Iqbal’s idea of God was a far cry from the personal God of monotheism. It was shorn of the traditional attributes of creation, omnipotence and omniscience with important practical and ethical consequences for the system of ethics he envisioned and advocated
In a letter to Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum Iqbal wrote, ‘I have spent most of my life in the study of Western Philosophy, and its viewpoints have become second nature for me; intentionally or unintentionally I study the facts of Islam from the same viewpoints (see Khutbat-e-Iqbal by Justice Javed Iqbal).
The entire focus of Iqbal’s work was on articulating the Western philosophical and scientific insights in terms of customary Islamic discourse in order to persuade his Muslim audience that the change, progress and innovation in religious thought were legitimate and consistent with Islamic principles. Iqbal’s thought was informed by Western philosophical perspectives and developments in natural and cognitive sciences in the West in addition to Muslim and Eastern philosophical thought. Iqbal never followed the ideas of another thinker or school of thought passively in their entirety. His mind sought a synthesis and he tried to sound out what he thought was good and relevant from the untenable and outdated ideas of various schools of thought, whether Eastern, Western, Muslim or Indian.
Religion, for Iqbal, was not a finished set of propositions dictated by a deity, mandating total and blind submission to its will. It was an attitude of open and objective empiricism resulting in constant renewal and innovation of its precepts. In the preface of ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’, he wrote:
It must be remembered that there is no such thing as finality in philosophical thinking. As knowledge advances and fresh avenues of thought are opened, other views, and probably sounder views than those set forth in these Lectures, are possible. Our duty is carefully to watch the progress of human thought, and to maintain an independent critical attitude towards it.’
The main objective of Iqbal’s poetry and prose was a constructive critique of traditional Islamic doctrines and jurisprudence which he thought had been static for more than 500 years. His book ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’ a compilation of his lectures, calls for radical reinterpretation of Islamic theology, highlighting that the canonical schools of Islamic thought were based on human interpretations of the Koran and traditions of the Prophet made in the Abassid period. He stressed the need to formulate human laws in keeping with the necessities of modern times through democratically elected legislative assemblies unfettered by the traditions of earlier generations. None of the Islamic doctrines including those pertaining to Prophethood, God, afterlife, destiny or prayer were too sacred for him to reinterpret, a process he called ‘reconstruction’.
Iqbal did not believe in the conventional idea of God of monotheism. He wrote that the ontological view of the creation of the universe that attributed creation to God by an infinite regress with God as the last link in the chain of causation was not plausible and could not withstand the scrutiny of critical thinking. He often used the terms God and Universe synonymously implying that they were practically the same. He described the relationship between God and man on the analogy of ‘whole and part’ and expressed it frequently in his poetry using a wide range of metaphors which included ocean/wave, ocean/pearls, garden/fragrance and Koran/Seepara among others. In Reconstruction he wrote:
Like pearls do we live and move and have our being in the perpetual flow of Divine life. (The Conception Of God And Meaning Of Prayer, Reconstruction).
Iqbal used terms such as Nature, Universe, Truth and Realty interchangeably with the word ‘God’ but imbued them with new meanings rejecting the traditional meanings associated with these words. He also used the terms ‘Ultimate Ego’ and ‘all inclusive Ego’ to express his concept of God which he said was an all inclusive whole comprised by the whole of creation. Each particle of this whole he described as having an Ego or Self; and used the term Finite Ego for human Self.
