In Translation: Will the real Ibn Taymiyya please stand up?

This week’s In Translation piece is a departure from the usual focus on commentary on current events in the Arabic press. I chose a piece recommended by As’ad AbuKhalil, aka Angry Arab, that takes a scholarly look at the key inspirations of the Salafi movement, the theologian and thinker Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328 AD), who was born in Harran in what is today Turkey and lived most of his life in what is today Syria. Ibn Taymiyya’s times coincided with the destructive Mongol invasions which razed Baghdad and, from his perspective, must have appeared as an end-times event. He is considered to be a key inspiration inspiration to the Wahhabi and contemporary Salafi movement.

Angry Arab wrote of this piece:

This is an interesting discussion of the thought of Ibn Taymiyyah and how it differed from Hanbaliyyah on some theological issues. Ibn Taymiyyah warrants a lot of academic attention (given his influence on today’s Islamists): French Orientalists of the 20th century did pay attention to him but the reason that he is not studied as, say, Sayyid Qutb, is because he left a vast body of literature and access to this text requires a deep understanding of Arabic. He was a dangerous but effective and sophisticated polemicist.

That’s an important point: a deep understanding of Qu’ranic exegesis necessitates advanced study as a grammatician and even etymologist. For more on Ibn Taymiyya and how the democratization of religion in the Arab world that has given rise to new forms of fundamentalist Islamic thought, I recommend reading As’ad AbuKhalil’s critical essay The Incoherence of Islamic Fundamentalism: Arabic Islamic Thought At The End Of The 20th Century [PDF 2.6MB]. It includes his usual verve against the late Saudi Mufti, Abdel Aziz Bin Baz, who counts among the handful of founders of contemporary Salafism.

This is a difficult piece, but I thought it might be enlightening not only for the learned (and unorthodox interpretation) the writer gives of Ibn Taymiyya, but also in the second degree as telling of some of the discussions taking place in the quality Arab press in reaction to the electoral success of the Salafis in Egypt and the rising intellectual and spiritual influence of the Salafi movement more generally.

As always, this translation is possible thanks to Industry Arabic, which provides multi-lingual translation of many different types — media, technical, legal, etc. — and really did a great job on this difficult piece.



The other side of Ibn Taymiyya – on the occasion of the political ascent of Salafis and Islamists

By Abdel Hakim Ajhar, al-Quds al-Arabi, 14 December 2011

The terms and concepts that have achieved wide circulation with the Arab revolutions – those such as democracy, tyranny, civil society, and citizenship – have no place in the writings of Islamist thinkers before the Nahda period. However, the writings of one such pre-Nahda1 thinker, Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328), contain material that could enable his followers to adopt a different mentality, one that would guide them – with a little effort — to these prevailing concepts of the age.

The Ibn Taymiyya whom we read about is not the real Ibn Taymiyya: he is a theoretical reproduction and refabrication that has made him into one of the authorities for religious extremists among both his supporters and detractors alike. The real Ibn Taymiyya, on the other hand, the one who needs to be read by Islamists ascending to the political forefront, is one who will help these Islamists adopt a flexible, rationalistic mode of thinking, and perhaps change many of the intellectual assumptions these forces still live by and consider to be fundamental tenets not subject to review.

Ibn Taymiyya theoretically belongs to the Hanbali school, which is held to be synonymous with, or the basic source of the contemporary Salafi movement in one way or another. In reality, however, Ibn Taymiyya criticized the Hanbali school2 more than any other thinker – whether from within the Hanbali school or without – and his criticisms were profound enough to affect the foundations of the whole school. For example, he criticized the literalism of the Hanbalis’ reading of the text of the Qur’an, which is one of their major tenets, and called for an interpretation of the Qur’an that differs from traditional interpretations such as the those of the Mu’tazilites and later Ash’arites3 who applied the theory of figurative language in this matter. Ibn Taymiyya resorted to a different theoretical foundation to explain his principle of interpretation, which relies on the idea of the “meaning of the text,” or the “intention of the text.” Not only does Ibn Taymiyya’s interpretation — which derives from a consideration of the text’s intention — differ from linguistic interpretation, but it also differs from the theory of exoteric and esoteric meaning that Sufis and some other religious groups employed.

