The Secrets of the Self (3)

When Asrar-e Khudi was first published in 1915, the immediate reception among Indian Muslims was lukewarm, with some strongly negative reactions coming from the established circles of religious authority. Overall, the message of this poem was seen either as too difficult or as deeply offensive; Asrar-e Khudi was either not understood at all, or it was greeted with misinterpretations.

Iqbal wrote a number of letters to his detractors in order to clarify his intended meaning; he also removed some of the offensive parts of the poem from the second edition, not because he had changed his mind but because he thought those parts were distracting from the real message of the book. Later, when an English translation was published in 1920, an entirely different set of misinterpretations emerged from British intellectuals, including renewed fears of “jihad.” Iqbal refuted these criticisms in a letter to Prof. Nicholson, the translator of Asrar-e Khudi into English.

Even though Iqbal composed many great poems both before and after Asrar-e Khudi, this particular poem remains one of his major accomplishments. Its significance lies not only in its literary and aesthetic merits, but also, and much more importantly, in its philosophical contributions. There are seeds of a full-fledged philosophy in this book, with potentially paradigm-shifting implications for theology, psychology, and social thought. In his subsequent career, Iqbal would continue to expand and elaborate upon the themes that he first introduced in Asrar-e Khudi.

In the previous two postings, I have attempted to unpack some of Iqbal’s brief remarks to Prof. Nicholson in which he summarized the main ideas of Asrar-e Khudi.  This is the third installment.

Iqbal writes:

As in connexion with the question of the freedom of the Ego we have to face the problem of matter, similarly in connexion with its immortality we have to face the problem of time. Bergson has taught us that time is not an infinite line (in the spatial sense of the word ‘line’) through which we must pass whether we wish it or not. This idea of time is adulterated.  Pure time has no length. Personal immortality is an aspiration: you can have it if you make an effort to achieve it. It depends on our adopting in this life modes of thought and activity which tend to maintain the state of tension. Buddhism, Persian Sufism, and allied forms of ethics will not serve our purpose. But they are not wholly useless, because after periods of great activity we need opiates, narcotics, for some time. These forms of thought and action are like nights in the days of life.

Most people believe that concepts like “time,” “space,” and “matter” belong entirely to the realm of physics; and if one is not a professional physicist, one need not show much concern with these arcane subjects. Iqbal, however, views these concepts as crucially important for both individuals and communities because of their relevance for ethics. Particularly for Muslims, Iqbal contends that these are issues of life and death. In the passage quoted above, Iqbal refers to two of the most important characteristics of the ego, viz., its freedom and its immortality; he points out that in order to come to terms with the ego’s freedom and its immortality, we must develop a proper understanding of the nature of “matter” and the nature of “time,” respectively.

Consider the problem of freedom and the way it is approached in modern, industrialized societies. On the one hand, we are told that science can predict the motion of atoms, planets, and billiard balls, and since our brains function through neurotransmitters whose behavior, after all, is only a complex form of physical motion, it follows that our experience of “freedom” is no more than an evolutionary trick; freedom does not exist because human actions are almost fully determined by genes, instincts, and the environment. On the other hand, however, we are told not only that freedom is real but also that there is nothing more important than its preservation; that democracy and capitalism thrive only due to the fact that we are “free to choose” everything from candidates to candies; and that only liberal democracy can guarantee that we will continue to enjoy our personal freedom—which happens to be the highest achievement of Western civilization. In fact, we value freedom so much that we are willing to propagate it all over the world even at gun point.

A similar contradiction exists on the question of immortality. On the one hand, we are told that promises of rewards and punishments in another life are either neurotic forms of wishful thinking or clever ways of keeping the exploited masses in delusion; there is no reality to the human being except the physical body, and since the body disintegrates into its constituent parts after its death, there is no hope left for personal immortality. On the other hand, however, sensual pleasures and youthfulness are glamorized as if these were, in fact, everlasting, and as if their enjoyment was really supposed to go on forever, while both death and the dying are carefully kept out of our sight so that we may be saved from facing the inconvenient truth of our own mortality.

In the secular culture of industrialized societies, there is no foundation left for believing either in human freedom or in everlasting life. Yet, the culture functions on the assumptions that human beings do have freedom and that the good life they are enjoying now is going to last indefinitely. Indeed, the very foundation of modern democracy is the assumed ability of the individual to choose freely; and the very foundation of the consumerism that drives the capitalist economy is the assumed permanence of earthly delights. In other words, even though we moderns have no justification to believe that such fundamental human aspirations as freedom and immortality are real, we continue to act as if we already possess them.

