Who was Ibn Taymiyya really?  Interview with Dominican Brother Adrien Candiard

Who was Ibn Taymiyya really? Interview with Dominican Brother Adrien Candiard

Adrien Candiard, author of the book “The Immediate God. The concept of truth in Ibn Taymiyya's Dar'ta'arud al-'aql wa-l-naql” (Ed. du Cerf)

Far from being a challenge for the renowned Islamologist that he is, illuminating the 21st century in the light of the great lessons learned from the controversies of yesteryear, however heated, constituted an imperative necessity for the Dominican brother, Adrien Candiard.

It required all the erudition, rigor and perseverance of this 41-year-old French priest, a Normalien by training, who lives at the Notre-Dame-du-Rosaire convent of Cairowhere he officiates as csearcher at the Dominican Institute of Oriental Studies, to tackle a major intellectual project for six years: the unprecedented deciphering of the theologian's work Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), whose thought continues to crystallize the debates.

Titled “The immediate God. The concept of truth in Ibn Taymiyya's Dar'ta'arud al-'aql wa-l-naql” (Ed. du Cerf), Brother Adrien Candiard, author of numerous books on spirituality, delivers today, on Oumma, the fruit of his fascinating, scholarly and innovative study on a medieval author who, for having exerted an undeniable influence and still being cited in reference, is paradoxically little read and remains little known.

Before discussing Ibn Taymiyya's thoughts, what were the main stages of his life? In what social and intellectual framework did this theologian evolve?

Ibn Taymiyya spent his entire life in a relatively stable social and political framework, that of the Mamluk State, which since the middle of the 13th century has dominated Egypt and Syria and which represents the most solid element of the Muslim world, particularly since the Muslim East experienced the Mongol invasions.

He was born in Harrān, today in southern Turkey, in 1263, into a family of Hanbalite scholars who quickly left the city to settle in Damascus, for fear of the Mongols. It was in the Hanbalite environment of Damascus that Ibn Taymiyya grew up, but we do not really know of any master who would have had a profound impact on him. Recognized at a very young age for his abilities and knowledge, he was quickly entrusted with teaching duties.

Ibn Taymiyya became involved in public life through his opposition to the Mongol attacks in Syria, between 1300 and 1304. After that, his life was mainly punctuated by his trials and his imprisonments: a polemical spirit, he entered into conflict in particular with the Sufi brotherhoods and the Ashʿarite theologians of his time, which led the authorities to suspect his orthodoxy, particularly on the question of divine attributes.

In reality, his adversaries are more numerous: on several issues, he does not hesitate to argue with the Hanbalite school from which he himself comes. He was imprisoned in Damascus, Cairo and Alexandria, before the Mamluk authorities sent him back to Syria. After a few years of tranquility, Ibn Taymiyya was once again incarcerated in the citadel of Damascus: it was there that he died in 1328.

Ibn Taymiyya was a reader of philosophical works, but what was his real knowledge of philosophy and his position on this discipline?

Ibn Taymiyya consistently presents himself as a resolute adversary of philosophy, which he fights from work to work: for him, far from being a discipline that can flourish within Islam, as authors claim. like Avicenna, philosophy is on the contrary a competing religion with Islam, which instead of the living God prefers to worship concepts, and which listens to Aristotle rather than Muhammad.

This radical opposition does not mean that Ibn Taymiyya ignores his adversaries: his philosophical culture, without being as phenomenal as has been reported, is good.

For many authors opposed to philosophy, reading Avicenna seems sufficient to know the opinion of “philosophers” in general. Ibn Taymiyya does not limit himself to this: he knows various authors first-hand, from Thābit Ibn Qurra to Suhrawardī (d. in 1191). On the other hand, he has no direct knowledge of Greek authors: when he refers to them, it is through summaries which circulate among Arab authors, such as al-Shahrastānī.

On theology, Ibn Taymiyya distinguished himself from the Hambalite school which considered that it had no use. What was his conception of theology?

