The present work, a revised version of my PhD dissertation, is the first book-length study of Ibn Taymiyya’s ten-volume magnum opus, Darʾ taʿāruḍ al-ʿaql wa-l-naql (Refutation of the contradiction of reason and revelation).1 This massive treatise, totaling over four thousand pages in the 1979 edition of Muḥammad Rashād Sālim,2 represents the vigorous and sustained attempt of a major, late medieval Muslim theologian-jurist to settle a central debate that had raged among Muslim theologians and philosophers for more than six centuries: namely, the debate over the nature, role, and limits of human reason and its proper relationship to and interpretation of divine revelation. In the Darʾ taʿāruḍ, Ibn Taymiyya—who was, “by almost universal consensus, one of the most original and systematic thinkers in the history of Islam”3—attempts to transcend the dichotomy of “reason vs. revelation” altogether by breaking down and systematically reconstituting the very categories through which reason was conceived and debated in medieval Islam.
In the current study, based on a close, line-by-line reading of the full ten volumes of the Darʾ taʿāruḍ, I provide a detailed and systematic account of the underlying, yet mostly implicit, philosophy and methodology on the basis of which Ibn Taymiyya addresses the question of the compatibility of reason and revelation. Discontent with previous attempts, Ibn Taymiyya not only critiques but also fundamentally reformulates the very epistemological, ontological, and linguistic assumptions that formed the sieve through which ideas on the relationship between reason and revelation had previously been filtered. Though Ibn Taymiyya does not lay out an underlying philosophy in systematic terms, I seek to demonstrate that a careful reading of the Darʾ taʿāruḍ reveals a broadly coherent system of thought that draws on diverse intellectual resources. Ibn Taymiyya synthesized these resources and, combining them with his own unique contributions, created an approach to the question of reason and revelation that stands in marked contrast to previously articulated approaches. Through this ambitious undertaking, Ibn Taymiyya develops views and arguments that have implications for fields ranging from the interpretation of scripture to ontology, epistemology, and the theory of language.
Earlier efforts to address the relationship between reason and revelation in Islam, such as the attempts of the theologians al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111) and al-Rāzī (d. 606/1209) and those of the philosophers Ibn Sīnā (d. 428/1037) and Ibn Rushd (d. 595/1198),4 are well known and have received due scholarly attention; the current work aims to establish Ibn Taymiyya’s contribution to the debate as a third pivotal chapter in classical Muslim attempts to articulate a response to the question of conflict between revelation and reason. Indeed, if Ibn Sīnā and Ibn Rushd epitomize the Muslim philosophers’ (or falāsifa’s) approach to the issue, with al-Ghazālī and al-Rāzī representing that of mainstream Ashʿarī theology, then Ibn Taymiyya’s Darʾ taʿāruḍ must be seen as the premier philosophical response to the question of reason and revelation from a Ḥanbalī perspective—a response that is equal to the works of his predecessors in terms of its comprehensiveness, cohesion, and sophistication. A study of this nature is particularly needed since, despite important recent corrective scholarship, lingering stereotypes of Ibn Taymiyya as little more than a simplistic and dogmatic literalist continue to result in an underappreciation of the true extent and philosophical interest of his creative engagement with the Islamic intellectual tradition as exemplified in a work like the Darʾ taʿāruḍ.
The present book is addressed to several distinct audiences. First among these are students and scholars of, as well as those with a general interest in, Islamic theology and philosophy, medieval Islamic thought, Ibn Taymiyya studies, or post-classical Islamic intellectual history. Second, this study is relevant to those with an interest in Christian or Jewish rational theology of the High Middle Ages owing to the shared concerns taken up by medieval Muslim, Christian, and Jewish theologians and philosophers in both the European West and the Islamic East and in light of the common, Greek-inspired vocabulary and conceptual backdrop in terms of which all three communities conceived of and articulated theological and theo-philosophical issues. Finally, given that Ibn Taymiyya’s Darʾ taʿāruḍ grapples with a philosophical and theological problem of universal import that transcends both centuries and religious communities, this book will be of interest to a broader, non-specialist Muslim readership, as well as to lay readers outside the Islamic tradition who are interested in questions concerning the relationship between reason and revelation more generally.
