The Great Thinker Muhammad Iqbal


A day after a brutal attack on not only a French satirical newspaper but on the very notion of freedom of speech, it’s inevitable that haters will turn around and attack all of Islam.   Islamophobes have more in common with Islamic extremists than with true lovers of freedom.   There have been attacks on Mosques in France, and Muslims again find the neanderthals attacking their religion because a few extremists committed an atrocious attack.

Rather than argue about that, I think it’s important to recognize great Islam has a history that includes tolerance, openness and sophisticated philosophical thought.  One of the greats is Muhammad Iqbal, 1877-1938.

Known primarily as a gifted poet, and knighted by King George V, Iqbar’s religious thinking is something that should be taken seriously in the Muslim world.   Iqbar was shaped in part by his time.   He lived in India under British rule (in the Punjab province, now part of Pakistan), and saw the exploitation and ruthlessness of colonial control.  Yet he studied law in Great Britain and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy in Germany.

His religious thinking centers around how to reconcile the religious traditions of Islam in a modern world increasingly dictated by western norms and power.

He held on to deep religious convictions.  He believed in God, and felt that Muslims should have a community where religion is public – not a separation of church and state as in the West.   That makes sense, given how community oriented Islam is.  It is a religious of practice, not just faith.  Yet he admired western tolerance, science, and open thought.  He was heartened that the West adopted what he saw as Islamic values of freedom and equality.

Respect for Islam does not require giving up western traditions of freedom of the speech.  Nothing justifies the attack, nothing justifies self-censorship out of fear.

Respect for Islam does not require giving up western traditions of freedom of the speech. Nothing justifies the attack, nothing justifies self-censorship out of fear.


At one point Muslims had seen Christian Europeans as barbaric and uncivilized.  When the crusades took Jerusalem, Muslims were told “convert or die.”  Christian Europe lacked the technology, science and sophisticated learning of the Islamic world.  Yet by the 1700s that was all changing, and soon the West dominated.

Iqbal was the first to argue for a separate Muslim state in India.   He assumed the Muslim state would be an ally of India, even helping protect it from invasion.   As a deeply religious man, he believed that the spiritual core of Islam could lead the faithful to liberation and what one might call self-actualization.  He believed in a global Ummah, or community of believers.

Yet there was no desire to see other religions as enemies.  He accepted that there were other religions, even while believing in a conservative version of his own.

Iqbal is one of many Muslim thinkers who responded to the challenge of the West – how to maintain traditions in a new world, one now defined by globalization.   Almost all the great Muslim thinkers refused to go the route of seeing the West as the enemy, the challenge to them was to not let their faith get stifled by modernization and secularism.

The terrorists and extremists are not at all indicative of Islamic traditions or thinking.   They are reactionaries, hating the West and fearing change.  Sometimes we in the West feed their fear by bigotry, attacks on their religion, or refusal to understand or assimilate.   But what we need to do is help the vast majority of peaceful Muslims work through the challenge of adapting to modernism without sacrificing their spiritual faith.

Time is against the extremists.  Almost all Muslims are against the extremists, and the nature of Islam and its teachings over the years contradict the extremists.

  1. #1 by EyesOfTheArchitect on January 9, 2015 - 03:54

    Recently a female Pakistani author, Eiynah, published an open letter to Ben Affleck that’s worth reading for an insider’s perspective. Eiynah was critical of Affleck’s comments (which are not unlike the perspective presented here). What’s especially troubling—and difficult to justify in a planetary civilisation that now possesses atomic weapons and space vehicles—is the nonexistance of womens’ rights and the persecution of gays and lesbians throughout the Middle East because of ancient ideology.

  2. #2 by SShiell on January 9, 2015 - 17:07

    David Brooks of the New York Times has an article out today that says in part,

    “Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.

    So this might be a teachable moment. As we are mortified by the slaughter of those writers and editors in Paris, it’s a good time to come up with a less hypocritical approach to our own controversial figures, provocateurs and satirists.

    The first thing to say, I suppose, is that whatever you might have put on your Facebook page yesterday, it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo. Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.

    We might have started out that way. When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to “épater la bourgeoisie,” to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs.

    But after a while that seems puerile. Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others. (Ridicule becomes less fun as you become more aware of your own frequent ridiculousness.) Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.

    Yet, at the same time, most of us know that provocateurs and other outlandish figures serve useful public roles. Satirists and ridiculers expose our weakness and vanity when we are feeling proud. They puncture the self-puffery of the successful. They level social inequality by bringing the mighty low. When they are effective they help us address our foibles communally, since laughter is one of the ultimate bonding experiences.”

    Lenny Bruce was famous in his day for attacking what was hypocritical in our daily life and he was attacked in the courts of the day for being controversial. Others have been on that cutting edge, (Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Smothers Brothers, etc.) taking on the cultural icons of the day and bringing the cutting edge of humor to bring to light the idiocy of their position. And somehow that is bad? I guess it is when it attacks a cultural icon you have some personal investment. But I don’t see people dying or being threatened with violence for displaying “Piss Christ” and other examples of art.

    So today, I will applaud those organizations but for their courage to attack the cultural icons of todays world that need to be brought out into the light of day. And it makes you wonder – If Muhammad and his ideology truly needs someone to do violence on his behalf in order to garner “respect”, then maybe his worth to the world is not what it seems.

