Allama Iqbal and Abdolkarim Soroush

Published: October 2, 2010
The writer is a director at the South Asia Free Media Association, Lahore

The writer is a director at the South Asia Free Media Association, Lahore [email protected]

The clergy and the state in Pakistan have had problems with Allama Iqbal’s view of the state in his Sixth Lecture. Iran too has had to deviate from the thought of Imam Khomeini on what is “permanent” and what is “changeable” in Islam. The man who has highlighted the issue in Iran is Abdolkarim Soroush – “foreign-trained” just like Allama Iqbal – who was appointed by Imam Khomeini to the Advisory Council on Cultural Revolution, charged with re-opening the universities and restructuring their syllabi.

In the book, New Directions in Islamic Thought: Exploring Reform and Muslim Tradition (I B Tauris 2009), Soroush discusses the subject of “changeable” and “unchangeable” in Islam with reference to two scholars, Shia Allama Tabatabai and Sunni publicist, Rashid Rida. Both discuss the concept of daruri (zaruri in Urdu) and think that law is “changeable” if it is ghair-zaruri (non-essential). Soroush says Muslims are agreed on the concept but not on its application. We are therefore back in the realm of interpretation. He says: “Islam is nothing but a series of interpretations of Islam” (p.14).

He tells us that the Shia did not say the Friday prayer for centuries despite clear reference to it in the Quran. Then he drops the bombshell: “Khomeini did not consider belief in an afterlife an essential” (p.10). He continues: “Cutting off the hands of thieves is in the Quran, not in a Hadith. Stoning is not in the Quran, but of course, it is present in the Hadith and in the practice of Muslims. Nevertheless there are fuqaha in Iran now, and there have been some in the past, who think that these … should not be applied, like the Friday prayer” (p.12).

Iran stones people – mostly women – to death but continues to be uneasy about the punishment. Soroush has been rejected by Iran and he now lives abroad as a peripatetic lecturer at universities. His message is: “We agree on the categories, but let us not be dogmatic about their application, because the application of the essential and non-essential, the changeable and unchangeable, has been a matter of dispute and disagreement among Muslims” (p.15).

Allama Iqbal in his Sixth Lecture perceived the non-essential nature of hudood punishment. He equally foresaw the uneasiness Pakistan would experience with cutting of hands and stoning people to death. Only the Taliban have carried out these punishments illegally inside Pakistan. The state of Pakistan has avoided them even after the courts in some instances awarded them. Are we into the discussion of the nature of the edicts of Islam and how we understand them?

Pakistani scholar Asma Barlas is a professor of politics and director of the Centre for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity at Ithaca College, New York. She makes a highly significant distinction about the concept of universality of the Quranic message: “We cannot re-contextualise the Quran – make it relevant to all historical contexts, hence universal – without first contextualising or historicising it. And yet there is a paradoxical tendency among Muslims, which is to recognise the historical contexts of Quranic verses but to de-historicise the Quran, because of their conviction that what renders the Quran sacred is its ahistoricity rather than its trans-historicity” (p.18).

The Quran is often studied within historic context. The fixity of the juristic dogma (fiqh) actually prevents us from making the big decisions about the state. If you look closely, the living Pakistani scholar Javed Ghamidi has come under attack because those who resort to violence don’t like his deviation from the fiqh. Had Allama Iqbal been alive today, he would be lecturing in the US.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 3rd, 2010.

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Reader Comments (8)

  • faraz
    Oct 2, 2010 - 11:00PM

    Had he been alive today, mullahs would have declared his “Shikwa & Jawab e Shikwa” as blasphemous. He lived through better times, perhaps it was the pluralism of pre partition India which allowed him to undertake a reconstruction of religious thought. Now we cant even reconstruct Iqbal’s philosophy of religion. Recommend

  • K A Sultan
    Oct 2, 2010 - 11:07PM

    We always put the cart before the horse. An Islamic welfare state has to be established first, where the rights of citizens are fully taken care of and then the hudood punishments are to follow. Recommend

  • Oct 3, 2010 - 2:07AM

    Brilliant article. Its ironic that Iqbal who is an inspiration for new reformist and liberal religious intellectuals (his influence on Soroush is quiet immense, Soroush himself acknowledges this) around the world is still held as a reactionary icon by religious clerics and mullahs. Just underscores how badly Iqbal has been used in Pakistan….

    I would say however that Muslim thinkers who call for contextualisation of the Quran rarely elaborate on the theological implications of this ”contextualisation” hermeneutic in terms of the impact it has on the concept of Revelation. So my questions for the author:

    Surely Muslim thinkers discussing contextualization in terms of what the late modernist Pakistani intellectual Fazlur Rahman conceived as the ”Double Movement” theory have to adopt the Mutazilite conception of Revelation? Otherwise the whole project collapses under the contradictions and inherent tensions between the historical model of interpretation and Asharite doctrine of Revelation.

    Can the historical project of interpretation put forward by Soroush and many others before him sqaure up with the Asharite conception of Revelation?

    Can the Mutazilite conception of Revelation be revived or is too controversial?

    By the way Soroush does adopt a more philosophical and innovative account of Revelation, in his work ”The Expansion of Prophetic Experience Essays on Historicity, Contingency and Plurality in Religion ”. He got a lot of stick for that in Iran, and that theory of ”the Expansion of the Prophetic Experience” was very controversial.Perhaps the author would like to discuss that particular work which is crucial in underpinning and giving theological legitamacy to the historical project of interpretation?

    Anyway, its nice to see AbdolKarim Soroush’s ideas finally getting some reception in Pakistan. I’ve cited Soroush before and find him to be a towering figure in modern religious discourse: (this is where I fully discuss Soroush’s prominent ”Theory of Contraction and Expansion of Religious Knowledge”.

    (Secularity or Secularities)
    (Political Theology and Literature)

    I think if you want a fuller grasp of Soroush’s intellectual project consult his collection of English translated essays, ”Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam” (

  • M M Malik
    Oct 3, 2010 - 12:46PM

    The pluralism of pre-partition India was due to the separation of state and religion. We now need that to improve our affairs.Recommend

  • Oct 3, 2010 - 8:18PM



    you say: Had Allama Iqbal been alive today, he would be lecturing in the US.


    he would have been assassinated by a ‘true’ believer!Recommend

  • ADIL
    Oct 3, 2010 - 9:51PM


  • Ali Hassan
    Oct 4, 2010 - 10:18AM

    Very Nice Comment Ahmed Ali, thanks Recommend

  • Habiba Younis
    Oct 4, 2010 - 4:41PM

    So true!! honestly I feel sick when people demand for stoning, lashing and such other laws in 21st century. Recommend

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