Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) on the Conditions and Permissibility of Praying behind “Heterodox” Muslims

Taqī al-Dīn Abūl ‘Abbās ibn Taymīyya (d. 1328), the Damascene theologian and Ḥanbalī jurist, is perhaps one of the most controversial intellectual figures in Islamic history. The following is his fatwa in which he explains his reasoning for the permissibility of “orthodox” (Sunni) Muslims to pray behind “heretical” (mainly Shi’i) Muslims. I ask everyone to think beyond modern paradigms where intra-sectarian tolerance is accepted (however reluctantly) and remember that this fatwa was issued at a time when it was the norm for both Sunni and Shi’i scholars to mutually excommunicate one another and consider the others to be infidels. The fatwa, in many ways, exhibits an important practicality (and one which displays the flexibility of Islamic jurisprudence in general) that I think is worth reflecting on.

I personally think it’s important not because of any position that it espouses (which, it goes without saying, should placed in the fourteenth-century context of cosmopolitan Damascus), but because of the window that if offers into the mindset of this thinker. As staunchly anti-Shi’ite as he was (he wrote several major works against Shiism), Ibn Taymīyya nevertheless seems to be reluctant to extend such ideological hostility to his vision of society, where he seems to consider the problematic consequences that would arise should people refuse to pray behind someone just because they suspect them of being either sinners or innovators. It is also interesting that he goes even further in declaring that even in the case when the sinfulness or heresy of the individual is clear, not only is it permissible to pray behind them, in some cases it even becomes an obligation (so as to avoid an even greater sin of abandoning the congregational prayer). To strengthen his case, he cites three examples from early Islam: a drunken governor, a brutal tyrant, and a heretical rebel, all three of whom led prominent Companions of the Prophet in prayer. Ibn Taymīyya’s logic in citing these precedents seems to be: if they, who are supposed to be the preeminent Muslims, did it, why shouldn’t we?   Continue reading

Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari (d. 936) on Karbala

The eponymous founder of perhaps the most important school of Sunni theology, Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī ibn Ismā‘īl al-Ash‘arī (d. 936) was one of the most influential scholars in medieval Islamic history. He was very well versed in Mu‘tazalite theology and philosophy, but abandoned that school of thought later in his life. His greatest contribution was the formulation of theological principles that would form the core of Sunni orthodoxy and his school of thought—Ash‘arism—was promoted by some of the most important scholars in the Sunni tradition, including Imām al-Ḥaramayn al-Juwaynī (d. 1086), Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1209) among others. The following section which focuses on the martyrdom of al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī (d. 680) is drawn from his main work entitled Maqālāt al-Islāmiyyīn which deals with various historical and theological questions. It reflects the acceptance by a major Sunni scholar in the early tenth century the key elements of the basic “Karbala narrative” which would be elaborate upon in subsequent centuries by various scholars and historians from all schools of thought.


Al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī (may God be pleased with him) rebelled in defiance of the oppression of Yazīd ibn Mu‘āwiya and was killed at Karbala. May God be pleased with him! His story is very well known. He was killed by ‘Umar ibn Sa‘d, who had been sent to fight [al-Ḥusayn] by ‘Ubayd Allāh ibn Ziyād. The head of al-Ḥusayn was carried to Yazīd ibn Mu‘āwiya, who—upon having the head between his hands—poked the lips—the same lips that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) used to kiss—with his staff. Al-Ḥusayn’s children, his daughters and the women of his household were also brought to Yazīd. Those from the Prophet’s family who were killed with al-Ḥusayn included his son ‘Alī al-Akbar and the sons of his brother al-Ḥasan: ‘Abd Allāh ibn al-Ḥasan, al-Qāsim ibn al-Ḥasan and Abū Bakr ibn al-Ḥasan. From among his brothers were killed al-‘Abbās ibn ‘Alī, ‘Abd Allāh ibn ‘Alī, Ja‘far ibn ‘Alī, ‘Uthmān ibn ‘Alī, Abū Bakr ibn ‘Alī, Muhammad ibn ‘Alī (also known as Muhammad al-Asghar). From among the descendants of Ja‘far ibn Abī Ṭālib who were killed were Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Ja‘far and ‘Awn ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Ja‘far. From the sons of ‘Aqīl ibn Abī Ṭālib who were killed were ‘Abd Allāh ibn ‘Aqīl, Muslim ibn ‘Aqīl who was killed in Kufa, ‘Abd al-Rahmān ibn ‘Aqīl, Ja‘far ibn ‘Aqīl and ‘Abd Allāh ibn Muslim ibn ‘Aqīl. [al-Ash‘arī then includes three Arabic laments for al-Ḥusayn by three poets: Ibn Abī Ramh al-Khuzā‘ī, Manṣūr al-Nimirī, and Di‘bal al-Khuzā‘ī].

