A Case for Allah

Sir Muhammad Iqbal, widely referred to as Allama Iqbal, was a poet-philosopher of the Indian subcontinent, who is credited with proposing the idea of creation of Pakistan. He makes a case for Allah in a lecture titled: ‘The Philosophic Test of the Revelations of Religious Experience.’ The lecture is published as the second chapter of Allama Iqbal’s famous book called The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.


I believe it is more appropriate to say that in this lecture, Allama Iqbal tried to philosophically  analyze the nature of human experience in order to probe the nature of Ultimate Reality through clues furnished by the verses of the Qu’ran. In this blog-entry, I will try to summarize the key points made by Allama Iqbal and point towards any potential shortcomings that exist in his thesis, according to my understanding.

Iqbal starts off the lecture by talking about the three traditional arguments given for the existence of God and provides a critique of each of the three arguments. He goes on to suggest that the real significance of these arguments will appear if it can be demonstrated that ‘thought and being are ultimately one.’

Iqbal views thought ‘not as a principle which organizes and integrates its material from the outside, but as a potency which is formative of the very being of its material.’ Therefore, according to Iqbal, ‘thought or idea is not alien to the original nature of things; it is their ultimate ground and constitutes the very essence of their being, infusing itself in them from the very beginning of their career and inspiring their onward march to a self-determined end.

Further into the lecture, Iqbal states that ‘[i]n conscious experience life and thought permeate each other. They form a unity. Thought, therefore, in its true nature, is identical with life.

Therefore, to truly understand Iqbal’s view of Ultimate Reality, we have to understand how Iqbal defined and described the concept of Life. Toward the end of his lecture, Iqbal concludes his thesis by saying that ‘the Ultimate Reality is a rationally directed creative life.’ Iqbal continues on to say that it is a ‘simple fact of experience that life is not a formless fluid, but an organizing principle of unity, a synthetic activity which holds together and focalizes the dispersing dispositions of the living organism for a constructive purpose.’

This definition of life, provided by Iqbal, appears to be one of the most abstract definitions of life. Whereas traditional biology may define life in terms of certain properties and functions that separate the animate from inanimate matter, life, according to Iqbal, is force of organization with a definite purpose that is more fundamental than matter itself. Iqbal believes that life is ‘foundational and anterior to the routine of physical and chemical processes.’

Iqbal views life as fundamentally incapable of being explained in terms of mechanism. Iqbal believes that postulating the ‘existence of a self-producing or self-maintaining mechanism’ is meaningless because ‘[a] mechanism which reproduced itself would be a mechanism without parts, and, therefore, not a mechanism.

Iqbal views consciousness as a consequence of life. According to Iqbal, ‘[c]onsciousness may be imagined as a deflection from life. Its function is to provide a luminous point in order to enlighten the forward rush of life.’ Iqbal continues on and says that the, ‘consciousness is a variety of the purely spiritual principle of life which is not a substance, but an organizing principle, a specific mode of behaviour essentially different to the behaviour of an externally worked machine. Since, however, we cannot conceive of a purely spiritual energy, except in association with a definite combination of sensible elements through which it reveals itself, we are apt to take this combination as the ultimate ground of spiritual energy.’

Thus, for Iqbal, life is the basic principle of Reality. Furthermore, according to Iqbal, ‘the origin of [life] … must be sought in a spiritual reality revealable in, but non-discoverable by, any analysis of spatial experience.’

To sum up Iqbal’s views, we can say the following:

1) Life is an organizing principle which holds together a living organism for constructive purposes.

2) Life is foundational and anterior to the routine of physical and chemical processes.

3) Consciousness is a deflection from life that illuminates the forward rush of life.

4) Life cannot be explained and understood in a purely mechanistic fashion.

5) The spiritual nature of life can be revealed in, but not discovered by, the analysis of human experience.

All these points seem to suggest a very vitalist conception of life. Contemporary biology does not accept vitalism in any form. Therefore, from the perspective of a modern biologist, Iqbal’s views on life are of no use. Iqbal righty suggests that the sectional nature of science, as exemplified by biology, cannot conceive life as a spiritual energy and cannot explain the ‘factual wholeness’ of life in a purely mechanistic fashion.

However, it is the 5th point about how religious experience can reveal the spiritual nature of life that Iqbal tries to talk about in the last quarter of his lecture.

