By endorsing Action over Idea, did Iqbal downplay role of contemplative thinking?

In this critique, the writer without devaluing a thinker of the stature of Iqbal, is opening space for debate and discussion around his book—“The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam”—which has long been ignored by academia and intelligentsia. 

L. P. Jacks poignantly posits that while as the domain of science is truth and falsehood, the domain of religion is good and evil – though he misses the point that the truth of science can also the good of religion. 

The domain of science is one circumscribed by logic, but religion includes in its fold the logical, aesthetic and ethical dimensions of life. 

Religion is the expression of man’s life in entirety, unlike science which limits its investigation to the sensate and empirical domain and expresses a single facet of man’s multifarious existence. 

It may therefore be, to an extent possible for science to verify the claims of religion in their logical and empirical content, but what scientific theory shall be brought to bear witness to the ethical and aesthetic dimensions of religion and life? 

This is something which Iqbal lost sight of or in the hurry of trying to reconcile religion and science, erased this epistemic difference altogether. 

Zafar Ul Hassan Khan, a philosopher of repute and the then head, Department of Philosophy, Aligarh Muslim University, who presided over these lectures at Aligarh also fell to the fallacy and proudly exclaimed, “I am happy to see that Iqbal, by virtue of the depth of his learning has sought the reconciliation between religion and science, instead of consigning them to two separate domains of human life.

Time and scholarship have unfortunately proven both Zafarul Hassan and Iqbal wrong, for there is no science of values, no empirical estimation of man’s moral sense and no psychological hardware for man’s quest for the infinite. 

Iqbal’s alliance with science, whether provisional, prudential or sincere had thoroughgoing and significant-telling upon his philosophical conceptualisation of God, life and universe and the weltanschauung he vouched for. 

This is evident from the opening statement of the book itself, which despite its force of rhetoric is nothing more than a toned down pragmatism and an explicit slogan of scientific utilitarianism. 

Iqbal writes that “Quran is a book which emphasises deed rather than idea”, without even specifying what is meant by deed in the statement. 

The “Deed”, in the sentence stands like, what Claude Levi Strauss calls “Floating Signifier” whose meaning is ambiguous and subject to contestation. 

Iqbal hasn’t specified what kind of Deed Quran demands and by positing Action against Idea, has created a binary which is neither attestable by the Quran nor by any leap of exegetical stretch. 

On the contrary, Quran is filled with exhortations emphasising “contemplation”, “thoughtfulness”, “serious thinking” and these are the exhortations which Iqbal has himself quoted in the later part of his book. 

What then is the import of this opening sentence and why does Iqbal posit thought and idea as mutually exclusive domains of human life? That remains to be seen.

Iqbal was in fact, to the extent of fallacy, committed to change, motion and dynamism characterizing human life that he almost went to negate any permanent element in human constitution and the constitution of the universe. 

Between Parmenedian stagnation and Heraclitean flux, Iqbal, true to his scientific predisposition, went with the latter and altogether ignored the fact—becoming is but a hoax and void in absence of being and no change is possible in absence of the permanent substratum supporting this change. 

This concept of change had so much clouded Iqbal’s thought that he introduced change even in the realm of divine and at points in his writings. God too is posited as evolving and subject to change. 

In this conceptualisation, Iqbal was hugely influenced by Bergson and his notion of time, evolution and change. 

Now change and dynamism makes itself manifest in the acts of man, acts which Iqbal considered the manifestation of human ego and the only means of its realisation in the concrete world.

But what Iqbal forsook is the distinction between virtue and deed, and Quran, in fact, emphasises virtue not any deed deprived of moral value and ethical import. 

This virtue ethics taught by Quran is also not any action without any prior thought, but the action Quran emphasises is only idea made manifest and so in the very construction of human action, idea has a place irreplaceable and indispensable.

The concept of idea divorced from or undertaken in absence of prior thought is alien to Islam and the spirit of Quran. But for the fact that Iqbal wanted to activate limbic activity in slumbering Muslim Ummah, he went on to place action over idea and since it fitted well with the modern notions of mechanisation of life and the utter dependence of life on motion of one sort or the other, it further bolstered Iqbal in his emphasis on deed rather than idea. 

This is also the theme which plays on loop in his poetry and is iterated in hundred thousand ways to stir the spirit of action among Muslims and to keep them apace with the fast moving train of modern world. 

But while awakening Muslims to the philosophy of action, Iqbal was not only misinterpreting Quran, but demeaning the virtue of thought and idealisation too, which is otherwise raised to the status of worship in Islam and other great religious traditions of the world. 

How profoundly, Rene Guenon observes that “Action, being merely a transitory and momentary modification of being couldn’t possibly carry its principle within itself; if it does not depend on a principle outside its contingent domain, it is mere illusion, and this principle from which it draws all the reality it is capable of possessing, both its existence and its very possibility, can be found only in contemplation or, if one prefer it, in knowledge for fundamentally these two terms are synonymous, or at least, coincide since it is impossible in any way to separate knowledge from the process by which it is obtained.”

The opposition and divergence between deed and idea is not a Quranic idea but something feeding on modern post-renaissance western conceptualisation of man and world. 

In post-renaissance era, West came to identify itself with scientific intellectual dynamism, portraying East as stagnant contemplative arena devoid of action and evolution. 

This is where from Iqbal seems to have borrowed the concept and in the words of Gilbert Ryle committed a “category mistake” of imposing this modern western construct on the teachings and spirit of Quran.

The matter of the fact, as Lucein Levy Bruhl said, is that man is predisposed to think and engage in contemplative understanding of the life and world. A similar mode of un-concealment of being and “life-world” was advocated by Heidegger who was seriously disturbed by the scientific and technological infringement upon man’s being in the world and removed him further and farther away from pre-theoretical understanding of the self and world. 

But Iqbal seems to have had no time for this contemplative practice and in the spirit of true utilitarian, advocated the man’s conquest of nature instead of appraisal and participation in the very phenomenon of nature, something Bruhl calls “Participation Mystique”. 

Whatever the intended import of Allama’s emphasis of deed over idea, the fact remains that he made a statement which not only downplayed the role of genuine contemplative thinking but also tried to inspire in a generation of Muslims action and activity dissociated from principle, the principle that forms the preamble to any genuine action. 

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