by Luke Wilkinson

Know, then, ’tis the connecting thread of days
That stitches up thy life’s loose manuscript;
This selfsame thread sews us a shirt to wear,
Its needle the remembrance of old yarns. [. . .]
Thy present thrusts its head up from the past,
And from thy present shall thy future stem.
If thou desirest everlasting life,
Break not the thread between the past and now
And the far future. What is life? A wave
Of consciousness of continuity,
A gurgling wine that flames the revellers.

—Muhammad Iqbal, Rumuz-i Bekhudi (1918)

Temporality and eternality, history and philosophy, mysticism and theology—there are many dialectical couplets that Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) weaves together in these few lines of Persian verse. This may seem surprising to many who have heard Iqbal’s name, which is frequently followed by the title of “father of Pakistan.” Iqbal, however, is also known among many Muslims in South Asia and Iran for his Urdu and Persian poetry and in certain corridors of the English-speaking academy has been regarded as a philosopher in his own right for over a century (the above poem was translated and published by a Cambridge orientalist in 1920). This led to a plethora of books on Iqbal’s philosophy, which focus upon his poetry and his most systematic work of philosophy, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1934). Less discussed in these works are the insights that Iqbal provided on the relationship between faith, history, and philosophy.

Iqbal was born in 1877 in the Punjab in modern-day Pakistan to a devout Muslim family. His early years were suffused with the Qur’an—being illiterate, his father placed great emphasis upon reciting and reflecting upon God’s word. He completed a BA and an MA at Lahore Government College from 1895 to 1904. He then spent two years at Trinity College, Cambridge, studying Moral Sciences, then the name for philosophy between 1905 and 1907. After a brief stint in Germany, he returned to India to write a series of poems for which he became well-known. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, he became increasingly involved in safeguarding Muslim sovereignty in colonial India—though never advocating for the idea of “Pakistan”—and delivered lectures on the contemporary status of Islam, which would be compiled into The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (hereafter: Reconstruction). He fell ill in 1934, his health gradually declining until his death in 1938.

When Iqbal attended Lahore Government College in the Punjab in 1895, the problem of decline was antagonizing Muslim intellectuals in India. According to Islam, God had sent one final messenger to guide humanity back to a God-conscious way of life. Although this had initially resulted in the startling success of Islamic empires, the followers of the last prophet were now confronted by decay. Most of the global Muslim population lived under direct European colonialism, while the few remaining Islamic empires experienced economic imperialism. As Gai Eaton demonstrates, Islamic theology traditionally understands God as possessing full knowledge of the destiny of all mankind, rendering historical development a reflection of God’s will. For Muslims, then, the decline of Islamic civilization and the dazzling growth of post-Enlightenment Europe posed a metaphysical question. Was God punishing Muslims for their dwindling commitment to His last revelation? Was the decline of Islam therefore willed by God—a fact that would define Islam until the Day of Judgement?

These deep metaphysical anxieties among Muslims from the nineteenth century onwards were only deepened by the European understanding of Islam. In India, Britain expanded across what had previously been the territory of the Mughal Empire throughout the eighteenth century. Orientalists like Sir William Jones outlined a periodization of Indian history that classified the Muslim period of Mughal rule as primarily static and inflexible, which had resulted in contemporary Indian backwardness. The British sought to change the static outlook of India’s Muslims through a rigorous education in Enlightenment philosophy and the sciences. During Iqbal’s later life, this characterization partly continued in European philosophy: the German thinker, Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), explained the static nature of Islamic civilization in the modern day by comparing the inherent “Magian” spirit of Islam, which submitted to authority and rejected the importance of the world, with the Faustian mind of the West, which bravely threw itself into the expanse of the natural world.

Confronted by the alleged decay of Islam, and by a European analysis that deemed their religion innately prone to decline in the modern age, Muslim intellectuals sought to find means of repair. Two of Iqbal’s mentors while at Lahore Government College, the Islamic historian Shibli Numani (1857-1914) and the British orientalist Thomas Walker Arnold (1864-1930), were crucial here. Both employed a historical perspective to demonstrate that Islam was not innately static: Numani worked on historical biographies of key figures in the Islamic past, while Arnold challenged the British understanding of Islam as a monolithic culture. Through many meetings from 1898 to 1904 in Lahore, Numani and Arnold convinced Iqbal that the decline of Islam could be explained historically and that the repair of Islam could be sought by holding together Islamic and British philosophy.

Meanwhile, the relationship between history, philosophy, and faith was being radically re-drawn in Europe. As Michael Rosen has recently argued, Kant and Hegel distanced God from the historical process; history itself became the whole out of which man emerged and through which, by making his own small contribution to this supra-individual evolution, he acquired meaning.

While the past was granted increased philosophical significance, the study of its subject-matter drew increasingly from the sciences. The truth of past events could be located via an objective, empirical search through the sources of the period, as the German historian Leopold von Ranke asserted near the end of the century. With an empirically grounded understanding of the exact events of the past, we could understand our own position within the grand historical process. As Friedrich Nietzsche emphasized, modern Europe still slumbered under Judeo-Christian culture, which sanctified a rejection of this world for the next. The new science of history was focused upon locating empirical truth, which could only be found in this world. God, or the Absolute—which, for Hegel, had pervaded history and endowed it with meaning—could no longer form part of the subject matter for any serious historian. Theology had been severed from philosophy and history.

Iqbal himself witnessed these changes to history and philosophy during his time at Cambridge. In contemporary philosophy at Cambridge, the empiricism of the sciences was beginning to influence philosophical thinking. While British idealists, who lectured Iqbal on Kant and Hegel, expanded Hegel’s notion of the Absolute as the only reality, the philosopher G. E. Moore critiqued this approach in 1903 by asserting that external objects existed independently of our consciousness. This hard-nosed realism encouraged increasing “religion-baiting” among students at Cambridge.

Meanwhile, in the lectures Iqbal attended on politics, the emerging field of the history of political thought at Cambridge called for the importance of understanding ideas in their own historical setting. This in many ways applied the contemporary realism in philosophy to the history of ideas: it excised the perspective of the subjective historian who tarnished the original meaning of ideas, redirecting attention to the ideas themselves. This led to a corresponding secular focus in history. Iqbal’s lecturer, Thomas Thornely (1855-1949), argued for the importance of understanding political ideas historically while stressing the need to dispense with a theological perspective—the latter could only believe in the “utter worthlessness” of politics.

In his diaries written shortly after Cambridge, Iqbal seems interested in the debates in philosophy and history—convinced by the benefits of the history of political thought—but despairs at the secular nature of such ideas. For Iqbal, it must have seemed the empirical focus in philosophy and history had bleached the aroma of anything that resembled the eternal.

From 1929 to 1932, Iqbal delivered a series of English-spoken lectures that would be published in 1934 as the Reconstruction. Iqbal had two central audiences in mind when delivering these lectures. The first were the Muslims of India, who composed the physical audience for the first six lectures that Iqbal gave at several Muslim universities in India between 1929 and 1930. The second were European intellectuals—embodied by the British philosophers who listened to the seventh lecture of Iqbal’s Reconstruction, “Is Religion Possible?,” delivered at the Aristotelian Society in 1932. These two audiences relate to the questions that pervaded the two phases of Iqbal’s education: the question of decline during his studies at Lahore and the challenge of the secular that he encountered while at Cambridge. To his Indian audience, he seeks to explain and repair the decline of Islam. To his European audience, he attempts to offer a response to the domination of the sciences in philosophy and history, which had excised faith.

