Crisis as Freedom: Muhammad Iqbal and Walter Benjamin

What can two early-20th-century thinkers teach us about our pandemic “interregnum”?

Crisis as Freedom: Muhammad Iqbal and Walter Benjamin

AS WE ENTER THE winter amid the pandemic, it feels as though there is no end to the crises that engulf us. The structural subjugation of Black and brown peoples, what prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore has called “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death,” has been laid bare in its full nakedness for all to see. Of course, for Black and Indigenous peoples and other oppressed groups, this “‘state of emergency’ in which we live,” as Walter Benjamin once wrote, “is not the exception but the rule.” To compound the problem further, the political class and elite intelligentsia continue to propose the same neoliberal, market-based reforms that birthed our state of affairs in the first place. Our cultural moment is best captured in Antonio Gramsci’s notion of an interregnum: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

But if there is anything to learn from the rebellion in response to the murder of George Floyd — and its reverberations across the world — it is that possibilities for a new social order are being imagined and, with them, new ways to break free from the interregnum. Abolition has become a household word, with people questioning whether policing and prisons are necessary for community safety and even whether the nation-state as a mode of political organization has run its course. To ask these questions is to defy the circumstances that brought us economic collapse, environmental catastrophe, and a resurgence of right-wing fascism, all exacerbated by the global pandemic. As Toni Morrison has written: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

For many, the stillness of quarantine, and the resultant emptiness of time, have compounded the crisis. The secular, linear conception of time to which most of us are accustomed has been ruptured on a global scale, upending all pretense of normalcy and order. Instead of asking whether we can “return to normal” however (since we cannot), I would like instead to reflect on what it means to inaugurate a new way of relating to time amidst our crises. If “normal” is what brought us to crisis, then we ought to question the premises of this normalcy and think more ambitiously about how to develop the concepts and language to free ourselves from its clutches. How do we make sense of a crisis in time, crisis and time, the crisis of time, and crisis-as-time? More importantly, how do we do so in such a way that does not reinforce the same epistemological structures we are seeking to break out of?

To explore these questions, I return to Walter Benjamin, the early-20th-century German-Jewish philosopher with whom I opened this essay, bringing him into conversation with a Muslim thinker who lived during the same period, the philosopher Muhammad Iqbal. In thinking about how to escape the enclosure of time, Benjamin’s essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (written in 1940 and published in 1942) and Iqbal’s 1930 book The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam share striking overlaps, with both authors drawing from their respective religious traditions, interpreting them in such a way as to defy the epistemological and disciplinary limitations (e.g., religious versus secular) that our present intellectual imaginaries impose upon them. What resources can we draw from these works to rethink the way we conceptualize time and history amid a pandemic crisis that seems to have arrested our thought?

By contrast with our conceptions of time and history as linear, our two interlocutors offer an opportunity to ponder what scholar Talal Asad, in his 2003 book Formations of the Secular, has called “heterogeneous time” — i.e., the conceptions of time that animated various religious traditions and that “continually dislocate the present from the past, the world experienced from the world anticipated, and call for their revision and reconnection.” To begin by affirming that there can be different ways to conceive of time, we allow for the possibility of breaking out of the closure. Perhaps, in recovering heterogeneous time, we can undo the rational, linear, calculative conceptions of time and history that have been imposed upon us by the modern secular nation-state and capitalism.

Iqbal grapples with time in his third lecture in Reconstruction, critiquing what he calls “the doctrine of atomic time,” which he associates with the mainstream Ash’arite school of Sunni theology. “Time, according to the Ash’arite, is a succession of individual ‘nows’,” he writes. “From this view it obviously follows that between every two individual ‘nows’ or moments of time, there is an unoccupied moment of time, that is to say, a void of time” — a notion he deems an absurdity. Iqbal criticizes Ash’arite theologians for making sense of time through a “purely objective” (i.e., rational) point of view, thereby “fail[ing] to perceive the subjective aspect of time.” To disabuse oneself of this framework, one must think of time not as atomic but as organic, as a dialectical relationship between the “Ultimate Ego” (i.e., God), who “realizes and measures, so to speak, the infinite wealth of His own undetermined creative possibilities,” and the “ego” (i.e., the human), whose constitution represents but one of those many possibilities. The ego, therefore, “lives in eternity,” while at the same time living in time.

