The “Apologists”

Iqbal Review, Volume 52, Number 2, 4. April, October 2011, pp.55-72

The following is the third chapter of a small book submitted to Iqbal Academy Pakistan in March 2008 as a draft requiring further improvement. Without my knowledge and permission, this chapter ended up as a research paper in the Academy’s journal Iqbal Review, and both other chapters of the book also, in the same questoinable manner, as another paper in another issue of the same journal. I do not know the actual date of the publication of these issues (I never received any copies nor was informed), but I have certain reasons to presume that they have come out recently. In any case, I have found them on a website associated with the Academy today, 24 July 2018.

Without waiving any of my moral, legal or commerical rights that might have been violated, I am sharing it here only for the benefit of the visitors to this website.

I am, however, leaving out a so-called ‘abstract’ prefixed to this paper in the journal, apparently composed by some editor who has lifted phrases from my text and joined them together with bad punctuation and an imbecile logic.


A somewhat disturbing feature of the latter day colonial writing is the diminishing of boundaries between hate speech and serious thinking. A classic example was Modern Islam in India by W. C. Smith, published in 1944. However, as mentioned in the previous chapter, Smith was only in his twenties when he wrote that book and he moved on soon after.

Therefore it is a bit strange to find a senior scholar like H. A. R. Gibb (1895-1971) depending on polemic sources and borrowing arguments from them. In the foreword to Modern Trends in Islam, a set of lectures first delivered in 1945 and published in 1947, Gibb said:

Almost all the books written in English or French by Muslim writers…turn out to be apologetic works, composed with the object of defending Islam and demonstrating its conformity with what their writers believe to be present-day thought. The outstanding exception is the Indian scholar and poet, Sir Muhammad Iqbal…

To accuse someone of being an “apologist” is outside the scope of serious scholarship and falls in the domain of propaganda. It is nothing more than name calling, and like all name calling it makes caricature of a perfectly normal and healthy human activity. In this case what is being caricatured is the synthesis of knowledge and readjustment to historical truth.[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][1] Gibb deserves some credit for not applying the epithet to Iqbal, yet his readiness to call others by this name prevented him from seeing the obvious fact that anyone who accuses someone else of being an “apologist” may herself or himself be called the same on precisely the same grounds. Hence the only “apologists” in an academic discourse are those who call others by this name.

For instance, Gibb called modern Muslim writings “apologetic” because, according to him, they were aimed at defending Islam and showing its conformity with contemporary thought. Contempt for such writings may itself be called an “apologetic” approach rooted in the colonialist position which Gibb himself stated in these words:

…I make bold to say that the metaphors in which Christian doctrine is traditionally enshrined satisfy me intellectually as expressing symbolically the highest range of spiritual truth which I can conceive, provided that they are interpreted not in terms of anthropomorphic dogma but as general concepts, related to our changing views of the nature of the universe.

From the “modern” Muslim perspective, this was complete “other-worldliness” that could not offer more than a sectional view of reality. More than seventy years ago, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had defined the alternate in these words:

Nature not only imprints upon our minds her truth, perfection, and the relation which her multifarious products bear to one another, but it also points out another principle, according to which we may direct our actions and thoughts; and as Nature is true and perfect, this principle must necessarily be true and perfect, and this true and perfect principle is what we call true religion…[2]

This aspiration for a holistic and comprehensive view of reality was shared by most “modern” Muslim writers, including many who opposed Sir Syed on other issues. In the writing of Gibb we do not find a good acquaintance with this perspective and regrettably he also lost the opportunity of making this acquaintance through Iqbal – mainly because he didn’t know much of Iqbal beyond what could be gathered from Nicholson, Smith and an outdated edition of the Reconstruction. Further, he restricted himself to a scrutiny of Iqbal in the light of established knowledge.

This shortcoming deserves to be understood in its historical perspective. When George Sale translated the Quran into English in 1734 he hoped that a better understanding of Islam would enable the Christian missionaries to eradicate the “false” religion and achieve through reason what their predecessors had failed to do through swords during the Crusades. Just a little more than two hundred years after Sale, sharing the same conviction about the truth of his faith, Gibb must have observed that not only his co-religionists had failed to eliminate Islam but in turn the “modern” Muslim writers were now using reason for promoting the alternate worldview which, if accepted, could force the Christian world to revise its own position on common themes.

Hence, on subjects such as “knowledge and religious experience,” Gibb appeared hesitant even to make an effort for understanding Iqbal’s ingenious perspective. He arbitrarily rejected the thesis because some Dean Lowe had said, “Once the path of mystical interpretation is entered, anything can mean anything.”[3] To say the least, Gibb was approaching Iqbal like a schoolmaster judging a student’s essay by matching it against a textbook.

