The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam
by Dr. Muhammad Iqbal
The Conception of God and the
Meaning of Prayer
We have seen that the judgement based upon religious experience fully satisfies the intellectual test. The more important regions of experience, examined with an eye on a synthetic view, reveal, as the ultimate ground of all experience, a rationally directed creative will which we have found reasons to describe as an ego. In order to emphasize the individuality of the Ultimate Ego the Qur’an gives Him the proper name of Allah, and further defines Him as follows:
‘Say: Allah is One:
All things depend on Him;
He begetteth not, and He is not begotten;
And there is none like unto Him’ (112:1-4).
But it is hard to understand what exactly is an individual. As Bergson has taught us in his Creative Evolution, individuality is a matter of degrees and is not fully realized even in the case of the apparently closed off unity of the human being.1 ‘In particular, it may be said of individuality’, says Bergson:
‘that while the tendency to individuate is everywhere present in the organized world, it is everywhere opposed by the tendency towards reproduction. For the individuality to be perfect, it would be necessary that no detached part of the organism could live separately. But then reproduction would be impossible. For what is reproduction but the building up of a new organism with a detached fragment of the old? Individuality, therefore, harbours its own enemy at home.’2
In the light of this passage it is clear that the perfect individual, closed off as an ego, peerless and unique, cannot be conceived as harbouring its own enemy at home. It must be conceived as superior to the antagonistic tendency of reproduction. This characteristic of the perfect ego is one of the most essential elements in the Quranic conception of God; and the Qur’an mentions it over and over again, not so much with a view to attack the current Christian conception as to accentuate its own view of a perfect individual.3 It may, however, be said that the history of religious thought discloses various ways of escape from an individualistic conception of the Ultimate Reality which is conceived as some vague, vast, and pervasive cosmic element,4 such as light. This is the view that Farnell has taken in his Gifford Lectures on the Attributes of God. I agree that the history of religion reveals modes of thought that tend towards pantheism; but I venture to think that in so far as the Quranic identification of God with light is concerned Farnell’s view is incorrect. The full text of the verse of which he quotes a portion only is as follows:
‘God is the light of the Heavens and of the earth. His light is like a niche in which is a lamp – the encased in a glass, – the glass, as it were, a star’5 (24:35).
No doubt, the opening sentence of the verse gives the impression of an escape from an individualistic conception of God. But when we follow the metaphor of light in the rest of the verse, it gives just the opposite impression. The development of the metaphor is meant rather to exclude the suggestion of a formless cosmic element by centralizing the light in a flame which is further individualized by its encasement in a glass likened unto a well-defined star. Personally, I think the description of God as light, in the revealed literature of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, must now be interpreted differently. The teaching of modern physics is that the velocity of light cannot be exceeded and is the same for all observers whatever their own system of movement. Thus, in the world of change, light is the nearest approach to the Absolute. The metaphor of light as applied to God, therefore, must, in view of modern knowledge, be taken to suggest the Absoluteness of God and not His Omnipresence which easily lends itself to a pantheistic interpretation.
There is, however, one question which will be raised in this connexion. Does not individuality imply finitude? If God is an ego and as such an individual, how can we conceive Him as infinite? The answer to this question is that God cannot be conceived as infinite in the sense of spatial infinity. In matters of spiritual valuation mere immensity counts for nothing. Moreover, as we have seen before, temporal and spatial infinities are not absolute. Modern science regards Nature not as something static, situated in an infinite void, but a structure of interrelated events out of whose mutual relations arise the concepts of space and time. And this is only another way of saying that space and time are interpretations which thought puts upon the creative activity of the Ultimate Ego. Space and time are possibilities of the Ego, only partially realized in the shape of our mathematical space and time. Beyond Him and apart from His creative activity, there is neither time nor space to close Him off in reference to other egos. The Ultimate Ego is, therefore, neither infinite in the sense of spatial infinity nor finite in the sense of the space-bound human ego whose body closes him off in reference to other egos. The infinity of the Ultimate Ego consists in the infinite inner possibilities of His creative activity of which the universe, as known to us, is only a partial expression. In one word God’s infinity is intensive, not extensive.6 It involves an infinite series, but is not that series.
The other important elements in the Quranic conception of God, from a purely intellectual point of view, are Creativeness, Knowledge, Omnipotence, and Eternity. I shall deal with them serially.
Finite minds regard nature as a confronting ‘other’ existing per se, which the mind knows but does not make. We are thus apt to regard the act of creation as a specific past event, and the universe appears to us as a manufactured article which has no organic relation to the life of its maker, and of which the maker is nothing more than a mere spectator. All the meaningless theological controversies about the idea of creation arise from this narrow vision of the finite mind.7 Thus regarded the universe is a mere accident in the life of God and might not have been created. The real question which we are called upon to answer is this: Does the universe confront God as His ‘other’, with space intervening between Him and it? The answer is that, from the Divine point of view, there is no creation in the sense of a specific event having a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. The universe cannot be regarded as an independent reality standing in opposition to Him. This view of the matter will reduce both God and the world to two separate entities confronting each other in the empty receptacle of an infinite space. We have seen before that space, time, and matter are interpretations which thought puts on the free creative energy of God.8 They are not independent realities existing per se, but only intellectual modes of apprehending the life of God. The question of creation once arose among the disciples of the well-known saint BaYazid of Bistam. One of the disciples very pointedly put the common-sense view saying: ‘There was a moment of time when God existed and nothing else existed beside Him.’ The saint’s reply was equally pointed. ‘It is just the same now’, said he, ‘as it was then.’ The world of matter, therefore, is not a stuff co-eternal with God, operated upon by Him from a distance as it were. It is, in its real nature, one continuous act which thought breaks up into a plurality of mutually exclusive things. Professor Eddington has thrown further light on this important point, and I take the liberty to quote from his book, Space, Time and Gravitation:
‘We have a world of point-events with their primary interval-relations. Out of these an unlimited number of more complicated relations and qualities can be built up mathematically, describing various features of the state of the world. These exist in nature in the same sense as an unlimited number of walks exist on an open moor. But the existence is, as it were, latent unless some one gives a significance to the walk by following it; and in the same way the existence of any one of these qualities of the world only acquires significance above its fellows if a mind singles it out for recognition. Mind filters out matter from the meaningless jumble of qualities, as the prism filters out the colours of the rainbow from the chaotic pulsations of white light. Mind exalts the permanent and ignores the transitory; and it appears from the mathematical study of relations that the only way in which mind can achieve her object is by picking out one particular quality as the permanent substance of the perceptual world, partitioning a perceptual time and space for it to be permanent in, and, as a necessary consequence of this Hobson’s choice, the laws of gravitation and mechanics and geometry have to be obeyed. Is it too much to say that the mind’s search for permanence has created the world of physics?’9
The last sentence in this passage is one of the deepest things in Professor Eddington’s book. The physicist has yet to discover by his own methods that the passing show of the apparently permanent world of physics which the mind has created in its search for permanence is rooted in something more permanent, conceivable only as a self which alone combines the opposite attributes of change and permanence, and can thus be regarded as both constant and variable.
There is, however, one question which we must answer before we proceed further. In what manner does the creative activity of God proceed to the work of creation? The most orthodox and still popular school of Muslim theology, I mean the Ash‘arite, hold that the creative method of Divine energy is atomic; and they appear to have based their doctrine on the following verse of the Qur’an:
‘And no one thing is here, but with Us are its store-houses; and We send it not down but in fixed quantities’ (15:21).
The rise and growth of atomism in Islam – the first important indication of an intellectual revolt against the Aristotelian idea of a fixed universe – forms one of the most interesting chapters in the history of Muslim thought. The views of the school of Baarah were first shaped by Abu Hashim10 (A.D. 933) and those of the school of Baghdad by that most exact and daring theological thinker, AbuBakr Baqilani11 (A.D.1013). Later in the beginning of the thirteenth century we find a thoroughly systematic description in a book called the Guide of the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides– a Jewish theologian who was educated in the Muslim universities of Spain.12 A French translation of this book was made by Munk in 1866, and recently Professor Macdonald of America has given an excellent account of its contents in the Isis from which Dr. Zwemer has reprinted it in The Moslem World of January 1928.13 Professor Macdonald, however, has made no attempt to discover the psychological forces that determined the growth of atomistic kalam in Islam. He admits that there is nothing like the atomism of Islam in Greek thought, but, unwilling as he is to give any credit for original thought to Muslim thinkers,14 and finding a surface resemblance between the Islamic theory and the views of a certain sect of Buddhism, he jumps to the conclusion that the origin of the theory is due to Buddhistic influences on the thought of Islam.15 Unfortunately, a full discussion of the sources of this purely speculative theory is not possible in this lecture. I propose only to give you some of its more salient features, indicating at the same time the lines on which the work of reconstruction in the light of modern physics ought, in my opinion, to proceed.
According to the Ash‘arite school of thinkers, then, the world is compounded of what they call jawahir– infinitely small parts or atoms which cannot be further divided. Since the creative activity of God is ceaseless the number of the atoms cannot be finite. Fresh atoms are coming into being every moment, and the universe is therefore constantly growing. As the Qur’an says: ‘God adds to His creation what He wills.’16 The essence of the atom is independent of its existence. This means that existence is a quality imposed on the atom by God. Before receiving this quality the atom lies dormant, as it were, in the creative energy of God, and its existence means nothing more than Divine energy become visible. The atom in its essence, therefore, has no magnitude; it has its position which does not involve space. It is by their aggregation that atoms become extended and generate space.17 Ibn Aazm, the critic of atomism, acutely remarks that the language of the Qur’an makes no difference in the act of creation and the thing created. What we call a thing, then, is in its essential nature an aggregation of atomic acts. Of the concept of ‘atomic act’, however, it is difficult to form a mental picture. Modern physics too conceives as action the actual atom of a certain physical quantity. But, as Professor Eddington has pointed out, the precise formulation of the Theory of Quanta of action has not been possible so far; though it is vaguely believed that the atomicity of action is the general law and that the appearance of electrons is in some way dependent on it.18
Again we have seen that each atom occupies a position which does not involve space. That being so, what is the nature of motion which we cannot conceive except as the atom’s passage through space? Since the Ash‘arite regarded space as generated by the aggregation of atoms, they could not explain movement as a body’s passage through all the points of space intervening between the point of its start and destination. Such an explanation must necessarily assume the existence of void as an independent reality. In order, therefore, to get over the difficulty of empty space, Naaam resorted to the notion of Aafrah or jump; and imagined the moving body, not as passing through all the discrete positions in space, but as jumping over the void between one position and another. Thus, according to him, a quick motion and a slow motion possess the same speed; but the latter has more points of rest.19 I confess I do not quite understand this solution of the difficulty. It may, however, be pointed out that modern atomism has found a similar difficulty and a similar solution has been suggested. In view of the experiments relating to Planck’s Theory of Quanta, we cannot imagine the moving atom as continuously traversing its path in space. ‘One of the most hopeful lines of explanation’, says Professor Whitehead in his Science and the Modern World,
‘is to assume that an electron does not continuously traverse its path in space. The alternative notion as to its mode of existence is that it appears at a series of discrete positions in space which it occupies for successive durations of time. It is as though an automobile, moving at the average rate of thirty miles an hour along a road, did not traverse the road continuously, but appeared successively at the successive milestones’ remaining for two minutes at each milestone.’20
Another feature of this theory of creation is the doctrine of accident, on the perpetual creation of which depends the continuity of the atom as an existent. If God ceases to create the accidents, the atom ceases to exist as an atom.21 The atom possesses inseparable positive or negative qualities. These exist in opposed couples, as life and death, motion and rest, and possess practically no duration. Two propositions follow from this: (i) Nothing has a stable nature. (ii) There is a single order of atoms, i.e. what we call the soul is either a finer kind of matter, or only an accident.
I am inclined to think that in view of the idea of continuous creation which the Ash‘arite intended to establish there is an element of truth in the first proposition. I have said before that in my opinion the spirit of the Qur’an is on the whole anti-classical.22 I regard the Ash‘arite thought on this point as a genuine effort to develop on the basis of an Ultimate Will or Energy a theory of creation which, with all its shortcomings, is far more true to the spirit of the Qur’an than the Aristotelian idea of a fixed universe.23 The duty of the future theologians of Islam is to reconstruct this purely speculative theory, and to bring it into closer contact with modern science which appears to be moving in the same direction.
The second proposition looks like pure materialism. It is my belief that the Ash‘arite view that the Nafs is an accident is opposed to the real trend of their own theory which makes the continuous existence of the atom dependent on the continuous creation of accidents in it. It is obvious that motion is inconceivable without time. And since time comes from psychic life, the latter is more fundamental than motion. No psychic life, no time: no time, no motion. Thus it is really what the Ash‘arites call the accident which is responsible for the continuity of the atom as such. The atom becomes or rather looks spatialized when it receives the quality of existence. Regarded as a phase of Divine energy, it is essentially spiritual. The Nafs is the pure act; the body is only the act become visible and hence measurable. In fact the Ash‘arite vaguely anticipated the modern notion of point-instant; but they failed rightly to see the nature of the mutual relation between the point and the instant. The instant is the more fundamental of the two; but the point is inseparable from the instant as being a necessary mode of its manifestation. The point is not a thing, it is only a sort of looking at the instant. Rumi is far more true to the spirit of Islam than Ghazali when he says:24
Reality is, therefore, essentially spirit. But, of course, there are degrees of spirit. In the history of Muslim thought the idea of degrees of Reality appears in the writings of Shihabuddin Suhrawardi Maqtal. In modern times we find it worked out on a much larger scale in Hegel and, more recently, in the late Lord Haldane’s Reign of Relativity, which he published shortly before his death.25 I have conceived the Ultimate Reality as an Ego; and I must add now that from the Ultimate Ego only egos proceed. The creative energy of the Ultimate Ego, in whom deed and thought are identical, functions as ego-unities. The world, in all its details, from the mechanical movement of what we call the atom of matter to the free movement of thought in the human ego, is the self-revelation of the ‘Great I am’.26 Every atom of Divine energy, however low in the scale of existence, is an ego. But there are degrees in the expression of egohood. Throughout the entire gamut of being runs the gradually rising note of egohood until it reaches its perfection in man. That is why the Qur’an declares the Ultimate Ego to be nearer to man than his own neck-vein.27 Like pearls do we live and move and have our being in the perpetual flow of Divine life.
Thus a criticism, inspired by the best traditions of Muslim thought, tends to turn the Ash‘arite scheme of atomism into a spiritual pluralism, the details of which will have to be worked out by the future theologians of Islam. It may, however, be asked whether atomicity has a real seat in the creative energy of God, or presents itself to us as such only because of our finite mode of apprehension. From a purely scientific point of view I cannot say what the final answer to this question will be. From the psychological point of view one thing appears to me to be certain. Only that is, strictly speaking, real which is directly conscious of its own reality. The degree of reality varies with the degree of the feeling of egohood. The nature of the ego is such that, in spite of its capacity to respond to other egos, it is self-centred and possesses a private circuit of individuality excluding all egos other than itself.28 In this alone consists its reality as an ego. Man, therefore, in whom egohood has reached its relative perfection, occupies a genuine place in the heart of Divine creative energy, and thus possesses a much higher degree of reality than things around him. Of all the creations of God he alone is capable of consciously participating in the creative life of his Maker.29 Endowed with the power to imagine a better world, and to mould what is into what ought to be, the ego in him, aspires, in the interests of an increasingly unique and comprehensive individuality, to exploit all the various environments on which he may be called upon to operate during the course of an endless career. But I would ask you to wait for a fuller treatment of this point till my lecture on the Immortality and Freedom of the Ego. In the meantime, I want to say a few words about the doctrine of atomic time which I think is the weakest part of the Ash‘arite theory of creation. It is necessary to do so for a reasonable view of the Divine attribute of Eternity.
The problem of time has always drawn the attention of Muslim thinkers and mystics. This seems to be due partly to the fact that, according to the Qur’an, the alternation of day and night is one of the greatest signs of God, and partly to the Prophet’s identification of God with Dahr (time) in a well-known tradition referred to before.30 Indeed, some of the greatest Muslim Sufis believed in the mystic properties of the word Dahr. According to Muayuddin Ibn al-‘Arabi, Dahr is one of the beautiful names of God, and Raza tells us in his commentary on the Qur’an that some of the Muslim saints had taught him to repeat the word Dahr, Daihur, or Daihar. The Ash‘arite theory of time is perhaps the first attempt in the history of Muslim thought to understand it philosophically. Time, according to the Ash‘arite, is a succession of individual ‘nows’. From this view it obviously follows that between every two individual ‘nows’ or moments of time, there is an unoccupied moment of time, that is to say, a void of time. The absurdity of this conclusion is due to the fact that they looked at the subject of their inquiry from a wholly objective point of view. They took no lesson from the history of Greek thought, which had adopted the same point of view and had reached no results. In our own time Newton described time as ‘something which in itself and from its own nature flows equally.’31 The metaphor of stream implied in this description suggests serious objections to Newton’s equally objective view of time. We cannot understand how a thing is affected on its immersion in this stream, and how it differs from things that do not participate in its flow. Nor can we form any idea of the beginning, the end, and the boundaries of time if we try to understand it on the analogy of a stream. Moreover, if flow, movement, or ‘passage’ is the last word as to the nature of time, there must be another time to time the movement of the first time, and another which times the second time, and so on to infinity. Thus the notion of time as something wholly objective is beset with difficulties. It must, however, be admitted that the practical Arab mind could not regard time as something unreal like the Greeks. Nor can it be denied that, even though we possess no sense-organ to perceive time, it is a kind of flow and has, as such, a genuine objective, that is to say, atomic aspect. In fact, the verdict of modern science is exactly the same as that of the Ash‘arite; for recent discoveries in physics regarding the nature of time assume the discontinuity of matter. The following passage from Professor Rougier’s Philosophy and New Physics is noteworthy in this connexion:
‘Contrary to the ancient adage, natura non facit saltus, it becomes apparent that the universe varies by sudden jumps and not by imperceptible degrees. A physical system is capable of only a finite number of distinct states . . . . Since between two different and immediately consecutive states the world remains motionless, time is suspended, so that time itself is discontinuous: there is an atom of time.’32
The point, however, is that the constructive endeavour of the Ash‘arite, as of the moderns, was wholly lacking in psychological analysis, and the result of this shortcoming was that they altogether failed to perceive the subjective aspect of time. It is due to this failure that in their theory the systems of material atoms and time-atoms lie apart, with no organic relation between them. It is clear that if we look at time from a purely objective point of view serious difficulties arise; for we cannot apply atomic time to God and conceive Him as a life in the making, as Professor Alexander appears to have done in his Lectures on Space, Time, and Deity.33 Later Muslim theologians fully realized these difficulties. Mulla Jalaluddan Dawana in a passage of his Zauri’, which reminds the modern student of Professor Royce’s view of time, tells us that if we take time to be a kind of span which makes possible the appearance of events as a moving procession and conceive this span to be a unity, then we cannot but describe it as an original state of Divine activity, encompassing all the succeeding states of that activity. But the Mulla takes good care to add that a deeper insight into the nature of succession reveals its relativity, so that it disappears in the case of God to Whom all events are present in a single act of perception. The Sufi poet ‘Iraqi34 has a similar way of looking at the matter. He conceives infinite varieties of time, relative to the varying grades of being, intervening between materiality and pure spirituality. The time of gross bodies which arises from the revolution of the heavens is divisible into past, present, and future; and its nature is such that as long as one day does not pass away the succeeding day does not come. The time of immaterial beings is also serial in character, but its passage is such that a whole year in the time of gross bodies is not more than a day in the time of an immaterial being. Rising higher and higher in the scale of immaterial beings we reach Divine time – time which is absolutely free from the quality of passage, and consequently does not admit of divisibility, sequence, and change. It is above eternity; it has neither beginning nor end. The eye of God sees all the visibles, and His ear hears all the audibles in one indivisible act of perception. The priority of God is not due to the priority of time; on the other hand, the priority of time is due to God’s priority.35 Thus Divine time is what the Qur’an describes as the ‘Mother of Books’36 in which the whole of history, freed from the net of causal sequence, is gathered up in a single super-eternal ‘now’. Of all the Muslim theologians, however, it is Fakhruddin Razi who appears to have given his most serious attention to the problem of time. In his “Eastern Discussions,” Razi subjects to a searching examination all the contemporary theories of time. He too is, in the main, objective in his method and finds himself unable to reach any definite conclusions. ‘Until now,’ he says,
‘I have not been able to discover anything really true with regard to the nature of time; and the main purpose of my book is to explain what can possibly be said for or against each theory without any spirit of partisanship, which I generally avoid, especially in connexion with the problem of time.’37
The above discussion makes it perfectly clear that a purely objective point of view is only partially helpful in our understanding of the nature of time. The right course is a careful psychological analysis of our conscious experience which alone reveals the true nature of time. I suppose you remember the distinction that I drew in the two aspects of the self, appreciative and efficient. The appreciative self lives in pure duration, i.e. change without succession. The life of the self consists in its movement from appreciation to efficiency, from intuition to intellect, and atomic time is born out of this movement. Thus the character of our conscious experience – our point of departure in all knowledge – gives us a clue to the concept which reconciles the opposition of permanence and change, of time regarded as an organic whole or eternity, and time regarded as atomic. If then we accept the guidance of our conscious experience, and conceive the life of the all-inclusive Ego on the analogy of the finite ego, the time of the Ultimate Ego is revealed as change without succession, i.e. an organic whole which appears atomic because of the creative movement of the ego. This is what Mir Damad and Mulla Baqir mean when they say that time is born with the act of creation by which the Ultimate Ego realizes and measures, so to speak, the infinite wealth of His own undetermined creative possibilities. On the one hand, therefore, the ego lives in eternity, by which term I mean non-successional change; on the other, it lives in serial time, which I conceive as organically related to eternity in the sense that it is a measure of non-successional change. In this sense alone it is possible to understand the Quranic verse: ‘To God belongs the alternation of day and night.’38 But on this difficult side of the problem I have said enough in my preceding lecture. It is now time to pass on to the Divine attributes of Knowledge and Omnipotence.
