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Ibn Taymīyah, Taqī al-Dīn Aḥmad

Ronald L. Nettler, Joseph A. Kéchichian
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics What is This? Provides in-depth coverage of the political dimensions of Islam and the Muslim world through thematic examination of the major topic areas of political science as they relate to the Muslim world.

Ibn Taymīyah, Taqī al-Dīn Aḥmad

Taqī al-Dīn Aḥmad Ibn Taymīyah was a prominent, influential, and sometimes controversial thinker and political figure, was born in Harran, a city located in modern-day Turkey, to a family of Ḥanbalī scholars (including his paternal grandfather, uncle, and father). Although Ibn Taymīyah was himself a Ḥanbalī scholar in many juridical and theological matters, he espoused Salafī views on a wider plane, which translated into strong influences on conservative Sunnī circles, especially in modern times.

Ibn Taymīyah's life was a mix of intellectual activity, preaching, politics, and periodic persecutions and imprisonments. This was in the context of the great disruptions caused by the Mongol invasions of the Urartian plateau in contemporary Turkey. In 1268, when the future ʿalim was five years old, he was taken with his family to Damascus, in flight from the Mongol threat. He was educated there in the traditional religious sciences, took over for his father as head of the Sukkarīyah mosque, and became a professor of Ḥanbalī law in about 1282. Ibn Taymīyah taught and preached elsewhere in Damascus and in other cities, though he incurred the wrath of some Shāfiʿī and other ʿulamāʾ (religious scholars) and theologians for some of his teachings on theology and law. He was persecuted and imprisoned in both Syria and Egypt, for his tashbīh (anthropomorphism), while several of his rulings—which were derived through ijtihād (independent reason)—along with his idiosyncratic legal judgments (e.g., on ṭalāq [divorce]), shocked many. Ibn Taymīyah was active in anti-Mongol propaganda, and his legal and theological definitions used in determining whether the Mongols (particularly Mongol rulers) were Muslims or kuffār (nonbelievers) proved influential. Jihād against the Mongols, he affirmed, was not only permissible but obligatory because the latter ruled not according to Sharīʿah but through their traditional, and therefore manmade, Yassa code. This essentially meant that Mongols were living in a state of jāhilīyah. Both Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzīyah and Ibn Kathīr, two of Ibn Taymīyah's most renowned disciples, confirmed the ʿalim's pronouncements on the matter.

Ibn Taymīyah wrote numerous works (estimated between 350 and 500 books and/or pamphlets), most of which were published and translated, that described in some detail his doctrine, which was, in Ḥanbalī fashion, based on the supremacy of the Qurʾān and sunnah (received custom), as well as the salaf (early Muslim models) as ultimate authorities. He applied an austere exegetical literalism to the sacred sources and condemned the popular practice of saint veneration and pilgrimages to the ziyārat al-qubūr (tombs of saints) as bidʿah (innovation). All of these were tantamount to worshiping something other than God. Moreover, and in sharp contrast to scholars who practiced evolving but accepted practices, he rejected as alien the methods and content of ʿilm al-kalām (discursive theology), falsafah (peripatetic philosophy), and metaphysical Sufism (though he did encourage pietistic Sufism). Consequently, his conservatism evolved into the basis of Ibn Taymīyah's argument against blind obedience to taqlīd (established legal judgments), which was revolutionary, to say the least. In his view, the salaf needed to balance the sacred sources with their own ijtihād to better understand and live according to God's laws, and the same was required of modern generations. Ibn Taymīyah thus employed an ijtihād that relied more on qiyās (analogical reasoning) than jurists before him. For Ibn Taymīyah, īmān (a deep pietistic belief) was the source and power of all religion, as well as its epistemological foundation. Without it, he thought, doctrine could have no meaning or force and in his own life as a pietistic Ṣūfī, he exemplified such beliefs. His treatise on īmān (Kitāb al-īmān) was one of the most profound and subtle treatments of the subject produced in medieval Islam.

Several of Ibn Taymīyah's ideas were relevant to society and politics, including his notion of the closeness between religion and state; his defining of the Mongols as kuffār, in spite of their public Islamic discourse; and his general antipathy toward the ahl al-kitāb (people of the book). Indeed Ibn Taymīyah's significance for modern Islamic thought and culture gained momentum in conservative and Islamist circles precisely because of his avowed antipathies that, allegedly, preserved the integrity of the faith. Still, some liberal thinkers invoked his doctrines too, especially his notion of ijtihād and his antipathy to taqlīd. Insofar as modern Islam was profoundly preoccupied with issues of religion, state, and society, Ibn Taymīyah's influence was present, whether implicitly or explicitly, particularly in the Arab world.

For example, the Unitarian (Wahhābī) movement and the Saudi state that emerged from it were deeply affected by several of Ibn Taymīyah's ideas. The Wahhābī emphasis on Qurʾān and sunnah; a literalistic exegesis; a distaste for speculative strains of theology, the four schools of Sunnī legal thought, and mysticism; a rejection of the visitation of tombs; and a conception of the early ummah (community) in Medina as the model for a modern Islamic state all reflected Ibn Taymīyah's outlook.

