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Review: Ibn Taymiyyah in His Times and Ours


Ibn Taymiyyah in the aftermath of the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols

By James Pavlin

06 June 2012

 Ibn Taymiyyah - Grave


Ibn Taymiyya in his times and ours

 Islam (Photo credit: romeroleo)


 The element common to many writers was their hostility to the military and/or cultural invasions of their time. Listed chronologically are some of the most reformers and theologians of Islam:

        Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (780-855),

        Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328),

        Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (1292- 1350),

        Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792),

        Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949),

        Abul A’la Mawdudi (1903-1979), and

        Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966).


For Ibn Hanbal, the Mu’tazila movement of that period was a rationalist ideology stemming from Greek philosophy, and as such, he perceived it to be a serious challenge to Muslim orthodoxy. Four centuries later the Mongol invasion prompted Ibn Taymiyyah and his student, Ibn Qayyim, to preach new ideas.

Islam (Photo credit: rogiro)


 Smilarly, the primary concern for Maududi (leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami organization) and al-Banna (head of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) was the desire to rid Egypt and India of British domination.

More recently, Muslim nations have experienced early twentieth-century colonization by European powers, the Palestine issue, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq; in each of these cases the emergence of Islamism is quite evident.

Taq? al-D?n Ibn Taymiyyah (1263–1328), one of the most controversial thinkers in Islamic religious history, was repeatedly imprisoned during his lifetime. Today, he is revered by what is called the Wahhabi movement and championed by Salafi groups who demand a return to the pristine golden age of the Prophet. His writings have also been used by radical groups, such as al-Qaeda, to justify acts of violence and armed struggle.

In order to explain the widespread present-day influence and prominence of a rather obscure medieval figure, Ibn Taymiyyah and his Times: Edited by Yossef Rapoport and Shahab Ahmed offers a fresh perspective on his life, thought and legacy. The articles contained herein, written by some leading authorities in the field, study Ibn Taymiyya’s highly original contributions to Islamic theology, law, Qur’anic exegesis and political thought. Contrary to his current image as an anti-rationalist puritan, this collection shows Ibn Taymiyyah to be one of the most intellectually rigorous, complex, and interesting personages in Islamic history.

Conquests of Prophet Muhammad and the Rashidun Caliphate, 630-641. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


 This book (“Ibn Taymiyyah and his Times”) is the first comprehensive academic treatment of Ibn Taymiyyah to appear in a Western language in over half a century. It should be of major importance to scholars of Islamic intellectual history, as well as to students of modern Islamic movements and ideologies.

The the Author / Editor of the book is Yossef Rapoport (PhD, Princeton) who has been a Fellow in Arabic at the Oriental Institute, Oxford, and is currently a Lecturer in the Department of History at Queen Mary University of London. He has published on Islamic law, gender, cartography and the economic history of medieval Islam. He is the author of Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society (Cambridge University Press, 2005), and co-editor of The Book of Curiosities: A Critical Edition (Internet publication, 2007).

Shahab Ahmed (PhD, Princeton) is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Harvard University. He has also been Assistant Professor of Classical Arabic Literature at the American University in Cairo, Junior Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows, Visiting Scholar in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, and Higher Education Commission of Pakistan Visiting Scholar in the Islamic Research Institute, Islamabad.

Syed Nomanul Haq (PhD, University College London) is currently a senior member of the faculty in the School of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). Prior to this and following his postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, he served on the standing faculty of Brown University and of the University of Pennsylvania. Trained broadly in medieval Islamic intellectual history, he has published widely in the fields of the history of philosophy and of science, and has also written on religion and science, environmental philosophy, as well as cultural history. Recently he held the position of Scholar-in-Residence at the American Institute of Pakistan Studies.

Ibn Taymiyyah, Taqi al-Din (1263-1328)

Ibn Taymiyyah 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 Taymiyyah 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 Taymiyyah 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 Taymiyyah 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 Taymiyyah 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 Taymiyyah, 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 Taymiyyah, 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 (see Ash’ariyya and Mu’tazila), of whom Ibn Taymiyyah was especially critical. Even the more orthodox views of the Ash’aris, who accepted seven attributes basic to God, were criticized by Ibn Taymiyyah. 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 Taymiyyah 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 Taymiyyah 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 Taymiyyah 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 Taymiyyah, 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 Taymiyyah 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 Taymiyyah 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 Taymiyyah, 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 Taymiyyah argued, by establishing a foundation of knowledge based on the Qur’an and authentic Sunna.

