Khudi, for those who want it


This post is not for those who indulge in the thought of Iqbal as an intellectual luxury. Today, I am writing only for those who want to grasp a fundamental concept in order to become useful to society and humanity. To such friends, I can say quite frankly that to try grasping Iqbal’s concept of ‘khudi’ without using the fiction of Ibn-e-Safi and the movies of Waheed Murad is like trying to learn chess with the pieces of draughts.

This is one of the reasons why we find that although writings about Iqbal and his work can fill libraries (and they have), there is hardly any author who has succeeded in explaining the concept of khudi in simple, clear and accurate terms. I realized this exactly twelve years ago, as just one aspect of a bigger picture which I have been trying to present piecemeal in all my writings since then. I tried to lay down some foundations for understanding Iqbal’s concept of ‘khudi’ in Iqbal: His Life and Our Times (2014) and Visions Unveiled (2018). I could not present the concept as clearly as I wanted to in those works because I was working within the constraints of academic writing (playing chess with the pieces of draughts).

To say things the way I wanted to say them, I also developed a workshop in 2008, and have been offering it at various universities and before other interested groups since then. Today I am presenting its substance here, and I hope that this will help demystify the concept of ‘khudi’ and bring it within the grasp of friends and like-minded people across the world. So, let’s begin.


Please note that this post is not about Waheed Murad. It is true that today is his death anniversary, and this is why I am publishing this post today and not on some other day of the year. However, the purpose is to teach the concept of ‘khudi’, and had it been possible for me to do so without mentioning the work of Waheed Murad, I would have done that. But it is not possible. Therefore, please keep your focus on the theme of ‘khudi’, and see how far I have been able to bring it into your grasp.


1. Directive energy


What we may call soul, spirit, self or ego, is defined by Iqbal as “directive energy”. What he means is that our soul is a kind of energy but it is different from other energies in a very important way. Other forms of energy that we know, do not choose the direction in which they flow. For instance, electricity goes wherever its conductor takes it, and so on.

Soul, on the other hand, can choose its own direction. This is why Iqbal calls it a directive energy (and he means the same thing when he says that the essential nature of human beings “consists in will, not intellect or understanding”).

Although he believed that he had derived this idea directly from the Quran, he was nevertheless the first thinker to express it in this manner. This is why he used a new term, “khudi”, when he referred to soul, spirit, self or ego as “directive energy” in his Urdu and Persian writings. In his scientific writings in English, he simply used the term “ego”:

Yet the interpretation of our conscious experience is the only road by which we can reach the ego, if at all.

Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam

Let’s do this now. Let’s try to reach our ego – our soul – by interpreting our conscious experience. For this purpose, I am presenting here a short video. It is the opening sequence from the movie Ishara (1969), written, produced and directed by Waheed Murad. While you watch this video, please answer the following question:


Where are you in this clip? Or, Who are you in it?



2. Conscious experience


I hope that you have not jumped to this section without watching the video embedded above. If you have, please try to watch it before you proceed to read the following.

There are many characters in this short clip, and you might have identified yourself with any of them – the anonymous passersby, the man who runs the small dingy restaurant, the lady who owns the building, the painter who is addressing you, the musician who lives next door, or one of the three kids who are watching the artist while he produces his picture. This is how we identify ourselves unconsciously with a character when we watch a movie, read a story or poem, or see a painting. This is not a conscious experience.

Regarding the conscious experience, there is a clue at the very beginning of the movie. The scene starts with the “subjective camera”, i.e. it presents your point of view as if you are the one entering the street and the camera is seeing what you would see. The voice of Amir, the painter, is also addressing the viewer, which is you. Thus it can be possible for you to “consciously” enter the world presented in the clip.

The street you see in the clip, then, is the world of the world of the artist’s imagination, where he introduces you to various characters before taking you to his studio, which can only be his mind. This is where he produces “pictures” (a word used for paintings as well as movies, and hence the “picture” which you now see him painting is this very movie which is unfolding with you inside it.

You may now identify yourself with any of the three children who are watching him paint. This is your new identity – you have been reborn into a new world, the world of the artist’s mind, and hence you are like a child. It does not matter which of the three children you are – the one who likes his work, the one who is impartial, or the one who rejects it outright. You are yet to grow up in order to have an informed opinion, since this is a new world.

How does this growth happen? How do we learn to form opinions that come directly from our souls? Here is the answer which Iqbal has provided for this question:

Our soul discovers itself when we come into contact with a great mind. It is not until I had realized the infinitude of Goethe’s mind that I discovered the narrow breadth of my own.

Iqbal, Stray Reflections

This is what we are going to explore in the next clip: the reason why our soul needs to come into contact with a great mind in order to discover itself. The clip consists of the first song from the movie. As you watch it, please answer the following question:

What is Amir doing to his society in this song?



