The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam
by Dr. Muhammad Iqbal
Knowledge and Religious Experience
What is the character and general structure of the universe in which we live? Is there a permanent element in the constitution of this universe? How are we related to it? What place do we occupy in it, and what is the kind of conduct that befits the place we occupy? These questions are common to religion, philosophy, and higher poetry. But the kind of knowledge that poetic inspiration brings is essentially individual in its character; it is figurative, vague, and indefinite. Religion, in its more advanced forms, rises higher than poetry. It moves from individual to society. In its attitude towards the Ultimate Reality it is opposed to the limitations of man; it enlarges his claims and holds out the prospect of nothing less than a direct vision of Reality. Is it then possible to apply the purely rational method of philosophy to religion? The spirit of philosophy is one of free inquiry. It suspects all authority. Its function is to trace the uncritical assumptions of human thought to their hiding places, and in this pursuit it may finally end in denial or a frank admission of the incapacity of pure reason to reach the Ultimate Reality. The essence of religion, on the other hand, is faith; and faith, like the bird, sees its ‘trackless way’ unattended by intellect which, in the words of the great mystic poet of Islam, ‘only waylays the living heart of man and robs it of the invisible wealth of life that lies within’.1 Yet it cannot be denied that faith is more than mere feeling. It has something like a cognitive content, and the existence of rival parties— scholastics and mystics— in the history of religion shows that idea is a vital element in religion. Apart from this, religion on its doctrinal side, as defined by Professor Whitehead, is ‘a system of general truths which have the effect of transforming character when they are sincerely held and vividly apprehended’.2 Now, since the transformation and guidance of man’s inner and outer life is the essential aim of religion, it is obvious that the general truths which it embodies must not remain unsettled. No one would hazard action on the basis of a doubtful principle of conduct. Indeed, in view of its function, religion stands in greater need of a rational foundation of its ultimate principles than even the dogmas of science. Science may ignore a rational metaphysics; indeed, it has ignored it so far. Religion can hardly afford to ignore the search for a reconciliation of the oppositions of experience and a justification of the environment in which humanity finds itself. That is why Professor Whitehead has acutely remarked that ‘the ages of faith are the ages of rationalism’.3 But to rationalize faith is not to admit the superiority of philosophy over religion. Philosophy, no doubt, has jurisdiction to judge religion, but what is to be judged is of such a nature that it will not submit to the jurisdiction of philosophy except on its own terms. While sitting in judgement on religion, philosophy cannot give religion an inferior place among its data. Religion is not a departmental affair; it is neither mere thought, nor mere feeling, nor mere action; it is an expression of the whole man. Thus, in the evaluation of religion, philosophy must recognize the central position of religion and has no other alternative but to admit it as something focal in the process of reflective synthesis. Nor is there any reason to suppose that thought and intuition are essentially opposed to each other. They spring up from the same root and complement each other. The one grasps Reality piecemeal, the other grasps it in its wholeness. The one fixes its gaze on the eternal, the other on the temporal aspect of Reality. The one is present enjoyment of the whole of Reality; the other aims at traversing the whole by slowly specifying and closing up the various regions of the whole for exclusive observation. Both are in need of each other for mutual rejuvenation. Both seek visions of the same Reality which reveals itself to them in accordance with their function in life. In fact, intuition, as Bergson rightly says, is only a higher kind of intellect.4
The search for rational foundations in Islam may be regarded to have begun with the Prophet himself. His constant prayer was: ‘God! grant me knowledge of the ultimate nature of things!’5 The work of later mystics and non-mystic rationalists forms an exceedingly instructive chapter in the history of our culture, inasmuch as it reveals a longing for a coherent system of ideas, a spirit of whole-hearted devotion to truth, as well as the limitations of the age, which rendered the various theological movements in Islam less fruitful than they might have been in a different age. As we all know, Greek philosophy has been a great cultural force in the history of Islam. Yet a careful study of the Qur’an and the various schools of scholastic theology that arose under the inspiration of Greek thought disclose the remarkable fact that while Greek philosophy very much broadened the outlook of Muslim thinkers, it, on the whole, obscured their vision of the Qur’an. Socrates concentrated his attention on the human world alone. To him the proper study of man was man and not the world of plants, insects, and stars. How unlike the spirit of the Qur’an, which sees in the humble bee a recipient of Divine inspiration6 and constantly calls upon the reader to observe the perpetual change of the winds, the alternation of day and night, the clouds,7 the starry heavens,8 and the planets swimming through infinite space!9 As a true disciple of Socrates, Plato despised sense– perception which, in his view, yielded mere opinion and no real knowledge.10 How unlike the Qur’an, which regards ‘hearing’ and ‘sight’ as the most valuable Divine gifts11 and declares them to be accountable to God for their activity in this world.12 This is what the earlier Muslim students of the Qur’an completely missed under the spell of classical speculation. They read the Qur’an in the light of Greek thought. It took them over two hundred years to perceive – though not quite clearly – that the spirit of the Qur’an was essentially anti-classical,13 and the result of this perception was a kind of intellectual revolt, the full significance of which has not been realized even up to the present day. It was partly owing to this revolt and partly to his personal history that Ghazali based religion on philosophical scepticism – a rather unsafe basis for religion and not wholly justified by the spirit of the Qur’an. Ghazali’s chief opponent, Ibn Rushd, who defended Greek philosophy against the rebels, was led, through Aristotle, to what is known as the doctrine of Immortality of Active Intellect,14 a doctrine which once wielded enormous influence on the intellectual life of France and Italy,15 but which, to my mind, is entirely opposed to the view that the Qur’an takes of the value and destiny of the human ego.16 Thus Ibn Rushd lost sight of a great and fruitful idea in Islam and unwittingly helped the growth of that enervating philosophy of life which obscures man’s vision of himself, his God, and his world. The more constructive among the Ash‘arite thinkers were no doubt on the right path and anticipated some of the more modern forms of Idealism; yet, on the whole, the object of the Ash‘arite movement was simply to defend orthodox opinion with the weapons of Greek dialectic. The Mu‘tazilah, conceiving religion merely as a body of doctrines and ignoring it as a vital fact, took no notice of non-conceptual modes of approaching Reality and reduced religion to a mere system of logical concepts ending in a purely negative attitude. They failed to see that in the domain of knowledge – scientific or religious – complete independence of thought from concrete experience is not possible.
