193 - All for One and One for All: Muḥammad 'Abduh and Muḥammad Iqbāl

Posted on 12 October 2014

Muḥammad 'Abdūh and Muḥammad Iqbāl challenge colonialism and the traditional religious scholars of Islam.

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Further Reading

• M. Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (London: 1934).

 

• U. Günther, “Mohammed Arkoun: Towards a Radical Tethinking of Islamic Thought,” S. Taji-Farouki (ed.), Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an (London: 2004), 125-67.

• C. Hillier and B. Koshul (eds), Muhammad Iqbal: Essays on the Reconstruction of Modern Muslim Thought (Edinburgh: 2015).

• M.H. Kerr, Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muammad ʿAbduh and Rashīd Rıā (Berkeley: 1966).

• H. Malik (ed.), Iqbal the Poet-Philosopher of Pakistan (New York: 1971).

• A. Schimmel, Gabriel’s Wing: a Study into the Religious Ideas of Sir Muhammad Iqbal (Leiden: 1963).

• M. Sedgwick, Muhammad Abduh (Oxford: 2010).

• I.S. Sevea, The Political Philosophy of Muhammad Iqbal (Cambridge: 2012).

• R. Zakaria, Iqbal: The Poet and Politician (New Delhi: 1994).

Comments

Omar 14 October 2014

Since this is my first comment on your site, let me first thank you for your excellent podcast. I was interested in philosophy for a while but since it was not my active area of study, I did not know where or how to start. Your podcast is single-handedly responsible for educating me about philosophy.

Now, to the actual question. You have successfully convinced me that the popular conception of a sudden decline in Islamic intellectual output after the middle-ages is a myth. However, I am not so convinced that there was no decline at all, specially in the later stages of Islamic civilizations and as we approach modernity. This is not to say that Muslim scholars (or scholars from Islamic lands, Muslim or otherwise) had nothing interesting or original to say, but that the centers of intellectual activity became increasingly scarce in Islamic lands.

The impression of decline is particularly hard for me to shake off since I come from Pakistan, and it seems impossible for me to accept that there has been no intellectual decline in Islamic civilization, as I see the evidence to the contrary all around me. Pakistan may try to claim Iqbal, but modern Pakistani society would probably charge him for blasphemy (as it has done to at least two professors over the last few years) if he was alive to express his reformist ideas today.

To be sure, there are many great scholars from Islamic countries but they often study and research away from their homelands. Does this not qualify as a form of decline, when a country can no longer offer its intellectuals any good reason to stay?

Would you disagree that this sort of decline has taken place? Or am I falling into the age old trap of romanticizing the past and demonizing the present?

That's an excellent question, and a really good answer would require a more thorough knowledge of 19-20th century Islamic intellectual history than I have. As you basically say, the myth I was most interested in combatting was the supposed decline following Averroes (or so) i.e. from the 13th century onward. I haven't said much on the podcast, if anything, about whether we should think there has been a more recent decline, starting in (say) the 18th or 19th centuries. That would make a fair amount of sense, since this is when the major empires (Ottomans, Mughals, Safavids) collapsed and became dominated by colonial powers. On the other hand my sense from what I have learned in doing the podcast is that it has been more a change in the kind of philosophy being done (e.g. with more influence from recent European thought), than a general intellectual collapse. You might actually want to reserve judgment until the last episode in this series on the Islamic world, which will be an interview about 20th century Islamic philosophy - as you'll hear there are a heck of a lot of names to get through and activity to describe.

The other thing that we need to bear in mind is that what goes for one region or country may not hold true for another, just because both countries are majority Muslim. So I would be very wary of generalizing about a "decline" across all Muslim societies in any period, including the most recent century or two.

This is my first time on this website.  The first thing I've read hear is the above comments referring to someone claiming that there has been no decline of Islamic cultures.  I would like to read his original comments showing that there has been no decline and would appreciate it if someone could direct me to it.  Nevertheless, I could not disagree more that there has been no decline.  Muslim cultures have been steadily declining from not too long after the advent of Islam and this decline is manifest in the present time.  I cannot see a sphere of thought in which the Muslim society has not fallen behind in.  According to the UN half of world Muslim population is illiterate.  No more than a percantage is adequately educated and hardly a few can make independent inquiries using the resources available to them in challenging and investigating the doctrines the society presents to them. 

Peter Adamson 5 March 2020

In reply to by Abdal Miah

Obviously this is a complex issue. This series is about the history of philosophy, not all of Islamic civilization so to some extent the question you are raising is much broader than is relevant here. I think the discussion goes back to my episode 171 and then the whole series, which is really intended to demonstrate that there was plenty of philosophical activity in the Islamic world after the 12th century or so - according to an older and still popularly believed historiographic approach, philosophy basically ended then in the 12th century. Pretty much no one in the field now takes that seriously though, and this third part of the series on the Islamic world is devoted to going through the many authors and texts that can be found post-12th century. It may be that the "decline" you have in mind is much more recent and only dates back to, say, the collapse of the Ottoman empire over the 19th century.

