Ahmed Afzaal

Faith and Philosophy (1)

The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is primarily a philosophical text; yet, the vast majority of people are neither philosophers nor do they harbor any burning desire to study this subject. But there are two redeeming features of the book: First, the title has the word “Islam” in it; and second, and it was written by a famous person. As a result, those who are interested in Islam and/or the author may feel enough curiosity to pick up the book, with every intention to read it. But the text is challenging even for students of philosophy, and is even more intimidating to those without a great deal of prior knowledge in theology and related subjects. These two facts, put together, raise the following question: What’s in it for me? Why should I spend all this time and mental energy on trying to understand a bunch of complex and abstract ideas that don’t have any obvious relevance to my everyday life? What am I supposed to do with the information that this book provides? In what ways is it going to help me strengthen my personal faith or enhance my religious practice? What do I stand to lose, if anything, if I decide to not engage with this book?

That is a legitimate question, but I cannot answer it all by myself. Here’s why. The question is not simply about the book; rather, it is about the relationship among three variables: the reader, the book, and the context in which it is being read. I have some sense of the book, and I can assume that your context is not too different from my own; however, you happen know the reader—yourself—much better than I do. So, let’s pool our resources and try to find the answer together. To do so, I would like to divide the question into two parts. Consider the first part:

Am I going to personally benefit from reading The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam?

To answer this question, please read the following statement and give it some thought. Then decide if it is true or false.

I never encounter any significant doubt, question, or criticism concerning my religious tradition, either from myself or from someone else, to which I cannot respond in a convincing manner.

If the above statement is true for you, then you are not going to benefit from reading the Reconstruction at all. Don’t waste your time. There is nothing in the book that you are likely to find useful or beneficial, or even interesting.

On the other hand, if the above statement does not apply to you, if you think the statement is false as far as you are concerned, then I would say that you probably need to engage with this book. The Reconstruction contains information that may help you develop a fresh perspective, not only with respect to religion but also with respect to the world, life, and self. I would go as far as to say that there is a whole other universe waiting for you to discover, and this book is one of its many portals.

If you are still reading, it is probably because you do encounter doubts, questions, and criticisms concerning your religious tradition that are both substantial and perplexing—they clamor for your attention but they don’t seem to have simple answers. In fact, you are probably aware that you are not alone in this, that the vast majority of people you know also encounter very similar perplexities. Furthermore, it is likely that at various points in the past you were able to figure out a few good answers, or good answers were given to you by other people. They made perfect sense at the time, and they did keep you satisfied for a while. But then, a few years passed and these answers started to lose their ability to satisfy you, until one day you found that they no longer work. That’s when you scratched your head and said: “I don’t believe that anymore.” Back to square one.

If any of this sounds true, think of it as a sign that reading the Reconstruction is likely to be of considerable benefit to you. If certain conditions are met, it may even be life-changing.

But then, there is the second part of the question.

Exactly how is this book going to benefit me?

To this question, I am afraid I cannot provide a customized response; instead, I would have to speak in general terms. Once you grasp my general response, I hope you’ll be able to apply it to your specific needs.

What I am tempted to do at this point is to start from first principles and then go step by step so I can provide a full, detailed, and exhaustive explanation, but that would take weeks or months. So, I am going to resist that temptation and just write a short answer. The problem with a short answer is that it generates more questions than it resolves. However, I don’t feel any urgent need to preemptively address all possible objections right at this moment. Therefore, below I will try to paint the big picture in a few broad strokes, while leaving the details for another time.

The Short Answer

The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is a highly condensed statement of Iqbal’s contribution towards resolving the modern predicament of religion. The modern predicament of religion refers to the fact that the modern worldview is essentially incompatible with religious faith. This means that if we take the modern worldview seriously, and if we think in a logically consistent manner, then we cannot, at the same time, maintain a commitment to any form of religious faith. It is, of course, possible to have some degree of faith while also embracing the modern worldview, but that requires us to be logically inconsistent, or—what amounts to the same thing—adopt a split mindset so we can pretend to believe in two sets of mutually exclusive propositions simultaneously. The Reconstruction contains Iqbal’s response to this predicament, which is based on a two-pronged strategy: First, Iqbal examines the Islamic tradition and attempts to separate the essential from the non-essential. The reason he has to do this is because the premodern formulations of Islamic thought cannot survive a face-to-face encounter with the modern worldview unscathed. Consequently, Iqbal has to decide which aspects of the Islamic tradition are essential and must be preserved at all costs and which ones are non-essential and therefore not worth fighting for. Second, Iqbal examines the modern worldview, accepts some of its contributions as true and useful, and then uses them to criticize some of its most problematic shortcomings. Finally, he shows that what is true and useful in the modern worldview and what is essential in the Islamic tradition are not only perfectly compatible with each other but that they point toward the same reality.

Notice that if Iqbal had rejected the entire modern worldview, he would also have thrown out everything that he knew was true and useful in that worldview. But if, on the contrary, Iqbal had embraced the entire modern worldview, he would have sacrificed either his religious faith or his intellectual integrity. Instead of rejecting or embracing the modern worldview in its entirety, Iqbal chose a third option. The approach he ended up adopting had no name during his own life-time, but today it is known as “constructive postmodernism.” By essentially pioneering this approach in the Islamic context, Iqbal successfully demonstrated how later generations of Muslim theologians and philosophers can help cultivate religious faith while also going beyond the modern worldview.

Reconstruction: Preface (4)

Following are some thoughts in response to students’ questions and comments.

Religion vs. Science

Based on what he has to say in the “Preface,” Iqbal’s project of reconstructing Islamic thought seems to be heavily focused on producing what he calls “a scientific form of religious knowledge.” It is not entirely clear what he means, though the reader should assume that the book itself is going to provide some explanation of this phrase. It is therefore important to keep this question in mind as we proceed with our reading of the Reconstruction.

But it is true that the whole idea of reconciling science and religion can be confusing, especially if the reader has previously seen unsuccessful or uninformed attempts at achieving such an outcome.

There are several different approaches for thinking about the relationship between science and religion. For instance, one particular approach recommends that we keep these two separate from each other. The idea is that religion and science have completely different spheres of activity, and therefore never the twain shall meet. Stephen Jay Gould, a biologist, has argued that religion and science represent mutually exclusive domains of inquiry, which he calls “non-overlapping magisteria” (or NOMA). The underlying assumption is that science deals solely with facts and religion deals exclusively with values. Since facts and values are totally unrelated, so must be science and religion. Many religious individuals are fond of NOMA, probably because it protects religion from any criticism from science, even though that protection comes at a cost, i.e., NOMA inserts a wedge in human knowledge, splitting it into discontinuous domains.

Another version of this approach was cited by a commenter on a previous blog post, which goes as follows: Science is concerned with “discovering the laws of nature” while religion “provides the moral code” for society to live by. The conclusion that seems to be implied in this observation is that any search for harmony between religion and science is likely to be a pointless enterprise.

What’s noteworthy about this argument is that the conclusion of incompatibility is already assumed in the very definitions of science and religion. I don’t deny that it is possible to define science and religion in ways that make them mutually exclusive, but that should make us wonder if there are alternative but legitimate ways of defining science and religion that lead to the opposite conclusion. For if such ways exist, then it would follow that the relationship between science and religion is not a matter that can be settled at the level of definitions.

Similarly, we should remember that the NOMA approach works only insofar as the fact-value dichotomy is maintained. But if it can be shown that the world of facts and the world of values aren’t as distinct as we’ve assumed, and that they do, in fact, overlap to a significant extent, then NOMA becomes untenable. As we read the Reconstruction, it would be interesting to find any clues that might illuminate how Iqbal defines science and religion, as well as whether or not he supports the fact-value dichotomy.

Here’s a more fundamental reason why NOMA is problematic, particularly from an Islamic perspective. If we assume that both science and religion are legitimate sources of knowledge, then we have to ask whether scientific knowledge and religious knowledge refer to the same reality or do they refer to two different realities? If we accept that reality is singular, as the imperative of tawhid seems to demand, then these two forms of knowledge must describe that same reality, perhaps from two different perspectives. The difference in perspective can be expected to produce difference in form and emphasis, but it shouldn’t produce two independent bodies of knowledge that are mutually exclusive, non-overlapping, and incompatible with each other.

An Absent God

The commenter has also quoted Isaac Newton, who believed that natural phenomena were caused “at first by the immediate hand of the Creator, and ever since by the power of Nature.” This quotation was probably intended to show the non-overlapping nature of religion and science. However, Newton’s statement is actually a concise expression of Deism, despite the fact that Newton himself was not a deist. Deism, of course, was a highly influential viewpoint among Western elites (including the Founding Fathers of the United States) during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Deism is relevant in the present context because it was an attempt to protect the Christian idea of God from any attacks inspired by scientific naturalism. By arguing that God did create nature and its laws but hasn’t been involved in any of its workings ever since, members of the educated class could justify their belief in God as rational while also acknowledging that natural phenomena could be explained without any reference to God’s will. From a sociological perspective, Deism became popular because it allowed the elites to avoid the stigma of atheism but without being seen as backward or unenlightened, as well as to maintain a solid foundation for morality and, in turn, for the legitimacy of political order. In the deist view, God brought the world into existence and set forth the laws of nature; from that moment on, the world has been functioning in accordance with these laws, which we can discover with the help of science, but it no longer needs God to run the show. This view is often summed up in the phrase “clockwork universe.” The metaphor is apt because you had to manually wind a spring by turning a key in the back (or sometimes front) of a mechanical clock; after this, the clock would function without any further intervention for up to a week or even a month, depending on the type. This metaphor had originated in the Middle Ages, when it was used to describe the exquisite balance of God’s creation, but it subsequently acquired a very different meaning. Among philosophers, Gottfried Leibniz was a major proponent of “clockwork universe.” To be sure, Newton himself did not like this way of describing the universe; the metaphor suggested a world that was completely independent of God, whereas Newton wanted to affirm the role of divine providence. It is instructive to note that even though Newton, because of his personal religious views, abhorred the mechanistic philosophy of Descartes, his own scientific discoveries ended up providing a great deal of support to the notion of a “clockwork universe.” It would seem that Newton’s religion and Newton’s science remain on parallel tracks; clearly, the moment was not ripe for a full-fledged integration.

The major downside of the perspective represented by the phrase “clockwork universe” was that God came to be seen as separate from, and unrelated to, the world of sense experience. Deists wanted to affirm the existence of God, but apparently the only way they could do so was by sending God into exile. The belief in God survived the onslaught of scientific naturalism, but only at the cost of divine immanence.

Even though Deism as a movement no longer exists, the notion of a complete separation between the Creator and the creation remains widespread among modern-day Christians and Muslims. In fact, it is often incorrectly assumed to represent the authentic doctrine required by these traditions, when it is actually a legacy of the Enlightenment.

So, what exactly is wrong with the view that God is above, beyond, separate from, and essentially outside the world? First, it goes against both the biblical and the qur’anic teachings about God. Second, positing a deity who is outside the concrete, material reality within which we find ourselves leads to several negative consequences. It generates a view of the natural world that is devoid of all sacred and spiritual value; the world effectively becomes meaningless. It denies the possibility of experiencing God, except in cases of direct divine interventions. It deprives a huge body of human knowledge, namely science, from having any religious significance whatsoever. It widens the gulf between spirit and matter, which contributes to the desacralization of the body. The overall result is a widespread secularization of experience.

In the Reconstruction, Iqbal has a great deal to say about theology. However, the deity he affirms has nothing in common with the absent God of deism. To cite just one example, Iqbal highlights the fact that the Qur’an describes the universe as expanding, growing, and evolving, and that it presents creation not as a one-time event that took place in the distant past, but as God’s ongoing activity,

No Finality in Philosophical Thinking

In his “Preface,” Iqbal wrote that there was “no such thing as finality in philosophical thinking.” In explaining this sentence, I suggested that philosophical ideas tend to become obsolete over time. It was then brought to my attention that this is not exactly correct, given that people are still referring to the ideas first expressed by Plato and Aristotle more than two millennia ago. That is a fair point, and I would like to say a few things by way of clarification.

First, it is indeed true that philosophical ideas don’t become obsolete in the same way as software manuals do, i.e., they don’t become completely useless as soon as a new version is released. The type of progress we are used to seeing in science and technology doesn’t really happen in philosophy, which, depending on your viewpoint, may or may not be a defect. This is partly because of the abstract nature of most philosophical writings, which—like poetry–may allow practically endless opportunities for fresh interpretations. However, many philosophical ideas do become obsolete over time, in the sense that they are no longer as interesting, fertile, or useful as they once were; or in the sense that they lose their attraction or legitimacy as a result of cultural evolution. Moreover, just because we continue to discuss philosophical ideas that first emerged hundreds of years ago does not necessarily mean that we also find them convincing or true; very often, we study these old ideas to understand how they impacted society and how they shaped the thinking of later philosophers.

Second, when Iqbal says that “there is no such thing as finality in philosophical thinking,” he is clearly not referring to philosophical ideas becoming unworthy of study or attention. He is referring to the fact that the philosophical quest does not have an end point, for it is really a conversation among thoughtful and inquisitive minds that has been taking place over the course of millennia. The reason why this conversation cannot end is because no matter how intelligent or true your ideas may be, someone can always come up with better, more interesting, and more useful ideas than yours. It may not happen in your own life-time, but it will eventually happen. To paraphrase another statement of Newton’s, this is because every generation of philosophers must inevitably stand on the shoulders of the previous generation of philosophers, and is for that reason able to see a little bit further than its predecessors. This fact alone does not guarantee that every new idea will be an improvement on every old idea, but it does suggest that the philosophical contributions of every generation create new possibilities that subsequent generations are able to exploit in order to push the conversation forward. Iqbal knew that his views would not constitute the absolute last word on how to formulate “a scientific form of religious knowledge,” but he must have been conscious that his lectures would set a process into motion that would—hopefully—make it possible for others to generate “sounder views” than his own.

As a side note, consider the fact that Iqbal would not have been able to do what he did if it were not for the work of his predecessors, such as Sayyid Ahmad Khan. In the same way, it was Iqbal’s monumental work on the reconstruction of Islamic thought that arguably made the largest contribution to the modern revival of Muslim intellectual culture. If that revival hadn’t happened, it is very unlikely that a large segment of Muslims would have developed the kind of interests and inclinations that have, for example, led you and me to this blog post.

I believe we have every right to judge Iqbal’s philosophy, but even when we decide that some of Iqbal’s ideas were less than perfect, we should remember that we wouldn’t have been in a position to make these judgments if it were not for the “fresh avenues of thought” that became available to us at least partly due to Iqbal’s own trailblazing contributions.

Finally, notice Iqbal’s phrase “as knowledge advances,” for it tells us something important about the relationship between philosophy and science. This relationship is hard to delineate historically, since the distinction between philosophy and science is itself relatively recent (until the nineteenth century, science was simply known as “natural philosophy”). But if we focus on the recent past, we can see that at every point in time philosophy has been limited in many ways by the scientific knowledge that existed at that point. No doubt, philosophy can speculate a great deal about the unknown, and in that sense it is able to venture far beyond what science can say; however, what philosophy cannot do is either ignore or violate that “systematized body of knowledge” whose truth value has been underwritten by the scientific method. In other words, the state of scientific knowledge at any historical moment (at least since the time when science became distinct from philosophy) tends to determine the general contours of what can and cannot be thought in the domain of philosophy.

It is often said that in the Middle Ages philosophy was handmaiden to theology, but in the modern era it has become handmaiden to science. There is more than a grain of truth in this statement, even as it contains a great deal of exaggeration.

Given this relationship between science and philosophy, we can expect that as science progresses, or—to borrow Iqbal’s phrase—“as knowledge advances,” the contours of what can and cannot be thought in the domain of philosophy will also keep changing. As scientific knowledge evolves, we can expect that many current heresies will become orthodoxies just as some of today’s orthodoxies will become heresies. That is because advances in science cause the emergence of entirely new pathways in the intellectual landscape, just as they also obliterate many older ones.

Today, of course, it is very obvious that no philosopher can reject the established facts of science and still command the respect of his/her peers; but this was largely true before the twentieth century as well, at least in cases where we can distinguish between science and philosophy. Deism is a case in point. The deists saw the world in mechanical terms because the state of scientific knowledge in the Enlightenment era was such that it encouraged philosophers to think along certain pathways and not along other pathways (which, for all practical purposes, did not exist). It is precisely because twentieth-century science was significantly ahead of the Enlightenment era science that twentieth-century philosophers—such as Iqbal—could take advantage of the “fresh avenues of thought” that post-Newtonian science had opened up for them, avenues that simply weren’t available to the deists.

What Iqbal is telling us at the end of his “Preface” is that progress in philosophy is tied in many ways to progress in science. The reason why he is hopeful that ideas better than his own will emerge is because he thinks progress in science will continue long after his own era. Iqbal is saying that as human knowledge advances, it is highly likely that many useful and productive ways of thinking would become available that aren’t possible today, and that these would, hopefully, allow future generations of Muslim philosophers to come up with “sounder views” than the ones he is presenting in the Reconstruction.

Lecture I: Overview

The first lecture in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is titled “Knowledge and Religious Experience.” After reading the lecture at least twice—or as many times as necessary—the reader should be able to carry out step 2 of analytical reading (“State what the whole text is about with the utmost brevity.”)

Since every lecture in the Reconstruction seems to address a variety of topics, step 2 can be incredibly helpful in allowing the reader to apprehend the single most important idea that structures “the whole text,” as opposed to just one of its sections or sub-sections. The reader’s job here is not to make a list of all the topics discussed in the text (“The author talks about A, and B, and C, and …”) as if they were a random collection of unrelated items. Rather, the reader’s job is to find the one theme that represents the text’s underlying unity. The underlying unity of a text is the single most important thought that makes all of its different components hang together; it is what transforms a broad range of ideas into a coherent whole. Step 2 asks the reader not only to find the underlying unity (“what the whole text is about”) but to also state that unity as concisely as possible, preferably in no more than one or two sentences

Based on my current understanding of the first lecture, here’s how I would carry out step 2 of analytical reading: Taken as a whole, Lecture I is about establishing that religious experience is a potentially valid source of knowledge.

Next, we have to tackle step 3 of analytical reading. This step requires us to create an outline of the text that shows its various components as well as the manner in which these components are interrelated (“Enumerate the text’s major parts in their order and relation …”). Completing this step will allow the reader to visualize the text as a complex whole, thereby rendering it more manageable for the purpose of in-depth analysis and interpretation. Since creating an outline requires at least some understanding of the content, we can expect that different readers will produce somewhat different outlines of the same text; readers are also likely to make changes in their outlines as their comprehension of the text improves over time. Discerning the logical sub-divisions in a text with no section breaks or subheadings can be especially tricky, but the reader can usually rely on the various clues that the author is likely to have left within the text. Generally speaking, it is a good idea for every reader to create his/her own outline, rather than rely on someone else’s.

Following is my attempt at creating an outline of the first lecture. I suggest you create your own outline first, and then compare it with mine.

Knowledge and Religious Experience

This lecture is divided into two main sections. The first section is an extended argument for reconstructing Islamic religious thought, and, as such, serves as an introduction to the entire lecture series. The second section addresses the main topic, i.e., the nature and value of religious experience.

I. Why Reconstruction?

A. Need for a Rational Justification of Religious Faith [1]
  1. Religion vs. Philosophy
  2. Thought vs. Intuition
B. Critical Appraisal of Classical Islamic Thought [2–3]
  1. Legitimacy of the Project
  2. Eclipse of Qur’anic Empiricism
  3. Rise of Philosophical Skepticism
  4. Kant vs. Ghazali
  5. Misunderstanding Thought
C. Demand for a Fresh Orientation of Islamic Faith [4]
  1. Current State of Islamic and Western Thought
  2. Anti-Religious Sentiments among Muslims
  3. Purpose of this Lecture Series

II. Epistemology of Religious Experience

A. Conflict between Matter and Spirit [5–6]
  1. Christian Response
  2. Islamic Response
B. Fundamental Teachings of the Qur’an [7–17]
  1. Character of the Universe [7–9]
  2. Nature & Potential of the Human Being [10–14]
  3. Nature & Function of Human Knowledge [15–16]
  4. Empirical Attitude of the Qur’an [17]
C. Two Modes of Experiential Knowledge [18–19]
  1. Sense Perception
  2. Heart/Intuition/Insight
D. Main Characteristics of Mystic Experience [20–29]
  1. Immediacy [20]
  2. Wholeness [21]
  3. Unique Other Self [22–24]
  4. Feeling vs. Idea [25–27]
  5. Naturalness [28–29]
E. Psychological Critique of Religious Experience [30–33]
  1. Wish Fulfillment
  2. Sexual Impulse
F. Two Ways to Test the Validity of Revelation [34]
  1. Intellectual Test
  2. Pragmatic Test

Finally, step 4 of analytical reading requires us to figure out the question(s) to which the text is supposed to be responding (“Define the problem(s) the author is trying to solve”). Here, too, it is best if each reader attempts this exercise on his/her own. Even though it can be frustrating at times, the mental effort you invest in discerning the question(s) or problem(s) that the author is trying to resolve can be highly rewarding. Step 4 gives you the opportunity to practice a way of thinking that most people don’t get to practice enough—it requires you to take a familiar approach (Q —> A) and reverse it (A—>Q). Your brain will thank you!

Based on my current understanding of the first lecture, I have come up with the following questions that I believe Iqbal is trying to address.

I. Why Reconstruction?
  • What does it mean to reconstruct Islamic religious thought in the modern era?
  • Is this attempt at reconstruction legitimate from an Islamic perspective?
  • What justifies this project, given that we already possess a rich tradition of religious thought?
  • Why now? What makes the reconstruction of Islamic thought urgent and necessary at this particular moment?
II. Epistemology of Religious Experience
  • What fundamental contribution can Islam make to humanity?
  • How does the Qur’an respond to questions that are common to religion, philosophy, and higher poetry?
  • How do inner and outer experiences yield reliable knowledge?
  • What is a mystic experience? What are its main characteristics?
  • How can the mystic experience be defended against the criticism of psychology?
  • How can we tell whether the knowledge yielded by religious experience is true?

What questions do you think Iqbal is trying to answer? Are they similar to mine or did you come up with very different ones? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.


The main text of the Reconstruction is organized into seven lectures, each of which has its own title. However, there are no section breaks or subheadings within any of these lectures. This poses a difficulty for the person who is trying to apply the steps of analytical reading to understand Iqbal’s text. Specifically, the absence of clear sub-divisions in the Reconstruction makes it hard for the reader to identify the different segments that make up each lecture, which is what step 3 of analytical reading requires. To make the reader’s task easier, I would like to amend the process of analytical reading by adding a new step. Since this step has to be carried out before step 3, let’s call it step 2A.

Step 2A. If the author of a relatively long text hasn’t included any section breaks or subheadings, give each paragraph a number. This extra step may seem tedious or unnecessary, but it will save you a lot of headache in the long run. Assign consecutive numbers to the paragraphs by writing them in the left-hand margin of the page next to each indent. Maintain a consistent style throughout the text, so you can easily distinguish paragraph numbers from any other annotations you might subsequently add. For example, you may want to enclose your paragraph number within square brackets and use the same colored pen or pencil throughout the book.

So, I followed my own advice and numbered all the paragraphs in my copy of the Reconstruction, as listed below. In future posts, I will use this numbering system to outline each lecture as well to refer to specific paragraphs.

Lecture I: Knowledge and Religious Experience

[1] What is the character (pp. 1–2)
[2] The search for rational (pp. 2–4)
[3] It cannot, however, be (pp. 4–5)
[4] During the last five (pp. 6–7)
[5] The main purpose of (p. 7)
[6] Thus the affirmation of (pp.7–8)
[7] What, then, according to (p. 8)
[8] Again the universe is so (p. 8)
[9] This is what the Prophet (p. 8–9)
[10] Such being the nature (p. 9)
[11] And how do we find him (p. 9)
[12] His career, no doubt, has (p. 9)
[13] When attracted by the (pp. 9–10)
[14] It is the lot of man (p. 10)
[15] If he does not take the (p. 10)
[16] The point of these (pp. 10–11)
[17] No doubt, the (pp. 11–12)
[18] There is no doubt (pp.12–13)

[19] The “heart” is a kind of inner (pp. 13–14)
[20] The first point to note is the (p. 14)
[21] The second point is the (pp. 14–150
[22] The third point is that to the (pp. 15–16)
[23] Response, no doubt, is the test (p. 16)
[24] It is clear that whether we apply (p. 16)
[25] Since the quality of mystic (pp. 16–17)
[26] The incommunicability of (p. 17)

[27] Thus you will see that it is (pp. 17–18)
[28] The mystic’s intimate association (p. 18)
[29] For the purposes of (pp. 18–19)
[30] The problem of Christian (p. 19)
[31] And it is in the elimination of (pp. 19–20)
[32] Nor is it possible to explain (pp. 20–21)
[33] A purely psychological method (p. 21)
[34] The foregoing discussion (pp. 21–22)

Lecture II: The Philosophic Test of the Revelations of Religious Experience

[1] Scholastic philosophy has (p. 23)
[2] The cosmological argument (pp. 23–24)
[3] Descartes supplements this (pp. 24–26)
[4] Now experience, as unfolding (pp. 26–27)
[5] It was the philosopher (pp. 27–28)
[6] According to Professor (pp. 28–30)
[7] Thus Bertrand Russell (p. 30)
[8] With Einstein space is (pp. 30–32)
[9] Passing now to other (pp. 33–35)
[10] Life is, then, a unique (pp. 35–36)
[11] I will now try to reach (pp. 36–37)

[12] There is another set of (pp. 37–38)
[13] Thus, there is nothing (pp. 38–39)
[14] If we look at the movement (pp. 39–41)
[15] On the analogy of our (p. 41)
[16] According to Bergson (pp. 41–42)
[17] The poet means to say (pp. 42–43)
[18] Bergson, however, denies (pp. 43–44)
[19] We are now, I hope, in a (pp. 44–45)
[20] The above discussion (pp. 45–47)
[21] But the question you are (p. 47)
[22] It was the fear of (pp. 47–48)
[23] Thus a comprehensive (pp. 48–49)

Lecture III: The Conception of God and the Meaning of Prayer

[1] We have seen that (p. 50)
[2] But is hard to understand (p. 50)
[3] In the light of this (pp.50–51)
[4] No doubt, the opening (p. 51)
[5] There is, however, one (pp. 51–52)
[6] The other important (p. 52)
[7] Finite minds regard (pp. 52–53)
[8] The last sentence in (pp. 53–54)
[9] There is, however, one (p. 54)
[10] The rise and growth (pp. 54–55)
[11] According to the Ash’arite (p. 55)
[12] Again we have seen (pp. 55–56)
[13] Another feature of this (p. 56)
[14] I am inclined to think (p. 56)
[15] The second proposition (pp. 56–57)
[16] Reality is, therefore, (pp. 57–58)
[17] Thus, a criticism (p. 58)
[18] The problem of time (pp. 58–60)
[19] The point, however, is (pp. 60–61)
[20] The above discussion (pp. 61–62)

[21] The word “knowledge” (pp. 62–64)
[22] But how, it may be (p. 64)
[23] Omnipotence, abstractly (pp. 64–65)
[24] To the optimist Browning (p. 65)
[25] But the clue to a (p. 65)
[26] Turning to the legend of (pp. 65–66)
[27] The Qur’an omits the (p. 66)
[28] The Qur’an splits up the (pp. 66–67)
[29] The Old Testament curses the (p. 67)
[30] Thus we see that the (pp. 67–68)
[31] Further, it is the nature (pp. 68–69)
[32] The second episode of the (p. 69)
[33] The central idea here is to (pp. 69–70)
[34] Shall we, then, say no or yes (p. 70)
[35] I have now explained (pp. 70–71)
[36] Thus you will see that (pp. 71-73)
[37] The truth is that all search (p. 73)
[38] The real object of prayer (pp. 73–74)
[39] Prayer, then, whether (p. 74)
[40] The form of prayer (p. 75)
[41] Yet we cannot ignore (pp. 74–75)

Lecture IV: The Human Ego—His Freedom and Immortality

[1] The Qur’an in its simple (p. 76)
[2] Yet it is surprising to see (pp. 77–78)
[3] In the history of modern (pp. 78–79)
[4] The finite centre of experience (p. 79)
[5] Another important (pp. 79–80)
[6] To the Muslim school of (pp. 80–81)
[7] Yet the interpretations (pp. 81–82)
[8] In order to understand (pp. 82–83)
[9] The next question is (p. 83)
[10] The “yet another make” (pp. 83–84)
[11] Thus parallelism and (pp. 84–85)
[12] This view of the matter (pp. 85–86)
[13] Thus the element of (pp. 86–87
[14] Indeed Islam recognizes a (p. 87)
[15] It cannot, however, be (pp. 87–88)
[16] The fatalism implied (p. 88)
[17] But is it not true (p. 88)
[18] Hegel’s view of Reality (p. 89)

[19] No age has produced so much (p. 89)
[20] In modern times the line (pp. 89–91)
[21] There is, however, in the (pp. 21–92)
[22] Such is Nietzsche’s (p. 92)
[23] Passing now to the teachings (p. 92)
[24] Before, however, we take (pp. 92–93)
[25] This is a very important (p. 93)
[26] Whatever may be the (pp. 93–94)
[27] Who can be the subject of (p. 94)
[28] This is the ideal (p. 94)
[29] Pantheistic Sufism obviously (p. 94)
[30] With these three points (pp. 94–95)
[31] It is highly improbable that (p. 95)
[32] And how to make the soul (p. 95)
[33] Life offers a scope for (pp. 95–96)
[34] How did man first emerge? (pp. 96–97)
[35] The point, however, which has (p. 97)
[36] To my mind these (pp. 97–98)
[37] However, according to the (p. 98)

Lecture V: The Spirit of Muslim Culture

[1] “Muhammad of Arabia (pp. 99–100)
[2] A prophet may be defined as (p. 100)
[3] Looking at the matter (pp. 100–102)
[4] But inner experience (p. 102)
[5] This intellectual revolt (pp. 102–103)
[6] In his Qistas he puts (pp. 103–104)
[7] The first important point (pp. 104–105)
[8] Knowledge must begin (p. 105)
[9] But the universe, as a (pp. 105–106)
[10] Al-Biruni took (p. 106)
[11] Side by side with the (pp. 106–107)
[12] According to Ibn Maskawaih (p. 107)
[13] But it is really religious (p. 107)

[14] According to ‘Iraqi (pp. 107–108)
[15] But we must not forget (pp. 108–109)
[16] Having thus described the (p. 109)
[17] From this summary of (pp. 109–110)
[18] Thus all lines of Muslim (pp. 110–111)
[19] The last verse (p. 111)
[20] However, the interest (pp. 111–112)
[21] It is the application (p. 112)
[22] 1. The Unity of Human Origin (p. 112)
[23] 2. A Keen Sense of the (pp. 112–113)
[24] We are now in a position (p. 113)
[25] It now remains to eradicate (p. 114)
[26] By the expression (pp. 114–115)
[27] If this view of the prophetic (pp. 115)

Lecture VI: The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam

[1] As a cultural movement (pp. 116-117)
[2] The writer then proceeds (p. 117)
[3] The word literally means (pp. 117–118)
[4] 1. We are all familiar with (pp.118–119)
[5] The rise and growth of (p. 119)
[6] This spirit of total (pp. 119-120)
[7] 3. On the top of all this (p. 120)
[8] Ibn Taimiyyah was (pp. 120–121)
[9] Passing on to Turkey (p. 121)
[10] I now proceed to give (pp. 122–123)
[11] The truth is that the Turkish (p. 123)
[12] The Religious Reform (pp. 123–124)
[13] Let us now see how (pp. 124–125)
[14] In order to understand (pp. 125–126)
[15] To my mind these arguments (p. 126)
[16] These lines clearly (p. 126)
[17] From the same poet (pp. 126–127)
[18] It is clear from these lines (p. 127)
[19] If the aim of religion (pp. 127–128)
[20] In another passage the poet (p. 128)
[21] The truth is that among (pp. 128–129)

[22] We heartily welcome (pp. 129–130)
[23] I have given you some (p. 130)
[24] The assimilative spirit (p. 130)
[25] These views of modern (pp. 130–131)
[26] 1. In the first place (p. 131)
[27] 2. Secondly, it is worthy (p. 131)
[28] 3. Thirdly, when we (p. 131)
[29] (a) The Qur’an. (pp. 131–132)
[30] The important point (pp. 132–133)
[31] Turning now to the (pp. 133–134)
[32] You will, I think, remind (p. 134)
[33] With regard to the (pp. 134–135)
[34] The share of the daughter (p. 135)
[35] (b) The Hadith. (pp. 135–136)
[36] For our present (pp. 136–137)
[37] (c) The Ijma’. (pp. 137–138)
[38] But there are one or (pp. 138–139)
[39] But supposing the companions (p. 139)
[40] One more question (pp. 139–140)
[41] (d) The Qiyas. (pp. 140–141)
[42] This brief discussion (pp. 141–142)

Lecture VII: Is Religion Possible?

[1] Broadly speaking (pp. 143–144)
[2] As we all know (pp. 144–146)
[3] But, apart from the (pp. 146-147)
[4] In the second place (pp. 147–148)
[5] On the other hand (p. 148)
[6] Thus, wholly (pp. 148–149)
[7] As I have indicated (pp. 149–150)

[8] The question for us (pp. 150–151)
[9] Yet Jung has violated (pp. 151–152)
[10] This is missing the (pp. 152–153)
[11] Whatever may be the (pp. 153–154)
[12] Thus failed a genius (pp. 154–155)
[13] The truth is that the (pp. 155–156)
[14] Einstein’s mathematical (pp. 156–157)

Reconstruction: Preface (3)

In the “Preface” to his book on The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Iqbal is making an argument as to why this project is necessary as well as urgent. To summarize, religious faith ultimately rests on a particular type of inner experience, but the methods for cultivating such experiences that were developed by our spiritual ancestors are no longer working today, since the modern “cultural outlook” is different in significant ways from that of the earlier generations of Muslims. It is, of course, possible to design new approaches and new methods for cultivating such experiences, but those who are supposed to be doing this are not currently inclined towards that undertaking. So, what is to be done? Iqbal responds as follows:

In the absence of such a method the demand for a scientific form of religious knowledge is only natural.

This sentence contains in a nutshell the whole point, not only of the book but also of the larger project of “reconstruction” that the book aims to initiate. The key phrase here is “a scientific form of religious knowledge.” Before I try to unpack that phrase, let me quote one more sentence.

In these Lectures, which were undertaken at the request of the Madras Muslim Association and delivered at Madras, Hyderabad, and Aligarh, I have tried to meet, even though partially, this urgent demand by attempting to reconstruct Muslim religious philosophy with due regard to the philosophical traditions of Islam and the more recent developments in the various domains of human knowledge.

Recall that step 3 of analytical reading requires us to identify the different sections of the text and to determine how these sections are related to each other. If you are a careful reader, you must have noticed a significant shift as you read the words “In these Lectures….” The sentence that begins with these words is referring to a new topic, for this is the very first time that Iqbal has mentioned his lectures. The shift from one topic to another indicates that the author has just started a new section.

Here’s how I would apply step 3 of analytical reading to the “Preface.”

Even though the entire “Preface” is printed as one long paragraph, it is made up of two main sections. Section 1 begins with “The Qur’an is a book…” and ends with “…is only natural.” Section 2 begins with “In these Lectures…” and goes all the way to end of the “Preface.” Section 1 summarize the author’s argument for the necessity of “reconstructing” Islamic religious thought, which ends in the conclusion that “a scientific form of religious knowledge” is needed today. Section 2 serves at least three functions: first, it introduces the book as a collection of lectures and indicates the author’s overall purpose—which is “to reconstruct Muslim religious philosophy”; and his overall approach—which involves giving proper attention “to the philosophical traditions of Islam” as well as to “recent developments in various domains of human knowledge.” Second, it offers reasons for the author’s optimism that “a scientific form of religious knowledge” is now more possible than ever. Third, it issues a warning or caution about the continuous evolution of philosophical thinking, which precludes any particular attempt from becoming the last word on the topic.

We can now appreciate that the phrase “a scientific form of religious knowledge” is the bridge that connects the two sections of the “Preface,” which further underscores its importance.

To properly grapple with the concept of “a scientific form of religious knowledge,” we are going to need a lot more data than what is available in the “Preface.” For instance, we need to know exactly what Iqbal means by “science” (as well as “religion” and “knowledge”). I don’t think we can form a full understanding of what “a scientific form of religious knowledge” is supposed to mean until after we have read the entire book. However, we can certainly make some preliminary observations, so long as we remember that these observations are tentative; they might turn out to be correct or incorrect, based on what we are going to learn through our subsequent engagement with the Reconstruction.

The word “science” has several different meanings. It is tempting to prioritize the sense in which this word is most commonly used, and then assume that that’s what Iqbal is talking about. That temptation needs to be resisted. American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) has suggested that the word “science” can be defined in at least three ways. I quote the entire passage below:

What is science? The dictionary will say that it is systematized knowledge. Dictionary definitions, however, are too apt to repose upon derivations; which is as much as to say that they neglect too much the later steps in the evolution of meanings. Mere knowledge, though it be systematized, may be a dead memory; while by science we all habitually mean a living and growing body of truth. We might even say that knowledge is not necessary to science. The astronomical researches of Ptolemy, though they are in great measure false, must be acknowledged by every modern mathematician who reads them to be truly and genuinely scientific. That which constitutes science, then, is not so much correct conclusions, as it is a correct method. But the method of science is itself a scientific result. It did not spring out of the brain of a beginner: it was a historic attainment and a scientific achievement. So that not even this method ought to be regarded as essential to the beginnings of science. That which is essential, however, is the scientific spirit, which is determined not to rest satisfied with existing opinions, but to press on to the real truth of nature. To science once enthroned in this sense, among any people, science in every other sense is heir apparent.

Charles Sanders Peirce. “The Marriage of Science and Religion.” Open Court. Vol. 7, pp. 3559—3560.

To summarize, the word “science” can refer to (1) a body of systematized information; (2) a particular method for acquiring such information; and (3) a spirit of resolute commitment to find “the real truth of nature” and a refusal to be satisfied with “existing opinions.” Peirce believes that only the last of these definitions refers to the real thing, without which the other two are lifeless formalities. Once the spirit of science emerges in a society, it is only a matter of time that a scientific method and a systematized body of information will also come into being.

Here is why this is important. The most common way in which the word “science” is used tells us that it is a body of systematized information. According to Peirce, that’s not enough. Just because a bunch of information has been organized systematically does not make it a science. Rather, a body of systematized information deserves to be called “science” only insofar as it has been acquired through the application of the scientific method. Even the question of whether the information is correct or incorrect is besides the point; the only criterion that matters is how it was produced. But then Peirce goes a step further. He tells us that the scientific method itself should not be viewed as simply a particular set of formal procedures. For Peirce, a method deserves to be called “scientific” only insofar as it is imbued with the spirit of science. Thus, it is possible for someone to apply all the steps of the scientific method in the prescribed manner, but without being moved by the urge to find “the real truth of nature.” Such a person may be motivated primarily by a desire for fame, wealth, or power. Peirce would say that this person’s practice of science is deficient insofar as the defining element of science—i.e., the spirit—is missing. On the other hand, it is also possible that someone is moved mainly by the spirit of science but happens to apply the wrong steps, or applies the right steps incorrectly. Even though in this case the method is not “scientific” in the formal sense, Peirce would be willing to call this activity “science” insofar as it is motivated by an earnest desire to find “the real truth of nature,” even if the person in question ends up drawing erroneous conclusions.

The reason why the spirit of science trumps everything else is because neither the body of information nor the formal method is self-correcting; it’s only the spirit of science that exposes the other two elements to criticism and therefore forces them to rectify their errors.

So, when Iqbal says that today there is an urgent need for “a scientific form of religious knowledge,” the first question we have to answer is: What does Iqbal mean by “science”? Does he mean a body of systematized information, a particular method for acquiring such information, or the spirit of relentless inquiry to find “the real truth of nature” that refuses to be satisfied with “existing opinions”? Whatever we think about the merits or demerits of developing “a scientific form of religious knowledge” would ultimately depend on how we answer this question.

Iqbal then identifies the reasons for his optimism that “a scientific form of religious knowledge” is a real possibility, not a pipe dream. He writes:

And the present moment is quite favourable for such an undertaking. Classical Physics has learned to criticize its own foundations. As a result of this criticism the kind of materialism, which it originally necessitated, is rapidly disappearing; and the day is not far off when Religion and Science may discover hitherto unsuspected mutual harmonies.

Iqbal will have a lot more to say about modern physics, and the ways in which it has grown away from the reductionist tendencies of classical physics, so I’ll postpone that discussion until later. However, Iqbal does make a prediction here that’s worth noting. He predicts that very soon religion and science will discover that they have a lot more in common than what was assumed until fairly recently. There are profound “harmonies” between religion and science that no one had suspected before, and with the passage of time and the progress of science and philosophy we can expect that these similarities and affinities will become increasingly apparent.

I believe that Iqbal’s prediction has largely come true in the decades after his death, though not everyone is aware of the extent to which this has already happened. Our task today is not necessarily to discover these “harmonies” from scratch, but to make visible and explicit what has already been discovered.

Before concluding his “Preface,” Iqbal advises us to exercise caution with respect to philosophical thinking, including his own lectures:

It must, however, be remembered that there is no such thing as finality in philosophical thinking. As knowledge advances and fresh avenues of thought are opened, other views, and probably sounder views than those set forth in these lectures, are possible.

Iqbal is being humble, but this isn’t false modesty. He knows very well that no one has ever said anything that’s so decisive, so profound, that it brought the entire philosophical quest to its end; that has never happened in the past, and there is no realistic chance that it will happen in the future. Consequently, he knows that a large proportion of what he has written in these lectures has an expiration date; he just doesn’t know what that date is. The situation is somewhat like our awareness of mortality; we know we are going to die, but it’s hard to know when. Similarly, philosophers know (or should know) that at some point even their best ideas will become obsolete; they just don’t know when that will happen. Iqbal is reminding us that many of his own views, including the ones he has expressed in the Reconstruction, will one day be surpassed by better and more coherent views.

But even after many of Iqbal’s views have become outdated, future generations would do well to remember that Iqbal was the one who initially made creative and pioneering contributions, and that it was precisely his contributions that eventually opened up “fresh avenues of thought” for them as well as for their descendants.

A while ago, some folks in Pakistan were discussing the need to go “beyond Iqbal.” I think Iqbal would be totally happy with that, given that he was aware of the impermanence of philosophical ideas. But here’s my problem: The only path that takes us beyond Iqbal has to first go through Iqbal. We have barely started to understand what Iqbal was saying, let alone built a culture in light of that understanding. Only after we have accomplished this would we earn the right to go beyond Iqbal.

But if “there is no such thing as finality in philosophical thinking,” what are we supposed to do? Iqbal would tell us not to worry about this lack of finality, for change is the only constant in our universe. Instead, he writes:

Our duty is carefully to watch the progress of human thought, and to maintain an independent critical attitude towards it.

Anyone sympathetic to religion as a cultural phenomenon would need to keep an eye on the evolution of science and philosophy. This is particularly true for those of us who care about the future of Islam; we cannot afford to remain ignorant of the ongoing changes in human thought and knowledge, nor remain oblivious of the social, political, economic, and ecological trends of our time. To borrow a metaphor from Howard Zinn, we are all sitting in a train and the train is moving at a pretty fast speed. The very least we can do is to try and understand where it is headed.

Iqbal advises his readers “to maintain an independent critical attitude” towards the ongoing evolution of human thought. Being “independent” means that we don’t accept an idea simply because it is popular, nor do we reject an idea solely because it’s not mainstream. We are intellectually independent only to the extent that we’re able to treat every argument and every proposition purely on its merit, regardless of whether it comes from a friend or a rival. Being “critical” means that we use appropriate standards of evaluation when judging the worth or significance of a given development, that we carry out our inquiries and research with painstaking diligence and integrity, and that we exercise care and responsibility in reaching our conclusions. Put differently, Iqbal wants us to approach the progress of human thought and knowledge with an open mind. As I discussed in a previous post, the imperative of being open-minded means that, in all significant or consequential matters, we are required to take new information seriously and to consider it as dispassionately as possible, without rushing into a judgment about whether it should be accepted as true or rejected as false. It is the rush to judgment, whether positive or negative, that makes us susceptible to closed-mindedness. This is especially important when there is a mismatch between new information and prior knowledge. The best practice here is to delay or postpone the final judgment until we’ve had sufficient time to get the facts right as well as to think about what those facts might mean.

Francis Bacon has given us a simple and concise formula for keeping an open mind, especially while reading, which goes as follows:

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.

Francis Bacon. “Of Studies” (1597; enlarged 1625). The Essays of Francis Bacon

That is all that I have to say about Iqbal’s “Preface” at this time. However, I had promised to answer a question about Iqbal’s final sentence, so I’ll do that below.

There is a question about whether it is even possible to maintain “an independent critical attitude” with respect to the evolution of “human thought.” The reasoning might go as follows: If it’s true that the modern “cultural outlook” has had a widespread influence throughout the world, as Iqbal seems to believe, then it would mean that we are all under its spell. If that’s the case, how can we remain “independent” and “critical” in relation to something that we have already absorbed and internalized?

If my guess about the above reasoning is correct, then it would appear that the question is motivated by two assumptions: First, the phrase “human thought,” as used in the final sentence of the “Preface,” refers to more or less the same concept as “cultural outlook.” Second, if a society has adopted a particular “cultural outlook” then that means all of its members are in complete agreement with every aspect of that outlook. But both of these assumptions are incorrect. Regarding the first assumption, consider the fact that scientists often disagree with other scientists and philosophers often disagree with other philosophers, which shows that it is possible to maintain an “independent critical attitude” even while sharing the same broader framework. As for the second assumption, I have already addressed it in a previous post. To reiterate, the term “cultural outlook” refers to a generalization or abstraction—somewhat like an average of a large number of values—that, by its nature, is not intended to be an accurate description of every individual case. Moreover, no “cultural outlook” or perspective can ever achieve 100% saturation in any given society, which is why it’s always possible, at least for some people, to maintain a significant degree of critical distance with respect to even the most pervasive ideas.

Reconstruction: Preface (2)

Having written the first three sentences, Iqbal now anticipates another question from his reader. He can guess that the mention of religious experience has led the reader’s mind toward the mystical tradition in Islam, sometimes called Sufism. Since religious experience has always been the special domain of mystics, it would be natural for the reader to raise the following question: If the cultivation of religious experience is really as important as you say it are, shouldn’t we ask the Sufis to guide us in dealing with the predicament you’ve just described? Without stating the question in so many words, Iqbal responds as follows:

The more genuine schools of Sufism have, no doubt, done good work in shaping and directing the evolution of religious experience in Islam; but their latter-day representatives, owing to their ignorance of the modem mind, have become absolutely incapable of receiving any fresh inspiration from modem thought and experience. They are perpetuating methods which were created for generations possessing a cultural outlook differing, in important respects, from our own.

Iqbal had great appreciation for Sufism, and he himself was a Sufi in many ways, just like his father. Indeed, Iqbal knew Sufism from within. His poetry is filled with allusions that cannot be understood except in light of the Islamic tradition of theoretical mysticism, and he relies heavily on themes and tropes that first emerged within that tradition. Iqbal’s indebtedness to and reverence for our greatest Sufi poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, is well known. What all of this amounts to is that Iqbal’s critique of Sufism—both here and elsewhere—is not coming from a place of malevolence or hostility. While being deeply appreciative of Sufism’s contributions, Iqbal has come to the conclusion that practical Sufism, as it existed during his lifetime, was incapable of meeting contemporary religious needs.

There are at least two interesting ideas in the above quotation that deserve our attention. First, notice the phrase “shaping and directing the evolution of….” Even though Iqbal is referring to particular schools of Sufism and the role they played with respect to religious experience in Islam, his underlying approach in that sentence can be easily generalized and applied to a variety of cultural phenomenon. I intend to discuss this idea in a future blog post. Second, notice Iqbal’s use of the term “cultural outlook.” It supports a point I had made in my previous post, i.e., when Iqbal refers to “the modern man” he is not thinking of the individuals who happens to live in the modern era. Instead, he is referring to the perspective that dominates our sociocultural and intellectual context. The influence of that perspective is deep and widespread, but it is by no means total. In fact, no perspective can achieves 100% domination in any society—ever. There are always pockets of resistance and counter-narratives that deviate from, and therefore challenge, the dominant perspective. No society is therefore monolithic, in the sense of everyone conforming to the exact same way of thinking. That is precisely why Iqbal’s term “cultural outlook” is so useful, for it reminds us to distinguish between a society’s mainstream or dominant perspective on the one hand, and the marginalized or subordinate perspectives that are also invariably present, on the other hand.

Iqbal then refers to a verse from the Qur’an to suggest the type of inner experience that, in his view, would help meet the religious needs of our time:

‘Your creation and resurrection,’ says the Qur’an, ‘are like the creation and resurrection of a single soul’ (31:28). A living experience of the kind of biological unity, embodied in this verse, requires today a method physiologically less violent and psychologically more suitable to a concrete type of mind.

Iqbal is saying that the modern “cultural outlook” is such that it privileges “a concrete type of mind,” which presumably is a mind that is used to “habits of concrete thought.” A culture that thinks in concrete, empirical terms cannot find much value in the methods being recommended by “the latter-day representatives” of Sufism. There is a lack of compatibility between what the modern culture requires for meeting its religious needs and what it is being offered, i.e., methods that were more or less successful once-upon-a-time but the culture for which they were originally designed no longer exists. This is an example of the general principle that solutions intended for one environment are very often ineffective or even counterproductive when applied in a very different environment.

According to Iqbal, if the contemporary representatives of Sufism were capable of receiving “fresh inspiration from modern thought and experience,” they would be actively developing new approaches for cultivating the appropriate forms of inner experience—approaches that would be in greater psychological harmony with the modern preference for “habits of concrete thought.” They would also be “physiologically less violent.” I take this last phrase to mean that Iqbal’s ideal approach is one that is not as harsh and as demanding on the human body as the approaches currently favored by practical Sufism; instead, it would produce methods designed to work with the natural flow of the body rather than against it. Unfortunately, according to Iqbal, practical Sufism has been static for several centuries and is showing no willingness to learn, change, and grow in response to the demands of modern culture.

So, exactly what type of inner experience is going to be most useful for cultivating religious faith today? Iqbal’s answer is somewhat cryptic, given that he is trying to be concise. He quotes part of a verse from the Qur’an to make his point, but doesn’t provide a full explanation.

Surah Luqman 31:28

Your creation and resurrection are like the creation and resurrection of a single soul ….

But even the brief explanation he does offer is quite useful. According to Iqbal, “embodied” in this verse is “a living experience … of biological unity.” Right away, I am tempted to focus on the word “unity,” which is in direct reference to the Qur’anic phrase “a single soul,” and to then discuss the sense of “wholeness” and “oneness” that often accompanies certain types of non-ordinary states of consciousness. But there is another, perhaps more intriguing, theme, that I think needs a closer examination.

To understand this theme, notice the juxtaposition of “embody,” “living,” and “biological,” words that seem to align with the word “creation” in the Qur’anic verse. This combination reminds me of the word “organically” and the phrase “vital process” that Iqbal has previously used. Clearly, a significant thread running through these sentences has something to do with life. Perhaps Iqbal is suggesting that the modern “cultural outlook,” because of its reliance on “habits of concrete thought,” demands a type of religious experience that feels natural, organic, and vital—one that has the same qualities as life itself. There is also an emphasis here on the physical, as evidenced by Iqbal’s use of “embody” and “physiological,” and even “concrete.” Perhaps Iqbal is saying that the type of religious faith and inner experience that are needed today must be grounded in the concrete, material world, the world of bodies—both living and non-living—and the world of sense perception.

What does Iqbal mean by the phrase “biological unity” that he says is “embodied” in the Qur’anic verse he cites? I have to confess that for at least 20 years I couldn’t figure out why Iqbal quoted this particular Qur’anic verse in the context of religious experience. I couldn’t see the connection Iqbal was making, but now I know exactly why I couldn’t see it. I had always assumed that the “unity” in question was between the one and the many—the “creation and resurrection” of all humanity is just like the “creation and resurrection” of a single individual; but that wasn’t how Iqbal had read this verse. Today, for the first time, I am beginning to see what he saw.

As I intend to discuss later, Iqbal’s basic approach in the Reconstruction is to identify specific ruptures and separations engendered by the rational mind, and to bring them together in order to show their essential, underlying unity. A major concern of his in this context is to argue against the mind/body or spirit/matter dichotomy. The Qur’anic verse that Iqbal quotes in the “Preface” seems to convey the exact same message. The verse appears to suggest that human creation and human resurrection are ultimately similar or parallel phenomena—they represent a “biological unity.” It’s not the case that our creation is physical while our resurrection is spiritual; rather, the assumption of a separation between body and spirit that underlies such thinking is itself, from the Qur’anic perspective, untenable. In other words, the physical and spiritual aspects of life form a single, indivisible, whole. It is the experiential knowledge of this “biological unity” that Iqbal finds “embodied” in the verse.

It follows that the type of religious experience we need today must be one that gives rise to a “living” awareness of the essential indivisibility of life. This inner experience would “reveal” to us—just as it was “revealed” to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)—that life cannot be chopped into the physical and the spiritual without causing grave harm. For Iqbal, the methods being recommended by the “latter-day representatives” of Sufism fail to meet the religious needs of the modern individual precisely because they tend to maintain, and even exacerbate, that rupture, rather than healing it.

Reconstruction: Preface (1)

I would now like to share my understanding of the brief note that Iqbal added to the published version of his lectures, under the title “Preface.” It begins with a short statement that is both simple and profound at the same time:

The Qur’an is a book which emphasizes “deed” rather than “idea.”

I have previously written a commentary on this sentence, which can be found here and here. Iqbal is unequivocally acknowledging, at the very beginning, that thoughts and ideas (and therefore beliefs) do not constitute the topmost priority from the perspective of the Qur’an. Instead, the Qur’an emphasizes “deed.” In my earlier commentary, I argued that the word “deed” is Iqbal’s shorthand for what he calls “the essence of religion,” and is essentially synonymous with “faith.” (Notice that the very next sentence uses the phrase “religious faith.”)

Having admitted in the first sentence of his “Preface” that the Qur’an does not want us to worry too much about “thought,” Iqbal now has to justify writing an entire book on “religious thought in Islam.” In other words, he has to answer the following question: Why should Muslims pay attention to a subject—i.e., “religious thought”—that the Qur’an itself treats as having secondary importance? Iqbal’s response to that question begins as follows:

There are, however, men to whom it is not possible organically to assimilate an alien universe by re-living, as a vital process, that special type of inner experience on which religious faith ultimately rests.

Here’s what I understand Iqbal to be saying: It is true that the Qur’an does not emphasize thought; rather, it emphasizes faith. However, Muslims cannot afford to ignore this subject because many people are simply incapable of acquiring, developing, and nurturing their religious faith except through the medium of thought. In other words, religious thought is worthy of our attention, not because it is an end in itself but because it is one of the most important means—at least for some people—to achieve the desired goal, i.e., religious faith. This is because the very temperament of these individuals is such that it is impossible for them to acquire, develop, and nurture religious faith through the normal or usual avenue, which is the cultivation of “a special type of inner experience.”

The second sentence of Iqbal’s “Preface” contains the following propositions:

  1. Religious faith cannot thrive without some form of support.
  2. While there are many different ways of supporting religious faith, all of them must eventually rest on the same foundation.
  3. The foundation upon which religious faith must ultimately rest is a “special type of inner experience.”
  4. To acquire religious faith, an individual must “organically assimilate an alien universe.”
  5. In order to “organically assimilate” this “alien universe,” the individual has to “re-live” the aforementioned experience “as a vital process.”

Proposition 1 is unstated but implied. Proposition 2 is my interpretation of the word “ultimately.” Proposition 3 mentions a “special type of inner experience,” which implies that (a) there are at least two forms of human experience, inner and outer; and that (b) there are several types of inner experience, but only one of them is relevant to religious faith. The title of Iqbal’s first lecture makes it clear that the phrase “a special type of inner experience” refers to the same concept as the term “religious experience.”

Proposition 4 describes the desired outcome of religious experience, which is the “organic assimilation of an alien universe.” I am not entirely sure, but I think the phrase “alien universe” refers to all those aspects of religious discourse that most people are likely to view as extraordinary, incredible, unusual, fantastic, or “out of this world.” I would include in this category narratives about angels, paradise, hell, virgin birth, resurrection, and so on—basically anything that we do not encounter in our normal, everyday lives. Such narratives describe a world that is very different from the one we experience in our ordinary state of consciousness, i.e., when we are awake and sober. Since religious discourse is filled with such narratives, the question of acquiring religious faith becomes a matter of “assimilating”—i.e., absorbing or internalizing—this “alien universe” within ourselves. But this process must not be forced; we cannot will ourselves to perform this assimilation. It has to happen naturally, or “organically.”

Proposition 5 says that in order to absorb this “alien universe,” the individual must “re-live” that “special type of inner experience.” Notice that Iqbal did not write that one has to “live” a particular experience; instead, he wrote that one has to “re-live” it. Is this even a significant point? Perhaps it isn’t, in which case we need not spend any further effort on it. On the other hand, in case Iqbal’s decision to use the word “re-live” was deliberate, I wonder what could he possibly had in mind? The only clue I have been able to find (and I realize that this is entirely a matter of personal judgment) comes from Lecture VII, where Iqbal quotes his own father:

… in the words of a Muslim Sufi—”no understanding of the Holy Book is possible until it is actually revealed to the believer just as it was revealed to the Prophet” (p. 143).

The quotation comes from an advise that Iqbal’s father gave him when he was a college student; Iqbal’s own report of the incident can be found inاقبال کے حضور (pp. 71–73).

I suspect there is a connection between this quotation and what Iqbal has to say in the “Preface.” It is definitely possible that I am reading too much into a single word, but it is also possible that the connection I see can generate a plausible—or even a probable—interpretation. Either way, below is my guess about Iqbal’s use of the word “re-live.”

Islam is based on the Qur’an, which is the collection of revelations received by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the course of his own religious experiences. Iqbal discusses this matter in detail in the first two lectures of the Reconstruction. We know that the Prophet personally lived those revelatory experiences. Given that, what Iqbal appears to be suggesting is that the Muslim believer has to somehow “re-live” those same experiences.

Let’s tread very carefully here, so that we don’t misinterpret the author. Obviously, Iqbal does not believe that anyone can ever have exactly the same experiences as that of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), for—as Iqbal himself emphasizes in Lecture V—one of Islam’s great contributions is “the finality of the institution of prophethood” (p. 100). Instead, the idea seems to be that the desired form of religious experience for Muslims is something akin to the original revelatory experience of the Prophet himself. We know from his poetry and his correspondence, as well as from countless anecdotes, that cultivating a personal affinity with the Prophet was the main focus of Iqbal’s own spiritual life. At least on one occasion, Iqbal advised an individual to frequently recite the Qur’an so as to develop a personal relationship or connection with the Prophet.

I am inclined to think that Iqbal’s suggestion is not specific to Islam and Muslims, that it is applicable to other religious tradition as well. If it’s true that religious faith ultimately rests on a special type of inner experience, then it is unlikely that any religious tradition will simply erupt into history without there being a whole series of powerful inner experiences affecting at least one, and possibly many, individuals. And if such experiences do constitute the core event that sparks a religious movement, then it seems logical that later adherents will seek to “re-live”—in some way, shape, or form—the original experience that gave birth to their tradition.

But that’s only a side-note in the context of the “Preface,” where the relevant point is simply that religious faith rests on religious experience. Yet, as Iqbal points out, there are always some people for whom cultivating such an experience is not an option. Therefore, the reason why we should pay attention to “religious thought” is because religious faith needs to be accessible to everyone, not just those who are capable of “re-living” the relevant type of inner experience.

At this point, I’d like to highlight the fact that the second sentence of Iqbal’s “Preface” does not mention any particular historical period or culture. I take this to mean that the type of people he is referring to represents a constant element of humankind. Individuals who are incapable of acquiring, developing, and nurturing religious faith by means of “a special type of inner experience,” and who must therefore rely on religious thought for meeting this need, are not a unique product of modernity; instead, such individuals have been present in all societies and in all historical periods. What makes them different is not that they are products of a particular culture or era, but that they have a particular temperament or personality. In all likelihood, Iqbal is referring to a psychological type.

Why is this relevant ? It is relevant because the problem of formulating religious thought for the purpose of supporting religious faith is not unique to the modern era; rather, it is a perennial issue in religion. In other words, the task of “reconstructing” religious thought in Islam is not a novelty by any means, for this task has been performed countless times during the formative and classical periods of Islamic history—with different degrees of success. Iqbal is both aware of and respectful toward these past efforts by our spiritual ancestors. Consequently, the reason why he is pleading for a new attempt at “reconstruction” cannot be due to his ignorance of the history of falsafa, kalam, fiqh, and so on. On the contrary, it is precisely his study of the works of past Muslim philosophers, theologians, and jurists that has led him to the conclusion that a fresh attempt at “reconstruction” is urgently needed today.

If Iqbal is familiar with the rich legacy of the Islamic scholarly tradition, why is he insisting on “reconstructing” religious thought today? Iqbal is acutely aware that these past attempts, to the extent that they were effective, had succeeded only in meeting the religious needs of their time. Today we live in a sociocultural and intellectual context that is qualitatively different from anything that came before; Iqbal is convinced of that on the basis of his own study of modern philosophy and science. In his view, we cannot move forward without seriously engaging with the previous Muslim attempts at “reconstruction.” But when it comes to meeting the religious needs of our time, these past attempts are proving to be increasingly inadequate. That’s because new challenges call for new approaches and new problems require new solutions. Just because there is a long tradition of problem-solving does not mean that all problems have been solved, and just because some challenges were met through a particular approach in the past does not mean that the same approach is sufficient for meeting all of our present and future challenges as well. Hence the need for “reconstruction.”

Then, in the third sentence of his “Preface,” Iqbal describes the nature of the modern challenge with utmost brevity:

Moreover, the modem man, by developing habits of concrete thought—habits which Islam itself fostered at least in the earlier stages of its cultural career—has rendered himself less capable of that experience which he further suspects because of its liability to illusion.

It is true that there have always been individuals who are incapable of absorbing the “alien universe” of religious discourse by “re-living” in some way the foundational religious experience of their tradition. Today, however, we are facing an additional factor that is making it even harder for people to build their religious faith on the basis of such experiences. That factor is modernity, which produces two closely-related effects that are inimical to the usual way of developing religious faith. These are (1) habits of concrete thought, and (2) skepticism toward inner experience as a source of reliable knowledge.

In the main text of the Reconstruction, Iqbal will discuss both of these modern phenomena in greater detail. In the “Preface,” he is simply giving us a quick preview. I will therefore keep my comments brief.

The first effect of modernity in relation to religious experience can be summed up in the phrase “habits of concrete thought.” The phrase probably refers to our reliance on sense perception, i.e., the modern privileging of demonstrable empirical evidence over and against intuition or “feeling.” Note that Iqbal does not seem to view this tendency as entirely negative from a religious perspective, since, as he puts it, “Islam itself fostered” an emphasis on empiricism in the initial phase of its history.

The second effect of modernity is seen in the fact that the modern individual tends to take a skeptical stance toward any knowledge claims that are made solely on the basis of inner experiences. According to Iqbal, the main reason is that modernity has made us aware of the ways in which unconscious psychological processes can give rise to self-deceptions. As a result, modern individuals who report unusual inner experiences are far more likely to be sent to psychiatrists than to priests or shamans.

Notice that Iqbal is not making an absolute claim. He is not saying that in the modern age every single individual rejects the epistemological value of inner experience; such an interpretation would be a misreading of what Iqbal is actually arguing. Iqbal is referring to the “respectable” core of modern culture; he is not talking about its fringes. In Lecture III, Iqbal discusses the work of Helena Blavatsky, co-founder of the “Theosophical Society,” whose own popularity shows that modernity did not eliminate all interest in spiritual or esoteric matters; it only pushed that interest to the margins of culture, away from mainstream thought.

To cite a contemporary example, consider the spiritual text by Helen Schucman, titled A Course in Miracles (1976). This book is said to have been dictated by an “inner voice” that the author/medium identified as belonging to none other than Jesus himself. The fact that A Course in Miracles enjoys a cult-like following in some circles does not disprove Iqbal’s thesis, since those circles are not part of the mainstream of American culture. There is no doubt that Schucman went through some unusual inner experiences over several year, experiences that resulted in a massive text. According to Iqbal, modernity has not only instilled in us “habits of concrete thought” but has also made us suspicious of the epistemological value of inner experiences. The fact that our typical response to the origin story of A Course in Miracles is likely to be ridicule, rejection, or indifference—as opposed to curiosity—is a case in point.

Not only have we become increasingly incapable of having religious experiences in the first place, but even when such experiences happen we are less likely to investigate them dispassionately and more likely to dismiss them as psychological aberrations. This modern attitude, however, is not without rational and empirical support. Notice Iqbal’s use of the psychological term “illusion,” which refers to a conviction that is rooted in a person’s wishes rather than in verifiable evidence. Iqbal seems to be suggesting that, as modern individuals, we have become aware of the fact that many of our personal beliefs—as well as many of our inner experiences—are actually expressions of wishful thinking that typically occurs below the level of awareness. Given that religious or spiritual experiences are particularly susceptible to the unconscious influence of wish-fulfillment, it is not without some justification that we tend to be suspicious of anyone who claims to have gained special knowledge through esoteric means. In Lecture I, Iqbal will argue that this development too has positive religious significance, since it helps separate the real from the spurious.

Reconstruction (3)

The insight and understanding that a reader can acquire from a particular book, especially a challenging one—such as the Reconstruction—will depend upon the reader’s “learning capacity,” which, in turn, is determined by three main factors.

The first factor that determines your learning capacity is your prior knowledge, i.e., everything (including facts, opinions, memories, attitudes, beliefs, etc.) that already exist in your mind. Your mind, after all, is not a blank slates; it is filled with all kinds of data that inevitably affect the quality of your engagement with what you’re reading.

It is important to differentiate between knowledge and information in the context of learning. Knowledge is information that has been processed, either partially or completely. Furthermore, information can only be processed by a mind. Consequently, while information is found both inside and outside the mind, knowledge cannot exist apart from a mind. It follows that books contain no knowledge, only information; whereas the minds of the author and the reader contain information as well as knowledge. For the same reason, knowledge cannot be directly transferred from one person to another; as soon as someone tries to convey his/her knowledge through speaking or writing, it turns into a series of words—which is information.

What all of this means is that it is impossible for anyone to receive knowledge from another person. Listening and reading are means of gaining information only. As for knowledge, our minds have to actively construct it out of the raw material of information.

If books do not contain any knowledge, it follows that reading a book does not increase your knowledge; rather, it only increases the amount of information in your mind. At this point, your mind has to actively construct new knowledge by processing the information that you have gained from reading. Processing involves two things: first, your mind must extract and decipher the information in the book, and second, your mind must integrate this new information into your prior knowledge.

Prior knowledge about a particular topic can be sufficient or insufficient, appropriate or inappropriate, accurate or inaccurate. If you believe something is true and/or applicable, then it counts as part of your prior knowledge, regardless of whether it is right or wrong, applicable or inapplicable. When a piece of relevant prior knowledge is sufficient, appropriate, and accurate, it helps in the construction of new knowledge; when it is insufficient or inappropriate or inaccurate, it hinders that process, leading to confusion or misunderstanding. And, of course, even helpful prior knowledge is of no use if it has been forgotten, which is why learning requires bringing such inactive knowledge back into conscious awareness.

Here’s a simple example of how incorrect prior knowledge can interfere with the construction of new knowledge: If I am mistaken about the meaning of a particular word, I will have difficulty correctly interpreting a sentence in which that word is used. In this example, the problem is not in the sentence; rather, it resides in my own prior knowledge. Not until I learn the correct definition of the word will I be able to make any progress in comprehending the sentence. That is precisely why it is often necessary to fix a deficiency in one’s prior knowledge before one can make use of the new information and construct new knowledge.

From How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose, et al (2010)

However, this is easier said than done. In practice, it is often very hard to recognize a flaw in one’s own prior knowledge and to notice how it might be hindering the learning process. This brings us to the second factor that determine’s your learning capacity: your ability to maintain an open mind.

Suppose I am reading a text that argues against some of my own convictions. In other words, there is a mismatch between new information (what the author thinks) and prior knowledge (what I think). Regardless of who is right, the mismatch itself can become an obstacle that prevents me from seriously engaging with the author’s argument. Since the human mind prefers consistency over contradiction, my mind would try to reject this new information simply because it cannot be easily integrated into my prior knowledge.

But a mismatch between new information and prior knowledge obstructs our learning only when we are closed-minded. In contrast, the same mismatch turns into a wonderful opportunity for genuine growth when we are willing to approach it with an open mind. If you are thinking “that’s not a problem for me because I am not a closed-minded person,” please think again. Being “closed-minded” is not a trait that some people have and others don’t. Rather, it is a state in which every single one of us can fall at any time. Whenever we experience a significant mismatch between new information and prior knowledge—especially when the mismatch affects a sensitive issue—we become vulnerable in that moment to an automatic shutdown of all the doors and windows of our mind. Once the shutters come down, we feel safe from the potentially disturbing effects of entertaining the new information; at the same time, we also lose any opportunity for learning and growth.

To maximize learning and growth, we need to maintain an open mind. Maintaining an open mind does not mean uncritically accepting any new information that comes our way; it means, rather, that we are willing to seriously consider any new information we may encounter, especially when it does not fit neatly within our prior knowledge.

The secret to maintaining an open mind when we are faced with a significant mismatch between new information and prior knowledge is to postpone judgment. Here’s how to do it: Take a deep, conscious breath; become aware of your body; and then say to yourself: (1) I am experiencing a mismatch between new information and prior knowledge. (2) This is an opportunity for learning and growth. (3) I don’t have to either accept or reject the new information right at this moment. (3) Let me make sure that I fully understand this new information. (4) I will decide whether to accept or reject this information at a later time.

The third factor that determines your learning capacity is your skill in reading analytically. Difficult texts need to be read differently than easier ones. The reason why you can’t read a book like the Reconstruction the same way you might read a newspaper is because here you are trying to understand a mind that is intellectually superior to your own. It’s not just that you have to put in more effort; you also have to take a more disciplined and systematic approach to the act of reading itself. Books like Iqbal’s Reconstruction require the type of patient and methodical engagement that Mortimer J. Adler called “analytical reading” in his classic How to Read a Book (1940, 1972). The more skilled you are in this type of reading, the more you’ll gain for every unit of effort.

So, how does one go about reading the Reconstruction—or any other challenging text—in a disciplined and systematic way? The answer is “analytical reading,” which is a skill that no one is born with but that anyone can learn. There is a standard process for acquiring any new skill, including the skill of analytical reading. That’s because every skills can be broken down into particular “moves” or steps. These steps can be communicated by the expert to the novice by means of words, pictures, and practical demonstrations. Obviously, knowing these steps is not the same thing as actually acquiring the skill—deliberate practice and adequate feedback are needed for that—but it is often a necessary starting point.

According to Mortimer J. Adler, analytical reading is done in three stages, each of which is made up of several steps. Below is my summary of the first stage of analytical reading.

Outlining the Structure

The first stage of analytical reading is to outline the structure of the text, where “text” can refer to an article, a chapter, or an entire book. The purpose of outlining the structure is for the reader to be able to answer the question “What is this text about as a whole?” Here are the steps:

1. Classify the text according to kind and subject matter. It is critical to know what kind of text you are reading, and to know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read. This is because the style and arguments of different kinds of text are so different that readers must adjust their reading strategies according to the kind of text they are dealing with.

Any text that consists primarily of opinions, theories, hypotheses, or speculations, for which the claim is made more or less explicitly that they are true in some sense, is and is classified as an expository work. Such texts can be primarily practical or primarily theoretical. Practical works teach you how to do something you want to do or think you should do, whereas theoretical works teach you that something is the case. Practical texts are of two types: those that give you general rules and those that give you the principles on the basis of which rules are, or should be, derived.

2. State what the whole text is about with the utmost brevity. After reading the text, you must be able to state, as briefly as possible, its theme or main point. Insofar as it is well written, a text has a more or less perfectly definable and pervasive unity, and the reader must be able to apprehend this unity and state it in a few sentences. In finding the unity, you should be guided by any help that the author may provide in the title, the subtitle, or the preface, but remember that the duty of finding the unity belongs ultimately to the reader and can be fulfilled only after reading the entire text.

3. Enumerate the text’s major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole. A well written text is an orderly arrangement of parts, each of which has a certain amount of independence but must also be organically connected with all the other parts in order to contribute its particular share to the intelligibility of the whole. You would not know the complex unity of a text unless you can describe how this unity is manifested in the text organized multiplicity, i.e., how the various parts of the book are related to each other.

4. Define the problem(s) the author is trying to solve. An author typically starts with a question or a set of questions and the book ostensibly contains the answer or answers. Whether or not the author tells you the questions that he/she has set out to answer, it is your job as a reader to formulate these questions as precisely as possible. After reading the text, you should be able to state the main question that the book tries to answer, as well as any subordinate questions if the main question is complex.

I will now apply the the first four steps of analytical reading to the Reconstruction. You may want to stop reading at this point, apply the above steps on your own, and then return to see how I have done it. It’s okay if your results are different from my own; it’s the practice that matters.

Step 1 requires that we classify the book according to kind and subject matter. Even though it contains a great deal of suggestions about what people, particularly the educated elite among Muslims, are supposed to be doing, I wouldn’t call the Reconstruction a practical book. There are, obviously, many practical implications of what Iqbal has to say, but I would classify the Reconstruction as primarily a theoretical book. As for subject matter, it’s definitely a philosophical work, even though parts of it deal with theology, history, ethics, and jurisprudence. (It would be interesting to see alternative ways of classifying the Reconstruction that differ from mine.)

Step 2 requires us to state what the book is about as a whole. The title tells us that the book is about Islam. More specifically, it is about religious thought in Islam, especially insofar as it needs to be “reconstructed.” The title doesn’t say why it is desirable or necessary to reconstruct Islam’s religious thought. It does seem to suggest that such thought was first constructed at some point in the past, but—for whatever reason—a new construction is needed today. Perhaps the book will tell us what such such a reconstruction entails and exactly what makes it necessary. (This statement would have to be revisited after we’ve read the entire book.)

Step 3 is made up of two sub-steps. The first sub-step says that we have to make a list of all the major parts of the book and indicate how they are related to each other. The second sub-step says that the same process has to be repeated for each of these major parts. At this point, all we know is that Iqbal’s book consists of a preface and seven lectures. We would be able to see how these seven lectures are interrelated only after we have read the entire book. As for the second sub-step, we don’t have to wait that long. We can start enumerating the main parts of each lecture as soon as we have read it once. However, since there are no sections breaks or subheadings in the Reconstruction, the reader would have to do the work of dividing each lecture into appropriate sections.

Step 4 requires us to figure out the question, or the questions, that Iqbal is trying to answer in this book. Based solely on the title, we can make a tentative guess that his main question is as follows: “Why and how should religious thought in Islam be reconstructed?” (We can’t be sure that our guess is right until we have read the entire book, or at least the preface.)

Read. Then Read Again.

To reiterate, a reader’s ability to gain insight and understanding from a challenging text depends on his/her learning capacity, which in turn is determined by three main factors. These factors—the makeup of one’s prior knowledge, one’s ability to maintain an open mind, and one’s proficiency in analytical reading—vary from person to person. This explains why two individuals reading the same text typically do not gain the same amount of insight and understanding; in fact, they may not even get the same meanings.

But what if you don’t have a great deal of prior knowledge that is both helpful and pertinent to the Reconstruction? What if you find yourself drifting into a closed-minded attitude every time you read something that appears to challenge your prior knowledge? And what if you are not very proficient in the skill of analytical reading?

Even though these shortcomings do make your task harder, none of them can be justified as an excuse for giving up. Instead, they are great reasons why you should engage with the Reconstruction to the best of your ability. That’s because (1) reading difficult texts is one of the most effective ways by which we build our knowledge in the first place; (2) we cannot become comfortable with maintaining an open mind until we have actually suspended our judgment many, many times; and (3) the only way to improve our proficiency in analytical reading is by trying to read analytically while making adjustments in light of the feedback we receive.

Everything is hard until it is repeatedly practiced, and then it becomes easy.

If you feel that you didn’t get a whole lot after reading the Reconstruction once or even twice, that’s no reason to give up either. When an author is intellectually superior to the reader, the reader should expect the text to be difficult. A difficult text is one that is not immediately intelligible. This means that you would have to read each chapter many times over before you begin to grasp its meaning; you may even have to do this to a single paragraph or a single sentence. A text that doesn’t make complete sense the first time you read it is not telling you to go away; it is simply asking you to read again (and again). This need for multiple readings should not come as a surprise to any reader who already knows that he/she is dealing with an intellectually superior mind.

When you are reading the same material multiple times, it often helps to put some gap between any two consecutive readings; even a few hours or a couple of days can make a difference. That’s because the reader’s unconscious mind keeps working on the text even as the conscious mind is taking a break. Sleep has the same effect.

The above advice about multiple readings is applicable at longer time scales as well. After all, the Reconstruction is not the type of book that you read once and then put away forever. Instead, you would need to come back over and over again. Each time you read the Reconstruction after a couple of years’ break, either in part or as a whole, you will gain more than what you had gained during your previous reading; you will also notice things in the text that you hadn’t noticed before. This happens because, even though the book remains the same, the reader has most likely changed and (hopefully) grown in the intervening period. Growth in this context refers to increase in the reader’s learning capacity, which essentially means improvements in the makeup of one’s prior knowledge, in one’s ability to keep an open mind, and in one’s proficiency in the skill of analytical reading.

Finally, let me mention an additional positive effect of wrestling with the same text over an extended period of time—one that can happen even without any increase in learning capacity. Insights gained one-at-a-time accumulate in the mind over months and years, until they switch from addition to multiplication. Put differently, when you give sufficient time to a challenging text, insights will pile up in your mind until they start to interact; eventually, they will mate with each other and produce babies. The ones that receive your attention will survive, and the ones you neglect will die out. Then one day you would wake up and realize that your mind has changed—hopefully for the better.

Reconstruction (2)

Let’s begin with a little historical background. This will set the context in which The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam came to be written.

The story of the Reconstruction began when Iqbal presented a paper, titled “Ijtihad in Islam,” at Islamia College, Lahore (now called Government Islamia College, Railway Road). Iqbal presented this paper on December 13, 1924, at 6:30 PM, in the famous Habibia Hall. The session was chaired by Shaikh Abdul Qadir, Iqbal’s close friend and president of Anjuman-e Himayat-e Islam. Apparently a few ‘ulama did not approve of what Iqbal said on the topic of ijtihad (or, more accurately, they did not approve of what he was reported to have said). Iqbal subsequently cited that incident in a letter: “I had written an English essay on Ijtihad, which was read in a meeting here… but some people called me a Kafir.… In these days in India, one must move with very great circumspection.”

Government Islamia College, Railway Road, Lahore

The announcement of the lecture in local newspapers, or perhaps the news of the ‘ulama’s reaction to the lecture, reached Seth Jamal Muhammad, a prominent businessman and philanthropist based in the South Indian city of Madras (now known as Chennai, Tamil Nadu), who was also one of the few millionaires of the time. On behalf of the Madras Muslim Association, which he led, Seth Jamal Muhammad invited Iqbal in early 1925 to visit Madras and deliver lectures on topics of his own choosing, offering to pay all expenses involved in the research, writing, and travel of said lectures. Iqbal accepted this invitation.

By the end of 1928, Iqbal had completed his research but had only written the first three of the six lectures he had planned. These were delivered in Madras, on January 5, 6, and 7, 1929, at Gokhale Hall, to a mixed Hindu and Muslim audience. Few days later, Iqbal delivered the same lectures at the University of Maysore and then at Osmania University, Hyderabd.

Muhammad Iqbal (seated, front row) outside Gokhale Hall, January 1929

The first three lectures drew large audience and were widely celebrated in newspapers. Sayyid Ross Masood, Vice Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University, invited Iqbal to deliver the same lectures at his institution. That same year, Iqbal wrote the rest of his lectures, and so all six of them were delivered in November 1929 at Strachey Hall, Aligarh Muslim University.

Strachey Hall, Aligarh Muslim University

Iqbal’s lectures (or “papers,” as we would now call them) were first published in book form in mid 1930, under the title Six Lectures on the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. However, when the book was subsequently published by the Oxford University Press in 1934, the reference to “Six Lectures” in the title was dropped, since it now included a seventh lecture as well. Iqbal had delivered this lecture (“Is Religion Possible?”) at a meeting of the Aristotelian Society (on whose invitation it was written), on December 5, 1932, in London. It was published in the following year in the journal “Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society,” and was then included in the OUP edition of Reconstruction.

At no point during the writing and revision of these lectures did Iqbal bother to include any citations or compile a bibliography. I don’t know the reason for that omission, but I can speculate. My first reaction was to blame Iqbal’s well-known “lazy” temperament, by which I mean that he preferred thought and contemplation over all sorts of physical activity. But the more I think about this argument, the less convincing it appears. Instead, the absence of citations and bibliography as well as the brevity of Iqbal’s prose make me wonder whether Iqbal was simply overestimating the breadth of his audience’s knowledge—perhaps he was assuming that his listeners and readers were as well-read and well-informed as he was. It may sound far-fetched, but I suspect that such an assessment on Iqbal’s part might not have been entirely off the mark, especially given the sort of company that he kept. Iqbal regularly corresponded with other scholars in British India, asking for their guidance in areas outside of his own expertise. Perhaps the educated elite of his time were better equipped to understand his arguments than the educated elite of our time.

In this context, I am struck by the fact that six of these seven lectures were advertised in newspapers and were open to public, and that in each case they were delivered to large and enthusiastic audiences. Even if we grant that most of these people were there simply because of Iqbal’s fame, and that they could only understand a quarter of what Iqbal was saying—that is still a high level of intellectual performance from mostly lay people. If my estimate is right, it would seem to support the common belief that the standards of education were much higher a century ago than they are now. It is certainly the case that what teachers could reasonably expect from their students back then was a great deal more than what can be expected today even from the teachers. While the accessibility of higher education has improved tremendously over this period, at least on some measures the same cannot be said about its quality. We now expect more individuals to go to college, but we expect less from them when they come out.

Personally, I don’t think we should blame Iqbal for failing to cite his sources or for not producing a bibliography. I like to imagine that so much of Iqbal’s attention was consumed by the substantive issues he was trying to address that he saw no reason to engage in this mundane—and, frankly, boring and mind-numbing—task. In fact, I am inclined to think that society shouldn’t bother creative geniuses who are preoccupied with questions of eternal significance to waste their time on checking page numbers or dates of publication. Such work should be handed over to those who enjoy learning and executing obscure rules and conventions—the sort of individuals who read The Chicago Manual of Style for pleasure. After all, it is not uncommon for many contemporary intellectuals here in the United States to outsource this part of their work to secretaries, research assistants, and/or graduate students. Obviously, Iqbal did not have the resources of a modern university at his disposal.

Another point to keep in mind is that Iqbal completed the research and writing process without the benefit of a care-free sabbatical. Instead, he was also busy producing world-class poetry (he published Zubur-e Ajam in 1927 and then started working on Javid Nama) as well as discharging his duties as an elected member of the Punjab Legislative Council (1926–1929), not to mention maintaining his law practice.

In the case of the Reconstruction, then, I see the absence of citations in the 1930 and 1934 editions as a minor issue for the author. However, it was nevertheless a serious obstacle from the viewpoint of most readers. The difficulty was exacerbated with the passage of time, as many of the events, movements, and personalities that were well-known in the late 1920s started to vanish from cultural awareness. Other difficulties came up as well, especially for later generations of lay readers who did not have the benefit of the type of education that Iqbal himself had received. For example, consider the fact that the most cited text in the Reconstruction is none other than the Qur’an, but by the late twentieth century the Islamic Scripture was no longer at the center of early education in Muslim societies. Similarly, the previously taken-for-granted ability among educated Muslims in South Asia to access Arabic and Persian sources had dwindled rapidly as systems of education were forced to modernize. For contemporary Muslims of South Asian descent, this decline of classical education means that reading Iqbal’s poetry is only slightly less difficult than reading the Reconstruction. Insofar as English continues to replace Urdu (as well as Persian), we can expect that even the simplest of Iqbal’s poems would become less and less accessible to future generations.

