The second lecture in Iqbal’s Reconstruction is titled “The Philosophical Test of the Revelations of Religious Experience.” The lecture is divided into two main section. In the first, shorter section, Iqbal looks at one of the most significant past efforts to apply the philosophical test—scholastic arguments for the existence of God—and declares that project to be unsatisfactory. The second section is Iqbal’s attempt to argue that the revelations of religious experience can pass the philosophical test. Iqbal’s overall task is two-fold: First, to describe the character of Reality through a philosophical criticism of scientific knowledge as well as the deeper levels of conscious experience; and second, to show that it is the same Reality that is revealed in and through religious experience.
Below is my summary of Lecture II.
I. The Poverty of Scholasticism [1–3]
“Scholasticism” refers to the sort of Christian theology that was dominant in Europe during the Middle Ages. On the basis of Aristotelian logic, it attempted to prove the existence of God by appeals to three types of philosophical arguments. These arguments have proven to be logically unsound; they also represent a poor understanding of experience.
A. Cosmological Argument 
According to the cosmological argument, since the chain of cause-and-effect cannot be an infinite regress, there must be a necessary being who caused the entire series of contingent beings that we call the universe. However, (1) a finite effect only needs a finite cause; to arbitrarily end the chain of cause-and-effect requires an implicit rejection of the very principle (i.e., causation) upon which the entire argument rests. (2) The first cause cannot include its effect, which reduces it to something finite. (3) There is no cause without an effect, and there is no effect without a cause; if the first cause is dependent on its effect (i.e., the universe), it cannot be a necessary being. (4) Necessity of causation is not identical with necessity of existence. (5) The argument posits a false infinite as the first cause, since the true infinite cannot exclude the finite.
B. Teleological Argument 
According to the teleological argument, nature displays signs of purpose, which proves the existence of a self-conscious intelligence at work. However, (1) the argument can only take us to a contriver, not a creator. (2) If it is argued that the contriver is also the creator, we would have to assume that this self-conscious intelligence first created matter that lacked purpose, and then made it act in ways contrary to its nature. (3) A designer who is external to his material will always be limited by that material. (4) The argument is based on a superficial similarity between the phenomena of nature and the products designed by an artisan; but the artisan has to select and isolate his material, whereas nature consists of interdependent entities that evolve as organic wholes.
C. Ontological Argument 
According to the ontological argument (in its Cartesian form), the attribute of necessary existence is part of the concept of God; we can therefore affirm that necessary existence is true of God, or that God exists. However, (1) the conception of existence does not prove objective existence. (2) The argument proves that the concept of a perfect being includes the idea of his existence, but it does not bridge the gulf between the concept and objective reality. (3) The argument is based on a logical fallacy, called petitio principii, in which the conclusion is already present in the premises.
D. Dualism of Thought and Being 
The teleological and ontological arguments have one thing in common: both assume that thought is a principle or agency that acts on things from the outside. In reality, thought is the ultimate ground and the very essence of things, and is not at alien to their original nature. We cannot know anything without making the distinction between the knower and the known; it is because of this limitation that we regard the object of knowledge as something independent and external to ourselves. But this is not a permanent limitation, since the current situation that requires such bifurcation is not our final situation. The Qur’an describes God or the Ultimate Reality as “the First and the Last, the Visible and the Invisible.” We would overcome the dualism of thought and being only by analyzing and interpreting the data of experience in light of the clue that this verse provides—i.e., all of our experiences contain symbols of the same Reality.
II. Philosophical Analysis of Experience [4–22]
A. Experience at the Level of Matter [4–8]
What, exactly, is matter? Physics as an empirical science deals with the facts of experience, i.e., sense-perception. Physicists deliberately exclude all mental process, as well as religious and aesthetic experiences, from their study. But we know material objects by means of their qualities as perceived by our senses. The traditional theory of matter makes a distinction between a thing and its qualities, and equates material things with the unknown cause of our sensations. According to this theory, nature is bifurcated into (1) our mental impressions and (2) the entities that cause those impressions. This creates a problem: we know what we don’t want to study, and what we want to study we cannot know. Whitehead is right when he says that this theory of matter is scientifically untenable. The same empirical attitude that at first seemed to require materialism is now rebelling against it.
The greatest blow to the traditional theory of matter has come from Einstein. Matter was believed to be something that persisted in time and moved in space, but that view can no longer be maintained. Nature is not a static fact situated inside an absolute void, but a structure of events characterized by a continuous creative flow. The mechanistic understanding of nature was based on an absolute separation between mind and matter, and has now proven to be unworkable.
Our view of matter depends on our view of space. Is space an independent void that would remain intact if everything in it were removed? Zeno approached the question of space through the phenomenon of movement. If space is infinitely divisible, he argued, then motion is impossible If movement isn’t real then an independent space cannot be real either.
Ash’arites rejected the infinite divisibility of time, space, and matter; instead, they affirmed the reality of infinitesimals. Modern mathematics, like Ibn Hazm in the past, has rejected this conclusion. Bergson rejected Zeno’s view of time and space, and Russell used Cantor’s theory of continuity to resolve the paradox. Neither solution is satisfactory. The real issue is how we are looking at movement in the first place. Movement considered as a lived act is not identical with movement as it is observed or thought. When movement is regarded from the outside, as when the flight of the arrow is observed, it is indeed divisible into its constituent parts. But when movement is regarded from within, as it is lived and experienced, it is a singular act that cannot be divided into a multiplicity.
According to Einstein, space is real but relative to the observer. We should remember that Einstein’s theory, like any other scientific theory, deals with the structure of things and not with their ultimate nature. Yet, his theory is important from a philosophical viewpoint because of its two main implications: First, Einstein’s theory destroys the traditional view of matter; and second, it makes space dependent on matter. The universe is finite but boundless, in the sense that there is no empty space outside the universe.
The religiously problematic element in Einstein’s theory is that it makes time unreal. If time is the fourth dimension of space, then it would mean that the future is as indubitably fixed as the past. Two points need to be recognized in this context: First, Einstein’s theory neglects certain characteristics of time which are known from experience, which means that his theory cannot be seen as as an exhaustive account of time; not every aspect of nature is subject to mathematical analysis. Second, the “time” that Einstein has analyzed and described mathematically is not identical with Kant’s serial time or with Bergson’s pure duration. Time regarded as a dimension of space really ceases to be time.
Ouspensky, in his book Tertium Organum, argues that time is a free creative movement, but then goes on to interpret it as the fourth dimension of space, which undermines his own argument.
B. Experience at the Levels of Life and Consciousnesses [9–22]
- General Comments 
Consciousness is one form of the purely spiritual principle of life. However, we can only conceive of spiritual energy in relation to how it is manifested through the behavior of perceptible things, which is why we assume this combination to be its ultimate ground. Darwin’s discoveries reveal that evolution occurs through a mechanistic process, which has helped promote the idea that life can be reduced to the motion of atoms. The debate about mechanism is still raging among biologists. The important question for us is whether the discoveries of science necessarily lead us to materialism. The key point to remember is that what we commonly call “science” is not a systematic view of Reality; it is, rather a collection of sectional views, fragments of a total experience, that do not seem to fit together. Science is concerned with precision, and precision requires paying attention to smaller and smaller slices of reality. In contrast, religion aims at grasping the whole of Reality, which is why it has no reason to be afraid of anything that natural science has discovered or might discover in the future.