1 Contours of a Conflict
The debate over reason and revelation among classical Muslim scholars centered primarily on the question of when and under what circumstances it was admissible to practice taʾwīl, or figurative interpretation, on the basis of a rational objection to the plain sense of a Qurʾānic verse or passage. Of particular concern in this respect were those passages containing descriptions of God, passages whose literal meaning seemed to entail tashbīh, an unacceptable assimilation of God to created beings. The Qurʾān affirms not merely that God exists but that He exists as a particular entity with certain intrinsic and irreducible qualities, or attributes. Some of these attributes that are (apparently) affirmed in revelation were held by various groups—particularly the philosophers, the Muʿtazila (sing. Muʿtazilī), and the later Ashʿarīs—to be rationally indefensible on the grounds that their straightforward affirmation would amount to tashbīh. In such cases, a conflict was thought to ensue between the clear dictates of reason and the equally clear statements of revelation, which resulted in the unsettling notion that a fundamental contradiction exists between reason and revelation, both of which have nevertheless been accepted as yielding true knowledge about ourselves, the world, and God.
The question of how to deal with such rational objections to the plain sense of revelation elicited various kinds of responses from philosophers and theologians, ultimately culminating in the “universal rule” (al-qānūn al-kullī), which Ibn Taymiyya paraphrases on the first page of the Darʾ taʿāruḍ as it had come to be formulated by the time of the famous Ashʿarī theologian Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī in the sixth/twelfth century. This rule, in brief, requires that in the event of a conflict between reason and revelation, the dictates of reason be given priority and revelation be reinterpreted accordingly via taʾwīl. This prescription is justified on the consideration that it is reason that grounds our assent to the truth of revelation, such that any gainsaying of reason in the face of a revealed text would undermine reason and revelation together.
Ibn Taymiyya makes the refutation of this universal rule his primary, explicit goal in the Darʾ taʿāruḍ. In doing so, he endeavors to prove that pure reason (ʿaql ṣarīḥ, or ṣarīḥ al-maʿqūl) and a plain-sense reading of authentic revelation (naql ṣaḥīḥ, or ṣaḥīḥ al-manqūl) can never stand in bona fide contradiction. Any perceived conflict between the two results from either a misinterpretation of the texts of revelation or, more pertinently for the current investigation, a misappropriation of reason. The more speculative (and hence dubious) one’s rational premises and precommitments, the more extravagantly one must reinterpret—or twist, as Ibn Taymiyya would see it—revelation to bring it into line with the conclusions of such “reason.”
We may illustrate this concept in the form of the following “Taymiyyan pyramid”:
Truth, for Ibn Taymiyya, is that point of unicity, clarity, and certainty (yaqīn) at which the testimony of sound reason and that of authentic revelation, understood correctly and without any attempt to interpret it away through allegory or metaphor, fully coincide. At the opposite end of this point lies pure sophistry (safsaṭa) in rational matters coupled with the unrestrained allegorization (“qarmaṭa”)5 of scripture. As individuals and groups move away from the point of truth where reason and revelation are fully concordant, the wide-reaching unity of their views on central points of both rational truth and religious doctrine gives way to ever increasing disagreement on even the most basic issues—such that the philosophers, in Ibn Taymiyya’s words, “disagree (massively) even in astronomy (ʿilm al-hayʾa),6 which is the most patent and least controversial of their sciences.”7
In pursuit of his mission to resolve the conflict between reason and revelation, Ibn Taymiyya elaborates around thirty-eight arguments (wujūh, sing. wajh; lit. “aspects” or “viewpoints”) against the logical coherence of the theologians’ universal rule and the integrity, in purely theoretical terms, of the premises and assumptions upon which it is based.8 In the remainder of the Darʾ, he takes up what seem to be all the instances of alleged conflict between reason and revelation raised by various philosophical and theological schools over the seven centuries of the Islamic intellectual tradition that preceded him. It is here that Ibn Taymiyya both develops and applies a characteristic Taymiyyan philosophy and methodology through which he attempts to dissolve, once and for all, the ongoing conflict between reason and revelation. After doing away with the universal rule, Ibn Taymiyya elaborates an alternative theory of language that reframes the traditional distinction between literal (ḥaqīqa) and figurative (majāz) usage—upon which taʾwīl depends—in new ways meant to transcend the apparent opposition between the two. Finally, he reformulates key aspects of the philosophers’ and theologians’ ontological and epistemological assumptions that he holds responsible for producing the mere illusion of a conflict between reason and a plain-sense reading of revelation where, in his view, none truly exists.
