Muhammad Iqbal and the Centrality of the Qur'an
Farhan A. Shah, Muslim process theologian,
The faculty of theology, University of Oslo
The subject of Iqbal`s connection to the Qur'an -- his understanding of the Qur'an and the manner he utilised it -- requires an elaborate study of its own. However, in the interest of brevity, I will make only a few remarks.
Keeping in mind the vast plethora of Iqbal studies in Pakistan and abroad, it is unfortunate that Iqbal`s intimate relationship with the Qur’an still awaits a comprehensive inquiry. There is no denying the fact that Iqbal was steeped in European and Eastern literature. He has himself expressed appreciation for various Muslim and Western thinkers, and admitted benefiting from the bulk of both Eastern and Western knowledge. In Stray Reflections (2008), Iqbal states the following:
I confess I owe a great deal to Hegel, Goethe, Mirza Ghalib, Mirza Abdul Qadir Bedil and Wordsworth. The first two led me into the “inside” of things; the third and fourth taught me how to remain oriental in spirit and expression after having assimilated foreign ideals of poetry, and the last saved me from atheism in my student days (Iqbal, 2008, 53).
Beside these personalities, we detect in Iqbal`s poetic and prosaic works several other Western and Eastern philosophers and mystics from whom Iqbal benefited: Junayd al-Baghdadi (820-910), Abu Hamid Ghazali (1058-1111), Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273), Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-1624), Shah Waliullah Dehlawi (1703-1762), Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898), Jamaluddin al-Afghani (1838-1897), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), Henri Bergson (1859-1941), and Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), to name a few. This being said, a deeper survey of Iqbal`s life, as well as his poetic and prosaic works, reveals that the fountainhead of his philosophical, economic, sociological, historical, theological, and political thoughts, is the Qur’an. In other words, the raison d`etre of the bulk of his works is the elaboration, commentary, exposition and illumination of the message of God enshrined in the book Iqbal firmly believed to be the source of guidance (Arabic wahy) to humanity en bloc. In this connection, Mir`s remark deserves to be quoted: “The Qur`an, which he recited regularly, was a constant source of inspiration to him; indeed, Iqbal claims that his poetry is no more than an elucidation of the Qur`anic message” (Mir 2008: 3).
With regard to the demand for a research on Iqbal`s relationship to and his apprehension of the Scripture, a step toward this important direction was taken by the late Muslim reformist theologian and Iqbal exponent, Ghulam Ahmed Parwez (1903-1985). In his early twenties, Parwez came under the wing of Muhammad Iqbal, who furnished him with the fundamental guidelines on the methodology of understanding the Qur’an as a “living” Scripture.
A couple of decades later, after the materialisation of Iqbal`s idea of Pakistan, Parwez delivered many speeches on Iqbal`s ideas, including: applying the Qur’anic injunctions on both a private and collective level, his intellectual and spiritual attachment to the Qur’an, and how Iqbal used the core teachings of the Scripture in his philosophical-theological and political reflections. These lectures were later published under the title Iqbal aur Quran (Iqbal and the Quran). The aforementioned Urdu book (Iqbal and the Qur`an) is rather deplorably unknown – in academic and non-academic circles – both in the Muslim and Western worlds. There are a couple of key factors for this obscurity. For the sake of brevity, I will only mention one element. The main factor is the religious-conservative and dogmatic section (religious ulemas) of the Pakistani society. In this connection, a passage from Chawla`s book A Study of Islamic Writings in Pakistan (1990) needs to be cited:
…The other reason why the religious hierarchy of Pakistan opposed Parwez was, as stared earlier, his outspoken advocacy of `Qur`an only` as the basic and the undisputed law-giving authority. If accepted and acted upon (for which purpose the struggle for Pakistan was fought and won and which course is the ultimate destiny of the humanity ---48:28 – Al-Qur`an), it will bring immediate and exhaustive annihilation of the three institutions dubbed by the almighty Allah as the arch enemies of humanity i.e. the Priesthood (the religious exploiters), the Capitalist (the economic exploiters) and the self-styled rulers of the people (the political exploiters) (Chawla 1990, vii).
