Iqbal's Reconstruction and 'Religion-Modernity Encounter'

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Today (21st April), on the occasion of Allama Iqbal’s death anniversary, I here present an evaluation of some recent studies on Iqbal’s The Reconstruction vis-à-vis ‘Religion-Modernity Encounter’ as a mark of attribute to Iqbal—an influential poet-philosopher, Muslim reformer, political ideologist/ activist, and one of the most distinguished and dominant figures of 20th century Sub-Continent. This topic is actually a modified-but-précised version of my paper which I had prepared for presentation in a 3-Day International Seminar on “Allama Iqbal’s Contribution to the Promotion of Urdu, Persian, Philosophy, Art and Scientific Thought” (4-6 March, 2020) at Iqbal Institute of Culture & Philosophy, University of Kashmir (but could not present/ participate in the said seminar).

It is true that in the modern period, after Sir Sayyid (d. 1898) it was Allama Iqbal (1877-1938) who laid much emphasis on reform and reconstruction of religious thought. Iqbal is, in Riffat Hassan’s words, “unmatched in his versatility and breadth of knowledge and vision”. A “poet and thinker of extraordinary stature”, she further writes, “Iqbal is exceptional in many ways”; he was able “to combine poetry and philosophy”; “to infuse his emotional and spiritual zeal in others”; and he “presented a detailed exposition of his philosophy”.

Iqbal’s The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is, unquestionably, a masterpiece in prose, which is considered as one of the most important milestones in the history of intellectual tradition of modernist movement in Islam. It is rightly described as “a classic effort to comprehend religion’s encounter with modernity” (Prof. Javed Majeed) as well as “a seminal text for both Islamic and modern Western philosophy” (Dr Basit Bilal Koshul), because it has both fascinated as well as intrigued scholars of last and present century. “With his enviable command of the principal Islamic and European languages, Iqbal was well poised to bridge Islamic and Western philosophic traditions”, especially through his The Reconstruction, wherein he “questions the intellectual foundations of Islamic philosophy and grapples with some of the same issues that had exercised the minds of a number of his modernist predecessors” (Prof. Asma Afsaruddin).

For Prof. Majeed, The Reconstruction “exemplifies Islamic modernism’s response to European modernity both in its style and its content”, and “purports to show how the Qur’an is entirely consonant with the major discoveries of European science, and it is wide ranging in its eclectic use of European thinkers”. Recognizing The Reconstruction as Iqbal’s “best known work in prose”, Dr Koshul is of the opinion that it is the work where “Iqbal’s philosophy is outlined most clearly and systematically. This is the seminal text for both Islamic and modern Western philosophy”. He thus is of the viewpoint that “Iqbal is of special relevance in [present times, for all] whether we are citizens of the East or the West, Muslims or the non-Muslims believers or the non-believers”.

Riffat Hassan’s “Islamic Modernist and Reformist Discourse in South Asia” (in Shireen Hunter, Reformist Voices of Islam, 2009, pp. 159-186) discusses the various trends of reformist thought in South Asia (from Sir Sayyid and Iqbal to Ghamidi, Masud, and Engineer and Sikand) and concludes that “the voices of reformist thinkers”, like Iqbal, “with their forward-looking, life-affirming vision, will prevail over the negative forces”, not only in South Asia but in Europe and America as well. “This conviction”, she says, “is not based on naïve optimism but upon the author’s lived experience both as a thinker and as an activist”.

M. Reza Pirbhai’s Reconsidering Islam in a South Asian Context (2009), focusing on Islam and South Asian Muslims in the transition from Mughal to post-colonial era, explores ‘the foundations of South Asian Muslim post-coloniality. Stemming from the construction of a “new paradigm”, the book contributes in revealing and highlighting ‘an Islam that is dynamic, multifaceted and systematically hostile and/or hospitable to the local environment in which Muslims live’. About Iqbal Pirbhai says: Iqbal’s thought represents, “a ‘new’ Intoxicated Way, dealing with a set of intellectual strains not previously integrated, Islamic and European”. No doubt, Western education and the colonial regime influenced Iqbal’s views, “he embraced aspects of both only insofar as they could be legitimated by expressions of the individual and community long established in the Sober Path”.

In 2012, Stanford University Press (California, USA) in collaboration with ‘Iqbal Academy Pakistan’ (Lahore) Series published a new edition of Iqbal’s The Reconstruction under ‘Encountering Tradition’. It has a ‘Preface’ (pp. vii-x) and lengthy ‘Introduction’ by Basit Bilal Koshul and Javed Majeed (pp. xi-xxx), respectively. On the use of the word ‘Reconstruction’ by Allama Iqbal in his seminal work, Prof. Majeed (Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Kings College London) writes that the word has “connotations of rebuilding and renewing” and thus “consists of balancing the tasks of reform and revision”. For him, The Reconstruction, “in its form and style … dramatizes what Iqbal calls the ‘principle of movement in the structure of Islam’, a principle which he attempts to recover on the basis of his reconstruction of Islamic thought”. Iqbal’s Reconstruction is “a self-consciously visionary book that is stylistically distinctive, even idiosyncratic”. Iqbal’s Reconstruction, for him, “remains a key reference point and resource for those who reflect on the place of Islam in the modern world”. In this edition, Koshul (Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Lahore University of Management Sciences), who considers his The Reconstruction as “the one place where Iqbal’s philosophy is outlined most clearly and systematically”: “As Iqbal points out repeatedly in his poetry and prose, his quest to build bridges and establish relations is the result of a Qur’anically inspired vision. This tawheedic vision aspires to transform life-denying divisions into life-giving relationships. A partial list of the divisions that are transformed into relationships in Iqbal’s thought would include: modernity/ tradition, East/ West, religion/ science, philosophy/ mysticism, and the human self/ Divine Other. … Given the centrality of the Qur’an in Iqbal’s thought … it is very fitting that this text is being re-introduced to a Western audience as part of the Encountering Traditions series”.

Safdar Ahmed’s Reform and Modernity in Islam (2013) is a sound and thoughtful introduction to the complexity of Islamic discourses on modernity. Ahmed’s analysis provides an overview of the particular Muslim response to the challenges of modernity with a special focus on South Asian modernists like Sir Sayyid, Qasim Amin, Allama Iqbal, Mawlana Mawdudi, Fazlur Rahman, etc. About Iqbal, he writes: “Iqbal’s conception of Islam is interesting precisely for appropriating the concepts of modern nationalism … in a theoretically self-conscious way. Because he harnessed the contradictory forces that are built into the modern ideologies of race and nationhood, Iqbal cannot be associated with projects of religious nationalism, Islamism, or any such totalising ideological construction”.

H. C. Hillier and Basit Bilal Koshul’s Muhammad Iqbal: Essays on the Reconstruction of Modern Muslim Thought (2015) is a comprehensive edited volume which ‘offers novel examinations of the philosophical ideas that laid at the heart of Iqbal’s own’ through diverse approaches. The editors (in Preface) argue that standing between multiple worlds, including “the worlds of tradition and modernity”, Allama Iqbal “aspired to build bridges where others only saw divides and thereby transform the way that we know our world and the manner in which we act in it”. They further argue that “in recent years, there has been a marked increase in the study of Iqbal in Western academia. Examining Iqbal’s influence on modern philosophy and Islamic thought has seen a renaissance over the past decade”. Koshul, in his chapter on “Contemporary Relevance of Muhammad Iqbal” writes: “Iqbal’s voice, echoing the message of the Qur’an, calls upon individual human beings, different communities, and different traditions to build a ‘renewed self’” and this “scripturally grounded and philosophically articulated conception of the self and its relationship to the alien other is something that is sorely needed in the West, the world of Islam, among believers and non-believers alike. Because he responds to this very global need of the hour, Iqbal had to come back, even if many had thought that he had become irrelevant”.

There are many other such works which explore Iqbal vis-à-vis ‘Religion-Modernity encounter’, because “Iqbal has something to offer to philosophy, he has something to offer to science and he has something to offer to religion. … That is what makes him relevant today and for the future” (Muhammad Suheyl Umar and Dr. Koshul).

The imprint and impression of the above cited works and statements can be summarized in these words of Riffat Hassan, who aptly highlights relevance of Iqbal for the present generation: “Today, as millions of Muslims, especially the youth, are at a crossroads, torn between traditionalism and modernity, loyalty to their own culture and Westernization, seeking to have a new understanding of who they are, what Islam is, and what direction they should take, Iqbal’s wisdom is needed more than ever. His message is more relevant and important to them than that of any other Muslim thinker of the past and present because he faced the challenges of both traditionalism and modernity fearlessly by building his philosophy on the integrated vision of the Qur’an”.

In sum, it is high time to read and re-read Iqbal, more through his prose than poetry, and see how much relevant he is for us—and that will be a real tribute to this great thinker and visionary.

The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC for Women, Pulwama (J&K).