Let’s begin with a little historical background. This will set the context in which The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam came to be written.
The story of the Reconstruction began when Iqbal presented a paper, titled “Ijtihad in Islam,” at Islamia College, Lahore (now called Government Islamia College, Railway Road). Iqbal presented this paper on December 13, 1924, at 6:30 PM, in the famous Habibia Hall. The session was chaired by Shaikh Abdul Qadir, Iqbal’s close friend and president of Anjuman-e Himayat-e Islam. Apparently a few ‘ulama did not approve of what Iqbal said on the topic of ijtihad (or, more accurately, they did not approve of what he was reported to have said). Iqbal subsequently cited that incident in a letter: “I had written an English essay on Ijtihad, which was read in a meeting here… but some people called me a Kafir.… In these days in India, one must move with very great circumspection.”
The announcement of the lecture in local newspapers, or perhaps the news of the ‘ulama’s reaction to the lecture, reached Seth Jamal Muhammad, a prominent businessman and philanthropist based in the South Indian city of Madras (now known as Chennai, Tamil Nadu), who was also one of the few millionaires of the time. On behalf of the Madras Muslim Association, which he led, Seth Jamal Muhammad invited Iqbal in early 1925 to visit Madras and deliver lectures on topics of his own choosing, offering to pay all expenses involved in the research, writing, and travel of said lectures. Iqbal accepted this invitation.
By the end of 1928, Iqbal had completed his research but had only written the first three of the six lectures he had planned. These were delivered in Madras, on January 5, 6, and 7, 1929, at Gokhale Hall, to a mixed Hindu and Muslim audience. Few days later, Iqbal delivered the same lectures at the University of Maysore and then at Osmania University, Hyderabd.
The first three lectures drew large audience and were widely celebrated in newspapers. Sayyid Ross Masood, Vice Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University, invited Iqbal to deliver the same lectures at his institution. That same year, Iqbal wrote the rest of his lectures, and so all six of them were delivered in November 1929 at Strachey Hall, Aligarh Muslim University.
Iqbal’s lectures (or “papers,” as we would now call them) were first published in book form in mid 1930, under the title Six Lectures on the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. However, when the book was subsequently published by the Oxford University Press in 1934, the reference to “Six Lectures” in the title was dropped, since it now included a seventh lecture as well. Iqbal had delivered this lecture (“Is Religion Possible?”) at a meeting of the Aristotelian Society (on whose invitation it was written), on December 5, 1932, in London. It was published in the following year in the journal “Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society,” and was then included in the OUP edition of Reconstruction.
At no point during the writing and revision of these lectures did Iqbal bother to include any citations or compile a bibliography. I don’t know the reason for that omission, but I can speculate. My first reaction was to blame Iqbal’s well-known “lazy” temperament, by which I mean that he preferred thought and contemplation over all sorts of physical activity. But the more I think about this argument, the less convincing it appears. Instead, the absence of citations and bibliography as well as the brevity of Iqbal’s prose make me wonder whether Iqbal was simply overestimating the breadth of his audience’s knowledge—perhaps he was assuming that his listeners and readers were as well-read and well-informed as he was. It may sound far-fetched, but I suspect that such an assessment on Iqbal’s part might not have been entirely off the mark, especially given the sort of company that he kept. Iqbal regularly corresponded with other scholars in British India, asking for their guidance in areas outside of his own expertise. Perhaps the educated elite of his time were better equipped to understand his arguments than the educated elite of our time.
In this context, I am struck by the fact that six of these seven lectures were advertised in newspapers and were open to public, and that in each case they were delivered to large and enthusiastic audiences. Even if we grant that most of these people were there simply because of Iqbal’s fame, and that they could only understand a quarter of what Iqbal was saying—that is still a high level of intellectual performance from mostly lay people. If my estimate is right, it would seem to support the common belief that the standards of education were much higher a century ago than they are now. It is certainly the case that what teachers could reasonably expect from their students back then was a great deal more than what can be expected today even from the teachers. While the accessibility of higher education has improved tremendously over this period, at least on some measures the same cannot be said about its quality. We now expect more individuals to go to college, but we expect less from them when they come out.
Personally, I don’t think we should blame Iqbal for failing to cite his sources or for not producing a bibliography. I like to imagine that so much of Iqbal’s attention was consumed by the substantive issues he was trying to address that he saw no reason to engage in this mundane—and, frankly, boring and mind-numbing—task. In fact, I am inclined to think that society shouldn’t bother creative geniuses who are preoccupied with questions of eternal significance to waste their time on checking page numbers or dates of publication. Such work should be handed over to those who enjoy learning and executing obscure rules and conventions—the sort of individuals who read The Chicago Manual of Style for pleasure. After all, it is not uncommon for many contemporary intellectuals here in the United States to outsource this part of their work to secretaries, research assistants, and/or graduate students. Obviously, Iqbal did not have the resources of a modern university at his disposal.
Another point to keep in mind is that Iqbal completed the research and writing process without the benefit of a care-free sabbatical. Instead, he was also busy producing world-class poetry (he published Zubur-e Ajam in 1927 and then started working on Javid Nama) as well as discharging his duties as an elected member of the Punjab Legislative Council (1926–1929), not to mention maintaining his law practice.
In the case of the Reconstruction, then, I see the absence of citations in the 1930 and 1934 editions as a minor issue for the author. However, it was nevertheless a serious obstacle from the viewpoint of most readers. The difficulty was exacerbated with the passage of time, as many of the events, movements, and personalities that were well-known in the late 1920s started to vanish from cultural awareness. Other difficulties came up as well, especially for later generations of lay readers who did not have the benefit of the type of education that Iqbal himself had received. For example, consider the fact that the most cited text in the Reconstruction is none other than the Qur’an, but by the late twentieth century the Islamic Scripture was no longer at the center of early education in Muslim societies. Similarly, the previously taken-for-granted ability among educated Muslims in South Asia to access Arabic and Persian sources had dwindled rapidly as systems of education were forced to modernize. For contemporary Muslims of South Asian descent, this decline of classical education means that reading Iqbal’s poetry is only slightly less difficult than reading the Reconstruction. Insofar as English continues to replace Urdu (as well as Persian), we can expect that even the simplest of Iqbal’s poems would become less and less accessible to future generations.
