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Iqbal on Advancement Sans Morals

Iqbal on Advancement Sans Moral
by Prof. Muhammad Munawwar

Iqbal lived in an era of Change – a fast change. He saw the world shrinking tremendously. The Eastern Hemisphere looked whispering to the Western Hemisphere. The North Pole seemed nodding to the South Pole. Nations far away from one another appeared like neighbours at a dinner. Scientists were busily digging out Secrets of Nature. They felt the thrill of delight like conquerors. Fresh discoveries brought about new theories providing answers to many erstwhile conundrums. Invention followed invention. The whole world presented itself putting on the semblance of a Brave New World. Iqbal saw all this. He was pleased to see man’s potentialities, unfolding themselves. But, at the same time, he could not help feeling distressed. Why? Because manifold changes brought about by men had not changed man himself. He had essentially remained the same Homo Sapiens Man looked bent on knowing and solving the mysteries of everything in the universe save his own “self”. Iqbal had a discerning eye. He had developed a minute sense of discrimination, proportion and decency to know what to accept and uphold and what to reject and condemn. He took in things with a highly receptive but independent mind. So he was also capable of unlearning what he felt was superfluous. To unlearn is obviously much more difficult than to learn. Iqbal, in the following couplet, makes this point manifest:-


“I shattered the spell of contemporary learning. I picked up the grain and broke the threads of the net. God knows that I, like Prophet Ibrahim (may peace be on him), sat in the fire of this learning with perfect nonchalance.”

Iqbal saw that all the power which man had gained on account of technological development lay rooted in materialism. Natural sciences, as taught in the West, are neutral sciences, i.e. they have nothing to do with man as man. “Be a man” is neither their import nor purport, while for Iqbal without moral training human beings are less than human beings.

They, in spite of all scientific, philosophic and literary accomplishments, inwardly can remain at a sub-human level. The apparent social evolution of the West if looked at with a critical eye, is the evolution of technology and not the progress of mankind. The culture resulting from the machine atmosphere can hardly be called a moral culture. Machines are amoral. No doubt, the material advancement has provided mankind, and especially the West, with a lot of affluence enabling them to enjoy as much physical luxury as they can. They can stoop to any level of lasciviousness. Technology, moreover, can make them very powerful. But the West, for Iqbal, is like a savage playing with fireworks which could destroy anything including himself. For Iqbal human progress is in need of a culture based on moral values. Obviously evolution is not progress. Affluence does not necessarily denote inner refinement and decency of man. According to Iqbal, all the glitter of the West lay in the outer decoration, in haloed appearances, while spirit remained hollow. Iqbal says:-


“The glamour of the contemporary civilization is dazzling to the eye. But all this show of art is the product of shoddy diamonds.”


“Is it all the present era possesses? Enlightened brain, somber soul, arrogant looks. (Present era means the contemporary West.)”

Here I quote Professor R.M. Meclver, one of the dedicated scholars in the field of Sociology. He says after discussing multiple social problems vis-à-vis the evolution in terms of modern scholarship in various fields of learning:-

“We should not define social evolution as though it meant or implied progress. How far we find a correspondence between the direction of social evolution and the direction prescribed by our particular concept of social progress, is another matter. We may properly enquire into the relationship between the two. But it is possible to do so only if we define social evolution in ethically neutral terms.”4

This shows that all the present-day advancement in different fields of knowledge can provide the “accomplished” Homo Sapiens with only the material gains, neglecting their spiritual well-being. Besides, it provides them with much more effective weapons for all-round destruction. Savages armed with such weapons can play havoc with human societies, bringing about their own destruction too. Man is not a material existence only; he has something within him which is non-material. This is how Iqbal explains this stance.

“This unity called man is body when you look at it as acting in regard to what we call the external world; it is mind or soul when you look at it as acting in regard to the ultimate aim and ideal to such acting.”5

Iqbal has laid stress on this point in his verses as well as prose writings. His painful doubts went on growing in intensity with the passage of time. The uppish, haughty and cruel behaviours of the nations made powerful through technology added to his misgivings. He feared that nations that were drunk with power and were under the ruthless influence of affluence could not be persuaded to behave as human beings. To be human needs the awakening of some other faculty, i.e. the sense to evaluate each “self” as a Unity. First, one should know one’s own “self”, understanding its value as a man. Then and only then can one understand what the other selves are and why they should be considered equal to one’s own “self”. If a society consists of individuals who, as men, have no respect for men belonging to other societies, it means such callous individuals have no belongings to other societies, it means such callous individuals have no “selves”. Selves are individual integrated wholes. Selves as unities feel akin to other “selves”. Self-respect demands respect for every “self”. Only an integrated self is a really conscious self. Dr. Radha Krishnan says:-

