Between “Deed” and “Idea” (1)

When Iqbal published his lectures on “the reconstruction of religious thought in Islam,” he decided to add a brief preface. The preface begins with the following statement:

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

This is a significant statement, considering where it appears: in the preface to a book which is all about ideas! Introducing a highly theoretical work that addresses the nuances of Islamic as well as Western thought in the areas of metaphysics, theology, and ethics, Iqbal found it necessary to confess that the world of ideas—thought—is not something that’s terribly important from the Qur’anic viewpoint. After acknowledging that ideas do not constitute a central concern of the Qur’an, Iqbal went on to argue in the same preface why it is nevertheless necessary that we pay attention to ideas.

Iqbal’s statement about where the Qur’an puts its primary emphasis is significant for several other reasons as well. For instance, it demonstrates an element of critical self-awareness on Iqbal’s part. He knew perfectly well, and was able to acknowledge in writing, that his own emphasis on religious thought was not in perfect harmony with the Qur’anic emphasis on what he called “deed.”

Perhaps the important question from the reader’s viewpoint is this: Is Iqbal’s statement correct? Is it really true that the Qur’an emphasizes “deed” rather than “idea”? The claim may sound counter-intuitive to many Muslims, who may want to argue that the Qur’an does pay sufficient attention to ideas. Thus, when the Qur’an speaks about God and God’s attributes, or narrates the stories of previous prophets, or informs us of the punishments of hell and the blessings of paradise — isn’t it obvious that in all these matters the Qur’an is discussing what may be called beliefs? And isn’t it true that beliefs are made up of ideas? If they are not ideas, what else could they be?

The term that most Muslims use for religious beliefs is ‘aqa’id, plural of ‘aqidah. The contemporary use of the word ‘aqidah is such that it is practically a synonym for what Christians call “creed.” Strictly speaking, a “creed” is not the same thing as “belief.” A community can have a wide range of beliefs at any given moment, but when a particular understanding of what everyone is supposed to believe is expressed in a particular verbal formula by a religious authority, the resulting declaration of belief is called a creed. Thus, the Latin version of the Nicene Creed begins with the words “Credo in unum Deum,” we believe in one God, indicating the declarative and public (or communal) nature of a creed. During most of Christian history, matters of creed were typically very important, in that whether or not one professed the right creed was the main factor in differentiating between orthodoxy and heresy (in some cases, this could mean the difference between life and death).

In the Islamic instance, the term ‘aqīdah is normally taken as suggesting a particular formulation of religious belief as articulated by a particular religious authority — and this is exactly how the term “creed” is normally defined. For our present purposes, however, whether we call the particular formulation in question a “creed” or a “belief” makes little difference; for whichever term we choose, the critical issue is that the actual content of ‘aqīdah is widely assumed to be either an idea or a set of ideas.

Given that idea is the substance that is believed to constitute any particular ‘aqīdah, and given that having the right ‘aqīdah is taken to mean holding certain specific ideas as true, we can see how Iqbal’s statement appears to belittle the importance of ‘aqīdah. When Iqbal says that “The Qur’an is a book which emphasizes ‘deed’ rather than ‘idea,'” what he is clearly implying is that, from the Qur’anic perspective, matters of ‘aqīdah are not all that worthy of our attention. This is obviously a claim that is in sharp contrast to what a significant proportion of Muslims seem to hold.

Nowadays, a great deal of emphasis is being placed in many Muslim circles on having the “correct ‘aqīdah,” and a great deal of intellectual effort is spent on fulfilling this goal. Many Muslims show a strong attachment to their own understanding of what they take to be the one “correct ‘aqīdah,” and some are not reluctant at all to criticize and condemn alternative understandings as absolutely unacceptable. In some extreme cases, it would appear as if having the “correct ‘aqīdah” is of ultimate significance for one’s salvation—as if going to hell or reaching the paradise is primarily a question of holding in one’s mind the correct wording of particular religious ideas.

Given this widespread emphasis on religious ideas, Iqbal’s statement implies a sharp critique of the attitude that defines the very meaning of religion for many contemporary Muslims. If his statement turns out to be true, it would demand from contemporary Muslims fundamental changes in how they approach their religious lives.

How can we find out whether or not Iqbal’s statement is correct? An important consideration is that the word ‘aqīdah, in the sense of a particular articulation of a religious belief—that is to say, a “creed”—does not appear in the Qur’an. In his book Faith and Belief (1979), Wilfred Cantwell Smith makes the following observation:

The root ‘aqada, “to tie a knot”, either literally or in the figurative sense of binding a person by a legal or moral commitment, making a binding engagement, occurs seven times in the Qur’an: twice as the verb and five times as a noun. The words ‘aqīdah, ‘aqā’id do not occur. (p. 196)

Of course, just because a word does not appear in the Qur’an is no proof, by itself, that there is something religiously illegitimate about the concept it represents. But that is precisely where the problem resides, for the actual concept behind the word ‘aqīdah is very often not grasped too well by contemporary Muslims. To quote Smith once again:

Furthermore, I have found in working on mediaeval kalam texts that the VIIIth form i’taqadah, which does not occur in the Qur’an but is introduced into theology later, along with ‘aqīdah, ‘aqā’id, in the sense of “creed”, begins there by meaning not “to believe” something but rather more literally to bind oneself, to commit or to pledge oneself to, to take on the engagement of living in accord with a given position; and that only gradually across the centuries does it eventually acquire the more neutral meaning of “to believe” something intellectually. This last comes quite late in the mediaeval period and is perhaps not common until early modern times. (p.196)

What Smith is pointing out in the above quotation is a problem common to all religious traditions that rely on written texts. As time passes, the texts remain static but the language keeps changing. The result is that in the later part of a tradition’s history, texts written in the earlier part tend to become increasingly incomprehensible. This is especially problematic when a later-day reader feels confident that he or she is interpreting an old text exactly as it was intended to be understood, but is doing so without taking into account the glaring fact that the denotations and connotations of words do not remain static over hundreds of years. The word ‘aqīdah and related words were initially used by Muslim theologians and jurists in the sense of making a commitment to one or the other side of a controversial issue; as time passed, Muslims continued to use these words but increasingly in the sense of holding certain ideas in one’s mind. According to Smith, while this trend can be found in the late medieval period, it probably did not become dominant until the early modern period.

To reiterate, the widespread sense of ‘aqīdah as an idea to which one gives intellectual assent is very different from the original sense of the word as used by classical Muslim theologians and jurists. Nowadays, the vast majority of Muslims use the word ‘aqīdah in a way that makes it a virtual synonym for religious “belief” or, more precisely, for “creed.” (I have in mind the modern meanings of these two words, not their premodern meanings.)

One can justify the religious legitimacy of the classical sense of ‘aqīdah by appealing to arguments that are ultimately based on the Qur’an. One can also justify the modern sense of ‘aqīdah as believing something intellectually or holding certain ideas in one’s mind. What one cannot justify is the assumption that the contemporary meaning of ‘aqīdah is identical with what our classical authorities had in mind when they used that word. Integrity demands that one acknowledges that an important shift in the meaning of this word has taken place during the centuries that separate us from the authors of our classical texts.

In light of this discussion, what is the significance of Iqbal’s opening statement in the preface to his major work? When Iqbal suggests that the Qur’an does not emphasize idea, he is saying that the Qur’an does not concern itself with matters of ‘aqīdah — in the modern sense of the word. To put his claim in slightly different language, Iqbal is saying that the Qur’an does not concern itself with matters of belief, including religious belief. Obviously, this claim also applies to what is called a “creed,” insofar as a creed is understood to be a formalized expression of religious belief. Iqbal is saying that, instead of focusing its attention on matters of ‘aqīdah, belief, or creed, the Qur’an focuses its attention on something else. This something else Iqbal calls “deed.”

An important caveat is necessary at this point. Notice Iqbal’s use of the word “emphasis,” which is crucial in interpreting his statement about the Qur’an. Iqbal is not saying that the Qur’an pays absolutely no attention to ideas. Given that Iqbal himself makes ample use of the Qur’anic text in discussing a wide range of ideas, it would be a blatant error on his part if he were to make such a claim. What he is saying is simply that the Qur’an does not emphasize ideas. In other words, the primary aim of the Qur’an does not consist in informing us as to which ideas we ought to hold in our minds and which ones we must not hold in our minds; yet, this fact does not mean that the Qur’an is entirely indifferent to ideas. Ultimately, it’s a matter of priorities. While the Qur’an does suggest many things that qualify as ideas, the primary aim of the Qur’an lies elsewhere, in the realm of “deed.” This is important for Muslims to understand because the priorities of the Qur’an are supposed to become our own priorities.

3 Comments on “Between “Deed” and “Idea” (1)

  1. This is a very important topic you explored. And I must appreciate your beautifully put arguments. I was looking to read something like this on this particular topic. Instead, my teacher here in Islamabad who is very fond of Iqbal asked me to find some piece of work on this idea.

    Thanks a lot for your effort.

  2. I am enjoying these blogs very much. Could the primacy of deed over idea be translated more generally to intellectual culture? In other words, what is important for a civilization is not necessarily its beliefs at any given time, but rather the act of doing knowledge, of engaging in sincere and meaningful conversations across human difference, for the sake of God and the common good. As long as the pursuit is genuinely for God, knowledge is connected to deed (individual and collective), and the conversation is alive, the “ideas” will sort themselves out, not necessarily in convergence at some endpoint, but rather as ayaat, a living and pulsating source for iman, constantly negotiated and renegotiated between revelation and the “acquired knowledge” of any given age.

    • I am not sure what you mean by “intellectual culture,” but modern academic culture is almost exclusively focused on exploring ideas. For people who live in their heads, simply talking about issues can provide such a strong sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that they rarely feel any need to put their convictions into action. (I know that there are individual exceptions, but I am referring to the overall culture.) Secondly, the purpose of inquiry is to move towards the truth, which is the ultimate point of convergence. Isn’t that the goal of both science and religion? By definition, signs point toward various truths, and if reality is consistent then all the signs have to add up and convergence in the long run.

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