Review: The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam

Allama Iqbal

In the late 1920s the Indian Islamist and poet Mohammed Iqbal delivered six lectures at Madras (to the Madras Muslim Association), Hyderabad and Aligarh, in which he set out his vision of the reconstruction of religious thought in Islam. Apparently Iqbal himself intended to write a second, larger book to be called “The Reconstruction of Legal Thought in Islam”, to which these lectures formed a sort of philosophical prelude.  That second book was never written, but the lectures were combined with a seventh lecture (“is religion possible”) that was delivered to the Aristotelian society in England, and published as a book “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam”.  By the time the book was published (first in Lahore in 1930, by Kapur Art Press, then with the seventh lecture included, by Oxford in 1934), Iqbal had been knighted for his services to the crown and was already a famous poet (in both Urdu and Persian) and was being honored by the Islamicate elite of India as their philosopher and thinker par excellence. Since this is the only work of philosophy that he ever composed after his PhD thesis, his status as a philosopher is heavily dependent on this slim volume.

The book is primarily targeted at contemporary Muslims, who were keenly aware of their weakness vis-a-vis Europe, as well as of their historic role as a “worthy opponent” that at some point in the past held the upper hand against Western Christian competitors. Iqbal’s primary mission here is not some open ended search for philosophical truth, it is the revival of Muslim greatness, the basic fact of which is taken for granted and is an element of faith. In his own words:

“I have tried to meet, even though partially, this urgent demand by attempting to reconstruct Muslim religious philosophy with due regard to the philosophical traditions of Islam and the more recent developments in the various domains of human knowledge.”

Like many other religiously minded thinkers of the day, he was also quite taken with modern physics and believed “the present moment is quite favorable for such an undertaking. Classical Physics has learned to criticize its own foundations. As a result of this criticism the kind of materialism, which it originally necessitated, is rapidly disappearing; and the day is not far off when Religion and Science may discover hitherto unsuspected mutual harmonies.”

In terms of his education and training, Iqbal was firmly in the Western philosophical tradition (tending mostly towards its German, orientalist, idealist and romantic currents) and like other Islamist modernizers, he took it for granted that the “Muslim world” has to come to terms with modern knowledge, but this was to be done from within the Islamic tradition and while maintaining the distinctive character of Muslim society. His grandfather may have been a Kashmiri Hindu (his son claims the conversion happened 400 years earlier) and it has been claimed that there were branches of the family that remained Hindu, but either because of this relatively recent conversion, or because of his mother’s strong Muslim faith, his commitment to Muslim separatism and supremacism was strong and unbending. He was willing to admire other traditions (including the learning of the Brahmins, about whom he has interesting things to say elsewhere) and learn from them, but they are always “other” traditions, about this there is never any doubt.

Iqbal’s (supposed) Hindu cousins
Mom and dad

The books is interesting, especially if you are philosophically inclined towards the “spiritual” and the mystical; on the other hand, if you are somewhere on the “new atheist” spectrum then the book can only be of historical interest. Even those who are willing to entertain metaphysical speculation should be aware that this is not a systematic philosophical text. All the central claims of the book are simply asserted (there is rarely any detailed argument showing why they are correct) and the historical views are very early 20th century, with the ghosts of Spengler and countless lesser writers hovering in the background. Entire cultures and historical epochs are summed up in ex-cathedra pronouncements of the sort that were popular in that age but seem to have fallen out of favor since then. For example  “the cultures of Asia, and in fact, of the whole ancient world failed because they approached reality exclusively from within and moved from within outwards. This procedure gave them theory without power, and on mere theory no durable civilization can be based”.

Always hovering in the background is his (not so original) view that history is progressive and something is gradually unfolding and developing as we move from ancient cultures (India, Greece, never China) to Islam to modern Europe. In this great drama, the “spirit of Islam” is essentially anti-classical and empiricist and it is Islam that created the foundations of modern science by introducing this attitude into humanity (“European culture, on its intellectual side, is only a further development of some of the most important phases of the culture of Islam”). This basically Hegelian view of history was all the rage in the circles that Allama Iqbal frequented (its echoes survive to this day), and if this is still your cup of tea, jump right in, Iqbal will not disappoint you.