“The human individual is not a corpse added to a ghost (Epectetus) or a Soul plus an automation (Descartes). It acts as a whole, and not with its dissociated parts.”6

Man is one. No state of his is out of him. No action of his related only to one or some parts of his person. Whatever he thinks, ventures and performs relates to him as a whole. In the words of Rollow May:-

“The action, like a dive into the water, is done by the whole person or not at all.”7

It means the leaders of modern culture had to be taught that they besides their bodies, possess another element also which has manifestations quite different from those of the body. That is the soul-element. Body and soul together make an existence a unit. In this regard Iqbal say:-

“No doubt man has a spatial aspect; but this is not the only aspect of man. There are other aspects of man, such as evaluation, the unitary character of purposive experience, and the pursuit of truth which science must necessarily exclude from its study, and the understanding of which requires categories other than those employed by science.”8

These words explain vividly that in Iqbal’s opinion, the contemporary scientific advancement was lopsided and through it man could not know of man. First of all one should know one’s own “self” as a living and conscious oneness. In the following verse he elucidates the same idea:-


“To name body and soul separately is the requirement of speech. But to see (know) body and soul as separate entities is heresy.”

And what is that soul? It is an aspect which cannot be explained except that it is Divine spark in man. As Iqbal says:-


“A spark of Divine light is also hidden within this clay (of your body). O! you thoughtless person, you do not posses sense-perception only.”

The overwhelming majority of the Western polyhistors had lost the very notion of that spark which lay dormant in the physical structures of human beings. As long as that fact was not recognized, none could visualize man as a unity, a whole or in Iqbal’s terminology, a “self”. Man ignores this fact and degenerates into sub-human level of existence, in spite of all his scientific and literary accomplishments. Le Compte Du Nouy end his book Human Destiny with these inspiring words which smack of lot of sympathy for his fellow beings:-

“And let him (man) above all never forget that the divine spark is in him, and in him alone, and that he is free to disregard it or to come closer to God by showing eagerness to work with Him and for Him.”

It is hard to bring about a change in inflexible and rigid behaviours. Soiled tastes take long to give way to refined ones. It requires grim determination. Such determination follows conviction. A conviction’s prerequisite is moral training. And the need for moral training cannot be sincerely felt unless one know one’s “self” because man cannot have respect for his “self” without it. Once man begins to respect his own “self” he would begin to show the same regard to other “selves”. The crux of all morale is man’s respect for man. But the West had lost the “I”. Where there is no “I,” the why of morality is out of the question. According to Iqbal, the Western societies, as congregations of veritable worshippers of matter and material pleasures, could not reconcile themselves to a dispensation of convetousness, lust, selfishness and similar other modes of behaviour which eat into the “self” of individuals belonging to such societies. Therefore no good could one expect from them. Says Iqbal:-


“Those who have vision are despaired of the West because the very soul of Western nations is corrupt.”

The same distruct in the defiled culture-pattern of the West is made manifest in the following verses:-


“The Western culture depraves vision as well as soul for the spirit of this culture has lost piety. If piety is lost to the spirit, then purity of conscience, high thinking and refined tastes disappear altogether.”

The same theme can be felt throbbing in the following words of Iqbal:-

“Believe me, Europe to-day is the greatest hindrance in the way of man’s ethical advancement.”13

And, again, the same sonorous note, but alongwith some suggestions:-

“The modern man stands in need of biological renewal. And religion, which in its higher manifestations is neither dogma, nor priesthood, nor ritual, can alone ethically prepare the modern man for the burden of the great responsibility which the advancement of modern science necessarily involves, and restore to him that attitude of faith which makes him capable of winning a personality here and retaining it hereafter. It is only by rising to a fresh vision of his origin and future, his whence and whither, that man will eventually triumph over a society motivated by an inhuman competition, and a civilization which has lost its spiritual unity by its inner conflicts of religious and political values.”14