Ahmed 15 October 2014

Thanks Peter! Been waiting a long time for this episode on Iqbal, the first Pakistani philosopher (if I may stretch the facts a little to call him that, in line with the true spirit of nationalism, lol).

It might also be worth noting generally (and you of course mentioned this in passing), that Iqbal acquired a fame for his poetry (not only in Pakistan and India, but very much so in some other Muslim countries such as Iran as well) and for his political contributions (mainly in Pakistan) unmatched by his reputation as a philosopher. Also, the status he enjoys as the intellectual father of a modern nation-state (how accurate that portrayal is, is another matter) is probably unmatched by any other living or dead philosopher. (Perhaps Peter can correct me on this one?) Anyway, it was great to listen to a podcast on the man on whose poems so many Pakistanis like me grew up! Thanks again!

P.S. A quote of Iqbal's that probably sums him up perfectly: "Nations are born in the hearts of poets; they prosper and die in the hands of politicians."

You're right, maybe I should have laid more emphasis on that - the stuff I read on Iqbal of course talked a lot about his poetry but I steered towards the philosophy, which makes sense for the podcast but it would be misleading to think of him as a philosopher who wrote some poetry and did some activism on the side! Anyway I'm glad you didn't spot any glaring errors, Iqbal was totally new for me. I really loved reading up on him.

Great quote by the way, what is the citation? I might put it in the book version.

I don't know the citation for the quote unfortunately (it's just generally attributed to him), but I'll try and look for it and let you know if I find it.

As for any errors, I can't claim to know enough about Iqbal's philosophy to critique someone else's presentation of it, but even if I did, I'm sure you did as much justice to it as can be done in a 20-odd minute podcast, part of which also dealt with another important thinker. So I'm sure no-one will have any complains on that front. Of course what you mentioned in passing about his views on nationalism seems to be a contentious issue even among those who know his work intimately, and the matter is further complicated by the implications of the issue on present-day politics in Pakistan.

Btw, if you don't mind a bit of poetry (and that too frequently flavored with strong religious zeal), I'd recommend Iqbal's "Payam-e-Mashriq", or "Message of the East." He mentions at the start that it was inspired by Goethe's "West-ostlicher divan", which is interesting. One of my favourite parts of the Payam is towards the end, where he gives his take on some major philosophers and scientists, including Nietzsche and Einstein. Worth reading, even in translation.

roman prychidko 15 October 2014

Hi Peter
Subject to your upcoming pod cast it is difficult not to see the three Muhammad's as representing a golden age of Islam in the late 19th and early 20th century.A piecemeal approach to oneness incorporating all elements of society and sciences. Currently al-Ghazali seems to be winning the day with his concept of apostates.

Roman

Hassan 23 December 2014

I am an avid listener of your history of philosophy podcasts. I think you have done a very good job of covering different eras of philosophy and for a person with not much background in philosophy these lectures or podcasts are very informative. I want to ask a question from you which popped up in my mind when I was listening episodes from philosophy is Islamic world, it might be possible that you have the answer for it. I was once listening to a lecture of a very impressive and knowledgeable Islamic scholar, his name is Javed Ahmad Ghamdi, and he is from Pakistan. He said in this lecture that one of the causes of demise of the Islamic world after 15th or 16th century was that too many of its brilliant and intelligent people spent or wasted their time on metaphysics and on philosophy, they discussed and indulged in issues which were out of the understanding of humans like how to reach or get closer to God or they kept on repeating the old philosophical stuff from the previous centuries. At the same time Europe started reformation of Christianity and later came the era of Enlightenment whereas the Muslim word kept producing the same stuff or thought again and again. According to Ghamdi the lack of interest in mathematics, natural sciences, engineering or humanities was one of the major factors of the downfall of the Islamic world. I want to ask from you that do you agree with Ghamdi's point of view that too much indulgence in philosophy and metaphysics turned out to be a bad thing for Muslims? Was the philosophy of the Muslim world after the 15th century too much static, repetitive and concentrated on mystical elements which might not have any use for the real world? What's your opinion about it?

What I know is that at least the Muslim religious thought (specifically the Sunni Muslim tradition) is very static since many centuries now, Muhammad Iqbal pointed out this fact in his famous lecture 'Reconstruction Of Religious Thought In Islam' with these words "Repetition of same thoughts is like having no thoughts at all" and he told us that old religious ideas are being repeated in the Islamic world for many centuries.

