The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam
by Dr. Muhammad Iqbal
The Spirit of Muslim Culture
‘Muhammad of Arabia ascended the highest Heaven and returned. I swear by God that if I had reached that point, I should never have returned.’1 These are the words of a great Muslim saint, ‘AbdulQuddus of Gangoh. In the whole range of Sufi literature it will be probably difficult to find words which, in a single sentence, disclose such an acute perception of the psychological difference between the prophetic and the mystic types of consciousness. The mystic does not wish to return from the repose of ‘unitary experience’; and even when he does return, as he must, his return does not mean much for mankind at large. The prophet’s return is creative. He returns to insert himself into the sweep of time with a view to control the forces of history, and thereby to create a fresh world of ideals. For the mystic the repose of ‘unitary experience’ is something final; for the prophet it is the awakening, within him, of world-shaking psychological forces, calculated to completely transform the human world. The desire to see his religious experience transformed into a living world-force is supreme in the prophet. Thus his return amounts to a kind of pragmatic test of the value of his religious experience. In its creative act the prophet’s will judges both itself and the world of concrete fact in which it endeavours to objectify itself. In penetrating the impervious material before him the prophet discovers himself for himself, and unveils himself to the eye of history. Another way of judging the value of a prophet’s religious experience, therefore, would be to examine the type of manhood that he has created, and the cultural world that has sprung out of the spirit of his message. In this lecture I want to confine myself to the latter alone. The idea is not to give you a description of the achievements of Islam in the domain of knowledge. I want rather to fix your gaze on some of the ruling concepts of the culture of Islam in order to gain an insight into the process of ideation that underlies them, and thus to catch a glimpse of the soul that found expression through them. Before, however, I proceed to do so it is necessary to understand the cultural value of a great idea in Islam – I mean the finality of the institution of prophethood.2
A prophet may be defined as a type of mystic consciousness in which ‘unitary experience’ tends to overflow its boundaries, and seeks opportunities of redirecting or refashioning the forces of collective life. In his personality the finite centre of life sinks into his own infinite depths only to spring up again, with fresh vigour, to destroy the old, and to disclose the new directions of life. This contact with the root of his own being is by no means peculiar to man. Indeed the way in which the word Wahi (inspiration) is used in the Qur’an shows that the Qur’an regards it as a universal property of life;3 though its nature and character are different at different stages of the evolution of life. The plant growing freely in space, the animal developing a new organ to suit a new environment, and a human being receiving light from the inner depths of life, are all cases of inspiration varying in character according to the needs of the recipient, or the needs of the species to which the recipient belongs. Now during the minority of mankind psychic energy develops what I call prophetic consciousness – a mode of economizing individual thought and choice by providing ready-made judgements, choices, and ways of action. With the birth of reason and critical faculty, however, life, in its own interest, inhibits the formation and growth of non-rational modes of consciousness through which psychic energy flowed at an earlier stage of human evolution. Man is primarily governed by passion and instinct. Inductive reason, which alone makes man master of his environment, is an achievement; and when once born it must be reinforced by inhibiting the growth of other modes of knowledge. There is no doubt that the ancient world produced some great systems of philosophy at a time when man was comparatively primitive and governed more or less by suggestion. But we must not forget that this system-building in the ancient world was the work of abstract thought which cannot go beyond the systematization of vague religious beliefs and traditions, and gives us no hold on the concrete situations of life.
