Iqbal the Reformist

After Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh, Muhammad Iqbal (1875-1938) represented the next phase in modern Islam. He combined an early Islamic education with advanced degrees from Cambridge and Munich in philosophy and law. In a sense, he represented the best of what Sayyid Ahmad Khan might have wished. Although by the twentieth century the situation in the Indian subcontinent had changed from that of Sayyid Ahmad Khan's age, Muslims, who were now obtaining modern education, still lived in a society whose ulama generally preached an Islam that did not adequately address modern realities.

No wonder then that the younger generation demand a fresh orientation of their faith. With the awakening of Islam, therefore, it is necessary to examine, in an independent spirit, what Europe has taught and how far the conclusions reached by her can help us in the revision, and if necessary, reconstruction of technological thought in Islam. -- Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam

Muslim corporate identity also continued to be an important issue. However, it was not one of loyalty to the British Raj, but instead independence and national identity. The Muslim community was divided over the question of Muslim participation in the Indian independence movement. Many had joined with Hindus in the Congress party and pressed for the creation of a single, secular nation-state. Others increasingly argued that, given strong communal sentiments and politics, India's Muslim minority would face a serious threat to its identity and survival in a predominantly Hindu secular state. As with much of Islamic history and certainly the history of Islamic revival and reform movements, religious reflection and interpretation were conditioned by and intertwined with the political life of the community.

A Dynamic Concept of the Self

Muhammad Iqbal's profession was the law, his passion, writing poetry and prose, his lifelong concern, Muslim religious and political survival and reform. From the time he returned from his doctoral studies in Europe, he devoted himself to the revival of Indian Islam. He did this both as a poet-philosopher and, more reluctantly, as a politician. He placed himself within the revivalist tradition of Ahmad Sirhindi, Shah Wali Allah, and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, while addressing the questions of Islamic modernism. Islam and the Muslim community were in danger, they remained in decay and decline, were politically powerless, morally corrupt, and culturally backward. All of this, for Iqbal, stood in sharp contrast with the inner nature of Islam, which was dynamic and creative. Drawing on his Islamic heritage and influenced by his study of Western philosophy (Hegel, Bergson, Fichte, Nietzsche), he developed his own synthesis and interpretation of Islam in response to the socio-historical conditions and events of his time. Nowhere is this synthesis of East and West more evident than in Iqbal's dynamic concept of the self. Rejecting Plato's static universe and those aspects of Sufism that denied the affirmation of the self in the world, Iqbal, utilizing the Quran, developed a dynamic Weltanschauung in his theory of selfhood that embraced all reality: individual self, society, and God. For Iqbal, the relationship of God to Islamic society and the Muslim to society incorporates both permanence and change. God, the ultimate or absolute self, has a creative dynamic life that is both permanent and changing, as creation is the unfolding of the inner possibilities of God in a single and yet continuing act. The individual, the basic unit of Muslim society, is Quranically (2:30) charged as God's vicegerent with the mission of carrying out God's will on earth. Muslims share in this ongoing process of creation, bringing order out of chaos, by endeavoring to produce the model society to be emulated by others. An interdependence exists; the individual is elevated through the community and the community is organized by the individual.

At the heart of Iqbal's vision of Islam is the unity of God (tawhid). The oneness of God applies not only to the nature of God but also to His relationship to the world. As God is the one creator, sustainer, and judge of the universe, so too His will or law governs every aspect of His creation and is to be realized in every area of life. This belief is the basis for Iqbal's view of the community as a religiopolitical state and of the supremacy of Islamic law in Muslim society. Based on the Prophetic tradition that "the whole of this earth is a mosque" and on Muhammad's role as prophet as well as head of the Medinan state, Iqbal concluded, "All that is secular is therefore sacred in the roots of its being." There is no bifurcation of the spiritual and the temporal. Church and state are not two sides of the same thing, for Islam is a single unanalyzable reality. Nowhere is this more evident than in Islamic law. Iqbal reasserted the Sharia's role as the comprehensive guideline for a society. During the nineteenth century, Islamic law with the exception of family law, had been displaced in many Muslim countries by European codes. In the Indian subcontinent the interaction of Islamic law and British law had produced Anglo­Muhammadan law, much of which was based on British common law. For Iqbal, Islamic law was central to the unity and life of the Muslim community: "When a community forsakes its Law, its parts are severed, like scattered dust. The being of a Muslim rests alone on Law, which is in truth the inner core of the Apostle's faith."


Convinced that the survival of Islam and the Muslim community's role as a political and moral force in South Asia were dependent on the centrality of Islamic law, Iqbal emphasized to his friend and coworker Muhammad Ali Jinnnah, the leader of the Muslim League party and the founder of Pakistan, the need for a Muslim state or states in India. However, Iqbal did not have in mind the simple restoration of law as it was delineated in the doctrines of the law schools. For Iqbal, just as God creates dynamic life that is both permanent and changing, Islam's way of life as interpreted in Islamic law is itself dynamic and open to change: "The early doctors of law taking their cue from this groundwork evolved a number of legal systems. But with all their comprehensiveness these systems are after all individual interpretations and as such cannot claim finality."

