The book in a nutshell. There are few Muslim thinkers whose legacy has been contested more ferociously than the Hanbalite theologian Taqī al-Dīn Ibn Taymiyya. An iconic figure for a number of contemporary Muslim movements, his influence has been as far-reaching as it has been controversial given his persistent association with groups known for their fundamentalist and extremist tendencies. Yet Ibn Taymiyya often described himself as an advocate, not of the extremes, but of the via media. Similarly, far from touting an unthinking adherence to the scriptural texts, he made a pointed appeal to reason as a source of truth.
My aim in this book is to illuminate Ibn Taymiyya’s intellectual identity by focusing on his contribution to a topic of central significance for Islamic theological history where both hallmarks—his appeal to moderation and his appeal to reason—come together, and this is the debate about the nature and human knowledge of ethical standards. As we often narrate this part of Islamic intellectual history, earlier thinkers debating these questions had splintered into two major groups, Mu‘tazilite and Ash‘arite. Mu‘tazilites had argued for the objectivity of ethical norms and their accessibility to human reason; Ash‘arites for the divine institution of ethical norms and their exclusive accessibility through scripture. Stepping into this polarised field, Ibn Taymiyya announces a via media that eschews these extremes in favour of some third intellectual possibility; and this, crucially, is a via media that incorporates a powerful appeal to reason. Right and wrong, he tells us, are known by reason. Or as he elsewhere rephrases his claim: they are known by human nature (fiṭra).
The story of this book is the story of the attempt to clarify this approach and situate it within its broader context. Accomplishing this task means shedding light on Ibn Taymiyya’s relationship to ethical ideas developed in a number of different genres—not only theology (kalām) but also philosophy and Islamic law—and thus offering a road-map to many of the ethical discussions of the classical period. As I try to show, this is not a story that wears its denouement on its sleeve, and it has several surprises in store for its reader. Both the denouement of the story, and the challenges one encounters in trying to tell it, have important lessons to teach us about Ibn Taymiyya’s identity as a religious thinker.
Reviews. The book has been reviewed in Quaderni di Studi Arabi NS 11 (2016), Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 80 (2017), Journal of Qur'anic Studies 19 (2017), Die Welt des Islams 57 (2017), Der Islam 94 (2017), Journal of the American Oriental Society 138 (2018), Muslim World 108 (2018).
For buying the book, here are some starting places: