Reform in modern Islamic thought - Iqbal as a resource
Inter-cultural consultant and Chief Editor – Media Watch.
Iqbal Academy Scandinavia is a respected organisation that has connections and admirers all over the world. It is the brainchild of Mr. Gulam Sabir, a known patron of Iqbaliat and author of many books on the great man’s thoughts. His latest book; Religion and physics in modern times was acknowledged with a medal of merit from the government of Pakistan. The Academy honours Allamah Iqbal twice a year, once on 21 April and then in Nov the 9th.
I am a great fan of Mr. Sabir’s visionary thinking and have enjoyed his kind company many times. So on an overcast November day in Copenhagen, I joined many wonderful speakers and enthusiastic participants at Islamic Christian Study Centre run by Dr. Lissi Rasmussen and her team. She is a well known Islamic scholar and her centre has built bridges among Muslim and Christian communities with seminar, meetings and publications.
The small hall was packed not only with people from Denmark but also Sweden, Norway and UK.
Iqbal inspired the Muslim communities from Turkey to India with his melodic and divine poetry, philosophical messages, theological interpretation and a visionary political thinking that had a strong message of hope for the down trodden Muslim masses of Hindustan (the present states of India and Pakistan).
The host, Mr. Gulam Sabir, in his short opening address reminded the delegates that Iqbal had an unusual ability to convey his messages of Islamic tradition and Philosophy that can certainly have a tremendous appeal to the western audience if we present it to the west in a very methodical and visible manner.
Islam in his mind is neither Imperialistic or nationalist but consist of a league of nations that are bound together by a common thought process, without prejudice or discrimination.
He also emphasised that the theme of the seminar is vast and one sitting is just a start. He also thanked Dr. Lissi Rasmussen for arranging seminars on interfaith issues and working to create an understanding between two great religions.
This example of inter-faith is unique and deserves all the appreciation and support, we can give.
He also thanked the audience for attending the seminar.
After Mr. Sabir’s brief presentation, the moderator of the first session Professor, Safat Bektovic invited Professor Muhammad Sharif Baqa from London. He is an author of several books on Iqbal and his thoughts. He spoke on the theme of; Iqbal as a social reformer.
Professor Baqa stated his presentation by reminded that Iqbal lived at a time when Muslim nations were in decline, most of them were occupied by the western powers and India, the home land of Iqbal was under the British Raj.
That situation of Muslims deeply effected Iqbal, emotionally and intellectually and moulded his wish to socially reform the Muslims and give them some hope in those dire times.
In Iqbal’s universe, social reformation of Muslims could only come through education, and religious awakening, with logical thinking and not so much with the version of the religious class of the time that rejected progress and critical thinking. Iqbal had a great desire for gender equality because women are the maker of societies. Iqbal thought that clinging to the old ways was unwise and counter productive for the advancement of Muslim communities. For Iqbal excellent moral values were needed to progress and it was useless to be intoxicated with lofty ideas without putting these in practice.
According to Professor Baqa, Iqbal cherished the thought process in the west but he wanted Muslims to develop their own dormant abilities by self awareness and self realisation. He had the burning desire to elevate the situation of the wretched Indian Muslims.
But Iqbal was also aware that the universe was always changing so Muslims should not indulge in day dreaming and wishful thinking. At the same time, Iqbal was very much opposed to the oppression of the poor that is why, he lamented;
“If you want to bring about the change in the society O Poor
Rise and awaken from the slumber.”
Another great message of Iqbal was his universality and unity and brotherhood of the mankind. For that to happen, Iqbal wanted a revival and not reformation of Islam. He wanted Muslims to be aware of the new challenges. In his opinion, Islamic thought had become stationary since 500 years while knowledge was moving from one place to another. That is why, being liberal, he argued for the acceptance of new trends and modern knowledge but not without checking it out. In his mind, the new world must be created by the evolving ideas and not by bricks and stones. In his view, new thought should be in confirmation by the old values.
When it comes to religion, Iqbal believed that Islam and the Quran is a living thing and has saved Muslims.
So what is Iqbal’s core message;
Obedience to God, develop the self by controlling one’s destiny, develop the natural abilities to service the humanity.
Professor Baqa ended his excellent lecture with this remark:
We need to understand Iqbal ourselves in order to impart this knowledge to others.
