Dialogue: Ali Abbas Jalalpuri on Iqbal’s scholasticism

Even though it can be entirely attributed to my shameful reluctance to read philosophy in Urdu, I am embarrassed to be introduced to Ali Abbas Jalalpuri’s work so late, especially his profound critique on Iqbal.

Jalalpuri’s critique of Iqbal, besides being academically valuable in its own right, is also important as it can help us immensely to reclaim Iqbal from armchair ideologues and political islamists whose strictly authoritarian projections are a source of constant confusion, especially for the youth, given the theoretical impact of Iqbal’s poetry and thought on our education system as well as so-called national ideology. But there is a downside of this critique as well; that it can be equally employed to brush aside one of the most important contribution of Iqbal, i.e, an attempt to reconstruct religious thought during Islam’s sojourn into modernity.

Though multi-faceted and decently encompassing, Jalalpuri’s criticism on Iqbal emanates from a single contention that Iqbal should be essentially understood as a scholastic rather than a philosopher, an assertion that I find ineffectual on many grounds.

Firstly, with this assertion, Jalalpuri tries to convey to the reader that Scholasticism and Philosophy are two strictly separate academic disciplines which can somehow be distinctly traced from antiquity to present times. It is true that Scholastic tradition can be traced back to medieval times (when it was pursued as a discipline combining various other disciplines, e.g., semantics, logic and metaphysics), it is difficult not to consider it as an undercurrent within the medieval philosophical tradition.

Secondly, an indirect import of this distinction would be that Philosophy must be equated with a purely skeptic indulgence where perhaps the indulgence to discern truth stands more important than the truth itself. Contrastingly, by subscribing himself to a confessional religion, a philosopher automatically begins his quest by holding true a set of faith-based assumptions. If not denying completely the cohabitation of theism and philosophy, considering the scholastic method aphilosophical would at least take philosophy and religious faith to their respective non-overlapping magisteria, leaving no question for any kind of synthesis.

Thirdly, Iqbal adequately addresses these epistemic issues himself in his first lecture as he tries to put religious faith in correct philosophical perspective. Before moving further with his synthesis, Iqbal tries to establish cognitive value of faith as he tries to elaborate the domains of religion and philosophy

Philosophy, no doubt, has jurisdiction to judge religion, but what is to be judged is of such a nature that it will not submit to the jurisdiction of philosophy except on its own terms. While sitting in judgment on religion, philosophy cannot give religion an inferior place among its data. Religion is not a departmental affair; it is neither mere thought, nor mere feeling, nor mere action; it is an expression of the whole man. Thus, in the evaluation of religion, philosophy must recognize the central position of religion and has no other alternative but to admit it as something focal in the process of reflective synthesis.

In view of the fact that Iqbal adequately explains the kind of philosophical method he is employing to undertake his inquiry, any criticism of his overall outlook towards philosophy as an academic indulgence would not serve well while ignoring his lectures and primarily utilizing secondary sources like letters, poetry and opinions of other critics.

According to the obvious ambit of his critique, which is primarily meant to criticize Iqbal’s theology, most pertinent part of Jalalpuri’s thesis constitutes his reading of Iqbal’s concept of God and theological monism (or oneness of being popularly known as wahdat al-wujood in Islamic tradition). After briefly summarizing the history of Transcendentalist and Immanentist schools of conceptualizing Divinity, Jalalpuri contends that Iqbal belonged to the latter.

Once again, to support his contention within a space of not more than seven odd pages, Jalalpuri seldom deconstructs Iqbal’s thesis directly (as presented in second and third lecture of Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam) and feels content to criticize scholars who influenced the thought of Iqbal, for instance Bergson or Fichte. Nevertheless, he raises two important objections on Iqbal’s allegedly Immanentist view of God: first, that assuming immanence of God necessitates negation of His divine self, and second, that if change is an inherent part of the universe than change has to be predicated as well to the Ultimate Ego immanent in the universe.

