My Hero: Shaykh ul Islam Ibn Taymiyyah

A brief biography of one of my personal heroes in Islamic history. The great scholar and reviver Ibn Taymiyyah.

The entire world of Islam was trembling with fright as an imminent target of Tartar oppression. Iraq, Iran, and Khurasan continued to be despotically ruled by the Tartars. Egypt, Sudan, Syria, and Hijaz were ruled by the Memluk turks. Simultaneously, a large Christian evangelical movement was mounting to censure Islam. The crusaders were incessantly attacking Palestine and the European Christians residing in Syria and Cyprus had become emboldened to criticize the prophethood of Rasoolullah (saws), compose works on the alleged truthfulness of Christianity, and to invite theological debate. As the external pressures mounted upon, several internal problems plagued the Muslims. A so-called Muslim sect known as the Batinites was conspiring with the enemies of Islam to destroy the Muslims. They sought to propagate their creed which was based on Magian doctrine and Platonic concepts and spread misguidance among the Muslims. It was also at this time that a sufi sect, called the Rafaa’iyah, with its neo-platonic gnosticism and Hindu pantheistic ideas, had introduced the concepts of divination, and the use of charms and spells into Islam. In addition, other concepts alien to Islam had been injected into the Muslim society by influence of the dhimmis living in the Muslims lands. By this means, the practices of worshipping, supplicating to, or excessively praising saints were also introduced to the Muslims. Even as the ignorant masses fell deeper into the pits of misguidance, some scholars, themselves, had become entangled in the web of theological rhetoric and philosophical jargon, thereby allowing heretical beliefs to creep into the Islamic creed. In the midst of this degradation, the other scholars of Islam were stagnant. An attitude had arisen among them that nothing could be added to the corpus juris of the shari’ah already formulated by the scholars of old and that any deviation from the corpus of one’s own juristic school was a grievous sin. So it was that the scholars sought to prove the validity of their own juristic school’s claims rather than subordinate their interpretation to the supremacy of the Quran and Sunnah.

The door of ijtihad was closed and with it any of the inherent dynamism and flexibility in the shari’ah that would have checked the problems of a rapidly changing and deteriorating society. Such was the situation of the Muslim Ummah in the seventh century after Hijrah. From among this ummah came a man who would change the time he lived in with his exceptional knowledge, devotion, courage. He was a mujtahid and a mujahid and he fought all of the enemies of Islam, internal and external, being opposed all the way, and persevering even in the face of insurmountable obstacle. He was a great scholar, son of a great scholar, who was the son of a great scholar. Taqi al-Din abu al-‘Abbas Ahmad ibn ‘Abd al-Halim, commonly known as Ibn Taymiyyah, had a family history which was just as illustrious as his own life. His grandfather, Abd-ul-Barakaat Majd ud-Din (d. 652 AH) was a renowned teacher of the Hanbali school. His father, Shahab ud-Din ‘Abdul Halim (d. 682 AH) was the pulpiter of the great Ummayyad mosque and a professor of Hadith in Damascus. Ibn Taymiyyah was born on Monday, the 10th of Rabi’-ul-Awwal 661 AH in the city of Harran, Syria. At the age of seven, his family moved to Damascus, fleeing from the Tartar invasion. He studied with over 200 sheikhs, among them his own father and four women. Ibn Taymiyyah was the model student due not only to his zeal for learning but also to his amazing mental capacity and particularly his prodigious memory. An eye-witness account of his amazing memory was preserved in the writings of a scholar: “Once a scholar of Haleb who came to Damascus heard of a prodigious child, Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah, renowned for his marvelous retentive power. Coming to a tailor’s shop near Ahmad’s house he sat down there to wit for the child. After a short while, the tailor pointed out the boy sought by him. He summoned the boy and asked him to wipe off his table so that he could write on it. The boy handed over the clean tablet to the scholar who wrote 11 or 13 ahadith on it and then asked the boy to read them carefully once. Now, the scholar took back the tablet and asked the boy to repeat what he had read. The boy repeated them all without a single mistake. The scholar got the table wiped off again and wrote thereon a few transmitting chains of the ahadith. The boy went through these and again repeated the whole thing. Astonished at the feat of the boy’s memory he remarked: ‘If Allah wills him to live, he would be a genius without a peer in the whole world.’ ” [1]

From his childhood, he was never interested in games or sports, and the pursuit of knowledge consumed his life. He mastered all of the religious and secular sciences of his time giving special attention to Arabic literature, grammar, and lexicography. He also learned the laws of shari’ah, Jurisprudence, Hadith and Quranic sciences, and studied the Hanbali system of law under his own father. Besides this he also learned calligraphy and mathematics. A close examination of his work suggests that he followed none but the early pious Muslims (salaf al-salihoon) and it is for this reason that his movement is often called the salafi movement. He was the champion opponent against all of the different innovations that had infiltrated the deen in his time. He had a particular fancy for the tafseer (explanation) of the Quran. Ibn Taymiyyah, himself, explains the way he used to persist in pondering each verse: “Sometimes I have gone through as many as hundred commentaries of a single verse of the Quran. After I have dipped into these pages, I have supplicated Allah to enlighten me about the true content and significance of the verse. I pray to Allah thus on these occasions: ‘Thou art the Exalted Teacher of Adam and Ibrahim. Favor me Thou with the essence of this verse.’ ” [2]

Among the other tasks that Ibn Taymiyyah took upon himself was the response to the contemporary Ash’arite school of dialectics that was them predominant in Syria and Egypt and which was in opposition to the Hanbalite position. He learned and mastered the study of dialectics, logic, and philosophy and to such a degree that he so forcefully argued against the Greek philosophers that no philosopher of note came forward to rebut his criticism. Ibn Taymiyyah always tried to prevent, by force if necessary, all accretions and innovations in religion. He taken upon himself the responsibility of acting as a public censor who would purge the deen of any heretical ideas. He formed a society for this purpose and even accompanied some expeditions to fight the guilty heretical sects that has conspired with the crusaders and Tartars. His jihad was not only an ideological one, but he also personally participated in the battles against the Tartar army. In 699 AH, when the Egyptians army was unsuccessful in holding of the Tartar army from Damascus, almost all of the inhabitants of the city had fled and so the few remaining patricians of the city, among them Ibn Taymiyyah, decided to meet the Tartar king and ask for the peace of the city. While the others trembled in his presence and would dare not speak out, Ibn Taymiyyah was uninhibited and strongly defended truth and justice. One of his companions in the delegation recounts Ibn Taymiyyah’s courage: “I was with the Sheikh on this occasion. He set forth in his address to the King the Quranic verses and ahadith enjoining fairness and just conduct. His voice gradually rising, he was drawing nearer to the king until his knees were about to touch those of Ghazan who was attentively listening to the Sheikh but didn’t appear to be displeased with him. He was straining his ears as if struck with awe. At last he asked, ‘Who is he? I have never seen a man like him — so brave and courageous; none has made a dent in my heart as he!’ the Sheikh was then introduced to the King. The Sheikh said to the King: ‘You claim to be a Muslim. I have been told that you have with you a Qadi and an Imam, a Sheikh and a mu`adhdhin; yet you have deemed it proper to march upon Muslims. Your forefathers were heathens, but they always abstained from breaking the promise once made by them. They redeemed the pledges they made, but you violate the word of honor given by you. You trample underfoot your solemn declarations in order to lay a hand on the servants of Allah!’ ” [3]

His companion adds that despite Ibn Taymiyyah’s remonstrance in a strong language, the King bade him good-bye with the highest mark of respect. he ever set free, on Ibn Taymiyyah’s recommendation, a good number of prisoners. Ibn Taymiyyah often used to say: ‘Only he fears who has a sickness of heart.’ [4]

Then in 702 AH, he participated in the battle of Shaqaab and helped defeat the Tartars Naturally, Ibn Taymiyyah began to be recognized as one of the leading scholars of Syria and his popularity was increasing but some of the scholars became envious of him and resented his trying to enforce the shari’ah. Ibn Kathir explains: “A group of the theologians was jealous of Sheikh Taqi ud-Din Ibn Taymiyyah because of his position in the court of the governor and also for his acting as a public censor who had taken upon himself the responsibility of enforcing what was lawful and preventing what was prohibited. They were envious of his growing popularity and of the love and respect accorded to him as well as of his learning and zeal for religion.” [5]

As a result of this and strong opposition by some of the scholars to his views, Ibn Taymiyyah was imprisoned several times yet he never wavered in his belief and was unmatched in his generosity in forgiveness. In 705 AH, he was summoned to Egypt where he was interrogated in reference to his belief about the nature of Allah’s attributes. Qadi Ibn Mukhluk Maaliki, one of Ibn Taymiyyah’s fiercest opponents, was appointed as the judge in his case. He was imprisoned along with his brothers, Sharaf ud- Din ‘Abdullah and Zaid ud-Din ‘Abdur-Rahman. [6]

Many had pleaded incessantly for his release until, after a year had passed, he was offered to be set free if he renounced his creed. The offer was made to him as many as six times, but he always refused, saying, “The prison is dearer to me than what I am asked to affirm.” [7]

In prison he found his fellow prisoners emmersed in a life of sin and he raised his voice against these abuses such that not long after his arrival, he changed the whole atmosphere of the prison. A number of the prisoners became his devoted disciples who, on being released, opted to stay with their beloved teacher than to return to their families. Perhaps nothing is as much of an indication of Ibn Taymiyyah’s moral excellence as is his show of mercy and forgiveness to those who inflicted so much harm on him. In a letter he sent to Syria soon after his release, he says: “…I do not want that anyone should be avenged for my suffering or for leveling false allegations against me, for I have already forgiven everyone of them. I desire the well-being of every Muslim — the same as I desire for myself. All those persons who discredited me or deposed false evidence against me or caused trouble to me are not the least accountable so far as I am concerned; no responsibility lies upon them on my score.” [9]

This was only the first of the many times he was imprisoned and in every cases he forgave the perpetrators of the injustice against him and was patient with his fate. Still, some were not satisfied, and continued to put forth allegations against him. One of his rulings stated that no journey to a shrine, even if it be to the grave of Rasoolullah (saw) could be undertaken as an act of devotion under the shari’ah. His enemies used this seventeen year old statement to discredit him among the ignorant ones. The order for his arrest came on the 7th of Sha’ban, 726 AH, and when news of this came to Ibn Taymiyyah, he said, “I was looking forward to it. It has a lot of goodness and grace for me.” [10]

While in prison he completed 80 recitals of the Quran and wrote several books and treatises. When the authorities confiscated paper and writing materials from him he wrote with charcoal on any loose sheets of paper he could find. He completed a 40 volume tafseer called al-Bahr al-Muheet. He wrote in total over 500 books according to Imam adh- Dhahabi, most of them in prison. While his enemies succeed in containing his person, they couldn’t contain his mind, wisdom, and scholarship and while they considered that they were harming him, he had a different perception. He writes in a letter: “Thanks to Allah that we are now engaged in a fight in the way of Allah. The battle we are fighting here is not a bit lower in order than our previous warfare against Ghazan, the heretics of the hills and the propagators of pantheistic monism. This is undoubtedly a blessing of Allah on us, although most of the people are unaware of it.” [11]

And so he died as he lived, in a constant struggle for the sake for Allah (swt). Zaid ud-Din ‘Abdur-Rahman relates that after completing eighty recitals of the Quran, Ibn Taymiyyah started if again with him. However, when he reached the closing verses of Surat al-Qamar: “Lo! The righteous will dwell among gardens and rivers firmly established in the favor of a Mighty King.” [54:54- 55] he expressed his desire to continue the recital with ‘Abdullah ibn Muhib and his brother, ‘Abdullah az-Zara’ee. [12]

He was not able to complete this recitation. Ibn Taymiyyah dies on the 22nd of Dhul Qa’dah, 728 AH. It is estimated that a train of 60,000 to 100,000 people, of which at least 15.000 were women, joined the funeral procession. [13]

Ibn Taymiyyah revived an otherwise dying society. He was the torch of tawheed, a fortress of courage, an encyclopedia of knowledge and a patient servant of Allah (swt). He surpassed all of the scholars of his time and even his enemies bore witness to this fact. His knowledge and works continued to have a marked affect on history and he is, without doubt, one of the greatest scholars of Islamic history. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Ibn Taymiyyah’s status in the annals of knowledge is a statement of one of his bitterest enemies, Allaama Kamal ud-Din al-Zamalkaani: “Allah has made knowledge of all the sciences as easy for Ibn Taymiyyah as iron had been softened for Prophet Dawud. Whenever he was asked any question, he answered in a way that the audience thought him to have spent his whole life in acquiring knowledge of that very branch of knowledge alone and acknowledged as the greatest authority on the subject. Scholars subscribing to different juristic schools attended his discourses and each one of them learnt something that he had not known earlier. It never happened that he debated any point and was put to shame. Whatever be the subject matter about which he spoke, whether religious or discursive, he surpassed all the authorities on that particular subject. In penmanship, too, he was equally elegant.” [14]

REFERENCES[1] Abu Zahra, p. 56 (cited from al-‘Uqood ud- Durriyah, pg. 21) [2] al-‘Uqood ud-Durriyah, p. 24 [3] al-Kawaakib ud-Durriyah, p. 25 [4] Nadwi, Saviors of Islamic Spirit, p. 31 [5] Ibn Kathir, p. 37 [6] Ibn Kathir, Vol. XIV, p. 38 [7] Ibn Kathir, Vol. XIV, p. 42 [8] al-Kawaakib ud-Durriyah, p. 181 [9] Abu Zahra, p.62 [10] Nadwi, Saviors of Islamic Spirit, p. 55 [11] Abu Zahra [12] Nadwi, Saviors of Islamic Spirit, p. 59 [13] Ibn Kathir, Vol. XIV, p. 136-139 [14] al-Kawaakib ud-Durriyah, p. 5

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