Ultimately, Ibn Taymiyya seeks to resolve the conflict between reason and revelation by demonstrating that the very notion of reason employed by the philosophers and theologians is compromised, with the result that the arguments based on such “reason” are incoherent and invalid. His mission is to show that there is no valid rational argument that opposes or conflicts with the straightforward affirmations of revelation concerning any of the particular attributes or actions affirmed therein of God, the temporal origination of the universe, or any other topic. If Ibn Taymiyya, as he sees it, can do this convincingly, then the famous “rational objection” evaporates. Purified of its corrupted elements and specious presuppositions, the notion of reason can then be returned to what Ibn Taymiyya holds to be the inborn, unadulterated state of pure natural intelligence (ʿaql ṣarīḥ). The final segment of Ibn Taymiyya’s reconstructive project in the Darʾ is to establish precisely what this inborn, unadulterated state of pure natural intelligence is and the manner in which it interacts with revelation.
2 Why the Darʾ taʿāruḍ?
Ibn Taymiyya’s Darʾ taʿāruḍ al-ʿaql wa-l-naql is of particular scholarly interest on a number of levels. It is one of the central works—if not the central work—of a prolific, late medieval figure who, while relatively obscure for nearly half a millennium after his death,9 has nevertheless come to wield considerable authority for many in the modern Muslim world.10 Contemporary Muslim appropriations of Ibn Taymiyya’s legacy, however, have often focused selectively on his political opposition to the Mongols11 as justification for violent opposition to modern Muslim regimes, or they fixate on certain of his discrete creedal or juridical stances in a manner that is frequently devoid of historical context or conceptual nuance. This has tended to obscure the more intellectual side of Ibn Taymiyya’s output and, as a consequence, has led to an underappreciation of the precise extent and nature of his thought. A careful and sustained engagement with a work such as the Darʾ promises to go a long way in calibrating this imbalance.
On an intellectual level, the Darʾ taʿāruḍ is a highly compelling work on account of the astonishing richness and variety of the doctrines and trends with which its author deals. In an article that examines the overall contention of the Darʾ and includes a translation and detailed analysis of Ibn Taymiyya’s ninth argument,12 Yahya Michot marvels that “one can only be dumbfounded by the breadth of Ibn Taymiyyah’s erudition,”13 remarking that the quantity alone of his references in the Darʾ justifies our recognition of Ibn Taymiyya as “the most important reader of the falāsifah after Faḫr al-Dīn al-Rāzī in the Sunnī world.”14 Commenting on the quality of Ibn Taymiyya’s treatment of the works he analyzes, Michot further remarks that “his virtuosity is often matched only by his relevance”15 and suggests that the “spiritual father of contemporary Islamism” should, perhaps, henceforth be included in the “prestigious line of the commentators of [Aristotle].”16 Dimitri Gutas likewise notes Ibn Taymiyya’s enormous erudition and trenchant critical capacity, referring to him as “that highly percipient critic of intellectuals of all stripes.”17
Finally, the subject matter of the Darʾ taʿāruḍ—namely, the often volatile relationship between human reason and divine revelation—lies deeply embedded in the substructure of all the Islamic religious disciplines. From law and legal theory to exegesis, theology, and beyond, the question concerning the implications of divine revelation and the proper use of the human intellect in approaching revelation is one that has surfaced over and over again, sometimes in different guises, over the course of centuries. For this reason, the central theme of the Darʾ is one that has implications, directly and indirectly, for Islamic thought as a whole, both past and present.
