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Ibn Taimiyah was a man to whom learning about Islam was in no way a mere academic exercise. It brought a thorough understanding of God's faith and a determined attempt to make it supreme in people's lives. He realised that mere knowledge meant little if it was devoid of practical implementation.
This article was written by Adil Salahi and originally published by Impact magazine.
“You claim to be a Muslim, surrounding yourself with a Judge, a sheikh, and one who calls for prayer. Your father and grandfather, on the other hand, were unbelievers. Yet they did not do the terrible things you have done. They honoured their agreements, while you do not, and you have perpetrated much injustice.” Finishing his words, the speaker looked straight into the face of his addressee, who was none other than Kazan, the Tartar king who was preparing to attack Damascus, realising that it was ripe for him to take, abandoned by all support particularly with Egyptian units withdrawing back to Egypt. With them went most government officials, judges and scholars. Thus, the city became deserted from any political and religious authority. A number of non-Muslims were pleased, and established contact with the invading forces. That gave them the audacity to make their un-Islamic feelings and practices public. Some of them went as far as to pour wine in mosques. Criminals were able to leave prison without fear of being caught, and theft became rampant.
But who in such circumstances could address the fearsome king of the Tartars in this way? None other than Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah, one of many scholars in our history who are always mentioned together with, or ahead of, the rulers as the main players to influence events. Ibn Taymiyyah’s life was a long series of jihad in its fullest meaning. By contrast, many scholars had sought a safe place in Cairo or Damascus when the Tartars were earlier marching through the lands of Islam. His own family had moved to Damascus from North Syria for the same reason when he was only seven years of age. Now, in 699 AH/1299 CE, at the age of 38, Ibn Taymiyyah stood firm trying to reverse a trend of weakness that went through the Muslim world. Realising the danger threatening Damascus, he called a meeting attended by the notables of the city who could not flee with the withdrawing forces. The meeting decided to send a delegation to Kazan, the Tartar king, who, like many of his soldiers, had embraced Islam, without really experiencing what this true faith means in practice. He was the fourth Muslim king of the Tartars, and he was renowned as a fierce ruler and a hard-hearted invader. When the delegation was admitted into his presence, their chief, Ibn Taymiyyah addressed him in the words quoted above.
Kazan was taken aback by the fortitude of the scholar. He decided to serve dinner for the delegation first, but Ibn Taymiyyah would not touch any food. To the king’s question about the reason for his abstention, he said: “How could I eat your food when all the meat you serve is from sheep you have stolen from ordinary people, and all your vegetables and fruit have been taken from people’s farms without payment?” Kazan was angry, but he felt in awe of the scholar who, in turn, felt much stronger as he believed that God would support him as long as he was trying to remove oppression. With the discussion progressing in this mood and Ibn Taymiyyah showing no hesitation or fear of what might happen to him, Kazan had to give way. He later said to his generals: “I have never seen a more courageous person than this man. His words have touched my heart, and I felt that I had no option but to grant him what he wanted.”
Kazan listened to the requests of Ibn Taymiyyah and granted them. That meant that he would not attack Damascus for the present time, although he realised that the people would have time to prepare for the protection of their city. He also agreed to release all Muslims he had taken prisoner. But Ibn Taymiyyah insisted that he should also release all prisoners his soldiers had taken, including those who were Christians and Jews. He told him that he would not go back to Damascus unless those prisoners were allowed to come back with him. He confronted him with the Islamic principle that applies to such minorities in Muslim land: “They enjoy the same rights and bear the same responsibilities as we do.” Kazan had no option but to release them.
The city was in peace, but not for long. In the following year, reports were coming through that the Tartars would be coming back. Ibn Taymiyyah now took up the role of a military commander, encouraging people to rise up to their duty of jihad. He told them that they could leave their city, fleeing the invaders, or they could stand up to them and seek God’s help. People responded to him and were willing to fight. Their morale was boosted when they heard that Sultan al-Nasser Qalawoon of Egypt had raised an army to fight the Tartars. But they later heard that he had decided to turn back to Egypt. Once more, the people of Damascus were in panic. But they requested Ibn Taymiyyah to try to save the situation.
