Unveiling the Secrets of Allama Iqbal’s Khudi

Professor Nazeer Ahmed

Khudi ka sirr e nihaN la ilaha il Allah (The hidden secret of Khudi is la ilaha il Allah)

So wrote Allama Iqbal, the poet, philosopher, thinker, mujaddid, mujtahid and one of the most influential personages of Asia in the twentieth century.  In spite of the volumes written about him, the Allama remains a mystery within an enigma within a riddle. He is quoted and misquoted, understood and misunderstood. Like Shakespeare in an earlier era, his very greatness has stood in the way of how he is understood. Let me offer some instances from my own experience.

Some thirty years ago, a certain shaikh asked me to give the juma’ khutba at a Masjid in New Jersey. In my youthful enthusiasm I chose the subject of khudi. The khutba was well attended and the audience listened in silence. After the prayers, the shaikh called me aside. “What you said in the khutba is not correct. There is no such thing as khudi in Islam.”

Two years ago I had lunch with a well known Professor in Berkeley. The conversation was free-wheeling and it turned to Iqbal’s poetry. “Iqbal was confused about khudi”, said the professor, “I realize that is a dangerous thing to say to someone from the subcontinent”.

Muslim saints and Muslim scholars have been roasted for their views which were at variance with the common understanding of those around them. Mansur al-Hallaj was tortured and killed (922 CE) for saying, “Ana al Haq” (I am the Truth).  Five hundred years later, in post-Timurid India circa 1450 CE, there was a certain Wali near Gulbarga in the Deccan who went into retreat in a hut. When he emerged from the hut after 40 days, he cried out, “Ana al Haq”. People thought the wali had gone crazy. They caught him and put him back in the hut and told him to remain in seclusion for 40 more days. By nightfall, the wali made a hole in the back of the hut and ran away into the forest.  Iqbal was more fortunate when he pierced the glass ceiling of orthodoxy. When he wrote Shikwa, some mullas called him a kafir, only to turn around and call him a mujtahid when he published Jawab e Shikwa.

Hazrath Ali said: Speak to people at their level of understanding, or else they could lose their faith. The concept of khudi requires a deep understanding of the Self. The Prophet said: One who knows his Self knows his Rabb (Man ‘Arafa nafsahu faqad ‘arafa Rabbahu). This is not a quest for the faint hearted or the uninitiated. It requires a deep knowledge of science, history, philosophy and tasawwuf and the assumptions underlying each.  Most important of all, it requires a deep understanding of the Qur’an because while Iqbal often speaks the language of the philosophers of the West, his ideas are firmly rooted in his own spiritual inheritance from the Qur’an and the tasawwuf of the Awliyah.

Iqbal lived in an age when his homeland was under the heel of foreigners. Pax Brittania held the vast subcontinent of Hindustan in its juggernaut. As such Iqbal had to come to terms with the ideas of the imperial West. He received his early training in Sialkot and Lahore and went on to study philosophy, first in England and then in Germany. Western thought was always a distraction for Iqbal; he had to constantly look over his shoulder to unhinge his ideas from those of the west. The ghosts of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer haunted his legacy so much so that many writers not just in the West but also in the Urdu speaking East consider his idea of khudi to be an echo of the Ego advanced by Nietzsche. Iqbal himself did not help his case when he devoted a major part of his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam to examining and repudiating the philosophers of the West. The effort was perhaps unnecessary except for didactic purposes. Iqbal comes through in the fullness of his thinking when he expresses himself in his own languages, Urdu and Farsi.

This essay was written at the request of my good friend Dr. Agha Saeed, who has done so much to establish and keep alive the tradition of Urdu literature in North America. When I sat down to write a brief note after delivering a talk on Iqbal, the pen took over. The result has been a deep study not only of Iqbal and of the secrets of khudi as articulated by him, but a study of the interdependence of science, history, philosophy and faith from the Qur’anic perspective. It evolved into a study of the Unity of Knowledge. One must necessarily sift though these disciplines and their processes to fathom the mysteries of khudi which I have translated in the past not as Ego but as Essence. It manifests itself through its attributes. Its secret, paradoxically, lies in its self-effacement.  When it is effaced, it becomes the mirror into which is reflected its magnificent sirr (secret) from the Spirit. The Ego is a ghost from the west and it must be sent packing to where it came from. Essence is a child of the East and it needs to be nourished and cultivated.

Secular man abandoned the soul and went off looking for Truth in atoms, protons and chemical reactions. How does one discuss the idea of khudi with one whose world is bereft of the Grace of the spirit or the joy and vibrancy of the soul? This was the dilemma faced by Iqbal too. He waged a valiant battle, borrowing the terminology of philosophy, engaging in a dialectic with secular man, incurring in the process the risk of being misunderstood. The attempt was consistent with Iqbal’s character. He was not only a great poet but a risk taker, injecting himself into the process of history, in politics, sociology, science and philosophy.

Iqbal enriched us with his thoughts and his actions. His vision was our horizon, his failures our teacher. He embellished the Urdu language with a new dimension of social and political activism, taking it to heights never seen before. Generations who come after him would be the poorer were it not for this great mujtahid.

The Renewal of Civilizations

A great civilization renews itself from within.  The vicissitudes of time test the mettle of a civilization with new ideas, alien challenges, internal dissension, invasion, conquest, subjugation, triumphs and tragedies. A great civilization reaches into the oceans of its spirituality and rises to the occasion, renewing itself after every test. This process is continuous, unceasing. This was the gist of a Theory of Renewal that I advanced in my book Islam in Global History. It stands in contrast with the Theory of Asabiya advanced by Ibn Khaldun, the father of history, or the plethora of theories advanced by Western historians.

