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Posts Tagged ‘The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’

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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The short answer to this question is “no.”

At any given moment in time, future exists as multiple possibilities — none of which is set in stone — until one of these possibilities becomes real.   At that point, all possibilities other than the actualized one cease to be and an entirely new set of future possibilities arises.  These too will remain mere possibilities until one of them becomes actualized in reality.  And so on.

hat is set in stone is only what has already taken place, or whatever happens to be the case now. As a result, we must accept what has been, and what is, but we do not have to accept any single future scenario as absolutely certain. Since the future hasn’t happened yet, it can happen in one of many, many ways. In this understanding of time, freedom and determinism go hand-in-hand. All the choices made by the Creator and the creatures, taken together, determine which of the many possible futures will actualize into reality.

Both the Creator and the creatures are free, but neither is absolutely so. Past choices constrain present choices, and present choices constrain future ones.  As time passes, the possibilities for the future do not remain the same. As a result of the sum total of choices that are being made in the present moment, the possible future scenarios keep changing . . . moment by moment. One particular scenario for the distant future may have been a possibility yesterday, or a minute ago, but it’s no longer a possibility now. As some possibilities cease to be at each moment, new ones are constantly arising to take their place. Every choice, whether divine or human, necessarily closes some windows, while simultaneously opening new ones.

No single future scenario is absolutely certain, but it may in some cases be relatively certain. We cannot be absolutely certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that the boiling point of water will remain 100° Celsius during the next decade, or that aspirin will continue to work for headaches a month from now. Yet, we can be quite sure of these; that is to say, we can maintain a state of certainty regarding these future scenarios that is, relatively speaking, beyond doubt — not beyond all possible doubt, but definitely beyond any reasonable doubt. This does not give us absolute certainty that would satisfy a philosopher, but enough practical certainty that would allow us to get on with the task of living. And yet, our relative certainty about aspects of the future does not entail a belief that our entire destinies are set in stone.

Part of what bothers me about some science fiction novels and movies is their depiction of time travel. I like traveling backwards into the past; it’s the forward traveling into the future that I find unconvincing. Travel into the past may or may not be practically possible, but it is at least theoretically possible. It is possible to speculate that what has already been is still with us in some form or another, and for this reason it may perhaps be possible (at least in theory) to access the past either psychically or physically.  What I do not enjoy is the literary or cinematic depiction of time travel into the future, for such a voyage requires me to accept the impossible.

One could travel into the future (again, in theory) only if the future already existed, fully formed in all its details. To imagine that, we would have to think of the future as if it were a place that is real even now, existing a few years or decades or centuries “ahead” of where we are.  This entails thinking of time as a line that has already been drawn in its entirety, a notion that I must reject on principle. But if the line has not yet been completely drawn, as I will argue, then the future cannot exist in the same way as the past or present does. And obviously, one cannot travel into a realm that isn’t there yet.

Reading the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam has helped me understand that while there are definite patterns and trends in the workings of reality — summed up by the Qur’an in the phrase Sunnat Allah — the Qur’an does not support the notion of a universe that is pretty much fixed in terms of how its future will unfold. I have come to believe that Iqbal’s insistence on the reality of time is not only in harmony with some of the powerful currents in modern philosophy and science, but also–and more importantly for Muslims — it is an accurate reading and faithful expression of the Qur’anic view.

Thinking of the future as a place is a serious error, for it makes time unreal. To take the reality of time seriously, we have to recognize that the future is unsettled. This openness of the future, however, is not absolute. In other words, at least some elements of the future would have to be taken as settled or fixed, even if relatively so. This is because the Creator and the creatures have already made innumerable choices; these choices have made certain characteristics of all possible future scenarios virtually inevitable, while leaving their other characteristics open to the determining effect of choices yet to be made. One way of appreciating the inevitable aspects of the future is to think of them as the consequences of the tendencies inherent in the nature of reality. And yet, even these tendencies do not impose an absolutely fixed future.