Among his claims are the assertion that “the prophet of Islam was the first critical observer of psychic phenomena”

and “In Islam, prophecy reaches its perfection in discovering the need for its own abolition” 

A prophet may be defined as a type of mystic consciousness in which ‘unitary experience’ tends to overflow its boundaries, and seeks opportunities of redirecting or refashioning the forces of collective life. In his personality the finite centre of life sinks into his own infinite depths only to spring up again, with fresh vigour, to destroy the old, and to disclose the new directions of life”

You get the drift.

Historical references are cherry picked and whatever theory he is proposing is supported by quranic verses that other Muslims may nor may not interpret the way Iqbal does. Sometimes the cherry-picking stretches credulity and even fans may become a bit suspicious; for example, defending the unequal shares of men and women in Quranic inheritance law he says “From the inequality of their legal shares it must not be supposed that the rule assumes the superiority of males over females. Such an assumption would be contrary to the spirit of Islam. The Qur’an says: And for women are rights over men similar to those for men over women’ (2:228). This is rather disingenuous, because the quoted verse in context is not about equality at all, but specifically about the superiority of men over women. Here is Yusuf Ali’s translation of the entire verse: Divorced women shall wait concerning themselves for three monthly periods. Nor is it lawful for them to hide what Allah Hath created in their wombs, if they have faith in Allah and the Last Day. And their husbands have the better right to take them back in that period, if they wish for reconciliation. And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable; but men have a degree (of advantage) over them. And Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.

Judge for yourself.

The book quotes heavily from contemporary European intellectuals (someone has calculated that 25 of the 34 Western philosophers mentioned in it are contemporaries, some of whom are already fading into obscurity, but were prominent in the day); if the metaphysical speculations of early 20th century Western philosophers (Bergson, Whitehead, Carr, Spengler, etc.) appeal to you, go for it. You will learn that much of this speculation was already present in the Islamicate tradition, or so Iqbal claims. I don’t doubt that some of what he is saying is perfectly true, but given the way he creatively cherry-picks and interprets the Quran, I have my doubts about some of his interpretations of Muslim philosophers as well. But I don’t know enough about the subject to know for sure.

Now that almost a century has passed (some of the lectures are revised versions of essays he was working on in the early 1920s) we can also ask, what influence has the book had? It seems to me that it continues to appeal to modern (semi-westernized) Muslims (especially in Pakistan) because it seems to offer the possibility of radical reform of Islamic law and creative (modern) reinterpretation of Islamic theology, the appeal is almost entirely symbolic; most of his fans don’t actually read the book, they just like the fact that it is there and that they have heard it is modern and all about creativity and freedom and how we had all this before the West ever thought of it.  It is my impression that the detailed ideas had more appeal then, when this kind of reinterpretation and the “catch up with the West because we were actually there first” theme was commonplace in places like Aligarh, but since then the Islam that has risen to confront the West is good old classical Islam, Magian crust and all.

That said, the books is available online for free. Make up your own mind. Read it. (very few of his fans actually do)

Some random quotes follow:

“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”.

“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.”

“If time is real… 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.”

“It is in contact with the Most Real that the ego discovers its uniqueness, its metaphysical status, and the possibility of improvement in that status. Strictly speaking, the experience which leads to this discovery is not a conceptually manageable intellectual fact; it is a vital fact, an attitude consequent on an inner biological transformation which cannot be captured in the net of logical categories.”

“Muhammad, we are told, was a psychopath13. Well, if a psychopath has the power to give a fresh direction to the course of human history, it is a point of the highest psychological interest to search his original experience which has turned slaves into leaders of men, and has inspired the conduct and shaped the career of whole races of mankind”

“..religion; for reasons which I have mentioned before, is far more anxious to reach the ultimately real than science”

“The final act is not an intellectual act, but a vital act which deepens the whole being of the ego, and sharpens his will with the creative assurance that the world is not something to be merely seen or known through concepts, but something to be made and re-made by continuous action. It is a moment of supreme bliss and also a moment of the greatest trial for the ego”

Incidentally, recently a pakhtoon mullah who was said to be “anti-extremist” was killed in Kandahar after his work was described as anti-Islam by traditional mullahs.. The application of Iqbalian ideas to the real world will run up against blasphemy and apostasy memes..

