Between “Deed” and “Idea” (2)

By saying that the Qur’an emphasizes “deed” rather than “idea,” Iqbal has identified for us what is perhaps the very essence of revelation.

Muslims take the Qur’an as containing the revelations that came from God to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The phenomenon of revelation, however, is not unique to Islam, and the Qur’an itself confirms that many individuals had been the recipients of such divine revelation in the past. This fact allows us to examine the phenomenon of revelation in a comparative perspective. When we look at the revelations found in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, and compare them with the revelations that we have in the form of the Qur’an, we are struck by the fact that all these revealed texts have one characteristic in common: They are invariably aimed at encouraging and facilitating some form of personal transformation.

The purpose of revelation is guidance, and the most important form of guidance that human beings need is practical guidance. Revealed texts are therefore meant to answer the most urgent of all questions, i.e., “how should I live?” While revelation provides theoretical guidance as well, the latter is discussed not for its own sake but mainly for its practical implications. In other words, the primary function of revelation is such that it is most clearly served when the revelation speaks in the imperative mode, as in the commandment “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), or in the saying of Jesus “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Even when the revelation speaks in the declarative mode, its aim is not simply to provide us with information but rather to transform us in some important way. For instance, when we are told: “God, there is no god except He…” (Qur’an 2:255), the revelation is not merely informing us that there is only one God; rather, it is reminding us of the attitude we are supposed to adopt given that there is only one God. In the same way, when the Qur’an narrates the stories of previous prophets or informs us of the punishments of hell and the blessings of paradise, its purpose is not to add more data to our minds; the purpose, rather, is to help us transform ourselves in the desired ways.

To claim that revelation does not emphasize “ideas” is to suggest that holding the right beliefs is not one of its central concerns. In the ordinary, non-technical sense of the word, “believing” refers to giving intellectual assent to certain ideas. While it is important to hold the right beliefs, or believe in the right ideas, this in itself does not provide any guarantee that personal transformation will actually take place. It is all too common for people to hold one set of ideas as true, while living their lives as if those ideas were entirely false. It would appear that people tend to hold not one but two sets of ideas in their minds: (1) ideas that they believe they hold, and (2) ideas that actually guide their choices and conduct. From the viewpoint of revelation, holding ideas that do not shape our lives is ultimately worthless even when they are objectively true. For there is no benefit in “knowing” a truth if one does not “understand” it, and there is no benefit in “understanding” a truth if it does not guide one’s attitudes, priorities, habits, and values. A truth that is held in the mind but not embodied is no better than a treasure that we own but cannot spend.

Revelation is definitely concerned with transforming our beliefs, but it is even more concerned with transforming our choices and conduct. From the viewpoint of revelation, only those of our beliefs are relevant that actually shape our lived reality, i.e., beliefs that actively determine our “deeds.”

Iqbal’s use of the word “deed” is such that it cannot be substituted by the word “action.” This is because he seems to have used the word “deed” in a much more comprehensive sense than what the word “action” would suggest. Nor should we think of “deed” as something that is diametrically opposed to “faith.” On the contrary, the words “faith” and “deed” are very nearly synonymous for Iqbal. I have been led to this conclusion because of three statements that Iqbal makes in the very first paragraph of The Reconstruction, immediately following the preface:

The essence of religion … is faith ….

… the transformation and guidance of man’s inner and outer life is the essential aim of religion ….

Religion is not a departmental affair; it is neither mere thought, nor mere feeling, nor mere action; it is an expression of the whole man.

That “faith” is the essence of religion is not an insignificant matter, for this implies that whatever is true of religion in general must be true of faith, if not truer. Consequently, if the purpose of religion is to guide and transform all aspects of human life, and if the essence of religion happens to be faith, then it would be a serious mistake to conceive of faith in a narrow or partial manner. What Iqbal says explicitly about religion he implicitly says about faith as well: Faith is neither mere thought, nor mere feeling, nor mere action; it is an expression of the whole person. For Iqbal, faith is the personal transformation that constitutes the “essential aim” of religion, as well as the means through which that aim is pursued.

If we can conceive of faith in this broad and comprehensive Iqbalian sense, then we can also appreciate the partial and limited nature of belief. Faith is an expression of the whole person—the sum total of one’s attitudes, priorities, habits, and values, as well as of one’s choices and conduct—while belief is merely an idea that a person holds in his or her mind. While it is obviously better to hold a true belief than a false one, holding a true belief is not the same thing as achieving the “essential aim” of religion, i.e., personal transformation.

When Iqbal says that the Qur’an emphasizes “deed” as opposed to “idea,” he is basically telling us that the Qur’an is far more concerned with “faith” than it is with “belief.”


  1. I was wondering having read the 1st part why Dr. Ahmed Afzaal did not discuss the word ‘Deed’ in that particular sentence. Then I came across the 2nd part of it.

    A suggestion came from a friend while discussing (the words “faith” and “deed” are very nearly synonymous for Iqbal) a reference can be given from Socrates’ famous quote ‘knowledge is virtue’. He must have used it in the same sense.

    Anyways, it was a very good read at the end. Thanks for this research work.

      1. What is the connection between faith and idea? Our practice is predicated on some kind of theory, not mere instinct, unless faith is like an instinct of the heart, just as feelings like hunger give us instincts for the body. The answer to “how should I live” can’t be separated from the question “why should I live like this?” This blog ends up saying that “iman/faith fuses idea and deed” instead “deed takes precedence over idea”.

      2. It is a common but mistaken assumption that all our actions are based on some belief or theory. In fact, the vast majority of human beings do not bother with the question of “why should I live like this” at a conscious level. For all human beings, the vast majority of our actions are rooted in habit, and habits are rooted in socialization. Beliefs and actions often exist independent of each other, and the contradiction mostly goes undetected. Only a tiny minority consciously thinks about the two questions you’ve mentioned, or their interconnection; and even this minority does so for a tiny fraction of their choices. Here’s how you can tell whether this true or not: Consider a typical day in your own life, and make a list of everything you do while on autopilot and then count the number times you actually pause to think about the theoretical and ethical foundations of the choice your’re about to make. My guess is that this proportion, even for intellectuals, is something like 100 to 1 or even 1,000 to 1.

  2. I just read the preface again after your blogs. In that context, it looks like “deed” refers to Sufi practices/inner religious experiences that aforetime helped in the cultivation of iman/faith; “idea” refers to “concrete habits of the mind” that are skeptical of those kinds of subjective inner experiences that “modern man” holds. A lot to discuss here. Most importantly, it looks like Iqbal has formulated an early version of the secularization thesis, which sociologists no longer agree as accurately describing the movement from past to present. What do you think? The one additional question I have about the preface is related to the last line: how does one maintain an independent attitude towards human thought when it that same thought that shapes his intellectual habits?

    1. You’ve used the phrase “it looks like” twice in your comment. Each time, it is followed by a claim or a conclusion, but no grounds. If you could share the full reasoning that led you to each of these propositions, it would help me understand your argument(s) better. Regarding the last sentence of Iqbal’s “Preface,” I’ll discuss that in a future post.

      1. The first “looks like” was based on the parallel construction in the first three sentences. Deed is to inner experience as idea is to concrete habits. Let me abandon the second “looks like” for the moment. That was a broader inference. Look forward to reading the future post on the last sentence. Many thanks.

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