- Scientific Critique of the Mechanistic View of Life [9–10]
The concepts of science are applicable to the level of experience for which they are designed. For instance, if we take the concept of “cause” as it functions in physics, and apply it to understand the subject matter of biology, we would be able to describe some aspects of living organisms but fall short of capturing the full picture. That’s because life involves goals, purposes, and ends, and these are considered outside the scope of science. That’s why there is an ongoing revolt among biologists against the mechanistic interpretations, as exemplified by J. S. Haldane, Hans Driesch, and Wildon Carr.
- Philosophical Inquiry into Conscious Experience [11–14]
How can we understand the ultimate nature of existence? My perception of the external world leaves room for skepticism, but not my perception of my own self, since I perceive it deeply and intimately. Therefore, it is in the realm of conscious experience that we are in absolute contact with Reality, and a careful analysis of this privileged case can therefore shed light on the ultimate nature of existence.
Analysis of our conscious experience shows that the self, in its inner life, moves from the center outwards, i.e., it moves from the observing or appreciative self towards the practical or efficient self. The appreciative self is primary and exists in pure duration; it is the inner center of experience. In contrast, the efficient self is spurious because it exists in serial time. There is change in the appreciative self but there is no succession. The appreciative self exists in a single “now.” It is for the practical necessity of dealing with the external world that the efficient self fragments time into past, present, and future.
What the Qur’an identifies as taqdir is really time regarded as an organic whole, prior to the disclosure of its possibilities; it is time as felt, and not as thought or measured. To say that time is real is to recognize that every moment in the life of Reality is original, giving birth to what is absolutely novel. To exist in pure duration or real time is to freely create. The opposite of creation is repetition, which is the characteristic of a machine; life, on the other hand, is characterized by free creative activity, which is why it cannot be fully explained through science which, by definition, seeks regularities in experience.
- Nature of Reality as Revealed in Conscious Experience [15–19]
The privileged case of conscious experience can help us understand the ultimate nature of Reality. Analogous to our experience of the appreciate self, the universe is also a free creative movement. Furthermore, movement is logically prior to things, just as energy can be converted into matter. What we call things are really events in the continuity of Nature; they appear to us as mutually isolated and static entities because of the serial nature of how thought operates.
Bergson’s Vitalism leads to an insurmountable dualism of will and thought. That’s because he takes a partial view of thought and assumes that it can only use mechanical categories. It is true that thought tends to up Reality into static fragments, but that’s not all that it is capable of. In its deeper movement, thought can also synthesize the elements of experiences by employing categories suitable for that purpose. In its true nature, thought and life are identical. Bergson also insists that the movement of life’s free creative activity is devoid of purpose; it is entirely aimless, arbitrary, and unpredictable. This shows that Bergson’s analysis of conscious experience is incomplete; he recognizes that in conscious experience the past moves along and operates in the present, but he fails to notice that consciousness has a forward-looking aspect as well. This implies ends or purposes, which can only be understood in reference to the future.
Bergson is unable to accept that the nature of Reality is profoundly teleological, for he believes that this would make time unreal and the future predetermined. What is at stake is how we understand the role of purpose. If teleology amounts to the working out of an eternal plan, then Bergson is right. Teleology in this sense is really materialism in disguise, for actions are predetermined by fate or destiny and there is no room for human or divine freedom; this notion is antithetical to the Qur’an. However, Bergson fails to consider that our conscious experience is teleological in another sense as well, i.e., as our individual lives unfolds, we are constantly choosing fresh ends, purposes, and ideals and allowing them to determine our actions. If that’s how we think of teleology in relation to Ultimate Reality, then Bergson’s objection becomes inapplicable.
A critical analysis and interpretation of conscious experience leads us to conceive of God, or the Ultimate Reality, as pure duration in which thought, life, and purpose form an organic unity. The only way to think of this unity is in terms of a an all-embracing self or ego. Bergson made a mistake when he thought that pure duration was prior to self. There is neither time nor space independent of the appreciative act of an enduring self. The degree of selfhood determines the degree of reality in the hierarchy of being. God is real because God can say “I am.” The universe, or Nature, is not a “thing” that exists apart from God; rather, it is a fleeting moment in the life of God. I confront you as my “other,” but the universe does not confront God as its “other.” It is impossible for us to fully grasp the nature of the Ultimate Ego, which includes all other egos.
However, if Ultimate Reality is a self, or ego, then it has to have a character, a uniform mode of behavior. The universe or Nature is God’s character; it is how God behaves. In other words, Nature is to Ultimate Ego as character is to a finite ego. Nature must therefore be understood as a living, ever-growing organism whose only limit is the immanent self which sustains it. This view gives fresh spiritual meaning to science, since the knowledge of Nature is the knowledge of God’s behavior. The study of Nature involves the seeking of intimacy with the Absolute Ego, and is therefore a type of worship.
- Reality of Time [20–22]
Let’s consider the argument put forward by John McTaggart, according to which time is unreal, since every event is past, present, and future and therefore combines incompatible characteristics . But this argument takes serial time as ultimate. It imagines time as a straight line, part of which we have left behind and part of which is in front of us. In McTaggart’s view, time is a static absolute and not a living, creative movement. But it is incorrect to think of something that hasn’t happened yet as an event that already exists, since what has not yet happened is only an unrealized possibility and not as an actual “event.” It is also incorrect to say that an event combines incompatible characteristics just because it can be described as both past and present. When an event X happens, it enters into an unalterable relationship with all pre-X events; these relationships are unaffected by the relationships of X with all post-X events when they’ve happened. Consequently, there is no logical problem in describing an event as both past and present.
Time is an essential element of Reality, but real time is not serial time; rather, it is pure duration, which is change without succession. When pure duration is fragmented by thought, we get serial time, with its familiar division of past, present, and future. Serial time is a mode through which the creative activity of the Ultimate Ego becomes available to quantitative measurement.
If time is an essential element of Reality, does that mean we can attribute change to God? As finite egos, human beings perceive change as imperfection; to improve in some way is to move from a state of greater imperfection to lesser imperfection. But it is our limited viewpoint that makes us think of God in human terms, thereby rendering some degree of anthropomorphism difficult to avoid. On the topic of change, the difficulty arises only when we are confined to the surface level of our conscious experience, i.e., at the level of serial change. Indeed, serial change indicates imperfection, and therefore it cannot be reconciled with divine perfection. To avoid this difficulty, we must pay attention to the deeper levels of our conscious experience, which reveals the real nature of time, which is pure duration. The Ultimate Ego exists in pure duration, in which change is another name for continuous creation. We must predicate change in this sense to the Ultimate Ego, for otherwise we would be conceiving Reality/God as utterly stagnant and inactive, like the “unmoved mover” that Aristotle imagined. God’s creative activity is not a pursuit of improvement; rather, it is the revelation of the infinite creative possibilities that already exist.
C. Summary 
A philosophical analysis and interpretation of experience—at the levels of matter, life, and consciousness—leads tot he conclusion that Ultimate Reality is a rationally-directed creative life. And since life is an organizing principle of unity, Ultimate Reality must be conceived as an ego. A purely intellectual view of life results in pantheism, which denies that Ultimate Reality is a concrete self. However, the deeper levels of our own conscious experience reveals life as a synthetic activity, an organizing principle. Our own appreciative self is a direct revelation of the ultimate nature of Reality. While a philosophical approach can bring us to the conclusion that the nature of Ultimate Reality is spiritual and must be conceived as an ego, it cannot take us any further. Religion, on the other hand, seeks a closer contact with Reality; it seeks experience, association, and intimacy. Religion challenges thought to rise higher than itself, and to find its fulfillment in that attitude of mind which religion describes as prayer.
