Iqbāl and the Revival of Religious Thought

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In the Name of Allah, the All-beneficent, the All-merciful

All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the worlds, the Creator of all existents. May salutations and peace be upon Allah’s servant, Messenger, beloved, favorite, the keeper of His secret, and the propagator of His message—our Chief, Prophet and Master Abū’l-Qāsim Muḥammad (). I seek refuge in Allah from the accursed Satan.

“O you who have faith! Answer Allah and the Apostle when he summons you to that which will give you life.”[1]

The topic I supposed to discuss here today which is Arba‘īn usaynī (40th day after the event in Karbalā’) was “Union with the Martyrs” because of the fact that today is a day when two [important] events took place and these two events made Arba‘īn as such.

One was the account of arrival of the first formal pilgrims to the shrine of Abū ‘Abd Allāh [Imām al-Ḥusayn] (‘a).[2] That was the day of arrival of Jābir ibn ‘Abd Allāh al-Anṣārī in Karbalā from Medina for visitation [ziyārah]. Another is that in general, ziyārah to Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī (‘a) on this day is accepted. That is, this day is the special day of ziyārah for Abū ‘Abd Allāh (‘a). The arrival of Jābir to visit the holy shrine of Abū ‘Abd Allāh and the tradition of paying homage to him from near and far distance by reciting transmitted salutations are both meant to be in unison with the martyrs.

Initially, I would like to discuss this issue and state the philosophy of ziyārah from near and far distance under the same topic, but this discussion is postponed to another time because during the past few days it was decided in three meetings here in commemoration of the great Islamic reformer Iqbāl of Pakistan that I deliver half an hour of lecture on “Iqbāl and the Revival of Religious Thought” and since the time had passed then, I had requested for resetting it to another time.

Meanwhile, I sensed that the discussion on “Iqbāl and the Revival of Religious Thought” cannot be covered in 30 minutes, and experience has shown that whenever only a short period of time is allotted to such subjects, it generally turns out to be ambiguous, incomplete and incomprehensible. Thus, we said, “Let there be more time allotted in a series of lectures under the theme ‘The Revival of Islamic Thought’. It is the same theme of lectures given by Iqbāl in Pakistan—lectures which were highly academic and socially relevant—and I am supposed to deal with the same theme.

A book of this gentleman is published.[3] It is a collection of his lectures on seven occasions in Pakistan[4] which were apparently delivered in academic settings because the level of these lectures was so high that it makes it improbable to have been given in the general public. They were certainly given in academic gatherings. All of them had the same theme.

Of course, each of these lectures had a particular topic. One might be entitled “Religious Experience”.[5] Another might have had the heading “The Philosophical Test of Religious Experience.”[6] Yet another might have had the topic “Freedom and the Immortality of Human Ego”.[7] One lecture might be titled “The Spirit of Islamic Culture and Civilization”.[8] Another might have been labeled “The Principle of Movement in Islam”.[9] Still another might be known as “Is Religion Possible?”[10] It is said that the last topic is borrowed from [Immanuel] Kant.[11] Finally, a certain lecture dealt with the topic “The Conception of God and the Meaning of Prayer”.[12] Anyway, all of these topics were discussed by Iqbāl under the theme “Revival of Religious Thought”.

I do not want to claim that everything he said about this highly significant theme is devoid of any criticism, or everything about it is what he had said. But considering the fact that he has introduced this theme and discussed its topics to the extent that a thinker could be able to do is indeed worthy of acknowledgment, recognition and appreciation. Today I have to devote more time expounding his words. This discussion has a broad scope and perhaps there will be an opportunity and I will be able to deal with the revival of Islamic thought in other meetings, but at the outset I would like to share to you the salient points of his ideas.

Iqbāl is a person who has gone to Europe and is very familiar with it. He is someone who attains high level of modern education. He is someone who is recognized by the Western world as a thinker, scholar and man of authority. He is not someone who confined himself in a corner in India and imagines something about Europe and then he wants to make criticisms. He has personally seen Europe and closely examined and scrutinized it. He is also very fond of modern knowledge and encourages the Muslim youth to learn modern science. He is not someone who is against modern science or discourages the Muslims from learning it.

Notwithstanding these words of a person who pursued his higher education in Europe, who is well acquainted with Europe and who is well-versed and cognizant of the value of modern knowledge, the foremost thing which draws attention from his words and which he systematically states in his poems is that what is now called ‘European civilization’[13]—the code of European life, the ideals which the European civilization offers to mankind today, the way and custom it teaches to humanity, the morality and mores, and finally the path of Europe today—he considers not only something bad but that which is extremely menacing for humanity in general and the people of Europe in particular. That is, Iqbāl who has gone to Europe and is much familiar with it considers the future of European civilization so much gloomy and perilous. Such words of him are plenty and I would like to read to you what I have written down from his writings in order for us to know what this man says about the civilization of Europe today, to what extent he is pessimistic about the European civilization in spite of his optimism for its knowledge and to what magnitude he warns the people of the East, the Muslims in particular, not to be influenced and lured by the European civilization.

For example, Iqbāl says:

Those whose eyes are blinded by imitation and slavery cannot comprehend the naked truth. How can this half-dead culture and civilization of Europe give a new life to Iran and Arab countries when it is on the verge of death itself?     

He also says: “The most salient feature of modern history is the high speed. With that rate of speed, the Muslim world is psychologically moving toward the West.” He says that the most salient feature of the modern history of these countries is that they are speedily moving toward the West. Then, in a bid to distinguish knowledge from Western civilization, he says: “And in this movement nothing is incorrect or false. In terms of its rational aspect (that is, in terms of the scientific and intellectual aspect only), the European culture is one of the important phases of Islamic culture.”

That is to say, if we only take into account the intellectual and scientific dimension of Europe, there is no problem no matter how far we move toward it, for knowledge is knowledge and the European knowledge is an offshoot and extension of Islamic sciences. European culture in the sense of European knowledge is an extension of Islamic culture: “Our only fear is that the dazzling exterior of the European culture would stand in the way of our movement and prevent us from reaching the real essence of that culture.”

That is to say, “What I am afraid of is that we would only look at what is apparent; we would only look at the natural sciences and technology but fail to see the inward to which humanity leads; that we cannot be able to examine and analyze [things].” In another part of his book, Iqbāl says:

The intellect (‘aql) alone is incapable of saving humanity and the greatest flaw of the European culture is that it wants to save the ship of humanity from perdition through the intellect alone (that is, without consideration of the spirit, conscience, and faith).

He also says: “The exemplariness of Europe can never pose as a dynamic agent in its life.”

The exemplariness of Europe means its idealism; the ideal perfection which the European culture offers to humanity; the principles it formulates; the isms it coins and it imagines that by adopting these isms it can save humanity.

Iqbāl says that these isms have indeed failed to change the essence of Europe, to humanize it, and to push it beyond the stage of empty rhetoric. Simply put, Europe or the European talks a lot about benevolence and humanitarianism in its or his writings and declarations but since they only emanate from the mind or intellect and not from the soul, they are not imprinted in the conscience. The European talks about the human being but he is not humanitarian in practice. The European talks about human rights but in truth and essence, he pays no respect to human beings and their rights. The European talks about freedom within the framework of his isms but in reality, he does not heartily believe in freedom. He talks about justice and equality but in the depth of his conscience he does not abide with justice and equality. Iqbāl thus says:

Its outcome is the emergence of a perplexed “I” (that is, a perplexed spirit). Each of the democracies which are incompatible with each other is in search of itself. Their work is exclusively to benefit from their harvest to the advantage of the affluent.

What is the result of these talks about justice and these conflicting isms that emerged in Europe? It is to benefit from their harvest to the advantage of the affluent.

Iqbāl then says: “Believe me. Today’s Europe is the biggest hurdle to the moral advancement of humanity.”

This is a point in the personality of Sir Iqbāl which he promotes a lot. He likes the Muslims, especially the young Muslims—those who are more or less familiar with the exterior of Western culture—to be aware of this point.

The second point on which he lays much emphasis is that the flaw which exists in the European culture and civilization of today does not exist in the pristine Islamic culture and civilization. The fundamental or basic criticisms that the European culture is merely a materialistic culture cannot be applied to the Islamic culture. As such, elsewhere in his lectures he tries to introduce the essential pillars and merits of the Islamic culture and civilization. Again, I shall read some parts of it so that we can then proceed to the issue of the revival of religious thought. In that part of his lectures, he says thus:

Muslims are the owners of ideas and absolutely perfect ideals based upon revelation (wahī). Since they are expressed from the innermost dimension of life, they give an inward color to their externality. For a Muslim the spiritual foundation of life is something ideological and for the defense of this ideology, he willingly sacrifices his life.     

Let me summarize to you his words. Iqbāl says that what Islam offers to humanity—since its support is religious faith emanating from divine revelation—it can penetrate the innermost spirit of mankind. As it has shown and is showing, it has such power even in the present time.

