The Secrets of the Self (5)

I can no longer recall exactly how or why I started commenting upon Iqbal’s philosophical summary of Asrar-e Khudi. Regardless of the original motivation, the whole exercise has benefited me tremendously. For instance, I have become much more aware of the significance of believing in an afterlife.

Among the three Western monotheisms, Islam certainly has the most to say about the continuity of human existence after death. While Rabbinic Judaism did affirm such a belief, the fact remains that the Hebrew Scriptures are not at all concerned with it. Similarly, while Christianity affirmed belief in an afterlife, Jesus himself appears not to have said a whole lot about it—that is, if we go by the gospel reports. The “Kingdom of Heaven” has turned out to be another expression for the “Kingdom of God,” and the latter is increasingly seen as representing a transformed society, rather than something we might expect after our death.

Even those who are still able to maintain belief in immortality do not necessarily affirm the continuation of personal identity; instead, they tend to posit some sort of undifferentiated divine life, within which our unique and individual particularities can have no place.  In this scenario, the divine enjoyment of human contributions may last forever, but the individual sense of “I” will disintegrate along with our physical forms.

A culture that is unable to see any humanly relevant prospects for life beyond death is likely to take a pessimistic view of the world—a pessimism that can easily degenerate into outright nihilism.

While it may be possible to suspend one’s judgment about life hereafter and still remain a sincere Jew or Christian, the tremendous qur’anic emphasis on the hereafter does not allow Muslims the same option. Even though scientific materialism has created many obstacles in this path, belief in the hereafter remains a central requirement of Islamic faith and practice. The belief in “return” (or ma’ād) is one of the three basic principles of Islamic doctrine, on the same level as belief in God and belief in prophecy (revelation). Take away any one of these beliefs, and the entire edifice of Islamic metaphysics will fall apart!

The Qur’an treats the issue of life after death with utmost seriousness, giving argument after argument why human beings must face resurrection and why bringing the dead back to life is really easy for God. Indeed, the entire force of the moral imperatives of the Qur’an rests on the divine promise of appropriate rewards and punishments in an afterlife, which is also what makes this-life meaningful. The Qur’an recognizes that full justice does not, and cannot, happen in the life of this-world; if there is no hereafter, human existence ceases to be morally meaningful, at least in the Qur’anic worldview.

For Iqbal, the affirmation of khudi is directly linked to the possibility of its immortality.  If khudi is mere fiction or illusion, as Nietzsche seems to suggest, then the question of life after death ceases to be an important human concern, since there would be nobody there to survive death!  But if khudi is real, and if we can strengthen its integrity by undertaking appropriate actions, then we can at least hope to attain everlasting life. This necessarily entails the continuation of personal identity. If our consciousness, along with its store of earthly memories, were to simply dissolve into the universal divine life, then such “immortality” would carry little or no ethical relevance. This is why Iqbal insists that “finitude is not a misfortune,” and that the finite ego will approach the infinite ego “with the irreplaceable singleness of his individuality” in order to “see for himself the consequences of his past actions and to judge the possibilities for his future” (Reconstruction, p. 93). Whatever else it might bring, death does not erase our unique individuality.

It may be noted that, for Iqbal, the soul’s survival after death is not synonymous with its immortality. Everyone survives death, but a person’s choices in the present, earthly life determine the quality of his or her existence in the hereafter. Even in this world, we recognize that life is a matter of degrees; a healthy child and an elderly paraplegic are both “alive” in the technical sense of the word, but the quality of their respective “lives” and the prospects each of them have for the future are hardly comparable. Similarly, existence in a state of “hell” is not, strictly speaking, a condition for which the word “life” can be justifiably applied, let alone “everlasting life.” The Qur’an recognizes this fact when it describes the “great fire” as being a state “in which they will neither die nor live” (87:12).

When Iqbal refers to immortality, therefore, he is not talking about mere survival; instead, he has in mind the absolutely fullest experience of life that human beings are potentially capable of enjoying, with God’s grace. This immortality is achieved not in a single leap but in many, many stages during which the finite ego becomes an increasingly permanent element in the constitution of reality. This, in the Qur’anic language, is referred to as “paradise.” Obviously, “paradise” is not ours by right; we are only hopeful candidates for it.

In the following poem, Iqbal contends that while the life-span of a sun or a moon is no more than a couple of breaths, khudi is a wine whose blissful rapture lasts forever. The angel of death can only touch the physical body; it cannot affect the deeper center of one’s being. A living heart is always restless, even in the grave.

Returning to the text of Iqbal’s philosophical summary of Asrar-e Khudi, we can see that he does not distinguish too sharply between this-life and the life hereafter. From a certain perspective, these are merely two phases of the same journey that together constitute the career of khudi. Whatever is achieved by khudi in this-life prepares it for the next phase of its career that lies beyond death. A godly life strengthens khudi and gives it a head start in life hereafter, while an immoral life delays its progress by requiring a detour through the purifying fires of “hell.” For Iqbal, following the right kind of ethics is of great personal consequence. This is what he writes:

In another part of the poem I have hinted at the general principles of Muslim ethics and have tried to reveal their meaning in connexion with the idea of personality. The Ego in its movement towards uniqueness has to pass through three stages: (a) Obedience to the Law. (b) Self-control, which is the highest form of self-consciousness or Ego-hood! (c) Divine vicegerency.

