by George Makdisi

IBN TAYMIYAH (AH 661-728/1263-1328 CE), more fully Taqi al-Din Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn Abd alHalim ibn Abd al-Salam al-Harrani al-Dimashqi; jurisconsult, theologian, and Sufi. He was born in Harran, and at the age of six he fled with his father and brothers to Damascus during the Mongol invasions. Ibn Taymiyah devoted himself from early youth to various Islamic sciences (Quran, hadith, and legal studies), and he was a voracious reader of books on sciences that were not taught in the regular institutions of learning, including logic, philosophy, and kalam.

Early Career

Ibn Taymiyah studied law under the direction of his father and Shams al-Din Abd al-Rahman al-Maqdisi (d. 1283). Under several teachers of hadith he studied a number of works, in particular the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, (a hadith collection that he read several times), the six books of hadith, and the biobibliographical Mu jam of al-Tabarani. He studied Arabic grammar and lexicography for a brief period under Sulayman ibn Abd al-Qawi al-Tuft (d. 1316); then, on his own, he mastered Sibawayhs text on grammar. He became qualified to issue legal opinions before the age of twenty; at twenty-one, upon the death of his father in 1283, he succeeded him as professor of hadith and law at Dar al-Hadith al-Sukkariyah, a Sufi monastery and college of hadith founded around the middle of the thirteenth century in Damascus. Ibn Taymiyah was a prolific writer, described as fast to learn and slow to forget: it was said of him that once he learned something, he never forgot it.

Ibn Taymiyah also succeeded his father at the Umayyad Mosque, where he gave lectures on Quranic exegesis. His biographers record that, lecturing without notes, he would give materials for two or more fascicles. On one of these Fridays of Quranic exegesis in the Umayyad Mosque in 1291, Ibn Taymiyah lectured briefly on the divine attributes. This was his first known public venture into controversial dogmatics. The reaction was quick among his opponents, who tried to prevent him from lecturing further in the mosque but failed in their attempt. Ibn Taymiyahs treatment of the divine attributes was given as part of his profession of faith, the aqidah. The Chaffs chief qadi Shahs al-Din al-Khuwayyi declared: I am in agreement with the creed of Shaykh Taqi al-Din [ibn Taymiyah]. When he was reproved, he continued: because he has sound intelligence, speaks from extensive knowledge, and says only what he knows to be sound.

In 1292 Ibn Taymiyah went on the pilgrimage to Mecca, where he gathered materials for his work Manasik al-hajj (Rituals of the Pilgrimage), denouncing a number of practices in the rituals of the pilgrimage as condemnable innovations.

The Shafii historian Ibn Kathir, in the events of the year 1293/4, treats of the affair of Assaf al-Nasrani (the Christian), who was reported by witnesses to have cursed the Prophet ﷺ . Ibn Taymiyah and a companion, alFaraqi, apparently implicated in the affair for encouraging the assault and battery to which Assaf and his bedouin protector were victims, were flogged and put under house arrest. This was the episode behind Ibn Taymiyahs work Kitab al-scrim al-maslul ala shatim alrasul (The Sharp Sword Drawn against the Reviler of the Messenger [of God]).

In 1296, at the death of his professor Zayn al-Din ibn Munajja, Ibn Taymiyah succeeded to the chair of law thus vacated in the Madrasah Hanbaliyah. His biographer Ibn Rajab said that he read an autobiographical note in Ibn Taymiyahs own hand to the effect that Ibn Taymiyah was offered, before the year 1291 (thus before the age of thirty), the post of shaykh al-shuyukh, or head of the Sufis, and the post of chief qadi, but he refused them both. Refusals to assume such posts usually meant that the scholar wished to stay aloof from the central power, out of desire for a private scholarly life, or in order to pursue the ascetic life, or to remain free to criticize practices he deemed not in keeping with the tenets of Islam. When Ibn Taymiyahs subsequent life is taken into consideration, his refusal clearly appears to have been based on the last of these reasons.

Opposition to the Ashariyah

Ibn Taymiyah lived in a period between those of two notable propagandists of the rationalist Ashari movement in theology: Ibn Asakir (d. 1176) and Subki (d. 1370). The attempt of the Ashari movement to obtain legitimacy by infiltrating the Shafii madhhab (school) of law-an attempt that surfaced in the eleventh century-was still developing and had to face two implacable forces blocking its goal. The traditionalist movement was represented particularly by two madhhabs of law: the Hanbali and the Shafii. The former was the obvious obstructive force, while the latter included the Ashari faction, which was hard at work to gain the adherence of fellow Shafiis to Ashari thought, an effort destined to fail in the face of the alliance between the traditionalists of the two madhhabs.

Already in the days of Ibn Asakir the traditionalists had introduced an institution that was conceived to correct, among other things, the detrimental consequences of the exclusory principle in the madrasah, according to which only those students who chose to belong to the madhhab represented by the madrasah were admitted. This policy tended to be divisive, separating members of the traditionalist movement who belonged to all the Sunni madhhabs, while allowing the Ashariyah to stay within one madhhab, the ShafiI. The new institution that helped to correct the situation was the Dar al-Hadith, wherein the principal subject of instruction was hadith rather than law, and students of any of the four madhhabs could attend. Thus a Hanbali professor, such as Ibn Taymiyah, could have students belonging to the Shafii madhhab, such as al-Birzali, Mizzi, and al-Dhahabi. The first Dar al-Hadith was founded in Damascus by the Zengid ruler Nur al-Din (d. 1173).

To the philosophical theology of the Ashariyah, Ibn Taymiyah opposed his famous professions of faith (aqidah; pl., aqaid). His first full-length aqidah, written at the request of the people of Hama in the year 1299 and therefore known as Al-aqidah al-hamawiyah, was very hostile to the Ashariyah and their kalam-theology. According to Ibn Rajab, Ibn Taymiyah wrote this aqidah in one sitting. His other important profession of faith is the Aqidah wasitiyah, written for a group of religious intellectuals in Wasit (Iraq) before the arrival of the Mongols in Damascus. Both professions of faith were attacked by his enemies, and he was taxed with anthropomorphism. In a meeting in the house of the Shafii qadi Imam al-Din Umar ibn Abd al-Rahman alQazwini (d. 1299) the Aqidah hamawiyah was studied; Ibn Taymiyah was questioned regarding various points, and it was deemed to be satisfactory. Regarding the Wasitiyah, even the Ashari-Shafii Safi al-Din al-Hindi (d. 1315) found it to be in conformity with the Quran and sunnah. Nevertheless, his enemies tried hard to keep him in prison, even to have him executed, but failed on both counts.

Ibn Taymiyahs polemic activity extended to the philosophers, especially the logicians, against whom he wrote a refutation, Al-radd ala al-mantiqiyin. He wrote extensively against the monistic (ittihadiyah) and incarnationist (hululiyah) Sufis and condemned as heretical innovations many of the Sufi practices of his day. Nevertheless, Ibn Taymiyah was praised by the Sufi Abu Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Qawwam, who said: Our Sufism became sound only at the hands of Ibn Taymiyah, implying that Ibn Taymiyah was not an outsider to Sufism. Recently discovered evidence shows that Ibn Taymiyah belonged to the Sufi order of the Qadiriyah, named after the Hanbal! Sufi Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, whom he praised and preferred to the other Hanbali Sufi, al-Ansari al-Harawi.

On the theological question of the divine attributes, Ibn Taymiyah held that God should be described as he has described himself in his book and as the Prophet ﷺ has described him in his sunnah. This classical traditionalist doctrine goes back to al-Shafii (d. 820) and to Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), the two great leaders of the movement, in whose works Ibn Taymiyah was thoroughly versed. Ibn Taymiyah and his famous disciple Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyah (d. 1350) drew much of their inspiration from the works of al-Shafii and Ibn Hanbal. From the genesis of the traditionalist movement the principal message has always been that the basic sources for belief and practice are the book of God and the practice (sunnah) of the Prophet ﷺ .

Ibn Taymiyah, in the title of one of his numerous works, emphasized the place of the Prophet ﷺ in relation to the two fundamental sources: The Steps Leading to the Knowledge That the Messenger of God Has Already Made a Clear Exposition of the Roots and Branches of Religion.

For the Prophet, as Messenger ﷺ, brought the book of God and was himself a living example of what should be followed. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyah quotes from the introduction to al-Shafiis Risalah: Praise be to God . . who is as he has described himself, and who is exalted above all the attributes given to him by those among his creatures who have described him. And again: No event shall befall an adherent of Gods religion but that there is a guide in the book of God showing the right way to be followed. These two statements were quoted against the Ashariyah, the rationalist movement of the period of Ibn Taymiyah and Ibn Qayyim, as al-Shafii had said them some five centuries before in condemnation of the Mutazilah, the rationalist movement of his day.

Under Attack

Ibn Taymiyahs troubles came chiefly from his opposition to Ashari thought working from within the Shafii madhhab, and also from his criticism of extremist Sufi thought and practices. His troubles (mihan; sg., mihnah) were treated extensively by his Shafii disciples al-Birzali, al-Dhahabi, and Ibn Kathir, and by the Hanbali biobibliographer Ibn Rajab.

