Monday, July 30, 2012

The Mexican Nation

Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla (1753-1811),
the leader of the Mexican War of Independence,
executed by the Spaniards on July 30, 1811

"A disinterested foreign rule is an impossibility. Yet the tutelage of nations is a necessity. The fee paid for this tuition is sometimes a nation’s daily bread. The Mexicans had to undergo a severe training under the Spaniards before they could undertake to manage their own affairs."
Iqbal, Stray Reflections (1910) 
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Friday, July 27, 2012

Muslims of South Asia

The last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar
being captured by the British

"To my mind, government, whatever its form, is one of the determining forces of a people’s character. Loss of political power is equally ruinous to nations’ character. Ever since their political fall the Musalmans of India have undergone a rapid ethical deterioration. Of all the Muslim communities of the world they are probably the meanest in point of character. I do not mean to deplore our former greatness in this country, for, I confess, I am almost a fatalist in regard to the various forces that ultimately decide the destinies of nations. As a political force we are perhaps no longer required; but we are, I believe, still indispensable to the world as the only testimony to the absolute Unity of God – Our value among nations, then, is purely evidential."
Iqbal, Stray Reflections (1910)
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Friday, July 20, 2012


Iqbal in Spain, 1933

"A new consciousness [of the Moorish contribution] is steadily growing in the country and will further expand with the development of education. The movement of reform started by Luther has not yet exhausted itself. It is still working quietly in different European countries and the hold of priesthood, especially in Spain, is gradually loosening."

Iqbal, statement issued in 1933

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Beethoven Symphony No.7

Beethoven in 1814 painted by
Blasius Hofel
Of what sort is this traveler who is the wayfarer? Of whom shall I say that this person has attained completion? (Iqbal, Persian Psalms; 1927)

Beethoven's seventh symphony was first performed in Vienna in 1813. Napoleon had just been defeated and their was optimism and confidence in the air. The symphony well suited the occasion and has been remembered as an expression of energy and power. Beethoven himself is reported to have described it as " "one of the happiest products of my poor talents." (See NPR Music: 'Beethoven's Symphony No.7').

Posterity has often discussed this symphony with special reference to perfection and completion. Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886) described it as "the apotheosis of Rhythm" (see Symphony Salon: 'Beethoven: Symphony No.7') while Liszt's contemporary German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) more famously described it as "the Apotheosis of the Dance", finding in it "a blissful insolence of joy, which carries us away with bacchanalian power through the roomy space of nature, through all the streams and seas of life, shouting in glad self-consciousness as we sound throughout the universe the daring strains of this human sphere-dance." (See NPR Music: 'Beethoven's Symphony No.7').

Modern analysts have described the symphony as "one of the most perfect symphonies ever written" (see Geoff Kuenning: 'Beethoven: Symphony No.7'), recognizing it as a moment "where classical elements intertwine with romantic ones" (see All About Beethoven: 'Symphony No.7').

Video: Symphony No.7 (Complete)
0:00 First Movement
14:42 Second Movement
23:41 Third Movement
32:57 Fourth Movement

Friday, July 13, 2012

Nine Questions

Cover of a new
English translation of
Shabistri's book
In 1317 AD, a travelling Sufi posed seventeen questions to the masters in Tabriz, the city where Rumi's mentor Shams was supposed to have wandered around almost a century earlier. The questions were answered by a leading Sufi poet of the times, Mahmood Shabistri, in the 9000-line long poem which became a classic and a definitive text on Sufi doctrines: Gulshan-i-Raz, or The Garden of Mystery.

Allama Iqbal believed that this work went a long way into helping the Muslim world revive from the destruction it had faced at the hands of Mongol invaders not long before the publication. He compared the situation of the Muslim world in his own times to be not very different: European colonialism had once again played havoc. So, 610 years after Shabistri, Iqbal published 'Gulshan-i-Raz Jadeed', or The New Garden of Mysteries (or, as some may prefer to call it today: Garden of Mysteries Reloaded). It formed a part of Iqbal's fourth book of poetry, Zuboor-i-Ajam (1927), or Persian Psalms.