For Iqbal, freedom and immortality are not only basic human aspirations, they are potentially within our grasp. As for freedom, Iqbal teaches that the ego is inauthentic if it does not act freely. If we are to become real, we must taste the sweetness of authentic choice. To do so, according to Iqbal, we have to come to terms with the world of matter. Fearing, avoiding, or hating all things material is to give up our capacity for free choice. Authentic selfhood is acquired only through creative effort, and the world of matter is precisely the arena in which the ego can freely manifest its creative potential.

Immortality is a more difficult subject, perhaps because “time” is a more challenging concept to grasp than “matter.” It appears that Iqbal’s views on the nature of time took their final form during his stay in Europe (1905-1908) and in the years immediately after his return.  These views are wonderfully expressed in one of the last poems of Asrar-e Khudi, titled “Al-Waqt Sayf.” In an earlier post, I have already commented on the first part of this poem, whose title means “Time is a Sword.” The only difference between what Iqbal says on this topic in the passage quoted above and what he would say later in the Reconstruction is that there is far greater detail in the latter instance; the basic idea did not change. While Iqbal starts the discussion in both texts by quoting Bergson, it is important to note in this context that Iqbal had, in fact, anticipated the French philosopher in many ways. Iqbal had written a paper in Trinity College (Cambridge) in which he defended the reality of time; he ended up destroying that paper because of the negative comments he received from his advisor, Prof. McTaggart. Apparently, Prof. McTaggart apologized to Iqbal soon afterwards when similar ideas started to gain currency in the English-speaking world under Bergson’s influence.

Iqbal’s position on personal immortality is that it is available to us as a potential, which we are asked to actualize during the course of our earthly lives. The potential for immortality is actualized by following those patterns of thought and action that tend to strengthen the human ego by maintaining the inner “state of tension.” On the other hand, Iqbal warns us against following certain other patterns of thought and action because of their tendency to have the opposite effect; they are not conducive to immortality because they weaken the human ego by relaxing the inner “state of tension.” Religious and philosophical systems that teach an unqualified negation of the self and/or an unqualified denial or rejection of the material world fall in this category. Insofar as such tendencies are found in particular forms of mysticism or religion, their adherents run the risk of relaxing their inner tension to the point of personal annihilation (which may, in fact, be the very goal of their quest). Yet, Iqbal does not believe that such patterns of thought and action are absolutely useless, for they do play an important role in the larger course of history—they provide the necessary (and temporary) relaxation of “sleep” that must follow any period of intense activity, given the present stage of the ego’s evolution.

We know from experience that khudi, or the degree of self-awareness that Iqbal calls “state of tension,” changes moment by moment; it can go from very high alertness (which is rarely achieved), through the moderate attentiveness of daily life, all the way down to dreamless sleep. In the Reconstruction, Iqbal mentions the loss of conscious awareness that happens during sleep as an instance of the temporarily weakened ego in a state of considerable “relaxation.” This means that it is normal for khudi (which is a state, rather than a thing) to alternate between the opposite poles of tension and relaxation—with innumerable stages in between—throughout the course of a given day. Similarly, such changes in the inner “state of tension” also happen on a slightly larger scale of time during the course of an individual’s life. We begin our lives without any awareness of the self and often, in our old age, reach once again a similar condition. In between these, we may—if we are lucky—experience periods of high self-consciousness. Iqbal points out that the same is true for the course of existence of an entire nation. In the history of a nation, a long period of intense mental and physical activity would naturally raise the “state of tension” of its individual members to a high level; just as we need to sleep after a day of intense activity, a nation may also go through a period of “relaxation” by developing patterns of thought and action that facilitate a lowering of the inner tension.

At an individual level, the purpose of maintaining one’s inner “state of tension” is to ensure the strengthening of khudi and its degree of reality within pure duration. Iqbal notes:

Thus, if our activity is directed towards the maintenance of a state of tension, the shock of death is not likely to affect it. After death there may be an interval of relaxation, as the Koran speaks of a barzakh, or intermediate state, which, in the case of some individuals, will last until the Day of Resurrection. Only those Egos will survive this state of relaxation who have taken good care during the present life.  Although life abhors repetition in its evolution, yet on Bergson’s principles the resurrection of the body too, as Wildon Carr says, is quite possible.  By breaking up time into moments we spatialise it and then find difficulty in getting over it. The true nature of time is reached when we look into our deeper self.  Real time is life itself which can preserve itself by maintaining that particular state of tension (personality) which it has so far achieved. We are subject to time so long as we look upon time as something spatial. Spatialised time is a fetter which life has forged for itself in order to assimilate the present environment.