Given the fecundity and promise of the Darʾ taʿāruḍ as a text, it is all the more remarkable that four decades have passed since the first complete, ten-volume edition of the work was made available, yet no comprehensive study of it has been published to date by any scholar writing in a European language.18 Several studies treat the Darʾ as a whole19 or examine discrete portions of it in detail,20 while other works touch directly on questions of reason—and especially of logic and metaphysics—that are also germane to the Darʾ21 or elucidate the broader framework necessary for us to locate and interpret the Darʾ within Ibn Taymiyya’s larger theological project.22
Yet despite the activity we have witnessed in the field of Taymiyyan studies, particularly over the past decade, the work that may justifiably be considered our author’s magnum opus, the Darʾ taʿāruḍ al-ʿaql wa-l-naql, has yet to receive the comprehensive attention it deserves. Several reasons may explain this. Perhaps the most obvious is the sheer size of the work, coupled with Ibn Taymiyya’s well-known penchant for digression, repetitiveness, discussions embedded matryoshka-like within others, and a generally inconsistent structure and lack of linear progression.23 Though Ibn Taymiyya’s language itself is seldom difficult or cryptic, the foregoing inconveniences of style can make his works exasperating to read. When such features are multiplied tenfold in a work of as many volumes, the task becomes all the more daunting.
A second reason for the relative neglect of the Darʾ taʿāruḍ may relate to Ibn Taymiyya’s place in the sweep of Islamic history, coming as he does on the heels of what has traditionally been regarded as the great classical period of Muslim civilization (roughly the first five to six centuries of Islam),24 a period that has so far attracted the bulk of Western scholarly interest in the pre-modern Islamic world. Twenty years ago, Gutas described Arabic philosophy in the sixth/twelfth and seventh/thirteenth centuries, for instance, as “almost wholly unresearched,” then went on to suggest that this period “may yet one day be recognized as its golden age.”25 Fortunately, recent work—particularly by Khaled El-Rouayheb,26 as well as Aaron Spevack,27 Asad Q. Ahmed,28 and others—has begun to fill this gap. In the current study, I seek to contribute to the growing field of post-classical Islamic scholarship—at the beginning of which Ibn Taymiyya stands—by laying a new brick in the edifice of our still nascent understanding of what is, in fact, turning out to be a rich and productive phase of Islamic thought.
Yet a third reason the Darʾ taʿāruḍ remains relatively understudied may be related to the persisting notions of Ibn Taymiyya’s identity as an intellectual figure. Frequently dismissed as a dogmatic literalist with little in evidence of genuine intellection, Ibn Taymiyya is often mentioned only briefly, if at all, in books concerned with Islamic thought, philosophy, or sometimes even theology.29 Majid Fakhry, in his 1970 A History of Islamic Philosophy (2nd ed., 1983), classified Ibn Taymiyya, along with Ibn Ḥazm (d. 456/1064), as a “champion” of “slavish traditionalism,”30 while Norman Calder, several decades later, opined that “a rigid dogmatic agenda is the major intellectual gift to Islam of Ibn Taymiyya.”31 By stark contrast, Shahab Ahmed spoke in 1998 of the “remarkable synthetic originality of Ibn Taymiyya’s thought,”32 while Richard Martin and Mark Woodward, in a 1997 study on reason in the Muʿtazila, concluded that “Ibn Taymiya was a more rational and independent-minded thinker than many of his later interpreters seem to have appreciated.”33 Sait Özervarli speaks of Ibn Taymiyya’s “intellectual flexibility,”34 while the prominent twentieth-century Azharī scholar Muḥammad Abū Zahra (d. 1394/1974) similarly credits Ibn Taymiyya with a “lack of rigidity” (ʿadam jumūd)35—accolades that contrast sharply with Georges Tamer’s recent, roundly negative assessment of the philosophical interest of Ibn Taymiyya’s thought.36
Birgit Krawietz remarked in 2003 that Western scholarship on Ibn Taymiyya has had a tendency to zero in on a narrow set of topics, often influenced by, among other things, political anxieties over his purported inspiration of contemporary radical movements in the Muslim world. Additionally, she remarks, “it seems that Western authors, by and large, still allow themselves to be led strongly by the pre-existing image of Ibn Taymiyya as a notorious troublemaker given [to him] by his opponents in debate.”37 The tide in Ibn Taymiyya studies has certainly shifted in the nearly two decades since these words were written, thanks to the numerous and variegated studies noted above. Today we have an appreciably sharper understanding of Ibn Taymiyya’s thought than before, yet his oeuvre is vast and there remains much work to be done. It is my hope that the current volume will contribute meaningfully to this endeavor.