By the time Pakistan celebrated the Iqbal Centenary in 1977, the need for a new edition of the Reconstruction, one containing the full scholarly apparatus, had become quite acute. This task was undertaken by M. Saeed Sheikh, a scholar of classical Muslim philosophy. The edited version of the Reconstruction, complete with extensive notes, bibliography, and an index of Qur’an citations, was eventually published by the Institute of Islamic Culture in 1986, and by Iqbal Academy Pakistan in 1989. Anyone looking at the notes compiled by Prof. Sheikh would have to appreciate the labor of love that went into tracking down Iqbal’s every reference and then presenting that research in a concise and reader-friendly form.
The Reconstruction is still a challenging text, but at least the lack of citations and bibliography is not an obstacle for today’s readers.
This is the first post in what I hope would become a series of reflections on Muhammad Iqbal’s major philosophical work, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1930). I plan to structure these reflections around ideas emerging from discussions in an online class I happened to be currently teaching.
Most people who have any interest in modern Islam have at least heard of Iqbal. Those who have some familiarity with Iqbal’s poetry and politics also know that he wrote a widely celebrated philosophy book. However, most of us are unlikely to have actually read that particular text cover to cover.
Compared with the popularity of Iqbal’s Urdu poetry, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam has not been widely read, let alone widely understood. This is despite the fact that a sustained engagement with Reconstruction is essential for fully appreciating Iqbal’s overall thought, including his poetry. It’s unfortunate that the vast majority of non-specialists among Iqbal devotees haven’t read his most important prose work. Yet, they cannot be blamed, for the average reader is likely to find the book to be generally obscure and impenetrable—except for occasional passages that stand out as especially lucid or enlightening.
There is an obvious downside, however, of relying too much on particular passages, since they typically get separated from their full context. This, in itself, is not a bad thing, except that in some cases a few lines taken out of context can become a major source of distortion or misinterpretation. Of course, I am not saying that we should never quote Iqbal; I am merely pointing out the risk involved in not taking a wider view of Iqbal’s thought as a whole. Here’s a cautionary tale: I know of a popular teacher who used to cite a particular passage from Reconstruction in a way that turned Iqbal’s conclusion into its exact opposite! That same risk exists with respect to Iqbal’s poetry, since it’s tempting to form broad impressions from a single poem or even a single couplet, impressions that may not be in harmony with the totality of Iqbal’s thought. The natural ambiguity of poetic language only exacerbates this danger.
Even though Reconstruction is not widely read, that doesn’t mean it has been completely neglected. The book does get a lot of attention, but only in certain relatively small circles. Pakistani intellectuals, for examples, have engaged extensively with Reconstruction, especially in the last few decades, and have produced a large amount of secondary literature in the process. Some of that literature does not meet the academic standards that we have come to expect here in the West, but that does not justify disregarding the entire corpus. The secondary literature that already exist on Reconstruction, in both Urdu and English, can be highly valuable for anyone who is trying to engage directly with Iqbal’s text. Many of the issues that a reader is likely to encounter have already been resolved. For example, hundreds of sources and references have been tracked down through painstaking research, producing a body of priceless information that no serious student of Iqbal can afford to ignore. Similarly, an incredibly wide range of topics that Iqbal touches upon in Reconstruction have already been explored in great detail and from a variety of perspectives. There is no denying the value of this material and the effort and commitment that have gone into producing it.
Yet, we need to exercise appropriate caution here as well. While much of the secondary literature on Reconstruction can be immensely beneficial to the discerning reader, there is always a risk that we might confuse someone else’s interpretation of Iqbal’s work with Iqbal’s own thought or perspective. We should be aware of the fact that reading the text of Reconstruction for oneself does not eliminate this problem, since one person’s mind cannot access another person’s mind without any mediation. If I am not reading Iqbal through another scholar’s framework, that only means I am reading him through my own framework. There is always an interpretive lens between the reader and the author, and no lens is free of imperfections. However, reading the original text and interpreting it for oneself is still worth it, for doing so brings us at least one step closer to the perspective we’re trying to understand.
Two further points need to be emphasized here. First, I am not arguing against the use of secondary sources. Whether we are trying to understand Iqbal’s poetry or his prose, there is no way of making any progress without taking advantage of secondary literature, including commentaries written by other scholars. What I am saying is that the reader needs to exercise caution and critical discernment while doing so. We are all responsible for our interpretations, just as we are all responsible for our actions.
Second, given that I plan to offer my own take on Reconstruction, it should be clear that whatever I might say about Iqbal’s intended meaning in these posts will also constitute a secondary source that will eventually become part of the secondary literature. Readers of this blog should not confuse my (or their own) view of what Iqbal meant with what he meant.
Let me expand on this second point, for it’s an important one. The goal of reading is to get as close as we possibly can to an author’s mind. When I am reading Iqbal, for example, I am trying to reduce the distance between my mind and his mind, knowing all the while that that distance can never be completely eliminated. The best I can hope for is to interpret Iqbal’s work in a way that he himself would approve, or at least not completely reject. In moving towards that goal, I must be honest about anything I don’t fully understand, as well as any reservations or doubts that might arise. Above all, I need to keep reminding myself that my understanding of Iqbal’s work, no matter how close it might get to his intended meaning, is not—and can never be—identical with Iqbal’s own views or perspective. My knowledge of a thing is obviously not that thing.
So, the main reason why Reconstruction is not widely read outside of a narrow circle of Iqbal specialists is that it is a really difficult book. If we had to rank Iqbal’s writings according to how easy or difficult they are, most people would identify his Urdu poetry, particularly his popular poems included in the collection Bang-e Dara (1924), as the most accessible; they would rank the Reconstruction as the least accessible, while placing Iqbal’s Persian poetry somewhere between these two. That is why readers who are genuinely curious about what Iqbal has to say may start the book with great enthusiasm, but then most of them are likely to give up, reluctantly, after the first page or two. Some may return occasionally and continue to enjoy additional passages here and there—but that’s about it. Neither group is at fault, though I would celebrate the dabblers simply because they keep coming back!