The relationship of the Hanbalite school to theology is in fact a little more complex. If his reference figure, Ibn Ḥanbal, was indeed distinguished by a frank opposition to the school of theology of his time, Muʿtazilism, positions within the school could vary subsequently, to the point that In the 11th century we find Hanbalite theologians, such as Ibn Ḥāmid (d. in 1012), his disciple Abū Yaʿlā b. al-Farrāʾ (d. in 1066), or the latter's disciple, Ibn ʿAqīl (d. in 1119).

But for the most part, the Hanbali school displays, with regard to discursive theology, an attitude ranging from distrust to condemnation. Ibn Taymiyya stands out from this rejection: although he is in conflict with most of the theologians who preceded him, he does not refuse to recognize the legitimacy of theological questioning.

On the contrary, theology is a necessity: God took the trouble to speak to men in their language, that of the Arabs of the 7th century; but language evolves, which makes the Word of God and that of the Prophet full of ambiguities, from which seemingly insoluble debates arise. The role of the theologian consists of translating eternal truths into a language accessible to all, that of the men of his time.

Regarding his major work, “The Rejection of the Contradiction between Reason and Tradition”, you write that it remains relatively poorly known. How do you explain this ignorance? What was Ibn Taymiyya's position on the debate between revelation and reason?

The work you mention is indeed one of the most important in Ibn Taymiyya's work: it is an all-out attack against the “partisans of reason”, philosophers or theologians who make the human intellect the criterion for interpreting the Word of God. Ibn Taymiyya, on the contrary, tries to demonstrate that it is in the sacred texts, the Koran or the hadiths, that human beings must learn to reason: we find there, according to him, the rules of a more solid as that of Aristotle.

This polemical book of more than four thousand pages, in which Ibn Taymiyya polemicizes directly with around thirty different authors, has long been unknown to researchers, due to the lack of an edition that makes it accessible. We have had a very good Arabic edition since 1979 and since then, researchers have gradually become interested in it: today, we are working on it more and more, despite its imposing volume and its confusing style, all in digressions.

Ibn Taymiyya virulently criticized the work of the mystic Ibn Arabi. What view did he have on Sufism in general?

Ibn Taymiyya is often presented as a resolute opponent of Sufism: this image, without being absolutely false, is in part a projection onto the Middle Ages of the divisions of Islam today, which sees Salafism and Sufism opposing each other. But we must be careful of anachronisms!

It is true that Ibn Taymiyya had trouble with several Sufi groups, which he criticized both for their practices (such as visiting tombs) or for their doctrines: he was particularly energetically opposed to the The influence of the thought of the Andalusian Ibn ʿArabī and his metaphysics considered heterodox on Sufi circles. But nowhere does Ibn Taymiyya condemn Sufism in general, nor does he condemn mysticism in Islam. The hypothesis that he belonged to the Qādiriyya brotherhood has even been put forward – but the question presupposes knowing precisely what it means to be a Sufi in Damascus at the beginning of the 14th century.

Ibn Taymiyya embodies a reference for the contemporary Salafist movement. How did Ibn Taymiyya inspire these politico-religious movements which claim to be Islam, some of which advocate violence?

The uncompromising personality of Ibn Taymiyya as well as his abundant work made him a reference figure for reformers of Islam at different times, in different contexts: we think in particular of Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb in 18th century Arabia. century, or Rashīd Riḍā in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century, inspiration for Salafism.

Subsequently, the assassins of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat, in 1981, cited a fatwa from Ibn Taymiyya to justify their act on a religious level. These uses are not necessarily aberrant (the texts of Ibn Taymiyya lend themselves better to readings of this type than those of the mystical poet Rūmī, for example), but they do not do justice to the historical author, with his true context. : Ibn Taymiyya has been dead for a long time, and he died without knowing anything about terrorism, colonization, or the Palestinian question.

Comments collected by the Oumma editorial staff

Adrien Candiard, author of the book “The Immediate God. The concept of truth in Ibn Taymiyya's Dar'ta'arud al-'aql wa-l-naql” (Ed. du Cerf)