But the latent difficulty is still there. And Iqbal, like ancient sages, here and there, goes on urging “know thyself”. The failure of all attempts to reform man and to teach him a moral behaviour is due to wrong methods of approach. “All distinctly philosophical problems have ultimate solution in the self, but, unfortunately, it is this very self which is still ignored.”15 No doubt to be efficient one has to take the trouble of understanding one’s job. The same method of approach was adopted by Socrates. His arguments were simple and did not appear to be philosophical. He would say, if you want to be a good shoemaker, the first thing necessary is to know what a shoe is and what it is meant for. It is no use trying to decide on the best sort of tools and material, and the best methods of using them unless you first formed in your mind a clear and detailed idea of what it is you are setting out to produce and what function it will have to perform.16

Obviously the theoretical knowledge of shoe-making is not going to mould an individual into a shoe-maker. Similarly, to inculcate “manhood” in a Homo Sapien, it will not be sufficient to listen to sermons on ethics or to study volumes on morality. Knowledge can add to knowledge only. To know what morality is, is one thing, while to practise morality is quite another. It is hard to endorse the oft-quoted view of Socrates that no one does wrong willingly. Vice is due to ignorance. Where as people know vice and yet indulge in every sort of vice. They even murder people for petty selfish motives. They murder themselves over trifles and they know it. Criminals have always been punished in organized societies where the rule of law was vogue. Punishments have been taking place even in public places to deter the temptations to commit crimes. This shows that morality or sense of moral values cannot be imposed from outside.

Law can punish the wrongdoers. Administration of justice can deter the intending culprits, but it cannot reform them. Punishments, howsoever severe, cannot root out vice. Whenever there is a chance to hoodwink the authorities concerned or to defeat their enforcement staff, the criminal or vicious self of man girates to its animality. Similarly fruitless are the seminars and debates held on related topics. Their impact is slight. In the words of Rollow May : “There is even something wrong in the phrase ‘discussion of values,’ one never receives one’s conviction about values through intellectual debates.”17 Change must occur in the soul of man.

It is the will to change that changes the outlook and behaviour. It is the will to counter that counters the temptations. But will without the support of belief in something higher and more sublime cannot withstand the pull towards carnality and depravity. Strength of reason stands no chance, as temptations may stealthily and slyly win over reason to its side. The result would be the submission of reason to temptation. It is the daily phenomenon faced by “feeble-willed” rationalists. Reason not only submits to the demands of the flesh; it rather begins to spin arguments in favour of doing what should not have been done. Every temptation has its logic and that logic at times is very cool. It means rational will has feet of clay. It is the conviction that stands undaunted and does not cave in before sensual pressures. It is, in fact, conviction that serves as the pivotal point for will to act and react and withstand temptation. Without conviction, will is just a passing shadow. Such wills are akin to fits. They come and go. They are not to stay. How dependence on a rational will is an unreliable support, is explained by William Temple in rather strong words:-

“We totally misconceive alike the philosophical and the practical problem of evil if we picture it as the winning of control over lawless and therefore evil passions by a righteous but insufficiently powerful reason or spirit. It is the spirit which is perverted; it is aspiration which is corrupt.”18

In this regard Iqbal says:-


“Conviction means to sit in flames like prophet Ibrahim(A.S). Conviction means to be God-centred and yet self-preserving. Listen to me, ye who are enticed by the contemporary (Western) civilization: to be without conviction is to be worse than slaves.”

Iqbal goes a step further. He believes that a convictionless learned person is far worse than the one who is illiterate. Knowledge is power and when it is given to an agent who is not tamed by the whip of morality, it becomes cruel. An illiterate person has a narrow field of action because he had a narrow field of thought, whereas the scope of doing evil widens according to the area of accomplishments of a person of learning, if the spirit, the will or reason of such a person is vicious. Such a person can devise more subtle and more relentless methods of doing harm and committing crimes. Iqbal maintains:


“You obtain knowledge without the warmth of your soul, therefore it becomes evil and, although knowledge is light, yet for you it is a darkness encompassing earth and oceans.”

Similarly, at another place he lays down as follows:-


“The stock of blindness is thousand times better than the knowledge which is not endorsed by soul.”

One may accept, rather support, some good idea or some good action, but still it would not mean that such a one would also act accordingly. An individual’s considered good act shows that he had a taste for it. He had been trained that way. He inwardly had become attuned to the nature of that particular act. His sincerity lies in his persistence in doing good with pleasure and fondness. His fond inclination towards an idea, an object and a deed in a way can be taken as an external aspect of its internal impact. Hence says Dr. Radhakrishnan:-

“We understand an object only when there is something in us akin to it. When any picture or poem or life produces in us a wonderful effect, we may be sure that there is an interior responding wonder that meets it.”22

A society is good if the overwhelming majority of its individuals is diligently and fondly good, if they are brought up consciously and taught and trained accordingly.

