Tasawwuf Ibn Taymiyya

Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani

[23] ON TASAWWUF Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728)

His admirers cite this jurist and hadith master of the Hanbali school as an enemy of Sufis, and he is the principal authority in the campaign of “Salafis” responsible for creating the present climate of unwarranted fanaticism and encouragement to ignorance regarding tasawwuf. Yet Ibn Taymiyya was himself a Sufi. However, “Salafis” are careful never to show the Sufi Ibn Taymiyya, who would severely hamper their construction of him as purely anti-Sufi.

Ibn Taymiyya’s discourse on tasawwuf is riddled with contradictions and ambiguities. One might say that even though he levelled all sorts of judgments on Sufis, he was nevertheless unable to deny the greatness of tasawwuf upon which the Community had agreed long before he came along. As a result he is often observed slighting tasawwuf, questioning his Sufi contemporaries, and reducing the primacy of the elite of Muslims to ordinariness, at the same time as he boasts of being a Qadiri Sufi in a direct line of succession to Shaykh `Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani, as we show in the lines that follow.

It should be clear that the reason we quote the following evidence is not because we consider Ibn Taymiyya in any way representative of tasawwuf. In our view he no more represents tasawwuf than he represents the `aqida of Ahl al-Sunna. However, we quote his views only to demonstrate that his misrepresentation by Orientalists and “Salafis” purely as an enemy of tasawwuf does not stand to scrutiny. Regardless of the desires of one group or another, the facts provide clear evidence that Ibn Taymiyya had no choice but to accept tasawwuf and its principles, and that he himself not only claimed to be a Sufi, but also to have been adorned with the cloak (khirqa) of shaykhhood in the Qadiri Sufi Order.

We have already mentioned Ibn Taymiyya’s admiration for `Abd al-Qadir Gilani, to whom he gives the title “my Shaykh” (shaykhuna) and “my Master” (sayyidi) exclusively in his entire Fatawa. Ibn Taymiyya’s sufi inclinations and his reverence for `Abd al-Qadir Gilani can also be seen in his hundred-page commentary on Futuh al-ghayb, covering only five of the seventy-eight sermons of the book, but showing that he considered tasawwuf essential within the life of the Islamic community.1

In his commentary Ibn Taymiyya stresses that the primacy of the Shari`a forms the soundest tradition in tasawwuf, and to argue this point he lists over a dozen early masters, as well as more contemporary shaykhs like his fellow Hanbalis, al-Ansari al-Harawi and `Abd al-Qadir, and the latter’s own shaykh, Hammad al-Dabbas:The upright among the followers of the Path – like the majority of the early shaykhs (shuyukh al-salaf) such as Fudayl ibn `Iyad, Ibrahim ibn Adham, Ma`ruf al-Karkhi, al-Sari al-Saqati, al-Junayd ibn Muhammad, and others of the early teachers, as well as Shaykh Abd al-Qadir, Shaykh Hammad, Shaykh Abu al-Bayan and others of the later masters — do not permit the followers of the Sufi path to depart from the divinely legislated command and prohibition, even were that person to have flown in the air or walked on water.2

Elsewhere also, such as in his al-Risala al-safadiyya, Ibn Taymiyya defends the Sufis as those who belong to the path of the Sunna and represent it in their teachings and writings:The great shaykhs mentioned by Abu `Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami in Tabaqat al-sufiyya, and Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri in al-Risala, were adherents of the school of Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama`a and the school of Ahl al-hadith, such as al-Fudayl ibn `Iyad, al-Junayd ibn Muhammad, Sahl ibn `Abd Allah al-Tustari, `Amr ibn `Uthman al-Makki, Abu `Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Khafif al-Shirazi, and others, and their speech is found in the Sunna, and they composed books about the Sunna.3

In his treatise on the difference between the lawful forms of worship and the innovative forms, entitled Risalat al-`ibadat al-shar`iyya wal-farq baynaha wa bayn al-bid`iyya, Ibn Taymiyya unmistakably states that that the lawful is the method and way of “those who follow the Sufi path” or “the way of self-denial” (zuhd) and those who follow “what is called poverty and tasawwuf”, i.e. the fuqara’ and the Sufis:The lawful is that by which one approaches near to Allah. It is the way of Allah. It is righteousness, obedience, good deeds, charity, and fairness. It is the way of those on the Sufi path (al-salikin), and the method of those intending Allah and worshipping Him; it is that which is travelled by everyone who desires Allah and follows the way of self-denial (zuhd) and religious practice, and what is called poverty and tasawwuf and the like.4

