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."


  1. Greetings,

    This may now be one of my favorite posts that you've shared. To me, this post, brief as it is, nonetheless overflows with fecund meaning and significance.

    Some other areas of my life involve teaching on fear (*f*alse *e*vidence *a*appearing *r*eal). Considering just how far and wide fear rules (and the consequences thereof), I often reflect on the value of a system/method (perhaps even in the body of religiosity) that is based entirely on the overcoming of fear in all levels of the psyche...and beyond.

    This post includes many ideas on which one can follow up. Thank you!

    All good wishes,


  2. I really liked Robert's comment. Also, key for me was the concern with that which "counteracts his/our ethical progress"...When this is clearly a goal, finding solutions
    may be closer than we can imagine.

  3. Greetings,

    Re-reading this tonight, I'm left, again, in awe of how Iqbal describes the source of evil (and dis-union). In many cases (i.e., in so many of his other writings), Iqbal points to a Splendor within humanity. This post points to the residence of that Splendor (humanity), and apparently how that same residence can become overtaken with fear, with consequent ethical, political, and even metaphysical manifested outcomes.

    For me, this is all very powerful in how Iqbal highlights that this is not just a psychological issue. What is fear, and often presumed and labeled as merely "psychological," has, then, far greater consequences than what is typically attributed to personal psychological disorder. It is the root of ethical, political, and metaphysical disorder and disunion far more extensive than merely the personal realm.

    This strongly resonates (to me) with Iqbal's writings highlighting how destiny will change when we change ourselves.

    I'm reading the link shared ("The Mysteries of Selflessness") at:

    Iqbal is here clear about fear:

    Its eye wreaks havoc in the realm of Life,
    Its ear is a thief of Life's intelligence.
    Whatever evil lurks within thy heart.
    Thou cast be certain that its origin
    Is fear: fraud, cunning, malice, lies, all these
    Flourish on terror, who is wrapped about
    With falsehood and hypocrisy for veil,
    And fondles foul sedition at her breast.
    And since it is least strong when zeal is high,
    It is most happy in disunion.
    Who understands the Prophet's clue aright
    Sees infidelity concealed in fear.

    Perhaps, for others, this is familiar territory. For me, though,these teachings on Iqbal are arriving like gifts, with the scent of a revelatory mission. It leads me to ponder, seriously, on just how sensitive and powerful is our human mission.

    Thank you again for this.

    All good wishes,


  4. First of all,Mr.Shafique,any amount of thankfulness cannot suffice as to how I feel after reading this.I am not aware if anyone would care to dig deeper into the heart of human beings as Iqbal did.I feel very fortunate to understand what fear does to an individual,a nation,in fact the whole world.After reading this post,I have learned many things about fear,I didn't know existed.It certainly is an eye opener for me.

    Since according to Iqbal fear is not just a psychological issue it has ethical,political even metaphysical implications and its elimination is the objective which defines the very structure of Islam.
    I guess after losing their power the Muslims in India were reluctant to get it back because of fear.They must have believed they should not take any action as they were afraid of the repercussion.The Muslims were fortunate that they still had amongst them personalities like Iqbal,M.A.Jinnah ,Sir Syed Ahmad khan,who gave them hope and made them believe that they have to eliminate fear from their heart and believe in "Dare and Live".
    This was a very interesting and informative post and once again I would like to thank you for presenting this to us.

    1. Yes, and also personalities like Nawab Abdul Latif Khan and Saleemullah Khan of Dhakka. I feel that these two are our forgotten heroes and I am so eager to find out more about them. Sources seem to be scarce though.

  5. Sir, thank you so very much for sharing it. it was insightful. I didn't know fear can have power over human being (to even political and metaphysical extent). I specially liked part about 'Fear makes the loss of 'herd-instinct'.

    and also this, "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. "

    how much Iqbal understood the purpose of humanity on the whole.

  6. Khurram Sahib, this is indeed an excellent post, and helps me see the line 'Dare and Live' in a way I hadn't seen before. Thanks.

  7. The last phrase of Jinnah sums up the enitre discussion in the right way which is "Dare and Live". I also agree with the the psychological implications or repurcussions of fear. The observations of Iqbal about the degreading state of affairs of Muslims is alos very noteworthy in which he states that muslims of today have indicidual interests instead of collective interests and perhaps this is one the reasons which has led to their decline. This post has also highlighted the long-standing prejudice which the people of the West have been harboring against Islam like blood thirsty islam and so on.

  8. Greetings,

    The premise that fear is the root of evil, and that the "object of Islam is to free man from fear," is, to me, a profound formula for practical work on any level of life. It identifies the root problem, and the path for overcoming it.

    Fear restricts and constricts. The summary maxim from Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, "Dare and Live," seems so deeply (and yet so simply) powerful. It points to the will of mankind that can overcome that which restricts and constricts.

    This reminds me of something written by Maya Angelou:

    "Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can't practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage."

    Many virtues may exist in a value hierarchy, courage perhaps being a (maybe the) catalyst for all change and growth. I'm saying this in the current context of fear being that which is to be overcome.

    I'm thinking back now on previous MLC courses during which we discussed the absolute necessity of utterly sincere faith in the Divine *and* in the human capacity to make ever more real that Divine in the world. Accepting the limitations that offer themselves up in the world, it (i.e., the world) can succeed with its alluring appearances, leading some to abandon hope, give in to the sometimes momentous negativity in the world, think that there's no solution (other than, perhaps, the same, tired, violent, seeming solutions), and thus buy in to the impossibility of a Marghdeen.

    With all this in mind, I believe Iqbal supplies here a solution. It involves walking a path that, according to me, requires (I know that I'm a broken record, as I've mentioned this before) one to deny on the one hand, and affirm on the other. There's so much in the world that, if not denied, can lead to a crooked path. If not denied, it can too easily blind one to the utter *realness* of a message like Iqbal is delivering.

    There's so much talk in the world of being "fearless." So much of that talk is, according to me, however, individuated, and essentially devoted toward fighting something external to oneself (i.e., a person, an army, another religion, etc.). This kind of fearlessness is, to me, not at all an overcoming of fear, but something more akin to simple denial of fear. As we know, denial of something does not eradicate the something, but merely chokes one's appropriate response to it.

    As I sense Iqbal's message on the freedom from fear, the freeing of mankind from fear is very far from the aforementioned "fearlessness of the world" which, to me, essentially serves an inner idol. Iqbal's freedom from fear, to me, speaks to the *opening up* of that depth of humankind (otherwise inaccessible) which, when accessed, frees the conduit through which collective consciousness and Marghdeen may genuinely manifest.

    Just some thoughts.

    All good wishes,