3. A great mind


We can see (in the clip embedded above) that Amir is bringing together all sections of society – children, youth and the old, rich and poor, conservative and advanced, and so on. He drags them into a circle, which starts moving around him. He dances alone in the middle, and eventually we see him pointing to the heaven with one hand and towards the earth with the other, his head bowed down (at 3:16 in the clip). This is the essential signature of the dance of Dervish introduced by Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi.

While he is thus creating unity on earth, the song which he is singing is in praise of God. More specifically, he is emphasizing the active intervention of the Divine in our everyday life through what appears to us as destiny (“taqdeer”). But what is destiny? According to Iqbal:

The destiny of a thing then is not an unrelenting fate working from without like a task master; it is the inward reach of a thing, its realizable possibilities which lie within the depths of its nature, and serially actualize themselves without any feeling of external compulsion.

Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam

So, this is how our soul discovers itself when it comes into contact with a great mind. It becomes aware of its realizable possibilities, the other name for which is destiny.

In the next clip, we will see destiny at work. Destiny brings Amir to Aliya, a college student who also likes to paint. She represents us in the world of Amir, as we came to this world not very long ago and have now matured up to this level. As you watch the next clip, please answer the following question:

Is time also a factor in bringing Amir and Aliya together?



3. Time


We can see that it is sheer timing which brings Amir and Aliya together. In our world, we would call it coincidence but the story of Ishara is peculiar because it has no negative character at all. There are no villains, nor anybody commits misdeed knowingly or unknowingly. Therefore, every complication that occurs in the plot occurs due to the position in which the various characters have been placed by Time and destiny.

How to transcend time, so that we could make destiny work for us? The answer given by Iqbal is that the self – or ‘khudi’ – has two sides. The outer side may be called “efficient”, because it learns to accept the limitations of time and space in order to perform daily tasks in the physical world. But deep inside, the self retains its original nature, and hence this inner side may be called “appreciative”. Here, it appears to be free from the passage of time, and hence the way to transcend time is by sinking into this inner depth of our soul:

With our absorption in the external order of things, necessitated by our present situation, it is extremely difficult to catch a glimpse of the appreciative self … It is only in the moments of profound meditation, when the efficient self is in abeyance, that we sink into our deeper self and reach the inner centre of experience. In the life-process of this deeper ego the states of consciousness melt into each other … It appears that 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.

Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam

This is what we are going to see in the next clip, which is the last song in the movie. It depicts a moment of profound meditation of Amir, after he has learnt that he cannot be with Aliya anymore. The reverie appears in colour while the rest of the movie up to this point was in black and white, so that we can recognize the appreciative side or the innermost depth of Amir’s soul as the world depicted in colour. While you watch the song, please answer the following question:

What is Amir asking Aliya to do?



4. The appreciative self


We can see that the entire song revolves around the central motif of Time, how Time stands in the way of our happiness and thus presents destiny as a rather oppressive force. Yet, this experience of the innermost depth of the soul – the appreciative side of the self – is not the passive and sedate inaction most commonly associated with mystical experiences. Amir is asking Aliya to assert her own will, regardless of the oppression of Time and destiny, and in consistence only with her highest ideals and her cherished values.

In other words, he is asking her to rediscover herself as a directive energy:

Inner experience is the ego at work. We appreciate the ego itself in the act of perceiving, judging, and willing. The life of the ego is a kind of tension caused by the ego invading the environment and the environment invading the ego. The ego does not stand outside this arena of mutual invasion. It is present in it as a directive energy and is formed and disciplined by its own experience.

Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam

We can see that the cycle has completed here. Our soul has indeed discovered itself as an energy which can set its own direction, regardless of the constraints of time, space or destiny. This discovery has happened by coming into contact with a great mind. What remains now is the conclusion, and the next clip consists of the remaining few minutes of the movie after the last song. As you watch it, please answer the following question:

Do Amir and Aliya get united?



5. The directive energy


We can see that so quickly after the last song, everything in the world of Amir resolves itself to unite him with Aliya, as if destiny itself has intervened in their favour. But there is a catch. The movie did not revert to black and white. It has stayed in colour. So, there is a possibility that this final sequence is also occurring inside the reverie of Amir – in his inner world, his appreciative self.

This does not make it any less real. In fact, if Aliya is us, i.e. the viewer, then we are actually meeting this great artist and uniting with him only in the depths of our souls. But what we have discovered there, through our interaction with his mind, is a truth that applies to our reality out here. It is our “khudi”, a discovery of our soul as directive energy.

Besides, the appreciative self is free from the distinction of past, present and future. If something is seen there that has not yet happened in the world outside, it will.


Further reading



Leave a Comment