Iqbal's version clusters some of the original questions together while omitting some. The result is a compact set of nine questions with succinct answers, usually less than three pages each. I understand that Iqbal intended these to serve as a summary of his thought. Perhaps he also gave these as a key to unlock some of the "secrets and mysteries" which he claimed to be hidden in his work. In any case what he stated openly in that book was that these nine questions and his answers were meant to be the guiding light for wisdom in modern times.

There is something very interesting about these questions which I have found in the course of my investigations. I have found that this set of nine becomes interestingly compatible with some other sets of nine: such as the nine books of Iqbal's poetry, the nine symphonies of Beethoven and so on.

Iqbal wrote nine books of poetry and died while writing the last of those. In my online course Introduction to Iqbal Studies, I ask the participants to see if each of these books seems relevant for answering the corresponding question. The feedback given by the participants is mostly in the affirmative.

I do not mean to mystify the reader. In my opinion this has got less to do with supernatural and more to do with the possibility that in rearranging his questions, Iqbal could have arrived upon some natural order of the cognitive process of the human mind. In other words, he may have succeeded in representing some kind of a genetic code of the human thinking process through his nine questions.

It is often presumed that Iqbal did not present his philosophy in a systematic manner. I also used to believe it once but then I realized that this could be true only up to the extent that the "system" of Iqbal's thought was presented in a manner not similar to many Western thinkers. Othewrise, there have always been those who believed that Iqbal had a well-developed system of thought - his constant companion of the last days Syed Nazeer Niazi and the first director of Iqbal Academy Pakistan Dr. Muhammad Rafiuddin, to name just two. I am now of the opinion that the nine questions and answers comprising 'The New Garden of Mystery' (گلشنِ راز جدید) in Persian Psalms (زبورِ عجم) can be treated as a succint description of Iqbal's philosophy.

Those questions are being presented here (based on a translation by B. A. Dar) along with a brief summary of Iqbal's answers in my words. The original Persian text of 'The New Garden of Mystery' is also available online while the link to a complete translation of each answer in English is being provided with the summaries (courtesy: Iqbal Academy Pakistan).

Q. First of all I am intrigued about my thought – what is it which we call thinking? What kind of thought is needed on the path, why is it sometimes a virtue and sometimes a sin?
Answer. According to Iqbal, our thinking has two dimensions: spiritual and material. Neglecting one at the cost of the other is harmful but neglecting both is sometimes a necessary phase in self-development.

A simpler answer could be that thinking is one of the functions through which the ego strives for perfection. Since the life of an ego is defined by ideals (and the collective ideals tend to be greater than an individual’s), thinking is helpful when it leads us to discovering and creating greater ideals and becomes an impediment when it prevents us from pursuing ideals, as Iqbal says in Urdu:
سمجھتا ہے تُو راز ہے زندگی
فقط ذوقِ پرواز ہے زندگی

Q. What is this ocean whose shore is knowledge? What is that pearl which is found in its depth?
Answer. Life is the ocean and the pearl to be found in its depth is selfhood (خودی). Knowledge is just the shore, as Iqbal says in his Urdu verses:
دمادم رواں ہے یمِ زندگی
ہر اک شے سے پیدا رم زندگی
خودی جلوہ بدمست و خلوت پسند
سمندر ہے اِک بوند پانی میں بند
Q. What is the union of the contingent and the necessary? What are near and far, more and less?
Answer. The universe may be constantly expanding and therefore boundless. It still has boundary, which lies within because at the centre of the universe is the Reality which never changes. Therefore, anyone who gets connected with the Ultimate Reality, i.e. God, can also grasp the entire universe including parts that are yet to be born – as Iqbal says in his Urdu verses:
خودی سے اِس طلسمِ رنگ و بُو کو توڑ سکتے ہیں
یہی توحید تھی جس کو نہ تُو سمجھا نہ میں سمجھا
نِگہ پیدا کر اے غافل تجلی عینِ فطرت ہے
کہ اپنی موج سے بیگانہ رہ سکتا نہیں دریا