Thus, if, for example, Islam proposes freedom and liberation; if it proposes justice and humanitarianism; if it proposes human rights, they are proposals which have executive guarantee in the human soul. But what Europe proposes are proposals which are devoid of executive guarantee. Iqbāl is of the opinion that today’s humanity is in need of three things:

  1. A spiritual explanation of the world;
  2. Spiritual freedom of individual; and
  3. Fundamental principles with global influence.                                           1. A spiritual explanation of the world: That is, the foremost thing which is needed by humanity is that the world must be spiritually or religiously explained and not materialistically. The first thing which has caused humanity to wander and because of which no idea or ideology as a real faith will emerge in humanity is materialism. It is the materialistic interpretation of the world—that everything in the world is matter; the world is deaf and blind; the world is senseless; the world is silly or foolish; the world is aimless; the world knows no truth or falsehood; the world does not recognize right and wrong; truth and falsehood are on equal footing in the world; nothing in the world has a purpose and we are created in vain.

Iqbāl says that it is this way of thinking which has damaged and is damaging the spirit of human civilization. The first thing that is urgently needed by mankind is a spiritual explanation of this world.

“Did you suppose that We created you aimlessly?”[14]   

Absurdity has no place in the equation. The world has an Owner and that is God. The world is based on truth. The world is based on justice. Good and bad will not be in vain there. The world is hearing and seeing—“Neither drowsiness befalls him nor sleep.”[15] It is cognizant and intelligent. However, this [spiritual interpretation of the world] alone is not enough.

  1. Spiritual freedom of individual: This is contrary to Christianity. Individual freedom means the recognition of individual’s personal dignity. If man interprets the world spiritually yet his person is not recognized, talents will not bloom.
  2. Fundamental principles with global influence: Fundamental principles with global influence are supposed to justify the perfection of human society on a spiritual basis. These principles are the basic precepts of Islam. More than this, I will not cite example from Iqbālon these two points.

Is Iqbāl like us who go only to this extent? That is, would he just see the flaws and defects of European civilization and consider Islam as his living basis and point of reference and say, “That’s all”? No. One issue which he regards as part of his mission as well as that of any faithful Muslim intellectual refers to the third point. These seven lectures he undertook with the theme “Revival of Religious Thought in Islam” are meant for the third point. Even in his poems his main concern is more or less this very point. Of course, he always addresses the first point.

In the poems recited in these meetings, you can see how much Iqbāl is critical of Muslims’ blind imitation of the Western civilization. Regarding Islam as such and such, in his poems he has expressed everything he should and could express. The third point is: Does the real Islam exist among Muslims today or not?


[1] Sūrat al-Anfāl 8:24. In this volume, the translation of Qur’anic passages is adapted from Sayyid ‘Alī Qulī Qarā’ī, The Qur’an with a Phrase-by-Phrase English Translation (London: Islamic College for Advanced Studies Press, 2004). [Trans.]

[2] The abbreviation, “‘a” stands for the Arabic invocative phrase, ‘alayhi’s-salām, ‘alayhim’us-salām, or ‘alayhā’s-salām [may peace be upon him/them/her], which is mentioned after the names of the prophets, angels, Imāms from the Prophet’s progeny, and saints (‘a). [Trans.]

[3] Its English rendition is Sir Mohammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 1981). [Trans.]

[4] The lectures were actually delivered to a Western educated audience at Madras, Hyderabad, and Aligarh, India. See The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p. v. [Trans.]

[5] “Knowledge and Religious Experience” constitutes the first chapter of The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. [Trans.]

[6] “The Philosophical Test of the Revelations of Religious Experience” constitutes the second chapter of The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. [Trans.]

[7] “The Human Ego—His Freedom and Immortality” constitutes the fourth chapter of The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. [Trans.]

[8] “The Spirit of Muslim Culture” constitutes the fifth chapter of The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. [Trans.]

[9] “The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam” constitutes the sixth chapter of The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. [Trans.]

[10] It constitutes the last chapter of The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. [Trans.]

[11] See Immanuel Kant, A New Exposition of the First Principles of Metaphysical Knowledge (1755), John A. Reuscher (trans.) in Lewis White Beck (ed.). Kant’s Latin Writings: Translations, Commentaries and Notes (New York: Peter Lang, 1986), pp. 57-109; Critique of Pure Reason, 1787 2nd edition, Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (trans.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). [Trans.]

[12] It constitutes the third chapter of The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. [Trans.]

[13] That is, Western civilization in general. [Trans.]

[14] Sūrat al-Mu’minūn 23:115.

[15] Sūrat al-Baqarah 2:255.

Source: Murtada Mutahhari, “The Revival of Islamic Thought,”

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