Across the lectures, Iqbal sketches a history of Islamic thought that demonstrates its decline in the modern era was not innate to its essence—as recent European observers like Spengler had argued. Citing the twelfth-century Sufi mystic, Suhrawardi, Iqbal makes a three-fold distinction of man’s sources of knowledge: reason, sense, and dhawq (the direct experience of God). Iqbal applies a contextually-driven analysis to the thought of al-Ghazali, whom he compares to Kant in his “apostolic” influence over contemporary philosophy. Iqbal demonstrates that Islamic thought during al-Ghazali’s life was dominated by Greek philosophy, which had led to an over-emphasis on a priori reason. This had led to a purely “negative” conception of God, preventing the opportunity of religious experience. In response, al-Ghazali drew a clear line between reason and religious experience, elevating mystical insight over reason as a source of knowledge. Iqbal then traces how al-Ghazali’s philosophical skepticism was thereafter radicalized by mystical strands in Islam—Islamic thought became purely about the internal relationship with God, neglecting the senses and the intellect. Here, Iqbal introduces two categories that recur throughout Reconstruction: permanence, or God, and change, which, as will be seen below, means for Iqbal both the experience of constant change in nature and developments across historical time. Iqbal underlines how the inward turn after al-Ghazali’s philosophical skepticism produced a focus upon permanence that took no notice of change. This led to the “exclusion of all innovations” in Islamic law, which froze Islamic society, leading to its contemporary decline. By drawing together the focus upon the history of Islamic philosophy that he imbibed at Lahore with the Cambridge emphasis upon context, Iqbal therefore shows to Muslims that decline was not innate to Islam itself but rather the result of a past philosophical turn.

Shifting his gaze to Europe, Iqbal unpicks the dangerous consequences of the secular turn in philosophy and history. Having witnessed the distancing of God from the two disciplines himself while at Cambridge, Iqbal returned to Europe for several trips between 1930 and 1932, even meeting Mussolini in 1932. He was struck by the stark turn in politics in Europe. In Reconstruction, he diagnoses the problem with his categories of permanence and change. Iqbal argues that, given the insufficient modern philosophical understanding of the true permanence of “spiritual origin,” political thought across Europe attached permanence to the false idol of “earth-rootedness.” As the “earth” only gave the illusion of permanence, European “political science” relied upon the “psychological forces of hate, suspicion, and resentment,” producing the political ideologies of “atheistic socialism” and nationalism.

Via his history of religious thought across the Reconstruction, Iqbal demonstrates to his European readers the historical contingency of the splitting of faith from philosophy and history. He shows that Kant was writing during a period in which utilitarianism had become widespread in contemporary Germany, challenging the dogmas of religion. To rectify this situation, Iqbal argued that Kant in Critique of Pure Reason (1781) sought to demonstrate the “limitations of human reason” by connecting our sense-perception to pure concepts. Although this would ultimately produce the notion of practical reason that grounded Kantian ethics, Iqbal shows how, in making this move, Kant had to reject the possibility of directly knowing God, whose existence was beyond our sense-perception. Contrasting Kant to al-Ghazali, Iqbal shows that Kant’s connection of sense-perception to conceptual knowledge had required the opposite move: the sacrifice of religious experience, or dhawq. In subsequent European philosophy, this had produced a narrow focus upon empirical change at the expense of acknowledging the permanence of God behind that change. Having revealed to his listeners that Kant had sacrificed religious experience in reaction to a particular context, Iqbal highlighted the contingency of the secular turn in modern philosophy. This, Iqbal states, releases the opportunity to “reverse” Kant’s “assumption that all experience other than the normal level of experience is impossible.” Such a reversal would force the European moderns to reconsider the true meaning of permanence, untangling the ideological turn in European political thought.