Looking at the matter from this point of view, then, the Prophet of Islam seems to stand between the ancient and the modern world. In so far as the source of his revelation is concerned he belongs to the ancient world; in so far as the spirit of his revelation is concerned he belongs to the modern world. In him life discovers other sources of knowledge suitable to its new direction. The birth of Islam, as I hope to be able presently to prove to your satisfaction, is the birth of inductive intellect. In Islam prophecy reaches its perfection in discovering the need of its own abolition.4 This involves the keen perception that life cannot for ever be kept in leading strings; that, in order to achieve full self-consciousness, man must finally be thrown back on his own resources. The abolition of priesthood and hereditary kingship in Islam, the constant appeal to reason and experience in the Qur’an, and the emphasis that it lays on Nature and History as sources of human knowledge, are all different aspects of the same idea of finality. The idea, however, does not mean that mystic experience, which qualitatively does not differ from the experience of the prophet, has now ceased to exist as a vital fact. Indeed the Qur’an regards both Anfus (self) and afaq (world) as sources of knowledge.5 God reveals His signs in inner as well as outer experience, and it is the duty of man to judge the knowledge-yielding capacity of all aspects of experience. The idea of finality, therefore, should not be taken to suggest that the ultimate fate of life is complete displacement of emotion by reason. Such a thing is neither possible nor desirable. The intellectual value of the idea is that it tends to create an independent critical attitude towards mystic experience by generating the belief that all personal authority, claiming a supernatural origin, has come to an end in the history of man. This kind of belief is a psychological force which inhibits the growth of such authority. The function of the idea is to open up fresh vistas of knowledge in the domain of man’s inner experience. Just as the first half of the formula of Islam6 has created and fostered the spirit of a critical observation of man’s outer experience by divesting the forces of nature of that Divine character with which earlier cultures had clothed them. Mystic experience, then, however unusual and abnormal, must now be regarded by a Muslim as a perfectly natural experience, open to critical scrutiny like other aspects of human experience. This is clear from the Prophet’s own attitude towards Ibn Sayyad’s psychic experiences.7 The function of Sufism in Islam has been to systematize mystic experience; though it must be admitted that Ibn Khaldun was the only Muslim who approached it in a thoroughly scientific spirit.8
But inner experience is only one source of human knowledge. According to the Qur’an, there are two other sources of knowledge – Nature and History; and it is in tapping these sources of knowledge that the spirit of Islam is seen at its best. The Qur’an sees signs of the Ultimate Reality in the ‘sun’, the ‘moon’, ‘the lengthening out of shadows’, ‘the alternation of day and night’, ‘the variety of human colours and tongues’,10 ‘the alternation of the days of success and reverse among peoples’ – in fact in the whole of Nature as revealed to the sense-perception of man. And the Muslim’s duty is to reflect on these signs and not to pass by them ‘as if he is dead and blind’, for he ‘who does not see these signs in this life will remain blind to the realities of the life to come’.9 This appeal to the concrete combined with the slow realization that, according to the teachings of the Qur’an, the universe is dynamic in its origin, finite and capable of increase, eventually brought Muslim thinkers into conflict with Greek thought which, in the beginning of their intellectual career, they had studied with so much enthusiasm. Not realizing that the spirit of the Qur’an was essentially anti-classical, and putting full confidence in Greek thinkers, their first impulse was to understand the Qur’an in the light of Greek philosophy. In view of the concrete spirit of the Qur’an, and the speculative nature of Greek philosophy which enjoyed theory and was neglectful of fact, this attempt was foredoomed to failure. And it is what follows their failure that brings out the real spirit of the culture of Islam, and lays the foundation of modern culture in some of its most important aspects.
This intellectual revolt against Greek philosophy manifests itself in all departments of thought. I am afraid I am not competent enough to deal with it as it discloses itself in Mathematics, Astronomy, and Medicine. It is clearly visible in the metaphysical thought of the Ash‘arite, but appears as a most well-defined phenomenon in the Muslim criticism of Greek Logic. This was only natural; for dissatisfaction with purely speculative philosophy means the search for a surer method of knowledge. It was, I think, Nazzm who first formulated the principle of ‘doubt’ as the beginning of all knowledge. Ghazzali further amplified it in his ‘Revivification of the Sciences of Religion’,10 and prepared the way for ‘Descartes’ Method’. But Ghazzali remained on the whole a follower of Aristotle in Logic. In his Qistas he puts some of the Quranic arguments in the form of Aristotelian figures,11 but forgets the Quranic Surah