Some sort of agony is discernible in the lines immediately following this emotional dismissal – one can almost hear the voice of the dignified scholar cracking up like that of someone who has lost an appeal in the high court. “Iqbal’s protest, in fact, fails on precisely the same grounds as the apologetic of the earlier modernists,” says Gibb, and then the pitch gets louder. “On the basic issue of intellectual integrity, he did nothing to correct and much to confirm the cardinal error of all modernist thought – that while you may make your own religion what you choose, when you are dealing with the historic religious community, choosing is the sign of immaturity and spiritual presumption.”[4]

Gibb had every reason to lose control. Even as his book was getting printed in the press of Chicago University, the “modern” Muslim position was receiving a favorable verdict from history itself: the birth of Pakistan, a sovereign Muslim state established not through swords but through the effectiveness of the same “modern” Muslim discourse which Gibb was trying so hard to discard as “apologetic.”


“It would be a singularly dull-witted observer of the international scene who would still fail to realize that this new country is destined to play a very leading part in the coming drama of world-history,” A. J. Arberry wrote about Pakistan six years later in his preface to the translation of Iqbal’s Mysteries of Selflessness (1953). “For my own part, as a Christian not interested to persuade any Muslim to share my ancestral faith, I believe that the present discord between Christianity and Islam, if it cannot be resolved, can at least be so sensibly modified as to be removed from the perilous arena of emotion to the more tranquil debate of reason.”

As a Christian not interested to persuade any Muslim to share his ancestral faith, Arberry was not giving importance to the fact that “the present discord between Christianity and Islam” had started solely due to his ancestors’ attempt to do the opposite of what he was now professing. Unfortunately his failings went further than that.

Sir Syed, Iqbal and other “modern” Muslim writers never tired of giving credit to Europe for what was good about it. Despite being an unrelenting critic of imperialism, Iqbal went as far as declaring in a speech in 1909 that by introducing democracy in Asia, the British Empire was fulfilling a purpose of Islam which the Muslims themselves had been ignoring for centuries.[5] Arberry called these writers “apologists” for aiming at this perfectly legitimate synthesis of knowledge but he himself lifted a leaf out of their book and presented it as his own. At the same time he painted the Muslim writers as opponents of the worldview which he had actually borrowed from them! This is where scholarship gives way to something else for which we may have only one name, and that is not a very happy one.

The allegation of plagiarism should be used sparingly because ideas do travel from one group to another in order to ensure the evolution of human civilization. Arberry is one rare example where the allegation of plagiarism seems to be justified because while borrowing the key concepts from his opponents he also tried to show that his opponents had never held such views.

In the passage quoted above, Arberry was giving an impression as if “the present discord between Christianity and Islam” was due to the “modern” Muslim writers’ preference for “the perilous arena of emotion” to which he so magnanimously offered “the more tranquil debate of reason.” Historically, the case was exactly the opposite, as Arberry himself admitted in another part of the same text where he said, “Europe for centuries was unfair to Islam…”

The solution which he was now offering was something which had been repeated countless times by those same “modern” Muslim writers whom he, just like Gibb, denounced as “apologists” (and unlike Gibb, he wasn’t willing to make an exception for Iqbal):

In the debate it will become apparent that the area of agreement between the two faiths is very much larger than the area of disagreement, generating the reasonable hope that opposition may in time give way to cooperation…

We need only compare Arberry’s lines with Iqbal’s statement in the Allahabad Address in order to see the similarities. Iqbal had said:

Indeed the first practical step that Islam took towards the realization of a final combination of humanity was to call upon peoples possessing practically the same ethical ideal to come forward and combine. The Quran declares, “O people of the Book! Come let us join together on the ‘word’ (Unity of God), that is common to us all.” The wars of Islam and Christianity, and, later, European aggression in its various forms, could not allow the infinite meaning of this verse to work itself out in the world of Islam. Today it is being gradually being realized in the countries of Islam in the shape of what is called Muslim Nationalism…

Arberry’s moral failing was to discredit the “modern” Muslim writers while borrowing from them without acknowledging the source. One wonders why he had to write lines such as the following – and how could he write them:

When Iqbal wrote, “Believe me, Europe to-day is the greatest hindrance in the way of man’s ethical advancement,” he was not saying anything that he had not said before, and he was not seeking merely to provoke and shock; neither was he a solitary voice crying in the wilderness. The present threats to the peace and security of the world are certainly not few…

Ironically, the line which Arberry quoted from Iqbal is from the sixth lecture of the Reconstruction where it appears in a passage which may have been the original source from where Arberry stole the olive leaf he was offering as his own. In the words of Iqbal, the passage reads like this:

