PART-II | Reclaiming the Legacy

There are some who naively dismiss philosophy and Sufism citing their rejection by Ghazzali and Ibn Taymiyya respectively. Most Muslims today are affected to some extent by this attitude of dismissal of core intellectual and spiritual pursuits. Given destiny of Muslims hinges on their attitude towards their reception of Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Arabi – thanks to Ertugul Ghazi serial, the latter is changing and we need someone to direct more realistic work for screen on the former; our task today is to try to understand rather complex attitude of Ibn Taymiyya towards philosophers and Sufis. For this, the following points may need to be considered.

  •  Ibn Taymiyya cites with much approval Ibn Rushd’s insistence that revelation should “never be interpreted, at least not publicly, in any way other than what the obvious sense of the texts would seem to indicate.” 
  • He also endorses Ibn Rushd’s critique of Ghazzali for opening up abstruse philosophical-esoteric discussions for public sphere where danger of misunderstanding and trivializing the revealed law is there.
  • He also faults Ghazzali for launching a purely destructive attack against the philosophers. It is true Ibn Taymiyya dismissed so harshly major philosophers whom he thought erred but didn’t dismiss philosophy as such.
  • His magnum opus  Dar’ Ta‘arud al-‘Aql wa-l-Naql  reconciling transmitted revealed and rational sciences (naql and aql) shows how seriously he takes rights and claims of logic and intellect. He never dismisses logic and logicians as such – and in fact makes a remarkable case for the Quranic use of inductive logic – but claims regarding their misapplications or exaggerated unsubstantiated claims.
  • Ibn Taymiyya does allow, as Sufi epistemology requires, that of the various entities existing in the ghayb, we can perceive, through a type of hiss batin, the existence of both our soul and of God.
  • Ibn Taymiyya recalled earlier Sufis in his life style and devotion to life of piety and prayer besides embracing hard discipline of tazkiyyah and no wonder he was much sought for healing cases of possession and wrote with an insider’s insight of the world of djinns and certain other occult matters and miraculous occurrences have been attributed to him after his death.
  •  Far from being a bland literalist Ibn Taymiyya does allow that the words and verses of revelation can, to a limited degree, legitimately carry several  complementary but not contradictory meanings embracing various aspects of one and the same reality. Ibn Taymiy-ya’s insistence on “the inherent and hence inescapable contextuality of any lin-guistic utterance (revelation or otherwise) renders redundant the traditional dis-tinction between putatively “literal” (haqiiqi) and “metaphorical” (majazi) mean-ings.” Given the central importance he gives to context, his hermeneutics has been read as a kind of “contextual ta’wil,” taking the latter strictly in its original sense of “tafsir al-ma‘na.”  His invoking of the Salaf doesn’t preclude  development of our “own personal or collective insights regarding the texts, so long as these insights are complementary to – and never in contradiction with – the meanings we can determine to have been understood by the Salaf.” It is easy to see that Ibn Arabi and modern sages and exegetes don’t, self avowedly, contradict the understanding of the Salaf. Quite attentive to many difficult issues in the Quran, Ibn Taymiyyah does see the legitimacy of “recourse to other canonical statements and to an educated personal judgment in an effort to understand its meaning.” However, he is too confidant in his search for a rather straightforward meaning that underplays role of metaphor and essential fluidity and polyvalence of language, a project that Allama Farahi was to revive from somewhat different vantage point or context. Assertions of Farahi school to the effect that all of the Quran is qatti-ud-dallala although containing essential truth regarding warrant for attempts to discover God’s intended meaning widely known amongst traditional exegetes such as Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana, fail to appreciate that the ideal is only to be approximated and for all practical purposes, humans must keep open the possibility that the meaning they construe to be divine meaning may not go uncontested. We live in a plural world where Ibn Taymiyya or Ibn Hazm or Imam Farahi can’t freeze language’s movement or polyvalence. Muslims, Allama Kashmiri would aver, must recognize a number of problems in the hermeneutics they have inherited. Indeed there is a need to engage with newer insights from modern philosophy of language and hermeneutics that further problematize anxiety to fix meanings and build certain systems that classify. No wonder that our major modern thinkers including Fazlur Rahman made contributions by taking up the questions raised in modern hermeneutics.