3 About This Work
3.1 Aims, Method, and Scope
The goal of the current work is to provide a detailed and systematic exposition of the philosophy of Ibn Taymiyya as it emerges from the Darʾ taʿāruḍ. As we shall discover in chapter 2, Ibn Taymiyya led a turbulent life, and this turbulence is reflected in his writing. Not much given to systematic presentation, he is seldom explicit about his overall strategy or its underlying logic. To use a linguistic metaphor, Ibn Taymiyya simply speaks the language and leaves it to his reader to identify and describe the grammar. In the current study, I have attempted to produce a descriptive “grammar” of Ibn Taymiyya’s worldview as it emerges in the Darʾ taʿāruḍ—a “codification,” in a sense, of the implicit syntax responsible for the order and coherence of his thought. And, as we shall discover, his thought evidences both order and coherence in abundance, though they do not always emerge clearly amidst the din of clashing swords or the buoyant cadences of earnestly engaged polemic.
In mapping the contours of Ibn Taymiyya’s thought, I have divided the Darʾ, for the purpose of analysis, into two main categories or types of text: (1) Ibn Taymiyya’s thirty-eight discrete arguments against the universal rule of interpretation and (2) everything else. The manner in which the text opens gives the impression that the entirety of the Darʾ is to be dedicated to the elaboration of these arguments. In reality, Ibn Taymiyya presents thirty-eight well circumscribed arguments—some quite lengthy—that together take up most of the first and fifth volumes. These arguments are solely concerned with the validity of the universal rule and do not touch upon any substantive philosophical or theological debates per se. I account for these thirty-eight arguments comprehensively in chapter 3, where I draw out the epistemological renovations Ibn Taymiyya seeks to marshal against the universal rule. The remaining six arguments address substantive philosophical and theological questions, usually at such length that they trail off into extended disquisitions on one topic after another, eventually dissipating into the larger body of the text.38 It is these substantive discussions—consisting mostly of lengthy citations from previous thinkers and Ibn Taymiyya’s responses to them—that, in fact, occupy the vast majority of the Darʾ, and it is these discussions that form the surface from which we delve into the deeper structure of Ibn Taymiyya’s methodology and thought (which we examine primarily in chapters 4 and 5).
To borrow from the language of the Islamic rational sciences, my goal has been to produce an exposition of the Darʾ taʿāruḍ that is “jāmiʿ-māniʿ,” that is, inclusive of the whole of the Darʾ and exclusive of anything extraneous to it. By “inclusive of the whole of the Darʾ,” I clearly do not mean that I have sought to capture and represent each and every argument or discussion in it. Such an investigation would hardly be feasible nor, indeed, desirable. Rather, I have attempted to identify and extract, in as comprehensive a manner as possible, all the higher-order principles, presuppositions, and implicit assumptions that undergird and motivate Ibn Taymiyya’s argumentation in the Darʾ—those elements that I collectively refer to as the underlying “philosophy of Ibn Taymiyya.” These principles are often not stated explicitly but, rather, are embedded within discrete arguments. Therefore, it has been necessary to go beyond the specifics of the individual arguments in order to extract, and to abstract, the universal principles at play. Presenting Ibn Taymiyya’s philosophy in the Darʾ has thus necessitated a substantially different approach than would be required for expositing in English a text whose principles have already been distilled by the author and presented systematically to the original reader. By saying that the distillation I attempt here is comprehensive (or “jāmiʿ ”), I mean that it is based on a close reading of the entire text of the Darʾ, not merely selected portions. The elements of Ibn Taymiyya’s worldview that I exposit in this study have emerged organically, over the course of literally thousands of pages of argumentation and discussion, as the dominant leitmotifs of the work. In most cases, I have cited several—and, where possible, all—instances throughout the Darʾ where a given concept is discussed or point substantiated.