[al-Ash‘arī, Maqālat al-Islāmiyyīn (Beirut: al-Maktaba al-‘Asriyya, 2009), 1: 76–78]


Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad al-Qurtubi (d. 1273) on Yazid b. Mu’awiya (d. 683)

Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Qurṭubī was one of the most prominent exegetes of the Qur’an in al-Andalus and North Africa during the medieval period. Born in Cordoba in al-Andalus in 1214, he emigrated to Alexandria following the capture of his hometown by Fernando III in 1236. By this time he was already an accomplished Maliki jurist, theologian, and expert on hadith. His exegesis of the Qur’an—over 12 volumes long and entitled al-Jāmi‘ li-Ahkām al-Qur’an—is one of the most influential and comprehensive ever written. He also composed an array of other works, dealing with various theological and legal matters. The following is taken from one of his lesser-known works.


“When mentioning the famous hadith of the Prophet that this community would be destroyed at the hands of young men from the tribe of Quraysh, some have commented and asserted that this (and God knows best!) refers to Yazīd and ‘Ubayd Allāh b. Ziyād and their ilk from amongst the rulers of the Banū Umayya. For these were responsible for the murder of the Family of the Prophet and taking them captive, killing the noblest of the Companions from among the Emigrants and the Helpers in Medina and Mecca and elsewhere…in short, the Banū Umayya completely abandoned the Prophet’s commandments and final testament with regard to [caring for] his family and his community and replaced it with dissension and impiety. For verily they shed their blood, took their women and young children captive, destroyed their homes, slandered their noble status, and made cursing them an established practice and, thus, they opposed the Prophet and did the exact opposite of what he commanded. It shall be with great shame and embarrassment that they shall stand before him [the Prophet] on the Day [of Resurrection].”

[al-Qurṭubī, al-Tadhkira fī Ahwāl al-Mawta wa Umūr al-Ākhira (Beirut, 1987), Vol. 2, p. 643]


Abu Hasan al-Tabari (d. 1110) on Yazid b. Mu’awiya (d. 683)

Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī al-Tabarī, known as Al-Kiyā al-Harrāsī, was an important Iranian Shafi’i jurist and Ash’ari theologian who lived in the early Seljuk period. He was one of the most prominent students of Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwaynī (d. 1085), with whom he studied in Nishapur. He held the position of chief judge during the reign of Malik-Shah (r. 1072–1092) and was one of the most important professors at the Nizamiyya madrasa in Baghdad, the most prestigious learning institution in the Sunni Muslim world. In addition to being a prominent jurist and a senior theologian, he was also a master of prophetic traditions (hadith) and many of the most prominent muhaddithun of Baghdad studied under him. The following fatwa that he issued against Yazīd b. Mu‘āwiya is preserved by Ibn Khallikān (d. 1282) in his Wafayāt al-A‘yān (Biographies of the Notables). Ibn Khallikan was himself a Shafi’i jurist and historian from Irbil in Mesopotamia. As a young man, he studied in Aleppo and Damascus and met the renowned historian and chronicler Ibn al-Athir (d. 1233). He served as chief judge (qādī al-qudāt) of the Shafi’i madhab in Damascus during the Mamluk period. His famous aforementioned work is a monumental biographical dictionary which contains invaluable information about hundreds of Muslim scholars, princes, and poets. It also preserves many important documents—fatwas, epistles, poems etc.—which would otherwise have been lost to the modern historian. The following fatwa, in which Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī al-Tabarī, gives a short answer to a question about the permissibility of cursing Yazīd, is one such document.


“Al-Kiyā al-Harrāsī [Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī al-Tabarī, d. 1110] was once asked about his opinion about Yazīd b. Mu‘āwiya. He replied: “Yazīd is not considered from among the Companions since he was born in the caliphate of ‘Umar [b. al-Khaṭṭāb, r. 634–644], may God be pleased with him. As for the opinions of our early scholars on this issue, Ahmad [b. Ḥanbal] has two opinions: one that Yazīd should be only implicitly cursed and another in which he asserts that he should be openly cursed. Mālik [b. Anas] and Abū Ḥanīfa each have two identical positions on the matter. As for myself, I have only one position and that is that Yazīd should be openly cursed. How can I say anything else when it is well known that Yazīd played backgammon, hunted with leopards, and was addicted to alcohol? His poetry in praise of wine is notorious, and this is an example:

‘When the wine-cup gathered my companions, and the musicians sang to encourage the joys of love

I bade them to fully enjoy the pleasures and delight, for even things which last the longest must end’”

He [al-Kiyā al-Harrāsī] wrote a long response before turning over the letter and writing on the back: “If I had any additional space, I would have written an even lengthier response that would have exposed all the infamies of this man. Signed by so-and-so [‘Alī b. Muhammad].”

