Ahmed Afzaal

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.

Be Suspicious . . . be Very Suspicious

August 14:  Pakistan’s independence day.  August 15:  India’s independence day.  Technically, the moment of freedom is supposed to have arrived at the stroke of midnight, and so the choice of these dates was largely arbitrary.  What was probably a more important consideration on both sides of the border was to avoid the embarrassing situation of having to celebrate the independence day on the same date.

Sixty years later, we have two rival nation-states with massive military expenditures, nuclear weapons, a history of violent conflicts, widespread poverty, internal political repression, and an inability to solve regional problems in the spirit of cooperation and justice.

This scenario is probably “normal” for most of the world’s postcolonial nations.  Regrettable, but not entirely unusual.  What is puzzling, however, is the wide gulf that separates this state of affairs from the imperatives of the intellectual and spiritual legacy that is proudly claimed by Indians and Pakistanis. The puzzle is not that poverty, violence, repression, and mutual hatred exists in this region; the puzzle is that these evils exists while Mohandas K. Gandhi is celebrated as a national hero by the Indians and Muhammad Iqbal is revered with a similar devotion by Pakistanis.  Even though these two rarely agreed with each other on political issues, both were acutely aware of the dangers of dividing human beings along the lines of caste, creed, race, color, and ethnicity; both saw very clearly that narrow forms of nationalism were as bad for South Asia as they had been for Europe; both recognized that human beings had more in common with each other than what seems to divide them; and both envisioned a future where all human beings could realize their full spiritual potential unfettered by the obstacles created by ignorance, prejudice, selfishness, hatred, anger, and greed.

Pakistanis rightly claim Iqbal as the spiritual father or ideologue of their nation, as well as a major thinker in modern Islam; across the border, Indians are equally correct in recognizing Gandhi as one of the most important spiritual and political figures of the twentieth-century.  What seems to have been forgotten, however, is that both Iqbal and Gandhi were utterly dedicated to the pursuit of truth, that neither of them would have hesitated from taking his own community to task for its misdeeds, that both of them would have immediately recognized positive and desirable traits in the other’s community, and that neither of them would have ever cared about what he might lose by speaking the truth.  Today, if they were to return to visit the nations that revere and celebrate them as almost super-human figures, neither Iqbal nor Gandhi is likely to find too many reasons to feel cheerful.  Both would be disgusted and appalled by the toxic forms of pseudo-patriotism that have gripped both Indians and Pakistanis.

I venture to guess that both Iqbal and Gandhi, if they were to come and visit us today from the other side of death, would find themselves in far greater agreement with each other than with the followers of shallow nationalism from both sides of the border.  They will immediately recognize that much of what goes under the banner of Indian or Pakistani nationalism is the trickery of the rich and powerful, created only to decive and subjugate the poor and powerless.  The old colonial game between the rulers and the natives is still being played, with the main difference that the advertised aim is not so much to civilize the natives as to spark their love of motherland which is, after all, in their own best interest.  The real aim of the game, not surprisingly, has remained unchanged, i.e., divide and conquer.

I think both Iqbal and Gandhi would also find themselves in agreement with the following assessment by Arundathi Roy.  She speaks as an Indian, but her words are equally applicable to the neighboring Muslim nation.

In India, those of us who have expressed views on Nuclear Bombs, Big Dams, Corporate Globalization and the rising threat of communal Hindu fascism – views that are at variance with the Indian Government’s – are branded “anti-national.”  While this accusation doesn’t fill me with indignation, it’s not an accurate description of what I do or how I think.  Because an “anti-national” is a person who is against his or her own nation and, by inference, is pro some other one.  But it isn’t necessary to be “anti-national” to be deeply suspicious of all nationalism, to be anti-nationalism.  Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century.  Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.

What if Iqbal and Gandhi could deliver one last message before returning to their eternal abode?  I can imagine Iqbal addressing his admirers in Pakistan, and Gandhi advising his devotees in India, saying “If you find yourselves getting divided into ever smaller groups, find out who is benefiting.”

%d bloggers like this: