Ibn Taymiyyah:Letters from Prison
All praises are due to Allaah. We praise Him, seek His help, and ask for (His forgiveness. We seek refuge in Allaah from the evil in our souls and from our sinful deeds. Whoever Allaah guides, no one can misguide. And whoever Allaah misguides, no one can guide. I bear witness that there is no one worthy of worship except Allaah. And I bear witness that Muhammad (SAAS) is His servant and Messenger.In their search for worthy examples, people tend to look to the past, hoping to resurrect the legacy of those great and honourable men who contributed greatly to the Ummah through their knowledge, wisdom, and courage. It is said that the people agonise when they find no one of significance to look up to. Fortuitously, society does not solely consist of the living, but also the dead. The greatest of the dead are still alive amongst us. One of those unique men in lslaamic heritage was the dignified Scholar and valiant Mujaahid: Ahmad bin 'Abdul-Haleem bin Taymeeyah. He was one of the most eloquent and truthful men in analysing the lslaamic mentality and methodology. Yet when we return to the lslaamic heritage, we should not be solely and sentimentally attached to the past, without it materializing and forming the basis and drive for our present and future.
Much of the heritage of Shaykh ul-lslaam Ibn Taymeeyah has been published; yet it is still worth appreciating the age in which he lived and some of the features that it enjoyed, and crucially, the reasons behind the sending of the letters that are the subject of this book. The letters are predominantly extracted from two books: Majmoo' ul-Fatawa, and al-'Uqood ud-Durreeyah, and, except the letter to the Christian king, are from his time in prison.Ibn Taymeeyah was born on 10th Rabi al-Awwal 661 AH (1263 CE) in the town of Harran in the province of Jazeerah (1). He was a descendent of a very well known and established family, characterized by excellent memories and beauty of expression. His father, the Shaykh 'Abdul-Haleem was a scholar of hadeeth, and his grandfather was Majdudeen Abul-Barakat, the author of Muntaqa al-Akhbar (2). Says the grandson, "Our grandfather was phenomenal in memorizing hadeeth, narrating them and in knowing people's schools of thought."lbn Taymeeyah was born in an age of great cultural and political upheaval. It was only five years prior to his birth that Baghdad was ravaged and mercilessly destroyed by the Tatars, and his family had to flee to Damascus when he was young. The savagery of those invaders had undoubtedly given the boy a deep hatred of oppression, and further instilled in him courage to fight the enemy.
The age of lbn Taymeeyah was also characterized by the rise of many disciplines. The underlying themes of these sciences, were their depth, breadth, and their authors' attempts to fuse the rising sciences together. Indeed, many of the books resembled encyclopaedias. lbn Taymeeyah had benefited from such an environment, but at the same time he did not content himself to that which he was taught. Instead, he was diligent in learning but maintained an independence of thought. This meant that he was not restricted to one teacher or school of thought, and thereby he gained from all, and produced novel ideas. This search for knowledge led him to be familiar with many of his age's cultures and creeds. He wrote extensively on beliefs, explaining the true one and rebuking those who disagreed; but tafseer (explanation of the Qur'aan) remained the subject that always captivated him. "I might read a hundred interpretations of one verse, but would still ask Allaah's guidance in its comprehension saying, 'Oh teacher of Aadam and lbraaheem teach me!' I would also go to the deserted masjids and ask Allah, 'Oh teacher of lbraaheem! Make me comprehend.'" His contemporaries were quick to recognise his merit, as al-Qadi az-Zamalkaanee gave a true description, "Just as Allaah had made iron soft for Daawood, He made sciences supple for Ibn Taymeeyah's grasp."
Why was Ibn Taymeeyah such a distinguished figure, one might ask. Firstly, there was his constant and unbroken bond with the masses of Muslims, for he was their teacher and mentor, he would resolve their problems and defend their rights in the face of the rulers. He would try to keep them steadfast when their enemies attacked, he would enjoin the good and forbid the evil, and most especially, he was not diverted by mundane worldly matters. Therefore, the whole of his time was devoted to attaining knowledge and participating in jihads. Indeed, it was this strong connection that made the general masses of Damascus love, respect and honour him. Even the most jealous of his enemies were not able to harm him there, but instead they had their chance in Egypt where he was not as well known.These sincere feelings for the affairs of Muslims can be sensed when Shaykh ul-lslaam spoke regarding politics, "Civilisation is rooted in justice, and the consequences of oppression are devastating. Therefore, it is said that Allaah aids the just state even if it is non-Muslim, yet withholds His help from the oppressive state even if it is Muslim." He also said,"There are sincere Muslims who perceive that commanding a high post (3) inevitably leads to love of rule and wealth. Some common Muslims regard the acceptor of such responsibility, as a turning away from the 'religion of mercy and humbleness'. However, the correct attitude is that the appointment of the virtuous serves the Ummah far better than assigning posts to the wicked." His concern was also with the public in economic problems, attacking those who establish monopolies over foodstuffs, "In times of need, the ruler can force people to sell their goods at their original value!"