If you scan the history of Islam on the global stage you discern at least seven major turns when Islamic civilization demonstrated its resilience and renewed itself, each time diving into its spiritual reservoir and showing the world a new dimension of its timeless endurance and its universal appeal: The Hijra of the Prophet (622 CE); the triumph of the principle of Shura at the death of the Prophet (632 CE); the Mutazalite Revolution (765-746 CE); the triumph of the Awliyah following the Mongol Devastations (1219-1301 CE); the consolidation of Ottoman, Safavid and Mogul empires (1453-1600 CE); the appearance of great mujtahids with the onset of the colonial age (1750-1850 CE); and the reformers of the twentieth century. Iqbal belonged to this last category of thinkers and doers. The effort is still ongoing and the last page of this chapter is yet to be written. Islam has yet to throw off its intellectual complex vis a vis the West, overcome its inertia, amalgamate new ideas that have emerged with the technological age, absorb the blows that hammer at it from the east and the west, and renew itself to find its rightful place in the comity of civilizations.

This paper integrates faith, science and history. It presents a unified vision of knowledge. While explaining the idea of Iqbal’s khudi, it integrates the physical and the spiritual and renews the foundation of Islamic knowledge. Such an integrated view helps humankind understand its place and its purpose in the cosmos; gives a spiritual character to science and history; fosters their study in a spiritual paradigm; removes the tensions between religious and secular education; and, shows the historical errors that philosophers, scientists and men of religion alike have fallen into. It unveils the lofty vistas that are the destiny of humankind and removes the layers of ignorance, heedlessness, skepticism and apathy that have overtaken the civilization of man. It is a comprehensive attempt in which the body, mind the soul are complementary and each play their essential part.

There is a Light in every heart. It is bestowed upon every man and woman at birth. It shines by the Grace of God and comprehends the physical and spiritual. It is the seat of all knowledge and through it the physical and the spiritual are united. The goal of every soul is to find that Light. That is the quintessential struggle of man, from the cradle to the grave.

Several questions are addressed in this paper: Is science compatible with religion? How is history related to faith? Is there a common thread that binds science, history and faith? In a broad sense, is there a classification of knowledge that integrates science, history and faith? If there is, then what is the basis for such classification?  Does it offer a consistent, coherent and comprehensive vision of the cosmos that we are a part of?

These questions are important.  Modern man has gone off on a tangent, separating faith from science and history. In this fragmented worldview, faith is confined to the walls of “the church”, while the world outside is abandoned to secular scrutiny. Modern science and history are thus bereft of the Grace of God. In this soulless world, humankind finds itself isolated and alone, dangling between the heavens and the earth, existing in the cosmos without purpose, without joy, without love, without anchor and without roots.

Truth is one and indivisible.  It is a search for the truth that unites all human endeavor. The truth that faith discovers cannot be different from the truth discovered by science or by history. Man is a part of nature, not separate from it. The laws of history may be qualitative and descriptive as compared to the laws of nature which are more quantitative but they are not contradictory. For instance, a dynamic balance governs nature. Man is subject to a dynamic balance in his personal and communal life; if you violate balance (justice), you ultimately destroy yourself. But alas! The secular worldview separates man from nature. It divides up the truth into fragments and as a consequence makes it impossible to discover it. It is like the proverbial elephant: the legs and the trunk and the tail do not make an elephant whole. Only an integrated perspective shows the entire elephant.

Our Approach

The approach taken in this paper is distinguished in that: (1) It bases all knowledge on experience (2) It includes all sources of experience, the body, mind, heart and the soul (3) It relates experience to the spirit, which is the life source for all existence (4) it shows the interconnectivity of different disciplines (5) it presents a knowledge-based vision for the renewal of Islamic civilization.

The basis for this work is the Qur’an. The inexhaustible wisdom of its verses is used to offer insights into the questions raised and make things clear.

A comprehensive attempt to integrate faith, science and history has not been made in the Islamic world in modern times.  It was a recurrent effort in the classical age (765-1219 CE).  Islamic scholars in the classical age produced the al Hakims, the integrators, who combined in themselves knowledge of the religious sciences as well as the empirical and mathematical sciences. This integrated worldview shriveled with time under the successive impact of the Crusades, the Mongol devastations, foreign invasions, occupation and colonialism. Internal schisms as well as extremism took their toll so that Islamic sciences which at one time served as a beacon of light for the world became a caricature of what they once were.

In the last two hundred years, as Europe gained its ascendancy, Muslims absorbed many of the assumptions made by the secular west and accepted the separation of the sacred from the secular. Today, the mullahs who are trained in religious schools are ignorant about science, philosophy and history. They suspect what they do not comprehend and trap themselves more and more into an isolationist corner in a world of pre-scientific reductionism. What they do not understand, they denounce. In turn, the world of science abandons them and history walks away from them. Those educated in secular schools fare no better. They have no knowledge of the religious sciences and become alienated from their ethical roots and their faith. The tensions between the sacred and the secular tear Muslim societies apart and are a major source of instability in Muslim lands.

The Terminology

The basis of knowledge is experience. There are four sources of human experience: the body, the mind, the heart and the Nafs. The terms body, mind and heart must not be confused with the physical body, mind and heart. Each of these is a composite of attributes. The body is a composite of the attributes of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. We will show that these are not in fact attributes of the physical body but are attributes of the Nafs (the Self). The mind includes the attributes of reasoning, reflection, logic, extension and deduction. It is the repository of Aql and Fikr. The body and mind cannot be separated; they act as an integral whole, supporting and complementing each other. The heart has multiple stations: an outer station called the Sadr; a second, higher station called the Qalb; a third, higher yet station called the Fu’ad; and a fourth station, the highest one, called Birr. Each station has its own attributes and its capabilities. The Nafs is a composite term which includes the body, mind and the heart. Sometimes, it is translated, simply, as the Self.