There is nothing to be gained by defending, particularly from a religious perspective, the idea of a predetermined and therefore perfectly predictable future. In fact, such a perspective would be inimical to any religious teaching, since all religious traditions assume the reality of freedom at one level or another. At the divine level, no freedom would mean no creativity for God; at the human level, no freedom would imply no morality for persons. In a religiously conceived universe, therefore, freedom must be acknowledged and so the future cannot be fixed. A predetermined universe can only result from a mechanistic conception of reality in which the cause-effect relationship works in strict accordance with the qualities of matter; this would be a universe in which neither a human person nor God would enjoy any real freedom.

Regarding the error of thinking about future as if it were an already existing place, I would mention (once again) Iqbal’s critique of Einstein’s view of time as the fourth dimension of reality. All quotes are from the Reconstruction.

After noting the positive implications of Einstein’s contributions for religion, Iqbal writes:

 . . . Einstein’s Relativity presents one great difficulty, i.e. the unreality of time. A theory which takes time to be a kind of fourth dimension of space must, it seems, regard the future as something already given, as indubitably fixed as the past.  Time as a free creative movement has no meaning for the theory. It does not pass. Events do not happen; we simply meet them. (p. 31)

On the basis of the Qur’anic emphasis on a changing and dynamic universe, Iqbal rejects this space-like view of time. Instead, he argues that time “is an organic whole in which the past is not left behind, but is moving along with, and operating in, the present. And the future is given to it not as lying before, yet to be traversed; it is given only in the sense that it is present in its nature as an open possibility”  (p. 40). He goes on to say that there has been a tremendous misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the Qur’anic notion of taqdir.  Contrary to popular belief, taqdir (“measuring out”) does not suggest a predetermined destiny but the sum total of a creature’s inner possibilities.

It is time regarded as an organic whole that the Qur’an describes as taqdir or the destiny — a word which has been so much misunderstood both in and outside the world of Islam.  Destiny is time regarded as prior to the disclosure of its possibilities.  . . . The destiny of a thing then is not an unrelenting fate working from without like a task master; it is the inward reach of a thing, its realizable possibilities which lie within the depths of its nature, and serially actualize themselves without any feeling of external compulsion. (p. 40)

Iqbal points out the Qur’anic teaching that God creates freely; the reality of time implies that “every moment in the life of Reality is original, giving birth to what is absolutely novel and unforeseeable” (p. 40). Repetition, and therefore predictability, is the character of mechanical action, not a feature of the free creative activity of God. I think what Iqbal is saying here is similar to what many Sufis have pointed out through the maxim la takrar fi al-tajalli (there is no repetition in divine self-disclosure).

Iqbal draws upon both Whitehead and Bergson. He agrees with the former on the reality of time and the nonfixity of the future. With the latter, he agrees on the question of purposefulness in the movement of reality, but adds this qualification: “if teleology means the working out of a plan in view of a predetermined end or goal” then this makes time unreal and “reduces the universe to a mere temporal reproduction of a pre-exiting eternal scheme or structure” in which everything “is already given.” Iqbal rejects this view as a “veiled materialism” for it leaves “no scope for human or even Divine freedom.”

Contra Bergson, Iqbal argues that it is possible to assign purpose to the movement of reality without succumbing to this “veiled materialism” that is hardly distinguishable from the mechanical determinism generated by modern scientism. In the heart of reality, Iqbal finds “progressive formation of fresh ends, purposes, and ideal scales of value” (43) that are anything but predetermined. He rejects the notion that there is a “foreseen end” or “a far off fixed destination” towards which the whole creation is moving. The movement of reality in time “cannot be conceived as a line already drawn.” True to his dynamic vision of a constantly evolving cosmos, Iqbal insists that “it is a line in the drawing—an actualization of open possibilities” (44).

How “Islamic” is the above understanding of time? While Iqbal’s view does go against popular conceptions of taqdir as a predetermined future that is immune to our choices, it is important to consider that he defends this view as being firmly rooted in the Qur’an. In his rejection of taqdir as fixed destiny, Iqbal remains true to the spirit and letter of the Qur’an. There is, of course, no requirement that Muslims must be loyal to any historically contingent understanding of what the Qur’an means. God is continuously showing His signs, both in our own souls and on the horizons; not to notice these signs is not only an act of ingratitude, it is also a path that leads to misguidance and error. The entire task of “reconstruction” is nothing other than recognizing the signs as such, and of incorporating them into our overall picture of reality. Theologically, Iqbal is correct in arguing that the notion of a fixed destiny deprives not only humans of their creative freedom to mold their present and therefore influence their future; it also takes away God’s freedom to manifest His attributes in ever fresh ways, thereby undermining God’s omnipotence.

Iqbal argues that God’s omniscience should be understood in a way that does not compromise God’s omnipotence.  The common understanding of God’s knowledge is that it embraces equally the past, the present, and the future. In this view, the future is assumed to be merely a distant location that we do not see because we haven’t arrived there yet, but which is part of God’s knowledge since God enjoys a much higher vintage point than what is available to us. For Iqbal, such a spatial conception of time does not accord with the Qur’anic understanding of the nature of God’s omniscience.  He contends that the view of divine knowledge as a “single indivisible act of perception which makes God immediately aware of the entire sweep of history, regarded as an order of specific events, in an eternal ‘now’” is inadequate (62). While acknowledging that there is some truth in this conception, Iqbal would not embrace it because this view “suggests a closed universe, a fixed futurity, a predetermined, unalterable order of specific events which, like a superior fate, has once for all determined the directions of God’s creative activity” (62-63).

While the conception of future as an already existing distant location allows God to have foreknowledge, it clearly robs Him of omnipotence.  Iqbal writes:

Divine knowledge must be conceived as a living creative activity to which the objects that appear to exist in their own right are organically related. By conceiving God’s knowledge as a kind of reflecting mirror, we no doubt save His foreknowledge of future events; but it is obvious that we do so at the expense of His freedom. The future certainly pre-exists in the organic whole of God’s creative life, but it pre-exists as an open possibility, not as a fixed order of events with definite outlines. (63)

If Iqbal is right, it would follow that God’s omniscience has to be understood in a more nuanced fashion than what is implied by the spatial (and therefore static) conception of time. Following is a preliminary, and admittedly simplistic, attempt to paraphrase his suggestion.

To say that God knows everything is easy to understand and accept when “everything” is taken to mean the past and the present.  God’s knowledge of the future, however, cannot be of the same quality as His knowledge of the past and the present. God’s omniscience consists in having a complete knowledge of all the tendencies and dispositions of reality; of everything that has ever been right up til the present moment; and of the entire range of all the possibilities for the future as they appear and disappear at each moment in the life of reality. This much is obvious. But to say that God’s omniscience must include the knowledge of exactly which of the numerous possibilities for the future will actually realize itself is to make an unwarranted claim.

Of course, God’s knowledge encompasses everything; but the future is not yet a “thing” that God can know in the same way that God knows the past and the present. To say otherwise would be to assume that (1) God knows what God would do in the indefinite future; and (2) God knows what each creature would do in the indefinite future. Both of these assumptions put serious constraints on the freedom of choice, for God as well as for all of God’s creatures (including human beings). On the other hand, the affirmation of God’s intimate and complete knowledge of all the future possibilities at any given moment would fulfill the requirement of believing in divine omniscience, but without requiring us to accept God’s intimate and complete knowledge of the future itself.

It is far more important for Islamic theology to maintain God’s creative freedom than to save God’s foreknowledge of future events. Similarly, it is far more important for Islamic ethics to insist on the human freedom to make choices than to preserve the belief in a fixed, predetermined destiny.

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