Again Ibn Taymiyyah went at the head of a delegation, but his task this time was to meet al-Nasser Qalawoon after his army had been dispersed. He was very strong in his appeal. He said: “If you have given up Syria, we would have chosen a ruler to protect it against its enemies; but why should we when Syria is under your rule. If it was not and its people appealed to you for help against an enemy, you would be duty bound to come to its help. What is your responsibility towards it when you are its ruler, and its people are your subjects?” Ibn Taymiyyah continued urging Sultan Qalawoon until he agreed to his request and ordered that an army should move immediately to give help to Syria.
Ibn Taymiyyah went back to Damascus at full speed. There he found the people in panic. The Governor and his assistants began to prepare to flee, but his return with the news of the forthcoming help encouraged them. The Tartars also postponed their attack, but the danger was not lifted. In fact, the attack took place in 702 AH/1302 CE, but then they had to face the two armies of Syria and Egypt. Ibn Taymiyyah was at the front, armed with sword and shield. The Sultan asked him to join him in the battle, but he apologised, saying: “It is the Prophet’s Sunnah that a man should fight with his own people; and as I am from Damascus, I should stay with the local fighters.”
The battle took place in Ramadan, and Ibn Taymiyyah encouraged people not to fast, because the Prophet and his companions did not fast when they met their enemies in Ramadan. Victory was assured for the Muslim army, and Damascus was again safe.
However, Ibn Taymiyyah was alert to another danger, which came from certain groups living in mountainous areas, professing to be Muslim but aiding the enemies of Islam. They were spies for the Tartars and Crusaders. Indeed, they made use of the Tartar invasion to capture hundreds of Muslims and loot their property. They sold them as salves to the Crusaders in Cyprus. In times of peace, they tried to undermine the state. One of these groups was known as the Assassins. Ibn Taymiyyah, with authorisation by Sultan al-Nasser Qalawoon, led a campaign against them, fighting hard until they were able to defeat them. As these people claimed to be Muslim, Ibn Taymiyyah called on them to repent, declare that they would refrain from any treacherous acts, and abide by Islamic rules. The Muslims among them pledged to pay their zakat, and the non-Muslims were to pay the tax applicable to them.
These events show us Ibn Taymiyyah in his true colours. He was a man to whom learning about Islam was in no way a mere academic exercise. It was learning that brought a thorough understanding of God’s faith and a determined attempt to make it supreme in people’s lives. He realised that mere knowledge meant little if it was devoid of practical implementation. But then it is pertinent to ask: who was Ibn Taymiyyah?
Ahmad Abd al-Haleem ibn Abd al-Salam was born on 10 Rabie Al-Awal in 661 AH, corresponding to 1264 CE in North Syria. When he was seven years of age his family travelled to Damascus, fleeing the persecution of the Tartars. On arriving in Damascus, a famous centre of learning at that time, his father was welcomed as a scholar of distinction, and he had a teaching circle in the Umawi Mosque, the largest in the city. He was soon to be the head of the famous school of hadith at the Sukkariyah district, where he also resided with his family, unique for its name of Ibn Taymiyyah. Ahmad’s father and grandfather were famous scholars, but fame at its highest was to be his own. When the name of Ibn Taymiyyah is mentioned, it is his own, as if no one else had earned it, and as though he had no name of his own other than this.
It was natural that the young Ahmad should be interested in Islamic scholarship, given his natural abilities and family background. He was able to memorise the Quran at a very young age. Then his father directed his studies towards the hadith, which he memorised and studied very carefully. The fact that his father was the head of the hadith school in Damascus gave him a clear advantage. He was able not merely to learn how to distinguish authentic hadith, but he also learnt the practical application of hadith to life problems and how to deduce rulings on whatever people may encounter in their family, work and social lives. He learnt all famous collections of hadith.
He then studied the Hanbali school of Fiqh, which was based largely on hadith. He was, thus, well versed in its principles and method of deduction. He further studied the history and views of the Prophet’s companions and their successors, and those of famous early scholars. He paid much attention to their respective views and how they understood the Quran and the hadith. Moreover, he felt that he could not achieve any distinction in Islamic studies without a good knowledge of Arabic. Hence, he studied Arabic literature, learning much poetry and prose of the pre-Islamic and early Islamic periods. In linguistics he achieved particular distinction.