[Abū al-‘Abbās b. Khallikān (d. 1282), Wafiyāt al-A’yān wa Anbā’ Abnā’ al-Zamān (Beirut: Dar Sader, 1972 ) edited by Ihsan Abbas, Vol. 3: 287–288]


Poem by al-Farazdaq (d. 730) about Zayn al-Abideen Ali ibn al-Husayn (d. 712)

Imam Zayn al-Abidin (A.S.) went to the Mecca to perform the Hajj pilgrimage. Meanwhile Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik (the crown-prince of the Umayyad dynasty at the time) went there for the same purpose. Hisham tried his best to reach the Kaaba but he was unable to do that, for the people were overcrowded around it. Every time he would try pushing and forcing his way through – he would be pushed back by the crowd circulating around the Kaaba. He decided to give up and wait till the crowd became less so would be able to go through with ease. A pulpit was installed and he sat on it. He began looking at the crowds of the people from above. Then Imam Zayn al-Abidin (A.S.) came to perform his circulation of the Kaaba. When the pilgrims saw him, they were astonished at his humble solemnity and the glow of piety on his face, the face was similar to that of his grandfather,Prophet Muhammad, may God bless him and his family.

The people were shouting: “There is no god but God! God is great!” – With great respect – they parted, made way for him and allowed him to pass through to kiss the Kaaba. The Syrians were astonished when they saw that situation. The pilgrims saw the people did not receive Hisham, the nominated caliph after his father, warmly though the Syrians honored him and the Caliph’s guards surrounded him.

One of Hisham’s companions from Syria asked him: “Who is that man whom the people have honored very much?” Hisham was hurt and pretended not to know the Imam and angrily, shouted at the man, saying: “I do not know him!

The great Arab poet Al-Farazdaq was there. He knew that Hisham was lying. He could not control himself at this insult to the great Imam. Thus, he said to the Syrians: “I know him.” “Who is he, Abu Firas?” The Syrians asked. Hisham shouted at al-Farazdaq, “I do not know him!” “Yes, you know him.” replied al-Farazdaq. Then he rose and composed the following poem whose effect was stronger than the hitting of the swords and the stabbing of the spears against Hisham.

He said (translation of the poem):

This is the son of Husayn and the grandson of Fatima the daughter of the Apostle through whom the darkness dispersed.

This is he whose ability the valley (of Mecca) recognizes, He is known by the (Sacred) House and the Holy sanctuary and the lands outside the sanctuary.

This is the son of the best of God”s servants.

This is the pure pious man, the pure eminent man. When the Quraysh saw him, their spokesman said: Liberality terminates at the outstanding qualities of this (man).

He belongs to the top of glory which the Arabs of Islam and non-Arabs fall short of reaching.

When he comes to touch the wall of the Kaaba, it almost grasps the palm of his hand.

He takes care to be modest and he is protected from his fears.

He only speaks when he smiles.

There is a cane in his hand. Its smell is fragrant from the hand of the most wonderful (of all the people), who is proud.

The prophets yielded to his grandfather’s favor.

The nations yielded to the favor of his community.

The light of guidance emanates from the light of his forehead.

He is like the sun whose shining disperses darkness.

His family tree belongs to the Apostle of God.

Its elements, its natures, and its qualities are good.

This is the son of Fatima if you do not recognize him.

His grandfather was the seal of Prophethood.

God honored and favored him from antiquity.

Your words ‘ who is this?’ do not harm him.

All the Arabs and non-Arabs recognize him whom you deny.

Both his hands are relief.

Their advantage has prevailed.

The hands are just.

Nonexistence does not befall them.

He is the carrier of the burdens of the people when they are oppressed.

His qualities are good.

The ‘ yes’ is sweet with him.

He does not break a promise.

His soul is blessed.

His courtyard is wide.

He is intelligent when he decides.

He is from the people whose love is religion, whose hate is unbelief, whose approach is refuge and protection.

