Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Muslim Responses to Modernity: Allama Muhammad Iqbal (d.1938) & The Reconstruction of Religious Thought

Dr. Muhammad Khalid Masud

The Reconstruction [of Religious Thought] consists of a series of lectures that he [Allama Iqbal] wrote and delivered in Lahore, Madras, Hyderabad and Aligarh between 1924 and 1930.

Iqbāl observed that the “concepts of theological systems, draped in the terminology of a practically dead metaphysics” couldn’t help the reconstruction of religious thought. “The only course open to us is to approach modern knowledge with a respectful but independent attitude and to appreciate the teachings of Islam in the light of that knowledge, even though we may be led to differ from those who have gone before us.”

Iqbāl sees the problem of religion and modernity as a problem of impossibility of re-living the special type of inner experience on which religious faith rests, which is vital to assimilate the alien universe. It has become further complicated for the modern man who has developed habits of concrete thought and suspects that inner experience is liable to illusion.

Modern concrete mind, therefore, demands for a scientific form of knowledge.

The Reconstruction is an attempt to meet that demand which takes due regard to Islamic philosophical tradition and recent developments of human knowledge. He is encouraged in this endeavor by the self-critical approach in the modern sciences, especially in physics.

The seven chapters in Iqbāl’s book are organized systematically to analyze and make religious experience understandable to the modern man. The first chapter offers an analysis of the religious experience as a source of knowledge. The second chapter examines this experience philosophically, and third puts the religious experience of prayer to pragmatic test. The fourth chapter relates religious experience with modern and Islamic theories of self and its freedom from the perspectives of religion and philosophy. The fifth chapter explores prophesy as a fundamental of Islamic culture that demonstrates how religious experience transforms itself into a living world force. This particular perspective is possible only by disregarding the Greek classical metaphysical view of reason, matter and movement and by adopting the Qur’ānic anti-classical approach to the universe. The sixth lecture on Ijtihad illustrates how the dynamism within the structure of Islamic thought was lost by the adoption of classical methods of reasoning that led to taqlid and stagnation. The concluding chapter comes back to the question “Is religion possible?” to sum up the discussion in the book and to argue that the religious and scientific processes involve different methods but they are in a sense parallel to each other. In the scientific process self stands outside and in the religious experience the self develops an inclusive attitude. Both are descriptions of the same world but from different stand points

1) Knowledge and Religious Experience
Iqbāl remarks that poetry, philosophy, and religion all three are engaged with the questions about universe and man’s place in it. The knowledge of reality that results from poetry is individual and figurative. Philosophy is purely rational, free and critical. It questions assumptions, which are uncritically accepted in religion, and it may also deny the Ultimate Reality or the capacity of pure reason to reach it. Science may ignore rational metaphysics.

The religious quest for knowledge is social and intuitive as it aims at the transformation of man’s inner and outer life.

It stands, therefore, more in need of rational foundations of its principles than science. Religion is not the product of pure rational argument; philosophy must acknowledge the centrality of religion in examining religious experience. However, intellectual thought and religious experience are not opposed to each other; they have common source and are, therefore, complementary to each other.

Islamic theology sought rational foundations but unfortunately, it soon came to rely on Greek philosophy, logic as well as metaphysics, which did not suit the message of the

The Qur’ān is anti-classical as it stresses change; it does not distinguish between material and spiritual, as its attitude is empirical. Modern development in philosophical thought and method has further exposed the limits of the ancient philosophy in understanding universe and man. Modern scientific developments have impacted human thought and therefore call for a re-statement of their worldviews.

Islam encourages critical examination of religious experience because contrary to general assumption, ideal and real are not the opposing forces that cannot be reconciled. Iqbāl observes that mystic experience is as real as any other experience; it cannot be rejected merely because it is not traceable to sense perception. He finds this type of religious experience immediate, wholesome, intimate, direct and timeless. Religious experience is essentially a state of feeling with a cognitive aspect. It is, however, not merely personal; it can be subjected to intellectual and pragmatic tests, which respectively mean critical interpretation and judging by its fruit.

(2) The Intellectual View of the Religious Experience

In order to test religious experience intellectually, Iqbāl examines the various theological and philosophical approaches and scientific theories of the universe and religious experience.

First he analyzes the three types of arguments that theology presents for the existence of God: cosmological, teleological and ontological. He finds them as rational foundations of theology open to serious criticism because they take a limited and mechanistic view of things.

Reviewing philosophical and scientific methods of analysis, Iqbāl finds that there are three levels of human experience: matter, life and consciousness, which are subject matter of physics, biology and psychology respectively.

He explains how the classical frameworks of these sciences failed to conceive reality due to their static and sectional view of the universe. He particularity finds that theories of materiality were either mere illusions or interpretations of the evidence that observer receives. Modern science rejects the old concept of matter and defines it in terms of relationship between changing space and time. Further, objectivity of the observer is also questionable because he is also part of that experience. Life, on the other hand, is wholesome and in constant mobility, which suggests existence in time. Iqbāl then examines modern philosophical and scientific theories of space and time. He finds that philosophical theories in fact come to agree with the religious experience of the reality; both affirm that ultimate reality is a rationally directed creative life. To Iqbāl, the reality is spiritual, conceived as an ego and intellectually viewed as pantheistic. Iqbāl, therefore, concludes that judgment based on religious experience fully satisfies the intellectual test.

