Ahmed Afzaal

Is the Future set in Stone?

The short answer to this question is “no.”

At any given moment in time, future exists as multiple possibilities — none of which is set in stone — until one of these possibilities becomes real.   At that point, all possibilities other than the actualized one cease to be and an entirely new set of future possibilities arises.  These too will remain mere possibilities until one of them becomes actualized in reality.  And so on.

hat is set in stone is only what has already taken place, or whatever happens to be the case now. As a result, we must accept what has been, and what is, but we do not have to accept any single future scenario as absolutely certain. Since the future hasn’t happened yet, it can happen in one of many, many ways. In this understanding of time, freedom and determinism go hand-in-hand. All the choices made by the Creator and the creatures, taken together, determine which of the many possible futures will actualize into reality.

Both the Creator and the creatures are free, but neither is absolutely so. Past choices constrain present choices, and present choices constrain future ones.  As time passes, the possibilities for the future do not remain the same. As a result of the sum total of choices that are being made in the present moment, the possible future scenarios keep changing . . . moment by moment. One particular scenario for the distant future may have been a possibility yesterday, or a minute ago, but it’s no longer a possibility now. As some possibilities cease to be at each moment, new ones are constantly arising to take their place. Every choice, whether divine or human, necessarily closes some windows, while simultaneously opening new ones.

No single future scenario is absolutely certain, but it may in some cases be relatively certain. We cannot be absolutely certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that the boiling point of water will remain 100° Celsius during the next decade, or that aspirin will continue to work for headaches a month from now. Yet, we can be quite sure of these; that is to say, we can maintain a state of certainty regarding these future scenarios that is, relatively speaking, beyond doubt — not beyond all possible doubt, but definitely beyond any reasonable doubt. This does not give us absolute certainty that would satisfy a philosopher, but enough practical certainty that would allow us to get on with the task of living. And yet, our relative certainty about aspects of the future does not entail a belief that our entire destinies are set in stone.

Part of what bothers me about some science fiction novels and movies is their depiction of time travel. I like traveling backwards into the past; it’s the forward traveling into the future that I find unconvincing. Travel into the past may or may not be practically possible, but it is at least theoretically possible. It is possible to speculate that what has already been is still with us in some form or another, and for this reason it may perhaps be possible (at least in theory) to access the past either psychically or physically.  What I do not enjoy is the literary or cinematic depiction of time travel into the future, for such a voyage requires me to accept the impossible.

One could travel into the future (again, in theory) only if the future already existed, fully formed in all its details. To imagine that, we would have to think of the future as if it were a place that is real even now, existing a few years or decades or centuries “ahead” of where we are.  This entails thinking of time as a line that has already been drawn in its entirety, a notion that I must reject on principle. But if the line has not yet been completely drawn, as I will argue, then the future cannot exist in the same way as the past or present does. And obviously, one cannot travel into a realm that isn’t there yet.

Reading the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam has helped me understand that while there are definite patterns and trends in the workings of reality — summed up by the Qur’an in the phrase Sunnat Allah — the Qur’an does not support the notion of a universe that is pretty much fixed in terms of how its future will unfold. I have come to believe that Iqbal’s insistence on the reality of time is not only in harmony with some of the powerful currents in modern philosophy and science, but also–and more importantly for Muslims — it is an accurate reading and faithful expression of the Qur’anic view.

Thinking of the future as a place is a serious error, for it makes time unreal. To take the reality of time seriously, we have to recognize that the future is unsettled. This openness of the future, however, is not absolute. In other words, at least some elements of the future would have to be taken as settled or fixed, even if relatively so. This is because the Creator and the creatures have already made innumerable choices; these choices have made certain characteristics of all possible future scenarios virtually inevitable, while leaving their other characteristics open to the determining effect of choices yet to be made. One way of appreciating the inevitable aspects of the future is to think of them as the consequences of the tendencies inherent in the nature of reality. And yet, even these tendencies do not impose an absolutely fixed future.

There is nothing to be gained by defending, particularly from a religious perspective, the idea of a predetermined and therefore perfectly predictable future. In fact, such a perspective would be inimical to any religious teaching, since all religious traditions assume the reality of freedom at one level or another. At the divine level, no freedom would mean no creativity for God; at the human level, no freedom would imply no morality for persons. In a religiously conceived universe, therefore, freedom must be acknowledged and so the future cannot be fixed. A predetermined universe can only result from a mechanistic conception of reality in which the cause-effect relationship works in strict accordance with the qualities of matter; this would be a universe in which neither a human person nor God would enjoy any real freedom.

Regarding the error of thinking about future as if it were an already existing place, I would mention (once again) Iqbal’s critique of Einstein’s view of time as the fourth dimension of reality. All quotes are from the Reconstruction.

After noting the positive implications of Einstein’s contributions for religion, Iqbal writes:

 . . . Einstein’s Relativity presents one great difficulty, i.e. the unreality of time. A theory which takes time to be a kind of fourth dimension of space must, it seems, regard the future as something already given, as indubitably fixed as the past.  Time as a free creative movement has no meaning for the theory. It does not pass. Events do not happen; we simply meet them. (p. 31)

On the basis of the Qur’anic emphasis on a changing and dynamic universe, Iqbal rejects this space-like view of time. Instead, he argues that time “is an organic whole in which the past is not left behind, but is moving along with, and operating in, the present. And the future is given to it not as lying before, yet to be traversed; it is given only in the sense that it is present in its nature as an open possibility”  (p. 40). He goes on to say that there has been a tremendous misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the Qur’anic notion of taqdir.  Contrary to popular belief, taqdir (“measuring out”) does not suggest a predetermined destiny but the sum total of a creature’s inner possibilities.

It is time regarded as an organic whole that the Qur’an describes as taqdir or the destiny — a word which has been so much misunderstood both in and outside the world of Islam.  Destiny is time regarded as prior to the disclosure of its possibilities.  . . . The destiny of a thing then is not an unrelenting fate working from without like a task master; it is the inward reach of a thing, its realizable possibilities which lie within the depths of its nature, and serially actualize themselves without any feeling of external compulsion. (p. 40)

Iqbal points out the Qur’anic teaching that God creates freely; the reality of time implies that “every moment in the life of Reality is original, giving birth to what is absolutely novel and unforeseeable” (p. 40). Repetition, and therefore predictability, is the character of mechanical action, not a feature of the free creative activity of God. I think what Iqbal is saying here is similar to what many Sufis have pointed out through the maxim la takrar fi al-tajalli (there is no repetition in divine self-disclosure).

Iqbal draws upon both Whitehead and Bergson. He agrees with the former on the reality of time and the nonfixity of the future. With the latter, he agrees on the question of purposefulness in the movement of reality, but adds this qualification: “if teleology means the working out of a plan in view of a predetermined end or goal” then this makes time unreal and “reduces the universe to a mere temporal reproduction of a pre-exiting eternal scheme or structure” in which everything “is already given.” Iqbal rejects this view as a “veiled materialism” for it leaves “no scope for human or even Divine freedom.”

Contra Bergson, Iqbal argues that it is possible to assign purpose to the movement of reality without succumbing to this “veiled materialism” that is hardly distinguishable from the mechanical determinism generated by modern scientism. In the heart of reality, Iqbal finds “progressive formation of fresh ends, purposes, and ideal scales of value” (43) that are anything but predetermined. He rejects the notion that there is a “foreseen end” or “a far off fixed destination” towards which the whole creation is moving. The movement of reality in time “cannot be conceived as a line already drawn.” True to his dynamic vision of a constantly evolving cosmos, Iqbal insists that “it is a line in the drawing—an actualization of open possibilities” (44).

How “Islamic” is the above understanding of time? While Iqbal’s view does go against popular conceptions of taqdir as a predetermined future that is immune to our choices, it is important to consider that he defends this view as being firmly rooted in the Qur’an. In his rejection of taqdir as fixed destiny, Iqbal remains true to the spirit and letter of the Qur’an. There is, of course, no requirement that Muslims must be loyal to any historically contingent understanding of what the Qur’an means. God is continuously showing His signs, both in our own souls and on the horizons; not to notice these signs is not only an act of ingratitude, it is also a path that leads to misguidance and error. The entire task of “reconstruction” is nothing other than recognizing the signs as such, and of incorporating them into our overall picture of reality. Theologically, Iqbal is correct in arguing that the notion of a fixed destiny deprives not only humans of their creative freedom to mold their present and therefore influence their future; it also takes away God’s freedom to manifest His attributes in ever fresh ways, thereby undermining God’s omnipotence.

Iqbal argues that God’s omniscience should be understood in a way that does not compromise God’s omnipotence.  The common understanding of God’s knowledge is that it embraces equally the past, the present, and the future. In this view, the future is assumed to be merely a distant location that we do not see because we haven’t arrived there yet, but which is part of God’s knowledge since God enjoys a much higher vintage point than what is available to us. For Iqbal, such a spatial conception of time does not accord with the Qur’anic understanding of the nature of God’s omniscience.  He contends that the view of divine knowledge as a “single indivisible act of perception which makes God immediately aware of the entire sweep of history, regarded as an order of specific events, in an eternal ‘now’” is inadequate (62). While acknowledging that there is some truth in this conception, Iqbal would not embrace it because this view “suggests a closed universe, a fixed futurity, a predetermined, unalterable order of specific events which, like a superior fate, has once for all determined the directions of God’s creative activity” (62-63).

While the conception of future as an already existing distant location allows God to have foreknowledge, it clearly robs Him of omnipotence.  Iqbal writes:

Divine knowledge must be conceived as a living creative activity to which the objects that appear to exist in their own right are organically related. By conceiving God’s knowledge as a kind of reflecting mirror, we no doubt save His foreknowledge of future events; but it is obvious that we do so at the expense of His freedom. The future certainly pre-exists in the organic whole of God’s creative life, but it pre-exists as an open possibility, not as a fixed order of events with definite outlines. (63)

If Iqbal is right, it would follow that God’s omniscience has to be understood in a more nuanced fashion than what is implied by the spatial (and therefore static) conception of time. Following is a preliminary, and admittedly simplistic, attempt to paraphrase his suggestion.

To say that God knows everything is easy to understand and accept when “everything” is taken to mean the past and the present.  God’s knowledge of the future, however, cannot be of the same quality as His knowledge of the past and the present. God’s omniscience consists in having a complete knowledge of all the tendencies and dispositions of reality; of everything that has ever been right up til the present moment; and of the entire range of all the possibilities for the future as they appear and disappear at each moment in the life of reality. This much is obvious. But to say that God’s omniscience must include the knowledge of exactly which of the numerous possibilities for the future will actually realize itself is to make an unwarranted claim.

Of course, God’s knowledge encompasses everything; but the future is not yet a “thing” that God can know in the same way that God knows the past and the present. To say otherwise would be to assume that (1) God knows what God would do in the indefinite future; and (2) God knows what each creature would do in the indefinite future. Both of these assumptions put serious constraints on the freedom of choice, for God as well as for all of God’s creatures (including human beings). On the other hand, the affirmation of God’s intimate and complete knowledge of all the future possibilities at any given moment would fulfill the requirement of believing in divine omniscience, but without requiring us to accept God’s intimate and complete knowledge of the future itself.

It is far more important for Islamic theology to maintain God’s creative freedom than to save God’s foreknowledge of future events. Similarly, it is far more important for Islamic ethics to insist on the human freedom to make choices than to preserve the belief in a fixed, predetermined destiny.

Time is a Sword (1)

Included in Asrar-i Khudi, Iqbal’s first book of Persian verse, is a poem titled “Al-Waqt Sayf,” time is a sword. The title comes from a saying attributed to the famous scholar and jurist Imam Ahmad bin Idris Al-Shafi’i (767-820 CE).  Iqbal’s poem has three parts.  Here I will attempt a paraphrase of the first part of this poem and offer some remarks.


My the grave of Al-Shafi’i remain green
For an entire world has quenched its thirst for knowledge from his vine.
His thought plucked a star from the heavens
When he called time a cutting sword.

“Time” was one of Iqbal’s life long fascinations, a topic that he thought and wrote about a great deal throughout his intellectual career, in both prose and poetry.  Imam Al-Shafi’i’s metaphor for time–a sharp, cutting sword–turned out to be very well suited for Iqbal’s own purposes.  Iqbal was able to use this metaphor to explain what he knew about time’s nature, both from his intuitive experience and in light of his philosophical training.  He gives due credit to Imam Shafi’i for calling time a sword, before moving into his own interpretation of what that might mean.

It may be noted that “sword” is an archetypal image that represents a number of concepts and experiences, foremost among them being power.  If sword is a metaphor for power and for time simultaneously, it seems to follow that both Imam Al-Shafi’i and Iqbal are emphasizing the relationship between time and power in their claim that time is a sword.  Iqbal, in particular, associates time not only with power but also with freedom, i.e., the freedom to create.


How can I explain the mysteries of this sword?
In its sharp edge is the vital essence of life.
The owner of this sword transcends both hope and fear
His hand becomes brighter than the hand of Moses.
With a single stroke of this sword
Water gushes forth from the rock and the ocean parts to offer a path.
This is the sword that Moses held in his hand
It freed him from planning and contriving.
He parted the bosom of the Red Sea
Turning its waters into dry land.

The poem starts by attributing all power to time, making the reader suspect that Iqbal is not really dealing in this poem with ordinary, everyday “time” that we measure with our clocks and calendars.  The suspicion is soon confirmed.

Time is a sword, Iqbal tells us, that contains the vital essence of life.  Anyone who owns this sword attains true freedom, for such a person is able to transcend the two major obstacles that keep most of us imprisoned–hope and fear.  In other words, true freedom is the product of enjoying a certain kind of power or confidence that makes one unconcerned about consequences, which is to say, about the future outcomes of one’s efforts and plans.  It is, after all, our attachment to desired outcomes that makes us hope as well as fear.  This attachment causes us to be anxious and worried about what will happen next, and it also causes us to get lost in our anticipations of future pleasures and joys.  But fears and hopes, anxieties and anticipations, are all mental projections.  They are mental traps in which we fall all too easily, not knowing that we have ourselves concocted them in the first place.  Our attachment to outcomes makes us think too much of the future, and so it imprisons us in our own mind made fantasies, both the kind we enjoy and the ones we dread.  By becoming so occupied, we remain far away from where we really are . . . in the present.

Iqbal evokes one of his favorite images, that of Moses parting the Red Sea.  He also mentions Moses striking his staff on a rock in the desert, which causes streams of water to gush forth from the rock, as mentioned in the Qur’an.  Where did Moses get this incredible confidence?  How was he able to strike the waters, knowing that they would part for him?  How was he able to strike the rock in the desert, knowing that fountains of fresh water would flow as a result of his apparently unrelated action?  Where did he draw all this incredible, miraculous power?  Iqbal’s answer: The secret of Moses’ power lies in the sword of time.  The same, he says, is true of the incredible physical prowess that popular Islamic folklore attributes to Ali.


Ali, whose bare hand conquered the fortress of Khaybar
His strength came from the same sword.

In the battle of Khaybar, legend has it that Ali bin Abi Talib, the nephew and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was single-handedly able to bring down the main gate of the enemy’s prized fortress .  After the battle was over, as many as a dozen men were needed to move the same door.  What, Iqbal asks, was the source of Ali’s confidence when he attempted to break down the huge barrier of a military fortress with his bare hand?  It was nothing other than the sword of time, he responds, from which Ali had drawn his legendary strength.

Today, we read about the incredible stories of individuals like Moses and Ali with our typical modern skepticism, wondering about the historical accuracy of these reports.  Iqbal, however, is rarely concerned with the past as such, even though he evokes it a great deal in his poetry.  What is much more important for Iqbal is always the present; for it is the present, rather than the past, that is capable of changing the future.  In the stories of Moses and Ali, Iqbal finds no reason to be skeptical.  What he finds, instead, are clues to how we too can attain this kind of legendary power and confidence now.  He uses these stories and images not to make us stand in awe of someone else’s superhuman achievements, but to emphasize that these are not superhuman achievements at all; instead, they are manifestations of the vast human potential which is available to each one of us, should we pay attention to their source.


The rotations of the heavens are worth watching
And worth knowing are the alternations of day and night.
But, O prisoner of yesterday and tomorrow!
Look within your heart, and discover another world inside.
You have sowed the seed of darkness in your own soil
By making time into a straight line.
Your thought has fragmented time into day and night
And that is how it measures the long and short of it.
Out of these threads you have made yourself an infidel’s girdle
Like the idols, you’ve become a seller of falsehood.

Iqbal suggests that time may be regarded in two different ways.  For the sake of simplicity, we may assume that these represent two kinds of time.  All of us are familiar with the ordinary, everyday variety of time that is of particular interest to physicists and astronomers.  This is the time that we measure with our clocks and calendars; this is the time that is associated with succession, with one thing happening after another, with the passage of tomorrow into yesterday and the present into the past.  Einstein famously said about it that the “only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen all at once.”

There is, of course, nothing “wrong” with regarding time as a succession of moments.   After all, the alternation of days and nights is frequently mentioned in the Qur’an, and is, no doubt, one of the great signs of God.  Our interest in this kind of measurable and historical time, which Iqbal elsewhere calls “serial time” (following Bergson), is therefore perfectly natural and justifiable.  Investigating this time, measuring it, determining its qualities . . . all of these are worthwhile activities.  Furthermore, clock time is absolutely necessary for managing our practical lives.

What we must never forget, however, is that clock time or serial time is not the only kind of time available to us.  There is much more to reality, in other words, than this understanding of time.  In the final analysis, serial time is a mental projection, the product of human interpretation projected onto reality for the sole purpose of managing practical life.  It is undeniably useful, but also fictitious when looked at from a higher perspective.

