Posts Tagged ‘Love’

In the previous post, I briefly discussed the contemporary meaning of the word belief. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith notes, the modern sense of believing essentially involves “the holding of certain ideas” in one’s mind. Furthermore, Smith shows that the modern usage of the word believing assumes and implies that it is some thing very different from what is normally called knowing.
According to Smith:
Modern “believing” . . . is placed in relation to, contra-distinction from, knowing. Let us consider this briefly, for everyday usage. For the man in the street, may we not say that knowledge involves two things: (a) certitude, and (b) correctness, in what one knows. To use quite unsophisticated terms, in ordinary parlance one knows whatever one knows when there is a close positive relation of one’s ideas both to the inner conviction and to objective truth. At this same level . . . there is the common-sense notion of believing. This is similar to knowing in that it is thought of as conceptualist, as in the realm of ideas in one’s mind (even, of propositions). It differs from knowing in that it involves one or other of again two things, and perhaps both: (a) lack of certitude; (b) open neutrality as to the correctness or otherwise of what is believed. (p. 35)

Notice that Smith is not presenting a philosophical analysis of the metaphysics of belief and knowledge. He is, on the contrary, telling us how these words are actually used by contemporary English speakers.

We can appreciate Smith’s insight by performing a simple exercise. Take any proposition and add the phrase “I believe” at the beginning; then say the sentences out loud and notice how the meaning changes. For instance: “Today is November 6” is a simple proposition, but “I believe today is November 6” contains rather significant elements of uncertainty on the part of the speaker, an acknowledgement of the possibility of error, and an openness to alternative possibilities. The first sentence is an expression of knowledge; one is saying what one knows to be true. The second sentence is an expression of belief; one is saying what one believes to be true. Even though the first sentence does not actually begin with “I know,” this phrase is tacitly implied due to the very straightforward and matter-of-fact structure of the sentence. When I am completely sure about something, I just say it without any qualifications; but when I am not completely sure, I qualify my proposition with “I believe.”

But what is Smith’s larger point? What is the purpose of all this linguistic hairsplitting? As suggested earlier, the modern meaning of belief is in sharp contrast to its premodern meaning. Smith wants us to appreciate how a disregard for this difference has contributed to a serious misunderstanding of the nature of religion and religious life.

Consider the question “Do you believe in God?” Given that the modern sense of the word “believe” involves the holding of certain ideas in one’s mind, the question seems to suggest the following sense: “Do you hold the idea of God in your mind?” Or, alternatively, “Do you think there is a God?” Either way, since belief is understood as a habit of thought, believing in God appears to be a matter of keeping a particular thought in one’s mind, viz., the idea that God exists.

Consider now the premodern meaning of belief. The word belief is derived from a West Germanic root which meant keeping something or someone in high esteem, to hold dear, to love. In effect, “to believe” used to mean “to belove.” The verb “belove” is now obsolete in the English language, having been replaced by “love,” though the past participle “beloved” is still in use. Simply put, the word belief originally meant love or endearment.

Notice the difference this makes. Today, believing is seen as a matter of having a particular thought, which is a mental activity. Before the seventeenth century, believing was understood as a matter of having a relationship, which is the activity of the whole person as well as a person’s state of being. In the premodern period, therefore, the question “Do you believe in God?” would have meant something like “Do you love God?” Or, alternatively, “Do you live a life of devotion and service to God?” The contrast between the two meanings is hardly trivial.

With this background, we can also appreciate that while the modern usage of the word belief suggests a significant distinction between believing and knowing, this was not the case in the premodern period. Since belief was understood in terms of love and loyalty, the issue of the existence or non-existence of God was irrelevant to the notion of belief. This is because the question “Do you love God?” has nothing to do with whether or not God actually exists; to ask about one’s relationship with God already presupposes God’s reality.

The shift from the premodern to the modern meaning of the word belief did not occur overnight; instead, it took place very gradually over a couple of centuries. But now that it has occurred, we can appreciate the rather stark difference between the two meanings by putting them together side by side. Smith writes:

The long-range transformation may be characterized perhaps most dramatically thus. There was a time when “I believe” as a ceremonial declaration of faith meant, and was heard as meaning: “Given the reality of God, as a fact of the universe, I hereby proclaim that I align my life accordingly, pledging love and loyalty.” A statement about a person’s believing has now come to mean, rather, something of this sort: “Given the uncertainty of God, as a fact of modern life, so-and-so reports that the idea of God is part of the furniture of his mind.”

