PUCL Bulletin, June 2004
Iqbal and reconstruction of religious thought In Islam
-- By Asghar Ali Engineer
Nineteenth century was very critical for Islam and Islamic theology. Islamic theology had remained static for centuries. It evolved up to first three century and then became static, particularly after sack of Baghdad in 1258 A.D. Sack of Baghdad was a critical moment for the Islamic world. It delivered severe blow not only to the Abbasid Caliphate but also to Islamic thought. In fact the decline had begun from 11th century itself. The Muslim power was weakening and sense of security was lost. For flowering of a civilisation and culture, peace and stability is very essential.
It is true that other Muslim empires did come into existence after fall of Baghdad and those empires like Fatimid and Safavid empires on one had and regional empires like the Moghul Empire, on the other. These empires were also great empires and provided stability and peace for several centuries. Yet, the Abbasid Empire, for various reasons, had become in the words of Toyenbee, a ‘universal state’ of Islam. Its decline had great psychological impact on the minds of Muslims. Many scholars maintain that the gates of ijtihad (intellectual assertion) were closed after the fall of the Abbasid Empire.
The stagnation in theological thinking continued until the beginning of the colonial period in various Islamic countries including India. India, though not an Islamic country, was under the Muslim (Moghul) rule until 1857. The colonial rule gave a great jolt to Muslim thinkers in most of the colonised world. Jamaluddin Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and several others were product of this crisis situation in the Muslim world. The mainstream theology, however, continued unchanged. But some major thinkers emerged in all these countries who realised the significance of re-thinking theological issues.
It is important to note that the external situation has great effect on the thinking of human mind. The external challenges create new responses and increased challenges create greater response and it is creative minority, which creatively responds to the external challenges. And it is creative intellectuals in these Muslim countries who responded to the external challenge posed by the colonial rule. From India those who responded to the British colonial challenge were, among others, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Dr. Mohammad Iqbal, Maulavi Chiragh Ali, Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan and several others.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Maulavi Chiragh Ali and Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan were brilliant thinkers and Islamic scholars. They chose to respond to the crisis in Muslim society created by the colonial rule and wrote on related topics. Their contributions to Islamic thought in India were quite seminal. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan also began to write a new commentary on the holy Qur’an but could not complete due to storm of opposition from the orthodox theologians. His priority was to spread modern education among Muslims. But Maulavi Chiragh Ali and others continued their campaign for re-thinking issues and responding to new challenges. This was their priority.
Dr. Iqbal came later on the scene. He too had an opportunity for both traditional and modern education. Iqbal was product of intense crisis period in modern Indian history, particularly the crisis Muslims in India were facing. The Indian Muslim elite had lost political power and now had to compete with the Hindu elite for government jobs and elected offices. In addition to loss of power they were nursing minority complex as well. Thus they were suffering from double challenge – loss of power and minority status.
Iqbal was acutely aware of this situation and was quite sensitive. On top of all this the Muslims in India felt great shock at the fall of Turkish Khilafat after the First World War. The Khilafat movement became a big issue in Indian freedom movement as well. It was after fall of Turkish Empire that Iqbal wrote his moving poem Khizr-e-Rah. And it was during this period of intense crisis that Iqbal developed the concept of khudi i.e. self. This concept of self was meant to overcome the sense of deprivation among the Muslim elite and give them sense of self esteem and generate power-consciousness among them. Iqbal admires power precisely because the Muslim elite was suffering from the feeling of powerlessness.
Iqbal was also aware of the fact that conservative theological thought cannot be adequate to meet new challenges emerging on the scene. There was great need for re-thinking and reconstructing religious thought in Islam. He had expressed some of his ideas in his epic poems like Asrar-e-Khudi, Rumuz-e-Bekhudi, Pas Chi Bayad kard Aqwam-e-Sharq etc. However, he had not expressed himself on these issues systematically in prose. When he got an invitation in 1932 to deliver six lectures from Madras he penned down his thoughts which were published in book form under the title The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam published from Lahore where he lived.
Iqbal’s was philosophy of amal (action) and his poetry is full of emphasis on action. It is action which makes ones life and human being is neither nuri (of light) and nari (of hell) by his birth or by his nature. Thus in his preface to his book The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam he says “The Qur’an is a book which emphasizes ‘deed’ rather than ‘idea’. Iqbal even admires the Hindu scripture Geeta for its emphasis on action. He urges Muslims not to remain passive but to be active in changing the world.
In all there are seven lectures in the book: (I). Knowledge and Religious Experience; (II) The Philosophical Test 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 and (VII) Is Religion Possible?
From our point of view the sixth lecture i.e. “The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam” is quite important. It is in this lecture that Iqbal emphasises need for change and movement in Islamic thought as inherited. For Iqbal there is need to strike balance between permanence and change. There is something in religion, which is permanent. According to Iqbal “The ultimate spiritual basis of all life, as conceived by Islam, is eternal and reveals itself in variety and change. A society based on such a conception of Reality must reconcile, in its life, the categories of permanence and change.”
