October 2, 2023

God, according to Allama Iqbal, is an Ego –– the Ultimate Ego, the Great I-am; as from the Ultimate Ego only egos proceed, the whole furniture of the universe too comprises egos.


Observation of Nature and God- Knowledge

Allama Muhammad Iqbal, in his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, has consistently –– though obviously in different contexts –– built up a case for the knowledge of God. Divine gnosis or God-consciousness, according to him, in fact denotes the elitist stage of religious life wherein metaphysics of the rationalists “is displaced by psychology, and religious life develops the ambition to come into direct contact with the Ultimate Reality”.[i] In order further to bring into limelight the possibility of this supreme experiential contact he refers to the view of Immanuel Kant that only the appearances, the phenomena, can be known : the noumena, comprising, what he calls, the reality as such, are unknowable. Kant is well-known for building up a case for the possibility of a-priori, synthetic judgements and for his claim that all knowledge whatever is entirely conditioned by forms of perception viz, space and time, and categories of understanding such as quantity, quality, relation and modality. Hence the impossibility for him of the epistemic awareness of the Ultimate Real which, by it very definition, is beyond and outside the defining limits of these conditionalities! Given the premises affirmed by him, Kant was justified as regards his conclusion. But sense perception and reason, says Iqbal, are not the only available modes of knowledge. Beside and beyond them there is religious/mystic experience also, veracity of the claimants of which cannot be easily denied nor does this experience have any mystification or esotericism about it. Both sense experience and mystic experience are qualitatively the same[ii], according to Iqbal. The only difference is that the former gives us knowledge of the so-called appearances whereas the latter gives us knowledge of the Ultimate Real. The latter is no doubt essentially a state of feeling but it does have a cognitive content also. It is by dint of its cognitive character, he says, that it can be communicated to others in the form of judgements whose truth is duly guaranteed by a successfully profitable application to them of, what he calls, ‘the intellectual test’.[iii]

In view of the above, Iqbal takes care to distinguish his position from that version of mysticism (including the so-called Islamic mysticism or sufism)which –– alongwith / despite its claim to God-knowledge –– has, in common parlance, put on the connotation of being a life-denying, fact-avoiding attitude of mind directly opposed to the radically experimental / experiential outlook of modern times . He has no sympathies for this nihilistic colour of mysticism. Accordingly, he adopts a positive, empirical approach in this regard.

In my book Problems of Muslim Mysticism I have spelled out the salient features of this positive approach.[iv] After bringing out the nature of what really stands for mysticism, and differentiating it from all of its fake varieties, I enumerated and explained its three major kinds insofar as its approximation to the ideal of marifat-e Ilahi is concerned viz, 1, Purgatory mysticism which emphasizes eradication by the person concerned from his own self all alloy and rust that happens to have been deposited over it in the form of unnatural accretions behaving as veils and obstructions against the incoming of the Divine; 2, Love mysticism which lays stress on the development of love (‘ishq) for God, initially as a consequence of the knowledge of the sifat of His being like Gracious, Benevolent, Forgiving, Loving, as regards His relationship with human beings. Intense and absolute love of God in its own right, that gradually develops, makes the love of everything / everyone else as relative and insignificant making Him the grand Ideal of fascination to be proximated closer and closer; 3, Contemplative mysticism which gives priority to the method of contemplating by man over his own self, over the physical nature outside him and over the historical development of human societies and their destinies. All these phenomena of ‘nature’ –– in a very broad sense of the term –– being the doings of God must of course have very evidently an intimate relevance to His existence as well as to His attributes and so must be thoroughly tapped by man towards bringing out that relevance. Allama Iqbal would have no objection to any one of these mystical approaches to the knowledge of God. However, presently, we shall concentrate on the last one i.e. the routing of the process of the acquisition of God-knowledge through the observation of, and contemplation over, nature. This incidentally, amounts to seeing Him in the broadest daylight. In general, it would provide, what Iqbal terms, a ‘scientific form of religious knowledge’which alone the modern mind can easily understand and appreciate and which has duly been emphasized in the Reconstruction.

