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Intellectual Knowledge as Expounded by Allama Iqbal

by Minhaj

The Islamic philosophical tradition prides itself over a rich history of illustrious names that have contributed to the development of Islamic thought throughout the ages. Thinkers such as Ibn Sina, Imam Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, Ibn al Arabi and Allama Iqbal, henceforth referred to as Iqbal, are some of the renowned Muslims personalities who have advanced Islamic thought. The present article entitled ‘Intellectual Knowledge as Expounded by Allama Iqbal’ discusses the modes of knowledge that are traditionally considered to be non-religious, non-mystical and non-intitutional. The article discusses the empirical and rational modes of intellectual knowledge that will be analysed in light of the revolutionary thought of Iqbal.

Fundamentally, the discipline of philosophy that critically examines the ways in which beliefs are arrived at is known as epistemology. (1) Derived from the Greek word ‘Episthe’ meaning knowledge, epistemology deals with the origins of knowledge, the weight that is given to knowledge and the varying degree of certainty surrounding a particular form of knowledge- whether it allows one to know and affirm with certainty or whether it leads one to believe without conviction.

In his various poetic and prose works, Iqbal discusses the two main theories of knowledge acquisition that are considered non-religious and non-mystical, namely empirical and rational thought in the context of intellectual knowledge that has traditionally rivalled religious and mystical knowledge. The empirical mode of knowledge places emphasis on the role of experience through perceptual observation by utilising the five traditional senses: hearing, seeing, smelling, touching and tasting to formulate ideas and thoughts. This is in contrast to the rational mode of knowledge whereby knowledge is derived independent of any observatory experience and thus utilises reason in the form of logical truths and abstract claims.

Furthermore, whether taken positively or negatively, philosophy has always been heavily indebted to Greek thought as has subsequent thought to the contributions of thinkers such as Aristotle, Socrates and Plato. In regards to epistemic inquiry, Iqbal was very critical of the cultural influence of Greek thought on Muslim thought and the implications on Muslim thinkers thereafter over the centuries. (2) Incidentally, we consider this to be a factor why Iqbal criticised the ways of the traditional mystics who was influenced by the ‘Ajam’ (non-Arab world), due to not understanding the true worth of non-mystical knowledge as a result of Greek influence.

Iqbal condemned Plato who regarded empirical knowledge furnished through natural instruments of sense-perception as of no use. (3) Plato considered empirical knowledge as incapable of giving real knowledge but merely opinion. (4) Thus, empirical knowledge is merely an illusion according to Plato who asserts that it is only ideas, imagination and fantasies that can give concrete knowledge to Man. (5)

In criticising Plato, Iqbal states that Plato who was the prime ascetic and sage was one of the ancient flock of sheep. His Pegasus went astray in the darkness of idealism and dropped its shoe amidst the role of actuality. He was so fascinated by the invisible that he made the hand, eye and ear of no account. (6) Iqbal also produced a poem in his Asrar-e-Khudi whereby he warns the reader to beware of such flocks of sheep who exploited earlier Muslim students of the Qur’an who consequently studied the Qur’an in light of the Greek thought whereas Iqbal emphasises that the Qur’an regards “Hearing” and “Seeing” as divine gifts of great value and declares these sensory organs to be accountable to God for their acts in the temporal worldly life. (7)

Socrates also restricted his inquisitive inquiry to the moral problems of mankind and hence the crux of his inquiry was ‘Man’ and not the surrounding physical and chemical nature of the world. Iqbal firmly differs with Socrates in The Reconstruction by stating that the spirit of the Qu’ran sees the humble bee as a recipient of divine inspiration and thus constantly calls upon readers to observe the perpetual change of the winds, the alternation of the day and night, the clouds, the starry heavens and the planets swimming through infinite space. (8) This is clearly supported by the fact that many chapters of the Qur’an are named: ‘The Cow’, ‘The Bee’, ‘The Ant’ and ‘The Moon’.

