Existentialism originated with the nineteenth-century philosophers Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. It became prevalent in Continental philosophy with the advent of thinkers such as Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre as well as literary figures such as Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoevsky. In this piece, I will examine a few dominant themes and modes of thought, particularly revolving around the question of embodiment and Selfhood, which pervade these existential philosophies in juxtaposition with the profound insights of the poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal.
Let us begin, first of all, with the rejection of the Cartesian duality of mind and body which is present not only in Iqbal’s thought but is in fact shared by both atheistic existentialists such as Merleau-Ponty and Sartre as well as ethico-religious existentialists such as Kierkegaard and Marcel. Existentialists regard the human individual as both mind and body. They do not, however, view him as the Cartesian res cogitans- a body plus mind- but rather, as a dynamic unity. Jaspers, for instance, regarded the Self as a totality which encompassed body, will, emotions and unconscious. In his Metaphysical Journal Marcel proclaims that you are your body insofar as you are a being who feels. Henri Bergson, a tremendous influence on Iqbal himself, describes this flux of sensations, feelings and volitions as pure movement- constant, continuous and organic. The body also forms an integral part of Merleau-Ponty’s theory of perception in which the body is the expression of consciousness much as language is an expression of thought. To exist is to be embodied and human existence is none other than this relation between embodied consciousness and the world.
In the Gulshan-i-Raz-i-Jadid (New Garden of Mysteries), Iqbal writes,
Tan-o Jan Ra Do Ta Guftan Kalamast
Tan-o Jan Ra Do Ta Deedan Haramast
To talk of body and soul as two separate entities is hardly true,
To see them as two things is a sin.
He elaborates further in the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, when he writes, “Are then the soul and its organism two things in the sense of Descartes, independent of each other, though somehow mysteriously united? I am inclined to think that the hypothesis of matter as an independent existence is perfectly gratuitous.” To Iqbal, both the notions of a parallel existence between mind and body as well as the idea of these two discrete entities “interacting” with one another are simply not compelling. He states that mind and body become one in action. “When I take up a book from my table, my act is single and indivisible. It is impossible to draw a line of cleavage between the share of the body and that of the mind in this act.”
In fact, existentialists generally dismiss as unintelligible any ontological notion of a consciousness which exists apart from the body or which takes the body as its object. Marcel cautions that any reference to our bodies ought not to be construed as a relation of possession. For my body is not an object; it is not something which is other than myself in the way that the external world is. I cannot stand apart from my body except by an act of abstraction since the body is not something I have, but rather, is something which I am. My body is not something which is out there in the world precisely because it is through the body that other objects and the world itself become “there” for me. Thus the body cannot be understood in terms of the subject-object relation that exists between consciousness and a thing in this world. The body is in fact the frame of reference around which the world is organized and which allows consciousness to pursue its concrete possibilities with respect to its projects and movements. The body is lived and experienced as the context and medium for all human strivings. Echoing this sentiment, Iqbal believes that the mind or nafs is the pure act while the body is only the act become visible. He quotes the following famous verse from Rumi’s mathnavi:
Bade az ma mast shod, na ma azu
Qaleb az ma hast shod, na ma azu
It is not we that get intoxicated through wine; it is rather the wine which gets intoxicated through us.
It is not we that live through body; it is the body that receives life through us.
For humanist existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, the body is experienced as a mode of becoming. In Being and Nothingness he contemplates whether consciousness has any discrete ontological status apart from the body. He concludes that the body is co-extensive with personal identity (it is a “perspective” that one lives) and thus he employs “exist” as a transitive verb. Arriving at a view not dissimilar from the one Iqbal had espoused decades earlier, Sartre declares that consciousness “exists” its body. Put simply, I am my body and I exist as I project toward my possibilities in the world. Lived experience is the primary dimension of the body and, both existentially and conceptually, the body is in complete unity with one’s Self. Furthermore, for Iqbal, the Self is not a concept or a thing, but rather a dynamic process through which the soul becomes embodied. In the Reconstruction he states, “The body is accumulated action or habit of the soul and as such undetachable from it.” It is a permanent element of consciousness. The body is not intended to serve as a place or home for the soul; it itself is an attribute of the same reality whose manifestation is the soul. It is simply a manifestation of the Ego or will when accommodating itself to spatio-temporal existence. In the Javed Namah he points out that the dualistic picture of soul and body is only an illusion created by language. He says:
You say that body is the receptacle of soul.
Don’t be foolish; consider the soul’s secret; tangle not with the body.
It is not a receptacle; it is a state of the soul
To call it its vehicle is a confusion of terms.
What is the soul?
Rapture, joy, burning and anguish, delight in mastering the revolving sphere.
What is the body?
It is meant to adapt itself to this mechanistic world
of quantitative dimensions, of day and night, of far and near.
Thus the body, for Iqbal, is a mode of Reality and as such is necessary. Matter is in truth spirit, only in space-time reference. He writes in the Reconstruction that “The 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 of such acting.” And from Zabur-i-Ajam we see Iqbal point out:
Be jan pushide ramz-e qa’inat ast
Badan hale z ehval-e hayat ast
The secret of the universe is concealed in the soul,
The body is merely one of its modes of expression.
