Posts Tagged ‘Iqbal’

By saying that the Qur’an emphasizes “deed” rather than “idea,” Iqbal has identified for us what is perhaps the very essence of revelation.

Muslims take the Qur’an as containing the revelations that came from God to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The phenomenon of revelation, however, is not unique to Islam, and the Qur’an itself confirms that many individuals had been the recipients of such divine revelation in the past. This fact allows us to examine the phenomenon of revelation in a comparative perspective. When we look at the revelations found in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, and compare them with the revelations that we have in the form of the Qur’an, we are struck by the fact that all these revealed texts have one characteristic in common: They are invariably aimed at encouraging and facilitating some form of personal transformation.

The purpose of revelation is guidance, and the most important form of guidance that human beings need is practical guidance. Revealed texts are therefore meant to answer the most urgent of all questions, i.e., “how should I live?” While revelation provides theoretical guidance as well, the latter is discussed not for its own sake but mainly for its practical implications. In other words, the primary function of revelation is such that it is most clearly served when the revelation speaks in the imperative mode, as in the commandment “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), or in the saying of Jesus “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Even when the revelation speaks in the declarative mode, its aim is not simply to provide us with information but rather to transform us in some important way. For instance, when we are told: “God, there is no god except He . . .” (Qur’an 2:255), the revelation is not merely informing us that there is only one God; rather, it is reminding us of the attitude we are supposed to adopt given that there is only one God. In the same way, when the Qur’an narrates the stories of previous prophets or informs us of the punishments of hell and the blessings of paradise, its purpose is not to add more data to our minds; the purpose, rather, is to help us transform ourselves in the desired ways.

To claim that revelation does not emphasize “ideas” is to suggest that holding the right beliefs is not one of its central concerns. In the ordinary, non-technical sense of the word, “believing” refers to giving intellectual assent to certain ideas. While it is important to hold the right beliefs, or believe in the right ideas, this in itself does not provide any guarantee that personal transformation will actually take place. It is all too common for people to hold one set of ideas as true, while living their lives as if those ideas were entirely false. It would appear that people tend to hold not one but two sets of ideas in their minds: (1) ideas that they believe they hold, and (2) ideas that actually guide their choices and conduct. From the viewpoint of revelation, holding ideas that do not shape our lives is ultimately worthless even when they are objectively true. For there is no benefit in “knowing” a truth if one does not “understand” it, and there is no benefit in “understanding” a truth if it does not guide one’s attitudes, priorities, habits, and values. A truth that is held in the mind but not embodied is no better than a treasure that we own but cannot spend.

Revelation is definitely concerned with transforming our beliefs, but it is even more concerned with transforming our choices and conduct. From the viewpoint of revelation, only those of our beliefs are relevant that actually shape our lived reality, i.e., beliefs that actively determine our “deeds.”

Iqbal’s use of the word “deed” is such that it cannot be substituted by the word “action.” This is because he seems to have used the word “deed” in a much more comprehensive sense than what the word “action” would suggest. Nor should we think of “deed” as something that is diametrically opposed to “faith.” On the contrary, the words “faith” and “deed” are very nearly synonymous for Iqbal. I have been led to this conclusion because of three statements that Iqbal makes in the very first paragraph of The Reconstruction, immediately following the preface:

The essence of religion . . . is faith . . . .

. . . the transformation and guidance of man’s inner and outer life is the essential aim of religion . . . .

Religion is not a departmental affair; it is neither mere thought, nor mere feeling, nor mere action; it is an expression of the whole man.

That “faith” is the essence of religion is not an insignificant matter, for this implies that whatever is true of religion in general must be true of faith, if not truer. Consequently, if the purpose of religion is to guide and transform all aspects of human life, and if the essence of religion happens to be faith, then it would be a serious mistake to conceive of faith in a narrow or partial manner. What Iqbal says explicitly about religion he implicitly says about faith as well: Faith is neither mere thought, nor mere feeling, nor mere action; it is an expression of the whole person. For Iqbal, faith is the personal transformation that constitutes the “essential aim” of religion, as well as the means through which that aim is pursued.

If we can conceive of faith in this broad and comprehensive Iqbalian sense, then we can also appreciate the partial and limited nature of belief. Faith is an expression of the whole person — the sum total of one’s attitudes, priorities, habits, and values, as well as of one’s choices and conduct — while belief is merely an idea that a person holds in his or her mind. While it is obviously better to hold a true belief than a false one, holding a true belief is not the same thing as achieving the “essential aim” of religion, i.e., personal transformation.

