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      Reconstructing the Muslim Self: Muhammad Iqbal, Khudi, and the Modern Self

      Islamophobia Studies Journal
      Pluto Journals


            Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938), one of the 20 th century's most influential Muslim thinkers, theorized a radically new understanding of Islamic selfhood. For Iqbal, the self ( khudi) was marked by an individuality that made it distinct and inherently equipped to overcome colonial incursions. Iqbal put this down to Ibn ‘Arabi's (1165–1240) “Neo-Platonist doctrine of sheep” of wahdat-al-wujud. This article examines the ways in which Iqbal's ideas of the self derive from a specifically modern, Western notion of the self that has its history in Rene Descartes' cogito ergo sum — a modern selfhood entailing independence and uniqueness, and which became the standard in Europe after the 18 th century. It is a self whose worth is measured by what it produces, and by its relationship to the world as a creator. When Iqbal writes that “man becomes unique by becoming more and more like the most unique individual [God],” 1 this paper investigates how Iqbal's approach to the Muslim self is thought through Western categories — beginning with the self, but extending to the pan-Islamic nation (the ummah), and nationalism — and how such an imagining delimits his very (re)construction of Islam, thereby further imbricating “Islam” within Eurocentric power-knowledge. The article reflects on the importance of examining perhaps the foundational theoretical assumption of the modern Muslim experience — Muslim selfhood — and how such an examination is essential for the process of decolonial thinking to begin.


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            Islamophobia Studies Journal
            Pluto Journals
            Fall 2014
            : 2
            : 2
            : 14-28
            © Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project, Center for Race and Gender, University of California, Berkeley

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            Social & Behavioral Sciences


            1. , (ed.), Iqbal: Poet-Philosopher of Pakistan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.), 298.

            2. Muhammad Iqbal's self-translation: quoted in Javid Nama, , Javid Nama , (trans.) (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1966), 15.

            3. There is a certain quality to Iqbal's thought that makes his voice standout over that of other Islamic modernists. This, as has been pointed out to me by Javed Majeed in a personal conversation (March 17, 2014), gives Iqbal a level of “authenticity” that cannot be found with other Islamic modernists. Incidentally, Iqbal Singh Sevea has recently problematized the use of the term “Islamic modernist” with regard to Iqbal, arguing that Iqbal rejected the post-Enlightenment understanding of “natural religion” which is accepted wholesale by Sayyid Ahmed Khan for example. (See The Political Philosophy of Muhammad Iqbal Islam and Nationalism in Late Colonial India [Cambridge, 2012].) The reason why I choose to continue to apply the term “Islamic modernist” to Iqbal — as will become clearer during the course of this article — is due to his (unconscious) use of modern categories, and which significantly inflect his Islamic project.

            4. : 48, “The Victory.”

            5. Of course, neither Iqbal nor the Islamic modernists in general were the first to criticize wahdat al-wujud. The famous Indian reformer of Sufism, Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi (1564–1624), to whom Iqbal refers favourably (see Reconstruction 152), was a very significant critic of wahdat al-wujud, proposing instead wahdat al-shuhud (“the unity of witness”). What differentiates Islamic modernists from premodern reformers such as Sirhindi is that the former sought to entirely do away with the historic institution, disciplines, practices, metaphysics, and so on, of Sufism.

            6. See , Complaint and Answer (Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa), (trans.), (Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf Publishers, 1955).

            7. , The Reconstruction of Religious Thought , (introduction) (Stanford: Standford University Press, 2013), 3–4. Although Iqbal does not explicitly state what he means by “anti-classical,” it may be surmised that he was referring to the presence in Greek thought of a plethora of gods — whereas the Quran presents a “radically monotheistic” worldview. It is also important to note that Iqbal was not a systematic thinker, which accounts for the lack of development of many of his ideas, and even, at times, certain internal inconsistencies.

            8. Quoted: Iqbal: Poet-Philosopher of Pakistan , (editor) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), 294.

            9. “Earthlings have gambled away the coin of selfhood,” , Javid Nama , (trans.), (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1966), verse: 1959.