It cannot, however, be denied that Ghazali’s mission was almost apostolic like that of Kant in Germany of the eighteenth century. In Germany rationalism appeared as an ally of religion, but she soon realized that the dogmatic side of religion was incapable of demonstration. The only course open to her was to eliminate dogma from the sacred record. With the elimination of dogma came the utilitarian view of morality, and thus rationalism completed the reign of unbelief. Such was the state of theological thought in Germany when Kant appeared. His Critique of Pure Reason revealed the limitations of human reason and reduced the whole work of the rationalists to a heap of ruins. And justly has he been described as God’s greatest gift to his country. Ghazali’s philosophical scepticism which, however, went a little too far, virtually did the same kind of work in the world of Islam in breaking the back of that proud but shallow rationalism which moved in the same direction as pre-Kantian rationalism in Germany. There is, however, one important difference between Ghazali’s and Kant. Kant, consistently with his principles, could not affirm the possibility of a knowledge of God. Ghazali’s, finding no hope in analytic thought, moved to mystic experience, and there found an independent content for religion. In this way he succeeded in securing for religion the right to exist independently of science and metaphysics. But the revelation of the total Infinite in mystic experience convinced him of the finitude and inconclusiveness of thought and drove him to draw a line of cleavage between thought and intuition. He failed to see that thought and intuition are organically related and that thought must necessarily simulate finitude and inconclusiveness because of its alliance with serial time. The idea that thought is essentially finite, and for this reason unable to capture the Infinite, is based on a mistaken notion of the movement of thought in knowledge. It is the inadequacy of the logical understanding which finds a multiplicity of mutually repellent individualities with no prospect of their ultimate reduction to a unity that makes us sceptical about the conclusiveness of thought. In fact, the logical understanding is incapable of seeing this multiplicity as a coherent universe. Its only method is generalization based on resemblances, but its generalizations are only fictitious unities which do not affect the reality of concrete things. In its deeper movement, however, thought is capable of reaching an immanent Infinite in whose self-unfolding movement the various finite concepts are merely moments. In its essential nature, then, thought is not static; it is dynamic and unfolds its internal infinitude in time like the seed which, from the very beginning, carries within itself the organic unity of the tree as a present fact. Thought is, therefore, the whole in its dynamic self-expression, appearing to the temporal vision as a series of definite specifications which cannot be understood except by a reciprocal reference. Their meaning lies not in their self-identity, but in the larger whole of which they are the specific aspects. This larger whole is to use a Qur’anic metaphor, a kind of ‘Preserved Tablet’,17 which holds up the entire undetermined possibilities of knowledge as a present reality, revealing itself in serial time as a succession of finite concepts appearing to reach a unity which is already present in them. It is in fact the presence of the total Infinite in the movement of knowledge that makes finite thinking possible. Both Kant and Ghazali’s failed to see that thought, in the very act of knowledge, passes beyond its own finitude. The finitudes of Nature are reciprocally exclusive. Not so the finitudes of thought which is, in its essential nature, incapable of limitation and cannot remain imprisoned in the narrow circuit of its own individuality. In the wide world beyond itself nothing is alien to it. It is in its progressive participation in the life of the apparently alien that thought demolishes the walls of its finitude and enjoys its potential infinitude. Its movement becomes possible only because of the implicit presence in its finite individuality of the infinite, which keeps alive within it the flame of aspiration and sustains it in its endless pursuit. It is a mistake to regard thought as inconclusive, for it too, in its own way, is a greeting of the finite with the infinite.
