We are privileged that Iqbal belonged to us. He sang our lives in his songs and he thought about our past and our future in his philosophy and poetry. He was a poet, a philosopher and a revivalist of Islamic tradition, and his poetry, infused with the strength of his existential authenticity, resonates with the rhythm of his 'inwardness'. His imagination celebrates the sensitivity of his vision, and his poetic symbols emanate from the historic consciousness of the Islamic past. They are objects of cognitive power and existential ‘ownness’.
Iqbal is the exponent of the idea of khudi or ownness. The concept of khudi is the irreducible component of human existence. In other words, the essence of a thing is that without which it will not be what it is. Sugar is sweet. It will not be sugar unless it sweet. That is its essence. The khudi or ownness of a man is that without which he will not be who he is. In contemporary parlance, the lessons of Iqbal’s poetic and philosophical message centre on the necessity of man as a journeying self, someone who is always on the move, ahead of himself, towards the yet-to-be.
Iqbal believed firmly that man has no fate or predestined life.
We are, unfortunately, averse to such ideas, and that is what makes Iqbal a man whose time has not come yet. Or to put it differently, we have not yet come of age to incorporate his teachings into our life and worldview. We suffer from arrested development. We do not love change. We do not look forward to become what we are capable of becoming and that is the grief of Iqbal. He was not understood in his own time by his own people.
What is Iqbal’s relevance for our individual and collective thinking? If we are to move past the idea of him as a ‘national’ and ‘Islamic’ thinker, but are unable to apply his ideas as a society, how can we make his teachings relevant to our contemporary reality? Iqbal believed that a radical examination of our question of being and the problem of existence must precede philosophical reflection.
The intention is twofold: we need to examine our assumptions to determine their inherent flaws and contradictions. However, this is not a purely negative exercise. Instead, Iqbal meant it as a dialectically creative activity, unfolding the not-yet-visualised ideal possibilities of our being-able-to-be. As a severe critic of our intellectual persuasion, he said many things rash and noble that were also eloquent and devastating, offending those who do not like their shoddy ways of thinking exposed. Iqbal’s poetry tolerates no pretence and is distrustful of our capacity to be honest with ourselves. It was inconceivable to his straightforward nature that anyone could possibility know what honesty means without being honest. Or, that someone could tell a lie without thinking the truth. It is not possible to think of Iqbal without thinking of his humanity.
The question of Iqbal’s relevance is a question about the relevance of a philosophical attitude, of a worldview and creative faith, about our culture and self-identification. It should concern our philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and, moral and religious thinkers. His voice is needed today, but his time has not yet come. Until it does, we face a harsh indictment, and no ceremonial tributes will vindicate us of his unrequited love. How else, otherwise, could such an outpouring of his genius, his spiritual passion, his lust for life, be wasted on us? How could his great odyssey of reconstruction have such a dismal effect on our individual and collective thinking?
Iqbal had no taste for a philosophy that distances the thinker from his utterances and observations — for which he incurred the wrath of those to whom he belonged and those who did not belong to him. He celebrated life and rejected everything that said no to life. He believed that philosophy must emerge from within our lived experiences and finally converge upon life as it is lived. His reverence for life manifests itself on two different levels: the level of assumption of knowing, and being on the other. To be sure, in the philosophy of life, there is nothing analytic about the identity of knowing and being.
According to Iqbal, the ultimate purpose of philosophical existence is not so much to know something, as to be something. We must, therefore, ask: what does it mean to be in relation to what we know? The summation of knowing and being, therefore, is a dialectical process of the regularity of subjective and objective behaviour. It accounts for the violent eloquence of his poetry, inspired by the boldness of his authentic being and the driving force of his creative passion. In Iqbal's philosophy, these two components are threaded into the warp and woof of cultural vision. It nurtures a transcendental orientation and generates the worldview reflected in a Muslim’s zest and reverence for life.
According to Iqbal, the spirit of Islamic culture is antithetical to morbid fear and despair. It does not encourage withdrawal from the world. The dynamic vitality of Islamic culture is rooted in the dialectical tension generated by man’s being in the world. Iqbal seeks the resolution of this tension in our constitutive-intentionality and creative faith. He warns us to reject acquiescence and the venom of isolation. He implores those who do not have the will to be larger than themselves to reject their hopelessness.
The Quranic injunction to aspire to know oneself constituted the central issue of Iqbal’s philosophic and religious reflections. His diagnostic judgments are rooted in three modalities of disposition: the attitude of self in relation to itself, in relation to the other, and in relation to God. Unlike most thinkers, Iqbal was a philosopher who, within himself, struggled to creatively fulfill the historical need of his community. Philosophically, his act of self-discovery, has a Cartesian ring to it. He uncovered the occluded vision which lies buried in the historical consciousness of Islamic tradition. For him, search for the authentic self was necessitated by his philosophical and spiritual need for the discovery and revival of his Muslim past.