            10. Reconstruction , p. 11.

            11. See below in Contentions for more details.

            12. Again, see below in Contentions for more details.

            13. “The climax of religious life … is the discovery of the ego as an individual deeper than his conceptually describable habitual self-hood. It is in contact with the Most Real that the ego discovers its uniqueness, its metaphysical status, and the possibility of improvement in that status,” Reconstruction , 184.

            14. The term “man” its generic sense is used for the sake of fluidity, and also since this is the term that Iqbal uses.

            15. , “Introduction,” Reconstruction , xi.

            16. , Gabriel's Wing. A Study Into the Religious Ideas of Sir Muhammad Iqbal (Lahore: Iqbal Academy, 1963), 346.

            17. Reconstruction , 96.

            18. Reconstruction , 118.

            19. Ibid., 124.

            20. “[W]e are blind, and Thou are present. / Either draw aside this veil of mysteries /or seize to Thyself this sightless soul!” Javid Nama , verses: 66–8.

            21. Intro: Secrets of the Self , xxi.

            22. Iqbal: Poet-Philosopher : 298.

            23. See Prof. Francis Pritchett's translation of Iqbal's poetry on her website: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00urdu/iqbal/gesuetab.html, accessed March 15, 2014.

            24. This tension in examined in more detail in Contentions.

            25. Quoted: Iqbal: Poet-Philosopher , 305.

            26. Quoted: Ibid., p.307.

            27. Reconstruction , p.10.

            28. Quoted: Iqbal: Poet-Philosopher , 221.

            29. Quoted: , “Rumi, Nietzsche and Iqbal,” in Iqbal as a Thinker in Iqbal as a Thinker: Eight Essays by Eminent Scholars (Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf Publishers, 1973), 153.

            30. Quoted: ibid., pl51.

            31. Quoted: Iqbal: Poet: Philosopher , 210.

            32. Quoted: , A Critical Exposition of Iqbal's Philosophy (Patna: Associated Book Agency, 1978), 44.

            33. Intro: Secrets of the Self , xxi.

            34. Reconstruction , 132.

            35. Ibid., 197.

            36. , 43.

            37. Reconstruction , 151.

            38. For an analysis of Bergson's influence on Iqbal see “Bergson and Muhammad Iqbal” in , Being Human in Islam: The Impact of the Evolutionary Worldview (New York: Routledge, 2011), 58–64.

            39. Reconstruction , 10.

            40. , “Iqbal and Mysticism,” in Iqbal as a Thinker , 208.

            41. Reconstruction , 23.

            42. Gabriel's Wing , 350.

            43. Quoted: ibid., 376.

            44. Premodern knowledge — and therefore premodern subjectivity — entailed a fundamental inseparability of the knower and the known. Modern knowledge entails a fundamental separation between the knower and the known, resulting in the subject/object dichotomy that is central to modern epistemology.

            45. , Muhammad Iqbal: Islam, Aesthetics and Postcolonialism (New Delhi: Routledge India, 2009). Majeed reads Iqbal as “one possible landmark for a cosmopolitan critical idiom, in which Islamism and Western critical theory can be considered, not as oppositional discourse, but together, with overlapping concerns, as critiques of and responses to colonial modernity” (Ibid., xxvi). The approach taken in this paper is to question some of the unexamined ways such an Iqbalian “cosmopolitan critical idiom” is always already imbricated in assumptions of modern Western power/knowledge, thereby significantly hobbling the criticality of such an idiom — and even its cosmopolitanism.

            46. Ibid., 29–30, my emphasis.

            47. Ibid., my emphasis.

            48. , The Development of Metaphysics in Persia: A Contribution to the History of Muslim Philosophy , (London: Luzac and Company, 1908), x.

            49. , “Modern Power and the Reconfiguration of Religious Traditions,” SEHR 5 (1996): Contested Polities, accessed October 13, 2013. http://www.stanford.edu/group/SHR/5-1/text/asad.html.