The Qur’an tells us that the default condition of humanity is forgetfulness and heedlessness.  This means an inability or unwillingness to pay full attention to divine signs.  By not paying attention to the signs of God, we forget who we really are.  As a result, we get caught up in the world of serial time, in the world of yesterday and tomorrow, and lose sight of what is infinitely more real than this.  Iqbal advices the person who is imprisoned in serial time to look within.  There is a whole different world within our own hearts, a world waiting to be discovered by those who would pay attention to it by freeing themselves of the tyranny of yesterday and tomorrow, i.e., those who would transcend serial time.  This world within, infinitely more real, is far beyond the fragmented sense that we normally have of past and future, and yet this world is always already available to us.  Finding, experiencing, and enjoying this world is nothing more than a matter of paying attention.  This world within is the source of power, confidence, freedom, and creativity.

For Iqbal, we are imprisoned in the world of serial time because we have convinced ourselves that time is a straight line.  To take time as a straight line is an illusion, albeit a necessary and useful one, that the thinking mind creates in order to meet the practical needs of the human organism.  Thought, or what Iqbal elsewhere calls “logical understanding,” is an essential tool for human flourishing on earth, a tool that has an inherent tendency to “pulverize” time into past and future by imagining it as a straight line.  When time is conceived of as a straight line, we imagine ourselves as standing at a particular point on that line, with something called the “past” existing behind us and something called the “future” lying ahead of us.  This view of time as a straight line gives rise to the metaphor of life as a “journey.”  Such a linear understanding of time comes almost naturally to us; it allows us a great deal of practical advantage in negotiating and managing our existence here on earth.  And yet, it is a fiction . . . ultimately unreal.  Failing to recognize serial time as a fiction is what Iqbal means by our  “imprisonment” in the fetters of yesterday and tomorrow.


You were the elixir, but became a handful of dust
You were born as God’s truth, but grew up to became a lie.
Are you Muslim?  Then free yourself from this girdle
Be the candle in the company of the free!
Not knowing the reality of time
You remain unaware of the meaning of eternal life.
How long will you remain a prisoner of day and night?
Learn the secret from the Prophet’s words
“I have a time with God.”

Most people, most of the time, are imprisoned in the world of serial time.  This state of imprisonment is sometimes described as “suffering” (as in Buddhism), as “original sin” (as in Western Christianity), as “exile” (as in Judaism), and as “forgetfulness” (as in Islam).  Irrespective of what image or metaphor we choose to describe our condition, we know that the default human condition is highly undesirable.  It is a serious obstacle, a frustrating limitation, to the full flowering of our divinely bestowed potential.  Iqbal tells us that our potential is inconceivably grander than what most of us are able to actualize.  We are born as nothing short of “God’s truth,” but very often we fail to realize that potential and end up as nothing more than our fragile, transient bodies.  Trapped in serial time, we find the stories of Moses parting the Red Sea or Ali bringing down the gate of a fortress with his bare hand to be nothing more than myths or legends . . . for we see such feats as being “impossible.”  They are indeed so, but only from the narrow viewpoint of an intellect that is itself restricted by serial time.

For Iqbal, the real human tragedy is that we fail to achieve eternal life because we remain unaware of what time, real time, truly is.  Elsewhere, Iqbal uses the term “pure duration” (following Bergson) to describe real time, that is to say, time that is unadulterated by the divisiveness of past and future.  Pure duration is eternal life; it represents a higher reality that is always available to us, within our own hearts.   The eternal life that we project onto a future existence after death is better understood as a continuation of the world that we are capable of experiencing here and now.  There is no beginning and no end in pure duration; there is neither yesterday nor tomorrow.  And yet, the experience of this time is more real than the “normal” experience of clock time; it is also the source of all power, as opposed to clock time which is the cause of our weakness, frustration, impotence, and lack of choice.  When Imam Al-Shafi’i said “time is a sword,” he was referring to pure duration, to the eternal now.

In a famous hadith, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said to his companions “I have a time with God in which neither a God-sent prophet nor an angel drawn near has room.”  This hadith describes, or rather points towards, an experience of pure duration, an experience in which one has transcended the limitations of linear, serial time, and therefore an experience in which there is nothing left of the past and future; there is only the eternal, ever-present now.  This is a taste of eternal life.  It is also an experience of what it feels like to be God, for pure duration is identical with divine time.


All phenomena are born from the movement of time
Life itself is a mystery among the many mysteries of time.
The rising and setting of the sun do not give birth to time
For time is eternal and the sun is transient.
Time is joy and sorrow, festivity and mourning
Time is the light of the sun and of the moon.
You have spread out time, extending it like space
Creating thereby the distinction of yesterday and tomorrow.
Like scent, you fled from your own garden
Making your prison with your own hands.

Events (literally, this and that) are the products of the movement of time.  If time is a sword, life is its sharp edge.  But do not confuse the time that is the creator of all phenomena with the time that you measure with the rising and setting of sun.  Serial time is impermanent and contingent, a created thing, merely an interpretation that you project on reality in order to make some sense of out it.  Your mind, or “logical understanding,” has imagined time as something spread out like a rug, extended in space, as if time were a mere dimension of space!  This is a useful fiction as far as it goes.  In order to be free, however, you must realize that your experience of past and future as distinct chunks that you locate on a time-line is ultimately unreal.  This experience is only the result of a conceptual extending out of time, an artificial spatialization of dynamic activity and experience.  Its spurious nature is revealed as soon as you get a taste of pure duration, of eternal life, which is totally devoid of the past/future distinction.  If clock time is a creature, pure duration is the Creator.

For Iqbal, serial time is fictitious but it is not an error.  It is born out of the creative movement of the Self/God from appreciation to efficiency, a movement that represents the unfolding or actualization of the inherent possibilities of the Self/God.  Events in serial time are precisely how the “Hidden Treasure” that is Self/God expresses some of its potentialities out of its love to be known.


Our time has no beginning and no end
It arises out of the garden of our heart.
Every life-form becomes more alive when it recognizes its own nature
Its being becomes brighter than the brightest morning.
Life is from time, and time is from life
The Prophet commanded: “Do not vilify time!”

Iqbal asserts that the reality of a thing is proportional to its state of self-consciousness.  The more self-conscious you become, the higher you ascend in the hierarchy of being.   Existence in serial time, as Iqbal notes elsewhere, is spurious existence; it is closer to a fiction or an illusion than it is to reality as such.  Yet, to exist in serial time is necessary, for such existence allows us innumerable opportunities for becoming conscious of who we really are.  For this reason, the world of serial time is to be experienced fully, as well as embraced and accepted exactly the way it is.  One cannot transcend the world of serial time without first embracing it in its totality.  There is no escape from this world, nor is there any need to look for an exist.   One doesn’t become free by running away from the world of serial time, but only by becoming self-aware through encountering its innumerable, ever-changing forms . . . each of which affords a unique opportunity for realizing who one truly is.

The phenomena of serial time, spurious as they may be, are ultimately rooted in the reality of pure duration.  Insofar as these phenomena are manifestations of pure duration, they are to be taken as “real,” albeit in a penultimate sense.  As such, they are to be honored and taken seriously.

In the final couplet, Iqbal alludes to a hadith, according to which Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is reported to have said: “Do not vilify time, for time is God.”  Classical authorities have explained this prophetic saying by referring to the common tendency of cursing and blaming fate for one’s perceived misfortunes.  Arabs were fond of identifying time as a villain who takes away our youth, our strengths, our possessions.  The Prophet forbade this habit of blaming or vilifying time as if it were one’s enemy or adversary.  Time, the Prophet seems to imply, is identical with what happens in life, which is always a reflection of divine will.  Cursing time is tantamount to saying “no” to reality; as such, it is the futile and self-defeating act of rejecting what is already the case.

For Iqbal, the identification of time with God contains an even more profound insight.  The experience of pure duration, of eternal life, is nothing short of experiencing divinity within oneself.  The creative movement within the divine self from appreciation toward efficiency that brings into being the phenomena of serial time is analogous to our own experience of free, conscious, and deliberate creation.

When we identify ourselves with the realm of efficiency alone, we trap ourselves in the world of serial time; in this state, all we can do is react on the basis of past conditioning in a more or less mechanical manner.  We lack power, so we resort to uttering obscenities at reality.  Anger, after all, is a sign of weakness, of being out-of-control.

On the other hand, existence in pure duration is the source of our own divinity; rooted in real time, in eternity, we experience a movement from the core of our being toward its periphery, i.e., from appreciation toward efficiency.  We enjoy power, even unlimited power.  We then create events, as we like, in serial time.  When we hold the sword of time in our hand, we are no longer at the mercy of impersonal, external forces; we no longer feel any need to curse our fate, for we write our own destiny.  We become what we already are–creators.

Speak Up

If “freedom of speech” is a right, isn’t “speaking up” an obligation?





Speak—your lips are free.

Speak—your tongue is still yours.

This magnificent body

Is still yours.

Speak—your life is still yours.




Look inside the smithy—

Leaping flames, red-hot iron.

Padlocks open their jaws.