Iqbal believed that man is an imperfect and incomplete creature. He is not what he can become and ought to be.
Likewise, he believed — as did Einstein — that we live in a consonantly growing and developing universe.
If we want to understand his relevance for ourselves and our times, we must passionately read his The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.
He believed that the real content of life is discontent. The lifeless, the inert, does not suffer life, and hence it is at ease with itself. Only an object, a thing, a chair or a table, can enjoy the peace of equilibrium, but a living being cannot. How can man extricate life from his being? He is possessed by life even when he abdicates life. He affirms his existence when he says, “I do not exist.” In vain he tries to banish life from his mind, in vain he tries to seek his non-existence, and in vain he desires to flee from life.
Iqbal affirms the reality of the self and urges us to aspire for a ‘self-concentrated individuality’. Because, without the experience of ‘I’ which is I ‘myself’, how can I experience pain and happiness which is my pain and my happiness? No, the self is not an illusion. I cannot be who I am without the self, my own-self.
Iqbal was a passionate believer and a wise man, but there is indeed a touch of irony in the way he belittles himself. At times he hesitates to speak the truth for fear of unsettling our sense of certainty. But when he speaks of himself and for himself, it is as if he is thinking of his mission to destroy our assumptions in order to liberate our sensibilities from inauthentic submission. His criticism of our unexamined habits of thought and properties of life is cruel but always sincere and honest. More importantly, it acts as a liberating force and generates intellectual freedom, spiritual enthusiasm and existential self-awareness.
Such deliverance, however, is not possible without the sincerity of mind and purity of heart. For only he who has prayed sincerely and with a pure heart, even if it were but only once in his life, can experience within the depth of his being the supreme form of glory — the privilege of being known to God — and from this, his mind and his heart can enjoy the unique experience of having lived in the sight of God. He now stares life in the face. Such experience is the source of true self-transcendence and, according to Iqbal, a Muslim’s bearings in the world.
A Muslim lives in the world transcendentally and as a journeying self. He navigates this world creatively and with the intention of changing the way it is, to the way it ought to be. Iqbal’s philosophy of life rests upon the freedom of creative endeavour. It is poetry of what is most sublime and deeply inward in our nature. He is an exponent of free will and his will was as strong as his creative faith. His philosophy of life is a blueprint of uncharted regions. He aspires for the yet-to-be-realised ideals and goals, involving courage, risk, novelty, struggle and continuous jihad to make and remake the world — our portion of the world — according to our own cultural vision.
His philosophy, as a reconstruction of our religious orientation, demands an assimilation of these traits into our habits of thought and our individual and communal struggle. Until these traits enter into the texture of our personal and collective life to make a tangible difference, we will not feel the real impact of his genius.
Iqbal holds in contempt the man who does not exert himself in the way of his being-able-to-be. Such a man makes no demands on himself. He condemns himself to being what he is, destitute of creative faith, whose being in the world makes no difference to the worldliness of the world. He takes the ‘given’ world as sufficient unto itself, as finished in its possibilities of ideal and moral reconstruction. He happens to be in the world as it is — the given world — and leaves it just the way he had found it.
Iqbal loved us dearly. He exerted his poetic and philosophical genius in describing our lives, ideally hoping to make us aware of our identity and inheritance, without opposing life in its onward rush and movement. In his worldview, man in his sojourn towards the yet-to-be, is always ahead of himself.
Iqbal wishes to release our own sense of originality into the world as creative faith and co-creative intentionality. As a transcending self, man is always beyond any place of permanent abode. In its onward rush, life is like that, always and forever different, overflowing its own bounds, constantly towards new beginnings. Iqbal’s philosophy is an original statement of this onward movement of life. It is a cultural vision and he derives it from the principle of movement in the structure of Islam.
In view of the Islamic transcendentalism, man is a journeying self and, for him, the journey by itself is sufficient. It is the journey which unfolds for him new possibilities of his being-able-to-be and new facets of worldliness. As a journeying self, a Muslim does not seek to arrive, he only strives to establish the beginning — for that is all he can hope for. Iqbal never looked beyond that hope. He emphasises an indeterminate movement from the good to the better and then, the best and beyond.
Iqbal carries no magic wand of reason. There are times when he hesitates to speak the truth for fear of unsettling our sense of certainty. But when he does, he stealthily dismembers our entire sense of logic. There are dangers in depth and one should be well advised against wanting to descend deep into one's own-self. And yet, without this ownness, how can a man belong to himself? Iqbal urges us to belong to ourselves and, in doing so, discover in the depths of our hearts, our hearts' desire to be what we are capable of becoming.
Iqbal, the man who instilled in us a sense of pride in our ownness, died on April 21, 1938, but the shadow of his memory lingers on to colour our dreams and to fill our hearts with desire. He has left behind a legacy of anguished searching and the quest for excellence. His agonies, exultations and visions, are fiercer and stronger than death and love — these are Iqbal's gifts to us.