Back to the individual. It is the individual who is the starting point for the society to come about. Mustafa al-Siba’i supports me on this point with his belief that it is not the society that reforms the individuals, it is rather the other way round. Culture emanates from individuals and proceeds to masses and not vice versa.23

First it is always the self and then come to the “selves”. Therefore accountability begins with persons and then falls upon societies. Everyone has to feel as a responsible member of a society he is relate to. No alive society, in the present era, is an isolated society, hence every conscious individual should act as a responsible citizen of the world of man altogether. Still the difficulty is that no individual as such can ever be visualized without visualizing a society. Individuals form and strengthen societies while societies produce individuals.

Civilization is rooted in man’s dependence on man, howsoever slight the dependence and in whatsoever shape. Therefore sociology has much closer bond with the individuals and societies alongwith the environmental effect than history which in principle has almost similar purpose but throws light on and studies social problems from a distance. It is obvious that the process of man’s dependence on man grows in proportion to the growth of society. It is, therefore, essential for a society to possess some working standards of behaviour or, we may say, rules of conduct. Every individual cannot be allowed to have his own way at any level of society even if it be a small family.

A society nurtures its members and provides them opportunities to unfold their inherent qualities. It liberates them in many ways but at the same time it imposes on them some limits too. It provides them with means to rid themselves of animal-like self-centredness if they so desire. It bids them to attain manhood to a degree as higher as possible. And it forbids them to cross limits. So that they do not do harm to their own selves as also to others. Any member of a society who wrongs himself indirectly wrongs the society he is related to. Similarly, a society teaches its members to respect the limits of others. Limits are not to be violated, be they personal or social. In fact, the working standards or rules of conduct serves as its regulating factors. At different stages of a society’s development, these regulators assume different names. They are called customs, folkways, mores, ethics, etc. In short, the individual moods, slowly and slowly, evolve into social modes. If there be no such regulators or if they are not abided by, the result would be the disintegration of the society or societies concerned. Individuals automatically would scatter and die out. Thomas A. Harris illustrates this stance in his own simple but instructive style:-

“I am a person. You are a person. Without you I am not a person, for only through you is language made possible and only through language is thought made possible and through thought humaneness made possible. You have made me important, therefore I am important and you are important. If I devalue you I devalue myself. This is the rational position of ‘I’M OK – YOU’RE OK,’ through this position are we persons instead of things. Returning man to his rightful place of personhood is the theme of redemption or reconciliation or enlightenment, central to all the great world religions. The requirement of this position is that we are responsible to and for one another, and this responsibility is the ultimate claim on all men alike. This first inference we can draw is DO NOT KILL ONE ANOTHER.”24

In this regard a few verses by Iqbal are being noted down here:-


“Relation with Society is a blessing for the individual because his potentialities attain perfection through it……………………………
An individual and society are mirrors to each other. It is like the relationship of emeralds and thread, the stars and galaxy………….
An individual is respectable because of society. A society possesses discipline and decorum on account of individuals…….
In his heart the taste for self-exposition is planted by society and the survey of his deeds is possible in society only……………………
An individual learn to speak in the language of society and follows the footprints of his forebears………………………………..
A lonely person remains ignorant of goals (and achievements). His strength tends towards dispersal………………………………..
Self learns to make sacrifice in a society, this can be likened to a rose-petal spreading into a garden.”

Therefore it is the bounden duty of an individual to be always conscious, vigilant and efficient, ever ready, up and doing. He should every day, rather every hour, assess his behaviour, action and the quantum of achievement. Life is not for rest or for pleasure. It is for achievement. Man’s pace of progress as a human being, who feels his responsibility to his own self, to his family and his society and to God in the best manner possible slowly and slowly, builds himself into a great man. Such great men are the real wealth of a nation. “Not wealth but only men can make a nation great and strong.” If a man is conscious of his callings, he lives; if not, he does exist but does not live. To exist only, without being alive is for a human being to co-exist with animals and things. The Holy Prophet (Peace be upon Him) has laid down for every man keenly to examine his day-to-day performance:-


“He whose two days are equal has lost something and he whose yesterday was better than his today, his fortune is deprivation.”

