Understanding Ibn Taymiyyah as a Man of His Time


Though he lived seven centuries ago, medieval Syrian scholar, Ibn Taymiyyah, has had an enduring legacy. Indeed, Ibn Taymiyyah’s work is consistently invoked in modern academic and non-academic literature, as an explanation for the rise of Wahhabism, militant Islam, and “religiously motivated” acts of violence. Explanations of this nature are generally quite simplistic, but this is perhaps why they tend to be so prevalent and alluring.
Making claims to a clear connection between Ibn Taymiyyah and “Wahhabism” fails to elucidate the otherwise serious and complex problem of extremism. It is inappropriate and reductive to assert that groups, like ISIS or Al-Qaida, were motivated by a single philosophy or that people join those groups for one reason. Exposure to the work of Ibn Taymiyyah, or misreadings of certain Quranic passages, do not automatically make a peaceful person turn violent. As Georgetown Professor, Jonathan Brown, aptly observes in his book Misquoting Muhammad:

It is simplistic and naive to explain jihadism merely as an inevitable growth from Islam’s ‘violent’ scripture, or as no more than a miscarried interpretation triggered solely by some tragic misreading. It cannot be separated from economic discontent, the enveloping context of US global power, America’s influence and military actions in the Muslim world and, most of all, the gaping sore of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

To develop a more nuanced understanding of Ibn Taymiyyah, the beliefs he espoused, and his popularity with extremist groups today, it is, as such, imperative to closely inspect and understand his historical context.

Who Was Ibn Taymiyyah?

Born in the city of Harran (then Upper Mesopotamia, now modern Turkey) in 1263, Ibn Taymiyyah was already a refugee in Damascus by the age of seven. His family had been forced to flee from their home, in order to avoid the encroaching Mongol invasion, which had overtaken Baghdad in 1258.
According to biographical accounts, Ibn Taymiyyah possessed a formidable wisdom that was evident from the time he was a child. Indeed, he was descended from a line of esteemed intellectuals. Both his father and grandfather were eminent scholars of the Hanbali school of Islamic law.
There is no doubt Ibn Taymiyyah was, and remains, one of the most controversial scholars in the Islamic tradition. This is because he was a free thinker—equally an activist and a scholar—which inevitably made him an instigator and a maverick. Were it not for his uniquely adversarial personality, and the fact that he lived during a time of political unrest, civil war, and foreign invasions, it is quite possible Ibn Taymiyyah’s influence may have been limited strictly to the scholarly realm, irrespective of how astute he was. As brilliant as Ibn Taymiyyah may have been, the socio-political circumstances of his time were arguably central to his widespread public recognition and acclaim.
The common theme of much of Ibn Taymiyyah’s work was relatively straightforward: the desire to achieve freedom for Muslims, both physically and metaphysically. For example, he famously lamented over the manner in which Muslims were enamored and distracted by Greek philosophy. In his view, this fascination led to a loss of a Muslim’s own sense of self. He made this point quite explicitly in the introduction to ar-Rad ‘ala al-Mantiqi’yeen, in which he strongly criticizes Greek logic:

I have always known that ‘Greek logic’ is not needed by the intelligent nor does it benefit the obtuse. However, I assumed the matters it deals with to be correct given the truth I noted in many of them. Then it became apparent to me the error of a significant portion of its propositions, and I wrote a little bit about that. Later, when I was in Alexandria, I met with someone who exalted philosophizers and imitated them, so I mentioned to him some of the errors and misguidance they deserve to be accused of.[1]

Though Ibn Taymiyyah was strongly opposed to Greek logic (and rational theology, among other topics), this was not simply a religious fanatic’s irrational diatribes against the use of reason. There was, instead, something deeper (and very specific) Ibn Taymiyyah was trying to achieve—pertaining directly to, and influenced by, the realities of his time. Indeed, Ibn Taymiyyah was acutely disturbed by the Mongolian invaders, whom he believed were physically and intellectually colonizing Muslims. The underlying message and purpose of Ibn Taymiyyah’s work was, therefore, to free the Muslim community from its foreign conquerers. In order to accomplish this, he argued, it was critical to first free the Muslim mind from the distractions of non-Muslim philosophy.
This is precisely why Ibn Taymiyyah dedicated significant portions of his work to opposing the use of external sources (i.e. sources outside the Quran and Hadith) in theology and law. To Ibn Taymiyyah, the Quran and Hadith alone effectively addressed issues previous Muslim scholars (and many of his contemporaries) were attempting, but ultimately failing, to resolve through Greek philosophy. In a way, then, Ibn Taymiyyah was engaged in a momentous project of rebuilding Muslim intellectual independence.

