Iqbal, German Orientalism and the Making of Modern Mysticism

By Razak Khan

This article is part of the TRAFO Series  “40 Years After Orientalism”.

I emphasize in it accordingly that neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability; each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other.

(Said 2003, xii)

Notwithstanding his suspicion of European Oriental scholarship on Islam, when Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) decided to write his doctoral research on metaphysics in Persia, he moved from Oxford to Germany and submitted his thesis to the Chair of Semitic Languages at Munich University, Fritz Hommel, in 1909. Around the same time, Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), a young German Jewish boy was reassessing his relationship with the German nation and culture. Scholem went on to study Jewish mysticism and philology and, in a coincidence pertinent to this study, was also supervised by Hommel during his doctoral studies. Although there is no evidence (yet) of Iqbal and Scholem having ever met or corresponded, their lives, intellectual work and trajectories of the knowledge they produced share a deep affinity and legacy as both turned to reassess the “mystical dimension” (tasavvuf and kabbalah) of their religion. The knowledge they produced was deeply connected with the project of imagining a new minority identity and a vision of a homeland where it would prosper (Devji 2013). Although the influence of Hommel might be limited in shaping the thoughts of his prize Muslim and Jewish students, it is still fascinating to pursue how Mysticism as a category emerged from the theological and Oriental studies conducted by European-Christian scholars to be eventually read globally as the essence of Islam and Judaism by minority scholars. This represents to me what Said calls “partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other” under the logic of Orientalism and knowledge production.

How might one think of these genealogies and trajectories of an entangled intellectual history of the Orient and the West? What is the role of Germany neé German language and Orientalism in shaping these histories of Muslim scholars and their intellectual journey in Germany? Adopting an approach that moves away from established taxonomies premised on nationalist frameworks of histories and archives will make us alive to the presence, iteration, and transformation of German thought and language in Persian and Urdu. My purpose here is to argue that the legacy of German thought survives not just within Germany or in German archives and language but can be felt just as unmistakably outside its putative linguistic and national boundaries. In this post, I explore these intellectual entanglements in the life and writings of Muhammad Iqbal.

Muhammed Iqbal, 1938. Source: Iqbal Academy Pakistan, Wikimedia Commons.

Some of the key primary texts cited in Iqbal’s thesis are Tarikh al-Hukama, Sharhi Anwariyya and Hikmat al-‘Ain. These manuscripts are housed in the Oriental Book Collection of the erstwhile Royal Library of Berlin now known as Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. These Oriental books found a place in the Royal Library through the journey and work of Austrian-born, German-speaking Orientalist, Aloys Sprenger (1813-1893) who had worked in colonial British India as the principal of Delhi College and had helped in translating western texts into Indian languages. A figure celebrated and controversial in equal measure, Sprenger had many followers and critics in India. Iqbal was one of the critics of his writings on Mohammed. However, Iqbal found himself using Sprenger’s collection of oriental manuscripts housed in the German State Library. Ironically, Oriental knowledge had been “rescued” from the natives and preserved in western libraries. Sprenger remained convinced of the “little intrinsic value” (Sprenger 1857, iv) of the literature of the East while making an Orientalist career and monetary fortune from selling it. The case of Orientalist archives and histories is perhaps best evidenced by European libraries. It was the Royal Library and subsequently university libraries like Tübingen that competed to build major collections of manuscripts about South Asia (Sengupta 2005, 119-145). Therefore, the library as an institutional and ideological space became the main archive of early Indo-German intellectual entanglements. This, however, was not just limited to Sanskrit and Indology. Indeed, one of the biggest Oriental manuscript collections in Germany is the Sprenger collection of Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Hindustani manuscripts in the Royal Library which is now preserved in the Oriental manuscript section of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. This raises foundational questions about the archival space of the library stocked with “preserved” manuscripts and private papers that serve as the site of knowledge production. Javed Majeed has written about the creative relationship between Iqbal and the knowledge institutionalized in European libraries and archives. Iqbal’s intellectual journeys in this “textual and archival territory” of the West was dialogically based on his own “creative powers of reading” (Majeed 2009, 103). The creativity of this reading engaged with Oriental knowledge production in Germany, yet also worked against the hegemonic power logic of Orientalist knowledge by insisting on the affinities and dialogue between European and Oriental authors and thought.

Iqbal’s doctoral thesis was based on this creative reading and process of forging dialogue. In the theoretical apparatus Iqbal welds to analyze the metaphysical thought of Persia, he does not just invoke Nietzsche but summons Hegel, Kant and Fichte as well while calling Sufi saint Al-Jili’s metaphysical work, especially Insan al-Kamil, to join the company. According to Iqbal, Jili “gives his hearty assent to the result of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: but unlike him, he makes this very idea the essence of the Universe. Kant’s Ding an sich to him is a pure one entity: there is nothing behind the collection of attributes” (Iqbal 1934, 157). Thus, Iqbal forges his own path and finds companions in his journey to the textual and archival territory of the West. In doing so, he enmeshes various strands of thoughts, emphatically insisting on a dialogic understanding of history.