When Iqbal says that the Qur’an emphasizes “deed” as opposed to “idea,” he is basically telling us that the Qur’an is far more concerned with “faith” than it is with “belief.”

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When Iqbal published his lectures on “the reconstruction of religious thought in Islam,” he decided to add a brief preface. The preface begins with the following statement:

The Qur’an is a book which emphasizes ‘deed’ rather than ‘idea’.

This is a significant statement, considering where it appears: in the preface to a book which is all about ideas! Introducing a highly theoretical work that addresses the nuances of Islamic as well as Western thought in the areas of metaphysics, theology, and ethics, Iqbal found it necessary to confess that the world of ideas — thought — is not something that’s terribly important from the Qur’anic viewpoint. After acknowledging that ideas do not constitute a central concern of the Qur’an, Iqbal went on to argue in the same preface why it is nevertheless necessary that we pay attention to ideas.

Iqbal’s statement about where the Qur’an puts its primary emphasis is significant for several other reasons as well. For instance, it demonstrates an element of critical self-awareness on Iqbal’s part. He knew perfectly well, and was able to acknowledge in writing, that his own emphasis on religious thought was not in perfect harmony with the Qur’anic emphasis on what he called “deed.”

Perhaps the important question from the reader’s viewpoint is this: Is Iqbal’s statement correct? Is it really true that the Qur’an emphasizes “deed” rather than “idea”? The claim may sound counter-intuitive to many Muslims, who may want to argue that the Qur’an does pay sufficient attention to ideas. Thus, when the Qur’an speaks about God and God’s attributes, or narrates the stories of previous prophets, or informs us of the punishments of hell and the blessings of paradise — isn’t it obvious that in all these matters the Qur’an is discussing what may be called beliefs? And isn’t it true that beliefs are made up of ideas? If they are not ideas, what else could they be?

The term that most Muslims use for religious beliefs is ‘aqa’id, plural of ‘aqidah. The contemporary use of the word ‘aqidah is such that it is practically a synonym for what Christians call “creed.” Strictly speaking, a “creed” is not the same thing as “belief.” A community can have a wide range of beliefs at any given moment, but when a particular understanding of what everyone is supposed to believe is expressed in a particular verbal formula by a religious authority, the resulting declaration of belief is called a creed. Thus, the Latin version of the Nicene Creed begins with the words “Credo in unum Deum,” we believe in one God, indicating the declarative and public (or communal) nature of a creed. During most of Christian history, matters of creed were typically very important, in that whether or not one professed the right creed was the main factor in differentiating between orthodoxy and heresy (in some cases, this could mean the difference between life and death).

In the Islamic instance, the term ‘aqidah is normally taken as suggesting a particular formulation of religious belief as articulated by a particular religious authority — and this is exactly how the term “creed” is normally defined. For our present purposes, however, whether we call the particular formulation in question a “creed” or a “belief” makes little difference; for whichever term we choose, the critical issue is that the actual content of ‘aqidah is widely assumed to be either an idea or a set of ideas.

Given that idea is the substance that is believed to constitute any particular ‘aqidah, and given that having the right ‘aqidah is taken to mean holding certain specific ideas as true, we can see how Iqbal’s statement appears to belittle the importance of ‘aqidah. When Iqbal says that “The Qur’an is a book which emphasizes ‘deed’ rather than ‘idea,'” what he is clearly implying is that, from the Qur’anic perspective, matters of ‘aqidah are not all that worthy of our attention. This is obviously a claim that is in sharp contrast to what a significant proportion of Muslims seem to hold.

Nowadays, a great deal of emphasis is being placed in many Muslim circles on having the “correct ‘aqidah,” and a great deal of intellectual effort is spent on fulfilling this goal. Many Muslims show a strong attachment to their own understanding of what they take to be the one “correct ‘aqidah,” and some are not reluctant at all to criticize and condemn alternative understandings as absolutely unacceptable. In some extreme cases, it would appear as if having the “correct ‘aqidah” is of ultimate significance for one’s salvation — as if going to hell or reaching the paradise is primarily a question of holding in one’s mind the correct wording of particular religious ideas.

Given this widespread emphasis on religious ideas, Iqbal’s statement implies a sharp critique of the attitude that defines the very meaning of religion for many contemporary Muslims. If his statement turns out to be true, it would demand from contemporary Muslims fundamental changes in how they approach their religious lives.