Furthermore, in regards to the classical Muslim thought surrounding the empirical and rational sources of knowledge, there is an apparent disagreement between Iqbal and the stance of Imam Ghazali. Fundamentally, Imam Ghazali did not consider himself to be a philosopher nor liked to be considered as a philosopher. It would, however, be more accurate to consider Imam Ghazali as a great theologian, an illustrious mystic and a jurist who fought against philosophy and the its effect on Muslim thought by scrupulously demonstrating the contradictions of the philosophers of the time who were influenced by Greek thought in his renowned ‘Tahafatul Falsafah’. (9)

It was interestingly Christian thinkers of the Middle Age who considered Imam Ghazali as a philosopher following the study of his text ‘Maqaasid al-Falasafa’ (10) which was a reasoned exposition of the main philosophical topics of the time. However, though it would be accurate to not consider Imam Ghazali as a philosopher in the same sense as Al-Kindi, Ibn Sina and al-Farabi, it would be fair to assert the theoretical depth in the mystical and theological teachings of Imam Ghazali in addition to the practical and religious doctrines that are clearly evident and noticeable in his works.

Imam Ghazali classifies knowledge in al Fada’ih al Batiniyyah wa Fadaa’il al Mustazhiriyya (11) as two questions, one of them is the existence of the Maker, the necessary existent, in no need of a Maker or Manager. Secondly, Imam Ghazali states that it suffices us to learn of the answers to the remaining questions by blind acceptance from the Prophet (Peace be upon Him). (12) In essence, Imam Ghazali relies solely on religious and mystical knowledge and appears to leave no room for rational and intellectual knowledge. Thus, Iqbal states in The Reconstruction that Imam Ghazali based religious thought on philosophical scepticism. Iqbal considers this basis as rather unsafe for religion and not justifiable by the Qur’an. (13)

In contrast to classical thought, Iqbal presents a revolutionary concept at the dawn of the 20th century in The Reconstruction of Religious thought in Islam which comprises of seven lectures given by Iqbal between 1930-1934. These seven lectures form the very basis of the revolutionary reconstruction of religious thought in the coming centuries with a detailed consideration to the scientific advancements of knowledge in recent times through the process of assimilation of intellectual and non-intellectual knowledge. Thus, Iqbal has sought to rationalise Islamic concepts in accordance with the modern age, for example, Iqbal utilises Quranic, Western, Eastern and scientific sources to provide a broad yet robust philosophical explanation for religious and mystical experience – for example the states that are experienced by the mystics. Thus, Iqbal answered those who denied mystic states in the West with the terminology and modes of knowledge accepted by the advancing West and not the East, as was the case previously.

With this in mind, the revolutionary Iqbal asserts that the advent of Islam was a landmark for the epistemic branch of philosophy and human knowledge and progression in general as Iqbal considers the birth of Islam to be the birth of ‘Inductive Intellect’. (14) Prior to Islam, the inductive forms of knowledge which is obtained through experience or more technically from the inferring or reasoning from particular instances of generalisation to the generalisation itself was readily accepted, however, Islam gave the true value to inductive intellect which utilised the rational inquiry of the physical world as a means of gaining knowledge of the ultimate reality. (15) The Iqbalian view is supported by various Qur’anic verses

Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and earth, and the alternation of the night and the day, and the [great] ships which sail through the sea with that which benefits people, and what Allah has sent down from the heavens of rain, giving life thereby to the earth after its lifelessness and dispersing therein every [kind of] moving creature, and [His] directing of the winds and the clouds controlled between the heaven and the earth are signs for a people who use reason. (16)

And it is He who placed for you the stars that you may be guided by them through the darknesses of the land and sea. We have detailed the signs for a people who know. (17)

And He has subjected for you the night and day and the sun and moon, and the stars are subjected by His command. Indeed in that are signs for a people who reason. (18)

In light of the Qur’an, Iqbal advocates a revolutionary combination of three forms of knowledge: empirical, rational and intuition in order to understand the ultimate reality. Iqbal, in accordance with the Quran, ensures the acquisition of direct knowledge via the immediate from of intuition whereas an indirect experience of God can be attained through reflection by means of self-perception and rational analysis whether of ‘Man’ himself or the reflective thought of the surrounding world around us.

Therefore, the three sources of knowledge are combined within an organic whole. (19) Iqbal readily accepts empiricism and the role of experience based on perceptual observations. Likewise, Iqbal accepts rationalism whereby knowledge is derived independent of any observatory experience. In the Jaavid Naama, (20) Iqbal elaborates on the process of the evolution of the three stages of knowledge to reach the ultimate reality by stating that the knowledge of truth is gained first through the senses and then through direct realization. The ultimate stage (intuition) cannot be encompassed through consciousness as understood by psychology.