If the God-fearing are numbered, they are their Imams.

If it is said who are the best of the earth, it is said they are.

No generous man can reach their far purpose.

No people, though generous, can compete with them (for generosity).

They are rain when a crisis happens.

They are lions when fear becomes intense.

Poverty does not decrease the relief from their hands.

That is the same, whether they are rich or poor.

Misfortune and tribulation are driven away through their love.

Kindness and the blessings are regained through it.

In every affair their praise is after the praise of God.

The speech is ended by it.

Abasement refuses to stop at their space.

Their natures are noble, and their hands are full of liberality.

None of mankind has within their souls such primacy as he does or such grace as he does.

Whoever knows God, knows His friend. Our Religion came from the House of this man.

Hisham was so furious at al-Farazdaq after hearing this poem, he ordered that he should be imprisoned in Asfan, located between Mecca and Medina. In prison, he continued to write poetry in favor of the Ahl al-Bayt. Imam Zayn al-Abidin sent some money to al-Farazdaq, since he was in the prison and had no means of earning his livelihood. Al-Farazdaq didn’t accept it and said that he had recited the poem only to please God. The Imam insisted and sent him the money saying: “God Almighty is well aware of your intention, and will reward you appropriately. If you accept this money, it shall not reduce your reward from God.” And he urged al-Farazdaq to accept the gift and finally al-Farazdaq accepted it.

هَذا الّذي تَعرِفُ البَطْحاءُ وَطْأتَهُ،          وَالبَيْتُ يعْرِفُهُ وَالحِلُّ وَالحَرَمُ
هذا ابنُ خَيرِ عِبادِ الله كُلّهِمُ،           هذا التّقيّ النّقيّ الطّاهِرُ العَلَمُ
هذا ابنُ فاطمَةٍ، إنْ كُنْتَ جاهِلَهُ،                 بِجَدّهِ أنْبِيَاءُ الله قَدْ خُتِمُوا
وَلَيْسَ قَوْلُكَ: مَن هذا؟ بضَائرِه،     العُرْبُ تَعرِفُ من أنكَرْتَ وَالعَجمُ
كِلْتا يَدَيْهِ غِيَاثٌ عَمَّ نَفعُهُمَا،          يُسْتَوْكَفانِ، وَلا يَعرُوهُما عَدَمُ
سَهْلُ الخَلِيقَةِ، لا تُخشى بَوَادِرُهُ،      يَزِينُهُ اثنانِ: حُسنُ الخَلقِ وَالشّيمُ
حَمّالُ أثقالِ أقوَامٍ، إذا افتُدِحُوا،          حُلوُ الشّمائلِ، تَحلُو عندَهُ نَعَمُ
ما قال: لا قطُّ، إلاّ في تَشَهُّدِهِ،            لَوْلا التّشَهّدُ كانَتْ لاءَهُ نَعَمُ
عَمَّ البَرِيّةَ بالإحسانِ، فانْقَشَعَتْ       عَنْها الغَياهِبُ والإمْلاقُ والعَدَمُ
إذ رَأتْهُ قُرَيْشٌ قال قائِلُها:           إلى مَكَارِمِ هذا يَنْتَهِي الكَرَمُ
يُغْضِي حَياءً، وَيُغضَى من مَهابَتِه،                 فَمَا يُكَلَّمُ إلاّ حِينَ يَبْتَسِمُ
بِكَفّهِ خَيْزُرَانٌ رِيحُهُ عَبِقٌ،     من كَفّ أرْوَعَ، في عِرْنِينِهِ شمَمُ
يَكادُ يُمْسِكُهُ عِرْفانَ رَاحَتِهِ،        رُكْنُ الحَطِيمِ إذا ما جَاءَ يَستَلِمُ
الله شَرّفَهُ قِدْماً، وَعَظّمَهُ،         جَرَى بِذاكَ لَهُ في لَوْحِهِ القَلَمُ
أيُّ الخَلائِقِ لَيْسَتْ في رِقَابِهِمُ،                  لأوّلِيّةِ هَذا، أوْ لَهُ نِعمُ
مَن يَشكُرِ الله يَشكُرْ أوّلِيّةَ ذا؛        فالدِّينُ مِن بَيتِ هذا نَالَهُ الأُمَمُ
يُنمى إلى ذُرْوَةِ الدّينِ التي قَصُرَت    عَنها الأكفُّ، وعن إدراكِها القَدَمُ
مَنْ جَدُّهُ دان فَضْلُ الأنْبِياءِ لَهُ؛           وَفَضْلُ أُمّتِهِ دانَتْ لَهُ الأُمَمُ
مُشْتَقّةٌ مِنْ رَسُولِ الله نَبْعَتُهُ،      طَابَتْ مَغارِسُهُ والخِيمُ وَالشّيَمُ
يَنْشَقّ ثَوْبُ الدّجَى عن نورِ غرّتِهِ     كالشمس تَنجابُ عن إشرَاقِها الظُّلَمُ
من مَعشَرٍ حُبُّهُمْ دِينٌ، وَبُغْضُهُمُ       كُفْرٌ، وَقُرْبُهُمُ مَنجىً وَمُعتَصَمُ
مُقَدَّمٌ بعد ذِكْرِ الله ذِكْرُهُمُ،      في كلّ بَدْءٍ، وَمَختومٌ به الكَلِمُ
إنْ عُدّ أهْلُ التّقَى كانوا أئِمّتَهمْ،     أوْ قيل: «من خيرُ أهل الأرْض؟» قيل: هم
لا يَستَطيعُ جَوَادٌ بَعدَ جُودِهِمُ،        وَلا يُدانِيهِمُ قَوْمٌ، وَإنْ كَرُمُوا
هُمُ الغُيُوثُ، إذا ما أزْمَةٌ أزَمَتْ،     وَالأُسدُ أُسدُ الشّرَى، وَالبأسُ محتدمُ
لا يُنقِصُ العُسرُ بَسطاً من أكُفّهِمُ؛    سِيّانِ ذلك: إن أثَرَوْا وَإنْ عَدِمُوا
يُستدْفَعُ الشرُّ وَالبَلْوَى بحُبّهِمُ،        وَيُسْتَرَبّ بِهِ الإحْسَانُ وَالنِّعَمُ

