Ahmed Afzaal

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.

Freedom and Responsibility

According to a frequently quoted hadith, the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is reported to have said: “actions depend on intentions.”  The subsequent wording of this hadith clarifies that what is being asserted is that the rewards for righteous actions are in direct proportion to the motivating intention behind them.  In the final analysis, the spirit that causes a person to take a given action always trumps over its outward form.  A selfish intention can ruin the most beautiful of gestures, while a pure intention can increase many folds the worth of a humble act.

This raises important questions about human nature.  To give intention such a decisive weight is to require an extraordinary degree of self-observation and inner awareness.  Mindless actions, those performed out of habit or out of the need to fulfill others’ expectations, fall short in terms of their motivating spirit even if their outward form reaches perfection.  Are human beings even capable of such inner vigilance?

Intention also implies the consciousness of having multiple options as well as the ability to make free choices.  Freedom is the measure of our responsibility.  The more freedom we have the more will be our responsibility.  Consequently, if we believe that intentions count, then we are assuming the reality of responsibility as well our ability to choose with some degree of freedom.

Responsibility is the ability to respond with conscious intention.  When we act without conscious intention, we act without freedom.  To act without freedom is to act without responsibility for the action in question.  This does not necessarily mean a complete absence of responsibility, however, for we may still be held responsible for having given up our freedom in the first place.  To act mindlessly is a choice, for it reflects our decision to give up our freedom in the hope of avoiding responsibility.

Yet, the principle holds.  Where there is no freedom there is no responsibility.  A well-known example is the knee-jerk reaction; when the tendon below the kneecap is gently tapped, muscles in the back of the thigh contract and the lower leg abruptly moves forward.  Another example is the constriction of the pupil when a bright light shines on the iris.  In both cases there is no freedom, no choices are consciously made, no question of intention arises, and there is an absence of responsibility.  We cannot be blamed when our pupils constrict in bright light or when our lower leg moves abruptly when the patellar tendon is tapped, nor can we claim any credit for these acts.  Strictly speaking, these are events rather than acts.

How free are we?  This may depend entirely on how free we wish to make ourselves, which depends on how much responsibility we are willing to take upon our shoulders.  A tension arises because we enjoy freedom but not responsibility, yet the two go together.  To say that actions depend on intentions is to say that spirit trumps over matter; our zone of freedom is relatively limited in the world of matter but is potentially unlimited in the world of spirit.  To exercise freedom in spirit is to attend to our intentions; as the zone of freedom is expanded in the realm of intention, who knows how the world of matter will respond?

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.

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