He was not interested in Divine attributes in orthodox monotheism such as omnipotence, omniscience, immutability, infinity and eternity of God. He redefined these attributes so that they corresponded to the characteristics of the Universe as disclosed by scientific discoveries. He urged his audience to find God within the Self, but rejected the pantheistic idea of immanence of God in mystical traditions (also see Bedil in the Light of Bergson, www.allmaiqbal.com) and the traditional monotheistic idea of a transcendent entity distinct from creation (see The Conception of God and Meaning of Prayer, Reconstruction). He wrote:
‘It is, however, not difficult to see that philosophically speaking the ‘All’ of Pantheism is not more intimate with the individuals it includes and transforms into itself than the God of Monotheism with His creatures. My belief is that pantheistic idea is really a subtle force of decay cloaking itself apparently in the sweet and innocent longing for a greater intimacy with the Divine’. (Bedil in the Light of Bergson)
Iqbal rejected orthodox religious views about the creation of the universe. He did not believe in the personal God of monotheism who dictated laws, revealed His intent in concrete terms and intervened in human affairs. According to Iqbal, God did not exist as a distinct entity outside the universe; instead, He was a Creative Force inherent in the universe that resulted in creation. God, in his view, was organically related to the creation ‘forming the ground’ of created objects. Iqbal wrote:
‘The real question which we are called upon to answer is this: Does the universe confront God as His ‘other’, with space intervening between Him and it? The answer is that, from the Divine point of view, there is no creation in the sense of a specific event having a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. The universe cannot be regarded as an independent reality standing in opposition to Him’. (The Conception of God and Meaning of Prayer, Reconstruction).
Iqbal wrote that Divine knowledge was not the same as human knowledge which was discursive in nature and involved reasoning and analysis. He wrote,
‘From the standpoint of the all-inclusive Ego there is no ‘other’. In Him thought and deed, the act of knowing and the act of creating, are identical….Knowledge, in the sense of discursive knowledge, however infinite, cannot, therefore, be predicated of an ego who knows, and, at the same time, forms the ground of the object known’.
He wrote that Divine knowledge must be conceived as a living creative activity.
‘By conceiving God’s knowledge as a kind of reflecting mirror, we no doubt save His fore-knowledge 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.’
Iqbal argued that God’s infinity did not involve spatial infinity as mere spatial infinity had no significance in matters of spiritual valuation. Infinity, in his view, was a function of the endless potential of creativity inherent in Divinity. He rejected the idea of immutability and eternity of God and elaborated this view by citing from findings of contemporary physics about the nature of the universe according to which the universe was neither static nor spatially infinite but in a constant state of flux and change.
‘Modern science regards Nature not as something static, situated in an infinite void, but a structure of interrelated events out of whose mutual relations arise the concepts of space and time.’ (The Conception of God and Meaning of Prayer, Reconstruction).
Iqbal expressed the same ideas about his concept of God in his poetry. There is a great deal of thematic continuity in Iqbal’s work especially in the work belonging to the later period of his life when his religious thought had matured and taken definite contours. Justice Javed Iqbal in his commentary on Iqbal’s lectures has written that it is useless to try to understand Iqbal’s poetry without understanding his views as described in his prose, ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought In Islam’ (see Khutbat-e-Iqbal by Justice Javed Iqbal).
In Baal-e-Jibreel, Iqbal wrote:
اول و آخر فنا ، باطن و ظاہر فنا
نقش کہن ہو کہ نو ، منزل آخر فنا
ہے مگر اس نقش ميں رنگ ثبات دوام
جس کو کيا ہو کسي مرد خدا نے تمام
‘Destroyed is the first and last, Destroyed is the hidden and manifest.
Whether a pattern is old or new, its ultimate destination is destruction.
But eternal is the pattern that has been perfected by a man of God’.
Awal (First), Aakhir (Last), Zahir (Manifest) and Baatin (Hidden) are Divine names in Islamic theology and are described in the Koran as God’s attributes. The word فنا in this verse literally means annihilation. However, in Sufi terminology the word means self-negation or absorption into the being of the Absolute. Fana implies negation only for the individual; with regard to the Absolute, it is affirmation of His Unity and all-Inclusiveness. Iqbal, however, was not interested in the Sufi concept of فنا or absorption of the Self into the being of the Absolute. He had rejected the concept after having subscribed to it in his youth. He wrote:
‘the idea of annihilation is indeed the vice of all Persian Sufism … which has, for centuries been prevalent in the entire Muslim world, and working as one of the principal factors of its decay.’ (Bedil in the Light of Bergson)
In the verses cited above, Iqbal has employed the opposition of فنا (annihilation) and دوام (eternity) and it is clear that he has used the word Fana in its literal sense. In Iqbal’s view personal immortality is achieved only through unique actions of human beings; God is not a permanent reality but is amenable to change, progression and even annihilation. It is therefore incumbent upon the seeker of Truth to develop purity of vision, freeing it of its inherent biases and preconceived notions, and be ready to accept the findings of the ‘vision’ about Reality which changes each moment...
‘If the heart is living and awake, a discerning eye is endowed gradually. Everything depends upon the situation and place, each moment the sage lives in another time and place.’
دل زندہ و بيدار اگر ہو تو بتدريج
بندے کو عطا کرتے ہيں چشم نگراں اور
احوال و مقامات پہ موقوف ہے سب کچھ
ہر لحظہ ہے سالک کا زماں اور مکاں اور
In the following quartet, Iqbal describes the relationship of God and man. The word Nature is used to symbolize God but it is significant to note that its foundation or the most vital part is constituted by humanity.
تو میگوئی کہ آدم خاکزاد است
اسیر عالم کون و فساد است
ولی فطرت ز اعجازی کہ دارد
بنای بحر بر جویش نہاد است
‘You say that man is made of ordinary clay, bound to this world of being and conflict. But Nature due to his miraculous character, has laid the foundation of Its sea on his stream’.
In another quartet, Iqbal again uses the analogy of ocean and wave, asserting that the ocean (God) is not older than the wave (Creation) thus negating the idea of God as a distinct entity outside the Universe that existed prior to creation and operates on the creation from a distance.
ز آغاز خودی کس را خبر نیست
خودی در حلقۂ شام و سحر نیست
ز خضر این نکتۂ نادر شنیدم
کہ بحر از موج خود دیرینہ تر نیست
Referring to the emergence of Man on earth Iqbal says:
Hazaron Saal Nargis Apni Benuri Pe Roti Hai
Bari Mushkil Se Hota He Chaman Mein Deeda war Paida
‘The Narcissus cries for millennia over its blindness
It is after great travails that someone with sight is born in the garden’
The same idea is expressed in Pyam-e-Mashrik:
ز خاک نرگسستان غنچہ ئی رست
کہ خواب از چشم او شبنم فرو شست
خودی از بیخودے آمد پدیدار
جہان دریافت آخر آنچہ می جست
‘A bud sprang up in the bed of Narcissus, And dew washed sleep out of its eyes.
Thus out of Selflessness did Self arise: The world at last found what it had long sought’. Narcissus in these verses signifies ‘sightlessness’ of pre human creation; the bud, a new flower with eyes, signifies the emergence of humanity.
Since in Iqbal’s view, God is a Totality or ‘Universe’ of which humanity is part, celebration of the emergence of humanity with ‘sight’ denoting vision and insight, after millennia of sightlessness indicates his emphasis on the essential divinity and centrality of humanity in the Universe. This constitutes a significant departure from the idea of God in monotheistic theology in which God is an all-powerful and discrete entity which existed prior to creation, has vision and knowledge, dictates laws and has the power to create and judge humans.
Iqbal had devoted himself to harmonizing religious doctrines with modern scientific and philosophical insights about the nature and working of the universe and evolution of life but he did not profess to be the final authority on this subject. He raised many questions about the nature of God in his lecture ‘The Concept of God and Meaning of Prayer’ without answering all of them. Referring to the Asharite theory of Atomism which sought to explain the nature of God he wrote:
‘Unfortunately, a full discussion of the sources of this purely speculative theory is not possible in this lecture. I propose only to give you some of its more salient features, indicating at the same time the lines on which the work of reconstruction in the light of modern physics ought, in my opinion, to proceed.’
Thus religion for him was essentially a process of discovery both of the natural and social phenomena. It necessitated a state of alertness to the changing Reality of the world and continually tapping into new domains of knowledge. Ishk (passion/love) was one of the major themes of Iqbal’s poetry. He used the term in the sense of compassion as well as passion for intellectual discovery about the Ultimate Reality. The attack on akl or reason in his poetry is not in fact a rejection of rationality but a rejection of speculative reasoning of Rationalist philosophers of pre enlightenment era whose influence is visible today, as it was in his time, in conventional monotheistic theology.