We are reminded here of the standpoint of Sir Sayyid Ahmad khan, an elder contemporary of Allama Iqbal. The former too had attempted to bring out the scientific face of religious consciousness by emphasizing that the subject-matter of natural sciences is the work of God whereas the revealed Divine message comprising the Qur’an is the word of God: thus there can be no disharmony between the two. Accordingly, Sayyid Ahmad reconstructed Islamic religious thought against the context of his contemporary 19th century science, which incidentally happened to be deterministic through and through; and, as a consequence, sought to divest the Qur’anic teachings of all supernatural content including the possibility of man’s knowledge of the Divine Being. What Allama Iqbal, on the other hand, lived was the atmosphere of the 20th century physical sciences which, instead, demonstrated free creativity and indeterminism; and, accordingly, providing a room for the veritability of the yet-to-be, the realm of the unknown and, in general, the possibility of metaphysics. This, according to Iqbal, demonstrates ‘the Qur’anic view that God is in a state (of glory) every moment.[v] Thus the Ultimate Real is knowable as a free creative movement, as a rationally directed creative life. In Islamic orthodoxy the instrument of encounter with God has been technically known as salat (prayer);[vi] and Iqbal observes that the scientific observer of nature too is involved in the act of prayer.[vii] “The knowledge of nature”, he says, “is the knowledge of God’s behavior. In our observation of nature we are virtually seeking a kind of intimacy with the Absolute Ego”.It is very suggestive to point out here that the word ayah (pl.ayat) has been used by the Qur’an for anyone of the verses in it as well as for a phenomenon of nature. This adequately shows the affinity between the Divine and the natural orders. “Nature’s laws”, Khalifa Abdul Hakim very succinctly remarks, “are God’s thoughts thinking themselves in orbits and tides. As there are signs of God’s power and wisdom and beauty in all nature outside man, so there are signs inscribed in the hearts of all men… the verses of God’s revelation are inscribed in the letters of light in the starry heavens, in the prophetic consciousness and in the minds and heart of those who reflect rightly on nature within and nature without”.[viii]

God, according to Allama Iqbal, is an Ego –– the Ultimate Ego, the Great I-am; as from the Ultimate Ego only egos proceed, the whole furniture of the universe too comprises egos. “Throughout the entire gamut of being runs the gradually rising note of egohood until it reaches its perfection in man.”[ix] Providing details of this affinity between nature and God, Iqbal variously observes:

Nature is human interpretation put on the creative activity of the Absolute Ego.[x]

Nature is the habit of Allah.[xi]

Nature is to the Divine Self as character is to the human self.[xii]

(Nature’s) passage in time offers the best clue to the ultimate nature of Reality.[xiii]

Observation of nature is only another form of worship.[xiv]

God is the omnipsyche of the universe.[xv]

God is imminent in nature.[xvi]

Against the background of Allama Iqbal’s statements regarding nature-God mutual organic concern, as given above, the question arises how exactly and in what sense is the experience of nature relevant to, may be an argument for, a person’s God-consciousness. At the beginning of the second Chapter (entitled ‘The Philosophical test of the Revelations of Religious experience’) of his Reconstruction Iqbal refers to the three well-known nature-based arguments for the existence of God viz. Cosmological, Teleological and Ontological, briefly examines them and duly regards them as “a real movement of thought in its quest for the Absolute. But regarded as logical proofs… they are open to serious criticism and further betray a rather superficial interpretation of experience.[xvii]

The Cosmological argument derives itself from the indispensable phenomenon of causation in the universe. Every effect has a cause which itself is the effect of another cause, and so on. Due to the unthinkability of the infinite regress thus envisaged we have to stop at a cause which must be recognized as the Uncaused First Cause. This Uncaused Cause is God. The argument, says Iqbal, commits a number of fallacies. Firstly, it nullifies the very principle on which it is based. That the existence of God has no cause contradicts the law of causation itself. Secondly, any particular effect i.e. an event in nature –– which is necessarily finite and bounded in character –– can only give a finite cause or, at the most, an infinite series of such causes: it cannot at all give us the concept of the existence of God as the Absolute Being Who is without any limitations whatever. Thirdly, the cause ultimately reached by the argument cannot be regarded as an autonomous, self-directing being for the simple reason that in a ‘cause-effect’ relationship both the terms are necessary to, and equally dependent upon, each other. We can add to these points of criticism raised by Iqbal at least one more. In a causal relationship, once the cause has produced its effect (which in its own right assumes the role of a cause to produce its own effect, and so on), the cause, by and large, becomes inoperative. So, the Uncaused Cause of this argument –– once upon a time –– simply set the ball rolling in the form of various subsequent cause-effect nexuses in nature. Presently, the ball rolls on of its own and the nature as we observe it, is rendered independent of God, the Uncaused First Cause, for all practical purposes; meaning to say that He would at the most, be a deistic, an absentee God having practically nothing to do with the affairs of the world here and now. In the end, Iqbal observes:

