Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), in layman’s terms, was a gifted poet whose verses inspired the Indian Muslims, awakened them from bondage and motivated them to strive for liberty. In fact, Iqbal was a very different man from the Freedom Movement leader our history has conjured up with its imaginative understanding of the great thinker’s ideas and beliefs.
Iqbal was a liberal Muslim with a scientific comprehension of old school religious – specifically Qur’anic – jinnahtutors ideas; in other words, he was a reasoning philosopher whose mission was to create a version of Islam – yet again, Qur’an mainly – compatible with modern scientific research. He was a diligent student of German philosophy and had deeply recognized the traits which could render any faith lie frail and submissive before intellectual progress of the human race. As wisely recognized, Iqbal adored his creed, and his honest intentions were to protect “Mohammedanism” from the upcoming onslaught of science in Asia.
How did Iqbal find a way to equally compare Islam and science? How did he defend the legends narrated in Qur’an the like of which are ridiculed in Bible? Well, there exist among Muslim certain groups of pure liberal origins. These factions reject any possibility of miraculous phenomena meddling in human affairs. You may call them the famed (or notorious, I can’t decide) Hadith-Rejectors or the Qur’anists. One of Iqbal’s contemporaries, Ghulam Ahmad Pervez (1903-85) – a close associate of Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah – was the leader of one of such movements called Tulu-e-Islam (Rise of Islam). But we’re going a bit farther in history than we ought to. The man whom Iqbal succeeds in what a simple believer would call bizarre beliefs, was none other than the celebrated Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the intellectual father of All India Muslim League.
Sir Syed (1817-1898), as he’s mentioned throughout all standard Pakistani text books, was a freethinker, if one allows me to categorize such remarkable a personality according to modern taxonomy. It you’re a Pakistani by birth, it’s impossible you have never heard of his services to the Indian Muslim community. Stories are told how he held back politically-impoverished Muslims from joining the Hindu-dominant Congress rather preached the importance of English education for the creation of a more civilized Muslim generation. His Aligarh institutions were criticized by the mullahs, just like his marvelous ideas regarding Qur’an, but eventually people had to surrender before the surge of reason and had to confess that they badly needed to adopt Western standards if they desired to save the Muslims from evaporating before the heat of science.
But how did Sir Syed manage to spark such fierce controversies in India? Answer’s quite simple and Pakistani students are taught about the entire melodrama in their high schools. Sir Syed had gone crazy over exegesis of Qur’an. For example, Muslims believe in existence of spirits called the genies or the jinn. Sir Syed disbelieved in genies and interpreted metaphorically the verses of Qur’an mentioning Prophet Muhammad’s (bless him and his posterity) encounters with these spirits. He refused to believe in seven heavens. Again, it was some allegorical mystery for him. He also intervened in several jurisprudential problems and differed from the mainstream fiqht.
The job Sir Syed wished to perform was to purify Qur’an from israiliyat or the biblical accounts Muslims had begun using to explain certain Qur’anic stories. His concerns were appreciable. For instance, some Muslims still believe that Adam was banished from heavens because he approached the Forbidden Tree however this is the biblical interpretation of the Fall story. Qur’an has explicitly mentioned Adam’s migration to earth after his approach being forgiven by the Almighty. Another example is the story that Jacob fooled his father to become a prophet when Isaac had intended his blessings for his beloved Esau. There are accounts of Abraham lying three times and passing Sarah as his sister in Egypt. And how one can forget the Deluge? Nowhere in Qur’an it is stated that the Flood was universal. Qur’an speaks of it as a punishment for Noah’s nation; it never takes the entire human population into consideration. So, Sir Syed was writing against these Bible-based distortions of Qur’an’s intellectual messages and mythical (pseudo-historical) interpretation of its moral stories.
But the problem was many of these false legends attributed to God’s Word claim origins from the hadiths or the sayings Muhammad was reported to had uttered. Sir Syed was never lacking in his love and trust for Allah’s final apostle. No matter how scientific you get, Muhammad is still the infallible intellectual protagonist you can proudly represent before a westernized world as the perfect example for mankind to follow. So, Sir Syed selected the one option he stumbled upon i.e. rejection of such hadiths. He totally denied submitting before this kind of tafsir or exegesis of Qur’an and used science to understand the Book of the Lord. There were no miracles in this world, as per Sir Syed’s analysis. God runs this universe according to His principles which we call the laws of physics. Science is what God created so we couldn’t dare speak against science, was Sir Syed’s version of Islam.
Thus, one can understand that the accounts of Adam and Eve, the Creationism, the Forbidden Tree, the Original Sin and the Fall of Man were legends in the eyes of Sir Syed. Iqbal, when studied these stories, followed suite.
Iqbal had a PhD in philosophy from the Munich University for his treatise on Persian metaphysics. There’s even a street in Heidelberg (Germany) named after him. Iqbal was once invited by the Italian fascist dictator Mussolini for a brief interview. This respect the Poet of the East commanded in the West was not only because of his poetry (for example, his Secrets of the Self) but mainly due to his philosophical outlooks. The ideas he’s discussed in his verses may be more in number but of lesser magnitude than the ones he communicated to the public via his discourses. These lectures have been compiled as a book known as Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. The chapter hereby being explained is the Conception of God and the Meaning of Prayer.
According to Iqbal, there exists a general “Qur’anic method of complete or partial transformation of legends in order to besoul them with new ideas”. For evidence, he provides with the example of the Fall story and compares its biblical and Qur’anic versions.
