Muhammad Iqbal

The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam

Muhammad Iqbal is regarded as one of the great thinkers of the Islamic Awakening. His major philosophical work has now been published in German. The book's a timeless intellectual challenge of the first rank, says Ludwig Amman

Muhammad Iqbal is regarded as one of the great thinkers of the Islamic Awakening. His major philosophical work has now been published in German. The book is a timeless intellectual challenge of the first rank, says Ludwig Amman

photo: Allamaiqbal.com
Allama Dr Sir Muhammad Iqbal - posthumously revered in Pakistan as Muffakir-e-Pakistan (The Thinker of Pakistan) or Shair-i-Mashriq (The Poet of the East).

​​The great Indo-Muslim poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), was a man ahead of his time. Regarded as one of the great thinkers of the Islamic Awakening, a movement which pointed the way towards a regeneration of Islamic culture, he was born in Sialkot in what was then India and today belongs to Pakistan.

Now, at last, his major philosophical work, "The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam" has been published in German. It surprises and delights.

Inspiration from Western philosophy

The volume consists of seven lectures originally in English, on religion and philosophy, held in 1928 at the universities of Madras, Hyderabad and Mysore, following study in Lahore, Cambridge and Munich. Iqbal allowed himself to be inspired by Western thought and philosophy: "Most of my life has been spent in the study of European philosophy and that viewpoint has become my second nature. Consciously or unconsciously I study the realities and truths of Islam from the same point of view. I have experienced this many a time that while talking in Urdu I cannot express all that I want to say in that language."

It's a revealing statement and one that helps us understand the appeal of the work in the West. It is the Western view of Islam that characterises it linguistically, conceptually, and intellectually. The exceptional clarity, precision and vividness of thought however is what really characterises the work.

No dusty tome from the distant past this, but a timeless intellectual challenge of the first rank – and, as such, testimony to a man with a commanding knowledge of numerous intellectual traditions from Ibn Arabi and Fakhr ad-Din Rasi to Einstein, Bergson and Freud.

Re-thinking Islam

Like many thinkers of his generation he felt that Islam had suffered for centuries under an "intellectual paralysis" that had allowed the West to leave it behind. The task, then, was the reconstruction of religious thought: "The task before the modern Muslim is, therefore, immense. He has to re-think the whole system of Islam without completely breaking with the past".

An important prerequisite for this re-thinking is a critical reception of modern knowledge: "The only course open to us is to approach modern knowledge with a respectful but independent attitude and to appreciate the teachings of Islam in the light of that knowledge."

The careful balance here is not accidental. However Iqbal's emphatic insistence on an independent attitude is something that tends, even nowadays, to be overlooked. "No people can afford to reject their past entirely, for it is their past that has made their personal identity. And in a society like Islam the problem of a revision of old institutions becomes still more delicate, and the responsibility of the reformer assumes a far more serious aspect".

Europe and its "perverted ego"

None of this is apparent from a recent review in a German newspaper, where the impression is given that Iqbal had urged Islam to free itself from the "medieval fantasies of the theologians" in order to achieve spiritual emancipation, because, it was claimed, "the Islamic world is moving spiritually towards the West." Whatever else he says, Iqbal certainly does not say this!

It might have been advisable to have read the book to the end: "Believe me, Europe today (due to its perverted ego) is the greatest hindrance in the way of man's ethical advancement. The Muslim, on the other hand, is in possession of these ultimate ideas of the basis of a revelation, (…) which, speaking from the inmost depths of life, internalises its own apparent externality. With him the spiritual basis of life is a matter of conviction for which even the least enlightened man among us can easily lay down his life."

No, the study of Western thought had not turned Iqbal into an irreligious European, his Westernisation did not go that far, in spiritual matters he remained a believer in ex Oriente lux (the conception that light, in the sense of culture and civilisation, originates from the East).

The Islamic origins of science

When Iqbal calls for a reconstruction of religious thinking, that is exactly what he means – and why he balances out two lines of argument. On the one hand the reception of science, that is to say the natural sciences must be justified. This can be done by providing proof of their Islamic origins:

The empirical character of the Koran, this theory maintains, made it possible for Muslims to become the founders of modern science, the birth of Islam then being the birth of inductive reasoning, an intellectual revolt against the speculative philosophy of the Greeks – and for the experimental methods of the Arabs to be taken up in European thought and further developed.

