Home » All My Posts » Deconstructing Iqbal’s ‘Reconstruction’

Deconstructing Iqbal’s ‘Reconstruction’

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.


20 thoughts on “Deconstructing Iqbal’s ‘Reconstruction’

  1. AS

    Hope your well akhi. I dont know if I could use Fazlur Rahman to critique Iqbal given Rahman had issues in method he did not see Islamic Law as a whole he say it as laws so it is really hard for me to see what angle he was coming from in terms of his relationship to Islamic legal tradition in specific and Islamic thought in general. I mean he never really let us know what his intellectual foundation was I rather felt in my brief read of his stuff years back that he had a Western edge with an Islamic cloak if that is not too cruel. May Allah Have Mercy On Him. I would not rank him with the likes of Ismail Faruqi after whom International Islamic University Of Malaysia is practically patterned nor would I match him to Iqbal and why/

    Iqbal {r} in the Reconstruction gave us a platform to engage the West in its diversity without really compromising Islamic identity. Put otherwise the school of Iqbal is a platform from which the Muslim feels dignified when engaging the West, he realized the front for discourse is multilayered intellectual, spiritual and legal so to speak

    I felt Iqbal spoke from confidence in Islam but he needed to frame his confidence in terms that spoke to the intellectuals. I rememeber first purchasing the book as a student of philosophy I was enchanted by what he proposed and years later his ideas on ijtihad still pervail over my intellect. Iqbal did not let history over take him rather he used it as a tool of analysis and then delivered the goods and that is that Islam is dynamic and can meet the challenges of the age.

    Could it be that Iqbal was speaking to us more than to his time or his critics he was speaking to a people with more Western education than Islamic and he represented an aspiration of the many and that is to make sense of Islam post Western Dominance. I dont take Iqbal as an ideologue for change rather for me he is a starting point and this is where my sympathy and secret alliance lies with Sir Iqbal that to me he is a tool a milestone in the quest to build an identity that has been cast aside by some, forgotten by other, murdered by savages and despaired of by many but for Iqbal Islam is alive even though he had to couch what he knew intuitively in a discourse unfamiliar to many.

    To say the least the reconstruction hashed out what is the principle movement in Islam and that for me is enough after all we still have revelation the issue is how to understand today and he layed a frame for this despire what some historians of the empire might say.


    Allahu Al’am

  2. “Iqbal did not carry out any systematic inquiry into the teaching of Quran but picked and chose from its verses . . .”

    I don’t know what the author means by Iqbal’s lack of systematic inquiry. Anyway, everything doesn’t have to be in Quran. If there is some truth x & if a Western scientist like Einstein talks about it, I don’t know why Iqbal should have skipped mentioning it or used some Islamic term to illustrate a concept.

  3. AS
    Hope your well, thought I would re-read this post and reflect on it for the third or fourth time. You said:

    “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”

    I think your on to something here.

    There is a tension within what we call in the West “traditionalism” as this term is not used in the East. The tension the lack of continuity there is no movement in thought that connects us with the past and present except in small circles. Traditionalism refuses to deal with the current reality so the likes of Iqbal were left to themselves to engage the other (the West[s]). This is why Iqbal (r) put much emphasis on “ijtihad” as I imagine he suffered the reality of distance meaning not being able to access an Islamic discourse[s] which speak to contemporary life.

    Allahu Al’am



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  5. I think Reconstruction of Religious Tought in Islam is a serious book in our time. Iqbal, in my idea, ask all muslims to go to their deep slef and rethink about many notions which were accepted for ages among muslims. He is trying to explain the fact that the issue is not easy to explain it by words, rather it is better for muslims to experience it themselves.
    I agree that the book is very difficult to understand as Iqbal has quouted from several philosopers and scientists, but also it is difficult because we want to observe everything trough attention to outside, we never notice the reality inside our self. If we do so, the book will be very easy to understan.

  6. i am writing an urdu translation of the book i have finished first draft of first lecture

    how can i post it for review? i have gif files

  7. I think the writer does not know what ‘deconstruction’ is. The article has nothing to do with it.

  8. Thank you for your little semantic interjection. Its obvious to anyone that the aim of the entry was not to ‘deconstruct’ the work of Iqbal. Deconstruction here is only used in the manner of interpretation. By the way, a blog entry is not an ‘article’. To me, its more or less a kind of loud thinking. Anyway, thanks for dropping by and commenting.

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  10. Hello Aasem,

    I enjoy your blog on Iqbal. I have a question: who are the main scholars alive today who are carrying on his influence and ideas? I very much appreciate your input for my project on the Reconstruction.

    Dr. Duane Alexander Miller

    • Thank you Dr. Miller for dropping by. As you know, there are various dimensions of Iqbal’s thought. In Pakistan Iqbal Academy’s Dr. Suheyl Umer et al had done a lot as far as serious academic engagement with Iqbal’s thought is concerned. In recent years, some very promising work is being initiated by International Iqbal Society and Dabistan-e-Iqbal Lahore. For that you can look up Dr. Nicholas Adams (Univ of Edinburgh), Dr. Basit Koshul (LUMS) etc. In case you need a detailed discussion, please contact me on asembuxi@gmail.com.

      Best regards

  11. I thought that HAR Gibb was quite impressed by Iqbal’s “Reconstruction….” Gibb described Iqbal as ‘the most outstanding in intellectual life between 1910 and his death in 1938’ (Gibb, p.59) and described The Reconstruction “…as being the ‘first (and so far the only) thoroughgoing attempt to restate the theology of Islam in modern immanentist terms’ (p.599–60).” This is in Gibb’s 1947 book, “Modern Trends in Islam.” Hardly sounds like a scathing dismissal!

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