Reconstruction: Preface (3)

In the “Preface” to his book on The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Iqbal is making an argument as to why this project is necessary as well as urgent. To summarize, religious faith ultimately rests on a particular type of inner experience, but the methods for cultivating such experiences that were developed by our spiritual ancestors are no longer working today, since the modern “cultural outlook” is different in significant ways from that of the earlier generations of Muslims. It is, of course, possible to design new approaches and new methods for cultivating such experiences, but those who are supposed to be doing this are not currently inclined towards that undertaking. So, what is to be done? Iqbal responds as follows:

In the absence of such a method the demand for a scientific form of religious knowledge is only natural.

This sentence contains in a nutshell the whole point, not only of the book but also of the larger project of “reconstruction” that the book aims to initiate. The key phrase here is “a scientific form of religious knowledge.” Before I try to unpack that phrase, let me quote one more sentence.

In these Lectures, which were undertaken at the request of the Madras Muslim Association and delivered at Madras, Hyderabad, and Aligarh, I have tried to meet, even though partially, this urgent demand by attempting to reconstruct Muslim religious philosophy with due regard to the philosophical traditions of Islam and the more recent developments in the various domains of human knowledge.

Recall that step 3 of analytical reading requires us to identify the different sections of the text and to determine how these sections are related to each other. If you are a careful reader, you must have noticed a significant shift as you read the words “In these Lectures….” The sentence that begins with these words is referring to a new topic, for this is the very first time that Iqbal has mentioned his lectures. The shift from one topic to another indicates that the author has just started a new section.

Here’s how I would apply step 3 of analytical reading to the “Preface.”

Even though the entire “Preface” is printed as one long paragraph, it is made up of two main sections. Section 1 begins with “The Qur’an is a book…” and ends with “…is only natural.” Section 2 begins with “In these Lectures…” and goes all the way to end of the “Preface.” Section 1 summarize the author’s argument for the necessity of “reconstructing” Islamic religious thought, which ends in the conclusion that “a scientific form of religious knowledge” is needed today. Section 2 serves at least three functions: first, it introduces the book as a collection of lectures and indicates the author’s overall purpose—which is “to reconstruct Muslim religious philosophy”; and his overall approach—which involves giving proper attention “to the philosophical traditions of Islam” as well as to “recent developments in various domains of human knowledge.” Second, it offers reasons for the author’s optimism that “a scientific form of religious knowledge” is now more possible than ever. Third, it issues a warning or caution about the continuous evolution of philosophical thinking, which precludes any particular attempt from becoming the last word on the topic.

We can now appreciate that the phrase “a scientific form of religious knowledge” is the bridge that connects the two sections of the “Preface,” which further underscores its importance.

To properly grapple with the concept of “a scientific form of religious knowledge,” we are going to need a lot more data than what is available in the “Preface.” For instance, we need to know exactly what Iqbal means by “science” (as well as “religion” and “knowledge”). I don’t think we can form a full understanding of what “a scientific form of religious knowledge” is supposed to mean until after we have read the entire book. However, we can certainly make some preliminary observations, so long as we remember that these observations are tentative; they might turn out to be correct or incorrect, based on what we are going to learn through our subsequent engagement with the Reconstruction.

The word “science” has several different meanings. It is tempting to prioritize the sense in which this word is most commonly used, and then assume that that’s what Iqbal is talking about. That temptation needs to be resisted. American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) has suggested that the word “science” can be defined in at least three ways. I quote the entire passage below:

What is science? The dictionary will say that it is systematized knowledge. Dictionary definitions, however, are too apt to repose upon derivations; which is as much as to say that they neglect too much the later steps in the evolution of meanings. Mere knowledge, though it be systematized, may be a dead memory; while by science we all habitually mean a living and growing body of truth. We might even say that knowledge is not necessary to science. The astronomical researches of Ptolemy, though they are in great measure false, must be acknowledged by every modern mathematician who reads them to be truly and genuinely scientific. That which constitutes science, then, is not so much correct conclusions, as it is a correct method. But the method of science is itself a scientific result. It did not spring out of the brain of a beginner: it was a historic attainment and a scientific achievement. So that not even this method ought to be regarded as essential to the beginnings of science. That which is essential, however, is the scientific spirit, which is determined not to rest satisfied with existing opinions, but to press on to the real truth of nature. To science once enthroned in this sense, among any people, science in every other sense is heir apparent.

Charles Sanders Peirce. “The Marriage of Science and Religion.” Open Court. Vol. 7, pp. 3559—3560.