How can we find out whether or not Iqbal’s statement is correct? An important consideration is that the word ‘aqidah, in the sense of a particular articulation of a religious belief — that is to say, a “creed” — does not appear in the Qur’an. In his book “Faith and Belief” (1979), Wilfred Cantwell Smith makes the following observation:

The root ‘aqada, “to tie a knot”, either literally or in the figurative sense of binding a person by a legal or moral commitment, making a binding engagement, occurs seven times in the Qur’an: twice as the verb and five times as a noun. The words ‘aqidah, ‘aqa’id do not occur. (p. 196)

Of course, just because a word does not appear in the Qur’an is no proof, by itself, that there is something religiously illegitimate about the concept it represents. But that is precisely where the problem resides, for the actual concept behind the word ‘aqidah is very often not grasped too well by contemporary Muslims. To quote Smith once again:

Furthermore, I have found in working on mediaeval kalam texts that the VIIIth form i’taqadah, which does not occur in the Qur’an but is introduced into theology later, along with ‘aqidah, ‘aqa’id, in the sense of “creed”, begins there by meaning not “to believe” something but rather more literally to bind oneself, to commit or to pledge oneself to, to take on the engagement of living in accord with a given position; and that only gradually across the centuries does it eventually acquire the more neutral meaning of “to believe” something intellectually. This last comes quite late in the mediaeval period and is perhaps not common until early modern times. (p.196)

What Smith is pointing out in the above quotation is a problem common to all religious traditions that rely on written texts. As time passes, the texts remain static but the language keeps changing. The result is that in the later part of a tradition’s history, texts written in the earlier part tend to become increasingly incomprehensible. This is especially problematic when a later-day reader feels confident that he or she is interpreting an old text exactly as it was intended to be understood, but is doing so without taking into account the glaring fact that the denotations and connotations of words do not remain static over hundreds of years. The word ‘aqidah and related words were initially used by Muslim theologians and jurists in the sense of making a commitment to one or the other side of a controversial issue; as time passed, Muslims continued to use these words but increasingly in the sense of holding certain ideas in one’s mind. According to Smith, while this trend can be found in the late medieval period, it probably did not become dominant until the early modern period.

To reiterate, the widespread sense of ‘aqidah as an idea to which one gives intellectual assent is very different from the original sense of the word as used by classical Muslim theologians and jurists. Nowadays, the vast majority of Muslims use the word ‘aqidah in a way that makes it a virtual synonym for religious “belief” or, more precisely, for “creed.” (I have in mind the modern meanings of these two words, not their premodern meanings.)

One can justify the religious legitimacy of the classical sense of ‘aqidah by appealing to arguments that are ultimately based on the Qur’an. One can also justify the modern sense of ‘aqidah as believing something intellectually or holding certain ideas in one’s mind. What one cannot justify is the assumption that the contemporary meaning of ‘aqidah is identical with what our classical authorities had in mind when they used that word. Integrity demands that one acknowledges that an important shift in the meaning of this word has taken place during the centuries that separate us from the authors of our classical texts.

In light of this discussion, what is the significance of Iqbal’s opening statement in the preface to his major work? When Iqbal suggests that the Qur’an does not emphasize idea, he is saying that the Qur’an does not concern itself with matters of ‘aqidah — in the modern sense of the word. To put his claim in slightly different language, Iqbal is saying that the Qur’an does not concern itself with matters of belief, including religious belief. Obviously, this claim also applies to what is called a “creed,” insofar as a creed is understood to be a formalized expression of religious belief. Iqbal is saying that, instead of focusing its attention on matters of ‘aqidah, belief, or creed, the Qur’an focuses its attention on something else. This something else Iqbal calls “deed.”

An important caveat is necessary at this point. Notice Iqbal’s use of the word “emphasis,” which is crucial in interpreting his statement about the Qur’an. Iqbal is not saying that the Qur’an pays absolutely no attention to ideas. Given that Iqbal himself makes ample use of the Qur’anic text in discussing a wide range of ideas, it would be a blatant error on his part if he were to make such a claim. What he is saying is simply that the Qur’an does not emphasize ideas. In other words, the primary aim of the Qur’an does not consist in informing us as to which ideas we ought to hold in our minds and which ones we must not hold in our minds; yet, this fact does not mean that the Qur’an is entirely indifferent to ideas. Ultimately, it’s a matter of priorities. While the Qur’an does suggest many things that qualify as ideas, the primary aim of the Qur’an lies elsewhere, in the realm of “deed.” This is important for Muslims to understand because the priorities of the Qur’an are supposed to become our own priorities.

