Muhammad Iqbal’s philosophy can help us appreciate the radical openness of human existence, with a vision of God that supports the positive use of human freedom--for all life.
I believe that, for many of us, our own existence is in question. By this, I mean that as self-aware and self-conscious creatures, we often reflect upon our existence and its possibilities. What kind of persons we are and can become in the future, and what world we want to live in, both matter to us. As the humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm notes, “Man (sic) is the only animal for whom his own existence is a problem which he has to solve and from which he cannot escape.” Let me unpack this by revealing to you a part of my personal history.
Personal Crisis as a Possibility to New Modes of Living In my youth, I suffered from episodic depression and anxiety. I also remember visiting my parent’s home country, Pakistan, many years ago. There, my intimate experiences of people living in extreme poverty—the old, the very young, and the in-between, begging for food and money in order to survive the day—deeply affected me emotionally. Through these experiences, important questions arose in my mind, such as Is my suffering and the suffering of others a punishment from God? Is it all a part of God’s “grand plan”? Was it all predetermined? I believe religious believers cannot abandon altogether such existential questions during their lives, but we can surely avoid thinking about them by developing various negative or unhealthy strategies to escape the uncomfortable realities of our existence. For instance, we can let ourselves be swallowed by the “masses,” or we drift into standardized public ways of being and social conformism, or we think that the status quo is unchangeable, i.e., that it is what it is.
Whenever I approached religious leaders with my queries, the standard answer I received was; “You see, everything in our lives is settled, prewritten by an all-knowing and almighty God. There should be no need or desire to alter our personal or collective condition. The natural order, the status quo, should not be disturbed. Remember the maxim, ‘We were allotted no more than these few scraps from Destiny’s table.’” I was not satisfied with these conventional answers. They only intensified and reinforced my pursuit of learning new ways to shape my religious attitude toward God and the human condition. By “news ways” I mean a religious framework, or orientation, and a vision of God that promotes human dignity by supporting our freedom and responsibility. By that I mean our capacity to imagine novel possibilities and ideals, and to change unfavourable personal and socio-political conditions.
Muhammad Iqbal and Existential Shattering
Fortunately, I was brought up in a family culture that supported healthy scepticism toward religious dogmas. One day, I set my eyes on a poem collection on my father’s bookshelf. The Muslim philosopher and poet, Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), famously known as the “spiritual father” of Pakistan, composed it. I grabbed the book and one of the first poems I read emphasized the creative powers of human beings and the possibilities of shaping our futures according to our ideals and desires. One of Iqbal’s poetic lines that affected me the most was: “The object of the passage of time is but one; to reveal to you the possibilities of your own self.” These short yet powerful lines profoundly challenged my religious attitude. It caused an existential shattering, a sudden dismantling of my conventional worldview. From that moment onward, I explored the philosophical and religious world of Iqbal in order to rethink and rebuild my religious beliefs and attitudes.
I learnt quickly that Iqbal’s philosophy is a deep yearning for freedom and an accompanying sense of responsibility for what we make of ourselves—for how we treat our fellow humans and the natural world, with its many beautiful nonhuman species of life. Iqbal believed God is not a sadistic and narcissistic bully in the sky, preoccupied with punishment and reward. Iqbal’s vision of God points to a God who is a loving and nurturing presence in our lives, celebrating and supporting human freedom and inviting us to do great things as God’s co-creators in healing the world.
Our Destiny is Freedom
Iqbal’s philosophy is a powerful reaction against all forms of fatalistic theologies and religious teachings that look upon humankind as powerless creatures, unable to change their conditions. As such, the philosophy of Iqbal can be encapsulated by the phrase “Human beings are creators of their own destiny.” This means that we first simply exist with the potential for both goodness and destructiveness, and that there is no predetermined purpose laid out for us by an all-knowing and almighty God. It is up to each one of us to decide what and who we are—and what we aspire to become—through our actions and choices. Yes, we are thrown into a world not of our own choosing, but it is within our powers to define our own essential traits and identity in the course of what we do with our lives. In other words, our “essence” is chosen by us. It is not a given, inflexible fact. This means that, for Iqbal, we create our own history. We are self-fashioning creatures, with responsibilities in the world.