Hi, thanks for your kind words about the podcast and for your question. I think the main objection to this explanation of the supposed "demise" or "decline" of the Islamic world is that it just isn't true that Islamic scholars stopped engaging in mathematics and science. To the contrary you find continuity in sciences like astronomy. This idea that mysticism overwhelmed everything else in the early modern era is a myth originally perpetuated by European scholars, I suspect, and unfortunately sometimes repeated even by Muslim scholars like the one you mention. If anything the problem was that Muslim intellectuals continued along the same paths of scientific endeavor as they had been pursuing in the so-called "golden age" of Islam, rather than staging a scientific revolution as happened in Europe. So, my opinion is that the thing to explain is not "why was there a scientific decline in Islam" - because there wasn't - but "why was there a scientific revolution in Europe, which didn't happen anywhere else?" We'll have to talk about that when we get to it in the podcast, but for this reason I think the whole narrative of decline in Islam is wrong-headed in the first place, so there is nothing to explain.

Mehnaz 26 December 2014

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Hello everyone, I would like to add to Peter's reply. Scholars like Ghamdi and others from this particular school of thought are what I would define as 'literalists'. Their version of Islam is supposed to 'rational' and quite 'temporal' in hue as they look at problems of human existence not from a metaphysical but from a materialistic angle. These scholars mostly come from the Wahhabi strand of Islamic thought. I read a similar argument in a Western based Muslim intellectual (I'm forgetting his name) who said that throughout Muslim history, the most brilliant young men in the Islamic world had wasted their talent in mysticism and metaphysics! The simplistic explanations of Islam, its metaphysics and history that come from this school of thought always take a confrontational perspective with respect to Islam's relation with the West through history. However, as Peter has pointed out, Islamic thought never 'stopped' in the literal sense of the word. Rather, Islamic scholarship has tended to stay its traditional course rather than take off into scientific and technological development. I think the reason for this consistency is historical. Some historians have pointed out that the Islamic world did not understand its relation with the rest of the world as a competition. The Islamic empires took their supposed superiority of culture etc for granted. and here what happened to the West may also be relevant.
Among so many other factors that influenced the Renaissance and Enlightenment, contact with Islamic thought, especially Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and the political threat perceived by western kingdoms from Islamic empires may have spurred the west to exploit natural resources to fortify their societies and lands. In other words, science and technology, and consequent social reform, may have been a result of (among other factors) west's competitive drive to overcome the threat of Islamic dominance in Europe. and this competitiveness is quite evident in the western attitudes today, where the theory of clash of civilizations becomes a reality in protracted wars throughout the Muslim lands where the west is party in one way or another.

Hoom 15 December 2016

Actually we didn't need to wait this long to discover how common Muhammad is as given name :) From quickly googling the people discussed in this podcast, the given names of al-Ghazali, Averroes, Ibn Arabi and al-Farabi were apparently Muhammad too (although additionally most of them have some kind of Abu XXX name, which I think can't have beeen given names). Which makes me wonder whose names weren't Muhammad (I did find some, e.g. Avicenna, al-Kindi, Suhrawardi)

Yes, good point! I missed a trick not pointing that out.

As you probably know, but others may not, Abu xxx of course means "Father of xxx" (just as Ibn xxx means "Son of X"). However I understand that son-less men were sometimes called Abu Whatever anyway as a sign of respect so you can't definitely infer the existence of the child from the name.

Muhammed Chang 16 March 2018

Nietzsche and Islam, there is one pairing I never expected to see. I'd assume that Nietzsche would present a problem for Muslim thinkers, particularly a Rumi lover like Iqbal; remember that Rumi was one of the 'annahilation of the self' types. Iqbal was initially enamoured by Ibn Arabi (aren't we all at some point?) but seemed to abandon that metaphysical system for one seems eerily reminisecent of Shah Wali Allah's. I'm wondering though, don't the 'stick to the virtues' attitude of many historic Islamic thinkers come into conflict with the self-making overman? How did Iqbal account for this, if he did so at all? It really just seems that Iqbal saw in Nietzsche a powerful critic of Christianity, while the latter, as far as we know, saw Islam through a romantic/orientalist lens: an anti-christian hedonistic cult of an 7th century Arabian ubermensch. Iqbal's Nietzschean Islam, another fascinating example of the porous boundry between the secular and the religious in the Islamic world.  

Yes, I was struck by that too. I am not a big Iqbal expert, but I think what he really liked about Nietzsche were the negative aspects of the latter's works, i.e. what he criticized. So for instance Iqbal wrote that “Islam, recognizing the contact of the ideal with the real, says ‘yes’ to the world of matter and points the way to master it with a view to discover a basis for a realistic regulation of life.” Not sure exactly whether that is a convincing view but it makes the point that the inspiration had to do with Nietzsche's rejection of asceticism, a current within Islam that Iqbal strongly disliked; for example he attacked ascetic Sufism and the idea of annihilation as a corruption that had been influenced by Buddhism.

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