Iqbal: An Appraisal

I begin with a personal note. Iqbal has been my passion, my weakness and my love.  Even though one could criticize certain of his formulations/ readings/conceptions one can’t ignore his seminal contributions in diverse fields. There are certain people who attempt to argue that Iqbal isn’t relevant today, that he was merely a poet and his philosophical thought is dated or inherently problematic. Iqbal has even been charged with being an ideologue of Muslim fundamentalism. But the question is why is Iqbal so deeply revered by common Muslims? Why are there many libraries, institutes and localities named after him? Why is Iqbal the most quoted Urdu poet in most circles? Iqbal has been criticized by certain orientalists for his neoorthodoxy and parochial and nonuniversalist conception of Islam.
I wish to highlight distinctive points of Iqbal’s greatness though it doesn’t mean that we cannot differ from him on many issues and that much water has flowed from the time of his death and retrospectively we are in a better position to be critical regarding certain of his fundam,ental theses.
*          Iqbal is the greatest poet-philosopher of Urdu language. There are one or two poets who may have excelled him as a poet but none who can stand above him as poet –philosopher.
*          He is the only Muslim thinker who has evolved or formulated a distinctive philosophy of his own vis-à-vis modern philosophical thought for showing vital role of Islam in the modern age.  There are many Muslim philosophers who have either repeated traditional philosophical thought or who have subscribed to Marxist and other view[points I formulating their philosophies. Iqbal remains rooted in tradition
*          He is the most outspoken thinker of Muslim ummatism (community consciousness) in recent Islam
*          Who else than Iqbal deserves the name of Hakeemul Ummat in the 2oth century Islamic world
*          His is the most original attempt to secure for Islam a privileged space in modern episteme that has been seriously taken by Western intelligentsia.
*          He has been the  most worthy successor of mystical or gnostic (irfani) poets who has been able to reach the masses in Urdu and Persian languages. His greatest contribution lies in this domain. Islam has been renovated and reinvigorated by Sufis and Sufi poets rather than purely theological figures. He deserves, in certain sense, the title of mujaddid. Modern man can be converted either through a rigorously argued philosophical perspective or through the use of deeply moving poetry. Iqbal qualifies on both grounds. No traditional aalim has been able to wield such an influence as Iqbal in reviving religious/mystical ethos in the 20th century.
He is amongast the most uintegrated oor unfragmentd and multidimensional  personalities in recent Islamic history. He is simultaneously a poet, a philosopher, a politician, a visionary, a mystic and many more things. There are traditionally four paths to perfection suited for four kinds of personalities. Mysticism, religion, philosophy and poetry. He has appropriated all of them. In yet another terminology he is simultaneoiusly a karma yogi  (philosopher of action), a bhakta yogi (the poet of ishq), a raj yogi (an advocate of self culture through concentration) and jnani yogi ( a mystic in gnostic or irfani tradition, a philosopher). Speaking in diverse voices, at diverse planes he has naturally able to influence so many people.
Here, to refute the charges of irrationalism, fundamentalism and parochialism against him I will only highlight his credentials as a thinker in modern Islam by foregrouinding his contribution towards appropriating modern science in Islam. It is he, who following Whitehead championed the view that the ages of faith are the ages of reason and sought to prove this thesis in his philosophical work. Unfortunately Iqbal is read as a poet only and not as a prose writer who argued for certain funbdamentally new things in the history of Islamic thought. He alone, amongst the galaxy of modern Muslim intellectuakls, has ventured to reconstruct theology, to exercise absolute ijtihad in theological matters. His contemporaries are still caught in debating ijtihad in juristic matters while as he moved far ahead. He was born ahead of his age and that explains partially certain people’s rejection of him. He was, undoubtedly, after Ghazzali, an exceptionally original and bold mind the like of him is to be found with great difficulty in last many centuries after Ghazzali. As one critic has said if the Quran were to be revealed now it would be in Iqbal’s verse on Abul Kalam Azad’s prose. Even the extreme critics of Iqbal can’t deny the captivating force of his poetry.