In my view, what is completely missed in the aforementioned objections is the acknowledgment of Iqbal’s methodology of invoking scripture to support his re-visioning of the Divine self. Even a casual reading of Iqbal’s lectures at least conveys the kind of methodology he is employing to limn the nature of God’s existence. Take for his instance the beginning when he starts picking apart the common arguments of God’s existence utilizing arguments from science as well as scripture, and as he build up his thesis, he seldom hides the inherent problems and limitations of his arguments. Therefore keeping Jalapuri’s above two objections in backdrop, a careful reading of Iqbal’s take on cosmological argument seems mandatory to evaluate his thought in detail.

To summarize his approach, Iqbal starts by questioning the tendency of cosmological argument to ‘reach the infinite by merely negating the finite‘, terming this infinite a ‘false infinite‘. He goes on to question the materialistic nature of Newtonian space, calling contemporary theories of Whitehead, Berkeley and Einstein in his support and ends up conceiving a novel relationship between Nature and God; a relationship which stands significantly distinct with Bergson’s, as contended by Jalalpuri in his review.

Perhaps the most important part of this significance is how Iqbal vindicates this relationship using the terminology of Sunnat Allah (habits of Allah) from Quran. In the words of Basit Bilal Koshul, a quite recent reviewer of Iqbal’s reconstruction project, Iqbal innovatively transforms the cosmological argument’s ‘cause-effect dualism‘ to ‘person-habit relationship‘ between God and nature and goes on to explain his transformed view of nature, infinity and the kind of finitude inherent in this transformed view of infinity, which he terms as ‘true infinite’. Koshul further observes that infinity of God, in the paradigm constructed by Iqbal, is ‘intensive‘, rather than ‘extensive‘. Coming from this kind of perspective, Iqbal successfully ends up constructing a more personal God than the one purported by the dictates of cosmological argument.

Albeit it can be termed as partially fair, there is enough room to disagree with some of the major points of Jalalpuri’s review of Iqbal’s romanticism, rationalism and a the kind of quixotically poetic emphasis Iqbal gives on intuition as compared to reason. For instance, the contention that Iqbal was an ‘enemy of the reason (khirad dushman)‘ and originator of the movement against rationalism in modern Islam, is not only an oversimplification but can be called a blatant misreading of Iqbal. A probably reason of this misinterpretation can be Jalalpuri’s failure to find the correct pivoting point where two equally important (and often contrasting) character traits of Iqbal can be balanced, i.e., his mystic disposition and proclivity for a discourse primarily guided by reason.

In fact, Iqbal himself struggled to find that correct balance, and though he seldom strikes that equilibrium in his poetry – where intuition mostly comes out as winner – his prose sufficiently contains that magical reconciliation. An important prerequisite for understanding that balance is to know how Iqbal redefines the relationships between consciousness, ideas and various levels of inner human experiences. In the mystic dimension of this newly constructed complex, intuition is ‘thought in its deeper movement‘ and, feelings and ideas are two facets of a same ‘inner experience‘. In the rational dimension, however, same mystic experience has to be objectively verified by the faculty of reason. His project to use philosophical test bed for vindicating revelation of religious experience can easily be seen as an undertaking towards synthesis of intuition and reason.

Overall, Ali Abbas Jalalpuri’s critique of Iqbal is a refreshing read with some really thought-provoking and intriguing observations; however, what should have been the most profound part of the thesis – that is Iqbal’s theology and scholasticism – turned out to be its major weakness. Contrary to the chiefly pluralist tradition of conceptualizing God and its attributes, Jalalpuri ended up projecting Islamic God as an almost vulgarly anthropomorphic entity for his readers, in order to characterize Iqbal’s scholasticism as a divergent discourse.

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Basit Bilal Koshul: Lenin in the Presence of God

In a three day event organised at LUMS by the university’s literary and religious societies, Basit Bilal Koshul eloquently interprets Iqbal’s poem, Lenin in the Presence of God (Lenin Khuda key huzoor mein).