Ibn Taymiyya announces his stance supportive of interpretation when he accepts the explanation of the well-known Qur’anic verse that states:

“None knows its interpretation, save only God. And those firmly rooted in knowledge say, ‘We believe in it.’”4

Ibn Taymiyya makes “those firmly rooted in knowledge” grammatically conjoined with “God,” thus refusing to split the verse and limit interpretation to God alone. This reading is the interpretation of a minority of thinkers in the history of Islamic thought who possessed great intellectual daring, such as Ibn Arabi and Ibn Rushd, and it contradicts the views of most conservative schools in Islam. Ibn Taymiyya rejects the Hanbali position, which says that “those firmly rooted in knowledge” do not “know its interpretation,” and that God alone is the one who knows this: He monopolizes it for himself and will reveal it on Resurrection Day. Those holding this view back it up with a verse that says:

“Do they look for aught else but its interpretation? The day its interpretation comes…”5

For the Hanbalis and many conservative currents, the Qur’an is a text that is closed-off on many sides, which adds a sort of secrecy and ambiguity to it. This is in contrast with Ibn Taymiyya, who thought that the Qur’an was an open, completely comprehensible text, and that human beings – to whom this text was sent – are able to understand it through reflection and uncover its intended meanings. Moreover, this understanding is not the exclusive possession of specific religious or spiritual authorities, but rather is granted to any educated or learned person. Ibn Taymiyya says on this point:

God gave an absolute command to reflect on the Qur’an, and did not exempt anything from reflection. He did not say, “Don’t reflect on the obscure passages, and reflection is impossible without understanding.”6

In this context, he criticizes the Hanbalis and some Sunnis who

without complete experience… supposed that only God knows the meaning of the obscure passages” and who would say: “texts conform to their external sense, and they reject any interpretation that contradicts the external sense.”

Ibn Taymiyya levels harsh criticism at this understanding and accuses those who hold this belief – who are mostly Hanbalis and Zahiris7 – of contradiction, lack of experience and of holding a literal understanding. He asks the, “What virtue lies in obscure passages such that God keeps the knowledge of their meaning to himself?” Ibn Taymiyya didn’t stop there; rather, he provided all the philosophical premises to justify his theory of interpretation, as he considered the Qur’an to be “originated”8, and that its words originate in God’s essence little by little according to the needs of revelation, before they emerge from the Divine Essence as audible expressions able to be spoken and recorded by human beings. Ibn Taymiyya confirms his view with a Qur’anic verse that is explicit on this matter:

“No Remembrance from their Lord comes to them lately renewed.”9

Ibn Taymiyya, on the other hand, adopted interpretations of the Qur’an whose boldness exceeded that of Muslim philosophers preceding him, since he believes that the world has no beginning and no end and is an eternal process of creation and re-creation, and that the world moves according to its own nature, and according to necessity and the principle of causality. In this way, he breaks with one of the most pervasive ideas in Islam – creation ex nihilo – as is held by Hanbalis, Ash’arites, Mu’tazilites and the jurists.10 He backs up his perspective by interpreting the Divine Intention, as he says when he treats a group of Qur’anic verses that prove his theory. According to Ibn Taymiyya, the Qur’anic verse that says

“Surely thy Lord accomplishes what He desires”11

means that God is eternally accomplishing things, since it is impossible for God’s efficacy to be posterior to His will, and for His will to be posterior to His very existence. Therefore, there are three necessary things that are co-eternal: God, His will and His efficacy. This is what puts the world in a state of eternal creation. This eternal creation is proven by the Qur’anic verses that refer to this gradation in the creation of one thing after another with no beginning, such as:

“Then He lifted Himself to heaven when it was smoke”12

“His Throne was upon the waters”13

“Then [he] sat Himself upon the Throne.”14

All this confirms the existence of a chain of creation and its lack of a beginning. Ibn Taymiyya here seems very close to Ibn Rushd’s understanding of the same issue, but he is even bolder, since Ibn Rushd has decided that the transition from God’s eternity to the process of creation requires intermediary entities, such as planets and spheres, as Aristotle before him had hypothesized. Ibn Taymiyya rejects intermediary entities, and argues that the transition from eternity to the corporeal world takes place through origination within the Divine Essence. His interpretation of origination is that it is the transferal of the Divine Attributes from their whole position as genera and species to individual intellectual potentialities within the Essence, then these potentialities are transferred to external essences and sensory existents. Ibn Taymiyya believes that the true intention behind the Qur’anic verse that says of God “Every day He is upon some labour”15 is that origination within the Essence is an eternal process.