The fact is that while Reconstruction isn’t very long, it is nevertheless quite daunting. Virtually every reference to another author or concept needs to be looked up, and Iqbal shows no desire to make the reader’s life any easier. Reconstruction has a lot to give, but, unfortunately for the reader, it won’t yield its treasures without a great deal of perseverance and effort, as well as a ton of patience.
By now you may be wondering: Exactly why is The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam such a difficult book to read?
Many years ago, I came across the following explanation: Iqbal was a poor writer of philosophical prose because, after receiving his PhD, he did not teach this subject (except for a very brief period). This diagnosis is based on the following premise: An intellectual’s ability to communicate complex and unfamiliar concepts tends to improve over time through repeatedly explaining those concepts to university students, and through responding to their questions and objections. In other words, if you aren’t used to discussing your ideas verbally, then you don’t really know which expressions or metaphors are best suited to convey them most effectively, and with the least risk of confusion, simply because you have not received enough real-time feedback from live audiences. Therefore, when you sit down to write, you will produce convoluted sentences that make perfect sense to you but are not likely to make the same amount of sense to your readers. Clear expression is a skill, and one cannot learn a skill without feedback.
I am inclined to agree with this diagnosis. Consider the fact that out of the three major figures in classical sociology, Karl Marx and Max Weber are the hardest to read, and neither of these individuals taught for an extended period. Marx was too much of a trouble-maker to get an academic job, and Weber was forced to stop teaching early in his career because of his emotional breakdown and the ensuing depression. The third of the three was Émile Durkheim, who did teach for a long time and whose writings are also the most accessible in comparison to those of Marx and Weber.
I think the fact that Iqbal did not pursue an academic career in philosophy has something to do with the difficulty we face today when we try to read Reconstruction. However, I don’t think it is the only factor. I am also not sure if the underlying premise is universally valid, for my own examples show correlation but not causation. Furthermore, I can think of many scholars who are known to be great teachers but whose writings are notoriously obscure, and there have been plenty of wonderful writers who couldn’t speak as eloquently as they wrote.
To digress just a little bit, consider that good speaking and good writing are two very different skills. They overlap to some extent because they both involve the use of language, but developing each skill is largely a distinct enterprise with its own unique requirements. The main reason for that should be easy to appreciate. In the history of life, vocal communication goes back millions of years, and even the uniquely human form of speech is believed to have evolved between 200,000 and 50,00 years ago. There are extensive areas in the human brain dedicated to oral speech, and a human child learns to speak his/her native language simply by being exposed to it. In contrast, writing was invented only about 5,000 years ago. We don’t acquire the skills involved in writing just by seeing others write; instead, writing has to be taught and learned. Consequently, becoming highly skilled in oral expression does not automatically make you a great writer, just as your expertise in written communication does not naturally spill over into oral eloquence. This would explain why most of us have one preferred medium of expression, which is either speaking or writing.
But there is another reason why Reconstruction is hard to read. This reason is more fundamental, in my opinion, and it has nothing to do with Iqbal’s career choice. Instead, it has to do with the book’s subject matter as well as its originality. Regarding the subject matter, Reconstruction deals with epistemology, metaphysics, theoretical physics, mysticism, jurisprudence, theology, and a host of other topics that are not a regular part of our normal day-to-day concerns or conversations. If you are not already well-versed in these areas, reading the text is going to be challenging, to say the least. But even more importantly, any original and cutting-edge text is difficult to read, almost by definition.
When an extraordinarily intelligent mind conceptualizes unprecedented ideas and tries to express them in writing, we can neither expect nor demand that these ideas are conveyed in easy-to-grasp style couched in everyday vocabulary. One needs sophisticated words to convey sophisticated ideas. And if an idea is genuinely novel and unprecedented, it cannot be easily communicated from one mind to another, either in the written or the oral form, unless the thinker is willing to invent new words and expressions, or is at least willing to endow existing words and expressions with new meanings. When the latter happens, the readers must play along. For if the readers insists on interpreting such words and expressions according to their conventional or established meanings, then this would only lead to more perplexity.
Nonfiction works, when they are truly original, are therefore hard to read. This is almost universally true. Consequently, reading such works calls for a significant investment of time and effort on the part of the reader. Books like Iqbal’s Reconstruction are not impossible to understand, but they do make it necessary for the readers to stretch their minds and their imaginations beyond the point of comfort. Since most people are not able to invest the necessary time and effort, or they are not willing to tolerate the discomfort caused by the stretching of their minds and imaginations, they simply do not engage with such books. Those who do, however, tend to find that both the investment and the discomfort are totally worth the rewards.
Iqbal was an original thinker who wanted to communicate fresh ideas through both his prose and his poetry. While he used many of the traditional symbols and tropes of Urdu and Persian (and occasionally Arabic) poetry, the meanings he was trying to convey were anything but conventional. This mismatch created a challenge for Iqbal, and it creates a challenge for anyone who reads his poems. The same is true of Reconstruction, where we find him struggling to share his novel insights by employing existing terms and concepts, both Eastern and Western, that were often inadequate or unsuited for his purposes.
To borrow a famous biblical metaphor, what Iqbal has offered us is new wine in old wineskins, though every now and then he was forced to invent new wineskins as well. Sometimes the wine spills over because the wineskins are too small. Sometimes we start arguing over the shape and color of the wineskins, forgetting that the containers don’t matter as much as the content.
The challenge that Iqbal faced as he tried to put his meanings into words is parallel in some ways to the challenge that we face when we try to extract his meanings from his words. Iqbal invested his best effort, and there is no reason why we can’t do the same.
There is no doubt that The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is a tough nut to crack. It is even harder for people who aren’t already familiar with Iqbal’s biography, his sociocultural and political contexts, and at least some of his poetry. The fact that Iqbal engages with multiple traditions and countless authors across time and place only intensifies the reader’s hardship. Reading Reconstruction is like taking a long, steep, and uphill hike. You are going to need competent guides as well as reliable companions. But the only thing that will keep you going, especially when the going gets tough, is the faith that the summit is worth reaching and that the view from the top will take your breath away.
Comments are welcome!
Following are some of the main insights that I found in Iqbal’s poem, “The Morning Sun” (1902).
