Ibn Taymiyya, Taqi al-Din


Ibn Taymiyya, Taqi al-Din
(661–728/1263–1328)
   Ibn Taymiyya was perhaps the most important and influential proponent of the Hanbalite school of jurisprudence and theology, upholding its literalist approach to Qur’an and sunna against a multiple front of sophisticated rationalist critiques. After an unusually ambitious and wideranging education that included philosophy and theology as well as Qur’anic exegesis, hadith, and jurisprudence, Ibn Taymiyya embarked on a prestigious teaching career. However, his life was repeatedly plagued with political woes. Like the founder of his school, Ibn Hanbal, he was persecuted and imprisoned for his robustly traditionalist views. He eventually died in jail at the age of sixty-five after being prohibited from writing altogether. Over the course of his controversial life he is said to have penned many hundreds of works, most of which took the form of critiques or refutations. He attacked the philosophical theology of the modern Ash‘arites (who in turn charged him with anthropomorphism) as well as monistic and antinomian Sufis, most notably Ibn al-‘Arabi (although it should be noted that Ibn Taymiyya himself was a Sufi of the Qadirite order, founded by al-Jilani). He was also very critical of the Jabrites, Qadarites, Jahmites, Mu‘tazilites, Shi‘ites and mashsha’i philosophers. Against the last, he wrote several devastating critiques, the most important of which is his Refutation of the Logicians (Kitab al-radd ‘ala al-mantiqiyyin), which is considered one of the most powerful and ambitious assaults on Aristotelian logic. He attacked the philosophers’ logical apparatus because he believed it was the true source of their opinions regarding the nature of God, the universe and prophetic revelation – erroneous opinions that he believed were plainly at odds with scripture and tradition. His critique strikes at the most basic presuppositions of Aristotelian logic, in order to take down the whole metaphysical construction of the philosophers. In particular, he focused on its theory of definition (hadd) and the categorical syllogism (al-qiyas al-shumul ).
   Definition presupposes the ability to distinguish between a thing’s essence and its accidents in a fixed, stable, univocal way, but Ibn Taymiyya argues that all attempts to do so run up against irresolvable interpretative disagreements. Definitions are thus inescapably conventional and relative to any given individual or group. By extension, Ibn Taymiyya undermines the fundamental distinction between essence and existence, and with it the philosophers’ realist theory of universals. Universals do not carve nature at the joints, as it were; they exist only in the mind as abstractions, rather than in the external world. The same could be said for the cherished notion of the ‘Necessary Existent’, which philosophers had vainly substituted for the self-described God of the Qur’an.
   The philosophers bragged that the categorical syllogism produced necessary, demonstrative knowledge. But Ibn Taymiyya argues that it cannot really live up to some of the most basic requirements stipulated by Aristotle himself, i.e. that it must have no less (and no more) than two premises and a conclusion, that one of its premises must be universal, and that it must produce new knowledge from old knowledge. The number of premises necessary to a syllogism cannot really be fixed, since that ultimately depends on the position and epistemological requirements of the individual person (see, for example, the validity of the enthymeme and sorites). Further, the so-called ‘universal’ premise of the syllogism is never really universal, since it is simply a generalization cobbled together out of observations of particular instances. Finally, even if we assume (for the sake of argument) that a premise can be universal in the strict sense, the syllogism is incapable of genuinely producing new knowledge, since its conclusion is always just a particular reiteration of that premise. The categorical syllogism is thus hardly as impressive as its philosophical practitioners pretend. Ibn Taymiyya suggests that it is essentially the same as, albeit inferior to, the analogical reasoning (qiyas) of the jurists, and ultimately the only real source of certainty is prophetic revelation. Thus the arch traditionalist employs the most extreme manifestations of reason – nominalism, empiricism and skepticism – to defeat the rationalism of the philosophers.
   Further reading: Hallaq 1993

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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