  • We need to resist those who reduce him to a crude literalist or unproblematically link Ibn Abd al-Wahab to him and imagine him as fulminating against almost everything worthy of respect in “mainstream” traditional Islamic philosophical and mystical legacy. It is not necessary or warranted to condone his essentially juridical mindset that often framed things in sharp exclusive either/or terms, although we need to note that he is often capable of great attention to complex nuances of traditional position and regards music permissible, rejectsthe thesis of tehreef bil-lafz in Toarh and Injil, denies eternity of hell and has much to offer to a theology of dialogue between cultures and traditions. Everyone will learn something from him and his illustrious legacy of great scholars from Ibn Qayyim to Shah Waliullah to Syed Maududi to modern figures of Ahl-e hadith movement, all of whom have been deeply indebted to him. We have to carry Ibn Taymiyya with us without forgetting that modern or postmodern world is committed to philosophers and mystics and philosophical/mystical theology and turns to Rumi and Hafiz, Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra, Sheikh Alawi  and Shaykh Isa and  the like for engaging with its deeper problems. It has left much of Ibn Taymiyya behind in search of more satisfying founts of wisdom that are more comprehensive accounts of depths and heights of Islamic Tradition. We need both Ibn Taymiyya and such great figures – whom he severely criticized such as Ibn Arabi, Ibn Sina, Ghazzali – to better assimilate richness of Islamic tradition and encounter newer challenges that were not important or had not arisen in his age. Let us read him in light of his own commitment to Revelation without necessarily subscribing to his constricting hermeneutic We, however, need to note his commitment to freer use of reason in matters juristic. In Kashmir we need to appreciate his respect for and allegiance to Hazrat Abdul Qadir Jeelani to connect him to our essentially Sufi culture. We need to see his theology and fiqh in light of Metaphysics understood as scienitia sacra and linked to discoveries of intellectual intuition, placing first things first.
  •  We can’t take rather harsh and uncharitable view  that the author of The Malady of Islam takes regarding what he sees as the problem called Ibn Taymiyya. We must salute Ibn Taymiyya’s commitment to reason against detractors who feared it and over-emphasized taqleed.  His emphasis, like Ghazzali and Ibn Arabi, on the letter of scripture so that it is not lightly played with by Batinites and their ilk, his reminders that Islamic tradition has emphasized induction over deduction, his great personal piety that made it possible for him to access God in certain important sense and thus approximate the ideal mystics claimed they have special access to, his immense    intelligence and analytical mind though we find his power of synthesis  not so remarkable. He was a moral mystic who subscribed to certain reading of Sufism, a philosopher who rejected hubris of conceptual intellect or ratio (aql-i juzwi), a theologian like Barth who saw compelling reasons to severely limit reason’s jurisdiction, especially speculative tendency of it and accept what appears as the plain verdict of Revelation. Reading him one appreciates better Milbank and other influential contributors to newer forms of orthodoxy in theology.  We need to consider seriously how he has been, largely positively, received by great figures in Deobandi camp like Mawlana Thanvi who called him khurdura (crude) Sufi, by philosopher-theologians like Fazlur Rahman and Ismail Ruja al-Faruqi, by mystics like Sirhindi and Shah Waliullah and such great minds as Iqbal and Azad. His very critical attitude towards Shias can be put in perspective when we emphasize metaphysical and spiritual reading of Shiism one finds in the likes of Mulla Sadra and Corbin. His rejection of Ibn Arabi can be put in perspective when we see decisive refutation of charges levelled against the later in modern work of Chittick, Izatsu, Nasr, Chodkiewicz and others. His critique of certain elements of Sufi culture do have a force if we go by antinomian and aestheticism inflected rendering of Sufism in certain circles and it is this that has been appreciated.  His fresh or independent approach to theological issues needs to be better studied and put in dialogue with modern approaches to theology. He is a sort of Kant in theology and mysticism who has put tough questions to Muslim theologians and mystics engaging with which opens new paths that are fraught with great significance for contemporary Islam’s dialogue with modernity.