When a reader is grappling with a challenging text—such as The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam by Muhammad Iqbal—it’s important for the reader to watch out for possible misinterpretations. I don’t mean that one must avoid all misinterpretations—for that is impossible, given the imperfect nature of language and general human fallibility. Rather, I mean that one must remain open-minded in relation to one’s understanding of the text, allowing it to evolve over time. So long as I keep an open mind, I am willing to re-consider my understanding of what the author means, as well as to replace it with a better and more convincing interpretation whenever necessary. In fact, if I take a book or an author seriously, then I must adopt the proper scientific attitude, prioritizing the truth of the matter over all other considerations.
Truth is the fruit of free inquiry and of such docility towards facts as shall make us always willing to acknowledge that we are wrong, and anxious to discover that we have been so.Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers 6.450
In the process of reading, I cannot afford to let my ego, or my loyalty to anyone, get in the way of what is undoubtedly the primary goal of that activity, i.e., comprehension. Even though misinterpretations are inevitable, the reader can still aim at minimizing such errors by employing good reading strategies, as well as remain eager to correct them as soon as they are recognized. In this respect, the reader needs to watch out for both Type I and Type II errors. The former refers to “false positive” conclusions, i.e., when the reader finds something in the text that isn’t there, whereas the latter refers to “false negative” conclusions, i.e., when the reader doesn’t find what is, in fact, present in the text. Seeing too much can be just as problematic as seeing too little. Good reading strategies can reduce the chances of both types of misinterpretation.
In reading, just as in any other endeavor, one must begin by clarifying one’s intention. Let’s suppose you want to learn about a topic that is primarily conceptual or theoretical, as opposed to practical, and you have decided that reading a book is going to help you gain the desired understanding. That’s the first step—knowing why you’re doing what you’re about to do. The second step is to choose a book that represents the optimum level of difficulty. Specifically, you want to read a book that is situated within your “learning zone.” That’s because books that belong in your “comfort zone” may provide useful information but they aren’t very helpful for constructing new knowledge. On the other hand, books that are currently in your “panic zone” are, by definition, beyond your current ability to understand; struggling with such books may not be a good use of your time. Once you’ve chosen a book, the third step is to read it superficially. Below I will explain what “superficial reading” means and how it can help reduce the chances of misinterpretation. But first, I’d like to discuss what these three zones are all about.
We have all heard that it is necessary to step out of one’s comfort zone in order to experience any growth, but we are rarely given the full picture of exactly what this means. Essentially, comfort zone refers to that psychological state when you are doing something that you have done many, many times before; you know that nothing can go wrong, and so your comfort level is at its maximum. For example, walking on a footpath or a sidewalk is well within most people’s comfort zone.
But suppose you are asked to hop on a tightrope that has been stretched above Niagara Falls, and then walk from one end to the other. The chances that you’ve done this before are pretty slim. In all likelihood, you have zero skill in doing anything even remotely similar to what the man pictured below is doing. In fact, just imagining yourself on the wire, with the roaring and gushing waters below, is probably enough to make you feel nervous. While neither you nor I will ever find ourselves in precisely this situation, I am sure that the basic experience is not alien to anyone. We have all been to the panic zone—we all know what it feels like to be out of our depth, when we have bitten more than we can chew. The panic zone refers to the psychological state in which we are faced with a task that is absolutely impossible for us to accomplish. We can see that everything is about to go horribly wrong, and so our comfort level is at its lowest.
Between the comfort zone and the panic zone is a very interesting and enjoyable place—the learning zone. It refers to that psychological state when you are trying to do something that is somewhat harder than what you can easily do, but it is not completely beyond your ability. In such a state, your comfort level is neither too high nor too low, for the task before you is neither too easy nor too difficult. You are facing a challenge that requires you to call upon all of your skills and resources and to pay very close attention to what you’re doing. You know that mistakes and failures will inevitably happen, but you aren’t bothered by them because your highest priority is learning and not impressing other people. When you are in the learning zone, you feel alert and relaxed at the same time.
If walking on the sidewalk is well within my comfort zone, and walking on a tightrope above Niagara Falls is at the far end of my panic zone, here’s what I might do in my learning zone:
A key feature of the learning zone is that the longer you stay in it, the more it expands. When the learning zone expands, it does so by taking over the adjacent territory of the panic zone. This is another way of saying: “practice makes perfect.” As the learning zone expands, you can expect that what was previously impossible will gradually become possible, and what was previously difficult will become increasingly easy. Expanding the learning zone is really a matter of increasing one’s learning capacity, a topic I have discussed before.
In the context of learning with the help of a book, you want to choose a text that represents the optimum level of difficulty. If it’s too easy, you’d remain stuck in your comfort zone; if it’s too hard, you’d find yourself in the panic zone. It’s only when the level of challenge that a text poses is just right that the reader is going learn the most. This is basically the Goldilocks’ Principle, as applied to the activity of “learning by reading.”
Let’s suppose the book in front of you poses just the right level of difficulty. At this point, your reading strategy becomes decisive. One of most effective strategies for reading a challenging book is to first become familiar with its structure and content before attempting a deeper dive. There are at least two reasons for taking this approach. First, many of us tend to overestimate the difficulty posed by a book while underestimating our own learning capacity. One reads the first couple of pages of a book, realizes that it’s not making perfect sense, and concludes that it is too hard to understand—except that such a judgment is often premature. In most cases, our inability to understand a text right away simply means that we need to read it more than once, not that the text itself is beyond our comprehension.
Here’s a nice description of this phenomenon:
Everyone has had the experience of struggling fruitlessly with a difficult book that was begun with high hopes of enlightenment. It is natural enough to conclude that it was a mistake to try to read it in the first place. But that was not the mistake. Rather it was in expecting too much from the first going over of a difficult book.Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book (1972), p. 36
Second, struggling with confusing terminology or baffling sentences is not very productive when you are reading a book for the first time. At that early stage, focusing on the smaller units of the text, such as individual words or sentences, can easily lead to misinterpretations; you may see either too much in the text or too little. To avoid this, the reader has to acquire an overall picture of the whole text before analyzing any of its smaller components. That is because the whole sheds light on the parts just as the parts illuminate the whole. This may sound circular, but the process of learning with the help of a challenging book is best imagined as a spiral—our understanding expands every time we move from interpreting the parts to picturing the whole, and vice versa.
Consider a different analogy that makes the same point. The first reading of a difficult book is like meeting a person for the first time. We don’t expect to learn everything about the other person in that first meeting, for then we would probably make hasty assumptions based on a few initial impressions. Instead, it is prudent to reserve any judgments until we have gotten to know the other person very well, and that can only happen by spending a lot of time together. The same is true for reading a book that has a reputation of being both challenging and insightful.
Because of these two reasons, it is important to develop at least some degree of familiarity with the structure and content of the book as a whole, before embarking upon a deep and thorough analysis. To develop that initial familiarity, what we need is the permission to read the entire text without full understanding. That’s because many of us have been socialized into believing that the purpose of reading is comprehension, and therefore it is a waste of time and effort to read anything that we don’t immediately comprehend. The first proposition is true, but the second is a non sequitur that unnecessarily holds us back, discouraging us from venturing outside our comfort zone.
It is perfectly fine to read a book while understanding only bits and pieces, so long as (1) you know that the book is worth reading, and (2) you are willing to read it as many times as necessary. Reading an entire book without fully understanding everything it says is the only way to gain a general sense of the whole, and that is why it is a necessary prerequisite for analytical reading. There happens to be an actual rule that not only gives us the permission to read like this but also requires us to do so.
