Ibn Taymiyya was a staunch defender of Sunni Islam based on strict adherence to the Qur’an and authentic sunna (practices) of the Prophet Muhammad. He believed that these two sources contain all the religious and spiritual guidance necessary for our salvation in the hereafter. Thus he rejected the arguments and ideas of both philosophers and Sufis regarding religious knowledge, spiritual experiences and ritual practices. He believed that logic is not a reliable means of attaining religious truth and that the intellect must be subservient to revealed truth. He also came into conflict with many of his fellow Sunni scholars because of his rejection of the rigidity of the schools of jurisprudence in Islam. He believed that the four accepted schools of jurisprudence had become stagnant and sectarian, and also that they were being improperly influenced by aspects of Greek logic and thought as well as Sufi mysticism. His challenge to the leading scholars of the day was to return to an understanding of Islam in practice and in faith, based solely on the Qur’an and sunna.
Ibn Taymiyya was born in Harran, Syria, and died in Damascus in ah 728/ad 1328. He lived in a time when the Islamic world was suffering from external aggression and internal strife. The crusaders had not been fully expelled from the Holy Land, and the Mongols had all but destroyed the eastern Islamic empire when they captured Baghdad in ah 656/ad 1258. In Egypt, the Mamluks had just come to power and were consolidating their hold over Syria. Within Muslim society, Sufi orders were spreading beliefs and practices not condoned by orthodox Islam, while the orthodox schools of jurisprudence were stagnant in religious thought and practice. It was in this setting of turmoil and conflict that Ibn Taymiyya formulated his views on the causes of the weakness of the Muslim nations and on the need to return to the Qur’an and sunna (practices) as the only means for revival.
Although Ibn Taymiyya was educated in the Hanbali school of thought, he soon reached a level of scholarship beyond the confines of that school. He was fully versed in the opinions of the four schools, which helped lead him to the conclusion that blind adherence to one school would bring a Muslim into conflict with the letter and spirit of Islamic law based on the Qur’an and sunna. Similarly, he had acquired a deep understanding of philosophical and mystical texts. In particular, he focused on the works of Ibn Sina and Ibn al-‘Arabi as examples of philosophical and mystical deviation in Islam, respectively. Both of these trends had come to exert strong influence on Muslim scholars and lay people alike.
Ibn Taymiyya placed primary importance on revelation as the only reliable source of knowledge about God and about a person’s religious duties towards him. The human intellect (‘aql) and its powers of reason must be subservient to revelation. According to Ibn Taymiyya, the only proper use of ‘aql was to understand Islam in the way the Prophet and his companions did, and then to defend it against deviant sects. When discussing the nature of God, he argued, one must accept the descriptions found in the Qur’an and sunna and apply the orthodox view of not asking how (bi-la kayf) particular attributes exist in God. This means that one believes in all of the attributes of God mentioned in the Qur’an and sunna without investigating the nature of these, because the human mind is incapable of understanding the eternal God. For example, one accepts that God is mounted upon a throne above the heavens without questioning how this is possible. This same attitude is held for all of God’s attributes such as his sight, his hearing or his hand.
This view is very much opposed to the philosophical view of God as First Cause and as being devoid of attributes. Thus the philosophical argument that the oneness of God precludes a multiplicity of attributes was not acceptable to Ibn Taymiyya, because God says that he is one and that he has various attributes. This denial of the attributes of God based on rationalism was adopted by the Mu’tazila (seeAsh’ariyya and Mu’tazila), of whom Ibn Taymiyya was especially critical. Even the more orthodox views of the Ash’aris, who accepted seven attributes basic to God, were criticized by Ibn Taymiyya. However, he did not go so far as to declare these two groups heretical, for they deviated only in their interpretation of God’s nature. But he did not spare the label of apostate for those philosophers such as al-Farabi and Ibn Sina who, in addition to the denial of God’s attributes, also denied the createdness of the world and believed in the emanation of the universe from God.
Ibn Taymiyya attacked the idea of emanation not only in its philosophical but also in its mystical context, as adopted by the Sufis (see Mystical philosophy in Islam). He felt that the beliefs and practices of the Sufis were far more dangerous than were the ideas of the philosophers. The latter were a small elite group that had little direct effect on the masses. The Sufis, however, were widespread and had a large popular following. However, Ibn Taymiyya saw a link between the ideas of the philosophers and those of the Sufis, even though apparently they had little in common.
The main tenet of Sufi thought as propounded by Ibn al-‘Arabi is the concept of the oneness of existence (wahdat al-wujud). Through this belief, Sufis think they are able to effect a merging of their souls with God’s essence. That is, when God reveals his truth to an individual, that person realizes that there is no difference between God and the self. Ibn Taymiyya saw a link between the Sufi belief of wahdat al-wujud and the philosophical concept of emanation. Although the philosopher would deny that a human soul could flow into, and thus be, the First Cause, the mystical experience of the Sufis took them beyond the realm of intellectual discourse. According to the mystic, a merging occurred but could not be expressed in rational terms. For Ibn Taymiyya, both the philosopher and the mystic were deluded, the former by reliance on a limited human intellect and the latter by excessive emotions.
Ibn Taymiyya’s argument against the Sufis is on two levels. First, there is the theological position that God has attributes and that one of these attributes is God as creator. Ibn Taymiyya believed that the Qur’an firmly establishes that God is the one who created, originated and gave form to the universe. Thus there exists a distinction between God the creator and the created beings. This is an absolute distinction with no possibility of merging. He then went on to say that those who strip God of his attributes and deny that he is the creator are just one step away from falling into the belief of wahdat al-wujud. This is the basis for the second part of his argument. Ibn Taymiyya believed that a Sufi is simply someone who is overcome by an outburst of emotion. For example, someone may deny God’s attributes but could then be overwhelmed by a feeling of love for God. However, the basis of that person’s knowledge is not the authentic information from the Qur’an, and so their weak intellectual foundation collapses with the onslaught of emotion. For according to Ibn Taymiyya, sense perception and emotions cannot be trusted, and the likelihood of being led astray by them is compounded when one has a basis of knowledge which is itself errant and deviant. One holds a proper belief in God and maintains a proper relationship with him, Ibn Taymiyya argued, by establishing a foundation of knowledge based on the Qur’an and authentic sunna.
Author: James Pavlin (Muslim Philosophy)
References and further reading
Bell, J.N. (1979) Love Theory in Later Hanbalite Islam, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. (This work investigates the role of love in the thinking of Hanbali scholars and shows how they defined it in opposition to philosophers and mystics.)
Hallaq, W.B. (1993) Ibn Taymiyya against the Greek Logicians, Oxford: Clarendon Press. (An excellent translation of Ibn Taymiyya’s most important arguments against Greek logic. The introduction and notes give depth and perspective to this very difficult topic. It also contains an extensive bibliography.)
Izutsu Toshihiko (1965) The Concept of Belief in Islamic Theology: A Semantic Analysis of Iman and Islam, Yokohama: Yurindo Publishing Company. (Although this work focuses on the concept of belief in early Islam, the author makes extensive use of Ibn Taymiyya’s theories to explain how orthodox scholars came to understand this term.)
Pavlin, J. (1996) ‘Sunni Kalam and Theological Controversies’, in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 7, 105-18. (Includes a discussion of Ibn Taymiyya’s view.)