The poem is not only unique in its setting but also rich in its content. It sets an imaginary monologue in which Lenin asks God about some of his unresolved queries. Now that he is able to affirm the Ultimate Reality directly through his conscience, he explains why his reasoning led him to commit that intellectual folly; a reason which was not blind and completely devoid of any rationale. Iqbal, through Lenin, presents his intriguing questions to God; questions that are not related to metaphysical beliefs but related to complex problems of this world. I reproduce below the translation of this poem by V. G. Kiernan:

All space and all that breathes bear witness; truth
It is indeed; Thou art, and dost remain.
How could I know that God was or was not,
Where Reason’s reckonings shifted hour by hour?
The peerer at planets, the counter-up of plants,
Heard nothing there of Nature’s infinite music;
To-day I witnessing acknowledge realms
That I once thought the mummery of the Church.
We, manacled in the chains of day and night!
Thou, moulder of all time’s atoms, builder of aeons
Let me have leave to ask this question, one
Not answered by the subtleties of the schools,
That while I lived under the sky-tent’s roof
Like a thorn rankled in my heart, and made
Such chaos in my soul of all its thoughts
I could not keep my tumbling words in bounds.
Oh, of what mortal race art Thou the God?
Those creatures formed of dust beneath these heavens?
Europe’s pale checks are Asia’s pantheon,
And Europe’s pantheon her glittering metals.
A blaze of art and science lights the West
With darkness that no Fountain of Life dispels;
In high-reared grace, in glory and in grandeur,
The towering Bank out-tops the cathedral roof;
What they call commerce is a game of dice
For one, profit, for millions swooping death.
There science, philosophy, scholarship, government,
Preach man’s equality and drink men’s blood;
Naked debauch, and want, and unemployment
Are these mean triumphs of the Frankish arts
Denied celestial grace a nation goes
No further than electricity or steam
Death to the heart, machines stand sovereign,
Engines that crush all sense of human kindness.
-Yet signs are counted here and there that Fate,
The chess-player has check-mated all their cunning.
The Tavern shakes, its warped foundations crack,
The Old Men of Europe sit there numb with fear;
What twilight flush is left those faces now
Is paint and powder, or lent by flask and cup.
Omnipotent, righteous, Thou; but bitter the hours,
Bitter the labourer’s chained hours in Thy world!
When shall this galley of gold’s dominion founder?
Thy world Thy day of wrath, Lord, stands and waits.

Dr. Basit Bilal Koshul is no ordinary sociologist-philosopher. Albeit exceptional, his qualifications cannot depict the true reach of his intellect as well as his interdisciplinary acumen. Like a good teacher and trained philosopher, he deliberately stayed away from making any value judgments and just raised some very important and thoughtful questions in the course of three days.

Marxist ideal, according to Dr. Koshul, is against the scientific study of matter; therefore the claim it makes cannot be justified through the categories of the framework in which it is firmly placed. While questioning the origins of this idea, Koshul argued that it is either a spiritual revelation from heaven or a formative process catalyzed by the secularization of a spiritual ideal; the ideal which is blind in a strictly spiritual sense. First few lines of the poem, in which Lenin accepts his worldly shortcomings as he now acknowledges the Ultimate Reality in front of his eyes, point toward this blindness . Koshul’s claim at this point was that:

All values lead to certain realities in this world. Any discussion of spiritual reality without a reference to material reality is nonsense and will lead to degenerate materialism.

I asked Dr. Koshul, if it is possible to give a universal description of Ultimate Reality (I had the metaphysical metalanguage of Perennialists in my mind with their physical counterpart, i.e. Grand Unification Theory of theoretical physicists). He responded that it is difficult, as we still do not even have a universal language for describing all the realities of this world.