As a young scholar, Ibn Taymiyyah was distinguished by a number of characteristics which enabled him to attain a top position among scholars. The first was his serious approach which was coupled with persistent, hard work. Secondly, his native and sharp intelligence was coupled with strong convictions and sound understanding of the basics of Islamic faith, the Quran and hadith. Thirdly, he took a keen interest in the general situation of the Muslim community, its welfare and the hostile forces that threatened it. Fourthly, he was gifted with a superb and fine memory as well as clear, sound thinking. All these contributed to the making of a scholar of the highest calibre whose influence remains very clear.
As a scholar, Ibn Taymiyyah was endowed with profoundly analytical mind enabled him to judge matters in a highly rational and practical way. His studies were pursued with the diligence of one who sought to arrive at the clear truth, and he was successful in an exceptional way.
Furthermore, he was quick to appreciate the details of any problem he had to deal with. That is an invaluable asset in debate, as well as in winning the people to his line of thinking. That quality enabled him, on several occasions, to get the people to stand firm in the face of great dangers, and that was sufficient to bring about the defeat of the Tartars and other enemies of Islam.
But this quality would not have produced such great results without Ibn Taymiyyah’s sincerity in his pursuit of the truth, and in making the truth known to people, yielding to no temptation or pressure, and seeking no personal gain. Hence, he was confronting scholars with his independent views, seeking no gain other than God’s pleasure. His sincerity is also reflected in his readiness to fight in war against the enemies of Islam, and perseverance when he was subjected to unjustified imprisonment. But his sincerity is best manifested in his ready forgiveness of all those who wronged him and tried to undermine his position.
Other personal traits which stood him in good stead and contributed to his scholarly and public personality are his intellectual independence, his clear style and considerable literary and linguistic talent, as well as his great courage. This last quality is seen both in actual war and in facing situations of high personal danger, such as the one with the Tartar king.
Such great and rare qualities could not have been all combined in one person without making him truly great. That was Ibn Taymiyyah.
In order to appreciate the role played by Ibn Taymiyyah and scholars of the sixth and seventh centuries of the Islamic era, it is important that we should know something about the period itself. The Muslim state was generally in a period of decline at the centre. The Crusaders launched one campaign after another, and were able to occupy land and establish enclaves, and even to occupy Jerusalem. On the other hand, the Tartars attacked Muslim areas in the east, with one army after another, and their campaigns culminated in the occupation and destruction of the central authority of the Caliphate. Baghdad itself, the capital city of the Muslim world, was destroyed by the Tartars in 656 AH, 5 years before Ibn Taymiyyah was born. They marched further and advanced without resistance, until the Muslim army led by Sultan Qutz of Egypt was able to inflict on them a heavy defeat at the Battle of Ain Jalut, in Palestine in 658 AH.
This political situation had its effects on Islamic scholarship, with scholars moving to safer places, where they could pursue their learning and influence events by offering sound counsel to Muslim rulers. The two centres where scholars congregated were Damascus and Cairo. The rulers there received those scholars well, allocated funds for scholarship and were keen to see it flourish. Thus we see in Damascus a long line of distinguished scholars who took a keen interest in the welfare of the population and helped the rulers in their efforts to repel aggressors. Distinguished among these were Izz al-Deen ibn Abd al-Salam, who played an important role in the Muslim victory at Ein Jaloot, al-Nawawi, Ibn Daqeeq al-Eid, Ibn Qodamah, Ibn Taymiyyah and ibn Al-Qayyim. We will see that Ibn Taymiyyah, like Ibn Abd al-Salam earlier, spent long periods of his life in both Cairo and Damascus.
Ibn Taymiyyah sat to teach at the age of 21, when his father died. This was a very young age for a seat of distinction like that of his father, but he was up to it, considering his background, upbringing, education, personal qualities and high achievement. His eloquence, sound argument and vast knowledge soon attracted students and scholars to his circle. He was distinguished by his strong convictions and independent thinking, which meant that he attracted both admirers and opponents. Yet very high praise was showered on him by distinguished scholars such as Ibn Daqeeq al-Eid who says of him: “I have seen a man who has mastered all branches of knowledge: he picks up and leaves out at will.” Al-Dhahabi, the historian, describes his knowledge as “a sea with no boundaries, and an unparalleled treasure.”