Bergson’s famous distinction between “serial time” and “pure duration” is the key discovery in this regard; with his usual brilliance, Iqbal uses this discovery to affirm the possibility of personal immortality. For both Bergson and Iqbal, our everyday experience of time has become spatialized; serial time is therefore impure—it has been adulterated with space. Because of this adulteration, we have become conditioned to think of time in spatial ways, as if it were a straight line extended into space. This image has even become a part of our conceptual systems, and is therefore expressed in our metaphorical expressions; for instance, we say that a given event is “behind us,” or we refer to the future by saying that we should “look ahead.” This way of thinking about time has a practical purpose; it allows the “efficient self” to deal with the exigencies of life on earth. Yet, being trapped in serial time is not conducive to attaining immortality. For Iqbal, personal immortality is a question of overcoming time; yet spatialized time cannot be overcome. Fortunately, however, serial time is not real time. There would have been no possibility of everlasting life had serial time been ultimately real.

What, then, is real time? When purified of space, time appears in its true form, as pure duration. Real time has no past, present, or future, and hence cannot be measured by clocks or calendars. It is always experienced as a single “Now.” There is definitely change in pure duration, but change happens without succession; there is no “before” or “after.”

Iqbal notes:

In reality we are timeless, and it is possible to realise our timelessness even in this life. This revelation, however, can be momentary only.

When Iqbal insists on the reality of time, his audience should remember to ask, which time? The time whose reality he emphatically affirms is not the ordinary clock time at all, for serial time is nothing more than a useful fiction; it may be necessary for the survival of humanity on earth, but ultimately it is an illusion. Transcending the limitations of serial time, however, is pure duration—or, rather, timelessness. If the spurious ego or the “efficient self” exists in serial time, the true ego or the “appreciative self” abides in pure duration. Khudi, in other words, is timeless.  It does not have to strive to overcome time; it is already free of its fetters.  We are imprisoned because we are unaware of our freedom. Iqbal teaches that freedom comes neither from struggle nor from planning; it the result of a conscious and unwavering faith. What is needed, then, is the realization of the truth—not as an intellectual construct or second-hand information, but as a personal discovery within our own being.

It so happens that some people spend their entire lives without ever experiencing anything other than clock time. Others may have fleeting encounters with timelessness, but they remain oblivious to the significance of such experiences. This is a shame, because we do not recognize our greatest treasure, khudi, so long as we do not experience and appreciate our existence in real time. As Iqbal, and many others both before and after him, have testified, it is possible to get a glimpse of pure duration even in this life; though according to the measurements of serial time, such experiences of timelessness typically last no more than a few seconds or minutes. Of course, it is not the length of the witnessing experience that is most valuable, but its quality. In any case, even a single profound experience of pure duration can transform one’s entire life.

According to Iqbal, one has to plunge deep within one’s own heart in order to find the secret of life. Like so many other great teachers and sages throughout history, Iqbal is telling us that we already have what we are looking for—it’s only a matter of turning our attention in the right direction. Just as  Jesus told his disciples, “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20), Iqbal teaches us that our deepest aspirations, freedom and immortality, are available within ourselves through the timeless “Now.”


  1. As soon as this series was started I wanted to ask something bit essential in philosophy of iqbal, and its good that in this post it has come by itself under discussion. The problem is of “eternity” or “immortality” of “khudi”. As stated over here “Thus, if our activity is directed towards the maintenance of a state of tension, the shock of death is not likely to affect it.” and specifically that “shock of death is not likely to affect it”. Further somewhere in Darb-e-Kaleem “If the ego is self-preserving, self-creating and self-sustaining, then it is possible that even death may not make you die. ”

    Now my point over here is

    1. Is Iqbal talking about the form of life immediate after the transfer from this temporal life i.e. Barzakh.

    2. If yes then not surviving death, does it mean the complete loss of conciousness?

    3. Apparently to me this idea doesn’t seem to be reconciled with the given perception by Quran i. e. after burzakh and after the day of judgement every soul whether one has got Khudi to that level or not will be immortal but in different states.

    I hope I have made my point clear, your comment on this would be of immense help. Thanks.

  2. Could you please recommend an English-language biography of Iqbal that especially focuses on the years 1905-1908 and specifically the life-long friendships that he made during this time?

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