*          As a modern na’t writer he has hardly been excelled. There is no modern thinker of Islam who has written comparable verse in praise of the Prophet (SAW)
*          His contribution to modern Sufi thought is yet to be duly appreciated. His attempt to reconstruct mystical thought in Islam is unprecedented. Affirmation of time, action, history and other things that had not been duly done in the history of Sufism despite the Quran’s explicitly affirmatory attitude towards these things that we see in Iqbal is his greatest service to Sufism. Dynamic affirmatory orientation of Sufi thought has been the contribution of Iqbal. Despite certain disagreements from traditional Sufi and the tradituionalist  metaphysical viewpoint Iqbal’s contribution remains seminal
I wish to highlight Iqbal’s contribution towards evolving a modern view of Islam, his contribution to appropriation of modern science in Islam. Though retrospectively we might differ from Iqbal on certain pints but we can’t dispute his immense contribution towards arguing Islam’s relevance and adaptabity in modern times Attempting to provide consistent theory of modernist reconstructionist response to modern science.

  1. Providing a sophisticated philosophical version of compatibility thesis.
  2. Rereading Muslim intellectual history on anticlassical modernist lines.
  3. Appropriating for the first time in Muslim history and in quite compelling fashion modern physics in Islamic or spiritual interpretation of the universe.
  4. Quite a consistent defense of evolution and rereading Islamic intellectual history for the purpose. In this connection he had to reread metaphysical/philosophical content of Islam. His philosophy of self and time and history fit quite nicely with evolutionary thinking.
  5. Providing a possible theological/metaphysical foundation for Islamic modernism.
  6. A bold step in the direction of formulating new kalam that Muslim modernists like Sir Syed, Amir Ali and Abduhu desperately wanted for accomplishing their purification/reinterpretation of traditional religious thought.
  7.  Quite a novel interpretation/defense of the idea of finality in Islam that involved linking it with the birth of modern age and inductive intellect.
  8. An attempt to prove modern European culture as part/continuation of Islamic culture itself. This is an attempt to bridge the East and the West by foregrounding Western spirit of Islamic tradition.
  9. A critique of certain attempts that posit a distinct identity of Islamic science. For him science is universal, objective, rational and by virtue of these characteristics already Islamic. Though an independent venture of human spirit it is a sort of prayer. The question of values doesn’t arise in Iqbal’s perspective. As Islam rejects the sacred/secular dichotomy so scientific observation is an act of prayer.
  10. A bold exercise in absolute ijtihad not only in the domain of law but in other domains of religious thought as well. A methodology for practizing science without fearing any censuring from any religious Inquisition. A reassertion of a version of Ibn Rushd’s argument for validation of scientific and philosophical enterprise in Islam.

        He carried forward Sir Syed’s unique contribution to Quranic exegesis. Sir Syed had proposed himself the task of “reinterpreting Muslim theology, making it compatible with post-Renaissance Western humanistic and scientific ideas.” But he was not ideal candidate to accomplish the task as he didn’t have the first hand knowledge of Western canons of thought, its philosophical and scientific tradition. Iqbal alone among his other distinguished contemporaries could contribute something substantial in this direction as he had first hand knowledge of both traditional Islamic and modern Western thought. In fact he has provided broad outlines and a rational methodology for making Islam a “scientific religion.” He has in effect followed Ibn Rushd in his problem of reconciling ma’qul (demonstrative truth) with manqul (scriptural truth).
This methodology has led Iqbal, like Sir Syed, into a radical reinterpretation of theology and some highly unconventional positions on major issues. Like Sir Syed he more or less accepted evolution and symbolically/allegorically interpreted certain references to supernatural in his lectures. He managed to avoid the strictures of conservative orthodoxy by presenting his views in difficult philosophical rather than easily understandable theological format. This however contributed to neglect of his thought also as he was not understood by masses or even the generality of ulema. Unlike Sir Syed and certain other modernists he doesn’t subscribe to modern Christian heresy that reduces religion to morals alone. Like Sir Syed he has paid glorious tribute to European thought and culture. He emerges a stauncher rationalist than Sir Syed when he comes to appropriate Islamic metaphysics. He rationally treats the Absolute. Even the Infinite can be captured by thought. Jinns, angels, hell and heaven are appropriated from a perspective that modern sensibility could easily accept. Rather than impose a naturalistic paradigm from without on the Quran he sees the latter itself advocating a sort of naturalism, the “Quranic naturalism.”
