Ibn Taymiyya

How one 12th century scholar challenged the status quo and reshaped Islamic theology: The life and legacy of Ibn Taymiyyah.
From a turbulent childhood to his controversial views on Sufism and innovation, delve into the story of a man who left a lasting impact on Muslim scholarship and society.
As the world rotates, history is defined. Throughout history many prominent individuals have passed, each with a unique and defining personality. These personalities became turning points in history, resulting in the complete alteration of the environment and society. Some made exceptional contributions to the change and some were not so significant. By analysing, speculating and evaluating a personality and the condition of the society at the time, we can deduce the powerful methods they used to reconstruct, remodel and refine whole complete ideologies.

In the 12th century, the world witnessed the birth of one of the most influential figures of all time, Taqî ad-Dîn Aḥmad ibn Taymiyyah, born in Harran (present-day Urfa in Turkey). His father was Abdul Halim (died 682 AH), who was a lecturer of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and Professor of Traditions in Dar al-Hadith, Askariyyah.[1] Ibn Taymiyyah was born five years after the siege of Baghdad and then Haleb (Aleppo) by the Mongols.[2]  Ibn Taymiyyah, at the tender age of 7, with war ravaging the lands, was constrained to migrate from Harran to Damascus along with the people of the tribe when the Tartars discharged an attack on this land. These troubled times impart the fact that Ibn Taymiyyah became a hardened person as he was brought up under turbulent conditions, where continuous conflicts arose in the Middle East between the Mongol Empire and the Memluks.

During this restless and chaotic period there were many additional ongoing issues, not just in his tribe but within the Muslim nation itself, the major factors of which were; social concepts, intellectual notions and political conflict. The concerning influences incorporated mysticism, philosophy and Islamic theology. 

Dialecticians were indulging in Greek metaphysical terminology scrounged from philosophy attempting to ascertain the nature and attributes of God. There were also the Batinites, who have a “peculiar creed interwoven from the texture of Marian Dogma” as indicated by Ali Nadwi.[3] He referred to the divisions which stemmed from them as “indiscreet schools of mysticism in Islam”, as the Neo-platonic creed of origination in divine secrecies became amalgamated with the religion of Islam.[4] Likewise, the Muslims were also implementing certain conducts and practises, like other religions, in glorifying and elevating saints and those ‘nearer to God’ to an extent of idolatry which is prohibited in Islam. 

Ibn Taymiyyah controverted two notions affiliated with Sufism. He states that certain Sufis insulted God with their monism—a creed (apparently comparable to pantheism) that God “encompasses all things”.[5] This denunciation included disparaging the opinions of the monist Ibn Arabi.[6] Also, he alleged the interpretation: ‘saintly illumination is of a superior significance than observing the Shari’ah’, was a defect to correctly pursuing the exemplar of Prophet Muhammad.[7]

As a result of these differences overpowering the society of Muslims, even their scholars were indulged in the practice of a Pagan principle: “We only worship them that they may bring us nearer to God…” (Qur’an 39:3). Making matters worse, in the field of jurisprudence theologians were becoming further rigid and stigmatic. Other juristic schools other than their own were deemed incorrect and erroneous. Correspondingly, the legitimate coordination of orthodox Islam in this era had begun losing its originality and dynamism.3

Ibn Taymiyyah left a substantial corpus of his work (350 works recorded by his student Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya and 500 by his student al-Dhahabi[15]) that has been republished extensively in Syria, Egypt, Arabia, and India. Implying the fact that his work is remarkably acknowledged in many countries. Even though he gained many antagonists throughout his life, it is reported that in his funeral prayers, approximately 10000 people were present. This confirms the vastness of supporters he had acquired by the means of his unremitting exertion he had undertaken “merely to gain the pleasure of God”, as declared by Ali Hasan in Saviours of Islamic Spirit, Vol. 2.

When he was eventually restricted from having any books in prison due to his adversaries making claims against him, additional accusations of unorthodoxy were presented against Ibn Taymiyya for his statement that a divorce uttered in an innovative manner does not take impact, which was in contradiction to the unanimity of the scholars, which proposed that it still does. After passing the years 1319-21 in imprisonment, yet again he was incarcerated in 1326 until his demise, two years later, for proclaiming that a person who journeys to visit the Prophet’s shrine has committed innovation (bid’ah). He was buried in the Sufi mausoleum in Damascus where other kinsfolk had been buried before him.[16]|[17] Al-Dhahabi, his famous student, extolled him excessively as “the exceptional Shaykh, leader, erudite scholar, censor, jurist, mujtahid, and commentator of the Qur’an,” but acknowledged that Ibn Taymiyya’s reproachful conducts disaffected even his devotees. For example, the grammarian Abu Hayyan al-Gharnati extolled Ibn Taymiyyah until he found out that he considered himself a superior professional in the Arabic language to Sibawayh, whereupon he dissociated himself from his former tribute. Ibn Taymiyyah’s devotees often deemed him Shaykh ul-Islam, a privileged title with which he is still labelled today.[18]|[19]|[20] It is also mentioned that Ibn Taymiyyah was the essence of numerous posterior reformist movements, especially the Al-Wahhaabiyyah and later radical extremists.[21]