1. Iqbal begins this poem by praising with great enthusiasm the brightness and grandeur of the sun, but quickly changes his tone when he recalls what the sun’s immense energy can never accomplish — it cannot enlighten the human heart. The sun does a highly admirable job of illuminating the material world, but it does nothing to illuminate the world of the spirit. Only the outer eye benefits from the sun’s light, not the inner eye. When the sun rises each morning, its warm brilliance melts away any lingering sleep from our eyes, causing us to fully awaken. But this is not the only kind of awakening we need. We also need to open our spiritual eyes and to wake up from the dark night of ignorance. The poet tells us that, in addition to waking up each morning from physiological sleep, we also need to wake up from our dogmatic slumbers. He points out that it is not enough to have eyesight; we also need insight. For humans, the ability to see the reality of things is far more important than the ability to see their appearances.
2. Iqbal’s meditation on the morning sun makes him notice how the sun appears to have a transcendental perspective, that it seems to be above and beyond the petty distinctions and discriminations that cause so much suffering in the human world. Wouldn’t it be nice, the poet muses, if he too could have such an exalted perspective? He recognizes his heart’s desire at this point in his meditation: to become free of the shackles of mundane attachments and earthly relations, to be able to empathize with all people without regard to any markers of identity, and to rise above the boundaries and divisions that have been created by differences of cultures, customs, norms, and lifestyles. Iqbal understands that as a poet he has the power to influence people’s attitude. He wishes that his tongue remains free of group prejudices, that he neither favors nor criticizes anyone unfairly. He wishes for a broadening of his mental horizons so that he could see the whole world as his home and the entire humanity as his nation. The readers can notice the seeds of Iqbal’s cosmic perspective already in this early poem, which refutes the view that Iqbal was originally a narrow-minded Indian nationalist!
3. Continuing to voice his heart’s desire, Iqbal says that he wants the “secret of nature’s order” to be revealed to his heart’s eye. He wants to reach a state where he is no longer agitated by the struggle to resolve contradictions. At the relatively young age of twenty-five, Iqbal seems to be expressing here a theme that would remain important for him throughout his life, i.e., how to reconcile the oppositions that one encounters within one’s experience? This early desire to become free of the inner turmoil caused by the “knot of contradictions” is a very interesting one, for it suggests a longing on Iqbal’s part to achieve what has been called a “second naïveté.” To achieve that state of inner peace, Iqbal longs for a profound vision of things as they really are. He wants to be able to “see” the kind of divine beauty that is capable of kindling the fire of love in a seeker’s heart, a beauty that he already believes exists in all things. The poet seems to be saying that while he knows this beauty intellectually, he longs to know it experientially; by so knowing, he hopes to transcend the oppositions that he is encountering in his experience. The suggestion here is that only a personal insight into the inherent beauty of the world, and the love that such insight generates, will allow the seeker to overcome the “knot of contradictions.”
4. How does one gain the kind of insight that reveals the “secret of nature’s order” to one’s heart? To get in touch with reality, one must pierce the veils of appearance, and this requires the cultivation of sensitivity and openness. The poet wishes that another person’s pain should cause him to cry, and that the trauma to a flower’s petal should turn into tears that flow from his own eyes. This fascination with shedding tears is not a masochistic craving for pain; rather, Iqbal is expressing his desire to experience a deep relationship with nature and to develop a strong sense of empathy with other persons. In other words, what is being desired is connectedness, and pain is simply the price we must pay whenever we are genuinely connected to an “other.” The poet wants insight into the nature of reality, but he knows that insight cannot be gained from a safe, objective distance. To achieve a state of connectedness, however, one must lower one’s defenses in order to become fully receptive to whatever is. This act of opening oneself up to the “other” necessarily involves becoming vulnerable to suffering. Iqbal seems to be saying that insight cannot be gained without love, that connectedness is the essential prerequisite for love, and that pain is simply a sign that one is open, sensitive, and receptive — and therefore vulnerable.
5. The poem starts with an eloquent depiction of how grand and exalted the sun is, but towards the end of the poem Iqbal is able to turn this idea on its head. The poet argues that while the sun may be the most intense body of light visible to us, the fact that it transcends the turmoil of the human world is no sign of supremacy. What the sun lacks is any awareness of its own beauty and brilliance. In sharp contrast, the human being has been blessed with self-consciousness. The human being possesses an inner light, the divine spark that made angels prostrate before Adam. As such, the human being alone is capable of beholding the spectacle of creation, of forever meeting new challenges and reaching towards new goals. The sun, on the other hand, must wait each morning for the permission to rise.
6. In this way, Iqbal’s meditations on the morning sun quickly develops into one of his favorite topics — the distinctive potential of the human self. Iqbal points out that, in contrast to the sun, the human heart has a special taste for seeking and desiring, for setting ideals and pursuing them, for craving the light of truth. Part of human uniqueness is our immense curiosity, our love of knowledge, our desire to find and meet fresh challenges. We enjoy the process of facing and overcoming obstacles, and experience an intense pleasure in figuring out complex mysteries. We are fully aware that there is no final destination for us to reach; that there will never come a time when we have uncovered all secrets and answered all questions. Yet, we find that the joy of participating and progressing in a journey that lacks a final end-point is far greater than even the satisfaction of arriving at one’s desired destination. The very experience of posing questions and seeking answers is blissfully rewarding, difficult and pleasurable at the same time. To be human is to experience this sweet pain of seeking, this longing for the secrets of nature–something that the mighty sun will never experience!
“The Morning Sun” (Aftab-e Subh in Urdu) is an early poem by Iqbal, composed in the spring of 1902 and published in May of the same year. Iqbal revised this poem before including it in his first collection of Urdu verse, Bang-e Dara (1924).
Arguably, “The Morning Sun” does not show the same maturity of thought and expression that we find in Iqbal’s later work. Nevertheless, the poem contains many precious insights that are worth the reader’s time and attention. In the present post, I will quote the original poem and provide an English translation. In subsequent posts, I hope to offer a more detailed commentary on the poem.
