Part I | Reclaiming the Legacy

The Muslim world is polarized over reception of Ibn Taymiyyah. For some a villian while for others the hero and standard reference point for use for ideological ends. He has been mostly received in sectarian framework and such rejectionist terms as anti-Sufi, anti- philosopher, and anti-mutakalimoon. Many find him a huge problem or embarrassment and seek to do away with him. Contrary to popular dismissive and valorizing readings, it needs to be pointed out that he often held quite nuanced positions and defended himself with rigorous arguments and often meticulous analyses. He rejects, not much unlike Nagarjuna, Ghazzali, Kant and some modern philosophers, overambitious attempts to build a metaphysics/theological system based on inflated claims for reason. He seconds Ghazzali in his critique of the claims of the philosophers in the field of metaphysics while endorsing the validity of the rational sciences in the field of the natural sciences. He was a great logician who approached logic on his own terms.

In one of his brilliant strokes, Ibn Taymiyyah, as Hallaq noted, equates the Islamic notion of fitra with a form of a priori knowledge.  We can call it intellection or intuitive certainty regarding First Principles that ground claim of faith and argument against nonbelievers. Indeed, far from dismissing the mystical dimension of Islam, he makes it “an integral part of his epistemology. Knowledge for Ibn Taymiyya acquires a soteriological dimension, and it is the reunion of Shar’j principles with fitra that constitutes one of the vital keys to salvation and hence to paradise itself.” This sounds a philosophical moral mystic rather than a theologian-jurist. Although certain Orientalist scholarship (as illustrated in Goldziher and MacDonald)  has posited him as a Hanbali rejectionist of Sufism, it has been definitely shown that his condemnation of Sufism is specifically targeted towards one group of $ufis; the advocates of monism.” Studies by Laoust and Makdisi, among others, have shown that “not only did he accept Sufi doctrines with the exception of wahdat al-wujüd. he frequented Sufi orders and might have belonged to the Sufi tariqah of the Qadiriya.” In our days Tahir ul Qadri and many other traditional scholars have tried to engage with his whole corpus and found him largely an ally rather than an outsider or rejecter of Sufism.

Shaikh Hisham Mohammed Hisham Kabbani has aptly summed up the debate about Ibn Taymiyya and Sufism. Ibn Taymiyyah himself was “not only a Sufi follower, but was adorned with the cloak (khirqa) of shaikhhood of the Qadiri Order.” “To conclude that Ibn Taymiyya opposed Sufism/Tasawwuf as a whole, simply because he considered particular activities or statements by some individuals and groups as unacceptable in shari’ah, is like concluding that he opposed the Science of Fiqh because he criticized the viewpoints and practices of certain fuqaha (jurists).”  Ibn Taymiyya endorses key “kalimah” of Sufism in his explication of the notion of fana and affirms the most fundamental pillar of Sufi doctrine of self  by quoting from Bayazid al-Bistami “I shed my self as a snake sheds its skin”  and noting that famous story about him when he saw God in a vision (kashf) and said to Him: ‘O Allah what is the way to You?’ And Allah responded ‘Leave yourself and come to Me.’Ibn Taymiyya received initiation as a Sufi shaikh. Ibn Taymiyya in fact praised Sufi component of Islamic sciences (curriculum established in Muslim schools)  “participated in it, and achieved its highest formal level, which is to receive the khirqah, the equivalent of the ‘ijaza or permission in Sufi terms, from a Sufi shaikh.”

Unlike many modern critics of Sufism who commit the heresy or innovation of  dismissing Sufism and its key epistemological notion of ilham  lock stock and barrel, Ibn Taymiyya upholds ilham or inspiration as evidence “stronger than weak analogy [qiyas], or a weak tradition [hadith,] or istis-hab cited by those who are immersed in fiqh, or divergences of the law [khilaf], or the principles and sources of the law [usul al-fiqh].”

Ibn Taymiyya “does not debate the existence of Allah as a possibility, rather he posits it as evidence. It should be noted that his conception of the term kafir (unbeliever) does not convey the meaning of atheist, one who denies the existence of Allah but one who out of sheer vice, or perverse ingratitude refuses to honour the Divine Reality. He buttresses his position  by noting that in the Quran kafir is characterised by his ignorance. malevolence and exaggeration.

Ibn Taymiyya sees in the denial of man’s indebtedness to Allah the seed of divisions. Almost echoing Ibn Arabi, Ibn Taymiyya asserts that Allah is  “the only real existent.

He is mirrored in His creation, in as much as the created beings participate in His essential self.”

Given his problems with Sufi explication of God as Reality we find most succinctly stated in major exponents of tawhid-i wujudi, Ibn Taymiyyah in turn, however, has not succeeded in supplying necessary compelling theological arguments to support his  assertion or intuitive certitude regarding the existence of Allah as ontologically self-evident. With the Muslim philosophers he is in essential agreement on the key point that “As fitra is engrained in all human beings and represents an innate disposition towards truth, the sincere individual can turn to this latent potential for private inspiration (ilhâm  and intuitive perception (dhawq).”  For him complete “fulfillment of the law represents the attainment of a higher self.” Every man is an anonymous Muslim. He also notes that for truly righteous God doesn’t withhold reward or let astray. Those who have hidden vice get astray. This implies Ibn Taymiyyah affirms key Socratic – and Muslim philosophical – thesis on connection between virtue and heaven or sa’aadah. One can read such works as Uboodiyyah as elaborating fruits of moral-philosophical life while taking faith as a vital act of appropriation of the whole universe in the sense Sufi philosopher poet Iqbal understood. Faith is not assent to a proposition but commitment to live sub species aeternatatis. It is something that dawns on hearts as a consequence of prior grace and not a calculated ratiocinatory act or decision. One submits to live for the non-self/Other/God and consequently the whole world – or attitude towards the world – changes. One participates, so to speak, in life divine or heaven.