The word ‘knowledge’, as applied to the finite ego, always means discursive knowledge – a temporal process which moves round a veritable ‘other’, supposed to exist per se and confronting the knowing ego. In this sense knowledge, even if we extend it to the point of omniscience, must always remain relative to its confronting ‘other’, and cannot, therefore, be predicated of the Ultimate Ego who, being all-inclusive, cannot be conceived as having a perspective like the finite ego. The universe, as we have seen before, is not an ‘other’ existing per se in opposition to God. It is only when we look at the act of creation as a specific event in the life-history of God that the universe appears as an independent ‘other’. From the standpoint of the all-inclusive Ego there is no ‘other’. In Him thought and deed, the act of knowing and the act of creating, are identical. It may be argued that the ego, whether finite or infinite, is inconceivable without a confronting non-ego, and if there is nothing outside the Ultimate Ego, the Ultimate Ego cannot be conceived as an ego. The answer to this argument is that logical negations are of no use in forming a positive concept which must be based on the character of Reality as revealed in experience. Our criticism of experience reveals the Ultimate Reality to be a rationally directed life which, in view of our experience of life, cannot be conceived except as an organic whole, a something closely knit together and possessing a central point of reference.39 This being the character of life, the ultimate life can be conceived only as an ego. Knowledge, in the sense of discursive knowledge, however infinite, cannot, therefore, be predicated of an ego who knows, and, at the same time, forms the ground of the object known. Unfortunately, language does not help us here. We possess no word to express the kind of knowledge which is also creative of its object. The alternative concept of Divine knowledge is omniscience in the sense of a single indivisible act of perception which makes God immediately aware of the entire sweep of history, regarded as an order of specific events, in an eternal ‘now’. This is how Jalaluddin Dawani, ‘Iraqi, and Professor Royce in our own times conceived God’s knowledge.40 There is an element of truth in this conception. But it suggests a closed universe, a fixed futurity, a predetermined, unalterable order of specific events which, like a superior fate, has once for all determined the directions of God’s creative activity. In fact, Divine knowledge regarded as a kind of passive omniscience is nothing more than the inert void of pre-Einsteinian physics, which confers a semblance of unity on things by holding them together, a sort of mirror passively reflecting the details of an already finished structure of things which the finite consciousness reflects in fragments only. Divine knowledge must be conceived as a living creative activity to which the objects that appear to exist in their own right are organically related. By conceiving God’s knowledge as a kind of reflecting mirror, we no doubt save His fore-knowledge of future events; but it is obvious that we do so at the expense of His freedom. The future certainly pre-exists in the organic whole of God’s creative life, but it pre-exists as an open possibility, not as a fixed order of events with definite outlines. An illustration will perhaps help us in understanding what I mean. Suppose, as sometimes happens in the history of human thought, a fruitful idea with a great inner wealth of applications emerges into the light of your consciousness. You are immediately aware of the idea as a complex whole; but the intellectual working out of its numerous bearings is a matter of time. Intuitively all the possibilities of the idea are present in your mind. If a specific possibility, as such, is not intellectually known to you at a certain moment of time, it is not because your knowledge is defective, but because there is yet no possibility to become known. The idea reveals the possibilities of its application with advancing experience, and sometimes it takes more than one generation of thinkers before these possibilities are exhausted. Nor is it possible, on the view of Divine knowledge as a kind of passive omniscience, to reach the idea of a creator. If history is regarded merely as a gradually revealed photo of a predetermined order of events, then there is no room in it for novelty and initiation. Consequently, we can attach no meaning to the word ‘creation’, which has a meaning for us only in view of our own capacity for original action. The truth is that the whole theological controversy relating to predestination is due to pure speculation with no eye on the spontaneity of life, which is a fact of actual experience. No doubt, the emergence of egos endowed with the power of spontaneous and hence unforeseeable action is, in a sense, a limitation on the freedom of the all-inclusive Ego. But this limitation is not externally imposed. It is born out of His own creative freedom whereby He has chosen finite egos to be participators of His life, power, and freedom.
But how, it may be asked, is it possible to reconcile limitation with Omnipotence? The word ‘limitation’ need not frighten us. The Qur’an has no liking for abstract universals. It always fixes its gaze on the concrete which the theory of Relativity has only recently taught modern philosophy to see. All activity, creational or otherwise, is a kind of limitation without which it is impossible to conceive God as a concrete operative Ego. Omnipotence, abstractly conceived, is merely a blind, capricious power without limits. The Qur’an has a clear and definite conception of Nature as a cosmos of mutually related forces.41 It, therefore, views Divine omnipotence as intimately related to Divine wisdom, and finds the infinite power of God revealed, not in the arbitrary and the capricious, but in the recurrent, the regular, and the orderly. At the same time, the Qur’an conceives God as ‘holding all goodness in His hands’.42 If, then, the rationally directed Divine will is good, a very serious problem arises. The course of evolution, as revealed by modern science, involves almost universal suffering and wrongdoing. No doubt, wrongdoing is confined to man only. But the fact of pain is almost universal, thought it is equally true that men can suffer and have suffered the most excruciating pain for the sake of what they have believed to be good. Thus the two facts of moral and physical evil stand out prominent in the life of Nature. Nor can the relativity of evil and the presence of forces that tend to transmute it be a source of consolation to us; for, in spite of all this relativity and transmutation, there is something terribly positive about it. How is it, then, possible to reconcile the goodness and omnipotence of God with the immense volume of evil in His creation? This painful problem is really the crux of Theism. No modern writer has put it more accurately than Naumann in his Briefe a ber Religion. ‘We possess’, he says:
‘a knowledge of the world which teaches us a God of power and strength, who sends out life and death as simultaneously as shadow and light, and a revelation, a faith as to salvation which declares the same God to be father. The following of the world-God produces the morality of the struggle for existence, and the service of the Father of Jesus Christ produces the morality of compassion. And yet they are not two gods, but one God. Somehow or other, their arms intertwine. Only no mortal can say where and how this occurs.’43
To the optimist Browning all is well with the world;44 to the pessimist Schopenhauer the world is one perpetual winter wherein a blind will expresses itself in an infinite variety of living things which bemoan their emergence for a moment and then disappear for ever.45 The issue thus raised between optimism and pessimism cannot be finally decided at the present stage of our knowledge of the universe. Our intellectual constitution is such that we can take only a piecemeal view of things. We cannot understand the full import of the great cosmic forces which work havoc, and at the same time sustain and amplify life. The teaching of the Qur’an, which believes in the possibility of improvement in the behaviour of man and his control over natural forces, is neither optimism nor pessimism. It is meliorism, which recognizes a growing universe and is animated by the hope of man’s eventual victory over evil.
But the clue to a better understanding of our difficulty is given in the legend relating to what is called the Fall of Man. In this legend the Qur’an partly retains the ancient symbols, but the legend is materially transformed with a view to put an entirely fresh meaning into it. The Quranic method of complete or partial transformation of legends in order to besoul them with new ideas, and thus to adapt them to the advancing spirit of time, is an important point which has nearly always been overlooked both by Muslim and non-Muslim students of Islam. The object of the Qur’an in dealing with these legends is seldom historical; it nearly always aims at giving them a universal moral or philosophical import. And it achieves this object by omitting the names of persons and localities which tend to limit the meaning of a legend by giving it the colour of a specific historical event, and also by deleting details which appear to belong to a different order of feeling. This is not an uncommon method of dealing with legends. It is common in non-religious literature. An instance in point is the legend of Faust,46 to which the touch of Goethe’s genius has given a wholly new meaning.
