What does a process interpretation of Islam, inspired by the dynamic and organic perspective of Muhammad Iqbal, look like? Below I offer some key ideas forming the essence of an Open and Humanistic Islam or, for short, a Process Islam. By "humanistic" I do not have in mind the Promethean humanism that places humanity at the center of the universe with God and the rest of the world as mere satellites, but rather a humane way of living in the world that affirms the best of human potential, including critical thinking and open-mindedness, while emphasizing humanity's organic connections with the rest of the world, as grounded in One in whose life the universe unfolds. This is Muhammad Iqbal's kind of humanism, and I share it, grateful for his example. It is, as it were, a Process Islam, because it emphasizes human life and the universe as as whole as a dynamic process of becoming in which everything is connected with everything else. The version of Process Islam I offer below is not an exhaustive treatment; I am offering ideas which can serve as springboards for further development among those interested in a humanistic, compassionate, open-ended and mature understanding of Islam in our contemporary era: A Process Islam.
An Attitude Toward Life
Muhammad Iqbal proposes that Islam is not a religion in the ancient sense of the term, but is instead an attitude toward life: specifically an attitude of freedom and compassion. A Process Islam says the same. A Process Islam is not a rigid approach to life or an overly-defined set of beliefs and practices, but is instead an attitude and way of living, centered in respect and profound care for the community of life, human as well as non-human. It is concerned with the welfare of individuals and also with the common well-being of the world, understood as an interconnected whole. It envisions the world as a process of becoming and the universe as a vast network of inter-becomings. It considers each living organism on earth as worthy of respect and attention. This means that, as Process Muslims, we should seek to live humbly on our planet and softly with others, sensitive and aware of the interconnectedness of all things, and respecting the differences as one of God`s greatest signs.
Moreover, a Process Islam influenced by Iqbal will be open to the myriad ways of understanding the world – verbal, mathematical, intuitive, bodily, and empathic. This has implications for education. Education should nurture literacy, to be sure, but also compassion and creativity.
Muhammad Iqbal supports this approach to life in a well-defined and highly refined form of Islamic theology. His thinking is an excellent source for scholars; indeed, to my mind, it embodies the leading edge of the intellectual side of an Islamic process thinking. Nonetheless, a complete command of his ideas is not a prerequisite to be a Muslim process thinker or, to say the same thing, an Open and Humanistic Muslim.
The ideas introduced below shapes the essence of a Process Islamic interpretation:
(1) Process: The universe is an ongoing process of expansion and change, never the same at any two moments. Every entity in the universe is conceived as a process of becoming that emerges through the interactions with others. The beings of the world are becomings.
(2) Interconnectedness: The universe as a whole is a web of interconnected events, none of which can be separated from others. Everything is related to everything else and contained in everything else. There is a deep interrelationality in the universe, which we ought to understand and act accordingly, personally and corporately.
(3) Continuous Creativity: The universe exhibits an incessant creativity on the basis of which fresh events arises over time which did not exist beforehand. This continuous creativity, this movement and becoming, is one of the greatest signs of God, The Ultimate Creative Power. Everything we see is God`s Self-Revelation. Or, in Iqbalian terminology, “the self-revelation of the great I-Am”.
(4) Nature as alive: The natural world has a value in itself and all living organisms are worthy of our utmost respect and care. Rocks and trees, birds and horses, hills and rivers are not simply facts in the world: they are also acts of self-expression of God. The whole of nature is throbbing with pulse and life. Human beings dwell within, not isolated from, the phenomenal world.
(5) Ethics: Human agents find their fulfillment in living in harmony with each other. The ethical life denotes living with respect and care for other people and the larger community of life. As Iqbal puts it: “The essence of humanity is respect for humankind”. Justice, love, compassion and unity in diversity is fidelity to the bonds of relationship. A society which is based on the humanistic principles is a free and peaceful society, with sufficient scope for self-realization for each an everyone. Put differently, such a society is creative, spacious, participatory, ecologically wise, spiritually and intellectually satisfying, with no life disregarded.
(6) Novelty: Human beings find their development in being open to new and untried ideas, knowledge and insights. Even as we learn from the past, we need to be open to the future, yet to be formed. God is present in the world, among other ways, through novel possibilities of self-actualization. Human happiness is not only contained in compassion and justice, but also by being creative and open-minded.
(7) Reflection and feeling: The human mind is not restricted to reasoning or abstract thinking, but also includes feeling, intuition, imagination; all of these modes of activities can work together toward greater levels of understanding. Even reasoning is a form of feeling, i.e., feeling the presence of ideas and responding to them in different ways. There are many a form of wisdom: logical, spiritual, experiential, verbal and emphatic.
