Modern relevance of a medieval Islamic scholar — Ibn Taimiyah

The Wahhabi movement led by Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab in the eighteenth century Najd was inspired by Ibn Taimiyah. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab hailed Ibn Taimiya as a pioneer of Salafism which means following the salaf, the first three generations of Islam. Being a follower of the salaf, Ibn Taimiyah and his followers freed themselves from blindly following the fiqhi schools of thought which evolved in the second and third Islamic centuries.
Book:  Ibn Taymiyya and his times Authors: Yossef Rapoport and Shahab Ahmed (eds) Publisher:  Oxford UP, Oxford, UK Year: 2010 Pages: xiv+400 Price:  Rs 595 ISBN:  978-0-19-547834-1   Ahmad ibn Abd al-Halim, commonly known as "Ibn Taimiyah" (1263-1328), a jurist, philosopher, teacher and social reformer of the fourteenth century, remained for centuries an obscure figure until he was suddenly discovered some three decades ago by militant Islamic movements in the Middle East which were basically fighting against corrupt pro-West rulers in their countries. Until then, Ibn Taimiyah was popular only among the Hanbalis of the Arabian Peninsula. One reason which led to this sudden popularity may be that in the 1960s and thereafter, Saudis printed millions of copies of books by 'Salafi' scholars like Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, Ibn Taimiyah and Ibn Al-Qayyim, in Arabic and other languages and spread them all over the Muslim World.

Ibn Taimiyah was born in Harran, an Iraqi town between the Euphrates and Tigris. But he spent most of his adult life in Damascus because his family had migrated to the Syrian capital when Mongols occupied his town while he was still a six-year-old boy. He studied Islamic sciences, especially fiqh (jurisprudence), in Damascus and soon became a distinguished scholar who attracted a small but dedicated band of disciples and followers.

Ibn Taimiyah lived in very disturbed and difficult times as part of the rigid Hanbali sect which was a small minority in Damascus disliked by the scholars of other dominant sects like Hanafis and Shafi'is. Unlike many Islamic scholars, Ibn Taimiyah did not remain content with teaching or writing down fatwas from the safe confines of his home, mosque or madrasa, he actively participated in the social and political life of his society and even led bands of his disciples against what he perceived as un-Islamic practices.

Ibn Taimiyah lived in troubled times when Mongols (Tatars) were invading the World of Islam from the east and European Crusaders (Faranjah) were invading it from the west. These external threats added to the internal instability due to the infighting between Muslim rulers in Syria and Egypt. The Abbasid caliphate had finally collapsed just a few years before Ibn Taimiyah’s birth, triggering internal chaos and a westward migration, very similar to what was seen in recent years when the Americans invaded and occupied Iraq.

Ibn Taimiyah did not flee when Mongols briefly occupied Damascus in 1300 CE. He did not confine himself to the safety of his house either. Instead, he stood by the masses and represented their cases with the occupiers and admonished them for their unjust behaviour like rape, looting and killings, despite their claim to be Muslims.

Ibn Taimiyah exhorted the rulers and the masses to fight the Mongols even if the latter had nominally converted to Islam. Due to his defiant views and fatwas, especially against the Sufis and blind followers of fiqhi schools, Ibn Taimiyah spent many years in prisons both in Syria as well as in Egypt where he spent a few years of his life when his enemies and critics in Syria had made it impossible for him to live and teach in Damascus. He later returned to Damascus and was imprisoned frequently for his outspoken views so much so that he died in 728 AH/1328 CE while imprisoned in the Citadel of Damascus.

Ibn Taimiyah authored a number of fiqhi and polemical works, especially his fatwas which have been collected in 37 huge volumes. Ibn Taimiyah was a literalist who limited his sources of Islamic knowledge to the Qur’an and Sunnah (life and sayings of the Prophet) and refused other sources like analogy (qiyas), logic, philosophy and polemics (kalam). His literalist approach also meant that he was in constant struggle against jurists, Sufis, Shi’is, Ash’aris and philosophers of his time.

