The teaching of the Qur'an that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems.

(The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam)

Muhammad Iqbal: Reconstruction, Thought, and Poetry[1]

Javed Majeed

In this 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.[2] I begin with the broad contexts of Iqbal’s work and then consider the dynamics of his reconstructive project.


European 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.[3] The colonial context and how to address it was therefore an important part of attempts to recast both Islam and Hinduism as modern faiths.

However, 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.[4] 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 intellectual cosmopolitanism.

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.[5]This expansiveness and set of creative choices were central to how Sufism and Islam were reconstructed in Iqbal’s work.

Thirdly, 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’.[6] 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 itself.[7]

What 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

The task 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 entirely.[8] 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’)[9] 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.[10]Thus, Iqbal was self-consciously opposed to those strands of Sufism which, on another level, he was at home in.

The key 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’.[11] 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’.[12]

John 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’.[13] He argues that the latter can lead to a form of mysticism that denies the reality of the human personality.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16]

Sufism 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’) of Sufism.[17] What also made Sufism so powerful was its dual character as popular practices and esoteric, elite philosophy, thereby influencing different sections of the population.[18] 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 Roman world.[19]Iqbal 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.[20]

What 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’.[21] 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’.[22] 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’,[23] 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 being’.[24] 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’.[25] This slippage is also evident in his poetry.[26]

In his 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’.[27] 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’.[28] 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).[29] 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’.[30] 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’.[31] 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:

The Ego 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.[32]

The 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.[33]

However, 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’.[34] He also discusses Shaikh Ahmad of Sirhind’s ‘idea of a whole universe of inner experience’.[35] In his Urdu letters, he makes a similar distinction between its esoteric philosophy and its ethical content.[36] 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’.[37]

Thus, 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’.[38]

In more 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.[39] 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.[40] 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.[41] In this context, it is worth mentioning one distinctive 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 form.

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.[42]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 dissonance.


While 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.


[1]Thanks 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.

[2]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).

[3] 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.

[4] Kris Manjapra and Sugata Bose, ed., Cosmopolitan Thought Zones. South Asia and the Global Circulation of Ideas (New York: Macmillan, 2010).

[5] 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.

[6] Kenneth Jones, Socio-religious reform movements in British India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) passim.

[7] C.A. Bayly, Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Empire (Cambridge, 2011).

[8]Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, ed. M. Saeed Sheikh (1934; Lahore: Institute of Islamic Culture, 1999), 132.

[9]Although 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), 267.

[10]See 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).

[11]Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions, 144.

[12]Muhammad Iqbal, The Development ofMetaphysics in Persia (1907; Lahore: Bazmi-Iqbal, n.d.), 91, 89.

[13]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.

[14]McTaggart, Philosophical Studies, 60.

[15]Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions, 4-5.

[16]Muhammad Iqbal, Tārīkh-e Taṣavvuf, ed. Sabir Kalurvi (Lahore: Maktabah-ye ta‘mīr-e insānīyyat, 1985), 55-56.

[17]Ibid., 28-29.

[18]Ibid., 28.

[19]Ibid., 30.

[20]For a fuller discussion of this, see Majeed, Iqbal, 146-47.

[21]Iqbal,Reconstruction, 156-7.

[22]Ibid., 92-4.

[23]Ibid., 45, 47-9, 50-51, 57-8, 61-2, 75, 85, 86-7.

[24]Ibid., 45.

[25]Ibid., 82.

[26]Majeed,Iqbal, 25-26.

[27]Ibid., 70.

[28]Ibid., 70.

[29]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’.

[30] Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions, 131-2.

[31]Iqbal, Metaphysics, 94-116 discussing al-Ishraqi, and 144-45 discussing Bahaullah.

[32]R.A. Nicholson, transl. Muhammad Iqbal’s The Secrets of the Self (Lahore: Ashraf Press, 1983), xxv-xxvi.

[33]For a discussion, see Majeed, Iqbal, 27.

[34]Iqbal, Reconstruction, 72.

[35]Ibid., 152-3.

[36]Qureishi, letter 141 to Khan Muhammad Niyaz ud din Khan, Feb 13th 1916.

[37]Iqbal, Reconstruction, 72, 77, 152.

[38]Ibid., 77.

[39]For a discussion, see Majeed, Iqbal, 32-33.

[40]Ibid., 33-37.

[41]For a detailed analysis of this interplay, see ibid., Ch. 1.

[42]Ibid., Ch. 1.

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