‘Being is becoming’: Iqbal on metaphysics

November 15, 2020

On the celebration of his 143rd birthday, one might be inclined to believe that Iqbal is a relic of the past, but perhaps he is more relevant to the present times than one might initially be led to believe

“This world: […] an ocean of forces storming and flooding within themselves, eternally changing, eternally rushing back, with tremendous years of recurrence […] a becoming that knows no satiety, no surfeit, no fatigue…”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

RA Nicholson, the professor of Persian at the University of Cambridge and one of Allama Iqbal’s teachers, said of his student, “he is a man of his age and a man in advance of his age. He is also a man in disagreement with his age.” A man in advance of his age – quite a popular epithet for the poet, but I often catch myself thinking – is it a claim that is substantiated beyond its usefulness as nationalistic propaganda? The question then comes to mind – what is the nature of this disagreement that Nicholson speaks of that makes Iqbal a man in advance of his age?

I am willing to gamble on this, but the disagreement that might come to many minds is his disagreement with the British Raj. After all, one is speaking of the great Iqbal here, the “poet of the Nation’, the “father of the two-nation theory”, the “thinker behind the politician (Jinnah)”, that is what we are made to know of Iqbal. With a primitive shrewdness, the kind that is inept at camouflage, possibly one of the greatest thinkers to emerge out of the subcontinent over the past century has been reduced to a mere caricature of himself in the eight decades since he departed this world. Here one could be inclined to ask, “This polemic is all well and good, but what is this disagreement that Nicholson speaks of?” For this, we must go back to Iqbal’s theory and its roots and analyse which disagreements with his age made him a thinker for the next. For the purposes of this article, I would like to focus primarily on his seminars in Madras, Hyderabad and Aligarh in the 1930s titled The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.

Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher, perhaps one of the most influential in and outside of the discipline of philosophy, self-titled the “Anti-Christ”, was arguably the strongest non-Muslim influence on Iqbal’s philosophy. Nietzsche, as these things occasionally happen in the realm of knowledge, unravelled and restrung the very core of moral philosophy in the twilight of the 19th Century – the ‘idol-smasher’, the mad man to whom Iqbal compared the great sufi mystic Hallaj. The German’s influence in Iqbal is felt strongly throughout his work, evident in the imagery evoked in Asrar-i-Khudi, in his concept of the Perfect Man, despite his insistent disagreements with Nietzsche’s ‘atheism’, amongst other contentions. On the relevance of Nietzsche to him, Riffat Hasan, a famed theologian and scholar on Iqbal, has suggested it merited a full-fledged study into the matter, such is the significance of the former to the latter.

The core of Iqbalian philosophy is primarily an attempt to deal with the problem of religious belief after Nietzsche, i.e. an antidote to the ‘death of God’. Quite a monumental task, as EM Forster said in a review on Iqbal’s first book of philosophical poetry, Asrar-i-Khudi: to make Nietzsche believe in God is no light matter, nor is it a small claim. Iqbal says, “My friends often ask me, ‘Do you believe in the existence of God?’ [… They] ought to explain to me what they mean by ‘believe’, ‘existence’ and ‘God’, especially by the last two, if they want an answer to their question. I confess I do not understand these terms, and whenever I cross-examine them I find that they do not understand them either.”

For the past three centuries, beginning with modernity in the West, one who seeks coherence between his beliefs and the findings in the scientific domain may find it increasingly difficult to juxtapose these with an orthodox, creationist belief in God. If you are amongst those who are inclined to feel this way, you might be glad to find Iqbal at your side. On the contrary, if you do not find solace within the materialism of modernity instead seeking meaning in spirituality, then too, will you find Iqbal at your side. As great thinkers often do, Iqbal finds a truth in two conflicting phenomena, this will become more indicative further on. He says: “Modern man with his philosophies of criticism and scientific specialism finds himself in a strange predicament. His Naturalism has given him unprecedented control over the forces of Nature, but has robbed him of faith in his own future.” His critique goes even further, for him modern man is “entirely cut off from the unplumbed depths of his own being”, leading to a “ruthless egoism”, an “infinite gold-hunger” and “life-weariness”.