That rule is simply this: In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away.Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book (1972), p. 36
This is called “superficial reading.” But please note that the word “superficial” does not refer to reading inattentively, or in a careless and sloppy manner. It means being at peace with less-than-perfect understanding, knowing that each subsequent reading will only improve one’s comprehension.
To read a book superficially is to read the entire text without stopping to investigate anything that one doesn’t immediately understand. For superficial reading, there are only two instructions that the reader needs to follow: First, read all the way through, and second, focus on what makes sense, not on what doesn’t.
Pay attention to what you can understand and do not be stopped by what you cannot immediately grasp. Go right on reading past the point where you have difficulties in understanding, and you will soon come to things you do understand. Concentrate on these.Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book (1972), p. 36
When we expect too much from our first reading, we end up focusing on those parts of the text that we find difficult or confusing. Focusing on what we don’t understand slows down our progress, doesn’t improve comprehension, increases the chances of misinterpretation, distracts us from grasping the bigger picture, and may even discourage us to the point of giving up. The second reading is always more productive, but you can’t read a book the second time around if you allow the difficulties of the text to prevent you from finishing your first reading. Focusing on what you do understand is therefore a much more effective approach when you are reading a challenging text for the first time.
Superficial reading is not sufficient on its own, but it is necessary. It is what prepares the reader for a deeper engagement with the text during subsequent readings. Analytical reading is a lot more productive when the reader is familiar with the structure and content of the text, and superficial reading is precisely the strategy for gaining that familiarity.
One of the conclusions of the first lecture in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is that the content of religious experience cannot be communicated, except indirectly in the form of judgments, otherwise known as “revelations.” Starting from this point of departure, the arguments of the second lecture produces the following conclusions:
- The philosophical test of the revelations of religious experience involve determining whether or not they are in harmony with what is known through other regions of experience.
- Experience unfolds in time at three main levels—matter, life, and consciousness—and these are studied by physics, biology, and psychology.
- Science can only give a fragmented or sectional view of Reality, whereas religion aspires toward a vision of the whole; we therefore need the tools of philosophy to analyze and interpret the facts of experience as established by the relevant sciences.
- The Reality that is revealed through religious experience is the same Reality that is discernible through the facts of experience as it unfolds at the levels of matter, life, and consciousness
In Lecture III, “The Conception of God and the Meaning of Prayer,” Iqbal begins by re-stating the last conclusion as follows: There is a singular reality, philosophically conceivable as the “Ultimate Ego” and identified by the Qur’an as “Allah.” Starting from this assertion, Iqbal seeks to accomplish two principal tasks in his third lecture, as the title indicates. Accordingly, the lecture can be understood as consisting of two main sections. However, I feel that Iqbal’s interpretation of the story of Adam deserves its own section, even though Iqbal himself presents that discussion as part of the Islamic view of God. Perhaps that middle section can be seen as the bridge that connects the two main topics, i.e., God and prayer. Following is my outline of the third lecture.
The Conception of God
and the Meaning of Prayer
Lecture III is made up of three main sections. In the first section, Iqbal attempts to present a philosophically sound interpretation of the Islamic view of God. In the second section, Iqbal describes his understanding of the qur’anic version of what he calls “the Legend of the Fall.” Finally, in the third section of the lecture, Iqbal addresses the core of religious life, i.e., prayer. Taken as a whole, Lecture III is about the qualities of God, the nature and potential of the humankind, and the role of prayer in allowing human beings to establish an intimate relationship with God.
I. Islamic Conception of Ultimate Ego/God [1–24]
A. Individuality [1–4]
B. Infinity 
C. Creativity [6–20]
- Other Divine Attributes 
- How is God related to Creation? [7–8]
- Criticism of Ash’arite Atomism [9–17]
- Nature of Time [18–20]
F. Knowledge 
G. Omnipotence 
- Omnipotence vs. Limitation [22–23]
- Problem of Evil [22–24]
II. Story of Adam in the Qur’an [25–34]
A. Qur’anic Approach to Ancient Legends 
B. Pre-Biblical Origins of the Legend 
C. Unique Features of Qur’anic Version [27–29]
- No Serpent or Rib 
- Two Distinct Episodes 
- Earth as Dwelling Place 
D. Islamic View of Humankind [30–34]
- Consciousness and Freedom 
- Knowledge, Reproduction, and Power 
- Concrete Individuality or Selfhood [32–33]
- Responding to the Trust 
II. Meaning of Worship/Prayer [35–40]
A. Prophetic and Mystic Consciousness 
B. Nature of Prayer [36–37]
D. Congregational Prayer 
E. Formal Aspects of Prayer [39–40]
What are the questions that Iqbal is trying to address in his third lecture? Following are some of the obvious ones:
- How does the Qur’an describe God?
- How can we justify the qur’anic view of God using the tools of philosophy?
- What is the relationship between God and God’s creation?
- What can we learn from a philosophical criticism of the Ash’arite theory of creation?
- Why is it important for religion, particularly Islam, to grapple with the problem of time?
- What is the nature of divine knowledge?
- What is the qur’anic position regarding the problem of evil?
- What can the story of Adam tells us about the nature and potential of human beings?
- What is the function of worship/prayer in relation to mystic consciousness?
- In what ways is worship/prayer a natural and instinctive activity?
- What is the significance of the diversity in the formal aspects of worship/prayer?
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 
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 
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 
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.”
At the end of Lecture I, Iqbal summarizes the gist of his conclusion, as follows:
Religious experience… is essentially a state of feeling with a cognitive aspect, the content of which cannot be communicated to others, except in the form of a judgment.Muhammad Iqbal. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p. 21.
If this is so, Iqbal asks, how can those who haven’t had the same experience decide whether or not the said judgment is true? Iqbal suggests two different tests for this purpose—the intellectual or philosophical test, and the pragmatic test. Lecture II is Iqbal’s attempt to apply the former. While doing so, Iqbal also presents his understanding of the qur’anic view of Reality, which in his mind is identical with the qur’anic view of God. Taken as a whole, Lecture II is about establishing that what is revealed through religious experience is the same Reality that we know through other types of experience.
The Philosophical Test
of the Revelations of Religious Experience
The following outline depicts the second lecture as consisting of two main sections. The first section argues that scholastic arguments for the existence of God are inadequate and unconvincing on philosophical grounds. The second section is the heart of the lecture, which presents Iqbal’s preferred alternative to the scholastic approach, i.e., a philosophical analysis (or “criticism”) of experience at the levels of matter, life, and mind, in order to show that the content of what is revealed through physics, biology, and psychology is in agreement with what is revealed through religious experience.
I. The Poverty of Scholasticism [1–3]
A. Cosmological Argument 
B. Teleological Argument 
C. Ontological Argument 
D. Dualism of Thought and Being 
II. Philosophical Analysis of Experience [4–22]
A. Experience at the Level of Matter [4–8]
- Scientific Critique of Classical Materialism in Physics [4–6]
- Classical View of Matter
- Whitehead’s Contribution
- Philosophical Implications
- The Nature of Space [6–7]
- Zeno’s Paradox (based on Divisionism)
- Ash’arite Solution (based on Atomism)
- Bergson’s Solution (not discussed in detail)
- Russell’s Solution (based on Cantor’s Theory)
- Iqbal’s Response
- Einstein’s Theory of Space 
- Philosophical Implications
- Einstein’s Theory of Time 
- Unreality of Time
- Ouspensky’s Theory
B. Experience at the Levels of Life and Consciousnesses [9–22]
- General Comments 
- What is Consciousness?