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In the final paragraph of his summary of Asrar-e Khudi, Iqbal addresses one of his favorite themes–the ideal human personality whose manifestation on a large-scale would represent the culmination of millions of years of spiritual evolution.

While Iqbal tends to talk about that ideal personality as if it were a single (male) individual, this is most likely a rhetorical device to emphasize the unique individuality of the ideal human being.  For Iqbal, the Qur’anic term khalifah (vicegerent) and the Sufi term al-Insan al-Kamil (the complete/whole person) are essentially synonymous, though he also uses a variety of other terms to describe that personality.

Who is this khalifah, this fullest manifestation of the highest of human potentialities?  While it is true that as a species humanity has not yet reached that exalted stage of spiritual evolution, it is also true there have been many persons in history who did achieve that status at an individual level.  The fact that such individuals have actually existed, and may exist among us even today, establishes beyond any doubt that the ideal personality is not a fanciful or unrealistic image of what we ought to be but can never actually become; instead, that ideal is well within the realm of possibility.  Indeed, it is the very goal for which God has created the human being in the first place; it is the telos for the entire evolutionary process–not only of life in the narrow sense of the word but of the entire cosmos.  The attainment of divine vicegerency is exactly why we are here; it is the meaning of existence.

This is how Iqbal describes the khalifah.

He is the completest Ego, the goal of humanity, the acme of life both in mind and body; in him the discord of our mental life becomes a harmony.  The highest power is united in him with the highest knowledge.  In his life thought and action, instinct and reason become one.  He is the last fruit of the tree of humanity, and all the trial of a painful evolution are justified because he is to come at the end.  He is the real ruler of mankind; his kingdom is the kingdom of God on earth.  Out of the richness of his nature he lavishes the wealth of life on others, and brings them nearer and nearer to himself.  The more we advance in evolution, the nearer we get to him.  In approaching him we are raising ourselves in the scale of life.  The development of humanity both in mind and body is a condition precedent to his birth.  For the present he is a mere ideal; but the evolution of humanity is tending towards the production of an ideal race of more or less unique individuals who will become his fitting parents.

This is almost a poetic description for what are supposed to be real, actual human beings.  There is a clear note of passionate longing in Iqbal’s prose–the result of his ardent desire to see that personality, along with the knowledge that such a personality is not likely to appear in his own life-time!

Let’s note some of the qualities that Iqbal attributes to the ideal human being.  These include (1) maximum completeness of khudi, (2) fullest growth of both mind and body, (3) perfect harmony among otherwise discordant principles, (4) unification of power and knowledge, (5) unification of thought and action, (6) unification of instinct and reason, (7) natural claim to leadership, (8) effortless generosity, (9) worthy of imitation, (10) inevitable destiny of humankind.  Among these qualities, I believe that the most crucial one is  number (3).  I say this because Iqbal provides several examples of this quality by mentioning the normally discordant principles of mind/body, power/knowledge, thought/action, and instinct/reason.  Even quality number (1) seems like another way of expressing the same idea.

For Iqbal, the normal human condition is marked by a state of disharmony.  This disharmony exists within each individual, and so it inevitably manifests in social life as well.  Disharmony within gives birth to disharmony without; and disharmony without precludes or obstructs our attempts to progress towards achieving a state of harmony within.  Only few individuals are able to transcend this state of inner discord at any given time; most of us, on the other hand, tend to be imbalanced or asymmetrical in most areas of our lives.  And we suffer the consequences.

Human beings use only a fraction of their potential capacity; part of the problem is that they are typically fragmented from within.  If a person is routinely torn between the opposing demands of mind and body, reason and instinct, thought and action, much energy will be spent on managing this civil war, while only a small amount will be left for pursuing specific objectives.  The result is not only a lack of stability in one’s personality, but also a chronic inability to reach one’s desired goals–whether material, social, or spiritual.  Furthermore, since there is literally a war going on inside each person, one is not likely to experience inner peace unless these opposing forces are somehow reconciled.  Finally, since our inner discord feeds into the societies we create, so long as there is no peace within the human personality, there are very few chances that there will be peace in the world at large.