That period of history also witnessed the spread of lines of thought that were either deviant or outright contrary to Islam. Some of these touched on basic concepts of faith, while others introduced unacceptable practices. Ibn Taymiyyah spoke against all these, and he was hard in opposing every deviant idea. Hence, he attracted much hostility from different quarters. He replied to that hostility, and he was hard on his opponents, particularly because some of them accused him of heresy. The Sufis were target for some of his fierce attacks, particularly because some of them tried to appease the Tartars when they occupied Damascus. But he did not attack personalities; he only attacked attitudes and ideas that were contrary to Islam and to the interests of the Muslim community. Philosophy also came under his fire, because when principles of faith are subjected to philosophical logic, they are badly compromised. Ibn Taymiyyah always stood up for a clear concept of Islam, based on the Quran and the Sunnah.
He divided his classes so as to devote some to students with good grounding in Islamic studies and others for laymen. He added to these pamphlets which he wrote on various subjects. He also answered in writing whatever questions were put to him by ordinary people and by opponents. These epistles and pamphlets were also instrumental in spreading his ideas. But they also brought him much opposition.
Ibn Taymiyyah’s reputation was very high after the victory achieved in the battle with the Tartars. Everybody realised that without his efforts, the mobilisation of Muslim forces from Egypt and Syria would not have come about. Not only so, but he was at the head of fighters, carrying his sword and armament and fighting as the best trained soldiers. This caused much jealousy among scholars, who started to criticise his independent thinking. Moreover, the Sufis were very hostile to him because of his strong criticism of some of their ideas that distorted the principle of God’s oneness. Both started to lodge complaints against him with the Sultan. Eventually they succeeded in calling him to come to Egypt, sending a very diplomatic letter of invitation. When he arrived, they started scheming against him. The Sultan in Egypt was in a much weaker position, with many of his assistants and army officers airing their opposition.
Ibn Taymiyyah arrived in Egypt in 705 AH. He had organised some lessons and lectures. His opponents called a meeting which was attended by many judges and dignitaries. He tried to explain his views, but he was prevented from speaking. His opponents realised that they could not achieve their purpose if they let him argue his case. Hence, they made their accusation that he made statements about God, which were not in line with the standard Islamic faith. He asked who would be judging him, and when it was mentioned that the Maliki scholar was his judge, he objected to that, saying that the Maliki scholar was his accuser, and it was not right for one person to be the accuser and the judge at the same time. Nevertheless, he was prevented from stating his case, and a verdict of imprisonment was passed. Thus, Ibn Taymiyyah was first imprisoned in Ramadan 705 AH. His imprisonment led to much persecution of the followers of the Hanbali school of thought in Egypt.
When Ibn Taymiyyah had been in prison for one year, the Governor of Cairo called in the three judges of the Hanafi, Shafie and Maliki schools of thought, and other scholars and told them that he found the continued imprisonment of Ibn Taymiyyah contrary to justice and to the principles and practices of the Islamic faith. He cited his great efforts in defeating the Tartars. These judges were keen to appease rulers and governors. Therefore, they did not object to his release, but insisted that he should rescind some of his ideas. He refused, and preferred to stay in prison. Eventually he was released, and started his circle. Soon numerous students and well-wishers were in his circle.
Here we note that his attitude after imprisonment was to forgive all those who tried to harm him, without exception. He said: “I do not like that any Muslim should be punished because he lied about me or did me an injustice. I have absolved every Muslim of whatever harm he tried to cause me. I only wish well to all Muslims.”
But then some of the Sufis, particularly Ibn Ataullah of Alexandria, who followed Ibn Arabi’s creed of pantheism which meant that ‘God was the total sum of His creation’, complained against his hard criticism of their concepts. That led to many debates and he was always the stronger and attracted more following. Yet they tried hard to cause him problems. Eventually, the Governor was so irritated with all these debates and the trouble they brought. Ibn Taymiyyah was offered a choice of either imprisonment or going to either Damascus or Alexandria. However, if he travelled to either city, he would give an undertaking not to express his views in public. This he would not accept. He said: “I prefer to go to prison.”
