Were Imam Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyyah So Different, After All?

One of the most well-known Islamic websites in the West is operated by a gentleman by the name of Masud Ahmed Khan (http://www.masud.co.uk/). Khan’s site provides a rich repository of insightful articles by English-speaking Muslim intellectuals such as T.J. Winter and Nuh Keller. I have great reverence for Winter and Keller as both have played an instrumental role in enabling young Muslims to rediscover the power, beauty, and sublimity of Islam; indeed the title of my website was inspired by Winter’s invocation of Shakespeare’s famous adage, “Blood is No Argument.” I regard Professor Winter as among the most important and influential thinkers in modern Islam. Keller himself is the translator of an oustanding compendium of Islamic law, entitled, “Reliance of the Traveller,” from which I have derived considerable benefit.

Without wanting to revive the rather tiresome controversy regarding “Salafi” and “madhabi” Islam, I would like to say a few words about an issue of the highest practical significance insofar as it pertains to questions of Islamic tolerance and unity. The controversy between Salafi and madhabi Islam is arguably the most divisive internal conflict within Western Islam; thankfully it remains a largley intellectual (i.e. non-violent) conflict, but nonetheless engenders profound feelings of enmity between the two camps. Among both Salafi and madhabi Muslims there exist very devout and committed Muslims who, in my mind, embody the highest moral principles of modern Islam. Thus, what I wish to say applies exclusively to what I will term “partisan Salafis” and “partisan madhabis.” In spite of the wealth of valuable information Khan’s website provides, the articles contained therein are frequently employed as intellectual weapons by partisan madhabis who are fond of branding Ibn Taymiyyah, his students, and essentially all Salafi Muslims as misguided. Unfortunately, many of Keller’s essays, along with other writers on Khan’s site, include explicit negative references about Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya, and their “Salafi” successors, which has a very divisive effect among Muslims today. My intention here is to present a balanced picture, to show that both sides must be circumspect in condemning their detractors in such categorical language; even more, neither partisan Salafis nor madhabis should disparage the great scholars of pre-modern Islam, of which Imam Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyyah are undoubtedly two. Bear in mind that I make no attempt here to address any particulars of Islamic theology and doctrine, which are highly complex issues that have been the source of controversy going back to medieval Islam, and beyond. They are outside the compass of my understanding.

I have made my strong opposition to partisan Salafi Islam known in several public posts (see “False Conservatism and the Case for Moderation“) and thus my loyalties are emphatically not partial to any one side. Nevertheless, it seems to me that on ritual matters of Islamic jurisprudence the positions of Salafi Muslims, who draw from all four schools of Islamic law, are often better supported by textual evidence and legal reasoning than their madhabi counterparts who insist upon adhering to a single school of jurisprudence–the rational basis for rigid adherence to one school has never made sense to me. In my mind, the main criticism that may be made against partisan Salafism is that it insists that its positions on Islamic law and doctrine are the only correct ones and consequently tends to be highly intolerant of views that depart from its framework, particularly on issues such as understanding God’s Attributes and Islamic fiqh. Moreover, partisan Salafis appear to have a rather antiquated understanding of the Islamic penal code (i.e. death penalty, blasphemy laws, punishment for theft, etc.), not recognizing that practices that had a normative character in the pre-modern world make little sense to apply in the modern context, even from the vantage point of conservative Islamic law. Although these are major defects in my mind, Salafis often have noble and endearing traits. Perhaps if Salafism exhibited a greater degree of tolerance and employed a more flexible jurisprudence, it would stand as a formidable intellectual force within modern Islam. It remain on the fringes of contemporary Islamic thought largely on account of self-inflicted wounds, it seems to me. But what of their madhabi counterparts? My strong belief is that partisan madhabis manifest characteristics that are altogether identical to the partisan Salafis they denounce.

Not satisfied with the hysterical denunciations of Nuh Keller on several prominent Salafi websites, I spent many long hours in the university library as an undergraduate researching Ibn Taymiyyah, Imam Ghazali, Asha’rite theology, and related issues. What I discovered was rather astonishing: I learned that the views of respected Western scholars on Islam were literally the mirror opposite of those espoused by Keller and other contributors to Khan’s site (see below for documentation). In short, these scholars argued that Imam Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyyah were essentially mirror reflections of one another and that neither subscribed to Asha’rite theology; this near-wholesale rejection of Asha’rite thought was thought to represent the proper position of classical Islam in the minds of Western scholars. Indeed, I presented my findings to Keller by way of Masud Ahmed Khan in an e-mail several years ago, but did not receive a response. My genuine love and esteem for Keller notwithstanding, it is undeniable that partisan madhabis, many of whom attend Zaytuna Institute seminars and cite the authority of Keller, Winter, Hamza Yusuf, Imam Ghazali, Imam Nawawi and others, insist that madhabi Islam and Ashar’ite thought represents “traditional Islam as practiced by every Muslim scholar going back to the Prophet (sws),” or some variation thereof. Moreover, they are quick to brand any and all Salafi Muslims as misguided, heterodox, and even “modernist” in their approach to Islam.

Unfortunately, most of these partisans have not undertaken anything approximating an impartial survey of Islamic history and theology; rather, they uncritically recite what Keller, God bless him, and others have written, in a manner altogether similar to partisan Salafis who champion the incendiary essays found on Salafi websites. In short, partisan madhabis maintain that Ibn Taymiyyah’s scholarship was rejected by the consensus of the classical Muslim scholars and that Ash’arite (and to a lesser extent Muturdi) theology represent the orthodox formulation of Islamic doctrine. In so doing, partisan madhabis have adopted a “my scholar is better than yours attitude” vis-a-vis Imam Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyyah, thereby perpetuating the rather shameful habit of treating Muslim scholars like football teams. It is important to note that Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir have consistently come to Ibn Taymiyyah’s public defense and, so far as one can tell, have never uttered an unkind word about him. Hamza Yusuf has consistently shown himself to be a man of the highest moral courage, someone committed to Muslim unity in the most profound sense of the term; a sample of his views of Ibn Taymiyyah may be found in this video lecture. Furthermore, consider the following quote by his dear friend and colleague at Zaytuna College, Zaid Shakir. In his essay, “The Changing Face of Secularism and the Islamic Response,” Shakir writes:

In the West, we will have to prevent the emerging “Traditionalist-Salafi” division from becoming a fundamental, irreconcilable split. One way to do this is to define Ahli al-Sunnah w’al-Jama’ah as broadly and as inclusively as possible, instead of the narrow, exclusive definitions, which dominate current discourse. One such definition is provided by Tahir al-Bagdadi (d. 429 AH) in his book, al-Farq bayn al-Firaq(The Difference Between the Sects). He mentions Ahl al-Sunnah w’al-Jama’ah as being comprised of eight basic groups. These groups accommodate all of the orientations, which serve as the basis for the thought of informed Traditionalists and Salafis.

In light of the foregoing, it is clear that Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir have explicitly distanced themselves from a narrow conception of madhabi Islam. Where, then, is the evidence that the views of partisan madhabis do not align with objective Islamic scholarship and history? Below I’ve provided a small sample of my research. Note that the quotes that follow issue from the most authoritative sources on Islam: George Makdisi, William Montgomery Watt, Henry Laoust, Donald Little, and Ignaz Goldziher. Only the latter may be construed as having anything approximating an anti-Islamic bias–I believe this was Edward Said’s position who seemed to dismiss virtually every Western scholar on Islam and the Arab people as one given to the “Orientalist” enterprise. Notwithstanding Said’s cynicism, I regard these scholars as fair and impartial authorities–far more impartial than partisan Salafis and madhabis who have strong incentive to ignore evidence that upset their respective positions.

Consider first Keller’s position in juxtaposition to Makdisi and Donald Little. Keller writes:

“By the standards of all previous Ahl al-Sunna scholars, it is clear that despite voluminous and influential written legacy, ibn Taymiya cannot be considered an authority on tenents of faith (‘aqida), a field in which he made mistakes profoundly incompatible with the beliefs of Islam, as also with a number of his legal views that violated the scholarly consensus (ijma) of Sunni Muslims.”

Citing the Hanafi scholar Muhammad Zahid al-Kawthari, Keller again writes:

“Whoever thinks that all the scholars of his time joined in a single conspiracy against him from personal envy should rather impugn their own intelligence and understanding, after studying the repugnance of his deviations in beliefs and works, for which he was asked to repent time after time and moved from prison to prison until he passed on to what he’d sent ahead.”

Now contrast Keller’s stance with Professor Donald Little’s view on the attitude of classical Muslim historians toward Ibn Taymiyyah (emphasis added):

Without exception, all of the historians, no matter what their position, training, and specialization show a distinctly favorable attitude toward Ibn Taymiyyah’s words and deeds. So far as has been determined, only al-Dhahabi, Ibn Rajab, and Ibn Hajar record anything at all which might be construed as an uncomplimentary interpretation of Ibn Taymiyyah’s character and activities, and the instances of this are rare even with these three authors. Al-Dhahabi, in fact, speaks of him as farid al-‘asr’, ‘the like of whom he had not seen.”

“For example, Al-Dhahabi claims that the Shaykh (Ibn Taymiyyah) had partisans from ‘the Ulama and virtuous persons among the army and the amirs, the merchants and notables (kumara), and that all the common people loved him because he stood up for their welfare, night and day, by his tongue and his pen…..Who were these enemies? In this particular instance, they were obviously other Syrian Ulama who were jealous of Ibn Taymiyyah’s prestige with the ranking Mamluk office of Syria…As for other groups or classes of enemies, Ibn Kathir specifies the fuqaha, who, he says, were jealous both of Ibn Taymiyyah’s prestige and his piety…Nor is it difficult to understand the envy and jealously attributed to his Ulama colleagues. Not only did he move in powerful company and influence the leaders of the state, his opinions were widely sought and forcefully expressed.”

On the question of Islamic doctrine, Keller states the following regarding Ashar’ite thought:

The Ash‘ari school and Maturidi schools have represented the ‘aqida or “tenets of belief” of the majority of Sunni Muslims for more than a thousand years.”

However, George Makdisi, “acknowledged on a world-wide scale as one of the greatest Arabists and Islamicists of his generation” presents a view altogether different. Consider several excerpts (emphasis added):

In this paper I hope to show also that from Shafi’i and Ibn Hanbal to Ghazzali and Ibn Taimiya, a traditionalist religious movement, fundamentally Islamic, fought for the catholicity of Islam against the elitist exclusivism of kalam, first in its Mu’tazilite, then in its Ash’arite versions.

How then did we arrive at the notion that Ghazzali was an Ash’arite theologian? The notion was conceived in the nineteenth-century studies, especially in that of von Mehren, based on the Tabyin of the Ash’arite propagandists Ibn ‘Asakir.”

I am aware that this conception of Ghazzali as a Shafi’ite without being an Ash’arite will come as a surprise to many. However, we are brought to it not only by Ghazzali’s own words, which should be sufficient, but also by the attitude of Subki as well as that of Ibn Taimiya.

To sum up: the place of Ash’arism in the historical development of Muslim theology has been allotted an exaggerated importance. Whenever this happens in the writing of history, something else is sure to suffer in the process. And the loss, in the final analysis, is our own. The place of traditionalism in the history of Muslim religious thought has been minimized, and its importance overlooked.

Consider W.M. Watt’s position (emphasis mine):

It was only with the growth of interest in Hanbalism stimulated by Henri Laoust that this identification [of the dominance of Asharitie thought] was seen to be inadequate. Under the inspiration of Laoust, George Makdisi published an article in 1962 entitled ‘Ashari and the Asharites in Islamic Religious History’. In this he called attention to the fact that Western Islamists had relied almost exclusively on Asharite sources. This began with the publication in London in two volumes (1842, 1846) of ash-Shahrastani’s work on sects and religion, Kitab al-milal wa-n-nihal, followed by its translation into German in 1850/I. This was a balanced scholarly work and rightly had an immense influence on Western thinking about Islam, but it was not without some bias in favour of Asharism…[thus] the importance of Ash’arites had been exaggerated and the contribution of the ‘traditionalist’ overlooked. This conclusion is in the main to be accepted.”

That is, Little, Makdisi, and Watt present view of Islamic history that directly undercuts Keller’s position. The two viewpoints stand in irreconcilable contradiction. One may argue that these scholars represent voices of an older generation of Orientalists that were bent upon demonstrating that Islam was given to anti-intellectualism. However, the weakness of this argument is four-fold: first, it is a matter of common knowledge that Makdisi is the author of the two most important books on Islam’s contribution to humanism, the university system, and its profound effect on the intellectual development of European thought. See The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West (1990) and earlier The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (1981). Indeed, Keller and others often cite Makdisi’s authority favorably in their published works. Second, W.M. Watt is considered the precursor to John Esposito and others, and regarded even by committed Muslims as among the most balanced Western voices on Islam. One may even say Watt’s books are written with a subtlety and exactitude that leaves the work of his successors appearing rather amateurish. Third, even if it is conceded that these voices were working in pursuit of “culture and imperialism,” as Said was wont to say, it does not follow that their findings are flawed. One must substantively and comprehensively refute their scholarship, which has not been tried, let alone done, to my knowledge. Forth, Makdisi himself states that in advancing his position on Imam Ghazali and his rejection of Ashar’rite theology, he is challenging the conventional view put forth by his Orientalist predecessors. Makdisi is quite emphatic about this point.

I suspect that partisan madhabis will regard my criticism of Khan and others as a show of irreverence. But I hope it is not perceived that way. God is my witness that I love Nuh Keller, but I happen to strongly disagree with his non-conciliatory view of Ibn Taymiyyah and his students, particularly in light of the overwhelming historical evidence that supplants his well-intentioned position. One of the reasons, it seems to me, that many young Muslims have become disabused of religion is because they are taught, either explicitly or implicitly, to keep silent when faced with a genuine dilemma as to what their conscience demands and what they are told by their religious elders. But how can one be asked to abdicate one’s common sense in a false showing of respect and piety? Indeed, the greater show of disrespect, in my mind, would be to remain quiescent while allowing intellectual confusion to pervade within oneself.

Thus the question that must be put to Khan and others is that, if one is so sure that Ibn Taymiyyah was misguided, and that Asharite thought is the proper articulation of traditional Islamic doctrine, why have the most authoritative and impartial sources on Islam said the exact opposite? (See below for more detailed quotes). Do those who dismiss Ibn Taymiyyah and his students as heretical figures have an intellectually robust response to their findings? Perhaps most importantly, will the partisans in the mahabi community cease in their disparagements of Ibn Taymiyyah and those who choose not to follow the precise contours of Asharite theology? Indeed, the absence of tolerance in modern Islam is a two-way street and cannot be laid exclusively at the feet of partisan Salafis; both sides are to blame in equal, or comparable, measure.

My decision to present this research publicly was prompted by a very practical consideration: to quell yet another source of unnecessary internal controversy within contemporary Islam. The present controversy has resulted in a sharp ideological divide among Muslims as evidenced by the abundance of Salafi and madhabi websites devoted to partisan denunciation, and counter-denunciation. Regrettably, it must be said that partisan madhabis suffer from the very attitude of condescension and self-adulation that they rightfully condemn in their Salafi counterparts. Why contemporary Muslims are so bent upon creating infinite sectarian division, I cannot understand. A slight show of tolerance and open-mindedness would have a highly restorative effect upon the world Muslim community.

I end with several additional quotations from the scholars I reference above:

Taken from George Makdisi’s paper, “The Non-Ash’arite Shafi’ism of Abu Hamid Al-Ghazzali“:

“In this paper I hope to show also that from Shafi’i and Ibn Hanbal to Ghazzali and Ibn Taimiya, a traditionalist religious movement, fundamentally Islamic, fought for the catholicity of Islam against the the elitist exclusivism of kalam, first in its Mu’tazilite, then in its Ash’arite versions. Shafi’i had inaugurated this anti-kalaam movement and given it its religious manifesto. Ibn Hanbal followed him carrying the message through to victory. Learned advocates among the Muslim intellectuals sustained the movement’s momentum down through the centuries, with Ibn Hazm, Ghazzali, and Ibn Taimiya being perhaps the most famous among them. These jurisconsult-theologians, in spite of their many differences of opinion, have surprisingly many thoughts and traits in common, including their attitude towards kalam-theology, and their profound admirations for the Fathers of Islam (Salaf), especially Shafi’i and Ibn Hanbal.

“To my knowledge, Ghazzali never once refers to himself as an Ash’arite. Indeed, all signs indicate a different direction. It does not help to say that Ghazzali never once denied affiliation with Ash’arism; for it may also be said that he never affirmed such an affiliation. On the contrary, there is a good reason to doubt it.”

“How then did we arrive at the notion that Ghazzali was an Ash’arite theologian? The notion was conceived in the nineteenth-century studies, especially in that of of von Mehren, based on the Tabyin of the Ash’arite propagandists Ibn ‘Asakir.”

“I am aware that this conception of Ghazzali as a Shafi’ite without being an Ash’arite will come as a surprise to many. However, we are brought to it not only by Ghazzali’s own words, which should be sufficient, but also by the attitude of Subki as well as that of Ibn Taimiya. We are convinced by Subki’s less than enthusiastic attitude towards Ghazzali, by his thinly veiled criticism of the Ihya, by the capital fact that he refuses to accord to the Iqtisad the qualification of a work on theology according to the method of the theologians of kalam…It is precisely for this attitude towards kalam that Ghazzali was attacked by the theologians of Ash’arite kalam and it is for this attitude that the Hanbalite Ibn Taimiya defended him against them. Ibn Taimiya must have recognized in Ghazzali a true disciple of Shafi’i for whom he had the greatest respect.”