(8) The human being as a Person-in-Community: Human beings are autonomous individuals with individual freedom and potential; but this does not imply that they are cut off from the world by the limitations of their individuality. Humans are also persons-in-community whose social interactions with other members of the human species are partly definitive of their own existence and development. In Iqbalian terminology, Khudi signifies “individuality”, and Bekhudi denotes “individuals in communities”. Human beings reach full self-realization only when their Khudi is transformed into Bekhudi. We depend for our existence on various factors, such as intimate friends, family, mentors and life partners, on nutrition, shelter, clothing, on our religious traditions and the natural world. The communitarians are partly right by asserting that there is no “self/ego” apart from connections with others. The individualists are also right; each individual is unparalleled and unique, deserving of respect and care. Other living beings, such as animals, deserve to be included in our ethical calculations and policy-makings as well.
(9) Complementary thinking: The rational and modern life consists not only of identifying facts and invoking to empirical evidence, but taking apparent conflicting ideas and showing how they can be connected into wholes, with each component contributing to the other. To be “sensible” does not only mean to be empirical but also imaginative, that is, exploring new patterns of thinking, fresh ideas and seeing how they might fit together, thus complementing one another.
(10) Theory and practice: Theory affects practice and vice versa; a duality between the two is mistaken. Our actions do have a bearing on our thought patterns, and how we reflect affects our mode of behaviour. Learning can come about from body to mind (read: by doing things), and not simply from mind to body,
(11) The Primary of Persuasion over Coercion: There are two categories of power: coercive power and persuasive power. In Muslim process thinking, the latter is opted for over the former. Coercive power is the power of violence and destructive force. On the contrary, persuasive power is the power of invitation, freedom and moral example.
(12) Relational power: This form of power is experienced when people dwell in mutually elevating and enriching relations, such that both parties are “empowered” through their relations with each other. On the international arena, this would denote empowerment that would occur when governments enter into trade relations that are reciprocally beneficial, promoting welfare for the larger society and community of life. On a family level, this form of power would be the power that parents and children enjoy when, even amidst hierarchical relationship, there is respect and care on both sides and the relationship generates personal development and happiness.
(13) Profound concern for the “Other”: Human beings are remarkable creatures who are joined together in a web of felt connections, such that they have capacities to share in one another`s pains and sufferings, hence moral responsibilities to one another. Thus, humans should approach one another in a spirit of mutual respect and sympathy. The quality of human societies does not lie in questions of affluence, appearance, and marketable achievement, but in the manner it treats the weakest: the marginalized, those who are left alone, orphans, immigrants, the otherwise disregarded. As Iqbal asserts: “Humanity binds humans together in fraternity; so keep your feet fixed on the path of amity. The human of love, who sees others with God`s eye, love heathen and believer equally. Give both of them a warm place in your heart; Woe to the heart, if heart from heart should part.”
(14) Moral evil: In Islamic process thinking, moral evil (read: sharr/ithm) is identified as destruction and harm triggered by human activities such as pogroms, wars, economic injustice, abuse of humanity`s inalienable human rights, and greed. These are evils which weakens our God-given potentials of creative self-actualization, thus cutting us off from our true potentials as God`s co-workers. One of the most serious forms of moral evil is the act of degrading the innate dignity of humanity by overly rigidified constructions of culture, religion, nationality, language, and ethnicity. These constructions, when they become too rigid, result in opposing camps, with each camp jealously safeguarding its own interests at the cost of the general commonweal of humanity and her environment. Moral evil can be personal as well as structural. Systems, too, can be channels of harm and human suffering.
(15) Education as a lifelong process: Human life is not bread and butter alone. It is also a healthy and vital character expressing the universal ideals in its various forms. Human life is a dynamic journey of character development; of Creative Becoming. Formal education in the classroom is a context to facilitate the process, but the process of humanization of our character is never-ending. Knowledge must be accompanied by moral development, without which knowledge (read: power) tends to be destructive. A strong mind signifies knowledge as well as a high degree of sensitivity towards our natural as well as ethical climate.
(16) Scientific development as religious worship: The Qur’an, by arousing human’s empirical attitude unto nature, wants human beings to become conscious of nature as a symbol, pointing towards God. In other words, the scientific quest, by accumulating knowledge about the physical world, its mechanisms and varying actualities, is a search after God. For Iqbal, nature is a “structure of events, a systematic mode of behaviour”. And since it is one of God`s self-expressions, it is organically related to God's Self. That is, nature is the Habit of Allah. Iqbal puts it this way: “The knowledge of Nature is the knowledge of God`s behaviour. In our observation of Nature we are virtually seeking a kind of intimacy with the Absolute Ego; and this is only another form of worship”. Iqbal`s interpretation of worship from mere ritual and ceremonial, to scientific worship in the sense of intimate contact with nature by deepening and enlargeable knowledge into the mechanisms of it so as to conquer its forces, entails a wake-up call to the Muslims masses engrossed in excessive other-wordliness and narrow matters of mere ritualism; a call to turn their attention to the observable reality, considered as a religious obligation.
