The poet of the East Allama Iqbal put forth a concept of discovering the self as the fountainhead of all knowledge and experience, writes Bilal Ahmad.
The concept of the khudi (the self, individual ego or human personality) is the bedrock of Iqbal's philosophy, and his "main contribution to the thought of his times." In fact, it is one of the two concepts that is fundamental enough that he devotes a separate chapter to it in his seminal prose work, The Reconstruction of religious thought in Islam; (the other concept is the existence of God, and is also treated separately in its own chapter).
Iqbal describes the individual human personality as "a series of actions held together by a directive purpose." Thus, actions, given coherence by a purposeful directive force, make up the unity of the self. Iqbal finds this understanding of the personality to be self-evident. The actions of the self—and their relatedness or the lack thereof—are a matter of evident observation by all other individuals who come into contact with it. And the directive force—born out of a sense of purpose and controlling the actions for the sake of achieving that purpose—is a matter of evident observation by the introspective self. In Iqbal's view, strengthening the individual ego is the ultimate aim of life; if the human personality is rationally directed action, to live is to act, to be passive is to die.
Such an understanding of the human personality implies a standard of good and evil: all that strengthens the directive purpose, leading to and controlling actions, is good; all that weakens it is evil. However, this preceding statement—that all that strengthens the self is good; all that weakens it is evil—in itself implies some interaction between this 'all' and the 'self'; moreover it implies that this interaction affects the self in decisive ways. As we shall see, this 'all' refers to the reality outside the self, both Natural and Historical. But in order to understand all the ways that the human personality can be affected by the outside world, it is necessary to understand Iqbal's theory of knowledge.
Iqbal posits three sources of human knowledge: nature, history, and inner experience. The human mind is endowed with the ability to conceptualize all that it observes. And, contrary to what many philosophers have asserted, Iqbal finds this conceptualization to be in congruence with the reality outside the self,. Therefore, the environment of the self—i.e. nature—is a legitimate source of knowledge. But by 'nature' Iqbal does not simply mean the natural world; rather, he means all reality outside the self. Thus, by making 'nature' a legitimate source of action, Iqbal is not merely affirming the worth of the scientific endeavor. He is also making the knowledge and meanings embodied in communal institutions, mores, religion, etc., as relevant sources of knowledge for the individual ego. However, he singles out History as a separate source of knowledge. This is so because even though historical knowledge is also contained within the world outside the self, its content is different. While residing in the world now, History conveys to the individual a sense of all that has gone before, thus providing a sense of continuity with the past. However, these two modes of acquiring knowledge—Nature and History—are both contained outside the self; the flow of information, therefore, is from outside the self towards the self. And this flow makes the self a passive recipient of knowledge—and passivity, as we have seen, is anathema for Iqbal's concept of the personality. It is the third source of knowledge, then, which is crucial to Iqbal: inner experience. Iqbal call this inner experience 'intuition,' and makes it a 'higher form of intellect.' It is 'intellectual' because the products of this experience have a definite cognitive content; it is a 'higher form' because while normal discursive or analytical intellect approaches Reality piecemeal in serial time, intuition apprehends Reality in its wholeness in non-serial time. This inner experience, for Iqbal, plays multifarious roles—in ascertaining the spiritual nature of all reality, especially of the human self; for corroborating the validity of the knowledge derived from History and Nature; and, most importantly, for providing an independent content of knowledge for the individual, as well synthesizing the knowledge derived from the other sources into a unique product. This, then, is for Iqbal, the creative process that preserves the individuality of the self, and rather than making it a passive recipient of knowledge, makes it the active creator of unique knowledge. The individual ego thus acquires knowledge through Nature, History, and inner experience. The relationship between knowledge and the human personality can now be elaborated.
Knowledge and khudi
As we have seen, Iqbal does not view the human personality as static; it can be strengthened and weakened. Knowledge, in Iqbal's philosophy, plays a crucial role in this process. Knowledge can lead to action or passivity, and it can lead to a strong sense of purpose and direction and also to a weakening of this directive force. Thus the nature of knowledge acquired by the ego is crucial to its development. Since there are three modes of knowledge-acquisition, knowledge derived from one mode should not inhibit the acquisition of knowledge form other modes. This is especially important with respect to History, and crucial with respect to inner experience. As we have seen, historical knowledge is contained within nature—reality outside the self—therefore this reality determines what kind of historical knowledge will be transmitted to the individual. Thus nature determines the character of the historical knowledge transmitted to the individual. Moreover, while sense perception comes naturally, followed by the gradual development of analytic intellect—which Iqbal describes as the ability to make patterns out of, and derive meanings from, sense-perceptions—inner experience is the last faculty in the sequential development of the human personality. And it has to be consciously acquired—intuition is a faculty that has to be cultivated. And so it is most susceptible to be undermined by knowledge acquired from the other sources (History and Nature). In short: knowledge impacts the development of the self; specifically, nature determines the kind of historical knowledge that the self receives—and hence the degree of continuity with the past that it imbibes—and knowledge derived from nature and history together determine the extent to which the individual will be able to develop his intuitive faculty—and hence, the extent to which he can be an active participant in knowledge-creation and aware of the nature of his own self and all of reality. In this whole process, the importance of nature—the reality outside the self—can clearly be discerned. It is the repository of knowledge, including of the historical kind, and plays a crucial role in the development of the human personality. Since community constitutes an overwhelming portion of the 'reality outside the self,' it should now be clear how crucial the community is in Iqbal's philosophy of the khudi.