Chains disintegrate.














Speak—there is little time
But it is enough.
Time enough
Before the body perishes—
Before the tongue atrophies.
Speak—truth still lives.
Say what you have to say.


(Urdu poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz; translation by Daud Kamal)

The World and the Image of God

In Javid Nameh, published in 1932, Iqbal offers a dialogue between Zinda Rud and Hallaj.  Part of this dialogue is relevant to the contemporary discussions about secularism, secularization, resurgence of prophetic religion, and the chances for the emergence of a post-secular world.  It is also relevant to discussions about the so-called clash of civilizations, religiously motivated violence, terrorism, and Islam’s alleged plot to dominate the world.

The character of Zinda Rud (Living Stream) is the poet himself; Hallaj is the tenth century mystic who is famous for having claimed “Ana ‘l-Haq” (or “I am the Truth”).  In Javid Nameh, Zinda Rud travels through the celestial spheres in the company of Rumi.  His encounter with Hallaj takes place in the sphere of Jupiter.  Only part of the dialogue is being quoted here.

Hallaj: Do you posses the image of God within you?  If you do, you are the hunter and the world is your prey.  The reins of your strategy control the unfolding of destiny.  The present age seeks combat with you; go ahead and make an imprint of God’s image on the tablet of this unbeliever.

Several points are worth noting in these two couplets.  1. The present age is an unbeliever because its tablet is devoid of the image of God.  2.  Anyone who is aware of the image of God within his/her self is a believer.  3. The present age, having denied or erased the image of God from its own tablet, wishes the same fate for the believers.  4.  Since the believers resist, the present age seeks war against them in order to make them as ungodly as itself.  5.  The believers ought to welcome the struggle without fear.  6.  In addition to resisting the present age to erase the image of God from their own souls, the believers’ mission is to imprint that image on the tablet of the present age.
7. Since the aim of the believers is to establish the image of God on the present age, they are in greater harmony with the natural propensities of the cosmos; on the other hand, the goal before the present age is in discord with those propensities.  8.  The present age is in conflict not only with the believers, but also with the natural propensities of the cosmos; it is fighting against the inner urges of reality itself, and so it is doomed to fail in the long-run.  9.  The believers can be assured of their victory, because their goal is in perfect agreement with the inner urges of reality.  10.  Consequently, the forces of destiny are more than willing to cooperate with the believers; in effect, the believers do not just control their strategies in this war, they actually control cosmic destiny itself.

Zinda Rud: Imprinting the image of God on the world was accomplished in the past too; but I don’t know how it was done. 

This is a very practical question, the question of methodology.  In many ways it reflects the key dilemma of contemporary Islam.  There is no lack of self-proclaimed leaders who keep telling us what we already know.  The difficult question that remains unaddressed is precisely the one raised by Zinda Rud–exactly how do we do what we are supposed to do?  What is the best road to reach our destination?  Which of the innumerable courses of action should we choose?

Hallaj: There are two ways of imprinting the image of God on the world.  You can either do it with the power of domination or with the power of love.  Because God is more clearly manifested in love than in domination, the power of love is superior to the power of domination.

Iqbal’s key terms in the above couplets are most interesting, viz., zur-e qahiri and zur-e dilbari, translated here as the “power of domination” and the “power of love.”  Qahiri is from the Arabic word qahr, and “Al-Qahar” القھار  is well-known in the Islamic tradition as one of the “most beautiful names” of God, meaning “the Subduer” or “the Dominant.”  Iqbal’s phrase zur-e qahiri should be understood in the broader sense of coercion and forced submission rather than in the limited sense of physical violence, though actual violence or at least the threat of violence is certainly one aspect of its connotaion.  The other term, zur-e dilbari is entirely Persian; the word dilbar means a beloved.  Dilabri, then, is the way of the beloved, and is, by extension, the way of love.  When Iqbal uses Hallaj as his mouthpiece to identify these two ways, he is acknowledging that zur, or power, is not limited to political and military force; and that love too is a form of power.

Max Weber famously defined the modern state as that institution which successfully claims a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence.  Iqbal’s term for coercive force, zur-e qahiri, definitely includes such an ability, but it is best understood more generally as the power enjoyed by any form of established authority–whether traditional, legal, or charismatic–to enforce particular laws and policies.  That the image of God can be established in the world through zur-e qahiri seems to mean that various kinds of institutionalized authority can be legitimately used to help accomplish this goal; the term is broad enough to include all levels of political power from inter-personal relations right up to the state.  This clearly implies the use of coercive force–which can be social (such as excommunication), economic (such as fines), or violent (such as physical punishment, incarceration, and warfare).  Of course, there is always the possibility of abuse, which is why there must be appropriate limits and restrictions to be followed at each level as well as proper accountability;  the main point, however, is that there does exist a legitimate role for the use of coercion as an instrument of religious ethics.

Yet, the ability to influence people’s behavior through the use of coercion, with or without violence, is only one way in which zur, or power, manifests itself.  There is also the power of love, which Iqbal refers to as zur-e dilabri.  Love implies a soft approach; for love attempts to convince rather than enforce, and it seeks to attract rather than scare.   The power of love expresses itself in patience, kindness, gentleness, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and so on.  While in the short-run coercive force can be very effective, only the power of love can triumph in the long-run.

The climax of Iqbal’s point is as follows: Since the aim is to imprint the image of God on the world, the two kinds of power cannot be equal.

For Iqbal, and for the Islamic tradition more generally, God is manifested in a variety of ways, including as a coercive force that overpowers and subdues, but also as a loving attraction that gently melts away all resistance.  God is free to act in either of these modes as God sees fit; yet, according to a famous hadith qudsi, God’s mercy takes a definite precedence over God’s wrath.   There is, in other words, an asymmetry in divine attributes; the divine attributes of wrath and vengeance are ontologically less important than the divine attributes of mercy and forgiveness.  Since God is manifested more clearly as mercy than as wrath, it follows that for human beings too the way of love is superior to the way of coercion–this becomes particularly crucial when the aim is to realize the image of God in history.

Notice, however, that Iqbal does not exclude the role of coercion entirely; he seems to recognize that there are real situations in which the use of coercive force becomes an ethical necessity; indeed, no actual society can function without at least some element of coercion.  His point, rather, is that there happens to be a hierarchy of values in the structure of reality that cannot be ignored.  In the scale of values, it is indisputable that love takes precedence over coercion, and that forgiveness is superior to retribution.  Whatever may be the demands of any given situation, it is far better to establish the image of God in the world through the power of love, mercy, and compassion, as opposed to the power of coercion, domination, and punishment.

Revised July 18, 2010

Iqbal’s Challenge to Psychology

This short poem by Muhammad Iqbal is included in his second collection of Urdu verse, Bal-i Jibril (Gabriel’s Wing), published in 1935. It is titled “To the Psychologist.”

Go beyond the world of thought, if you dare
There are still unexplored islands in the ocean of the self;
This silent sea will keep all its mysteries hidden from you
Until you strike to part its waters
With the staff of Moses.

The ocean is self; unexplored islands are those regions of the self that modern psychology does not recognize as real or as worth investigating on their own terms. The poet suggests that existing scientific methods may not be adequate for reaching these hidden regions of the self; something unorthodox and more daring is therefore required, viz., the strike of Moses.

Modern psychology, despite its great achievements, is too concerned with the surface layers of the ego to be able to make any informed judgement about what really lies underneath. Iqbal’s complain is that the discipline of psychology seems to have restricted its inquiry to the dynamics of the “efficient self,” i.e., the inner realm of thinking, feeling, willing, and so on. While the dynamics of the efficient self are important in their own right, they do not tell the whole story about the reality of the self. There is much more to the self that is still undiscovered and unexplored from the viewpoint of psychology. If modern psychologists could gather the courage to take seriously the insights and experiences of the prophet, the mystic, and the poet, they would be able to discover new worlds precisely where they now think absolutely nothing exists. They would then be forced to revise and reconsider a great deal of their knowledge. Science is unaware of these new worlds in the depths of the self because psychology has not yet taken the necessary risk of letting go of its own assumptions and expectations.

Iqbal has expressed similar opinions in the lectures he delivered in 1928. In the first chapter of “Reconstruction,” while discussing the nature of mystical experience, Iqbal has this to say:

Modern psychology has only recently begun to realize the importance of a careful study of the contents of mystic consciousness, and we are not yet in possession of a really effective scientific method to analyze the contents of non-rational modes of consciousness.

In chapter five, while discussing the significance of the assertion “I am the creative truth,” as uttered by Husayn bin Mansur Al-Hallaj (executed in 922 CE), Iqbal notes:

The true realization of his experience, therefore, is not the drop slipping into the sea, but the realization and bold affirmation in an undying phrase of the reality and permanence of the human ego in a profounder personality.  The phrase of Hallaj seems almost a challenge flung against the Mutakallimun [orthodox theologians].  The difficulty of modern studies of religion, however, is that this type of experience, though perhaps perfectly normal in its beginnings, points, in its maturity, to unknown levels of consciousness.  Ibn Khaldun, long ago, felt the necessity of an effective scientific method to investigate these levels.  Modern psychology has only recently realized the necessity of such a method, but has not yet been able to go beyond the discovery of the characteristic features of the mystic levels of consciousness.

