In terms of impact and influence, it is possible to say that Ibn Taymiyyah is of the most important medieval Islamic scholars of modern times. The rapid rise of Salafism over the last fifty years and its repercussions have made Ibn Taymiyyah a familiar name. Any time there is a discussion about the roots of Islamic extremism or jihadi Salafism, the name of Ibn Taymiyyah is featured in one way or another. Some scholars have linked terror organizations such as Islamic State (IS) to the medieval ideas of Ibn Taymiyyah, while others have regarded him as a great scholar who should only be understood within the appropriate historical context. Even in his own lifetime there was no consensus around him, and his perspectives sharply divided opinions.
He was a prolific writer who belonged to the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. Many of his works have survived through the ages. Some of his notable books include As-siyā-sat ash-sharʿīyah (or Treatise on Juridical Politics) and Manhāj as-sunnah (or The Way of Tradition)
Every individual is conditioned by the prevailing socio-political particulars of their time. Hence, in order to gain better insight into Ibn Taymiyyah’s mind, it is best to briefly glance at the historical phase in which he lived. Ibn Taymiyyah was born in 1263 in Harran and died in 1328 in Damascus. His life coincided with a politically turbulent time, which likely had a profound impact on his views.
In 1269, Ibn Taymiyyah together with his father and siblings left Harran which was completely destroyed by the Mongol invasion. The family moved to Damascus, which at the time was ruled by the Mamluks of Egypt. However, life in Damascus was also overshadowed by the constant threat of the Mongol invasion.
The first invasion took place between in 1299 when the Ilkhanate army managed to reach Damascus. The second invasion lasted between October 1300 and January 1301, at which time Ibn Taymiyyah began giving sermons on jihad to defend the city. Soon after that, in 1303, the third Mongol invasion of Syria took place when Ibn Taymiyyah declared that jihad against the Mongol attack on the Mamluks was not only permissible but obligatory. Ibn Taymiyyah did not only call Muslims to jihad but also personally joined the battle against the Mongol army.
Apart from these external threats which affected his worldview, he was constantly in confrontation with the local rulers as well. In 1293 Ibn Taymiyyah had his first major clash with local authorities, who pardoned a Christian who was accused of having insulted the Prophet. That resulted in his first imprisonment. In 1298, he was accused of anthropomorphism and for having criticized the legitimacy of dogmatic theology.
His confrontations with the local religious and political authorities reached a breaking point when in 1306 he was sent to Cairo to appear before a council on charges of anthropomorphism again. He was found guilty and imprisoned in the Cairo citadel for a year and a half. This was not the last time he was imprisoned for his controversial ideas. For example, in 1308, he spent several months in prison for having denounced the practice of worshiping saints as being against the religious law. Overall, Ibn Taymiyyah spent a considerable part of his life in prison, which indicates his ideas were not considered legitimate by the local rulers and the prevailing religious discourse of the time.
Ibn Taymiyyah believed that Islam was contaminated by inauthentic local cultures and traditions. He suggested that the political instability and external threats at the time were simply a result of the fact that Muslims had deviated from the ‘true path’. Therefore, he believed that Islam should be saved from what he considered to be man-made innovations. In this light, he desired a return to the authentic sources of Islam. He believed in a strict adherence to both the Koran and the Sunnah, and that the ijmāʿ, or community consensus, had no value in itself.
He opposed almost all types of intercessions and symbolism in worship and accordingly considered saints and shrine visitations as sacrilegious; he believed they contradicted the oneness of truth and the finality of Mohamed’s message. He therefore did not hesitate to call these practices – which were popular in various Muslim societies at the time – heretical. In short, he was against an amalgamation of culture and Islam.
Ibn Taymiyyah believed that the best role models for Islamic life were the first three generations of Islam (salaf). Therefore, Muslims should refer only to the understanding of the salaf when interpreting scriptural sources. He also believed that the first three generations created the ‘ideal’ Muslim society. Hence in order to refrain from corruption, one must closely follow their examples at any time. Any deviation from their practice was viewed as bid’ah, or innovation.
Ibn Taymiyyah is famous for his criticism of Shia Muslims; he regarded them as religiously bankrupt and the root cause of many of Islam’s ills. In his major book Manhaj as-sunnah an-nabawiyyah, he argued that they should not be considered Muslims and, in fact, should be confronted by the ‘true’ Muslims. Ibn Taymiyyah was also a strong advocate of jihad as an effective instrument to create his ideal society. In his writings, he extensively highlighted the religio-political significance of jihad.
Without a doubt, Ibn Taymiyyah’s writing had a profound influence on Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a Hanbali scholar who founded Wahhabism in the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century. Perhaps had it not been for the Wahhabi movement, which eventually helped lead to the establishment of the modern Saudi state in the early 20th century, Ibn Taymiyyah’s writing would not have its current importance. When Wahhabism became the state religion of Saudi Arabia, the economic power and the religio-political will of this new zealous kingdom rapidly helped to spread ideas which were advocated by Ibn Taymiyyah in the 14th century.
Today there are various Salafi movements across the world which have been inspired by Ibn Taymiyyah’s writing. In addition to purists and activist Salafis, Salafi jihadis have been referring to Ibn Taymiyyah for inspiration. For example, IS in many ways championed ideas and practices which were advocated by Ibn Taymiyyah. Many centuries after his death, his ideas, which were once considered unacceptable by many scholars of his time, have been translated into political action. Ibn Taymiyyah was a creature of his time, and given the political instability of this period, his ideas were clearly conditioned by turbulence and conflict. It is interesting to see how many centuries later, at yet another time of conflict and turbulence in the Middle East, his ideas have found a new agency.