Philosophical ideologies Reviews on books

The Reconstruction of religious thought in Islam:an insight:Sagheer Afzal

When I first read this book as a teenager admittedly it flew over my head. I have come across excerpts of it from time and time. Now, having read the book I am of the opinion that it merits consideration as an important book which should be read by all Muslims for the way it presents the esoteric and exoteric parts of Islam into a coherent system of thought.

There are however certain caveats. Like many of the Muslim intelligentsia of that time, Iqbal does seem to be burdened by a need to qualify his ideas with Western psychology. This I felt vitiated his arguments.

Iqbal in his opening chapter dwells on mysticism and mystical states. He quotes from Bergson, Whitehead and William James, but he does not seem to pay that much regard to Al-Ghazali, or Ibn Arabi, or even mention any of the scores of Muslim mystics who expounded their experiences. He describes mysticism as an inarticulate feeling and part of an incommunicable experience. Some of the utterances of the Muslim mystics were no doubt cryptic but sages of all ages often communicated in aphorisms. No one could describe the way Rumi communicated his mystical experiences as inarticulate. Certainly there are elements of incoherence of Ibn Arabi’s writings but no one can say that they were not enlightened by much of what he wrote and explained. Nor could you level that accusation against Christian mystics such as Aquinas. To accuse Al-Ghazali of being inarticulate would beggar belief from anyone who has read his works which made me wonder if Iqbal had spent much time researching the works of Muslim mystics. He quotes the passage of light from the Quran but neglects to mention Al-Ghazali’s seminal Mishkat-Al-Nur which is a remarkable synthesis of symbolism and logic. He quotes Ibn Arabi’s illuminating statement that God is percept and the world is a concept but does not seem to have found it necessary to delve deeper into his works.

Iqbal does however correctly identify a scarcely known fact: the impact of Greek philosophers on Islamic Mysticism or Sufism. I don’t think it would be all that much of a stretch to say that Plato was one of the founding fathers of Sufism. The Greek philosophers were much preoccupied by the soul. Muslim thinkers analysed their works and this led to rich vistas of philosophical enquiry in Islam. Iqbal makes the salient observation that Socrates and his disciple Plato viewed sense-perception with disdain. Such a view is antithetical to the teachings of the Quran which frequently exhorts its readers to observe the alternation of night into day, the starry of heavens and the perpetual change of winds.

The ideas of the Greek philosophers were championed by another theological titan, Ibn Rush and opposed with equal vigour by the legendary Al-Ghazali. This led to more heated debate between the Mutazilites and the Asharites. Iqbal makes the point that the Mutazilites failed to realise that you cannot separate thought from concrete experience.

Iqbal has problems in qualifying thought and intuition within the spectrum of mystical experience. He avers that mystical experience must be cognitive in nature but that’s not the conclusion you form once you read the works of mystics. This highlights a flaw of this book. In viewing mysticism solely from a Western perspective he makes reductive and contradictory conclusions. Sometimes it seems he likens mystical states to heightened psychological sensations. Other times he makes a valid point in saying that that in mystic states the distinction between subject and object does not exist. But then contradicts himself later on in the book when he describes the experiences of Sheikh Ahmed of Sirhind.

Iqbal utilises his creativity in a very ingenious way when he contrasts the Christian and Islamic perspectives on time. In Christian theology time is presented as a series of Cartesian points in Islamic theology time is an evolving moment shaped by possibility. Not having a scientific background you can overlook his awkwardness when he tries to use physics to justify his metaphysics. There can be no denying the originality of this thinking when he stipulates that in Islamic metaphysics infinity is calibrated not by extension by intensity. The state of ‘fana’ which has attracted so much conjecture is not negation of the Self but enhancement of the Self.

The pivotal feature of Iqbal’s thought which features in a lot of his poetry is his concept of the Self. He explains with great clarity why the Self is the nexus between the esoteric and exoteric parts of Islam. Why one need not be in conflict with the other. The ultimate aim of the Self he articulates is not to see but to be. A very important point when you consider that Sufism was the dominant form of Islam for over a thousand years.

Iqbal was indeed a visionary philosopher. You may need to dig deep to unravel his insight but it is well worth the effort.

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April 2021