PS: a respected professor of Urdu (from Canada) posted this comment, which I cannot help sharing: Iqbal continues to be of paramount interest to Pakistanis(every PhD proposal I ever received from Pakistani students involved Iqbal!), and of no interest to anyone else

Post Postscript: some of the comments about Allama triggered a desire to post some of his private musings (collected under the title “stray reflections” that shed more light on his worldview and philosophy.. a few extracts follow (read the whole thing at the link)

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20 Replies to “Review: The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam”

  1. His lectures have been a contested item in his legacy, with ‘modernist Muslims’ like his own son using them as a tool to portray him as being moderate while the orthodox lobby prefers his poetry over his ‘philosophy’. This paradigm has been challenged by a few scholars, most recently by Suheyl Umar, director of Iqbal Academy in Lahore (titled: Paradigm of Reconciliation: Iqbal’s Methodology in his “Reconstruction” ). It was published in Urdu and in an eviscerating review, Ajmal Kamal did what he does best. I’ll try finding links to both the original and AK’s review.

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  2. Allama Iqbal was a great poet. I’m not so sure about his status as a philosopher. Something clearly happened to him while he was studying in Europe to make the author of “Saray Jahan say acha Hindustan hamara/ Hum bulbulain hain iski, yeh gulistan hamara” write something like “Chin-o-Arab hamara, Hindustan hamara/Muslim hain hum, sara jahan hamara”.

    I had a professor of Urdu at LUMS who insisted that Masjid-e-Qurtaba was the greatest poem ever written in Urdu. Like many “liberal” Pakistanis, in my family Faiz Sahab was a much bigger deal than the Allama.

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    1. Allama Iqbal (we don’t even use his first name) is considered the spiritual father of Pakistan. He was the one who apparently convinced Jinnah that there was a need for a separate Muslim state. This was in the 30s before Iqbal’s death. He is the “national poet” of Pakistan (that’s what Wiki says).

      Iqbal Day used to be an official government holiday ( it’s his birth anniversary). I think now some provinces make it a working day. Universities are still usually off.

      It is a lot easier for the Pakistani state narrative to appropriate Allama Iqbal than it is to appropriate Faiz Sahab for example.

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      1. That is not true. As I noted above, the Pakistani narrative (State Narrative) is heavily based on Allama Iqbal’s thoughts. See “Chin o Arab Hamara, Hindustan Hamara/ Muslim hain hum, sara jahan hamara” as just one example.

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        1. “Chin o Arab Hamara, Hindustan Hamara/ Muslim hain hum, sara jahan hamara” – This kind of airy fairy thinking does not lead to productive Nation building or State building or any institution building or any development in science or industry or better relations between man and man , or man and woman or between nations.

          Slightly change the words to “Chin o Arab Hamara, Hindustan Hamara Pakistan hamara / Christian hain hum, sara jahan hamara” . How does it read?
          or
          Slightly change the words to “Chin o Arab Hamara, Hindustan Hamara Pakistan hamara / American hain hum, sara jahan hamara” . How does it read?

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          1. I was not endorsing Allama Iqbal’s thoughts. I was simply responding to the question posed by Raj regarding Iqbal’s influence on Pakistan. He is regarded as the spiritual father of the country and his birthday is a public holiday. It would be hard to argue that he does not have any influence in Pakistan.

            Iqbal was one of the guiding lights of the whole Muslim nationalist project. Whether you think that was a good or bad thing depends on which side of the aisle you are sitting on.

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  3. The reconstruction in itself go away from the established path. It shows that Iqbal was not satisfied with the Teachings!
    That what he suggested is Humanity has reached a evolutionary developmement where He has no need of Divine guidance.
    Whereas in every prayer five times a day We seek the right path of those upon whom God has bestowed( انعمت علیھم ) and those are من النبیین و الصدیقین والشہداء والصالحین ـ
    In this scenario a refusal is necessitated from the prayers.
    Therefore Iqbal,s reconstruction does not match with the Islamic Teachings. And required to be condmned.

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    1. Does not match indeed. Condemn in the strongest words. If i had more money i would etch “condemn” in diamond and throw it like shoaib bhai on iqbal’s grave. Not that shoaib bhai throws… I mean he bowls properly n all. But you know what I mean..

