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Ibn Taymīyah, Taqī al-Dīn

A. Al-Matroudi
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Ibn Taymīyah, Taqī al-Dīn

(1263–1328 CE)

also known as Aḥmad ibn ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm ibn ʿAbd al-Salām ibn ʿAbd Allah ibn Abu ʾl-Qāsim al-Khiḍr ibn Muhammad ibn Taymīyah was perhaps the most eminent and influential Ḥanbalī jurist of the Middle Ages and one of the most prolific among them. He was also a renowned scholar of Islam whose influence was felt not only during his lifetime but extended through the centuries until the present day.

He was born in Ḥarrān (in present-day Turkey) in 1263 CEbut moved to Damascus in order to escape the Mongol invasions from the east. He lived in Damascus during the era of the first Mamlūk rulers, from 1250 to 1382 and also during the Crusades, which lasted until 1291.

Scholar, Writer, and Teacher.

Both his father and his grandfather were leading scholars of the Ḥanbalī legal school, and as a result Ibn Taymīyah was attracted to the world of learning from an early age. In addition to studying under his immediate family, he also studied under scholars from various jurisprudential schools. He is thought to have had more than two hundred shaykhs (teachers) in the science of ḥadīth (the prophetic traditions) alone. He engaged in debates and giving public speeches and was well known for his strong memory and intelligence. This ability and wide range of scholarly influences provided the preconditions for the comprehensive level of his knowledge. In addition, he was well established in a wide range of disciplines, among which his strongest areas of expertise were jurisprudence (fiqh), exegesis (tafsīr), and theology. His knowledge of ḥadīth and ḥadīth criticism was so extensive that his student of many years Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Dhahabī, a well-celebrated historian, exegete, and ḥadīth critic in his own right, proclaimed that “every ḥadīth which is not known to Ibn Taymīyah is not a ḥadīth.” However, since this statement was meant only as a way of emphasizing the depth of Ibn Taymīyah’s knowledge in this regard, al-Dhahabī added that “God is the only one who could encompass all knowledge.” (Ibn al-‘Imād, 1992, vol. 8, p. 145)

Ibn Taymīyah read Islamic and Arabic sciences and also became proficient in other subjects such as algebra, logic, history, and philosophy. These latter subjects were especially helpful to him when he wrote polemic treatises refuting Aristotelian philosophy, which was present in some of the intellectual discourses of his day. In addition, his knowledge of logic left a clear influence on his work, particularly in his systematic presentation of arguments and in his use of explicit reasoning from established premises. This is especially so in his formulation of theological precepts such as Divine theodicy and attributes.

Ibn Taymīyah led a simple life and devoted most of it to scholarly activities of learning, writing, and teaching. The breadth of his knowledge and his range of scholarly interests led him to become a prolific author in several fields. There are differing accounts regarding the exact number of his works with some suggesting that they might amount to about five hundred volumes. His interest in writing extended to an interest in teaching. When his father died, Ibn Taymīyah, who was twenty-one at the time, took his place as a teacher in the Sukarriyah School, and he had a regular study circle on Fridays. In addition to his scholarly discussions and activities, he was known to be an ascetic (zāhid) and to have performed the pilgrimage to Mecca (ḥajj) around 1292 CE.

Ḥanbalī School.

There has been some debate as to whether Ibn Taymīyah was a follower of the Ḥanbalī school or was an independent scholar (called an “absolute mujtahid”). He is known to have started his jurisprudential learning within the Ḥanbalī school and thus to have had significantly greater and more enduring contact with this school and its members than he did with any of the other schools of law. In addition, Ibn Taymīyah spent most of his life in Damascus, which was at that time an established center of the Ḥanbalī school. Eventually, Ibn Taymīyah became a well-established scholar in his own right within the school, to the point that several Ḥanbalī scholars sought permission from him to issue their own fatwās. The books of ṭabaqāt (biographical dictionaries) make reference to many such scholars who had been acknowledged by Ibn Taymīyah as having the authority to issue fatwās. Ibn Taymīyah’s student Ibn al-Qayyim also appears to have considered his shaykh a qualified Ḥanbalī scholar. He asserted that Ibn Taymīyah’s opinions could be employed as legal fatwās within the school, adding that his shaykh’s preferences were not inferior, even if they were not superior, to those of leading Ḥanbalī scholars such as Ibn ʿAqīl (d. 1119 CE) and Abū al-Khaṭṭāb (d. 1116 CE), and even their shaykh, Abū Yaʿlā al-Farr āʾ (d. 1066 CE). (Ibn al-Qayyim, n.d., vol. 4, p. 147–48)

From the tender age of seventeen, Ibn Taymīyah was also considered to be a muftī, who was engaged with the people of his time in the different aspects of their lives, a testimony for which can be found in the famous thirty-seven-volume collection of his fatwās, Majmūʿ fatāwā (Collected Fatwās), and in other works. It is notable that his fatwās (legal opinions based on religious law) can be characterized generally as being comprehensive and detailed but at the same time, in most cases, accessible. Since the collection was assembled in the twentieth century, the fatwās must be read with caution because they can seem at times to express conflicting opinions. Rather than represent inconsistencies on Ibn Taymīyah’s part, however, these differences could well be a result of the progression of his thought.

