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Iqbal and Islamic Mysticism-Contradictions Galore


By Aftab Ahmad, New Age Islam

10 December, 2014

The great Urdu poet-philosopher Iqbal influenced the religious thought of the Muslims in many ways. His political, religious and philosophical thoughts made him one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century who reshaped the ideas of not only his contemporary Muslim society but also of the generations to come. He is said to be the father of the Two Nation theory and Pakistan though in reality he only conceived the idea of a confederation of Muslim majority states within India.

His religious philosophy revolves round the theory of Khudi (ego) which came into existence as a reaction to Sufism as he thought that Sufism inspired among Muslims a passive and pessimistic outlook and attitude and thus weaned them off the life force that once drove them. Sufism anathema to Islam. As a result, they confined themselves to the monasteries. They became devoid of their national ego (Khudi). Therefore, in his later years, Iqbal became severely opposed to Sufism and even declared Sufism anathema to Islam.

Iqbal was not a born Sufi basher. He came from a Sufi background. His father Noor Mohammad was a Sufi minded person. The great book of Ibn e-Arabi titled Fususul Hikam, a Sufi treatise, was taught in his house. Ibn-e-Arabi was the greatest exponent of the philosophy of Wahdatul Wujud, the basis of Sufism. The Muthnavi of Maulana Rum, the great Persian poet and philosopher and the spiritual mentor of Iqbal was also taught at his home in his boyhood. Maulana Rum was also a believer in the philosophy of Wahdatul Wujud.

Thus Iqbal inherited the Sufi legacy from his father and later he was interned in the Qadriya order of Sufism, believing it a part of Islam.

However, when he went to England for higher education, he studied western philosophy and did a comparative study of the philosophies of the world, including the Indian philosophy. This brought about a revolutionary change in Iqbal’s religious thought, including his belief in Sufism as an Islamic doctrine. He developed the view that Sufism was a distortion of Islamic Shariah under the influence of Vedanta and Buddhist philosophy. Therefore, he came to the conclusion that the Hindu beliefs had crept into Islam in the guise of Sufism. To purge Islam of the foreign impurities, he wrote the Masnavi (long verse) Asrar-e-Khudi (Secrets of Ego) which created quite a flutter among Muslims, particularly in the Sufi circles. However, Iqbal made it clear that he was not totally opposed to Sufism. He was opposed to the Sufism that was in sync with the Vedanta philosophy. In the preface to Asrar-e-Khudi, he wrote:

“There is a strange resemblance between the mental history of both Hindus and Muslims so far as the research into the issue of ego is concerned. That is, Sheikh Mohiyuddin Ibn-e-Arabi wrote the commentary of the Quran from the same point of view from which Shri Shankar wrote the commentary of the Gita. This had a great impact on the thoughts of the Muslims. The depth of knowledge of Sheikh Akbar and his powerful personality made the philosophy of Wahdatul Wujud of which he was an untiring exponent, a quintessential part of Islamic thought.

"The result of his beautiful expostulations was that the idea reached the common man and deprived the Muslim nation of the spirit to struggle.”

 Therefore, to purge the impurities from Sufism, he coined the term Islamic Sufism to differentiate it with the Sufism that was influenced by Hindu beliefs and practices. To Maulana Aslam Jairajpuri, he writes:

“If by Sufism, the sincerity of action is meant (and this is the meaning that was in vogue in initial centuries) no Muslim can have any objection but when Sufism tries to become a philosophy, my soul revolts against it. “ (Iqbal Nama)

Iqbal was of the view that the Sufism that was being practiced in India and other Muslim countries like Iran and Afghanistan was actually an Ajami (non-Arab) concept that had nothing to do with Islam. The characteristic features of the Ajami Sufism were:

A)      Man’s Stature Was Reduced To Lowly Creatures Like Insects

B)       Man Negated His Existence In The Name Of Annihilation Into God.

C)       Man Considered His Visible Material World As Maya, An Illusion.