- Mechanistic Interpretations
- Nature of Science
- Science vs. Religion
- Causality vs. Teleology
- Scientific Critique of the Mechanistic View of Life [9–10]
- J. S. Haldane
- Hans Driesch
- Wildon Carr
- Philosophical Inquiry into Conscious Experience [11–14]
- Efficient Self vs. Appreciative Self
- Serial Time vs. Real Time
- Limits of Biology
- Nature of Reality as Revealed in Conscious Experience [15–19]
- Reality of Time [20–22]
- McTaggart’s Error
- Change and the Ultimate Ego
C. Summary 
Step 4 of analytical reading requires us to discern the question(s) to which the author is responding. Based on my current understanding of Lecture II, it seems to me that Iqbal is trying to answer the following questions:
- What has been the standard philosophical approach for proving the existence of God?
- What are the shortcomings in the standard approach that render it ineffective?
- What causes the apparent opposition between scientific knowledge and religious faith?
- Why must we carry out a philosophical analysis (or “criticism”) of experience?
- Which developments in twenty-first century science are most relevant to religion?
- What do we know about Reality based on our experience of matter, life, and consciousness?
- In what ways does our experience of the world match the qur’anic depictions of Reality?
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.
The first lecture in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is titled “Knowledge and Religious Experience.” After reading the lecture at least twice—or as many times as necessary—the reader should be able to carry out step 2 of analytical reading (“State what the whole text is about with the utmost brevity.”)
Since every lecture in the Reconstruction seems to address a variety of topics, step 2 can be incredibly helpful in allowing the reader to apprehend the single most important idea that structures “the whole text,” as opposed to just one of its sections or sub-sections. The reader’s job here is not to make a list of all the topics discussed in the text (“The author talks about A, and B, and C, and …”) as if they were a random collection of unrelated items. Rather, the reader’s job is to find the one theme that represents the text’s underlying unity. The underlying unity of a text is the single most important thought that makes all of its different components hang together; it is what transforms a broad range of ideas into a coherent whole. Step 2 asks the reader not only to find the underlying unity (“what the whole text is about”) but to also state that unity as concisely as possible, preferably in no more than one or two sentences
Based on my current understanding of the first lecture, here’s how I would carry out step 2 of analytical reading: Taken as a whole, Lecture I is about establishing that religious experience is a potentially valid source of knowledge.
Next, we have to tackle step 3 of analytical reading. This step requires us to create an outline of the text that shows its various components as well as the manner in which these components are interrelated (“Enumerate the text’s major parts in their order and relation …”). Completing this step will allow the reader to visualize the text as a complex whole, thereby rendering it more manageable for the purpose of in-depth analysis and interpretation. Since creating an outline requires at least some understanding of the content, we can expect that different readers will produce somewhat different outlines of the same text; readers are also likely to make changes in their outlines as their comprehension of the text improves over time. Discerning the logical sub-divisions in a text with no section breaks or subheadings can be especially tricky, but the reader can usually rely on the various clues that the author is likely to have left within the text. Generally speaking, it is a good idea for every reader to create his/her own outline, rather than rely on someone else’s.
Following is my attempt at creating an outline of the first lecture. I suggest you create your own outline first, and then compare it with mine.
Knowledge and Religious Experience
This lecture is divided into two main sections. The first section is an extended argument for reconstructing Islamic religious thought, and, as such, serves as an introduction to the entire lecture series. The second section addresses the main topic, i.e., the nature and value of religious experience.
I. Why Reconstruction?
A. Need for a Rational Justification of Religious Faith 
- Religion vs. Philosophy
- Thought vs. Intuition
B. Critical Appraisal of Classical Islamic Thought [2–3]
- Legitimacy of the Project
- Eclipse of Qur’anic Empiricism
- Rise of Philosophical Skepticism
- Kant vs. Ghazali
- Misunderstanding Thought
C. Now is the Time to Revise and Reconstruct 
- Current State of Islamic and Western Thought
- Demand for a Fresh Orientation of Islamic Faith
- Anti-Religious Sentiments among Muslims
- Purpose of this Lecture Series
II. Epistemology of Religious Experience
A. Religion vs. Civilization [5–6]
- Christian Response
- Islamic Response
B. Fundamental Teachings of the Qur’an [7–17]
- Character of the Universe [7–9]
- Nature & Potential of the Human Being [10–14]
- Nature & Function of Human Knowledge [15–16]
- Empirical Attitude of the Qur’an 
C. Two Modes of Experiential Knowledge [18–19]
- Sense Perception
D. Main Characteristics of Mystic Experience [20–28]
- Immediacy 
- Wholeness 
- Objectivity [22–24]
- Ineffability [25–27]
- Naturalness 
E. Psychological Critique of Religious Experience [29–33]
- Organic Antecedents
- Wish Fulfillment
- Sexual Impulse
F. Two Ways to Test the Validity of Revelation 
- Intellectual Test
- Pragmatic Test
Finally, step 4 of analytical reading requires us to figure out the question(s) to which the text is supposed to be responding (“Define the problem(s) the author is trying to solve”). Here, too, it is best if each reader attempts this exercise on his/her own. Even though it can be frustrating at times, the mental effort you invest in discerning the question(s) or problem(s) that the author is trying to resolve can be highly rewarding. Step 4 gives you the opportunity to practice a way of thinking that most people don’t get to practice enough—it requires you to take a familiar approach (Q —> A) and reverse it (A—>Q). Your brain will thank you!
Based on my current understanding of the first lecture, I have come up with the following questions that I believe Iqbal is trying to address.
I. Why Reconstruction?
- What does it mean to reconstruct Islamic religious thought in the modern era?
- Is this attempt at reconstruction legitimate from an Islamic perspective?
- What justifies this project, given that we already possess a rich tradition of religious thought?
- Why now? What makes the reconstruction of Islamic thought urgent and necessary at this particular moment?
II. Epistemology of Religious Experience
- What fundamental contribution can Islam make to humanity?
- How does the Qur’an respond to questions that are common to religion, philosophy, and higher poetry?
- How do inner and outer experiences yield reliable knowledge?
- What is a mystic experience? What are its main characteristics?
- How can the mystic experience be defended against the criticism of psychology?
- How can we tell whether the knowledge yielded by religious experience is true?
What questions do you think Iqbal is trying to answer? Are they similar to mine or did you come up with very different ones? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.
The main text of the Reconstruction is organized into seven lectures, each of which has its own title. However, there are no section breaks or subheadings within any of these lectures. This poses a difficulty for the person who is trying to apply the steps of analytical reading to understand Iqbal’s text. Specifically, the absence of clear sub-divisions in the Reconstruction makes it hard for the reader to identify the different segments that make up each lecture, which is what step 3 of analytical reading requires. To make the reader’s task easier, I would like to amend the process of analytical reading by adding a new step. Since this step has to be carried out before step 3, let’s call it step 2A.
Step 2A. If the author of a relatively long text hasn’t included any section breaks or subheadings, give each paragraph a number. This extra step may seem tedious or unnecessary, but it will save you a lot of headache in the long run. Assign consecutive numbers to the paragraphs by writing them in the left-hand margin of the page next to each indent. Maintain a consistent style throughout the text, so you can easily distinguish paragraph numbers from any other annotations you might subsequently add. For example, you may want to enclose your paragraph number within square brackets and use the same colored pen or pencil throughout the book.
So, I followed my own advice and numbered all the paragraphs in my copy of the Reconstruction, as listed below. In future posts, I will use this numbering system to outline each lecture as well to refer to specific paragraphs.