known as Shu’ara’ where the proposition that retribution follows the gainsaying of prophets is established by the method of simple enumeration of historical instances. It was Ishraqi and Ibn Taimiyyah who undertook a systematic refutation of Greek Logic.12 Abu Bakr Razi was perhaps the first to criticize Aristotle’s first figure,13 and in our own times his objection, conceived in a thoroughly inductive spirit, has been reformulated by John Stuart Mill. Ibn Aazm, in his ‘Scope of Logic’,14 emphasizes sense-perception as a source of knowledge; and Ibn Taimiyyah in his ‘Refutation of Logic’, shows that induction is the only form of reliable argument. Thus arose the method of observation and experiment. It was not a merely theoretical affair. Al-Biruni’s discovery of what we call reaction-time and al-Kindi’s discovery that sensation is proportionate to the stimulus, are instances of its application in psychology.15 It is a mistake to suppose that the experimental method is a European discovery. Da hring tells us that Roger Bacon’s conceptions of science are more just and clear than those of his celebrated namesake. And where did Roger Bacon receive his scientific training? – In the Muslim universities of Spain. Indeed Part V of his Opus Majus which is devoted to ‘Perspective’ is practically a copy of Ibn Haitham’s Optics.16 Nor is the book, as a whole, lacking in evidences of Ibn Hazm’s influence on its author.17 Europe has been rather slow to recognize the Islamic origin of her scientific method. But full recognition of the fact has at last come. Let me quote one or two passages from Briffault’s Making of Humanity,
‘. . . it was under their successors at that Oxford school that Roger Bacon learned Arabic and Arabic science. Neither Roger Bacon nor his later namesake has any title to be credited with having introduced the experimental method. Roger Bacon was no more than one of the apostles of Muslim science and method to Christian Europe; and he never wearied of declaring that a knowledge of Arabic and Arabian science was for his contemporaries the only way to true knowledge. Discussions as to who was the originator of the experimental method . . . are part of the colossal misrepresentation of the origins of European civilization. The experimental method of the Arabs was by Bacon’s time widespread and eagerly cultivated throughout Europe’ (pp. 200-01). . . .
‘Science is the most momentous contribution of Arab civilization to the modern world, but its fruits were slow in ripening. Not until long after Moorish culture had sunk back into darkness did the giant to which it had given birth rise in his might. It was not science which brought Europe back to life. Other and manifold influences from the civilization of Islam communicated its first glow to European life’ (p. 202).
‘For although there is not a single aspect of European growth in which the decisive influence of Islamic culture is not traceable, nowhere is it so clear and momentous as in the genesis of that power which constitutes the paramount distinctive force of the modern world, and the supreme source of its victory – natural science and the scientific spirit’ (p. 190).
‘The debt of our science to that of the Arabs does not consist in startling discoveries or revolutionary theories; science owes a great deal more to Arab culture, it owes its existence. The ancient world was, as we saw, pre-scientific. The astronomy and mathematics of the Greek were a foreign importation never thoroughly acclimatized in Greek culture. The Greeks systematized, generalized, and theorized, but the patient ways of investigation, the accumulation of positive knowledge, the minute methods of science, detailed and prolonged observation, experimental inquiry, were altogether alien to the Greek temperament. Only in Hellenistic Alexandria was any approach to scientific work conducted in the ancient classical world. What we call science arose in Europe as a result of a new spirit of inquiry, of new methods of investigation, of the method of experiment, observation, measurement, of the development of mathematics in a form unknown to the Greeks. That spirit and those methods were introduced into the European world by the Arabs’ (p. 191).
The first important point to note about the spirit of Muslim culture then is that, for purposes of knowledge, it fixes its gaze on the concrete, the finite. It is further clear that the birth of the method of observation and experiment in Islam was due not to a compromise with Greek thought but to a prolonged intellectual warfare with it. In fact, the influence of the Greeks who, as Briffault says, were interested chiefly in theory, not in fact, tended rather to obscure the Muslims’ vision of the Qur’an, and for at least two centuries kept the practical Arab temperament from asserting itself and coming to its own. I want, therefore, definitely to eradicate the misunderstanding that Greek thought, in any way, determined the character of Muslim culture. Part of my argument you have seen; part you will see presently.
Knowledge must begin with the concrete. It is the intellectual capture of and power over the concrete that makes it possible for the intellect of man to pass beyond the concrete. As the Qur’an says:
‘O company of djinn and men, if you can overpass the bounds of the heaven and the earth, then overpass them. But by power alone shall ye overpass them’ (55:33).
