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.”

Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p. xliii

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.”

P.S. August 22, 2020. I now think that my interpretation of “alien universe,” suggested above, was off the mark. The phrase does not refer to the strange and unusual elements of religious discourse; rather, it refers to the universe insofar as it appears to be separate from us.

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.”

Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, 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.

Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p. xliii

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.

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