Referring elsewhre to the Great Madrasa Nizamiya Makdisi writes, “Ash’arism had no place whatever in this institution.” Makdisi continues:

“For Ghazzali, it is disputation among the faithful on questions of theology that must be avoided, not disputation on questions of law. For this reason he avoids kalam-theology and all that tends to favor its development, especially dialectic and disputation. But since disputation is necessary in legal studies, he sets forth in Ihya the principal conditions that should regulate the practice of this art.”

From George Makdisi’s, “Ash’ari and the Ash’arites in Islamic Religious History”:

“To sum up: the place of Ash’arism in the historical development of Muslim theology has been allotted an exaggerated importance. Whenever this happens in the writing of history, something else is sure to suffer in the process. And the loss, in the final analysis, is our own. The place of traditionalism in the history of Muslim religious thought has been minimized, and its importance overlooked. This misjudgment arises from our ignorance concerning the Ash’arite family, as well as the traditionalist family. We saw in the Hanbalites what the Ash’arites wanted us to see: a small group of backwater theologians, pitifully pitted against the much more numerous and more progressive Shafi’ites, whom we believed to be allied to the Ash’arites. What we failed to see that the Ash’arites were opposed by the Shafi’ites themselves. If the Shafi’ites were not as vocal against Ash’arism as the Hanbalites, it was because their peculiar situation: the majority of the Ash’arites whom they opposed theologically were members of their own school of law. If the Hanbalites were more vocal, in fact the most vocal group among the traditionalists, it was because their members were not involved: they were traditionalists through and through, as well as a recognized sunnite school of law. We have taken it for granted that the Shafi’ite school of law formed the shielding armour of Ash’arism; when in reality, the majority of Shafi’ites regarded Ash’arism as a parasite, and were hard at work ridding themselves of it.”

“Furthermore, we have been misled by the Ash’arite sources into thinking that the enemies of Ash’arism were, on the one hand, Mu’tazilism, the ultrarationalists who divested God of His attributes; and on the other hand, Hanbalism, the ultraconservatives, who were plagued by crass anthropomorphism. This picture was calculated to convince its viewers that Ash’arism was the middleroad orxthodoxy. And so we dutifully became convinced not only of this, but of more, by force of implication. We became convinced that these enemies of Ash’arism were also the enemies of the Shafi’ite school of law. This took us a long way from seeing that the great upheaval between Ash’arism and traditionalism was taking place within the Shafi’ite school itself. The majority of Shaf’ites, who were not Ash’arites, harbored no hatred for Hanbalism. On the contrary, it was with Hanbalites, not with Ash’arites, that the Shafi’ites were in alliance, together with all the other traditionalists, against their common enemy: Ash’arism. The alliance was not a new one; it had been in existence since the days of Mu’tazilism.”

“The great struggle which began in the 11th century was not between Ash’arites and Mu’tazilites, nor even Ash’arites and Hanbalites; it was a struggle of rationalist Ash’arism against the overwhelming traditionalist forces of all sunnite schools of law. That is why, first in Baghdad, and later in Damascus, that stronghold of traditionalism which was the Shafi’ite school of law, proved for the Ash’arites a very hard nut to crack.”

“A theological system, in order to be sanctioned as legitimate, to propagate its doctrine, to provide for its perpetuation, had to be adopted by a legal system. Like all theological systems, Ash’arite theology was in need of such adoption. For there were no endowed theological colleges; hence, no recruiting centers for theological systems; hence, also, the “infiltration” of the schools of law by the schools of theology. This need was clearly understood by all three major theological systems of the period. Traditionalism was safely and solidly entrenched in every one of the schools of law, with the Hanbalite school acting as spearhead of the movement. From this strong position, traditionalism pitted itself against the other two movements: first, Mu’tazilism, in its efforts to infiltrate the Hanafite school of law; then Ash’arism, the object of our present concern, in its efforts to infiltrate the Shafi’ite school.”

“If Ash’arism had triumphed in the middle ages, Ibn ‘Asakir would have had no need to appeal to the Shafi’ite traditionalists in the 12th century; nor would Subki have needed to renew the appeal in the 14 century; nor would traditionalism have kept on the flourishing after it had defeated Ash’arism in Baghdad in the 11th.”