He has attempted to reckon with or appropriate all the important thought currents of modern science and the philosophy inspired by it that have some bearing on religion. He positively approaches Darwin, Freud, Jung, Comte, Fraser, Einstein, Russell, Whitehead and many other important figures of the modern scientific world. He independently but critically approaches all of them as well as classical Islamic scholarship for his proposed reconstructive endeavor. He welcomes modernity with almost all its attendant consequences and implications for traditional Islam.
It needs to be clearly borne in mind that Iqbal is not a modernist in the precise sense in which  the traditionalists use the term.He is neither anthropomorphist secular humanist nor antimetaphysical positivist. He is fundamentally a religious metaphysician. However he is not a traditionalist either. He is significantly influenced by modern scientific and philosophical  trends
His whole philosophy and interpretation of Islam reveals the influence of modernist scientific outlook. His belief in evolution with  its methodological naturalism, his idea of perfect man and belief in progress, his eschatology, his interpretation of the finality of prophethood,  his theodicy, his critique of mysticism, his empiricist  defence of religion, his inductionist outlook, his demythologization of the legend of Fall, his divinization of time and his time-centred interpretation of Islam, his psychologizing of religion, his rejection of parapsychology or occultism as pseudoscience, his plea for absolute ijtihad and dynamism and the whole project of reconstruction of religious thought in Islam, his panentheistic leanings, his praise of innovation, novelty and creativity, his humanism, his concept of moral evil (Iblis), his appropriation of the West as the further development of some of the most important phases of Islamic culture and thus welcoming Islam’s movement towards the West, his epistemology and his thesis that History is the source of knowledge according to the Quran, his privileging of becoming over being and time over space, his interpretation/appropriation of prophetic and mystical experience, his elevation of scientist to the status  of sagehood, his philosophy of ego, his condoning of the Renaissance, his attempt at a spiritual interpretation of the universe, his anthropocentric leanings, his rejection of body-soul dualism in almost what appears to be secular theological spirit, his eulogization of power, his attitude towards Nature and environment, his interpretation of man’s vicegerancy, his reading of many modern scientific notions in the Quran and Islamic history, his rejection of what is called as Islamisation of knowledge, his concepts of space, time, causality and destiny, his positivist spirit (seen in his praise of Zia Gokalp), his approaching certain tricky theological issues in the light of modern science, his proofs for the existence of God, his belief in a growing universe, his appropriation of intuition as developed intellect, his defense and interpretation of Muslim culture and civilization, his advocacy of deed and action over idea and thought, his advocacy of experimental method, his Islamisation of modernity (or modernization of Islam), his critique of “Magian” supernaturalism, and “worn out’’ or “practically a dead metaphysics” of present day Islam – all these reveal the influence of modern science  in Iqbal. We may not agree with him on certain issues, especially his simplistic reading of modern science and his too conciliatory apprioach to it but what is here the issue is relevance and contemporaniety of Iqbal. Iqbal was far more modern tha many of his modernist and secularist critics but his conscious attempt to reamin rooted in the framework of the Quran makes him a thinker in the traditional sense and thus worth reckoning by all those who are concerned with upholding Islamic traditional heritage in the face of modernity and secualirzation. It also appears that perennialists are yet to appreciate fully providential value of modernity and they overemphasize its darker aspects. Here Iqbal who perceived importance of modernist turn in thought and its inevitabity to a certain extent seems to be more perceptive. Modern spirit, at root, is not satanic or Faustian though it easily succumbs to such a perversion. For Iqbal history is meaningful and all its events are fraught with great meaning and their positive value needs to be appreciated. He approaches modernity from this vantage point. Rhere is something more to modern history than a series of falls and  degenerations.