This is real challenge for those who respond to the challenges of change. At times those who are committed to rationalism often ignore the inner urges of faith and the element of permanence in religious faith. No change can have direction without the strong foundation of permanence. Iqbal realises this and hence tends to be quite cautious in this respect. Some people overemphasises the element of permanence and ignore the necessity for change. For them change is sin. Whatever has been formulated by the theologians and jurists of classical period is ‘divine’ and hence permanent.
However, Iqbal, while cautious about the element of permanence in religion and religious thought does not deny the necessity for change. In fact he emphasizes it. Thus he says, “It must possess eternal principles to regulate its effective life, for the eternal gives us a foothold in the world of perpetual change. Thus one has to properly understand both the need for permanence and necessity for change”.
Faith by its very nature emphasizes permanence and robbed of permanence it would cease to provide inner certitude. Human beings living in the world of perpetual change do need a degree of inner certitude and it is religious faith, which responds to this need. But one also has to understand what is permanent and what could and should change. It is of course a matter of fine balance and struggle between quest for truth and inner certitude. Lesser minds can either opt for blind faith or for change without a proper base.
For Iqbal the immobility of Islam in last 500 years symbolises this fear of change and failure of Europe in political and social sciences represents this principle of eternity and lack of permanence. Both are quite essential for a satisfactory and balanced life. The immobility of Islam in last 500 years worries Iqbal and he makes an attempt to make Muslims aware of need for mobility and change. For Iqbal the earlier period of Islam (i.e. prior to sack of Baghdad and decline of the Abbasid Empire) Islam was quite mobile and creative whether in the field of jurisprudence or theology or philosophy or natural sciences.
Iqbal then raises the question “What then is the principle of movement in the nature of Islam? This is ijtihad.” Thus according to Iqbal ijtihad (creative interpretation or attempt to exert oneself for comprehending new situation and reformulation) is principle of movement in Islam. There may have been reasons for closing the gates of ijtihad but they must be wide opened today.
It is important to note that ijtihad meets the need both for permanence and change. Ijtihad is rooted in certain basic principles of faith. It is a serious attempt to capture the original spirit of the Qur’anic injunctions which has been overlayed by traditions and customs to fulfil the then social needs. The jurists while attempting formulations centuries ago could not have ignored the social needs of their time. Qur’anic injunctions were applied by them as best as they could in their own times.
It is our religious duty in our own times to exert ourselves as our forefathers did to apply the Quranic injunctions as best as we can. This is real ijtihad. The holy Prophet also is reported to have said that one who does ijtihad and errs will get one reward and one who does ijtihad and succeeds will get two rewards. This hadith also shows that it is our duty to do ijtihad. However, out of fear that we will not succeed and that our desire will mislead us our ‘ulama forbade Muslims from attempting ijtihad.
Iqbal divides ijtihad in three categories on the lines of earlier ‘ulama: (1) complete authority in legislation which is practically confined to the founders of schools, (2) relative authority which is to be exercised within the limits of a particular school and (3) special authority which relates to the determining of the law applicable to a particular case left undetermined by the founders.
However, Iqbal is advocate of complete authority in ijtihad and not conditional or limited one. He says that “theoretical possibility of this degree of ijtihad is admitted by the Sunnis, but in practice it has always been denied ever since the establishment of the schools, in as much as the idea of complete ijtihad is hedged round by conditions which are well nigh impossible of realization in a single individual. Such an attitude seems exceedingly strange in a system of Qur’an which embodies an essentially dynamic outlook on life.”
Thus it will be seen that Iqbal is strongly in favour of ijtihad in our own times. In fact every generation of Muslims have this right to attempt ijtihad in keeping with the conditions of their time. The Qur’an itself, according to Iqbal, has dynamic outlook on life. He also examines the reasons why Islam has ceased to be dynamic. The static outlook of the Islamic world pains Iqbal very much and he thinks it is a false reverence for the past and goes on to say that “…a false reverence for past history and its artificial resurrection constitute no remedy for a people’s decay. ‘The verdict of history’, as a modern writer has happily put it, ‘is that worn-out ideas have never risen to power among a people who have worn them out.’”
Thus according to Iqbal worn out ideas can never rise to power. Such ideas can only keep a community worn out and immobile. The community cannot become dynamic with those age-old ideas. It is important to make it clear here that no one is suggesting that the Qur’anic values and principles be tempered with; on the contrary, the Qur’anic values are most universal and eternal and their proper application would enhance the effect of these values. Also, it would infuse new life into the community.
Iqbal also says, “The tendency to over-organization by a false reverence of the past, as manifested in the legists of Islam in thirteenth century and later, was contrary to the inner impulse of Islam, and consequently invoked the powerful reaction of Ibn-I-Taymiyya, one of the most indefatigable writers and preachers of Islam, who was born in 1263, five years after the destruction of Baghdad.”
