MUHAMMAD IQBAL'S CONCEPT OF SPIRITUAL DEMOCRACY
Muslim philosopher, Process Theologian
MA from the faculty of theology, University of Oslo
According to Muhammad Iqbal, since the religious ideal of Islam is organically related to a social order, the idea of an Islamic state is “an endeavour to transform these ideal principles into space-time forces, an aspiration to realize them in a definite human organization” (Iqbal 2012, 122-123). This ambition—to actualise the broad humanistic principles—is coined by Iqbal as “spiritual democracy”. States Iqbal: “Let the Muslim of today appreciate his position, reconstruct his social life in the light of ultimate principles, and evolve out of the hitherto partially revealed purpose of Islam, that of spiritual democracy, which is the ultimate aim of Islam” (Iqbal 2012, 142, emphasis added). The Iqbalian concept of an Islamic state based on spiritual democracy needs unpacking. Let us firstly examine his idea of (early) Islamic democracy.
Early Islamic democracy
In his paper “Political ideal in Islam” (1908), Iqbal traces historical facts to show that the structure of Islamic law and ethics is grounded on the ideal of human individuality. He asserts, “…anything which tends to repress the healthy development of individuality is quite inconsistent with the spirit of Islamic law and ethics (Iqbal, 1908). In addition, he also shows how the earlier Islamic Caliphs were elected by the people, and if found incapable in their capacity to materialise the principles of equality before the law, human freedom, and election, could be forfeited by the masses. Hence states Iqbal, “…the Muslim Commonwealth is based on the absolute equality of all Muslims in the eye of the law. There is no privileged class, no priesthood, no caste system” (ibid.). Iqbal also illustrates that during the days of earlier Islamic societies (the seventh century), the Caliphs, according to the Qur’anic advice of mutual consultation in political matters, constantly consulted “…the more influential companions of the Prophet in judicial and executive matters.” (Iqbal, 1908). Moreover, after examining the principle of election and how the functionaries were elected and deposed during the inception of the Muslim state, Iqbal states the following:
It is clear that the fundamental principle laid down in the Qur’an is the principle of election; the details or rather the translation of this principle into a workable scheme of Government is left to be determined by other considerations” (ibid.).
All this demonstrates, for Iqbal, that the modern notions of democracy (political freedom, principle of election, mutual consultation, equality before the law) are integral in Islam as a political ideal. It is on the basis of the historical evidence and his readings of the Qur’anic scripture that Iqbal, in his paper “Islam as a Political and Moral Ideal” (1909) asserts: “Democracy, then, is the most important aspect of Islam, regarded as a political ideal…the idea of which is to let man develop all the possibilities of his nature by allowing him as much freedom as possible” (Iqbal, 1909). John Esposito, in his article “Muhammad Iqbal and the Islamic State” (1983), probes into various features of Iqbal`s philosophical-theological and political interpretations of an Islamic state. About democracy, he contends the following:
Iqbal`s central emphasis upon equality and brotherhood led to his conclusions that democracy was the most important political ideal of Islam. For this form of government (rooted in the Islamic principle that the interests of Islam are superior to those of the Muslim) allowed man the necessary freedom to develop all the possibilities of his nature while limiting his freedom only in the interests of the community…The fostering of this democratic spirit is one of the duties of the Islamic community which historical circumstances had prevented (Esposito 1983, 180).
Thus, according to Iqbal`s research on Islamic history and the Qur’an, the modern Western concept of democracy, and especially its elements of human freedom, rule of law, elections and advisory councils, can be discovered in the early era, from 610-670, in which the democratic-humanistic values were living actualities. By reading the Qur’ranic scripture holistically (intratextually), keeping in mind the differentiation between its foundational verses (established meaning) and those that draw on its metaphorical verses, we can detect how God`s unity is interconnected with the quest for justice and equality, and that Muslims were enjoined not to mingle Islam’s humanistic-democratic ideal with repression and unjust social devices. Hence the term “ethical/humanistic monotheism” (Shah, 2015). However, as a result of Islam`s political expansion, these tawhid-oriented humanistic ideals lost their force, and were relegated to the background after the Islamic state was metamorphosed into a monarchical and dynastic form of rule. Khorchide also discusses the historical background with regard to the mutation of the early Muslim state based on humanistic and democratic ideals into Arab imperialism. He asserts that, “The message of Muhammad and the first caliphs was a message of spiritual, social and political liberation.”
However, it took no more than 40 years for the caliphate to have turned into a kind of monarchy, demanding unconditional obedience” (Khorchide 2015, 175). Parwez also reaches the same conclusion. He states, “But shortly after his [Muhammad`s] death, the forces of exploitation began to raise their ugly heads again. They scored their first success with the establishment of a hereditary kingship” (Parwez 1989, 14, sic). Muhammad Iqbal understands this political mutation in the following words:
The life of early Muslims was a life of conquest. Their whole energy was devoted to political expansion which tends to concentrate political power in fewer hands; and thus serves as an unconscious handmaid of despotism. Democracy does not seem to be quite willing to get on with Empire… (Iqbal, 1908).
Iqbal`s vision of the early Islamic state, as outlined above, clearly entails that Islam as a political ideal is diametrically opposed to those political structures which tend to supress the healthy development/self-actualisation of the human individuality, e.g., dynasties, empires, dictatorships, imperialistic devices, patrimonial/hereditary monarchies and theocracies. We now proceed to the next term.