Turning to the legend of the Fall we find it in a variety of forms in the literatures of the ancient world. It is, indeed, impossible to demarcate the stages of its growth, and to set out clearly the various human motives which must have worked in its slow transformation. But confining ourselves to the Semitic form of the myth, it is highly probable that it arose out of the primitive man’s desire to explain to himself the infinite misery of his plight in an uncongenial environment, which abounded in disease and death and obstructed him on all sides in his endeavour to maintain himself. Having no control over the forces of Nature, a pessimistic view of life was perfectly natural to him. Thus, in an old Babylonian inscription, we find the serpent (phallic symbol), the tree, and the woman offering an apple (symbol of virginity) to the man. The meaning of the myth is clear – the fall of man from a supposed state of bliss was due to the original sexual act of the human pair. The way in which the Qur’an handles this legend becomes clear when we compare it with the narration of the Book of Genesis.47 The remarkable points of difference between the Quranic and the Biblical narrations suggest unmistakably the purpose of the Quranic narration.
1. The Qur’an omits the serpent and the rib-story altogether. The former omission is obviously meant to free the story from its phallic setting and its original suggestion of a pessimistic view of life. The latter omission is meant to suggest that the purpose of the Quranic narration is not historical, as in the case of the Old Testament, which gives us an account of the origin of the first human pair by way of a prelude to the history of Israel. Indeed, in the verses which deal with the origin of man as a living being, the Qur’an uses the words Bashar or Insan, not Adam, which it reserves for man in his capacity of God’s vicegerent on earth.48 The purpose of the Qur’an is further secured by the omission of proper names mentioned in the Biblical narration – Adam and Eve.49 The word Adam is retained and used more as a concept than as the name of a concrete human individual. This use of the word is not without authority in the Qur’an itself. The following verse is clear on the point:
‘We created you; then fashioned you; then said We to the angels, “prostrate yourself unto Adam” (7:11).
2. The Qur’an splits up the legend into two distinct episodes– the one relating to what it describes simply as ‘the tree’50 and the other relating to the ‘tree of eternity’ and the ‘kingdom that faileth not’.51 The first episode is mentioned in the 7th and the second in the 20th Surah of the Qur’an. According to the Qur’an, Adam and his wife, led astray by Satan whose function is to create doubts in the minds of men, tasted the fruit of both the trees, whereas according to the Old Testament man was driven out of the Garden of Eden immediately after his first act of disobedience, and God placed, at the eastern side of the garden, angels and a flaming sword, turning on all sides, to keep the way to the tree of life.52
3. The Old Testament curses the earth for Adam’s act of disobedience;53 the Qur’an declares the earth to be the ‘dwelling place’ of man and a ‘source of profit’ to him54 for the possession of which he ought to be grateful to God. ‘And We have established you on the earth and given you therein the supports of life. How little do ye give thanks!’ (7:10).55 Nor is there any reason to suppose that the word Jannat (Garden) as used here means the supersensual paradise from which man is supposed to have fallen on this earth. According to the Qur’an, man is not a stranger on this earth. ‘And We have caused you to grow from the earth’, says the Qur’an.56 The Jannat, mentioned in the legend, cannot mean the eternal abode of the righteous. In the sense of the eternal abode of the righteous, Jannat is described by the Qur’an to be the place ‘wherein the righteous will pass to one another the cup which shall engender no light discourse, no motive to sin’.57 It is further described to be the place ‘wherein no weariness shall reach the righteous, nor forth from it shall they be cast’.58 In the Jannat mentioned in the legend, however, the very first event that took place was man’s sin of disobedience followed by his expulsion. In fact, the Qur’an itself explains the meaning of the word as used in its own narration. In the second episode of the legend the garden is described as a place ‘where there is neither hunger, nor thirst, neither heat nor nakedness’.59 I am, therefore, inclined to think that the Jannat in the Quranic narration is the conception of a primitive state in which man is practically unrelated to his environment and consequently does not feel the sting of human wants the birth of which alone marks the beginning of human culture.
Thus we see that the Quranic legend of the Fall has nothing to do with the first appearance of man on this planet. Its purpose is rather to indicate man’s rise from a primitive state of instinctive appetite to the conscious possession of a free self, capable of doubt and disobedience. The Fall does not mean any moral depravity; it is man’s transition from simple consciousness to the first flash of self-consciousness, a kind of waking from the dream of nature with a throb of personal causality in one’s own being. Nor does the Qur’an regard the earth as a torture-hall where an elementally wicked humanity is imprisoned for an original act of sin. Man’s first act of disobedience was also his first act of free choice; and that is why, according to the Quranic narration, Adam’s first transgression was forgiven.60 Now goodness is not a matter of compulsion; it is the self’s free surrender to the moral ideal and arises out of a willing co-operation of free egos. A being whose movements are wholly determined like a machine cannot produce goodness. Freedom is thus a condition of goodness. But to permit the emergence of a finite ego who has the power to choose, after considering the relative values of several courses of action open to him, is really to take a great risk; for the freedom to choose good involves also the freedom to choose what is the opposite of good. That God has taken this risk shows His immense faith in man; it is for man now to justify this faith. Perhaps such a risk alone makes it possible to test and develop the potentialities of a being who was created of the ‘goodliest fabric’ and then ‘brought down to be the lowest of the low’.61 As the Qur’an says: ‘And for trial will We test you with evil and with good’ (21:35).62 Good and evil, therefore, though opposites, must fall within the same whole. There is no such thing as an isolated fact; for facts are systematic wholes the elements of which must be understood by mutual reference. Logical judgement separates the elements of a fact only to reveal their interdependence.