Iqbal then raises the issue of civilizations and and alludes to the so-called clash between East and West. Dr. Koshul said that Iqbal’s claim of West being in utter darkness is a provocative claim. “Where can we find civilization?” is the exact question he phrased; especially in today’s world where groups of intellectuals in the west are claiming that their civilization is under attack by barbarians.

In this part of the discourse, Koshul’s content was extremely rich. He pointed towards the European history, right from the French revolution to the Nazi death camps, referring texts like the Cunning of History by Richard Rubenstein. There were subtle pointers in Dr. Koshul’s presentation towards the prevailing western art and architecture, finer nuances of economic activity like parallels between speculation in stock market and gambling, a culture of entertainment that ‘amuses one’s self to death‘ and claims that it is a human right to caricature and blaspheme God. According to Koshul, the question of civilization is still an open-ended question if one prefers to remain objective.

The final problem that the poem points towards is regarding religion vs secularism; a question that Iqbal has also asked (in a different way) in the last lecture of The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam and a search in which Kant precedes him from his own perspective. Koshul was par excellence in this concluding part of the presentation. Trying not to lose objectivity, he did not ask whether religion is in crisis or not; rather, he asserted that if religion is in crisis, secularism is in as much crisis. “Where lies the hope for truth: In religion or secularism?” is the only objective question that can be asked. Koshul contended that science cannot affirm or negate the claims of metaphysics. If we believe that science can give us all the answers concerning our self and the Ultimate Reality, its a noble lie on which we are relying upon.

I asked Dr. Koshul if it is important at all to ponder over the question of Absolute Truth in the universe and Reality that surrounds and contains us (I had the philosophy of Pragmatism in my mind and I remember making a reference to it also, asking him for his comments). He replied that one may live meaningfully without any notion of Absolute Truth, keeping oneself within the ethical and moral bounds dictated by the society; however one cannot die a meaningful death. He added that his affiliations with Pragmatism are more in line with the likes of William James and Josiah Royce and he does not have a very high regard for Richard Rorty’s school.

It was an enlightening and educating experience. In my opinion, LUMS is lucky to have a scholar like Dr. Basit Bilal Koshul and Pakistan is fortunate to have him back.

Prophetic Experience of Revelation: Iqbal, Fazlur Rahman and Malik Bennabi

Can we become aware of God as we are aware of other objects?

As I contemplate more about the answer of this question, it occurs to me that the question is perhaps more important than the answer. Over the years, I have learnt to ask this question in innumerable ways and each time when it happens, this inquisitive process brings me another step closer to the cognition of Divinity.

Religious experience, as some of us take for granted, is a matter related to faith; one that cannot be justified on pure philosophical grounds and entailing arguments that cannot be contended with the tools of expression. The veracity of these arguments can only be judged within the domain of mysticism. There is a strong argument that this domain being irrational and obscure according to contemporary standards of knowledge is based upon categories which, while swaying on the fringes of vagueness, involve countless imponderables. Which effectively means that any narration of a mystic experience cannot be assessed accurately with conviction through conventional means of assessment.

There exists a counter argument to above, initiated primarily in our times by Perennialists and Sufi philosophers, which suggests that most of the knowledge for primitive civilizations came through pseudo-mystic experiences. To be more precise, primitive man acknowledged his experience of reality – which is ‘Natural’ for us – as a mystical experience and one that is unable to be deciphered rationally. The view tries to establish the validity of mystic experience like other experiences and asserts that mystic consciousness is mandatory in order to claim any knowledge of Absolute Reality.

Being totally oblivious to practical mysticism, I cannot claim to be intimate with the ‘Other Self’, yet I have come to believe that the philosophical contention of God being a metaphysical reality does not necessarily mean that God is physically meaningless.

The Absolute Reality, as I have understood, can only be shaped meaningfully after conjoining the physical and metaphysical. This union of both the realms iterates within each one of us as we interact with the revelation. However, our inner self can only become aware of this union if it is completely at ease with the character of revealed knowledge; for we are not the direct recipients of this knowledge and neither being an audience to that historical happening.

