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Ibn Taymīyah, Taqī al-Dīn Aḥmad

Abdul-Hakim Al-Matroudi
The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law What is This? An English-language legal reference for scholars of Islamic studies and Western engaged readers presenting the history and development of Islamic Law.

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Ibn Taymīyah, Taqī al-Dīn Aḥmad

Taqī al-Dīn Aḥmad b. ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm Ibn Taymiyyah (1263–1328 CE) was one of the most influential—and controversial—jurists and theologians in Sunnī Islam. He was born in Harran (in present-day Turkey) to a family of accomplished Ḥanbalī scholars; when he was six years of age his family moved to Damascus ahead of Mongol attacks. In Damascus Ibn Taymiyyah had the opportunity to benefit from the city’s leading schools and libraries, and this no doubt influenced not only his early scholarly career but also the journey of scholarly activism that he took throughout his life. It was not long until he became a respected scholar in his own right, succeeding his father in a teaching position at the Sukkariyyah madrasah. He went on to produce a long list of important treatises in various subjects within the Islamic sciences. A thorough reading of Ibn Taymiyyah’s works shows his mastery of various subjects including jurisprudence, legal theory, tafsīr, theology, and even Avicennan philosophy.

The importance and relevance of the works of Ibn Taymiyyah were recognized quickly, as indicated by the efforts of his disciples to collect and compile their teacher’s writings for posterity. Ibn Taymiyyah’s secretary, Ibn Rushayyiq (d. 1349 CE), has recently been credited with compiling a treatise in which he highlighted many works written by his teacher. It should be noted, however, that not every conclusion highlighted in the various treatises by Ibn Taymiyyah should be taken to reflect his final positions with regard to the questions they address.

A thorough investigation of Ibn Taymiyyah’s jurisprudential opinions shows that Ibn Taymiyyah’s thought in this regard developed gradually and was influenced by various factors. Among them was his grounding in the Ḥanbalī madhhab, which provided the basis for many of his legal opinions. When Ibn Taymiyyah departed from the rulings of his school, and on those rare occasions when he broke with “the consensus” of the four Sunni madhāhib, we find that, in addition to textual and rational consideration, a major factor influencing him was what he considered to be the extraordinary challenges facing the Muslim community of his day.

Like Ibn Ḥanbal, the textual evidence of the Qurʾān and sunnah was definitive in Ibn Taymiyyah’s legal thought. Furthermore, he generally did not consider claims of consensus (ijmāʿ) after the time of the Companions to be realistically verifiable. Definitive consensus can exist only on issues that already have textual foundations, and otherwise speculative consensus could not be a compelling source of law. Yet another manifestation of the characteristically Ḥanbalī textual grounding of Ibn Taymiyyah’s thought is his assertion that legal maxims should be derived from textual evidence rather than being produced by inductive surveys of substantive legal rulings.

Despite this strong insistence on textual evidence, Ibn Taymiyyah’s enduring interest (almost always very critical) in logic and philosophy led him to in-depth investigations into the relationship between reason and revelation. Like all Ḥanbalīs, he considered limited forms of rational interpretation, such as analogy (qiyās), to be valid in deriving legal rulings. He considered reason to be a secondary and supporting source, governed by revelation, and insisted on the impossibility of the contradiction between definitive scriptural texts of revelation and definitive reason—hence his denial that the Qurʾān or reliable aḥādīth could produce legal rulings that contradicted valid analogy, as claimed by some jurists.

Overall, Ibn Taymiyyah demonstrated a concern for the objectives and spirit of the Shariah, which he believed should supersede tradition or historical attachment to any one school of law, which he perceives also to be in keeping with the relevant textual evidence dealing with the questions at hand. Observing the disastrous social consequences of divorce oaths (an oath in which a person swears to divorce his wife if one of them was to do or abstain from doing something), Ibn Taymiyyah contradicted the established opinion of all four Sunnī schools of law and concluded that the practice had no basis in the practice of the early Muslim community. Even more controversially, and contrary to “all” the Sunnī schools, he used various textual and rational arguments to deny that a husband saying “I divorce you” to his wife three times in one session results in an irreparable end to the marriage. Pointing to early disagreement among scholars, he questions the main evidence for the triple divorce being legally binding, namely the actual occurrence of consensus on that among Muslim scholars. Furthermore, Ibn Taymiyyah argued that this ruling contradicted the original, conciliatory purpose of the Qurʾān instructing Muslim men to spread their divorce pronouncements over three months.

Ibn Taymiyyah’s conclusions regarding what could be classified as traveling in Islamic law, which defines when Muslims can shorten their prayers or break from fasting in Ramaḍān, show a similar concern for context versus formalism. He argued that what constituted “travel” should be defined in accordance with the custom of the time, as it is meant to cater for the ever changing needs of the subject of the law and this differs from one time to another. Another example is his conclusion that difference in faith is not a legitimate justification for war. Rather, only aggression is.

Ibn Taymiyyah was fully involved in the social and political affairs of his time, but he did not accept any official position as a judge or state functionary (perhaps made possible by his being a bachelor all his life). This meant for many that he was independent, accessible, and also understanding of their difficulties and circumstances. On the other hand, this active involvement by Ibn Taymiyyah led to various difficulties with some of the scholars and rulers of his time. Some of his jurisprudential and theological positions, such as his rejection of divorce oaths, were seen as so problematic by his powerful opponents that he spent more than twelve years in detention. Some of these “problematic” opinions have been adopted in the modern period by some as they were seen to “bring ease” in contemporary times such as economics and personal affairs.

Ibn Taymiyyah left behind copious writings, many penned in prison, and devoted acolytes like Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (d. 1351 CE) and Ibn Mufliḥ (d. 1362 CE), who was the most knowledgeable of Ibn Taymiyyah’s students regarding his jurisprudential opinions. Ibn Taymiyyah’s legacy rose to influential heights in the eighteenth-century movements of revival and reform, particularly in the Ḥanbalī revival of Muḥammad Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb. Ibn Taymiyyah’s thought proved particularly attractive to the Salafī circles of Damascus and Egypt in the early twentieth century, where intellectuals such as Rashīd Riḍā published and distributed many of them.

Although Ibn Taymiyyah was a scholar who lived eight centuries ago, his influence and the controversy surrounding some of his opinions still lives on and grows in strength.


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