paper I consider some features of Iqbal’s work as they relate to his project of
reconstructing Islamic thought in his prose works and poetry.
I begin with the broad contexts of Iqbal’s work and then consider the dynamics
of his reconstructive project.
colonialism brought the disruptive effects of modernity to the Indian
subcontinent and areas of the Middle East in all their intensity and complexity
within a short space of time. For most Indian writers and thinkers, colonialism
was not an aberrant part of modernity, but central to it. Moreover, when Iqbal
wrote, a substantial proportion of the world’s Muslim population lived under
British colonial rule.
The colonial context and how to address it was therefore an important part of
attempts to recast both Islam and Hinduism as modern faiths.
colonialism was a complex process in the Indian subcontinent. For the purposes
of this paper, four features are important here.First, British colonialism
enabled a new kind ofintellectual cosmopolitanism amongst Indian thinkers and
writers, because it brought together diverse areas and regions in ways that
enabled not just the circulation of goods and commodities, but also texts and
ideas in multiple languages and translations. This circulation of ideas and
texts created what Kris Manjapra and Sugata Bose have called ‘cosmopolitan
thought zones’ for Indian thinkers who engaged with the works of writers and
thinkers from all over the world.
Iqbal’s work bears the imprint of this cosmopolitanism. Thus, his
Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam(1934) weaves together
references to the Qur’ān and approximately forty-nine writers (both Muslims and
European), blending them together in relation to key philosophical problems and
themes in which Islam becomes rethought as part of the global history of
modernity and science. So, too, his rethinking of Sufism emerges from thisglobal
Secondly, this cosmopolitan eclecticism played an important rolein literary and
poetic creativity in the Indian subcontinent. Iqbal’s Persian poem, Jāvīd
nāmâ(1932), alludes to and includes writers and thinkers as characters from
across the globe, ranging from Rumi and al-Afghani, to Nietzsche and Tolstoy.
While alluding to Rumi’s masnavī and written in the same metre as that
work, and indeed while including Rumi as the poet’s guide in the poem, the
Jāvīd nāmâalso gestures towards Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s
Paradise Lost as models. While there is a tendency among critics to stress
the nature of the difficulties faced by Indian writers under colonialism, it is
also important to point to how these difficulties include managing expansiveness
and negotiating an extended range of material and literary traditions, in part
made available through colonialism.This
expansiveness and set of creative choices were central to how Sufism and Islam
were reconstructed in Iqbal’s work.
what distinguishes the history of religions in South Asia during the period of
British rule is that it ‘was an age of definition and re-definition’.
Indians re-thought the basic categories of their religious systems and
practices. Iqbal’s reconstruction of Islam as a self-reflexive belief is one
instance of this. This intellectual ferment was not limited to those who sought
to recast the category of religion alone; not only did Indian liberals
appropriate and recast Western liberalism in their own terms, indoing so they
sometimes anticipated later intellectual developments in European liberalism
distinguishes the colonial context to Iqbal’s work, then, is on the one hand
political and economic oppression (although this plays differently with
different groups in India and the Middle East), and on the other hand, the
experience of intellectual ferment, artistic and literary creativity, and
profound reflection and analysis of one’s self and one’s traditions.
Iqbal’s project of reconstruction
of reconstruction implies rebuilding and renewing, using a mixture of
pre-existing and new materials. This is the project Iqbal defines in his
Reconstruction of Religious Thought In Islam (1934),namely the balancing of
reform and revision with the forces of conservatism so as not to reject the past
Such a project requires a partial distancing from one’s own traditions, and
sometimes more radically, even a willed alienation from them. This is relevant
to Iqbal, and perhaps to all modernist attitudes to Sufism. In a letter of
December 30th 1915, Iqbal wrote of how his natural (‘firī’) and
ancestral (‘ābā’ī’) inclinations were towards Sufism as represented by the
monism (waḥdat al-wujūd or ‘unity of being’)
of Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240). But after studying the Qur’ān and Islamic history,
Iqbal says he fought an internal and fearful (‘khofnāk’) struggle (he uses the
word ‘jihād’ here) against those inclinations. In another letter, he refers to
how his father was a follower of the monistic teachings of Ibn ‘Arabi so that he
was brought up on a diet of his teachings. Elsewhere, he described how his
constitutional inclination was towards a mysticism of union with God, but how he
was constrained by the needs of the time to define himself against the notion of
fanā which is central to that form of mysticism.Thus,
Iqbal was self-consciously opposed to those strands of Sufism which, on another
level, he was at home in.
concept in Iqbal’s work in relation to Sufism and his project of reconstruction
is khūdīor selfhood (he translated it as ‘ego’). This was an attempt to
recreate an individuated agency grounded in a reconstructed religious identity.
His concept of khūdī, of a creative individuated selfhood, is articulated
against mystical notions of fanā, or the loving annihilation of the
individual self in the presence of God, often represented in terms of the union
of a lover with his Beloved. Schimmel defines fanā as ‘the nullification
of the mystic in the divine presence’.
Iqbal defines it in his Development of Metaphysics in Persia (1907)as a
sense that ‘all feeling of separation is…ignorance; and all “otherness” is mere
appearance, a dream, a shadow – a differentiation born of relation essential to
the self-recognition of the Absolute’.
McTaggart Ellis McTaggart (1866-1925), Iqbal’s philosophy tutor at Cambridge,
who was a neo-Hegelian, succinctly defined the essential characteristics of
mysticism as ‘the affirmation of a unity [in the universe] greater than that
which is usually acknowledged’, and, more crucially, as the ‘affirmation that it
is possible to be conscious of this unity in some manner which brings the knower
into closer and more direct relation with what is known than can be done in
ordinary discursive thought’.
He argues that the latter can lead to a form of mysticism that denies the
reality of the human personality.
Characterising mysticism as consciousness of one reality, or as ‘love of the
Absolute’, Schimmel shows how this can lead to views of the world as a ‘limited
reality’, which derives its existence from that Absolute. By extension, this
includes the individual human self, and can result in the denial of its value.
This is often figured in such images as the individual self vanishing like a
drop in the boundless ocean, in which the latter is taken to represent the
Absolute and Divine unity underlying the universe.
The key aspect of Sufi philosophies of the self which Iqbal criticises in his
incomplete Urdu work Tārīkh-e Tasavvuf(1912) is the view that the knower
and the known are one, so that the grasp of God as an object of understanding in
which subject and object remain distinct was replaced by the fusion of the human
subject with God.
was and remains a broad and protean phenomenon. Iqbal’s focus wason the language
and conception of the self in one of its more powerful strands, and how this had
become popularized. In Tārīkh-e Taṣavvuf, Iqbal stresses the impact
Sufism had on the populace of Muslim countries from the time of early Islam,
such that in the Sunni world in his time (according to him) no ‘ālim was
completely accepted who did not imbue his works and deeds with the hue (‘rang’)
What also made Sufism so powerful was its dual character as popular practices
and esoteric, elite philosophy, thereby influencing different sections of the
Moreover, Iqbal argued that to a certain extent, the decline of Islam as a
political power in the world can be traced to the influence of Sufi notions of
self. For him, mystical notions of selfhood underpin otherworldly attitudes,
which undermine the capacity to act effectively in the world. For this reason,
he associated the prevalence of mysticism in a culture’s history with the
decline of that culture, not just in Islam, but also in Hinduism and the late
also saw khūdīas applicable to other religions as well, including
Hinduism. This is clear from a section of his poem Asrār-ekhūdī (1915, 2nd
edition 1918), where he argues that khūdī should be the organizing
principle of the Hindu community’s politics in India. So while Iqbal focuses on
Islam and Sufism, in his work the question of Islam and Sufism in the modern
world sometimes slips into the larger question of the place of religion and
mysticism in general in the modern world.
concerns us here is the kernel of Iqbal’s conception of khūdī, namely
that as human selves approach God, rather than losing their individuality (which
is what is imagined to happen under the concept of fanā), they become
more clearly individuated. Iqbal ends Reconstruction of Religious Thought
by asserting that ‘the end of the ego’s quest is not emancipation from the
limitations of individuality; it is, on the other hand, a more precise
definition of it’.
