By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, New Age Islam
16 April 2015
[This piece is complementary to the following two articles posted on New Age Islam:
Naseer Ahmad’s On the Reconstruction of Religious Thought]
For many, Allama Iqbal was so multi-faceted, his expressions so multi-layered, that his views are quite difficult to understand. His personality and philosophy appear to be constantly changing. For instance, his English piece of writing turned out almost the opposite of what he wrote in Urdu. When we glance through his life and ideas pertaining to different times and contexts, we find in him a Marxist, a Secularist, a mullah-basher and a mullah himself, a Sufi and an anti-Sufi, a democrat and an advocate of Pan-Islamism at the same time. But the fact is that Iqbal's multi-layered persona was the creation of deep thinking and a diametrically different approach of study and analysis. An in-depth study of his thoughts reveals that there was a logical progression in his philosophy, particularly in his religious and political views. This is also self-evident in his thoughts relating to the reconstruction of Islamic theology.
This brilliant philosopher was expanding his ideas on the reconstruction of religious thought at a time when he was trying to inspire fellow Muslims in India to defend their religious and political rights as an independent India was going to emerge. Allama Iqbal strongly felt the need for the reconstruction and reshaping of the theological structure of the Muslims. After a nuanced study of both traditional and modern religious thoughts, he reached the conclusion that the conservative, anti-science and anti-rationality theology that had been part of the most Muslim seminaries for ages, was defective and outdated and was not adequate for the emerging challenges faced by the ummah. Therefore, he mustered courage and boldly opined that Muslims desperately need a reconstruction of their religious thought.
Earlier, he had expressed some of his reform ideas in his famous poems asrar-e-khudi and rumuz-e-bekhudi. However, he didn’t express his ideas in the form of prose until 1932 when he got an invitation to deliver six lectures in Madras, Hyderabad, and Aligarh. The compilation of these lectures delivered by Allama Iqbal on Islamic philosophy came to be known as “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam”. The core essence of this book is that a re-examination of the intellectual foundations of Islamic theology including the chief postulates is a must. In his thesis, Allama propounded that since the world is constantly changing, Muslims need constant evolution of Islamic theology to keep pace with the world.
It can be inferred from his religious thoughts that modern democracy can go a long way in achieving this goal and the inconsistent concept of “caliphate” should be replaced by the coherent concept of “republic”. With a view to fostering this thought, he courageously challenged the status quo in the Muslim world. It is not difficult to see why Allama’s book “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought”, is banned in Saudi Arabia.
Allama’s thesis of reconstruction of Islamic theology brought down the monopoly of the priestly classes over the religious philosophy in Islam. A great number of Muslim modernists, reformists and sociologists took deep inspiration from this seminal work of modern Islamic thought. Until today, the book continues to cast its spell on the contemporary Muslim reformers. For instance, it helped Ali Shariati and Tariq Ramadan a great deal in their understanding of the precepts and practices of Islamic theology.
As a matter of fact, Allama Iqbal was miffed with the ultraconservative and dogmatic outlook of his co-religionists. He laid out a strong case that religious thought in Islam has been stagnant for centuries. And this, he viewed, was a great disservice to the essential and dynamic messages of the holy Quran. He produced fascinating discourses with substantial evidence from the Quran to prove his position on the religious thoughts. In one of his arguments, he asserted that the Quran offers humankind ample opportunity for a journey of spiritual growth, which is all-embracing and evolutionary, and yet unites the faithful in a deep spiritual communion with God. In his book, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Allama Iqbal says:
“If the aim of religion is the spiritualisation of the heart, then it must penetrate the soul of man, and it can best penetrate the inner man.…..We find that when Muhammad Ibn Tumart—the Mahdi of Muslim Spain—who was Berber by nationality, came to power and established the pontifical rule of the Muwahhidun, he ordered for the sake of the illiterate Berbers that the Quran should be translated and read in the Berber language and that the call to prayer should be given in Berber.”
However, it should also be noted that what Allama Iqbal meant by his “reconstruction” or reformation was actually restoration of the essential Islamic teachings and values. That is to say, when the precepts and practices of Islam became corrupt, he advocated restoring the true and original version of Islam. However, it should be made clear, by reconstruction he did not aim to change Islam itself, but rather to change the practice of Islam or the religious attitude of the Muslims. For instance, he viewed that the Islamic religious thought was deeply entrenched in riwayat (tradition) in place of the haqiqat (truth). By the reconstruction of religious thought, he advocated the replacement of the riwayat with the haqiqat. This was the true spirit of Islamic reformation well-embedded in Iqbal's religious thought.
The most profound religious thoughts that Allama Iqbal held were the following. First, this universe is dynamic and so is God. He is the Creator and is constantly busy with His creation and their affairs. Second, God has given man complete freedom of choice and man is not restricted by his destiny. Third, Muslims have committed a blunder by discontinuing the evolution of Islamic theology and by confining it to a narrow interpretation of mazhab (school of thought), maslak (Islamic sect) and mashrab (Sufi order). Fourth, mystical experience and practice of faith is the only way to find the Ultimate religion of Islam. In an effort to reclaim the true mystical narrative of Islam, Allama Iqbal laid out his groundbreaking work the reformation of Sufism for the modern age. In his book, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, he also touched upon this issue. He sought to give a progressive direction to the Sufism, as it can be seen in the following remarks:
“The more genuine schools of Sufism have, no doubt, done good work in shaping and directing the evolution of religious experience in Islam; but their latter-day representatives, owing to their ignorance of the modern mind, have become absolutely incapable of receiving any fresh inspiration from modern thought and experience. They are perpetuating methods which were created for generations possessing a cultural outlook differing, in important respects, from our own”. (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam)
However, it should be made clear, Allama’s assertion that Sufism should draw inspiration from modern thought does not imply the inherently materialistic ‘modern thought’ which is primarily concerned with the mundane worldly affairs. He rather gave paramount importance to the essence of Islamic mysticism, which is antithetical to modernistic materialist thought, by its very nature.
Unfortunately, Allama Iqbal died before he could see his ideas being translated into action. Indeed, he left behind a perennial legacy for those who are engaged in the gigantic task of reconstructing religious thoughts. They should feel impelled to implement the constructive vision of Allama Iqbal. No doubt, reformation or reconstruction of religious thought is a difficult enterprise to take on, particularly in a community dominated by the anti-science, anti-rationalist and ultraconservative goons. Nevertheless, Muslims have shining examples to emulate. Allama Iqbal is one among them. It is about time we refresh our religious thoughts with his reform-oriented and progressive vision of Islam.
Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is a classical Islamic scholar. He has graduated from a leading Islamic seminary of India, Jamia Amjadia Rizvia (Mau, U.P.), acquired Diploma in Qur'anic Arabic from Al-Jamiat ul Islamia, Faizabad, U.P., and Certificate in Uloom ul Hadith from Al-Azhar Institute of Islamic Studies, Badaun, U.P. He has also graduated in Arabic (Hons) and is pursuing his M. A. in Comparative Religion from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.