(17) The ultimate aim of science: In Iqbalian process thinking, the naturalism of the Qur’an is only a recognition of the fact that human beings are intimately related to nature; and this relation, in view of its possibility as a means of controlling nature's forces, can be deployed, not in the interest of unrighteous desire for domination, but in the nobler interest of a free upward movement of spiritual life. In other words, by harnessing the creativity of nature, we must employ them for the promotion and elevation of the common good, including the good of the natural world itself. The well being that God seeks is not that of humans alone, but rather that of the whole of creation. This is the gist and essence of Divine aims enshrined in the Qur’anic scripture.
(18) God and the Qur’an: God is the source of our existence, the creative Maker, the lure towards well-being and wholeness of life. The galaxies, the rivers and hills, the beautiful animals, all are expression of God`s creative work and life. God is the ideal companion, who cares for this world and its becoming. In human domain, God`s intentions are expressed in the Qur’anic scripture, which works as an inner calling toward compassion, wisdom, justice and unity. If rightly understood, the Qur’an is, according to an Iqbalian process perspective, “a set of basic principles of a universal import directing the evolution of human society on a spiritual basis”. It is a guide to planetary well-being, a book of potentialities productive of enhancing all life. Through the Qur’an, the voice of God beckons human beings toward cooperation and the furtherance of the cause of all life. However, God does not know the final outcome of the invitation in advance, because the future is a line in becoming. The future does exist as a possibility, but not as settled event, something fixed and inflexible. The openness of the future can make human beings God`s companions in bringing about a future of socio-economic justice, freedom, environmental preservation and compassion.
(19) The state as an agency of welfare: According to Iqbalian process thinking, an Islamic state is neither a theocracy, nor a monarchic rule. The essence of God`s unity (read: Tawhid) is equality, unity and freedom. As an implication, the state is, from an Islamic standpoint, “an endeavour to transform these ideal [humanistic] principles into space-time forces, an aspiration to realize them in a definite human organization”. Thus, a state which does not provide its members their basic human rights and sufficient scope for self-development, is un-Islamic and diametrically opposed to the spirit of Islam as a message of world loyalty. A world-loyalty in which our self-interest is joined with our commitment to be partners with God in the quest for welfare and beauty for all creation.
(20) The principle of permanence and change: According to Iqbal, as human life is characterized by flux and change, processes of becoming, so must the scriptural interpretation be characterized by flux and change. However, there are some eternal/permanent values/principles which ought to guide our exegesis and faith-praxis. In brief, the key values deduced from the Qur`anic scripture are: the innate dignity of every member of the human species, the unalienable rights of human beings (freedom of religion/thought/expression, education, shelter, ontological equality of male and female, socio-political justice, equality before the law, sufficient scope for self-actualization and self-determination), and the preservation of nature, along with humanity`s organic relation to its natural surroundings. Thus, every interpretation of Islam which downplays these all-encompassing values is not part of Divine Aims enshrined in the Qur`an and needs to be challenged through persuasion and moral example. Put differently, the principle of permanence signifies those values that need to form the very basis of interpretative activities. Change, on the other hand, implies reinterpretation of our religious heritage in order to keep pace with humanity`s altering conditions. To absolutize that which is a product of human interpretation is antithetical to Islam, which embodies the dynamism needed for a healthy human life. This Iqbalian idea is reflective of Whitehead`s assertion that “The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order”. Put in a different way, order (read: permanence) cannot be lost, but it cannot exclude the possibilities of novelty and freshness (read: change). Thus, a synthesis between the “constant” and the “variable” is the ideal which Muslim theologians and scholars should adopt in order to produce scriptural exegesis in concord with the essence of Islam as well as their own specific historical contexts. * Note from John B.Cobb, Jr.: Thinking afresh about God from the point of view of process thought began among Protestant Christians, but it is equally relevant to all branches of Christianity, to Jews, and to Muslims. Some of us think the result is closer to our scriptures than are the theologies that developed under the influence of Greek philosophy. We Protestants have been joined by some Roman Catholics and Jews. A few Muslims have been interested. Their interest is of great interest to the rest of us. We have long hoped that the connections between Whitehead and Iqbal could become a basis for expanding and deepening that interest.
It is a source of great rejoicing, that our hopes are now being fulfilled. The implicit connection between the Westerners influenced by Whitehead and the Muslims influenced by Iqbal is now being made explicit by Farhan Shah. He shows that our kinship is indeed close. We can learn from one another and bond with one another. We who come from the West know that we will be, indeed, are being, enriched. We hope that the followers of Iqbal will also benefit. And perhaps, through them, there will be a wider influence in Islam. Thank you, Farhan Shah!