Further, Iqbal draws affinities between Jili and German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher regarding the conception of God even as he traces their differences. Iqbal observes that “While the German theologian reduces all the divine attributes to one single attribute of Power, our author sees the danger of advancing a God free from all attributes”. Yet, Iqbal recognizes with Schleiermacher that “In Himself God is an unchangeable unity, and that His attributes are nothing more than views of Him from different human standpoints” (Iqbal 1934, 160-161). He concludes by bringing Persian religious leader Bahaullah and Schopenhauer into conversation about their conception of will and finds Schopenhauer more convincing in this case. Iqbal creates dialogue and builds an entire conversation through creative reading of the elective affinity of ideas.

The relationship between German philosophy and Iqbal did not end after he left Germany. Notwithstanding his critique of Orientalism and its commensurate modes of knowledge production, he remained in dialogue with the work of German philosophers in developing his own philosophical work. The Reconstruction of Islamic Thought is in conversation with the philosopher Ghazali as well as Kant on the nature of ego. Iqbal conducts this critical chorus and finds his own voice in declaring that both Ghazali and Kant fail to notice that “thought, in the very act of knowledge, passes beyond its own finitude” (Iqbal 1934, 6). On the one hand, Iqbal draws affinities between the Quran and Goethe’s Faust in terms of their delineation of the legends of the fall of men and their transformations of these legends (77-78). On the other hand, Iqbal finds resonance between Persian philosopher Suhrawardi Maqtul and Hegel on their conceptualization of reality as a spirit (105). The Andalusian philosopher Rushd meets Nietzsche on the question of immortality with the latter’s doctrine of eternal recurrence serving as the meeting point (105-108). Kant is brought in conversation with Ibn Arabi and Iraqi on metaphysics and experience. The Arab intellectual Ibn Khaldun confabulates with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Jung and Einstein on human psychology and subliminal experience (172-173).

In his academic framework for the question of Islamic Law and evolution, Iqbal relies on the theories of Horten, Professor of Semitic Philology at the University of Bonn (155). He cites Ignaz Goldziher on the historical authenticity of Hadis as source of Muhammedan law (162). While his Payam-e-mashriq (Message of the East) is a lyrical response to the call made by Goethe in his West-östlicher Divan, Iqbal ends the book with a verse from his book of poetry Javid-nama, which cannot be understood without Goethe, Dante and Wordsworth. Indeed, the collected writings of Einstein, books from Martin Buber as well as Kant, Hegel and Goethe were all found in Iqbal’s private library, now enshrined in the Iqbal Academy (Schimmel 1963, 317-18.).

Plaque in the German City of Heidelberg commemorates Mohammad Iqbal (1877–1938): National Philosopher, Poet and the Spiritual Father of Pakistan. Source: Heidelberger Geschichtsverein.

Iqbal’s ideas were spread globally through the translation and intellectual labor of another German Orientalist, Annemarie Schimmel (1902-2003), who fostered intellectual exchanges between Pakistan and Germany. Iqbal Ufer street in Heidelberg and Annemarie Schimmel Haus in Lahore, as German Cultural Center, monumentalized the intellectual journeys of these scholars. Divided by boundaries of nation and language, ideas conjoined these lives and histories. Schimmel  has written insightfully about the Western and Eastern influences on Iqbal’s thought and on his relations to mystics and mysticism. Her work on Iqbal and South Asian Islam itself owes to an entangled history of ideas marked by collaboration and the production of dialogical knowledge. In her acknowledgements in the book Gabriel’s Wing, Schimmel notes her indebtedness to the German-Pakistan Forum, Karachi leader Mumtaz Hasan, the German Embassy in Karachi and the Iqbal Academy in Karachi. The archive of this German-Pakistani intellectual collaboration is also preserved at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin. In her book, Schimmel candidly accepts that, in spite of his close connection with European scholarship, Iqbal remained suspicious of Western Oriental scholarship on Islam, especially the works of Ignaz Goldziher. Yet, he maintained good relations with German orientalist A. Fischer of Leipzig (317-318). The affective dimension of Iqbal’s scholarship facilitates an understanding of his choices on texts and the excerpts that he focused on. On Iqbal’s intellectual work, Schimmel observes that Iqbal’s method was to draw comparison between Islamic and German philosophers and this comparative framework for interpretation furnished Iqbal “with new possibilities of combining harmoniously Islamic Tradition with the most recent scientific research” (320). The key concept here, entangling threads of semantics and disciplines, is Mysticism – a category that informed the work of both Iqbal and Schimmel. The German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and his foundational thought on this category as a way of explaining religious experience connects this Judeo-Christian-Islamic Intellectual History (105-108). Mysticism is the running thread in Iqbal’s oeuvre. Majeed highlights that Iqbal engaged in detail with the aesthetics of Sufism in his incomplete Urdu work written in 1912, Tarikh-e-Tasavvuf (History of Mysticism). Tarikh-e-Tasavvuf is also concerned with the role of pre-Islamic belief systems in the development of esoteric Sufi philosophers in Persia. However, Iqbal reinterpreted Sufism as focusing on the interiority of selfhood and its experience of inner content for a modern subjectivity.