Lecture I: Knowledge and Religious Experience
 What is the character (pp. 1–2)
 The search for rational (pp. 2–4)
 It cannot, however, be (pp. 4–5)
 During the last five (pp. 6–7)
 The main purpose of (p. 7)
 Thus the affirmation of (pp.7–8)
 What, then, according to (p. 8)
 Again the universe is so (p. 8)
 This is what the Prophet (p. 8–9)
 Such being the nature (p. 9)
 And how do we find him (p. 9)
 His career, no doubt, has (p. 9)
 When attracted by the (pp. 9–10)
 It is the lot of man (p. 10)
 If he does not take the (p. 10)
 The point of these (pp. 10–11)
 No doubt, the (pp. 11–12)
 There is no doubt (pp.12–13)
 The “heart” is a kind of inner (pp. 13–14)
 The first point to note is the (p. 14)
 The second point is the (pp. 14–150
 The third point is that to the (pp. 15–16)
 Response, no doubt, is the test (p. 16)
 It is clear that whether we apply (p. 16)
 Since the quality of mystic (pp. 16–17)
 The incommunicability of (p. 17)
 Thus you will see that it is (pp. 17–18)
 The mystic’s intimate association (p. 18)
 For the purposes of (pp. 18–19)
 The problem of Christian (p. 19)
 And it is in the elimination of (pp. 19–20)
 Nor is it possible to explain (pp. 20–21)
 A purely psychological method (p. 21)
 The foregoing discussion (pp. 21–22)
Lecture II: The Philosophic Test of the Revelations of Religious Experience
 Scholastic philosophy has (p. 23)
 The cosmological argument (pp. 23–24)
 Descartes supplements this (pp. 24–26)
 Now experience, as unfolding (pp. 26–27)
 It was the philosopher (pp. 27–28)
 According to Professor (pp. 28–30)
 Thus Bertrand Russell (p. 30)
 With Einstein space is (pp. 30–32)
 Passing now to other (pp. 33–35)
 Life is, then, a unique (pp. 35–36)
 I will now try to reach (pp. 36–37)
 There is another set of (pp. 37–38)
 Thus, there is nothing (pp. 38–39)
 If we look at the movement (pp. 39–41)
 On the analogy of our (p. 41)
 According to Bergson (pp. 41–42)
 The poet means to say (pp. 42–43)
 Bergson, however, denies (pp. 43–44)
 We are now, I hope, in a (pp. 44–45)
 The above discussion (pp. 45–47)
 But the question you are (p. 47)
 It was the fear of (pp. 47–48)
 Thus a comprehensive (pp. 48–49)
Lecture III: The Conception of God and the Meaning of Prayer
 We have seen that (p. 50)
 But is hard to understand (p. 50)
 In the light of this (pp.50–51)
 No doubt, the opening (p. 51)
 There is, however, one (pp. 51–52)
 The other important (p. 52)
 Finite minds regard (pp. 52–53)
 The last sentence in (pp. 53–54)
 There is, however, one (p. 54)
 The rise and growth (pp. 54–55)
 According to the Ash’arite (p. 55)
 Again we have seen (pp. 55–56)
 Another feature of this (p. 56)
 I am inclined to think (p. 56)
 The second proposition (pp. 56–57)
 Reality is, therefore, (pp. 57–58)
 Thus, a criticism (p. 58)
 The problem of time (pp. 58–60)
 The point, however, is (pp. 60–61)
 The above discussion (pp. 61–62)
 The word “knowledge” (pp. 62–64)
 But how, it may be (p. 64)
 Omnipotence, abstractly (pp. 64–65)
 To the optimist Browning (p. 65)
 But the clue to a (p. 65)
 Turning to the legend of (pp. 65–66)
 The Qur’an omits the (p. 66)
 The Qur’an splits up the (pp. 66–67)
 The Old Testament curses the (p. 67)
 Thus we see that the (pp. 67–68)
 Further, it is the nature (pp. 68–69)
 The second episode of the (p. 69)
 The central idea here is to (pp. 69–70)
 Shall we, then, say no or yes (p. 70)
 I have now explained (pp. 70–71)
 Thus you will see that (pp. 71-73)
 The truth is that all search (p. 73)
 The real object of prayer (pp. 73–74)
 Prayer, then, whether (p. 74)
 The form of prayer (p. 75)
 Yet we cannot ignore (pp. 74–75)
Lecture IV: The Human Ego—His Freedom and Immortality
 The Qur’an in its simple (p. 76)
 Yet it is surprising to see (pp. 77–78)
 In the history of modern (pp. 78–79)
 The finite centre of experience (p. 79)
 Another important (pp. 79–80)
 To the Muslim school of (pp. 80–81)
 Yet the interpretations (pp. 81–82)
 In order to understand (pp. 82–83)
 The next question is (p. 83)
 The “yet another make” (pp. 83–84)
 Thus parallelism and (pp. 84–85)
 This view of the matter (pp. 85–86)
 Thus the element of (pp. 86–87
 Indeed Islam recognizes a (p. 87)
 It cannot, however, be (pp. 87–88)
 The fatalism implied (p. 88)
 But is it not true (p. 88)
 Hegel’s view of Reality (p. 89)
 No age has produced so much (p. 89)
 In modern times the line (pp. 89–91)
 There is, however, in the (pp. 21–92)
 Such is Nietzsche’s (p. 92)
 Passing now to the teachings (p. 92)
 Before, however, we take (pp. 92–93)
 This is a very important (p. 93)
 Whatever may be the (pp. 93–94)
 Who can be the subject of (p. 94)
 This is the ideal (p. 94)
 Pantheistic Sufism obviously (p. 94)
 With these three points (pp. 94–95)
 It is highly improbable that (p. 95)
 And how to make the soul (p. 95)
 Life offers a scope for (pp. 95–96)
 How did man first emerge? (pp. 96–97)
 The point, however, which has (p. 97)
 To my mind these (pp. 97–98)
 However, according to the (p. 98)
Lecture V: The Spirit of Muslim Culture
 “Muhammad of Arabia (pp. 99–100)
 A prophet may be defined as (p. 100)
 Looking at the matter (pp. 100–102)
 But inner experience (p. 102)
 This intellectual revolt (pp. 102–103)
 In his Qistas he puts (pp. 103–104)
 The first important point (pp. 104–105)
 Knowledge must begin (p. 105)
 But the universe, as a (pp. 105–106)
 Al-Biruni took (p. 106)
 Side by side with the (pp. 106–107)
 According to Ibn Maskawaih (p. 107)
 But it is really religious (p. 107)
 According to ‘Iraqi (pp. 107–108)
 But we must not forget (pp. 108–109)
 Having thus described the (p. 109)
 From this summary of (pp. 109–110)
 Thus all lines of Muslim (pp. 110–111)
 The last verse (p. 111)
 However, the interest (pp. 111–112)
 It is the application (p. 112)
 1. The Unity of Human Origin (p. 112)
 2. A Keen Sense of the (pp. 112–113)
 We are now in a position (p. 113)
 It now remains to eradicate (p. 114)
 By the expression (pp. 114–115)
 If this view of the prophetic (pp. 115)
Lecture VI: The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam
 As a cultural movement (pp. 116-117)
 The writer then proceeds (p. 117)
 The word literally means (pp. 117–118)
 1. We are all familiar with (pp.118–119)
 The rise and growth of (p. 119)
 This spirit of total (pp. 119-120)
 3. On the top of all this (p. 120)
 Ibn Taimiyyah was (pp. 120–121)
 Passing on to Turkey (p. 121)
 I now proceed to give (pp. 122–123)
 The truth is that the Turkish (p. 123)
 The Religious Reform (pp. 123–124)
 Let us now see how (pp. 124–125)
 In order to understand (pp. 125–126)
 To my mind these arguments (p. 126)
 These lines clearly (p. 126)
 From the same poet (pp. 126–127)
 It is clear from these lines (p. 127)
 If the aim of religion (pp. 127–128)
 In another passage the poet (p. 128)
 The truth is that among (pp. 128–129)
 We heartily welcome (pp. 129–130)
 I have given you some (p. 130)
 The assimilative spirit (p. 130)
 These views of modern (pp. 130–131)
 1. In the first place (p. 131)
 2. Secondly, it is worthy (p. 131)
 3. Thirdly, when we (p. 131)
 (a) The Qur’an. (pp. 131–132)
 The important point (pp. 132–133)
 Turning now to the (pp. 133–134)
 You will, I think, remind (p. 134)
 With regard to the (pp. 134–135)
 The share of the daughter (p. 135)
 (b) The Hadith. (pp. 135–136)
 For our present (pp. 136–137)
 (c) The Ijma’. (pp. 137–138)
 But there are one or (pp. 138–139)
 But supposing the companions (p. 139)
 One more question (pp. 139–140)
 (d) The Qiyas. (pp. 140–141)
 This brief discussion (pp. 141–142)
Lecture VII: Is Religion Possible?