The project of existentialism is to reach an authentic existence, to recognize forms of “bad faith” and foster personal authenticity. Religious existentialism is particular in its assumption that it is a true relationship with God which makes the individual an existent being, since reality itself is spiritual and Life and Self cannot be split along the Cartesian plane. Kierkegaard, for instance, defines the self in The Sickness unto Death as a synthesis of the temporal and eternal; we are not only finite psychical beings but also spiritual beings who become most fully ourselves in relating to the God who created us. Melancholy, despair, anguish and boredom are all manifestations of our alienation from God. In all forms of despair the individual is alienated from his real self and that Self can be attained only when it relates itself to its creator. In the same vein, in the Armaghan-e-Hijaz (Gift of the Hejaz), Iqbal writes:
To ham misl-e man az khud dar hijabi
Khank roze ke khud ra baz yabi
You too like me are concealed from yourself. Lucky will be the day when you discover yourself.
Indeed for existentialists, a state of self-estrangement ultimately results from a loss of will and vitality and its result is inaction- a condition Dostoevsky termed “conscious inertia”. Man is essentially free and creative but can often lose himself in the absorption and preoccupation of public existence and the everyday environment in which he finds himself, often falling prey to a kind of automatism and perfunctory behavior which builds into a state of inertia and spiritlessness. To Iqbal, however, the main purpose of the Qur’an is “to awaken in man the higher consciousness of his manifold relations with God and the universe.” Therefore it is essential that man should regain his true spiritual self and thus his freedom and creativity. A method by which this power of freedom can be maintained, according to Iqbal, is prayer. In prayer, the deeper self of man, what Iqbal calls the “appreciative” Self in contrast with the efficient Self of daily life, comes into direct contact with Reality, and by this contact the individual regains his sense of initiative or what Nietzsche might term “will-to-power”. Prayer invigorates a vital mode of dealing with the universe and brings one back from habit and routine to creation and vigor. Iqbal elaborates in the Reconstruction: “Indeed Islam recognizes a very important fact of human psychology, i.e. the rise and fall of the power to act freely, and is anxious to retain the power to act freely, as a constant and undiminished factor in the life of the ego. The timing of the daily prayer which, according to the Qur’an, restores ‘self-possession’ to the ego by bringing it into closer touch with the ultimate source of life and freedom, is intended to save the ego from the mechanizing effect of sleep and business. Prayer in Islam is the ego’s escape from mechanism to freedom.”
In one major respect, however, atheistic existentialism differs from Iqbal’s thought, and that is on the question of the origin of the Self. For Jean-Paul Sartre, “man finds himself thrown into existence” while human life itself is absurd. And how could it be otherwise, in the absence of belief in God? Life and freedom are equally purposeless and both the meaning of the world and our existence as humans are without justification. In the novel Nausea existence appears to his protagonist Roquentin as an undifferentiated stuff, without purpose or meaning. He is a stranger in the universe, alienated by the failure to find a meaning for himself or for the world. That absence of meaning is the reason why, to Sartre, the human condition is forlorn and sunken in anguish. But Iqbal chooses to draw his inspiration from the Qur’an, which asserts,
“We have not created the heavens and the earth and whatever is between in sport: We have not created them but for a serious end: but the greater part of them understands it not.” (44:38)
Similarly, the religious existentialism of Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard also part ways here with the meaninglessness to be found in Sartre’s atheistic brand of existentialism. Metaphysical alienation is understood by Kierkegaard as spiritual alienation. Its cause is a Self-alienated from itself as Spirit and therefore lacking personal relation to God. Thus the states of boredom and dread that Sartre identifies as intuitive states which reveal being and existence are seen by Kierkegaard to actually be the manifestations of Spiritual alienation. In boredom, one sees the nothingness of human existence when one fails to find meaning in anything one pursues. A gnawing emptiness and tedium pervades one’s life, which no diversion can relieve; nor can the world of everyday concerns free one from the profound emptiness. Melancholy is another response to meaninglessness. The melancholic person cannot explain the basis of his affliction, precisely because he is alienated from its cause. To Kierkegaard these are universal conditions of existence and are in fact spiritual ailments. Ultimately there is no escape from this sickness except through faith. Iqbal believes that life is through and through purposive and has specific ends to fulfill. He elaborates in the Reconstruction that “To live is to shape and change ends and purposes and to be governed by them. Mental life is teleological in the sense that, while there is no far-off distant goal towards which we are moving, there is a progressive formation of fresh ends, purposes, and ideal scales of value as the process of life grows and expands.”
Similarly Kierkegaard stressed constant striving on the way to authentic existence. He claims that the dynamic character of existence is manifested in the unique individual (Den Enkelte) who strives to exist as an authentic person. Existence, therefore, truly belongs to one who longs and strives for it. To Kierkegaard “spiritlessness is the misfortune of man.” This stagnation of spirit is the real cause of hopelessness, and what he refers to as “the sickness unto death”. Similarly, Iqbal too believed that “in the life of the spirit there is no standing still”. He goes so far as to conclude that relaxation is death to the person. In Payam-e-Mashriq (Message of the East) he proclaims,
Zindagi-e rahravaan dar tag o taz ast o bas
Qafela-e moj ra jade o manzel koja ast?
Life is constantly on the move, struggling and marching on its way, and that is all.
Can you imagine any destination or goal for the caravan of waves of the ocean?
And again in Bal-e-Jibreel he affirms:
Har ek muqam se aage muqam hai tera
Hiyat zauq-e safar ke siva kuch aur nahin
Your destination is beyond any destination;
Life is nothing but a desire for an unending journey.
To Kierkegaard, to be lost in spiritlessness is “the most terrible thing of all”. Iqbal cautions against this state of “conscious inertia” and ghaflat. Ultimately, to Iqbal, spiritlessness is equivalent to non-existence- an existential condition he greatly bemoaned, as we conclude with these verses:
Tan-e Bey Rooh Say Bezar Hai Haq
Khuda-e Zinda Zidoon Ka Khuda Hai.
God is fed up with spiritless Body
He is the living God and is God of the living.
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