“But the clue to a better understanding of our difficulty is given in the legend relating to what is called the Fall of Man. In this legend the Qur’an partly retains the ancient symbols, but the legend is materially transformed with a view to put an entirely fresh meaning into it.” Observe how Iqbal repeatedly calls the account of Adam a legend. “The Qur’anic method of complete or partial transformation of legends in order to besoul them with new ideas, and thus to adapt them to the advancing spirit of time, is an important point which has nearly always been overlooked both by Muslim and non-Muslim students of Islam. The object of the Qur’an in dealing with these legends is seldom historical; it nearly always aims at giving them a universal moral or philosophical import.” This is the most important part where Iqbal denies any historical value of the Fall story. “And it achieves this object by omitting the names of persons and localities which tend to limit the meaning of a legend by giving it the colour of a specific historical event, and also by deleting details which appear to belong to a different order of feeling. This is not an uncommon method of dealing with legends. It is common in non-religious literature. An instance in point is the legend of Faust, to which the touch of Goethe’s genius has given a wholly new meaning.”
“It is, indeed, impossible to demarcate the stages of its growth, and to set out clearly the various human motives which must have worked in its slow transformation.” This sentence certainly implies that the story of Fall got distorted with time and people inserted their own typical ideas in it in to explain the mystery of our species’ origin.
“But confining ourselves to the Semitic form of the myth… ” The choice of words to describe the Fall story clearly displays Iqbal’s incredulity and his doubts over Creationism.
“… it is highly probable that it arose out of the primitive man’s desire to explain to himself the infinite misery of his plight in an uncongenial environment… ” Iqbal’s direct attempt here is to discredit the biblical outlook of the Fall account where Adam is sent on earth as a punishment for the Original Sin and the entire human population is subjected to misery because of their ancestor’s alleged crime. The poet here has accurately unmasked the human elements responsible for creating the whole legend of the Original Sin which Qur’an has so justly denied. As Iqbal understands, Qur’an defends Adam and Eve when both are charged with the offense, unlike Pentateuch where the woman has been accused of making her man disobey the Lord. Similarly, Qur’an mentions God’s forgiveness before Adam’s Fall. Thus, in Qur’anic version of this story, human migration to earth did not occur due to God’s wrath rather because of God’s “big plan” for His beloved creatures.
But the story of Genesis today’s Jews and Christians adhere to represents humans in a very miserable light when it says:
To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Compare the biblical account with the Qur’anic one.
But Satan caused them to slip out of it and removed them from that [condition] in which they had been. And We said, “Go down, [all of you], as enemies to one another, and you will have upon the earth a place of settlement and provision for a time.” Then Adam received from his Lord [some] words, and He accepted his repentance. Indeed, it is He who is the Accepting of repentance, the Merciful. We said, “Go down from it, all of you. And when guidance comes to you from Me, whoever follows My guidance – there will be no fear concerning them, nor will they grieve.
“Having no control over the forces of Nature, a pessimistic view of life was perfectly natural to him.” Here again Iqbal refers to the biblical legend where man accuse his foremost ancestor Adam for sinning against God and bringing misfortune over his descendants.
“Thus, in an old Babylonian inscription, we find the serpent (phallic symbol), the tree, and the woman offering an apple (symbol of virginity) to the man.” Iqbal has undoubtedly studied the Babylonian (more precisely, Sumerian) origins of all Semitic religions. The story of Fall is not unique with Bible or Qur’an, neither is the account of Flood. Both legends are traceable as far as 2,000 BC. Any student of ancient Mesopotamian civilizations can narrate the characteristic features of the myths of Gilgamesh. Similarly, as Iqbal speaks, the story of Fall existed long before rabbis wrote down the Law. Iqbal accuses Bible of retelling an allegoric story in pure historical terms, thereby ruining its moral lessons and misleading the believers in assuming the Fall to be an actual historic event. He appreciates Qur’an of preserving Fall’s philosophical display.
“The way in which the Qur’an handles this legend becomes clear when we compare it with the narration of the Book of Genesis. The remarkable points of difference between the Qur’anic and the Biblical narrations suggest unmistakably the purpose of the Qur’anic narration.” The purpose of Qur’anic narration is to analyze the story of Fall philosophically. Iqbal once more denies any historical value of the Fall account – he has called it a myth or a legend multiple times – and insists that the characters of Adam and Eve were never meant to be created as mankind’s biological ancestors. For Iqbal, Qur’an considers Adam to be precursor to human civilization.
“The Qur’an omits the serpent and the rib-story altogether.” The former omission was designed to “free the story from its phallic setting”. As any religious researcher is aware, the phallus is one of the most ancient deities in mankind’s history. From India to Egypt, the male and female genitalia were worshiped as means of reproduction which they certainly still are. It was just like worshiping sun because it the largest source of heat and light for us earthlings or worshiping fire because it keeps wild beasts away from a human gathering. That’s how ancient religions developed. But, in Iqbal’s view, God didn’t reveal His final words in order to repeat such ancient myths. That’s why Qur’an has omitted all references to the serpent and the rib-story. One can argue that the serpent of Bible and the Satan of Qur’an are the same beings or Qur’an also mentions Eve’s birth from Adam. O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul and created from it its mate (Q. 4:1).
Here one may attempt to elaborate Iqbal’s vision of Qur’anic metaphors. Bible narrates the story of a serpent actually entering Adam’s physical paradise and spoiling his future. Qur’an represents Satan as an entity that seeks to spark evil in the hearts of man. The Qur’anic “serpent” is a more spiritual being. Similarly, Qur’an never states that Eve was created from Adam’s rib. The verse quoted above can be interpreted in many different ways. According to one theory, God created Eve from Adam’s leftover clay,