Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328)
IBN TAYMIYYA (1263–1328)
Taqi al-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyya was born in Harran in northern Syria in 1263 c.e. and died at the age of sixty-five in Damascus in 1328. A prolific writer on all subjects related to the Qur˒an, hadith, sunna, theology, law, and mysticism, he was a dynamic and controversial figure during his lifetime, and he remains to this day an influential figure in Islamic thought and practice. A loyal associate of the Hanbali theological and legal school of thought, he put his beliefs into practice as a religious, political, and social reformer. Responding to various crises of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries in the Middle East, such as the Mongol invasions, the destruction of the Abbasid caliphate, and the eventual rise of the Mamluk dynasty of Egypt and Syria, Ibn Taymiyya sought the revival of Islamic society based on a model of what he believed was the pristine community of Muslims at the time of the Prophet and his companions at Medina. But his efforts to revive Islamic society were not only aimed at political and social reform, he sought also to achieve the revival of the inner or spiritual components of Islam. In fact, he believed the inner reform had to occur first before any outward reform would be possible. This perspective on his part brought him into conflict with many speculative theologians (mutakallimun), philosophers, and Sufi mystics, whom Ibn Taymiyya accused of deviating from the pure Islam of Muhammad and the Qur˒an by adopting non-Islamic systems of belief, in particular the logic and philosophy of the ancient Greeks.
Ibn Taymiyya's life can be divided into three distinct periods, each representing a significant phase in his development as a thinker and reformer. The first phase goes from his birth until 1304, during which time he received his training as a scholar and was involved in defending Damascus from incursions by the Mongol Ilkhans of Persia. The second period lasts from 1304 until 1312, during which time he was in Egypt. This period is marked by his growing controversy with Sufi mysticism as well as his involvement with the political turmoil related to Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad b. al-Qalawun's consolidation of power. Ibn Taymiyya spent many years on trial and in prison during this time, stemming from his religious pronouncements and his support for al-Nasir Muhammad. The third phase begins with his return to Damascus in 1312 and lasts until his death in 1328. This is the period of the maturing of his ideas and the time of his most prolific and significant writings. Although these years were relatively free of controversy, toward the end of his life he came into conflict with religious and state authorities over doctrinal and legal issues. Ibn Taymiyya died in prison in Damascus shortly after being denied contact with all but his closest family members and being forbidden to write any more letters, essays, or legal rulings.
The core of Ibn Taymiyya's thought revolves around a set of principles from which he develops an elaborate worldview. These principles can be summarized as follows: an absolute distinction between the creator and the creation, revelation as a complete and self-sufficient system, and a necessity to constantly return to and understand the Qur˒an and the sunna in light of the traditional teachings of the earliest generations of Muslims (al-salaf al-salih).
Ibn Taymiyya has been described as a "dogmatic historian," for he developed a theology based on the concept of a necessarily preserved true religion. This religion as embodied in the Qur˒an and the sunna of prophet Muhammad was transmitted intact by the salaf al-salih. The canonical collections of authenticated hadiths contain this transmitted wisdom, and thus, for Ibn Taymiyya, forms the basis for all interpretation and practice in Islam. His methodological approach is premised on the correct use of five sources for gaining knowledge of the beliefs and practices that are pleasing to Allah. These are (1) the Qur˒an, (2) the sunna of the Prophet, (3) the statements and actions of the companions of the Prophet (al-sahaba), (4) the opinions of the followers (altabi˓un) of the companions, and (5) the Arabic language, which for him is the only divinely ordained religious language. These sources make up what Ibn Taymiyya believes is a comprehensive notion of revelation. Any methodology or belief system outside revelation is not deemed to be an acceptable means of attaining truth.
In relation to jurisprudence and the schools of law (madhahib), Ibn Taymiyya maintains that theoretically the four imams of the recognized Sunni schools of law agreed on the principles (usul) of Islam, but pragmatically they differed concerning particular rulings (furu˓). Thus he upholds the legitimacy of the four schools yet argues that scholars must continue exerting independent judgment (ijtihad) in an effort to come ever closer to the theoretically pure Islam. He argued that blind following (taqlid) of one scholar or school of thought was tolerated for the layperson, but scholars were under an obligation to seek out and follow the truth even if it is found to lie outside their particular affiliation to a school of thought. This stance brought him into conflicts with other jurists, even with his fellow Hanbalis.
But more than his political and legal opinions, Ibn Taymiyya's theology remains the most salient feature of his religious thought. Devoted to a defense of a monotheism that does not compromise the nature and attributes of Allah as derived from the Qur˒an and the sunna, he set himself against the great traditions of speculative theology (kalam), philosophy, and mysticism that had evolved in Islamic civilization. Following closely the creeds established by Ahmad Ibn Hanbal and other hadith scholars of the ninth century, Ibn Taymiyya developed a very sophisticated and subtle theology that he promoted quite vigorously. His theology begins with the notion of God as the eternal, omniscient, and omnipotent creator who brought the universe into existence out of nothingness (ex nihilo) as a willful act. He rejects any form of pantheistic thought that compromises this belief. Thus he devotes much of his writings to refutations of mystical philosophies, such as that of Ibn al-˓Arabi (d. 1242). However, he does not want to compromise the idea of a personal God with whom a believer can establish an intimate spiritual relation. Therefore, he also rejects the sterile descriptions of Allah put forth by philosophers and speculative theologians, who stripped him of many of his essential names and attributes. His main targets of refutation are the Mu˓tazilites, the Ash˓arites, and philosophers such as Ibn Sina (d. 1043). These theological debates often brought the charge of anthropomorphism against Ibn Taymiyya because he insisted on affirming attributes to Allah such as that he has a hand and a face, that he loves and hates, and that he ascends and descends while remaining risen above the throne over the heavens. Ibn Taymiyya's defense is that these descriptions appear in the Qur˒an and authentic hadiths and have been maintained by the companions of the Prophet. He also argues that these attributes cannot be comprehended by human intellect but must be accepted as a matter of faith without questioning (bi la kayf) the manner in which these attributes exist in Allah.
Makari, Victor. Ibn Taymiyyah's Ethics: The Social Factor. Chico, Calif.: The Scholar's Press, 1983.
Memon, Muhammad Umar. Ibn Taymiyya's Struggle against Popular Religion: With an Annotated Translation of his Kitab iqtida˒ as-sirat al-mustaqim mukhalafat ashab al-jahim. The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1976.
Michel, Thomas. A Muslim Theologian's Response to Christianity. Delmar, N.Y.: Caravan Books, 1984.