Here’s the first half of “The Morning Sun”:
The poem starts by addressing the sun, acknowledging its grandeur, brilliance, and transcendence by invoking the usual metaphors of romantic poetry. The first four couplets are pretty conventional. The lines are charming and glamorous, demonstrating Iqbal’s creative use of traditional tropes and symbols; yet, they are relatively empty of substance. Starting with the fifth couplet, however, the poem shifts into a reflective and philosophical mode. That’s where the real fun begins!
The following is a translation of the first half of “The Morning Sun,” heavily modified from M. A. K. Khalil’s English version. In modifying Khalil’s translation, I have focused on capturing and conveying Iqbal’s meaning as I have understood it. If the translation lacks rhyme and rhythm, that’s because I have made no attempt to compose a poem. Any suggestions for improving the translation will be greatly appreciated.
Please note that throughout the poem, the second person pronoun (“you”) refers to the sun.
You are far beyond the strife of humanity’s tavern
You are the wine-cup that adorns the assemblage of heaven;
You are the jewel that graces the morning bride’s ear
The horizon’s forehead is honored to have you as adornment;
Remove the blot of night’s ink from the page of time
Erase the stars from the sky like a false image;
When your beauty appears at the balcony of heaven
Our eyes are freed from the drunkenness of sleep;
Vision’s expanse becomes filled with light
Yet only the outer eye benefits from your radiance;
A spectacle for the inner eye to behold is what I desire
An epiphany that gives insight is what I desire;
My craving for freedom is yet to meet fulfillment
The bondage of relations is still keeping me imprisoned;
All the highs and the lows are the same in your sight
I long for the kind of view that you have;
I want my eyes to shed tears at the other’s anguish
I want my heart to transcend the distinctions of customs and norms.
Below is the second half of the poem:
And my translation:
I wish that my tongue remains free of group prejudice
That humankind be my nation, the world my homeland;
That the secret of nature’s order be exposed to my inner eye
That the smoke from my imagination’s candle reaches the heaven;
That the struggle to reconcile opposites ceases to agitate my heart
That I find the love-evoking beauty in everything I see;
That even if a rose petal were to be traumatized by the breeze
The impact on my heart flows as tears from my eyes;
I wish that my heart bears that little spark of love’s simmering fire
And that its glowing brilliance guides me to the mysteries of reality;
That my heart turns into a mirror for the divine beloved
That no ambitions remain in me, except compassion for humankind;
If you are far beyond the hardships of this tumultuous world
That’s not a mark of your eminence, O great luminary;
With no awareness of your own beauty that adorns the whole world
You are not equal to a speck of dust at the doorstep of Adam;
The light to which angels prostrated continues to seek the spectacle
While you remain obligated to the morning of tomorrow;
Our hearts are ablaze with the desire to seek the light of truth
Our hearts are the abode where the taste of longing resides;
What a joy it is for us to open an intricate knot
How blissful is each step in our struggle that never ends;
You have never been blessed with the pathos of inquiry
You remain unaware of the seeking of nature’s mystery.
By saying that the Qur’an emphasizes “deed” rather than “idea,” Iqbal has identified for us what is perhaps the very essence of revelation.
Muslims take the Qur’an as containing the revelations that came from God to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The phenomenon of revelation, however, is not unique to Islam, and the Qur’an itself confirms that many individuals had been the recipients of such divine revelation in the past. This fact allows us to examine the phenomenon of revelation in a comparative perspective. When we look at the revelations found in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, and compare them with the revelations that we have in the form of the Qur’an, we are struck by the fact that all these revealed texts have one characteristic in common: They are invariably aimed at encouraging and facilitating some form of personal transformation.
The purpose of revelation is guidance, and the most important form of guidance that human beings need is practical guidance. Revealed texts are therefore meant to answer the most urgent of all questions, i.e., “how should I live?” While revelation provides theoretical guidance as well, the latter is discussed not for its own sake but mainly for its practical implications. In other words, the primary function of revelation is such that it is most clearly served when the revelation speaks in the imperative mode, as in the commandment “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), or in the saying of Jesus “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Even when the revelation speaks in the declarative mode, its aim is not simply to provide us with information but rather to transform us in some important way. For instance, when we are told: “God, there is no god except He…” (Qur’an 2:255), the revelation is not merely informing us that there is only one God; rather, it is reminding us of the attitude we are supposed to adopt given that there is only one God. In the same way, when the Qur’an narrates the stories of previous prophets or informs us of the punishments of hell and the blessings of paradise, its purpose is not to add more data to our minds; the purpose, rather, is to help us transform ourselves in the desired ways.
To claim that revelation does not emphasize “ideas” is to suggest that holding the right beliefs is not one of its central concerns. In the ordinary, non-technical sense of the word, “believing” refers to giving intellectual assent to certain ideas. While it is important to hold the right beliefs, or believe in the right ideas, this in itself does not provide any guarantee that personal transformation will actually take place. It is all too common for people to hold one set of ideas as true, while living their lives as if those ideas were entirely false. It would appear that people tend to hold not one but two sets of ideas in their minds: (1) ideas that they believe they hold, and (2) ideas that actually guide their choices and conduct. From the viewpoint of revelation, holding ideas that do not shape our lives is ultimately worthless even when they are objectively true. For there is no benefit in “knowing” a truth if one does not “understand” it, and there is no benefit in “understanding” a truth if it does not guide one’s attitudes, priorities, habits, and values. A truth that is held in the mind but not embodied is no better than a treasure that we own but cannot spend.
Revelation is definitely concerned with transforming our beliefs, but it is even more concerned with transforming our choices and conduct. From the viewpoint of revelation, only those of our beliefs are relevant that actually shape our lived reality, i.e., beliefs that actively determine our “deeds.”
Iqbal’s use of the word “deed” is such that it cannot be substituted by the word “action.” This is because he seems to have used the word “deed” in a much more comprehensive sense than what the word “action” would suggest. Nor should we think of “deed” as something that is diametrically opposed to “faith.” On the contrary, the words “faith” and “deed” are very nearly synonymous for Iqbal. I have been led to this conclusion because of three statements that Iqbal makes in the very first paragraph of The Reconstruction, immediately following the preface:
The essence of religion … is faith ….
… the transformation and guidance of man’s inner and outer life is the essential aim of religion ….
