Reconstruction: Preface (2)

Having written the first three sentences, Iqbal now anticipates another question from his reader. He can guess that the mention of religious experience has led the reader’s mind toward the mystical tradition in Islam, sometimes called Sufism. Since religious experience has always been the special domain of mystics, it would be natural for the reader to raise the following question: If the cultivation of religious experience is really as important as you say it are, shouldn’t we ask the Sufis to guide us in dealing with the predicament you’ve just described? Without stating the question in so many words, Iqbal responds as follows:

The more genuine schools of Sufism have, no doubt, done good work in shaping and directing the evolution of religious experience in Islam; but their latter-day representatives, owing to their ignorance of the modem mind, have become absolutely incapable of receiving any fresh inspiration from modem thought and experience. They are perpetuating methods which were created for generations possessing a cultural outlook differing, in important respects, from our own.

Iqbal had great appreciation for Sufism, and he himself was a Sufi in many ways, just like his father. Indeed, Iqbal knew Sufism from within. His poetry is filled with allusions that cannot be understood except in light of the Islamic tradition of theoretical mysticism, and he relies heavily on themes and tropes that first emerged within that tradition. Iqbal’s indebtedness to and reverence for our greatest Sufi poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, is well known. What all of this amounts to is that Iqbal’s critique of Sufism—both here and elsewhere—is not coming from a place of malevolence or hostility. While being deeply appreciative of Sufism’s contributions, Iqbal has come to the conclusion that practical Sufism, as it existed during his lifetime, was incapable of meeting contemporary religious needs.

There are at least two interesting ideas in the above quotation that deserve our attention. First, notice the phrase “shaping and directing the evolution of….” Even though Iqbal is referring to particular schools of Sufism and the role they played with respect to religious experience in Islam, his underlying approach in that sentence can be easily generalized and applied to a variety of cultural phenomenon. I intend to discuss this idea in a future blog post. Second, notice Iqbal’s use of the term “cultural outlook.” It supports a point I had made in my previous post, i.e., when Iqbal refers to “the modern man” he is not thinking of the individuals who happens to live in the modern era. Instead, he is referring to the perspective that dominates our sociocultural and intellectual context. The influence of that perspective is deep and widespread, but it is by no means total. In fact, no perspective can achieves 100% domination in any society—ever. There are always pockets of resistance and counter-narratives that deviate from, and therefore challenge, the dominant perspective. No society is therefore monolithic, in the sense of everyone conforming to the exact same way of thinking. That is precisely why Iqbal’s term “cultural outlook” is so useful, for it reminds us to distinguish between a society’s mainstream or dominant perspective on the one hand, and the marginalized or subordinate perspectives that are also invariably present, on the other hand.

Iqbal then refers to a verse from the Qur’an to suggest the type of inner experience that, in his view, would help meet the religious needs of our time:

‘Your creation and resurrection,’ says the Qur’an, ‘are like the creation and resurrection of a single soul’ (31:28). A living experience of the kind of biological unity, embodied in this verse, requires today a method physiologically less violent and psychologically more suitable to a concrete type of mind.

Iqbal is saying that the modern “cultural outlook” is such that it privileges “a concrete type of mind,” which presumably is a mind that is used to “habits of concrete thought.” A culture that thinks in concrete, empirical terms cannot find much value in the methods being recommended by “the latter-day representatives” of Sufism. There is a lack of compatibility between what the modern culture requires for meeting its religious needs and what it is being offered, i.e., methods that were more or less successful once-upon-a-time but the culture for which they were originally designed no longer exists. This is an example of the general principle that solutions intended for one environment are very often ineffective or even counterproductive when applied in a very different environment.

According to Iqbal, if the contemporary representatives of Sufism were capable of receiving “fresh inspiration from modern thought and experience,” they would be actively developing new approaches for cultivating the appropriate forms of inner experience—approaches that would be in greater psychological harmony with the modern preference for “habits of concrete thought.” They would also be “physiologically less violent.” I take this last phrase to mean that Iqbal’s ideal approach is one that is not as harsh and as demanding on the human body as the approaches currently favored by practical Sufism; instead, it would produce methods designed to work with the natural flow of the body rather than against it. Unfortunately, according to Iqbal, practical Sufism has been static for several centuries and is showing no willingness to learn, change, and grow in response to the demands of modern culture.

So, exactly what type of inner experience is going to be most useful for cultivating religious faith today? Iqbal’s answer is somewhat cryptic, given that he is trying to be concise. He quotes part of a verse from the Qur’an to make his point, but doesn’t provide a full explanation.

Surah Luqman 31:28

Your creation and resurrection are like the creation and resurrection of a single soul ….

But even the brief explanation he does offer is quite useful. According to Iqbal, “embodied” in this verse is “a living experience … of biological unity.” Right away, I am tempted to focus on the word “unity,” which is in direct reference to the Qur’anic phrase “a single soul,” and to then discuss the sense of “wholeness” and “oneness” that often accompanies certain types of non-ordinary states of consciousness. But there is another, perhaps more intriguing, theme, that I think needs a closer examination.

To understand this theme, notice the juxtaposition of “embody,” “living,” and “biological,” words that seem to align with the word “creation” in the Qur’anic verse. This combination reminds me of the word “organically” and the phrase “vital process” that Iqbal has previously used. Clearly, a significant thread running through these sentences has something to do with life. Perhaps Iqbal is suggesting that the modern “cultural outlook,” because of its reliance on “habits of concrete thought,” demands a type of religious experience that feels natural, organic, and vital—one that has the same qualities as life itself. There is also an emphasis here on the physical, as evidenced by Iqbal’s use of “embody” and “physiological,” and even “concrete.” Perhaps Iqbal is saying that the type of religious faith and inner experience that are needed today must be grounded in the concrete, material world, the world of bodies—both living and non-living—and the world of sense perception.

What does Iqbal mean by the phrase “biological unity” that he says is “embodied” in the Qur’anic verse he cites? I have to confess that for at least 20 years I couldn’t figure out why Iqbal quoted this particular Qur’anic verse in the context of religious experience. I couldn’t see the connection Iqbal was making, but now I know exactly why I couldn’t see it. I had always assumed that the “unity” in question was between the one and the many—the “creation and resurrection” of all humanity is just like the “creation and resurrection” of a single individual; but that wasn’t how Iqbal had read this verse. Today, for the first time, I am beginning to see what he saw.

As I intend to discuss later, Iqbal’s basic approach in the Reconstruction is to identify specific ruptures and separations engendered by the rational mind, and to bring them together in order to show their essential, underlying unity. A major concern of his in this context is to argue against the mind/body or spirit/matter dichotomy. The Qur’anic verse that Iqbal quotes in the “Preface” seems to convey the exact same message. The verse appears to suggest that human creation and human resurrection are ultimately similar or parallel phenomena—they represent a “biological unity.” It’s not the case that our creation is physical while our resurrection is spiritual; rather, the assumption of a separation between body and spirit that underlies such thinking is itself, from the Qur’anic perspective, untenable. In other words, the physical and spiritual aspects of life form a single, indivisible, whole. It is the experiential knowledge of this “biological unity” that Iqbal finds “embodied” in the verse.

It follows that the type of religious experience we need today must be one that gives rise to a “living” awareness of the essential indivisibility of life. This inner experience would “reveal” to us—just as it was “revealed” to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)—that life cannot be chopped into the physical and the spiritual without causing grave harm. For Iqbal, the methods being recommended by the “latter-day representatives” of Sufism fail to meet the religious needs of the modern individual precisely because they tend to maintain, and even exacerbate, that rupture, rather than healing it.

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