But the universe, as a collection of finite things, presents itself as a kind of island situated in a pure vacuity to which time, regarded as a series of mutually exclusive moments, is nothing and does nothing. Such a vision of the universe leads the reflecting mind nowhere. The thought of a limit to perceptual space and time staggers the mind. The finite, as such, is an idol obstructing the movement of the mind; or, in order to overpass its bounds, the mind must overcome serial time and the pure vacuity of perceptual space. ‘And verily towards thy God is the limit’, says the Qur’an.18 This verse embodies one of the deepest thoughts in the Qur’an; for it definitely suggests that the ultimate limit is to be sought not in the direction of stars, but in an infinite cosmic life and spirituality. Now the intellectual journey towards this ultimate limit is long and arduous; and in this effort, too, the thought of Islam appears to have moved in a direction entirely different to the Greeks. The ideal of the Greeks, as Spengler tells us, was proportion, not infinity. The physical presentness of the finite with its well-defined limits alone absorbed the mind of the Greeks. In the history of Muslim culture, on the other hand, we find that both in the realms of pure intellect and religious psychology, by which term I mean higher Sufism, the ideal revealed is the possession and enjoyment of the Infinite. In a culture, with such an attitude, the problem of space and time becomes a question of life and death. In one of these lectures I have already given you some idea of the way in which the problem of time and space presented itself to Muslim thinkers, especially the Ash‘arite. One reason why the atomism of Democritus never became popular in the world of Islam is that it involves the assumption of an absolute space. The Ash‘arite were, therefore, driven to develop a different kind of atomism, and tried to overcome the difficulties of perceptual space in a manner similar to modern atomism. On the side of Mathematics it must be remembered that since the days of Ptolemy (A.D. 87-165) till the time of Nasir Tusi (A.D. 120-74)nobody gave serious thought to the difficulties of demonstrating the certitude of Euclid’s parallel postulate on the basis of perceptual space.19 It was Tusi who first disturbed the calm which had prevailed in the world of Mathematics for a thousand years; and in his effort to improve the postulate realized the necessity of abandoning perceptual space. He thus furnished a basis, however slight, for the hyperspace movement of our time.20 It was, however, al-Biruni who, in his approach to the modern mathematical idea of function saw, from a purely scientific point of view, the insufficiency of a static view of the universe. This again is a clear departure from the Greek view. The function-idea introduces the element of time in our world-picture. It turns the fixed into the variable, and sees the universe not as being but as becoming. Spengler thinks that the mathematical idea of function is the symbol of the West of which ‘no other culture gives even a hint’.21 In view of al-Biruni, generalizing Newton’s formula of interpolation from trignometrical function to any function whatever.22 Spengler’s claim has no foundation in fact. The transformation of the Greek concept of number from pure magnitude to pure relation really began with Khwarizmis movement from Arithmetic to Algebra.23 al-Biruni took a definite step forward towards what Spengler describes as chronological number which signifies the mind’s passage from being to becoming. Indeed, more recent developments in European mathematics tend rather to deprive time of its living historical character, and to reduce it to a mere representation of space. That is why Whitehead’s view of Relativity is likely to appeal to Muslim students more than that of Einstein in whose theory time loses its character of passage and mysteriously translates itself into utter space.24a
Side by side with the progress of mathematical thought in Islam we find the idea of evolution gradually shaping itself. It was Ja`hiz who was the first to note the changes in bird-life caused by migrations. Later Ibn Maskawaih who was a contemporary of al-Baruni gave it the shape of a more definite theory, and adopted it in his theological work – al-Fauz al-Asghar. I reproduce here the substance of his evolutionary hypothesis, not because of its scientific value, but because of the light which it throws on the direction in which Muslim thought was moving.
According to Ibn Maskawaih plant-life at the lowest stage of evolution does not need any seed for its birth and growth. Nor does it perpetuate its species by means of the seed. This kind of plant-life differs from minerals only in some little power of movement which grows in higher forms, and reveals itself further in that the plant spreads out its branches, and perpetuates its species by means of the seed. The power of movement gradually grows farther until we reach trees which possess a trunk, leaves, and fruit. At a higher stage of evolution stand forms of plant-life which need better soil and climate for their growth. The last stage of development is reached in vine and date-palm which stand, as it were, on the threshold of animal life. In the date-palm a clear sex-distinction appears. Besides roots and fibres it develops something which functions like the animal brain, on the integrity of which depends the life of the date-palm. This is the highest stage in the development of plant-life, and a prelude to animal life. The first forward step towards animal life is freedom from earth-rootedness which is the germ of conscious movement. This is the initial state of animality in which the sense of touch is the first, and the sense of sight is the last to appear. With the development of the senses of animal acquires freedom of movement, as in the case of worms, reptiles, ants, and bees. Animality reaches its perfection in the horse among quadrupeds and the falcon among birds, and finally arrives at the frontier of humanity in the ape which is just a degree below man in the scale of evolution. Further evolution brings physiological changes with a growing power of discrimination and spirituality until humanity passes from barbarism to civilization.24b
But it is really religious psychology, as in ‘Iraqi and Khwajah Muhammad Parsa,25 which brings us much nearer to our modern ways of looking at the problem of space and time. ‘Iraqi’s view of time-stratifications I have given you before.26 I will now give you the substance of his view of space.
According to ‘Iraqi the existence of some kind of space in relation to God is clear from the following verses of the Qur’an:
‘Dost thou not see that God knoweth all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth? Three persons speak not privately together, but He is their fourth; nor five, but He is their sixth; nor fewer nor more, but wherever they be He is with them’ (58:7).
‘Ye shall not be employed in affairs, nor shall ye read a text out of the Qur’an, nor shall ye do any work, but We will be witness over you when you are engaged therein; and the weight of an atom on earth or in heaven escapeth not thy Lord; nor is there aught27 that is less than this or greater, but it is in the Perspicuous Book’ (10:61).
‘We created man, and We know what his soul whispereth to him, and We are closer to him than his neck-vein’ (50:16).
But we must not forget that the words proximity, contact, and mutual separation which apply to material bodies do not apply to God. Divine life is in touch with the whole universe on the analogy of the soul’s contact with the body.28 The soul is neither inside nor outside the body; neither proximate to nor separate from it. Yet its contact with every atom of the body is real, and it is impossible to conceive this contact except by positing some kind of space which befits the subtleness of the soul. The existence of space in relation to the life of God, therefore, cannot be denied;29 only we should carefully define the kind of space which may be predicated of the Absoluteness of God. Now, there are three kinds of space – the space of material bodies, the space of immaterial beings, and the space of God.30 The space of material bodies is further divided into three kinds. First, the space of gross bodies of which we predicate roominess. In this space movement takes time, bodies occupy their respective places and resist displacement. Secondly, the space of subtle bodies, e.g. air and sound. In this space too bodies resist each other, and their movement is measurable in terms of time which, however, appears to be different to the time of gross bodies. The air in a tube must be displaced before other air can enter into it; and the time of sound-waves is practically nothing compared to the time of gross bodies. Thirdly, we have the space of light. The light of the sun instantly reaches the remotest limits of the earth. Thus in the velocity of light and sound time is reduced almost to zero. It is, therefore, clear that the space of light is different to the space of air and sound. There is, however, a more effective argument than this. The light of a candle spreads in all directions in a room without displacing the air in the room; and this shows that the space of light is more subtle than the space of air which has no entry into the space of light.31 In view of the close proximity of these spaces, however, it is not possible to distinguish the one from the other except by purely intellectual analysis and spiritual experience. Again, in the hot water the two opposites – fire and water – which appear to interpenetrate each other cannot, in view of their respective natures, exist in the same space.32 The fact cannot be explained except on the supposition that the spaces of the two substances, though closely proximate to each other, are nevertheless distinct. But while the element of distance is not entirely absent, there is no possibility of mutual resistance in the space of light. The light of a candle reaches up to a certain point only, and the lights of a hundred candles intermingle in the same room without displacing one another.
