Secular and Liberal Iqbal

Secular and Liberal Iqbal


The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center abruptly changed the world order, Muslims suffered in every western country and western scholars and intellectuals posed serious questions against their old age traditions and rituals, in order to talk about the modern world, its nature and relation to the world of Islam today. One has to take into consideration the fact that there are specific as well as general challenges of an intellectual and spiritual order which the modern world has placed before the contemporary Muslim and to realise the role that Islamic tradition can play in providing the means to answer these challenges.
Iqbal’s magnum opus in English, ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’ is meant to shed some light on the broad spectrum of knowledge. Iqbal’s thought is based on wide reading, his views on religion are that of 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 there is also 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 whole humanity and aims to take humanity to an encounter with the ‘Ultimate Reality of all things’.
Iqbal said ‘change’ is just as important as ‘the permanent’, it is “one of the greatest `signs’ of God”, and excluding the possibility of change ‘immobilises what is essentially mobile in nature’ – 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 (PBUH) in his own life when he had appointed Mu’adh as ruler of Yemen, who confirmed to the Prophet (PBUH) 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, 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 traditional teachings. But they failed to see that ‘an over-organised society’ crushes out 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 as the manifestation of the spirit of freedom.
It should not be mistaken that this equality, solidarity and freedom is the same as talked of 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. 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 secularising their state as copying 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 gypsy’s life for three centuries, but Islam started with the establishment of the state in Medina, quickly crossing the boundaries of Arabia. 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, equality and solidarity, and 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 says that ‘modern culture, based, on national egoism is another form of barbarism’; at the same time admitting that ‘moral and social ideals of Islam have been gradually de-Islamised through the influence of local character and pre-Islamic superstitions of Muslim nations’. Iqbal goes on with several examples of Ijtihad in modern Turkey, praising them as they claimed their ‘right to intellectual freedom’.
Nevertheless, Ijtihad 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 Ijtihad and complete new legislation based on the earliest sources, the Quran: ‘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. The principle of movement in the structure of Islam is  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-realisation’. Iqbal reminds us that the Muslims have this unique ingredient that the rest of humanity has lost, 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, internalises 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’.

—The writer is a PhD scholar at the Iqbal Institute of Culture and Philosophy, University of Kashmir

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