I understood that my episodic depression and anxiety were not pre-decided by God, and that instead of passively responding to my state, God offered fresh possibilities so that I could respond actively to my situation with a sense of hope, courage, and responsibility. God was, and still is, a fellow sufferer. Moving from the personal sphere to politics and sociology, it also means that there is no “essence” of extreme poverty. That so many people have to starve and suffer is not according to God’s will. Extreme poverty is a condition because of social and political structures and policies. These structures are upheld by oppressive practices that restrict or eliminate possibilities for humans to move beyond their present condition toward an open future—toward self-realization. Iqbal’s point is that which is politically and socially constructed can be radically changed, and the oppression that unjust structures foster can thereby be relieved.
Existence Precedes Essence
The underlying principle of his philosophy is the existential assumption that in human life, existence precedes our essence. There is no fixed essence that we are deterministically structured to pursue.
There is no denying of the fact that there are various social and biological/environmental pressures in our lives. For instance, human beings, due to our anatomy, cannot run as fast as cheetahs or using our bodies to propel through the air like a hawk. In that sense, we can say that humans are not “free” to do so. However, that would be to misunderstand the word “freedom,” as Iqbal sees it. Existentially, human freedom means “being able to choose” and not simply “being physically able to do x or y.” Human freedom, in this sense, means the ability to make choices and take decisions for oneself (amongst a range of possibilities), without being fully determined by the socializations from past-history or God. Personal agency, to use a term from humanistic psychology, is right at the top of Iqbal’s philosophy. Rather than this being bad news, Iqbal believed that this was an affirmation of human self-determination, together with an understanding of God who supports the positive use of it. This opens up much needed space for broader self-mastery, which, according to psychological research, is an important ingredient for our sense of self-worth and individual value.
The Future as an Open Possibility
One of the most exhilarating visions of Iqbal is his understanding of our futures as an “open possibility.” Briefly expressed, by an “open possibility,” Iqbal means the universe is not a closed reality in which God once and for all determined the course of our lives. For Iqbal, the universe is not rigidly fixed. It is not a finished line. Rather, it is a line in the process of becoming. And in this creative process, human beings have the possibility to become God’s partners. This, however, entails a real risk. Since humans are self-determined, they may choose possibilities that are the opposite of goodness. Iqbal recognizes this existential risk. I paraphrase him like this: “To permit the emergence of a finite ego that has the power to choose, is really to take a great risk. For the freedom to choose good also involves the freedom to choose what is the opposite of good. That God has taken the risk shows God’s immense faith in humankind. It is for us now to justify this faith.”
Open and Relational Living as the World’s Best Hope
How, then, can we justify God’s faith in us? If Iqbal was alive today, I am inclined to think that he would have reminded us—again and again—that, as God’s co-creators, our existential calling is to realize and express our freedom and dignity in a way that complements and enriches the dignity and freedom of others. We can do this—each in our own unique way—by helping create communities that are compassionate, creative, participatory, inclusive of diversity, and ecologically sustainable, with no one left behind. We can rightly call such communities ecological civilizations. This is the open and relational vision of Muhammad Iqbal. For this vision, I am deeply grateful. In our troubled but beautiful world, I hope that we—regardless of our differences—can walk gently on earth, in dignity and respect, for the world’s sake. And for God’s sake. This is the beauty of an open future, pulsating with possibilities of fulfilled existence.
Questions: Can the vision of God in Iqbal’s philosophy instead contribute to healing processes in psychotherapy? Put differently, what differences, if any, can follow for psychotherapy, and for theistic people, if one considers God as promoting human freedom and responsibility?
