Iqbal, Muhammad (1877–1938)

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Muhammad Iqbal, an Islamic poet and metaphysician, was born in Sialkot, Pakistan. He studied philosophy at Cambridge for three years under J. M. E. McTaggart and James Ward. He received his Ph.D. from Munich University in 1908 for his thesis The Development of Metaphysics in Persia.

Inheriting the classical tradition of Muslim mystic poets, both Persian and Urdu, Iqbal was for a long time an admirer of the Spanish Sufi philosopher Ibn al-Arabi (11651240), the most consistent advocate of pantheism among Muslim thinkers. Very soon, however, he realized that this philosophy was foreign to the simple and invigorating message of Islam as embodied in the Qurʾan and as represented in the dynamic life of Muammad and his early followers. Under the influence of Jalāl al-Din Rūmī (12071273), the great mystic poet, whose philosophical outlook was allied in several important respects with post-Kantian voluntaristic thought in the West, as represented by Friedrich Nietzsche and Henri Bergson, he evolved a new system of thought that was meant to revitalize the faith of the Muslims of the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. At first his message, written in verse in the Secret of the Self (1915), raised a storm of opposition, but very soon this opposition died its natural death, and the whole subcontinent reverberated with his inspiring melodies. He exerted great influence in molding the pattern of political, social, and intellectual life of the Muslims in the early decades of the twentieth century, an influence that is visible everywhere even now. In 1930, as president of the Muslim League, he proposed the creation of a "Muslim India within India." Pakistan, Iqbal's dream, came into being in 1947, nine years after his death. As a tribute to his memory, the government of Pakistan established in 1951 a statutory body known as Iqbal Academy, in order "to promote the study and understanding of the works of Iqbal."

The system of thought that he evolved may be called theistic pluralism in contradistinction to Ibn al-Arabi's pantheistic doctrine of the unity of being, which denied not only the unique personality of the Divine Being and his existence as distinct from the universe but also the existence of human individuals and their partnership with God in constituting the commonwealth of ends.

Immanuel Kant's negative answer to the possibility of metaphysics provided Iqbal with a basis on which to construct his thought. Human thought, Kant asserted, is circumscribed by the categories of space and time; therefore, the Ultimate Reality, which, by definition, is beyond these categories, cannot be comprehended by pure thought, which is intimately related to and based on the normal level of experience. According to Iqbal, however, time and space are not fixed and unvarying modes, as Kant had thought; their significance may vary with the beings of higher or lower grade, the degree of being determined by greater or lesser psychic powers. Moreover, this normal level is not the only level of knowledge-yielding experience. The level above spatiotemporal experience is revealed by intuition, a form of perception that is allied to ordinary experience in giving objective knowledge but which is quite distinct from it in not being solely dependent upon sense perception; intuitive experience is individual and incommunicable. It is not simple Bergsonian "intellectual sympathy," which implies negation of the perceiver; intuition, according to Iqbal, by bringing the perceiver into contact with the Most Real, has the power to vitally transform his character and to endow him with a new personality, which reveals to him the higher consciousness of his manifold relations with God and the universe. Through his contact with Reality, the individual discovers his uniqueness, his metaphysical status, and the possibility of improvement in that status. The experience of intuition not only serves to confirm his reality and deepen his whole being but also sharpens his will with the creative assurance that the universe is not something to be really seen and known through concepts but rather something to be made and remade by continuous action, by interpreting the intuition of reality as a stimulus to ideal ends and purposes. Conceptual knowledge gives us knowledge of relations, not of reality; it is only through intuition that we can grasp the Real and give a fresh direction to the course of human history.

To Iqbal, ego is the basic reality revealed by intuition as the center of all effortsa revelation that is vouchsafed not in the barren contemplation of the recluse but in moments of great decision and action, which are expressive of a firm faith in the ultimate purposiveness of the universe. The life of the ego consists in meeting obstruction in its contact with matter and overcoming it. This gives the ego the power to act freely. It is partly determined and partly free, and it reaches fuller freedom by approaching the individual who is most freeGod. In other words, the ego is continually moving from a state of lesser freedom to that of greater freedom.

