Ibn Taymiyya's Theological Ethics.
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 Ibn Taymiyyas Theological Ethics
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Ibn TaymiyahSophia Vasalou
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  • Ethical Value between Deontology and Consequentialism 11
  • Framing Ibn Taymiyya’s Project 11
  • Ibn Taymiyya’s Moral Objectivism: A Revised Muʿtazilism? 21
  • What Can Our Love of Fine Acts Tell Us about the Nature
  • of Ethical Value? 34
  • The Ethical Primacy of Welfare 48
  • Ethical Knowledge between Human Self-guidance and the Revealed Law 56
  • Imagining Moral Judgments Away: A Philosophical Thought
  • Experiment 58
  • Reclaiming Certainty: Moral Judgments between Natural Desire
  • and Empirical Reason 65
  • Ibn Taymiyya’s Appeal to Nature in Context: Nature as a Foundation
  • for Ethics? 77
  • Reason and Its Ethical Content 93
  • Ibn Taymiyya’s Ethics and Its Ashʿarite Antecedents 106
  • Schematizing Ashʿarite Ethics: Reason, Natural Desire, Social
  • Convention 107
  • Ibn Taymiyya’s Ethics: New Wineskins, (Mostly) Old Wine 119
  • What about Objectivity? 132
  • viii Contents
  • The Aims of the Law and the Morality of God 137
  • The Wisdom of God’s Law: A Theological Rift and Its Internal
  • Ashʿarite Tensions 139
  • The Human Mind, the Mind of God: Ashʿarite Views of Welfare
  • between Theology and Law 148
  • Thematizing Wisdom: Why Does God Command? 164
  • Thematizing Justice: Why Does God Punish? 179
  • Broader Perspectives on Ibn Taymiyya’s Ethical Rationalism 197
  • Considerations of Welfare in Legal Reasoning: A Substantive
  • Engagement? 198
  • Textualism: The Engagement of Welfare in Its
  • Scriptural Framework 207
  • Ibn Taymiyya’s Claim of Ethical Reason against Its
  • Theological Aims 221
  • Reason and Revelation in Broader View 229
  • Before Revelation: Ethical Reason and Its Socioreligious Sediments 241
  • Return to the Present 251
  • Notes 263
  • Bibliography 321
  • Index 335

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 tenac- ity. AlIslām 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, appear- ing 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.

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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

 Introduction 3

access to it had come up for heated debate. It was a debate that came to be known as that of al-taḥsīn waʾl-taqbīḥ—literally, the determination of good and bad—and one that, in the telling most familiar to us, was defined by a binary opposition between the vantage point of Ashʿarite and Muʿtazilite theologians. Notions of right and wrong, the latter had argued, are intuitively available to the human mind and yield objective moral standards that apply across agents, as much to human beings as to God. It is a position we have often understood through its contrary, which was the Ashʿarite claim that God authors the values of actions by attach- ing consequences—reward and punishment—to their performance or omission. Right and wrong are constituted through God’s word; and it is through the same means that they can be exclusively known.

In the classical debates, the notion of fiṭra was not known to have made an appearance. It was rather the notion of reason (ʿaql) that figured as the central term of dispute. Yet if we hold our hand over this change of register, the modern notion of fiṭra—carrying with it the idea of a correspondence between what the Shari’a commands and what is already present within us naturally or indepen- dently of religious input—would seem to involve a semantic freight not at all far removed from what the Muʿtazilites had been concerned to claim. In doing so, it would reopen the door of a debate that had long ago appeared to close in the face of Muʿtazilism and its rationalistic commitments. Whether we call it nature or reason, Muʿtazilite moral rationalism would not lie far in the distance.

This study began as a desire to reopen that door and discover where it leads. How to understand the historical origins of the characteristic turn of thinking cod- ified in the notion of fiṭra? How seriously to take the message of moral rationalism that appears to buoy it? How to relate this message to the premises and outcomes of the theological discourse inherited from the classical period?3 As so often in Islamic thought, however, questions about the present lead back to the past, and they sometimes retain one there with a tenacity unanticipated by the searchlights of one’s initial investigation. In this case, the return to the past took the form of a return to the terms of the classical debate itself, to consider more directly the contribution of one of its more maverick participants. For standing just outside the familiar perimeter of this debate was a figure who has often been felt to cast a particularly tenebrous shadow over contemporary Islamic thought: the Ḥanbalite theologian Taqī al-Dīn Ibn Taymiyya.

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And accosted with the uncertain curiosity of the present, his writings seemed calculated to provoke a twofold reaction of recognition—and a new surprise. Recognition, because it was soon clear that the notion of fiṭra so amply attested in the contemporary scene was one that assumed critical dimensions in his thought, including his writings on ethics. Surprise, because probed more closely, Ibn Taymiyya turned out to articulate a view that appeared to run cross-beam to the shape of the traditional debate on the nature of value…

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 theolo- gian whose legacy has cast such a long shadow on modern times.

Icon of extremist Islamist ideologues from Sadat to Bin Laden, revered spiri- tual 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 spiri- tual 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, antagoniz- ing 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 theo- logians. 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 Ash

12 ibn Taymiyya’s Theological eThics

calls for a return to the purer sources of the faith: to the insight solely available to the early generations of the Muslim community (salaf) who stood closest to the age of prophetic inspiration, to the revealed text itself unmediated by artificial interpretive accretions and school allegiances. His life a never-ending stream of controversies, he is put on trial and imprisoned several times in his life in both Syria and Egypt, eventually dying in prison in the citadel of Damascus, the fitting end to a life of defiance that “opposed by word and deed almost every aspect of religion practiced in the Mamluk Empire,” in the words of one commentator.2

Both as his image has been projected in the present and as it has often been historically understood, Ibn Taymiyya has seemed to speak not for the middle but for the extremes. And yet the notion of a balance, or a middle road, is one that runs the length of his sprawling work and provides it with one of its organiz- ing motifs. In his landmark study of Ibn Taymiyya in the middle of the twenti- eth century, Henri Laoust was emphasizing the centrality of this notion when he connected it to Ibn Taymiyya’s construction of the privileged religious grouping designated as ahl al-sunna waʾl-jamāʿa, which represents the truest repository of the thought of the Prophet and the salaf, albeit a repository less real than ideal. On Laoust’s reading, it refers to “an ideal grouping whose doctrines, still wait- ing to be created rather than already constituted, form a kind of mean between diverse opinions.”3 It is this notion likewise that Yahya Michot recently sought to highlight in a self-conscious effort to restore the image of a thinker tarnished by his self-proclaimed disciples in the modern age, who have cast him as the patron saint of everything modernity abhors—of an “opposition to reason and mysticism, of fundamentalism and intolerance, of radical extremism”—and thereby blinded us to his character as a “master of the via media, the middle way that is at the heart of traditional Islam.”4

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Ibn Taymiyya as a master of moderation—of what he himself refers to widely in his works as al-wasaor al-qawl al-mutawassi. It is not the only revision of popular perceptions or immediate impressions that a closer consideration of his works would invite. Recent scholarship has slowly begun to prise loose a set of earlier perceptions of Ibn Taymiyya not unrelated to the image of his extremism, which, beguiled by the surface of his traditionalist commitments and his polem- ics against the rational sciences, overlooked the subtler relationship in which he places scripture and human reason and the depth of his engagement of the ratio- nal sciences against which he wages his wars. Since its earliest history Ḥanbalism has often been associated with a fideistic attachment to the text and a suspicion of rationalist methods encapsulated in Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal’s famed motto that “we do not ask how” (bilā kayfa) regarding scriptural descriptions of God. In the same century that Ibn Taymiyya was born, the eminent Damascene Ḥanbalite scholar Muwaffaq al-Dīn ibn Qudāma (d. 1223) would issue a book-length admonition against perusing works of speculative or dialectical theology (kalām) typical of the traditionalist stance.5 Ibn Taymiyya’s polemics against the philosophical mysti- cism of Ibn ʿArabī, the views of the falāsifa and the mutakallimūn, by contrast, attest to a depth of reading that flouts received commonplaces about traditional- ist attitudes toward such works and point to the multiple ways in which their resources seep into his own thought. It is not without justice that the Shāfiʿite scholar Shams al-Dīn al-Dhahabī (d. 1348) would exclaim, in an oft-cited passage, that Ibn Taymiyya had “repeatedly swallowed the poison of the philosophers and their works.”6 This is, after all, one of the reasons, as has been recently suggested, why Ibn Taymiyya—contrary, once again, to popular perceptions of his promi- nence throughout Islamic religious history—had a troubled relationship to the traditionalists of his time and was regarded with an attitude of “fluctuating scep- ticism” within Damascene Ḥanbalite circles. Both during his life and after his death, Ibn Taymiyya’s influence remained limited until the eighteenth century, when his legacy witnessed a sea-change and he was catapulted from “a little-read scholar with problematic and controversial views” to a central figure in the Islamic religious tradition for both Ḥanbalite and non-Ḥanbalite Sunni scholars.7

For some, the aspects just outlined—Ibn Taymiyya’s emphasis on the via media and his openness to rational methods of inquiry—are intrinsically linked. Ibn Taymiyya’s notion of the via media, as Merlin Swartz suggested some time ago, has to be understood less as a matter of what it excludes than what it includes. For it “does not mean simply or primarily that truth (or the truth) somehow lies in the middle ground between two opposing extremes. It means rather that truth has a bi-polar character so that the two opposing extremes, instead of being excluded, are actually included within the truth in something of a dialectical fashion… . Wasameans that doctrinal error or heresy results when one element of the truth is elevated to the level of the whole.” This notion of the mean, Swartz continues, provides the basis for Ibn Taymiyya’s polemical or critical confrontations with dif- ferent movements. Yet what is more important is that it also provides the basis for his more positive engagement with these movements. For it allows the rec- ognition that “even though their systems of thought contained error, they also contained elements of truth,” and to that extent “they were to be taken seriously,” thereby justifying “at least a limited openness vis-à-vis the heterodox ideologies, and … the incorporation of elements of their thought.”8

In thematizing the relationship between the negative and positive aspects of Ibn Taymiyya’s task, Swartz’s remarks pick up on an important space of question- ing that opens out from Ibn Taymiyya’s work. But what is more relevant here is to connect this synthetic description to yet another facet of Ibn Taymiyya’s under- standing of his task which ties in with the facets already highlighted. For Ibn Taymiyya’s engagement with rationalist methods must be seen additionally in light of a broader headline that stamps his entire work with its special character

and gives the content of his distinctive intellectual vocation. “The sound view,” he

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