface, Iqbal had warned his readers not to interpret this key word in the usual negative sense of vanity or selfishness. He wrote: “It is important for the readers to be aware that the word khudi has not been used in the sense of pride, which is its common Urdu meaning; instead, its meaning [in the present context] is awareness of the self or delimitation of [one’s] essence.”

In Western languages, the Latin word “ego” has two primary denotations, and hence two sets of synonyms or related words.  On the one hand, it suggests ideas like mind, self, soul, spirit, or psyche; on the other hand, it evokes notions of conceit, pride, vanity, hubris, and selfishness. The former implies an essential opposition between the ego and the body, while the latter implies immoral behavior. Neither set of connotations served Iqbal’s purpose. He needed a neutral word.

Many years later, and now close to his death, Iqbal dictated some remarks to his friend and associate Sayyid Nazir Niayzi on the same topic. This piece, dated 1937 and titled “Note on Nietzsche,” contains additional insights on what he meant by the term khudi. In the following quote, Iqbal refers to the difficulty he faced in choosing the most appropriate word to serve his purpose:

The word “Khudi” was chosen with great difficulty and most reluctantly. From a literary point of view it has many shortcomings and ethically it is generally used in a bad sense both in Urdu and Persian. The other words for the metaphysical fact of the “I” are equally bad, e.g. انانیت، نفس، شخص، انا. What is needed is a colourless word for self, ego, having no ethical significance. As far as I know there is no such word in either Urdu or Persian. The word من in Persian is equally bad. However, considering the requirements of verse, I thought that the word خودی was the most suitable. There is also some evidence in the Persian language of the use of the word خودی in the simple sense of self, i.e. to say the colourless fact of the “I.” Thus metaphysically the word خودی  is used in the sense of that indescribable feeling of “I,” which forms the basis of the uniqueness of each individual.

Such linguistic dilemmas are normal for any original thinker who attempts to give verbal form to certain deeply felt intuitions. To express ideas that have never been expressed before, one either has to coin new words or give new meanings to existing words; either choice carries the risk of creating a variety of misunderstandings and misinterpretations. While Iqbal settled for the word khudi when composing his first long Persian poem, he continued to employ a variety of words according to the needs of his immediate context. By using a number of different words for the same concept, Iqbal kept his poetry delightfully fresh while also precluding any reification of this key concept. In The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, however, the word “ego” is used almost exclusively, perhaps for the sake of consistency.

The association between “ego” and such vices as pride and vanity gives us an interesting clue to Iqbal’s meaning. It indicates that there is at least one facet of the reality in question that has produced undesirable and even immoral consequences according to the collective human experience. If a person’s speech contains too many instances of I, me, my, and mine, the listeners are likely to sense self-absorption or narcissism in the speaker, and may react with disapproval. Parents and teachers warn us that preoccupation with one’s own feelings, needs, desires, and problems is a sign of an unhealthy character.  Spiritual masters teach us that our everyday sense of a distinct, exclusive, and individual identity is no more than an artificial construct that keeps us in the grip of suffering. All of this goes to show that when Iqbal insists on using the word “ego” in a neutral and even a positive sense, he intends a meaning that either (1) does not coincide with the usual denotations of this word, or (2) it includes these denotations but then transcends them entirely. In other words, we may safely assume that his intended referent of “ego” is something much larger and deeper than the relatively shallow sense of egohood that all of us carry within ourselves.

In the passage quoted above, notice Iqbal’s repeated use of the first person pronoun “I” to describe the nature of khudi. At the beginning of “Note on Nietzsche,” Iqbal mentions the Old Testament use of “I” in the same sense. He probably had the following Biblical verse in mind: “And God said unto Moses, I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14). This verse is echoed in the Qur’anic narrative, where we read: “Verily I am God, there is no god except Me …” (Qur’an 20:14).  Unfortunately, the sharp emphasis on I-ness in the original text is difficult to render in English, though Muhammad Asad’s translation seeks to do just that: “Verily, I—I alone—am God; there is no deity save Me ….”  Perhaps the New Testament can also be quoted to illustrate Iqbal’s view of khudi. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus said: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) and “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Even though Christians usually take these expressions as referring to Jesus alone, Iqbal would find a deeper truth in these verses that seem to glorify the “I” and the “I am.”  An interesting parallel to these New Testament verses is found in the Islamic tradition as well, in the form of the famous utterance by Husayn bin Mansur al-Hallaj:  انا الحق  “I am the Truth.” For Iqbal, the true significance of al-Hallaj’s claim was that it represented an affirmation of the reality of khudi. The same can be said of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John.

For Iqbal, God is the most unique individual, who, therefore, is perfectly entitled to say “I am” in the absolute sense of the phrase. Selfhood, however, is an essential hallmark of all beings, for, as Iqbal contends in the Reconstruction, “from the Ultimate Ego only egos proceed” (p. 57). The same khudi that is most perfectly expressed in God is also found in all of God’s creatures. The finite human ego, which is a pale reflection of the Ultimate Ego, seeks constantly to attain a higher level of reality so that it, too, may gain the right to utter the phrase “I am.”

We all learned to say “I”  when we were three years old, or perhaps even younger. As we grew up, this sense of “I” gradually solidified into a group of thoughts, feelings, and memories and acquired an entity-like character of permanence. This is a normal psychological phenomenon, but its metaphysical value is somewhat dubious. Those few individuals who recognize the transient and artificial nature of this “I” are able to see that, ultimately, it is not real; it is merely a necessary tool for managing the affairs of life. In Iqbal’s own terminology, it is the spurious “efficient self.”

While it is true that what most people recognize as their individual identity or sense of personhood is largely an illusory product of their past conditioning, it is also true that the very ability to recognize this fact in one’s own being indicates the presence of a larger and deeper capacity for conscious awareness. It is this larger, deeper, and more real sense of conscious awareness that Iqbal means whenever he uses the word khudi. Elsewhere he refers to it as the “appreciative self,” i.e., the awareness that lurks in the background and observes the activities of the “efficient self” without being observable itself. In his Urdu preface to the first edition of Asrar-e Khudi, Iqbal draws the attention of his readers to this reality as follows:

This unity of intuition, this bright point of consciousness that illuminates all of human thinking, feelings, and desiring; this mysterious something that holds together the scattered and limitless states of human nature; this khudi or “I” that is revealed through its activity but remains hidden in its essence; this creator of all witnessing that is too subtle to become the object of witnessing …. 

In other words, khudi does not denote the superficial feeling of egohood that even a child can learn to recognize within herself, for there is nothing “mysterious” about that feeling.  Instead, khudi denotes the inner field of conscious awareness within which all psychological, spiritual, mental, and emotional phenomena take place (including our shallow sense of egoohood).  Khudi is what allows any experience to occur; there is no seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, thinking, or feeling except in and through khudi.  Yet, it is impossible to observe one’s khudi directly. It’s essence remains “hidden” from the human gaze, though its actions may be observed in the world. Even though we cannot “look” at khudi in the same way in which we can “look” at our changing mental states, the reality of khudi may be recognized experientially. It is fair to say, however, that the vast majority of human beings rarely, if ever, experience their larger and deeper self in all its grandeur and glory.

But even this larger and deeper sense of conscious awareness, according to Iqbal, exists at the threshold of annihilation. This is because reality is an attribute that belongs, strictly speaking, to the Ultimate Ego alone. As Iqbal said elsewhere, God is real but the human being is only trying to become real. It is absurd for humans to ask whether or not God exists, for it is their own existence that is a matter of some uncertainty. Despite the inherent fragility of the human ego, Iqbal believes that it is capable of achieving at least some measure of reality; this can happen if, instead of setting itself for dissolution through misguided religious ideas, the human ego seeks to acquire the character-traits of God. Had there really been an unbridgeable distance between God and God’s creation, it would have been impossible for any human individual to aim at acquiring divine attributes. What makes this possible is precisely the fact that “from the Ultimate Ego only egos proceed.” It is the actual or potential ability to recognize and express oneself as an authentic “I” or, indeed, as an authentic “I am,” that is common between God and all of God’s creation, most notably the human being.  Since the essence of the human being is identical—with due qualifications—with the essence of God, there are good prospects for the human ego to acquire a degree of permanence so that it could maintain its unique individuality and live forever in the heart of reality. This is another way of saying that even though the human ego barely exists, it is fully capable of attaining eternal life. From this perspective, khudi or the “I am” is truly “the way, the truth, and the life.”