As the Tatars were approaching Damascus, fear gripped the population and some thought of fleeing. Yet Ibn Taymeeyah rejected such defeatist ideas and instead, he appealed for the people not to depart and to be steadfast. He would say in encouragement to the generals of the army, "Allaah will grant us victory!" and they would respond by asking him to say, "Insh'Allaah," but he would reply, "I say it in certainty and not in mere hope!" Indeed, he participated in the jihaad against the Tatars in the battle of Shaqhab after announcing his famous Fatwa declaring the Tatars kaffir, due to their insistence upon the abandonment of some of the rites of Islaam, even though they pronounced the Shahaadah.
When one of the scholars was imprisoned, and the news reached Ibn Taymeeyah, he personally went and managed the scholar's release, after praising and vindicating him in front of the ruler of Damascus. In another instance, he heard of a man who blasphemed against the Prophet (salallaahu alayhi wa salam), so he stood to forbid the evil, and with the masses supporting him, he wrote the famous book, as-Sarim al-Maslool 'ala Shatem ar-Rasool (4). Furthermore, his deep concern for the Muslims, and his intimate knowledge of their affairs in every country, their conditions, and their nearness or distance to Islaam stands out. This is illustrated in his description of the Muslims in the lands of Sham (5) and Egypt who, were standing firm at his time, defending their lands. "
lf one is to review the affairs of the world, one would inevitably realise that this group in ash-sham and Egypt are the most staunch group upholding the Deen in knowledge, action and jihads. They are relieving the Muslims throughout the world of their obligation of jihaad as they struggle against the hardened disbelievers. The prestige of all Muslims is derived from that group's glory. . ."For the inhabitants of Yemen are weak, and unable or unwilling to carry out jihads, subservient to their rulers, "The Hijaazi peoples are swamped in the depths of innovations and misguidance, and their people of knowledge and faith are weak and subdued. lf that group in ash-Sham and Egypt were to be subjugated - and l seek refuge in Allah from that- then those from Hijaaz would be rendered the most degraded of Allaah's servants."The lands of Africa (6) are led by its Bedouins and they are very wicked, and themselves deserving to be conquered by jihaad. Further on, the lands of the Maghreb are all but occupied by the Europeans, yet Muslims there do not attempt their jihads. Had Tatars occupied those regions, they would have encountered timid people. . ."Therefore, it is clear that it is that group situated in ash-Sham and Egypt who are the vanguard of Islam, their success is an honour for Islaam, and their defeat is a calamity for it."
This lengthy quote is included for its importance and to demonstrate lbn Taymeeyah's up-to-date insight into the affairs of his time, and mistreat ability to interpret the social and psychological condition of the people. Secondly, next to the Shaykh's connection with the masses and knowledge of current affairs, he also possessed a depth of understanding and a high level of alertness. He noticed that, from the end of the second century AH, there existed of a group of Muslims who were fascinated by the philosophies of Plato and the logic of Aristotle (7). That group tried to instil the theories of the philosophers into the pure creed, thereby disfiguring it, so that beneficial knowledge was turned into sterile debate and idle discussion. The abstract theories had never been able to grant felicity to mankind, which wasalways granted in the light of Prophethood. Truly, here is an Imaam uninfected by an inferiority complex that diseased some scholars, past and present.
Thirdly, the letters, which were selected for this book, are another side of Ibn Taymeeyah. A side many people do not know of. Usually, it is his uncompromising stances and truthful, sometimes harsh retorts that are often remembered. However, there is a side of his character that writes a letter to his mother full of concern, leniency and respect. Other letters are for his brothers and students in Damascus, and are characterized by love and advice. He also shows forgiveness towards those who worked to imprison him. Another is a letter full of wisdom, eloquence and firmness to a Christian king. This is the side of his character unknown to many - that of Ibn Taymeeyah, the benevolent man with a heart full of eemaan and mercy.
