Ibn Taymiyyah: How The Icon Of Conservatism Was More Rational Than His Followers
Given the recent round of intransigence and refusal of heeding the advice of reason by the Mullahs and religious leaders, it is understandable to find fault in the religious tradition. But I want to show that how the present day Mullahs themselves are cut off from the very religious tradition, as practiced historically.
It is easy to cite examples of the Muslim philosophers or rationalists or Sufis, but perhaps showing how faraway they are from the Islamic scholar all the modern literalists consider to be their spiritual guardian will prove that they and their entire religious understanding is an aberration born out modernity and can’t be traced to an authoritative figure in medieval Islam. That scholar, of-course, is Ibn Taymiyyah.
Ibn Taymiyyah is presented not only in the modern-day conservative thought but also in the liberal/reformist takes on Islam as the prototype of modern-day irrationalism as well the spiritual father of the contested term ‘Islamic terrorism’. The historical truth can’t be further from this simplistic and reductionist view. Ibn Taymiyyah was a momentous scholar and according to the great scholar of Islam, Fazlur Rehman, brought a new perspective to every issue he wrote about. Ibn Taymiyyah today is invoked as authority to reject reason and rationality. But he was the one who combined philosophy with traditionalism. According to him there is no conflict or disagreement between aqal (reason) and naql (tradition). And that revelation and reason agree and when there is an apparent disagreement it is because of our insufficient understanding. His method is best described by one writer as, “Quranic rationalism”. This combination of reason and revelation, philosophy and tradition is what made him a truly marginal figure in his lifetime and was rejected, and more or less ignored, not only by his contemporaries but till the very late 19th century Islamic polemics.
Taymiyyah was detested by traditionalists for introducing the impurity of reason to the tradition but he not only used the combination of reason and tradition as an epistemological grounding but also as his method of Quranic exegesis and legal theory. Ijtihad was the cornerstone of his legal method and he defended the legal basis of rationality, i.e. Qias (analogy) by formulating that when there is a conflict between revelation and Maslaha (public utility, one of the grounds for Islamic judgments and laws), it is the public utility which has to be defined according to both reason and revelation. This principle of coherence of reason and revelation was also applied to the much debated question of attributes of God, which shows his deep engagement with philosophy and his openness to taking arguments and method of philosophy.
The dominant school (Asha’ari) considered God to be eternal since eternity equates perfection. But to Taymiyyah an act of will/volition is what points to perfection, and at the same time for God to be perfect he was to exist since eternity. There can’t be the question of God either existing in time or Creating/Speaking after he was not. The brilliant solution Ibn Taymiyyah came up with is that God is Creating/Speaking perpetually since eternity, and thus God’s speech and creation is ongoing! God is thus beyond time but also in time. God is transcendent of all attributes and also God is ‘personal’. (Just think that what kind of Fatwa the modern Mullahs will give about their ‘spiritual father’ of traditionalism!).
Ibn Taymiyyah is the most misused and misquoted for his method of exegesis from Salafs (the companions of the Prophet-pbuh). Wahabism and modern Saudi Salafism have made him as the empty vessel through which their own regressive version of revisionist Salafism has to be legitimized. Although, the authority of Salaf was central to Taymiyyah thought, it was also an instrumental one, i.e. he employed as a method counter the traditionalism of his contemporary era and to reform Islam (albeit to his own ideas). This method also came to depend on his earlier principle of agreement between Maslaha and revelation. According to him the Salaf were closer in time to the message of revelation, thus their understanding of Maslaha was perfect as compared to this time. He differed with the Salaf at crucial junctures though. For instance, he disagreed with the Salaf on their stance on ‘Fitra of God’ and about predestination of faith and disbelief. He also showed how the authority of Salaf was instrumental when he developed his own particular opinion about Milad (that is celebration of Prophet’s birth). Although, he considered it an innovation but didn’t ask for its prohibition.
Last but not the least he is celebrated or blamed for Takfirism (the doctrine of declaring Muslims as Kafir). His invocation about the impending Mongol invasion of Syria and his support for the ruling Mamluks is taken out of its socio-historical context. He supported the ruling Mamluks and questioned the fidelity of faith of the newly converts and considered them as rebellions against legitimate rule. When seen in the proper socio-historical context, it becomes clear that he has been the scapegoat for laziness of both the religious as well as liberal/progressive reading of history.
This is not meant to portray him as an absolute noble spirit and impeccable scholar with no faults. He had his biases against Shia and his anti-Shia and anti-Christian polemics run through the corpus of his work. He had his limits, flaws, founder of many bigoted opinions but also, he was a prodigious scholar. His collected works span over 35 volumes! By brining reason and philosophy in service of traditions he became an iconic practitioner of Ilm-e-Kalam (Islamic theology).
Islam is a varied intellectual tradition with contradictions and coherences weaving through it. The problem of today’s practice of the fanatic’s kind is that it is not informed by this rich and diverse intellectual tradition. If they read and engage with Ibn Taymiyyah, their supposed historical persona for legitimacy and traditionalism, they will even declare him a Kafir!
Everyone has a right to their own opinion but when making a judgement about Islam or any other religion what is needed is to honestly engage with their rich and diverse intellectual traditions. The modern-day practice of Islam, to a large extent, is innovations under and reactions to colonial modernity. Within this façade of reactionary practices and the clergy lie the ruins of great intellectual traditions. We have to excavate those ruins, and traditions, from the debris of this modern world to understand how people made meaning for themselves in terms of religion and Islam, and how we can understand the modern practices of regress in the light of these long traditions.