Excesses and contradictions in Ibn Taymiyya and his thought

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

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:05:00


Jon Hoover, Ibn Taymiyya, OneWorld Academic, London 2019


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.


No doubt, Ibn Taymiyya was a profoundly intolerant thinker, who already in his lifetime inspired both devotion and aversion, being imprisoned several times by the authorities. So intense were the disputes into which he threw himself headlong that they left him no time to get married, something exceptionally rare in Islam. And yet, intolerant does not in any way mean intellectually irrelevant; at least, not in his case. A first element of great interest lies in his gradual discovery of theology, which is generally not held in high regard in Sunni Islam. While Ibn Taymiyya began his career as a jurist in the Hanbali law school, he progressively rose to the status of independent interpreter. This led him to reconsider the very premises of Islamic law and to formulate what was to become the programme of his life: to reconsider every aspect of Islamic civilization in the light of the Qur’an and the Sunna in order to purify it of every later addition. The programme soon expanded from law to Sufism, philosophy and intra- and inter-religious controversies, passing through, precisely, the “discovery” of theology, to the point that “one of Ibn Taymiyya’s disciples once asked him why he wrote more on theology than anything else” (p. 107). It is this awareness of theology’s centrality that seems to be missing from a good deal of contemporary Islamic thought, excessively absorbed by the discussion of the practical aspects of Law; the paradoxical exception being, precisely, the Salafists. Naturally, as Hoover makes it clear, “theology for Ibn Taymiyya is not a theoretical endeavor but a practical exercise directed toward obedience and worship” (p. 139).


Surprising contradictions can be discerned in his personality (which, according to his contemporaries, was capable of fits of sincere piety but also terrible outbursts of anger and rudeness) and they resurface also in his theological thought. For example, he supported on the one hand a small-minded anthropomorphism according to the principle that “nothing incorporeal and non-spatial exists outside the mind” (pp. 109-110), something that led to the (probably correct) accusation of corporealism: “[he] posits a God of enormous size who encompasses the universe” (p. 118). On the other hand, he stands out for his finesse in addressing the problem of evil, rejecting Ash‘ari voluntarism in the name of divine wisdom, accepting from Avicenna (yes!) the idea that evil has no substance and concluding that God creates human sins “as punishment for an original failure to do the good deeds that God created humankind to perform” (p. 128).


The greatest contradiction, however, is probably the one between his implacable militancy against anyone opposing his project to return to the sources and his belief in the temporary nature of Hell’s punishments, another element causing serious embarrassment to contemporary Salafists. To quote Hoover, “Ibn Taymiyya is totally unsympathetic to religions apart from Islam, and he is in no doubt that unbelievers will suffer punishment in Hell-Fire in the hereafter. However, late in life he came to the conclusion that this punishment would not last forever” (p. 137). Why, then, fight with unfailing zeal even the smallest deviation from presumed orthodoxy, if divine mercy knows how to eventually triumph over such human failings? Ibn Taymiyya does not appear to have perceived the contradiction; still less does he seem to have tried to answer it.


With how much surprise will he then have discovered, at the hour of death, that he was the potential recipient of a divine mercy he had at the same time glimpsed in his thought and denied in his deeds.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


To cite this article

Printed version:
Martino Diez, “The Theologian You Don’t Expect”, Oasis, year 16, no. 31, pp. 156-158.

Online version:
Martino Diez, “The Theologian You Don’t Expect”, Oasis [online], published on December 2020, URL: /en/the-theologian-you-don-t-expect