Further, it is the nature of the self to maintain itself as a self. For this purpose it seeks knowledge, self-multiplication, and power, or, in the words of the Qur’an, ‘the kingdom that never faileth’. The first episode in the Quranic legend relates to man’s desire for knowledge, the second to his desire for self-multiplication and power. In connexion with the first episode it is necessary to point out two things. Firstly, the episode is mentioned immediately after the verses describing Adam’s superiority over the angels in remembering and reproducing the names of things.63 The purpose of these verses, as I have shown before, is to bring out the conceptual character of human knowledge.64 Secondly, Madame Blavatsky65 who possessed a remarkable knowledge of ancient symbolism, tells us in her book, called Secret Doctrine, that with the ancients the tree was a cryptic symbol for occult knowledge. Adam was forbidden to taste the fruit of this tree obviously because his finitude as a self, his sense-equipment, and his intellectual faculties were, on the whole, attuned to a different type of knowledge, i.e. the type of knowledge which necessitates the toil of patient observation and admits only of slow accumulation. Satan, however, persuaded him to eat the forbidden fruit of occult knowledge and Adam yielded, not because he was elementally wicked, but because being ‘hasty’ (‘ajal)66 by nature he sought a short cut to knowledge. The only way to correct this tendency was to place him in an environment which, however painful, was better suited to the unfolding of his intellectual faculties. Thus Adam’s insertion into a painful physical environment was not meant as a punishment; it was meant rather to defeat the object of Satan who, as an enemy of man, diplomatically tried to keep him ignorant of the joy of perpetual growth and expansion. But the life of a finite ego in an obstructing environment depends on the perpetual expansion of knowledge based on actual experience. And the experience of a finite ego to whom several possibilities are open expands only by method of trial and error. Therefore, error which may be described as a kind of intellectual evil is an indispensable factor in the building up of experience.
The second episode of the Quranic legend is as follows:
‘But Satan whispered him (Adam): said he, O Adam! shall I show thee the tree of Eternity and the Kingdom that faileth not? And they both ate thereof, and their nakedness appeared to them, and they began to sew of the leaves of the garden to cover them, and Adam disobeyed his Lord, and went astray. Afterwards his Lord chose him for Himself, and was turned towards him, and guided him.’ (20:120-22).
The central idea here is to suggest life’s irresistible desire for a lasting dominion, an infinite career as a concrete individual. As a temporal being, fearing the termination of its career by death, the only course open to it is to achieve a kind of collective immortality by self-multiplication. The eating of the forbidden fruit of the tree of eternity is life’s resort to sex-differentiation by which it multiplies itself with a view to circumvent total extinction. It is as if life says to death: ‘If you sweep away one generation of living things, I will produce another’. The Qur’an rejects the phallic symbolism of ancient art, but suggests the original sexual act by the birth of the sense of shame disclosed in Adam’s anxiety to cover the nakedness of his body. Now to live is to possess a definite outline, a concrete individuality. It is in the concrete individuality, manifested in the countless varieties of living forms that the Ultimate Ego reveals the infinite wealth of His Being. Yet the emergence and multiplication of individualities, each fixing its gaze on the revelation of its own possibilities and seeking its own dominion, inevitably brings in its wake the awful struggle of ages. ‘Descend ye as enemies of one another’, says the Qur’an.67 This mutual conflict of opposing individualities is the world-pain which both illuminates and darkens the temporal career of life. In the case of man in whom individuality deepens into personality, opening up possibilities of wrongdoing, the sense of the tragedy of life becomes much more acute. But the acceptance of selfhood as a form of life involves the acceptance of all the imperfections that flow from the finitude of selfhood. The Qur’an represents man as having accepted at his peril the trust of personality which the heavens, the earth, and the mountains refused to bear:
‘Verily We proposed to the heavens and to the earth and to the mountains to receive the “trust” but they refused the burden and they feared to receive it. Man undertook to bear it, but hath proved unjust, senseless!’ (33:72).
Shall we, then, say no or yes to the trust of personality with all its attendant ills? True manhood, according to the Qur’an, consists in ‘patience under ills and hardships’.68 At the present stage of the evolution of selfhood, however, we cannot understand the full import of the discipline which the driving power of pain brings. Perhaps it hardens the self against a possible dissolution. But in asking the above question we are passing the boundaries of pure thought. This is the point where faith in the eventual triumph of goodness emerges as a religious doctrine. ‘God is equal to His purpose, but most men know it not’ (12:21).
I have now explained to you how it is possible philosophically to justify the Islamic conception of God. But as I have said before, religious ambition soars higher than the ambition of philosophy.69 Religion is not satisfied with mere conception; it seeks a more intimate knowledge of and association with the object of its pursuit. The agency through which this association is achieved is the act of worship or prayer ending in spiritual illumination. The act of worship, however, affects different varieties of consciousness differently. In the case of the prophetic consciousness it is in the main creative, i.e. it tends to create a fresh ethical world wherein the Prophet, so to speak, applies the pragmatic test to his revelations. I shall further develop this point in my lecture on the meaning of Muslim Culture.70 In the case of the mystic consciousness it is in the main cognitive. It is from this cognitive point of view that I will try to discover the meaning of prayer. And this point of view is perfectly justifiable in view of the ultimate motive of prayer. I would draw your attention to the following passage from the great American psychologist, Professor William James:
‘It seems to probable that in spite of all that “science” may do to the contrary, men will continue to pray to the end of time, unless their mental nature changes in a manner which nothing we know should lead us to expect. The impulse to pray is a necessary consequence of the fact that whilst the innermost of the empirical selves of a man is a Self of the social sort, it yet can find its only adequate Socius [its “great companion”] in an ideal world.