Q. How did the temporal and eternal separate so that one became the world, and the other God? If the knower and the known are one pure essence, what are the aspirations of this handful of earth?
Answer. Since God is the Ultimate Ego, He creates more egos which are the human beings. An ego cannot dissolve into its source, and hence the human beings cannot “annihilate” themselves in God (فنا) but they can witness their true splendour by connecting with the Creator, as Iqbal says in his Urdu verses:
یہ وحدت ہے کثرت میں ہر دم اسیر
مگر ہر کہیں بے چگوں، بے نظیر
پسند اس کو تکرار کی خُو نہیں
کہ تُو میں نہیں اور میں تُو نہیں

Q. What am I? Tell me what ‘I’ means. What is the meaning of ‘travel into yourself’?
Answer. “I” identifies an ego: you are an ego if you can say “I”. These egos are like sparks shedding from a great fire, which is Life. You travel into yourself by conquering the material and spiritual dimensions of the worlds, and when you return from a meeting with God in such a manner that you have Him in your heart and are holding His world in your hands, as Iqbal says in Urdu:
خودی کا نشیمن ترے دل میں ہے
فلک جس طرح آنکھ کے تِل میں ہے
بڑھے جا یہ کوہِ گراں توڑ کر
طلسمِ زمان و مکاں توڑ کر
خودی شیرِ مولا جہاں اس کا صید
زمیں اس کی صید، آسماں اس کا صید

Q. What is that part which is greater than its whole? What is the way to find that part?
Answer. Ego is a part of the apparent world but is also greater than it. We reach it through the inner dimension of Life. In more practical terms, we reach the ego by submitting our individual self before the collective ego, as Iqbal says in his Urdu verses:
خودی کیا ہے؟ رازِ درون حیات
خودی کیا ہے؟ بیداریء کائنات
ازل اس کے پیچھے، ابد سامنے
نہ حد اس کے پیچھے نہ حد سامنے

Q. Of what sort is this traveler who is the wayfarer? Of whom shall I say that this person has attained completion?
Answer. Our journey is from ourselves to ourselves: there is no end to it because our goal is to see the signs of God, and the eyes cannot get tired of visions – there will always be more for us to seek and behold. Therefore, the “perfected one” (کامل) is a person who has witnessed the signs of God and is therefore aware of the destiny of nations (the same concept was presented in the Allahabad Address as, “By leaders I mean men who, by Divine gift or experience, possess a keen perception of the spirit and destiny of Islam, along with an equally keen perception of the trend of modern history.”), as he also stated in his Urdu verses:
زندہ دل سے نہیں پوشیدہ ضمیرِ تقدیر
خواب میں دیکھتا ہے عالم نَو کی تصویر
اور جب بانگِ اذاں کرتی ہے بیدار اُسے
کرتا ہے خواب میں دیکھی ہوئی دنیا تعمیر
بدن اس تازہ جہاں کا ہے اُسی کی کفِ خاک
رُوح اس تازہ جہاں کی ہے اُسی کی تقدیر

Q. What point does the claim, ‘I am the Creative Truth’ imply? Do you think that this mystery was mere nonsense?
Answer. For centuries, Eastern heart and intellect were getting trained to perceive the world as illusion. What Hallaj said was just the kind of thing needed for awakening such a society. Iqbal elaborated this point further in his next book Javid Nama, where the spirit of Hallaj was presented as saying, “I saw a people who were turning away from life, so I decided to wake them up. They said they believed in God and yet they didn’t believe in themselves. How can you have faith in the Almighty without having faith in yourself?” It would be interesting to note that Iqbal saw his own mission as somewhat similar to that of Hallaj, as he says in his Urdu verses:
فردوس میں رومی سے یہ کہتا تھا سَنائی
مشرق میں ابھی تک ہے وہی کاسہ، وہی آش
حلاج سے لیکن یہ روایت ہے کہ آخر
اِک مردِ قلندر نے کیا رازِ خودی فاش

Q. Who was it that at last became familiar with the secret of Oneness? Who is the wise one that has true awareness?
Answer. Complete awareness is to know that everything declines and dies in the temporal world but the ego can attain immortality through God, as Iqbal says in his Urdu verses:
ہوا جب اُسے سامنے موت کا
کٹھن تھا بڑا تھامنا موت کا
اُتر کر جہانِ مکافات میں

رہی زندگی موت کی گھات میں
سمجھتے ہیں ناداں اسے بے ثبات
اُبھرتا ہے مِٹ مِٹ کے نقشِ حیات

Read translation of complete answer in English
Further reading: see my book The Republic of Rumi: A Novel of Reality (2007) for a demonstration of how the "Nine Questions" contribute to the internal coherence in the poetical works of Iqbal. An updated online version is also available for free.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Beethoven Symphony No.6

Part of a sketch for Symphony No.6
in Beethoven's hand
"What is that part which is greater than its whole? What is the way to find that part?" (Iqbal, Persian Psalms; 1927)

This is the sixth of the nine questions listed by Iqbal in 'The New Garden of Mystery' in Persian Psalms (1927). The answer we may gather from his writings is that the ego or the self is a part of the apparent world but also greater than it. We reach it through the inner dimension of Life, i.e. by  first losing it in the larger picture.

The sixth symphony of Beethoven was first performed in Vienna in 1808, on the same evening as the fifth. The name given to it by the composer himself was "Pastoral-Sinfonie oder Erinnerung an das Landleben. (Mehr Ausdruck der Emphindung als Mahlerey.)" – “Pastoral Symphony or Recollection of the Life in the Countryside”. (See All About Beethoven: Symphony No.6)

The connection of this symphony with the world of Nature is often discussed in terms that may remind the readers of Iqbal of his sixth work Gabriel's Wing (Baal-i-Jibreel; 1936). Consider, for instance, the French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz described it as an "astonishing landscape" as vivid as that painted by the greatest painter except that "we are dealing here with real nature." (See The Hector Berlioz Website: 'A Critical Study of the Symphonies of Beethoven'). Or even some observations from our contemporaries like Yvonne Frindle, the publications editor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra: "it is in the 'expression of feelings' – the poetry – that the Pastoral Symphony finds its real strength and imagination: the infinite repetition of pattern in nature conveyed through rhythmic cells, its immensity through sustained pure harmonies." (See Programme Note for Beethoven & Schubert in Vienna).
Video: Symphony No.6 (Complete)
I. Happy Arrival 
II. By the Brook 
III. Merrymaking
 @ 28:16 
IV. ThunderStorm
 @ 34:22 
V. Shepherd's Song 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Self-Development through Film Arts

This post is for the benefit of those who want to apply the art of interpreting literature as a collective dream. The eight videos embedded here represent the journey of a character, Nasir (Waheed Murad) in search of his unseen ideal. Good luck!
Stage 1: Inquiry
Nasir (which means protector, helper or supporter and hence a literal equivalent of the Greek name Alexandros, or Alexander) is in search of an unseen ideal, and is taking into account all the factors and people in his surroundings (including the working class). He is certain that Time itself will carry him forward in his journey as long as the desire is there.
Stage 2: Discovery
The ideal has manifested itself in Najma (literally meaning a celestial body, or a little star), but the protagonist is yet to know if the longing is mutual (note the wording of the first stanza). 
Stage 3: Transcendence
The ideal reciprocates, and now the protagonist has found answer to the question asked in the previous stage (compare the opening lines of this song with the first stanza of the previous). 
Stage 4: Freedom
The lover and the beloved are now bonded in a relationship that has a life of its own
Stage 5: Action
Deceived into believing that his ideal has turned out to be less than what he thought, the protagonist carries on the journey nevertheless: returning to the night club of the first song, he isn't "looking" any more. Thus we see his grief but also his maturity, and we may notice that self-development has taken place. This is "action" because now he is interacting with his original environment in a very different manner from how he was at the beginning. The video begins with his turning his face away from the artificial lamps of the night club and ends with him walking out of darkness into a source of light that is larger than life.
Stage 6: Expansion
Misunderstood by the one who claimed to love her, Najma asks some questions about the rules of destiny and the travails of love.
Stage 7: Creation
Since accepting a false accusation against his ideal, the protagonist has ended up with a household where unwanted guests are partying behind his back (note the invitees listed in the two stanzas of the song). 
End of Stage 7: the Climax
The protagonist is now presuming that the ideal he pursued is no more (a false news about Najma's death has reached Nasir). He is at the end of his journey, contemplating suicide by falling off a cliff. His ideal saves him by returning, as if it were, from beyond this life. Note that last stanza establishes a union between the lover, the beloved and God (and the proverbial line used here, "God is the friend of those who have no friend" is actually a translation from the Persian poet Nezami Ganjavi). The video itself is full of allusions: note how the sequence from 0:40 to 0:47 alludes to the iconic tree in the movie Gone With the Wind, where the tree is the symbol of an entire society coming back to life after the devastation of a civil war. Such touches bring a meaning to this story beyond an ordinary tale about lovers, and at least some of the audience (like myself) are compelled to interpret it as an allegory about societies and nations.
Further Reading:

