The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam
Abdal Ahmed Chaudhry
Author: Dr. Muhammad Iqbal
Publisher: Sang-i Mil Publications
Muslims in united India were facing major crisis during the First World War era. The decline of the Ottoman Empire that led to the end of the khilafah movement (1924)1 left the Muslims of India in utter shock and despair. Iqbal at this time was aware of the situation of Muslims in the sub-continent. It was at this time that Iqbal wrote his poem Khizr i Rah followed by the Asrar i Khudi2. Iqbal then recognized the need of re-shaping the structure of Muslim thought. Iqbal strongly felt that the conservative theological thought was not adequate for the emerging challenges faced by the ummah, and thought that Muslims needed a reconstruction of their religious thought. He expressed some of his ideas in his famous poems Asrar i Khudi and Rumuz i Baikhudi. He didn’t express his ideas in the form of prose until 1932 when he got an invitation to deliver six lectures in Madras3. The thoughts behind his six lectures were then compiled in a book, titled The Reconstruction of Religious Though in Islam. There are seven chapters in the book:
(I) Knowledge and Religious Experience
(II) The Philosophical Tests of the Revelations of Religious Experience
(III) The Conception of God and the Meaning of Prayer
(IV) The Human Ego – His Freedom and Immortality
(V) The Spirit of Muslim Culture
(VI) The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam
(VII) Is Religion Possible?
Following is the chapter wise summary of his book.
The first chapter of the book is Knowledge and Religious Experience, in which, Iqbal starts by giving us a brief description of the basic structure of the universe and the way we are related to it. Iqbal argues that the traditional method used to interpret religion which he describes as “reading the Qur’an in the light of Greek thought”4 is not the best way to understand religion properly. Although, he recognizes the fact that in the domain of religious knowledge complete independence of thought is not possible still he emphasizes on the use of rationalism. According to him “the spirit of the Qur’an was essentially anti-classical”. Another method described by the author as he calls it is the “mystic experience”. “Mystic experience for the purpose of knowledge is as real as any other region of human experience and cannot be ignored merely because it cannot be traced back to sense-perception. Nor is it possible to undo the spiritual value of the mystic state by specifying the organic conditions which appear to determine it” 5. Thus, the author finalizes his argument by concluding that religious experience is a state of feeling which cannot be explained. It is just a feeling of cognition, the content of which cannot be communicated.
The Philosophical Test of the Revelations of Religious Experience is the second chapter, at the beginning of which Iqbal has quoted three arguments namely the Cosmological, the Teleological, and the Ontological, and has stated the flaws in these arguments. He states that the Cosmological argument tries to reach the infinite by negating the finite, which according to the author is a “wrong infinite”, since it excludes the finite6. The Teleological argument serves to give us a contriver but fails to give us a creator. Finally, the third argument, Ontological argument, assumes that the idea of an ultimate ego in our mind is enough to prove the existence of the infinite (God).
From here, the writer goes on to talk about experience. Experience, he says, has three levels namely matter, life and the level of mind and consciousness. While talking about matter, the author tries to imply that the things we see and hear, for example, sound waves, colours, gravity and other physical phenomenon in nature are not actual happenings but mere illusions. Time, he says, is not a real movement. Events happening in the future are not new but are already located in an unknown space. Hence the fourth dimension is actually a set of events happening in a definite order. By this, Iqbal states a setback in Einstein’s theory of relativity. Iqbal sees life as planned for purposes that lay deep down the intellect of a living being. The conscious experience is the level of experience, in which we are in direct contact with reality, since our perception of our own selves as quoted in Iqbal’s words is “‘internal, intimate and profound”. Thus the element of purpose and desire moulds the present state of consciousness as well as the future. The conclusion that we are brought to at the end of this lecture is that the Ultimate reality is a “rationally directed creative life” 7.
In the third lecture The Conception of God and the Meaning of Prayer, various aspects of God have been explained. These include Creativeness, Knowledge, Eternity and Omnipotence. Eternity is described by Iqbal using the ash‘arite theory of Atomism in Islam and the doctrine of accidents. The knowledge of the ultimate ego makes God aware of the entire history as it constitutes quantized events occurring in a definite sequence, and hence divine knowledge is acquired in eternal present. Therefore divine knowledge includes everything in the past, present and the future. Omnipotence is the blind power without any limits. This power is exercised by God while holding all goodness in his hand. Iqbal then raises the question “How is it then possible to reconcile the goodness and Omnipotence of God with all the evil in his creation?” 8 Here he is talking about man as the creation of God. Iqbal then comes to a conclusion that man possesses this quality of improvement, and is destined to overcome evil. Coming to prayer the author describes the meaning of prayer. The meaning of prayer, he says, is an “expression of mans inner yearning for a response in the awful silence of the universe” 9. Prayer is a way for that searching ego to discover its own worth as a dynamic factor in this universe.