‘. . . most men, either continually or occasionally, carry a reference to it in their breast. The humblest outcast on this earth can feel himself to be real and valid by means of this higher recognition. And, on the other hand, for most of us, a world with no such inner refuge when the outer social self failed and dropped from us would be the abyss of horror. I say “for most of us”, because it is probable that individuals differ a good deal in the degree in which they are haunted by this sense of an ideal spectator. It is a much more essential part of the consciousness of some men than of others. Those who have the most of it are possibly the most religious men. But I am sure that even those who say they are altogether without it deceive themselves, and really have it in some degree.’71
Thus you will see that, psychologically speaking, prayer is instinctive in its origin. The act of prayer as aiming at knowledge resembles reflection. Yet prayer at its highest is much more than abstract reflection. Like reflection it too is a process of assimilation, but the assimilative process in the case of prayer draws itself closely together and thereby acquires a power unknown to pure thought. In thought the mind observes and follows the working of Reality; in the act of prayer it gives up its career as a seeker of slow-footed universality and rises higher than thought to capture Reality itself with a view to become a conscious participator in its life. There is nothing mystical about it. Prayer as a means of spiritual illumination is a normal vital act by which the little island of our personality suddenly discovers its situation in a larger whole of life. Do not think I am talking of auto-suggestion. Auto-suggestion has nothing to do with the opening up of the sources of life that lie in the depths of the human ego. Unlike spiritual illumination which brings fresh power by shaping human personality, it leaves no permanent life-effects behind. Nor am I speaking of some occult and special way of knowledge. All that I mean is to fix your attention on a real human experience which has a history behind it and a future before it. Mysticism has, no doubt, revealed fresh regions of the self by making a special study of this experience. Its literature is illuminating; yet its set phraseology shaped by the thought-forms of a worn-out metaphysics has rather a deadening effect on the modern mind. The quest after a nameless nothing, as disclosed in Neo-Platonic mysticism – be it Christian or Muslim – cannot satisfy the modern mind which, with its habits of concrete thinking, demands a concrete living experience of God. And the history of the race shows that the attitude of the mind embodied in the act of worship is a condition for such an experience. In fact, prayer must be regarded as a necessary complement to the intellectual activity of the observer of Nature. The scientific observation of Nature keeps us in close contact with the behaviour of Reality, and thus sharpens our inner perception for a deeper vision of it. I cannot help quoting here a beautiful passage from the mystic poet Rumi in which he describes the mystic quest after Reality:72
The Sufi’s book is not composed of ink and letters: it is not but a heart white as snow.
The scholar’s possession is pen-marks. What is the Sufi’s possession? – foot-marks.
The Sufi stalks the game like a hunter: he sees the musk-deer’s track and follows the footprints.
For some while the track of the deer is the proper clue for him, but afterwards it is the musk-gland of the deer that is his guide.
To go one stage guided by the scent of the musk-gland is better than a hundred stages of following the track and roaming about.73
The truth is that all search for knowledge is essentially a form of prayer. The scientific observer of Nature is a kind of mystic seeker in the act of prayer. Although at present he follows only the footprints of the musk-deer, and thus modestly limits the method of his quest, his thirst for knowledge is eventually sure to lead him to the point where the scent of the musk-gland is a better guide than the footprints of the deer. This alone will add to his power over Nature and give him that vision of the total-infinite which philosophy seeks but cannot find. Vision without power does bring moral elevation but cannot give a lasting culture. Power without vision tends to become destructive and inhuman. Both must combine for the spiritual expansion of humanity.
The real object of prayer, however, is better achieved when the act of prayer becomes congregational. The spirit of all true prayer is social. Even the hermit abandons the society of men in the hope of finding, in a solitary abode, the fellowship of God. A congregation is an association of men who, animated by the same aspiration, concentrate themselves on a single object and open up their inner selves to the working of a single impulse. It is a psychological truth that association multiplies the normal man’s power of perception, deepens his emotion, and dynamizes his will to a degree unknown to him in the privacy of his individuality. Indeed, regarded as a psychological phenomenon, prayer is still a mystery; for psychology has not yet discovered the laws relating to the enhancement of human sensibility in a state of association. With Islam, however, this socialization of spiritual illumination through associative prayer is a special point of interest. As we pass from the daily congregational prayer to the annual ceremony round the central mosque of Mecca, you can easily see how the Islamic institution of worship gradually enlarges the sphere of human association.
Prayer, then, whether individual or associative, is an expression of man’s inner yearning for a response in the awful silence of the universe. It is a unique process of discovery whereby the searching ego affirms itself in the very moment of self-negation, and thus discovers its own worth and justification as a dynamic factor in the life of the universe. True to the psychology of mental attitude in prayer, the form of worship in Islam symbolizes both affirmation and negation. Yet, in view of the fact borne out by the experience of the race that prayer, as an inner act, has found expression in a variety of forms, the Qur’an says:
‘To every people have We appointed ways of worship which they observe. Therefore let them not dispute this matter with thee, but bid them to thy Lord for thou art on the right way: but if they debate with thee, then say: God best knoweth what ye do! He will judge between
you on the Day of Resurrection, as to the matters wherein ye differ’ (22:67-69).
The form of prayer ought not to become a matter of dispute.74 Which side you turn your face is certainly not essential to the spirit of prayer. The Qur’an is perfectly clear on this point:
‘The East and West is God’s: therefore whichever way ye turn, there is the face of God’ (2:115).
‘There is no piety in turning your faces towards the East or the West, but he is pious who believeth in God, and the Last Day, and the angels, and the scriptures, and the prophets; who for the love of God disburseth his wealth to his kindred, and to the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and those who ask, and for ransoming; who observeth prayer, and payeth the legal alms, and who is of those who are faithful to their engagements when they have engaged in them; and patient under ills and hardships, in time of trouble: those are they who are just, and those are they who fear the Lord’ (2:177).
Yet we cannot ignore the important consideration that the posture of the body is a real factor in determining the attitude of the mind. The choice of one particular direction in Islamic worship is meant to secure the unity of feeling in the congregation, and its form in general creates and fosters the sense of social equality inasmuch as it tends to destroy the feeling of rank or race superiority in the worshippers. What a tremendous spiritual revolution will take place, practically in no time, if the proud aristocratic Brahmin of South India is daily made to stand shoulder to shoulder with the untouchable! From the unity of the all-inclusive Ego who creates and sustains all egos follows the essential unity of all mankind.75 The division of mankind into races, nations, and tribes, according to the Qur’an, is for purposes of identification only.76 The Islamic form of association in prayer, therefore, besides its cognitive value, is further indicative of the aspiration to realize this essential unity of mankind as a fact in life by demolishing all barriers which stand between man and man.