So, how can Muslims repair their decline? And how might Europeans rediscover faith? Through his history of Islam across the lectures of Reconstruction, Iqbal seeks to draw together the exclusive focus on permanence in Islam and the narrow obsession with change in modern European philosophy. Re-interpreting the Islamic tradition in reference to modern positivism, he highlights that the drive of modern European science could be traced back to the Qur’an. In his careful reconstruction of Islamic thought, Iqbal shows that the Qur’an was “anti-classical.” The Qur’an ruptured the idealism of contemporary Greek thought: instead of locating the highest form of Truth in the non-empirical realm of the Forms, the Qur’an instead repeatedly called upon its readers to recognize that God’s essence was manifest in nature. Recite the following words of the Qur’an: “With the rain He produces for you various crops, olives, palm trees, grapevines, and every type of fruit. Surely in this is a sign for those who reflect.” For this reason, science had truly taken off in the Islamic world: by experimenting upon nature, one came closer to the permanent Oneness that resided within, and beyond, it. Through combining the two phases of his education, Iqbal navigated a Qur’anic path between the realism and idealism he had encountered at Cambridge to show the harmony of empiricism and faith.

Aware of the scientific nature of modern history, and its excising of God, Iqbal unpacks the link between the role of science and history in Islam. In man’s most recent intellectual development, which Iqbal, citing Comte, labels the “scientific stage,” the study of history had become closely related to the scientific positivism of the age. In other words, just like the scientist, the modern historian studied change, neglecting the permanent. By contrast, a crucial element of the Qur’anic emphasis upon observing God’s signs in nature, Iqbal argues, involves the witnessing of change across time. Iqbal commands us to reflect upon another verse from the Qur’an: “Do you not see that Allah causes the night to merge into the day and the day into the night?.” Building upon thisverse, Iqbal reminds us of the words Muhammad addressed to his companions: “Do not vilify time, for time is God.” As the witnessing and explanation of change across historical time is the ultimate focus of any historian, Iqbal underlines how faith and history did overlap in the best historians of the Islamic tradition. For Iqbal, the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) was able to realize the Qur’anic conception of time in The Muqaddimah, his magnum opus. As Iqbal argues in Reconstruction, Ibn Khaldun based his historiographical method upon a different theory of time which recognized “continuous, collective movement” and critiqued the Greek conception of time as either “unreal” or moving “in a circle.” Through emulating his mentors in Lahore, Iqbal carefully reconstructs Islamic historiography to show both his European and Muslim readers that faith and history can co-exist.  

In Reconstruction, Iqbal sought to offer a solution to the plight of the Muslim and the European in the twentieth century. They are simultaneous endeavors that overlap with one another across the lectures. Such a technique may seem unnecessarily bewildering to the reader or listener; left struggling to discern whether they are in fact the desired audience for a given analysis of certain past ideas. This however produces the desired effect: an intermingling of Islamic, British, and European philosophy. This is not dewy-eyed cosmopolitanism—having himself experienced the conflict of his two pedagogical experiences at Lahore and Cambridge, Iqbal invites us to personally live through with him the uncomfortable process of intellectual fusion. What emerges is a history of religious thought that first operates as critique, using context to unpick the historical turns in Islam and European philosophy that led to the separation of permanence and change. Iqbal then offers a history of ideas that reconstructs lost Islamic ideas in reference to the positivism of the modern age. In this way, Iqbal writes a history of ideas that shows the eternal could co-exist with an attention to contextual change. By reading Iqbal we inhabitants of the secular might perhaps recover our own faith, via history.

Luke Wilkinson is a Contributing Editor at the Journal of the History of Ideas Blog. He has recently graduated in the Political Thought and Intellectual History MPhil at the University of Cambridge in November 2023 with a Distinction. In his thesis on Muhammad Iqbal, he attempts to reveal the complex relationship between Islamic philosophy and intellectual history. He has also written and lectured on Iranian intellectual history, the relationship between psychoanalysis and intellectual history, and Mediterranean politics. He is hoping to continue for PhD at the University of Cambridge, working on Mediterranean intellectual history and Muslim-Christian relations.

Edited by Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Cordoba Mosque, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.