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The Theologian You Don’t Expect

Excesses and contradictions in Ibn Taymiyya and his thought

This article was published in Oasis 31. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2021-12-09 15:07:24


Hands up anyone who, studying contemporary Islam, has not come across the name of Ibn Taymiyya. The Syrian thinker, died in 1328, is certainly a major point of reference for today’s fundamentalist world as well as parts of the reformist current. But there is quite a difference between having heard his name and fully mastering his thought, if only for the vastness of his literary output: The printed edition of his fatwas alone covers 37 volumes.


Jon Hoover, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Nottingham, is thus to be deeply commended for this critical introduction, which sketches the contradictory figure of the Syrian jurist and theologian for the first time in a Western language, and in just over 100 masterful pages. Hoover starts from a detailed presentation of Ibn Taymiyya’s life, whose relevance cannot be underestimated as many of his stances, including occasional ones, are still authoritative today. For example, his fatwas against the Mongols (authorising fighting against them despite their being nominally Muslim) offer an important legitimation to the violence that jihadists are turning against their own societies. Equally significant is his fatwa against the Druse and the Nusayris (known, nowadays, as Alawites), an Islamist mantra in the Syrian civil war. An episode involving a Christian scribe accused of insulting the prophet of Islam prompted the lengthiest treatise on the subject in Islamic jurisprudence, The Sword Unsheathed Against the One Who Insults the Messenger, in which Ibn Taymiyya contends that such offenders are to be punished with death, even if they convert to Islam. Once again, the connection with the satirical cartoons which make headlines today is obvious. More embarrassing for the fundamentalist circles are his opinions about the satanic verses (for him, the tradition is authentic), the fallibility of prophets and the mawlid i.e. the celebration of Muhammad’s birth that contemporary Salafists reject as innovation, whereas for Ibn Taymiyya it should be kept if it cannot be replaced with something better.

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