Turning to a concrete example, Iqbal undertakes a comparative analysis of the Qur’anic and Biblical narratives of “The Fall of Man.” In this legend, humankind enters the temporal world, a world in which time and history have a beginning. Iqbal points out that rarely does the Qur’an, in its stories, provide a wealth of historical detail but is rather geared toward “giving them a universal moral or philosophical import.” It is not the names and numbers that are of primary significance, but the stories’ moral lessons. The Qur’an asks its listeners to remember or to recall stories of the Prophets, as if to suggest to listeners that they had a share in the events. Qur’anic history is thus a meta-history that is enacted in bursts, where the ego is brought into dialogue with the Ultimate Ego. It is in this sense that the ego is both “living in eternity” (in a dialectic with the Divine) and living in what Iqbal calls “serial time” (the ordered time of our everyday world).

In the Qur’anic telling of the Fall, humanity is banished from paradise for eating the forbidden fruit, though it is not the Qur’anic Paradise of the afterlife — described as “the eternal abode of the righteous” — from which humankind fell, but a different place. In this place, “the very first event that took place was man’s sin of disobedience followed by his expulsion.” Iqbal writes that humanity’s station prior to the Fall symbolizes “the conception of a primitive state in which man is practically unrelated to his environment and consequently does not feel the sting of human wants the birth of which alone marks the beginning of human culture.” And thus, the Fall — as the quintessential crisis — is in fact inverted as rise: by displaying the capacity to disobey, to refuse, to rebel — the very qualities that damned them in paradise — humanity arises to a higher state on earth. In Iqbal’s words,

Man’s first act of disobedience was also his first act of free choice; and that is why, according to the Qur’anic narration, Adam’s first transgression was forgiven. Now goodness is not a matter of compulsion; it is the self’s free surrender to the moral ideal and arises out of a willing co-operation of free egos.

The quintessential crisis of the Biblical narrative becomes a site of ultimate freedom in the Qur’anic version.

In this reading of the Fall of Man, Iqbal maintains fidelity to the Qur’anic telling but infuses it with an urgency toward creative and free action that must at every moment renew itself rather than take a predetermined path. “A being whose movements are wholly determined like a machine cannot produce goodness,” he writes. It is only by having the freedom to fail that the freedom to succeed carries meaning. It is only in tragedy that triumph becomes possible. And this involves not just humankind but God, who are in an organic relationship with one another: “That God has taken this risk shows His immense faith in man; it is for man now to justify this faith,” writes Iqbal.

In his approach to time, Walter Benjamin is a kindred spirit. The intellectual trajectories of both men were shaped by historical crises: for Iqbal, the crisis was British colonialism, and for Benjamin, the advance of Nazism. Like Iqbal, Benjamin was troubled by a conception of time that assumed a predetermined and linear history. But whereas Iqbal found himself critiquing the stagnancy of religious thought, Benjamin took aim at what he saw as the vulgar historicism that had overtaken Marxist theory.

In his ninth thesis, Benjamin reimagines Paul Klee’s painting of the Angelus Novus as a representation of the “Angel of History,” pushed backward by a storm so strong that all it can do is watch the accumulation of debris before it. “That which we call progress, is this storm,” writes Benjamin, and the accumulating debris represents all of the crises of the past. The task of the historical materialist is to consciously take up the pieces, to redeem the past and to thereby rupture the present. This activist task stands in contrast to the work of the historian, for whom the past is a bygone period in the march of progress. Benjamin’s intervention seeks to redeem historical materialism from historicism.