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fear is the key

Emperor Alamgir is attacked by a tiger:
in Secrets and Mysteries, Iqbal used this parable
for illustrating the point that belief in the Unity of God
puts an end to fear.
Read in the original Persian or translation)
In order to have practical value for everyone in society, the message of a thinker must include some straight-forward answers to some of the basic questions about life. One such question can be, "What is the source of evil in our soul?" Iqbal's answer is: "Fear."

It would be interesting to see how this central proposition was applied by him for understanding religion, politics and the destinies of nations.

1. The central proposition in Islam
In his seminal paper 'Islam As A Moral and Political Ideal' (1909), Iqbal offered a comparative study of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam from the perspective of "a critical student". There, he defined the distinctive trait of Islam in these words:
The central proposition which regulates the structure of Islam then is that there is fear in nature, and the object of Islam is to free man from fear. This view of the universe indicates also the Islamic view of the metaphysical nature of man. If fear is the force which dominates man and counteracts his ethical progress, man must be regarded as a unit of force, an energy, a will, a germ of infinite power, the gradual unfoldment of which must be the object of all human activity. The essential nature of man, then, consists in will, not intellect or understanding.
Hence we may see that "fear" is not just a psychological issue for Iqbal. It has ethical, political and even metaphysical implications and its elimination is the objective which defines the very structure of Islam, even as a religion.

2. Elimination of fear, a political ideal
The same concept became the cornerstone of the manifesto of Muslim nationalism nine years later. In 'The Mysteries of Selflessness' (Secrets and Mysteries), published in 1918, the concept was elaborated in three chapters, the first of which was titled, 'Despair, Grief and Fear are the Mother of Abominations, destroying Life; and Belief in Unity of God puts an end to those Foul Diseases.' (Read in the original Persian). There, Iqbal went a step further and suggested that fear breeds dissension and discord, since it grows weak when a people are united. 

3. Fear causes the loss of herd-instinct
In 1910, Iqbal had jotted down in his private notebook:
To my mind, governement, whatever its form, is one of the determining forces of a people's character. Loss to political power is equally ruinous to nations' character. Ever since their political fall the Musalmans of India have undergone a rapid ethical deterioration. Of all the Muslim communities of the world they are probably the meanest in point of character.
Harsh as this criticism of his own community may sound, it is interesting to notice that here again the decisive psychological factor was fear - or to be precise, how the loss of political power creates insecurity, and that in turns leads to meanness in character. Consistent with the proposition he made in 'The Mysteries of Selflessness' (i.e. fear breeds dissension), Iqbal may have later arrived at the conclusion that political insecurity diminished the collective instinct in his community. In 1930, he stated in his famous Allahabad Address:
The second evil from which the Muslims of India are suffering is that the community is fast losing what is called the herd-instinct. This makes it possible for individuals and groups to start independent careers without contributing to the general thought and activity of the community. 
4. Fear of majority in Europe
The right to vote was extended to some of the working class males in Europe in the middle of the 19th Century. This led to a hostile reaction from intellectuals such as Stendhal, Charles Baudelaire and Matthew Arnold (to name just a few). Consequently, an "intellectual elite" came into being whose purpose was to create a dichotomy between "high" and "popular" culture (which had been regarded as a unity by the best minds of the past). Iqbal must have understood that the elite in Europe reacted against democracy because they had a fear of the majority in their hearts, and this fear did what fear does: it bred dissension and discord within the European society itself. In his private notebook he wrote in 1910:
The reaction against Democracy in England and France is a very significant phenomenon. But in order to grasp the meaning of this phenomenon the student of political sciences should not content himself merely with the investigation and discovery of the purely historical causes which have brought it about; he must go deeper and search the psychological causes of this reaction. (See also 'Reaction against democracy in the West'). 
5. Fear of Islam in the mind of Europe
We have seen how Iqbal traced the evils in the political lives of his own society as well as in the societies of Europe to be rooted in various forms of fear. He observed the same to be the major reason why it was becoming increasingly difficult for the representative spokespersons of Islam to engage the intellectuals of the West on terms that might be acceptable to both societies, and may lead to joint efforts for the empowerment of the masses. Responding to one of the critics of his poem 'The Secrets of the Self' soon after the publication of its English translation in 1920, he wrote:
I am afraid the old European idea of a blood-thirsty Islam is still lingering in the mind of Mr. Dickinson. All men and not Muslims alone are meant for the Kingdom of God on earth, provided they say good-bye to their idols of race and nationality, and treat one another as personalities. 
6. Postscript: "Dare and Live"
A very useful and succinct summary of Iqbal's thought from this angle was offered by Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah when he summarized the message of Iqbal in a single phrase, "dare and live". Jinnah said:
Iqbal... rises above the average philosopher, as the essence of his teachings is a beautiful blend of thought and action. He combines in himself the idealism of a poet and the realism of a man who took practical view of things. In Iqbal this compromise is essentially Islamic. In fact it is nothing but Islam. His ideal therefore is life according to the teachings of Islam with a motto, "Dare and Live."