In light of this quote, the main distinctions between the premodern and the modern meanings of the word belief (in relation to God) can be summed up as follows: (1) In the premodern period, the reality of God was accepted as self-evident; it was a presupposition that most people took for granted and never questioned. (2) In the modern period, it is no longer possible for most people to accept the reality of God as a self-evident fact; instead, it has become an open question that is to be argued about, contested, and debated.

In effect, belief no longer means love, loyalty, devotion, and service; instead, it simply means a thought in the head, especially a thought about which one is not entirely sure.

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Finally, Iqbal turns to practical ethics.  We have already seen that the summum bonum for Iqbal is the integrity of khudi.  There is nothing more important than strengthening the ego, which is precisely what allows it to achieve genuine freedom as well as immortality. Moral virtues and vices are to be distinguished on the standard of whether they support and fortify the ego or whether they cause it to dissolve and disintegrate.  On that standard, the highest moral virtue is love, and the worst possible vice is begging.

The Ego is fortified by love (ishq).  This word is used in a very wide sense and means the desire to assimilate, to absorb.  Its highest form is the creation of values and ideals and the endeavour to realise them.  Love individualises the lover as well as the beloved.  The effort to realise the most unique individuality individualises the seeker and implies the individuality of the sought, for nothing else would satisfy the nature of the seeker.  As love fortifies the Ego, asking (su’al) weakens it.  All that is achieved without personal effort comes under su’al.  The son of a rich man who inherits his father’s wealth is an ‘asker’ (beggar); so is every one who thinks the thoughts of others.  Thus, in order to fortify the Ego we should cultivate love, i.e. the power of assimilative action, and avoid all forms of ‘asking’, i.e. inaction.  The lesson of assimilative action is given by the life of the Prophet, at least to a Muhammadan.

Iqbal’s conception of love is rather unusual, to say the least, for he seems to turn the Western understanding of love on its head.  In the Greek and Christian traditions, love generally involves some form of “giving.”  For Iqbal, on the other hand, love is first and foremost an act of “taking,” i.e., the assimilation of the beloved into the lover.  Yet, it is apparently a win/win situation, for the act of love bestows individuality upon both the lover and the beloved.

According to Iqbal’s brief description, love seems to go through three stages.  In the first stage, the lover “creates” a beloved, i.e., they choose an object to love.  The beloved is usually an idealized value, such as beauty, power, generosity, and life; or it may be a person, in whom the desired value is perceived to be present to such an extent that the difference between the essence and the attribute becomes irrelevant for the lover.

In the second stage, the lover ardently desire and actively seek the beloved, i.e., they seek a state of union with the beloved.  This union can take one of two forms.  In the first scenario, the lover wishes to lose themselves in the beloved; they imagine themselves as unreal and unworthy in the presence of the beloved, and so they aim at achieving a state in which only the beloved remains.  This scenario may be imagined as a simple equation, i.e., 1 + 1 = 1.  Such a union is typically described in terms of a drop of water that merges with, and disappears into, the boundless ocean.  As we have seen, Iqbal has nothing but disapproval for this kind of union, even if–or, rather, particularly if–the beloved happens to be God.  The kind of union that he approves, on the other hand, is the one in which the lover maintains their personality and unique identity, guarding the integrity of their khudi with all their might; instead of aiming at merging with the beloved, they aim at absorbing the beloved within their own being.

In the third stage, the lover succeed in actually assimilating the idealized value within themselves.  Clearly, at this stage neither the lover nor the beloved remains exactly as they were before the union.  Love changes both.  If this is the case of a human being seeking to absorb divine attributes within herself or himself, both the individual and God are transformed as a result of this encounter.  Specifically, they both become even more uniquely themselves.  I doubt if this can be mathematically represented!