“The very existence of such propaganda as Ibn ‘Asakir’s and Subki’s is a clear indication that the Ash’arites were still struggling for recognition. For these propagandists were not representing orthodoxy interested in attracting stray sheep to the fold; they were representing a group considered to be outside the limits of orthodoxy and desperately trying to get in. Ash’arites in theology, Ibn ‘Asakir and Subki were also two representatives of the important Shafi’ite school of law in their respective periods. These two Shafi’ites were fervent believers in Ash’arism which lacked nothing but legitimacy. The bid for legitimacy in Baghdad had already failed in the eleventh century, and traditionalism had won the day. The struggle for legitimacy was then transferred to Damascus. In order to succeed, our two Damascenes, Ibn ‘Asakir and Subki, had the task of convincing the orthodoxy of their day, an orthodoxy ever clinging tenaciously to the traditionalism of the Ancestors (Salaf), that Ash’arism bore the Ancestor’s stamp of approval. Muslim orthodoxy remained unconvinced. And after the “elucidations” of Ibn ‘Asakir and Subki, two central problems remained as perplexing as ever; namely, the origins of Ash’arism and its early development.”

Taken from Ignaz Goldziher’s, “Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law,” translated by Andras and Ruth Hamori. Goldziher writes:

“Thus at the outset of his creed al-Ashari proclaims himself a Hanbalite. That does not augur a conciliatory position. Indeed, when it comes to speak of the anthropomorphist question, he heaps all his scorn on the rationalists who seek figurative explanations for the concrete terms of the holy scriptures. Not satisfied with the rigor of the orthodox theologian, he also shows himself a grammarian. God himself says, after all, that He revealed the Qur’an in “clear Arabic”; it follows that the Qur’an can only be understood in light of the correct Arabic usage. But when in the world had any Arab ever used the word “hand” to mean “benevolence,” and so on? What Arab has ever employed all those tricks of language that rationalists interpreters want to read into the text in order to despoil the idea of God of all content?

“Abu Hasan Ali b. Ismail al-Ashari says: We seek right guidance from God, in Him is our sufficiency, and there is not might and no power except in God and He is the one upon whom we call for assistance. Now then: When we are asked: ‘Do you say that God has a face?’ we answer: ‘That is what we say, in contradiction of the heretics, for it is written: the face of your Lord endures, in glory and honor (55:27).’ When we are asked ‘Do you say that God has hands?’ we answer ‘That is what we say, for it is written His hand is above their hands (48:10), and also what I created with my two hands (38:75). Moreover it is related that the Prophet of God said: God passed His hand over Adam’s back and extracted his progeny from it, and that he said Allah created him with His hand and created the garden of Eden with His hand, and planted the tree Tuba’ in it with His hand, and wrote the Torah with His hand. And it is written His two hands are stretched form (5:64); and it says in the hadith both His hands are right hands. Literally so, and not otherwise.'”

Goldziher continues:

“To escape crass anthropomorphism, he does, to be sure, insert into his creed the clause that by face, hand, foot, and so on, we are not to understand members of a human body, that all this is to be understood bila kayfa, without asking how (Sec. 6 above). But to add this class is not to mediate; for traditional orthodoxy had held the same view. This was no mediation between Ibn Hanbal and the Mu’tazila; this was–as we could see from al-Ashari’s prefatory declaration–the Mu’tazilite renegade’s unconditional surrender to the standpoint of the traditionalists’ inflexible imam and his followers.”

Upon quoting an Asharite exegete who goes to great lengths to avoid non-metaphorical  interpretation, Goldziher writes:

“Thus it was not excessive on my part to call the efforts brought to bear on this short saying a sampler of exegetical violence. The theologians who made these efforts were not Mu’tazilites, however, but Ash’arites of the purest water. One can imagine the philological wrath the founder himself would have poured out on the heads of his followers.”

Speaking about early Islam’s general aversion to kalam-speculation, Karen Armstrong writes in her book, Islam: A Short History:

“The Qur’an has a negative view of theological speculation, which it calls zannah, self-indulgent whimsy about ineffabe matters that nobody can acertain one way or the other.”

Taken from W. Montgomery Watt ‘s “Islamic Philosophy and Theology“:

“Before giving an account of some of the leading figures in the Ash`arite school it will be helpful to say something about the difficulty of seeing the Ash`arites in an adequate perspective. For long Western scholars tended to identify Ash-arism with theological orthodoxy. It was only with the growth of interest in Hanbalism stimulated by Henri Laoust that this identification was seen to be inadequate. Under the inspiration of Laoust, George Makdisi published an article in 1962 entitled ‘Ashari and the Asharites in Islamic Religious History’. In this he called attention to the fact that Western Islamists had relied almost exclusively on Asharite sources. This began with the publication in London in two volumes (1842, 1846) of ash-Shahrastani’s work on sects and religion, Kitab al-milal wa-n-nihal, followed by its translation into German in 1850/I. This was a balanced scholarly work and rightly had an immense influence on Western thinking about Islam, but it was not without some bias in favour of Asharism.”