Understanding Ibn Taymiyyah’s Popularity

What makes Ibn Taymiyyah such a popular figure today, at the “grassroots level,” among Muslims is the fact he was a scholar who wrote with the grassroots in mind. He was less concerned with debating other scholars and more interested in speaking directly to the masses, which can be readily noted in his rhetoric. Parallels between the current politics of the Middle East and those of Ibn Taymiyyah’s time have made his works even more attractive for those looking to base their actions in the Islamic tradition.
In this sense, Ibn Taymiyyah’s views on the Mongols are critical. While his break with scholarly consensus was often innocuous (it generally related to legal rulings that affected private Muslim conduct, such as divorce laws and the making up of missed prayers), his difference of opinion on the Mongolian question was distinctly austere. Unlike many other scholars, he not only saw the Mongols as hostile invaders, but also refused to accept them as legitimate rulers, even after they converted to Islam. He went as far as to issue a fatwa mandating that Muslims fight them. Known for practicing what he preached, Ibn Taymiyyah was among those parties who fought the Mongols when they approached Damascus.
It is, as such, far from a stretch for someone who views themselves as a resistance fighter against foreign occupation and local tyranny to find Ibn Taymiyyah very relatable.

Co-opting Ibn Taymiyyah’s Views

A great irony is that, in citing Ibn Taymiyyah, extremist groups like ISIS have approached his writings in the most modern ways. Rather than seeing him for the nuanced thinker he was, extremists today are interpreting Ibn Taymiyyah’s ideas through the framework of a largely secularized education, and are weaponizing his work to justify the very sort of behaviors and political agendas he was patently against.
These groups adopt a two-step interpretive process, to co-opt the Syrian scholar’s philosophy. First, they approach Ibn Taymiyyah’s work in a vacuum, stripping it of any social and historical context. Second, they break the texts into isolated components that can be cited at will, thereby disrupting any internal textual consistency.
Unsurprisingly, this process allows extremist groups to distort Ibn Taymiyyah’s views, for their own benefit. For example, ISIS commonly cites the scholar to justify its sectarian crimes. Its members claim that his diatribes against the Shia, Sufis, and Druze clearly sanction their murder. In reality, however, Ibn Taymiyyah rejected sectarianism.
Ibn Taymiyyah’s respect for scholars and their place in society did not stop him from making scathing, polemical critiques about many of the intellectual ideas with which he sharply disagreed. While the consequences of his “heterodoxy” may have been mild within scholarly circles (since scholars tended to be more receptive to intellectual disagreements), they ran the risk of producing sectarianism in general society. The accessibility of Ibn Taymiyyah’s work to laypersons not trained in scholarly discourse made his writings especially susceptible to being taken out of context and misconstrued in a way that would produce antagonistic attitudes towards those he disagreed with. Ibn Taymiyyah was, however, both sharply aware of this and vehemently against sectarian splits, as evidenced by one of his fatwas:

It is not permissible for teachers to sectarianize people and sow enmity and hatred between them. Rather, they must be like brethren supporting each other in goodness and piety as the Exalted said: (and help one another in goodness and piety, and do not help one another in sin and aggression.) [Quran 5:2]. Furthermore, it is not permissible for any of them to take a covenant upon another to agree with him on everything he wants, nor support whoever he supports and be an enemy of anyone he is an enemy of. Indeed, whoever does such a thing is of the same type as Genghis Khan and his ilk who make anyone who agrees with them a supporting friend and anyone who differs with them a transgressing enemy.[2]

That Ibn Taymiyyah’s name is consistently invoked for sectarian purposes today is an unfortunate indication of how deeply he is misunderstood.

Contextualizing Our Tradition

To understand Ibn Taymiyyah and the reason extremist groups seem so drawn to him, it is important to grasp the dual roles he played during his lifetime—as both scholar and activist. Today, he inspires militant groups not only because of the perceived intellectual merit of his statements and legal rulings, but also because of his revolutionary spirit. For the likes of ISIS, Ibn Taymiyyah is someone who is on the ground with them, fighting against tyranny, and making Islam a lived reality. It does not matter how objectively incorrect this is, the only thing that matters is that they believe it.
Ibn Taymiyyah was certainly a man of and for his time. Stripped of this historical context, he has now been weaponized as a modern “inspiration for extremism.” These efforts cannot and will not be defeated by counter-narratives that do not address the broader political problems which afflict the ummah, something that Ibn Tayymiyah’s work managed to do. Indeed, the modern, “secular reality” many Muslims experience and the general lack of freedom in many Muslim societies has greatly impacted the relevance and power of modern Islamic scholarship for average individuals. In this context, Ibn Taymiyyah’s work appears to be relevant, where others are not, even if interpretations of his philosophy are historically illiterate.
Maybe someday, in a historical “plot twist” of sorts, extremists may be inspired by Ibn Taymiyyah to “wake up,” as he intended, and fight against the intellectual colonization he tirelessly wrote against, and which they clearly suffer from. We can only hope.
Source: Muftah.org
[1] Ibn Taymiyyah, ar-Rad ‘ala al-Mantiqi’yeen, pg. 3
[2] Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmoo’ al-Fatawa, Volume 28, pg. 15-16