Let’s read Iqbal’s words once again:

The effort to realise the most unique individuality individualises the seeker and implies the individuality of the sought, for nothing else would satisfy the nature of the seeker.

Iqbal seems to be saying that the seeker, in this case a human being, is motivated in his or her love by a natural inclination, an innate desire of sorts.  This natural inclination, moreover, is neither vague nor generic; it is aimed at finding and assimilating a very particular beloved, though it is not very good at identifying that beloved without going through a series of trial-and-errors.  The beloved that all of us are programmed to seek is a reflection of our own self, or, to be accurate, we are a reflection of the beloved that we are seeking to absorb.  It is the finite ego that is desperately seeking the infinite ego, for nothing else would satisfy its yearning for a beloved.  Since we value nothing more than our own uniqueness and individuality, we cannot be satisfied by a beloved who is anything less than absolutely unique.  All efforts at finding that one perfect beloved must end in disappointment and disillusionment; unless, of course, we are able to figure out exactly who it is that we truly need to love.  Heartbreaks are good for the soul, because they are like the rungs of a ladder.  The more we love and fail, the better will be our chances of finding the beloved who is worthy of our love, one who does not disappoint.

If love is the highest virtue, begging is the worst sin–it is the deadliest poison for khudi.  In Iqbal’s mind, the word su’al stands not for an act but for an attitude.  There is nothing wrong in “asking” in the ordinary sense of the word.  If I am at a dinner table and need some salt, my act of “asking” someone to pass the salt shaker does not constitute an attitude of begging.  For Iqbal, the real problem arises when an individual or community becomes habitually dependent on something outside of itself in a vitally important matter, and particularly when that dependence leads into, or encourages, a lack of action and struggle.  Laziness of any kind is problematic because it prevents the full flowering of khudi and precludes its attainment of freedom.

A particularly degrading form of begging is to “think the thoughts of others.”  Again, we need not take Iqbal’s words in too literal a sense; he is not making the impossible demand that we should never agree with anyone else.  His point, rather, is this:  As both individuals and communities, we must guard ourselves against intellectual laziness; we must never relax or suspend our capacities for careful observation, disciplined reasoning, and critical thought.  Nor should we mindlessly repeat what we have heard from our teachers, until we have confirmed it within ourselves and thereby made it our own.  To “think the thoughts of others” is to become passive recipients of ideas coming from whoever happens to be in power; it is to accept uncritically everything that the Big Brother chooses to tell us; it is to believe all that we watch on television and all that we read in newspapers.  Intellectual laziness is only a couple of steps away from a full-fledged  enslavement at the hands of whoever is thinking original thoughts.

The same truth applies with particular force in the realm of economics.  Interdependence among individuals and nations is an obvious necessity, but a one-sided dependence weakens one’s khudi to the point of its eventual subjugation and loss of freedom.  It is notoriously difficult to criticize the person or institution who pays my salary, and it is virtually impossible to challenge a superpower’s actions if we cannot survive without its charitable donations.   A life of such humiliating dependence would not be worth living.  We can safely assume that, for Iqbal, the preservation of khudi takes precedence over the enjoyment of luxuries, but it is important to recognize that it also takes precedence over physical well-being and even biological survival.  As Jesus famously said, “Whoever tries to save his life shall lose it, and whoever loses his life shall save it” (Luke 17:33).  It is better to go hungry than to enjoy a food that takes away the ego’s vitality, even if it nourishes the physical body.  Sometimes it is the death of the body that brings life to the spirit.

Finally, notice the last sentence of the passage quoted above.

The lesson of assimilative action is given by the life of the Prophet, at least to a Muhammadan.

One can discern in this sentence the universalism of Iqbal’s message, and, by extension, the universalism that is inherent in his primary source, viz., the Qur’an.  Iqbal does not believe that his message is intended only for Muslims, or that his teachings have no relevance or application for those born outside of the Islamic faith.  His message, just like that of the Qur’an, is addressed to human beings.  As a Muslim himself, however, Iqbal probably believes that the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) offers the best possible model of how one should love.  But he also recognizes that non-Muslims may not be able to use this particular model in their own lives, and, for this reason, they may have to look within their own religious traditions in order to find an exemplary life that could act as a model for them.

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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

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