Allama Iqbal wanted to reconstruct Islamic thought with help of Ijtihad

Story by  Saquib Salim | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 20-06-2023
Poet Mohammad Iqbal
Poet Mohammad Iqbal


Saquib Salim

Nobody influenced the Muslims of South Asia during the 20th century as Philosopher and poet Mohammad Iqbal also known as Allama Iqbal. Likewise, nobody is as misunderstood as him!

Generally, people tend to believe that Iqbal called Muslims to return to the pristine Islam of the 7th-century Arabs. Nothing can be farther from the truth than this. Iqbal asked for “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” in a book of the same name which consisted of his seven public lectures delivered at Chennai, Hyderabad, and Aligarh. 

In the world where the Turkish Caliphate had been abolished and Einstein had changed the way we looked at the universe, Iqbal said, “No wonder then that the younger generation of Islam in Asia and Africa demand a fresh orientation of their faith. With the reawakening of Islam, therefore, it is necessary to examine, in an independent spirit, what Europe has thought and how far the conclusions reached by her can help us in the revision and, if necessary, reconstruction, of theological thought in Islam.” 

Turkish ruler Kemal Ataturk

The poet had no qualms in admitting publicly that “during the last 500 years, the religious thought in Islam has been practically stationary”. Therefore, he told the audience, “The task before the modern Muslim is, therefore, immense. He has to rethink the whole system of Islam without completely breaking with the past.” 

Iqbal admitted that the process had begun in India during the 18th century. Iqbal said, “Perhaps the first Muslim who felt the urge of a new spirit in him was Shah Wali Ullah of Delhi”.

Iqbal asked his audience that in those pressing times how to move forward, “what then is the principle of movement in the structure of Islam ?” He went on to answer himself, “This is known as ‘Ijtihad’. The word literally means to exert. In the terminology of Islamic law it means to exert to form an independent judgment on a legal question. The idea, I believe, has its origin in a well-known verse of the Quran—’And to those who exert We show Our path’”. 

Ijtihad as a principle was always a part of Sunni Islam but in practice, it remained in check for centuries. Iqbal lamented that “this intellectual attitude (which) has reduced the Law of Islam practically to a state of immobility”.

Many would not believe that Iqbal was a great admirer of the Ijtihad on which the Turkish revolution under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was based. In his view Turkish modernity was the way ahead for Muslims of the world.

Iqbal said, “We find that the idea of Ijtihad, reinforced and broadened by modern philosophical ideas, has long been working in the religious and political thought of the Turkish nation. This is clear from Halim Sabit’s new theory of Mohammedan Law, is grounded on modern sociological concepts. If the renaissance of Islam is a fact, and I believe it is a fact, we too one day, like the Turks, will have to re-evaluate our intellectual inheritance.”

At a time when orthodox Sunni Muslims of India were fighting for the Turkish Caliphate and even Mahatma Gandhi supported the Khilafat movement, Iqbal believed otherwise. 

Iqbal asked people to, “see how the Grand National Assembly has exercised this power of Ijtihad regarding the institution of Khilafat. According to Sunni Law, the appointment of an Imam or Khalifa is indispensable. The first question that arises in this connection is this—Should the Caliphate be vested in a single person? Turkey’s Ijtihad is that according to the spirit of Islam, the Caliphate can be vested in a body of persons or an elected Assembly... I believe the Turkish view is perfectly sound... The republican form of government is not only thoroughly consistent with the spirit of Islam, but has also become a necessity given the new forces that are set free in the world of Islam.”

Iqbal like several other Muslims of his time, asked the followers of Islam to reinvent and reconstruct Islamic thought with the help of Ijtihad. 

The modern world needs modern solutions and Islam does not stop Muslims from exploring those solutions. Rather, the Quran promotes reasoning and logic.

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Iqbal said, “Equipped with penetrative thought and fresh experience the world of Islam should courageously proceed to the work of reconstruction before them this work of reconstruction, however, has a far more serious aspect than mere adjustment in modern conditions of life. The Great European War brought in its wake the awakening of Turkey—the element of stability in the world of Islam, as a French writer has recently described her — and the new economic experiment tried in the neighbourhood of Muslim Asia, must open our eyes to the inner meaning and destiny of Islam.”