These letters were predominantly written in prison. But why was such a Shaykhimprisoned? He was neither imprisoned by a non-Muslim state nor by an oppressive ruler. Unfortunately, his gaoling was conspired by some of the envious Shaykhs of his time, "due to his individual distinction in enjoining the good and forbidding the evil, for people's genuine love and adherence to him, and to the large number of his followers." (8) This is along with their asabeeyah (9) to what they themselves wrote in Fiqh or Beliefs, and although some did it with a good intention, they nevertheless all conspired to provoke the ruler against Ibn Taymeeyah, and as a result he was imprisoned in Cairo, Alexandria and Damascus.Herein lies a serious problem. How can a scholar be imprisoned as a result of an ijtihaad, by which he differed from other scholars yet never transgressed beyond the boundaries of ijtihaad, and certainly not outside of Islaam? How is it that we cannot accommodate another opinion by a scholar noted for his love for Allaah and His Messenger? One says this not to solely dig into the past, but because currently, there are similar incidents and this is indeed a very pitiful state. Our hearts should be big enough to encompass disagreements as long as they are not in the areas of innovation, deviation or legislation contradicting Allaah's command. We should not resort to replies and retorts, which show false piety and bravery, or to using titles to give the mistaken impression of a battle being waged against an enemy, as if with swords and not with the words that are being used.
We return to Shaykh ul-Islaam in prison. The story began when he wrote a treatise entitled al-Hamaweeyab in reply to a question from the town of Hama regarding Allaah's Attributes in 698 AH. He was asked to explain the treatise in Damascus in a few public gatherings. There, he informed the Deputy Sultan that what was in the treatise was not novel, but had been written in his own book 'Aqeedah al-Wassiteeyah a few years earlier, and that both books included the beliefs of Ahlus-Sunnah. None could debate or doubt his strong and evidence-based works. The Deputy tried to resolve the objections of other scholars, by announcing that IbnTaymeeyah's works were following the tradition of Imaam Ahmad bin Hanbal. Ibn Taymeeyah rejected this appeasing attitude, and replied that it was the 'Aqeedah of the predecessors, and was not exclusive to Imaam Ahmad.The Shaykhs of Egypt succeeded where their counterparts in Damascus failed. This was due to his credibility and trustworthiness in the second capital Damascus, and his anonymity in the first (Cairo, Egypt). The Shaykhs in Cairo had managed to incite the oppressive ruler, Ruknudeen Baybars the Jashangir whose personal shaykh and mentor, was a fanatical Soofee named Nasr al-Manbaji (10). As a result, a sultanate order was issued to bring Ibn Taymeeyah to Cairo for interrogation in 705 AH. Against the advice of the Deputy Sultan in Damascus, Shaykh ul-Islaam decided to go to Egypt as he saw much benefit in being there. On his day of departure, says his student Ibn 'Abdul-Haadi, "People gathered to bid their farewells, overwhelmed by grief and surprise. . . many weeping." (11)
When Shaykh ul-Islaam arrived in Egypt, a tribunal chaired by the judge Ibn Makhloof al-Maaliki was arranged. However, the Shaykh felt that his arbiter was also his opponent, and thus refused to answer questions. As a result, he was imprisoned in the Mount's Castle in Cairo with his brothers 'Adullaah and 'Abdur-Rahman. In the meantime, he sent a letter to one of his relatives wherein he mentions that he refused the gift of the Sultanate, not wanting to be defiled in anyway.Eighteen months passed before Ibn Taymeeyah was released unconditionally after the intervention of an Arab Prince named Husamudeen bin 'Eesaa in 707AH. There were earlier initiatives that failed, due to Ibn Taymeeyah's captors attempting to attach conditions that were unacceptable to him. After his release, Ibn Taymeeyah stayed in Cairo where he established classes and circles of knowledge in masjids, to benefit the people thereby. Yet those who harboured rotten ideas, feared the light of guidance emanating from the presence of the Shaykh amongst them. After the Sultan received their complaints, he decided to expel Shaykh ul-Islaam back to Syria, but with conditions, which he later accepted at the insistence of his followers. As he was embarking upon his trip, an orderers issued to re-imprison him (12). One must relay the magnificent scene witnessed when Shaykh ul-Islaam was re-jailed,"When he entered prison, he saw the prisoners busy with all kinds of time-wasting games for entertainment, such as chess and dice games, leading to loss of prayer. The Shaykh rebuked them strongly, and commanded them to keep the prayers, and turn towards Allaah in worship, repentance and good deeds. He taught them from the Sunnah what they needed to know, encouraging them to do good, and bolstering their faith, and thereby rendered the prison a haven for seekers of the knowledge of religion. Such a place became better than schools and circles. Some of the released prisoners preferred staying with him rather than being free; and those frequenting his company increased to a point where the prison became full of them!" (13)