Under pressure from his students, who felt that imprisoning him was a travesty of justice, he agreed to travel to Damascus. But, he had not marched a short distance when he was ordered to return. Apparently, his enemies felt that he would be free in Damascus to continue his struggle to help the truth prevail. He was told that the authorities had cancelled the choice offered to him, and the only option was to put him in prison. However, some of his judges felt that there was no justification for that. In fact the charges against him were so shallow that they would not justify his imprisonment for a single hour. There was much argument, and finally he resolved the situation by saying: “I am going to prison.” Hence, some of his judges insisted that he should be in a situation suitable to his social standing, but the officials insisted that he must be in a prison. He was imprisoned, but he was visited frequently by his students who ensured his comfort.
His imprisonment this time was short, and he was released by an order of the council of judges and scholars. But soon afterwards, Sultan al-Nasser Qalawoon was removed from office, and replaced by one whose religious teacher was a Sufi who followed Ibn Arabi’s erroneous views. This teacher schemed with the new Sultan, and the result was that Ibn Taymiyyah was sent into exile in Alexandria. They hoped that he might be assassinated there, but his reputation had been ahead of him, and when he arrived there, he continued to organise lessons and lectures.
His stay in Alexandria lasted only 7 months in 709 AH, and it ended when Qalawoon regained his position as Sultan. He returned to Cairo at the Sultan’s invitation, and the Sultan wanted to punish those scholars and judges who aided his own rival and intrigued against Ibn Taymiyyah and caused his first imprisonment, but the latter told him that if he harmed them, he would transgress the limits of Islamic law. He again declared that he had pardoned all those who harmed him. He lived in Cairo in a generally comfortable situation, teaching and advancing his scholarship until late in 712, when the Sultan raised an army to fight the Tartars who were again threatening Damascus. Ibn Taymiyyah decided to join him and returned to Damascus ready for battle, despite the fact that he was now over 50 years of age. However, the Tartars had second thoughts when they realised that they would be facing the same forces of Egypt and Syria. They withdrew and left, while the Muslims were spared what might have been a costly battle.
Thus we see Ibn Taymiyyah as a model scholar, ready to go to war with sword and weapon when the danger is a military one, threatening the existence of the Muslim state, and ready to fight with his pen and thought when the danger is an intellectual one. He would not have minded any sort of disagreement based on understanding of the Quran or the hadith. But he was certainly a fighter when people introduced into Islam some alien concepts or philosophies, as the Sufis did when they introduced the concept of pantheism and the philosophers did when they imposed Greek logic on the fundamentals of Islam.
The next few years saw Ibn Taymiyyah at his best as a scholar. He was writing and teaching, pursuing research and answering questions. His student, Ibn Katheer, who is best known for his commentary on the Quran, says: “After the Sheikh [meaning Ibn Taymiyyah] had settled in Damascus, he was preoccupied with studies and learning, teaching and writing his books. He issued his rulings on all sorts of questions, either verbally, or in writing at length, exercising scholarly discretion, or ijtihad. In some cases his rulings disagreed with one or another of the four Imams, or even with all of them, or he might give a ruling in support of a view that was not the standard one in their schools. He made numerous choices and preferences and wrote numerous volumes, relying for evidence on the Quran, the Sunnah, and statements by the Prophet’s companions and scholars of the early Islamic period.”
Much of his writings, running into tens of volumes were written in this period. He wrote, for example, his masterly work showing that there can be no contradiction between religious evidence and rational thinking. This work was published in 10 volumes by the University of Imam Muhammad ibn Saud in Riyadh. His commentary on the Quran, known as Daqa’iq Al-Tafseer, runs into four large volumes.
There is no doubt that Ibn Taymiyyah attained the degree of Mujtahid Mutlaq, which means that he was qualified to make his rulings without having to refer to any school of thought or to toe any particular line. This is a higher degree than that of a scholar following a particular school of thought and making his rulings within it, even though his ruling may be at variance with the standard view of that school. When Ibn Taymiyyah exercised his scholarly discretion, or ijtihad, he was not bound to follow any school of thought. His rulings might disagree with all four schools of thought and remain valid, provided that the evidence he relies upon is strong and authentic.