Most of us cannot know God as we know other objects. We get knowledge of His self and attributes indirectly through humans who know Him better than us; humans who are the chosen ones and with whom God communicates through an incorporeal messenger, through inspirational dreams or directly from behind a screen.

Analyzing character of revelation vis-à-vis Prophet’s experience of it as a being in time is a comparatively modern phenomenon. To say the least, there are some contemporary slants to the problem which were not there previously. In addition, this experience of revelation is not merely an object of philosophical enquiry anymore but equally an object of scientific and psychological analysis; especially when the complete experience, which is extended on more than 23 years and has thousands of witnesses, has been downplayed by some of the modern critics, equating it with epileptic seizures and hallucinations.

Jalaluddin Suyuti mentions five different physical states of Prophet Muhammad during Wahy (mode of revelation) in his magnum opus about Quran and related sciences. It used to be an unidentifiable sound at times, trying to make the Prophet attentive for the revelation which usually followed. Most of the times, it was the Archangel Gabriel who either comes in the guise of a close companion reciting verses to be revealed or the message was directly inspired into Prophet’s heart. Revelation also used to come through dreams and Prophet used to remember everything afterwards like a real vision or experience. Suyyuti also mentions another way in which God may have communicated directly with the Prophet, as in the journey of Isra’a or as related in many Qudsi ahadith.

The narratives describing different states of the Prophet are not an object of present scrutiny; what concerns me now is how the modern discourse making sense of these narratives. Three modernist scholars, namely Muhammad Iqbal, Malik Bennabi and Fazlur Rahman, have discussed this matter in great detail. Here is a brief summary of their views:

Muhammad Iqbal: Highest State of Mystic Consciousness Transforms the Heart to Invite Revelation

Iqbal’s project is primarily philosophical. Throughout the first two chapters of Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Iqbal tries to reconcile the objectives of revealed religion and philosophy. According to him, the distinctions between both are in terms of greater details but both are one, as far as the original objective is concerned, i.e. acquiring knowledge. For Iqbal, mystic consciousness enables the self to interpret at a higher plane and is as valid as others methods of interpretation. He delineates the characteristics of the mystic experience and contends that there are intellectual and pragmatic tests to verify the knowledge gained through that experience. The example of Prophet Muhammad’s observation of a Jewish boy’s psychic abilities is a case study in carrying out such a test. Regarding claims of psychologists that Prophet was subjected to convulsive seizures, Iqbal takes stand that modern psychology has not yet devised the methods to differentiate between fruitless visions and divinely inspired messages.

Iqbal’s explanation of Prophetic experience of revelation is problematic on two related accounts. Foremost being that establishing the veracity of mystic experience in psychic domain does not automatically proves that Absolute Reality can be envisioned in a similar manner. Secondly, how can a mystic who is capable of acquiring knowledge of ultimate Reality through such an experience can need Prophetic Revelation for guidance?

Fazlur Rahman: Externality of Revelation is a Misunderstanding of Orthodoxy

Feeling-Idea-Word complex is the cornerstone of Fazlur Rahman’s discussion of the problem in his remarkable work on Islam. While insisting that revelation is not something external to Prophet, he asserts that the very idea of its external character is a gross misunderstanding of orthodoxy. Fazlur Rahman does not explicitly negate the being of an angel; neither does he deny the verbal character of revelation, as commonly believed during the days of turmoil. According to him, there was some ‘channel’ for the movement of Moral Law from its Source to Prophet’s heart but he does not speculate about this channel and rejects all the views of it that are quasi-mechanical; quite similarly as he rejects the ‘locomotive’ nature of Prophet’s ascension to heavens.

According to Rahman’s explanation, Prophet’s self in his ‘Quranic Moments’ was extended so much that it is virtually incomprehensible to identify his self as something distinguishable from the Divine Moral Law. In this state of ‘self ascension’ the Prophet’s expression of this Moral Law is Quran.