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Afghan Nation

Iqbal (center) with King Nadir (2nd from left)
during official visit to Afghanistan in 1933

Stray Reflections (1910) 

The verdict of history is that buffer states have never been able to form themselves into great political units. So was the case with Syria – a buffer state between the Empire of Rome and that of the Persians. It seems difficult to forecast the future of Afghanistan.
Javid Nama (1932)
Translated by A. J. Arberry
Asia is a form cast of water and clay;
in that form the Afghan nation is the heart;
if it is corrupt, all Asia is corrupt,
if it is dilated, all Asia is dilated.
So long as the heart is free, the body is free,
else, the body is a straw in the path of the wind.
Like the body, the heart too is bound by laws—
the heart dies of hatred, lives of faith.
The power of faith derives from unity;
when unity becomes visible, it is a nation.
Imitation of the West seduces the East from itself;
these peoples have need to criticize the West.
The power of the West comes not from lute and rebeck,
not from the dancing of unveiled girls,
not from the magic of tulip cheeked enchantresses,
not from naked legs and bobbed hair;
its solidity springs not from irreligion,
its glory derives not from the Latin script.
The power of the West comes from science and technology,
and with that selfsame flame its lamp is bright.
Wisdom derives not from the cut and trim of clothes;
the turban is no impediment to science and technology.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Beethoven Symphony No.5

"What am I? Tell me what ‘I’ means. What is the meaning of ‘travel into yourself’?" (Iqbal, Persian Psalms; 1927)

The four-note opening motif of this symphony counts among the most widely heard music in the world. As such it may be regarded as the symphony that defines Beethoven to most people in the world, especially those who don't know him otherwise (whereas for the critics the greatest work of Beethoven remains, of course, his final symphony).

The symphony was first performed in Vienna in 1808. It is said that it wasn't well received in its first year but ever since then it has been applauded in extraordinary terms such as those employed by the fellow German composer E.T.A Hoffmann (1776-1822) just a year and a half later: "Radiant beams shoot through this region's deep night, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy everything within us except the pain of endless longing..." A little later, in 1813, Hoffmann again described it as leading "the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite."

Beethoven himself is reported to have said about the famous four-note opening of the symphony: "So pocht das Schicksal an die Pforte! " (That’s how destiny knocks on your door). On the authority of this saying attributed to the composer, the symphony is also known quite commonly as The Symphony of Destiny.

Video: Symphony No.5 (Complete)
I. Allegro con brio @0:03
II. Andante con moto @7:19
III.Allegro @16:18
IV. Allegro @20:57

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The United States of America

America seems to be a healthy element in Western civilization, the reason for which perhaps is that it is free from the trammels of old traditions and that its collective intuition is receptive to new ideas and influences. 
Iqbal, The Message of the East (1923);
Translated by Hadi Husain