Similarly the critique of ‘objectivity’ was a critique of objectivity of ‘pure thought’ detached from insights revealed through experience, not a criticism of objective thinking and empiricism. It was, on the contrary, an advocacy of empiricism and rejection of fixed notions about the nature of the world as well as of attempts to seek metaphysical justifications for a religious world-view with the traditional idea of God a part of it. Another objection was targeted at ‘pure reason’ that was divorced from compassion and regard for humanitarian values. Ishk in his poetry thus signifies an attitude of openness to truth and reality and involves the passion to report whatever the eye beholds truthfully regardless of what religious traditions or dogmas teach.
Continuing his discussion on Asharite atomism and atomic theories of modern physics Iqbal wrote:
‘It may, however, be asked whether atomicity has a real seat in the creative energy of God, or presents itself to us as such only because of our finite mode of apprehension. From a purely scientific point of view I cannot say what the final answer to this question will be. From the psychological point of view one thing appears to me to be certain. Only that is, strictly speaking, real which is directly conscious of its own reality. The degree of reality varies with the degree of the feeling of egohood. The nature of the ego is such that, in spite of its capacity to respond to other egos, it is self-centred and possesses a private circuit of individuality excluding all egos other than itself. In this alone consists its reality as an ego. Man, therefore, in whom egohood has reached its relative perfection, occupies a genuine place in the heart of Divine creative energy, and thus possesses a much higher degree of reality than things around him’
In light of the passages cited in this article and scores of verses throughout his poetry it is clear that Iqbal conceived God as a whole of which humanity was a part. And it is evident that in the preceding passage Iqbal has conceived God as Cosmos or Nature each particle of which has a self or ego. And since humanity has the most developed ‘ego’ among all other ‘egos’, Man is the quintessential Reality of the Universe.
There are many religious traditions that talk about the immanence of God, but immanence has different forms in mystical traditions and is often coupled with some kind of transcendence. Moreover, the idea of an immanent God retains God’s distinct personality and attributes conceived by monotheism. In Iqbal’s thought God is neither immanent nor transcendent but is the soul of the universe. It has the same relationship to the universe as the spirit has to the body and for all practical purposes is Universe; and humanity for all practical purposes is divinity as it is the most developed form of life in the Universe. It should be noted that ‘spirit’ for him did not signify a supernatural substance that existed independently of body and survived its death. It was character and personality that was developed by the individual, capable of achieving ‘immortality’ or a lasting impact only through personal efforts and actions of the individual. Iqbal did not believe in resurrection of bodies after death and considered it an established biological fact. (see Makatib-e-Iqbal, compiled: Sheikh Ata Ullah).
Throughout Iqbal’s Urdu and Persian poetry there are references to the emptiness of the world until the emergence of the humanity. In the following verses he urges Man to step boldly in the cosmos as there is no one there except him.
ضمیر ین فکان غیر از تو کس نیست
نشان بی نشان غیر از تو کس نیست
قدم بیباک تر نہ در رہ زیست
بہ پہنای جہان غیر از تو کس نیست
You are the meaning of the word "Be",
The only guidepost in the world’s mystery
Tread on life’s path more intrepidly
There is no one but you in this vast world
In the poem, The Message of the Star, the star claims that it is not scared of the darkness of the space as it is pure and luminous in its essence. It advises Man to burnish his Self and create his own light to travel in the dark of the night.
ڈرا نہيں سکتي فضا کي تاريکي مجھے
سرشت ميں ہے پاکي و درخشاني مري
اے مسافر شب! خود چراغ بن اپنا تو
اپني رات کو داغ جگر سے نوراني کر
If God was a totality of which creation was part and humanity the most advanced among the creation with a sophisticated and complex consciousness, Divinity essentially resided in humanity. Thus even though there is a conception of God in Iqbal’s work, his philosophy is not theistic in its practical implications.
