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? All translations are my own:
ومن أصول أهل السنة والجماعة أنهم يصلون الجمع والأعياد والجماعات ولا يدعون الجمعة والجماعة كما فعل أهل البدع من الرافضة وغيرهم، فإن كان الإمام مستوراً لم يظهر منه بدعة ولا
فجور صلى خلفه الجمعة والجماعة باتفاق الأئمة الأربعة وغيرهم من أئمة المسلمين، ولم يقل أحد من الأئمة: أنه لا تجوز الصلاة إلا خلف من علم باطن أمره، بل ما زال المسلمون من بعد نبيهم صلى الله عليه وسلم يصلون خلف المسلم المستور، ولكن إذا ظهر من المصلي بدعة أو فجور وأمكن الصلاة خلف من يُعْلَمُ أنه مبتدع أو فاسق مع إمكان الصلاة خلف غيره، فأكثر أهل العلم يصححون صلاة المأموم، وهذا مذهب الشافعي وأبي حنيفة رحمهما الله وهو أحد القولين في مذهب مالك وأحمد رحمهما الله وأما إذا لم يمكن الصلاة إلا خلف المبتدع أو الفاجر، كالجمعة التي إمامها مبتدع أو فاجر، وليس هناك جمعة أخرى فهذه تُصَليَّ خلف المبتدع والفاجر عند عامة أهل السنة والجماعة. وهذا مذهب الشافعي وأبي حنيفة وأحمد بن حنبل وغيرهم من أئمة أهل السنة بلا خلاف عندهم. وكان بعض الناس إذا كثرت الأهواء يحب أن لا يصلي إلا خلف من يعرفه على سبيل الاستحباب، كما نُقِلَ ذلك عن أحمد رحمه الله أنه ذكر ذلك لمن سأله، ولم يقل أحمد رحمه الله أنه لا تصح إلا خلف من أعرف حاله.
ولما قدم أبو عمر وعثمان بن مرزوق إلى ديار مصر، وكان ملوكها في ذلك الزمان مظهرين للتشيع، وكانوا باطنية ملاحدة، وكان بسبب ذلك قد كثرت البدع، وظهرت بالديار المصرية، أمر
أصحابه ألا يصلوا إلا خلف من يعرفونه لأجل ذلك، ثم بعد موته فتحها ملوك السنة مثل صلاح الدين رحمه الله، وظهرت فيها كلمة السنة المخالفة للرافضة، ثم صار العلو والسنة يكثر بها ويظهر.
فالصلاة خلف المستور جائزة باتفاق علماء المسلمين، ومن قال إن الصلاة محرمة أو باطلة خلف من لا يعرف حاله فقد خالف إجماع أهل السنة والجماعة، وقد كان الصحابة رضوان اله عليهم يصلون خلف من يعرفون فجوره، كما صلى عبدالله بن مسعود رضي الله عنه وغيره من الصحابة رضي الله عنهم خلف الوليد بن عقبة بن أبي معيط، وكان يشرب الخمر، وصلى مرة الصبح أربعاً، وجلده عثمان بن عفان رضي الله عنه على ذلك.
..وكان عبدالله بن عمر وغيره من الصحابة رضي الله عنهم يصلون خلف الحجاج بن يوسف، وكان الصحابة والتابعون يصلون خلف ابن أبي عُبَيْد وكان متهماً بالإلحاد وداعياً إلى الضلال.
…وليس في ترك الصلاة خلفه مصلحة شرعية كان تفويت هذه الجمعة والجماعة جهلًا وضلالًا، وكان قد رد بدعة ببدعة، حتى أن المصلي الجمعة خلف الفاجر اختلف الناس في إعادته الصلاة، وكرهها أكثرهم، حتى قال أحمد بن حنبل في رواية عبدوس : من أعادها فهو مبتدع. وهذا أظهر القولين؛ لأن الصحابة لم يكونوا يعيدون الصلاة إذا صلوا خلف أهل الفجور والبدع، ولم يأمر الله تعالى قط أحدًا إذا صلى، كما أمر بحسب استطاعته أن يعيد الصلاة؛ ولهذا كان أصح قولي العلماء : أن من صلى بحسب استطاعته أن لا يعيد”.
“It is from among the principles of the Ahl al-Sunnah that they maintain all the prayers–whether congregational, the Festival prayers, and the Friday prayers–and that they not abandon the Friday prayers or congregational prayers as have many from the people of innovation among the rāfida [rejectionists; derogatory term for Shi’i Muslim]. Verily, if a prayer leader (imām) is an individual whose integrity is unknown (mastūr) and has not openly manifested any sinfulness or innovation then it is permissible to pray behind this individual according to the consensus of the four Imāms [Mālik b. Anas, Abū Ḥanīfa, Muhammad b. Idrīs al-Shāfi’ī, Ahmad b. Ḥanbal] and other Imāms of the Muslims. None of these Imāms has said: ‘It is only permissible to pray behind one whose intentions and inner reality is known.’ Indeed, since the death of their Prophet, Muslims have prayed behind various Muslim individuals whose inner reality was unknown.