In Iqbal and Qur`an (1987), we discover several passages which underscores Iqbal`s emotional, intellectual, and spiritual attachment to the Qur’an, the book which served as his fountainhead of inspiration and as the ultimate sanction for his socio-political, ethico-religious ideals. This centrality of the Qur’an supplied Iqbal with insights into its dynamism and multi-layers of meanings (Parwez 1987, 2-5, 89, 147). For Iqbal, the Qur’an serves as the foremost authority for his thoughts. His poetry and reflections orbit around the Qur’an. Writing on Iqbal`s relationship with the Qur’an, Prof. Mustansir Mir states:
Iqbal claims that his poetry revolves around the Qur`an, and says that if his verses have any non-Qur`anic content, then he may not have, on Judgement Day, the privilege of kissing the Prophet`s feet (RB, 168). This statement shows Iqbal`s understanding of his role as a poet: he would use his poetry to expound the Qur`an (Mir 2008, 49).
The poem Mir is referring to, which is also a peremptory statement for viewing Iqbal`s poetic and prosaic bulk as the exegesis of the Qur`an`s basic import, goes as follows:
"If my heart a mirror with no worth is, In my word if anything except the Qur`an is, O Thou who brightens the morning of the ages gone by and speeding Whose eye the innermost recesses of our hearts is penetrating, Dry up the wine in grapes mine, Throw poison in my pure wine Wretched and ignominious on the Judgement Day make me, Deprive me of kissing the feet of the Holy Prophet.: (Khalil, 1996)
Khali, commenting on the sources influencing Iqbal`s thought in relation to his poetical work Call of The Marching Bell (1924), which he also translated into English, notes that Iqbal`s prime criteria for either accepting or discarding external sources was the Qur’an and the effect these external sources exerted upon the well-being and consciousness of the Muslim peoples worldwide. Discussing Iqbal`s critical evaluation of Western thought and knowledge paradigm, Khalil avers: "…He accepted and used what was concordant with the Holy Qur`an and rejected the rest as fallacious. He had done the same with the writings of the Greek and Muslim thinkers. Thus, the benefits he acquired from Western knowledge are in detail and not in principle, whose sources continue to be the Holy Qur`an (Khalil, 1996)."
A good instance of Iqbal`s fidelity to, and deep reading of, the Qur’an (read: Qur`an-centeredness) would be his outright rejection of platonic idealism (Neoplatonism), as it paved the way for the concept of unity of being (Wahdat al-Wujud) in Islamic mysticism, otherwise known as “Sufism”. Furthermore, from the notion of “unity of being” arose the doctrines of fatalism and determinism which, according to Iqbal, worked as forces of decay in Islamic civilization and are diametrically contradictory to the fundamental Qur`anic teachings of human self-determination and human individuality. While discussing the conditions of the Muslim East with their technique of medieval mysticism, Iqbal, in his book Reconstruction, asserts: “…Far from reintegrating the forces of the average man`s inner life, and thus preparing him for participation in the march of history, it has taught him a false renunciation and made him perfectly contented with his ignorance and spiritual thralldom” (Iqbal 2012, 148-149).
It is also worthy of our attention to observe few remarks of Robert Whittemore regarding the central role the Qur’an plays in Iqbal`s thought, and of Iqbal being firmly rooted in the Muslim context, despite the fact that his philosophical importance transcends the world of Islam. Whittemore, in his article “Iqbal`s Panentheism” (1956), discusses Iqbal`s basic ideas of a philosophical-theological nature, especially his panentheism. Muhammad Iqbal`s sojourn to England and Germany opened the door for him to become deeply conversant with the West and its intellectual heritage, from Plato to Henri Bergson. He discarded a great deal in the former, and accepted a good deal from the latter. According to Whittemore, Nietzsche, Wundt, Lotze, and William James all left their mark upon Iqbal`s intellectual thought-process. However, argues Whittemore, “this is not to imply that Iqbal is merely another Asiatic turned western eclectic. For Ghazzali and Rumi also have been his teachers, the Prophet and the Qur’an his constant source of inspiration” (Whittemore, 1956). After discussing the various dimensions of Iqbal`s God notion, Whittemore goes on to assert: "…his work is, from first to last, the work of a muslim. At every point he is at pains to indicate his conviction that his teaching is in all respects harmonious with the spirit and the teaching of the Qur`an. He speaks and writes always from a standpoint within Islam (Whittemore, 1956)."