By saying that the current study is “māniʿ,” or exclusive of anything extraneous to the Darʾ, I mean that I have not cross-referenced discussions in the Darʾ taʿāruḍ with similar discussions found elsewhere in Ibn Taymiyya’s writings, though I have endeavored to read and interpret the Darʾ in light of the rich secondary literature on Ibn Taymiyya mentioned above. Given the length of the Darʾ itself, the vastness of Ibn Taymiyya’s larger oeuvre, and his well-known habit of addressing the same issue in many different places, a systematic cross-referencing of the primary sources would have hardly been feasible. For this reason, the current study should be seen primarily as an exposition and analysis of the Darʾ taʿāruḍ as a discrete work, not as a study of everything Ibn Taymiyya has written on the topic of reason and revelation. The Darʾ taʿāruḍ is a lengthy, cumbersome, and intellectually demanding text, one that I have worked to domesticate, to decipher, and to lay open for the reader such that its pith and purpose may be readily grasped. In any case, it is the Darʾ taʿāruḍ that, by virtue of its title and opening salvo, appears to be the work Ibn Taymiyya himself meant to be taken as his definitive statement on the relationship between reason and revelation. Happily, the picture that emerges from our present study of the Darʾ harmonizes closely with the image currently crystallizing on the basis of other studies dedicated to Ibn Taymiyya’s thought. This is yet another indication of the consistency and coherence of that thought, notwithstanding its sometimes erratic presentation.
3.2 Structure and Major Themes
This book is divided into two main parts, each consisting of three chapters. Part 1, “Reason vs. Revelation?,” provides the historical and biographical background necessary to situate Ibn Taymiyya and the project to which he dedicates the Darʾ taʿāruḍ, then examines his contestation of the very dichotomy of reason versus revelation that he inherited.
Chapter 1 provides a broad overview of the historical development of the issue of reason and revelation in Islamic thought in the fields of theology, philosophy, and law from the first Islamic century to the time of Ibn Taymiyya in the seventh/thirteenth and eighth/fourteenth centuries. As a later, post-classical figure, Ibn Taymiyya makes numerous references and allusions to earlier Muslim thinkers, controversies, and schools of thought; we cannot understand his contributions to this vital debate, much less appreciate them, without sufficient knowledge of what came before him. Though chapter 1 is necessarily broad in scope, the discussion of each figure or school nevertheless focuses on those elements that touch directly upon our main topic—the question of reason and revelation—or that anticipate a distinct line of argumentation in the Darʾ that is taken up in later chapters. The background provided in chapter 1 is particularly relevant for non-specialists, as it allows them to familiarize themselves with the most relevant antecedent discussions on reason and revelation in Islam before embarking on their exploration of the Darʾ taʿāruḍ proper.
In chapter 2, sections 1–4 provide a survey of the life and times of Ibn Taymiyya, followed by an intellectual profile that situates him both ideologically and methodologically within the wider intellectual and religious context of late medieval Islam. Section 5 reconstructs Ibn Taymiyya’s reception and interpretation of his own intellectual heritage by examining numerous remarks scattered throughout the Darʾ. It then presents his view of the nature and historical development of the conflict between reason and revelation in the centuries that preceded him. Understanding exactly how Ibn Taymiyya viewed and interpreted the issue is critical for comprehending not only his motivations but also, more importantly, the methodology and overall strategy he deploys in the Darʾ in his attempt to resolve the dilemma once and for all. Finally, section 6 considers how Ibn Taymiyya represents several earlier high-profile attempts to resolve the conflict between reason and revelation—those of Ibn Sīnā, al-Ghazālī, and Ibn Rushd—and how he situates his own project in the Darʾ vis-à-vis those of his three eminent predecessors. Thus, while the first four sections of chapter 2 complete the background provided in chapter 1, sections 5 and 6 mark the beginning of our full-fledged engagement with the Darʾ taʿāruḍ itself.
Chapter 3 consists of an exhaustive analysis of Ibn Taymiyya’s thirty-eight arguments against the philosophers’ and theologians’ universal rule. Through these arguments, he attacks not only the rule’s logical coherence but also the main epistemic categories and assumptions upon which it is based. While Ibn Taymiyya himself presents these arguments in a disjointed and seemingly random fashion, I demonstrate in chapter 3 that by breaking down, regrouping, and reconstructing them, we can discern a coherent attempt on Ibn Taymiyya’s part to reconfigure the very terms of the debate in several important ways. First, he redefines the opposition at stake not as one of reason versus revelation but as a purely epistemological question of certainty (yaqīn) versus probability (ẓann), with reason and revelation each serving as potential sources of both kinds of knowledge. He then builds on this to replace the dichotomy “sharʿī–ʿaqlī,” in the sense of “scriptural versus rational,” with the dichotomy “sharʿī–bidʿī,” in the sense of “scripturally validated versus innovated,” arguing that revelation itself both commends and exemplifies the valid use of reason and rational argumentation. With this altered dichotomy, Ibn Taymiyya attempts to undermine the inherited categorical differentiation between reason and revelation in favor of a new paradigm in which it is the epistemic quality of a piece of knowledge alone that counts rather than its provenance in either reason or revelation. In this manner, he subsumes reason itself into the larger category of “sharʿī,” or scripturally validated, sources of knowledge.
In part 2, “Ibn Taymiyya’s Reform of Language, Ontology, and Epistemology,” chapters 4 and 5 explore the main elements of Ibn Taymiyya’s underlying philosophy as gleaned from the Darʾ al-taʿāruḍ. In these chapters, I provide a systematic account of the positive, reconstructive project that I argue Ibn Taymiyya is carrying out in the Darʾ, a project in which he articulates an alternative theory of language as well as a reconstructed notion of reason in his bid to address the problem of the conflict between reason and revelation. In chapters 4 and 5, I present a formal, theoretical summary of all the major elements of Ibn Taymiyya’s philosophy—his linguistic and hermeneutical principles, his ontology, and his epistemology—that are indispensable for understanding how his critique of reason and its alleged conflict with revelation is meant to work. In chapter 6, I then illustrate how Ibn Taymiyya applies the principles and methods of his philosophy to one of the most central substantive issues of concern to him (and to the Islamic theological tradition as a whole), namely, the question of the divine attributes, anthropomorphism, and the boundaries of figurative interpretation (taʾwīl).
Chapter 4 explores how Ibn Taymiyya seeks to reformulate the theory of language by which revelation is understood. We first examine exactly what authentic revelation (naql ṣaḥīḥ) consists of for Ibn Taymiyya and the hermeneutical principles according to which it ought to be interpreted. Ibn Taymiyya proposes a textually self-sufficient hermeneutic, predicated on the Qurʾān’s own repeated characterization of itself as “clear” and “manifest” (mubīn), against what he deems to be the overly liberal use of taʾwīl based on the (in his view irremediably speculative) interpretations of his opponents among the rationalist theologians. We next explore Ibn Taymiyya’s larger philosophy of language—resting on the twin pillars of context (siyāq, qarāʾin) and linguistic convention (ʿurf)—on the basis of which he attempts to discard the traditional distinction between literal (ḥaqīqa) and figurative (majāz) usage while yet avoiding the simplistic literalism of which his critics have often accused him. Chapter 4 also examines Ibn Taymiyya’s account of semantic shifts that took place in certain termini technici prior to his day. These shifts in the meaning of key technical terms, he argues, resulted in interpretive distortions that saw later meanings unwittingly projected anachronistically onto earlier texts. The chapter closes with an illustration of Ibn Taymiyya’s discussion of this phenomenon via an extended case study of the terms wāḥid (one), tawḥīd (oneness of God), and tarkīb (composition).
Chapter 5 examines Ibn Taymiyya’s critique of what the philosophers and later theologians construe as reason, then explores his elaboration of what he deems to be authentic sound reason (ʿaql ṣarīḥ). Ibn Taymiyya’s critique targets both the ontology and the epistemology of the philosophers by challenging what he sees as their chronic confusion between the realm of externally existent entities (mā fī al-aʿyān) and the realm of that which exists only in the mind (mā fī al-adhhān). While all knowledge of external reality must ultimately have its basis either in immediate sensation (ḥiss) or in reliable transmitted reports (khabar), Ibn Taymiyya nevertheless assigns theoretical reason several important functions, namely, (1) to abstract similarities shared by existent particulars into universal concepts (kulliyyāt), (2) to issue judgements in the form of predicative statements relative to existing particulars, and (3) to draw inferences of various kinds on the basis of the innate (fiṭrī) and necessary (ḍarūrī) knowledge of fundamental axioms embedded in reason and known, therefore, in an a priori (awwalī) or self-evident (badīhī) manner. Ibn Taymiyya’s reformed epistemology—based on experience, reason, and transmitted reports—is undergirded by an expanded notion of the moral-cum-cognitive faculty of the fiṭra, or “original normative disposition.” Ultimately, this epistemology is guaranteed by a universalized notion of tawātur (recurrent mass transmission), a concept that Ibn Taymiyya borrows from the Muslim textual and legal traditions and applies expansively as the final guarantor of all human cognition.