The single most important problem in Rahman’s construct is the impossibility of explaining tradition in its light. He obviously notes that himself and rejects a large magnitude of tradition (most of which is authentic according to conventional means of judging traditions) and considers it not more than a piece of historical fiction. There are other problems of course, for instance the dependency of textual characteristics of revelation on Prophet’s personal being in a particular historical setting. Rahman explores solutions to these problems by visibly formulating and tweaking his methodology.

Malik Bennabi: Revelation is External to the Prophet

As far as I am concerned, Bennabi’s exposition of the problem is the one that is most plausible among the three and deserves wider recognition. In Quranic Phenomenon, he neatly disentangles the problem into three parts, i.e. mode of revelation, Prophet’s personal conviction and the position of his self in the phenomenon of Wahy.

Bennabi strictly differentiates between intuition/inspiration and the phenomenon called Wahy which, according to his definition, should be taken to mean a spontaneous and absolute knowledge of a non-conceived or even inconceivable object. It is appropriate to quote him directly on this point:

…from the intellectual point of view, intuition does not induce any observable certainty on the part of the subject. It rather creates a semi certainty which corresponds to what one would call a postulate. It is a knowledge whose proof is a posteriori. It is this degree of uncertainty which psychologically distinguishes intuition from wahy. Now, Muhammad’s conviction was absolute, with the assurance in his eyes that the knowledge revealed to him was impersonal, incidental and external to his self. These characteristics were so evident to him that there could never remain any shadow of doubt in his mind as to the objectivity of the ‘revealing source’. This is a primary and absolutely necessary condition for the personal conviction of the subject. […] Is it by intuition that Muhammad himself could interpret the gestures of the mother of Moses, who abandoned her child to the currents of Nile? Is it also by intuition that he would have distinguished two kinds of intuitions in his verbal acts? One kind would include the verses of the Quran – since as sonorous syllables, it is part of those verbal acts – which he ordered immediately for transcription and the other, the ahadith, which he simply confided to the memory of his companions? If it were not for this clear awareness of this duality, so separated on the part of the subject, a similar comparison would simply be absurd.

Bennabi emphasizes the need to realize that Prophet Muhammad’s conviction stands as a direct evidence of the Quranic phenomenon and its supernatural character. According to Bennabi, Prophet Muhammad must have established two criteria to support his own conviction, i.e Phenomenological Criterion and the Rational Criterion. Explaining the first instance when Muhammad was dazzled by the light on the distant horizon as a ‘double sensation’, Bennabi asks:

Did he really hear and see this form? Or was this audio-visual sensation a mere subjective image [as Fazlur Rahman alludes to], surging through him as a result of a painful emotion that had driven him to the edge of the chasm? Was he the victim of over-excited senses?

Bennabi argues, while discussing the Phenomenological Criterion that these question must have occurred to a discursive mind like Muhammad’s, well before the critics of his time as well as ours. Being an engineer, he also asserts that the anomaly of Prophet’s visions is not physically unexplainable. His pointers towards the scientific arguments of luminous vibrations and a particular gamut of imperceptible frequencies below the visible band are the most interesting.

It is arguable and just a matter of personal opinion as to whose explanation among these three great thinkers is more accurate. There are finer nuances that need to be understood in order to compare their thoughts more objectively. The present effort is just an attempt to highlight an important discourse in modernist literature.

21 April 1938: Iqbal’s Last Quatrain

I found this in my late grandfather’s journal. I couldn’t confirm it from any of Iqbal’s biographies that I have but it is reasonable to believe that this clipping is from an issue of the well reputed Civil and Military Gazette (Rudyard Kipling’s first ‘mistress’), just days after the demise of Iqbal. It reads as follows:

Apropos, the quatrain in Irani of which we gave a free translation the other day and which was said to have been composed by Sir Mahomed Iqbal a few minutes before he died, we are told that it was a quatrain which Sir Mahomed Iqbal had composed some time back. After reciting the four lines in Irani, he then recited a new quatrain also in Irani, which freely translated, reads:

Paradise, it is the river of our own friends,
Paradise, it is the river of the pure in heart,
Tell the Muslim of India ‘Be happy’,
Paradise, lies in the Way of God.