Religion is not a departmental affair; it is neither mere thought, nor mere feeling, nor mere action; it is an expression of the whole man.
That “faith” is the essence of religion is not an insignificant matter, for this implies that whatever is true of religion in general must be true of faith, if not truer. Consequently, if the purpose of religion is to guide and transform all aspects of human life, and if the essence of religion happens to be faith, then it would be a serious mistake to conceive of faith in a narrow or partial manner. What Iqbal says explicitly about religion he implicitly says about faith as well: Faith is neither mere thought, nor mere feeling, nor mere action; it is an expression of the whole person. For Iqbal, faith is the personal transformation that constitutes the “essential aim” of religion, as well as the means through which that aim is pursued.
If we can conceive of faith in this broad and comprehensive Iqbalian sense, then we can also appreciate the partial and limited nature of belief. Faith is an expression of the whole person—the sum total of one’s attitudes, priorities, habits, and values, as well as of one’s choices and conduct—while belief is merely an idea that a person holds in his or her mind. While it is obviously better to hold a true belief than a false one, holding a true belief is not the same thing as achieving the “essential aim” of religion, i.e., personal transformation.
When Iqbal says that the Qur’an emphasizes “deed” as opposed to “idea,” he is basically telling us that the Qur’an is far more concerned with “faith” than it is with “belief.”
When Iqbal published his lectures on “the reconstruction of religious thought in Islam,” he decided to add a brief preface. The preface begins with the following statement:
The Qur’an is a book which emphasizes ‘deed’ rather than ‘idea’.
This is a significant statement, considering where it appears: in the preface to a book which is all about ideas! Introducing a highly theoretical work that addresses the nuances of Islamic as well as Western thought in the areas of metaphysics, theology, and ethics, Iqbal found it necessary to confess that the world of ideas—thought—is not something that’s terribly important from the Qur’anic viewpoint. After acknowledging that ideas do not constitute a central concern of the Qur’an, Iqbal went on to argue in the same preface why it is nevertheless necessary that we pay attention to ideas.
Iqbal’s statement about where the Qur’an puts its primary emphasis is significant for several other reasons as well. For instance, it demonstrates an element of critical self-awareness on Iqbal’s part. He knew perfectly well, and was able to acknowledge in writing, that his own emphasis on religious thought was not in perfect harmony with the Qur’anic emphasis on what he called “deed.”
Perhaps the important question from the reader’s viewpoint is this: Is Iqbal’s statement correct? Is it really true that the Qur’an emphasizes “deed” rather than “idea”? The claim may sound counter-intuitive to many Muslims, who may want to argue that the Qur’an does pay sufficient attention to ideas. Thus, when the Qur’an speaks about God and God’s attributes, or narrates the stories of previous prophets, or informs us of the punishments of hell and the blessings of paradise — isn’t it obvious that in all these matters the Qur’an is discussing what may be called beliefs? And isn’t it true that beliefs are made up of ideas? If they are not ideas, what else could they be?
The term that most Muslims use for religious beliefs is ‘aqa’id, plural of ‘aqidah. The contemporary use of the word ‘aqidah is such that it is practically a synonym for what Christians call “creed.” Strictly speaking, a “creed” is not the same thing as “belief.” A community can have a wide range of beliefs at any given moment, but when a particular understanding of what everyone is supposed to believe is expressed in a particular verbal formula by a religious authority, the resulting declaration of belief is called a creed. Thus, the Latin version of the Nicene Creed begins with the words “Credo in unum Deum,” we believe in one God, indicating the declarative and public (or communal) nature of a creed. During most of Christian history, matters of creed were typically very important, in that whether or not one professed the right creed was the main factor in differentiating between orthodoxy and heresy (in some cases, this could mean the difference between life and death).
In the Islamic instance, the term ‘aqīdah is normally taken as suggesting a particular formulation of religious belief as articulated by a particular religious authority — and this is exactly how the term “creed” is normally defined. For our present purposes, however, whether we call the particular formulation in question a “creed” or a “belief” makes little difference; for whichever term we choose, the critical issue is that the actual content of ‘aqīdah is widely assumed to be either an idea or a set of ideas.
Given that idea is the substance that is believed to constitute any particular ‘aqīdah, and given that having the right ‘aqīdah is taken to mean holding certain specific ideas as true, we can see how Iqbal’s statement appears to belittle the importance of ‘aqīdah. When Iqbal says that “The Qur’an is a book which emphasizes ‘deed’ rather than ‘idea,'” what he is clearly implying is that, from the Qur’anic perspective, matters of ‘aqīdah are not all that worthy of our attention. This is obviously a claim that is in sharp contrast to what a significant proportion of Muslims seem to hold.
Nowadays, a great deal of emphasis is being placed in many Muslim circles on having the “correct ‘aqīdah,” and a great deal of intellectual effort is spent on fulfilling this goal. Many Muslims show a strong attachment to their own understanding of what they take to be the one “correct ‘aqīdah,” and some are not reluctant at all to criticize and condemn alternative understandings as absolutely unacceptable. In some extreme cases, it would appear as if having the “correct ‘aqīdah” is of ultimate significance for one’s salvation—as if going to hell or reaching the paradise is primarily a question of holding in one’s mind the correct wording of particular religious ideas.
Given this widespread emphasis on religious ideas, Iqbal’s statement implies a sharp critique of the attitude that defines the very meaning of religion for many contemporary Muslims. If his statement turns out to be true, it would demand from contemporary Muslims fundamental changes in how they approach their religious lives.