By the time Pakistan celebrated the Iqbal Centenary in 1977, the need for a new edition of the Reconstruction, one containing the full scholarly apparatus, had become quite acute. This task was undertaken by M. Saeed Sheikh, a scholar of classical Muslim philosophy. The edited version of the Reconstruction, complete with extensive notes, bibliography, and an index of Qur’an citations, was eventually published by the Institute of Islamic Culture in 1986, and by Iqbal Academy Pakistan in 1989. Anyone looking at the notes compiled by Prof. Sheikh would have to appreciate the labor of love that went into tracking down Iqbal’s every reference and then presenting that research in a concise and reader-friendly form.

The Reconstruction is still a challenging text, but at least the lack of citations and bibliography is not an obstacle for today’s readers.

Reconstruction (1)

This is the first post in what I hope would become a series of reflections on Muhammad Iqbal’s major philosophical work, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1930). I plan to structure these reflections around ideas emerging from discussions in an online class I happened to be currently teaching.

Most people who have any interest in modern Islam have at least heard of Iqbal. Those who have some familiarity with Iqbal’s poetry and politics also know that he wrote a widely celebrated philosophy book. However, most of us are unlikely to have actually read that particular text cover to cover.

Compared with the popularity of Iqbal’s Urdu poetry, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam has not been widely read, let alone widely understood. This is despite the fact that a sustained engagement with Reconstruction is essential for fully appreciating Iqbal’s overall thought, including his poetry. It’s unfortunate that the vast majority of non-specialists among Iqbal devotees haven’t read his most important prose work. Yet, they cannot be blamed, for the average reader is likely to find the book to be generally obscure and impenetrable—except for occasional passages that stand out as especially lucid or enlightening.

There is an obvious downside, however, of relying too much on particular passages, since they typically get separated from their full context. This, in itself, is not a bad thing, except that in some cases a few lines taken out of context can become a major source of distortion or misinterpretation. Of course, I am not saying that we should never quote Iqbal; I am merely pointing out the risk involved in not taking a wider view of Iqbal’s thought as a whole. Here’s a cautionary tale: I know of a popular teacher who used to cite a particular passage from Reconstruction in a way that turned Iqbal’s conclusion into its exact opposite! That same risk exists with respect to Iqbal’s poetry, since it’s tempting to form broad impressions from a single poem or even a single couplet, impressions that may not be in harmony with the totality of Iqbal’s thought. The natural ambiguity of poetic language only exacerbates this danger.

Even though Reconstruction is not widely read, that doesn’t mean it has been completely neglected. The book does get a lot of attention, but only in certain relatively small circles. Pakistani intellectuals, for examples, have engaged extensively with Reconstruction, especially in the last few decades, and have produced a large amount of secondary literature in the process. Some of that literature does not meet the academic standards that we have come to expect here in the West, but that does not justify disregarding the entire corpus. The secondary literature that already exist on Reconstruction, in both Urdu and English, can be highly valuable for anyone who is trying to engage directly with Iqbal’s text. Many of the issues that a reader is likely to encounter have already been resolved. For example, hundreds of sources and references have been tracked down through painstaking research, producing a body of priceless information that no serious student of Iqbal can afford to ignore. Similarly, an incredibly wide range of topics that Iqbal touches upon in Reconstruction have already been explored in great detail and from a variety of perspectives. There is no denying the value of this material and the effort and commitment that have gone into producing it.

Yet, we need to exercise appropriate caution here as well. While much of the secondary literature on Reconstruction can be immensely beneficial to the discerning reader, there is always a risk that we might confuse someone else’s interpretation of Iqbal’s work with Iqbal’s own thought or perspective. We should be aware of the fact that reading the text of Reconstruction for oneself does not eliminate this problem, since one person’s mind cannot access another person’s mind without any mediation. If I am not reading Iqbal through another scholar’s framework, that only means I am reading him through my own framework. There is always an interpretive lens between the reader and the author, and no lens is free of imperfections. However, reading the original text and interpreting it for oneself is still worth it, for doing so brings us at least one step closer to the perspective we’re trying to understand. 


Two further points need to be emphasized here. First, I am not arguing against the use of  secondary sources. Whether we are trying to understand Iqbal’s poetry or his prose, there is no way of making any progress without taking advantage of secondary literature, including commentaries written by other scholars. What I am saying is that the reader needs to exercise caution and critical discernment while doing so. We are all responsible for our interpretations, just as we are all responsible for our actions.

Second, given that I plan to offer my own take on Reconstruction, it should be clear that whatever I might say about Iqbal’s intended meaning in these posts will also constitute a secondary source that will eventually become part of the secondary literature. Readers of this blog should not confuse my (or their own) view of what Iqbal meant with what he meant.

Let me expand on this second point, for it’s an important one. The goal of reading is to get as close as we possibly can to an author’s mind. When I am reading Iqbal, for example, I am trying to reduce the distance between my mind and his mind, knowing all the while that that distance can never be completely eliminated. The best I can hope for is to interpret Iqbal’s work in a way that he himself would approve, or at least not completely reject. In moving towards that goal, I must be honest about anything I don’t fully understand, as well as any reservations or doubts that might arise. Above all, I need to keep reminding myself that my understanding of Iqbal’s work, no matter how close it might get to his intended meaning, is not—and can never be—identical with Iqbal’s own views or perspective. My knowledge of a thing is obviously not that thing.

So, the main reason why Reconstruction is not widely read outside of a narrow circle of Iqbal specialists is that it is a really difficult book. If we had to rank Iqbal’s writings according to how easy or difficult they are, most people would identify his Urdu poetry, particularly his popular poems included in the collection Bang-e Dara (1924), as the most accessible; they would rank the Reconstruction as the least accessible, while placing Iqbal’s Persian poetry somewhere between these two. That is why readers who are genuinely curious about what Iqbal has to say may start the book with great enthusiasm, but then most of them are likely to give up, reluctantly, after the first page or two. Some may return occasionally and continue to enjoy additional passages here and there—but that’s about it. Neither group is at fault, though I would celebrate the dabblers simply because they keep coming back! 

The fact is that while Reconstruction isn’t very long, it is nevertheless quite daunting. Virtually every reference to another author or concept needs to be looked up, and Iqbal shows no desire to make the reader’s life any easier. Reconstruction has a lot to give, but, unfortunately for the reader, it won’t yield its treasures without a great deal of perseverance and effort, as well as a ton of patience.

By now you may be wondering: Exactly why is The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam such a difficult book to read?

Many years ago, I came across the following explanation: Iqbal was a poor writer of philosophical prose because, after receiving his PhD, he did not teach this subject (except for a very brief period). This diagnosis is based on the following premise: An intellectual’s ability to communicate complex and unfamiliar concepts tends to improve over time through repeatedly explaining those concepts to university students, and through responding to their questions and objections. In other words, if you aren’t used to discussing your ideas verbally, then you don’t really know which expressions or metaphors are best suited to convey them most effectively, and with the least risk of confusion, simply because you have not received enough real-time feedback from live audiences. Therefore, when you sit down to write, you will produce convoluted sentences that make perfect sense to you but are not likely to make the same amount of sense to your readers. Clear expression is a skill, and one cannot learn a skill without feedback.

I am inclined to agree with this diagnosis. Consider the fact that out of the three major figures in classical sociology, Karl Marx and Max Weber are the hardest to read, and neither of these individuals taught for an extended period. Marx was too much of a trouble-maker to get an academic job, and Weber was forced to stop teaching early in his career because of his emotional breakdown and the ensuing depression. The third of the three was Émile Durkheim, who did teach for a long time and whose writings are also the most accessible in comparison to those of Marx and Weber.

I think the fact that Iqbal did not pursue an academic career in philosophy has something to do with the difficulty we face today when we try to read Reconstruction. However, I don’t think it is the only factor. I am also not sure if the underlying premise is universally valid, for my own examples show correlation but not causation. Furthermore, I can think of many scholars who are known to be great teachers but whose writings are notoriously obscure, and there have been plenty of wonderful writers who couldn’t speak as eloquently as they wrote.

To digress just a little bit, consider that good speaking and good writing are two very different skills. They overlap to some extent because they both involve the use of language, but developing each skill is largely a distinct enterprise with its own unique requirements. The main reason for that should be easy to appreciate. In the history of life, vocal communication goes back millions of years, and even the uniquely human form of speech is believed to have evolved between 200,000 and 50,00 years ago. There are extensive areas in the human brain dedicated to oral speech, and a human child learns to speak his/her native language simply by being exposed to it. In contrast, writing was invented only about 5,000 years ago. We don’t acquire the skills involved in writing just by seeing others write; instead, writing has to be taught and learned. Consequently, becoming highly skilled in oral expression does not automatically make you a great writer, just as your expertise in written communication does not naturally spill over into oral eloquence. This would explain why most of us have one preferred medium of expression, which is either speaking or writing.

But there is another reason why Reconstruction is hard to read. This reason is more fundamental, in my opinion, and it has nothing to do with Iqbal’s career choice. Instead, it has to do with the book’s subject matter as well as its originality. Regarding the subject matter, Reconstruction deals with epistemology, metaphysics, theoretical physics, mysticism, jurisprudence, theology, and a host of other topics that are not a regular part of our normal day-to-day concerns or conversations. If you are not already well-versed in these areas, reading the text is going to be challenging, to say the least. But even more importantly, any original and cutting-edge text is difficult to read, almost by definition.

When an extraordinarily intelligent mind conceptualizes unprecedented ideas and tries to express them in writing, we can neither expect nor demand that these ideas are conveyed in easy-to-grasp style couched in everyday vocabulary. One needs sophisticated words to convey sophisticated ideas. And if an idea is genuinely novel and unprecedented, it cannot be easily communicated from one mind to another, either in the written or the oral form, unless the thinker is willing to invent new words and expressions, or is at least willing to endow existing words and expressions with new meanings. When the latter happens, the readers must play along. For if the readers insists on interpreting such words and expressions according to their conventional or established meanings, then this would only lead to more perplexity.

Nonfiction works, when they are truly original, are therefore hard to read. This is almost universally true. Consequently, reading such works calls for a significant investment of time and effort on the part of the reader. Books like Iqbal’s Reconstruction are not impossible to understand, but they do make it necessary for the readers to stretch their minds and their imaginations beyond the point of comfort. Since most people are not able to invest the necessary time and effort, or they are not willing to tolerate the discomfort caused by the stretching of their minds and imaginations, they simply do not engage with such books. Those who do, however, tend to find that both the investment and the discomfort are totally worth the rewards.

Iqbal was an original thinker who wanted to communicate fresh ideas through both his prose and his poetry. While he used many of the traditional symbols and tropes of Urdu and Persian (and occasionally Arabic) poetry, the meanings he was trying to convey were anything but conventional. This mismatch created a challenge for Iqbal, and it creates a challenge for anyone who reads his poems. The same is true of Reconstruction, where we find him struggling to share his novel insights by employing existing terms and concepts, both Eastern and Western, that were often inadequate or unsuited for his purposes.

To borrow a famous biblical metaphor, what Iqbal has offered us is new wine in old wineskins, though every now and then he was forced to invent new wineskins as well. Sometimes the wine spills over because the wineskins are too small. Sometimes we start arguing over the shape and color of the wineskins, forgetting that the containers don’t matter as much as the content.

The challenge that Iqbal faced as he tried to put his meanings into words is parallel in some ways to the challenge that we face when we try to extract his meanings from his words. Iqbal invested his best effort, and there is no reason why we can’t do the same.

There is no doubt that The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is a tough nut to crack. It is even harder for people who aren’t already familiar with Iqbal’s biography, his sociocultural and political contexts, and at least some of his poetry. The fact that Iqbal engages with multiple traditions and countless authors across time and place only intensifies the reader’s hardship. Reading Reconstruction is like taking a long, steep, and uphill hike. You are going to need competent guides as well as reliable companions. But the only thing that will keep you going, especially when the going gets tough, is the faith that the summit is worth reaching and that the view from the top will take your breath away.

Comments are welcome!

The Voter’s Dilemma (5)

When Chomsky was asked about the “Never Biden” position by Mahdi Hasan, he began by saying that the question brought back memories from the early 1930s. At the time, the German communists refused to form an alliance with the social democrats, which—eventually— allowed the Nazis to take power.

Chomsky’s purpose in recounting that episode was to support the claim that sometimes it is necessary to join hands with your rivals in order to stop a greater catastrophe from happening. If that’s the main lesson we’re supposed to learn from the story, then no one can disagree with Chomsky. It’s a valuable lesson, and the underlying principle is solid.

But what is undoubtedly true in the abstract is not necessarily as obvious in practice. This is because (1) we never have complete information about any real-life situation where an important decision has to be made, and (2) in most non-trivial situations, there are competing values, principles, and motivations that pull us in many different directions. These two factors—lack of complete information and the necessity for subjective judgments—make it hard for us to know with certainty whether a particular abstract truth is applicable or not in a given situation.

Consider the fact that conventional wisdom provides us with contradictory suggestions, such as “look before you leap” versus “you snooze, you lose” or “strike the iron when it’s hot.” So, which advice are we supposed to follow? The answer is: It depends. Sometimes, the right thing to do is to be cautious and careful; at other times, we must take the initiative without wasting time. What makes a decision difficult is precisely the fact that we are able to justify both courses of action in good faith. If this weren’t true, there would’ve been no such thing as regret.

That such opposite proverbs exist at all is itself an evidence of the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent in the human condition. Sometimes we can easily see that an abstract principle fits perfectly with the situation we are facing, but very often our view is obstructed. When there is little or no ambiguity, making a decision is as easy as peeling a banana. Unfortunately, that is not true with respect to the voter’s dilemma.

Let’s say a small town is threatened by rising waters in a nearby river. To save the town from flooding, everyone would have to participate in the work of building a barrier. If one group of people refuses to join the effort simply because they don’t like hanging out with another group, the entire town will be lost. Given these particular facts, the ethic of responsibility says that we must set aside our personal likes and dislikes in order to serve a shared goal, for nothing is more important at the moment than saving the town from a catastrophe that we can all see coming.

