The fate of one who resisted the new synthesis of Sunnīsm, Ṡūfism and Scholasticism in which al-Ghazālī had played such an important role is illustrated by the career of Tagī al-Dīn Ahmad ibn Taymīya (died A.H. 728/A.D. 1328), a Ḥanbalī of Damascus in the Mamlūk Sultanate, following the Mongol invasions of Iran and Iraq.
The Ḥanbalī School, or at least its right wing, had remained aloof from the rationalism of the Mutakallimīn, and Ibn Taymīya came from a family of old Ḥanbalī traditions. At the same time, he considered himself a mujtahid, a doctor of the school with a right to form independent judgments from first principles--and this at a time when most of the ‘ulamā’ held that the "doors of interpretation" (ijtihād) were closed.
He abominated the subservience of the ‘ulamā’ of his time, and the growing cult of saints; he held that to make a special visit even to the tomb of the Prophet, let alone some dead Ṡūfī, was an idolatrous innovation. Most of his writings are in the form of controversial tracts attacking the accepted order of things.
Such a man was almost predestined for prison. He spent years in the fortresses of Damascus, Cairo and Alexandria, for intemperate statements about the Ash‘arīya, and for Ḥanbalī statements on the nature of God which smacked of the deprecable old anthropomorphism of that school. And he used his confinement to turn out more works attacking and refuting his detractors, until they had him deprived of ink and paper. The blow is said to have killed him within a month.
By school and by conviction, he is a fundamentalist,
calling for return to the Qur’ān and the Sunna, attacking innovation. But his position is skillfully argued and defended, and at all times his preoccupation is to resuscitate the moral dynamism of Islam. This, and not scholastic argument, is his real concern, skillful polemicist though he was. The earnestness, the conviction of the early Sūfīs is his too, and he approves them in his writings. But he sounds always a few leading ideas: God, despite the reality of His attributes, is far above anything man can conceive; mysterium tremendum. Contrary to the philosophers, the Sūfīs and al-Ghazālī, man's purpose is not to know Him, but to obey Him. Concern with obedience leads him also to a viewpoint less deterministic than the Ash‘arīya.
Hence Ibn Taymīya's importance for the Muslim modernists. Almost disregarded in his own days as a crank, he has become the inspiration of the revivalists. His doctrines were behind the rise of the Wahhabi movement which began in the mid-eighteenth century in Arabia and has brought the House of Sa‘ūd to power, and they have guided the modern Azharīs, the Salafīya and the Muslim brotherhood. One reason for this is that many modern Muslims see their society as marred today by traditionally sanctioned "backwardness" and superstition. Ibn Taymīya's independence of approach in religious questions sweeps away medieval accretions, whether gracious or graceless. In the following, by restricting ijmā‘ (Consensus, the practice of the Community historically accepted) to only such matters as may be textually backed by Qur’ān or approved Ḥadīth, he blandly cuts the nerves of the whole Islamic establishment of his time.
Consensus: The Ṡūfīs have built their doctrine on desire (al-irāda) and that is indispensable--but on the condition that it is the desire to serve God alone in what He has commanded. The exponents of kalām have built their doctrine on reason, which leads to knowledge, and it is also indispensable--providing that it is knowledge of those things about which the Messenger has informed us, and reasoning about the sure things which he indicated--Divine Revelation. Both of these conditions are indispensable (to right use of desire and knowledge).
Whoever seeks knowledge without desire, or desire without knowledge is in error, and whoever seeks them both without following the Prophet is also in error.
Desire is only profitable if it is the desire to serve God according to the Law He laid down, not with heretical innovation. 13
It is similar with those who part with the Prophet and follow a way other than that of the believers. Whoever parts with him does not follow their way--and this is obvious. And whoever has followed another way has separated from the Prophet, and exposed himself to the Divine Threat (wa‘īd). Whoever departs from the consensus of the Muslims has followed another way absolutely, and accordingly exposed himself to the Divine Threat. If it says they are only to blame if they separate from the way of the Prophet, we reply: The two things are bound together, because everything in which Muslims agree must be backed by texts from the Messenger of God, so that whoever opposes them opposes the Messenger, and whoever opposes the Messenger opposes God. It necessarily follows that everything the Muslims agree on was clearly revealed through the Messenger, and that is the truth.
So there is absolutely no question on which they unite which has not been clearly demonstrated by the Messenger, but this has escaped some people, and they know of Consensus and point to it as one would point to a text, without knowing the text. Consensus is a second proof added to the text, like an example. Whatever Consensus indicates is indicated
by the Book and the Sunna. All that the Qur’ān indicates also came from the Prophet, since the Qur’ān and the Sunna both came through him, so there can be no question on which Muslims agree not based on a text.
The Companions had an understanding of the Qur’ān hidden from the moderns . . . who now seek for precepts in what they believe about Consensus and Logical Analogy (qiyās). Whatever modern says that Consensus is the basis of the greater part of the Law has given himself away, for it is lack of knowledge of the Book and the Sunna which obliges him to say it. Similarly when they hold that new events require use of logical analogy for interpretation, because there is no indication in the texts--that is only the statement of one who has no knowledge of Book or Sunna, with their clear rules for making all judgments. . . .
It is often, or even usually, impossible to know what is Consensus--for who can encompass all the opinions of all religious experts (mujtahidīn)? Quite the contrary with the texts; knowledge of these is possible, and easy by comparison. The ancients (salaf) judged by the Book first, since the Sunna would not contradict the Qur’ān . . . if there is anything abrogated in the Qur’ān, the abrogation is written there. . . . If an answer is not found in the Qur’ān, one should look in the Sunna, and . . . there is nothing there which is abrogated, by Consensus or anything else . . . for true Consensus cannot contradict the Qur’ān and the Sunna. 14
The Necessity of the Legal Punishments (Ḥudūd): It is not permissible when guilt is established by proof or by witness to suspend the legal punishment, either by remitting it or by substituting a fine or any other thing: the hand (of a thief) must be cut off, for the application of the punishments is one of the acts of cult (‘ibādāt), like the Holy War in the Way of God, and it must be kept in mind that the application of legal sanctions is one of the acts of God's mercy, so that the ruler must be strict by applying it and let no compassion deter or delay him in the observance of God's religion. Let his goal be to have mercy on God's creatures by deterring men from
things rejected by God, and not to discharge his wrath or gratify his desire for power. 15
The Ḥisba: To bid to good and reject the reprehended is not obligatory on every individual in essence, but is to be carried out as far as is possible, and since the Holy War is its completion, it is exactly like the Holy War. Any man who performs his (other) duties and does not fight the Holy War sins; and every one must act according to his ability, as the Prophet said: "Whoever sees something reprehensible, let him change it with his own hand, and if he is unable, with his tongue, and if he is unable to do that, in his heart."
So if it is thus, it is known that the bidding to good and the rejection of the reprehended, together with its completion, the Holy War, is one of the most important things we are ordered to perform. 16
Pantheists: God--praises be to Him--is not His own creature, and not a part of His creation or an attribute of it. He is the Praised and Exalted, set apart in His holy Existence, aloof in His glorious Selfhood from all things He has created, and that is what the Books (of the Prophets) have brought . . . and thus God has created His servants, and thus reason attests.
Often have I thought that the appearance of such as these [pantheist Ṡūfīs] is the chief cause for the appearance of the Mongol Tatars and the disappearance of the Law of Islam, and that they are the vanguard of Antichrist the One-eyed, the Great Liar who shall assert that he is God. 17
On Philosophy and al-Ghazālī: According to the so-called philosophers, there are three kinds of happiness; sensual, imaginative, and intellectual which is knowledge. . . . Thus they hold that the happiness of the soul consists in the knowledge of eternal things . . . then they imagine that the heavens . . . (are eternal) and that the soul acquires happiness through knowing them.
Abū Ḥamid (al-Ghazālī) in his works like the Mi‘rāj al-Sālikīn also suggests this. His statements are a bridge between
the Muslims and the philosophers. . . . This is why in his works like the Iḥyā’ he teaches that the goal of all action is only knowledge, which is also the essence of the philosopher's teaching. He magnifies the renunciation of the world which (preoccupies him more) than tawḥīd, which is serving God alone. Tawḥīd alone comprises true love of God. . . .
These so-called philosophers magnify the separation of the soul from the material body, which means renunciation of physical desires and of the world. . . . In pursuance of this, Abū}Amid has divided the mystic path into three stages. . . . What he has made the goal of human life, viz. the knowledge of God, His attributes, His actions, and angels, in his Al-Maḍnūn--which is pure philosophy--is worse than the beliefs of the (old) idolatrous Arabs, let alone of Jews and Christians. 18
210:13 Ma‘ārij al-Wusūl, in Majmū‘ al-Rasā‘il al-Kubra (Cairo, 1905), Vol. I, p. 193. Also in French translation by H. Laoust (Cairo, 1939).
210:14 Ibid., pp. 215-216.
210:15 Al-Siyāsa al-Shar‘īya (Cairo, 1955), p. 98.
210:16 Al-Ḥisba, in Majmū‘ al-Rasā’il al-Kubra, op. cit., p. 66.
210:17 Majmū’ al-Rasā’il wa al-Masā’il (Cairo, 1922), Vol. I, pp. 179-180.
210:18 F. Rahman, Prophecy in Islam (London, 1958), pp. 101-102.