Iqbal’s ‘reconstruction’ project

And four areas of study in Islam

In the late 1920s, Allama Iqbal gave a series of three lectures on Islam at Madras and Hyderabad. He then wrote three more lectures, after which a series of six lectures was delivered at the Aligarh University. During his visit to England for the Round Table Conference, he delivered a seventh lecture to the Aristotelian Society entitled ‘Is Religion Possible’. In book form, the ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’ consists of these seven lectures. There are any number of details where one could agree (and disagree) with the contents of these lectures, especially after so much time has passed since their publication. However, there is much misunderstanding regarding the very premise and goal of these lectures – which could not have been any more justified and noble. This needs to be addressed.

The distinction some people fail to appreciate is between reconstruction of Islamic thought and reconstruction of Islam itself. To understand this distinction is to go a long way towards the reconstruction itself. Of course, Iqbal could never have presumed to improve upon the foundations of Islam. He merely aimed at improving the application of those principles to contemporary challenges, to the dismay of those who were (and always are) looking for a ‘new’ Islam; and to the alarm of those who thought there was nothing wrong whatsoever with religious thought as it was. A deeper understanding of what Iqbal meant by reconstruction would necessitate a brief survey of Islamic thought and what it is composed of.

Scholars of Islam have traditionally studied four broad areas, although to be able to access these four areas, many other branches of scholarship are necessary – language, syntax, morphology, rhetoric, textual analysis, and study of chain of transmission and biographical evaluation, to name but a few. Those who are not scholars but who think of their religion as more than a list of dos and don’ts also, of necessity, find themselves having to deal with these four areas. These four areas are the Quran, hadees (prophetic narrations), fiqh (jurisprudence) and kalam (philosophy).

Again, if you are of a philosophical outlook and have studied Western philosophy’s criticisms of Islam and the kalam arguments aimed at refuting them, you will be apt to read into the Quran what suits your temperament even if nothing of the sort is there in the text.

Now, it so happens, that emphasis on any one area grossly affects how one understands the others as well. If, for example, you are influenced by hadees more than the other areas, you may take as final the pronouncements of a narration that in your opinion satisfies the conditions of correct transmission, even though an explicit Quranic verse may state the exact opposite. Of course, you would not dismiss the Quranic verse in so many words – instead, you would take the position that the verse could not possibly mean what it appears to mean. Similarly, if you are one of those who put their unshakable faith in the work of the jurists who maintain that the punishment for this or that crime is such-and-such, you are likely to conclude that a Quranic verse that is incompatible with that stance must mean something else. Again, if you are of a philosophical outlook and have studied Western philosophy’s criticisms of Islam and the kalam arguments aimed at refuting them, you will be apt to read into the Quran what suits your temperament even if nothing of the sort is there in the text. Many a rationalist tends to declare various verses of the Quran (pertaining to miracles, for example) allegorical or figurative when the context clearly does not allow it. The rationalist finds it impossible to believe in ‘unscientific’ occurrences of any kind when one of the first things the Quran invites men to believe is the greatest ‘unscientific’ event of all: the Judgment Day.

One gets a completely different (and a much more consistent) religious worldview if one makes it a point to understanding everything else in the light of the Quran. Now, every Muslim, at least in theory, claims to do that. Unfortunately, it is the practice that leaves much to be desired. And this is not a recent phenomenon either, by any stretch of the imagination. There is a long history of Muslims not granting the Quran the central and governing position that it deserves. It was the accumulated confusion in the resulting religious thought of Muslims that prompted Iqbal to stress the need of a reconstruction.

It is often lamented by those sympathetic to Iqbal’s project that he could not finish the project to anybody’s satisfaction. It is easy to overlook the fact that much of this reconstruction has already taken place, mainly by the efforts of the Farahi school. Even here, Iqbal’s contribution goes much beyond pointing out the need of the project. For he is one of the very few prominent personalities in the entire history of Islam (along with Maulana Farahi and his disciples) who were vigorous advocates of giving the Quran the pride of place (not merely in words but in practice) when it came to the overall understanding of the religion.

Hasan Aftab Saeed
Hasan Aftab Saeed
The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at

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