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Old Tuesday, July 26, 2005
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Default The Reconstruction Of Religious Thought In Islam


Iqbal's "Preface" to his Lectures on The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is a very compact statement, the point of which is not easy to grasp. However, after one has gone through the Lectures themselves, much of its obscurity disappears.
Iqbal seems to be of the view that at the present time a rational approach to the problem of the reconstruction of Islamic religious thought is the most suitable one. Other approaches are possible and even exist; Iqbal's criticism of these is hinted at, but not made explicit. The argument of the "Preface" is rather a defence of the largely rational approach employed in the Lectures. Let us restate the issue in a series of propositions:

- It is true, Iqbal says, the Qur'an offers the way of experience in preference to that of logical argument.
- It is also true that religious faith itself rests ultimately on a special type of inner experience.
- But this special type of inner experience cannot be had by everyone; some remain strangers to it.
- Especially the modern person has become a stranger to this experience because of his habits of thinking, viz., observing and experimenting and relying generally on sense-experience.
- In the earlier phases of its cultural career Islam itself fostered these habits of concrete thinking.
- The modern person shaped by modern science has become incapable -- or at least less capable -- of the experience on which religious faith rests, over which Islam will have no regrets because it itself has fostered habits of concrete thought.
- Not only has the modern person become less capable than ancient or medieval of having the unique experience which makes for religious faith, but the whole process of such experience has become suspect because "of its liability to illness." Such experiences are often had by persons who only suffer from hallucinations.
- The more genuine schools of Sufism have done good work in shaping and directing the evolution of religious experience in Islam. This means that religious experience can be genuine and valid -- anything but illusory. Some Sufis schools have taken pains to describe and record this experience and reduce it to some kind of order, so that Islamic religious experience could be said to have become a continuing and developing tradition, with its unique methods, terminology, criteria, etc.

What then is the difficulty; why cannot modern man benefit from this tradition?

- Iqbal's reply is that the present-day representatives of these once genuine schools are ignorant of the modern mind, by which he means the product of the intellectual, political, and technological progress which has taken place in the West in the three modern centuries. This ignorance of how the modern mind works, how it thinks, judges, and feels, have made the Sufis of today incapable of learning anything from modern thought or of imparting anything to it. They are happy and content with methods created for generations possessing a cultural outlook different in important respects from our own and which now have become obsolete. The way Iqbal contrasts the modern with the ancient or medieval mind as having quite different methods of thinking, persuading and arriving at conclusions was to the distinct advantage of the modern. But it may be questioned whether they are so very different?

- Iqbal is adamant and even cites the Holy Qur'an in support of his view. He cites verse 29 of surah Luqman which says: 'Your creation and your resurrection are like the creation and resurrection of a single soul'. The verse points to an analogy between the individual mind, soul, or spirit and a whole people's mind, soul, or spirit. The two points stressed in the analogy, viz., creation and resurrection direct the inferences may be drawn from the analogy. The point of this verse for Iqbal's defence of the rational approach to the problem of Islamic reconstruction is not clear at once, but emerges from Iqbal's determination to reach the mind of modern man and modern Muslims and from the course of his Lectures. Some excerpts from the Lectures, speak for themselves:

Lecture III (Meaning of Prayer):

Religion is not satisfied with mere conception; it seeks a more intimate knowledge of and association with the object of its pursuit. The agency through which this association is achieved is the act of worship or prayer ending in spiritual illumination. The act of worship, however, affects different varieties of consciousness differently. In the case of the prophetic consciousness it is in the main creative.

Lecture V (Spirit of Muslim Culture):

During the minority of mankind psychic energy develops what I call prophetic consciousness -- a mode of economising individual thought and choice by providing ready-made judgements, choices, and ways of action. With the birth of reason and critical faculty, however, life in its own interest, inhibits the formation and growth of non-rational modes of consciousness through which psychic energy flowed at the earlier stage of human evolution. . . . The idea, however, does not mean that mystic experience, which qualitatively does not differ from the experience of the prophet has now ceased to exist as vital fact. . . . God reveals His signs in inner as well as outer experience, and it is the duty of man to judge the knowledge-yielding capacity of all aspects of experience.