Iqbal refers here to Ibn Taymiyya, one of the great jurists of Sunni Islam in thirteenth century who questioned many formulations of earlier jurists and suffered for it. He was imprisoned for his convictions and for his reformulations. Ibn Taymiyya was brought up in Hambalite School and was supporter of the concept of ijtihad. He rejected the idea of finality of schools and went back to the first principles in order to make fresh start. Ibn Taymiyya also rejected the Hanafite principle of reasoning by analogy (qiyas) and consensus (ijma) as practiced by older legists.
Iqbal endorses Ibn Taymiyya’s going to first principle and fresh formulations. And that was in thirteenth century and Iqbal was writing in 20th century and felt all the more need for change and reformulations. Iqbal’s imagination was fired by Kemalist revolution in Turkey. He welcomes the changes brought about by Mustafa Kemal. He considers these changes as an exercise of ijtihad.
Thus Iqbal maintains in his lectures, “Passing on to Turkey, we find that the idea of Ijtihad, has long been working in the religious and political thought of the Turkish nation. This is clear from Halim Sabit’s new theory of Mohammedan Law, grounded on modern sociological concepts. If the renaissance of Islam is a fact, and I believe it is a fact, we too one day, like the Turks, will have to re-evaluate our intellectual inheritance. And if we cannot make any original contribution to the general thought of Islam, we may, by healthy conservative criticism, serve at least as a check on the rapid movement of liberalism in the world of Islam.”
Iqbal is keen to exercise ijtihad rather than allow liberal drift in the Islamic world. Though it did not happen as conservatism continues to occupy centre stage even today in the Islamic world and Iqbal’s fears did not come true but his emphasis on ijtihad still holds water. One may or may not agree with Iqbal that ijtihad is necessary to arrest trend of liberalism but ijtihad has not only great relevance but is an absolute need. The Islamic world today is faced with many external challenges and hence refuses to give any space for internal healthy criticism.
There is no doubt that internal peace and stability is absolutely necessary for channelling energies into internal problems and creative change. That is why Islamic civilisation flowered during the great periods of Abbasids, Fatimids and Safavids in West Asia and Umayyads in Spain and Moghuls in India. The colonial period posed great external challenge and shook many Muslim intellectuals to come out of stupor and begin to rethink many medieval formulations.
However, with decolonisation and independence new external and internal challenges have emerged in the Islamic world and Muslim intellectuals have not been able to do what Iqbal thought absolutely necessary in his own days. Iqbal emphasises complexity of forces and any attempt to grapple with this complexity is a spiritual act according to him. According to him, “An act is temporal or profane if it is done in a spirit of detachment from the infinite complexity of life behind it; it is spiritual if it is inspired by that complexity.” 
Thus Iqbal does not seem to favour detachment and neutrality but a spirit of commitment and dedication to the cause of religion. Life is complex and spiritualism lies in recognising this complexity. Thus he says “in Islam it is the same reality which appears as the Church looked at from one point of view and the State from another. It is not true to say that Church and State are two sides or facets of the same thing. Islam is a single unanalysable reality which is one or the other as your point of view varies.”
Though we do not wish to go into philosophical question here it may suffice to say that Iqbal stands for integral relationship between state and religion. He even ventures to say that “state in Islam is theocracy” but also makes it clear that “not in the sense that it is headed by a representative of God on earth who can always screen his despotic will behind his supposed infallibility.”
Iqbal’s views may be contentious on this matter, as no Islamic country has followed any one single pattern of Islamic state. Each country has a different system. Even Turkey whom he admired greatly opted for secular state and does not allow religion to be practiced in public life. Since Iqbal considers ultimate reality as ‘spiritual’ and life as lived on earth as temporal and the spirit finds its opportunities in the natural, the material, and the secular.
This complexity of spiritual and material can be realised, according to Iqbal, only in a state whose ultimate goal is spiritual and hence he stands for some sort of integral relationship between the two. Iqbal, it also must be pointed out is an idealist and confines himself to philosophical exposition. He was not a practical system builder and though he endorses undertaking ijtihad and talks of ‘reconstruction of religious thought’, does not attempt any reconstruction in concrete terms.
The conservative ‘ulama of his time like Maulana Sulayman Nadvi were not happy even with these lectures and wished Iqbal had never written these lectures. Iqbal was too close to these ‘ulama to attempt any such concrete reconstruction. But even his emphasis on ijtihad is very significant one for the Islamic world today. Islamic world is faced with many serious social, economic and juridical challenges. There does not seem to be any great intellectual exercise for facing these challenges. The world of Islam is as stagnant as it was during the time of Iqbal. If Iqbal’s suggestion for meaningful ijtihad is seriously undertaken it would really usher in creative and meaningful change.
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