Generally speaking, lay Muslims tend to take their ethics as a matter of God’s unknowable will.  Do this. Don’t do that. And don’t ask questions. Or they try to figure out whether God prohibits certain acts because they are bad, or they are bad because God prohibits them. Iqbal offers a single, and pretty knowable, standard for distinguishing virtues and vices. According to him, the sole purpose of ethics should be the training and education of khudi. The purpose of earthly life is found in the opportunities that it provides for the growth of khudi. Obstacles, problems, and frustrations are part of this educational process. Every time a new difficulty arises, one can be sure that the class is in session! The same is true for the Shari’ah, which is a life-long course in the art and science of self-development.

The foremost virtue in Islam is submission to God; in practice, it means living in accordance with the Shari’ah and voluntarily adopting its discipline. The Shari’ah, of course, is the sum total of everything that God wants us to do. It literally means “the way.” Why follow the way? Because it takes you to where you really want to go.

Iqbal warns us not to follow the Shari’ah in order to please someone who is outside of, and completely separate from, one’s own self. Don’t do the right thing for someone else’s sake. Do it for your own sake. Be selfish, but know which “self” you are serving. When you shall come to know your self, that’s when you shall know your Lord.

For Iqbal, the path of self-growth begins as soon as one submit oneself to the discipline of the divine law. That very act is a leap out of the darkness in which one is a slave to one’s basic instincts and is utterly unaware of one’s own self. In general, the Shari’ah does not require a suppression of one’s basic instincts; it merely disciplines them. Adopting such a discipline forces one into an increasingly acute self-awareness. One cannot be “pious” without becoming vigilant in relation to one’s own actions! This, in turn, calls for vigilance in relation to one’s desires, thoughts, and feelings. Sin is merely another name for a lapse in vigilance, which the Qur’an describes as “forgetfulness.” Following the Shari’ah is not a matter of blindly obeying certain meaningless commands; on the contrary, it demands an increasingly intense awareness of one’s inner life, which directly feeds into the growth of one’s consciousness.

According to Iqbal, the training and education of the ego requires that one obeys the discipline of the Shari’ah, and then go through the difficult valley of self-control—which he identifies as “the highest form of self-consciousness or Ego-hood.”

If there was any doubt regarding what Iqbal means by “strengthening the ego,” the above statement clarifies the matter once and for all. Being a strong “ego” is nothing other than being acutely self-conscious; the greater the intensity of one’s self-consciousness, the greater will be the integrity of one’s khudi. As the self becomes aware of its own reality and nature, that awareness is precisely what fortifies it as a distinct, unique being. Indeed, that awareness is the self. Just as the life of the body is virtually synonymous with its breathing, the life of khudi is synonymous with its self-awareness. According to Iqbal, nothing strengthens this state of self-awareness more than the actual and repeated exercise of one’s capacity for self-control. In contrast, we can expect that a permissive or promiscuous life-style, characterized by an attitude in which there is little sense of boundaries and in which almost “everything goes,” will not be conducive to the optimal nurturing of khudi.

Beyond the valley of self-control is the mountain of vicegerency; or, to use another metaphor, the promised land of vicegerency. The third stage of the ego’s progress is also its final destination, at least in this-life. For Iqbal, the climax of self-growth that a khudi can attain in this world consists in its becoming God’s vicegerent. There are, of course, degrees of vicegerency, which means that the doors of progress are always open, even for vicegerents. Yet, divine vicegerency represents, for Iqbal, the last “station” (or maqam) in the unfolding of the ego’s potentialities during the earthly phase of its journey.

What is vicegerency?

This (divine vicegerency, niyabat-e-Alahi) is the third and last stage of human development on earth. The na’ib (vicegerent) is the vicegerent of God on earth.

Iqbal insisted all his life that his key ideas were based on his study of the Qur’an in particular and of the Islamic tradition in general, especially Sufism. Yet, there has never been a deficiency of wise guys who keep “discovering” the main source of his thought in this or that Western philosopher, basing their judgments on shallow and trivial similarities. Iqbal’s notion of Insan-e Kamil is a case in point, an idea whose origins have been traced, rather fruitlessly, to Nietzsche and his Übermensch. This Arabic/Persian term literally means a “complete” or “whole” human being, though it has usually been rendered by Orientalists, somewhat misleadingly, as “Perfect Man.” The concept has its origins in the Islamic mystical tradition, particularly in the work of Shaykh Ibn Al-‘Arabi and his school. Iqbal picked up this concept fairly early in his career, perhaps because he recognized it as a powerful tool for explaining certain Qur’anic teachings, and also as an effective vehicle for conveying his own sense of the moral and spiritual destiny of the human khudi.  In the above quote, he uses an alternate term, “vicegerent of God,” whose Qur’anic origin is indisputable.

According to the Qur’an, when God decided to create humankind, the divine plan was to establish a vicegerent in earth. “And when your Lord said to the angels: I am going to place in the earth a vicegerent…” (2:30). The implications of this single word, khalifah, are immense and far-ranging. Iqbal translates the Qur’anic term khalifah by using the Urdu word na’ib, which means a “deputy.” He then goes on to enumerate some of the characteristics that distinguish God’s vicegerents from the rest of humankind. I will attempt to understand these characteristics in my next post.


  1. Salam,
    This is an excellent effort, scholarly to the core, I would request you to continue elaborating on it further if that’s possible.For instance a line by line commentary, even if its brief, would be extremely appreciable.


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