The meaning of spiritual
For Iqbal, Islam is an “unanalysable reality” (Iqbal 2012, 122), that is, the dualism of state and church, the foundation of Western democracy, does not exist in Islam. Because, as Iqbal elucidates in his Reconstruction, “In Islam, the spiritual and the temporal are not two distinct domains…In Islam, it is the same reality which appears as the Church seen from one point of view and the State from another.” (ibid.). On this point we need to retrace the Iqbalian notion of God`s unity. Iqbal interprets the unity of God as a unifying force, which synthesizes the material and spiritual dimensions of life into a unity, because, states Muhammad Iqbal, “The Ultimate Reality, according to the Qur’an, is spiritual, and its life consists in its temporal activity. The spirit finds its opportunities in the natural, the material, the secular. All that is secular is, therefore, sacred in the roots of its being” (Iqbal 2012, 123). Furthermore, says Iqbal, “There is no such thing as a profane world. All this immensity of matter constitutes a scope for the self-realization of spirit. All is holy ground” (ibid., sic). This interconnected approach and interpretation of Islamic state, based on his tawhidic principle, which integrates matter and spirit, profane and holy, clashes with the modern democratic states, developed through the European political ideas. Iqbal explains the reason for this dualistic doctrine in the following words:
Primitive Christianity was founded, not as a political or civil unit, but as a monastic order in a profane world, having nothing to do with civil affairs, and obeying the Roman authority practically in all matters. The result of this was that when the State became Christian, State and Church confronted each other as distinct powers with interminable boundary disputes between them. Such a thing could never happen to Islam; for Islam was from the very beginning a civil society… (Iqbal 2012, 123).
It is because of this very fact of unity between the spirit and matter, between “Church” and “State” that the Qur’an “considers it necessary to unite religion and state, ethics and politics, in a single revelation in the same way as Plato does in his Republic” (Iqbal 2012, 132). Thus, secularism, understood as the bifurcation between matter and spirit is the antithesis of Islam as a civil society. However, Iqbal explains that the idea of separation of Church and State is not a wholly foreign element to Islam. There is an important distinction for Iqbal, as he sees it, which we need to bear in mind. He goes on to explain:
The Islamic idea of the division of the religious and the political functions of the State must not be confounded with the European idea of the separation of Church and State. The former is only a division of functions…Islam was, from the very beginning, a civil society, with laws civil in their nature, though believed to be revelational in origin…In the history of Muslim political experience, this separation has meant only a separation of functions, not of ideas (Iqbal, 2013).
In other words, in the Islamic state, moral values and ethical sensibilities cannot be divorced from the state and its policies. Disuniting morality from politics, says Iqbal, “results in Genghizship” (Mir 2008, 133). Iqbal, by his pragmatic interpretation of God`s unity, attempts to reunify morality and politics, state and “Church”, the religious and the profane. The Muslim state needs to be guided by broad humanistic ideals, which he considers the Qur’an to contain, as explained in earlier sections. Iqbal avers that, “The Religious idea…determines the ultimate structure of the Muslim community” (Mir 2008, 134). On this point, we identify a central commonality between the Iqbalian vision of a democratic-humanistic state on the one hand and Hareide`s views on the other. Hareide understands democracy as a “structure which limits the possibilities of abusing power” (Hareide 2011, 20). However, argues Hareide, the democratic structure, in order to play its constructive role, is contingent on people’s values and ethical standard. He goes on to assert that the broad humanistic ideals such as the dignity of humanity, the golden rule, and character development are political virtues necessary for the enhancement of the democratic spirit. It is through internalising these virtues, notes Hareide, that the state becomes “humanised”, not humans becoming objectified (ibid.). Put in a process way, the Divine aims needs to be materialised in our Commonwealth, also.
In this way, since God`s power is persuasive, we are expanding the temporal impact of God`s will on planet Earth, thus becoming God`s companions in the formation of a just and sustainable world. That is why the aims of God enshrined in the Qur’an – viewed as a book of humanising possibilities – are sovereign, according to Iqbal. As Iqbal maintains, “The law of God is absolutely supreme. Authority, except as an interpreter of the law, has no [place] in the social structure of Islam. We regard it as inimical to the unfoldment of human individuality” (Iqbal, 1909). By this interpretation, Iqbal omits the idea of theocracy. It is in context of this understanding that Iqbal asserts: “The state, from the Islamic standpoint, is an endeavour to transform these ideals [equality, solidarity, freedom] into space-time forces” (Iqbal 2012, 122, sic). Therefore, belief in God`s unity, should inspire Muslims to bring about a Muslim body politic which is intimately related to the broad humanistic ideals.
It is hoped that an adequate understanding of Iqbal`s political philosophy has been presented to the reader`s view. However, there still remains much ground to cover as Iqbal`s Quranic-inspired philosophy is, sadly, a rather “unknown region” to Muslims and non-muslims. As I see it, the philosophy of Muhammad Iqbal can – in our time of expanding islamophobia and Salafi jihadism – work as a counteractive force against oppressive and sinister mechanisms if rightly understood and rightly lived.
 …and who conduct their affairs by mutual consultation. (Qur’an 42:38)
 John Esposito (1940-) is a professor of Islamic Studies and International Affairs at Georgetown University, Washington.
 It is important to bear in mind that Iqbal, in his own political climates, did not accept the modern Western theory of democracy completely. Esposito touches upon this topic in his article “Muhammad Iqbal and Islamic State” (1983).
 In Islamic history, Chengiizship is associated with unrestrained, destructive power.