Many later Islamist thinkers drew heavily on Ibn Taymīyah's principles for their general worldview, especially in their conception of Islam and the ummah and the close connection between politics and religion. This was clear in the thoughts of Ḥasan al-Bannā in Egypt, whose insistence on Islam as a synthesis of religion and state (dīn wa-dawlah), and his practical religious tendencies owed much to the earlier thinker.

With the Egyptian Sayyid Quṭb (1906–1966), this tendency became pronounced, as the leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood developed his notion of jāhilīyah (ignorance). For Quṭb the non-Islamic modern culture of moral and intellectual relativism, along with the absolute conflict between God's law and that culture, exemplified Ibn Taymīyah's sharp distinction between basic concepts within Islam and their absence in other religions. For example Quṭb's persistent attack on Muslim rulers, regimes, and so-called members of the intelligentsia for allegedly ruling and teaching according to secular principles, rather than Islamic teachings, were firmly based on Ibn Taymīyah's far-reaching pronouncements concerning the status of the Mongols within Islam. In this view leaders of modern nation-states were akin to those Mongols who publicly espoused Islam but acted against its principles. They thereby confused Muslim subjects whose faith was already weak, which meant that—based on Ibn Taymīyah's assertion—it was permissible to question such modern rulers as to the veracity of their Muslim identities. Some militant fundamentalist groups, particularly in the Arab world (and Iran), argued explicitly for takfīr (excommunication), branding such rulers as kuffār.

There is a prominent example of the principle of takfīr in the widely disseminated tractate al-Farīḍah al-ghā’ibah (The Absent Precept), by Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Salām Faraj. Faraj, the intellectual voice of the group that engineered Anwar el-Sadat's assassination, quoted Ibn Taymīyah's fatwa (ruling) on the Mongols as a legal precedent in his takfīr of contemporary rulers and religious authorities. Since then, the Egyptian religious establishment has concluded that the book was offensive, doctrinally wrong, and dangerous. Three decades after Sadat's murder, the Majallat al-Azhar (Journal of al-Azhar) published a special 112-page booklet in July 1993, criticizing Faraj's tractate point by point. Concerning Ibn Taymīyah's takfīr of the Mongols as a universal precedent, the al-Azhar booklet argued that Ibn Taymīyah's fatwa was time-bound, relevant only to that particular case and not to twentieth-century Egypt. It asserted:

"Can there be any comparison between these people [the Mongols] who did to Muslims [the things] carried within the history books and [modern] Egypt, its rulers and its people? Can one really compare those with these?… These explanations… [which we have given] of the reasons for [Ibn Taymīyah's] fatwā show that Ibn Taymīyah took his position [solely] with regard to the contemporary situation of the Tartars. [Thus in his view] they were, non-Muslims [kuffār], even though they spoke the language of Islam in an attempt to lead Muslims astray...(The Absent Precept, Journal of al-Azhar, July, 1993)"

With the polarization of modern Islamic political thought on these issues in the latter half of the twentieth century, Ibn Taymīyah's influence, through Sayyid Quṭb, the Islamic movements, and others, dominates the discourse on one side of the political debate, which has perpetuated the ʿalim's influence up to the present.



Works of Ibn Taymīyah

  • The Goodly Word. Abridged and translated by Ezzedin Ibrahim and Denys Johnson-Davis. Cambridge, U.K.: Islamic Texts Society, 2003. A translation of Kalim al-Tayyib.
  • Un Dieu hesitant? Translated and annotated by Yahya Michot. Paris: Éditions Albouraq, 2005. A French translation of Fatāwā.
  • Mardin: Hégire, fuite du péché et “demeure de l’Islam.” Translated by Yahya Michot. Paris: Éditions Albouraq, 2005. A French translation of more fatāwā.
  • Mécréance et pardon: Ecrits spirituals d’Ibn Taymiyya. Michot, Yahya, trans. Paris: Éditions Albouraq, 2005. A French translation of various writings.
  • Kitab al-Iman [Book of Faith]. Bloomington, Ind.: Iman Publishing House, 2010.

Secondary Works

  • DeLong-Bas, Natana J. Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzīyah, Muḥammad ibn Abī Bakr. Asmāʾ muʾallafāt Ibn Taymīyah Damascus, 1953. Catalogue of Ibn Taymīyah's main works, written by a great disciple.
  • Laoust, Henri. Essai sur les doctrines sociales et politiques de Takī-d-Dīn b. Taimīya. Cairo: l’Institute Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1939. Standard book on Ibn Taymīyah's social and political thought.
  • Laoust, Henri. La biographie d’Ibn Taimīya d’après ibn Katīr. Damascus, 1943. The best biography of Ibn Taymīyah.
  • Makari, Victor E. Ibn Taymiyyah's Ethics: The Social Factor. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983. Interesting and valuable discussion of Ibn Taymīyah's theory of social ethics.
  • Memon, Muhammad Umar. Ibn Taymīya's Struggle against Popular Religion. The Hague: Mouton, 1976. Excellent account of Ibn Taymīyah's ideas on popular religious practices. The book also includes a valuable discussion of Ibn Taymīyah's refutation of Ibn ʿArabī's metaphysical Sufism.
  • Rapoport, Yossef, and Shahab Ahmed. Ibn Taymiyya and His Times. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
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