Humanity needs three things today – a spiritual interpretation of the universe, spiritual emancipation of the individual, and basic principles of a universal import directing the evolution of human society on a spiritual basis. Modern Europe has, no doubt, built idealistic systems on these lines, but experience shows that truth revealed through pure reason is incapable of bringing that fire of living conviction which personal revelation alone can bring. This is the reason why pure thought has so little influenced men, while religion has always elevated individuals, and transformed whole societies. The idealism of Europe never became a living factor in her life, and the result is a perverted ego seeking itself through mutually intolerant democracies whose sole function is to exploit the poor in the interest of the rich. Believe me, Europe to-day is the greatest hindrance in the way of man’s ethical advancement…[6]

The three things which, according to Iqbal, the world needed were presented by Arberry as his own and just how much was lost through poor rewording may be assessed by looking at the plagiarized version in his preface:

…it is imperative that we should make a renewed and unremitting effort to understand each other’s viewpoint, and to study what possibilities exist for, first, a diminishing of tension, next, a rational compromise, and, ultimately, an agreement to work together towards common ideals…


Two significant changes were noticeable in “the mind of Europe” in decades preceding Arberry. The first was that, possibly due to the diminishing control of the Church, it became possible for many Europeans to formally convert to other religions without losing their loyalty to the mind of Europe. Among the earliest examples was the French writer Rene Guenon who embraced Islam in 1911 but still was able to get married in a Catholic Church five years later while wearing a ring inscribed with the Sanskrit word Om right up to his death. The concept behind such conversions was best explained by Guenon’s successor Frithjof Schuon who in 1932, just before his conversion to Islam at the age of twenty-five, wrote to a friend:

Have I ever said that the path to God passes through Mecca? If there were any essential difference between a path that passes through Benares and one that passes through Mecca, how could you think that I would wish to come to God “through Mecca,” and thereby betray Christ and the Vedanta? In what way does the highest spiritual path pass through Mecca or Benares or Lhasa or Jerusalem or Rome? Is the Nirvana of Mecca different from the Nirvana of Benares simply because it is called fana and not nirvana? Do I have to explain to you once again that either we are esoterics and metaphysicians who transcend forms – just as Christ walked over the waters – and who make no distinction between Allah and Brahma, or else are exoterics, “theologians” – or at best mystics – who consequently live in forms like fish in water, and who make a distinction between Mecca and Benares?[7]

It is not difficult to see that the distinction made by Schuon between esoterics and theologians was similar to the one between practitioners of religion and scholars of comparative history of religions, which was later implied in Dr. McDonough’s position.

The second change which corresponded to this type of conversions was that after the collapse of European colonialism it became possible for a non-European to connect with the mind of Europe on the same conditions which Eliot had prescribed for a European: “continual surrender of himself” to the mind of Europe (but not to the mind of his own country in this case).

Students, scholars and writers in Asia used to surrender themselves to the mind of Europe even in the days of colonialism but they evoked suspicion among their country folk and contempt among the foreign masters. The basis for suspicion or contempt vanished when East and West became equals at the end of colonialism. The number of Asians surrendering to “the mind of Europe” increased dramatically and was duly precipitated by the mushrooming of area study centers, Islamic Studies centers and centers for the study of comparative history of religions in the West around the same time.

The phenomenon has been reflected in Iqbal Studies through Asian writers looking at Iqbal from the point of view of contemporary Western trends. Among them we find two schools. The first, which is sympathetic to Iqbal, approaches his works in an effort to understand it through Western methods. Typically, a writer of this school ends up with showing similarities between Iqbal’s thought and those Western trends which the writer upholds, whether it is Western philosophy, comparative history of religions or transcendent unity of religion. The other school doesn’t find such similarities between Iqbal and Western trends and ends up denouncing him for that reason. What is common between them is their absolute deference to some school of Western scholarship.

Among the most notable early examples of the first school we find the well-known Iqbal scholar Khalifa Abdul Hakeem (1893-1959) and the very talented literary critic Aziz Ahmad (1913-78). Hakeem was a frequent visitor of Iqbal and his efforts for promoting liberal Islamic values in the early days of Pakistan may never be forgotten. Therefore one is surprised by the great extent to which he followed the opinions of Nicholson and Forster about “the influence of Nietzsche on Iqbal” in his own writings including a famous volume in Urdu, Fikr-i-Iqbal (The Thought of Iqbal).

Aziz Ahmed also penned a very influential book in Urdu, Iqbal: Nai Tashkeel (Iqbal: the Reconstruction), which was published in 1947, just before the birth of Pakistan. It sought to offer a creative and original exposition of Iqbal’s thought but it rested on the premise that Iqbal’s thought was in remarkable conformity with Karl Marx and that his grasp of socialism was not as bad as others were giving it out to be.

