Leaving aside the force of his inspirational poetry, Iqbal’s philosophical project is posited best in his ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam‘. This thin volume which was once described as the ‘Bible of Modern Islam’ is now remembered as one of the most important milestones in the history of intellectual tradition of modernist movement in Islam. While generally being the object of admiration and praises, these lectures also recieved various shades of criticisms – from sweeping judgements like H.A.R. Gibb’s that Iqbal’s work cannot even be considered as a point of departure for building a structure of new Islamic theology to balanced arguments like Fazlur Rahman’s who while suggesting that Iqbal’s approach is very much dated explained his conclusion in following words:
…since he took seriously his contemporary scientists who tried to prove a dynamic free will in man on the basis of new subatomic scientific data; which they interpreted as meaning that the physical world was ‘free’ of the chain of cause and effect![...]Iqbal did not carry out any systematic inquiry into the teaching of Quran but picked and chose from its verses – as he did with other traditional material – to prove certain theses, at least some of which were the result of his general insight into the Quran but which, above all, seemed to him to suit most of the contemporary needs of a stagnant Muslim society. He then expressed these theses in terms of such contemporary theories as those of Bergson and Whitehead.
Albeit an ostensibly cruel judgement (enough to mislead those who have not studied Fazlur Rahman’s methodology of reconstruction in detail), it represents well the gap beween Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam and Iqbal’s other intellectual endeavours. Other critics who point towards the same gap, for instance Suheyl Omar and Javed Iqbal, consider Reconstruction as an excessively complicated book refering scores of philosophers, scientists and jurists. The reader is expected to get familiarised with these personalities, their times and thoughts before being able to follow Iqbal’s pointers meaningfully. Those well versed with Iqbal’s poetry struggle to establish whether its the verse which is the acme of philosopher’s thought or these seven lectures. Iqbal hismelf pointed towards these difficulties of expression in a letter to Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum in Sep 1925:
My religious knowledge is too limited however I try to increase it in my free time. The matter is more of personal satisfaction rather than formal education[...]besides this fact, I spent most of my life studying western philosophy and this point of view has now become my second nature. Intentionally or unintentionally, I feel compelled to study Islam through the same angle.
and this, in my view, is what Fazlur Rahman termed as couching the Quranic message in terms of particular theory.
The criticism, though well grounded, does not take away a lot from the established importance of these lectures and a lot can be said in defence of this criticism. Iqbal, unlike many other thinkers of his time, tried to remain in harmony with the noetic paradigm of his audience while avoiding conflicting categories of various philosophical constructs. In a way, he was one of the earliest proponents of Islamization of Knowledge and tried to prove that science and philosophy must agree with the absolutes of religious truth and should be outrightly refuted where they disagree with it.
Unlike Malek Bennabi’s Quranic Phenomenon and Fazlur Rahman’s Islam, Reconstruction of Religious Thought was largely left out of traditionalist vs modernist debate. Partly because majority of traditionalists in Iqbal’s times were not equipped enough to comment upon his finer points; for instance Prophet’s test of Ibn Sayyad’s psychic experience – and partly by ignoring his controversial comments; for example the one in favour of women’s right to divorce.
In my view, Iqbal’s philosophy would always remain alive in the form of these lectures as students all over the world would continue to explore the innumerable inherent dimensions. While I am adding a new cateqory Iqbaliat on Non Skeptical Essays, I thought it appropriate to write this introductory post about the single most important work on Islamic theology of the last century.