Development of Metaphysics in Persia, by Muhammad Iqbal

Muhammad Iqbal, The Development of Metaphysics in Persia a Contribution to the History of Muslim Philosophy, 1908.Muhammad Iqbal, The Development of Metaphysics in Persia a Contribution to the History of Muslim Philosophy, first edition, London Luzac and Co, 1908.

The Development of Metaphysics in Persia is the thesis on which Iqbal obtained a B.A. degree from the University of Cambridge in March 1907. It was submitted with modifications to the University of Munich for PhD, which was acquired in June 1908.

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Book Review (1908)

published in Athenaeum, No. 4229, November 14, 1908, pp.601-602

This little volume is the work of an Indian scholar who has studied philosophy at Cambridge and Munich, and holds degrees from both these universities. Not only has he read widely and with evident grasp of the subject, but he is also familiar with, and has learnt to employ, European methods of criticism which generally make no profound impression, even on the most gifted Oriental minds. Consequently he has produced a really valuable resume of the history of Persian metaphysics, inevitably sketchy and incomplete, but sound in principle, and trustworthy as far as it goes. In this field the labourers are so few that every one must rely, to a large extent, on his own researches. The materials have to be collected from numberless manuscripts preserved in the great libraries of Europe, and it is only after long and tiresome research that any attempt can be made to reconstruct. To review the work in detail is impossible, on account of the enormous range of speculation which it covers—from Zoroaster and Mani to modern Babism. Naturally there are points to which exception might be taken. In discussing the origin of Sufism the writer claims to have treated the subject in a more scientific manner than previous investigations:

“They seem completely to have ignored the principle that the full significance of a phenomenon in the intellectual evolution of a people can only be comprehended in the light of those pre-existing intellectual, political, and social conditions which alone make its existence inevitable. Von Kremer and Dozy derive Persian Sufism from the Indian Vedanta; Merx and Mr. Nicholson derive it from Neo-Platonism, while Prof. Browne once regarded it as Aryan reaction against an unemotional Semitic religion. It appears to me, however, that these theories have been worked out under the influence of a notion of causation which is essentially false. That a fixed quantity A is the cause of or produces another fixed quantity B is a proposition which, though convenient for scientific purpose, is apt to damage all inquiry, in so far as it leads us completely to ignore the innumerable conditions lying at the back of a phenomenon.”

We are sure that the scholars mentioned in this passage recognize, as unreservedly as Shaikh Iqbal himself, that Sufism, like all great spiritual and intellectual movements, was ultimately the result of a certain environment, the nature of which is well known to every student of Islam. Their reasons for not laying stress on this fact are obvious enough. The conditions of which the Shaikh speaks enable us to explain the appearance of mysticism in Islam towards the end of the eighth century A.D., but that is all. We cannot hope, by examining these general conditions, to learn how it came to pass that the mystical tendency assumed a particular form, or how the special doctrines which we find in early Sufism arose. No wonder, then, that European Orientalists should have preferred a more fruitful line of inquiry, which has demonstrated the influences of other religions in moulding the development of Sufism. Those who derive it from Neo-Platonism do no more than assert that the early Sufis actually drew their leading ideas from that source; but had these Sufis been ignorant of Greek philosophy, they might still have produced a mysticism of the same type. To suppose that Sufism was created by foreign influence is an absurdity so palpable that its refutation, even in the most scientific manner, hardly constitutes a claim to originality. We have dwelt upon the author’s treatment of this question because it illustrates the one weak spot in his admirable survey. He is rather deficient on the historical side, and is apt to forget that a theory will carry greater conviction if it comes to close quarters with all the relevant facts.
The present work, however, is mainly concerned with elucidating the various systems of Persian thought and their relations to each other. Any one at all versed in the subject will perceive the appalling difficulty of the author’s task when he undertook to give a coherent account in less than two hundred pages of the subtle and complex problems which have formed, during thousands of years, the favourite pabulum of a race that has always been distinguished by its passion for metaphysical speculation. Moreover, for a great part of his journey the traveller finds himself on virgin soil, which he must explore and delineate as well as he can without the help of guides. Shaikh Iqbal deserves high praise for what he has accomplished. The immediate result of his labour is considerable, and he has laid a solid foundation for further research. The most notable sections of the volume are perhaps those which describe the Hikmat al-Ishraq, or “Philosophy of Illumination,” expounded by Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi, the famous Sufi thinker who was put to death as a heretic by order of Malik al-Zahir, a son of Saladin; and the Insan al-Kamil, or “Perfect Man,” of al-Jili, whose system in some points curiously anticipates the views of Hegel and Schleiermacher.
We have found a few misspellings of Oriental names, and also one or two statements which we are inclined to question; but there can be no doubt as to the competence of the author’s scholarship and the importance of his work. We hope that this first book (which is dedicated, by the way, to Prof. T. W. Arnold) may soon be followed by a more extensive treatise by the same hand.

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