However, as opposed to rationalism in the traditional sense which is founded upon logical categories or mere abstract representations that stem out of abstract ideas that are isolated from reality; Iqbal differs from the orthodox view. Iqbal states that rational thought has a certain definite function that although should be utilised but not over-emphasized to the detriment of other knowledge yielding methods, namely empirical knowledge and intuition. In essence, without proper utility of the rational mind, one may be at dangers as the field of inquiry is limited to certain methods of knowledge to solve human problems such as morality but not others.

Iqbal includes intuition as a source of knowledge which he refers to in The Reconstruction under the generic term of ‘religious knowledge’. (21) This includes religious and mystical experience, intuition and revelation (Prophetic and non- prophetic). Although empirical and rational methods are of use, it is eventful, mystical intuition that can lead one to the ultimate reality. Intuition is based on love. It is this love and insight the becomes fruitful as mystical insight of the ultimate reality that is a heart-warming flash of the ultimate reality in a single and unified flash that can be only be attained through mystical insight. (22)

Overall, Iqbal advocates a revolutionary combination of the rational advancements of the West with the religious and mystical intuition of the East so that a proper balance can be struck in order to dually achieve peace in the world by concurrently reaching the ultimate reality. This can only be achieved if Muslim thought undergoes a revolution as to how non-religious empirical and rational knowledge is viewed in contrast to how the Greeks viewed empirical and rational knowledge in addition to classical Muslim thinkers who focused on mystical knowledge to prevent foreign thought taking precedent at a time when many sects appeared throughout the Muslim world.

In light of the modern world and its requirements, Iqbal grants a place to empirical and rational thought but emphasises on intuition to form an organic whole in the quest to comprehend the Ultimate Reality. Thus, the epistemology of Iqbal is the epistemology of the Qur’an. (23) Although empirical and rational thought are of great benefit if utilised correctly in regards to the external finite world, however, to attain the Ultimate reality, one must refer to the infinite mechanism of intuition. It is regarding this Iqbal states:

Pass beyond the pale of intellect as this light,

Can show one the way, but not the destination! (24)

The following quatrain of Iqbal serves as an appropriate conclusion of Iqbal’s philosophy of intellectual knowledge:

There are a hundred worlds from star to star

Whenever intellect flies, it finds new skies,

But when I look deep into myself

Lo! A boundless ocean was hidden within Me! (25)

Muhammad Umair
17th October 2015 / 3rd Muharram 1437 A.H



  • (1) Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge. In particular: the sources, nature and limits of knowledge is dealt with under this branch of philosophy.
  • (2) Iqbal, M, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, 3
  • (3) Ibid
  • (4) Cornford, F, Plato’s Theory of Knowledge, 29
  • (5) Ibid
  • (6) Iqbal, M, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, 3
  • (7) Ibid
  • (8) Holy Qur’an,16:78; 23:78; 32:9; 67:23
  • (9) Ibid, 21:33; 36:40
  • (10) Bouyges, M, The Incoherence of the Philosophers (trans,1928)
  • (11) Dunya, S, The Objectives of Philosophy (trans, 1961)
  • (12) McCarthy, R, The Infamies of the ‘Baatinites’ and the Excellence of the ‘Mustazhirites’ (trans, 1980), 250
  • (13) Iqbal, M, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, 4
  • (14) Ibid, 3
  • (15) Ibid, 126
  • (16) Iqbal, M, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, 3
  • (17) Holy Qur’an, 2:164
  • (18) Ibid, 6:97
  • (19) Ibid, 16:12
  • (20) Iqbal, M, Jaavid Naama (1932)
  • (21) Sheikh, M, Studies in Iqbal’s Thought and Art (Bazmi-e-Iqbal, 1972) 20
  • (22) Ibid
  • (23) Anwar, K, The Epistemology of Iqbal (Iqbal Academy, 1996) 38
  • (24) Iqbal, M, Baal-e-Jibreel (1935), Thy Bosom Has a Heart, It Does Not Have a Heart
  • (25) Iqbal, M, Payaam-e-Mashriq (1923), There Are a Hundred Words from Star to Star


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