How convincing this rather Islamocentric genealogy of empirical science is remains to be seen. It is in any case an accepted part of Al-Jabiri's "Critique of Arab Reason" (1984-1992), which attributes the dynamism attained by the sciences in Europe to the reception of the rationalistic thinking of Averroes/Ibn Rushd – while the Islamic world meanwhile succumbed to Avicennist thinking and stagnated scientifically as a consequence.

Intimate contact with reality only via religion

On the other hand, the mystic experience of God is as real for Iqbal as every other human experience; the segmentary character of the natural sciences means they – "are like so many vultures falling on the dead body of Nature, and each running away with a piece of its flesh" – so religion has a central role in the synthesis, the bringing together of all human experience. Religion alone has the power to establish an intimate contact with reality and it does so by means of the spiritual condition we call "prayer".

However religious thinking does not attain dynamism merely through the reception of modern knowledge. Of more crucial importance is the world- and self-conception of Islam, according to Iqbal, the true and 'rediscoverable' essence of Islam in conflict with a mistaken fatalistic concept of divine predestination. To this end he devises a theology of creative change:

"It is time regarded as an organic whole that the Koran 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. (…) 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."

"If time is real (…)," Iqbal goes on to say, "then every moment in the life of Reality is original, giving birth to what is absolutely novel and unforeseeable. Everyday doth some new work employ Him, says the Koran. To exist in real time means (…) to create it from moment to moment and to be absolutely free and original in creation. The universe is a free creative movement."

From freethinking theology to tricky jurisprudence

This sounds wonderful. But it only gets serious when Iqbal moves from freethinking theology into the treacherous field of jurisprudence where nothing less than the rules and laws by which society functions are at stake. Here, as generations of reformist Muslims and Orientalists have done, he identifies ijtihad, the process of making a legal decision by independent interpretation of the sources of the law as "the principle of movement in the structure of Islam".

In order to find reconciliation between stability and change, Islamic society must, on the one hand, find eternal principles, "it must possess eternal principles to regulate its collective life; for the eternal gives us a foothold in the world of perpetual change."

However since eternal principles can also be debilitating if they are understood as excluding all change, the dynamism of ijtihad is necessary. Nothing untoward there – but then the surprises begin to pile up, and they should give us pause for thought:

Wahhabism – characterised by the spirit of freedom?

Of all things, it is the arch-conservative Wahhabism that Iqbalit declares a modern movement, characterised by the spirit of freedom of ijtihad – the very same tyrannical and puritanical antediluvian form of Islam of the Saudis, who since 1975 have been using their oil billions worldwide to promote a thoroughly anti-modern brand of re-Islamisation!

We may pass over this as a premature misinterpretation, confusing the theoretical modernisation potential of ijtihad with the maximally restrictive use that defensive movements make of judgements irrespective of religious schools based solely on founding texts. But that is just the beginning:

The contribution of the Indo-Muslims to the Renaissance of Islam is "healthy conservative criticism, [that] serve[s] at least as a check on the rapid movement of liberalism in the world of Islam". Iqbal then, is no liberal reformer, even if there are many who like to think of him as such; he is a conservative reformer, concerned about the "proper limits of reform"!

The concept of "spiritual democracy"

It is exactly this that characterises his finely balanced conception of "spiritual democracy" as alternative to the non-spiritual democracies of Europe, that "highest goal of Islam" and its contribution to the progress of mankind. If Iqbal transfers the authority of the ijtihad to a Muslim legislative assembly, he is not doing so solely to ensure the contributions of sensible laymen to legal discussions. It is much more a matter of avoiding major errors in interpreting the laws – this is why the jurists should form "a vital part of a Muslim legislative assembly helping and guiding free discussion on questions relating to law".

This, in the final analysis, is what conservative Islamic reform movements demand when they protest about the complete exclusion of religious law from the legislative process. They are considered as radical and as enemies of democracy because they do not want to consign Allah's Law – Sharia, often demonised in Europe – to the dustbin of history but instead to focus on modernisation through extension of the law.

Sir Muhammad Iqbal too, is this kind of "Islamist". Our understanding of Islamic activism in all its forms might make tremendous strides if only we would remove the blinkers and learn to take the religious element in religious thinkers seriously instead of thinking of such people as merely uncritical (or slow-on-the-uptake) adherents of secular European thinking.

Ludwig Ammann

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Ron Walker

Muhammad Iqbal: Die Wiederbelebung des religiösen Denkens im Islam (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam). German Translation by Axel Monte and Thomas Stemmer, Published by Hans Schiler 2004, 238 pages

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