The thirteenth-century A.C. is a period of great calamity in the annals of Islam. The Muslim world had hardly recovered from the ravages of the long-drawn-out Crusades when it experienced a worst catastrophe. The Muslim countries were overrun by the Mongol hordes, destroying the intellectual and cultural treasures amassed during centuries of Muslim rule, and massacring millions of Muslims. Baghdad, the dream city of the famous Arabian Nights, which was the intellectual and cultural Metropolis of Islam, nay of the whole world-was sacked by Hulaku Khan, the Mongol, in 1258 A.C. and its entire cultural and intellectual heritage was burnt to cinders or thrown into the Tigris.
In such period of turmoil and holocaust was born Ibn Taimiya, a great religious thinker, who substantially and significantly influenced the subsequent Muslim thought. An independent thinker and an ardent believer in the freedom of conscience, one who was disputed by some but venerated by all, his life and works have since been a source of inspiration to all. His was a heroic life, which punctuated with trials and tribulations, SOITOWs and sufferings, was dedicated to the cause of religion, truth, and the supremacy of individual conscience.
Young Ibn Taimiya, born in Harran, fled from the fear of Mongol hordes and arrived along with his parents in Damascus in 1268 A.C. He was hardly six years old at this time. Endowed with exceptional intelligence, penetrating intellect and wonderful memory, Ibn Taimiya mastered, at an early age, all the existing sciences, religious and rational jurisprudence, theology, logic, and philosophy. This gave him the lead among all his contemporaries. In this, he was assisted and educated by his father, an eminent scholar of Hanbali Fiqh. Besides, he benefited from the learned discourses of Zain-al-Din Ahmad, al-Muqaddasi.
In 1282 A.C. when his father died, Ibn Taimiya succeeded him as the Professor of Hanbali Law and occupied this post with rare distinction for about 17 years. But his independent thinking later won him the hostility of Shafite scholars and cost him his post. But, by this time, he had acquired immense popularity in the world of Islam and was commissioned to preach jihad against the Mongols who had overrun Syria and captured Damascus. His preachings galvanized the populace and obliged the Sultan of Egypt, Sultan al-Nasir, to take up arms against the so-called invincible Mongols. In a fierce battle at Marj-as Safar, in 1302 A.Ç. in which Ibn Taimiya fought valiantly, the Mongols were routed with heavy losses.
Thenceforward, till his death, began a period of severe trials and tribulations for him. His independent views proved the bane of his life. He provoked opposition from many quarters and antagonized many divines. In 1307 A.C. he was imprisoned for four years along with his two brothers for attributing human characteristics to God. On release, he was appointed Professor in a Cairo school founded by the Sultan of Egypt.
He was, however, allowed to return to Damascus after seven years and reinstated in the post of Professor of which he had been relieved. But soon his serious differences with the Sultan on religious matters again led him to prison in 1320 A.C. for a few months.
A believer in the supremacy of the individual conscience, his independent thinking was not palatable to the orthodox and conventionalist Muslims. His virulent denunciation of the practice of worshipping saints and those who followed them resulted in the wrath of the Sultan who imprisoned him in the citadel of Damascus in 1326 A.C. Here he devoted himself to writing a commentary on the Holy Quran and other pamphlets on a number of controversial issues. He died in 1327 A.C. in prison. The news of his death cast a gloom over Damascus, and some 200,000 people including 15,000 women participated in his funeral. The funeral prayer was led by Ibn-al-Wardi.
The greatness of Ibn Taimiya lay in his selflessness and independent thinking. He was one of the greatest mujtahids Islam has produced, one who rejected ‘taqleed’ and even ‘Ijma’. Belonging to the Hanbali School, he faithfully followed the Quran and Sunnah and like his religious ancestor, Imam Hanbal, he was uncompromising and an inveterate anthropomorphist.
The Greek sciences and arts were translated during the Abbasside period. Their problems were reconciled by Ibn Taimiya with the Islamic doctrines under the pressing demands of the new converts to Islam.
His greatest service to Islam lay in his impressing upon the people the necessity of their adopting the simplicity and purity of early Islam and implicitly following the Quran and the Sunnah. The basic principles of Ibn Taimiya’s thoughts were :
- Revelation is the only source of knowledge in religious matters. Reason and intuition are but dependable sources,
- The consensus of opinion of competent scholars during the first three centuries of Islam also contributed to the understanding of the fundamentals of Islam besides the Quran and Sunnah, and
- Quran and Sunnah are the only authentic guides in all matters.
He discarded and emphatically denounced the corrupting foreign influence,
which polluted the purity and simplicity of early Islam. It was from Ibn Taimiya that Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahab, a great thinker of the 18th Century, and the al-Manar Reform School in Egypt, took inspiration in this matter.
His hostility to the Muslim exponents of Greek philosophy was most pronounced. Philosophy, according to him, engendered skepticism and caused schisms in Islam. He subjected Ibn-al-Arabi’s doctrine of the Unity of Being to a inost severe criticism. In his opinion, Ibn-al-Arabi’s conclusion in this respect was not only contrary to the teachings of the Prophet but also not in conformity with the doctrine of the Unity of God as contained in the Quran and Sunnah.
Ibn Taimiya stands as one of the most controversial figures in Islam. An independent thinker, who believed in the supremacy of individual conscience and one who wanted to see Islam in its pristine glory, he subjected all later impurities and foreign influences which had crept into Islam to most scathing criticism. For this, he was denounced, beaten, lashed, imprisoned, and put to all sorts of mental and physical tortures. But his was a daring spirit which lived up to his convictions, notwithstanding the persecution to which he was subjected from time to time.