    • #3 by Scott Erb on January 9, 2015 - 17:25

      It’s heartening to see how people line up to defy any attack on our freedom of expression. But it’s not Islam that is the problem – most Muslims are not much different than anyone else – and historically this kind of extremism is rare. What this really is, is a cultural shock to peoples kept in pre-modern ways thanks to the brutal Ottoman Empire followed by colonialism, now being whiplashed into the 21st Century. The West took its time, went through slavery, women not allowed to vote, slow change as enlightenment values grew. This is happening at warp speed in the Arab world thanks to globalization. But time is against the extremists.

      • #4 by SShiell on January 11, 2015 - 10:09

        Islam may not be the problem, Scott, but there seems to be a single common thread connecting all of these “terror” groups (ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, etc.) and that is – wait for it – Islam.

        Also I would like to think the Muslim enlightenment is evident but I do not see it occurring anywhere in that world. In fact, I see where societies that once had a more secular face bending more and more to the radical – Turkey for example. So as far as your “warp speed” enlightenment is concerned, where do you see this taking shape in the Muslim world? Where women’s rights are on the upsurge in the Muslim world? Where peoples of all faiths can live and practice their faiths without fear? Iran? Iraq? Saudi Arabia? Egypt? Where is this warp speed you are talking about?

  3. #5 by Scott Erb on January 11, 2015 - 10:17

    Be patient. Remember – the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful, devout and good. And as a great religion, it’s not going to disappear. It will modernize – Christianity has a brutal history but got through it. People use religion for their political or cultural means. But modernization is a force that is hard to stop. Small steps.

    • #6 by SShiell on January 11, 2015 - 11:39

      I am very aware of Christianity’s violent past. And if I ever forget, I can always depend upon a site like this to remind me. And I never implied Islam will ever disappear. I am just very curious about this “warp speed” enlightenment you spoke of and have mentioned one more than one occasion. Where is this enlightenment occurring in the Muslim world? Warp speed or no.

  4. #7 by Scott Erb on January 11, 2015 - 11:59

    Globalization, trade, materialism, expectations about individual rights, technology, the internet – that’s being thrust on the Arab world. For the culture to digest that, change, and plot their own path – that’s going to be a generational shift. The external influence is coming at them at warp speed, the internal processing and transformation is going to take longer. We’re likely in for more violence from the reactionaries before we see true change. It’s just starting.

    • #8 by SShiell on January 11, 2015 - 15:22

      So all of this “warp speed” enlightenment in the Muslim world talk is really just wishful thinking on your part. You are hoping the external influences you speak about will bring about this enlightenment – and hopefully faster rather than slower. If that be true than next time please couch your words to reflect these hopes instead of making it seem like a done deal.

  5. #9 by Scott Erb on January 11, 2015 - 18:06

    Here is what I wrote: “What this really is, is a cultural shock to peoples kept in pre-modern ways thanks to the brutal Ottoman Empire followed by colonialism, now being whiplashed into the 21st Century. The West took its time, went through slavery, women not allowed to vote, slow change as enlightenment values grew. This is happening at warp speed in the Arab world thanks to globalization.”

    What is happening at warp speed is the cultural shock – a dramatic change in life styles and expectations. The point is that you can’t expect a culture to go through that peacefully, and we ignore that these changes took hundreds of years in the West – often with considerable opposition! – and so we can’t expect them overnight in the Mideast. I point was that we should not expect enlightenment values to grow quickly, my point was the opposite of what you took it to be! There will be more violence, more terrorism, most of it in the Mideast as the reactionaries try to prevent the culture from adapting. But they will fail.

  6. #10 by SShiell on January 11, 2015 - 21:23

    “But they will fail.” You hope that is the case.

    • #11 by Scott Erb on January 11, 2015 - 21:38

      I don’t think they have a chance. That’s why they want to provoke the West to over-react. The Arab people don’t want that kind of puritan extremism. But when, say, the US was at war in Iraq, they found it easier to recruit because they could sell it via a kind of nationalism – we have to fight the enemy! They extremists want it to be Islam vs. the West, but it’s really within the Islamic world. As long as the West doesn’t give into fear, and denigrate the entire religion, humans there, as everywhere, will prefer freedom to control. After all, that’s the Islamic tradition: freedom and equality, key teachings of Muhammad.

      • #12 by SShiell on January 12, 2015 - 08:38

        “I don’t think they have a chance.” That’s what they said about the ’69 Mets!

      • #13 by Scott Erb on January 12, 2015 - 08:50

        Yeah but they had Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and Tug McGraw.

  7. #14 by Scott Erb on January 14, 2015 - 15:42

    SSHiell, check this out. It destroys the argument that Muslims commit the most terror acts. Less than 2% of all terrorist attacks in Europe the last five years have been committed by Muslims. The fact is, FOX news and a lot of people on the right who specialize in fear and emotion have spread the “big lie” that Muslims are more likely to be terrorists and there is something different about them because of their religion.

    • #15 by SShiell on January 15, 2015 - 22:16

      “SSHiell, check this out. It destroys the argument that Muslims commit the most terror acts.”

      Great, and it might have some applicability but not to me – this is an discussion over a statement or claim I never made. And if you are trying to peddle a left-handed (pardon the pun) “They aren’t even real Muslims” argument, then try it somewhere else. That pig won’t fly!!!

      PS – Of all these non-religious violent acts, any of them include the Fort Hood “workplace violence” shooting? Just asking.

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