The pruned and modified idea of God in Iqbal’s ideology not only fits with the scientific insights about the nature of the universe, it has important repercussions for the system of social morality that he advocated. It implies an empowering of human will, calling upon humanity to look for the sources of law within its own consciousness instead of perpetual recourse to a perceived celestial authority. Secondly, it calls for a system of ethics based upon oneness, equality and solidarity of humanity abolishing the differences of race, color, creed or language. Iqbal wrote that the process of creating a code of conduct for the individual and society was called Shariat and to find the source of laws for this purpose within the human consciousness was called Tarikat. (see Makatib-e-Iqbal, compiled by Sheikh Ata-Ullah). This in nutshell was his philosophy of Khudi or Self. Self was independent and free, a part of which God was whole but the most central, pivotal, powerful and alive part of Divinity and thus responsible for creating, moulding and shaping his/her own destiny.
On the one hand we see Iqbal anxious to prune supernatural elements of religious beliefs and to integrate religion with scientific findings about the creation and working of the universe, but on the other hand we see him vehemently retain an idea of God and attribute to him will, power and rationality. In spite of his rejection of anthropomorphic concepts of God, we do see him describe God as he thought He was a person. Was Iqbal dabbling in theosophy or was he confused and self-contradictory or anxious to please all shades of opinion whether religious and conservative or westernized and liberal? Or alternatively, was he employing a psychologically appealing legend as a vehicle for his philosophical and moral ideas, making use of his mastery of verbal skills and immense powers of suggestion, nuance and imagination as a poet and philosopher? A careful reading of ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’ points to the latter possibility.
Iqbal has described at length the mythological roots of the legend of ‘Fall’ mentioned in the Koran, in his lecture ‘The Conception of God and Meaning of Prayer’ which indicates that he was fully cognizant of the Assyrian and Babylonian roots of the Biblical and Koranic creation myths. It is evident that he not only saw religions as products of human cultures, but to some extent made use of ‘legend’ on the pattern of scriptural mythology deliberately, making in the process imaginative and poetic expressions of simple ideas about scientific realities of the Universe, at the same time expressing his moral insights. Explaining the legend of the ‘Fall’ he wrote:
‘But the clue to a better understanding of our difficulty is given in the legend relating to what is called the Fall of Man. In this legend the Quran partly retains the ancient symbols, but the legend is materially transformed with a view to put an entirely fresh meaning into it. The Quranic method of complete or partial transformation of legends in order to besoul them with new ideas, and thus to adapt them to the advancing spirit of time, is an important point which has nearly always been overlooked both by Muslim and non-Muslim students of Islam. The object of the Quran in dealing with these legends is seldom historical; it nearly always aims at giving them a universal moral or philosophical import. And it achieves this object by omitting the names of persons and localities which tend to limit the meaning of a legend by giving it the colour of a specific historical event, and also by deleting details which appear to belong to a different order of feeling. This is not an uncommon method of dealing with legends. It is common in non-religious literature. An instance in point is the legend of Faust, to which the touch of Goethe’s genius has given a wholly new meaning. (The Conception of God and Meaning of Prayer)
Iqbal mentioned the word ‘Creator’ in his article about God in Reconstruction, and seems to attribute will to it calling it a ‘Rational Directive Will’. But he appears to have conceived God as a collective consciousness with a cultural continuity with the past heritage of humanity imparting to it ‘eternity’, ‘life’ and ‘will’, the essential attributes of God in orthodox monotheism. He took advantage of his immense self-confidence as a prestigious literary and academic figure and employed poetic symbolism to express his unorthodox religious ideas. Besides, he was often the target of ‘fatwas’ charging him with heresy. Poetic vagueness and philosophical obscurity shielded him from adverse clerical opinion of his time.
Iqbal’s idea of God was a far cry from the personal God of monotheism. It was shorn of the traditional attributes of creation, omnipotence and omniscience with important practical and ethical consequences for the system of ethics he envisioned and advocated. In Javid Nama, in the words of the Indian poet Bhartari Hari, Iqbal declared that the world was not under the influence of God urging his audience to revere the law of cause and effect and focus on action:
این خدایان تنک مایہ ز سنگ اند و ز خشت
برتری ہست کہ دور است ز دیر و ز کنشت
سجدہ بی ذوق عمل خشک و بجائی نرسد
زندگانی ہمہ کردار ، چہ زیبا و چہ زشت
فاش گویم بتو حرفی کہ نداند ہمہ کس
ای خوش آن بندہ کہ بر لوح دل او را بنوشت
این جھانی کہ تو بینی اثر یزدان نیست
چرخہ از تست و ہم آن رشتہ کہ بر دوک تو رشت
پیش آئین مکافات عمل سجدہ گزار
زانکہ خیزد ز عمل دوزخ و اعراف و بہشت
He says, ‘These poor Gods are made of stones and bricks; There is a superior Being away from the Temple and Sanctuary. Prostration without the inclination to act is dry and does not reach its goal; Life is all character, be it fair or evil. I’ll tell you clearly what no one else knows: Happy is he who engraves it on his heart. The world that you see is not under God’s influence; The spinning wheel is yours, and so is the thread woven at your spindle. Bow down to the charter of the consequences of action; Since it is from action that Hell, Purgatory and Heaven arise.’
(Translation of verses by Bhartari Hari, Javid Nama)
For Iqbal creation WAS Godhead for all practical purposes, and since humanity was the best among the creations, human will was God’s will if sufficiently developed and refined. Individual freedom, ability, insight and creativity were vital for the dynamism, growth and progress of human cultures. But for legal purposes at the societal level individual human insights had to conform to the collective will determined through consensus arrived at through democratic means.
‘The teaching of the Quran that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems. ‘
‘The growth of republican spirit and the gradual formation of legislative assemblies in Muslim lands constitute a great step in advance. The transfer of the power of Ijtihad from individual representatives of schools to a Muslim legislative assembly which, in view of the growth of opposing sects, is the only possible form Ijma‘ can take in modern times, will secure contributions to legal discussion from laymen who happen to possess a keen insight into affairs.’ (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam)
Although Iqbal retained a modified concept of God in his philosophy, he did not subscribe to supernatural views about religion. While discussing his views about prophethood, destiny, prayer, soul and after life he made frequent references to biology, physics, mathematics, religious psychology, history and anthropology. He had fully accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution, and attributed articulation of preliminary ideas about evolution to Muslim scientists, Ibn-Miskaweh and Jahiz. The view tracing the theory of evolution to Muslim scientists is controversial today. Iqbal did not use it to give more credit to Muslim scientists for scientific discoveries than they deserved but to persuade the Muslims to benefit from the Western sciences and be prepared once again to be at the vanguard of scientific learning as they had been in the past.
Iqbal believed that in light of Islamic principles there was no distinction between sacred and secular. Any human activity that was connected with and informed by the complexity of life was sacred, and mundane if removed from it. He did not believe in the separation of religion and politics but attempted secularization of religion itself. And it was a demythologized religion that he wanted to bring into the arena of politics as in his view political power was essential to implement and enforce any kind of social and ethical agenda. Religious ethics and theology in the hands of private clergy, he believed, were likely to stagnate and atrophy by becoming detached from the mainstream of national consensual politics. His project of secularization of religion was a tall order, no doubt, but not without value if judged on its own merit regardless of the difficulties of its implementations.
Iqbal’s flirtation with theosophy in ‘Reconstruction’ can be understood in light of what he wrote about Mirza Bedil. The comment partly applies to his own style which is characterized by ‘imaginative expression’ though informed by astute logical thinking. Giving a critical analysis of Bedil’s thought he wrote:
‘I think the reader will agree with me when I say that a system of metaphysics worked out in detail cannot be expected from a man whose immediate interest is poetry rather than philosophy. But when we study Bedil’s poems carefully we cannot fail to recognize that although his love of imaginative expression makes him impatient of logical analysis, he is fully conscious of the seriousness of his philosophical task’ (Bedil in the Light of Bergson).
Khutbat-e-Iqbal by Justice Javed Iqbal
Makatib-e-Iqbal, compiled by Sheikh Ata Ullah
Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Allama Iqbal
Baal-e-jibreel, Allama Iqbal
Pyam-e-Mashrik, Allama Iqbal
Javid Nama, Allama Iqbal
Bedil in the Light of Bergson, Allama Iqbal