The ego is also immortal. According to Averroes immortality means transindividual eternity of intellect; according to Nietzsche immortality is synonymous with what he calls eternal recurrence, a most "intolerable" conception, as Iqbal put it. Immortality, according to Iqbal, must be individual and personal. He repudiated the pantheistic belief that the self, as a differentiation of the Absolute, will in the end be submerged and lose its identity in the Whole. It was to save man from this fate that Iqbal advocated that immortality is not a gift that every ego will enjoy; rather, it is a hope, an aspiration, depending, of course, upon a particular philosophy of life and a particular ethic that tends to maintain the state of tension in the ego and develop self-reliance, self-respect, self-confidence, self-preservationeven self-assertion, when such a thing is necessary in the interest of lifeand the power to stick to the cause of truth, justice, and duty, even in the face of death. Such behavior helps in the integration of the forces of ego, thus hardening it against the forces of disintegration and dissolution. Because the ego, which exists only in the state of tension, is the most valuable achievement of man, he should exert all efforts not to revert to a state of relaxation. We are mortal insofar as we keep ourselves fettered to spatialized time; as soon as we rise above it and immerse ourselves in what Bergson called duration, we become timeless. It is possible, Iqbal held, to realize this timelessness even in this life, although it be but for a moment. It is the moral duty of man to keep the state of tension intact by repudiating life-negating philosophies and to attain immortality by his ego-sustaining behavior. It is in this sense that attaining immortality, according to Iqbal, becomes a moral duty.

How is the ego related to the world of matter? Iqbal viewed matter, as did Albert Einstein, as "a system of interrelated events" and the universe as an "organism," as did Alfred North Whitehead. Every atom, however low in the scale of being, is an ego. Mind, with its capacity for self-consciousness, is a higher ego, and body is a combination of subegos. Thus, on this principle the universe is of the nature of lifefree, creative, and original. The universe is constantly growing and progressing toward an enda rationally directed creative life.

How is the Ultimate Ego (God) related to the universe and to the human ego? To the Absolute Self the universe is not a reality confronting him as an "other"; it is only a passing phase of his consciousness, a fleeting moment of its infinite life. Iqbal began with Einstein's view that the universe is finite but boundless and added that it is finite because it is a passing phase of God's extensively infinite consciousness and boundless because the creative power of God is intensively infinite. But the human self is the exception; it is not a mere passing phase in God's consciousness, for it is self-centered and exclusive. It is distinct but not isolated from God. The Ultimate Ego is characterized by the most beautiful names and attributes; he is transcendent and yet immanent, and above all he is a Person who responds to man's inner yearning in "the awful silence of the universe."

See also Absolute, The; Averroes; Bergson, Henri; Einstein, Albert; Ibn al-Arabī; Kant, Immanuel; Intuition; McTaggart, John McTaggart Ellis; Metaphysics; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Pantheism; Religious Pluralism; Ward, James; Whitehead, Alfred North.


Most of Iqbal's works are in verse, Persian and Urdu. Only books available in English are mentioned here. The Secrets of the Self, translated by R. E. Nicholson (London: Macmillan, 1920); The Mysteries of Selflessness, translated by A. J. Arberry (London: J. Murray, 1953); Tulips of Sinai, translated by A. J. Arberry (London, 1947); The Persian Psalms, translated by A. J. Arberry (Lahore: M. Ashraf, 1948); New Garden of Mystery, translated by B. A. Dar (Lahore: Institute of Islamic Culture, 1964); Pilgrimage of Eternity, translated into English verse by S. M. Ahmed (Lahore: Institute of Islamic Culture, 1961); Development of Metaphysics in Persia (London, 1908); Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (Lahore: J. Iqbal, 1951); and Poems from Iqbal, translated by V. G. Kiernam (London: Murray, 1955).

For literature on Iqbal, see B. A. Dar, A Study of Iqbal's Philosophy (Lahore, 1944) and Iqbal and Post-Kantian Voluntarism (Lahore: Bazm-i-Iqbal, 1956); I. H. Enver, Metaphysics of Iqbal (Lahore: Muhammad Ashraf, 1944); K. G. Saiyadain, Iqbal's Educational Philosophy (Lahore: Arafat, 1938); and S. A. Vahid, Iqbal, His Art and Thought (Lahore: Muhammad Ashraf, 1944).

B. A. Dar (1967)