Iqbal distinguished between the eternal, immutable principles of the Sharia and those regulations that were the product of human interpretation and thus subject to change. He regarded the condition of Islam as a "dogmatic slumber" that had resulted in five hundred years of immobility due to the blind following of tradition and believed that the restoration of Islamic vitality required the "reconstruction" of the sources of Islamic law. While acknowledging the role of the ulama in the past, Iqbal blamed them for the conservatism that had characterized Islam since the fall of Baghdad. With their perpetuation of what he called the fiction of the closing of the door of ijtihad, these scholar-guardians of Islam who were the followers of those who had developed Islamic law, stopped the dynamic process of reinterpretation and reapplication of Islamic principles to new situations. Instead they were content to simply perpetuate established traditions. Iqbal rejected the centuries-long tendency to regard Islamic law as fixed and sacrosanct. Like other Islamic revivalists and modernists, he believed that Muslims must once again reassert their right to ijtihad, to reinterpret and reapply Islam to changing social conditions. The right belonged to all qualified Muslims and not just to the ulama. He believed that the traditional criteria used to designate one as an interpreter was both self-serving and shortsighted. The failure of the ulama to broaden their training left them ill prepared for resolving many new modern issues. For these reasons, Iqbal extended and redefined ijtihad and ijma. He suggested that the right to interpret and apply Islam for the community be transferred from the ulama to a national assembly or legislature. This collective or corporate ijtihad would then constitute the authoritative consensus (ijma) of the community . In this way he also transformed the meaning of consensus of the community from its traditional one, the agreement of the religious leaders and scholars to the consensus of modern legislative assemblies, the majority of whose members would have a better knowledge of contemporary affairs. In addition, he recommended that, because of the complex nature of many modern problems, the legislature should seek the advice of experts from traditional and modern disciplines. Shortly after its establishment, Pakistan would establish such a council of experts, The Islamic Ideology Council. Iqbal's approach proved attractive to modernists as a way to enhance the legitimacy of parliamentary government and reforms in family law. However, threatened by an outlook that diminished their status and power in society, the ulama were resistant.

Islamic Democracy

While Iqbal admired the accomplishments of the West -- its dynamic spirit, intellectual tradition and technology -- he was critical of its excesses, such as European imperialism and colonialism, the economic exploitation of capitalism, the atheism of Marxism, and the moral bankruptcy of secularism. Therefore he turned to the past to rediscover principles and values that could be employed to reconstruct an alternative Islamic model for modern Muslim society. This resulted in the discovery of Islamic versions of democracy and parliamentary government, precedents in Islamic belief that, through reinterpretation, could be used to develop Islamic equivalents to Western concepts and institutions. Thus, for example, Iqbal concluded that because of the centrality of such beliefs as the equality and brotherhood of believers, democracy was the most important political ideal in Islam. Though history, after the period of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, had prevented the community from realizing this Islamic ideal, it remains a duty for the Muslim community. That Iqbal did not believe that he was creating an Islamic rationale for simply copying Western values and institutions is strikingly evident in his conclusion that England embodied this "Muslim" quality:

Democracy has been the great mission of England in modern times…. It is one aspect of our own political ideal that is being worked out in it. It is… the spirit of the British Empire that makes it the greatest Muhammadan Empire in the world. -- Islam as a Political and Moral Ideal.

The very bases for Islamic democracy -- the equality and brotherhood of all Muslims -- militated against Iqbal's acceptance of the concept of nationalism. Although as a young man he had been an Indian nationalist, he returned from his studies in Europe committed to pan-Islamism. In addition to considering territorial nationalism as antithetical to the universal brotherhood established by Muhammad and embodied in the caliphate, he regarded nationalism as the tool used by colonialism to dismember the Muslim world. The political ideal of Islam was a transnational community that transcended ethnic, racial and national ties, it was based on an inner cohesion that stemmed from the unity of the community's religio-political ideal. As with al-Afghani and others, Iqbal's pan--Islamic commitment was tempered by political realism. He accepted the need for Muslims to gain national independence, but believed that as a family of nations based on a common spiritual heritage, common ideals and a common law -- the Sharia -- they should form their own League of Nations. He applied this rationale to the situation of Indian Muslims and in 1930 reluctantly concluded that internal Hindu-Muslim communal harmony was impossible. Iqbal became convinced that the threat of Hindu dominance in an independent India necessitated the establishment of a separate region for the Muslims of India in order to preserve their identity and distinctive way of life:

The nature of the Prophet's religious experience as disclosed in the Quran is wholly different (from that of Christianity). It is an individual experience creative of a social order. Its immediate outcome is the fundamentals of a polity with implicit legal concepts whose civic significance can not be belittled merely because their origin is revelational. The religious ideal of Islam is organically related to the social order which it has created. The rejection of the one will eventually involve the rejection of the other. Therefore the construction of a polity on (Indian) national lines, if it means a displacement of the Islamic principles of solidarity, is simply unthinkable to a Muslim. -- Report of the Commission on Marriage and Family Laws

If Sayyid Ahmad Khan had been the traditionally educated Muslim who sought to make modern Western liberal thought Islamically acceptable, Muhammad Iqbal was a modern, Western-educated Muslim who reinterpreted Islam in conjunction with Western thought to demonstrate its relevance as a viable alternative to Christian European and Marxist ideologies.

From Islam: The Straight Path by John L. Esposito

Used with permission from the author

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