Hence, in investing in this project of Reconstruction, Iqbal took upon him, perhaps the most monumental task which plagued not only the Indian Muslim but the Muslim individual at large. The stated aim of Iqbal’s landmark work was to remove the “crust [which] has grown over Islam” through the sophistication of theology and philosophy. Through the conservative ulema’s “tendency to over-organisation by a false reverence of the past” Iqbal says, “…the individual is altogether crushed out of existence.”

Like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Iqbal’s individual is to strengthen himself, to harden himself from a piece of coal to a diamond. To stray away from bitterness and an embrace of weakness implicit in the act of self-pity...

The constantly changing nature of the physical world, the flux of history, of evolution, of inevitable entropy in the future, all spelt for Iqbal, similar to Nietzsche, not a ‘being’, but rather a ‘becoming’. Not only does this becoming apply to the external world independent of individual experience as it were, but it also applies to the internal world of experience. We are always becoming. Contrary to this persistent attempt, it is an attempt to cohere reality as that which is with that which was and what will be. In this regard, his are eerily similar to Dostoevsky’s observations on human nature; if man were provided all that he ever ‘needed’, having ushered in a utopia on earth, “even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element.”

“Our recluse had no remedy but flight / He could not endure the noise of this world / He set his heart on the glow of a quenched flame / And depicted a word steeped in opium / He spread his wings towards the sky / And never came down to his nest again / His fantasy is sunk in the jar of heaven”

For Iqbal, the narratives of the Quran and the principles of Islam, rather than inferring man as the object of God’s creative power, lay down the basis for the individual being a participant in this creative power. To Iqbal, the oft-quoted mantra of Al-Hallaj, “Anal Haq” is not translated merely as “I am the truth”, but rather “I am the creative truth”. He believes that it is the responsibility of each individual to dare to create and discover their own truths, dare to attain a semblance of ‘certainty’ in this ever-changing reality. But rather than falling back into the trap of metaphysical realism (a belief in reality which cannot be accessible to us completely or within this life) of the kind that he accuses the clergy of, Iqbal finds that we can find the Ultimate Reality within the depths of the psyche. He says, “[the Ultimate Reality is the] pure duration in which thought, life, and purpose interpenetrate to form an organic unity. We cannot conceive this unity except as the unity of a self – an all-embracing concrete self – the ultimate source of all individual life and thought.”

“Not inclined to worship the apparent, I broke the idol-house / I am that rushing torrent which sweeps aside all obstacles / About my being or not being, intellect had doubts / Love revealed the secret that I am.”

“The religious ideal of man is not self-negation but self-affirmation, and [man] attains to this ideal by becoming more and more individual […] Not that he is finally absorbed in God. On the contrary, he absorbs God into himself.” Like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Iqbal’s individual is to strengthen himself, to harden himself from a piece of coal to a diamond. To stray away from bitterness and an embrace of weakness implicit in the act of self-pity, ressentiment or su’al, Iqbal urges his individual to be aware of and find strength in his own constant becoming, urges him to always keep “becoming who you are” to use a Nietzschean phrase.

In present times, one might find many reasons to disagree with Iqbal, reprimanding him for not being shrewder or original in his philosophy, for being haphazard with his politics or for failing to contend with his own Punjabi culture instead of his more Persian and Arabic influences. But despite all these disagreements, even those that might be well-founded, perhaps one should find a path to recognising not all that he could have done or said better, but what he has done. A man in advance of his age – How else might one refer to one whose words, even eight decades after his death, still reflect the deep wounds on the modern individual?

To end this preliminary exposition on the thinker’s ideas, it seems appropriate to use a quote from Nietzsche’s Antichrist, to sum up an Iqbalian position: “The ‘kingdom of God’ is not something that men wait for: it had no yesterday and no day after tomorrow, it is not going to come at a “millennium” – it is an experience of the heart, it is everywhere and it is nowhere…”

The writer is an editor and researcher with an undergraduate degree from the University of Buckingham. He can be contacted at [email protected]

‘Being is becoming’: Iqbal on metaphysics