Iqbal’s Reconstruction and ‘Religion-Modernity Encounter’

Allama Iqbal’s The Reconstruction is rightly described as “a classic effort to comprehend religion’s encounter with modernity”
Iqbal’s Reconstruction and  ‘Religion-Modernity Encounter’

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

It is true that in the modern period, afterSir Sayyid (d. 1898) it was Allama Iqbal (1877-1938) who laid much emphasis onreform and reconstruction of religious thought. Iqbal is, in Riffat Hassan's words,"unmatched in his versatility and breadth of knowledge and vision". A "poet andthinker of extraordinary stature", she further writes, "Iqbal is exceptional inmany ways"; he was able "to combine poetry and philosophy"; "to infuse hisemotional and spiritual zeal in others"; and he "presented a detailedexposition of his philosophy".

Iqbal's The Reconstruction of ReligiousThought in Islam is, unquestionably, a masterpiece in prose, which isconsidered as one of the most important milestones in the history ofintellectual tradition of modernist movement in Islam. It is rightly describedas "a classic effort to comprehend religion's encounter with modernity" (Prof.Javed Majeed) as well as "a seminal text for both Islamic and modern Westernphilosophy" (Dr Basit Bilal Koshul), because it has both fascinated as well asintrigued scholars of last and present century. "With his enviable command ofthe principal Islamic and European languages, Iqbal was well poised to bridgeIslamic and Western philosophic traditions", especially through his TheReconstruction, wherein he "questions the intellectual foundations of Islamicphilosophy and grapples with some of the same issues that had exercised theminds of a number of his modernist predecessors" (Prof. Asma Afsaruddin).

For Prof. Majeed, The Reconstruction "exemplifiesIslamic modernism's response to European modernity both in its style and itscontent", and "purports to show how the Qur'an is entirely consonant with themajor discoveries of European science, and it is wide ranging in its eclecticuse of European thinkers". Recognizing The Reconstruction as Iqbal's "bestknown 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 theseminal text for both Islamic and modern Western philosophy". He thus is of theviewpoint 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-Muslimsbelievers or the non-believers".

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

M. Reza Pirbhai's Reconsidering Islam in aSouth Asian Context (2009), focusing on Islam and South Asian Muslims in the transitionfrom Mughal to post-colonial era, explores 'the foundations of South AsianMuslim 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 localenvironment in which Muslims live'. About Iqbal Pirbhai says: Iqbal's thoughtrepresents, "a 'new' Intoxicated Way, dealing with a set of intellectualstrains not previously integrated, Islamic and European". No doubt, Westerneducation and the colonial regime influenced Iqbal's views, "he embracedaspects of both only insofar as they could be legitimated by expressions of theindividual 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 hisseminal work, Prof. Majeed (Professor of English and Comparative Literature, KingsCollege London) writes that the word has "connotations of rebuilding andrenewing" and thus "consists of balancing the tasks of reform and revision".For him, The Reconstruction, "in its form and style … dramatizes what Iqbalcalls the 'principle of movement in the structure of Islam', a principle whichhe attempts to recover on the basis of his reconstruction of Islamic thought".Iqbal's Reconstruction is "a self-consciously visionary book that isstylistically distinctive, even idiosyncratic". Iqbal's Reconstruction, forhim, "remains a key reference point and resource for those who reflect on theplace of Islam in the modern world". In this edition, Koshul (AssociateProfessor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at LahoreUniversity of Management Sciences), who considers his The Reconstruction as"the one place where Iqbal's philosophy is outlined most clearly andsystematically": "As Iqbal points out repeatedly in his poetry and prose, hisquest to build bridges and establish relations is the result of a Qur'anicallyinspired vision. This tawheedic vision aspires to transform life-denyingdivisions into life-giving relationships. A partial list of the divisions thatare transformed into relationships in Iqbal's thought would include: modernity/tradition, East/ West, religion/ science, philosophy/ mysticism, and the humanself/ 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 audienceas part of the Encountering Traditions series".

Safdar Ahmed's Reform and Modernity inIslam (2013) is a sound and thoughtful introduction to the complexity ofIslamic discourses on modernity. Ahmed's analysis provides an overview of theparticular Muslim response to the challenges of modernity with a special focuson South Asian modernists like Sir Sayyid, Qasim Amin, Allama Iqbal, MawlanaMawdudi, Fazlur Rahman, etc. About Iqbal, he writes: "Iqbal's conception ofIslam is interesting precisely for appropriating the concepts of modernnationalism … in a theoretically self-conscious way. Because he harnessed thecontradictory forces that are built into the modern ideologies of race andnationhood, Iqbal cannot be associated with projects of religious nationalism,Islamism, or any such totalising ideological construction".

H. C. Hillier and Basit Bilal Koshul's MuhammadIqbal: Essays on the Reconstruction of Modern Muslim Thought (2015) is acomprehensive edited volume which 'offers novel examinations of thephilosophical ideas that laid at the heart of Iqbal's own' through diverseapproaches. The editors (in Preface) argue that standing between multipleworlds, including "the worlds of tradition and modernity", Allama Iqbal"aspired to build bridges where others only saw divides and thereby transformthe way that we know our world and the manner in which we act in it". Theyfurther argue that "in recent years, there has been a marked increase in thestudy of Iqbal in Western academia. Examining Iqbal's influence on modernphilosophy and Islamic thought has seen a renaissance over the past decade". Koshul,in his chapter on "Contemporary Relevance of Muhammad Iqbal" writes: "Iqbal'svoice, echoing the message of the Qur'an, calls upon individual human beings,different communities, and different traditions to build a 'renewed self'" andthis "scripturally grounded and philosophically articulated conception of theself and its relationship to the alien other is something that is sorely neededin 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 comeback, even if many had thought that he had become irrelevant".

There are many other such works whichexplore Iqbal vis-à-vis 'Religion-Modernity encounter', because "Iqbal hassomething to offer to philosophy, he has something to offer to science and hehas something to offer to religion. … That is what makes him relevant today andfor the future" (Muhammad Suheyl Umar and Dr. Koshul).

The imprint and impression of the abovecited works and statements can be summarized in these words of Riffat Hassan,who aptly highlights relevance of Iqbal for the present generation: "Today, asmillions of Muslims, especially the youth, are at a crossroads, torn betweentraditionalism and modernity, loyalty to their own culture and Westernization,seeking to have a new understanding of who they are, what Islam is, and whatdirection they should take, Iqbal's wisdom is needed more than ever. Hismessage is more relevant and important to them than that of any other Muslimthinker of the past and present because he faced the challenges of bothtraditionalism and modernity fearlessly by building his philosophy on theintegrated vision of the Qur'an".

In sum, it is high time to read and re-readIqbal, more through his prose than poetry, and see how much relevant he is forus—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).

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