These passage illuminate what Iqbal means by the metaphor of “islands hidden in the ocean of the self.” He is referring to deeper levels of consciousness that mystics have been aware of for thousands of years but which do not seem to make much sense within the reigning paradigms of mainstream psychology. For Iqbal, what is most relevant about these deeper levels of consciousness, as revealed in the bold claim made by Hallaj “I am the creative truth,” is that beyond the transient rise and fall of thoughts and feelings there is something with a very different character. There is a “profounder personality” in each one of us, something whose “reality and permanence” is in diametric opposition to the transience and impermanence of our inner “world of thinking.” Elsewhere, Iqbal has used the term “appreciative self” for this inner reality, and suggested that we become aware of it only in moments of deep meditation when the otherwise incessant chatter of the efficient self calms down.

Iqbal made these observations in the late 20s and early 30s of the last century. Psychology, of course, has come a long way since then, and so the extent to which Iqbal’s critique still holds is a matter of some debate. Only a detailed survey of the developments in the psychology of religion during the last eighty years or so can establish whether or not any significant progress has occurred along the lines suggested by Iqbal. Ideally, only those scholars who are trained in this particular field and also have a sympathetic understanding of Iqbal’s philosophy are in a position to determine if Iqbal’s critique needs to be updated, and in what ways.

For now, I would like to pose a different question, viz., what is Iqbal’s own proposed methodology for a scientific understanding of the deeper levels of consciousness? In the poem quoted above, Iqbal uses one of his favorite metaphors — Moses striking the sea with his miraculous staff and parting the waters. The psychologist who is too caught up in the world of thought must use the strike of Moses to part the waters of the ocean that is the self; only then will he/she discover the hitherto unexplored islands. What Iqbal leaves for his reader to figure out is the meaning of the strike of Moses.

What does it mean to strike the ocean of the self with the staff of Moses? Since Iqbal has used this particular image rather frequently in his poetry, I suggest that a comparative study of his various uses of this metaphor will tell us something about his intended meaning. That’s a task for another day.

An Ocean without Shore

In a previous post (“Excuse me, are you Homo duplex?”) I made an attempt to understand what Iqbal means when he distinguishes between the “appreciative self” and the “efficient self.”  I am now going to make a second attempt at clarifying those concepts.

The context of Iqbal’s discussion is the nature of time and the associated mysteries of freedom/determinism and permanence/change, a subject of vital importance to religion.  It may therefore be helpful to investigate the larger issues involved here before re-visiting the question of self.

Iqbal is convinced that the Qur’an does not teach predeterminism.  In fact, he insists that nothing can be farther removed from the spirit of the Qur’an than the idea that the future is entirely fixed, a notion that robs both God and the human spirit of their creative freedom.  Consequently, Iqbal finds unacceptable any theory or worldview that rejects the reality of time.  In the second chapter of his “Reconstruction,” Iqbal identifies this very issue as a problematic aspect in Einstein’s work.

. . . Einstein’s Relativity presents one great difficulty, i.e., the unreality of time.  A theory which takes time to be a kind of fourth dimension of space must, it seems, regard the future as something already given, as indubitably fixed as the past.  Time as a free creative movement has no meaning for the theory.  It does not pass.  Events do not happen; we simply meet them.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate Iqbal’s point is to consider the situation depicted in the science fiction novel “Flatland” by Edwin Abbot, published in 1884.  This is the story of a two-dimensional world whose inhabitants happened to encounter a three-dimensional object, the sphere.  For a two-dimensional being, such as a square or a circle, an encounter with a three-dimensional being is a very disturbing experience.  Unable to perceive the third dimension, the residents of Flatland can only experience the sphere entering their world as a a series of two-dimensional circles that gradually broaden and then gradually shrink.  In other words, the third-dimension appears to the two-dimensional beings as consecutive changes in time.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)In Einstein’s theory of Relativity, time is said to be the fourth dimension of space; we do not actually experience time as a dimension of space because we are only three-dimensional beings trying to apprehend a fourth dimension.  In Iqbal’s words, Einstein’s theory seems to imply that “what appears to us three-dimensional beings as time is in reality an imperfectly sensed space-dimension.”  But if we accept this result of Einstein’s work and, so to say, if we spatialize time, then we would also have to accept that the future is as fixed as the past.  For Iqbal, this conclusion is unacceptable because it goes against the teachings of the Qur’an; furthermore, it also goes against the universal human experience of time that is completely free of any divisions.

Henri Bergson (1859-1941)Accordint to Iqbal, the scientific –or, rather, mechanistic–view of time is perfectly acceptable if we are talking only about clock time, or serial time; it does not, however, do any amount of justice to the time as we actually experience it.  Iqbal turns to the French philosopher Henri Bergson as the only modern thinker who has recognized this problem and has attemtped to solve it, even though Iqbal finds Bergson’s solution relatively inadequate for his own purpose.  What Iqbal finds most useful in Bergosn is the latter’s view of “pure duration” as opposed to serial time.  Pure duration is the psychological experience of time which is unadulterated by space; the states of consciousness are devoid of any quantitative character, they tend to melt into each other, and there are no reversible moments as is the case with serial time.

It is in this context that Iqbal makes the disticntion between an “appreciative self” and an “efficient self.”  After quoting Bergson, Iqbal affirms that “there is nothing static in my inner life” and that “constant change . . .  is unthinkable without time.”  Consequently, we must accept that our existence as conscious beings implies a “life in time.”  But there is more to time than succession. To appreciate eternity, the timeless dimension of our experience, we need to notice that there is movement in our inner life, which is the movement of the self from the center and towards the periphery.

A keener insight into the nature of conscious experience, however, reveals that the self is its inner life moves from the center outwards.  It has, so to speak, two sides which may be described as appreciative and efficient.  On its efficient side it enters into relation with what we call the world of space.  The efficient self is the subject of associationist psychology -the practical self of daily life in its dealing with the external order of things which determine our passing states of consciousness and stamp on these states their own spatial feature of mutual isolation.  The self here lives outside itself as it were, and, while retaining its unity as a totality, discloses itself as nothing more than a series of specific and consequently numerable states.  The time in which the efficient self lives is, therefore, the time of which we predicate long and short.  It is hardly distinguishable from space.  We can conceive it only as a straight line composed of spatial points which are external to one another like so many stages in a journey.  But time thus regarded is not true time, according to Bergson.  Existence in spatialized time is spurious existence.

For Einstein, time is a dimension of space.  For Bergson, this is true only of serial time, not of pure duration.  Iqbal recognizes that humans live in both worlds, which leads him to acknowledge that the self has to be conceived as having two aspects or sides to it.  The efficient self lives and functions in the world of serial time; for all practical purposes, we assume that time is like a straight line with distinct segments labeled as past, present, and future.  If this was the entire story, however, there would be no creative freedom for the human spirit, nor for the divine creator.  That our creative freedom is real is evidenced by the experience of the appreciative self, which lives and functions in pure duration.

A deeper analysis of conscious experience reveals to us what I have called the appreciative side of the self.  With our absorption in the external order of things, necessitated by our present situation, it is extremely difficult to catch a glimpse of the appreciative self.  In our constant pursuit after external things we weave a kind of veil around the appreciative self which thus becomes completely alien to us.  It is only in the moments of profound meditation, when the efficient self is in abeyance, that we sink into our deeper self and reach the inner center of experience.  In the life-process of this deeper ego the states of consciousness melt into each other.  The unity of the appreciative ego is like the unity of the germ in which the experiences of its individual ancestors exist, not as a plurality, but as a unity in which every experience permeates the whole.  There is no numerical distinctness of states in the totality of the ego, the multiplicity of whose elements is, unlike that of the efficient self, wholly qualitative.  There is change and movement, but change and movement are indivisible; their elements interpenetrate and are wholly non-serial in character.  It appears that the time of the appreciative-self is a single “now” which the efficient self, in its traffic with the world of space, pulverizes into a series of “nows” like pearl beads in a thread.  Here is, then, pure duration unadulterated by space.

Pure duration is “unadulterated by space,” i.e., it is the realm of creative freedom.  Serial time can be measured in various ways, that is to say serial time can be quantified as collections of isolated instants.  The very sense of discreteness, of divisibility, of plurality, of a sharp and impenetrable wall between “me” and “you” is a hallmark of serial time, i.e., a hallmark of the efficient self.  On the other hand, pure duration is experienced as a single “now” in which states of consciousness merge and melt into each other; these states cannot be quantified, nor can they be imagined in terms of space-relations.  To put it differently, the efficient self is the realm of doing; the appreciative self is the realm of being.