      I also agree strongly with that arabic you have written in line there. Powerful!

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  4. The review is too generalised. Iqbal had talked on some basic themes in Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, including his idea of God, prophethood, afterlife, prayer and whether Ijtihad is open ended or bound by Islamic traditions and what form it can take. Any review of Reconstruction should deal with these topics separately and see what he has to say on each of these.

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  5. He has rejected pan Islamism in Reconstruction. Whatever his shortcomings, the gist of his work is: he has retained a monistic idea of God, equating God with universe, but rejected all other so called pillars of Islam including prophethood, revelation, afterlife and return of a redeemer. Angels and hoors are scorned in his poetry. I don’t see what that has to do with Hegel. Iqbal hasn’t pretended it’s philosophy, it was Muslim religious reform that was central to his thought. The ideas all existed at his time but his radicalism was and is unsurpassed in the history of Urdu literature; besides, his expression, similes, metaphors, the melody and poetic quality of his poetry were all his own. Yes, Masjid-e-Qrataba is the most beautiful poem in Urdu, he was talking about a Muslim reformation in this poem, the kind that had taken the west by the storm.

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    1. Good comment. Iqbal is a lot more complicated than this review makes out.

      The question of the most beautiful poem in Urdu is subjective. Some of us would argue that “Mujhse Pehli si Muhabbat” or “Dasht-e-Tanhai” are more beautiful. But we are all entitled to our viewpoints.

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  6. Dewey came out with a book a bit earlier than these lectures called “Reconstruction in Philosophy”. Comparing the two texts does give a sense of the purposes of both authors. How do you confront a cultural inheritance of myth and transform it in light of modern scientific knowledge? How can you retain a sense of certainty in those inherited beliefs that serve a crucial social function? Dewey had a pragmatic answer, to not expect any absolutes. Iqbal on the other hand found it in mystical experience which he tries but fails to philosophically defend. His cherry picking is a consequence of the basis of his knowledge of God which is experience, not the Quran. I believe at one point he even reinterprets heaven and hell as states of his postulated Khudi.

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  7. @Omar

    The book is primarily targeted at contemporary Muslims, who were keenly aware of their weakness vis-a-vis Europe, as well as of their historic role as a “worthy opponent” that at some point in the past held the upper hand against Western Christian competitors.

    Is there not a sleight of hand here? Not in your words, but in Iqbal’s intentions (which you are reporting).

    How do Indo-Muslims square the fact that the Muslims who really were worthy opponents of the Christian West, were a motley group of Arabs, Kurds, Persians and, much more importantly, Turks – cultures quite different from their own?

    Christian West, on the other hand, had enjoyed a relatively more cross-pollinated and standardized culture (even in pre-Christian period) thanks to Pax Romana and later Germanic Migration – which peppered Europe with Germanic tribals from Ukraine to Spain. So, it wasn’t altogether fantastical if Richard Cœur de Lion, a French-speaking Norman lord of England, came to the Levant with other Frankish knights to fight a Crusade. The local Mediterranean kingdoms were already ruled by an elite of Germanic extraction (like Lombards) and they all were quite Romanized. So the idea of a Christendom, at least in my naive understanding, was a far more secure cultural idea. And it is as easy for a Romanian as is for a Englishman or a Frenchman or a Spaniard to think that *their* cultural forebears fought the Muslims.

    Therefore, to me the “worthy opponent” idea from Indic Muslims sounds a little more hollow – more imagined than real. Do you think Iqbal understood it? Probably why it was averred with extra virulence by Iqbal…

    Or maybe my understanding of history is mistaken? That Indian Muslims did indeed fight Christendom in equal measure and were part of a larger cultural whole for much longer than we give them credit for.

    What do you think?

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    1. I think it IS unreal, but I can also tell you what Allama would say in response: he would say that “Islam is a race-making religion” (he actually said that; I hope the “Islam is not a race” people don’t find out), so all who convert to Islam join this one race called Muslims. All the achievements (and tragedies) of this race are then common. We share in that “world beating” culture because we became part of it the day we (our forefathers) converted..
      This would be his view. You can make of it what you want 🙂

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