 Broadly speaking (pp. 143–144)
 As we all know (pp. 144–146)
 But, apart from the (pp. 146-147)
 In the second place (pp. 147–148)
 On the other hand (p. 148)
 Thus, wholly (pp. 148–149)
 As I have indicated (pp. 149–150)
 The question for us (pp. 150–151)
 Yet Jung has violated (pp. 151–152)
 This is missing the (pp. 152–153)
 Whatever may be the (pp. 153–154)
 Thus failed a genius (pp. 154–155)
 The truth is that the (pp. 155–156)
 Einstein’s mathematical (pp. 156–157)
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
- Religious faith cannot thrive without some form of support.
- While there are many different ways of supporting religious faith, all of them must eventually rest on the same foundation.
- The foundation upon which religious faith must ultimately rest is a “special type of inner experience.”
- To acquire religious faith, an individual must “organically assimilate an alien universe.”
- 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.”
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” (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.
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.
The insight and understanding that a reader can acquire from a particular book, especially a challenging one—such as the Reconstruction—will depend upon the reader’s “learning capacity,” which, in turn, is determined by three main factors.
The first factor that determines your learning capacity is your prior knowledge, i.e., everything (including facts, opinions, memories, attitudes, beliefs, etc.) that already exist in your mind. Your mind, after all, is not a blank slates; it is filled with all kinds of data that inevitably affect the quality of your engagement with what you’re reading.
It is important to differentiate between knowledge and information in the context of learning. Knowledge is information that has been processed, either partially or completely. Furthermore, information can only be processed by a mind. Consequently, while information is found both inside and outside the mind, knowledge cannot exist apart from a mind. It follows that books contain no knowledge, only information; whereas the minds of the author and the reader contain information as well as knowledge. For the same reason, knowledge cannot be directly transferred from one person to another; as soon as someone tries to convey his/her knowledge through speaking or writing, it turns into a series of words—which is information.
What all of this means is that it is impossible for anyone to receive knowledge from another person. Listening and reading are means of gaining information only. As for knowledge, our minds have to actively construct it out of the raw material of information.
If books do not contain any knowledge, it follows that reading a book does not increase your knowledge; rather, it only increases the amount of information in your mind. At this point, your mind has to actively construct new knowledge by processing the information that you have gained from reading. Processing involves two things: first, your mind must extract and decipher the information in the book, and second, your mind must integrate this new information into your prior knowledge.
Prior knowledge about a particular topic can be sufficient or insufficient, appropriate or inappropriate, accurate or inaccurate. If you believe something is true and/or applicable, then it counts as part of your prior knowledge, regardless of whether it is right or wrong, applicable or inapplicable. When a piece of relevant prior knowledge is sufficient, appropriate, and accurate, it helps in the construction of new knowledge; when it is insufficient or inappropriate or inaccurate, it hinders that process, leading to confusion or misunderstanding. And, of course, even helpful prior knowledge is of no use if it has been forgotten, which is why learning requires bringing such inactive knowledge back into conscious awareness.
Here’s a simple example of how incorrect prior knowledge can interfere with the construction of new knowledge: If I am mistaken about the meaning of a particular word, I will have difficulty correctly interpreting a sentence in which that word is used. In this example, the problem is not in the sentence; rather, it resides in my own prior knowledge. Not until I learn the correct definition of the word will I be able to make any progress in comprehending the sentence. That is precisely why it is often necessary to fix a deficiency in one’s prior knowledge before one can make use of the new information and construct new knowledge.
However, this is easier said than done. In practice, it is often very hard to recognize a flaw in one’s own prior knowledge and to notice how it might be hindering the learning process. This brings us to the second factor that determine’s your learning capacity: your ability to maintain an open mind.
Suppose I am reading a text that argues against some of my own convictions. In other words, there is a mismatch between new information (what the author thinks) and prior knowledge (what I think). Regardless of who is right, the mismatch itself can become an obstacle that prevents me from seriously engaging with the author’s argument. Since the human mind prefers consistency over contradiction, my mind would try to reject this new information simply because it cannot be easily integrated into my prior knowledge.
But a mismatch between new information and prior knowledge obstructs our learning only when we are closed-minded. In contrast, the same mismatch turns into a wonderful opportunity for genuine growth when we are willing to approach it with an open mind. If you are thinking “that’s not a problem for me because I am not a closed-minded person,” please think again. Being “closed-minded” is not a trait that some people have and others don’t. Rather, it is a state in which every single one of us can fall at any time. Whenever we experience a significant mismatch between new information and prior knowledge—especially when the mismatch affects a sensitive issue—we become vulnerable in that moment to an automatic shutdown of all the doors and windows of our mind. Once the shutters come down, we feel safe from the potentially disturbing effects of entertaining the new information; at the same time, we also lose any opportunity for learning and growth.
To maximize learning and growth, we need to maintain an open mind. Maintaining an open mind does not mean uncritically accepting any new information that comes our way; it means, rather, that we are willing to seriously consider any new information we may encounter, especially when it does not fit neatly within our prior knowledge.
The secret to maintaining an open mind when we are faced with a significant mismatch between new information and prior knowledge is to postpone judgment. Here’s how to do it: Take a deep, conscious breath; become aware of your body; and then say to yourself: (1) I am experiencing a mismatch between new information and prior knowledge. (2) This is an opportunity for learning and growth. (3) I don’t have to either accept or reject the new information right at this moment. (3) Let me make sure that I fully understand this new information. (4) I will decide whether to accept or reject this information at a later time.
The third factor that determines your learning capacity is your skill in reading analytically. Difficult texts need to be read differently than easier ones. The reason why you can’t read a book like the Reconstruction the same way you might read a newspaper is because here you are trying to understand a mind that is intellectually superior to your own. It’s not just that you have to put in more effort; you also have to take a more disciplined and systematic approach to the act of reading itself. Books like Iqbal’s Reconstruction require the type of patient and methodical engagement that Mortimer J. Adler called “analytical reading” in his classic How to Read a Book (1940, 1972). The more skilled you are in this type of reading, the more you’ll gain for every unit of effort.
So, how does one go about reading the Reconstruction—or any other challenging text—in a disciplined and systematic way? The answer is “analytical reading,” which is a skill that no one is born with but that anyone can learn. There is a standard process for acquiring any new skill, including the skill of analytical reading. That’s because every skills can be broken down into particular “moves” or steps. These steps can be communicated by the expert to the novice by means of words, pictures, and practical demonstrations. Obviously, knowing these steps is not the same thing as actually acquiring the skill—deliberate practice and adequate feedback are needed for that—but it is often a necessary starting point.