(3) Pragmatic View

For the pragmatic test, Iqbāl offers two sets of argument. First, that even though rational arguments are possible and acceptable, they are not sufficient to appreciate religious experience. He goes into a detailed analysis of the philosophical and theological theories and explains that instead contemplation of His attributes provides certitude. Divine perfection lies in His creativity.

Creation of man demonstrates the fact that Divine creativity has a purpose. Human ego is by instinct exploring, doubting and creating, which explain that that the essence of existence contains a creative will, which may be described as ego. The basic difficulty in discussions about Divine Creation lies in treating the infinite creativity in terms of finite space and time. God is absolute and living and being perfect, He is beyond the limits of space and time. After an analysis of different perceptions of time and time related concepts of creation and movement, Iqbāl elaborates that by its nature Divine knowledge cannot be separated from creativity. Man as a finite ego is bound by the distinction between the subject and object of knowledge; this distinction does not exist for God.

The second set of arguments makes the point that criterion of reality is the consciousness of the self or ego. Man is a finite individual ego that longs to relate to the Absolute ego but this relationship is not possible through reason. It is possible through prayer.

Prayer is not difficult to understand. It is inductively known on the basis of the daily experience of a large number of humans. The Sufis have told us about their experiences of discovering special effects of prayer and priceless discoveries about themselves. Prayer takes diverse forms in various religious communities. The Quran mentions this diversity but stresses on the spirit of the prayer, which is purification of self, sincerity, justice and mercy. Search for knowledge and study of nature are also forms of prayer, because they express longing for Reality. Prayer is a way for the searching ego to discover its own worth as a dynamic factor in this universe. Prayer is an admission of humility but it is also a source of strength.

(4) Human Ego
The Qur’ān underscores three objectives of the creation of man: closeness to God, his position as His deputy on the earth, and autonomy of the human self so that he can carry out his duties and be accountable for his deeds.

It has been very difficult for Muslim theologians to define human self; they describe it as a lighter form of matter or accident, which dies with body and will be resurrected on the Day of Judgment. Apparently, this idea is originally Zoroastrian. The Qur’ān mentions self as a source of knowledge besides history and nature.

The Sufis, not the theologians have pursued this source. Now modern psychology is trying to explore this source. In fact self is the centre of perception and its reality is too deep for the intellect to appreciate. It is a unity different from that of material things; its unity is neither structural nor time related.

It is not mechanical. Past, present and future exist together in self in an indivisible manner of consciousness. Self is entirely private and unique; it remains separate from other selves despite relations with them.

The Qur’ān makes a distinction between creation and direction; the self belongs to the realm of direction. It cannot be explained by the duality between body and soul. It is difficult for a natural scientist and a theologian to understand the autonomy of the self; they either describe it in mechanistic terms or as a simple illusion. In Islam, belief is not simply a function of tongue and intellect, it is the name of that certitude which comes from religious experience and influences the shaping of deeds. Iqbāl analyzes two problems related to the autonomy of the self: destiny and immortality. He alludes to certain historical causes and to the wrong interpretation of the Qur’ānic verses that
complicated these issues. The Qur’ān speaks about the resurrection of all beings after their death, and that self is finite. Pantheistic Sufism is unable to explain the existence of finite in the presence of infinite. In fact, resurrection is not an external event; it is one of the destinations of self in its journey of evolution.

(5) The Spirit of Muslim Culture

Prophecy is fundamental to the spirit of Muslim culture. Iqbāl begins his discussion of the subject by explaining the difference between the prophetic and mystic types of
consciousness. He explores the concepts of revelation and the end of prophecy in Islam and argues that the latter is the core concept of Islamic culture as it affirms the appearance of inductive reason to guide humans to knowledge. It is complementary and not contradictory to revelation. The Qur’ān stresses upon the study of history and natural phenomena and therefore urges to note change and diversity in the universe. The ancient theology, based on Greek logic and philosophy, preferred fixed, mechanistic and immutable ideas of universe. The progress that modern science is making has been possible only after abandoning this mechanistic view of nature. Muslim culture had recognised the principles of movement and evolution and paved the way for Western
philosophy in this direction but the Zoroastrian ideas of duality of good and evil and fatalism that permeated in it made the Islamic culture stagnant.

(6) Ijtihad, the Principle of Movement
The principle of movement in the structure of Islam according to Iqbāl is ijtihad, which means to form an individual independent judgment on a legal question. The set of legal
principles received from the Qur’ān has great capacity of expansion and development. Ever since the establishment of schools, the law of Islam was “reduced to a state of immobility” 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 led to the exclusions of innovation in the Shari’ah and took away the power of the individual. He argues that the Qur’ān is not a legal code; its purpose is to awaken in man the higher consciousness of his relation with God and his creations.
Similarly, the Sunna 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 Iqbāl should proceed to the work of reconstruction before them.

(7) Is Religion Possible?
Iqbāl has categorized religious life into three stages, namely faith, thought and discovery. The first stage involves acceptance without reasoning. In the second stage reasoning follows acceptance. In the third stage, religious life searches for a logical
view of the world with God as a part of that view. Iqbāl explains that religion and science employ different methods to reach the ultimate reality. The method of dealing with reality by means of concepts, he says, is not a serious way to deal with it. Religion is the only way to deal with reality since religion is more anxious to reach its final aim.

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