Einstein, Iqbal, and the Concept of Time

This article was originally published in The Muslim Vibe

The succession of day and night is the architect of events.
The succession of day and night is the fountain‐head of life and death

The succession of day and night is a two‐tone silken twine,
With which the Divine Essence, prepares Its apparel of Attributes

(Masjid e Qurtaba)

Time. A perpetual mystery. An ancient debate. The age-old conundrum that has baffled humanity;  and what humanity has, consequently, been trying to comprehend since the beginning of time. (No pun intended!)

Before Einstein came out with his groundbreaking Theory of Relativity that altered the entire face of science as we knew it, a preexisting notion of absolute time, mainly attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, had predominated scientific thought for at least two centuries.

From the advent of Islam up to the 20th century, Muslim thinkers and philosophers in their quest for Knowledge and Truth, took keen interest in the idea and concept of time, taking pains in trying to solve this ultimate puzzle, attempting sometimes to understand it in light of Quranic teachings and, at other times,  making an effort to bring about an amalgamation of ancient Greek thought with Quranic allusions on the subject.

Amongst the modern Muslim philosophers, Allama Muhammad Iqbal has been the one to address the idea of time mainly in his prose works, particularly in the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, while allusions to time can also be found scattered all over his poetical works.

Though a great admirer of Einstein and his groundbreaking propositions in general, Iqbal disagreed with the concept of time propounded by Einstein in his Theory of Relativity. Iqbal was of the opinion that:

“Einstein’s Relativity presents one great difficulty, i.e. the unreality of time. A theory which takes time to be a kind of fourth dimension of space must, it seems, regard the future as something already given, as indubitably fixed as the past. Time as a free creative movement has no meaning for the theory. It does not pass. Events do not happen; we simply meet them.” (Reconstruction, Lecture 2)

Iqbal’s disagreement with Einstien’s conception of time does not imply, however, that he altogether disagreed with the entire Theory, but only that he deemed it as deficient in defining time beyond a physical entity, and that by intertwining time with space, time was converted into a physical entity comprising of a set system of coordinates, a straight line composed of spatial points, much like space:

“It appears to me that time regarded as a fourth dimension of space really ceases to be time.”

It cannot, however, be denied that Einstien’s Time, in certain aspects of the theory at least, does come substantially close to the Quranic conception of time, and, consequently, close parallels can be drawn between the two. The idea of time dilation in the General Theory of Relativity can, in fact, be viewed as evidence of Divine Time being different from serial time. Time dilation, according to the theory, is the slowing down of time for an observer who is either moving at or near the speed of light or is situated near a massive gravitational field.

According to modern Physics, the speed of light is absolute, or in other words, ultimate. Interestingly enough, philosophy refers to God as the Ultimate Reality. The Quran repeatedly analogizes God to Light or Noor, referring to God as the Light of the Heavens and the Earth (Surah Al Noor). Quite evidently, therefore, the absolute nature of light in physics, and esp in the Theory of Relativity, appears not only to validate but to, in fact, complement the Quranic allusions to God as Noor.

Consequently, Time Dilation may be referred to as Divine Time, implying the fact that time for God is very different from what it is for us. God is the Creator of time, and thus moves and exists beyond time, while we, the creation, seemingly move within time. The Quran is explicit on the difference between Divine Time and the human perception of time:

“A day of your lord is like a thousand years of what you count.” (22:47)

The following verse of the Quran describes kinematic/Velocity Time Dilation, and further emphasises the differences between Divine/Real Time and serial time as experienced by us:

He arranges [each] matter from the heaven to the earth; then it will ascend to Him in a Day, the extent of which is a thousand years of those which you count. (32:5)

The matters mentioned here have been interpreted as angels, and since angels, according to Quranic description, are creatures comprising of Light or Noor, they would undoubtedly be travelling around the cosmos at the speed of light, which would result in Kinematic Time Dilation. Hence a day for God and His angels would be equivalent to a thousand years on Earth from the perspective of a human observer 1400 years ago when the Quran was revealed and people travelled on horses and camels.

Iqbal’s conception of time was inspired, if not wholly then partially, by the thought of Henri Bergson on the subject. Henri Bergson (1859–1941) was one of the most famous and influential French philosophers of the late 19th century-early 20th century. In his famous work Time and Free Will, seen as an attack on Kant’s denial of freedom, Bergson proposed to differentiate between time and space, to segregate them from each other, as opposed to the concept of spacetime posited by modern physics. The immediate data of consciousness, according to Bergson, was temporal, which he called “la duree” or the Duration. This Duration, or Pure Duration, is what Iqbal referred to as the immediacy of conscious experience, a means of grasping Reality as a whole, instead of piecemeal.

According to Iqbal, the self or ego has two sides, the Efficient Self and the Appreciative Self:

“On its efficient side it enters into relation with what we call the world of space. The efficient self … discloses itself as nothing more than a series of specific and consequently numberable states. The time in which the efficient self lives is, therefore, the time of which we predicate long and short. It is hardly distinguishable from space. We can conceive it only as a straight line composed of spatial points … ”

The Efficient Self is, therefore, the outward, temporal part of the self or ego, which is in touch with the “real” world as experienced by our sense-perception; the self which exists in space-time. The Appreciative Self, on the other hand, is the true, inner self, which has the capacity to transcend spacetime.

” … the appreciative side of the self … In the life-process of this deeper ego, the states of consciousness melt into each other. There is no numerical distinctness of states in the totality of the ego … the time of the appreciative-self is a single “now” which the efficient self, in its traffic with the world of space, pulverizes into a series of “nows” like pearl beads in a thread. Here is, then, pure duration unadulterated by space.”

Real time or pure time for Iqbal is experienced by traversing the serial nature of time:

“Pure time, then, as revealed by a deeper analysis of our conscious experience, is not a string of separate, reversible instants; it is an organic whole in which the past is not left behind, but is moving along with, and operating in, the present.”

Time thus experienced as a free movement, lived as pure duration, gives rise to the Quranic concept of Destiny:

” … the future is given … not as lying before, yet to be traversed; it is given only in the sense that it is present in its nature as an open possibility. It is time regarded as an organic whole that the Qur’an describes as Taqdir or the destiny– a word which has been so much misunderstood both in and outside the world of Islam. Destiny is time regarded as prior to the disclosure of its possibilities.”

Just as God exists in pure time the human ego has the capacity and potential to exist in real time, which happens when we create and design our own world, and act as the architects of our own Destiny:

“To exist in real time is not to be bound by the fetters of serial time, but to create it from moment to moment and to be absolutely free and original in creation. “

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