He continues:

“Towards the end of the century two other works, both Ash’arite, came to be used for the later history of the school. These were the biographies of Asharite theologians by Ibn Asakir (d.1175) and the biographies of Shafite jurists by as-Subki (d.1370). Makdisi pointed out that both of these, despite an appearance of objectivity, are skilled apologetic works whose aim was to get Asharism acknowledged as having a right to exist within the Shafite legal school. In all legal schools there were ‘traditionalists’ majorities bitterly opposed to kalam or rational theology. The article concluded that the importance of Ash’arites had been exaggerated and the contribution of the ‘traditionalist’ overlooked.This conclusion is in the main to be accepted, and an attempt will be made here to preserve a balance between the various groups of theologians.”

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16 Responses to Were Imam Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyyah So Different, After All?

    • xamda says:

      I have never seen sb so ma’tazilatic and confused than the author who tries to look for evidences to prove that the sun is black! you try to falsify sheikh Nuh keller by quoting Christians or atheists to support your insane argument on Islamic history. ask your mother why ibnu timiya was arrested by the pious muslims. i do not want to offend you but i want you to use your brain. Thanks

  1. Zulfaqar says:

    You are not alone in your observations and I totally agree if you dig deeper, then you find out that not everything is as black and white as some would have us believe. Refreshing to see an unbiased and unpartisan view of the facts around this argument. Keep them coming!

  2. Zikr says:

    Your observations are based on revival of salafism and their opposition to Asharism. nowhere in the article you provide the weakness of traditionalist so your whole article is biased towards traditionalist. cleverly you tried to prove that ghazali was not asha’ri means that traditionalist are right and asharis are wrong. if you will write on ghazali then i am sure that you will attack sufism and then you will prove that ghazali was not as traditionalist as taymiyyah and so ghazali was wrong and taymiyyah was right in representing islam. and i am also sure that while researching on all this you never tried to understand the ashari maturidi methodoly.
    i emphasis that traditionalism is not a representative of traditional islam but is a political rival. and the solution of salafism and its popularity has a political sollution and that is a punishment from God or from a muslim khilafah who will wipe out these violent literalism from earth. Insha Allah. and yes I will not forget to say cleverly that I ‘love’ ibn taymiyyah very much may God not bless him .

    • Ibn Omer says:

      The Shafii, Shaykh Ibn Naasir al-Deen al-Dimashqi wrote a book called al-Radd al-Waafir ‘ala man za’ama anna man sammaa Ibn Taymiyah Shaykh al-Islam kaafir
      , in which he refuted one of the fanaticall Hanafi who claimed that it was not permissible to call Ibn Taymiyah “Shaykh al-Islam”, and that the one who did that was a kaafir. In it he mentioned eighty five imams, and quoted their words, all of whom described Ibn Taymiyah as Shaykh al-Islam –Most of them were Shafii.

      Other than the scholars mentioned by haykh Ibn Naasir al-Deen al-Dimashqi, Mullah Ali Qari Defending Shaykh Ibn Tamiyyah, was the Hanafi Scholar, who rote:
      “I say: Allaah protected them – i.e., Ibn al-Qayyim and his Shaykh Ibn Taymiyah – from this abhorrent accusation. The one who studies Sharh Manaazil al-Saa’ireen by Nadeem al-Baari al-Shaykh ‘Abd-Allaah al-Ansaari, who is the Shaykh of Islam according to the Sufis, will clearly see that they were among Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jamaa’ah and are indeed among the awliya’ (close friends of Allaah) of this ummah. Among what he said in the book mentioned was the following:
      “These words of Shaykh al-Islam highlight his position as a prominent scholar of Ahl al-Sunnah, and his status among scholars, and it demonstrates that he is innocent of what his Jahami enemies accused him of, that he likened Allaah to His creation, as they usually accused the scholars of hadeeth and Sunnah, just as the Raafidis accuse them of being Naasibis, and the Naasibis accuse them of being Raafidis,, and the Mu’tazilah accuse them of being anthropomorphists.That is a legacy of the enemies of the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) who accused him and his companions of having invented a new religion. And this is a legacy of the scholars of hadeeth and Sunnah from their Prophet, that the people of falsehood give them offensive labels. May Allaah sanctify the soul of al-Shaafa’i, who said when he was accused of being a Raafidi: If being a Raafidi means loving the family of Muhammad, then let the two races (of mankind and jinn) bear witness that I am a Raafidi. May Allaah be pleased with our Shaykh Abu’l-‘Abbaas ibn Taymiyah when he said: If being a Naasibi means loving the family of Muhammad, then let the two races (of mankind and jinn) bear witness that I am a Naasibi. May Allaah forgive the third – Ibn al-Qayyim – when he said:
      If being an anthropomorphist means affirming the divine attributes and regarding them as being above the interpretation of a liar, Then praise be to Allaah, I am an anthropomorphist; bring your witnesses.” [Mirqaah al-Mafaateeh by al-Mulla ‘Ali Qaari (8/146, 147)

