A critical evaluation of Muhammad Iqbal’s “The Reconstruction of Religious thought in Islam”
An insight into the writings of Iqbal and a sweeping view of his life and times reveal the dualism he was caught in and the dichotomy he tirelessly tried to transform into harmony and unity.
Iqbalain conceptualization of the individual and society and his tiptoeing between politics and mysticism made him commit to a system that is befuddled and plagued with dichotomies.
The heart of poet lured him to the romantic and at times parochial and anachronistic view of life, but the mind of a philosopher dragged him into the thraldom of pragmatism, utilitarianism and a brute modernism of the sorts which is not only absent but antithetical to his poetic ideal – the variance Suheyl Omar takes very seriously while commenting on Reconstruction.
This chasm between the poetic ideal and the political real or in other words the “Individual-Collective Polarisation” emerged very early in Iqbalian thought. He was pressed both by the intellectual forces within and the social pressure without to epilogue his “Asrar I Khudi” with its twin “Ramooz I Bekhudi” in an attempt to come to terms with the “self versus state dilemma” that he was fighting within.
In Asrar, inspired by the mystical ideal, Iqbal developed the philosophy of self, the unveiling of the secret centre of life and tapping in to the infinite reservoir of psycho-spiritual possibilities, heuristically called Khudi. Though Iqbal was deeply influenced by the mystics and sages in this conceptualisation process, he went on to lash out a certain form of mysticism in the strongest of terms.
The Asrar was well received and condemned, praised and maligned, glorified and disgusted in East and the West for various reasons.
In the East, the anti-mystical tendencies of Asrar, in particular the indecent language used against Hafiz became points of contention. And in the West the message of Asrar came to be seen as a regurgitation of Nietzschean philosophy of Ubermansch.
It was pointed that Iqbal was so much so glorifying the individual that it threatened to jeopardise the society and ran the risk of promoting social Darwinism, as Nietzsche’s interpretations had already done in the West.
Shortly afterwards Iqbal came up with “Rumuz” underscoring how individual evolution and the process of social dialect are in tandem. While writing Rumuz, Iqbal was in fact needled by the same process of polarization a reference to which has already been made.
If Iqbal envisioned man as the locus of spiritual possibilities under the influence of Islamic Mysticism, Hegelianism and Eastern Spiritual traditions, his tryst with politics, his deep rooted commitment to the Islamic ideology and the political interpretation thereof and the melange of his historic consciousness with the contemporary socio-political context made him to think in political terms and to shake off the mystical concept of Asrar’s self in favour of the political notion of subject and state as delineated in Rumuz.
In order to fully understand the dichotomy we have been talking off, one just needs to study Iqbal’s much famous “Allahabad Address” alongside his poetry to see how he sacrifices his poetic ideals of spiritual pluralism, universal humanism, and International brotherhood against the question of identity politics, the minority rights and the call for separate homeland for Muslims of India.
It seems that the poetic Iqbal dwelled idealistic paradise, far removed from the mundane realities of life. And while dealing with the issues of practical import, he shelved his poetic and philosophical ideal so much so as to create not only explicit dichotomies, but irreconcilable oppositions too.
In his “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam”, Iqbal again makes the same attempt of reconciling the stages of individual growth with those of social evolution – but this time he does it little differently.
Though the book lacks originality in terms of proposing any fresh system of thought or evolving any alternative paradigm, it nonetheless remains a prolegomena to any future kalam in Islam.
Stuffed with the thoughts of Eastern and Western thinkers and poets, the book tries to reconcile the classical Islamic tradition of ilm ul Kalam with the modern day developments in the fields of sciences – positive as well as normative.
Shibli had earlier pointed out in his treatise on “ilm ul kalam” that Muslim theology by and large depended on classical sciences and had failed to face upfront the challenges thrown open by modern episteme.
Iqbal woke up to the same need in his reconstruction. And as he explicitly mentions in the preface, he sees Reconstruction only as a milestone on an unending road of intellectual unfolding and expects the future generations to shoulder this task in the wake of newer additions to human knowledge and experience.
The entire piece of work can be seen as a response to most fundamental of all questions which Iqbal himself paraphrases in the very opening of the book in these words: “What is the character and general structure of the universe in which we live? Is there a permanent element in the constitution of this universe? How are we related to it? What place do we occupy in it, and what is the kind of conduct that befits the place we occupy?”
These questions may respectively seem to pertain to the domain of Philosophy, Science and Religion, though such a distinction is hard to contend, but shall nevertheless be a useful classification.
In an attempt to answer these questions across the text of his Reconstruction, Iqbal touches upon equally important and heavy weight question belonging to human order. And in a single sweep of intellectual feat, refers to dozens of subjects, invoking hundreds of poets, philosophers and thinkers from East and West and bringing into spotlight countless concepts upon which is hinged the answer to the questions raised above.
While answering these questions however, Iqbal drew inspiration from the prevalent scientific interpretation of life and universe and his frequent references to the Western scientific systems makes clear that Iqbal espouses the harmony and coherence between religious (Islamic) and scientific paradigms of thought.
He himself echoes, with a band of thinkers of his era that “…the day is not far off when Religion and Science may discover hitherto unsuspected mutual harmonies”.
Though the book is couched in rigorous philosophical lexicon and the depth of Iqbal’s thought is not lost to the reader, but essentially the poet advocates the scientific evaluation and appreciation of religious phenomenology.
His repetitive emphasis on contemporary psychology to elucidate the essence of prophetic revelation and his reliance on modern physics while talking about God and his attributes neatly puts Iqbal in the category of thinkers seeking scientific explanations for religious facts or physical causation for metaphysical phenomenon.
But the problem with this line of thinking, as A. A. Aazmi correctly writes, is that “Iqbal tried to interpret Islamic thought in the light of Western Philosophical Tradition and in doing so he ignored the fact that human thought is in a state of perpetual flux and therefore this reconciliation can’t have a long life”.
Iqbal had beautifully presupposed at the beginning that “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”, but during the course of his lectures, he seems to ignore the very principle and in an attempt to repeatedly seek philosophic-scientific justifications for religious beliefs, he tends to create an epistemic hierarchy subordinating religion to science and the philosophical connotations thereof.
To be continued…
Amir Suhail Wani is a freelance writer specialising in philosophy, religion and literature.