Iqbal:The husk and the kernel

Iqbal wrote with the confidence of a man who believed in the future of his people and his religion. But what kind of future and what kind (interpretation) of religion?

The late Sibte-Hasan compared Iqbal’s fate to that of Hegel. The ambiguities and contradictions in Hegel’s ideas made him an inspiration both for the German rightwing (from monarchists to Fascists) and the European far-left (Marxists).

Equipped with a deep study and strong command of philosophy, Iqbal wrote and spoke when the colonial yoke was still upon us but the Indian people were experiencing a political and social reawakening. He wrote with the confidence of a man who believed in the future of his people and his religion. But what kind of future and what kind (interpretation) of religion?

Imagine Fichte, Nietzsche, Bergson, Whitehead, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mussolini, Lenin, Ahmed Sarhindi, Ibn Arabi, Ghazali, Ashari and Rumi thrown together (but not fused into one) in the mind of a highly romantic (in the very strong sense of being anti-reason) and poetic genius with a religious and revivalist zeal and scholastic penchant, and what do you get? A formidable mountain of metaphysical confusion, on top of which sit the most reactionary attitude and ideas side by side with the most progressive insights.

What Iqbal offers us, then, is a bottomless bag of intellectual contradictions. From it you can try and take out pluralism and freedom of thought if you wish or you can search the bag for, and find without much effort, the kind of tribal religion upheld by Mullah Omar. With Sibte-Hasan we can see Iqbal as the Hegel of Islam who inspires us in our quest for freedom, democracy and social justice, if only we could “remove the husk from the kernel”, or with Mubarak Ali and Ali Abbas Jalalpuri we can see him as an anti-reason revivalist whose rationalism consisted in a reactionary scholasticism that sought to close our minds to scientific thinking and true philosophy.

Be that is it may, I will only briefly describe my impression of one of the aspects of Iqbal’s fifth lecture – The Spirit of Muslim Culture – in his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. It is not possible here to deal fully with the whole structure and the entire content of the lecture, highly interesting as it is in the beginning where Iqbal makes a startling effort to carve out a philosophically appealing definition of prophethood, revelation and mystical experience to make the idea of “prophetic consciousness” relevant for the modern times.

He becomes less impressive as he goes on to deduce from the Quran a theoretical approach to the scientific study of nature and rudiments of a philosophy of history, quoting some straight and simple Quranic verses out of context to justify a very tenuous line of argument.

And then comes what I feel to be the most problematic aspect of the lecture. Quite arbitrarily building a notion of the Quran’s emphasis on the “concrete” against the alleged “abstraction” of the classical Greek heritage, he makes the fantastic claim that the birth of the method of observation and experiment in the Muslim world was “due not to a compromise with Greek thought but to a prolonged intellectual warfare with it.” He actually credits the Asharite “intellectual revolt against Greek philosophy” in the Muslim world with leading to the foundation of modern science and which the West, he claims, inherited from Islam. The heroes of this ‘scientific revolution’ were the Asharites, Imam Taymiyya, Al-Ghazali to some extent, and the likes; and it is clearly implied that the those vanquished by the “true spirit of Islam” are the Mutazilites, and philosophers and scientists like Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina.

This reactionary fiction – even if it is created by Iqbal – is a travesty of the idea of any serious and objective study of Muslim history. In his distortion of history Iqbal remains blissfully untroubled by the fact that most Muslim scientists were Mutazalite rationalists and philosophers – the school of thought whose suppression, excommunication, torture and extermination by the anti-enlightenment and anti-science Asharites and the monarchs who patronised them Iqbal has ‘euphemistically’ called “Muslim intellectual revolt against Greek philosophy.” 

Iqbal does not explain why – if modern science originated in the lap of al-Ashari’s and al-Ghazali’s understanding of Islam – the scientific revolution occurred in Europe where the names of Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina, al-Kandi, and al-Razi were venerated and their works made part of university syllabi, and not in the Arab world where they were demonised, hounded, tortured and exiled, and where their books and libraries were burnt. How many scientists did the followers of al-Ashari, al-Ghazali and Taymiyya produce? Al-Ashari triumphantly and famously denied the existence of cause and effect and thus attacked the very foundation of both scientific speculation and experiment in the Muslim world.

In this atmosphere of fear and persecution, Muslim science – or whatever was left of it – confined itself to only observation and experiments and refrained from drawing theoretical conclusions that could lead to scientific breakthroughs and pave the way for new experiments and observations. This death of free thought and enquiry Iqbal romanticises and celebrates as “Islamic science” on the basis of his “Quranic” understanding of a “dynamic universe”!

Why does Iqbal perform this intellectual sleight of hand? There can hardly be an answer other than that his rationalism, like the rationalism of any scholastic theologian, hides an anti-reason, anti-science and anti-materialist (in the philosophical sense of the word) epistemology. That is why he remains oblivious of the very materialist and scientific origin of Greek philosophy which was owned and nurtured by Muslim philosophers and scientists before the Asharite reaction struck them and before it was rediscovered and built on by the West. Iqbal does not want to reconcile Islam and science, he wants to Islamise science. And the first step in that direction has to be a rejection of the classical Greek philosophical heritage as a formative influence on Muslim scientists, followed by other and much more serious distortions of historical facts.

What, then, do we expect from Iqbal in terms of pluralism in thought and beliefs? I do not know, for there is a lot in the bottomless bag of Iqbalian contradictions that can be used to prove him the most open-minded genius of his and our times who was in love with unity in diversity. I have confined myself only to an aspect of his “Reconstruction” and tried to follow Sibte-Hasan’s advice – of removing the husk from the kernel. 

Author is a student and can be reached at: [email protected] 

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