According to Mortimer J. Adler, analytical reading is done in three stages, each of which is made up of several steps. Below is my summary of the first stage of analytical reading.
ANALYTICAL READING: STAGE I
Outlining the Structure
The first stage of analytical reading is to outline the structure of the text, where “text” can refer to an article, a chapter, or an entire book. The purpose of outlining the structure is for the reader to be able to answer the question “What is this text about as a whole?” Here are the steps:
1. Classify the text according to kind and subject matter. It is critical to know what kind of text you are reading, and to know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read. This is because the style and arguments of different kinds of text are so different that readers must adjust their reading strategies according to the kind of text they are dealing with.
Any text that consists primarily of opinions, theories, hypotheses, or speculations, for which the claim is made more or less explicitly that they are true in some sense, is and is classified as an expository work. Such texts can be primarily practical or primarily theoretical. Practical works teach you how to do something you want to do or think you should do, whereas theoretical works teach you that something is the case. Practical texts are of two types: those that give you general rules and those that give you the principles on the basis of which rules are, or should be, derived.
2. State what the whole text is about with the utmost brevity. After reading the text, you must be able to state, as briefly as possible, its theme or main point. Insofar as it is well written, a text has a more or less perfectly definable and pervasive unity, and the reader must be able to apprehend this unity and state it in a few sentences. In finding the unity, you should be guided by any help that the author may provide in the title, the subtitle, or the preface, but remember that the duty of finding the unity belongs ultimately to the reader and can be fulfilled only after reading the entire text.
3. Enumerate the text’s major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole. A well written text is an orderly arrangement of parts, each of which has a certain amount of independence but must also be organically connected with all the other parts in order to contribute its particular share to the intelligibility of the whole. You would not know the complex unity of a text unless you can describe how this unity is manifested in the text organized multiplicity, i.e., how the various parts of the book are related to each other.
4. Define the problem(s) the author is trying to solve. An author typically starts with a question or a set of questions and the book ostensibly contains the answer or answers. Whether or not the author tells you the questions that he/she has set out to answer, it is your job as a reader to formulate these questions as precisely as possible. After reading the text, you should be able to state the main question that the book tries to answer, as well as any subordinate questions if the main question is complex.
I will now apply the the first four steps of analytical reading to the Reconstruction. You may want to stop reading at this point, apply the above steps on your own, and then return to see how I have done it. It’s okay if your results are different from my own; it’s the practice that matters.
Step 1 requires that we classify the book according to kind and subject matter. Even though it contains a great deal of suggestions about what people, particularly the educated elite among Muslims, are supposed to be doing, I wouldn’t call the Reconstruction a practical book. There are, obviously, many practical implications of what Iqbal has to say, but I would classify the Reconstruction as primarily a theoretical book. As for subject matter, it’s definitely a philosophical work, even though parts of it deal with theology, history, ethics, and jurisprudence. (It would be interesting to see alternative ways of classifying the Reconstruction that differ from mine.)
Step 2 requires us to state what the book is about as a whole. The title tells us that the book is about Islam. More specifically, it is about religious thought in Islam, especially insofar as it needs to be “reconstructed.” The title doesn’t say why it is desirable or necessary to reconstruct Islam’s religious thought. It does seem to suggest that such thought was first constructed at some point in the past, but—for whatever reason—a new construction is needed today. Perhaps the book will tell us what such such a reconstruction entails and exactly what makes it necessary. (This statement would have to be revisited after we’ve read the entire book.)
Step 3 is made up of two sub-steps. The first sub-step says that we have to make a list of all the major parts of the book and indicate how they are related to each other. The second sub-step says that the same process has to be repeated for each of these major parts. At this point, all we know is that Iqbal’s book consists of a preface and seven lectures. We would be able to see how these seven lectures are interrelated only after we have read the entire book. As for the second sub-step, we don’t have to wait that long. We can start enumerating the main parts of each lecture as soon as we have read it once. However, since there are no sections breaks or subheadings in the Reconstruction, the reader would have to do the work of dividing each lecture into appropriate sections.
Step 4 requires us to figure out the question, or the questions, that Iqbal is trying to answer in this book. Based solely on the title, we can make a tentative guess that his main question is as follows: “Why and how should religious thought in Islam be reconstructed?” (We can’t be sure that our guess is right until we have read the entire book, or at least the preface.)
Read. Then Read Again.
To reiterate, a reader’s ability to gain insight and understanding from a challenging text depends on his/her learning capacity, which in turn is determined by three main factors. These factors—the makeup of one’s prior knowledge, one’s ability to maintain an open mind, and one’s proficiency in analytical reading—vary from person to person. This explains why two individuals reading the same text typically do not gain the same amount of insight and understanding; in fact, they may not even get the same meanings.
But what if you don’t have a great deal of prior knowledge that is both helpful and pertinent to the Reconstruction? What if you find yourself drifting into a closed-minded attitude every time you read something that appears to challenge your prior knowledge? And what if you are not very proficient in the skill of analytical reading?
Even though these shortcomings do make your task harder, none of them can be justified as an excuse for giving up. Instead, they are great reasons why you should engage with the Reconstruction to the best of your ability. That’s because (1) reading difficult texts is one of the most effective ways by which we build our knowledge in the first place; (2) we cannot become comfortable with maintaining an open mind until we have actually suspended our judgment many, many times; and (3) the only way to improve our proficiency in analytical reading is by trying to read analytically while making adjustments in light of the feedback we receive.
Everything is hard until it is repeatedly practiced, and then it becomes easy.
If you feel that you didn’t get a whole lot after reading the Reconstruction once or even twice, that’s no reason to give up either. When an author is intellectually superior to the reader, the reader should expect the text to be difficult. A difficult text is one that is not immediately intelligible. This means that you would have to read each chapter many times over before you begin to grasp its meaning; you may even have to do this to a single paragraph or a single sentence. A text that doesn’t make complete sense the first time you read it is not telling you to go away; it is simply asking you to read again (and again). This need for multiple readings should not come as a surprise to any reader who already knows that he/she is dealing with an intellectually superior mind.
When you are reading the same material multiple times, it often helps to put some gap between any two consecutive readings; even a few hours or a couple of days can make a difference. That’s because the reader’s unconscious mind keeps working on the text even as the conscious mind is taking a break. Sleep has the same effect.
The above advice about multiple readings is applicable at longer time scales as well. After all, the Reconstruction is not the type of book that you read once and then put away forever. Instead, you would need to come back over and over again. Each time you read the Reconstruction after a couple of years’ break, either in part or as a whole, you will gain more than what you had gained during your previous reading; you will also notice things in the text that you hadn’t noticed before. This happens because, even though the book remains the same, the reader has most likely changed and (hopefully) grown in the intervening period. Growth in this context refers to increase in the reader’s learning capacity, which essentially means improvements in the makeup of one’s prior knowledge, in one’s ability to keep an open mind, and in one’s proficiency in the skill of analytical reading.
Finally, let me mention an additional positive effect of wrestling with the same text over an extended period of time—one that can happen even without any increase in learning capacity. Insights gained one-at-a-time accumulate in the mind over months and years, until they switch from addition to multiplication. Put differently, when you give sufficient time to a challenging text, insights will pile up in your mind until they start to interact; eventually, they will mate with each other and produce babies. The ones that receive your attention will survive, and the ones you neglect will die out. Then one day you would wake up and realize that your mind has changed—hopefully for the better.