            50. , The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism , (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 203.

            51. See , Sufis and Anti-Sufis: The Defence, Rethinking and Rejection of Sufism in the Modern World (Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999).

            52. “33:72 The Trust is understood as relating to the dictates of faith and belief, as in a famous saying: “Whosoever has no trust has no belief” (Q, Sy). Many relate the Trust to obedience (IK, Ṭs, Ṭ, Z), and it is thus understood by most as a reference to the requirements (far iḍ) of religion (IJ, JJ, Q, Ṭ), though others see it as a reference to prayer alone (Q). The Trust can also be understood as pertaining to the manner in which one manages each aspect of one's being, such as the tongue, the eye, the stomach, one's private parts, etc. (IJ, Q). Thus some connect it to 8:27: Betray not God and the Messenger, and betray not your trusts knowingly (M). It is also said that the Trust pertains to faith inwardly and performing the requirements of religion outwardly (Aj). Some also allow that the Trust refers to the pact or covenant of tawḥ d and the witness to God's Lordship taken with all of humanity before they came into this world (Aj) (see 7:172c).” HarperCollins Study Quran, forthcoming.

            53. Personal conversation with , March 17, 2014.

            54. , The Passion of Hallaj: Mystic and Martyr of Islam , (translator) (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982).

            55. “Beware of Hafiz the drinker,/His cup is full of the poison of death.”

            56. , “Jami on Divine Love and the image of wine,” http://www.ibnarabisociety.org/articles/jamiwine.html. accessed March 28, 2014.

            57. Ibid.

            58. See, for example, Eight Eurocentric Historians (New York: The Guilford Press, 2000). Blaut critiques the work of a diverse group of Eurocentric historians who have significantly shaped our understanding of world history.

            59. See brilliant study The Languages of Paradise: Race, Religion, and Philology in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

            60. Reconstruction , 92–3.

            61. Ibid., 56.

            62. See , Meditations on First Philosophy: In Which the Existence of God and the Distinction of the Soul from the Body Are Demonstrated , (translator) (Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993).

            63. , Three Muslim Sages (New York: Caravan Books, 1964), 104–5 (my emphasis).

            64. Quoted: , The Sufi Path of Love: Ibn al-'Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination (New York: State University of New York Press, 1989), 219–20 (my emphasis).

            65. , “Introduction,” Reconstruction , xi.

            66. Intro: Secrets of the Self , xxi.

            67. See , Thus Spoke Zarathustra , (Blacksbug, VA: Thrifty Books, 2009).

            68. “God save us from majesty that is without beauty,/God save us from separation without union!/Science without love is a demonic thing,/science together with love is a thing divine.” Javid Nama: verses: 1339–42.

            69. Reconstruction , 154.

            70. , Subject Lessons (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007), 43–44.

            71. To be sure, there isn't a single “ethic,” although slaves in the Muslim world had a very different status in ancient Greece, as well as in the modern Europe. See , Islam and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

            72. This idea of the “fashioner of Destiny” is a significant departure from historic Islamic theological accounts of the relationship between free will and predestination, where the doctrine of Acquisition (kasb) was favored as the median position between the two extremes. See The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology , (editor) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 8.

            73. , Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse (Minnesota: Minnesota University Press, 1986).

            74. Ibid., 1–30.

            75. Ibid., 10–11.

            76. Ibid., 36–39.

            77. Ibid., 38.

            78. Cf. , The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 112.

            79. , Self and Sovereignty: Individual and Community in South Asian Islam Since 1850 (New York: Routledge, 2000), 179.

            80. , “Islam as an Ethical and a Political Ideal,” http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00islamlinks/txt_iqbal_1908.html, accessed March 17, 2014.

            81. In one discussion Jacques Derrida suggests that “nothing exists outside context.” Quoted in How to Read Derrida , (London: Granta Books, 2005), 51.


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