… the infinite reached by contradicting the finite is a false infinite, which neither explains itself nor the finite which is thus made to stand in opposition to the infinite. The true infinite does not exclude the finite; it embraces the finite without effacing its finitude, and explains and justifies its being. Logically speaking, then, the movement from the finite to the infinite as embodied in the cosmological argument is quite illegitimate; and the argument fails in toto.[xviii]

The Teleological argument originates from the traces of foresight, order, uniformity, adaptation and purposiveness in nature and infers that there must exist a Self-conscious Being of infinite intelligence and power Who presides over it and guarantees that its order is not disturbed and that the meaningfulness inherent in it duly evolves towards the realization of this order. Evidently this argument does not give us a creator but only a designer who has worked/is working on an already existing material which, by its own nature, is ex hypothesis just a disorderly hodgepodge of objects; and

even if we suppose him to be also the creator of his material, it does not credit to his wisdom to create his own difficulties by first creating intractable material, and then overcoming its resistance by the application of methods alien to its original nature. The designer regarded as external to his material must always remain limited by his material, and hence a finite designer whose limited resources compel him to overcome his difficulties after the fashion of a human mechanician.[xix]

The Ontological argument has its premises not in the outer world but in the mind or self of man himself. Originally presented by St. Anselm, it has been put forth by the philosophers in different forms. Its simplest formulation, as given by Descartes, is this: There is a ‘concept of the perfect being’ –– howsoever vague –– in our mind. Now, if this being does not exist, the concept cannot be perfect because non-existence implies a defect: how can a being which has this defect be a perfect being. The concept of a perfect being necessitates that this being must be existent also. The conclusion is that perfect being i.e. God must necessarily exist. This argument, as is evident, proceeds from the conception of existence to the factual objectivity of existence. Kant’s criticism of this argument has become proverbial: the notion of three hundred dollars in my mind cannot prove that I do have them in my pocket.[xx] Says Iqbal:

All that the argument proves is that the idea of a perfect being includes the idea of his existence. Between the idea of a perfect being in my mind and the objective reality of that being there is a gulf which cannot be bridged over by a transcendental act of thought.[xxi]

All the three traditional arguments taken together, according to Iqbal, aside their individual frailties, incongruities and fallacies, “betray a rather superficial interpretation of experience”.[xxii] A modern writer sums up Iqbal’s critical position in this regard when he says: Dividing reality into the irreconcilable opposites cause/effect (cosmological), designer/designed (teleological) and ideal/real (ontological) creates an internal contradiction in each of these arguments and divides experience into an irreconcilable dualism of thought and being.[xxiii] H.J.Paton, bringing out the barrenness of these arguments, writes in the same strain: “They appeal …. not to a rich and full and diversified experience but to its bare bones. The inference, so to speak, is not from the levity body of experience but only from its skeleton. Hence “the cosmological argument” –– which of course comprises all the argument which infer the existence of God from a particular aspect of cosmic nature –– “is arid”[xxiv]

Happily, the Qur’an, while building up its metaphysics, does not abstract in this way. Its reference is always to experience as such. It accepts organic wholeness of nature that is revealed to sense-perception as a system of signs of the Ultimate Reality, which signs we are almost duly-bound to observe and speculate over. Those who are oblivious of the facts of experience here and now will, according to it, remain deprived of the vision of the Ideal in the Hereafter.[xxv] The Qur’an says:

We shall show them Our signs in all the regions of the earth and in their own souls.[xxvi]

‘Surely, in the creation of the heavens and of the earth and in the alternation of night and day: and in the ships which pass through the sea with what is useful to man and in the rain which God sends down from heaven, giving life to the earth after its death and in scattering over it all kinds of cattle; and in the change of the winds and in the clouds that are made to do service between the heavens and the earth are signs (of God) for those who understand.’[xxvii]


‘And it is He Who sends down rain from heaven, and We bring forth by it the buds of all the plants and from them we bring forth the green foliage and in the close growing grain and palm trees with sheaths of clustering dates and gardens of grapes and the olives and the pomegranates like and unlike. Look at the fruits when they ripen. Therein are signs for people who believe.[xxviii]

And so on.