Iqbal talks about the spiritual nature of life by making use of Bergson’s idea of ‘pure duration.’ As there is constant change observed in Nature, ‘conscious existence means a life in time.’ Iqbal makes a distinction between two modes of conscious experience: the efficient and the appreciative. The efficient side of conscious existence, in the words of Iqbal, ‘enters into relation with what we call the world of space… [It is] the practical self of daily life in its dealing with the external order of things.’ The appreciative side of the self is revealed by a deeper analysis of conscious experience. Iqbal states that ‘[i]t is only in the moments of profound meditation, when the efficient self is in abeyance, that we sink into our deeper self and reach the inner centre of experience. In the life-process of this deeper ego the states of consciousness melt into each other.’

The essential difference between the appreciative and efficient self is how these two modes experience time. In the words of Iqbal, ‘[i]t appears that the time of the appreciative-self is a single “now” which the efficient self, in its traffic with the world of space, pulverizes into a series of “nows” like pearl beads in a thread. Here is, then, pure duration unadulterated by space.’

Iqbal concludes that ‘[a] critical interpretation of the sequence of time as revealed in our selves has led us to a notion of the Ultimate Reality as pure duration in which thought, life, and purpose interpenetrate to form an organic unity. We cannot conceive this unity except as the unity of a self– an all-embracing concrete self– the ultimate source of all individual life and thought.’

The crux of Iqbalian argument for the existence of God lies in Bergeson’s conception of ‘time of the appreciative self’ (as described in Iqbalian terms). Whereas Bergeson considers pure time to be prior to self, Iqbal inverts the argument and states self to be prior to pure time by arguing that pure time cannot ‘hold together the multiplicity of objects and events.’ An appreciative self is required, ‘which can seize the multiplicity of duration– broken up into an infinity of instants– and transform it to the organic wholeness of a synthesis. To exist in pure duration is to be a self, and to be a self is to be able to say “I am.”

Iqbal further continues that ‘only that truly exists which can say “I am”. It is the degree of the intuition of “I-amness” that determines the place of a thing in the scale of being.’

From this point, Iqbal immediately moves to talk about the Ultimate Self and says that to ‘[t]he Ultimate Self… the not-self does not present itself as a confronting “other”, or else it would have to be, like our finite self, in spatial relation with the confronting “other”. [The Ultimate Self’s] “I-amness” is independent, elemental, absolute. Of such a self it is impossible for us to form an adequate conception.

Iqbal’s argument for the existence of Allah appears to be a kind of solipsism at best. The Ultimate Reality is an organic unity which is formed via the interpenetration of thought, life and purpose. What is unclear is how the existence of Ultimate Self is derived from the experience of finite, appreciative self. Based on my careful perusal of the lecture, Iqbal does not seem to provide any philosophical argument to derive the existence of such an Ultimate Self from the experience of the finite, appreciative self. He only quotes verses of the Qu’ran to speak of and support such a Self.

Furthermore, and in line with the interview of Muhammad Asad that I had shared on my blog few weeks ago, Iqbal too admits that it is not possible to form any proper conception of the Ultimate Self. Yet, paradoxically, Iqbal has devoted an entire lecture in trying to philosophically justify the religious claims about the Ultimate Self.

Iqbal not only claims that the Ultimate Self is ‘independent, elemental, absolute’ but also states that the Ultimate Self ‘is unthinkable without a character, i.e. a uniform mode of behaviour.’ According to Iqbal, ‘[n]ature is to the Divine Self as character is to the human self.’ Such descriptions of the Ultimate Self appear to contradict the idea that no proper conception of the Ultimate Self can be formed. In fact, the very statement that “it is impossible for us to form an adequate conception [of the Ultimate Self]”, ends up being a definite conception of the Ultimate Self.

Iqbal does not seem to address this apparent problem in his lecture. To conclude this rather long blog-post, I would say that the appearance of a finite, appreciative self is fairly self-evident. However, to say that there is an all-embracing concrete Self as the ultimate source of all individual life and thought needs further warranting. Iqbal, unfortunately, did not seem to have provided satisfactory reasons for accepting the existence of such an Ultimate Self a.k.a Allah.

I will, however, give credit to Allama Iqbal for attempting to grapple the topic of Allah’s existence in light of the science and philosophy of his day. The sincerity and intellectual energy that went into the preparation of this and other lectures is highly commendable. In a future blog-post, I will try to present a critique of Iqbal’s conception of life in light of contemporary science and see what conclusions can be reached.