Reinterpreting the Qur’ān, Iqbal argues that ‘it is with the irreplaceable
singleness of his individuality that the finite ego will approach the infinite
ego to see for himself the consequences of his past action and to judge the
possibilities of his future…whatever may be the final fate of man it does not
mean the loss of individuality’.
As can be seen from this citation, Iqbal applies his master language of
individual selfhood to God, who is also described variously as an ‘ego’,
so that the transgressive charge of the word khūdī(connoting selfishness,
egotism and conceit) is in play in his conception of God as well. Both God and
human individuals are conceived of in the same terms, that is, as ontological
equivalents; the difference between them lies in the degrees of selfhood they
possess: ‘Only that truly exists which can say “I am”. It is the degree of
intuition of “I-amness” that determines the place of a thing in the scale of
At times there is a slippage between selfhood and God as an ultimate or absolute
self, as when he reflects on the properties of selfhood and its ‘directive
agency’ in general, by reinterpreting a verse from the Qur’ān that represents
God’s ‘creative activity’.
This slippage is also evident in his poetry.
conception of selfhood, then, Iqbal dramatically inverts the Sufi notion of
fanā. In doing so, he reads the Qur’ān in innovative ways, reinterpreting
33:72 referring to the burden of trust borne by man as ‘the trust of
personality’ and the ‘acceptance of selfhood’.
He also reinterprets another verse in the Qur’ān in terms of ‘the emergence and
multiplication of individualities, each fixing its gaze on the revelation of its
own possibilities and seeking its own dominion’.
This echoes the picture he draws of the first day of creation in the Jāvīd
nāmâ, where the emergence of individual entities is depicted thus:
‘Everywhere, out of the taste and joyous yearning for self-habitude / Arose the
cry “I am one thing, you are another”’ (couplet 61).
In this master image of selfhood, some other key terms of the Sufi lexicon are
inverted, such as that of ‘ishq or love. Schimmel has discussed in detail
the many permutations of the concept of love in the development of Sufism; as
she puts it ‘the whole complex of love was so inexhaustible that the mystics
invented different degrees and used different terms to classify it’.
In his English work, The Development of Metaphysics in Persia (1908),
Iqbal discusses some of these ‘infinite’ degrees of love and concepts of the
world as ‘an eternal drama of love’.
In essence, though, ‘ishq might be rendered as the process of effacing
the mystic lover’s attributes so that he or she can abide in the essence of God,
imagined as the Beloved. This is succinctly expressed in Fariduddin ‘Attar’s
(1145/6-1221) poem, Manṭiq uṭ ṭair or ‘The Conference/Speech of the
Birds’. The opening section describing the vale (‘vādī’) of love contains
powerful images of the force of love nullifying the seeker’s being, thereby
preparing him or her for union with the Beloved. Iqbal, however, recasts
‘ishq in terms of his language of khūdī. In an explanatory note he
wrote for Nicholson’s translation of Mysteries of the Self, Iqbal
explains his concept of love:
is fortified by love (Ishq). This word is used in a very wide sense and means
the desire to assimilate, to absorb. Its highest form is the creation of values
and ideals and the endeavour to realise them. Love individualises the lover as
well as the beloved. The effort to realise the most unique individuality
individualises the seeker and implies the individuality of the sought, for
nothing else would satisfy the nature of the seeker…Thus, in order to fortify
the Ego we should cultivate love, i.e the power of assimilative action.
third section of Iqbal’s poem, Secrets of the Self, entitled ‘An
exposition showing that selfhood is strengthened by love’, also begins with this
connection between selfhood and love in its opening couplets.
in Iqbal’s work there is an interplay between continuity with and discontinuity
from the past. This is part of the project of reconstruction. Iqbal reinterprets
and appropriates Sufism by constructing lines of continuity between his notion
of khūdī and Sufi thought, even as he inverts other aspects of it. In his
Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, he is at pains to stress
that Sufism ‘revealed fresh regions of the self by making it a special study of
[human] experience’. What was problematic for Iqbal was more its ‘set
phraseology shaped by the thought-forms of a worn-out metaphysics’.