In order to emphasize Iqbal`s work being “from first to last, the work of a muslim”, he cites a stanza from Iqbal`s poem The Response to The Complaint (Jawab-i-Shikwah), which goes as following: “To my Muhammad be but true, And thou hast conquered me. The world is naught; thou shalt command My pen of Destiny” (ibid.)
The above-mentioned stanza is a part of a larger poem, and is complementary to another poem entitled The Complaint, in which Iqbal expresses his discontent, complaining to God for the wretched condition of the Muslim peoples worldwide and their intellectually and materially stagnant societies, riddled with discords. In the poem The Response to The Complaint (to which the stanza belongs), Iqbal reveals the answer “given by God” to the Muslim peoples. The gist of this poem is related to Muslims who, by distancing themselves from the message of the Qur’an, and the earthly career of the Prophet (whose life is a paradigm for Muslims), ceased to play an active part on the stage of human history, thus suffered from self-created ignorance, monasticism, escapism, political subjugation and mental thralldom.
In this connection, I would like to add another line of Iqbal which makes apparent his essentially Qur’an-centered voice. Addressing the Islamic world in one of his Persian poems, Iqbal says: “O Muslim, if you want to live (with honour), It is not possible to do so without (adhering to) the Quran (Zaman, 1995).
To recapitulate, although Iqbal became steeped in the western intellectual heritage, and was thoroughly conversant with (classical) Islamic philosophical and sufistic personages, for him, the Qur’an was the centerpiece of his reconstructionist ideas expressed in prose and poetry. The Scripture was for Iqbal the deepest source of repair, which he employed in order to infuse new life into the moribund Muslim communities. In the words of Mustansir Mir: "…Both intellectually and emotionally, he [Iqbal] was devoted to the ideals of Islam, which his early training had inculcated in him, and this devotion only grew with time, until his thought, as he himself remarks, became completely `Qur`anicized» (Mir 2008: 13, sic).
It is hoped that this brief paper sheds light upon Iqbal`s appeal to the Quran as the foremost source of intellectual and spiritual guidance, which worked in Iqbal`s life as an inner calling toward compassion, wisdom, justice, unity and biocentric humanism.
If rightly understood, the Qur’an is, according to an Iqbalian process perspective, “a set of basic principles of a universal import directing the evolution of human society on a spiritual basis”. It is a guide to planetary well-being, a book of “radical transformation” in human attitudes and loyalties, from parochial and debasing interests to methods and motives committed to the enlargement of our altruistic and humane tendencies, thus including all communities of life. Moreover, the failure to study Iqbal`s intimate connection with the Quranic scripture is part of the greater ignorance from which his profound and holistic reflection, particularly that propounded in his Reconstruction, has suffered through misinterpretation, manipulation and an atomistic reading. Perhaps someday in the future, a Muslim writer on Iqbal, one who is genuinely interested in the topic, might carry Iqbal`s revolutionary understanding of the Quran further. I am sure that Muhammad Iqbal would have been pleased.
 To this statement, I wish to add that most of Iqbal`s works of a prosaic nature (especially The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam) are also, to a high degree, an elucidation and exposition of the central Qur’anic themes.
 The above stated passage is a part of the publisher`s note written by the late Mohammad Omar Draz. He was the Chief Executive of Annoor Printers & Publishers and the Vice Executive Head of Tolu-e-Islam Trust in 1990.
 G. A. Parwez`s theological stance reminds us of the Latin phrase sola scriptura in Christian tradition, which stands for the Bible as the only authoritative and God-breathed scripture for the faith-praxis of Christian peoples.
 M.A.K. Khalil is retired from the Canadian Forestry Service.
 Robert C. Whittemore (1921-?) is an associate professor affiliated with Tulane University, USA.