However, the vast majority of the learned scholars have asserted that it is clearly preferable to pray, when possible, behind someone whose condition is clear/known rather than behind one who has manifested clear signs of innovation and sinfulness. This is the position in the Shafi’i and Hanafi madhab, as well as one of two positions that are held by Hanbalis and Malikis. However, if conditions are such that one can only pray behind someone who is a sinner or an innovator, as in the example of a Friday prayer that is led by someone who belongs to one of these categories and there is no other congregational prayer that one can attend, then, according to the position of the Ahl al-Sunnah, it is permissible to pray behind these individuals. This is the position of al-Shāfi’ī, Abū Ḥanīfa, and Ahmad b. Ḥanbal and other scholars from among the Ahl al-Sunnah. However some scholars have insisted that they would not pray behind anyone except if they were certain of their condition and this seems to be preferable, as Ahmad b. Ḥanbal asserted when he was asked. However, he did not declare that prayer is only permissible behind one whose condition/inner reality is known…
Thus, praying behind someone whose inner reality is unknown is permissible according to the consensus of the Muslim scholars, and anyone who claims that such a prayer is forbidden or nullified has violated the consensus of the Ahl al-Sunnah. Even the Companions of the Prophet (may God be pleased with them) would pray behind individuals who they knew to be sinners, just as ‘Abd Allāh b. Mas‘ūd and other Companions prayed behind al-Walīd b.’Uqba b. Abī Mu‘īṭ, despite the fact that he would consume alcohol and once [out of drunkenness] prayer four units [rather than two] for the dawn prayer, which led to his being whipped by the caliph ‘Uthmān b. ‘Affān. Moreover, ‘Abd Allāh b. ‘Umar and others would pray behind al-Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf [one of the most tyrannical figures in Islamic history], and the Companions and their Successors would pray behind [the Kaysani Shi’ite rebel al-Mukhtār] Ibn Abī ‘Ubayd [al-Thaqafī], even though he was accused of heresy and was a proponent of misguidance…
…There is nothing beneficial or commendable in abandoning congregational prayer that is led [even] by a sinful person or innovator; rather, abandoning these obligations [to pray in congregation] would be both ignorance and misguidance and, in a manner of speaking, would be to respond to one innovation with another. There is a difference of opinion regarding whether it is obligatory for the individual to repeat their prayers at a later time, with the vast majority of scholars deploring this position. Ahmad b. Ḥanbal, in one narration, said: ‘The one who repeats such a prayer is [himself] an innovator.” This is the clearest position of his two statements on the matter. Indeed, none of the Companions ever repeated their prayers when they prayed behind sinners or innovators, nor is it commanded by God Almighty. This is why the most correct of the two positions taken by the scholars is that one who has prayed to the best of his ability should not repeat his prayers.” (Majmu’ al-Fatawa, Volume 3, pp. 280-281).
Elsewhere, in the Fatāwa he said:
“It is permissible for someone to pray the five daily prayers, Friday prayers and other prayers behind the individual who has not manifested any clear sinfulness or innovation; this is in accordance with the consensus of the four Imāms and other Muslim scholars. It is not from the preconditions of prayer leadership that the follower know the imām’s beliefs or that he question him in such a manner so that he discovers his beliefs. Rather, he should simply pray behind the one whose inner condition is unknown…
If the individual is certain that the imām is an outright sinner or an innovator that calls others to misdeeds, and this is the designated imām and the only individual behind whom it is possible to pray, as is the case with the imams of the Festival prayers, the Friday prayers, the prayer leader at ‘Arafa and the Pilgrimage, then according to the general opinion of the scholars it is permissible to pray behind him. This is the position of the Hanbalis, Hanafis, Shafi’is and others. It is a theological principle that Friday prayers and Festival prayers must be prayed, regardless of whether they are led by a righteous imām or a sinful one. Likewise, if in a certain village or town there is only a single imām who leads congregational prayers, it is obligatory to pray behind him; indeed, praying in congregation—even when the imām is sinful—is better than praying individually. This is the position of the vast majority of scholars, including Ahmad b. Ḥanbal, al-Shafi’i and other scholars. Indeed, whosoever should abandon the congregational prayer behind a sinful imām is himself considered an innovator according to Ahmad b. Ḥanbal and other Sunni scholars…
…If an imam has been specifically designated to lead prayers by the political and administrative authorities, and there is no benefit in abandoning prayer behind such an individual, then praying behind this designated individual—although he may not be the most righteous candidate—is best. This applies in equal measure to the one who is an outright sinner, or has openly manifested innovation, or one who is in clear violation of the Qur’an and Prophetic example, as in the case of the rāfida and other heterodox groups. As for the one who opposes the Shi’i school of thought, while abandoning congregational prayer and excommunicating his fellow believers, he has made the same error as the Shi’is, for verily the most serious accusations that Sunnis have made against Shi’as is their abandonment of congregational and Friday prayer, and their excommunication/anathematization of other Muslims.”
[Ibn Taymīyya, al-Fatāwa al-Kubra (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 2010), Volume 2, pp. 306–308]