The movement of the self is from the appreciative center to the efficient periphery.  The efficient self is the realm of action, opposition, conflict, obstacles, and the struggle to overcome these obstacles.  The appreciative self expresses its potentialities and comes to realize its own “hidden treasures” only in and through the performance of the efficient self in the realm of serial time.  The appreciative self acquires, or rather discovers, its being in the doings of the efficient self.

The appreciative self emerges only “in the moments of profound meditation.”  It is characterized by a sense of wholeness, perfection, unity, and unlimited freedom; an ability to simultaneously accept and transcend the narrow confines of the efficient self; a capacity to dissolve all artificial boundaries that may hinder its progress.  Without this awareness of one’s reality as the appreciative self that abides in pure duration, one remains identified with the efficient self and suffers, as a result, the restrictive and limiting consequences of particular titles, labels, and categories.  We can recognize our real self in moments when we experience no limits to our being or to what we are capable of achieving; we can recognize the relatively spurious existence of the efficient self in serial time when we see ourselves in terms of narrow, mutually exclusive particularities with no hope of transcending them.  Perhaps it is this distinction that Iqbal had in mind when he composed the following couplet.

 خودی وہ بحر ہے جس کا کوئی کنارہ نہيں
تو آب جو اسے سمجھا  اگر تو چارہ نہيں

The self is an ocean without shore; too bad if you see it as a narrow stream.

Does the Spirit Matter?

In 1932, Iqbal published a book of Persian verse, titled Javid Nameh (The Book of Eternity).  He had started working on this book in the wake of his 1928 lectures, later published as The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.  The composition of Javid Nameh took approximately four years and left the poet-philosopher feeling thoroughly exhausted, according to his own admission.  The chronological proximity is noteworthy because there is much overlap between the themes found in Javid Nameh and those found in the “Reconstruction.”  A comparative approach can therefore help illuminate Iqbal’s meanings.

The topic for this post is the relationship between spirit/mind and body/matter.  In the sixth chapter of his “Reconstruction,” Iqbal notes that “matter is spirit in space-time reference.”  Iqbal’s aim is to recognize this most fundamental of all conceptual dichotomies for what it really is, i.e., a figure of speech.  Ontologically, he seeks to show that these two cannot be coherently regarded as two distinct substances or entities; we should regard them instead as two modes in which the same reality manifests or expresses itself.  For Iqbal, there is no essential dichotomy or dualism in the nature of reality; when we do perceive such an opposition in our experience, we should recognize it as resulting from the ego’s own projection.  After suggesting that “matter is spirit in space-time reference,” Iqbal writes:

The unity called man is body when you look at it as acting in regard to what we call the external world; it is mind or soul when you look at it as acting in regard to the ultimate aim and ideal of such acting.

The purpose and perspective of the observer plays a key role in whether the human being is to be seen primarily as a body or primarily as a spirit.  Just as modern physics recognizes that light can be regarded with equal justification as being composed of particles as well as of waves, depending upon the purpose and perspective of the observer, the human being can also be conceived in two apparently opposite ways -body as well as spirit.

When the subject of research is the human being, the viewpoint of biology would be necessarily different from the viewpoint of ethics; Iqbal’s solution removes the unnecessary rivalry between them by recognizing the validity of each viewpoint.  It does not, however, establish clear and firm boundaries between natural sciences and humanities.  Since reality is ultimately one, and even though biology and ethics have to function in their own respective spheres, to regard matter as “spirit in space-time reference” is also to acknowledge that there will inevitably be some overlap between these two domains of knowledge.  Even though for most practical purposes both biology and ethics would have to recognize each other’s distinct zones, in many cases they would also have to listen to what the other has to say.  In other words, biologists would not be able to explain away purpose and meaning, and ethicists would not be able to disregard the embodied existence of life.

Iqbal takes a similar position with reference to the material world as a whole.  He discusses the nature of the material world in detail in chapter two of the “Reconstruction,” and refers to his conclusions again in chapter four.  The following quote is from the latter.

…space, time, and matter are interpretations which thought puts on the free creative energy of God.  They are not independent realities existing per se, but only intellectual modes of apprehending the life of God.

Thought, taking a sectional view of experience, leads us into the illusion that space, time, and matter are ultimately real and independent entities existing on their own, that there is no way to transcend the tyranny of the ordinary systems of cause-and-effect, that there is no freedom of choice for the human individual.  Newtonian physics established this illusion as fact, but twentieth-century science has systematically dismantled it.  Iqbal’s claim, while having a religious motive and foundation, is hardly un-scientific.  It takes into account the observed facts of nature, but goes beyond them by daring to synthesize these facts on the basis of an intuitive insight.

The ego’s main epistemological tool is thought, or logical understanding, which is analytical by definition; it  understands by using the only method it knows -divide and conquer.  Science is the most rationalized and systematic formulation of this method.  Once science itself begins to acknowledge that space, time, matter, and causality are not independently existing realities, religion becomes justified in taking another step in the same direction in order to assert a truth it knew all along.  Emboldened by science, religion can now argue that what the ego confronts is actually “the free creative energy of God.”  Unable to comprehend “the free creative energy of God” as such, the ego resorts to using logical understanding for the purpose of conceptually (and then practically) mastering its environment.  In the process, it gives birth to the concepts of space, time, matter, and causality.  These are indeed very useful concepts; but nothing more.

Here, finally, are two couplets from Javid Nameh.

چشم  بگشا  بر  ز ما ن  و  بر مکا ن
این   دو یک حال است از احوال جاں
تا نگہ  از  جلوہ  پیش  ا فتا د ہ است
ا ختلاف   دوش   و  فردا  زادہ  است

Open wide your eyes upon time and space; these two are merely one state from among the many states of the soul.  Since the ego’s vision was weak before the divine self-disclosure, it gave birth to the distinction of yesterday and tomorrow.

And two more, from the same poem…

ا ے  کہ گوئی  محمل  جان است  تن
سر   جان  را  در  نگر  بر  تن  متن
محملے  نے ، حالے از احوال اوست
محملش  خو اند ن  فریب  گفتگوست

You who say that the body is a vehicle for the soul; do consider the secret of the soul, and don’t tangle with the body.  The body is not a vehicle, it is a state of the soul; to call it the soul’s vehicle is merely an illusion of the speech.

The Limits to Human Freedom

The following is in response to Tahir’s comments on my previous post (“Freedom and Responsibility”).

Most limitations on human freedom are actually self-imposed.  As such, they are vulnerable to appropriate adjustments in beliefs and attitudes.  When we change our beliefs, what has so far been impossible to achieve in the material world suddenly becomes possible.  The four-minute mile is a well-known example of how mind can triumph over matter.  The scientific literature on this subject is already immense, and is rapidly spilling over into the popular imagination (sometimes resulting in gross over-simplifications).

To say that the spiritual world offers virtually unlimited possibilities for human action and creativity is relatively easy to accept, since, for instance, it is a common experience that our imagination knows no limits.  What most people find incredible, however, is that this unlimited freedom to imagine whatever we choose also extends to what we can accomplish or create in the material world.

We could literally walk on water if we had sufficient faith.

The possibility of “conquering” the very spatio-temporal order within which we seem to be currently imprisoned is an important theme found in Iqbal’s work, both prose and poetry.  From Iqbal’s viewpoint, there is nothing mystical or magical about such a claim; in fact, the conclusion becomes unavoidable once we acknowledge the essential similarity and continuity between the material and the spiritual.  In the fourth chapter of his “Reconstruction,” Iqbal had this to say about the nature of the self:

. . . the causal chain wherein we try to find a place for the ego is itself an artificial construction of the ego for its own purposes. The ego is called upon to live in a complex environment, and he cannot maintain his life in it without reducing it to a system which would give him some kind of assurance as to the behavior of things around him.  The view of his environment as a system of cause and effect is thus an indispensable instrument of the ego, and not a final expression of the nature of Reality.

For Iqbal, not only time, space, and matter but the very system of cause-and-effect that we encounter in the universe are to be understood as the convenient mental constructions of the ego.  These are not rigid, impenetrable, and inflexible realities that cannot be overcome but are more like mind-stuff which are, for this reason, quite responsive to human initiatives.  Put differently, time, space, matter, and causality are the  “interpretations” that the ego projects onto the flow of divine energy in order to make that flow comprehensible and therefore controllable.  These categories do not represent the final view of the nature of reality.  Consequently, other-equally legitimate-ways of imagining reality are also possible, ways that allow us even greater freedom to shape not only human but also cosmic destiny.  The limitations on our freedom in the material world are therefore self-imposed in a very literal sense.

What, then, is the true nature of reality?  In chapter six of his “Reconstruction,” Iqbal wrote:

The truth, however, is that matter is spirit in space-time reference . . . .   The Ultimate Reality, according to the Qur’an, is spiritual, and its life consists in its temporal activity… The greatest service that modern thought has rendered to Islam, and as a matter of fact to all religion, consists in its criticism of what we call material or natural – a criticism which discloses that the merely material has no substance until we discover it rooted in the spiritual.