How can we find out whether or not Iqbal’s statement is correct? An important consideration is that the word ‘aqīdah, in the sense of a particular articulation of a religious belief—that is to say, a “creed”—does not appear in the Qur’an. In his book Faith and Belief (1979), Wilfred Cantwell Smith makes the following observation:
The root ‘aqada, “to tie a knot”, either literally or in the figurative sense of binding a person by a legal or moral commitment, making a binding engagement, occurs seven times in the Qur’an: twice as the verb and five times as a noun. The words ‘aqīdah, ‘aqā’id do not occur. (p. 196)
Of course, just because a word does not appear in the Qur’an is no proof, by itself, that there is something religiously illegitimate about the concept it represents. But that is precisely where the problem resides, for the actual concept behind the word ‘aqīdah is very often not grasped too well by contemporary Muslims. To quote Smith once again:
Furthermore, I have found in working on mediaeval kalam texts that the VIIIth form i’taqadah, which does not occur in the Qur’an but is introduced into theology later, along with ‘aqīdah, ‘aqā’id, in the sense of “creed”, begins there by meaning not “to believe” something but rather more literally to bind oneself, to commit or to pledge oneself to, to take on the engagement of living in accord with a given position; and that only gradually across the centuries does it eventually acquire the more neutral meaning of “to believe” something intellectually. This last comes quite late in the mediaeval period and is perhaps not common until early modern times. (p.196)
What Smith is pointing out in the above quotation is a problem common to all religious traditions that rely on written texts. As time passes, the texts remain static but the language keeps changing. The result is that in the later part of a tradition’s history, texts written in the earlier part tend to become increasingly incomprehensible. This is especially problematic when a later-day reader feels confident that he or she is interpreting an old text exactly as it was intended to be understood, but is doing so without taking into account the glaring fact that the denotations and connotations of words do not remain static over hundreds of years. The word ‘aqīdah and related words were initially used by Muslim theologians and jurists in the sense of making a commitment to one or the other side of a controversial issue; as time passed, Muslims continued to use these words but increasingly in the sense of holding certain ideas in one’s mind. According to Smith, while this trend can be found in the late medieval period, it probably did not become dominant until the early modern period.
To reiterate, the widespread sense of ‘aqīdah as an idea to which one gives intellectual assent is very different from the original sense of the word as used by classical Muslim theologians and jurists. Nowadays, the vast majority of Muslims use the word ‘aqīdah in a way that makes it a virtual synonym for religious “belief” or, more precisely, for “creed.” (I have in mind the modern meanings of these two words, not their premodern meanings.)
One can justify the religious legitimacy of the classical sense of ‘aqīdah by appealing to arguments that are ultimately based on the Qur’an. One can also justify the modern sense of ‘aqīdah as believing something intellectually or holding certain ideas in one’s mind. What one cannot justify is the assumption that the contemporary meaning of ‘aqīdah is identical with what our classical authorities had in mind when they used that word. Integrity demands that one acknowledges that an important shift in the meaning of this word has taken place during the centuries that separate us from the authors of our classical texts.
In light of this discussion, what is the significance of Iqbal’s opening statement in the preface to his major work? When Iqbal suggests that the Qur’an does not emphasize idea, he is saying that the Qur’an does not concern itself with matters of ‘aqīdah — in the modern sense of the word. To put his claim in slightly different language, Iqbal is saying that the Qur’an does not concern itself with matters of belief, including religious belief. Obviously, this claim also applies to what is called a “creed,” insofar as a creed is understood to be a formalized expression of religious belief. Iqbal is saying that, instead of focusing its attention on matters of ‘aqīdah, belief, or creed, the Qur’an focuses its attention on something else. This something else Iqbal calls “deed.”
An important caveat is necessary at this point. Notice Iqbal’s use of the word “emphasis,” which is crucial in interpreting his statement about the Qur’an. Iqbal is not saying that the Qur’an pays absolutely no attention to ideas. Given that Iqbal himself makes ample use of the Qur’anic text in discussing a wide range of ideas, it would be a blatant error on his part if he were to make such a claim. What he is saying is simply that the Qur’an does not emphasize ideas. In other words, the primary aim of the Qur’an does not consist in informing us as to which ideas we ought to hold in our minds and which ones we must not hold in our minds; yet, this fact does not mean that the Qur’an is entirely indifferent to ideas. Ultimately, it’s a matter of priorities. While the Qur’an does suggest many things that qualify as ideas, the primary aim of the Qur’an lies elsewhere, in the realm of “deed.” This is important for Muslims to understand because the priorities of the Qur’an are supposed to become our own priorities.
In the final paragraph of his summary of Asrar-e Khudi, Iqbal addresses one of his favorite themes—the ideal human personality whose manifestation on a large-scale would represent the culmination of millions of years of spiritual evolution.
While Iqbal tends to talk about that ideal personality as if it were a single (male) individual, this is most likely a rhetorical device to emphasize the unique individuality of the ideal human being. For Iqbal, the Qur’anic term khalifah (vicegerent) and the Sufi term al-Insan al-Kamil (the complete/whole person) are essentially synonymous, though he also uses a variety of other terms to describe that personality.
Who is this khalifah, this fullest manifestation of the highest of human potentialities? While it is true that as a species humanity has not yet reached that exalted stage of spiritual evolution, it is also true there have been many persons in history who did achieve that status at an individual level. The fact that such individuals have actually existed, and may exist among us even today, establishes beyond any doubt that the ideal personality is not a fanciful or unrealistic image of what we ought to be but can never actually become; instead, that ideal is well within the realm of possibility. Indeed, it is the very goal for which God has created the human being in the first place; it is the telos for the entire evolutionary process–not only of life in the narrow sense of the word but of the entire cosmos. The attainment of divine vicegerency is exactly why we are here; it is the meaning of existence.
This is how Iqbal describes the khalifah.
He is the completest Ego, the goal of humanity, the acme of life both in mind and body; in him the discord of our mental life becomes a harmony. The highest power is united in him with the highest knowledge. In his life thought and action, instinct and reason become one. He is the last fruit of the tree of humanity, and all the trial of a painful evolution are justified because he is to come at the end. He is the real ruler of mankind; his kingdom is the kingdom of God on earth. Out of the richness of his nature he lavishes the wealth of life on others, and brings them nearer and nearer to himself. The more we advance in evolution, the nearer we get to him. In approaching him we are raising ourselves in the scale of life. The development of humanity both in mind and body is a condition precedent to his birth. For the present he is a mere ideal; but the evolution of humanity is tending towards the production of an ideal race of more or less unique individuals who will become his fitting parents.
This is almost a poetic description for what are supposed to be real, actual human beings. There is a clear note of passionate longing in Iqbal’s prose—the result of his ardent desire to see that personality, along with the knowledge that such a personality is not likely to appear in his own life-time!
