Tasawwuf al-Iskandari

ON TASAWWUF Ibn `Ata’ Allah al-Iskandari (d. 709)

The Debate with Ibn Taymiyya

One of the great sufi imams who was also known as a muhaddith, preacher, and Maliki jurist, Abu al-Fadl Ibn `Ata Allah al-Iskandari (d. 709) is the author of al-Hikam (Aphorisms), Miftah al-falah (The key to success), al-Qasd al-mujarrad fi ma`rifat al-ism al-mufrad (The pure goal concerning knowledge of the Unique Name), Taj al-`arus al-hawi li tadhhib al-nufus (The bride’s crown containing the discipline of souls), `Unwan al-tawfiq fi adab al-tariq (The sign of success concerning the discipline of the path), the biographical al-Lata’if fi manaqib Abi al-`Abbas al-Mursi wa shaykhihi Abi al-Hasan (The subtle blessings in the saintly lives of Abu al-`Abbas al-Mursi and his master Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili), and others. He was Abu al-`Abbas al-Mursi’s (d. 686) student and the second successor of the Sufi founder, Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili.

Ibn `Ata’ Allah was one of those who confronted Ibn Taymiyya for his excesses in attacking those of the Sufis with whom he disagreed. He never refers to Ibn Taymiyya by name in his works, but it is clearly of him that he speaks when he says, in his Lata’if, that Allah has put the Sufis to the test through what he terms “the scholars of external learning.”1 In the pages below are the first English translation of a historical account which took place between the two.

Text of the Debate

From Usul al-Wusulby Muhammad Zaki Ibrahim Ibn Kathir, Ibn al-Athir, and other authors of biographical dictionaries and biographies have transmitted to us this authentic historical debate.2 It gives an idea of the ethics of debate among the people of learning. It documents the controversy between a pivotal personality in tasawwuf, Shaykh Ahmad Ibn Ata’ Allah al-Iskandari, and an equally important person of the so-called “Salafi” movement, Shaykh Ahmad Ibn `Abd al-Halim Ibn Taymiyya during the Mamluke era in Egypt under the reign of the Sultan Muhammad Ibn Qalawun (al-Malik al-Nasir).

The Testimony of Ibn Taymiyya to Ibn `Ata’ Allah: Shaykh Ibn Taymiyya had been imprisoned in Alexandria. When the Sultan pardoned him, he came back to Cairo. At the time of the evening prayer he went to al-Azhar mosque where salat al-maghrib was being led by Shaykh Ahmad Ibn `Ata Allah al-Iskandari. Following the prayer, Ibn `Ata’ Allah was surprised to discover that Ibn Taymiyya had been praying behind him. Greeting him with a smile, the Sufi shaykh cordially welcomed Ibn Taymiyya’s arrival to Cairo, saying: “as-Salamu alaykum”. Then Ibn `Ata’ Allah started to talk with the learned visitor.

Ibn `Ata’ Allah: “Ordinarily, I pray the evening prayer in the Mosque of Imam Husayn and the night prayer here. But look how the Divine plan works itself out! Allah has ordained that I should be the first one to greet you (after your return to Cairo). Tell me, O faqih, do you blame me for what happened?

Ibn Taymiyya: “I know you intended me no harm, but our differences of opinion still stand. In any case, whoever has harmed me in any way, from this day on I hereby exonerate and free him from any blame in the matter.”

Ibn `Ata’ Allah: “What is it you know about me, Shaykh Ibn Taymiyya?”

Ibn Taymiyya: “I know you to be a man of scrupulous piety, abundant learning, integrity and truthfulness in speech. I bear witness that I have seen no one like you either in Egypt or Syria who loves Allah more nor who is more self-effacing in Him nor who is more obedient in carrying out what He has commanded and in refraining from what He has forbidden. Nevertheless, we have our differences. What do you know about me? Are you claiming that I am misguided when I deny the validity of calling on anyone save Allah for aid (istighatha)?”

Ibn `Ata’ Allah: “Surely, my dear colleague, you know that istighatha or calling for help is the same as tawassul or seeking a means and asking for intercession (shafa`a); and that the Messenger, on him be peace, is the one whose help is sought since he is our means and he the one whose intercession we seek.”

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