And through perpetual self-assessment, an individual’s “today” partakes in the today of the society concerned. Through society it effects the today of humanity at large. Humanity in its turn is the soul of the world. For Pythagoras every human being was microcosm, i.e. a universe in miniature. Liebniz goes much farther. For him each living thing is a perpetual living mirror of the universe. According to him, everybody in the universe feels the effect of all that takes place in it. He says nothing in the universe is obsolete, uncalled for or dead. If that be the case, that man’s accountability becomes tremendously acute, a million times more acute than all other existences. In this regard Iqbal says:-

“Reality is, therefore, essentially spirit. But, of course, there are degrees of spirit….. Throughout entire gamut of being runs the gradually rising note of egohood until it reaches its perfection in man…

Only that is, strictly speaking, real which is directly conscious of its own reality. The degree of reality varies with the degree of the feeling of egohood.”27

But the problem as stated above is that for man to achieve perfect egohood is tremendously difficult. His essence is no doubt spirit, but his outer structure which is tangible to sense perception is material. Both have different pulls. Souls act accordingly to the laws of final causes through appetitions, ends and means, while bodies act accordingly to the laws of the efficient causes or motions. On the one side is the faculty of reason which is capable of reaching the stage of intuition. For this faculty truth and falsehood, good and evil, stand apart. For a spirit trained in morals, the process of discrimination becomes spontaneous. But this spiritual progress or moral training and its path to success is barricaded here and there by the variegated mundane claims of the body. In this context William James explains: “The man’s interior is a battleground for what he feels to be deadly hostile selves, one actual, the other ideal” and then he quotes Saint Paul: ‘What I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I’.”28

As long as the conflict between the actual and the ideal states goes on, man remains a man. He may not achieve perfect manhood, yet, unless he surrenders before carnal ambitions, he does not stoop to animal level. The real anxiety and frustration begins to show itself at individual as well as social level, only when persons completely yield to the carnal calls. Amoral and immoral, life deprives man of his vitality as a man. It eats into his potentialities. And if individual’s non-moral or immoral moods become social modes and no ratification or reform takes place to replenish the society concerned, it would not last long. Individual lapses, to a certain extent, can be ignored, but collective lapses which become the rule inevitably collide with the Laws of Nature and are dealt with properly. In the words of Iqbal:-


“Nature at times ignores individual vagaries but the collective sins of a society are never forgiven.”

The above verse seems to be the translation of the following prose:-

“It is one of the most essential teachings of the Holy Qur’an that nations are collectively judged, and suffer for their misdeeds here and now. In order to establish this proposition, the Qur’an constantly cites historical instances, and urges upon the reader to reflect on the past and present experience of mankind.”30


  • Armughan-i-Hijaz, p. 52.
  • Bang-i-Dara: Kulliyat-i-Iqbal, (Sh. Ghulam Ali & Sons, Lahore), p. 274.
  • Bal-i-Jibril, p.67.
  • Society (Macmillan, London, 1953), p. 530.
  • The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p.154.
  • An Idealistic View of Life[(Unwin, London (Fourth Ed.)], p. 210.
  • Man’s Search for Himself, (Allen and Unwin, London) 1953, p. 218.
  • Reconstruction, pp. 113-14.
  • Zabur-i-Ajam, p.155.
  • Bal-i-Jibril, p.33.
  • Darb-i-Kalim, p. 114.
  • Ibid., p. 71.
  • Reconstruction, p.179.
  • Ibid., p. 189.
  • B.A. Dar, A Study in Iqbal’s Philosophy (Sh. Ghulam Ali & Sons, Lahore), p. 115.
  • W.C. Guthrie, Greek Philosophers (Harper, New York), p. 72.
  • Op. cit., 217.
  • Philosophy of Religion, p. 325.
  • Bal-i-Jibril, p. 81.
  • Javid Namah, p. 74.
  • Zabur-i-Ajam, p. 113.
  • Op. cit., p. 164.
  • Akhlaqna al-Ijtima’iyyah (alt), p. 67.
  • I’m OK, You’re OK (Paperback Avon Books, New York 1973). P. 257.
  • Rumuz-i-Bekhudi, pp. 85-88.
  • Al-Fath al-Rubbani (Mustafa al-Babi, Egypt), p. 80.
  • Reconstruction, p. 71-72.
  • The Varieties of Religious Experience (Longmans, 1952) pp. 168.
  • Darb-i-Kalim, p. 86.
  • Reconstruction, p. 138.

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