What we call “matter” is not as radically different from “spirit” as was once thought.  Even though the “Ultimate Reality is spiritual,” matter cannot be denigrated because it is merely a particular manifestation of that same reality.  According to Iqbal, there is but a single reality, which is labeled either matter or spirit depending on the purpose and perspective of the observer.  Consequently, the more we investigate matter, the more it reveals itself as spirit.  The so-called “new physics” was relatively young when Iqbal wrote these lines in 1928; the scientific criticism of the Newtonian view of matter has advanced so much in the intervening decades that, realistically speaking, religion can justifiably consider itself as having the same epistemological status as that of science.

At the risk of crude over-simplification, let me wrap up this discussion so that it may fit in a nutshell.  Science is now in possession of the full aresenal with which the Cartesian mind/body dichotomy can be erased for ever.  The essential nature of matter is best described in terms of energy, waves, and even thoughts.  So conceived, it is easy to see why the material world is eminently responsive to the creative effects of energy patterns like beliefs, thoughts, intentions, and faith.

To Iqbal, it makes perfect sense that if human beings were to align themselves with the aims and aspirations of the Ultimate Reality, they would experience a complete absence of all limitations on their creative freedom.  At that point, the Ultimate Reality would cooperate with them to such an extent that it would be difficult to differentiate human will from divine will.  In a sweet reversal of roles, it would be God who would inquire the human beings as to what will satisfy them.

There is much in Iqbal’s poetry that can be quoted here, but I will limit myself to one couplet.

کی محمد سے وفا تو نے تو ہم تيرے ہيں

یہ جہاں چيز ہے کيا، لوح و قلم تيرے ہيں

This is the final couplet of “Javab-i Shikva” and a favorite of preachers and orators; rarely do they realize the radical nature of its message.  As in the rest of this poem, God is speaking to the disgruntled Muslim:

If you remain loyal to Muhammad, I will be yours; this world will be yours; and even the pen and the tablet will be yours.

In Islamic theology, the “pen” writes human and cosmic destiny on the “tablet.”  A fatalistic attitude is satisfied in being told that the pen has already written down everything and so the future is determined and fixed; what’s more, even the ink on the tablet has dried so no revisions are possible.  Taking the same theological symbols that sometimes produce fatalism, Iqbal gives them a very different twist.  If human beings fulfill certain conditions, he tells us, God promises them nothing short of control over His creation, i.e., the ability to write, and therefore shape, not only human but also cosmic destiny.

Indeed, it is only then that the potential vicegerency of Adam would become real and actual.

To Sing or Not to Sing

In a previous post (“Be the lament…”) I deliberately exaggerated the rose/nightingale dichotomy as two ways of being in the world, presenting them as mutually exclusive.  It was pointed out to me that the contrast was overdrawn (thanks, Tahir).

Perhaps we can identify two levels to this issue.  At one level, quiet contemplation and active self-expression do indeed go together, sequentially or even simultaneously.  After all, to express oneself implies that one has something to express, which could not have come into being without a prior period of quiet contemplation.  Furthermore, contemplation is an ongoing process, which means that one can never outgrow the need to think, reflect, reconsider, adjust, re-adjust, revise, correct, improve, and keep on looking for new conclusions as well as fresh ways of expressing them.

At the second level, there is the issue of time.  In the words of the Bible

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot.
A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain.
A time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

(Ecclesiastes 3)

The point, then, is whether we find ourselves in a time that demands we maintain silence or a time that demands we speak up.  How do we know if this is the time for silence?  If our audience are not ready, or if the song within is not yet mature, silence is preferable.  Be a rose, then; suffer some more, hold the song in your heart, let it grow.  Once your audience is ready, and the song within has reached the desired level of maturity, then it is obviously time to be a nightingale.  Incidentally, Iqbal anticipated both kinds of situations.  This is what he said about “a time to be silent.”

نا لہ  ہے بلبل  شوریدہ  ترا  خا م  ا بھی

اپنے سینے میں اسے اور زرا تھام ابھی

If it is “time to be silent,” you wait, and let things simmer in the background, doing whatever needs to be done in the meanwhile to prevent apathy or stagnation.  Soon there will be signs that the audience is ready, the song is ready, the stage is set, and it is “time to speak.”  You may still be hesitant or unsure, not wishing to sing an immature song but not wanting to let the right moment slip by either.  If that is so, seek advice from those you trust and those who have followed your progress.  Very frequently when one is not able to judge one’s own maturity, a friend or a mentor can do that part.  Listen to what they have to say; they are usually right, particularly if they are unanimous.  This is your sign that the time for becoming a nightingale has arrived.  This is how Iqbal described “a time to speak.”

پیر حر م  نے کہا  سن  کے  مری  رو ید ا د

پختہ ہے تیری فغاں اب نہ اسے دل میں تھام

The dilemma that many of us face is whether to sing or not to sing.  Is this moment asking me to wait and see, or is it demanding that I stand up and speak out?  The danger here is the ego and its deceptive tricks.  The ego tends to be out of sync with the present moment, and it is therefore a poor guide to what should be done now.  In a time that demands silence, the ego may wish praise and glory and so it may throw us in a premature nightingale mode.  On the other hand, in a time that demands full-fledged expressiveness, the ego may wish to cling to a life of comfort and ease and so it may hold us in an inauthentic rose mode.

We learn by trial and error, and by paying attention to the signs.

Excuse me, are you Homo duplex?

If someone stops you in the middle of the street and asks the above question, do not panic!

Homo duplex is Latin for “the double human.” It implies that all humans have two closely related but very distinct sides to their being. The distinction between these two sides is sometimes experienced with such sharpness that we may even say that there are two distinct beings in each human. Each self, then, is double.

The easiest way to understand human duality is to experience it directly, by looking within oneself. If each of us is really double, then it would mean that there are two of me; let’s call them I and myself. There are also two of you; let’s call them you and yourself. When you look within yourself, do you find a duality or do you see a unity? If you said unity, look again. Then ask yourself: Who is looking? You, of course. Who is being looked at? Yourself.

This is not a psychic illusion, nor a play on words. Humans really are double beings, though the vast majority of us are veiled from this reality. To say that each human is double is to recognize that there is both the observer and the observed within each of us. There is a being in me that thinks, speaks, and acts, and another being in the background that watches me think, speak, and act. For most people, the observer in the background remains unperceived, undetected, and therefore non-existent. In fact, the observer cannot be directly observed at all; it takes alterness and practice to still the observed self so that the observing self is allowed to emerge spontaneously.

There are many ways of describing the observer and the observed, and a great deal of overlap, and hence confusion, in the terminology. Let’s look at some of the terms used. The Qur’an, for instance, uses the word “nafs” with a variety of connotations and nuances of meaning. In the Islamic scholarly tradition, different authorities have interpreted this word variously, depending on their immediate purpose as well as the overall linguistic-semantic context in which they were writing. Nafs is often translated as soul or self, but these words remain inadequate without lengthy explanations. The Qur’an also uses the word “ruh,” or spirit, which is related to the Hebrew word “ruah,” meaning breath, air, or wind. The word nafs is frequently contrasted with ruh, though nafs is also related to “nafas,” which means breath.

In referring to the divine spirit in the human individualal, Rumi frequently uses the Persian word “jan,” which literally means life. The relationship of this word with the Biblical reference to the “breath of life” and the Islamic notion of divine breath, or nafas al-Rahman (breath of the All-Merciful) is clear enough. The word “life” is being used metaphorically in this context, as in “spiritual life.” Any confusion of “jan” with life as a biological category should therefore be avoided.

Muhammad Iqbal, perhaps the most important Muslim thinker to have contributed in this area of inquiry in recent times, had to face a similar problem of terminology. In his Urdu and Persian poetry, he chose the Persian word “khudi,” which had, till then, a very negative connotation of selfishness and egotism. The fact that Iqbal single-handedly changed the connotations of this word is a testimony to the popularity and influence of his poetry. In his English prose, however, Iqbal had to deal with a different dilemma.  Both “self” and “ego” already had a long history in the works of Western philosophers and psychologists; Iqbal had to go to extraordinary lengths in order to distinguish his ideas from those of his Western predecessors and contemporaries. Yet, it is difficult to say that Iqbal has been fully understood in either the East or the West.

In the second lecture/chapter of his “Reconstruction,” Iqbal uses language that seems not only to affirm the notion of Homo duplex but also to confirm the distinction made above between an observing self and an observed self. Iqbal writes:

. . . the self in its inner life moves from the centre outwards. It has, so to speak, two sides which may be described as appreciative and efficient. On its efficient side it enters into relation with what we call the world of space. The efficient self is the subject of associationist psychology – the practical self of daily life in its dealing with the external order of things . . . .   The time in which the efficient self lives is, therefore, the time of which we predicate long and short. It is hardly distinguishable from space.  . . . Existence in spatialized time is spurious existence.

