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Islamique Magazine Online | March 29, 2017

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Book Review: Ibn Taymiyya’s ‘Muslims Under Non-Muslim Rule’

Book Review: Ibn Taymiyya’s ‘Muslims Under Non-Muslim Rule’

By Mohammed Aqueel


IBN TAYMIYYA: MUSLIMS UNDER NON-MUSLIM RULE. Translated by Yahya Michot. London: Interface Publications, 2005. Pp. xv+190. ISBN: 9780955454561.

For many years now the religion of Islam has been under the spotlight and vilified by people from all walks of life: from academics to laymen, secularists to religious, political to local and celebrities to common people. Since 9/11 the key focus for certain parts of the media with regards to Islam has been its teaching of radicalisation, fascism, violence, intolerance and terrorism. For leading Western academics, Muslim modernists and ‘progressives’, Ibn Taymiyya is considered the leading exponent of uncompromising violent jihadism.

Shaykh al-Islam Taqi al-Din Ahmad b. ‘Abd al-Halim b. ‘Abd al-Salam b. Taymiyya (661 Hijri /1263 C.E – 728/1328) is one of the most prominent scholars in the history of Islam and according to the author, amongst the most misunderstood and misquoted scholars in the 21st century.[1] He has been accused of anthropomorphism, enmity towards people of Tasawwuf (Spirituality), and creedal deviation from mainstream Sunni Islam.

The US government’s 9/11 Commission Report names the great theologian Ibn Taymiyya as a wellspring of modern Islamist militancy, especially its al-Qaeda brand. The report mentions that Ibn Taymiyya and his likes were “motivated by religion” and who did “not distinguish politics from religion, thus distorting both.”[2] Ibn Taymiyya is not only painted as the protagonist of uncompromising violent jihadism amongst western scholars but a proportionate number of the Muslim world have the same ill-painted picture. They preach their ideas and use Ibn Taymiyya’s works as a fulfilment of their self-centeredness and a weapon for the destruction of the prophetic character; his (peace be upon him) generosity towards his fellow neighbours and his (peace be upon him) kindness to the non-Muslim community of Medina.

In his book ‘Ibn Taymiyya: Muslims under non-Muslim Rule’, Professor Michot overturns this conventional and somewhat simplistic picture of Ibn Taymiyya. The author clarifies this misunderstanding at numerous occasions, and through the publication of this book, he wants to tackle the continuous negative view of Ibn Taymiyya being represented as an unjustly, radical extremist. The author deems it pertinent to write this book so that it may “contribute to correcting the injustice done to his (Ibn Taymiyya’s) name.”[3]

Ironically, the time we live in today can be regarded as similar to that of Ibn Taymiyya, when Muslims in certain regions lived under non-Muslim rule, for example, in the lands occupied by the Crusaders and the Mongols. Turkey’s city Mardin was one of these lands. It was conquered by the Mongols in the mid-seventh/-thirteenth century. The conquering Mongols were later shown loyalty by the Muslim Artuqid dynasty (which was ruling Mardin at the time of the Mongol conquest). Despite Mardin being part of the Mongol empire, there was “no hindrance to the activities of its religious authorities, nor to the apparently normal functioning of its Islamic institutions, whether in connection with teaching or charitable works or fiqh (jurisprudence) or devotional life.”[4]

The author presents close and careful translations of the four Mardin fatwas issued by Ibn Taymiyya on how Muslims should respond when they come under non-Muslim rule. Whether one should pick up arms against the state or surrender? Should one remain if nothing prevents him to practice his religion or leave? What constitutes a domain of Islam and disbelief? Ibn Taymiyya further discusses the case concerning Mardin and not only divides the states as the domain of Islam or the domain of disbelief/war but he recognises a third type, a domain that is ‘composite’[5] of both the above.

He also discusses the term Hijra and sheds light on the misinterpreted ahadith by using inter-textuality in explaining the term. The author looks at various prophetic narrations displayed in Ibn Taymiyya’s works that include the term hijra[6] and concludes that according to Ibn Taymiyya the full meaning that certain words connote is to be sought beyond their apparent sense. “The powers in play on the side of the good and evil must be compared.”[7] The author mentions the complexity of Ibn Taymiyya’s understanding and treatment of the theme of hijra and proves that Ibn Taymiyya was a more open minded, progressive and broad thinker than he is given credit for.

The author exhorts the audience and those who study the works of Ibn Taymiyya to broaden their readings of his work rather than focussing on selected chapters, only then will they be able to get the hermeneutics of his work right. The author states that Ibn Taymiyya should be allowed “to speak for himself through a series of texts that complement and confirm each other,” he further mentions “I did not have to interpret him but could be content to read him.”[8]

The author addresses in a scholarly manner the inconsistent and often unfair accusations of deviancy levelled against Ibn Taymiyya. He further addresses the problem and elucidates the reasons why Ibn Taymiyya’s words are taken out of context. The author doesn’t point the finger at ‘the usual suspect’, Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1206/1792) but says the task of finding the origin of the unfaithfulness to Ibn Taymiyya’s thought and betrayal of his ideas yet remains to be accomplished.[9] However, he does hint towards the Qadizadelis movement in Ottoman Turkey of the eleventh/seventeenth century.

Professor Michot translates passages from six modern authors reflecting on the same question – of what sort of domain do the Muslims live in today – and referring to Ibn Taymiyya. The first six authors Professor Michot came across by his ‘Mardin’ search in google,[10] all adopt a political (in the narrow sense of the term) approach[11] to Ibn Taymiyya’s Mardin fatwa, with the exception of Shaykh al-Kibbi (director of the Imam al-Bukhari Institute of Islamic Law in Beirut). The author contests this farfetched political view taken up of Ibn Taymiyya. He argues that throughout the scholar’s life he never rebelled against the state to the extent that he was sent into prison unjustly more than once and he died in prison but in the face of injustice and oppression of rulers, he embraced patience and abstained from engaging in sedition against them.[12] How can it then be that his fatwa on Mardin was of a political nature?

The Foreword by James Piscatori draws out the fact that Ibn Taymiyya is not the arch-radical that many would like him to be and nor is he “the torchbearer of dissent.”[13] He describes the author as the one who “has turned a lifetime of research to great advantage, presenting a learned corrective to the imaginary construction of the Shaykh al-Islam.”[14]

The quality of the book is further enhanced by the use of many footnotes, some very long, plus a long bibliography and very detailed indexes. The author provides dates of incidences according to both the Hijri and Gregorian calendars. All this, alongside the italicization of Arabic transliterated words and their accurate translations shows the vigour that was exerted in generating such an explanatory and needy piece of work.

A detailed chronology of the life of this Damascene theologian, by a scholar who has engaged in the study of Ibn Taymiyya and his works for a very long time shows that Ibn Taymiyya practised what he preached. By studying his biography one can judge for himself how far modern militancy departs from the orthodox Islamic attitudes exemplified by Ibn Taymiyya.

For this reviewer, this book is rare in its contribution to clarifying the misconceptions surrounding the works of the Shaykh al-Islam.  This book is an essential read for those who want to understand the proper status of Muslims living under non-Muslim rule; secularists, neocons, policy making bodies, think-tanks, students of the ‘war on terror’, those who are working towards improving international relations and those who just want to understand what the dispute is all about.

Equally unique is the author’s humbleness in portraying the works of other writers; the author doesn’t just show their mistakes but also tries to search for a genuine reason for where they had gone wrong. Similarly, the author’s request to the reader for pointing out to him every allusion to the Mardin fatwa or the anti-Mongol fatwas in the post-Taymiyyan writings[15] shows his desire of an honest and fair conclusion.

Finally, the reviewer’s opinion on the layout of this book is that it is not an easy read, however, this does not detract from the excellent scholarship displayed in the book: perhaps if the translation of the four fatwas of Ibn Taymiyya is given before the introduction the reader may find it easier to follow the well versed and descriptive arguments. Alternatively the introduction can be reduced and a further chapter(s) added to help the reader who is not well-read.

This book is of immense importance to the graduates of traditional Islamic institutes. It will enhance their knowledge and will surely help them in answering many of their disquiet questions. Furthermore, it will give them the key to tackling ‘religious radicalisation’, which is becoming one of the major challenges of our time.



[1] Yahya Michot, preface to Ibn Taymiyya: Muslims Under Non-Muslim Rule (London: Interface Publications, 2005), ix.

[2] National Commission On Terrorist Attacks Upon The United States, “The 9/11 Commission Report,” 392.

[3] Yahya Michot, preface to Ibn Taymiyya: Muslims Under Non-Muslim Rule (London: Interface Publications, 2005), ix.

[4] Yahya Michot, Ibn Taymiyya: Muslims Under Non-Muslim Rule (London: Interface Publications, 2005), 4.

[5] Ibid, 23.

[6] Ibid, 11-12.

[7] Ibid, 12,16-17.

[8] Ibid, 48-49.

[9] Ibid, 130.

[10] Ibid, 27.

[11] Ibid, 31,37.

[12] Ibid, 53-54.

[13] James Piscatori, foreword to Ibn Taymiyya: Muslims Under Non-Muslim Rule (London: Interface Publications, 2005), xi.

[14] Ibid, xv.

[15] Yahya Michot, Ibn Taymiyya: Muslims Under Non-Muslim Rule (London: Interface Publications, 2005), 131.

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