A great deal of confusion in understanding Qur’anic ideas occurs because of the lack of correspondence between Arabic and English terms.  Translation is a process of Dynamic Perception Mapping. It is dynamic because it is time bound; what a person understands from a term today may not be the same as what he understands from the same term twenty years from now as he gains in knowledge and experience. It is perceptual because it is constrained by the capability of the person. It is especially so when it comes to the Qur’an. Its self-sustained eloquence, subtle nuances and the grandeur of its locution challenge and defy translation. Mapping refers to the act of translation from one language to another. As each language is culture bound, oftentimes there are no equivalent words to convey an idea. So, the term Nafs which is a compendium of the body, mind and heart cannot be appropriately translated as soul. The word soul in English is separate and distinct from the body whereas the term Nafs includes the body. Certainly, its rendering as Ego is incorrect except to explain certain of the attributes or the Nafs. The Ego is the “I” in the English language. The Ego can be conquered, suppressed and even annihilated. By contrast, as the Ego is conquered, the Nafs merely undergoes a series of transformations, and in stages evolves from Nafs e Ammara to Nafs e Mutma-inna.

The Origin, Nature, Methods and Limits of Knowledge (The Epistemology of Knowledge)

The Origin of Knowledge

Read! In the Name of you Rabb, Who created,

Created the human from that which clings.

Read! By your Rabb, the most bountiful,    

Who taught by the Pen,

Taught humankind what it knew not.

No! The human does indeed transgress,

When he looks upon himself as autonomous.  (The Qur’an 96:1-5)

Knowledge is a treasure. It has its origin in the Spirit which is the source of life. This basic truth, obvious as it is, is overlooked by modern man.  Whether one is a saint or a scientist one must concede that with birth come life, knowledge and power. A dead man has no life, no power and no knowledge.  It stands to reason that knowledge is a Divine gift that accompanies the Spirit which is infused into a person between conception and birth. It is the Spirit that is the life source. Without the Spirit, there is no life and no knowledge.

Ilm ul Ibara and Ilm ul Ishara

The Qur’an uses parables and similes to convey transcendent ideas that are difficult or impossible to communicate through discursive language. Transcendental ideas such as love, grace, beauty, wisdom and peace are best felt, not expressed.  Accordingly, knowledge can be divided into two categories: ilm ul ishara (knowledge that is allusory and cannot be expressed through language), and ilm ul ibara (knowledge that is descriptive and can be expressed through language). Ilm ul Ibara can be measured and taught in a school. Ilm ul Ishara cannot; it is a Divine gift, a moment of Grace.

Consider, for instance, love which animates creation. Love is the cement that binds the world of man. Human love is but a simile to Divine Love that sustains all creation, like the light of an oil lamp is a simile to the light of the sun. The difference is that while the sun and its light are finite, Divine Love is infinite, boundless, beyond description.  Such is the language of love, the language of the heart, the language of allusion.

The word Ibara has its roots in the trilateral Arabic word A-B-R (a-ba-ra) which means to wade, as wading a river from one shore to the other. In prose, it means a line or a description. Accordingly, any thought or idea that can be described through prose, poetry or mathematical symbols can be classified as ilm-ul-ibara.  Such is the language of the body and the mind.

The Nafs or the Self straddles ilm ul ibara and ilm ul ishara. It receives its inputs from the senses, mind and heart. It is molded and transformed by these inputs. Like the senses, the Nafs measures in time-space. Like the mind it extrapolates. Like the heart it perceives. But it has its own unique characteristic which is not shared with other parts, and that is its free will.

We illustrate in the diagram below our classification of knowledge.


“Soon shall We show them Our Signs on the horizon and within themselves until it is clear to them that it is the Truth)”- (The Qur’an 41:53)


        • PHILOSOPHY
        • NUMBERS
        • GEOMETRY


Empirical Knowledge as a Sign

The created world becomes but a simile before the grandeur and majesty of God. This simple truth provides a basis for the integration of the physical and the spiritual. The physical becomes “a Sign” and points the way to Divine presence. So does history. So do the Signs in the heart.

The approach of the Qur’an is inductive.  It builds the awareness of Divine omnipresence through Signs in nature and in history. The quest for the Divine is through the struggle of man on earth; the path lies through science and history. It is a limitless, unceasing effort until man meets God. By contrast, the philosophical approach is deductive. It starts with axioms and theses and deduces inferences from it. If the axiom is flawed, so is the deduction.  In addition, reasoning and the process of deduction itself have inherent limits.

God reveals His majesty and His bounty every moment through nature and through history. Nature is a great teacher. It offers an infinite variety of vistas. Humans try to understand nature and use it for their benefit. The question is: how can the physical and the natural be integrated into a holistic picture which includes not just the inputs from the body and the mind but also the perceptions of the heart?

The Qur’anic perspective integrates the physical, rational and emotional by asserting their common origin and their common functionality. Each of these modes of knowing springs from the spiritual and is a Divine gift. Each of these assists humankind in discharging its responsibility to know, serve and worship Him. We will briefly outline here how the senses, the mind and the heart facilitate the perception of Signs for Divine presence and serve to augment faith.

In the secular view there is no interconnectivity between the worldviews of body, mind and heart. The interconnectivity is established when these worldviews are taken as Signs from a Single Source so that man may perceive the presence of the Divine and attain certainty of faith.

Consider the physical. The senses act as windows to the physical in time-space and facilitate the construction of an empirical worldview which forms the basis of science.  This worldview, based on the assumptions of before and after, subject and object, is flawed, deceptive and imperfect. Consider a rainbow. A physical description of the rainbow would take us in the direction of wavelengths, dispersion, wave propagation, optic nerves, and neurons in the brain. Consider this worldview of wavelengths, dispersion and neurons. Where is the enchanting beauty of the rainbow as it vaults the sky from horizon to horizon? It is not there. Yet, even the most unlettered human can relate to the beauty of the rainbow and be awed by it. The beauty of the rainbow is not in the physical description because beauty is not in wavelengths, cells and atoms. It is in the Self, the Nafs which is hidden from the physical, but makes its presence felt through interaction with it.

The secular man is constantly at war with himself. He cannot circumscribe the heart with his logic. Secular thought would have us believe that there is nothing more to the cosmos than the physical. The materialists go even one step further; they reduce all experience to the physical. In the process they negate the essence of being human which lies in the perceptions of the heart and the Self.

This dichotomy between the physical and the Self is removed when the physical is presented as a Divine Sign. Such a perspective does not negate the scientific approach which demands its validation in observation and measurement. It merely imparts a transcendent vision to the physical so that the scientist can use the experience of the senses, not as an end itself but as an occasion for Divine intervention so that humankind may perceive the presence of the Divine and witness the grand panorama of creation from a platform of faith.  Such a view does not negate the processes of science. But it changes the perspective in a profound way.

Every moment Divine grace displays itself in nature, and it does so with majesty. In it there are Signs for the perceptive minds. The study of nature thus becomes mandatory on humans to witness these Signs, use them as an occasion to celebrate Divine grace and create Divine patterns in the world.

Whatever is in the heavens and the earth ask of Him,

Every moment He (reveals His Signs) with grandeur. (The Qur’an 55:23 )

The physical sciences are a part of ilm ul ibara. They can be described and taught.

History as a Sign and a Teacher

History offers a fascinating panorama of human struggle on earth. The rise and fall of civilizations, the making and unmaking of dynasties, the formation and breakup of societies offer endless lessons for the discerning mind. The question is: Is history a part of a grand Divine scheme or is it merely a collection of dates, events, conflicts, triumphs and tragedies?

In the secular paradigm, history has no Grand Purpose. It is like a meandering stream, without a known origin and without a known destiny. It may reveal its secrets to philosophical scrutiny but such scrutiny yields answers that are partial, incomplete and change with the vagaries of time-space.

In the Qur’anic paradigm, history has a beginning and an end. It has a meaning and a purpose. It begins with creation and ends with judgment. Its meaning is to be sought in the perpetual struggle of man to find God:

Verily! You are toiling on toward your Lord! Painfully toiling! And you shall meet Him! (84:6)

The purpose of creation is to know God:

I was a Treasure unknown. I willed that I be known. So I created a creation (that would know Me) (Hadith e Qudsi)

Man is not separate from nature, or antagonistic to it, as he is in the secular perspective.  The Divine laws that govern the universe govern humankind also:

The Most Compassionate,

Taught the Qur’an,

Created Humankind,

Taught him speech,

The sun and the moon, (rotate in accordance) with mathematics,

And the stars and the trees submit (to his heavenly Laws),

The heavens has He raised high and established dynamic equilibrium therein,

So that you do not violate that equilibrium in your own lives (The Qur’an 55: 1-7)

In the Qur’anic view, history is another Sign, like nature. It is like a mirror that teaches humankind something about itself so that humankind may learn and work towards its ethical journey to find God.

The Noble Station (Maqam) of the Mind

In all of God’s creation, there is nothing as noble as the Mind, except the heart. The Mind is that collection of attributes that sifts through, analyzes, integrates and creates that enormous ocean of knowledge that distinguishes man from the beast. The distinguishing characteristic of the Mind is that it conceives of the possibility of things. It even admits of the possibility of heaven, of the Tablet and the Pen. Logic is its companion, reason its queen. Questioning is its lance. It plays with the concrete and processes what is abstract. When it is set free, it seeks to conquer the heavens and the earth.

Mathematics and Symbols

The Mind is the master of the abstract. Symbols and concepts are its vocabulary. This ability to grasp symbols and concepts, work with them, transform them, integrate them and bring forth new symbols and concepts is a divine gift. It is one of the distinguishing capabilities of the human genre that sets it apart from the beast.  This ability is what has enabled humankind to build the edifice of knowledge. It is a natural ability, inherited at birth by every human.

Mathematics and symbols can be taught just as language, history, sociology, civics, politics and governance can be taught. Hence the study of symbols also falls under ilm ul ibara.

The Mutuality of the Body and Mind

Sublime as it is, the Mind is helpless without the body. It draws upon the inputs from the senses to validate its perceptions. It is for this reason that sometimes one says that the Body and the Mind are one: the Body is an extension of the Mind while the Mind is an extension of the Body. Let us elaborate this subtle idea by an example.

Our knowledge of the cosmos is space-time bound. The senses, i.e., the eyes, the ears, touch, taste and smell, take inputs from this space-time bound world which are then processed by the mind so that we “know” what it is that we have seen, heard, tasted or touched. The mind is like the processor of a computer into which inputs are provided by the senses. For example, a child touches a hot stove. The input from his touch is processed by the mind which tells him that it is hot. Even if we devise a sensor to measure the temperature, the sensor must be read before we know that the stove is hot. Neither the body nor the mind would know anything of the condition of the stove without the help each of the other.

The sublime character of the mind is that it is space-time bound but it can conceive of the possibility of a world that is not bound by space-time and has many more dimensions than space-time. Indeed, it can conceive of the possibility of heaven.

The Position of Philosophy

Philosophy supported by empirical evidence becomes science. Philosophy unsupported by empirical evidence becomes speculation.  Logic and rational thought are its tools. Reason is its companion. Philosophy is deductive science. It starts with a premise and draws conclusions from it.  The limitations of philosophy are in the very assumptions that form its foundation. The errors of the philosophers arise when they forget the assumptions on which their philosophy is based and proceed to apply their methods to issues and concepts that are beyond the domain of philosophy. Let us offer an example.

In the eighth century CE, the Mu’tazalites (Muslim philosophers) adopted Greek philosophy as their own and rose to a position of political dominance. They were enamored of the precision, the logic and apparent cohesiveness of rational thought. In their enthusiasm they proceeded to apply their rational scrutiny to matters of faith forgetting that faith has a transcendental dimension beyond time-space whereas logic and philosophy are space-time bound.  In the process, they fell flat on their faces. Their positions were rejected following an intellectual revolution led by Imam Hanbali and the Usuli ulema (846 CE) and they were expelled from their position of power and influence.

In summary, ilm ul ibara is knowledge that can be expressed and taught. It includes the knowledge that is acquired through the body and the mind. The disciplines that are a domain of the body include science, history, sociology, economics, politics and governance. Knowledge acquired through the body (the senses) depends on observation and measurement and is called inductive knowledge.

The body and the mind work together to form a worldview. They are intertwined with each other to such an extent that oftentimes it is said that the Body and the Mind are one. The mind is a noble faculty. It is the master of logic and reason. It is distinguished by its ability to read symbols and conceive of the possibility of things. Knowledge acquired by the mind can also be taught and hence it is also a part of ilm ul ibara. It includes mathematics, geometry, logic and philosophy.

What is Ilm ul Ishara

Ilm ul Ishara is knowledge that can be alluded to but not expressed through language. It includes the language of the heart and the language of the hidden Self (the soul).  Examples are: love, hate, compassion, mercy, generosity.

The secular worldview recognizes only the empirical and the rational (the Body and the Mind) as sources of knowledge. The secular world is cold, rational, devoid of feelings and emotions. Secular man finds himself alone in this cold world. He does not speak to this world; the world does not speak to him.

What makes us human is not just our Body and our Mind. It is also our heart and our soul.  Feelings and emotions are valid sources of experience. And experience is the basis of knowledge.

How can we deny that we love? Or that we have compassion and mercy? Why does a man want to climb a mountain? Why does a woman sing or write poetry? Joy and sorrow cannot be measured by instruments nor comprehended by the mind. They are attributes of the heart and of the soul.

The Flawed Worldview of the Body and the Mind

Secular man who believes only in the material and the rational overlooks the flaws in his worldview. As an illustration, consider the red color of a beautiful rose. Ask a materialists to tell you where the redness in the rose comes from. His description will be something along the following lines: Electromagnetic waves from the sun hit the rose. All waves except those around .63 micrometers are absorbed by the rose. When reflected, they travel through the air and are received by the eye. They hit the retina, travel along the optic nerve and are recorded in brain cells. Ask yourself: where in this picture is the red color of the rose? It is not there. The red color is neither in the rose nor in the eye. It is somewhere else.  It is in the Self (soul).

The attributes of color, beauty, joy and sorrow that make our world rich and meaningful are absent from a materialist worldview drawn purely on the basis of the empirical and the rational. Such a worldview is flawed and incomplete. It is also deceptive, erroneous and misleading.

The Exalted Station (Maqam) of the Heart

Iqbal wrote:

Mahroom e tamasha ko woh deedaye beena de

Dekha hai jo kuch maiN ne, awroN ko bhi dikhla de

(Grant the vision (O Lord!) to one who has not witnessed the show,

What I have witnessed (with the eye of my heart), show it to others too.)

In all of God’s creation, there is nothing as noble, as sublime as the human heart, for it alone is capable of knowing the Name of God. Nothing, not the body, not the mind, measures up to heart in its nobility, its expanse and its heavenly character. Mohammed ibn Ali al Hakim al Tirmidhi, that great Sufi shaikh of the tenth century, in his treatise Bayan al Sadr wa al Qalb wa al Fuad wa al Lubb, compared the heart to the throne of God.  He wrote: “The heart has a nobler position even with respect to the Throne (arsh), for the Throne receives the Grace of God and merely reflects it, whereas the heart receives the Grace of God, reflects it and is aware of it.”  The sublime attribute of the heart is that it is aware of the Name of God; it knows what the angels do not know.

A Hadith e Qudsi (divinely inspired saying of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh)) says: The heavens and the mountains and the earth were not large enough to contain Me. But the heart of the believer was large enough to contain Me.”

The heart as it is used here should not be confused with the physical heart. It should be understood as a collection of attributes. Based upon the terminology of the Qur’an, Imam Tarmidhi, ascribes four ascending stations to the heart, each with its own distinct characteristics.

The Sadr. This is the outmost station of the heart.  It is open to the goodness that comes from the spirit as well as the distractions of the world. It expands with the light of the spirit and contracts with the darkness of evil whisperings. In this sense it is like the aperture of a camera. The more it opens, the more it admits of light.

The Qalb. This is the heart proper. The word Qalb in Arabic means that which turns. It is like a gimbal in a spacecraft. One face of the heart turns towards the Light of the spirit. The other face turns towards the distractions of the world. The heart that turns towards the spirit receives the light that comes from Divine presence. A heart that turns towards the deceptive appearance of the material world is sealed off from that light.

The Fu’ad. The word Fu’ad comes from the word Fayida which in Arabic means that which is of benefit. It is the kernel of the heart. It is that attribute which enables the heart not only to be aware of the Divine Name but to see the presence of God around it. Hence it is the eye of the heart.

The Birr. This is the essence of the heart. It is like the oil in the lamp, that which gives off light. It is the station wherein are manifest the beauty and majesty of Divine presence. It is the inner sanctum of the heart that gazes in its rapture at the ruh or the spirit and receives the infinite Grace that comes from God’s presence. The word Birr has two letters, b and r. The “b” stands for Baraka. The “r” stands for ra’a, that is to see. The Birr is a perpetual witness to the blessings that accrue from the presence of the Divine. This is the highest station of the heart, the one that is attained by the sages, the awliya.

The Kashaf (curtain) of the Body and the Mind

There is a divine light in every man, woman and child. It is bestowed upon a human at birth. However, it remains hidden by the curtains that man himself erects. Some sages say there are seven layers of curtains between the spirit and the Self, some say there are seventy thousand layers of curtains. The struggle of man is to remove these curtains so that the pristine essence of man gazes in its fullness at the spirit and partakes of the beauty and the majesty of Divine presence. That is the essence of knowledge.

The curtains that man erects between himself and the Divine light are called kashaf. The body, mind and the outer heart each erect curtains or veils between the light that comes from the ruh and its perception by the Self.

The Kashaf (Curtain/Veil) of the Body

The kashaf of the body is its deception. The materialist worldview confuses reality with the images gathered by the senses. It is like confusing the image in a mirror with the object. We will offer examples to illustrate this observation. Consider the song of a bird. A physical description of a bird singing at dawn on a beautiful morning would go something like this: P-waves generated by the bird travel through the air. They are picked up by the ear drum which generates impulses for the audio nerves and is then heard. Where in this description of P-waves, transmission through the air, eardrums and audio nerves is the sound? Nowhere. The act of hearing is neither in the P-waves nor in the ear drum. It is somewhere else. It is in the Self (the soul), which remains hidden but acts as the seat of cognition and knowledge.

The Kashaf (Curtain/Veil) of the Mind

The kashaf of the mind lies in its limitations. Noble as it is, the mind is dependent on logic, structure and reason. It is the king of ilm ul hujjah (the science of argumentation and disputation). But it cannot explain that  which is beyond reason. What is the reason to love? Or, for that matter, what is the reason to hate? What is the reason to climb a mountain or to conquer space? Why does a man sacrifice himself for a cause like a moth striking a lamp and burning itself up in the process. Love, honor and sacrifice are attributes of the heart. They are not accessible to the mind. The rationalist who assumes that reason is the limit of man’s knowledge erects a curtain between himself and reality and cannot comprehend the mysteries that transcend rational thought.

What is the Nafs

The Nafs is a composite term which includes the body, the mind and the heart. Like the heart, it is a collection of attributes and is not to be confused with a specific part of the body. Depending on the context it is translated as “person”, “soul”, or the Self. It is the “I” that remains hidden and yet makes itself felt through the body, the mind and the heart. In the English language it is sometimes incorrectly translated as “the Ego”. The Ego is only one aspect of the Nafs; it does not capture the full, comprehensive meaning of the Nafs.

The secular perspective denies the existence of the Nafs. In its materialist outlook, it confines itself to the concrete and the rational. “What is material is real and what is real is material” is its perspective. Consequently, secular man cannot come to terms with the emotions and the passions that govern the world of man.  In the secular perspective there is no color, only wavelengths. There is no joy and no sorrow only chemical changes in the body. The secular world is cold, rational, devoid of the higher impulses that make us human.

Attributes of the Nafs

The Nafs is distinguished by its attributes, just as are its individual elements, the heart, the mind and the body. Some of the most important attributes of the Nafs are:

  1. The Nafs is the seat of cognition and knowledge. The sounds that we hear are “heard” not by the ear but by the Nafs. The sights that we see are “seen” not by the eye but by the Nafs. The “heat” and “cold” that we experience are not experienced by the skin but by the Nafs. The Nafs (soul or the Self) is the cognitive element in a human being.
  2. The Nafs is the fountain of speech. The faculty of “bayan” as it is called in Arabic, is not merely the ability to speak a particular language such as English, Urdu or Zulu, but it is that human ability to transform sounds and signs into ideas, to dissect, combine and integrate them and build the tree of knowledge that distinguishes the world of man from the world of the beast. Speech is not in the tongue; it is in the Nafs or the soul.

God, Most Gracious,

Taught the Qur’an,

Created the human,

Taught him speech.” (The Qur’an 55:1-4)

  1. The Nafs is the owner of free will.

Humankind is distinguished by its free will. “I will, therefore I am”, is the succinct way to state this. Man has the free will to choose and realize his existential potential.  It is this same free will that makes a man climb a mountain, conquer the oceans, ride the waves, and send a rocket to the moon.

  1. The Nafs is the knower of beauty, of order and proportion.


And the Nafs

And the sense of order and proportion bestowed upon it. (The Quran 91:7)

The Nafs has a sense of order, proportion and beauty. Every human, man, woman and child is endowed with these attributes. That is how even the most unlettered person can relate to the enchanting beauty of the rainbow or the serene majesty of a mountain.  The Nafs recognizes beauty, order and proportion in the external world and relates to it because the external is a reflection of what is already in the Nafs.   It is like looking in the mirror; the beauty of the image is a reflection of the beauty of that which causes the image.

  1. The Nafs is the seat of the Ego.

The Nafs is sometimes mistranslated into English as the Ego. In Arabic, the corresponding term for the Ego would be “Anaya”.  The term “Ego” is a Freudian term used in Western psychology and has its own specific connotations. The Nafs is a broader term than the Ego inasmuch as it includes the hidden attributes of the body, the mind and the heart, and hence connotes the total human being, or simply, the Person.

It is the Ego that incites the human to self-aggrandizement, rebel against the commandments of God and set himself up as an open adversary to Divine Will and in the process lays the groundwork for his self-destruction:

Nay! But humankind does rebel

In that it considers itself autonomous (self-sufficient);

We will drag him by his forelock,

A lying, sinful forelock! (96: 6-7)

  1. The Nafs has a conscience and is the differentiator of good and evil.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of the Nafs is its ability to know right from wrong, good from evil (…And its guidance as to what is wrong and what is right… Qur’an 91:8). The propensity towards evil and its ability to say “no” to that tendency is a uniquely human ability. Humankind is born with “deen ul fitra”, in the natural state with closeness to Divine presence, but through its own actions gets away from the Divine presence and has to be reminded again and again to return to the Divine fold.

The Kashaf of the Nafs

The susceptibility of the Nafs to evil makes the Nafs the biggest barrier between the Light that comes with the Ruh and its perception. Properly trained, this barrier can be removed and the Nafs can become the carrier of that Light. The progression of the Nafs from an obstructer of Light to a carrier of Light is a continuous process. Four stations of the Nafs are identified in the Qur’an:

Nafs e Ammara: This is the dark side of man, prone to whisperings from the evil one. Nafs e Ammara stands steeped in darkness, cut off from the light emanating from the Spirit.

Nafs e Mulhama: This is the aspiring Nafs, the state when a person starts questioning the evil tendencies of his own Self and tries to rectify them.

Nafs e Lawwama: This is the blaming Nafs, the station from where the Self, having overcome the evil inclinations of the Self, reaches out to a higher station, to find the Light that comes from Divine presence.

Nafs e Mutmainna: This is the highest station of the Nafs and the closest to Divine presence. At this station, the Nafs has overcome its Ego and has shunned whisperings of the evil one and has turned with complete surrender to Divine presence. It is the station of satisfaction, tranquility and peace.

Tarmidhi tabulates the stations of the Nafs with respect to the stations of the heart: Nafs e Ammara corresponds to Sadr; Nafs e Mulhama corresponds to the Qalb; Nafs e Lawwamma corresponds to the Fu’ad, and Nafs e Mutmainna corresponds to Birr.

Translation, Conceptual Mapping and Cultural Constraints

Translation from one language to another often introduces inaccuracies and misconceptions. Language is culture bound. What is expressed in one language cannot exactly be mapped onto another language because words are colored by the historical and cultural experience of a people and they have a semantic connotation. It is important to keep in mind the differences in terminology and their semantic nuances when we approach the nature of knowledge and its classification in the Qur’anic paradigm.

The Interconnectivity of Knowledge

Truth is one. Its origin is the Light from the ruh (the Spirit). It is the spirit that suffuses the heart, the mind and the body to acquire knowledge. It follows that the various categories of knowledge are interconnected.  

The primal origin of knowledge from a divine source establishes the interconnectivity between different forms of knowledge. Ilm ul ibara and ilm ul ishara both have Divine origin. What is learned through the senses springs from the same Source as what is learned through the mind and what is perceived by the heart.  And all of them point like arrows (symbols) towards that divine purpose in creation, namely, to serve and worship Him. Unlike the secular framework where the body and mind stand as antagonists to the heart and to each other, in the Qur’anic paradigm, the body, mind and the heart are partners, each contributing its share to the acquisition of knowledge that enables humankind to discharge its divinely established responsibility to serve and worship.

There is interconnectivity in nature. There is interconnectivity between the perceived world that the world beyond perception. This interconnectivity is through the Creator, who creates everything, every moment, with sublime beauty, complete perfection and supreme majesty.

The Purpose of Creation

The various categories of knowledge are also interconnected through their shared functionality.

Does the universe have a purpose? As opposed to the secular view of a purposeless world, the Qur’anic view holds that there is a moral purpose to creation, that is, to serve and worship God:

I created not the Jinns and Humankind except to serve (worship). The Qur’an (51:56)

The word that is used in the Qur’an to describe this purpose is “’abd” which may mean worship or unqualified servitude.  Thus humankind and jinns (another forms of intelligent creation made of formless energy) are enjoined to acquire knowledge so that they may know God and serve and worship Him.

The fossilization of knowledge

Knowledge is fossilized because of the assumptions made by man about the secular nation of the cosmos. By dissociating the material and the rational from the heart and the soul, secular man ends up in a blind alley where the heart and the Nafs (soul) are absent from his worldview. History, science, philosophy, mathematics, good and evil, passion and emotion each are pigeon holed into separate compartments with no interconnectivity. Secular man sees no grand purpose in creation and hence he sees no purpose in his own creation.

What is Iqbal’s Khudi?

We are now in a position to understand Allama Iqbal’s Khudi. It is the essence of the Self. It is not seen but it makes itself felt through the body, the mind and the heart. It increases in its brightness the more the Self is effaced, until when the Self is completely effaced, Khudi becomes a mirror that reflects, like a brilliant star, the Light of its essence from its Life Source, the Spirit. Khudi is not the Ego of the psychologists. It is more than the Self of the philosophers. Indeed, Khudi becomes stronger as the Self becomes weaker. It is the Se Murgh of Fareeduddin Attar. It is the rapture of Rumi when he writes: “Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not of any religion or culture, I am not from the East or the West, not out of the ocean or brought forth from the ground. Not natural or ethereal; not of elements. I do not exist, am not an entity in this world or in the next, did not descend from Adam and Eve or any story of origin. My place is placeless; I am a trace of the traceless. Neither body or soul, I belong to the Beloved, have seen the two worlds as one, and the One who calls you to, the first, last, outer, inner. (I am) only that breath-breathing human.”

Allama Iqbal captures this sublime thought with the simile (ilm ul ishara) of the mirror (a’eena):

Tu bacha bacha ke na rakh ise

Tera a’eena hai woh a’eena

Ke shikasta ho to ‘azeez tar

Hai nigahe a’eena saz meiN.

Conserve it not and keep (Your Nafs, O seeker!),

Your mirror is that mirror,

The more it is disabled (and disarmed),

The more it is loved

By He who made the mirror.

Iqbal rode on the wings of angels and dared to wish to speak to God. Paying tribute to this audacity, Shakeel Badaiwani pays homage to Iqbal:

Allah to sab ki sunta hai, jur’at hai Shakeel apni apni,

Hali ne zubaN se “uf” na kaha, Iqbal shikayat kar baithe.

(God listens to every voice,

It is up to one’s courage, O Shakeel!

Hali uttered not ugh! with his tongue,

Iqbal went ahead and submitted a complaint.)

This audacity was uncommon in Urdu literature and indeed in Islamic literature. Those who pierced the walls of orthodoxy paid a heavy price. It was the genius of Iqbal that he pushed the envelope and negotiated his terms with the orthodoxy of his times. Indeed, he won acclaim for what he achieved.

Iqbal could do this because he speaks to us not as Iqbal the poet, but from his Essence, his Khudi, much as Rumi speaks to us from the spaceless, timeless station of his rapture. In this, Iqbal shares the station of a wali, except that whereas a wali may be satisfied with his station of rapture, Iqbal looks further beyond to the example of the Prophets and returns to inspire and guide his people. Examine this verse:

Wahi lan tarani suna chahta hooN,

Meri saadgi dekh meiN kya chayta hooN.

(I long to hear that lan taranee – thou canst ever see Me!

See! How simple is my longing!).

This is a deep ocean. I will share with our readers a drop or two of this boundless ocean. In the Qur’an, Surah An Naml, Ayah 7 (27:7), there is a sublime description of the encounter of Moses with Divine energy on the mountain: “When Moses said to his family: Verily! I perceive a Fire! Soon shall I bring for you some information from it, or bring for you (a Fire) from the burning shoals (shoals that are inclined to part of their energy) so that you may warm yourselves”.  The wisdom in this Ayah defies translation. In 2009, when I was in Jerusalem for an interfaith meeting, I related this Ayah to a rabbi and there were tears in his eyes. Following the example of Moses the great Prophet, Iqbal goes “up on the mountain” and like Moses he wants to bring back “some information” for his people. He is not a wali who may be satisfied with a heady drink from Wahdat al Wajud. He has gone further to stations of higher ecstasy and has become a Shaheed (a witness) as in Wahdat ash Shahada of Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi (d 1624 CE) of his native Punjab. This aspect of Iqbal needs further elaboration.

Iqbal does not spare the self-content Wali from his pen. He takes him to task for abandoning the struggle which is the distinguishing attribute of humankind and accepting instead a contemplative relationship with God and satiation with the ecstasy of Divine presence. The static accretions that held down the forward march of Islamic civilization were his target. Iqbal, himself a product of tasawwuf, wants to remove the static weights that held down tasawwuf and impart to it the dynamism that is inherent in it.

The objective of tasawwuf is to find Divine presence. Tasawwuf has been in existence since the time of the Prophet and derives its inspiration from the life of the Prophet. There are many tareeqas or methodologies for removing the veils of the Nafs and taking the Self from distractions (kashaf) of duniya (the created world) to the presence of God. All of them trace their knowledge to the inner knowledge imparted by the Prophet himself to the Sahaba. All of them start with an emphasis on strict observance of the Shariah and then move in graduated discipline to a reinforcement of faith through dhikr(remembrance of God), Ehsan (beautiful deeds), Irfan (recognition and insights), Muhibbah (love), taqwa (awe and fear of God), faqr (poverty) and finally fana (annihilation). The Sufis derive the basis of each of these stations from the Qur’an. The process is continuous, endless, each station leading to another and to a higher state of ecstasy.

The question is: What happens after fana? The Qur’an provides the guidance: Upon everything there is annihilation save the existence of your Rabb, the owner of majesty and bounty (55: 26-27). Historical tasawwuf got away from the profound implication of fana, namely, it is only the beginning of a renewed struggle to find God. Some walis assumed that once they attained fana they were subsumed in Divine existence. This was the station of Wahdat al Wajud (the unity of existence). It is a deeply spiritual concept and only the initiated discuss it with deep reverence in select circles.

The idea of Wahdat al Wajud, accepted by some sufis, was always suspect in orthodox circles. The premise of Wahdat al Wajud, namely, that all existence exists only in God and nothing exists outside of Him, was sacrilegious in the eyes of many ulema.  Those mystics who spoke of it openly paid the price. Thus it was that when Mansur al-Hallaj cried out: Ana al Haq (I am the Truth), he was summarily executed.

It was not until the advent of Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi (d 1624) that the idea of Wahdat al Wajud went through a major reformation. Sirhindi is considered one of the most influential thinkers of Islamic history. Indeed, some historians take the position that it was the force of his pen that changed the course of Islamic history in the seventeenth century from one that was based on traditional tasawwuf to one based on a more rigorous adherence to the Shariah.

Sirhindi reasserted the proper relationship between man and God, between the created and the Creator. Tawhid (the Unity and Uniqueness of God) dictates that the Creator and the created are not the same. The unity that is apparent at the moment of fana (annihilation), argued Sirhindi, is not the Unity of Existence but the Unity of Witness. After the station of fana (annihilation) comes the station of shaheed (witness). When a man advances to the lofty station of Wahdat us Shahada he becomes a shaheed (a witness) and beholds with his Essence the sublime majesty and bounty of the Creator. This is the inner meaning of Hadith e Qudsi: I was an unknown Treasure; I willed that I be known; so I created (a creation that would know Me).”

Iqbal stood on the shoulders of Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi and took the idea of Wahdat us Shahada one step further. He applied it not just to the station of a witness but to the continuous and unceasing struggle of man to create Divine patterns on earth. In this grand endeavor, he followed not just the example of the Awliya, but also the lessons from the Prophets. Moses (peace be upon him) went up on the mountain and came back with the Ten Commandments. Iqbal the supplicant, a follower of Muhammed (pbuh), humbly presents himself with his Khudi (his Essence) at the feet of the Arsh (throne) and comes back with the dynamism that he wants to impart to his people. It is that dynamism that is the core of tasawwuf. It is that dynamism that is the crux of Islam whose raison d’ etre’ is to guide humankind towards the honor of servanthood as stated in the Qur’an: “I created not the jinns and the humans except to serve (worship) Me”. It is that dynamism of servanthood that animates Iqbal.

That is Iqbal’s “Khudi”, his timeless, spaceless Essence, the lamp in the mirror of his Spirit, the Light which he wants to share with his people. It is this khudi that animates his poetry, his life, his thoughts, his actions. He imparts a new, transcendent dimension to Urdu literature. He dares to push the envelope but always remains within it, a man of deep faith and vision, a mujtahid but always a humble follower of al deen-e-Muhammadi.

Wa Allahu A’lam.