The individual and the community
The origin of the human personality or ego is independent of community; however, its temporal existence in space-time and its development occur firmly within the context of its communal environment. The reason for this should be clear from the preceding discussion: the community is the repository of the knowledge, including historical knowledge, that is imparted to the individual. Its institutions (educational, political, economic, etc), its values, mores, its religious inclinations, practices and ideas—all play a crucial role in determining the way the individual ego will perceive its past, whether it will develop its intuitive faculty, whether it will be spurred into action, and hence life, or whether it will be lulled into passivity, which is death. However, it is not only the development of the khudi that occurs within the community—its actions are also carried out within it. In fact, Iqbal was convinced that even more than occurring within nature, human activity changes nature, including community, in important ways. As Iqbal puts is "streams of causality flow from nature to the individual and vice versa."
The fact that activity does not occur in isolation but impacts its environment made Iqbal carry his philosophy a step further: it was not enough to develop the ego and make it active, but to develop it and make it active in a particular way. The particular method of development and activity was also determined by Iqbal's concept of the khudi—the development and activity of each individual must be such that other individuals are also allowed to develop their individuality. This is the point where Iqbal goes from elaborating the ideal goal for the individual—the development of its rationally directed, purposeful activity—to the ideal goal for the community—the knowledge it imparts to the individual should not only make it active, but should make it active in a way that allows for the development of all other individuals who are part of the same community.
The question no longer is: what kind of community will develop active individuals? Rather, it is: what kind of community will develop individuals whose activity does not hamper the development of other active individuals? It is here that Iqbal moves from the creation of unique, self-concentrated individuals to self-concentrated but like-minded individuals who identify with each other; this is so because Iqbal firmly believed that unless individuals identify with others, their activity will not be transformed from exclusionary of, and harmful to, others, to inclusionary of, and beneficial to, others. Once again, Iqbal's sources of knowledge are crucial here: Historical awareness and the religious values, ethical standards, communal mores embodied in the environment outside the self are crucial to the creation of like-minded individuals. But does not this creation of like-mindedness inhibit the individuality and creativity of the human personality? Not according to Iqbal. While like-mindedness means that these individuals come together in a cohesive bond, it does not mean that they loose their individuality—through inner experience, their assimilation of knowledge remains a unique, and creative process. Like-mindedness, thus, does not mean passivity; it means individual creativity and activity that leads to communal harmony and cohesion. To put it differently, individuals participate in the creation of their own like-mindedness, and therefore remain active and creative. However, as we have seen, if the creation of like-mindedness is not to lead to passivity and weakening of the ego, the factors that create like-mindedness must be verified by inner experience—and for this, these factors must be verifiable! Thus, like-mindedness cannot be based on some artificial communal value, or a reconstructed history; it can only be created by a historical awareness that reflects the facts as they are, and a value that can is universally verifiable by each individual ego through its own inner experience. It is for this reason that Iqbal stresses the importance of shared spiritual values—for him, spiritual values alone can be intuitively known and verified, held strongly enough to mould action, and transmitted over time through social structures.
Continuity and change in the ideal community
Thus we arrive at Iqbal's ideal individual, one who is active and creative. Moreover, because of his like-mindedness with other individuals (on the basis of shared spiritual values and historical memory) he comes together with them to form a community. Through participation with this community, he expresses his creativity; because it is a community of like-minded individuals, sharing spiritual values (that ensure, above all else, respect for other individuals), participation in the community amplifies his freedom, not reduces it—it empowers him to achieve communally what would be impossible individually. He benefits from the power of the community, and the community benefits from his creativity. Moreover, the values of this community—the spiritual values that create like-mindedness, a respect for other individuals, and also encourage the development of each individual's ego and creativity—are embodied in institutions. And the preservation of these institutions is essential in order to transmit the values of the community over time. Thus, there is a tension: even as the individual expands his creativity, the community attempts to retain its structure. For Iqbal, the continuity provided by the community is important; but so is change. The products of individual creativity must be reflected in the society; but this change must be cautious and informed by the past, if it is to ensure the continuity of the community. Once again, historical knowledge provides this sense of continuity with the past, and also acts as a conservative force on the individual and the community. Sudden changes in the communal structure would threaten to dissolve the environment that fosters individual growth. Thus, even as knowledge increases, institutions change, and the individuals and the society progress; but this change must be cautious, so as to retain the environment that is conducive to proper individual development.