D)      Man Considered Life Not More Than A Dew Drop;

E)       Man Did Not Differentiate Between Creator And Creature.

F)       Man Rejected Shariat And Valued Tariqat;

G)      He Crushed His Self Respect.

According to Iqbal, these cannot be the beliefs and practices of a devout and true Muslim. The Quran says that the entire universe has a real existence and the earth is also created on truth. The world is not an illusion.

The philosophy of Wahdatul Wujud which is the core of Sufism says that God is one but the entire universe is a manifestation of His existence and therefore the phenomena of the universe do not have an existence of their own. They are merely the manifestation of the ONE. Even Ibn-e-Arabi was greatly influenced by the Sanskrit book Amrit Kunda that was available in Arabic. Thus Ibn-e-Arabi shaped his religious ideas, particularly on Sufism on the basis of Vedanta philosophy. But he drew his conclusions from the verses of the Quran to prove that the philosophy of Wahdatul Wujud had a basis in the Quran. On this issue, Iqbal wrote to Khwaja Hasan Nizami about his stance on Ibn-e-Arabi:

“In fact Sufis have erred in understanding the meaning of Tauhid (unity of God) and Wahdatul Wujud (unity of existence). The two terms are not synonyms. The former is a religious term while the latter is used in a philosophical sense. Diversity is not the antonym of Tawhid as some Sufis think. However, diversity is the antonym of Wahdatul Wujud.”

Iqbal severely criticized Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and the Persian poets who popularized the philosophy of Wahdatul Wujud in their poetry. He was critical of Hafiz Sherazi in particular.

Therefore, Iqbal wanted to popularize what he called Islamic Sufism through his poetry, particularly his poem Asrar-e-Khudi which was to him the remedy of the pessimism that had crept among the Muslims because of Vedanta inspired Sufism.

However, it is a paradox that Iqbal’s philosophy of Khudi is in itself inspired by the Vedanta philosophy of Surati and Nirati, the two stages in meditation as described by the Bhakti Sadhaks. Surati means realization of the union of self with the Creator and Nirati means detachment from all the material associations and feelings. Thus, Surati and Nirati are the two sides of meditation. Without detachment from worldly associations (Nirati) one cannot achieve Surati (union with the Supreme Being). Iqbal took the idea of Khudi and Bekhudi from the Vedanta philosophy of Surati and Nirati. He wrote two poems, one Asrar-e-Khudi (Secrets of Surati) and Ramooz-e-Bekhudi (Secrets of Nirati).

Secondly, Iqbal did not elaborate if Sufism practiced by the Indian and Iranian Sufis was not in consonance with Islam, what his ‘Islamic Sufism’ was. Meditation and remembrance of God, both loud and silent, is part of Sufism and even the Quran asks the believers to continually remember and chant His name and attributes and draw towards God shrugging off all the worldly desires and aspirations.

Iqbal did not approve of the pessimism of the Muslims and there is no disagreement on It. But his conclusion that Sufism was a result of pessimism can be challenged. Sufism strives to purge the impurities of hearts and to create better human being which is the objective of Islam. Sufism does not inspire shirk but celebrates the omnipresence of the Supreme Being. The Quran says, “God is the light of the Heaven and Earth.” This has been interpreted by the believers in the philosophy of Wahdatul Wujud and Wahdatus Shuhud as a testimony to their beliefs and interpretations.

This is the reason; many Sufi minded scholars and intellectuals of Iqbal’s age like Khwaja Hasan Nizami and Akbar Allahabadi were not happy with his views on Sufism and disapproved of his poem Asrar-e-Khudi which denounced Sufism and Sufi-minded philosophers and Persian poets like Shirazi in strongest words.

Therefore, while Iqbal’s views on Islam’s cosmopolitan and humanitarian values can be agreed upon, his views on Sufism cannot be totally accepted.

Aftab Ahmad is a columnist for New Age Islam.  He has been studying the Holy Quran for some time.