Having thus described the spaces of physical bodies possessing various degrees of subtleness ‘Iraqi proceeds briefly to describe the main varieties of space operated upon by the various classes of immaterial beings, e.g. angels. The element of distance is not entirely absent from these spaces; for immaterial beings, while they can easily pass through stone walls, cannot altogether dispense with motion which, according to ‘Iraqi, is evidence of imperfection in spirituality.33 The highest point in the scale of spatial freedom is reached by the human soul which, in its unique essence, is neither at rest nor in motion.34 Thus passing through the infinite varieties of space we reach the Divine space which is absolutely free from all dimensions and constitutes the meeting point of all infinities.35
From this summary of ‘Iraqi’s view you will see how a cultured Muslim Sufi`intellectually interpreted his spiritual experience of time and space in an age which had no idea of the theories and concepts of modern Mathematics and Physics. ‘Iraqi is really trying to reach the concept of space as a dynamic appearance. His mind seems to be vaguely struggling with the concept of space as an infinite continuum; yet he was unable to see the full implications of his thought partly because he was not a mathematician and partly because of his natural prejudice in favour of the traditional Aristotelian idea of a fixed universe. Again, the interpenetration of the super-spatial ‘here’ and super-eternal ‘now’ in the Ultimate Reality suggests the modern notion of space-time which Professor Alexander, in his lectures on ‘Space, Time, and Deity’, regards as the matrix of all things.36 A keener insight into the nature of time would have led ‘Iraqi to see that time is more fundamental of the two; and that it is not a mere metaphor to say, as Professor Alexander does say, that time is the mind of space.37 ‘Iraqi conceives God’s relation to the universe on the analogy of the relation of the human soul to the body;38 but, instead of philosophically reaching this position through a criticism of the spatial and temporal aspects of experience, he simply postulates it on the basis of his spiritual experience. It is not sufficient merely to reduce space and time to a vanishing point-instant. The philosophical path that leads to God as the omnipsyche of the universe lies through the discovery of living thought as the ultimate principle of space-time. ‘Iraqi’s mind, no doubt, moved in the right direction, but his Aristotelian prejudices, coupled with a lack of psychological analysis, blocked his progress. With his view that Divine Time is utterly devoid of change39 – a view obviously based on an inadequate analysis of conscious experience – it was not possible for him to discover the relation between Divine Time and serial time, and to reach, through this discovery, the essentially Islamic idea of continuous creation which means a growing universe.
Thus all lines of Muslim thought converge on a dynamic conception of the universe. This view is further reinforced by Ibn Maskawaih’s theory of life as an evolutionary movement, and Ibn Khaldun’s view of history. History or, in the language of the Qur’an, ‘the days of God’, is the third source of human knowledge according to the Qur’an. It is one of the most essential teachings of the Qur’an that nations are collectively judged, and suffer for their misdeeds here and now.40 In order to establish this proposition, the Qur’an constantly cites historical instances, and urges upon the reader to reflect on the past and present experience of mankind.
“Of old did We send Moses with Our signs, and said to him: ‘Bring forth thy people from the darkness into the light, and remind them of the days of God.” Verily, in this are signs for every patient, grateful person’ (14:5).
‘And among those whom We had created are a people who guide others with truth, and in accordance therewith act justly. But as for those who treat Our signs as lies, We gradually ring them down by means of which they know not; and though I lengthen their days, verily, My stratagem is effectual’ (7:181-83).
‘Already, before your time, have precedents been made. Traverse the Earth then, and see what hath been the end of those who falsify the signs of God!’ (3:137).
‘If a wound hath befallen you, a wound like it hath already befallen others; We alternate the days of successes and reverses among peoples’ (3:140).
‘Every nation hath its fixed period’ (7:34).41
The last verse is rather an instance of a more specific historical generalization which, in its epigrammatic formulation, suggests the possibility of a scientific treatment of the life of human societies regarded as organisms. It is, therefore, a gross error to think that the Qur’an has no germs of a historical doctrine. The truth is that the whole spirit of the ‘Prolegomena’ of Ibn Khaldun appears to have been mainly due to the inspiration which the author must have received from the Qur’an. Even in his judgements of character he is, in no small degree, indebted to the Qur’an. An instance in point is his long paragraph devoted to an estimate of the character of the Arabs as a people. The whole paragraph is a mere amplification of the following verses of the Qur’an:
‘The Arabs of the desert are most stout in unbelief and dissimulation; and likelier it is that they should be unaware of the laws which God hath sent down to His Apostle; and God is Knowing, Wise.
‘Of the Arabs of the desert there are some who reckon what they expend in the cause of God as tribute, and wait for some change of fortune to befall you: a change for evil shall befall them! God is the Hearer, the Knower’ (9:97-98).