In the following lecture, The Human Ego-His Freedom and Immortality, Iqbal starts by stating that the Qur’an emphasizes the individuality and uniqueness of man, and has a definite view of his destiny. Then he proceeds to describe the human ego, which, according to him, is the unity of mental states which exist as a whole, called mind. Every ego is unique and is imperfect as a unity of life. The body, he says, is connected to the soul as the body is the medium of action of the soul and is in-detachable from it. The purpose of the soul is depicted by the action of the body. Since acts are connected to the ego by the mode of incentives, therefore, an individual can only be interpreted and understood by his or her judgments and aims. The immortality of the ego is later described by the author. Ego did not exist since eternity, and has a beginning like everything. According to the Qur’an, there will be a day of judgment and there will be a life after death. Ego will then be accountable for its actions.
At the start of the fifth chapter, The Spirit of Muslim Culture, Iqbal talks about the psychological difference between the prophetic and mystic type on consciousness. To judge the value of the Prophets’ religious experience is to examine the cultural world that has been created by them. From here Iqbal proceeds to talk about Muslim culture and the interpretation of Islam against Greek philosophy. No doubt that the ancient philosophy has produced great systems of beliefs, yet the need of modern philosophy and science has become essential in modern times. If an individual believes in divine revelations and prophethood, the divine revelations, according to believers, should come to an end and the traditional system of interpreting Islam should be reconsidered.
The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam seems to be the most important lecture in the book. In fact the idea behind the whole book revolves around it. It is in this lecture where the author urges the need for innovation in Islamic thought. The principle of movement in the structure of Islam according to the author is ijtihad, which means to form an independent judgment on a legal question. The set of legal principles received from Qur’an has great capacity of expansion and development. Ever since the establishment of schools, the law of Islam was “reduced to a state of immobility” 10 by the rejection of ijtihad which had a number of reasons. Firstly there was fear that rationalism would destroy the foundation of Muslim society. Secondly the need of organization felt by the early scholars lead to the exclusions of innovation in the shari‘ah and took away the power of the individual. It is argued by the author that Qur’an is not a legal code; but its purpose is to awaken in man the higher consciousness of his relation with God and his creations. Similarly, the sunnah was meant for the people at that time and place, and therefore, according to the author, is specific to that people. The world of Islam according to Iqbal should proceed to the work of reconstruction before them.
The seventh lecture, “Is Religion Possible?” provides us with the conclusion posted by the author. Iqbal has categorized religious life into three periods, namely faith, thought and discovery. The first period involves acceptance without rationalism. The second period, he says, is when acceptance is followed by rationalism. In the third period, religious life searches for a logical view of the world with God as a part of that view. He goes on, and tries to explain that religion and science involving different methods aim at reaching the same goal i.e. the ultimate reality. He states that even though religion and science use different methods but reach the same final aim. The method of dealing with reality by means of concepts, he says, is not a serious way to deal with it. Religion, as Iqbal describes it, is the only way to deal with reality since religion is more anxious to reach its final aim.
In the view of the reviewer, the whole purpose of the book revolves around its 6th chapter, The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam, where Iqbal has stressed upon the use of ijtihad, which is a lost practice due to reasons which I have already mentioned. He points out that the Muslim thought and theology needed reshaping in order for them to understand and practice their religion as defined by the Qur’an. The style adopted by the author is theoretical, as he uses philosophy with a comprehensive combination of Islam and science to explain his point of view. This combination explains all points of view from different angles, hence is popular with all sorts of readers. If you believe that the Holy Prophet (sws) is the last apostle and that the divine revelations only were sent to him last time, the end of the supernatural ultimately follows. With the end of the supernatural, the traditional ways to understand and interpret religion should be considered obsolete, and new ways of understanding religion should be considered. The application of science in order to get a grip of reality provides today’s reader with a more adequate method to comprehend religion. Even though Iqbal stresses on this point, he still uses Qur’anic verses and sufic words to explain the reality of this universe and God, its creator. This methodology used by Iqbal provides the reader with rationalism as well as religious conservatism. To get a comprehensive overview on religion, established religious dogmas should be given weight.
Even though the blend of science and philosophy seems to be a comprehensive methodology, excessive use of philosophy for reasons to criticize theories of physics is in my point of view a weak aspect of the work. For example, Iqbal, in his second lecture challenges the theory of matter and Einstein’s theory of relativity, as quoted in his own words “The empirical attitude which appeared to necessitate scientific materialism has finally ended in a revolt against matter”.11
If we go deeper through the chapters, we come to know that Iqbal has used the Qur’an at some places to prove various attributes of God. No doubt Qur’an is the ultimate source of knowledge, and we must seek inspiration in it yet it is difficult for a non-Muslim reader to accept these arguments.
1. Bose and Jalal, Pre-Modern Accommodations of Difference: The making of Indo-Islamic cultures, 21-34.
4. Iqbal, Mohammed, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, (Lahore: Sang-i Mil Publications, 2004), 15.
5. Iqbal, The Reconstruction, 23.
6. Iqbal, The Reconstruction, 34.
7. Iqbal , The Reconstruction, 59.
8. Iqbal , The Reconstruction, 74.
9. Iqbal , The Reconstruction, 84.
10. Iqbal, The Reconstruction, 131.
11. Iqbal, The Reconstruction, 37