Constant attempts of external invaders and the internal instability left their mark on Ibn Taimiyah’s thought and rigid approach to issues of his time. One of his fatwas said that Mongols, who had recently converted to Islam but retained many of their old beliefs and practices, are not Muslims and should be fought against. This fatwa has been particularly used by the “modern Salafis” to excommunicate (takfir) Muslim rulers who prefer un-Islamic laws, and to wage jihad against such rulers and their supporters. Ibn Taimiyah’s modern followers use his approach to politics and rulers of his time to call for the Islamisation of the State not through the rulers or the system but by motivating the masses and using violence as a tool.

One such text is Ibn Taimiyah’s fatwa about the Muslims of Mardin (a town in present-day Turkey) which legitimised their killing as they were considered “non-Muslims” living outside the “Abode of Islam” (Darul Islam). Like medieval Muslim jurists, Ibn Taimiyah believed that the world was divided into two: Abode of Islam and Abode of Disbelief, the latter being all lands where Islam did not hold sway. Thus people of Mardin, though nominally Muslims, were to be treated like others living in that land just as Mongol invaders were not Muslim. Modern Salafis have used this fatwa to excommunicate rulers of Muslim lands who disregard Islam in favour of western laws and accept subservience to non-Muslim powers. An international Islamic conference was held in the same city, Mardin, in March 2010 to consider this fatwa. In its communiquE9, the conference abrogated that fatwa of Ibn Taimiyah and considered it inapplicable in today’s globalised world where international covenants and treaties guarantee human and civil rights of all citizens all over the world. The communiquE9 stressed that the old division of the world by the jurists into an “Abode of Islam” and “Abode of Disbelief” no longer applies. It also added that it is not lawful for an individual or a private group to declare jihad on their own. The conference declared that the whole world is an abode of peace today.

Ibn Taimiyah and his followers firmly believed in Tajsim (anthropomorphism) which means that God has a human-like form and has a seat with a location, etc. This is not shared by most schools of Islamic thought which believe that God is beyond human comprehension and that He is omnipresent. This led many scholars from his times to this day to sharply attack Ibn Taimiyah and his followers.

The Wahhabi movement led by Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab in the eighteenth century Najd was inspired by Ibn Taimiyah. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab hailed Ibn Taimiya as a pioneer of Salafism which means following the salaf, the first three generations of Islam. Being a follower of the salaf, Ibn Taimiyah and his followers freed themselves from blindly following the fiqhi schools of thought which evolved in the second and third Islamic centuries. In recent times, Egypt’s social reformers Rashid Rida (d. 1935) and Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), and Abul A’la Maududi (d. 1979) of the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent as well as the Ahle Hadith movement in India have been greatly influenced by Ibn Taimiyah.

The present book is a collection of 12 papers in addition to an introduction by the editors and a bibliography. Authors of the papers are professors in American universities with the exception of one from Italy and another from Israel. It is part of Oxford UP’s Studies in Islamic Philosophy series whose general editor is S Nomanul Haq of Lahore University of Management Sciences. The editors accept that the legacy of Ibn Taimiyah has made a dramatic comeback in recent times after a long period of relative obscurity (p. ix). The papers were presented at a conference on “Ibn Taimiyya and his times” at Princeton University in April 2005.

What made western scholars turn their attention to this medieval scholar is that he has been often quoted by militant Islamic movements like Al-Takfir wa’l-Hijra, Al-Jihad Organisation and Al-Qa’ida to justify their atrocities and Jihad in the name of Islam. Ibn Taimiyah was a model of a militant scholar who did not suffice to issue fatwas from a secluded quarter as most scholars did and still do. Instead, he took active part in the affairs of his society and times and paid a price in the form of frequent incarceration in Damascus and Cairo citadels which were used as prisons in those times.

The present volume has tried to answer three inter-related sets of questions. The first is to identify a common approach underpinning Ibn Taimiyah’s prolific and diverse contributions. The second is to explore the historical context of Ibn Taimiyah’s writings and the third is to study Ibn Taimiyah’s legacy in the centuries following his death. 

The reviewer is an alumnus of Al-Azhar and Cairo universities, and has a PhD in Islamic Studies from Manchester University. (First published in Biblio, New Delhi, October-December 2010)