However, the interest of the Qur’an in history, regarded as a source of human knowledge, extends farther than mere indications of historical generalizations. It has given us one of the most fundamental principles of historical criticism: Since accuracy in recording facts which constitute the material of history is an indispensable condition of history as a science, and an accurate knowledge of facts ultimately depends on those who report them, the very first principle of historical criticism is that the reporter’s personal character is an important factor in judging his testimony. The Qur’an says:
‘O believers! if any bad man comes to you with a report, clear it up at once’ (49:6).
It is the application of the principle embodied in this verse to the reporters of the Prophet’s traditions out of which were gradually evolved the canons of historical criticism. The growth of historical sense in Islam is a fascinating subject.42 The Quranic appeal to experience, the necessity to ascertain the exact sayings of the Prophet, and the desire to furnish permanent sources of inspiration to posterity – all these forces contributed to produce such men as Ibn Ishaq,43 Tabari,44 and Mas‘udi.45 But history, as an art of firing the reader’s imagination, is only a stage in the development of history as a genuine science. The possibility of a scientific treatment of history means a wider experience, a greater maturity of practical reason, and finally a fuller realization of certain basic ideas regarding the nature of life and time. These ideas are in the main two; and both form the foundation of the Quranic teaching.
1. The Unity of Human Origin. ‘And We have created you all from one breath of life’, says the Qur’an.46 But the perception of life as an organic unity is a slow achievement, and depends for its growth on a people’s entry into the main current of world-events. This opportunity was brought to Islam by the rapid development of a vast empire. No doubt, Christianity, long before Islam, brought the message of equality to mankind; but Christian Rome did not rise to the full apprehension of the idea of humanity as a single organism. As Flint rightly says, ‘No Christian writer and still less, of course, any other in the Roman Empire, can be credited with having had more than a general and abstract conception of human unity.’ And since the days of Rome the idea does not seem to have gained much in depth and rootage in Europe. On the other hand, the growth of territorial nationalism, with its emphasis on what is called national characteristics, has tended rather to kill the broad human element in the art and literature of Europe. It was quite otherwise with Islam. Here the idea was neither a concept of philosophy nor a dream of poetry. As a social movement the aim of Islam was to make the idea a living factor in the Muslim’s daily life, and thus silently and imperceptibly to carry it towards fuller fruition.
2. A Keen Sense of the Reality of Time, and the Concept of Life as a Continuous Movement in Time. It is this conception of life and time which is the main point of interest in Ibn Khaldun’s view of history, and which justifies Flint’s eulogy that ‘Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine were not his peers, and all others were unworthy of being even mentioned along with him’.47 From the remarks that I have made above I do not mean to throw doubt on the originality of Ibn Khaldun. All that I mean to say is that, considering the direction in which the culture of Islam had unfolded itself, only a Muslim could have viewed history as a continuous, collective movement, a real inevitable development in time. The point of interest in this view of history is the way in which Ibn Khaldun conceives the process of change. His conception is of infinite importance because of the implication that history, as a continuous movement in time, is a genuinely creative movement and not a movement whose path is already determined. Ibn Khaldun was not a metaphysician. Indeed he was hostile to Metaphysics.48 But in view of the nature of his conception of time he may fairly be regarded as a forerunner of Bergson. I have already discussed the intellectual antecedents of this conception in the cultural history of Islam. The Quranic view of the ‘alternation of day and night’49 as a symbol of the Ultimate Reality which ‘appears in a fresh glory every moment’,50 the tendency in Muslim Metaphysics to regard time as objective, Ibn Maskawaih’s view of life as an evolutionary movement,51 and lastly al-Baruni’s definite approach to the conception of Nature as a process of becoming52 – all this constituted the intellectual inheritance of Ibn Khaldun. His chief merit lies in his acute perception of, and systematic expression to, the spirit of the cultural movement of which he was a most brilliant product. In the work of this genius the anti-classical spirit of the Qur’an scores its final victory over Greek thought; for with the Greeks time was either unreal, as in Plato and Zeno, or moved in a circle, as in Heraclitus and the Stoics.53 Whatever may be the criterion by which to judge the forward steps of a creative movement, the movement itself, if conceived as cyclic, ceases to be creative. Eternal recurrence is not eternal creation; it is eternal repetition.
We are now in a position to see the true significance of the intellectual revolt of Islam against Greek philosophy. The fact that this revolt originated in a purely theological interest shows that the anti-classical spirit of the Qur’an asserted itself in spite of those who began with a desire to interpret Islam in the light of Greek thought.