For Iqbal, the “efficient self” is the “practical self of daily life.” Throughout the day, as I think, speak, and act in order to carry out the routines of my practical life, as I brush my teeth, drive my car, talk with co-workers or friends, watch a movie, or play a game of chess, I am fully identified with my efficient self. I constantly use the first person pronoun to refer to the acts, motives, and desires of this efficient self. Yet, as Iqbal notes, the efficient self exists only in serial time, i.e., in time that we imagine as a straight line divisible into past, present, and future. The existence enjoyed by the efficient self is therefore “spurious.” Even though the efficient self is a tool that is absolutely necessary for human growth and fulfillment, it is, in the final analysis, unreal–just like the serial time in which it operates. Iqbal continues:

A deeper analysis of conscious experience reveals to us what I have called the appreciative side of the self. With our absorption in the external order of things, necessitated by our present situation, it is extremely difficult to catch a glimpse of the appreciative self. In our constant pursuit after external things we weave a kind of veil round the appreciative self which thus becomes completely alien to us. It is only in the moments of profound meditation, when the efficient self is in abeyance, that we sink into our deeper self and reach the inner centre of experience.

One of the great insights of Buddhist teachers is that the human being has “no self,” and that a great deal of suffering results from the illusion that the self is real. Iqbal fully agrees with this insight, adding only that the “no self” doctrine of Buddhism applies to the efficient self that operates in the practical world of everyday reality, i.e., within the limitations of serial time. Its existence, indeed, is “spurious.” Beyond this spurious self and its so-called “reality,” however, there lies the appreciative self which enjoys true existence in the world of pure duration. In our day-to-day lives we are so overwhelmed with the incoming flow of sens data and with our constant pursuit of things and experiences that the appreciative self simply becomes unavailable, drowned as it were in a deluge of distractions. In deep states of meditation the efficient self is stilled and silenced, which allows the manifestation of the appreciative self. What Buddhist teachers call “pure consciousness” is what Iqbal identifies in the above passage as the “inner center of experience.” According to Iqbal, the distinctive feature of our experience as the appreciate self is unity.

In the life-process of this deeper ego the states of consciousness melt into each other. The unity of the appreciative ego is like the unity of the germ in which the experiences of its individual ancestors exist, not as a plurality, but as a unity in which every experience permeates the whole. There is no numerical distinctness of states in the totality of the ego, the multiplicity of whose elements is, unlike that of the efficient self, wholly qualitative. There is change and movement, but change and movement are indivisible; their elements interpenetrate and are wholly non-serial in character. It appears that the time of the appreciative-self is a single “now” which the efficient self, in its traffic with the world of space, pulverizes into a series of “nows” like pearl beads in a thread. Here is, then, pure duration unadulterated by space.

Again, Iqbal’s description–based on his reading of the Qur’an–appears to be in great sympathy with the Buddhist view of the nature of pure consciousness that lies beyond the flux of thoughts and sensations. For Iqbal, pure duration is experienced as an indivisible, un-analyzable unity; the whole of experience is present in each of its parts, and hence there is no perception of separateness, discontinuity, or interruption in the flow of experience. Time is no longer a straight line that can be divided neatly into past, present, and future, but forms a series of “nows” that are, despite themselves, uncontaminated by plurality. This absolute, total sense of unity can be so profound that some mystics may describe it as absolute and total “nothingness.” Such description will be entirely acceptable to Iqbal, so long as he can point out that “nothingness” here stands for the total lack of “thingness,” i.e., an absence of boundaries that are normally responsible for our sense of distinct entities being separated by empty space.

Returning to the problem of terminology, let us note that Iqbal frequently uses the word “ego” in ways that differ from its common, contemporary usage. Unlike Iqbal, most contemporary writers -particularly those who are influenced by the Buddhist tradition–almost always use the word “ego” in a negative sense. In their usage, the ego represents our normal sense of personal identity that functions well in the world of forms but which is also the source of much of our neurotic patterns of thinking and acting.  Most of human suffering, in this view, is the result of our taking this ultimately false sense of egohood too seriously and of investing its fleeting patterns with too much reality and permanence. This usage of the word “ego” is virtually the same as Iqbal’s usage of the term “efficient self.”

Similarly, when words like “selfishness” or “selflessness” are employed in ordinary discourse, or when Islamic authorities emphasize the need to overcome or transcend one’s “nafs,” we should be aware that it is the “ego” in the above sense that is being implicated.

Finally, in Buddhism inspired writings the term “attachment” frequently shows up, where it relates to the tenacious quality of relationships that the ego establishes with things and people within the world of forms. In Iqbal’s language, these are the relationships that the efficient self establishes with things and people while operating within serial time. In both cases, “attachment” is a potentially neurotic phenomenon that can be recognized as such only through great inner awareness; it emerges due to an over-identification with the ego or the efficient self, and dissipates insofar as we learn to experience pure consciousness or as we “sink into our deeper self and reach the inner center of experience.”

Each of us, then, is a Homo duplex.  To recognize our inner being as double is simultaneously a great and a humble achievement. It is great because all subsequent insights are already contained in this discovery; it is humble because it is only the first and the very basic step in the journey.

Be the Lament, or don’t Bother Singing

Here is an Urdu couplet by the Indian mystic-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal.

The words of this couplet are fairly simple and the symbolism is traditional; yet its meanings are fresh and the underlying concepts have a distinctly contemporary flavor.  A simple paraphrase follows:

In this garden, either be a follower of the nightingale or a disciple of the rose; either become the lament [like the former] or refrain completely from singing [like the latter].

The symbols used in this couplet are familiar to any student of Indo-Persian literature. They have been used over and over again over many centuries, but usually within a limited range of semantic possibilities. It is this well-established cultural tradition that makes these symbols immediately recognizable all over the Persian and Urdu speaking societies of Asia. In this couplet, however, Iqbal manages to do something novel with these old symbols, reviving them as effective metaphors by pouring into them fresh insights.

The garden is obviously the world; the nightingale and the rose are two ways of being in the world, the former representing a life of self-expression and the latter a life of quiet contemplation. The nightingale sings, not out of joviality and celebration but in response to her pain. The nightingale’s pain is one of longing, of separation from the beloved (which is usually the rose). The song is therefore a lament. Innumerable poets have seen a reflection of their own yearning in the nightingale’s anguished song. The rose, on the other hand, is self-reflective, almost self-absorbed.

The symmetrical form of the couplet seems to indicate that there is nothing wrong with either of these options; it is as legitimate to be a rose as it is to be a nightingale. Whether one becomes this or that depends largely on one’s temperament, which is at least partly inherent and fixed. Yet, both lines of the couplet are in the imperative case, suggesting not only the possibility of choice but also its inevitability.

Jungians would say that the nightingale stands for extraversion and the rose for introversion. They would also see nothing wrong with either personality type, though each obviously has its limitations. Most Jungians would probably agree that a great deal of one’s propensity to be outward-looking or inward-looking are biologically given, more or less fixed, with only limited possibilities for conscious change.

From a religious viewpoint, being a nightingale amounts to prophetic religiosity that emphasizes practical ethics, and being a rose amounts to mystical religiosity with its stress on contemplative prayer and spiritual experience. A person’s inborn personality traits are obviously relevant to the kind of religiosity that he/she would find most satisfying. Both the prophetic and the mystical kinds of religiosity have existed throughout the recorded history of religion. Who is to say which of the two is superior?

But if nightingale and rose are two ways of being in the world, the issue at stake goes considerably beyond the question of types. In order to be in the world, i.e., in order to practice authentic being, a person has to take into account not only his/her own psychological propensities and subjective preferences but also the external demands of the moment. As we experience and encounter them, the objective demands of the world are never static. Sometimes the world allows and even encourages a person to be a rose; it provides opportunities and incentives for quiet contemplation, silent meditation, introspection, introversion, and self-exploration. At other times, the world is experienced in diametrically opposite ways, when it demands action and struggle directed outwards into the objective reality. At such moments, authentic being can best be practiced by becoming a nightingale. In times like that, self-expression is preferable to contemplation; one must stand up and speak out. To remain a rose when the world demands otherwise is not only to forsake one’s duty, it is also to suffer diminishing in being. One ceases to be real insofar as one ceases to be authentic.

For those individuals who are accustomed to being roses, the call to self-expression naturally provokes great anxiety. One response to such an existential challenge is to find refuge in a false sense of modesty or of self-imposed limitations; another is to accept the call but only half-heartedly, saying yes while insisting on a plethora of ifs and buts in small print. Iqbal’s couplet is a critique of this very reluctance, this avoidance of full commitment, that precludes the actualization of being at the precise moment when it is most likely to bloom into unforeseen beauty. In a state of being neither here nor there, one desperately seeks the comfort of remaining a rose, dreading the risks involved in living the life of a nightingale but also realizeing at some level that one’s very reality is at stake.

There is, then, no middle ground between the silent contemplation of the rose and the loud and daring self-expression of the nightingale. If one lacks the courage to be a nightingale, then Iqbal suggests it is better to remain a rose; there is no point in getting up on to the stage if one is only going to clear one’s throat, make a few practice notes, and then end one’s performance with a whimper.

Be the lament that’s in you, Iqbal says, or don’t sing at all.