The Role Of Ibn Taymiyya

In particular, there emerged a few late medieval thinkers like the Syrian Hanbalite Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) whose campaign to critique theology was more radical than that found in earlier generations.9 He criticised the very basis of kalam by attacking the notion of definition, that is, specifying a clear and distinct meaning for abstract concepts,and without the possibility of definition there is no possibility of theological discussion, since one is then without the basic materials for such an activity. Ibn Taymiyya directly attacked the Aristotelian notion of definition (hadd) for assuming that there is a basic distinction between essential and accidental properties which a thing has. That is, there are properties everything has which are incidental to its being the sort of thing it is, to be contrasted with properties which are definitive of its being that kind of thing. In order to understand what a thing is we have to be able to distinguish between its essential and merely accidental qualities. According to the philosophers and theologians who used this notion of definition, what it does is to provide us with information about the nature of concepts, not about whether those concepts actually exist. For us to discover whether the latter is the case we need to examine the world and see whether those concepts are actually instantiated. These defining general ideas or universals are taken to have a type of being which is entirely independent of their actual existence in the world of generation and corruption. We can use concepts even if there are no instances of them in our world, and even fictitious concepts have essential and accidental features. In addition to this, Ibn Taymiyya also criticised the notion of syllogism, the basis of reasoning in falsafa and also in kalaam, which, he thought, even were it to be combined with an acceptable notion of definition, would not be capable of working its way to irrefutable conclusions.

Perhaps, though, it would be better to concentrate not on the critique of definition, but rather on the theory of universals which Ibn Taymiyya sees as part and parcel of that critique.10 He is a firm nominalist, and argues that universals should be analysed entirely in terms of the individuals which constitute them. We can construct universals, but we should always be aware that they are merely a shorthand for grouping together particulars, and possess no independent existence of their own. The trouble with the kalam folk, Peripatetics, mystics and the ishmqis is that they all use universal notions as though these represent something which really exists. We should be aware, he tells us, of the role of God in creating the particulars out of which the universals are abstracted, and not go on to make the next mistake of assuming that the universals have independent existence and in fact influence or restrict the activity of God.

The notion of definition underpins what looks like the independent existence of the essences;but it might be argued that there is no problem in being a nominalist and combining this with the Aristotelian notion of a universal. There is nothing wrong with generalising over individuals and constructing as a result a universal concept, which then represents the common features which all the particulars possess. Of course, for a nominalist like Ibn Taymiyya the problem would ensue that one could never be sure that one had really acquired an accurate view of what the particulars had in common, so that any such construction of universals would need to be provisional. This is the problem with the notion of the definition, in that we would never know whether we were correct in distinguishing between its essential and its accidental properties, since our experience will hardly be a useful guide to this distinction. Experience would give us evidence of the existence of objects, but what features they must possess and which they could do without, and still be the same sort of object, is not information provided by experience. Knowledge should be identified with our experience and its basis in divine grace. Ibn Taymiyya uses this theory to develop an account of how one must trust certain kinds of authority on the meaning of the Qur'an by going straight to the interpretive tradition itself, as opposed to reason ('aql). All that can be acquired through reason is confusion and contradiction. It is revelation which provides a secure source of information and instruction, and any attempt to replace or supplement revelation by having recourse to logic is to be avoided. The idea that revelation could be supplemented is unacceptable to him, and he was just as hostile to the forms of Sufism which he saw as transgressing the bounds of what can be said and known about the nature of reality, and our place in it, as he was of logic, philosophy and theology of the more ambitious variety.

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