Lecture I: Summary

Having shared an overview of the first lecture in Muhammad Iqbal’s major work, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, I would now try to summarize the contents of that lecture.

Summarizing is a useful learning activity because it forces the reader to differentiate between what’s central and what’s peripheral in a given text. It requires the reader to notice and describe the most important features of the text, to identify and present its main claims and key ideas; this necessitates focusing on the big picture while ignoring the details. A summary, in other words, is about seeing the broad contours of a forest; to do that, the reader must resist the temptation to study all the leaves on every branch of every tree. To produce a good summary, the reader has to make decisions about what counts as major ideas in a given text and what counts as minor details. This, in turn, involves interpretation. As a result, some degree of paraphrasing is also inevitable in a summary.

Recall that Iqbal’s purpose in Lecture I is two-fold: First, he wants to introduce the larger project that he is hoping to initiate by means of these lectures; and, second, he wants to support his contention that religious experience is a potentially valid source of knowledge.

I. Why Reconstruction?

A. Need for a Rational Justification of Religious Faith [1]

Everyone knows that religion and philosophy are very different activities. Philosophy uses a purely rational method, and is all about free inquiry, questioning authority, and uncovering assumptions. In contrast, the essence of religion is faith, which is a matter of intuition rather than intellect. Given how different they are, how can a philosophical evaluation of religion be a legitimate enterprise?

There are two main reasons: First, faith is not just a feeling; it also possess a cognitive element. This cognitive element of faith is what allows religion to make certain truth claims. Philosophy is duty-bound to critically examine all truth claims, regardless of their source; it makes no exemptions. As a result, philosophy has every right to judge whether the truth claims of religion are, in fact, valid. Second, the aim of religion is personal transformation, but people don’t transform themselves unless they are convinced that the general truths of religion are actually true. The strength of a particular claim’s rational foundation is roughly correlated with the probability of its truth. Religion demands that we must live and act in certain ways, whereas science makes no such demands; as a result, religion needs a rational foundation even more than science.

Some might object that rationalizing faith is a risky enterprise, for if we allow philosophy to evaluate religion then that would mean we are accepting philosophy as the final authority. The answer to this objection is found in the nature of these two enterprises. Unlike philosophy, religion is not a departmental affair; it is, rather, the expression of all aspects of our humanity—including thought, feeling, and action. Compared to religion, philosophy has very limited jurisdiction. Because of this fundamental difference, philosophy cannot treat religion as something inferior. In fact, philosophy cannot legitimately judge the truth claims of religion unless it first submits to the terms and conditions dictated by religion.

Others might raise a different objection, arguing that religious faith can never be established on a rational foundation since there is an unbridgeable gulf between thought and intuition. Indeed, the nature of thought is such that it functions sequentially by focusing on one piece of the puzzle at a time, whereas the nature of intuition is such that it aspires to behold the entire picture at once. But neither of these faculties can function independently of each other; thought needs intuition just as much as intuition needs thought. Thought and intuition give us different views, but they are different views of the same Reality.

B. Critical Appraisal of Classical Islamic Thought [2–3]

The effort to construct, or reconstruct, a rational foundation capable of supporting religious faith is by no means an innovation in Islam. That search began with Prophet Muhammad himself (peace be upon him) and continued throughout the first millennium of Muslim history. While a great deal of excellent work was done in this context, in hindsight we see at least a couple of major missteps. First, in early centuries there was an excessive influence of Greek philosophy on Islamic thought, which prevented the full flowering of qur’anic empiricism. Second, when Muslim theologians eventually rebelled against Greek philosophy, they ended up going too far in their distrust and rejection of thought. The Ash’arites focused on defending orthodox doctrines while the Mu’tazilah reduced religion to nothing more than a body of doctrine.

Ghazali’s contribution was in some ways similar to what Emmanuel Kant subsequently accomplished in a different context. Both Ghazali and Kant were born in societies where rationalism was seen as the road that leads to a reliable knowledge of God. Both Ghazali and Kant demonstrated on philosophical grounds that this wasn’t true. But at that point their paths diverged: Ghazali turned to Sufism, arguing that only mystic experience allows us to know God. He also became convinced that thought and intuition were essentially opposed to each other. Kant, on the other hand, remained true to his philosophical conclusions and ended up rejecting the very possibility that God could be known.

But both Ghazali and Kant misunderstood the nature of thought. It is not true that thought is finite and therefore unable to know the Infinite. No doubt, logical understanding is only capable of recognizing discrete entities and must therefore remain inconclusive. However, finite concepts are merely moments is the self-unfolding of an immanent Infinite, which thought is capable of reaching in its deeper movement. That is because the Infinite is implicitly present within the movement of thought, just as the organic unity of the tree is already present within the seed. In other words, there is no discontinuity between thought and intuition.

C. Now is the Time to Revise and Reconstruct [4]

During the last five hundred years, religious thought has been practically static within Muslim communities; in contrast, science and philosophy have been rapidly advancing in the West. This has created a state of lack in one place and a state of abundance in another place; naturally, then, the Muslim world is moving—in a spiritual or intellectual sense—towards the West. That is a healthy movement, since the inner core of Western culture is only a further development of certain tendencies that Islam itself had introduced to humanity. Unfortunately, that inner core is surrounded by a dazzling exterior, and it is possible that this dazzling exterior might distract the world of Islam, preventing it from reaching what is true and useful in the modern worldview. The present moment is ripe for a reconstruction of religious thought because recent developments are beginning to expose the shortcomings in the modern worldview. We need to critically examine Western thought and take advantage of its true and useful elements in order to revise and—if necessary—reconstruct Islamic theology. This is an urgent task because (1) younger Muslims are demanding a fresh approach for nurturing their religious faith, and (2) anti-religious beliefs and sentiments are rising from within the Muslim communities.

My aim in these lectures is to present the essentials of Islam through philosophical discourse, so as to demonstrate the value and significance of Islam as a message to humanity.

II. Epistemology of Religious Experience

A. Religion vs. Civilization [5–6]

Both Christianity and Islam faced the same challenge but responded in somewhat different ways. The challenge in question is the simultaneous attraction and repulsion between religion and civilization. The key insight of Christianity is that spiritual life can be elevated through the revelation of a new world within the human soul. Islam agrees with this insight, but goes a step further. The key insight of Islam is that the spiritual world that is revealed within the human soul isn’t alien to the material world; rather, it permeates the material world through and through. This means that the elevation of spiritual life, according to Islam, does not require the renunciation of the material world. Instead, it requires establishing a proper relationship with the material world in accordance with the guidance revealed within the soul. While Christianity contributed to our awareness of the sharp oppositions that obstruct spiritual life—such as real/ideal, spirit/matter, subject/object—Islam’s main contribution is the way in which it faces and seeks to overcome these oppositions.

B. Fundamental Teachings of the Qur’an [7–17]

According to the Qur’an, the universe is meaningful and capable of growth; it is not a finished product. Human conquest of nature is a real possibility. But human beings find that their ambitions are obstructed from all sides. We are motivated by ideals, and forever trying to find new ways of self-expression. We carry the divine trust within us, which makes us superior to the rest of nature. We have the potential to achieve eternal life. We are destined to participate in the deeper aspirations of the universe; as we evolve, we can become co-workers with God, but only if we take the initiative. We are uniquely endowed with the capacity to name things, i.e., of conceptualizing. We relate to observable Reality through conceptual knowledge. The general empirical attitude of the Qur’an is noteworthy. Reality lives in its own appearances, and we cannot afford to ignore the visible. The Qur’an puts equal emphasis on all regions of human experience, both inner and outer, as yielding knowledge of the Ultimately Reality. Conquest of nature is not about domination but about facilitating spiritual progress.

C. Two Modes of Experiential Knowledge [18–19]

Islam agrees with the modern worldview that knowledge comes from experience, but it insists that there are two types of experience. Reality is known through inner intuition or insight just as it is known through sense-perception. There is no reason to accept the data of sense-perception as true while rejecting all other forms of experience as unreliable. After all, we know our own self without any sense perception. With respect to the knowledge-yielding capacity of concrete experience, the Qur’an is in harmony with the modern worldview. Indeed, it was the spirit of the Qur’an that initiated the cultural movement which led to the birth of the modern empirical attitude. Yet, psychology has just started to take mystic experience seriously, and it has a long way to go.

D. Main Characteristics of Mystic Experience [20–29]

Immediacy: Mystic experience is direct or un-mediated, but that is true of all experience. The data derived from mystic experience is subject to interpretation, just as the data of sense-perception is subject to interpretation. God is not just an idea; we know God just as we know any other object—through experience.

Wholeness: The data of sense-perception is instantly analyzed by the mind but the data of mystic experience is not subject to such analysis. Yet, there is no discontinuity between our rational consciousness, which necessarily fragments reality into discrete entities, and the mystic consciousness, whose data forms a single, indivisible whole.

Objectivity: The mystic state involves an intimate encounter with a unique self who is experienced as unmistakably “other.” This is not very different from how we experience other selves; even though our knowledge in this case is inferential, our experience of other selves is direct and unmediated.

Ineffability: The content of mystic consciousness cannot be communicated to others. However, the interpretation that a mystic puts on that content can be conveyed in the form of propositions. The incommunicability of mystic experience is because it is essentially inarticulate feeling. Yet, every feeling has a cognitive element, which is why it seeks to express itself in the form of idea. The idea, in turn, creates its own verbal expression.

Naturalness: Even thought the mystic state is transient, it leaves a deep sense of authority after it has passed away. This tells us that the mystic state, despite its uniqueness, is not unrelated to the more common types of experience. A mystic experience does not involve a complete break with serial time.

E. Psychological Critique of Religious Experience [30–33]

The spiritual value of the mystic state cannot be rejected on the basis that it appears to be determined by organic conditions, for all psychological states are organically determined, regardless of whether they are religious or non-religious. These organic conditions are irrelevant to how we judge the value of psychological states.

All forms of mysticism have had to deal with the problem of separating the authentic from the inauthentic. Freudian psychology has actually served religion by helping it in its quest to eliminate the satanic from the divine.

Religion is said to involve wishful thinking, in that religious beliefs are meant to hide those aspects of reality that human beings find ugly or otherwise hard to accept. This criticism of religion is true in some cases, but not universally so. Religion does not attempt to explain nature in terms of causation; that’s the job for science. The conflict between religion and science is not because the former rejects concrete experience while the latter accepts it, for both religion and science take concrete experience as the point of departure. Their conflict is due to the misunderstanding that religion and science interpret the same regions of human experience.

Contrary to what some psychologists have claimed, religion is not a disguised expression of the sexual impulse. Religious passion can be highly intense, but there is an element of passion in all knowledge, and the object of one’s knowledge gains in objectivity with the rise in the intensity of passion. What we are most passionate about is what becomes most real to us.

F. Two Ways to Test the Validity of Revelation [34]

The content of mystic experience cannot be communicated except in the form of a judgment. The most direct way to decide whether a judgment is true is by means of one’s personal experience. But since it is not possible for everyone to gain that knowledge experientially, our next best option is to subject the religious judgment to rigorous testing. There are two main ways to test the validity of revelation; these may be called the “intellectual test” and the “pragmatic test.”

Leave a Reply