In this background, the key problem of moral thought—i.e., what is the highest good?—is finally resolved. For Iqbal, anything that strengthens the ego is good, while anything that weakens it is bad. In other words, actions that help the human ego in its quest for greater perfection and reality are to be seen as righteous, wholesome, and beautiful. On the other hand, actions that obstruct or retard this progress are to be treated as evil, sinful, and ugly.  Since Iqbal believes that the nature and character of the human ego can be studied empirically, determining the goodness and badness of a given action may no longer be a matter of personal taste, social norm, or abstract reasoning. With Iqbal’s suggestion that the well-being of the human ego be the final criterion of morality, the possibility arises that ethics may one day become a full-fledged science.

Iqbal’s second claim is equally critical. The world of matter has generally been treated in religious thought as something intrinsically evil, a permanent impediment, as it were, in the realization of spiritual enlightenment and other-worldly salvation. In Asrar-e Khudi, Iqbal targeted Plato for having introduced this tendency of denigrating matter and exalting the spirit as if the two were mutually exclusive principles.  Whether or not his critique of Plato is justified is certainly debatable, but it is indisputable that the line of thought that links Plato to Plotinus has been closely associated with an ethic of world-negation in both Islam and Christianity. This frequently produced a dichotomous worldview in which a transcendent and spiritual realm of reality stood in sharp contrast to the mundane and material realm.  By definition, the world of the spirit was always more valuable and more real than the world of matter, and the whole point of religious life was to realize precisely this truth.  Such a worldview encouraged avoidance, fear, and contempt vis-a-vis all things material, including nature and the human body.  While enlightenment and salvation were eagerly sought, the accompanying attitude of world-negation precluded an accurate understanding of the human ego; more often, the ego was conceived in terms that denied any role or value for the physical body. In exalting the spirit, it was deemed necessary that matter be despised and denigrated. The self became disembodied.

In this background, the birth of modernity may be seen as a reaction against this negative religious tendency towards the material world.  Modernity, at least in its nineteenth-century version, did the exact opposite; it denied the reality of the spirit and exalted the material world as the only reality worthy of human attention.  By misconstruing the reality of the ego, however, even this exclusive emphasis on the body remained shallow, lacking the full-blown experience of embodiment.

It is interesting to note that certain contemporary religious reactions against modernity are, once again, trying to bring back the same negative attitude towards matter that Iqbal finds so problematic.

Iqbal agrees that the world of matter constitutes an “obstacle” to the progress of khudi, but he forcefully contends that denying, negating, or avoiding this obstacle is a serious error. Just because matter is an obstacle does not mean that it is evil, or that it has no religious meaning or value, or that it contributes nothing to the human quest for enlightenment and salvation. According to Iqbal, life progresses not by turning away from the obstacles that appear in its path; it progresses by absorbing and assimilating them.


  1. You address quite well the tension within the khudi/I/ego framework.

    What of the tension created by intimate relatioships between people? For example, Rumi did not start composing his really good poetry until his dear friend Shams of Tabriz was MIA and presumed dead. Or do you consider these kinds of friendships “obstacles” ?

    As for :
    “With Iqbal’s suggestion that the well-being of the human ego be the final criterion of morality, the possibility arises that ethics may one day become a full-fledged science.”
    – don’t you think this will be difficult given the incomplete nature of human knowledge (ref. Qur’an 18:60-82)?

  2. Regarding interpersonal relations, Iqbal’s second masnavi is probably more pertinent, Rumuz-e Bekhudi, which was translated into English by A. J. Arberry as “Mysteries of Selflessness.”

    As for ethics becoming a science, that cannot mean its infallibility. Sciences like physics or sociology are neither complete nor infallible; something is a “science” insofar as is based on empirical evidence and is open to self-criticism and correction. The same can be expected of ethics. For Iqbal, religion itself can attain the status of a science.

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