It now remains to eradicate a grave misunderstanding created by Spengler’s widely read book, The Decline of the West. His two chapters devoted to the problem of Arabian culture54 constitute a most important contribution to the cultural history of Asia. They are, however, based on a complete misconception of the nature of Islam as a religious movement, and of the cultural activity which it initiated. Spengler’s main thesis is that each culture is a specific organism, having no point of contact with cultures that historically precede or follow it. Indeed, according to him, each culture has its own peculiar way of looking at things which is entirely inaccessible to men belonging to a different culture. In his anxiety to prove this thesis he marshals an overwhelming array of facts and interpretations to show that the spirit of European culture is through and through anti-classical. And this anti-classical spirit of European culture is entirely due to the specific genius of Europe, and not to any inspiration she may have received from the culture of Islam which, according to Spengler, is thoroughly ‘Magian’ in spirit and character. Spengler’s view of the spirit of modern culture is, in my opinion, perfectly correct. I have, however, tried to show in these lectures that the anti-classical spirit of the modern world has really arisen out of the revolt of Islam against Greek thought.55 It is obvious that such a view cannot be acceptable to Spengler; for, if it is possible to show that the anti-classical spirit of modern culture is due to the inspiration which it received from the culture immediately preceding it, the whole argument of Spengler regarding the complete mutual independence of cultural growths would collapse. I am afraid Spengler’s anxiety to establish this thesis has completely perverted his vision of Islam as a cultural movement.
By the expression ‘Magian culture’ Spengler means the common culture associated with what he calls ‘Magian group of religions’,56 i.e. Judaism, ancient Chaldean religion, early Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Islam. That a Magian crust has grown over Islam, I do not deny. Indeed my main purpose in these lectures has been to secure a vision of the spirit of Islam as emancipated from its Magian overlayings which, in my opinion, have misled Spengler. His ignorance of Muslim thought on the problem of time, as well as of the way in which the ‘I’, as a free centre of experience, has found expression in the religious experience of Islam, is simply appalling.57 Instead of seeking light from the history of Muslim thought and experience, he prefers to base his judgement on vulgar beliefs as to the beginning and end of time. Just imagine a man of overwhelming learning finding support for the supposed fatalism of Islam in such Eastern expressions and proverbs as the ‘vault of time’,58 and ‘everything has a time!’59 However, on the origin and growth of the concept of time in Islam, and on the human ego as a free power, I have said enough in these lectures. It is obvious that a full examination of Spengler’s view of Islam, and of the culture that grew out of it, will require a whole volume. In addition to what I have said before, I shall offer here one more observation of a general nature.
‘The kernel of the prophetic teaching,’ says Spengler, ‘is already Magian. There is one God – be He called Yahweh,60 Ahuramazda, or Marduk-Baal – who is the principle of good, and all other deities are either impotent or evil. To this doctrine there attached itself the hope of a Messiah, very clear in Isaiah, but also bursting out everywhere during the next centuries, under pressure of an inner necessity. It is the basic idea of Magian religion, for it contains implicitly the conception of the world-historical struggle between Good and Evil, with the power of Evil prevailing in the middle period, and the Good finally triumphant on the Day of Judgement.’60 If this view of the prophetic teaching is meant to apply to Islam it is obviously a misrepresentation. The point to note is that the Magian admitted the existence of false gods; only they did not turn to worship them. Islam denies the very existence of false gods. In this connexion Spengler fails to appreciate the cultural value of the idea of the finality of prophethood in Islam. No doubt, one important feature of Magian culture is a perpetual attitude of expectation, a constant looking forward to the coming of Zoroaster’s unborn sons, the Messiah, or the Paraclete of the fourth gospel. I have already indicated the direction in which the student of Islam should seek the cultural meaning of the doctrine of finality in Islam. It may further be regarded as a psychological cure for the Magian attitude of constant expectation which tends to give a false view of history. Ibn Khaldun, seeing the spirit of his own view of history, has fully criticized and, I believe, finally demolished the alleged revelational basis in Islam of an idea similar, at least in its psychological effects, to the original Magian idea which had reappeared in Islam under the pressure of Magian thought.61