(Source: Ali Hujwiri (d. 1077), Kashf al-Mahjub)

Abu al-Fida (d. 1331) on the Caliphate of al-Hasan b. Ali (d. 669)

Al-Malik al-Mu’ayyad Abū al-Fidā’ Ismā‘īl b. ‘Alī al-Ḥamawī (d. 1331) was a Kurdish historian, geographer and local prince in fourteenth-century Syria. His universal history of the Islamic world, entitled al-Mukhtaṣar fī Akhbār al-Bashar, is one of the most interesting chronicles from the fourteenth century Islamic world. The work is concerned with historical events, key personalities, topography, intellectual developments, art, and architecture and—while not as elaborate as the histories of al-Tabari or Ibn Kathir—is truly universal in scope. Abū al-Fidā’s history is also characterized by an attempt to maintain partiality and historical accuracy, rather than an attempt to make strong judgments and identify clear heroes and villains in history. The section in question is particularly interesting because it represents a late medieval Syrian (Sunni) narrative of the caliphate of al-Hasan b. ‘Ali, often identified as the fifth of the “rightly-guided caliphs.” Continue reading

A Hispano-Muslim Embassy to the Vikings in 845: An Account of al-Ghazal’s Journey to the North

In 844 A.D., Norsemen raiders (commonly referred to as “Vikings”) attacked al-Andalus, sacking Cadiz, Lisbon, Medina Sidonia before capturing Seville. They maintained their control over Seville for a little over a month before being defeated by an army sent by the Umayyad emir, ‘Abd al-Rahmān II (r. 822–852) to repel them. The battle, according to most accounts, was quite fierce and ended in the victory of Andalusi Muslims over a large Viking force consisting of about 15,000 men. Following the retreat, the emir—recognizing the vulnerability of his kingdom to raids and seeking to avoid future confrontations within his own territory—ordered the construction of a navy (the first of its kind in al-Andalus) and sent emissaries to initiate peace talks with the Vikings. There is a lot of dispute about the origins of the Norsemen who reached al-Andalus. If they were Norsemen, their raids would most likely have been launched from Ireland, while Danes would have most likely have set out from the territory comprising modern-day Denmark. The surviving account of the Andalusi embassy—included below (which is a slightly revised version of W.E.D. Allen’s)—is also ambiguous on this point and mentions only that the Norse monarch’s court was located on an “island” (which could signify either Ireland, where the chieftain Turgesius/Turgeis [d. 845)] was based, or the island of Zealand, where the court of King Horik I [d. 854] was located).  I am personally inclined to believe that it was to the Vikings in Ireland that this account refers, due to some of the details provided within the text.

EU19_123 Continue reading