A Book Review of The Reconstruction of Religious Thought by Allama Muhammad Iqbal
Known as the spiritual father of the “idea of Pakistan” and “Hakeem-ul-Ummat (sage of Ummah),” Allama Sir Muhammed Iqbal commands a profound impact on the Muslim intellectual tradition. Bang-e-Dara, The Secrets of the Self, Message from the East, and Javid Nama persist as great poetry collections. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A.) in 1906, and Ludwig Maximillian University, Munich (PhD) in 1907.
Originally delivered as lectures in Madras, Hyderabad, and Aligarh (British India), The Reconstruction of the Religious Thought in Islam was first compiled and published in the early 1930’s. As his magnum opus in prose, this book has influenced generations of Islamic philosophers, thinkers, reformers, and activists.
This book review deconstructs Iqbal’s thoughts, his vision of reconstruction (tajdid), and his engagement with various political discourses of his time that persist today.
Locating the Text
The ideas of reconstruction, renewal, regeneration, and reform are not unfamiliar to the Islamic canon. The word “tajdid,” frequently used in contemporary Islamic literature, literally means renewal and reconstruction.1 This renewal or reconstruction of religion does not mean a change in the sources, principles, and fundamentals of Islam, but a reconstruction of how religion is understood, implemented, and lived in different times or places. Classical scholars understood it as a renewal of the reading, understanding, and implementing of the texts in the light of the various historical-cultural contexts in which Muslim societies existed.2Iqbal’s The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is, therefore, to be seen as part of the tradition of tajdid of Islam. Iqbal engages with the problems raised by imperialism, colonialism, modernity and so forth vis a vis Islam.
Modernity and its by-products do not simply challenge an existing sociopolitical order. Instead, they challenge “the very intellectual supports and justifications of that order” triggering an epistemological crisis.3 Thus the first thing Iqbal does in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought is reconstruct epistemology, doing what Alasdair Macintyre would consider solving an epistemological crises.4 Iqbal writes:
During the last five hundred years’ religious thought in Islam has been practically stationary. There was a time when European thought received inspiration from the world of Islam. The most remarkable phenomenon of modern history, however, is the enormous rapidity with which the world of Islam is spiritually moving towards the West.5
He does not however denounce this movement, as he considers the intellectualism of Europe as a further development of “some of the most important phases of the culture of Islam,” but urges a cautious approach to this assimilation lest “the dazzling exterior of European culture may arrest our movement and we may fail to reach the true inwardness of that culture.” 5He draws an analogy between Kant and Ghazali, writing that rationalism was instrumental in eliminating dogma from the “sacred record,” but eventually resulted in the entry of a utilitarian view of morality and “thus rationalism completed the reign of unbelief”:
His (Kant’s) Critique of Pure Reason revealed the limitations of human reason and reduced the whole work of the rationalists to a heap of ruins. And justly has he been described as God’s greatest gift to his country. Ghazali’s philosophical skepticism which, however, went a little too far, virtually did the same kind of work in the world of Islam in breaking the back of that proud but shallow rationalism which moved in the same direction as pre-Kantian rationalism in Germany. 5
For Iqbal, one of the many things that early Muslim scholars got wrong was what he calls the “anti-classical” spirit of the Quran:
…the general empirical attitude of the Qur’an engendered in its followers a feeling of reverence for the actual and ultimately made them the founders of modern science. It was a great point to awaken the empirical spirit in an age which renounced the visible as of no value in men’s search after God.5
Accepting science and philosophy as two sources of knowledge, Iqbal, however, argues that this does not negate the importance of mystical experience or the inner experience “as a mode of dealing with Reality in which sensation, in the physiological sense of the word, does not play any part.” He writes:
Yet the vista of experience thus opened to us is as real and concrete as any other experience. To describe it as psychic, mystical, or supernatural does not detract from its value as experience. To the primitive man all experience was super-natural. Prompted by the immediate necessities of life he was driven to interpret his experience, and out of this interpretation gradually emerged “Nature” in our sense of the word. The total-Reality, which enters our awareness and appears on interpretation as an empirical fact, has other ways of invading our consciousness and offers further opportunities of interpretation.5
Iqbal offers five “general observations” on the characteristics of mystic experience, concluding that:
For the purposes of knowledge, then, the region of mystic experience is as real as any other region of human experience and cannot be ignored merely because it cannot be traced back to sense-perception.5
Capitalizing on this epistemology, Iqbal, on one hand, criticizes classical philosophy’s teleological, ontological, and cosmological justifications of the existence of God and, on the other hand, tries to prove what he perceives to be the Islamic conception of God and nature.