The Qur’an records a number of instances where Prophets themselves had to attend towards observation of nature as a pre-requisite for their knowledge of God. When prophet Moses expressed his wish to see God, he was directed to look towards the mountain, [xxix] which is after all a natural object. Prophet Abraham, the “Upright Muslim” and the Unitarian par excellence, found his way to God through a strong realization, based on observation and experience of the ephemeral character of the stars, the moon and the sun.[xxx] Even when he had acquired faith in God in this way he had to have a recourse back to the world of experience in order to confirm his faith in the supremacy and omnipotence of God and in order to be at peace with himself.[xxxi]

However, all these Qur’anic references do not imply that even the diverse phenomena of nature as such do in any way provide sufficient proofs for the existence of God and His Unique Peerlessness. There can, strictly speaking, be no logical argument worth the name for the existence of God in which nature, even in its organic wholeness, is accepted as the major premise. Nature is finite and temporal: God is infinite and eternal. Neither a deductive nor an inductive reasoning is, in principle, applicable here because in both these types of argument the premises and the conclusion must mutually have at least a continuity of reference and must belong to the same universe of discourse. We may extend finitude to whatever degree we desire: It would never be transformed into infinity. Nor can any number of moments of time joined together give us even a glimpse of eternity. Eternity is simply timelessness and infinity is the very negation of all finitudes and determinations. God is Wholly Other. There is absolutely nothing and no one like Him.

Now, how to bridge up the gulf between nature and God so that we may have God-Knowledge ‘the natural way’, as envisaged by the Qur’an? In other words, how is a natural theology possible? Nature, we have already shown, is a system of signs or symbols pointing towards God. So, plainly speaking, knowledge of God should be a matter of interpreting these signs and giving them the appropriate meaning rather than resorting to a logical argument proceeding from the signs to what these signs ultimately signify. In order to perform this interpretative function, it is necessary, although of course not sufficient, that we observe well and find out, on the premises of naturalism itself, as to how things happen. What we are required to have, in addition, is a cosmic vision, or – in the beautiful phrase of Iqbal – ‘the vital way of looking at the universe’. This cosmic vision, which is duly presided over by an I-Thou encounter with God, comprises iman b’al-ghaib or faith in the Unseen. The Qur’an says:

This Book, there is no doubt in it, is a guide to those who keep their duty, who have faith in the Unseen…[xxxii]

By ‘faith in the Unseen’ is meant faith in God, the angels, the Day of Judgement and other metaphysical realities mentioned in the Qur’an which are not open to ordinary observation. However, more generally, it implies an overall supernaturalist attitude of mind. For a stark naturalist or a thorough empiricist, the world of experience is the only reality and a talk of anything beyond it is a nonsense, pure and simple. Hume, the well-known British Empiricist, for instance, says:

If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact or existence? No. Commit it then to the flames for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.[xxxiii]

In modern times this position was taken up by Logical Positivists. With their principle of verifiability in hand, they rejected the validity of everything that was outside the purview of positive sciences. “The theist may believe, ” says Ayer, one of the pioneers of the Logical Positivist movement, “that his experiences are cognitive experiences but unless he can formulate his knowledge in propositions that are empirically verifiable, we may be sure that he is deceiving himself.”[xxxiv] As opposed to this positivism, the kind of attitude that the Qur’an requires from its readers is that they should have a firm conviction that there are realities beyond those of the sensible world. This is what may be meant by faith in the Unseen. Only those observers of nature are capable of going beyond the appearances, which are directly encountered, and of having a vision of Reality beyond them, who are in principle convinced that Reality does exist and that the world of sensible experience is not the end-all and the be-all of everything. It is truly at this level of his attitude towards God that a scientific observer of Nature can be identified with the religious seeker after the Ultimate Reality. It is at this level alone that he realizes that the spatio-temporal world is not simply a three-dimensional world: it has a fourth dimension as well. “Every thing we experience in the course of our lives,” says Herbert Butterfield, “is not only what it is; it can be psychologically a symbol of something more.”[xxxv] The Qur’an condemns the strictly matter-of-fact type of people. It is about them that it says that their hearts are sealed:

Allah has sealed their hearts and their hearing and there is covering on their eyes.[xxxvi]

They have hearts with which they understand not, and they have eyes with which they see not and they have ears with which they hear not; … nay, they are more astray.[xxxvii]

The phrase roughly corresponding to the “sealing of the heart” is “expanding of the breast”:

Whomsoever Allah intends to guide, He expands his breast for Islam.[xxxviii]

This “expansion of the breast” helps the individual to develop in himself a more and more profound vision and understanding. He begins understanding the true, esoteric meaning of the word as well as the work of God and is thus transported from finite nature to God, the Infinite. Iqbal most probably has this level of experience in mind when he says that the observation of nature sharpens our inner perception so that we can have a deeper vision of it (i.e. nature).[xxxix] Once we have that vision, our normal perception, our reason and understanding, are, in turn, thoroughly metamorphosed against new perspectives. “Positive views of ultimate things, ” Iqbal rightly observes, “are the work rather of Inspiration than Metaphysics.”[xl] Elsewhere, indicating the inadequacy of natural-cum-rational approach to God, he quotes with approval the saying of Ibn ‘Arabi that God is a percept as differentiated from the world which is a concept.[xli]

Observation of nature as the basis, the prelusion or the preface of God-Knowledge has been emphasized by the Qur’an, as shown above, due to the simple fact that nature furnishes pointers to God and suggests the right direction in which a search for Him can be fruitfully undertaken. It is thus only an evocative technique and simply furnishes the occasion to have a knowledge of God Who thus, in spite of its relevance to Him, retains His singularity and autonomy. This can be made clear with the help of an illustration given by I.T. Ramsey in his Religious Language.[xlii] Suppose, he says, I have to bring home the existence of a circle to a person who has a peculiarly developed geometry which is completely without curves. I will ask the person to draw a regular polygon with a certain number of sides. Then I shall ask him to make more polygons each time adding one side more to the last figure already drawn. If the process goes on, there generally comes sooner or later a point of disclosure. The man realizes with a flash of insight that his activity of drawing polygons with more and more of sides is imperceptibly leading to an absolutely new kind of figure i.e. a circle, which these figures are approaching more and more nearly but which he will never reach. The circle is then, according to Ramsey, the “infinite polygon”. The word “infinite” is significant here. It implies that we may add as many sides as we like to our polygons, but still the difference between the circle and the polygons, nearest to it will be as wide as between the infinite and the finite. Yet, the circle is definitely relevant to the growing polygon and presides over the whole series. On the same analogy, nature is relevant to the existence of God, but still it cannot be equal to Him, nor can it furnish a sufficient proof for His existence.

The entire above account speaks eloquently for a need to undertake a process of self-culture on which the Muslim mystics in particular have invariably laid special emphasis. Iqbal, also speaks of ego’s gradual growth in self-possession, in uniqueness and intensity of his activity as an ego. “The climax of this development, ” he says, “is reached when the ego is able to retain full self-possession, even in the case of a direct contact with the all-embracing Ego.”[xliii] So, it is only a full-grown, well-integrated ego who can afford to have personal knowledge –– knowledge by acquaintance, roughly speaking –– of the Divine Being. From the very beginning, the seeker of God must learn to discipline his attitudes and be most sincere in his efforts for the realisation of the ideal. Daily canonical prayers are generally begun with the declaration: “I have turned my face towards Him Who created the heavens and the earth and I am not one of the polytheists.” So also the observer of nature should always have in mind the attainment of the Ultimate Truth as the grand objective of his experimentations and researches and should never divert his attention elsewhere, however strong the temptation. There is no holiday in the spiritual life of man.

God-Knowledge, which is pursued with such absorption and single-mindedness and with the discovery of the true I-amness in the background, is, of course, not ‘knowledge’ in the discursive or analytical sense of the term. It is not the sort of knowledge in whose case it would be possible to make a watertight distinction between the knower and the known and also we could understandably talk about the known object in normal everyday language. It is rather of the nature of what the sufis call marifat or gnosis where the gnostic develops a kind of unicity with God and, not very infrequently, comes out with the spontaneous eruptions like “I am the creative truth” or “I am holy; how great is my majesty” and so on. The distinction between discursive knowledge and gnosis can be well brought out by referring to a corresponding distinction made by Bergson between a man’s knowledge of a city which he gathers from the hundreds and thousands of photographs of that city taken from all possible angles and viewpoints and another man’s knowledge who lives in that city, roams about its streets and has a living contact with its human as well as non-human environments.

Incidentally, the unicity of the human ego with the Divine Ego and the spontaneous ejaculations of certain mystics in that regard (which have been known as shat-hiyyat in sufi literature) can very easily be interpreted in terms of pantheism. Iqbal scrupulously guards against this interpretation. “The finite ego”, he holds, “must remain distinct, though not isolated, from the Infinite.[xliv] “… unitive experience is not the finite ego effacing its own identity by some sort of absorption into the Infinite Ego; it is rather the Infinite passing into the loving embrace of the finite.”[xlv] Talking specifically of the well-known words of Hallaj “I am the creative truth”, Iqbal say: “The true interpretation of his experience… is not the drop slipping into the sea, but the realization and bold affirmation in an undying phrase of the reality and permanence of the human ego in a profounder personality.”[xlvi]

[i] Allama Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p.143

[ii] Cf. The account of ‘the characteristics of mystic experience’, Ibid, pp.14-19

[iii] Allama Iqbal defines ‘intellectual test’ as the “critical interpretation, without any presupposition of human experience, generally without a view to discover whether our interpretation leads us ultimately to a reality of the same character as is revealed by religious experience”, Ibid, p.21

[iv] Chapter 1.

[v] Qur’an, 55:29

[vi] Ibid, 38:75

[vii]  Allama Muhammad Iqbal, op.cit., p. 91

[viii]  Edward F. Barrett (ed.), University of Notre Dame Law Institute Proceedings, pp. 35-36

[ix]  Allama Muhammad Iqbal, op.cit., p.

[x] Ibid, p .45

[xi] Ibid

[xii] Ibid

[xiii] Ibid

[xiv] Ibid

[xv] Ibid, P.110

[xvi] Ibid, p.85

[xvii] Ibid, p.23

[xviii] Ibid pp.23-24

[xix] Ibid p.24

[xx] Cf. The Critique of Pure Reason, trans. N.Kemp Smith, p.505

[xxi] Allama Muhammad Iqbal, op.cit p. 25

[xxii] Ibid p.25

[xxiii] Muhammad Suheyl Umar and Dr. Basit Bilal Muhammad Iqbal A Contemporary, article by Basit Bilal Koshal, p.98

[xxiv] H.J. Paton, The Modern Predicament, pp.193-94

[xxv] Qur’an, 2:164

[xxvi] Ibid, 41:53

[xxvii] Ibid 2:164

[xxviii] Ibid 6:99

[xxix] Ibid 7:143

[xxx] Ibid 78:80

[xxxi] Ibid 2:260

[xxxii] Ibid 2:2-3

[xxxiii] Fred Wilson, the External World and our Knowledge, g.t: Hume’s Critical Realision an Exposition and a defence, University of Toronto press, 2008, p.680

[xxxiv] Quoted by G.S. Spinks, Psychology and Religion, p.187

[xxxv] Qur’an, 2:7

[xxxvi] Ibid, 7:179

[xxxvii] Ibid, 6:125

[xxxviii] Allama Muhammad Iqbal, op.cit., p.72

[xxxix] Ibid, p.91

[xl] Ibid, p.144

[xli] Religious Language – An Empirical Placing of Theological Phrases, p.69

[xlii] Allama Muhammad Iqbal, op.cit. p.94

[xliii] Ibid, p.88

[xliv] Ibid, p.110

[xlv] Ibid, P.77

[xlvi] The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Allama Muhammad Iqbal, p. 77 

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