IBN TAYMIYYA’S THEOLOGICAL ETHICS – Book Sample
Introduction – IBN TAYMIYYA’S THEOLOGICAL ETHICS
among The many messages Muslims have put out in engaging their religious faith in the contemporary context, there is one that stands out with special tenacity. Al–Islām dīn al-fiṭra, it runs.
“Islam is the religion of our original nature.” It is a catchphrase that has grown to be ubiquitous in the contemporary setting, appearing in a broad spectrum of writings, particularly popular ones, among authors who might otherwise be divided by important differences in intellectual orientation.
We hear it among stakeholders of more traditional educational environments. We hear it among members of the broad Islamist movement and others who stand for the new religious approaches spawned by the circumstances of modernity. And when we hear it, its sound is that of a refrain whose presence has come to be so pervasive in the acoustic field that it no longer invites pause.
Take the tract by the late Saudi cleric Muḥammad ibn Ṣāliḥ al-ʿUthaymīn, for example, running under the title Ḥuqūq daʿat ilayhā al-fiṭra wa-qarrarathā al-sharīʿa (Rights Demanded by Our Original Nature and Confirmed by the Shari’a), which offers an enumeration of different kinds of rights filed under familiar headings: the rights of spouses, of children, of neighbors; the rights of God.
More remarkable than these contents is the fact that the language of fiṭra, having appeared in the title, never once appears in the body of the text itself, its function apparently complete in this elliptical gesture and wholly comprehensible (we may suppose) to its readers.
And toward what, one may ask, might this gesture be? Considered more closely, the notion of fiṭra here and elsewhere would seem to point us to a particular matrix of relationships or correspondences. At its heart, and most immediately, lies the claim of a correspondence between the demands of our nature and the demands and principles of the Islamic faith.
It is a message of harmony that stands out, for example, in the characteristic expression found in a recent popular work on ethics by the prominent Damascene scholar of law Wahba al-Zuḥaylī: “Islam does not conflict with human nature or innate desires because it is the religion of our original nature [fiṭra] and the religion of moderation.”1 Yet joined to this first cor- respondence as its implicit alter ego would seem to be another: the message of a correspondence between the prescriptions of the faith and the nature of the prescribed actions themselves.
A good illustration of the latter is provided by a remark that appears in a highly popular work by the well-known Egyptian cleric and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī. “Out of mercy for His servants,” al-Qaraḍāwī writes in al-Ḥalāl waʾl-ḥarām, “God Almighty has made permissibility and prohibition dependent upon intelligible grounds [jaʿala al-taḥlīl waʾl-taḥrīm li-ʿilal maʿqūla], which relate to the welfare of human beings themselves. It thus became known in Islam that the prohibition of something follows upon [or depends on: yatbaʿu] its malignancy and harmfulness [al-khubth waʾl-ḍarar].”2
We may notice that al-Qaraḍāwī here accentuates considerations of utility in explaining this correspondence; al-ʿUthaymīn, on the other hand, had sounded the deontological accent with the notion (ḥaqq) that figured as his orga-nizing term.
It is this twofold correspondence—connecting the commands of the Islamic faith with our own nature, on the one hand, and the nature of actions, on the other—that would appear to underlie the pervasive catchphrase as we find it. And with this matrix out in the open, now, those considering this intellectual scene against the classical theological tradition might respond with a certain sense of surprise. For certainly the notion of fiṭra as such had hardly been a foreign one in the Islamic tradition, given the deep scriptural roots that grounded it.
The notion of fiṭra (“the natural disposition” or “constitution,” “our original nature”) makes a key appearance in the Qur’an in the verse that reads: “So set your face to the reli-gion, a man of pure faith [ḥanīfan]—the nature (framed) of God, in which He has created man [fiṭrat Allāh allatī faṭara al-nās ʿalayhā].”
This scriptural base had been enriched by several prophetic traditions taking fiṭra as their central term, the most familiar being the one that states: “Every child is born with the natural disposition [ʿalaʾl-fiṭra], and it is its parents that render it a Jew, or a Christian, or a Magean.” Picking up on the connection forged in the Qur’anic text between human nature and the religion of the original monotheists (ḥunafāʾ), this hadith was part of a pool of rich (though not uncontested) resources that had been used to theorize about the positive religious impulses built into the material of human nature.
Drawing on these resources, the most important way in which the notion of fiṭra had been developed by Muslim writers was as a base disposition for religious belief, or indeed, as some would argue the point more thickly, for the Islamic faith.
Yet the conceptual matrix underlying modern usage would seem to go beyond this intellectual tradition, bringing out a set of connections belonging to the evalu-ative rather than the more narrowly theological field. And in doing so, it would stir up old ghosts that our readings of Islamic theological history would appear to have laid to rest.
Because taken together, the series of correspondences just outlined as the subtext of that well-worn catchphrase—al-Islām dīn al-fiṭra—point to an understanding of the relationship between God’s command and human reason that we regard as having been largely rejected by Sunni Muslim theologians in the classical period, when questions about the nature of value and our epistemic….
Ethical Value between Deontology and Consequentialism – Framing Ibn Taymiyya’s Project
“The best things are those that lie in the middle.” They are not the kind of words that first come to mind when we open a discussion about that Ḥanbalite theologian whose legacy has cast such a long shadow on modern times.
Icon of extremist Islamist ideologues from Sadat to Bin Laden, revered spiritual leader of Wahhabi and salafi movements known for their religious rigorism and conservative bent, the Ibn Taymiyya we have come to know in our own times is a thinker we associate with hard attitudes that would appear to be worlds away from the message of moderation that stands out in these words.1
The Ibn Taymiyya who looks back at us through the lens of history would seem to share in the spirit of his epigones. A member of the Ḥanbalite community of Damascus, displaced from Harran as a young boy as a result of the Mongol invasion, his life is full of conflict and upheaval that mirror the upheaval of the Islamic world around him as Mamluk rule comes under Mongol threat and betoken a thinker who does not mince trenchant views.
Looking across the sixty-five years of his life’s work from 1263 to 1328 ce in Syria and Egypt, we see the firebrand reformer and indefatigable polemicist who launches himself on the dominant intellectual schools and spiritual practices of his time in a spirit of tireless critique, antagonizing many of his contemporaries with controversial positions that challenge prevailing views and call for wide-ranging reform.
He decries the visitation of saints’ tombs, antagonizing popular Sufi practice; he denounces legal stratagems and the common use of divorce oaths, antagonizing widespread legal practice; he rallies to a literalist, seemingly anthropomorphist view of God, exciting the animus of Ashʿarite theologians.
He composes polemics against the monistic theosophy of Ibn ʿArabī and his followers, yet more polemics against the falāsifa, and still has energy left over for the Ashʿarite mutakallimūn. Sidelining time-honored religious authorities, he
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