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The Liberal/Secular Iqbal - Pakistan

The Liberal/Secular Iqbal

Posted by Aneela Shahzad on

This is a short commentary on chapter six of Iqbal’s work the ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’. This commentary is meant to put some light not only on the broad spectrum of knowledge Iqbal’s thought is based on which is truly wide, as Iqbal views religion as a living thing evolving with humanity’s own  experiences, changing its structure from time to time, keeping the soul permanent and intact, hence the title ‘The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam’; but also on the fact that for Iqbal the structure of religion or Islam in itself is wider than the ethnic or the national, it tends to encompass the whole humanity and aims to take humanity to an encounter with the Ultimate Reality of all things. 

‘As a cultural movement Islam rejects the old static view of the universe and reaches a dynamic view’, is the way whereby Iqbal tends to set his audience to flight from the very beginning; it is a message to the reader that he wants to begin where other would like to conclude. 

Iqbal says, ‘…human unity becomes possible only with the perception that all human life is spiritual in its origin’. This unity creates fresh loyalties and makes man’s emancipation from the earth possible, but is not secular (worldly), it is spiritual and in Iqbal’s view this spirit was blown back into the failing body of humanity in the 6th century, Arabia, ‘when Islam appeared on the stage of History’. This unity is based on ‘Tauhid’, it creates loyalty to God, the ‘ultimate spiritual basis of all life’, ‘eternal and revealing itself in variety and change’. One God is the permanent eternal principle which will give humanity a ‘foothold in the world of perpetual change’; no lesser ideal will ever be able to unite humanity or rid them of war, slavery and abuse. 

But for Iqbal ‘change’ is just as important as ‘the permanent’, it is “one of the greatest `signs’ of God”, and excluding the possibility of change ‘immobilizes what is essentially mobile in nature’ – the human society. The failure to cope with change was the reason for the failure of the church and the reason of the ‘immobility of Islam in the last five hundred years’ and its cure is ‘Ijtihad’. A process of re-assessing judgment according to the new situation that was started by the Prophet in his own life when he had appointed Mu’adh as ruler of Yemen, who confirmed to the Prophet that when he would not find an answer in the Quran and Sunnah, he will exert to form his own judgment. 

Iqbal, whose soul was filled with passion, assimilation and a great urge to encounter the Ultimate Reality was aggrieved with the fact that the doors to the possibility of ‘complete authority in legislation’ had been closed and sealed since the founding of the first schools of legislation, ‘an attitude [that] seems exceedingly strange in a system of law based mainly on the groundwork provided by the Qur’an, which embodies an essentially dynamic outlook on life’. Iqbal notes that the three reasons for such an attitude are firstly the resistance to the ‘Rationalist Movement’ which according to the conservative (status quo) thinkers were raising new questions that they might not be able to answer in the light of the Quran and Sunnah and this fear led them to make the ‘Shari’ah’ (legal system) as rigorous as possible to save Islam from disintegrating to heresy. Secondly, the rise of ascetic Sufism, based on the distinction of the Zahir and Ba’atin (appearance and reality), leading many to other-worldliness and draining the best minds of the society into non-political thinking, thus leaving the ‘Muslim state… in the hands of intellectual mediocrities and the unthinking masses of Islam…’. Thirdly, the destruction of Baghdad at the hands of the Tartars, leaving in the hearts of the Muslims ‘a half-suppressed pessimism about the future of Islam’, to save which they had to focus on social order and uniformity, which was ensured by sticking to the traditional teachings. 

But they failed to see that ‘an over-organized society’ crushes out of the existence of the individual altogether, he loses his soul and decay spreads out into the society. Iqbal sees the new blood that revolted from time to time against the established schools, such as Ibn Taimiyyah, Suyuti, Ibn al Wahhab and others as the manifestation of the spirit of freedom. 

Iqbal says, ‘In Islam the spiritual and the temporal are not two distinct domains and the nature of an act, however secular in its import, is determined by the attitude of mind with which the agent does it. It is the invisible mental background of the act which ultimately determines its character. An act is temporal or profane if it is done in a spirit of detachment from the infinite complexity of life behind it; it is spiritual if it is inspired by that complexity’. 

Thus in Islam the state and the religion are not two but a ‘single analyzable reality’ which appears different when we dissect it for our study. Man does not have ‘two distinct realities’ with some point of contact, rather, ‘matter is spirit in space-time reference’. Again, this singularity in the individual and because of him in the whole society is possible only in Tauheed. 

‘The essence of Tauheed, a working idea is equality, solidarity and freedom. The state, from the Islamic standpoint is an endeavor to transform these ideal principles into space-time threes, an aspiration to realize them in a definite human organization.’ 

It should not be mistaken that this equality, solidarity and freedom is the same as talked in the ideas of Liberalism and Secularism, such that they would tend to liberate man from the tiring shackles of religion. Rather for Iqbal, equality, solidarity and freedom come with the individual’s spirit connecting to the Ultimate; the Muslim society as a spirit connecting to the Ultimate and then the whole humanity connecting to the Ultimate spiritual basis,that is God. This great movement of a total paradigm change for humanity is not possible without the true infallible word of God. This is the short-cut and there is no other short-cut. Iqbal says: 

‘The Ultimate Reality, according to the Qur’an is spiritual and its life consists in its temporal activity. The spirit finds its opportunities in the natural, the material, the secular (worldly). All that is secular is, therefore, sacred in the roots of its being… the merely material has no substance until we discover it rooted in the spiritual’. 

Thus Iqbal proves that all that is worldly or secular is also sacred if only we connect to it with the spirituality that connects everything and this does not mean in any way that ‘secularism’ and Islam are compatible. Secularism is the theory of separating the state and religion, spirit and matter, whereas Islam, according to Iqbal, sees them in one unity. Iqbal sees Turkey’s Nationalist Party’s move, of his days, towards secularizing their state as a copying of the European model wherein the Church and the State have always been two opposing forces. Christianity was inducted into the Roman state after living a gipsy’s life for three centuries but Islam started with the establishment of the state in Medina, quickly crossing the boundaries of Arabia too. For Islam the state and religion were one from the first date of Hijra. 

In contrast Iqbal sides with the Religious Reform Party of Turkey for their belief that ‘Islam is the harmony of idealism and positivism and as a unity of the eternal verities of freedom, equalit and solidarity has no fatherland’. Iqbal says that like there is no English Mathematics or French Chemistry, likewise there is not any Turkish, Arabian or Indian Islam; the universal verities of Islam do create national varieties, but the Universals command the variations not vice versa. For this reason Iqbal quotes that ‘modern culture, based… on national egoism is… another form of barbarism’, at the same time admiting that ‘moral and social ideals of Islam have been gradually de-Islamized through the influence of local character and pre-Islamic superstitions of Muslim nations’. Iqbal goes on with several examples of Ijtehad in modern Turkey, praising them as they claimed their ‘right to intellectual freedom’. 

Nevertheless, Ijtehad can never undermine the Universals, like when Iqbal welcomes the liberal movement in modern Islam, he really means to liberate the Muslim thought of the stagnancy of the set schools and a fresh return to the Quran for legislation but Liberalism per se, may be a threat just like the three threats that led the early Muslims to conservatism. Liberalism, according to Iqbal, when a political movement like it came in Europe caused only the ‘displacement of the universal ethics of Christianity by systems of national ethics’. Iqbal warns: 

‘It is the duty of the leaders of the world of Islam today to understand the real meaning of what has happened in Europe and then to move forward with self-control and a clear insight into the ultimate aims of Islam as a social polity’. 

Yet again Iqbal does advocate the need for Ijtehad and complete new legislation based on the earliest sources, the Quran, the Sunnah (provided that it has been well scrutinized), Ijmaa and Qiyas. Still again he warns, ‘while enjoying his creative activity and always focusing his energies of the discovery of new vistas of life, man has a feeling of uneasiness in the presence of his own enfoldment. In his forward movement he cannot help looking back to his past, and faces his own inward expansion with a certain amount of fear… No people can afford to reject their past entirely, for it is their past that has made their personal identity’. 

‘Islam is non-territorial in its character and its aim is to furnish a model for the final combination of humanity by drawing its adherents from a variety of mutually repellent races, and then transforming this atomic aggregate into a people possessing a self-consciousness of their own’, he says. 

In advocating the true power of Ijmaa, Iqbal says, ‘The growth of republican spirit and the gradual formation of legislative assemblies in Muslim lands constitute a great step in advance. The transfer of the power of jtihad from individual representatives of schools to a Muslim legislative assembly which, in view of the growth of opposing sects, is the only possible form Ijmaa can take in modern times and will secure contributions to legal discussion from laymen who happen to possess a keen insight into affairs’. 

Therefore in the midst of a natural fear of disintegration, Iqbal deems us to take the challenge of the reconstruction in our hands, only the reconstruction should assure the revival and reconnection of the lost spirit of Islam, he says: 

‘Equipped with penetrative thought and fresh experience the world of Islam should courageously proceed to the work of reconstruction before them… Humanity needs three things today – a spiritual interpretation of the universe, spiritual emancipation of the individual, and basic principles of a universal import directing the evolution of human society on a spiritual basis.’ 

On criticizing the use of Qiyas by the early schools, Iqbal warns that ‘the school of Abu Hanifah tended to ignore the creative freedom and arbitrariness of life, and hoped to build a logically perfect legal system on the lines of pure reason’, but pure Aristotelian logic does not serve the real, live human situations, Iqbal says: 

‘This is the reason why pure thought has so little influenced men, while religion has always elevated individuals, and transformed whole societies. The idealism of Europe never became a living factor in her life, and the result is a perverted ego seeking itself through mutually intolerant democracies whose sole function is to exploit the poor in the interest of the rich.’ 

The principle of movement in the structure of Islam is thus guided by the Universals of change, and the power and responsibility on the Muslim to reassess his situation all the time. It is based on intuition of the individual thinkers but its survival is in an institution. It aims for the safeguard of equality, solidarity and freedom, yet it fears loss of the integrity of its world-wide community in the path of its self-realization. The ‘movement’, in Iqbal’s view is an act of liberation and man’s emancipation and is actually man’s freedom from the secular insomuch that his flight to the Ultimate should not be hindered and secular insomuch as he is the graceful commander upon matter. Iqbal reminds us that the Muslims have this unique ingredient that the rest of humanity has lost in its neglect, which serves as the ultimate uniting force that can truly emancipate man. Iqbal says: 

‘The Muslim, on the other hand, is in possession of these ultimate ideas of the basis of a revelation which, speaking from the inmost depths of life, internalizes its own apparent externality. With him the spiritual basis of life is a matter of conviction for which even the least enlightened man among us can easily lay down his life and in view of the basic idea of Islam that there can be no further revelation binding on man, we ought to be spiritually one of the most emancipated people on earth’.