Let’s note some of the qualities that Iqbal attributes to the ideal human being. These include (1) maximum completeness of khudi, (2) fullest growth of both mind and body, (3) perfect harmony among otherwise discordant principles, (4) unification of power and knowledge, (5) unification of thought and action, (6) unification of instinct and reason, (7) natural claim to leadership, (8) effortless generosity, (9) worthy of imitation, (10) inevitable destiny of humankind. Among these qualities, I believe that the most crucial one is number (3). I say this because Iqbal provides several examples of this quality by mentioning the normally discordant principles of mind/body, power/knowledge, thought/action, and instinct/reason. Even quality number (1) seems like another way of expressing the same idea.
For Iqbal, the normal human condition is marked by a state of disharmony. This disharmony exists within each individual, and so it inevitably manifests in social life as well. Disharmony within gives birth to disharmony without; and disharmony without precludes or obstructs our attempts to progress towards achieving a state of harmony within. Only few individuals are able to transcend this state of inner discord at any given time; most of us, on the other hand, tend to be imbalanced or asymmetrical in most areas of our lives. And we suffer the consequences.
Human beings use only a fraction of their potential capacity; part of the problem is that they are typically fragmented from within. If a person is routinely torn between the opposing demands of mind and body, reason and instinct, thought and action, much energy will be spent on managing this civil war, while only a small amount will be left for pursuing specific objectives. The result is not only a lack of stability in one’s personality, but also a chronic inability to reach one’s desired goals—whether material, social, or spiritual. Furthermore, since there is literally a war going on inside each person, one is not likely to experience inner peace unless these opposing forces are somehow reconciled. Finally, since our inner discord feeds into the societies we create, so long as there is no peace within the human personality, there are very few chances that there will be peace in the world at large.
The ideal, of course, is a fully integrated human personality, one in which all of its discordant forces are in a state of perfect harmony. This does not mean, however, that in the ideal personality the mind would have decisively defeated the body or that reason would have finally vanquished the force of instincts; such would only be another form of imbalance. The word “harmony” implies that opposite tendencies or principles continue to exist and play their natural roles, but that their mutual collaboration produces something higher—something of an entirely different quality than the products of any of the forces acting alone. The end product, in other words, would be more than the sum of its parts. This is the classical ideal of “unity within plurality.” It is also one way of interpreting the Islamic imperative of tawhid, which literally means “making one.”
Iqbal’s use of the word “harmony” presupposes a musical metaphor. It is interesting to note that Iqbal had received some initial training in classical Indian music, and that he continued to appreciate good singers. To follow his metaphor, imagine dozens of instruments being played together, but without anyone knowing what piece of music they are supposed to play; the result would be a cacophony of unpleasant noises. Add to this the missing ingredient of a common goal—a single piece of music plus a conductor—and the result could be a highly moving performance by what is now an orchestra.
What does this mean for the evolution of personality? Nothing in human nature is evil or unnecessary; as such, nothing needs to be suppressed, removed, or disowned. Everything has its place and its assigned role. The only reason why things do not automatically fall into place is the lack of inner agreement on which goal is to be pursued—or, to use the musical metaphor, there is no consensus on which music is to be played and which conductor is to be followed.
Integration among the diverse, and diverging, forces of human personality requires a unifying element. This brings us back to what Iqbal said earlier in the same text, i.e., that love is “assimilative action” in relation to certain values and ideals. The only thing that can potentially harmonize the normally opposing and conflicting forces of personality is their agreement to love a single ideal. Since love involves assimilating or internalizing one’s ideal, however, different ideals will have different consequences on one’s personality. An ideal that is itself inconsistent will not bring the desired inner harmony; it will ultimately give rise to even greater fragmentation.
The only ideal whose love can bring about the ultimate integration of personality is God. In the Islamic tradition, one of the names of God is al-Salam, which can mean “the Peace” as well as “the Perfect.” God is perfect because all of God’s innumerable attributes are in an overall harmony; there is no inner conflict in God, which is another way of saying that God is peace. As far as creatures are concerned, including human beings, God is the only source for peace and perfection; any peace that we may find in the world—or any perfection, for that matter—is only a dim reflection of the divine attribute expressed in the divine name al-Salam. In Iqbal’s view, the imperative of creating within oneself the attributes of God has at least partly to do with the reconciliation of opposites within one’s own personality (and, by implication, in the world at large). Whether we call this imperative imitatio dei, fortifying one’s khudi, or loving God with all one’s soul, mind, and strength—makes little difference.
At the end of his remarks, Iqbal manages to add a somewhat cryptic, and highly tantalizing, statement about the political implications of his philosophy of the self.
Thus the Kingdom of God on earth means the democracy of more or less unique individuals, presided over by the most unique individual possible on this earth. Nietzsche had a glimpse of this ideal race, but his atheism and aristocratic prejudices marred his whole conception.
Given that he wrote the summary of Asrar-e Khudi primarily for the benefit of Prof. Nicholson and other Westerners, Iqbal’s reference to the Christian (and Jewish) concept of the “Kingdom of God” is highly suggestive. He recognizes that the “Kingdom of God,” at least according to the canonical Gospels, refers to an altered reality that is achievable by humanity on this earth and during this life. It’s a utopia, no doubt, but one that is actually realizable in historical time. Such will be possible, of course, only with the grace of God; yet the grace of God alone is insufficient for bringing about the “Kingdom of God” on earth. According to Iqbal, human beings must take the initiative in this regard, though human initiative alone cannot achieve that goal either. In other words, human beings must learn to discern the divine tendency within the structure of reality that is pointing towards a particular kind of personality and a particular kind of society; and they must strive, with God, to realize this telos first within their own being and subsequently in the form of a concrete society. Only after achieving a state of peace in their own souls would they be able to achieve it in the world.
Note that Iqbal calls his ideal society the “Kingdom of God,” which literally means theocracy, while also referring to it as a democracy in the same breath! This is either a flagrant contradiction, or a sign that he has transcended the God/human dichotomy. If Iqbal is not contradicting himself, then I believe he is saying the following: Once humanity actually becomes what it has always meant to be—divine vicegerent—then there will remain no real difference between human will and divine will.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.