Ahmed Afzaal

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.

Do Angels Read Newspapers?

And [recall] when your Lord said to the angels:
“I am going to place a viceroy in the earth.”
They said, “Will you place in it someone
who will wreak corruption in it
and shed blood?
While we glorify you with praise
and declare you holy?”
He said: “I know what you do not know.”

(Qur’an 2:31)

So begins one of the many Qur’anic narratives depicting the creation of humanity. This particular narrative has received a great deal of attention, partly because it appears so early in the canonical text. Needless to say, the story is full of intriguing details and nuances that continue to puzzle and fascinate thoughtful readers. Consider, for example, that the angels dared to disagree with God. They seem both surprised and a little disappointed. A viceroy in earth? A vicegerent? Someone who will be your representative? We can almost see the angels rolling their eyes heavenwards. Why create a new being at all? Why not elevate us to that rank? Don’t you see us glorifying you and praising you all the time? Don’t you recognize our sincere worship and unquestioned service? What more do you need from a creature? And this whole idea of a representative sounds rather dangerous, to say the least. A representative means that the creature will share some of your power and authority, and as everyone knows power tends to corrupt. This new creature of yours, this viceroy or vicegerent that you are planning to place in the earth, is sure to abuse the power that you are going to delegate, wreak mischief and corruption on your earth, and cause lots of bloodshed. Are you sure you want to go ahead with this plan? Are you absolutely, positively sure that you wish to take such a huge risk?

There is a lot more to this narrative than what has been quoted above. On the essential point mentioned in this quote, however, the Qur’anic narrative seems to lack a final conclusion; there appears to be no definite and satisfactory ending to the story. We should remember that the narrative lacks a satisfactory ending primarily because it has not finished yet. It seems that the Qur’an only introduced the beginning of the epic precisely because most of the story is still being played out on the stage of history. Like God and the angels, we too are characters in this story, and since we are still here on earth it is obvious that our ongoing story is open to multiple endings. The conclusion is not entirely fixed, which is precisely what makes this story so interesting.  We all have a stake in how it ends.

God, indeed, seems to have taken a major risk, despite the humble suggestion of the angels to the contrary; God went ahead with his plan by creating the human race and giving it some of his own power and freedom. The results of this experiment so far can only be described as mixed, with a preponderance of the negative. Anyone who has any inkling of the history of humankind as it has unfolded so far, from the neolithic revolution to the present, can hardly fail to appreciate the incisive comments made by the angels. And remember that when angels made these comments they did not have the advantage of daily newspapers with reports of widespread human mischief, crimes, corruption in high places and low, rapes, thefts, murders, child molestation, genocides, wars, torture, and terror. In retrospect, then, it is clear that the angels did have a point.

Notice also that God did not disagree with the point raised by the angels. God did not say that the proposed vicegerent will not cause mischief on earth, will not wreak corruption, will not cause bloodshed. Instead, God seems to be saying that, yes, I recognize your point; the vicegerent I am about to place in the earth does represent a risky experiment because power does tend to corrupt and so this creature is almost definitely going to indulge in corruption and murder and mayhem. Yet, having taken this almost certain but undesirable consequence into account, I am still confident of the desirability of the final outcome because “I know what you do not know.”

Why did God take this immense risk of creating a vicegerent on earth? What is a vicegerent anyway? One way to approach this issue is in terms of freedom. God has created humankind as moral beings, i.e., creatures who are capable of moral reflection, of distinguishing between good and evil, and of freely choosing from among different options. God’s challenge is for the human individual to develop his/her moral faculties, to struggle against temptations, and to discipline oneself in order to choose the most righteous and most just of all available options. Without such a struggle, the full realization of human potential is not possible. Yet, to create conditions in which such a struggle can optimally proceed has definite undesirable effects too. Corruption and violence are the necessary, though unfortunate, side-effects of such an experiment in moral freedom. Our world is indeed the “best of all possible worlds,” but only if we take into account God’s ultimate purpose in creating a vicegerent on the earth.

This is what Iqbal has to say in chapter four of his Reconstruction on this issue:

A being whose movements are wholly determined like a machine cannot produce goodness. Freedom is thus a condition of goodness. But to permit the emergence of a finite ego who has the power to choose, after considering the relative values of several courses of action open to him, is really to take a great risk; for the freedom to choose good involves also the freedom to choose what is the opposite of good. That God has taken this risk shows His immense faith in man; it is for man now to justify this faith.

Yes, there is corruption and violence in the world —just as the angels had predicted—but this is hardly the end of the story. Despite the daily newspaper reports about the depraved state of humanity, God continues to be an optimist. The mere fact that humankind is still around is a sign of God’s unshakable confidence that his vicegerents will overcome all obstacles.

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