The Secrets of the Self (4)

Finally, Iqbal turns to practical ethics. We have already seen that the summum bonum for Iqbal is the integrity of khudi. There is nothing more important than strengthening the ego, which is precisely what allows it to achieve genuine freedom as well as immortality. Moral virtues and vices are to be distinguished on the standard of whether they support and fortify the ego or whether they cause it to dissolve and disintegrate. On that standard, the highest moral virtue is love, and the worst possible vice is begging.

The Ego is fortified by love (ishq). This word is used in a very wide sense and means the desire to assimilate, to absorb.  Its highest form is the creation of values and ideals and the endeavour to realise them.  Love individualises the lover as well as the beloved. The effort to realise the most unique individuality individualises the seeker and implies the individuality of the sought, for nothing else would satisfy the nature of the seeker. As love fortifies the Ego, asking (su’al) weakens it.  All that is achieved without personal effort comes under su’āl. The son of a rich man who inherits his father’s wealth is an ‘asker’ (beggar); so is every one who thinks the thoughts of others.  Thus, in order to fortify the Ego we should cultivate love, i.e. the power of assimilative action, and avoid all forms of ‘asking’, i.e. inaction.  The lesson of assimilative action is given by the life of the Prophet, at least to a Muhammadan.

Iqbal’s conception of love is rather unusual, to say the least, for he seems to turn the Western understanding of love on its head. In the Greek and Christian traditions, love generally involves some form of “giving.” For Iqbal, on the other hand, love is first and foremost an act of “taking,” i.e., the assimilation of the beloved into the lover. Yet, it is apparently a win/win situation, for the act of love bestows individuality upon both the lover and the beloved.

According to Iqbal’s brief description, love seems to go through three stages. In the first stage, the lover “creates” a beloved, i.e., they choose an object to love. The beloved is usually an idealized value, such as beauty, power, generosity, and life; or it may be a person, in whom the desired value is perceived to be present to such an extent that the difference between the essence and the attribute becomes irrelevant for the lover.

In the second stage, the lover ardently desire and actively seek the beloved, i.e., they seek a state of union with the beloved. This union can take one of two forms. In the first scenario, the lover wishes to lose themselves in the beloved; they imagine themselves as unreal and unworthy in the presence of the beloved, and so they aim at achieving a state in which only the beloved remains. This scenario may be imagined as a simple equation, i.e., 1 + 1 = 1. Such a union is typically described in terms of a drop of water that merges with, and disappears into, the boundless ocean. As we have seen, Iqbal has nothing but disapproval for this kind of union, even if—or, rather, particularly if—the beloved happens to be God. The kind of union that he approves, on the other hand, is the one in which the lover maintains their personality and unique identity, guarding the integrity of their khudi with all their might; instead of aiming at merging with the beloved, they aim at absorbing the beloved within their own being.

In the third stage, the lover succeed in actually assimilating the idealized value within themselves.  Clearly, at this stage neither the lover nor the beloved remains exactly as they were before the union.  Love changes both. If this is the case of a human being seeking to absorb divine attributes within herself or himself, both the individual and God are transformed as a result of this encounter. Specifically, they both become even more uniquely themselves. I doubt if this can be mathematically represented!

Let’s read Iqbal’s words once again:

The effort to realise the most unique individuality individualises the seeker and implies the individuality of the sought, for nothing else would satisfy the nature of the seeker.

Iqbal seems to be saying that the seeker, in this case a human being, is motivated in his or her love by a natural inclination, an innate desire of sorts. This natural inclination, moreover, is neither vague nor generic; it is aimed at finding and assimilating a very particular beloved, though it is not very good at identifying that beloved without going through a series of trial-and-errors. The beloved that all of us are programmed to seek is a reflection of our own self, or, to be accurate, we are a reflection of the beloved that we are seeking to absorb. It is the finite ego that is desperately seeking the infinite ego, for nothing else would satisfy its yearning for a beloved. Since we value nothing more than our own uniqueness and individuality, we cannot be satisfied by a beloved who is anything less than absolutely unique. All efforts at finding that one perfect beloved must end in disappointment and disillusionment; unless, of course, we are able to figure out exactly who it is that we truly need to love.  Heartbreaks are good for the soul, because they are like the rungs of a ladder. The more we love and fail, the better will be our chances of finding the beloved who is worthy of our love, one who does not disappoint.

If love is the highest virtue, begging is the worst sin—it is the deadliest poison for khudi. In Iqbal’s mind, the word su’al stands not for an act but for an attitude. There is nothing wrong in “asking” in the ordinary sense of the word. If I am at a dinner table and need some salt, my act of “asking” someone to pass the salt shaker does not constitute an attitude of begging. For Iqbal, the real problem arises when an individual or community becomes habitually dependent on something outside of itself in a vitally important matter, and particularly when that dependence leads into, or encourages, a lack of action and struggle. Laziness of any kind is problematic because it prevents the full flowering of khudi and precludes its attainment of freedom.

A particularly degrading form of begging is to “think the thoughts of others.” Again, we need not take Iqbal’s words in too literal a sense; he is not making the impossible demand that we should never agree with anyone else. His point, rather, is this: As both individuals and communities, we must guard ourselves against intellectual laziness; we must never relax or suspend our capacities for careful observation, disciplined reasoning, and critical thought. Nor should we mindlessly repeat what we have heard from our teachers, until we have confirmed it within ourselves and thereby made it our own. To “think the thoughts of others” is to become passive recipients of ideas coming from whoever happens to be in power; it is to accept uncritically everything that the Big Brother chooses to tell us; it is to believe all that we watch on television and all that we read in newspapers. Intellectual laziness is only a couple of steps away from a full-fledged  enslavement at the hands of whoever is thinking original thoughts.

The same truth applies with particular force in the realm of economics. Interdependence among individuals and nations is an obvious necessity, but a one-sided dependence weakens one’s khudi to the point of its eventual subjugation and loss of freedom. It is notoriously difficult to criticize the person or institution who pays my salary, and it is virtually impossible to challenge a superpower’s actions if we cannot survive without its charitable donations. A life of such humiliating dependence would not be worth living. We can safely assume that, for Iqbal, the preservation of khudi takes precedence over the enjoyment of luxuries, but it is important to recognize that it also takes precedence over physical well-being and even biological survival. As Jesus famously said, “Whoever tries to save his life shall lose it, and whoever loses his life shall save it” (Luke 17:33). It is better to go hungry than to enjoy a food that takes away the ego’s vitality, even if it nourishes the physical body.  Sometimes it is the death of the body that brings life to the spirit.

Finally, notice the last sentence of the passage quoted above.

The lesson of assimilative action is given by the life of the Prophet, at least to a Muhammadan.

One can discern in this sentence the universalism of Iqbal’s message, and, by extension, the universalism that is inherent in his primary source, viz., the Qur’an. Iqbal does not believe that his message is intended only for Muslims, or that his teachings have no relevance or application for those born outside of the Islamic faith. His message, just like that of the Qur’an, is addressed to human beings. As a Muslim himself, however, Iqbal probably believes that the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) offers the best possible model of how one should love. But he also recognizes that non-Muslims may not be able to use this particular model in their own lives, and, for this reason, they may have to look within their own religious traditions in order to find an exemplary life that could act as a model for them.


  1. This sounds somewhat Jungian i.e. integration of the anima/animus or acceptance of the shadow self. Was Iqbal aware of Jung’s theories on the masculine & feminine principles, achetypes, heroic journey, etc?

    People around my dinner table say I am turning into a Jung Aunty.

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