Of revelation and reason: Ibn Taymiyyah’s ‘literalist rationalism’

It has been an unfortunate norm in the history of Islamic culture that the greatest names, who defended it from the onslaught of foreign ideas, have always been subjected to curt, half baked and usually prejudiced castigations.

One of such names is the Hanbalite jurist by the name of Ibn Taymiyyah, who is well known for his refutations of the Hellenic thought in Islam and his polemics against the Neoplatonic ideas of Avicenna, mystical speculations of Ibn Arabi and those fragments of Kalām theology of Asharites and Mutazilities which he considered antagonistic to the tenets of Islamic tradition.

While polemics and literalism are indeed prominent features of Ibn Taymiyya’s writing, it is growing ever more apparent that their import is not fully grasped without reference to a broader method and theological vision at work in his thought.

There has been no comprehensive study of Ibn Taymiyya’s theological methodology, and his attitude towards reason in theological matters has not been well understood. The Hanbali legal school to which Ibn Taymiyya belonged was of two minds in preceding generations concerning rational argument in theology.

On one side were the likes of al-Barbahari and Ibn Qudama who completely opposed discussion of theological matters and permitted no more than repeating what was said about God in the data of revelation. On the other side were Abu Yala and his disciple Ibn Aqil who produced writings dealing with the principles of religion, which in content and structure were not unlike Kalām works of the Asharis and Mutazilis.

Ibn Taymiyya is well known both for strict reliance on the Quran and the Sunna and for extensive polemic against Kalām theology, Aristotelian logic, Avicennan philosophy and the rationalising mysticism. Thus, he may well appear to belong to the first Hanbalī current, having no theological position of his own except unreflective adherence to the texts.

In the course of describing Ibn Taymiyya’s polemical agenda, Ignaz Goldziher notes that the Shaykh only and only took from the tradition. More forcefully, Majid Fakhry uses the terms “slavish traditionalism,” “antirationalist polemics” and “misology” in describing Ibn Taymiyya’s place in the history of Islamic philosophy.

But all these speculations are a result of incomplete perspective of the Shaykh’s understanding and rendering of arguments.

Even thought he spoke against metaphysics of Mantiq (Logic) of the Asharis, he used the agency of logic only to refute the extreme logicicizing of the traditions. It is true that the Shaykh vigorously maintains that all principles of religion have been revealed in the Quran and the Sunna. But an ardently anti-rationalist portrayal of Ibn Taymiyya fails to make sense of three other aspects of his writings.

First, he frequently claims that knowledge derived from clear reason (al-aql al-sarīh or al-sarīh al-maqūl) agrees and corresponds with revealed tradition (naql or sam), the message of the prophets and the way of the Salaf.

Second, Ibn Taymiyya explicitly permits rational theological argument in Khawd, a fatwa written while in Egypt whose importance is underlined by its later inclusion near the beginning of Dar at-tarud al all Wal naql. This text argues that it is not disliked to address people in their own terms as long as the proper meanings of words are ascertained. Also, Ibn Taymiyya explains, the Salaf did not reject Kalām terminology and argumentation as such. They were aware that God Himself had propounded rational arguments, and they were open to non-Quranic terminology so long as it carried meanings congruent with revelation. What the Salaf reproached in Kalam theology was using terms in the wrong senses and misconstruing the role of rational arguments. In other words Kalām theology went astray not in using reason as such but in holding erroneous doctrines and using reason incorrectly.

Third, Shaykh attacks Kalām theology and Avicennan philosophy not because he opposes reason but because he articulates and defends a fundamentally different vision of God.

Ibn Taymiyya views God in His perfection and very essence as active, creative, willing and speaking from eternity. Whereas both the Kalam theologians and the philosophers locate the perfection of God’s essence in timeless eternity, Ibn Taymiyya locates it in personal and perpetual dynamism.

Ibn Taymiyya crafts a vision of God as active, personal and much more intimately involved in temporal and human affairs than the God of Kalām theology and Avicennan philosophy in order to prompt more ready obedience to God’s law.

If Ibn Taymiyya is not an anti-rationalist polemist and unreflective lieralist, what sort of theologian is he?

In a study on a portion of Dar which treats Ibn Sina’s interpretation of prophetic imaginal discourse as a kind of pious fraud intended to motivate the intellectually inferior masses for their own benefit, Yahya Michot characterizes Ibn Taymiyya’s hermeneutics as “literalist rationalism”.

Michot elaborates that Ibn Taymiyya rejects the hermeneutics of both the philosophers and the Kalām theologians in order to uphold “the self-sufficiency of the religious rationality manifested in scriptural literality and common faith, and its validity for all, the elite and the crowd.”

The nature of this egalitarian “literalist rationalism” becomes clearer in an article by Shahab Ahmed on God’s protection of the Prophets in Ibn Taymiyya’s writings.

Ahmed observes that the Shaykh systematises and reconstructs out of amorphous statements in the early authoritative sources what the Salaf apparently taught on the issue in question and explains “the rationale behind what they said, even if they did not say so themselves.”

Henri Laoust suggests a different point of departure. Laoust explains that Ibn Taymiyya’s theology is more of a moral theology than a theology devoted to knowing God in Himself (the traditional intention of Christian theology): “The doctrine of Ibn Taymiyya comes in fact to an ethic. Despite the importance that he grants to theology, it is not the problem of knowledge of God which preoccupies him in the highest degree.” Instead, Laoust explains, at the core of Ibn Taymiyya’s thought is service (ibada) to God, which is grounded in Quranic verses such as, “I did not create the jinn and humankind except that they might serve Me” (Q. 51:56), and “There is no god but I; so serve Me” (Q. 20:14). The goal of the whole ethical, juridical and political life is to deepen this service to God.

For Laoust, “It thus appears that Ibn Taymiyya’s entire theology tends toward one sole aim: that of giving a foundation to his ethics, and consequently, to all his juridical and social philosophy.”

Ibn Taymiyya often concerns himself with the ethical implications of theological doctrines. This is especially apparent when he traces the sources of antinomian practices to extreme Ashari views on God’s determination (qadar) and to Sufi notions of ‘annihilation’ and the oneness of existence (wahdatal-wujud). Yet, it is not entirely clear that Ibn Taymiyya’s interest in theology is strictly a function of its usefulness for inspiring human action.

For example, the Shaykh’s Hadith commentary on the creation of the world mentioned above, is remarkably free of instrumentalized theology. Rather, Ibn Taymiyya’s single minded concern throughout is showing what reason and God’s messengers indicate on the question of whether the world is eternal or created.

The text defends and explains God’s perpetual creation of things in this world, but it shows very little concern for ethical repercussions of this doctrine. A similar doctrine is visible in Shaykh’s other monumental works.

Yahya Michot explains that for Ibn Taymiyya the Quran and the Sunna are the summit and peak where the two paths of reason and tradition come together and from where they depart. Whatever contradicts the Quran and the Sunna lies outside the pale of rationality. Thus, the proofs of reason, rightly exercised, lead to the same end as do the proofs of tradition, and they derive from the same source.

According to this text, revelation reiterates the correct rational proofs pertinent to religion. As Ibn Taymiyya explains elsewhere, revelation contains both information (khabar) and rational proofs. The rational proofs are both revelational (shari) by virtue of being brought by God and His messengers and rational (aqli) since they are judged true by reason.

The Shaykh also notes in a letter to Aba al-Fida and elsewhere that Kalam theologians, as well as philosophers—by whom he usually means the Aristotelian Neoplatonists al-Farabi and Ibn Sina—err when they confine revelation to the domain of information. To put the matter in another way, revelation embodies true rationality. Once one has access to revelation, one identifies it immediately as identical to whatever truth one knew previously through reason.

Ibn Taymiyya observes that the truthfulness of the prophets can be known only through reason. Conversely, the revelation immediately exposes irrational ideas for what they are. Revelation is required to know “the details of what [the prophets] informed concerning theological matters, the angels, the Throne, Paradise, the Fire and the details of what is commanded and prohibited.”

However, rational proofs, the best of which are found in the Quran, establish God’s existence, God’s attributes, and the obligation to believe and obey what God brings through His messengers.

Hence, all those who consider Ibn Taymiyyah to be anti-rationalism are either prejudiced or have had not the proper perspective of Shaykh’s methodology.

Fortunately some wonderful works have been done on theology of Shaykh in recent times by some brilliant scholars like Jon Hoover, Wael Hallaq, Carl Sharif el-Tobgoui and Dr. Yasir Qadhi which need to be read and taught in our academic settings. A large resource from the above scholars is available in form of the videos on Youtube as well and have been source to this article.


Khawar Khan Achakzai is a published author, a medical Doctor by profession, and student of history. 

Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position and policy of Free Press Kashmir. Feedback and counter-views are welcome at [email protected]


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