To summarize, the word “science” can refer to (1) a body of systematized information; (2) a particular method for acquiring such information; and (3) a spirit of resolute commitment to find “the real truth of nature” and a refusal to be satisfied with “existing opinions.” Peirce believes that only the last of these definitions refers to the real thing, without which the other two are lifeless formalities. Once the spirit of science emerges in a society, it is only a matter of time that a scientific method and a systematized body of information will also come into being.

Here is why this is important. The most common way in which the word “science” is used tells us that it is a body of systematized information. According to Peirce, that’s not enough. Just because a bunch of information has been organized systematically does not make it a science. Rather, a body of systematized information deserves to be called “science” only insofar as it has been acquired through the application of the scientific method. Even the question of whether the information is correct or incorrect is besides the point; the only criterion that matters is how it was produced. But then Peirce goes a step further. He tells us that the scientific method itself should not be viewed as simply a particular set of formal procedures. For Peirce, a method deserves to be called “scientific” only insofar as it is imbued with the spirit of science. Thus, it is possible for someone to apply all the steps of the scientific method in the prescribed manner, but without being moved by the urge to find “the real truth of nature.” Such a person may be motivated primarily by a desire for fame, wealth, or power. Peirce would say that this person’s practice of science is deficient insofar as the defining element of science—i.e., the spirit—is missing. On the other hand, it is also possible that someone is moved mainly by the spirit of science but happens to apply the wrong steps, or applies the right steps incorrectly. Even though in this case the method is not “scientific” in the formal sense, Peirce would be willing to call this activity “science” insofar as it is motivated by an earnest desire to find “the real truth of nature,” even if the person in question ends up drawing erroneous conclusions.

The reason why the spirit of science trumps everything else is because neither the body of information nor the formal method is self-correcting; it’s only the spirit of science that exposes the other two elements to criticism and therefore forces them to rectify their errors.

So, when Iqbal says that today there is an urgent need for “a scientific form of religious knowledge,” the first question we have to answer is: What does Iqbal mean by “science”? Does he mean a body of systematized information, a particular method for acquiring such information, or the spirit of relentless inquiry to find “the real truth of nature” that refuses to be satisfied with “existing opinions”? Whatever we think about the merits or demerits of developing “a scientific form of religious knowledge” would ultimately depend on how we answer this question.

Iqbal then identifies the reasons for his optimism that “a scientific form of religious knowledge” is a real possibility, not a pipe dream. He writes:

And the present moment is quite favourable for such an undertaking. Classical Physics has learned to criticize its own foundations. As a result of this criticism the kind of materialism, which it originally necessitated, is rapidly disappearing; and the day is not far off when Religion and Science may discover hitherto unsuspected mutual harmonies.

Iqbal will have a lot more to say about modern physics, and the ways in which it has grown away from the reductionist tendencies of classical physics, so I’ll postpone that discussion until later. However, Iqbal does make a prediction here that’s worth noting. He predicts that very soon religion and science will discover that they have a lot more in common than what was assumed until fairly recently. There are profound “harmonies” between religion and science that no one had suspected before, and with the passage of time and the progress of science and philosophy we can expect that these similarities and affinities will become increasingly apparent.

I believe that Iqbal’s prediction has largely come true in the decades after his death, though not everyone is aware of the extent to which this has already happened. Our task today is not necessarily to discover these “harmonies” from scratch, but to make visible and explicit what has already been discovered.

Before concluding his “Preface,” Iqbal advises us to exercise caution with respect to philosophical thinking, including his own lectures:

It must, however, be remembered that there is no such thing as finality in philosophical thinking. As knowledge advances and fresh avenues of thought are opened, other views, and probably sounder views than those set forth in these lectures, are possible.

Iqbal is being humble, but this isn’t false modesty. He knows very well that no one has ever said anything that’s so decisive, so profound, that it brought the entire philosophical quest to its end; that has never happened in the past, and there is no realistic chance that it will happen in the future. Consequently, he knows that a large proportion of what he has written in these lectures has an expiration date; he just doesn’t know what that date is. The situation is somewhat like our awareness of mortality; we know we are going to die, but it’s hard to know when. Similarly, philosophers know (or should know) that at some point even their best ideas will become obsolete; they just don’t know when that will happen. Iqbal is reminding us that many of his own views, including the ones he has expressed in the Reconstruction, will one day be surpassed by better and more coherent views.

But even after many of Iqbal’s views have become outdated, future generations would do well to remember that Iqbal was the one who initially made creative and pioneering contributions, and that it was precisely his contributions that eventually opened up “fresh avenues of thought” for them as well as for their descendants.

A while ago, some folks in Pakistan were discussing the need to go “beyond Iqbal.” I think Iqbal would be totally happy with that, given that he was aware of the impermanence of philosophical ideas. But here’s my problem: The only path that takes us beyond Iqbal has to first go through Iqbal. We have barely started to understand what Iqbal was saying, let alone built a culture in light of that understanding. Only after we have accomplished this would we earn the right to go beyond Iqbal.

But if “there is no such thing as finality in philosophical thinking,” what are we supposed to do? Iqbal would tell us not to worry about this lack of finality, for change is the only constant in our universe. Instead, he writes:

Our duty is carefully to watch the progress of human thought, and to maintain an independent critical attitude towards it.

Anyone sympathetic to religion as a cultural phenomenon would need to keep an eye on the evolution of science and philosophy. This is particularly true for those of us who care about the future of Islam; we cannot afford to remain ignorant of the ongoing changes in human thought and knowledge, nor remain oblivious of the social, political, economic, and ecological trends of our time. To borrow a metaphor from Howard Zinn, we are all sitting in a train and the train is moving at a pretty fast speed. The very least we can do is to try and understand where it is headed.

Iqbal advises his readers “to maintain an independent critical attitude” towards the ongoing evolution of human thought. Being “independent” means that we don’t accept an idea simply because it is popular, nor do we reject an idea solely because it’s not mainstream. We are intellectually independent only to the extent that we’re able to treat every argument and every proposition purely on its merit, regardless of whether it comes from a friend or a rival. Being “critical” means that we use appropriate standards of evaluation when judging the worth or significance of a given development, that we carry out our inquiries and research with painstaking diligence and integrity, and that we exercise care and responsibility in reaching our conclusions. Put differently, Iqbal wants us to approach the progress of human thought and knowledge with an open mind. As I discussed in a previous post, the imperative of being open-minded means that, in all significant or consequential matters, we are required to take new information seriously and to consider it as dispassionately as possible, without rushing into a judgment about whether it should be accepted as true or rejected as false. It is the rush to judgment, whether positive or negative, that makes us susceptible to closed-mindedness. This is especially important when there is a mismatch between new information and prior knowledge. The best practice here is to delay or postpone the final judgment until we’ve had sufficient time to get the facts right as well as to think about what those facts might mean.

Francis Bacon has given us a simple and concise formula for keeping an open mind, especially while reading, which goes as follows:

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.

Francis Bacon. “Of Studies” (1597; enlarged 1625). The Essays of Francis Bacon

That is all that I have to say about Iqbal’s “Preface” at this time. However, I had promised to answer a question about Iqbal’s final sentence, so I’ll do that below.

There is a question about whether it is even possible to maintain “an independent critical attitude” with respect to the evolution of “human thought.” The reasoning might go as follows: If it’s true that the modern “cultural outlook” has had a widespread influence throughout the world, as Iqbal seems to believe, then it would mean that we are all under its spell. If that’s the case, how can we remain “independent” and “critical” in relation to something that we have already absorbed and internalized?

If my guess about the above reasoning is correct, then it would appear that the question is motivated by two assumptions: First, the phrase “human thought,” as used in the final sentence of the “Preface,” refers to more or less the same concept as “cultural outlook.” Second, if a society has adopted a particular “cultural outlook” then that means all of its members are in complete agreement with every aspect of that outlook. But both of these assumptions are incorrect. Regarding the first assumption, consider the fact that scientists often disagree with other scientists and philosophers often disagree with other philosophers, which shows that it is possible to maintain an “independent critical attitude” even while sharing the same broader framework. As for the second assumption, I have already addressed it in a previous post. To reiterate, the term “cultural outlook” refers to a generalization or abstraction—somewhat like an average of a large number of values—that, by its nature, is not intended to be an accurate description of every individual case. Moreover, no “cultural outlook” or perspective can ever achieve 100% saturation in any given society, which is why it’s always possible, at least for some people, to maintain a significant degree of critical distance with respect to even the most pervasive ideas.

2 Comments on “Reconstruction: Preface (3)

  1. Science and Religion deal with different level playing fields, former concerns with discovering the laws of nature and the later provides the moral code to the society. Where does Iqbal sees the overlap and need for harmony between the two? In the words of Isaac Newton, (Natural phenomena is caused) “at first by the immediate hand of the Creator, and ever since by the power of Nature”
    Philosophical ideas do not die, for example the ideas of Socrates are still valid and applicable for the search of the truth and the religious ideas of Islam are equally valid until eternity, similarly the religious and philosophical arguments of Newton can still be applied whereas his science is of limited use now and will continue to lose its significance as our knowledge of the universe and nature continue to increase. The philosophers can be resurrected whereas scientists of the past can only be found in the books of history not even in the book of science today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s