He also discusses Shaikh Ahmad of Sirhind’s ‘idea of a whole universe of inner
In his Urdu letters, he makes a similar distinction between its esoteric
philosophy and its ethical content.
In Reconstruction, Iqbal adds that ‘devotional Sufism alone tried to
understand the meaning of the unity of inner experience which the Qur’ān
declares to be one of the three sources of knowledge, the other two being
History and Nature’. He also goes further in arguing that ‘mysticism has
revealed fresh regions of the self’ which modern psychology would benefit from
studying. He argues that modern psychology ‘has not yet reached the outer fringe
of the subject’, while Sufi narratives ‘gives us at least some idea of a whole
universe of inner experience’.
Iqbal reinterpreted Sufism in terms of the interiority of selfhood and its
experiences. He redeployed its vocabulary of inner experiences to fill the
category of the individual self of khūdīwith inner content, and the
expansive nature of an inner landscape. In doing so, crucial figures such as
al-Hallaj are recast as representing not the experience of the ‘drop slipping
into the sea, but the realization and bold affirmation in an undying phrase
[i.e. the phrase ‘I am God/the Truth’, ‘anā’l ḥaqq’] of the reality and
permanence of the human ego in a profounder personality’.
general terms, Iqbal’s project to reconstruct Islamic thought in his poetry and
prose meant both creating lines of continuity with as well as breaking from
aspects of past traditions. Thus, he also subsumes rather than inverts the
figure of Satan as he had been constructed in Sufi traditions.
Similarly, he appropriates some Sufi poetic diction in his verse, which he
redeploys to expand his own vocabulary of selfhood. This is the case with the
Sufi vocabulary of drunkenness and dissolution, which in Iqbal’s poetry is not
taken to represent loss of self, but the exciting project of individuated
selfhood and its self-consciousness.
This poetic recasting of Sufi images reflects a feature of his poetry as a
whole. As in the case of his relationship to Sufism, Iqbal’s poetry dramatizes a
willing alienation from the aesthetic traditions he is at home in, a
self-imposed exile from classical Urdu and Persian poetry that makes possible a
re-imagined Islam. Thus his Urdu letters show a strong sense of connection with
classical poets, and how he was firmly rooted in the traditional conventions of
classical Persian and Urdu poetry. At the same time, his aesthetic singularity
lies in the way he engages with this tradition to produce poems that enact a
dialectical relationship between innovation and tradition that parallels his
reconstruction of Islam.
In this context, it is worth mentioning one
formal feature of Iqbal’s poetry. While the content of Iqbal’s poetry is
innovative and even revolutionary, he wrote all his poetry in classical and
conventional metres. There is thus a creative tension between the traditional
form and innovative content of his poetry, which runs parallel to the creative
interplay between tradition and innovation in his reconstruction of Islam and of
Sufism as a whole. That is, there is an attempted reconciliation and creative
resolution, as part of an ongoing process, between tradition and innovation, as
the forward-looking content of reconstruction is married to the traditions of
Elsewhere I have
described the quality of Iqbal’s verse as “harmonious dissonance”, a quality
that stems from combining the musicality of metre with the restless disruptive
energies of selfhood.The
musicality of his verse, with its carefully measured metres, has a healing and
reassuring effect, while at the same time expressing a restless new selfhood,
the disruptions of modernity, and the painfulness and pathos of decline. In
other words, it heals the pains inflicted by modernity and colonialism not by
erasing or ignoring them but by coming to terms with them through dramatizing
and reliving them. The harmoniousness of his verse is therefore not a seductive
harmony but a self-reflexive one, that gives full play to disharmony and
colonialism was in many ways oppressive, it also opened up creative and
intellectual opportunities for Indian writers and thinkers. For Iqbal
colonialism and modernity were opportunities to recast Islam as a self-reflexive
faith. The complexity of his project of reconstruction lies in the subtle
interplay between tradition and innovation in his thinking and in his poetry,
aspects of which I have pointed to here and have analysed in more detail
elsewhere. While Iqbal focussed on Islam, there is sometimes a slippage in his
work between Islam and religion in general; this is because the question of the
role of Islam in the modern world shares many aspects with that of the role of
religion as a whole in relation to modernity. As such, it is useful to remind
ourselves that by “zoning off” Iqbal into an Islamic realm alone, we thereby
limit the implications of his work, just as we do if we “iconicize” him; the
latter, in particular, becomes a way of evading the complexities and tensions in
his texts, in which his depth as a thinker and poet lies.
to Dr. Lissi Rasmussen, Mr. Sabir, the Islamic-Christian Study Centre,
and the Iqbal Academy Scandinavia for inviting me to Copenhagen to
present this paper on Iqbal.
