The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is primarily a philosophical text; yet, the vast majority of people are neither philosophers nor do they harbor any burning desire to study this subject. But there are two redeeming features of the book: First, the title has the word “Islam” in it; and second, and it was written by a famous person. As a result, those who are interested in Islam and/or the author may feel enough curiosity to pick up the book, with every intention to read it. But the text is challenging even for students of philosophy, and is even more intimidating to those without a great deal of prior knowledge in theology and related subjects. These two facts, put together, raise the following question: What’s in it for me? Why should I spend all this time and mental energy on trying to understand a bunch of complex and abstract ideas that don’t have any obvious relevance to my everyday life? What am I supposed to do with the information that this book provides? In what ways is it going to help me strengthen my personal faith or enhance my religious practice? What do I stand to lose, if anything, if I decide to not engage with this book?
That is a legitimate question, but I cannot answer it all by myself. Here’s why. The question is not simply about the book; rather, it is about the relationship among three variables: the reader, the book, and the context in which it is being read. I have some sense of the book, and I can assume that your context is not too different from my own; however, you happen know the reader—yourself—much better than I do. So, let’s pool our resources and try to find the answer together. To do so, I would like to divide the question into two parts. Consider the first part:
Am I going to personally benefit from reading The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam?
To answer this question, please read the following statement and give it some thought. Then decide if it is true or false.
“I never encounter any significant doubt, question, or criticism concerning my religious tradition, either from myself or from someone else, to which I cannot respond in a convincing manner.“
If the above statement is true for you, then you are not going to benefit from reading the Reconstruction at all. Don’t waste your time. There is nothing in the book that you are likely to find useful or beneficial, or even interesting.
On the other hand, if the above statement does not apply to you, if you think the statement is false as far as you are concerned, then I would say that you probably need to engage with this book. The Reconstruction contains information that may help you develop a fresh perspective, not only with respect to religion but also with respect to the world, life, and self. I would go as far as to say that there is a whole other universe waiting for you to discover, and this book is one of its many portals.
If you are still reading, it is probably because you do encounter doubts, questions, and criticisms concerning your religious tradition that are both substantial and perplexing—they clamor for your attention but they don’t seem to have simple answers. In fact, you are probably aware that you are not alone in this, that the vast majority of people you know also encounter very similar perplexities. Furthermore, it is likely that at various points in the past you were able to figure out a few good answers, or good answers were given to you by other people. They made perfect sense at the time, and they did keep you satisfied for a while. But then, a few years passed and these answers started to lose their ability to satisfy you, until one day you found that they no longer work. That’s when you scratched your head and said: “I don’t believe that anymore.” Back to square one.
If any of this sounds true, think of it as a sign that reading the Reconstruction is likely to be of considerable benefit to you. If certain conditions are met, it may even be life-changing.
But then, there is the second part of the question.
Exactly how is this book going to benefit me?
To this question, I am afraid I cannot provide a customized response; instead, I would have to speak in general terms. Once you grasp my general response, I hope you’ll be able to apply it to your specific needs.
What I am tempted to do at this point is to start from first principles and then go step by step so I can provide a full, detailed, and exhaustive explanation, but that would take weeks or months. So, I am going to resist that temptation and just write a short answer. The problem with a short answer is that it generates more questions than it resolves. However, I don’t feel any urgent need to preemptively address all possible objections right at this moment. Therefore, below I will try to paint the big picture in a few broad strokes, while leaving the details for another time.
The Short Answer
The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is a highly condensed statement of Iqbal’s contribution towards resolving the modern predicament of religion. The modern predicament of religion refers to the fact that the modern worldview is essentially incompatible with religious faith. This means that if we take the modern worldview seriously, and if we think in a logically consistent manner, then we cannot, at the same time, maintain a commitment to any form of religious faith. It is, of course, possible to have some degree of faith while also embracing the modern worldview, but that requires us to be logically inconsistent, or—what amounts to the same thing—adopt a split mindset so we can pretend to believe in two sets of mutually exclusive propositions simultaneously. The Reconstruction contains Iqbal’s response to this predicament, which is based on a two-pronged strategy: First, Iqbal examines the Islamic tradition and attempts to separate the essential from the non-essential. The reason he has to do this is because the premodern formulations of Islamic thought cannot survive a face-to-face encounter with the modern worldview unscathed. Consequently, Iqbal has to decide which aspects of the Islamic tradition are essential and must be preserved at all costs and which ones are non-essential and therefore not worth fighting for. Second, Iqbal examines the modern worldview, accepts some of its contributions as true and useful, and then uses them to criticize some of its most problematic shortcomings. Finally, he shows that what is true and useful in the modern worldview and what is essential in the Islamic tradition are not only perfectly compatible with each other but that they point toward the same reality.
Notice that if Iqbal had rejected the entire modern worldview, he would also have thrown out everything that he knew was true and useful in that worldview. But if, on the contrary, Iqbal had embraced the entire modern worldview, he would have sacrificed either his religious faith or his intellectual integrity. Instead of rejecting or embracing the modern worldview in its entirety, Iqbal chose a third option. The approach he ended up adopting had no name during his own life-time, but today it is known as “constructive postmodernism.” By essentially pioneering this approach in the Islamic context, Iqbal successfully demonstrated how later generations of Muslim theologians and philosophers can help cultivate religious faith while also going beyond the modern worldview.