During the last five hundred years religious thought in Islam has been practically stationary. There was a time when European thought received inspiration from the world of Islam. The most remarkable phenomenon of modern history, however, is the enormous rapidity with which the world of Islam is spiritually moving towards the West. There is nothing wrong in this movement, for European culture, on its intellectual side, is only a further development of some of the most important phases of the culture of Islam. Our only fear is that the dazzling exterior of European culture may arrest our movement and we may fail to reach the true inwardness of that culture. During all the centuries of our intellectual stupor Europe has been seriously thinking on the great problems in which the philosophers and scientists of Islam were so keenly interested. Since the Middle Ages, when the schools of Muslim theology were completed, infinite advance has taken place in the domain of human thought and experience. The extension of man’s power over Nature has given him a new faith and a fresh sense of superiority over the forces that constitute his environment. New points of view have been suggested, old problems have been re-stated in the light of fresh experience, and new problems have arisen. It seems as if the intellect of man is outgrowing its own most fundamental categories – time, space, and causality. With the advance of scientific thought even our concept of intelligibility is undergoing a change.18 The theory of Einstein has brought a new vision of the universe and suggests new ways of looking at the problems common to both religion and philosophy. No wonder then that the younger generation of Islam in Asia and Africa demand a fresh orientation of their faith. With the reawakening of Islam, therefore, it is necessary to examine, in an independent spirit, what Europe has thought and how far the conclusions reached by her can help us in the revision and, if necessary, reconstruction, of theological thought in Islam. Besides this it is not possible to ignore generally anti-religious and especially anti-Islamic propaganda in Central Asia which has already crossed the Indian frontier. Some of the apostles of this movement are born Muslims, and one of them, Tewfak Fikret, the Turkish poet, who died only a short time ago,19 has gone to the extent of using our great poet-thinker, Mirza ‘Abd al-Qadir Bedil of Akbarabad, for the purposes of this movement. Surely, it is high time to look to the essentials of Islam. In these lectures I propose to undertake a philosophical discussion of some of the basic of ideas of Islam, in the hope that this may, at least, be helpful towards a proper understanding of the meaning of Islam as a message to humanity. Also with a view to give a kind of ground-outline for further discussion, I propose, in this preliminary lecture, to consider the character of knowledge and religious experience.
The main purpose of the Qur’an is to awaken in man the higher consciousness of his manifold relations with God and the universe. It is in view of this essential aspect of the Quranic teaching that Goethe, while making a general review of Islam as an educational force, said to Eckermann: ‘You see this teaching never fails; with all our systems, we cannot go, and generally speaking no man can go, farther than that.’20 The problem of Islam was really suggested by the mutual conflict, and at the same time mutual attraction, presented by the two forces of religion and civilization. The same problem confronted early Christianity. The great point in Christianity is the search for an independent content for spiritual life which, according to the insight of its founder, could be elevated, not by the forces of a world external to the soul of man, but by the revelation of a new world within his soul. Islam fully agrees with this insight and supplements it by the further insight that the illumination of the new world thus revealed is not something foreign to the world of matter but permeates it through and through.
Thus the affirmation of spirit sought by Christianity would come not by the renunciation of external forces which are already permeated by the illumination of spirit, but by a proper adjustment of man’s relation to these forces in view of the light received from the world within. It is the mysterious touch of the ideal that animates and sustains the real, and through it alone we can discover and affirm the ideal. With Islam the ideal and the real are not two opposing forces which cannot be reconciled. The life of the ideal consists, not in a total breach with the real which would tend to shatter the organic wholeness of life into painful oppositions, but in the perpetual endeavour of the ideal to appropriate the real with a view eventually to absorb it, to convert it into itself and illuminate its whole being. It is the sharp opposition between the subject and the object, the mathematical without and the biological within, that impressed Christianity. Islam, however, faces the opposition with a view to overcome it. This essential difference in looking at a fundamental relation determines the respective attitudes of these great religions towards the problem of human life in its present surroundings. Both demand the affirmation of the spiritual self in man, with this difference only that Islam, recognizing the contact of the ideal with the real, says ‘yes’ to the world of matter21 and points the way to master it with a view to discover a basis for a realistic regulation of life.
What, then, according to the Qur’an, is the character of the universe which we inhabit? In the first place, it is not the result of a mere creative sport:
‘We have not created the Heavens and the earth and whatever is between them in sport. We have not created them but for a serious end: but the greater part of them understand it not’ (44:38-39).22
It is a reality to be reckoned with:
‘Verily in the creation of the Heavens and of the earth, and in the succession of the night and of the day, are signs for men of understanding; who, standing and sitting and reclining, bear God in mind and reflect on the creation of the Heavens and of the earth, and say: “Oh, our Lord! Thou hast not created this in vain” (3:190-91).
Again the universe is so constituted that it is capable of extension:
‘He (God) adds to His creation what He wills’ (35:1).23
It is not a block universe, a finished product, immobile and incapable of change. Deep in its inner being lies, perhaps, the dream of a new birth:
‘Say – go through the earth and see how God hath brought forth all creation; hereafter will He give it another birth’ (29:20).
In fact, this mysterious swing and impulse of the universe, this noiseless swim of time which appears to us, human beings, as the movement of day and night, is regarded by the Qur’an as one of the greatest signs of God:
‘God causeth the day and the night to take their turn. Verily in this is teaching for men of insight’ (24:44).
This is why the Prophet said: ‘Do not vilify time, for time is God.’24 And this immensity of time and space carries in it the promise of a complete subjugation by man whose duty is to reflect on the signs of God, and thus discover the means of realizing his conquest of Nature as an actual fact:
‘See ye not how God hath put under you all that is in the Heavens, and all that is on the earth, and hath been bounteous to you of His favours both in relation to the seen and the unseen?’ (31:20).
‘And He hath subjected to you the night and the day, the sun and the moon, and the stars too are subject to you by His behest; verily in this are signs for those who understand’ (16:12).
Such being the nature and promise of the universe, what is the nature of man whom it confronts on all sides? Endowed with a most suitable mutual adjustment of faculties he discovers himself down below in the scale of life, surrounded on all sides by the forces of obstruction:
‘That of goodliest fabric We created man, then brought him down to the lowest of the low’ (95:4-5).
And how do we find him in this environment? A ‘restless’25 being engrossed in his ideals to the point of forgetting everything else, capable of inflicting pain on himself in his ceaseless quest after fresh scopes for self-expression. With all his failings he is superior to Nature, inasmuch as he carries within him a great trust which, in the words of the Qur’an, the heavens and the earth and the mountains refused to carry:
‘Verily We proposed to the Heavens and to the earth and to the mountains to receive the trust (of personality), but they refused the burden and they feared to receive it. Man alone undertook to bear it, but hath proved unjust, senseless!’ (33:72).
His career, no doubt, has a beginning, but he is destined, perhaps, to become a permanent element in the constitution of being.
‘Thinketh man that he shall be thrown away as an object of no use? Was he not a mere embryo? Then he became thick blood of which God formed him and fashioned him, and made him twain, male and female. Is not He powerful enough to quicken the dead?’ (75:36-40).
When attracted by the forces around him, man has the power to shape and direct them; when thwarted by them, he has the capacity to build a much vaster world in the depths of his own inner being, wherein he discovers sources of infinite joy and inspiration. Hard his lot and frail his being, like a rose-leaf, yet no form of reality is so powerful, so inspiring, and so beautiful as the spirit of man! Thus in his inmost being man, as conceived by the Qur’an, is a creative activity, an ascending spirit who, in his onward march, rises from one state of being to another:
‘But Nay! I swear by the sunset’s redness and by the night and its gatherings and by the moon when at her full, that from state to state shall ye be surely carried onward’ (84:16-19).
It is the lot of man to share in the deeper aspirations of the universe around him and to shape his own destiny as well as that of the universe, now by adjusting himself to its forces, now by putting the whole of his energy to mould its forces to his own ends and purposes. And in this process of progressive change God becomes a co-worker with him, provided man takes the initiative:
‘Verily God will not change the condition of men, till they change what is in themselves’ (13:11).
If he does not take the initiative, if he does not evolve the inner richness of his being, if he ceases to feel the inward push of advancing life, then the spirit within him hardens into stone and he is reduced to the level of dead matter. But his life and the onward march of his spirit depend on the establishment of connexions with the reality that confronts him.26 It is knowledge that establishes these connexions, and knowledge is sense-perception elaborated by understanding.
‘When thy Lord said to the Angels, “Verily I am about to place one in my stead on earth,” they said, “Wilt Thou place there one who will do ill and shed blood, when we celebrate Thy praise and extol Thy holiness?” God said, “Verily I know what ye know not!” And He taught Adam the names of all things, and then set them before the Angels, and said, “Tell me the names of these if ye are endowed with wisdom.” They said, “Praise be to Thee! We have no knowledge but what Thou hast given us to know. Thou art the Knowing, the Wise”. He said, “O Adam, inform them of the names.” And when he had informed them of the names, God said, “Did I not say to you that I know the hidden things of the Heavens and of the earth, and that I know what ye bring to light and what ye hide?” (2:30-33).
The point of these verses is that man is endowed with the faculty of naming things, that is to say, forming concepts of them, and forming concepts of them is capturing them. Thus the character of man’s knowledge is conceptual, and it is with the weapon of this conceptual knowledge that man approaches the observable aspect of Reality. The one noteworthy feature of the Qur’an is the emphasis that it lays on this observable aspect of Reality. Let me quote here a few verses:
‘Assuredly, 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 sendeth down from Heaven, giving life to the earth after its death, and 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 for those who understand’ (2:164).
‘And it is He Who hath ordained for you that ye may be guided thereby in the darkness of the land and of the sea! Clear have We made Our signs to men of knowledge. And it is He Who hath created you of one breath, and hath provided you an abode and resting place (in the womb). Clear have We made Our signs for men of insight! And it is He Who sendeth down rain from Heaven: and We bring forth by it the buds of all the plants and from them bring We forth the green foliage, and the close-growing grain, and palm trees with sheaths of clustering dates, and gardens of grapes, and the olive, and the pomegranate, like and unlike. Look you on their fruits when they ripen. Truly herein are signs unto people who believe’ (6:97-99).
‘Hast thou not seen how thy Lord lengthens out the shadow? Had He pleased He had made it motionless. But We made the sun to be its guide; then draw it in unto Us with easy in drawing’ (25:45-46).
‘Can they not look up to the clouds, how they are created; and to the Heaven how it is upraised; and to the mountains how they are rooted, and to the earth how it is outspread?’ (88:17-20).
‘And among His signs are the creation of the Heavens and of the earth, and your variety of tongues and colours. Herein truly are signs for all men’ (30:22).
No doubt, the immediate purpose of the Qur’an in this reflective observation of Nature is to awaken in man the consciousness of that of which Nature is regarded a symbol. But the point to note is the general empirical attitude of the Qur’an which engendered in its followers a feeling of reverence for the actual and ultimately made them the founders of modern science. It was a great point to awaken the empirical spirit in an age which renounced the visible as of no value in men’s search after God. According to the Qur’an, as we have seen before, the universe has a serious end. Its shifting actualities force our being into fresh formations. The intellectual effort to overcome the obstruction offered by it, besides enriching and amplifying our life, sharpens our insight, and thus prepares us for a more masterful insertion into subtler aspects of human experience. It is our reflective contact with the temporal flux of things which trains us for an intellectual vision of the non-temporal. Reality lives in its own appearances; and such a being as man, who has to maintain his life in an obstructing environment, cannot afford to ignore the visible. The Qur’an opens our eyes to the great fact of change, through the appreciation and control of which alone it is possible to build a durable civilization. The cultures of Asia and, in fact, of the whole ancient world failed, because they approached Reality exclusively from within and moved from within outwards. This procedure gave them theory without power, and on mere theory no durable civilization can be based.
There is no doubt that the treatment of religious experience, as a source of Divine knowledge, is historically prior to the treatment of other regions of human experience for the same purpose. The Qur’an, recognizing that the empirical attitude is an indispensable stage in the spiritual life of humanity, attaches equal importance to all the regions of human experience as yielding knowledge of the Ultimate Reality which reveals its symbols both within and without.27 One indirect way of establishing connexions with the reality that confronts us is reflective observation and control of its symbols as they reveal themselves to sense-perception; the other way is direct association with that reality as it reveals itself within. The naturalism of the Qur’an is only a recognition of the fact that man is related to nature, and this relation, in view of its possibility as a means of controlling her forces, must be exploited not in the interest of unrighteous desire for domination, but in the nobler interest of a free upward movement of spiritual life. In the interests of securing a complete vision of Reality, therefore, sense-perception must be supplemented by the perception of what the Qur’an describes as Fu’ad or Qalb, i.e. heart:
‘God hath made everything which He hath created most good; and began the creation of man with clay; then ordained his progeny from germs of life, from sorry water; then shaped him, and breathed of His spirit unto him, and gave you hearing and seeing and heart: what little thanks do ye return?’ (32:7-9).
The ‘heart’ is a kind of inner intuition or insight which, in the beautiful words of Rama, feeds on the rays of the sun and brings us into contact with aspects of Reality other than those open to sense-perception.28 It is, according to the Qur’an, something which ‘sees’, and its reports, if properly interpreted, are never false.29 We must not, however, regard it as a mysterious special faculty; it is rather a mode of dealing with Reality in which sensation, in the physiological sense of the word, does not play any part.30 Yet the vista of experience thus opened to us is as real and concrete as any other experience. To describe it as psychic, mystical, or super-natural does not detract from its value as experience. To the primitive man all experience was super-natural. Prompted by the immediate necessities of life he was driven to interpret his experience, and out of this interpretation gradually emerged ‘Nature’ in our sense of the word. The total-Reality, which enters our awareness and appears on interpretation as an empirical fact, has other ways of invading our consciousness and offers further opportunities of interpretation. The revealed and mystic literature of mankind bears ample testimony to the fact that religious experience has been too enduring and dominant in the history of mankind to be rejected as mere illusion. There seems to be no reason, then, to accept the normal level of human experience as fact and reject its other levels as mystical and emotional. The fact of religious experience are facts among other facts of human experience and, in the capacity of yielding knowledge by interpretation, one fact is as good as another. Nor is there anything irreverent in critically examining this region of human experience. The Prophet of Islam was the first critical observer of psychic phenomena. Bukha`ri`and other traditionists have given us a full account of his observation of the psychic Jewish youth, Ibn Sayyad, whose ecstatic moods attracted the Prophet’s notice.31 He tested him, questioned him, and examined him in his various moods. Once he hid himself behind the stem of a tree to listen to his mutterings. The boy’s mother, however, warned him of the approach of the Prophet. Thereupon the boy immediately shook off his mood and the Prophet remarked: ‘If she had let him alone the thing would have been cleared up.’32 The Prophet’s companions, some of whom were present during the course of this first psychological observation in the history of Islam, and even later traditionists, who took good care to record this important fact, entirely misunderstood the significance of his attitude and interpreted it in their own innocent manner. Professor Macdonald, who seems to have no idea of the fundamental psychological difference between the mystic and the prophetic consciousness, finds ‘humour enough in this picture of one prophet trying to investigate another after the method of the Society for Psychical Research.33 A better appreciation of the spirit of the Qur’an which, as I will show in a subsequent lecture,34 initiated the cultural movement terminating in the birth of the modern empirical attitude, would have led the Professor to see something remarkably suggestive in the Prophet’s observation of the psychic Jew. However, the first Muslim to see the meaning and value of the Prophet’s attitude was Ibn Khaldan, who approached the contents of mystic consciousness in a more critical spirit and very nearly reached the modern hypothesis of subliminal selves.35 As Professor Macdonald says, Ibn Khaldan ‘had some most interesting psychological ideas, and that he would probably have been in close sympathy with Mr. William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience’.36 Modern psychology has only recently begun to realize the importance of a careful study of the contents of mystic consciousness, and we are not yet in possession of a really effective scientific method to analyse the contents of non-rational modes of consciousness. With the time at my disposal it is not possible to undertake an extensive inquiry into the history and the various degrees of mystic consciousness in point of richness and vividness. All that I can do is to offer a few general observations only on the main characteristics of mystic experience.
1. The first point to note is the immediacy of this experience. In this respect it does not differ from other levels of human experience which supply data for knowledge. All experience is immediate. As regions of normal experience are subject to interpretation of sense-data for our knowledge of the external world, so the region of mystic experience is subject to interpretation for our knowledge of God. The immediacy of mystic experience simply means that we know God just as we know other objects. God is not a mathematical entity or a system of concepts mutually related to one another and having no reference to experience.37
2. The second point is the unanalysable wholeness of mystic experience. When I experience the table before me, innumerable data of experience merge into the single experience of the table. Out of this wealth of data I select those that fall into a certain order of space and time and round them off in reference to the table. In the mystic state, however, vivid and rich it may be, thought is reduced to a minimum and such an analysis is not possible. But this difference of the mystic state from the ordinary rational consciousness does not mean discontinuance with the normal consciousness, as Professor William James erroneously thought. In either case it is the same Reality which is operating on us. The ordinary rational consciousness, in view of our practical need of adaptation to our environment, takes that Reality piecemeal, selecting successively isolated sets of stimuli for response. The mystic state brings us into contact with the total passage of Reality in which all the diverse stimuli merge into one another and form a single unanalysable unity in which the ordinary distinction of subject and object does not exist.
3. The third point to note is that to the mystic the mystic state is a moment of intimate association with a Unique Other Self, transcending, encompassing, and momentarily suppressing the private personality of the subject of experience. Considering its content the mystic state is highly objective and cannot be regarded as a mere retirement into the mists of pure subjectivity. But you will ask me how immediate experience of God, as an Independent Other Self, is at all possible. The mere fact that the mystic state is passive does not finally prove the veritable ‘otherness’ of the Self experienced. This question arises in the mind because we assume, without criticism, that our knowledge of the external world through sense-perception is the type of all knowledge. If this were so, we could never be sure of the reality of our own self. However, in reply to it I suggest the analogy of our daily social experience. How do we know other minds in our social intercourse? It is obvious that we know our own self and Nature by inner reflection and sense-perception respectively. We possess no sense for the experience of other minds. The only ground of my knowledge of a conscious being before me is the physical movements similar to my own from which I infer the presence of another conscious being. Or we may say, after Professor Royce, that our fellows are known to be real because they respond to our signals and thus constantly supply the necessary supplement to our own fragmentary meanings. Response, no doubt, is the test of the presence of a conscious self, and the Qur’an also takes the same view:
‘And your Lord saith, call Me and I respond to your call’ (40:60).
‘And when My servants ask thee concerning Me, then I am nigh unto them and answer the cry of him that crieth unto Me’ (2:186).
It is clear that whether we apply the physical criterion or the non-physical and more adequate criterion of Royce, in either case our knowledge of other minds remains something like inferential only. Yet we feel that our experience of other minds is immediate and never entertain any doubt as to the reality of our social experience. I do not, however, mean, at the present stage of our inquiry, to build on the implications of our knowledge of other minds, an idealistic argument in favour of the reality of a Comprehensive Self. All that I mean to suggest is that the immediacy of our experience in the mystic state is not without a parallel. It has some sort of resemblance to our normal experience and probably belongs to the same category.
4. Since the quality of mystic experience is to be directly experienced, it is obvious that it cannot be communicated.38 Mystic states are more like feeling than thought. The interpretation which the mystic or the prophet puts on the content of his religious consciousness can be conveyed to others in the form of propositions, but the content itself cannot be so transmitted. Thus in the following verses of the Qur’an it is the psychology and not the content of the experience that is given:
‘It is not for man that God should speak to him, but by vision or from behind a veil; or He sendeth a messenger to reveal by His permission what He will: for He is Exalted, Wise’ (42:51).