Iqbal does something similar in his discussion of divine knowledge and time. Knowledge, like progress, is not static but rather denotes a kind of accumulation and evolution. Similar to Benjamin’s Angel of History, who sees the full sweep of the past in one instant, Iqbal ponders a conception of divine knowledge “which makes God immediately aware of the entire sweep of history, regarded as an order of specific events, in an eternal ‘now.’” He suggests that, while this appealing conception preserves God’s foreknowledge of all events, it forecloses a full conception of God’s freedom. “The future certainly pre-exists in the organic whole of God’s creative life, but it pre-exists as an open possibility, not as a fixed order of events with definite outlines.”

In a similar argument for radical contingency, Benjamin asserts that history is not merely an archive to be measured in dates or uncovered through documents, but rather something to be made again and again. “History is the object of a construction whose place is formed not in homogenous and empty time, but in that which is fulfilled by the here-and-now,” he writes in the 14th thesis. The historicist assumes, Benjamin argues in thesis five, that “the truth will not run away from us” because it is always there; by contrast, the historical materialist, as Benjamin claims in thesis six, views her duty toward history as one where she must “take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.” Similarly, for Iqbal, history cannot be conceived of “merely as a gradually revealed photo of a predetermined order of events,” because there would be “no room in it for novelty and initiation. Consequently, we can attach no meaning to the word ‘creation,’ which has a meaning for us only in view of our own capacity for original action.” The Ash’arite is to Iqbal what the historicist is to Benjamin.

Benjamin also draws on the Jewish tradition of remembrance, which anchors him in a praxis that views the longue durée of history as one in which the past is inextricably connected to the present. As Benjamin writes in the 18th thesis, it was the prohibition against predicting the future and the act of remembrance of the past that kept the Jews from indulging in empty and homogeneous time: “It is well-known that the Jews were forbidden to look into the future. The Torah and the prayers instructed them, by contrast, in remembrance.” The emphasis in Jewish liturgy on remembering the past while grounding oneself in the present lends to every moment an opportunity for redemption and freedom. The prohibition on speculating about the future may have disenchanted some, Benjamin writes, but “the future did not, however, turn into a homogenous and empty time for the Jews. For in it every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter.” The crisis of time is not to be overcome merely by anticipating a redemptive future but by consciously working to redeem all moments of time in the present.

For both Iqbal and Benjamin, the prospect of human creativity exists precisely because what stands before us cannot be known and thus must be consciously made. And it is precisely in crisis — whether the Fall of Man or the storm of progress — where new possibilities for redemption arise. Creative work thus demands an urgent attention to the present without taking for granted what the future “ought’” to be. While Benjamin critiques predetermined conceptions of progress, Iqbal critiques predetermined conceptions of time; both thinkers saw their critiques as following their respective traditions to their own emancipatory conclusions. “I believe there is a Divine tendency in the universe,” Iqbal wrote in one of his letters, “but this tendency will eventually find its complete expression in a higher man, not in a God subject to Time.” To read Benjamin and Iqbal in conversation with each other is to recover time and history as sites where radical praxis can materialize.

In Iqbal’s Islam and in Benjamin’s Judaism, time is neither linear nor cyclical, but regenerative. It is precisely its regenerative quality that allows us to conceive of a world anew, neither driven by a preconceived linearity nor limited by the closure of a perpetual cycle. To understand it as such is to overcome our paralysis and to take a leap toward liberation. As we grapple with our contemporary global juncture — our interregnum — by dreaming of new social possibilities, we would do well not to confine ourselves to paradigms that hold our imaginations hostage to the status quo. We are in crisis, but it is precisely through crisis that we find our freedom.


Asad Dandia is a graduate student of Islamic Studies at Columbia University and a 2020 fellow at the LARB Publishing Workshop. Follow him on Twitter @DandiaAsad.

LARB Contributor

Asad Dandia is a graduate student of Islamic Studies at Columbia University and a 2020 Fellow at the LARB Publishing Workshop. Follow him on Twitter @DandiaAsad


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