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November 9, 2019

Iqbal: “The Metaphysics” and “The Reconstruction”- Part I

Opinion

November 9, 2019

The difficulty of research on Iqbal’s “The Development of Metaphysics in Persia” -- his doctoral dissertation -- is as great as the paucity of material on it. We are told by some Iqbal biographers that it was praised highly by orientalists such as T.W. Arnold and R. A. Nicholson etc. Such praise may have been incidental to what else was being said about Iqbal in the beginning of the 20th Century, for the work as a whole seems to have gone without much detailed commentary, even by the said orientalists themselves.

In the more than one hundred years since, the situation hasn’t changed much. As far as I have been able to see, apart from some valuable and mostly recent contributions of a few pages in some edited volumes on Iqbal, there is very little dedicated entirely to the study of Iqbal’s dissertation. One reason for this would perhaps be what Iqbal Singh said of this work: It is “somewhat unsatisfying. It leaves the reader with the impression of something that he can neither accept as serious work nor reject as something trivial and unworthy of attention. For a research thesis its scope is too wide; and for an original and interpretative study of the subject it seems too sketchy, too descriptive…”

Some of the points raised by Singh may be relevant to the fact that the Munich examiners were not greatly impressed by Iqbal’s mastery of Zoroastrian and medieval sources. “But they passed it because they felt that it drew sufficiently upon manuscript research and because they trusted the judgment of experts such as Arnold” (Rizvi 2015 with reference to Durrani 2003). Arnold, Iqbal’s teacher in Lahore and London, had put in a good word for Iqbal. The work was treated as a “dissertation in oriental philology and not philosophy because the committee was not satisfied with its quality in the latter area” (Rizvi 2015).

Singh, like others after him, also finds that the work dates badly. How the work dates is a tricky question. Those who point to this problem fall short of discussing the issue in detail. Singh himself says nothing further. But there is another, personal sense in which the work ‘dates’ and which may explain the lack of attention that befell this work. Almost immediately after the dissertation appeared (perhaps even at the time Iqbal submitted it) he had started undergoing a change and very soon abandoned the “pantheistic outlook” that is understood to mark this work.

The Urdu translation of this 1908 work appeared in 1936. In 1927, Iqbal told the translator that he didn’t think much of it because his ideas had undergone a ‘revolution’ and in German separate books had been written on ‘Ghazali, Tusi, etc.’, leaving very little in the book that could survive criticism. Iqbal did not specify what that German research was, and that poses a few problems, if we take his 1930-34 “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” to be the work where that new research would find mention.

Tusi can be safely put aside because he does not figure much in “The Metaphysics” and in “The Reconstruction” appears in a very different context. There does not appear to be a huge difference between the Ghazali of “The Metaphysics” and the Ghazali of “The Reconstruction.” In “The Metaphysics” Ghazali is one of the greatest personalities of Islam who anticipated Descartes and Hume, systematically refuted philosophy and “completely annihilated the dread of intellectualism” (read reason and philosophy) which had characterized the orthodoxy. He put dogma and metaphysics together into an education system that produced great men of intellect. He examined all the various claimants of "Certain Knowledge" and finally found it in Sufism. ((I do not know if the irony of the comparisons involving Ghazali, Iqbal’s celebrated destroyer of rationalism, on the one hand, and Descartes, the founder of modern rationalism and Hume the atheist on the other, was truly lost on Iqbal. But such ‘time-less’ and ahistorical comparisons are Iqbal’s permanent hallmark visible in “The Metaphysics” and omnipresent in “The Reconstruction”).

In “The Reconstruction”, we are once again reminded of Ghazali’s greatness – as the precursor of Descartes who despite his skepticism being “a rather unsafe basis for religion not wholly justified by the spirit of the Quran” and despite “going a little too far” – broke the back of “that ‘proud but shallow’ rationalism in the Muslim world -- much like Kant, “the great gift of God to his people, who revealed the limitations of human reason and reduced the whole work of the rationalists to a heap of ruins.” There is, Iqbal notes, one important difference. Kant, “consistently with his principles, could not affirm the possibility of a knowledge of God. Ghazali, finding no hope in analytic thought, moved to mystic experience, and there found an independent content for religion.”

In “The Metaphysics”, Ghazali harmonizes “Sufi pantheism and the Asharite dogma of personality, a reconciliation which makes it difficult to say whether he was a Pantheist, or a Personal Pantheist of the type of Lotze.” Ghazali moves towards “a conception of the soul which sweeps away all difference between God and the individual soul.” Realizing the “Pantheistic drift” of his inquiry, he “preferred silence as to the ultimate nature of the soul.” Iqbal does not critically engage with Ghazali here and that is typical of him in “The Metaphysics” for the most part. This account of Ghazali’s mysticism is not rejected or modified in any way in “The Reconstruction.” The spiritual content of Ghazali’s silence over the soul though is replaced by a philosophical account of the problem of thought and intuition, where Iqbal gives his own ideas on how the finite (thought in serial time) and the infinite (intuition) are organically linked. – something that, according to Iqbal, both Ghazali and Kant failed to realize and which led to Ghazali drawing “a line of cleavage between thought and intuition.” Iqbal, it appears, is also trying to break through Ghazali’s silence over the nature of God and soul, having restated it in a peculiar way. Iqbal’s own consistencies, contradictions, successes and failures in doing so, at this point, are not the issue.

We can see here that, to the extent Iqbal reproduces his account of Ghazali and his contribution in the history of thought, there is hardly any difference. “The Metaphysics” is meant to be a historical account whereas “The Reconstruction” is an interpretative endeavor -- an allegedly philosophical attempt at reconstructing Muslim thought. What is significant in our context is that Iqbal cites no new research while discussing Ghazali. What then do we make of his reference to the new research on Gazali and Tusi? Not much, I believe, by way of explanation.

(To be continued)

The writer is a student of literature and philosophy at the Forman Christian College.

Email: [email protected]

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