The situation that Chomsky describes, however, was not as clear, certainly not at the time. Chomsky is making an analogy, and then using that analogy as a warrant to defend a particular voting strategy. Chomsky’s argument works only if we accept that the case of U.S. progressives not voting for Biden in 2020 is similar in relevant ways to the case of German communists refusing to form an alliance with social democrats some ninety years ago. Let’s ignore the fact that this analogy requires us to equate Trump with Hitler. Let’s also not discuss the fact that the U.S. political system fragments power in ways that are incredibly hard to overcome compared to the German political system in the early 1930s. Instead, consider the fact that American voters do not have the benefit of hindsight, and neither did the German communists. We are all functioning on the basis of an incomplete and imperfect understanding of probabilities.

Suppose you were one of the leaders of the German communist party in the early 1930s. You did not like the Nazis and you did not like the social democrats. You were absolutely convinced of the truth of Marxist ideology; you knew for sure that capitalism’s days were almost over; and you had pledged to always uphold the interests of the working class. You had seen political leaders betray their parties; you had seen parties abandon their supporters; and you had learned to despise the the hypocrisy and opportunism of politicians. You had no respect for individuals who would readily sacrifice their avowed principles in exchange for a seat in the parliament or a meaningless official title. You also did not have a crystal ball, and so you had no idea what Hitler would eventually do; in fact, you were probably not even sure that the Nazis had a realistic chance of gaining power. After all, you were working within a parliamentary system, and you knew that no political party had enough support, either among voters or among members of the parliament, that would allow it to form a government on its own strength, including Hitler’s National Socialist Party. Perhaps most importantly, you  were living in a democracy; the idea that a minority group in a coalition government would soon be able to establish a dictatorship hadn’t occurred to you even in your scariest nightmares.

As a leader within the communist party, even if you had some idea of how dangerous the Nazis were, and even if you were open to forming an alliance with the social democrats in order to prevent Hitler from becoming Chancellor, that still does not mean that you had a stark, black and white choice. At best, the situation you were facing was ambiguous. There were good arguments on both sides, and it was difficult to assign the right weight to each position without knowing what the future held. Of course, you did not take this decision lightly. You looked at all the information you had at your disposal, and you tried to be as rational and logical as possible. You had a sense of responsibility, but you were also committed to your ideals. In the end, the issue of whether to cooperate with the social democrats or not had to be resolved on the basis of subjective judgments about values and principles as well as the weighing of relative probabilities about how different political groups would behave.

I agree with Chomsky that the German communists made the wrong choice when they decided to refuse to build an alliance with the social democrats. But I cannot say with absolute certainty that I would have made the right choice if I were a German communist in the early 1930s—and neither can Chomsky. Given that the ethic of responsibility applies only to the foreseeable consequences of our choices, it’s hard to see how we can blame the German communists for the rise of Hitler.

The Voter’s Dilemma (4)

In the previous post, I suggested that Chomsky’s answer to the voter’s dilemma, otherwise known as “Lesser Evil Voting” or LEV, can be challenged from at least three directions. Here, I want to consider the first of these challenges.

The LEV strategy is based on the moral significance of personal responsibility. If my action produces a foreseeable outcome, then I am not only responsible for the action but also for causing that outcome. Whether or not I intended that outcome is irrelevant; I am responsible either way. As applied to the voter’s dilemma, this viewpoint says that not voting for Biden makes me responsible not only for Trump’s victory but also for all the evil that he will unleash in his second term, and the fact that I do not intend either of these outcomes is irrelevant. That, in a nutshell, is Chomsky’s defense of LEV.

The first challenge to the LEV strategy comes from those who believe that a person is only responsible for his/her own actions. According to this approach, my responsibility in any situation is to act in a manner that I believe to be right. The only thing I can control is my own behavior, and my responsibility does not extend into matters over which I have no control. Consequently, I cannot be held responsible if the world is organized in a such way that my action leads, indirectly, to outcomes that I neither intend nor approve.


It is critical to note that both viewpoints are rooted in a long history of ethical deliberations and both are supported by good arguments. It would therefore be a mistake to think that one of these viewpoints is right and the other is wrong. Max Weber, for example, recognized the difficulty involved in choosing one or the other of these viewpoints as the basis for practical conduct. Weber addressed the sharp distinction between the two approaches in his famous lecture on “Politics as a Vocation.” The lecture was delivered to a group of students in Munich on January 28, 1919.

Here’s how Weber introduces the problem:

We have to understand clearly that all ethically oriented action can follow two totally different principles that are irreconcilably opposed to each other: an ethic of “ultimate ends” or an ethic of “responsibility.” This is not to say that the ethic of ultimate ends is identical with a lack of responsibility, or that the ethic of responsibility is identical with lack of conviction. There is naturally no question of that. But there is an immeasurably profound profound contrast between acting according to the maxim of the ethic of ultimate ends—to speak in religious terms: “The Christian does the right thing and leaves the outcome in God’s hands,” and acting according to the ethic of responsibility: that one must answer for the (foreseeable) consequences of one’s actions.

By “ultimate ends,” Weber does not mean any particular outcome or goal; rather, he is referring to values. By definition, all true values are ultimate, in the sense that they are not pursued as the means to achieve some other end; rather, values are desired for their own sake and pursued as ends in themselves. This means that values do not have to be justified; in fact, anything that can be justified is not a value. Consequently, if I explain one of my actions by referring to a value that I hold dear, you may ask whether or not my action really does serve that value; that’s a fair question. However, you cannot ask why I am committed to that particular value in the first place, for values are “ultimate” in the sense that they cannot be rationally defended.

The key point is that, according to Weber, the ethic of ultimate ends cannot be harmonized with the ethic of responsibility because of the “profound contrast” between the two. This means, I think, that a specific action in a specific situation can satisfy either the requirements of one or the other of these two approaches, but it cannot satisfy the requirements of both. Notice Weber’s insistence that the ethic of ultimate ends is not about lack of responsibility, just as the ethic of responsibility does not entail a lack of commitment to values. Here’s how I understand Weber’s point: While the ethic of ultimate ends requires each individual to be fully responsible to his/her own conscience, the ethic of responsibility requires us to take into account whether or not the actual consequences of our actions will be in alignment with our values.

Consider the following question: If someone acts according to the dictates of conscience, but the consequences that flow from those actions are deemed evil, who is to be held responsible? Weber quotes Martin Luther, who had said: “Do your duty, and leave the outcome to God.” A Christian, according to Luther, is responsible for doing the right thing, not for ensuring that the world becomes right as a result of one’s actions. The world is God’s responsibility, not mine. This is another way of saying that I am only accountable in front of God, or in front of my conscience, for doing my part. I don’t make the rules that govern society, and there is nothing I can do to control or manage the consequences that may result from the fact that I did my duty. According to Weber, the person who follows the ethic of ultimate ends takes the position that the responsibility for any negative consequences of fulfilling one’s duty does not belong to the conscientious actor but to “the world, the stupidity of other people, or the will of God, who created them like that.”

In contrast, the person who follows the ethic of responsibility takes into account the fact that the world is ordered in a way that good actions do not necessarily produce good consequence. According to Weber, the world is ethically irrational. It does not guarantee that doing the right thing will make everything right for you, or anyone else. In fact, very often the exact opposite happens. The person who follows the ethic of responsibility is acutely aware of this fact. For Weber, such an individual “does not feel himself to be in a position to shift the responsibility for the consequences of his actions, as far as he can foresee them, on to others. He will say: These consequences are attributable to my actions.”

Let’s extend this line of reasoning. If we are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of our actions, then it follows that we may have to put aside the question of whether our actions are moral in themselves; rather, we must always act in ways that would produce the most morally desirable outcomes. That, however, can push us onto a slippery slope, as Weber points out.

No ethic in the world can get around the fact that in many cases the achievement of “good” ends is linked with the necessity of accepting ethically dubious or at least risky means, and the possibility or even the probability of evil side effects. And no ethic in the world can predict when and to what extent the ethically good end “justifies” the ethically risky means and side effects.

That is not a trivial problem. The ethic of responsibility says that we must take responsibility for the consequences of our actions. To ensure that good consequences appear in the world as a result of our actions, we would have to judge our actions not on the basis of whether they are right or wrong in themselves, but whether they lead to moral or immoral consequences. But when our focus is on outcomes, there is a very real risk that we may choose morally questionable actions—and perhaps even immoral actions—whenever we believe that these actions are necessary for producing the outcomes we desire and that the outcomes we desire are, in fact, morally superior. This creates the likelihood of bad faith rationalizations. At the same time, we are prone to become less and less concerned about the unintended but negative consequences of using morally questionable means.

The possibility of self-deception is real, for one can find more or less satisfactory ways to defend and rationalize almost any course of action. Once we have convinced ourselves that a certain end is moral, and that a certain action is necessary to achieve that end, it is easy to disregard the morality or immorality of the action as irrelevant. The end will then be enough to justify virtually any means. This is not just a hypothetical danger, for history is full of cases where morally justifiable ends—such as freedom or equality—led many people to justify and commit all sorts of atrocities. If it’s true that good actions do not guarantee good consequences, it is also true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Weber is sensitive to the problem of unintended consequences, or “side-effects.” The consequences that flow out of our actions are not always the ones we intended. There is, of course, no ethical problem if an action inadvertently produces morally desirable results. But what if some of the unintended consequences are immoral? Even when we anticipate that certain consequences that we neither intend nor approve are likely to flow from our actions, the “ends justify means” approach would cause us to view such a risk as worth taking. This sort of reasoning is found, for example, in the concept of “collateral damage,” where foreseeable civilian casualties are viewed as the acceptable cost we must pay for a morally desirable end, such as “eradicating terrorism” or “making the world safe for democracy.” Of course, whether that end itself is moral is an open question.

As I write this post, some  people are pushing the idea that the loss of a few million lives is a risk worth taking for the sake of restarting the U.S. economy in the midst of a deadly pandemic. They obviously do not intend to kill millions of people, nor do they believe it to be a positive or desirable outcome. Their reasoning is based on the “ends justify means” approach, and indirectly on the ethic of responsibility. They want to ensure that the world is set right. They believe—sincerely, I think—that nothing in this context can be a higher ethical priority than maintaining economic growth. In their view, a particular end (i.e., maintaining the health of the U.S. economy) carries such immense moral weight that an otherwise horrible “side-effect” of pursuing it (i.e., millions of deaths) appears to be a perfectly acceptable risk—or even a perfectly acceptable part of the cost that society must pay for returning to business-as-usual.

It is critical to recognize that neither the ethic of ultimate ends nor the ethic of responsibility can easily deal with unintended consequences. The problem emerges because the future is mostly unknowable, which means that it is impossible for human beings to foresee all of the consequences of their actions. Our capacity to know in advance how a particular action will affect the world in the long run is somewhere between extremely limited to nonexistent. Modernity makes this problem progressively worse. As society becomes more complex, it also becomes less predictable; as a result, we face an ever increasing amount of uncertainty and ambiguity when making even small decisions, let alone morally momentous ones.

People who want to follow the ethic of responsibility, such as Noam Chomsky, would insist that their decision is based on the sense of responsibility they feel in relation to the foreseeable consequences of their actions, and that they cannot be held responsible for any unforeseeable consequences that may flow from their choices. There are two obvious issues with this position, which I consider below.

First, there is no way of knowing the true proportion of foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences of any particular action we might take, especially when we try to consider both the direct and indirect impacts of that action into the long term future. People who want to follow the ethic of responsibility do so by assuming that only the foreseeable consequences matter. This may be a reasonably valid assumption in cases that are simple and straightforward, but it is clearly unwarranted in more complex cases, such as the voter’s dilemma. Assuming that only the consequences that I am able to see at the present moment are worthy of consideration amounts to giving oneself too much credit. We can’t even say that the foreseeable consequences of a particular action will outnumber the unforeseeable ones, let alone know for sure that the foreseeable consequences will be decisive.

Second, individuals who want to follow the ethic of responsibility cannot be certain that the consequences they do foresee will in fact materialize. While this is always true to some degree, most of the time this effect is so negligible that for all practical purposes we safely ignore it. It does become significant, I think, when it comes to voting in a Presidential election. There are so many variables involved in the politics of a large country, such as the U.S., that allocating the correct amount of evil to each candidate is beyond the capacity of mere mortals. For example, is Trump really more evil than Joe Biden? What if that turns out to be true in the short term only? What if his policies end up shaking millions of Americans out of their complacent slumber, who then go on to create a more fair and just society? Far fetched, but not impossible. Chomsky is right that Trump is really bad in terms of climate policies, but our experience with eight years of Obama doesn’t give us any confidence in Joe Biden’s ability to turn this ship around. Biden might be marginally better than Trump on climate, but would that stop the ongoing collapse of the planet’s ecosystems? Hardly, given that Biden is promising that “nothing will fundamentally change” under his administration. It is true that Trump has put some terrible policies into effect, and perhaps Biden would reverse them, which would be nice. But what about the bigger picture? Who can say that a return to pre-Trump policies in a post-Trump world would make things better on the whole? None of us can even see the whole picture, let alone know how it would change.

We are all making guesses—and we should acknowledge, both to ourselves and to the world at large, that that’s what we are doing. This will make us humble. The only way to judge as to which candidate is a lesser evil and which one the greater evil is to rely upon countless assumptions about the future as well as the prejudices we have inherited from the past, not to mention our fallible and finite minds that only give us a hazy and fragmentary view of reality.

None of what I have said here renders the ethic of responsibility untenable, especially as it relates to voting in a U.S. Presidential election. It still remains a valid viewpoint, though I think I did problematize it a little.

It seems to me that the ethic of responsibility does not warrant the high level of confidence and certainty that many Biden voters are demonstrating when they claim to know what the right choice is. I would recommend epistemological humility to anyone who feels completely, absolutely, one hundred percent sure that all options other than voting for Joe Biden are immoral or irrational. I would, of course, recommend the same thing to those who are completely, absolutely, one hundred percent sure that the right thing to do is to not vote for Joe Biden.

Let me reiterate that I am not asking anyone to change their mind about whom they should vote for; I am only asking everyone to be thoughtful and reflective about how they make this decision.

There is more to come. Stay tuned.