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 – 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,
“The latter omission is meant to suggest that the purpose of the Qur’anic narration is not historical, as in the case of the Old Testament, which gives us an account of the origin of the first human pair by way of a prelude to the history of Israel.” Iqbal has now clarified his viewpoint that Qur’anic Adam was not the biological ancestor of human beings rather.
“Indeed, in the verses which deal with the origin of man as a living being, the Qur’an uses the words Bashar or Insan, not Adam, which it reserves for man in his capacity of God’s vicegerent on earth.” In other words, man existed before Adam. Adam was the awakening of modern humans when they discovered the necessities of culture and the benefits of civilization. This statement of Iqbal is quite true in light of the Theory of Evolution and the failure of biblical missionaries to equally stand by their religious frenzies and the scientific revelations of the past five hundred years.
If we review the Evolution, we learn that man distinguished itself from the chimps some seven million years ago. It was the time when the genus homo parted its away from the genus pan. The genus homo was the prelude to the story of Adam. many species emerged and got extincted with the passage of time. There were Homo erectus, Homo habilis, Homo naledi, the Heidelberg people etc. The hobbits were the last to die before Homo sapiens. It was ten thousand years ago that Homo sapiens rose victorious in the battle of Natural Selection and won the tournament of the “survival of the fittest”. The man who came up with world’s first civilization was Iqbal’s Adam. He sees Adam and Eve not as two specific persons but as a particular era in human history in which people began to realize they were much more than simple animals; they realized they were God’s vicegerents of the planet earth!
Just look at the story of the Fall once more and you can see the unspoken factors Iqbal desired to put with his lecture. Adam’s creation was contested by the angels. That could be a sign towards Natural Selection. Adam overpowered angels with his knowledge. Iqbal calls this the occult or the hidden secrets man learned before outsmarting other biological beings on earth. Adam approached the Forbidden Tree when he wasn’t supposed to do that. Iqbal calls it man’s first free choice. Man started to make his own complex decisions. So Iqbal has found multiple metaphors in the Qur’anic narration of the Fall.
“The word Adam is retained and used more as a concept than as the name of a concrete human individual.” Voila! No words can describe the vision of Iqbal better than this sentence. Adam was, Iqbal notes, more than a concept than an actual historic human being. Iqbal’s Adam was a genre in human history.
“The Old Testament curses the earth for Adam’s act of disobedience… ” As we have seen in the verses quoted above. Iqbal further says: “Nor does the Qur’an regard the earth as a torture-hall where an elementally wicked humanity is imprisoned for an original act of sin.”
“Nor is there any reason to suppose that the word Jannat (garden) as used here means the supersensual paradise from which man is supposed to have fallen on this earth. According to the Qur’an, man is not a stranger on this earth. “And We have caused you to grow from the earth”, says the Qur’an.” In other words, Iqbal has accepted the truth of the Evolution. Adam fell from the heavens above but Iqbal believes that the jannat referred to in Qur’an is not the paradise where the well-doers shall go on the Day of Resurrection. He also denies that Adam was anywhere out of earth when he approached the Forbidden Tree. Thus, Iqbal’s jannat was somewhere on our planet. His Adam had been inhabiting the world long before the Fall. The entire episode of the Fall occurred right here on earth because, as Iqbal believes, the story of Adam is a mere reflection upon the awakening of a civilized human population.
Qur’an says that human has grown from the earth. What other example of the Evolution mentioned in the Holy Writ can there be? That’s how Iqbal’s words are impressing me right now. Read this sentence again: “According to the Qur’an, man is not a stranger on this earth. “
“The Jannat, mentioned in the legend, cannot mean the eternal abode of the righteous.” The jannat from where Adam came from exists right before our own eyes.
“In the Jannat mentioned in the legend, however, the very first event that took place was man’s sin of disobedience followed by his expulsion.” Qur’an explicitly states that there will be nothing improper in the heavens where the believers are meant to reside forever. The jannat where Adam could sin against God can’t be the jannat mentioned in Qur’an as mankind’s eternal abode. The concept Iqbal has communicated is not a novel one. There are certain Muslim scholars who believe that Adam didn’t live in the actual jannat or the Adam mentioned in Qur’an is someone else than the father of all humans.
“In the second episode of the legend the garden is described as a place “where there is neither hunger, nor thirst, neither heat nor nakedness.” I am, therefore, inclined to think that the Jannat in the Qur’anic narration is the conception of a primitive state in which man is practically unrelated to his environment and consequently does not feel the sting of human wants the birth of which alone marks the beginning of human culture.” hence, the epitome of our analysis or rather Iqbal’s analysis. According to Iqbal, Qur’an narrates the story of mankind’s transition from the state of ignorance to that of knowledge. The primitive state of early humans has been denoted as a garden because mankind was ignorant of its rightful place in the cosmic structure. Adam symbolizes the moment man realized the importance of civilization. In short, the Fall of Man, in Qur’anic terms, is the rise of man in evolutionary biology.
“Thus we see that the Qur’anic legend of the Fall has nothing to do with the first appearance of man on this planet. Its purpose is rather to indicate man’s rise from a primitive state of instinctive appetite to the conscious possession of a free self, capable of doubt and disobedience.” Whereas Torah’s account of the Fall has everything to do with the first appearance of man on this planet. However, as Iqbal has declared, Qur’an mentions the existence of humans long before Adam and Eve. The pre-Adam man was an animal, capable only of surviving and reproducing like all other biological entities. Adam is the moment when man began to reason. He became capable of observation and deduction. He began to understand his problems and look for their solutions. Analysis and deduction became his new tools of survival. Thus, Adam was the first modern human on earth.
Now, these are all the point we can deduce from this lecture of Iqbal:
• Humans inhabited earth before the appearance of Adam and Eve. Qur’an never states that Adam and Eve were the first human beings ever created.
• Adam and Eve were not two individuals rather the pair is a representation of human civilization. The Fall of Adam symbolizes the awakening of human consciousness.
• The Garden of Eden exists right here on earth and is a different place than the heavens where the good souls will reside.
This article is not a criticism of Iqbal rather some of the ideas he discusses are praiseworthy. His example closely resembles Sir Syed whom all Pakistanis remember with reverence but whose religious beliefs are rejected and condemned. Iqbal’s personality held many diversities. He was a Sunni Muslims yet his adoration of Ali (d. 661), the first cousin of Prophet Muhammad (bless him and his posterity), and Fatimah (d. 632), the beloved daughter of Allah’s Apostle, is a Shia trait in nature. He supported democracy but was a great admirer of Nikolai Lenin. He is supposed to be the originator of the idea of Pakistan but his patriotic poems about a United Hindustan are still popular in India.
In short, Iqbal was a wonderful man and, just like all wonderful men, he had his faults to balance his virtues.