In her magisterial book Mystical Dimensions of Islam, Schimmel also turns to the category of Mysticism to understand the history of Sufism. She develops her own understanding based on classical Sufi writings but also on Oriental scholarship. Iqbal appears at the end of her analysis and she credits him for challenging the backwardness of the traditional “spiritual leaders” and their “Pirism” of the Indian Subcontinent. A modern Mysticism for Iqbal provided a possibility of disassociation from the “lower class” and its “illiterate rituals” of  Pirism. More importantly, unlike the ascetic model of Sufism, the idea of modern mysticism was not in opposition to materialist and nationalist projects but indeed crucial to them. The Sufi ascetic was replaced by the willful subjectivity of a modern mystic. Thus, Mysticism provided a new kind of religious experience and politics suitable for the Muslim bourgeoisie of South Asia (Malik 1971, 306-307). Thus, Iqbal eventually acceded to this idea of a modern mystical experience over the pre-modern genealogies which owes its origins to Western theology rather than to some atavistic Islamic thought.

German Orientalism and the Globalization of Mysticism

Edward Said has been critiqued for ignoring or not fully understanding the contribution of German Orientalism but, as evident from his own words, he saw the shared logic and the ideology of intellectual authority between French, British and German Orientalism (Said 2003, 19). Susannah Heschel has argued that German Orientalism insisted on the primacy of Mysticism as a key element of Judaism something that other traditional Jewish scholars did not promote (Heschel 2012, 91-117). It is interesting therefore that Iqbal and the founder of Jewish Mysticism studies, Gershom Scholem, shared the same German Oriental Studies supervisor and both highlighted the Mystical dimension of Islam and Judaism. Studies of Orientalism need not only be focused on European scholarship but might also be productively understood from the margins. Moving beyond the focus on Islam, it could be productive to bring Orientalism and the creation of Mysticism as a global concept and intellectual field. Indeed, not only “orthodox Islam” but even its other “Liberal Mysticism” variant turns out to be deeply implicated in this intellectual history of Orientalism.


Further Readings

Ahmad, Zubair. “On Colonial Aphasia in the Study of German Orientalism”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 29.05.2020. https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24098.

Devji, Faisal. Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Heschel, Susannah. “German-Jewish Scholarship on Islam as a Tool of De-Orientalization.” New German Critique 117 (2012): 91-117. 

Iqbal, Muhammad. Tarikh-e-Tasavuf. ed Sabir Kalurvi. Lahore: Maktabah-ye Tamir-e Insaniyat, 1912.

Iqbal, Muhammad. The Development of Metaphysics of Persia: A Contribution to the History of Muslim Philosophy. London: Luzac & Co., 1908.

Iqbal, Mohammad. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. London: Oxford University Press, 1934.

Malik, Hafeez ed. Muhammad Iqbal: Poet Philosopher of Pakistan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.

Majeed, Javed. Muhammad Iqbal: Islam Aesthetics and Postcolonialism. London: Routledge, 2009.

Said, Edward. Orientalism (1978). London: Penguin, 2003.

Scharf, Robert H. “The Rhetoric of Experience and the Study of Religion”. Journal of Consciousness Studies 7/11-12 (2000): 267-87.

Schimmel, Annemarie. Gabriel’s Wing: A Study into the Religious Ideas of Sir Muhammad Iqbal. Leiden: E.J Brill, 1963.

Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. London: Thames and Hudson, 1965. 

Scholem, Gershom. Von Berlin nach Jerusalem. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977.

Sengupta, Indra. From Salon to Discipline: State, University and Indology in Germany 1821-1914. Heidelberg: Ergon Verlag, 2005.

Sprenger, Aloys. A Catalogue of the Bibliotheca Orientalis Sprengeriana. Giessen: Wilhelm Keller, 1857.


Razak Khan is a Research Fellow in the History Research Group at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen. He studied Modern Indian History at the University of Delhi and was awarded a PhD from the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies (BGSMCS) at Freie Universität Berlin in 2014. Subsequently, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin and the Erlangen Centre for Islam and Law in Europe (EZIRE), Friedrich–Alexander Universität Erlangen–Nürnberg. His research interests include the history of emotions and global intellectual history. His current research project is titled “Minor Cosmopolitanism: Politics of Education and Modern Islam in the Life and Writings of Syed Abid Husain (1896-1978)” and examines the entangled history of Muslim and German-Jewish intellectualism. He is currently completing a book, Minority Pasts: Locality, Emotions, and Identities in Rampur, to be published by Oxford University Press.


Further Articles in the TRAFO Series “40 Years After Orientalism”:

Schirin Amir-Moazami, Introduction: 40 Years After Orientalism, 7 May 2020.

Wendy Shaw, Reenchantment: From the Facts of Orientalism to the Sustenance of Storytelling, 7 May 2020.

Zubair Ahmad, On Colonial Aphasia in the Study of German Orientalism, 29 May 2020.


Citation: Razak Khan, Iqbal, German Orientalism and the Making of Modern Mysticism, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.08.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24680/.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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