A day to reflect upon his message without the usual lip-service.

Centenary of Some Quixotic Ideas

Being the ardent lovers of Urdu verse, this ghazal was automatically retained by our young and imaginative memories when we were in 8th grade. I didn’t realise the significance of that month in those days and wasn’t sure why Iqbal chose to title this composition as such. Here is a tolerable translation by Dr M.A.K Khalil:

MARCH 1907

Time has come for openness, Beloved’s Sight will be common
The secret which silence had concealed, will be unveiled

now O’ Cup‑bearer! Time has gone when wine was taken secretly
The whole world will be tavern, everyone will be drinking

Those who once wandered insane, will return to habitations
Lovers’ wandering will be the same but deserts will be new

The Hijaz’ silence has proclaimed to the waiting ear at last
The covenants established with desert’s inhabitants will be re‑affirmed

Which coming out of deserts had overturned the Roman Empire
I have heard from the Qudsis that the same lion will be re-awakened

As the cup‑bearer mentioned me in the wine‑drinkers’ assembly
The tavern’s sage said, “He is insolent, he will be disgraced”

O’ Western world’s inhabitants, God’s world is not a shop!
What you are considering genuine, will be regarded counterfeit

Your civilization will commit suicide with its own dagger
The nest built on the frail branch will not be durable

The caravan of the feeble ants will make fleet of rose petals
However strong the ocean waves’ tumult be it will cross the ocean

The poppy, roaming in the garden, shows its spots to every flower-bud
Knowing that by this exhibition it will be counted among the Lovers

O’ Sight! That was the One you showed us as a thousand
If this is your state what will be your credibility?

As I told the turtledove one day the free of here are treading on dust !
The buds started saying that I must be the knower of the garden’s secrets!

There are thousands of God’s Lovers, who are roaming in the wilderness
I shall adore the one who will be the lover of God’s people

This is the world’s custom, O Heart! Even winking is a sin
What will our respect be if you will be restless here?

In the darkness of the night I shall take out my tired caravan
My sigh will be shedding sparks my breath will be throwing flames

If there is nothing but show in the aim of your life
Your destruction from the world will be in a breath like spark

Do not ask about the condition of Iqbal, he is in the same state
Sitting somewhere by the wayside he must be waiting for oppression!

These poetic reflections, though seemingly surreal, are very absorbing in terms of efficaciousness and as far as poet’s life and developement of thought is concerned. These were Iqbal’s last days in Cambridge and the true nationalist within him was facing complex paradoxes at the end of his two year stay in Europe. Though it is extremely difficult to sift the gradual development of his philosophy from poetry, the scholars on Iqbal agree that early 20th century political developments in Europe, for instance the Triple Entente, forced him to reconsider his nationalistic views and ultimately led him to drop his stand on Hindu-Muslim unity in Sub Continent.

This versification by a 30 year old Muslim Indian student was an ad lib outburst against European nationalism. I now realise why Iqbal, who was paying tribute to Giuseppe Mazzini’s patriotism while passing through Italian shores on his way to England, was remembering 100 years of Muslim civilization in Italy on his way back. However one thing that the poetic theme fails to express is why Iqbal resolved his philosophical paradoxes by way of Islamic political philosophy rather than subscribing to cosmopolitanism, humanism or socialism, each of which was equally against nationalist imperialism in those times?

In my view, although having been gone through a good deal of economics, rationalism and tasawwuf, Iqbal could not find a meaningful expression of his romantic political ideas by 1907. This composition in March 1907 was a prelude to that later idealistic vision that Tawhid can be the basis of all polity.

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.