Regarding `Abd al-Qadir’s teaching that the salik or Sufi wayfarer should abstain from permitted desires, Ibn Taymiyya begins by determining that Abd al-Qadir’s intention is that one should give up those permitted things which are not commanded, for there may be a danger in them. But to what extent? If Islam is essentially learning and carrying out the Divine command, then there must be a way for the striver on the path to determine the will of Allah in each particular situation. Ibn Taymiyya concedes that the Qur’an and Sunna cannot explicitly cover every possible specific event in the life of every believer. Yet if the goal of submission of will and desire to Allah is to be accomplished by those seeking Him, there must be a way for the striver to ascertain the Divine command in its particularity.

Ibn Taymiyya’s answer is to apply the legal concept of ijtihad to the spiritual path, specifically to the notion of ilham or inspiration. In his efforts to achieve a union of his will with Allah’s, the true Sufi reaches a state where he desires nothing more than to discover the greater good, the action which is most pleasing and loveable to Allah. When external legal arguments cannot direct him in such matters, he can rely on the standard Sufi notions of private inspiration (ilham) and intuitive perception (dhawq):If the Sufi wayfarer has creatively employed his efforts to the external shar`i indications and sees no clear probability concerning his preferable action, he may then feel inspired, along with his goodness of intention and reverent fear of Allah, to choose one of two actions as superior to the other. This kind of inspiration (ilham) is an indication concerning the truth. It may be even a stronger indication than weak analogies, weak hadiths, weak literalist arguments (zawahir), and weak istisHaab which are employed by many who delve into the principles, differences, and systematizing of fiqh.5

Ibn Taymiyya bases this view on the principle that Allah has put a natural disposition for the truth in mankind, and when this natural disposition has been grounded in the reality of faith and enlightened by Qur’anic teaching, and still the striver on the path is unable to determine the precise will of Allah in specific instances, then his heart will show him the preferable course of action. Such an inspiration, he holds, is one of the strongest authorities possible in the situation. Certainly the striver will sometimes err, falsely guided by his inspiration or intuitive perception of the situation, just as the mujtahid sometimes errs. But, he says, even when the mujtahid or the inspired striver is in error, he is obedient.

Appealing to ilham and dhawq does not mean following one’s own whims or personal preferences.6 In his letter to Nasr al-Manbiji, he qualifies this intuition as “faith-informed” (al-dhawq al-imani). His point is, as in the commentary to the Futuh, that inspirational experience is by nature ambiguous and needs to be qualified and informed by the criteria of the Qur’an and the Sunna. Nor can it lead to a certainty of the truth in his view, but what it can do is give the believer firm grounds for choosing the more probably correct course of action in a given instance and help him to conform his will, in the specific details of his life, to that of his Creator and Commander.7

Other works of his as well abound in praise for Sufi teachings. For example, in his book al-ihtijaj bi al-qadar, he defends the Sufis’ emphasis on love of Allah and their voluntarist rather than intellectual approach to religion as being in agreement with the teachings of the Qur’an , the sound hadith, and the imja` al-salaf:As for the Sufis, they affirm the love (of Allah), and this is more evident among them than all other issues. The basis of their Way is simply will and love. The affirmation of the love of Allah is well-known in the speech of their early and recent masters, just as it is affirmed in the Book and the Sunna and in the agreement of the Salaf.8

Ibn Taymiyya is also notorious for his condemnation of Ibn `Arabi. However, what he condemned was not Ibn `Arabi but a tiny book of his entitled Fusus al-hikam, which forms a single slim volume. As for Ibn `Arabi’s magnum opus, al-Futuhat al-makkiyya (The Meccan divine disclosures), Ibn Taymiyya was no less an admirer of this great work than everyone else in Islam who saw it, as he declares in his letter to Abu al-Fath Nasr al-Munayji (d. 709) published in his the volume entitled Tawhid al-rububiyya of his Fatawa:I was one of those who, previously, used to hold the best opinion of Ibn `Arabi and extol his praise, because of the benefits I saw in his books, such as what he said in many of his books, for example: al-Futuhat, al-Kanh, al-Muhkam al-marbut, al-Durra al-fakhira, Matali` al-nujum, and other such works.9

Ibn Taymiyya goes on to say he changed his opinions, not because of anything in these books, but only after he read the Fusus.

We now turn to the evidence of Ibn Taymiyya’s affiliation with the Qadiri Sufi Way and to his own acknowledgement, as related by his student Ibn `Abd al-Hadi (d. 909), that he had received the Qadiri khirqa or cloak of authority from `Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani through a chain of three shaykhs. These are no other than the three Ibn Qudamas who are among the established authorities in fiqh in the Hanbali school. This information was brought to light by George Makdisi in a series of articles published in the 1970s.10

In a manuscript of the Yusuf ibn `Abd al Hadi al-Hanbali entitled Bad’ al ‘ilqa bi labs al khirqa (The beginning of the shield in the wearing of the Sufi cloak), Ibn Taymiyya is listed within a Sufi spiritual genealogy with other well known Hanbali scholars. The links in this genealogy are, in descending order:

`Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani (d. 561)

  • Abu `Umar ibn Qudama (d. 607)
  • Muwaffaq al Din ibn Qudama (d. 620)

Ibn Abi `Umar ibn Qudama (d. 682)

Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728)

Ibn Qayyim al Jawziyya (d. 751)

Ibn Rajab (d. 795)(Both Abu `Umar ibn Qudama and his brother Muwaffaq al-Din received the khirqa directly from Abd al-Qadir himself.)

Ibn Taymiyya is then quoted by Ibn `Abd al Hadi as affirming his Sufi affiliation both in the Qadiri order and in other Sufi orders:I have worn the Sufi cloak of a number of shaykhs belonging to various tariqas (labistu khirqata at tasawwuf min turuqi jama’atin min al shuyukhi), among them the Shaykh `Abd al-Qadir al Jili, whose tariqa is the greatest of the well known ones.Further on he says:The greatest Sufi Way (ajall al-turuq) is that of my master (sayyidi) `Abd al-Qadir al Jili, may Allah have mercy on him.11

Further corroboration comes from Ibn Taymiyya in one of his own works, as quoted in his al Mas’ala at tabriziyya:labistu al khirqata al-mubarakata li al Shaykh `Abd al-Qadir wa bayni wa baynahu ithanI wore the blessed Sufi cloak of `Abd al-Qadir, there being between him and me two shaykhs.12

Ibn Taymiyya thus affirms that he was an assiduous reader of Ibn `Arabi’s al-Futuhat al-makkiyya; that he considers `Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani his shaykh — he even wrote a commentary on the latter’s Futuh al-ghayb; and that he belongs to the Qadiriyya order and other Sufi orders. What does he say about tasawwuf and Sufis in general?

In his essay entitled al-Sufiyya wa al-fuqara’ and published in the eleventh volume (al Tawassuf) of his Majmu`a fatawa IbnTaymiyya al Kubra, he states:The word sufi was not well-known in the first three centuries but its usage became well-known after that. More than a few Imams and shaykhs spoke about it, such as Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Abu Sulayman al Darani, and others. It has been related that Sufyan al-Thawri used it. Some have also mentioned that concerning Hasan al Basri.13

Ibn Taymiyya then goes on to deduce that tasawwuf originated in Basra among the generations after the tabi`in, because he finds that many of the early Sufis originated from there while he does not find evidence of it elsewhere. In this way he mistakenly reduces tasawwuf to a specific place and time, cutting it off from its links with the time of the Prophet and the Companions. This is one the aberrant conclusions which gives rise, among today’s “Salafis,” to questions such as: “Where in the Qur’an and the Sunna is tasawwuf mentioned?” As Ibn `Ajiba replied to such questioners:The founder of the science of tasawwuf is the Prophet himself to whom Allah taught it by means of revelation and inspiration.14 By Allah’s favor, we have put this issue to rest in our lengthy exposition on the proofs of tasawwuf in the pages above.

Ibn Taymiyya continues:Tasawwuf has realities (haqa’iq) and states of experience (ahwal) which the Sufis mention in their science… Some say that the Sufi is he who purifies himself from anything which distracts him from the remembrance of Allah and who becomes full of reflection about the hereafter, to the point that gold and stones will be the same to him. Others say that tasawwuf is safeguarding of the precious meanings and leaving behind pretensions to fame and vanity, and the like. Thus the meaning of sufi alludes to the meaning of siddiq or one who has reached complete Truthfulness, because the best of human beings after prophets are the siddiqin, as Allah mentioned in the verse:Whoever obeys Allah and the Apostle, they are in the company of those on whom is the grace of Allah: of the prophets, the truthful saints, the martyrs and the righteous; ah, what a beautiful fellowship! (4:69)

They consider, therefore, that after the Prophets there is no one more virtuous than the Sufi, and the Sufi is, in fact, among other kinds of truthful saints, only one kind, who specialized in asceticism and worship (al-sufi huwa fi al haqiqa naw`un min al-siddiqin fahuwa al-siddiq alladhi ikhtassa bi al zuhdi wa al ‘`ibada). The Sufi is “the righteous man of the path,” just as others are called “the righteous ones of the `ulama” and “the righteous ones of the emirs”…[Here Ibn Taymiyya denies the Sufis’ claim that they represent Truthfulness after the Prophets, and he makes their status only one among many of a larger pool of truthful servants. This stems from his earlier premise that tasawwuf originated later and farther than the Sunna of the Prophet. We have already mentioned that this premise was incorrect. All of the Sufis consider that the conveyors of their knowledge and discipline were none other than the Companions and the Successors, who took it from none other than the Prophet himself. In this respect the Sufis and the great Companions and Successors are not differentiated in essence, although they are differentiated in name, by which precedence is given to the Companions and the Successors according to the hadith of the Prophet.

Then Ibn Taymiyya arbitrarily separates Sufis and scholars into two seemingly discrete groups, whereas we have seen that all the Sufis were great scholars, and that many of the greatest scholars were Sufis. Al-Junayd anticipated such high-handed distinctions in his famous statement: “This knowledge of ours is built of the Qur’an and the Sunna.” Also addressing this important mistake in his Tabaqat al-kubra, Sha`rani quotes al-Junayd and goes on to state:Every true Sufi is a scholar is Sacred Law, though the reverse is not necessarily true.15]Some people criticized the Sufis and said that they were innovators and out of the Sunna… but the truth is that they are exercising ijtihad in view of obeying Allah just as others who are obedient to Allah have also done. So from them you will find the Foremost in Nearness (al-sabiq al-muqarrab) by virtue of his striving, while some of them are from the People of the Right Hand… and among those claiming affiliation with them, are those who are unjust to themselves, rebelling against their Lord. These are the sects of innovators and free-thinkers (zindiq) who claim affiliation to the Sufis but in the opinion of the genuine Sufis, they do not belong, for example, al-Hallaj.[Here Ibn Taymiyya’s inappropriate citing of al-Hallaj is far more symptomatic of his own misunderstanding of tasawwuf that it is illustrative of the point he is trying to make. In reality, as `Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi said of al-Hallaj, “his case (among the Sufis) is not clear, though Ibn `Ata’ Allah, Ibn Khafif, and Abu al-Qasim al-Nasir Abadi approved of him.”16 Furthermore, we have already mentioned that major scholars in Ibn Taymiyya’s own school rejected the charges leveled against al-Hallaj, and even considered him a saint, such as Ibn `Aqil and Ibn Qudama. Can it be that Ibn Taymiyya was unaware of all these positions which invalidate his point, or is he merely affecting ignorance?]Tasawwuf has branched out and diversified and the Sufis have become known as three types:

  1. Sufiyyat al haqa’iq: the Sufis of Realities, and these are the ones we mentioned above;
  2. Sufiyyat al arzaq: the funded Sufis who live on the religious endowments of Sufi guest-houses and schools; it is not necessary for them to be among the people of true realities, as this is a very rare thing
  3. Sufiyyat al rasm: the Sufis by appearance only, who are interested in bearing the name and the dress etc.17

About fana’ — a term used by Sufis literally signifying extinction or self-extinction — and the shatahat or sweeping statements of Sufis, Ibn Taymiyya says:This state of love is characterize many of the People of Love of Allah and the People of Seeking (Ahl al irada). A person vanishes to himself in the object of his love — Allah through the intensity of his love. He will recall Allah, not recalling himself, remember Allah and forget himself, take Allah to witness and not take himself to witness, exist in Allah, not to himself. When he reaches that stage, he no longer feels his own existence. That is why he may say in this state: ana al haqq (I am the Truth), or subhani (Glory to Me!), and ma fi al-jubba illa Allah (There is nothing in this cloak except Allah), because he is drunk in the love of Allah and this is a pleasure and happiness that he cannot control…

This matter has in it both truth and falsehood. Yet when someone enters through his fervor a state of ecstatic love (`ishq) for Allah, he will take leave of his mind, and when he enters that state of absentmindedness, he will find himself as if he is accepting the concept of ittihad (union with Allah). I do not consider this a sin, because that person is excused and no one may punish him as he is not aware of what he is doing. The pen does not condemn the crazed person except when he is restored to sanity (and commits the same act). However, when he is in that state and commits wrong, he will come under Allah’s address:O Our Lord, do not take us to task if we forget or make mistakes (2:286), There is no blame on you if you unintentionally make a mistake.18

The story is mentioned of two men whose mutual love was so strong that one day, as one of them fell in the sea, the other one threw himself in behind him. Then the first one asked: “What made you fall here like me?” His friend replied: “I vanished in you and no longer saw myself. I thought you were I and I was you”… Therefore, as long as one is not drunk through something that is prohibited, his action is accepted from him, but if he is drunk through something prohibited (i.e. the intention was bad) then he is not excused.19

The above pages show the great extent of Ibn Taymiyya’s familiarity with the broad lines of tasawwuf. Such knowledge was but part of the complete education of anyone who had a claim to learning in his day and before his time. It did not constitute something extraneous or foreign to the great corpus of the Islamic sciences. And yet, similarly to his case in `aqida which we have unravelled in the previous pages, Ibn Taymiyya’s misunderstanding of tasawwuf massively outweighed his understanding of it. This point was brought to light with quasi-surgical precision by the great Sufi Shaykh Ibn `Ata’ Allah in the debate he held with Ibn Taymiyya in the mosque of al-Azhar in Cairo.

1The commentary is found in volume 10:455-548 of the first Riyadh editionof the Majmu` fatawa Ibn Taymiyya.

2 Majmu` fatawa Ibn Taymiyya 10:516.

3 Ibn Taymiyya, al-Safadiyya (Riyad: matabi` hanifa, 1396/1976) 1:267.

4 Ibn Taymiyya, Majmu`at al-rasa’il wa al-masa’il (Beirut: lajnat al-turath al-`arabi) 5:83.

5 Majmu` fatawa Ibn Taymiyya 10:473-474.

6 Ibid. 10:479.

7 Ibn Taymiyya, Majmu`a al-rasa’il wal-masa’il 1:162.

8 Ibn Taymiyya, al-Ihtijaj bi al-qadar (Cairo: al-matba`a al-salafiyya, 1394/1974) p. 38.

9 Ibn Taymiyya, Tawhid al-rububiyya in Majmu`a al-Fatawa al-kubra (Riyad, 1381) 2:464-465.

10 George Makdisi, “L’isnad initiatique soufi de Muwaffaq ad-Din ibn Qudama,” in Cahiers de l’Herne: Louis Massignon (Paris: Editions de l’Herne, 1970) p. 88-96; “Ibn Taimiya: A Sufi of the Qadiriya Order,” in American Journal of Arabic Studies I (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1974) p. 118-129; “The Hanbali School and Sufism,” in Boletin de la Asociacion Espanola de Orientalistas 15 (Madrid, 1979) p. 115-126.

11 Ibn `Abd al Hadi, Bad’ al ‘ilqa bi labs al khirqa, ms. al-Hadi, Princeton Library Arabic Collection, fols. 154a, 169b, 171b 172a; and Damascus University, copy of original Arabic manuscript, 985H.; also mentioned in at Talyani, manuscript Chester Beatty 3296 (8) in Dublin, fol. 67a.

12 Manuscript Damascus, Zahiriyya #1186 H.

13 Ibn Taymiyya, Majmu`a al-fatawa al-kubra 11:5.

14 Ibn `Ajiba, Iqaz al-himam p. 6.

15 al-Sha`rani, al-Tabaqat al-kubra 1:4.

16 `Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi, Usul al-din p. 315-16.

17 Ibn Taymiyya, Majmu`a al-fatawa al-kubra 11:16-20.

18 Op. cit. 2:396 397.

19 Op. cit. 10:339.

Reproduced with permission from Shaykh M. Hisham Kabbani’s The Repudiation of “Salafi” Innovations (Kazi, 1996) p. 354-366.

Blessings and Peace on the Prophet, his Family, and his Companions