Iqbal warns, however, that the Lectures will not draw on the mystical experience reported in past Muslim traditions or by contemporary Muslim mystics or theologians. The time is over when appeals to mystical experience could succeed. Modern man no longer understands or appreciates such experience. Iqbal does not indicate whether he himself shares this disability. But it is obvious enough in the course of the Lectures that Iqbal sympathises, though he does not see eye to eye with modern man in this respect. Iqbal values mystical experience and cites Shaikh Ahmad Sarhindi (Lecture vii) to show that such experiences are valid experiences and that they constitute a part of the continuing tradition of Islam. Mystical experiences of a higher order -- which Iqbal calls prophetic experiences -- have ceased. Islam's role in the history of human progress is to lead mankind -- the whole of mankind -- away from authoritarian, and towards the inductive approach to the moral and spiritual problems of man.

The Qur'anic text in support of this thesis is the verse from surah Luqman: Human communities -- and therefore humankind as a whole -- recapitulate, etc. -- which constitute the career of the individual human soul. The human individual is a child to begin with, but becomes an adult. Methods which could be valid in childhood are no longer valid when the child has become an adult. Humankind resembles the human individual. Therefore, a time must come when religious thinking must forsake revelational authority and fall back upon the ordinary method of observing, experimenting, and reasoning. This seems to be the point of view of the Qur'anic verse which Iqbal quotes.

Iqbal's conclusion, in short, seems to be that prophetic experience which could be authoritative has ceased, and mystical experience which has not ceased is not authoritative; the only method left for religious discourse is the method of science. "The demand for a scientific form of religious knowledge is only natural," says Iqbal and in any case modern man, including the modern Muslim -- if he is to attain to a living reconstruction of faith -- must have at his disposal a method physiologically less violent and psychologically more suitable. The reference here is to mystical exercises of holding the breath and making the body resound to the repetition of religious names or formulae. These exercises cannot be adopted by modern man. He will not try them out, and probably will not think the experiment worthwhile. Occasionally Western writers turn up and say they have tried Yoga exercises and found them more or less true to their scientific appeal. If they are valid they are valid only for those who perform the exercises and have the alleged experiences. They are not valid for all and sundry. They are not experiences which all can have, and which all can test, check and judge, like the experiences of science.

Iqbal's Lectures, therefore, try to meet even though partially the urgent demand for a reconstruction of Muslim religious philosophy, in the light of the philosophical tradition of Islam, on the one hand, and of the more recent developments in the various domains of human knowledge, on the other. Reconstruction, in short, is to be achieved by a rational criticism and construction of the Islamic tradition and modern science.

The time at which Iqbal wrote the Lectures was most favourable for such a reconstruction because classical physics had moved away from its traditional assumptions, namely, the crude 19th century materialism according to which the universe including ma ultimately was made up of irreducible last particles constrained by their nature to follow only mechanical laws. Iqbal was optimistic about the outcome of modern physics. Religion and science, he said (in 1928) may discover hitherto unsuspected mutual harmonies. The Lectures indicate where these harmonies could be found.

In true scientific humility, Iqbal warns that there is no finality in philosophical thinking. Therefore, his is not -- and cannot be -- the last word on the subject. "As knowledge advances and fresh avenues of thought are opened, other views, and probably sounder views than those set forth in these lectures, are possible. Our duty is carefully to watch the progress of human thought and to maintain an independent critical attitude towards it."

Iqbal begins by saying that the preference of the Qur'an is for 'deed, rather than idea'. But the burden of his Preface carries a preference for 'idea' rather than 'deed'. Is this a contradiction and a serious one; is it proof of emotional ambivalence? It seems not. The Preface is an intellectual defence of an intellectual approach adopted by Iqbal in the Lectures. Appropriately the Lectures provide an exposition of the New Physics which emerged with Einstein earlier in the present century, also of the constructions which philosophers following Einstein had begun, and which some Muslim philosophers in their time had already put on such basic ideas in philosophy as space, time, matter, man, mind and God. The message that emerges out of the Lectures extols 'deed' rather than 'idea'. The argument for the existence of God is 'experience'; this may be the experience of religious seers throughout the world and over centuries or it may be the experience of Shaikh Ahmad Sarhindi nearer home. The ultimate end of human life is an ever more free, creative, spontaneous and constructive life. Like all voluntarists such as Bergson and Neitzsche, he wishes to extol 'deed', but not without absorbing into it 'idea'.

Last edited by Aarwaa; Friday, December 21, 2007 at 01:12 AM.
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