After Professor Baqa’s very inspiring lecture, the mike was handed over to the young Iqbal scholar from Norway, Mr. Farhan Shah. He is studying at the Oslo University, under the tutelage of Dr. Safet Bektovic.
MR. Shah spoke on Iqbal’s concept of God and its relevance to the society of today.
A difficult yet timely topic but he tackled it very beautifully. Mr. Shah is working on his Master’s thesis on Iqbal’s theology.
He explained the diversity in the concept of God in various faiths but his starting point was the universality of the concept, whether in private sphere or public discourse, related to natural world or a human being.
The Islamic concept of God is that He is all mighty but supports humans in their endeavours, in rituals or spiritual development.
Iqbal promotes the concept of God as ultimate reality, imminent in time, transcendent and above time. In Iqbal’s view, universe can not be regarded as an incident but a planned yet an ever changing work, thus the concept of God of all knowledge. Iqbal is not a follower of predetermined nature of God but an evolving one, visible as well as invisible.
That opens up possibilities for change as opposed to a fixed reality, which is liable to change. Iqbal’s idea of God is in direct confrontation and a challenge to the classical concept. Iqbal believes that humans can change their destiny by trial and error, by learning but with the divine guidelines. To him, we must employ of reasons according to revelations.
To sum it up, Iqbal’s God does not interfere but asks humans to change the situation by struggling.
There was question and answer session after the lectures.
I also asked few questions of my own, for example;
Can God emancipate humanity and why to restrict God as a glorified king of this planet since science has proved the presence of many universes. If we are free to choose any course of action, why we need God?
After the lunch, dr. theol. Lissi Rasmussen, director of IKS took over took the reigns of the 2nd session. The first speaker of the session was from London. Mr. Ashraf Choudhry spoke on: Iqbal’s message to teachers and educationalists.
He was very frank in his observations and message.
Here are some of his gems;
• Let us be honest. Traditional education does not encourage thinking.
• I believe that is why I am a Muslim.
• Do not refer to Iqbal but consult Quran because that is also Iqbal’s reference point.
• Thinking and reflecting are a must for teachers to prepare their students
• Should we follow Allah or Mullah? Iqbal challenged Mullahs and rebelled against religious monopolists.
• It is a very depressing experience to go to mosque because the Mullah has not moved a bit for centuries. That has hurt the cause of Islam
After Mr. Ashraf Choudhry’s short but crisp views, the floor was offered to the last speaker, Naveed Baig. He is Imam and project manager at National and Herlev Hospitals dealing with ethnic minority patients. He is also vice chair of IKS.
His topic was; Islamic Counselling in Denmark- an example of reformed thoughts in Europe.
Imam Naveed Baig started by explaining the concept of Islamic religious care inside the Danish Health system and why the need arose. In his opinion, the arrival of Muslim communities in sixties and the family structures they represent made it necessary that in the time of sickness, terminal disease or a long stay in hospital, there was some one who could answer the questions, like; life after death, consolation in the time of suffering and also support emotionally and spiritually. Danish system is based on hospital staff professionalism but often they are not able to answer Muslim patients in the time of need.
The responsibility of the spiritual counselor or care giver is meeting the other, where he or she is. Some people think that understanding the other is a sign of weakness but being merciful to others will attain God’s mercy. It is also the job of care givers to remind people that there is much more than what meets the eye.
Many people give up hope but Islam asks not to give up hope and be open to receive God’s mercy.
Imam Naveed Baig reminded the audience that greed and discrimination has split the humanity so there is a dire need to represent solidarity in our lives and show love.
To him, serving humanity was the hallmark of Prophet Mohammad’s life and he showed with his practice that serving God and humanity is the ultimate mission, human beings can aspire to. That is why, we meet our heavens and hell in our daily lives on daily basis right here on this earth.
He finished by reminding that personal mystical experience can be used in our personal relationship by talking to God anytime and any where. This would be good for the reawakening of Muslim heart and mind.
After half day’s intellectual, spiritual and religious conversations and exchange of ideas, I came out with enlightenment as well as more questions swirling in my head.
But I shall keep my questions close to my chest and would discuss it with Mr. Gulam Sabir or Imam Naveed Baig in another setting.
The best part was the coffee discussions and mingling of participants, talking with each other and expressing views that they did not take up during the seminar.
All in all, another very well attended, useful and mind refreshing session under the tutelage of Mr. Gulam Sabir who in spite of his advance age always attends the seminars and shares his wisdom with us all. For that, he deserves all the kudos.