Following his independent thinking, and pursuing his research, Ibn Taymiyyah felt that he had to tackle the thorny issue of divorce. He looked at people’s practice, particularly in relation to a vow of divorce, which all scholars would pronounce as taking effect once the wife breached the vow. Thus if a husband said to his wife: “By God, you are divorced if you do this,” and she does the matter he specified, the divorce takes effect. He felt that the man in such a situation does not really intend to divorce; he merely wants to deter his wife from doing whatever he does not like. Ibn Taymiyyah felt that this was unreasonable, particularly when compared to breaching a vow in any other matter. In the latter case, he compensates for breaching his vow by freeing a slave, feeding or clothing 10 poor people, or fasting three days. He felt that there was no justification for terminating the marriage merely for the breach of a vow, when the husband did not intend to divorce his wife. He sought evidence in support of his view, and he found that in documented reports of statements by some members of the Prophet’s household. So, he declared that the divorce was ineffective and the marriage remained valid. Ibn Taymiyyah issued this ruling in 718 AH/1318 CE. It was soon to land him in trouble.
Another point where he departed from the standard rulings of scholars was that of divorce pronounced three times together. The standard view is that this constitutes three divorces and means a final and permanent separation without a chance of a matrimonial re-union between the divorcing couple, unless the woman first marries someone else and then her second husband dies or divorces her. Ibn Taymiyyah felt that this ruling was contrary to the Quran and to the Prophet’s ruling on the matter. He ruled that such divorce is a single divorce, contradicting in this ruling all four schools of thought. The fact remains that his evidence is stronger than theirs. He relied on the hadith that mentions the case of a man who came to the Prophet and told him that he divorced his wife three times in succession, on the same occasion. The Prophet was very angry. He went on the pulpit and, addressing his companions, said: “Is God’s book to be trifled with when I am still alive among you?” He ruled that the divorce was a single divorce, and told the man that he could re-marry his wife if he wanted.
A third issue concerning divorce was his ruling that divorce pronounced when the woman is in her period does not take effect. Again his evidence on this issue is clear, strong and authentic. He relies on the authentic hadith stating that when the Prophet was informed by Umar that his son divorced his wife in her period, he said to Umar: “Tell him to go back to her and stay with her until she has finished her period and gone through a period of cleanliness and another menstruation period. When she has finished that, he may either divorce or retain her.” The four schools of thought agree that divorce when the woman is in menstruation is forbidden, but should it be pronounced, it takes effect. Here Ibn Taymiyyah differs with them all by stating that it does not take effect.
When Ibn Taymiyyah issued these rulings, he was advised by some scholars who wished him well not to do so. He stopped for a while, as he felt reluctant to go against all four schools of thought, but then he decided that he could not suppress what his studies and research indicated to be the true verdict. He re-emphasised his rulings.
These independent rulings brought against Ibn Taymiyyah many traditional scholars who complained to the Sultan. We should remember that the Sultan held Ibn Taymiyyah in high esteem, but to the Sultan, the four Imams were even more highly respected. Therefore, in Ramadan 719, he sent a letter, which was read aloud to Ibn Taymiyyah in Damascus in the presence of a large number of judges and scholars, requiring him not to repeat his rulings. Ibn Taymiyyah would not declare his acquiescence. He continued to declare his opinion on these issues. Repeated letters by the Sultan requesting him to refrain from doing so went unheeded. Other meetings were held, but did not end the dispute. When it was clear that he would not refrain from declaring his rulings, an order of imprisonment was issued. He was imprisoned in Rajab 720, for a period close to six months. When he was released he continued to air his views without hesitation. Scholars were now familiar with his rulings, though they would not agree with him.
Ibn Taymiyyah continued with his scholarly work, producing volumes of research and sound knowledge. It is sufficient to remember that his rulings, or fatwas, on all questions put to him, which he answered in writing, run into 37 large volumes. This period of his life, after his return to Damascus in 712 was his richest in output, and it was devoted mainly to Fiqh, although he continued to speak at length on matters of faith, to refute the claims of the Sufis and others who deviated from sound Islamic beliefs. His standing among the elite and the general public was being enhanced every day. Therefore, his opponents, and there were many of these, tried hard to scheme against him. There was a change in Sultan Qalawoon’s stand, which brought him closer to the Sufis. Therefore these Sufis collaborated with others in an exercise of intrigue aiming at silencing Ibn Taymiyyah.