Chapter 6 brings together the sundry elements of Ibn Taymiyya’s attempted hermeneutic, ontological, and epistemological renovations and demonstrates how he rallies them to resolve, once and for all, the contradiction between reason and revelation in medieval Islam, particularly with regard to the question of the divine attributes. Since God, in Islamic ontology, exists in the unseen realm (ghayb), Ibn Taymiyya takes up the centuries-old theological debate over the legitimacy of drawing an analogy (qiyās) between the empirical (or “seen”) and the metaphysical (or “unseen”) realms of existence. While he argues that such an inference is not valid for establishing the factual existence (thubūt) or the specific ontological reality (ḥaqīqa) of would-be entities in the unseen realm, he insists that it is not merely legitimate but, indeed, mandatory for us to draw such an analogy on the level of universal meanings (maʿānī) and notions (also maʿānī) abstracted from our everyday empirical experience. It is only by drawing this latter sort of analogy that we can, in fact, understand something meaningful about entities existing in the unseen realm that are denoted by names (asmāʾ) that they share with the familiar entities of our contingent empirical experience.
As I demonstrate in chapter 6, Ibn Taymiyya seeks to preserve God’s comprehensibility (and hence His conceivability and, in a sense, knowability to us) by virtue of the names and descriptions that are applied both to Him and to created entities without, however, God resembling His creation in any ontologically relevant way—the only way that, for Ibn Taymiyya, would entail the kind of theologically objectionable tashbīh, or “assimilationism,” that the philosophical and theological recourse to taʾwīl was originally meant to remediate. In this manner, the disparate elements of Ibn Taymiyya’s theory of language, his ontology, and his epistemology eventually converge in a synthesis that is meant to accommodate a robust and rationally defensible affirmationism vis-à-vis the divine attributes while yet avoiding the tashbīh that the Islamic philosophical and later theological traditions so often presumed such affirmationism to entail.
Concerning the larger implications of the Darʾ taʿāruḍ, perhaps the most compelling part of Ibn Taymiyya’s project goes beyond the man himself to the problematic with which he wrestled. In a sense, the whole question of the tension between revelation and reason, which Ibn Taymiyya internalized so poignantly, can in many ways be considered a key problem of Islamic modernity. Though the specific issues have changed—few today, for example, from the most textually-based conservative to the most liberal-minded reformer, are much concerned by the question of the divine attributes—the underlying problematic remains, in significant ways, very much the same. Whether it is the issue not precisely of reason and revelation but, say, of science and revelation or, for instance, the tension between sacralized and secularized visions of law and government, which has been a particularly troubling issue for Muslims in the modern period, the root of all these issues can be traced to the deeper-lying tensions with which Ibn Taymiyya grappled when confronting the delicate question of the relationship between reason and revelation in his own day.
And, in an almost uncanny way, the crisis that many Muslims have faced since the nineteenth century, both in and with modernity, is strikingly similar to the intellectual crisis (and later also the political crisis) of early and medieval Islam, crises that had come to a head at the time of Ibn Taymiyya and that swept him up, heart and soul, into the great existential drama that played out seven centuries ago. The challenge this time around has come from strikingly similar quarters: then from Greece in the form of an intellectual challenge, today from a modern civilization also descended, intellectually, from Greece. And while in Ibn Taymiyya’s day the intellectual and the political challengers were differentiated, the modern period has witnessed something like the intellectual power of Greece and the military might of the Mongols combined—Aristotle and Genghis Khan, if we may, wrapped into one. Now as then, the question remains: How might the tension once more be resolved between the relentless vicissitudes of the times and a Book whose adherents believe was sent down by an eternal God into our world of time and space on the tongue of a prophet some fourteen hundred years ago?
But before we join Ibn Taymiyya on his quest to resolve the discord between reason and revelation, we must first understand the context and the overall intellectual situation that presented itself to him with such existential urgency so many centuries ago.