Ibn Taymiyyah’s role in history can be conclusively defined in the following words of his renowned student, Ad-Dhahabi: “He was amongst the oceans of knowledge, from the limited intellectuals, the ascetics, the unique individuals, the great braves, the most generous nobles. He was praised by both the one who agreed with him and the one who differed with him and he became famous for his works”.[22]

Ibn Taymiyyah’s struggles to revitalise the true faith encompass an immense field which can broadly be classified into the reinforcement of faith in the Unity of God, obliteration of pantheistic concepts, condemnation of philosophy, syllogistic reasoning and dialectics to proclaim the superiority of the Qur’an and Sunnah, denunciation of Un-Islamic beliefs through repudiation of Christianity and Shi’aism and lastly, revitalisation of Islamic notion and its related disciplines.

  1. Bibliography
    [1] Ibn Kathir Al-Bidayah Wa’n-Nihayah, Vol.13 p.303, Vol.14, pg.33
  2. [2] Matthew E. Falagas, Effie A. Zarkadoulia, George Samonis (2006). “Arab science in the golden age (750–1258 C.E.) and today”, The FASEB Journal 20, p. 1581–1586.
  3. [3] Abul Hasan A. Saviour of Islamic Spirit. Vol. 2
  4. [4] Aminrazavi, Mehdi, “Mysticism in Arabic and Islamic Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  5. [5] Reynolds, Gabrield Said (2012). The Emergence of Islam: Classical traditions in contemporary perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 174
  6. [6] Laoust, H. (1986). “Ibn Taymiyya”. In Lewis, B.; Ménage, V. L.; Pellat, Ch. et al. Encyclopedia of Islam 3 (2 ed.). Leiden: Brill. p. 92
  7. [7] Reynolds, Gabrield Said (2012). The Emergence of Islam: Classical traditions in contemporary perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 174
  8. [8] Mari’ ibn Yusuf K. (1911) Al-Kawakib ad-Durriyyah Fi Manaqib al-Mujtahid Ibn Taymiyyah, p.80, pg.2
  9. [9] Ibn Abdil-Hadi Al-‘Uqud Ad-Durriyyah, p.4, p.5
  10. [10] Ibn Nasir D. Ar-Radd Al-Wafir, p.128
  11. [11] Al-Bazzar  Al-‘Alam Al-‘Aliyyah Fi Manaqib Shayk Al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah
  12. [12] Ibn Rajab Ad-dhayl ‘Ala Tabaqat Al-Hanabilah, Vol.2  p.388
  13. [13] Denise A. (2007) ‘The Mongol Invasions of Bilād al-Shām by Ghāzān Khān and Ibn 
  14. Taymīyah’s Three “Anti-Mongol” Fatwas, p.97
  15. [14] Ibn Taymiyyah Majmūʿ Fatāwá, Vol.28 p.501–52
  16. [15] M.M. Sharif, A History of Muslim Philosophy, Pakistan Philosophical Congress, p. 798
  17. [16] George Makdisi, A Sufi of the Qadiriya Order, p. 123
  18. [17]Juan Eduardo Campo, Encyclopedia of Islam, p. 340
  19. [18] R. Hrair Dekmejian, Islam in revolution: fundamentalism in the Arab world, pg. 40. Part of the Contemporary issues in the Middle East series. Syracuse University Press, 1995.
  20. [19]  Index of Al Qaeda in its own words, pg. 360. Eds. Gilles Kepel and Jean-pierre Milelli. Harvard University Press, 2008.
  21. [20] David Bukay, From Muhammad to Bin Laden: Religious and Ideological Sources of the Homicide Bombers Phenomenon, pg. 194. Transaction Publishers, 2011.
  22. [21] “Though Ibn Taymiyyah had numerous religious and political adversaries in his own time, he has strongly influenced modern Islam for the last two centuries. He is the source of the Wahhābiyyah, a strictly traditionist movement founded by Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (died 1792), who took his ideas from Ibn Taymiyyah’s writings. Ibn Taymiyyah also influenced various reform movements that have posed the problem of reformulating traditional ideologies by a return to sources.” [Henri L. (1939) ‘A study of the religious and political thought of Ibn Taymīyah and an analysis of his influence on contemporary Muslim reformism’]
  23. [22] Al-Ḥāfidh al-Dhahabī Tadkhirat al-Huffādh, Vol.2 p.1496

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