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!