It is true, however, that he was well versed in the other legal schools, as well, and that he reached a stage in which he was said to have obtained the tools needed for ijtihād (independent reasoning). It is safe to say that he chose to operate within the Ḥanbalī school, but at the same time, that if he thought a legal ruling within the school was in contradiction to textual evidence, he did not hesitate to criticize it. In such cases, we find him distancing Ahmad Ibn Ḥanbal, the school’s founder, from the erroneous opinions and instead employing the general principles of Ahmad and the Ḥanbalī school to support his own “corrections.”

Scholarly Influence.

It could be argued that one of Ibn Taymīyah’s most significant scholarly contributions, which he presents in his book Darʾ Taʿāruḍ al-ʿAql wal-Naql (Averting the Conflict of Reason with Scripture), was his belief that “revealed” knowledge and “rational” knowledge are not contradictory. Classifying evidence as either definite or indefinite (probable), he argued that conflict could occur between two instances of definite evidence, between two instances of indefinite evidence, or between definite and indefinite evidence. In the first case, he argued that genuine conflict between two cases of definite evidence is an impossibility and would be indicative of the fact that one of the two pieces of evidence is not definite or that the implications of that evidence are not definite. He was helped in this regard by his broad understanding of both revealed knowledge and rational knowledge, which gave him the chance to appear as a defender not only of sound revelation but also of rationality. This claim of “unity” between revelation and rationality has left its undeniable traces upon the various aspects of Ibn Taymīyah’s scholarly influence.

Ibn Taymīyah also challenged the prevailing practice of rendering judgments. He believed that a mujtahid had the unquestionable right to apply legal principles by understanding and assessing all legal texts cumulatively within a dynamic framework of interpretation and analysis as opposed to taking the static approach of merely accepting the text prima facie without any other consideration.

In addition, he had reservations about showing an excessive preference for a particular scholar from a particular school, since every scholar could have strengths in which their opinions are superior to opinions of others. Any claim that one scholar is superior to the rest, he noted, is an assertion based on presumption if not mere caprice. Such partiality, according to him, leads to contentious disagreements within the Muslim community, which are expressly forbidden in Islam. Instead of showing preference for one scholar over another, Ibn Taymīyah insisted upon tolerance among the various schools of law. He cited the example of the Prophet’s Companions, who accepted different views and declared that the various parties would be rewarded for their independent reasoning. Therefore, Ibn Taymīyah concluded, the same principle must be applied to the opinions of other scholars. Those who preferred to imitate Muḥammad ibn Idrīs al‐Shāfiʿī, for instance, should not disapprove of those who preferred to follow Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, and vice versa. He insisted that no group can impose the opinions of their school on others.

The chaos and disorder that characterized the political situation of the time led Ibn Taymīyah to act as a political as well as a legal reformer. His approach to politics was similar to his approach to jurisprudence: he first studied and exposed the reason for the inherent weakness and chaos of the political system and then called for unity among the Muslim community, encouraging political leaders to govern with justice and fairness. He saw sincere consultants and their advice as an important factor in the different aspects of leadership and law. Ibn Taymīyah also called upon the political leaders to help create a strong and enlightened nation, beginning with the reform of the prevailing cultural and intellectual situation that tended to stifle the spirit of innovation and creativity. According to Ibn Taymīyah, it was this deficiency that was largely responsible for the weakness of the Muslim world at that time.

Beginning in 1294, Ibn Taymīyah faced various periods of hardship in which he was prevented from teaching or issuing fatwās and, on a number of occasions, was imprisoned. What was even worse for him was the fact that all his writing materials were confiscated for about five months prior to his death in 1328. These detentions and persecutions were a result of certain aspects of his creed and jurisprudential opinions that were seen by his opponents as problematic and as “opposing the consensus” that had been reached by early scholars. Equally serious, however, was his ideological clash with particular scholars and their leaders and followers. However, al-Dhahabī seems to suggest that Ibn Taymīyah’s temper might have been the cause of the enmity between him and some of his opponents, saying that none of them would doubt “his genius and the rarity of his faults.” (Dhahabī, al-, 1990, p. 327).

Despite the controversy and suffering that marked the later years of his life, Ibn Taymīyah was among those scholars who exert a great influence upon both the students of their generation and those of generations to come. Many of these individuals were authorities in their own fields—traditionists, jurists, authors, reciters, and others from among the ruling circles and the judiciary—which illustrates his versatility and his ability to attract a wide interest in the many study circles he conducted. His students were affiliated to different legal and theological schools; but, despite their diverse backgrounds, it is interesting to note that most of them were influenced by Ibn Taymīyah’s creedal formulations. Some students under his guidance even followed his example in “enjoining what is proper and forbidding what is improper,” suffering interrogation and sometimes imprisonment themselves.

Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (d. 1449 CE), a distinguished fifteenth-century ḥadīth scholar and critic, reportedly predicted that calling Ibn Taymīyah by the title of religious preeminence “Shaykh al-Islām”—which indicates the extent of this scholar’s influence up to Ibn Ḥajar’s time—“will continue tomorrow just as it was yesterday.” (Shams, Al-Jāmiʿ li Sīrat Shaykh al-Islām Ibn Taymiyyah, p. 484) Ibn Ḥajar has been right so far and will most likely continue to be so in the future.


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