The ideal, of course, is a fully integrated human personality, one in which all of its discordant forces are in a state of perfect harmony.  This does not mean, however, that in the ideal personality the mind would have decisively defeated the body or that reason would have finally vanquished the force of instincts; such would only be another form of imbalance.  The word “harmony” implies that opposite tendencies or principles continue to exist and play their natural roles, but that their mutual collaboration produces something higher–something of  an entirely different quality than the products of any of the forces acting alone.  The end product, in other words, would be more than the sum of its parts.  This is the classical ideal of “unity within plurality.”  It is also one way of interpreting the Islamic imperative of tawhid, which literally means “making one.”

Iqbal’s use of the word “harmony” presupposes a musical metaphor.  It is interesting to note that Iqbal had received some initial training in classical Indian music, and that he continued to appreciate good singers.  To follow his metaphor, imagine dozens of instruments being played together, but without anyone knowing what piece of music they are supposed to play; the result would be a cacophony of unpleasant noises.  Add to this the missing ingredient of a common goal–a single piece of music plus a conductor–and the result could be a highly moving performance by what is now an orchestra.

What does this mean for the evolution of personality?  Nothing in human nature is evil or unnecessary; as such, nothing needs to be suppressed, removed, or disowned.  Everything has its place and its assigned role.  The only reason why things do not automatically fall into place is the lack of inner agreement on which goal is to be pursued–or, to use the musical metaphor, there is no consensus on which music is to be played and which conductor is to be followed.

Integration among the diverse, and diverging, forces of human personality requires a unifying element.  This brings us back to what Iqbal said earlier in the same text, i.e., that love is “assimilative action” in relation to certain values and ideals.  The only thing that can potentially harmonize the normally opposing and conflicting forces of personality is their agreement to love a single ideal.  Since love involves assimilating or internalizing one’s ideal, however, different ideals will have different consequences on one’s personality.  An ideal that is itself inconsistent will not bring the desired inner harmony; it will ultimately give rise to even greater fragmentation.

The only ideal whose love can bring about the ultimate integration of personality is God.  In the Islamic tradition, one of the names of God is al-Salam, which can mean “the Peace” as well as “the Perfect.”  God is perfect because all of God’s innumerable attributes are in an overall harmony; there is no inner conflict in God, which is another way of saying that God is peace.  As far as creatures are concerned, including human beings, God is the only source for peace and perfection; any peace that we may find in the world–or any perfection, for that matter–is only a dim reflection of the divine attribute expressed in the divine name al-Salam.  In Iqbal’s view, the imperative of creating within oneself the attributes of God has at least partly to do with the reconciliation of opposites within one’s own personality (and, by implication, in the world at large).  Whether we call this imperative imitatio dei, fortifying one’s khudi, or loving God with all one’s soul, mind, and strength–makes little difference.

At the end of his remarks, Iqbal manages to add a somewhat cryptic, and highly tantalizing, statement about the political implications of his philosophy of the self.

Thus the Kingdom of God on earth means the democracy of more or less unique individuals, presided over by the most unique individual possible on this earth.  Nietzsche had a glimpse of this ideal race, but his atheism and aristocratic prejudices marred his whole conception.

Given that he wrote the summary of Asrar-e Khudi primarily for the benefit of Prof. Nicholson and other Westerners, Iqbal’s reference to the Christian (and Jewish) concept of the “Kingdom of God” is highly suggestive.  He recognizes that the “Kingdom of God,” at least according to the canonical Gospels, refers to an altered reality that is achievable by humanity on this earth and during this life.  It’s a utopia, no doubt, but one that is actually realizable in historical time.  Such will be possible, of course, only with the grace of God; yet the grace of God alone is insufficient for brining about the “Kingdom of God” on earth.  According to Iqbal, human beings must take the initiative in this regard, though human initiative alone cannot achieve that goal either.  In other words, human beings must learn to discern the divine tendency within the structure of reality that is pointing towards a particular kind of personality and a particular kind of society; and they must strive, with God, to realize this telos first within their own being and subsequently in the form of a concrete society.  Only after achieving a state of peace in their own souls would they be able to achieve it in the world.

Note that Iqbal calls his ideal society the “Kingdom of God,” which literally means theocracy, while also referring to it as a democracy in the same breath!  This is either a flagrant contradiction, or a sign that he has transcended the God/human dichotomy.  If Iqbal is not contradicting himself, then I believe he is saying the following:  Once humanity actually becomes what it has always meant to be–divine vicegerent–then there will remain no real difference between human will and divine will.

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