Farhan Shah is a Muslim philosopher and is currently working on his doctoral dissertation at the University of Oslo, Norway. He is also Islam-consultant, Center for Process Studies, Salem, OR, US, and has a passion for ecology, existential therapy, and ethics—for freedom, responsibility, and care for nature and the non-human communities of life.
* This essay was originally published in Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology (SacrSage Press, 2021), and is republished with permission from its editors. To purchase the book click here.
It is sad but true that many people can grow up with a fatalistic vision of life, including their own lives. They can feel that they have no agency, no voice, no power, no freedom. They can feel that their future, and everyone's future, is pre-determined by God or by Fate or by Nature. They can feel trapped by circumstances: personally, socially, culturally, politically.
Let's be honest. People can be trapped by circumstances beyond their control: foisted upon them by disease, by social conditions, by cultural attitudes, by religion, and by tyrants. But here, with help from Farhan Shah, let's also recognize that this is not the whole story, not for them and not for anybody. We humans have within our very souls a spark of freedom, of creativity, that no one, not even God, can take away. It is part of our very existence.
This freedom is not absolute. We are born with elbows that bend only one way, and we are born into circumstances that bend in particular ways. We do not choose where we were born; how we were brought up; what social conditions we find ourselves in, early in life and often later in life. There are things in life we cannot change. Our freedom lies in how we respond to the situations we face, moment by moment, day by day, year by year. This freedom, this creativity, is at the heart of our very existence. So we learn from Muhammad Iqbal in his reading of the Qur'an. And so we learn from others as well, such as the philosopher Whitehead and the process theologians. Even as we are created by circumstances in some ways, we also create ourselves through our active response. Our existence, our freedom, is, at a very deep level, who we are; and it precedes our essence, what we are. Our whatness comes after, not before, our existence. Over time our essence, our whatness, changes, and some of this change is the outcome of our own creative decision-making. We are not ruled by Fate.
I knew the phrase "existence precedes essence" before reading this essay by Farhan Shah. I had read Sartre and learned about existentialist philosophy in college. But I really didn't understand why it can be so important until I read the essay. With his help I see so much better why Iqbal is important to him, and perhaps also to many Muslims. I find myself inspired by Iqbal and want to keep learning from him. With Farhan Shah's help I also see why existentialism, too, is important. At least a relational existentialism of the sort he envisions throughout his work.
For my part, as a process theologian, I distinguish between relational existentialism and atomistic existentialism. Atomistic existentialism begins with the image of a self-contained self, possessive of freedom but not necessarily connected with others in potentially positive ways. It leans toward solipsism and sometimes narcicissism, all in the name of "my freedom." In this view, freedom typically means freedom from pressures from "others." through acts of agency and self-assertion, but not freedom with others such that positive relations with others are part of one's very existence. Atomistic existentialism is isolated existentialism.
By contrast, a relational existentialism begins with the image of a relational self whose internal relations with others through feelings, memory, and myriad kinds of interaction are part of his or her very existence. This kind of existentialism recognizes the sometimes destructive role of oppressive forces, but also the potentially positive role that other people and the natural world can play in life. It leans foward loving relations with others - good friends, for example - finding freedom through those relations, not apart from them. It recognizes the role that community plays in human life, and feels a sense of responsibility to the world. It has a warmth to it.
My own feeling and hope is that Iqbal is a relational existentialist, not an atomistic existentialist. The Qur'an itself seems to me to point toward such relationality. Indeed, an atomistic existentialism seems to me to be quite un-Islamic and, for that matter, inhumane. I read Farhan Shah as affirming a relational existentialism.
In any case, he is right: none of us think about the big questions in life in a vacuum. We think about them in light of what we have seen and known, what we have experienced. If we avoid fatalism, we can respond to what we see and know with a creativity of our own, both individually and socially. As partners with God we can help create futures that are rich and abundant with love, creativity, and justic. Yes, there is beauty in an open future, as Farhan Shah says. And though he is too humble to say it, there is beauty, much beauty, in this essay, too.