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.

9 Comments on “Reconstruction (2)

  1. The blog highlights the problem of declining education in Pakistan, which may or may not be of interest to audience in North America. Anyway the facts and analysis added to my knowledge base so I still welcome it.

    • Actually, I did not name any country with respect to the decline in the standards of education over the last century. That’s because such decline isn’t limited to South Asia; it has happened in North America too. I have personally witnessed this lowering of standards here in the United States, even though I have been teaching for only 15 years.

  2. Salams.
    ” 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”
    Please take this as a license for yourself !!!
    We wait with bated breath.

    • I am no creative genius, though I do dislike physical activity as much as Iqbal. I enjoy checking numbers and dates, while also being obsessed with punctuation. I have been called a Grammar Nazi. I think I would make a good secretary to an actual creative genius.

  3. first of all, thank you for the posts! very informative and detailed.

    Iqbal has said that the old ways of the past to get relgious expeirence are not effective anymore. I have a 2 part question: can you elaborate on what the methods of:
    1) the pre-modern genuine sufis that were successful in the pre-modern world?
    2) of the current day (i assume 1929 and now) sufis. i assume that “..practical sufism, as it existed during his lifetime…” is referring to the current day sufis.

    • Good question. I am guessing that Iqbal is referring to moderate forms of ascetic practices, such as supererogatory fasting and prayers, as well as particular forms of meditations and periods of isolation (retreats), though there is always a tendency to go overboard. Generally speaking, mystics around the world have often practiced various forms of repetitive movements or dances, as well as extended chanting and singing, sometimes accompanied by drumming, as means for achieving altered states of consciousness. Such practices have been adopted by different groups of Sufis as well. Consider the “whirling” dance of the Mevlevi order, which is really a form of movement meditation. There is a similar Egyptian form, called “tanoura,” and a South Asian form, known as “dhamal.” What we call “nasheed” and “qawwali” are part of this tradition. Occasionally, drugs are also involved. However, I would have to do some digging before I can give you a more confident answer.

  4. Thank you for your reply.
    I’m trying to understand the difference between the old genuine sufi’s of past (whose methods were effective then but not today) and the sufi’s of today that Iqbal is referring to at a high level or in a nut shell.
    If I understand correctly from your reply:
    1) the genuine sufis way is “supererogatory fasting and prayers, as well as particular forms of meditations and periods of isolation (retreats)”. Iqbal is saying that this method isn’t helpful anymore…
    2) the new or present day sufis is through dances, repetative movements, nasheed and qawwalis?

  5. In my previous response, I listed the most common methods that were, and are, prevalent among Sufis. If I understand your question correctly, you are asking about the specific methods that Iqbal believes were at least somewhat effective in the premodern world but have become mostly or entirely ineffective in the modern world. In my previous response, I speculated about what Iqbal might have in mind, but I couldn’t be sure (“I am guessing that …”). So the answer to your question is: I don’t know.

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