See also: Ibn al-’Arabi; Islamic theology; Law, Islamic philosophy of; Mystical philosophy in Islam; Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy

6 Responses to “Ibn Taymiyya in the aftermath of the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols”

1.       WahhabiWahhabi says:

June 7, 2012 at 2:24 am

Why do you keep recycling articles about Ibn Taymiyyah? The father of Najdi trouble makers for the whole Ummah …. or maybe you are all Wahabis here ….. or on their payroll?

Just stick to Pakistan & Geopolitics ….. I’m sure you’ve seen your web-stats dwindle over the last few months because of the decreasing quality of your articles.

2.       Akhbar Navees says:

June 7, 2012 at 10:07 pm

Sure we won’t listen to your diktats on what to publish and what not to publish.

We have been called many things. Sorry to disappoint you, our readership has been growing–and we will keep publishing what we want and what is relevant, and what may or may not be available on other sites.

3.       Dr Abdul jamil khan says:

June 8, 2012 at 11:46 am

Religion/Islam, a diverse code

Ibn Taymiyyah, and his likes, imam Shias and Sufis, all have role to play to guide man towards humility and social work. Present day Wahabis are far cry of ibn Taymiyyah and 12 imams/Shia seems closer to ” biblical racism”–have faith in ‘divine genes’–.They have all forgotten ‘pristine Islam’ featured by NO suerior/chosen genes/race, human rights for all ( inclusive of non Muslims),NO priest craft/hokus pokus-magic and social justice for poors, orphans, widows-of all Muslims/non Muslims. Please look around to discover if there is any pristine islam of greatest prophet?

BTW articles at rupee news, are surely informative and i did learn a lot abt mr Taymmia . The only biase i see is against my home country India for good/bad.

4.       Not_Najdi says:

June 9, 2012 at 12:01 am


Ahmed bin Hanbal RA: He was really honourable. No doubts about that.

Ibn Taymiyyah: He was intelligent but controversial. As per the hadith of our beloved prophet, when in doubt follow the Jamaat with the highest following. So, I would not follow him.

Abdul Wahab Najdi: As the prophet saw rightly said in a hadhis sahi, Najd will be the area where from the second horn of the Satan will rise (the first one was Musalimah).I know his followers will try hard to argue about Nejd itself. There are other ahadith to prove the kind of Jamaat from this region- By Allah he is the originator of the biggest fasaad on earth. No wonder he is so revered and his teachings connected to the Saudi monarchy. A bad seed always produces bad fruit.

Hasan Banna: We have already seen what his followers have brought on this ummah.

Maududi: Another controversial figure. Deen is to be learnt from someone who has ijaaza of its ILM because with knowledge comes aqeedah. He was self taught. He wrote jihad feesabihlillah which is a source of inspiration to a whole generation. Yet for his own children he chooses worldly Uloom. That is why Allah wrote in his fate to spend his last days under care of goras, his teachings despised most.

As someone said, please focus on politics. The ummah is already so confused. Following the ulema of Zamani Akhira will do us no good. Looking at the life of the prophet in its entirety is the only way to open the eyes. The thekedaars of Deen who only know to issue fatwas on Biddah and Shirk are all hypocrites. Like the prophet SAW said, unless the lump of flesh in your chest becomes pure one cannot gain true guidance.

5.       Akhbar Navees says:

June 9, 2012 at 12:55 am

We write for and against every country in the world. We have written for and against the USA, Iran, Libya, Korea, China, etc etc. Every Pakistani politicians has been critcized, the army has been raked over coals. Why should Bharat be an exception or have privilaged status? If we didn’t critcize one country then that would be bias

6.       Akhbar Navees says:

June 9, 2012 at 1:04 am

But the question is who controlled Najd, and why was Ibn Tayammaah in rebellion against those who ruled it–Some would argue that the biggest fitna was born a bit East of Najd