Classical Approaches to Ethics and Governance: Ibn Taymiyyah Against Extremism?


[This is the first in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Good Governance in Islam: Classical and Contemporary Approaches held in Herndon, VA. These notes have only been lightly edited and represent my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone. Names of participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the organizers.]

“Classical Approaches to Ethics and Governance: Ibn Taymiyyah Against Extremism?”

Dr. Yahya Michot; Professor of Religion, Hartford Seminary

Why speak of ibn Taymiyyah in the context of good governance when he is accused of being the father of Islamic extremism? His reputation is as badly kept as his grave in Damascus. Kitab Minhaj al-Sunnah Minhaj al-Sunnah al-Nabawiyyah is a refutation of the work of a great Shi`a theologian. It is a great book on governance in refutation of the absolutism of the Mon gols. Ilkhan had converted to Shiism round 1306, but this book is not against him, but against the Mongol threat. In the last two years of his life in jail in Damascus he wrote another text on governance. We shall also have to speak of Sharia, but I am more interested in the actors of Sharia. How do we imagine Sharia being implemented?

Like the falasafa, ibn Taymiyyah believes there in no way to lie together except on the grounds of the qanûn adlî (law of reason). But what kind of siyâsa is this? It is not the leadership of Plato or Aristotle but the shepherd. It is only when people obey you that you can claim to lead them. There is no siyâsa without a partnership from the base.
Two axioms: there is no absolute human knowledge. There is no absolute conditional obedience of anybody, even to the Prophet (as). No one has knowledge of all particulars, they can only make a claim to some general knowledge. The Prophet urged people to exercise their own personal judgment even as to knowledge that comes from him. No one can give instructions that cover every particular question individually. The best you can hope for is general judgment. We distinguish between general religious knowledge in the scriptures of Islam and particular questions that require ijtihad. Even authorities can only address people in a general way and there is room for ijtihad in the details. Ijtihad can be seen in the first generation, but Ibn Taymiyyhah says there is more knowledge in collective endeavor than in individual ijtihad and he urges the community to collaborate: “There is more wisdom in many voices than a single voice as there is more strength in many arrows than in one arrow.” The ummah, rather than the imam, is the guardian of the Sharia. There is an infallibility to the community denied to the imam. When previous communities went astray God sent a new prophet, but Muhammad is the last of the Prophets, so the consensus of the community is the new prophet (vox populi, vox Dei). There is no absolute knowledge, but such knowledge as there is in a community is a collective knowledge based on consensus that has a kind of prophetic divine value.

The second axiom is about obedience. No one can be make a claim to obedience as the Messenger may be obeyed because no one can make a claim to wahy as he made. Even the Prophet is not obeyed for himself. What we need from the imam is teaching of knowledge and some implementation of knowledge. He speaks of maqâsid al waliyya (higher objectives of Revelation) rather than maqâsid ash-shari`a (higher objectives of the law). No one needs to be obeyed in disobedience to God. Between anarchy and absolutism is a reasonable authority. We have authorities, but we should not expect from them the impossible. We obey them when they command the good and proper, and we disobey them when they command disobedience to God. But the authorities are not authorities when they are not followed. Ahmad ibn Hanbal defined the Imam as the one to whom Muslims have granted authority. That is, he is the one they choose to obey. He is their partner. He will help them and they will help him. Absolute despotism is not part of the picture. It is more a question of mutual aid than obedience. As teachers learn from their students, so leaders follow their constituencies. No order may be taken without examination. Even the Prophet urges us to tabayyun (discernment). We obey Muhammad not because of the person of Muhammad, but because he obeys God. No one but God deserves to be obeyed. Ibn Taymiyyash says that of any order, we shall be the last judge.

As he empowers the community at the end of the day he empowers the individual, which make Ibn Taymiyyah extremely modern. We will not start armed rebellion against the authorities, but we shall question every order in the light of whether it is obedience to God. Because authorities are not perfect we will be patient with their errors, but between armed rebellion and blind obedience is tabayyun, the middle way of critical obedience civil disobedience. There is an obligation of every Muslim conscience to every order from every authority. This is not restricted to political leaders but applies to the ulumâ as well. It means the rights of the individual are the final reality of which Ibn Taymiyyah wants us to be aware. For Ibn Taymiyyah, the mufti, the military, can speak of different things and no authority can force any creed or ideological program (to use modern language) as long as the people are pure in their niyyah (intention). The only option is education [or persuasion]. He reminds us of John Milton who said if we got rid of Rome it was not so the parliament in London will impose upon us another creed.

Such responsibility is for community at large is popular theocracy. When there is no popular consensus then we must accept the ijtihad of all respect their individual judgments. The rule becomes respect for diversity. The problem, says Ibn Taymiyyah, is not ijtihad but baghy, or impudence, the arrogance of concluding that one’s own judgment is the absolute truth. One of the duties of Muslim authority is to protect this diversity, not only protecting Muslims from each other, but protecting the non-Muslims from the Muslims. The one in charge hasn’t the right to force anybody to accept anything said by anyone else, including the ruler. If this is the view of the so-called father of Islamic extremism, then how can we even THINK of imposing the Sharia from on high? To claim Ibn Taymiyyah advocated the “imposition of Shari” from the top is the worst form of misrepresentation of the thought of a complex thinker.

In my book on Ibn Taymiyyah I give the example of how between the Jews who can eat almost nothing, and the Christians who can eat almost everything “from the ant to the elephant,” is Islam with its moderate dietary laws. More basic theological questions like “Is God hesitating?” refers to the hadith that God never hesitates so much as when He must condemn a human being. He speaks of the necessity to reconcile love and obedience as the theology of love. He comments on the fake hadith “I would not have created the heavenly spheres” except for Muhammad using Aristotelian arguments. The Prophet observed the funeral payer of Najashi against the will of his companions, an illustration of the fact that we have no way of knowing who is a Muslim in his heart. Quoting, “Why would I not serve al-Ma’mun when Joseph served Pharoah [actually the king of Egypt]?” Ibn Taymiyyah adds that the Muslims in a non-Muslim society must not only pursue justice, but ihsân, and to will the best for the society in which they live. If this is extremism, it has much to teach us.

Chair: Dr. Jamal Barzinji

It is fascinating to see a Sufi defend Ibn Taymiyyah who has been co-opted by the Wahabis or Salafis, or whatever you want to call them.

Discussant: Imam Feisal Rauf

I am hopeful that my book on the conclusions of a panel of scholars on the definition of an Islamic state shall be soon published. An Islamic state acknowledges God as sovereign in two ways: the supremacy of the Sharia and the sovereignty of popular will as it correctly implements the divine will. Traditionally, we didn’t speak of the Qur’an or hadith as actors, we speak of God or the Prophet or the scholars as actors. But today we speak of concepts as actors, which introduces a fundamental systemic error, most important of them is the conflation of our understanding with the absolute truth. It was said the hakim must be wise, pious (taqiyy), and just (`âdil). Ahmad Shalaby demonstrates how a Muslim can influence U.S. policy. The emphasis on obedience to law of the land was demonstrated by the Muslims in Abyssinia and also in the means by which Joseph took his brother under Din al-Malik.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad: I think this change of language is a positive step. I think Shalaby is a bad example of HOW to influence American policy. Interestingly, the flaw demonstrates the wisdom of Ibn Taymiyyah’s insights.

Discussant: Dr. Jasser Auda

I tried to quote Ibn Taymiyyah one time and a long-bearded short-robed brother objected saying “Ibn Taymiyyah is ours, not yours.” I really admire the reference to the freethinking of the Prophet and how Ibn Tamiyyah promotes authority, but not absolute authority, empowering the ummah. I think we need to go beyond how modern Islamic thought is, so that Islamic thought can push the limits of these concepts. It can help us redefine the state rather than apologize for the Machiavellian definition related to coercive power. Post uprisings in the Arab world, people are looking for ways of redefining authority and power and going beyond borders. The young people do not want to see Islam as compatible with modern definitions of state but to make a positive contribution. The authority of the state is not like the authority of the shepherd, for when the sheep say no the shepherd slaughters them. We are not sheep and the state is not are shepherd; it should be our servant. Coercive power has not done us much good in the Muslim world. Protecting borders and national security has lead to betrayals of justice. If a state achieves maqâsid ash-shariah better than another it is more Islamic.

General Discussion.

Ibn Taymiyyah more than earned his title as shaikh-al-Islam (the most learned doctor of Islamic learning) because people can find in Ibn Taymiyyah what they want. Was his opposition to absolute knowledge really a positive statement of his own understanding or a refutation of a Shia position? Muhmmad Abduh is responsible for the term Salafism, and he was an exponent of Islamic openness. Perhaps Dr. Michot’s next book will be what in Ibn Taymiyyah supports extremism.

These ideas are not restricted to a criticism of Shia, and he meant them in a perfectly general way. I think it is his epistemology put in opposition not only to Ilkhanid Iran but as a challenge even to the absolute knowledge of the Prophet in particulars and it can be used to refute the claims that Islam (as understood) is valid in every time and place.

I recommend The Wisdom of Crowds.

I am skeptical of the baggage with the term theocracy. Is popular theocracy really a term Ibn Taymiyyah used? I think he focused on maqâsid al-waliyya because he criticized those who wanted people to stay away from politics altogether, saying that to the contrary Islam is a political project.

This is a mistitled paper whether we view ethics in the contemporary Western sense or the classic Islamic sense. Governance is the exercise of authority. Good governance is about the legitimate exercise and underneath that comes the questions of definition of state and legitimacy. The questions of legitimacy of government in his time are not so different from the questions facing the Arab spring.

I kept thinking how Ibn Taymiyyah captures the spirit of the US anti-war movement in the U.S. in the 60’s.

How can the ummah to lead itself in the absence of learned leaders? If we agree that planting the Muslim flag on the White House lawn is a bad idea, why then did you want to build a mosque near ground zero?

What is the definition of ummah that Ibn Taymiyyah is using in the term willayat al ummah? Is it not the knowledgeable elite rather than the masses who must guide?

Popular theocray is the equivalent of al-hukmal-illat (divine governance). Popular because in Ibn Taymiyyah what the ummah commands is the command of God. If you would rather call it bibliocracy, do so, but I think you can call it secular theocracy or theocracie laicité because laicité means popular. I know of no term in the classical literature that coincides with the modern notion of state, so I still prefer the shepherd. Every prophet was shepherd. Did they kill their flocks? No. We see the flock following the shepherd naturally because they see it serves their interests, although they do so each at his own pace and along his own track. Ibn Taymiyyah explains this clearly. This notion of siyâsa has nothing to do with the Greek state but with the Arab pastoral notion. Our objective should not be to redefine the state but to get rid of it and replacing it with a new path for the ummah to follow. Shariah doesn’t mean law. Qanûn, imported from the Greek was used for law. Ibn Taymiyyah is very useful in the time after the Arab spring. He opens the discussion of leadership with the hadith that when three of travel appoint one as amir.

Ibn Taymiyyah doesn’t need a Shafi to find the hadith on consensus. There are many hadith including the one that Shaitan is further away from two Muslims than one. If we say Ibn Taymiyyah influenced Muhammad Ibn Wahab, we have skipped everyone in between. It’s like saying Stalin is Hegel, forgetting Marx, Lenin, etc. It is historically and academically incorrect.

God protect us from the new Mu`tazaila. I think any community would be better if the elites were in closer contact with it. I believe there is more wisdom in the mass of Muslims than the elites meeting in the big hotels.

This glorification of the ummah reminds me of Ronald Reagan’s “We the people”–

It is also the Constitution!

In the Islamist slogan “Dîn wa Dawla,” dawla mans state.

This title can be understood to mean Islam replaces religion and state.

I was stuck by the reference to the conscience of the individual soldier in the rejection of the state. How does Ibn Taymiyyah see the military in this context?

What is the next step? How do we as scholars use this information that I’ve seen many times but doesn’t come across to Wahhabi shaikhs?

If the individual is the ultimate actor, what does this say about armed revolution? The classical scholars were at best conservative or at worst condoned oppression.

How do you operationalize this?

I differ on this concept of the shepherd. The human was honored by Allah subhana wa ta`ala, and are not like sheep.

Ibn Taymiyyah refers to the soldier as an example of an ignorant person who nonetheless needs his opinion to be respected. There must be mutual support between religion and those in charge of the affairs of the community, but in what form such support is manifested is subject for debate. We take for granted many things that are recent in our history. Let’s take what the companions say about how the Prophet led them. It is not I who says every one of you is a shepherd and every one of you will have a flock. Those metaphors come from the Prophet himself. I think animals that form communities like us should be taken into consideration, but the main point should not be lost that you cannot claim to be an imam if no one prays behind you. The leader is not called amîr, but is called ajîr, the one who is paid to do a job. If an unjust ruler gives you a command to kill someone unjustly, your duty as a Muslim is to disobey this command. If you are going to be killed for disobeying this command, is your life more valuable than the one you have been ordered to kill? We don’t need Gandhi in Islam; we have plenty of guidance in the prophetic texts and the writings of the scholars. In the Arab spring the Egyptian people have become a bit more Islamic. There was more Islam in the Tahrir Square demonstrations than in the assassination of Sadat. The best jihad to is to speak the truth to an unjust ruler.

Government is about political power. We must address the relationship of religious authority and political power. We must be players, not on the margins. The notion of a corporate nation state did not occur in our heritage until a few centuries ago. It was about the relationship of haqq and mahqûm. The concept of an Islamic state is at some level incoherent. We can understand an Islamic individual, but what is an Islamic state? How is it that Ibn Taymiyyah is now considered as a spokesman for extremism is the same question as to how is it that Islam is now considered a religion of terrorism?

The concept of the nation state was exported to us. We will not get rid of it overnight without disastrous consequences. Start with mass peaceful rejection of the current system (rather than the regime) and move to reforms that bring a looser model that leads eventually to the ideal.

The hadith al ra’i ar-ra’iyya never mentions sheep. Look at corporate America today. Everyone is ra’i ar-ra’iyya without any sheep. Muslims in America are an untapped resource for public policy.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

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