Iqbal built his system of political philosophy upon the principle of tawheed6(oneness of God), viewing the Muslim prayers as indicative of the essential unity of mankind beyond the barriers of races, nations, and tribes that according to the Quran are for the purpose of identification only:
What a tremendous spiritual revolution will take place, practically in no time, if the proud aristocratic Brahmin of South India is daily made to stand shoulder to shoulder with the untouchable! From the unity of the all-inclusive Ego who creates and sustains all egos follows the essential unity of all mankind.5
Iqbal like Nietzsche7 curses nationalism, believing it has damaged the equality of humans based on a unity of origin while Islam tries to make this idea “a living factor in the Muslim’s daily life.” 5 He talks about the necessity of a balance between societal permanence and change based on the conception of Reality, as he sees in the unity of God a vision of unity of mankind and a loyalty of man to his own Ideal nature. Iqbal considers the failure of European political and social sciences to be an illustration of the lack of permanence in principles in Europe, and the immobility of Islam during the past 500 years as an inability to change.5
Answering a self-raised question, Iqbal calls the principle of movement in the structure of Islam, Ijtihad,5 a concept that is at the very center of all the work on the reconstruction within the Islamic tradition, as Tariq Ramadan notes that “All of the Muslim scholars who have stressed the need for tajdîd, for reform, have referred to the central notion of ijtihâd.”2 Identifying the distrust caused by the rationalist movement, the growth of ascetic Sufism, and the fall of Baghdad as the three reasons for the stupor of the Muslim thought, Iqbal then praises men like Ibn Taymiyyah, As-Sayuti, and Ibn al Wahab for breaking this stagnation, and claiming the right for ijtihâd beyond the “finality of the schools” of thought.5Iqbal considers the dichotomy of secular and religious to be meaningless with respect to the spirit of Islam.
The ideas of equality, solidarity, and freedom are the essence of tawheed as a working idea and the state from an Islamic standpoint is a venture to transform these ideals into “space-time forces, an aspiration to realize them in a definite human organization.” This is what makes the state in Islam a theocracy, not “that it [the state] is headed by a representative of God on earth who can always screen his despotic will behind his supposed infallibility.” According to him, the state is only an effort to realize the spiritual in a human organization. All states that are based on this realization of the ideal principles are theocratic, even pointing out that the idea of separation of the state and church is something that Turkish Nationalists assimilated directly from the arsenal of European political ideas.5
For Iqbal, primitive Christianity was not founded as a political or civil unit but as a “monastic order in a profane world having nothing to do with the civil affairs, and obeying the Roman authority particularly in all matters.” Thus, when the state became Christian, confrontation between the state and the church began. This could never happen in Islam as the Quran from the very beginning provided legislation on the civil life of its adherents, writing, “The Nationalist theory of state, therefore, is misleading inasmuch as it suggests a dualism that does not exist in Islam.” 5
Iqbal considers the Reformation in European Christianity to be a political movement that initiated the replacement of religion-based ethics, which are universal in nature, with separate systems of national ethics. Though ending religious violence in Europe was one of the stated goals of the Reformation, it only replaced religious violence with violence in the name of nationalism and the nation-state. This violence has been more destructive than what Europe sought to evade in juxtaposing the agency of God with the sovereignty of the state. It is in this context that Iqbal calls on the leaders of the Islamic world to understand what has happened to Europe and then to move forward with “self-control and a clear insight into the ultimate aims of Islam as a social polity”.5
Later, Iqbal reconstructs the structure of the Law of Islam, focusing again on the principle of ijtihâd. He calls, like others who have engaged with tajdeed, for a revisiting of the sources of Law and its principles within the Islamic tradition to “rid the modern critic of the superficial opinion that the Law of Islam is stationary and incapable of development”5. Thus at the end of the sixth lecture Iqbal writes:
Humanity needs three things today – a spiritual interpretation of the universe, spiritual emancipation of the individual and basic principles of a universal import directing the evolution of human society on a spiritual basis…The idealism of Europe never became a living factor in her life and the result is a perverted ego seeking itself through mutually intolerant democracies whose sole function is to exploit the poor in the interest of the rich. Believe me, Europe today 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 on the basis of a revelation, which, speaking from the inmost depths of life, internalizes its own apparent externality…Let the Muslim of today appreciate his position, reconstruct his social life in the light of ultimate principles, and evolve, out of the hitherto partially revealed purpose of Islam, that spiritual democracy which is the ultimate aim of Islam.5
For Iqbal, religion – in its higher manifestations where it is neither dogma nor priesthood nor ritual – alone can cure the “ills of despairing humanity,” as the monsters of modernity can be contained by neither nationalism nor atheistic socialism. He writes:
It is only by rising to a fresh vision of his origin and future, his whence and whither, that man will eventually triumph over a society motivated by an inhuman competition, and a civilization which has lost its spiritual unity by its inner conflict of religious and political values.5
Within 150 pages, Iqbal quotes about 50 scholars from the Western and Islamic traditions, all while drawing primarily from the Quran. He presents philosophical, metaphysical, theological, and political arguments, creating a case for an alternative to the Western weltanschauung. Iqbal does not claim to have created one but he does put forward a framework for the creation of one, such that no thinker concerned with remedying the Muslim condition after him could ignore him. The beauty of Iqbal is that while he calls for a reconstruction, he never departs from the history and the tradition of the Muslim ummah. Even the vehicle for the reconstruction that Iqbal wants is not devoid of historical continuity. Iqbal finds the foundation of world unity in the principles of tawheed and according to him, Islam, as a polity, is only a practical means of making this principle a living factor in the intellectual and emotional life of mankind. Although it has been almost a century since Iqbal delivered these lectures, their significance has never reduced because the challenges that Iqbal responded to persist. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is neither the final word nor a work beyond disagreements but it is necessary read for all those who seek the tajdid of the Muslim ummah.
- Rohi Baalbaki, Al Mawrid – a modern Arabic to English dictionary, 1995 Beirut Lebanon, p.286
- Tariq Ramadan, Radical Reform – Islamic ethics and liberation, 2009 Oxford
- H.C Hillier, Iqbal, Bergson and the reconstruction of the Devine Nexus in political Thought in “Muhammad Iqbal – essays on the reconstruction of Modern Muslim thought,” edited by H. C Hillier and Basit Bilal Koshul, 2015 Edinburgh, p.170
- Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, 1988 Notre Dame, p. 363
- Mohammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, 2012 ed Stanford
- Annemarie Schimmel, Gabriel’s Wing, 1963 Leiden, p. 86
- Keith Ansell-Pearson, An Introduction to Nietzsche as Political Thinker – the perfect nihilist, 1994 Cambridge, p.33
- Muhammad Khalid Masud, “Iqbal’s lecture on Ijtihad”. October 1978 issue of Iqbal review, volume 19, number 3, Iqbal Academy, Pakistan.
About the Author: Mudabir Hassan is a guest contributor. He is a graduate student of Political Science at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi and is interested in political philosophy, theology, and political history. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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