This state of affairs did not please the envious, and so he was sent to a prison in Alexandria. Soon afterwards, the self-exiled Sultan Muhammad bin Qalawoon, who had a great deal of respect for the Shaykh returned in triumph. The Sultan asked for Ibn Taymeeyah to be returned to Cairo. When he came to the Sultanate court, it was full of princes and scholars. The Sultan stood up for the Shaykh greeting him warmly, and then took him to a distant corner and asked, "There are amongst those scholars present here, those whose oath was given to the Jashangir (Qalawoon's former rival), and had slandered you.'' He then asked for his opinion (fatwa) to exterminate them. The Shaykh strongly objected and replied, "If they were to go, none of the same calibre could then be found in your country. As for what they have done to me, and my right to extract a punishment, I forgive them, and they are free." (14) And thus the coming of Shaykh ul-Islaam to Cairo was sealed, where he resided near al-Hussayn Masjid, with his ever-present commitment to the spreading of knowledge, and courageous enjoining the good and forbidding the evil.In 712 AH, Ibn Taymeeyah returned to Damascus after an absence of seven years and few days. The Egyptian Army that had been dispatched to block the attack of the Tatars accompanied him. He later resettled in Damascus returning to publicise the knowledge of the religion. Yet again, his opponents would not leave him as he gave a fatwa that contradicted their opinions. This was coupled with what they had found in his book Iqtida 'as-Siraat ul-Mustaqim in the form of a chapter on 'Travelling in order to visit graves' and its unlawfulness according to the texts. By this time, the envious scholars had managed to change the mind of the hitherto sympathetic Sultan, who in turn ordered Ibn Taymeeyah's arrest to the Castle in Damascus. Shaykh ul-lslaam was uttering the verse whilst entering his cell: "And thereupon a wall will be raised between them, with a gate in it. Within it will be grace and mercy, and the outside thereof suffering." Al-Qur'aan 57:13
In prison he continued to write, working on tafseer, reciting the Qur'aan, and worshipping his Lord. He was later refused access to ink, paper and books, and soon after that, the enlightened heart stopped, and the pure soul passed to the grace of its Lord in the confines of prison in 728 AH. May Allaah have mercy on him, please him and be pleased with him. Thus was the story of the reformer and revivalist Imaam. The example of knowledge, jihaad and chivalry...of one who forgave his opponents save those enemies of Allaah and His Messenger.
1. Situated north of Syria and Iraq today.
2. A famous book that Imaam ash-Shawkaanee explained in his Nayl ul-Awtaar.
3. E.g. a judge, a minister, or an administrator.
4. Meaning, "The Drawn Sword on the Blasphemer of the Prophet."
5. The lands of ash-Sham refer to the areas that were historically under the administrational Damascus, Syria, They include today's Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan.
6. The term 'lands of Africa' refers to today's Libya, Tunisia and Algeria.
7. Just as some are captivated by the discourse of the Orientalists today.
8. Ibn Katheer, al-Bidaya wan-Nihaya, vol. 14, pg.37.
9. Meaning unjustified blind following of a certain idea, party or place, belittling and rebuking those who are different. It does not mean mere following.
10. The Sultan then was Muhammad bin Qalawoon, but as he increasingly sensed that the strong man was the Jashangir and not himself, he left to perform Hajj and then settled in Karak (Jordan), in a face-saving exercise, but he returned later.
11. Al-'Uqood ud-Durreeyah, pg. 249.
12. As Allaah says, the Exalted in Might, about the people of Egypt regarding Yoosuf: "Even after they had seen all the signs (of Yoosuf's innocence) that they might as well imprison him for a time." It is also striking how the Shaykh stayed for seven years in Egypt, akin to the seven fertile years that Yoosuf (alayhis salam had told the good tidings of).
13. Al-'Uqood ud-Durreeyah, pg. 269. 14. Ibid. pg. 282.