It is ironical, since these native stalwarts had a better familiarity with primary sources than those foreign celebrities to whom they were deferring. Yet a curious truth about Iqbal Studies is that external sources have often become handicap for writers who may have done better on their own.

Those “socialist friends” who had told the young W.C. Smith in the 1940s that Iqbal did not have a deep understanding of socialism may be counted among the early manifestations of the other school of pro-West Asian writers, which denounces Iqbal for his differences with some Western thinker – in this instance, Karl Marx.

Writers of this school usually follow Gibb and Arberry in making a virtue out of calling the earlier Muslim writers “apologists” and often display exceptional hostility towards Iqbal. A notable example has been Seyyed Hossein Nasr, whose Islam and the Plight of Modern Man (1988) was a diligent effort to revisit the contemporary Muslim world in the light of interpretations offered mainly by modern French writers such as Rene Guenon and Frithjof Schuon, and Englishmen such as Martin Lings (all of whom converted to Islam in the latter period of European colonialism). In the last chapter, Nasr denounced Iqbal:

…who was influenced both by the Victorian concept of evolution and Nietzsche’s idea of the superman. Iqbal is an influential contemporary figure of Islam but, with all due respect to him as a poet, his ideas should be studied in the light of the ijtihad which he himself preached so often. He should certainly not be put on a pedestal. If we analyze his thought carefully we see that he had an ambivalent attitude towards many things, including a love-hate relationship with Sufism. He admired Rumi yet expressed dislike for a figure like Hafiz. This is due to the fact that he was drawn, on the one hand, by the Sufi, and more generally speaking Islamic, idea of the Perfect Man (al-insan al-kamil) and on the other by the Nietzschean idea of the superman, two concepts which are, in fact, the very antipode of each other. Iqbal made the great mistake of seeking to identify the two. He made this fatal error because, despite his deep understanding of certain aspects of Islam, he had come to take the prevalent idea of evolution too seriously. He demonstrates on a more literate and explicit level a tendency to be found among the many modern Muslim writers who, instead of answering the fallacies of the theory of evolution, have tried to bend over backwards in an apologetic manner to accept it and even to interpret Islamic teachings according to it.[8]

Nasr did not quote any reference for what he was attributing to Iqbal. At the end of the passage a number appeared in superscript but the corresponding endnote turned out to be, not a reference, but only more unsubstantiated delineation of similar nature. Neither did the name of Iqbal occur in the “Select Bibliography” at the end of the book.

“If we analyze his thought carefully…” Nasr had said, but the phrase seemed to be rhetorical, for the text did not provide any evidence of careful analysis on part of Nasr: practically every single strand of his criticism of Iqbal could be traced back to some Western writer (from among those whom we have discussed). Also, it was amazing how similar his tone was to the hate speech of Gibb and Arberry.


[1] Iqbal treated this phenomenon very differently, for instance when he wrote in his private notebook Stray Reflections in 1910: “Our Soul discovers itself when we come into contact with a great mind. It is not until I had realised the Infinitude of Goethe’s imagination that I discovered the narrow breadth of my own.”

[2] Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1870), Essays on the Life of Muhammad, “Preface and Introduction”, p.vvi.

[3] “We must surely give Iqbal credit for courage and sincerity. But courage and sincerity are not enough. Nor can we even accept the plea that in his new theology he at least laid a foundation on which others might build after him, clarifying his vision and supplying an appropriate ethical content. As Dean Lowe has said: ‘However attractive it may be to find deeper, inner meanings in a limited number of passages…the risk of arbitrariness and subjectivity offsets any possible gain. Once the path of mystical interpretation is entered, anything can mean anything.’” (Gibb, Modern Trends in Islam, pp.83-4; ellipses are his)

[4] Gibb (1947), Modern Trends in Islam, p.84

[5] This was “Islam as a Moral and Political Ideal”, a lecture delivered in 1909 and not included in the “canon” of his writings. In his private notebook a year later he tried to resolve this paradox: “A disinterested foreign rule is an impossibility. Yet the tutelage of nations is a necessity. The fee paid for this tuition is sometimes a nation’s daily bread…”

[6] Iqbal went on to say that the Muslims were in possession of “these ultimate ideas” on the basis of a revelation and therefore they ought to evolve, “out of the hitherto partially revealed purpose of Islam, that spiritual democracy which is the ultimate aim of Islam.”

[7] Letter to a friend, Albert Oesch, dated May 15, 1932, quoted in Aymard & Laude (2004, 2005), Frithjof Schuon: Life and Teachings, p.16

[8] Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1988), Islam and the Plight of Modern Man, published by Suhail Academy, Lahore, p.139


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *