Ibn Ḥazm

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IBN AZM (ah 384456/9941064 ce), more fully Abū Muammad ʿAlī ibn Amad ibn Saʿīd ibn azm, was a Muslim theologian and man of letters. Born in Cordova to a rich and influential family, Ibn azm received a distinguished education in religious sciences, literature, and poetry. Nonetheless, he grew up in a period of disruptive ethnic and clan rivalries that saw the decline of the Umayyad caliphate at Cordova and the formation of tiny kingdoms fighting among themselves. His own childhood was marred by the disgrace of his father after the fall of Caliph Hishām II and by the destruction of the family home at Balā Mughīth in the course of bloody battles between Arabs and Berbers.

As a result of his political activities on behalf of the legitimist (Umayyad) party, Ibn azm met with imprisonment, banishment, and flight but was appointed to high positions as well, serving as vizier at least twice, under ʿAbd al-Ramān III al-Murtadā and ʿAbd al- Ramān V al-Mustahir, and possibly a third time under the last caliph, Hishām al-Muʿtadd. Profoundly disappointed by his political experience and offended by the conduct of his contemporaries, Ibn azm subsequently left public life and devoted his last thirty years to literary activities.

His writings are quite personal, shaped by the intensity of his own reactions and rigorous in their condemnation of what is, in fact, only human nature. awq al-amāmah (The dove's neck-ring), a youthful work that was clearly revised later, is interesting in several respects. As a collection of prose passages and poetic illustrations on the subject of love and lovers, it offers a fairly standard treatment of a popular theme in Arabic literature. What sets it apart, however, is Ibn azm's penetrating observation of human psychology, a trait found in his later study of characters and conduct, Kitāb al-akhlāq wa-al-siyar, as well. Underlying the delicate charm of the prose and poetry in awq al-amāmah is an uneasy sensibility. Questioning, for example, the sincerity of exchanges between women and their lovers, Ibn azm finds a gap between what is said and what is thought and concludes that language often serves to mask thought. This otherwise commonplace discovery of dishonesty provides him in turn with a basis for profound reflection on language and its wider uses, and it is here that he introduces the notion of āhir, the "apparent" or literal meaning of words.

This line of thought is further developed when Ibn azm examines the word of God. In opposition to the Mālikīyah, he argues that people are bound to obey only the law of God, in its āhir or literal sense, without restrictions, additions, or modifications. Although he was originally a Shāfiʿī jurist, Ibn azm joined the āhirī school and brought to it a systematic structure of logic. For the interpretation of sacred texts, he put together a āhirī grammar in which he specifically eliminates the ambiguities that grammarians were using to explain certain syntactical forms. He takes the position that language itself provides all that is necessary for the understanding of its content and that, therefore, God, who revealed the Qurʾān in clear (mubīn ) Arabic, has used the language to say precisely what he means. Each verse should be understood grammatically and lexically in its immediate and general sense: When God wants a verse to have a specific meaning, he provides an indication (dalīl), in the same verse or elsewhere, which allows the meaning to be restricted.

The significance of a Qurʾanic text can also be determined by a adīth recognized as authentic after careful critical examination; a verb in the imperative, for example, can be taken as a command, but also as a suggestion: The meaning can be determined only from the literal sense of the context. From this position, it follows that Ibn azm strongly criticizes the use of reasoning by analogy (qiyās ) and the principles of personal evaluation: the pursuit of what is considered good (istisān ), the pursuit of values for the common good (istilā ), and most of all, the recourse to personal opinion (raʾy ) by which the jurists sought to extend divine law to cases not mentioned in the texts (nuū ). In the same spirit, he limits the basis of consensus (ijmāʿ ) to the companions of the Prophet; the agreement of the community of scholars on a legal question does not authorize the derivation of a law.

In Al-ikām fī uūl al-akām (Judgment on the principles of Akām ), Ibn azm develops his method for classifying human acts within the five established juridical categories (akām ) of obligatory, recommended, disapproved, forbidden, and lawful: For an action to fall into one of the first four categories, there must be a text (Qurʾān or authentic adīth ) that establishes its particular status; otherwise, the act is lawful. This method is further applied in his voluminous treatise on āhirī law, Kitāb al-muallā (The book of ornaments).

Ibn azm is also famous for his great work, the Fial (Detailed critical examination), in which he offers a critical survey of different systems of philosophical thought in relation to religious beliefs among the skeptics, Peripatetics, brahmans, Zoroastrians and other dualists, Jews, and Christians. Using the examination of these religions to establish the preeminence of Islam, he also attacks all the Muslim theologians, the Muʿtazilah and the Ashʿarīyah in particular, along with the philosophers and mystics. His main objection is that each of them raises questions about the revealed text only to resolve them by purely human means. Ibn azm does not deny recourse to reason, because the Qurʾān itself invites reflection, but this reflection must be limited to two givens, revelation and sense data, because the so-called principles of reason are in fact derived entirely from immediate sense experience. Thus reason is not a faculty for independent research, much less for discovery.

By submitting humans exclusively to the word of God, Ibn azm's literalism frees them from any choice of their own. His drive for synthesis leads him to demonstrate the harmony of all the Qurʾanic and prophetic texts through the application of āhirī principles. As a result, his work constitutes one of the most original and important monuments of Muslim thought.


A general work for the study of Ibn azm is W. Montgomery Watt and Pierre Cachia's A History of Islamic Spain (Edinburgh, 1965), which provides a useful summary of cultural and political history as well as a detailed bibliography. D. B. Macdonald's Development of Muslim Theology, Jurisprudence and Constitutional Theory (1903; reprint, New York, 1965) and Ignácz Goldziher's classic work The āhirīs: Their Doctrine and Their History, translated and edited by Wolfgang Behn (Leiden, 1971), shed light on the legal and theological currents of which Ibn azm was a part.

A work that specifically concerns Ibn azm is my Grammaire et théologie chez Ibn azm de Cordoue: Essai sur la structure et les conditions de la pensée muūlmane (Paris, 1956). Miguel Asín Palacios's Abenházam de Córdoba y su historia crítica de las ideas religiosas, 5 vols. (Madrid, 19271932), is an analytical edition and partial translation of Ibn azm's most famous work, Kitāb al-fal fī al-milal wa-al-ahwāʾ wa-al-nial. His awq al-amāmah fī al-ulfah wa-al-ullāf has been translated by A. R. Nykl as A Book Containing the Risala Known as the Dove's Neck-ring, about Love and Lovers (Paris, 1931) and by A. J. Arberry as The Ring of the Dove (London, 1953).

Roger Arnaldez (1987)

Translated from French by Miriam Rosen