‘By the star when it setteth,
Your compatriot erreth not, nor is he led astray.
Neither speaketh he from mere impulse.
The Qur’an is no other than the revelation revealed to him:
One strong in power taught it him,
Endowed with wisdom with even balance stood he
In the highest part of the horizon:
Then came he nearer and approached,
And was at the distance of two bows or even closer -
And he revealed to the servant of God what he revealed:
His heart falsified not what he saw:
What! will ye then dispute with him as to what he saw?
He had seen him also another time
Near the Sidrah tree which marks the boundary:
Near which is the garden of repose:
When the Sidrah tree was covered with what covered it:
His eye turned not aside, nor did it wander:
For he saw the greatest of the signs of the Lord’ (53:1-18).
The incommunicability of mystic experience is due to the fact that it is essentially a matter of inarticulate feeling, untouched by discursive intellect. It must, however, be noted that mystic feeling, like all feeling, has a cognitive element also; and it is, I believe, because of this cognitive element that it lends itself to the form of idea. In fact, it is the nature of feeling to seek expression in thought. It would seem that the two – feeling and idea – are the non-temporal and temporal aspects of the same unit of inner experience. But on this point I cannot do better than quote Professor Hocking who has made a remarkably keen study of feeling in justification of an intellectual view of the content of religious consciousness:
‘What is that other-than-feeling in which feeling may end? I answer, consciousness of an object. Feeling is instability of an entire conscious self: and that which will restore the stability of this self lies not within its own border but beyond it. Feeling is outward-pushing, as idea is outward-reporting: and no feeling is so blind as to have no idea of its own object. As a feeling possesses the mind, there also possesses the mind, as an integral part of that feeling, some idea of the kind of thing which will bring it to rest. A feeling without a direction is as impossible as an activity without a direction: and a direction implies some objective. There are vague states of consciousness in which we seem to be wholly without direction; but in such cases it is remarkable that feeling is likewise in abeyance. For example, I may be dazed by a blow, neither realizing what has happened nor suffering any pain, and yet quite conscious that something has occurred: the experience waits an instant in the vestibule of consciousness, not as feeling but purely as fact, until idea has touched it and defined a course of response. At that same moment, it is felt as painful. If we are right, feeling is quite as much an objective consciousness as is idea: it refers always to something beyond the present self and has no existence save in directing the self toward that object in whose presence its own career must end!’39
Thus you will see that it is because of this essential nature of feeling that while religion starts with feeling, it has never, in its history, taken itself as a matter of feeling alone and has constantly striven after metaphysics. The mystic’s condemnation of intellect as an organ of knowledge does not really find any justification in the history of religion. But Professor Hocking’s passage just quoted has a wider scope than mere justification of idea in religion. The organic relation of feeling and idea throws light on the old theological controversy about verbal revelation which once gave so much trouble to Muslim religious thinkers.40 Inarticulate feeling seeks to fulfil its destiny in idea which, in its turn, tends to develop out of itself its own visible garment. It is no mere metaphor to say that idea and word both simultaneously emerge out of the womb of feeling, though logical understanding cannot but take them in a temporal order and thus create its own difficulty by regarding them as mutually isolated. There is a sense in which the word is also revealed.
5. The mystic’s intimate association with the eternal which gives him a sense of the unreality of serial time does not mean a complete break with serial time. The mystic state in respect of its uniqueness remains in some way related to common experience. This is clear from the fact that the mystic state soon fades away, though it leaves a deep sense of authority after it has passed away. Both the mystic and the prophet return to the normal levels of experience, but with this difference that the return of the prophet, as I will show later, may be fraught with infinite meaning for mankind.
For the purposes of knowledge, then, the region of mystic experience is as real as any other region of human experience and cannot be ignored merely because it cannot be traced back to sense-perception. Nor is it possible to undo the spiritual value of the mystic state by specifying the organic conditions which appear to determine it. Even if the postulate of modern psychology as to the interrelation of body and mind is assumed to be true, it is illogical to discredit the value of the mystic state as a revelation of truth. Psychologically speaking, all states, whether their content is religious or non-religious, are organically determined.41 The scientific form of mind is as much organically determined as the religious. Our judgement as to the creations of genius is not at all determined or even remotely affected by what our psychologists may say regarding its organic conditions. A certain kind of temperament may be a necessary condition for a certain kind of receptivity; but the antecedent condition cannot be regarded as the whole truth about the character of what is received. The truth is that the organic causation of our mental states has nothing to do with the criteria by which we judge them to be superior or inferior in point of value. ‘Among the visions and messages’, says Professor William James,
‘some have always been too patently silly, among the trances and convulsive seizures some have been too fruitless for conduct and character, to pass themselves off as significant, still less as divine. In the history of Christian mysticism the problem how to discriminate between such messages and experiences as were really divine miracles, and such others as the demon in his malice was able to counterfeit, thus making the religious person twofold more the child of hell he was before, has always been a difficult one to solve, needing all the sagacity and experience of the best directors of conscience. In the end it had come to our empiricist criterion: By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots’.42
The problem of Christian mysticism alluded to by Professor James has been in fact the problem of all mysticism. The demon in his malice does counterfeit experiences which creep into the circuit of the mystic state. As we read in the Qur’an:
‘We have not sent any Apostle or Prophet43 before thee among whose desires Satan injected not some wrong desire, but God shall bring to nought that which Satan had suggested. Thus shall God affirm His revelations, for God is Knowing and Wise’ (22:52).
And it is in the elimination of the satanic from the Divine that the followers of Freud have done inestimable service to religion; though I cannot help saying that the main theory of this newer psychology does not appear to me to be supported by any adequate evidence. If our vagrant impulses assert themselves in our dreams, or at other times we are not strictly ourselves, it does not follow that they remain imprisoned in a kind of lumber room behind the normal self. The occasional invasion of these suppressed impulses on the region of our normal self tends more to show the temporary disruption of our habitual system of responses rather than their perpetual presence in some dark corner of the mind. However, the theory is briefly this. During the process of our adjustment to our environment we are exposed to all sorts of stimuli. Our habitual responses to these stimuli gradually fall into a relatively fixed system, constantly growing in complexity by absorbing some and rejecting other impulses which do not fit in with our permanent system of responses. The rejected impulses recede into what is called the ‘unconscious region’ of the mind, and there wait for a suitable opportunity to assert themselves and take their revenge on the focal self. They may disturb our plans of action, distort our thought, build our dreams and phantasies, or carry us back to forms of primitive behaviour which the evolutionary process has left far behind. Religion, it is said, is a pure fiction created by these repudiated impulses of mankind with a view to find a kind of fairyland for free unobstructed movement. Religious beliefs and dogmas, according to the theory, are no more than merely primitive theories of Nature, whereby mankind has tried to redeem Reality from its elemental ugliness and to show it off as something nearer to the heart’s desire than the facts of life would warrant. That there are religions and forms of art, which provide a kind of cowardly escape from the facts of life, I do not deny. All that I contend is that this is not true of all religions. No doubt, religious beliefs and dogmas have a metaphysical significance; but it is obvious that they are not interpretations of those data of experience which are the subject of the science of Nature. Religion is not physics or chemistry seeking an explanation of Nature in terms of causation; it really aims at interpreting a totally different region of human experience – religious experience – the data of which cannot be reduced to the data of any other science. In fact, it must be said in justice to religion that it insisted on the necessity of concrete experience in religious life long before science learnt to do so.44 The conflict between the two is due not to the fact that the one is, and the other is not, based on concrete experience. Both seek concrete experience as a point of departure. Their conflict is due to the misapprehension that both interpret the same data of experience. We forget that religion aims at reaching the real significance of a special variety of human experience.
Nor is it possible to explain away the content of religious consciousness by attributing the whole thing to the working of the sex-impulse. The two forms of consciousness – sexual and religious – are often hostile or, at any rate, completely different to each other in point of their character, their aim, and the kind of conduct they generate. The truth is that in a state of religious passion we know a factual reality in some sense outside the narrow circuit of our personality. To the psychologist religious passion necessarily appears as the work of the subconscious because of the intensity with which it shakes up the depths of our being. In all knowledge there is an element of passion, and the object of knowledge gains or loses in objectivity with the rise and fall in the intensity of passion. That is most real to us which stirs up the entire fabric of our personality. As Professor Hocking pointedly puts it:
‘If ever upon the stupid day-length time-span of any self or saint either, some vision breaks to roll his life and ours into new channels, it can only be because that vision admits into his soul some trooping invasion of the concrete fullness of eternity. Such vision doubtless means subconscious readiness and subconscious resonance too, – but the expansion of the unused air-cells does not argue that we have ceased to breathe the outer air: – the very opposite!’45
A purely psychological method, therefore, cannot explain religious passion as a form of knowledge. It is bound to fail in the case of our newer psychologists as it did fail in the case of Locke and Hume.
The foregoing discussion, however, is sure to raise an important question in your mind. Religious experience, I have tried to maintain, is essentially a state of feeling with a cognitive aspect, the content of which cannot be communicated to others, except in the form of a judgement. Now when a judgement which claims to be the interpretation of a certain region of human experience, not accessible to me, is placed before me for my assent, I am entitled to ask, what is the guarantee of its truth? Are we in possession of a test which would reveal its validity? If personal experience had been the only ground for acceptance of a judgement of this kind, religion would have been the possession of a few individuals only. Happily we are in possession of tests which do not differ from those applicable to other forms of knowledge. These I call the intellectual test and the pragmatic test. By the intellectual test I mean critical interpretation, without any presuppositions of human experience, generally with a view to discover whether our interpretation leads us ultimately to a reality of the same character as is revealed by religious experience. The pragmatic test judges it by its fruits. The former is applied by the philosopher, the latter by the prophet. In the lecture that follows, I will apply the intellectual test.