Iqbal, the Greeks and Hoodbhoy

For Iqbal, thought is much more than the hardships of discovering the finite world that the thought finds itself in

Aneela Shahzad April 02, 2021
The writer is a geopolitical analyst. She also writes at and tweets @AneelaShahzad

“Iqbal, Falsafa aur Science” are one of Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy’s several lectures wherein he repeats his vagaries against Allama Iqbal, alleging the Allama of a “hate for philosophy”, and that the Allama condemned science and free-thought — and we owe it to the Allama to clear him of such falsifications.

Hoodbhoy goes as far as saying that Iqbal was not a philosopher at all, rather just a historian of the past or at most a “thinker”. But a slight introspection of these allegations show that Hoodbhoy has been extremely superfluous and baseless in his discourse, and perhaps is not in a position to understand the philosophical insights the Allama has dealt with in his writings, for the simple reason that he himself is not a philosopher but a lecturer in physics.

One repeated assertion, is to quote Iqbal from “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought”, where he says, “while Greek philosophy very much broadened the outlook of Muslim thinkers, it, on the whole, obscured their vision of the Quran”, and then to connect this verse with Iqbal’s hate for Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina and Al Farabi — seems to be grossly overrated.

The reason for Iqbal’s criticism for the Greeks was, in his own words, the “speculative nature of Greek philosophy which enjoyed ‘theory’ and was neglectful of ‘fact’.”

The Greek school of thought was essentially focused on metaphysical ideas and dialect. Quoting the Allama, “Socrates concentrated his attention on the human world alone. To him the proper study of man was man and not the world of plants, insects, and stars,” and that “Plato despised sense-perception which, in his view, yielded mere opinion and no real knowledge.”

This does not mean that the Allama harboured a despise for the Greeks just for it being an opposing civilisation, as Hoodbhoy suggests. Rather this criticism comes from the pain felt by Iqbal for the around 200-year-long era in Muslim theology that they spent in trying to interpret the Quran merely with the tools of Greek thought. In place of that kind of thinking, Iqbal prefers the “the Comtian idea of the three stages of man’s intellectual development, i.e., theological, metaphysical and scientific.”

August Comte had also come up with the idea of “dogmatism as the normal state of the human mind”. He said, “the irritation of doubt ceases when belief is fixed,” and that “what is in need of justification… is not the belief but the doubt” — and perhaps Iqbal realised the dogmatic rest on Greek thought that had misled many of that era from the path of scientific inquiry that the Quran was constantly inviting mankind to, when it repeatedly points towards the wonders in nature that testify design and creation.

Aristotle, in De Anima, talks of two minds required for thinking, one which “becomes all things”, and another which “makes all things”. He wrote: “when it has been separated it is that only which it is essentially, and this alone is immortal and eternal; and without this nothing knows.” Aristotle deemed what is the ultimate creative power as the “active intellect” opposed to the “passive intellect” that we perhaps experience as mere accidents appearing on the fabric of the finer matter, and this led Aristotle to the doctrine of immortality of active intellect, which Iqbal says, inspired Ibn Rushd to draw a parallel with the Quranic terms of “nafs” and “ruh” in a way that the ruh represents the vast fabric of the soul that we are all part of and the nafs represents the sensible accidents. Iqbal says, “Intelligence, according to Ibn Rushd, is not a form of the body; it belongs to a different order of being, and transcends individuality. It is, therefore, one, universal, and eternal. This obviously means that, since unitary intellect transcends individuality, its appearance as so many unities in the multiplicity of human persons is a mere illusion” — an idea perhaps leading to pantheism that Iqbal was despised of.

“How unlike the spirit of the Quran,” Iqbal says, “which sees in the humble bee a recipient of Divine inspiration and constantly calls upon the reader to observe the perpetual change of the winds, the alternation of day and night, the clouds, the starry heavens, and the planets swimming through infinite space!”

And “how unlike the Quran, which regards ‘hearing’ and ‘sight’ as the most valuable Divine gifts and declares them to be accountable to God for their activity in this world.” In Iqbal’s opinion, Muslim theologians missed the essence of this spirit of the Quran when reading the Quran in the light of Greek thought.

Iqbal criticises both the Ash’arite, of defending “orthodox opinion with the weapons of Greek dialectic”, and the Mu’tazilah of taking “religion merely as a body of doctrines and ignoring it as a vital fact”. In their place, Iqbal presents the idea that Knowledge is not possible with “complete independence of thought from concrete experience… Thought must necessarily simulate finitude and inconclusiveness because of its alliance with serial time,” but in its heart and in its “total movement” it is driven by the “total infinite”.

The finitudes of the thought are incapable of limitation and narrow individuality, because “in the wide world beyond itself nothing is alien to it”. Rather in its constant experience with the apparently alien, thought realises its own potential infinitude — meaning that the thought ‘knows’ the real world as alien to it and the unknown Infinite as its very identity. And the implicit presence of the Infinite in the finite individuality of the thought, is what “keeps alive within it the flame of aspiration and sustains it in its endless pursuit”.

For Iqbal, thought is much more than the hardships of discovering the finite world that the thought finds itself in, rather it is the joy of “a greeting of the finite with the infinite”.

Being a philosopher of his time, and having widely read both western and eastern philosophical works, still Iqbal, like any great writer, expresses his humility, saying, “there is no such thing as finality in philosophical thinking” and that we must keep reviewing available knowledge and “maintain an independent critical attitude towards it.”

Published in The Express Tribune, April 2nd, 2021.

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Falcon | 1 year ago | Reply

Insightful analysis of Iqbal s philosophical perspective. Thank you

Heko | 1 year ago | Reply

Great article very deep. In my opinion Islamic school of thought got lost somewhere through the ages and is now largely associated with extremism. It would have reflected the liberal way of life that Islam promotes encouraging education gender equality science and arts had it made its way through to the present day. Having said that the 70s and 80s was the battle of capitalism modern greek and the relatively new marxist philosphy while Islamic philosophy was reduced to what we saw unfold in Afghanistan. Support for greek philosophy is therefore understable because our minds have been conditioned that way from the beginning even if it comes from the intellegentsia. Its through debate that we can see what Islamic philosophy is truly about great work.

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