Note: Before you read this, please note that I have a specific understanding of what Kalām is and how it should be defined. My perspective here will make more sense under that definition. You can read it here.
The more I read in contemporary philosophy, classical Kalām and also Imam ibn Taymiyyah’s works (and analyses of them), I am more convinced that it is accurate – and useful – to describe Imam ibn Taymiyyah as a mutakallim i.e. a philosophical theologian within the Islamic tradition of Kalām, not outside of it. Of course, similar to other scholars of Kalām, he was not just a mutakallim, but also a great mujtahid within the Hanbali madhhab in fiqh, and one of the greatest scholars in Islamic History. Even his critics described his as an extraordinarily pious and knowledgeable figure.
Unfortunately, the absolutist caricatures of him by either his supporters or detractors do not lend themselves to this interpretation, and I’m sure many from both ‘camps’ will be critical of my perspective. However, I believe it is critical to openly recognize and promote Imam Ibn Taymiyyah رحمه الله as occupying a space in the continuity of philosophical Islamic theology (I.e. Kalām). Why? Here are a few reasons:
1. Describing Imam Ibn Taymiyyah as a mutakallim fits the definition of Kalām (philosophical Islamic theology) that the scholars of Kalām themselves espoused – see the introduction of Imam al-Taftāzāni’s Sharhul-Aqā’id for example. It may not fit Imam ibn Taymiyyah’s description of his own work or the philosophy of his Ash’ari opponents, and his ideas are definitely of a different construction, but in the end they are still Kalām. Imam Ibn Taymiyyah was not just startlingly well read and adept at philosophy, but he constructed his own ontological, epistemological and hermeneutical theories that were unique at that point in Islamic History. Despite his criticisms of Kalām as a phenomenon in his time, Imam Ibn Taymiyyah developed his ideas in a way that were profoundly philosophical. Even if he distanced himself from Kalām and criticized it and it’s figures severely, ironically his own work falls under the definition of Kalām (at least according to the definition of the scholars of Kalām) itself.
Imam ibn Taymiyyah presented his understandings and positions as being representative of the Qur’an, Sunnah and understanding of the salaf, however his final project was as indebted to philosophical reasoning as it was to these sources he aspired to faithfully adhere to. Replacing classical realism & essentialism with language-based nominalism and syllogistic with analogical reasoning does not change the fact that it is philosophy. In fact these ideas share common threads with ideas in modern Western philosophy. It may not be Aristotlean anymore, but its still philosophy. Imam ibn Taymiyyah’s goal was to develop a unified Islamic theology that would not be subject to much complexity and difference in interpretation, but it has proven itself to be subject to as much discussion, refinement and further development as other works (and methodologies) within Kalām.
2. We are better able to realize that Taymiyyan Atharism is not the same thing as the early Atharism of the salaf. Imam Ibn Taymiyyah’s extensive philosophical treatment of theology was simply not the practice of early Atharis among the salaf. In fact he faced opposition during his time not just from Ash’aris & Sufīs who he frequently debated, but also from some Hanbalīs & traditionists who thought that he had delved too deep into philosophy and Kalām.
His way of doing theology may lay claim to being more representative of the Quran and Sunnah and thought of the salaf (and in my humble opinion – some of it very well might be), but it is definitely not the same thing. The salaf did not write volumes describing their methodology and conclusions in great philosophical detail & language like Imam Ibn Taymiyyah did. Indeed it would not be far-fetched to claim that if Imam Ibn Taymiyyah lived in the time of the salaf or pre-Juwayni period of Islamic History, he would have been as subject to criticism as other early figures such as Imam al-Muhasibi or Imam al-Ash’ari. The former was criticized by Imam Ahmad even though his objective was to use Kalām to defend the thought of figures like Imam Ahmad in the first place.
3. We do away with the persistent caricature of Imam Ibn Taymiyyah as a paragon of anti-philosophical & anti-rational thought, and strict and rigid traditionism. Unfortunately such attitudes are common not just among average Muslims who ascribe to Sufism or Ash’arism/Maturidism, but even some scholars within those movements. When one reads Imam ibn Taymiyyyah, the opposite is more apparent, that he was a vastly knowledgeable intellectual with deep and expansive thinking in both theology and law. He was willing to go against accepted scholarly ideas and norms in his day. His works show that he hadn’t just read multiple dense, famous works in Islamic philosophy and Kalām, but had attained a level where he could not just critique them, but formulate his own epistemic and metaphysical theories.
4. We put an end to the wave of oversimplified anti-intellectualism that Imam Ibn Taymiyyah’s work – on the surface – seems to have inspired in the modern world. Unfortunately the way Imam ibn Taymiyyah has been understood by both Najdi Salafis and Azhari Modernists has created a culture of anti-philosophical thinking and anti-rationalism among not just lay-Muslims, but even many respected Muslim preachers and scholars. Preaching caution about studying philosophy to the average Muslim is not the issue here – in fact it is important and necessary – but preaching a vague and overly simplistic textualism to the average Muslim and warning them of rational thought has massively contributed to the crisis of faith and interpretive confusion we see today. It is not uncommon to meet everyday Muslims influenced by Salafism or Modernism who have a very weak grasp of the deep intellectual history and scholarly erudition of the Islamic tradition. Many instead shut themselves off from ‘thinking’ and rational critique, only to implode later when their spiritual condition or quality of companionship weakens.
A lot of these folks (and especially their ‘teachers’) don’t understand that Imam ibn Taymiyyah’s sanctified invocation of sacred text in his writings does not exclude the importance of deep and well-read intellectual – and indeed philosophical – work. As a simple comparison, Imam Ibn Taymiyyah quoted extensively from the Qur’an, Sunnah and the salaf to justify his thinking and positions but even Imam Al-Rāzi’s greatest exposition of his thinking came in the way of his massive tafsir work, Mafatih al-Ghayb. The same goes for other scholars who openly endorsed Kalām like Imam al-Bayhaqi and Imam Ibn Hibbān.
5. We are able to contextualize his work within the wider schema and tradition of Islamic theology and appreciate them more as a genuine and positive development in the history of Kalām. I mentioned earlier in this piece that Imam ibn Taymiyyah advocated for a move from essentialism and classical realism to nominalism, and a move away from syllogistic reasoning to more analogical reasoning. These ideas are not without philosophical – and of course theological – merit. In fact they present some very important ideas that require constructive discussion within the subject of Kalam itself. One doesn’t have to agree with all of Imam ibn Taymiyyah’s ideas and conclusions to appreciate his positive contributions. His objective of trying to ground Islamic philosophical theology more deeply into the thought of the salaf is also a very compelling motive, and its not surprising that his critiques led to a lot of Ash’aris and Maturidis searching for better arguments to justify their madhhabs as Islamically normative and faithful to the sacred texts. That is a healthy development. Indeed, Imam ibn Taymiyyah’s ideas of language and logic for example, have been compared by some researchers to Ludwig Wittgenstein – an immensely influential philosopher from the early 1900s. Peculiarly, Imam ibn Taymiyyah lived at exactly the same time frame as William of Ockham, a similarly controversial Christian theologian who also advocated for a move to nominalism instead of classical realism.
Unfortunately, this point is easily lost and it seems to be due to the harsh and combative language that Imam ibn Taymiyyah employed in his writings. He himself admitted to being prone to anger, and some of his supporters – like Imam al-Dhahabi – themselves commented on how this trait did not serve his cause. He didn’t just critique the Ash’aris, he sometimes labeled them as being outside of ‘Ahlus-Sunnah’, a startling claim in his time where the vast majority of senior Muslim scholarship were Ash’aris. Reading Imam ibn Taymiyyah, one is easily lured by his polemical style into either absolute agreement with him as representing a theology pure to the Qur’an, Sunnah and the salaf, or react defensively and antagonistically in defense of the vast majority of theologians in Islamic History who studied, taught and wrote on Kalām. In my own reading of al-Radd ala al-Mantiqiyīn (The Refutation of the Logicians) – which I conducted in tandem with a comprehensive introduction to classical and modern metaphysics, I started off the first chapter of the text vociferously disagreeing with the Imam in the margins of the book. However as his ideas began to take shape, I became much more sympathetic to his approach in the latter chapters. This is an important point that applies not just to Imam ibn Taymiyyah, but anyone else. The way you present your ideas can be as important as your ideas themselves. Even if you have incredibly thoughtful and useful contributions, they can be lost on others if you present them aggressively and push your interlocutors into a defensive state.
6. We open up his ideas for further development. Here are some examples of what can be done. Firstly, Imam ibn Taymiyyah directed the bulk of his attention towards Muslim philosophers and the Ash’aris. He notoriously left out criticism of the Maturidi madhhab, and it doesn’t seem he engaged with their ideas as much. Second, Imam ibn Taymiyyah’s works and ideas can be analyzed within the context of contemporary ideas in philosophy, theology and law – this has already started and there is some great work that has been published by academics charitable to Imam ibn Taymiyyah & his ideas like Yahya Michot, Carl Sharif el-Tobgui, Wael Hallaq & Jon Hoover. Thirdly – and what is most relevant to this article – is that we can conduct studies on whether Imam ibn Taymiyyah’s ideas can positively contribute to the overall Kalām tradition. Even if disagree with some of his criticisms or conclusions, they sometimes present similar challenges to those faced by current scholars of Kalam in the world of modern philosophy. Indeed it is not surprising that due to naturalism & science some recent authors in Maturidi theology – for example – have a found a nominalist ontology more rationally palatable than classical realism. Discussions on why our thinking as humans vary from nominalist to essentialist perspectives as per psychology, the philosophy of language/mind etc may apply as well, and we discuss themes like Kantian anthropology that may undergird and unify Sunni theology movements on a conceptually deeper level.
7. We can overcome the sectarian nature of disagreement resulting from inaccurate contextualization of his work. Although my main motive for placing Imam ibn Taymiyyah with the Kalām tradition is more for the sake of accuracy and consistency, there is also opportunity here to build bridges in understanding. Recognizing the polemical style of Imam ibn Taymiyyah’s writing as an artifact of being within the work of – yet another mutakallim – allows us to be more neutral in accepting or rejecting his ideas. As mentioned before, antagonistic language leaves us vulnerable to ‘picking sides’, even if the ‘sides’ are not as divergent in reality as they seem to be in our debates. Neutral language, on the other hand, opens us up to being more diplomatic and understanding in those who agree or disagree with us in our selections. We will be better able to see ‘common ground’ in our approaches. Of course this can (and should) happen regardless of whether we agree to the categorization of Imam ibn Taymiyyah as a mutakallim, given that he was a great scholar and senior mujtahid of the Hanbali madhhab whose expertise
I have not written this piece to be provocative, rather to express and articulate thoughts and beliefs that have been in development for years. I understand that a significant number of people will disagree with what I’ve said here. All I ask is that you be respectful in how you critique and respond to any points I have.