Of necessity, this paper is brief; for a more detailed exposition of
Iqbal’s work and thought see my Muhammad Iqbal. Islam, Aesthetics and
Postcolonialism (London, New York and New Delhi: Routledge, 2009).
Francis Robinson, “The British Empire and the Muslim World,” in The
Twentieth Century, ed. Judith Brown and Wm. Roger Louis, vol. 4 of
The Oxford History of the British Empire, ed. Wm. Roger Louis
(Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 398.
Kris Manjapra and Sugata Bose, ed., Cosmopolitan Thought Zones. South
Asia and the Global Circulation of Ideas (New York: Macmillan,
For a discussion of this, see Javed Majeed, ‘Literary Modernity in South
Asia’, in India and the British Empire, eds. Douglas M. Peers and
Nandini Gooptu (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 262-83.
Kenneth Jones, Socio-religious reform movements in British India.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) passim.
 C.A. Bayly, Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Empire
The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam,
ed. M. Saeed Sheikh (1934; Lahore: Institute of Islamic Culture, 1999),
the translation ‘unity of being’ is generally accepted, Schimmel has
pointed out that the term ‘wujūd’ literally means ‘finding’, ‘to be
found’ and is thus more dynamic than ‘existence’. Thus waḥdat
al-wujūd also means the unity of existentialization and the
perception of this act. See Annemarie Schimmel Mystical dimensions of
Islam (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1975),
letter 133 to Khwajah Hassan Nizami, Dec 30th 1915, letter
143 to Shah Suleiman Phulvarui, Feb 24th 1916, and letter 156
to Maharajah Kashan Prashad, June 24th 1916 in M.A. Qureishi,
Ruḥ-e makātīb-e iqbāl (Lahore: Iqbal Academy, 1977).
Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions, 144.
Muhammad Iqbal, The Development ofMetaphysics in Persia (1907; Lahore:
Bazmi-Iqbal, n.d.), 91, 89.
J.McT.E. McTaggart, Philosophical Studies(London: Edward Arnold, 1934),
47. For a discussion of the relationship between McTaggart and Iqbal,
see Javed Majeed, ‘Putting God in His Place: Bradley, McTaggart, and
Muhammad Iqbal’, Journal of Islamic Studies, 4 (2) 1993, 208-36.
McTaggart, Philosophical Studies, 60.
Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions, 4-5.
Muhammad Iqbal, Tārīkh-e Taṣavvuf, ed. Sabir Kalurvi (Lahore: Maktabah-ye
ta‘mīr-e insānīyyat, 1985), 55-56.
For a fuller discussion of this, see Majeed, Iqbal, 146-47.
Ibid., 45, 47-9, 50-51, 57-8, 61-2, 75, 85, 86-7.
Literally, the cry is ‘I am another (‘dīgaram’), you are yet another’
(‘tū digarī’), which conveys a stronger sense of the separateness of
individuation, in that each entity is already ‘another’.
 Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions, 131-2.
Metaphysics, 94-116 discussing al-Ishraqi, and 144-45 discussing
R.A. Nicholson, transl. Muhammad Iqbal’s The Secrets of the Self
(Lahore: Ashraf Press, 1983), xxv-xxvi.
For a discussion, see Majeed, Iqbal, 27.
Qureishi, letter 141 to Khan Muhammad Niyaz ud din Khan, Feb 13th
Reconstruction, 72, 77, 152.
a discussion, see Majeed, Iqbal, 32-33.
For a detailed analysis of this interplay, see ibid., Ch. 1.