At length they managed to find an old ruling of his, issued 17 years earlier without raising any problem, but they distorted it to convince the Sultan to take action. In 726, the Sultan ordered his imprisonment ‘in comfortable conditions’. His younger brother was allowed to be with him to serve him.
Once he was in prison, intrigue continued and those who followed preposterous and outlandish creeds were able to undermine his position. Scholars of all schools of thought wrote to the Sultan supporting the ruling in dispute and requesting his release, but this was not to be. Ibn Taymiyyah spent his days in prison reading the Quran, offering voluntary worship and reviewing his works and writing new books. Thus, his opponents realised that they might have imprisoned him, but not his thoughts. Hence, intrigue continued until an order was issued depriving him of all reading and writing material. This was much harder for him than imprisonment itself. This order was issued in Jumada I, the fifth month of 728, but it did not last long. For, in Shawal, the tenth month of the same year, he fell ill and died.
That was the end of a great scholar whose life was a continued jihad for Islam, whether on the battle front against an invading army or in clear argument in support of the truth of Islam against those who tried to introduce alien concepts into it. He continued to be great and magnanimous to the end of his days. During his last illness, the Governor of Damascus visited him in prison, apologising and seeking his pardon. The great scholar said to him: “I absolve you and everyone who took a stand against me, not knowing that my stand was right. I absolve the honoured Sultan, King al-Nasser Qalawoon, of any claim as a result of my imprisonment. He ordered that following other views. He did not do it as a personal stand. Indeed, I absolve everyone against whom I have a claim, except those who are enemies of God and His messenger.”
These were fitting words to end the life of a great soldier fighting hard for God’s cause. May God bless his soul.
Ibn Taymiyah’s Views on Abusing the Prophet
Much is said these days about the attitude of Muslims towards any person who abuses the Prophet verbally, or says some degrading remarks about him. Muslims are often accused of being too sensitive, or too dogmatic, on this issue. But Islamic teachings are clear on this point. The rulings are part of the Islamic principles that admit no argument.
Ibn Taymiyyah explains this whole issue, looking at all its aspects, devoting a whole book to it: Al-Sarim al-Maslool Ala Man Sabba al-Rasool, which may be translated as: ‘Up in Arms against Abusers of the Prophet’. Typically thorough in his research, Ibn Taymiyyah cites Qur’anic verses, authentic hadiths, and the views and rulings of a host of scholars, including the founders of the four major schools of Fiqh, discussing the evidence they rely on before stating his view in perfect clarity.
Ibn Taymiyyah states without equivocation that anyone who hurls verbal abuse on the Prophet incurs the capital punishment, whether he is a Muslim or a non-Muslim. Thus the abuser incurs a punishment that is not incurred by a person who declares that he does not believe that Muhammad is a Prophet and a messenger of God. Islam respects the right of every human being to choose his faith. Freedom of belief is basic to the Islamic faith. But a person who abuses the Prophet commits an offence that is worse than apostasy. If the abuser is a Muslim, the punishment is enforced without allowing him a chance to repent; while a non-Muslim abuser is given such a chance. If he repents, the punishment is not enforced, unless he repeats the same offence. Ibn Taymiyyah makes it clear that the type of abuse that incurs such a punishment is what is intended as contemptuous ridicule or scorn.
The same capital punishment is applicable to anyone who is guilty of hurling verbal abuse on any Prophet, even though he may profess to believe in the religion preached by that Prophet. Thus, under Islamic law, if a Jew abuses Prophet Moses, or a Christian abuses Prophet Jesus, or indeed a Muslim or non-Muslim abuses any Prophet, the capital punishment is enforceable.
What if the abuse is directed against God Himself? Ibn Taymiyyah explains this fully, pointing out that the death sentence is also applicable, but he shows that a chance to repent, and escape punishment, is given to anyone who does so, whether a Muslim or a non-Muslim. This may sound strange, as the verdict is less severe than that of abusing the Prophet. The reason is that abusing God is treated as apostasy. As an offence, abusing the Prophet is worse than apostasy.