The Qur’an is not too obscure for human understanding; it is completely comprehensible by the person able to reflect upon it and uncover its various meanings and intentions. Without this belief about understanding the Qur’anic text, the entire heavenly message becomes meaningless, because the message is aimed at mankind, and it would be futile for God to bar mankind from knowledge of all its details, especially its obscure and ambiguous passages.

Mankind enjoys the highest value in the universe because the Divine Attributes have been transferred to him in varying amounts. They exist in God in their capacity as attributes of perfection, whereas they exist in human beings as relative attributes of varying degree. Therefore, Ibn Taymiyya accepts the Prophetic hadith that says: “The Merciful created man in His own image,” and he allows that the pronoun “his” refers to “The Merciful” and not to man.16 Ibn Taymiyya does not intend anthropomorphization, as his followers and his detractors understood it, but rather he means something close to Ibn Arabi’s understanding of the hadith, where man is in a certain sense the image of God. It is through this image that man recovers the attributes that he has lost, and thereby recovers his central status.

Because of mankind’s status, Ibn Taymiyya rejects the view that man is incapable of attaining the truth by his own faculties. For him, mankind is capable of knowing the truth through his natural powers known as his “innate disposition,” as mentioned in the prophetic hadith: “All human beings are born with innate disposition….” This is the human nature that enables a person to attain the truth without the help of anyone, and even without the help of heavenly inspiration.

Ibn Taymiyya here appears in complete agreement with the Arab Andalusian philosopher Ibn Tufayl (d. 581/1185) in his story “Hayy ibn Yaqdhan.” The child Hayy, who grows up outside of human society and is ignorant of any language to communicate with, is able to attain the ultimate truth of the world just through his natural capabilities as a human being.

Human nature is disposed to seek knowledge and to will this knowledge, despite people’s varying levels of will in seeking and attaining it. Because of this variation in the will to knowledge, there are a number of people who cannot or do not want to reach the truth through their own powers, and it is for this reason that God sent prophets. Even those people for whose sake prophets were sent do not accept this truth because it comes from heaven, but because their innate disposition accepts it, since the success of prophets is connected with the preparedness of man’s innate disposition to accept their message and for no other reason. If not for this disposition, prophets would not succeed in the first place, since the innate disposition itself that guides some people to the truth is also what causes heavenly inspiration to be accepted.

On the other hand, human beings act on the basis of this truth, and are the originators of their actions and responsible for them, because these actions are the natures themselves that God placed within everything, including mankind. Man is capable of freedom, and in his human activity he proceeds according to the principle of “seeking benefit and avoiding loss,” and this is the Qur’anic concept of divine guidance. Consequently, all human actions are explained according to their actual conditions in terms of benefits and losses. This is what causes the universe, the world, and mankind to be governed by cause and effect, including natural objects, which must be understood on this basis.

The world is governed and ordered by its laws, which makes everything in the universe comprehensible. What we do not know today is merely something we ourselves have not been able to figure out, but we will find it out tomorrow. The world is not obscure or a secret, and God does not veil any wonders from human understanding. The universe and its major truths are subject to our human nature, and the knowledge of all this comes about because of our will to knowledge. Not even God’s acts are of the secret and obscure type, as God’s actions are justified by wisdom and by cause. God does nothing in vain, nor does he conceal anything from mankind. His actions are subject to interpretation like anything else.

With these profound conceptions, Ibn Taymiyya breaks the secret about that complex trio in Islam — the Qur’an, prophecy and God — and narrows the circle of the sacred that Muslims have woven around it for a long stretch of their intellectual history. Ibn Taymiyya leaves the world and all its relative and absolute truths open to human knowledge governed by reason. Everything that occurs or will occur tomorrow is in the grasp of our perceptions and our knowledge: there is no wide circle of sacred things, no secret world, and no ambiguity surrounding the facts of the world. Ibn Taymiyya completely rejects the belief held by some people that only God Himself understands His own actions, and that we cannot use logic to understand them — which is a widespread view in the popular understanding of Islam. Contrary to this, God’s actions proceed from his wisdom and are necessarily in harmony with the laws of things and the universe; consequently, they fall within the field of our perception and our intellectual aptitudes.

Ibn Taymiyya, who is considered the spiritual father of the Salafi movement and one of the major authorities in Islamic thought, needs to be re-examined, since there is another aspect to his thought that trains his followers and others to think rationally and to reach a new understanding of Islam. This is an understanding that restores to man his status and his ability to penetrate the world’s secrets, and which pushes him to think about everything, and about the fact that he possesses a degree of truth – however much people may disagree in their conceptions and creeds.

  1. The Nahda: a period of culture awakening that took place in the Arab world in the late 19th and early 20th century, which witnessed modernizing reforms in many fields, including the Islamic intellectual heritage. ↩

  2. Hanbali: one of the four schools of law within Sunni Islam. Usually regarded as the most conservative and literalistic. ↩

  3. Mu’tazalite and Ash’arite are two major schools of theology within Islam. The debate the author is obliquely referring to here is over how to handle passages in the Qur’an that pose a certain difficulty, whether because they are obscure or are in apparent conflict with Islamic doctrine (for example, verses that use anthropomorphic language to describe God). Contrary to the Hanbalis, who clung to a rigid literalism in dealing with such passages, the Mu’tazalites and the Ash’arites referred to interpreted these verses on the basis that they are employing figurative language, and so managed to resolve any ambiguity or discrepancy. This type of interpretation, which was not without controversy as it involved what some considered an unlicensed deviation from the Qur’anic text, is known in Arabic as ta’wil, in contrast to the more straightforward explanation of unambiguous passages, which is called tafsir. Throughout this translation, “interpretation” is rendering ta’wil and not tafsir. ↩

  4. Qur’an 3:7; the Arabic text is ambiguous, and could also be read as “None knows its interpretation, save only God and those firmly rooted in knowledge. They say ‘we believe in it’…” This was evidently Ibn Taymiyya’s reading of the verse. A. J. Arberry’s The Koran Interpreted is the translation used throughout for Qur’anic citations. ↩

  5. Qur’an 7:53 ↩

  6. Tafsir of Surat al-Ikhlas, p. 263 ↩

  7. The Zahiris, at one time, were a fifth legal school in Islam, known for their emphasis on adhering to the “external sense,” or zahir of the Qur’an and other religious texts. The school is now considered extinct. ↩

  8. “Originated”: in Arabic, muhdath. The idea that the Qur’an is not coeternal with God, but rather was created by God at a certain point in time. This view, whose most prominent exponent were the Mu’tazilites, is now a minority view in Islam, having been displaced by the Ash’arite belief that the Qur’an is uncreated and hence coeternal with God. ↩

  9. Qur’an 21:2. “Lately renewed” is how Arberry renders muhdath here. ↩

  10. Regarding the world to be eternal is a belief most commonly associated in the Islamic intellectual tradition with the philosophers – those such as al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, who follow Aristotle in this matter. Most orthodox theologians reject this view, and consider it to be heretical.  ↩

  11. Qur’an 11:107 ↩

  12. Qur’an 41:11 ↩

  13. Qur’an 11:7 ↩

  14. Qur’an 7:54 ↩

  15. Qur’an 55:29 ↩

  16. The Arabic pronoun in the hadith is ambiguous. Interpreters who wished to avoid the anthropomorphic connotations the hadith implies argued that “his” referred to “man” and not “the Merciful,” thus giving the hadith the sense: “The Merciful created man in man’s own image.” ↩