      Shaykh Islam ibn Taymiyyah was a very generous and forgiving Imam; and it is very sad some people abuse him– to their own detriment– that is:
      Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Do you know who is bankrupt?” They said, “The one without money or goods is bankrupt.” The Prophet said, “Verily, the bankrupt of my nation are those who come on the Day of Resurrection with prayers, fasting, and charity, but also with insults, slander, consuming wealth, shedding blood, and beating others. The oppressed will each be given from his good deeds. If his good deeds run out before justice is fulfilled, then their sins will be cast upon him and he will be thrown into the Hellfire.”.

  3. ibn nathaniel al-hanbali says:

    Well done!!

  4. Arto says:

    Assalamu ‘alaikum.
    Just one thing I would like to ask: What do you mean with the words ‘traditionalism’, ‘traditional’ and ‘traditionalist’ in this article, actually? In which way do you use these words as terms?

  5. Pingback: An Illusion of Intellectualism: Mohamed Ghilan and Neo-Traditional Islam | Desperately Seeking Paradise

  6. Saidur Rahman says:

    I am very much by this research. May Allah accept your endeavor.

  7. Anonymous says:

    “if one is so sure that Ibn Taymiyyah was misguided, and that Asharite thought is the proper articulation of traditional Islamic doctrine, why have the most authoritative and impartial sources on Islam said the exact opposite?”

    Really? Since when did Makdisi, Goldziher et al become the most authoritative and impartial sources on Islam.

  8. Abu Mounir says:

    The truth exists in the eternal word of Allah Almighty – the Quran, and the example of the Prophet (Salaam) – the Hadith. What ever the true, great God-fearing scholars (like Imam Taimiyah and Imam Ghazali) wrote can not be 100 per cent free of error as their knowledge and vision were restricted by the time, circumstances and perspectives of the age they lived in. Only a Prophet’s knowledge and vision, by the mercy of Allah, surpasses the context of time and space.
    When you read the works of Imam Taimiyah or Imam Ghazali (may Allah have mercy on them) don’t you get the feeling that these august men had no other intention but to submit wholly to Allah and call others to the path of Allah in all earnestness and sincerity. Is this not enough? As Hamza Yusuf said there were not just these two great Imams, there were hundreds. I am not bothered about a discord in a Ghazzalian or a Taimiyan. wordlview.
    Anyone whose only intention is to please Allah and follow his Prophet (Salaam) does not bother about discord in the ummah. A true Muslim will hide the discord and focus on the unity. of the ummah. A true Muslim will conceal his brother’s faults and highlight his goodness.

  9. Musa says:

    Assalamu ‘alaikum, brother!

    For someone, who studied rhetoric, it is clear as day light that your arguments are weak. You want us to believe that some “authoritative” scholar(or scholars) disliked or liked ibn Taimiyah and by that construct our attitude towards salafism.

    Ordinary people use reason and logic to differentiate between right and wrong, that what Allah gave us to understand his revelation and tradition of his prophet s.a.w.s. However, you are trying to argue a case of “authority” while dismissing reason and logic.

  10. xamdi says:

    I have never seen sb so ma’tazilatic and confused than the author who tries to look for evidences to prove that the sun is black! you try to falsify sheikh Nuh keller by quoting Christians or atheists to support your insane argument on Islamic history. ask your mother why ibnu timiya was arrested by the pious muslims. i do not want to offend you but i want you to use your brain. Thanks

  11. xamdi says:

    you are munafiq. why reject my comment. you can have million websites and write false things but you cannot change real history and truths.

  12. xamdi says:

    why reject my comments. you are wrong to quote non muslims to support your argument on Islamic history. you reject sheikh Nuh keller and then quote David and other names. are you mad

  13. Anonymous says:

    Subhanallah!
    Habu

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