Ibn Taymiyahs enemies finally succeeded in removing him from the scene. The opportunity was presented by one of his legal opinions (fatwas) entitled Travel to the Tombs of the Prophets and Saints, in which Ibn Taymiyah prohibited such travel. His opponents. pounced on this fatwa and charged him with demeaning the prophets and with unbelief (kufr). Eighteen jurisconsults, led by the Malikī qadi al-Ikhnai, wrote fatwas condemning him. The four chief qadis of Cairo issued their decision that he be imprisoned in the citadel of Damascus. Other jurisconsults, including the two sons of the leading Malikī jurisconsult Abu al-Walid, had issued fatwas condemning that decision. They stated that it had no valid basis against Ibn Taymiyah since he had simply cited the divergent opinions of the jurisconsults on the subject of the visiting of tombs (ziyarat al-qubar) and had given preponderance to one side of the question, a choice that was legitimate to make. But the decision stood without appeal. Ibn Taymiyah was never to leave the citadel alive; he died there some two years later. Three months before his death, his enemy alIkhnai, against whom he had written a refutation, complained to the sultan, who ordered that Ibn Taymiyah be deprived of the opportunity to write; his ink, pen, and paper were taken away from him. But to the very last, his enemies could not quite get the better of him.

The biographers cite a number of statements made by Ibn Taymiyah during his imprisonment that show the mans stature and state of mind. A prisoner is one who has shut out God from his heart. A prisoner is one whose passions have made him captive. In this world there is a paradise to be entered; he who does not enter it will not enter the paradise of the world to come. What can my enemies possibly do to me? My paradise is in my breast; wherever I go it goes with me, inseparable from me. For me, prison is a place of retreat; execution is my opportunity for martyrdom; and exile from my town is but a chance to travel. In reference to his enemies who strove to have him imprisoned: If I were to give all the gold it takes to fill the space of this citadel, I could not possibly reward them for the good they have done me. And he often repeated the following prayer: O God! Help me to move my tongue incessantly in your praise, to express my gratitude, and to serve you in perfect worship.

On 20 Dhu al-Qadah 728 (26 September 1328), Ibn Taymiyah died in the citadel at the age of sixty-five. The populace turned out in the hundreds of thousands for the funeral procession, which was compared to that of Ahmad ibn Hanbal. He was buried next to his brother, Sharaf al-Din Abd Allah, in the Sufi cemetery where other Sufi members of his family were buried.

Ibn Taymiyahs influence has reached modern times. His teachings, first followed by Muhammad ibn Abd alWahhab (d. 1792), became the basis of the Wahhabi movement in the nineteenth century and the guiding principles of the Wahhabi state of Saudi Arabia. Again, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, through Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida, they influenced the modernist Salafiyah movement.


Arabic Sources

Ibn al-Imad al-Hanbali. Shadhardt al-dhahab fi akhbar man dhahab. Vol. 5. Cairo, 1931. See pages 80-86.

Ibn Kathir, Ismail ibn Umar. Al-biddyah wa-al-nihdyah fi al-tarikh. Vol. 14. Cairo, 1937. See pages 135-141.

Ibn Rajab. Dhayl ald tabagat al-Handbilah. Vol. 2. Edited by M. Hamid al-FigI. Cairo, 1953. See pages 387-408.


Laoust, Henri. Essai sur les doctrines sociales et politiques de Taki-al-Din Ahmad b. Taimiya. Cairo, 1939.

Laoust, Henri. La biographie dIbn Taimiya dapres Ibn Kathir. Bulletin detudes orientales 9 (1942): 115-162.

Laoust, Henri. Le hanbalisme sous les Mamlouks Bahrides. Revue des etudes islamiques 28 (1960): 1-71.

Laoust, Henri. Ibn Taymiyya. In The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed. Leiden, 1960-.

Laoust, Henri. Linfluence dIbn Taimiyya. In Islam: Past Influence and Present Challenge, edited by Alford T. Welch and Pierre Cachia. Edinburgh, 1979.

Makdisi, George. Ashari and the Asharites in Islamic Religious History. Studia Islamica 17 (1962): 37-80.

Makdisi, George. Ibn Taimiya: A Sufi of the Qadiriya Order. American Journal of Arabic Studies 1 (1973): 118-129. Makdisi, George. The Hanbali School and Sufism. Hamadard Islamica 11 (1974): 61-72.

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