Book Review: Ibn Taymiyya’s Theological Ethics

In Ibn Taymiyya’s Theological Ethics (Oxford University Press), Sophia Vasalou takes us on a fascinating journey through Ibn Taymiyya’s oeuvre. She marshals an impressive array of wide-ranging primary and secondary sources. She collects and collates the various strands in Ibn Taymiyya’s thought to give us a detailed picture of his ethics. This book review summarises her main arguments, highlights some of the book's shortcomings, and presents four ways how those who educate others about Islam can benefit.

If you ask any Muslim, he will tell you Islam is in harmony with human nature, as exemplified by the concept of Fitra. Sophia Vasalou was surprised to find such a ubiquitous appreciation for human nature among Muslims in our contemporary times. Vasalou investigated the roots of Fitra in Islamic discourse and found it in Ibn Taymiyya. In her book Ibn Taymiyya’s Theological Ethics published by Oxford University Press (2016), Sophia Vasalou takes us on a fascinating journey through Ibn Taymiyya’s oeuvre. She marshals an impressive array of wide-ranging primary and secondary sources. She collects and collates the various strands in Ibn Taymiyya’s thought to give us a detailed picture of his ethics. 

There are two common misconceptions about Ibn Taymiyya. Firstly, Majid Fakhry considers Ibn Taymiyya to be an anti-rationalist. Vasalou notes how this “facile judgment” does not accord with the latest academic studies (p. 4). Secondly, Ibn Taymiyya is known to many people by Bin Ladin’s enthusiasm for him (p. 11).  In contrast, Vasalou attests to how Ibn Taymiyya is a “master of moderation” and not a radical extremist (p. 12). These preliminary points are important to mention to clear the way for a deeper engagement with Ibn Taymiyya’s work. 

By all accounts, Ibn Taymiyya was a charismatic genius. He wrote four notebooks per day of his own ideas on the various fields of Islamic studies (p. 16). For rejecting the religious authority of his time, he was imprisoned in a citadel in Damascus and died there (p. 12). 

In ethics, Ibn Taymiyya defended “moral objectivism” (p. 21). He provided several arguments for why morals are objective features of the world. Everyone loves a friend who speaks the truth and hates a friend who lies. Everyone gets pleasure when he is treated fairly and gets pain when treated unfairly. Thus, justice and injustice are immediately known to people just as hunger and satiation are immediately known to people (p. 37). Humans find internal pleasure when giving charity to a beggar on the street just as they find internal pleasure in seeing beautiful natural landscapes. In the same way, we can agree that perfumes smell nice, we can agree that helping the needy is nice too (p. 43). Humans by necessity must live together and not be isolated from each other. For humans to live together successfully, basic conditions must be met, such as justice in transactions. Without justice, human society won’t be successful; it will be a failure (p. 46). All these arguments suggest that objective morals cannot be denied, just as you cannot deny that food satiates hunger, or that a sunset is beautiful, or that humans must live together.

Ibn Sina articulated proof for why ethical propositions can never be objective. Ibn Sina asks us to do the following thought experiment: imagine that all we have is pure intellect, estimative power, and sense perception. Erase everything else from our knowledge until all we have left are these three faculties. Whenever our pure intellect is confronted with an ethical proposition, the pure intellect doesn’t immediately assent to it. This is proof, Ibn Sina states, that ethical propositions are products of convention, social influence, and childhood education (p. 59). 

Ibn Taymiyya provides sustained criticism of Ibn Sina’s proof. Ibn Taymiyya highlights a contradiction inherent in the proof. Ibn Sina held that the estimative power allowed sheep to conceive of the wolf as dangerous and harmful. By parity of reasoning, the estimative power allows humans to conceive of other people as dangerous and harmful. These ‘other people’ can harm a person’s life (by murder) or wealth (by stealing). Such harm is what we call an injustice. Thus, the estimative power in humans can clearly recognise injustice. Therefore, morality is noticed even when all socially constructed knowledge is erased from a person’s mind (p. 67). 

Humans, from their own nature, love things and hate things. Such love and hate are inherent in humans even prior to socially constructed knowledge. For example, humans hate to be burned alive but love to have the warmth of a fire on a cold night. This intrinsic natural human reaction is the basis for good and bad for Ibn Taymiya. From human nature, we know it is good to be helped, and it is bad to be harmed. Thus good (as help) and bad (as harm) can still be assented to even within Ibn Sina’s thought experiment (p. 68). 

Ibn Sina accepted that medical knowledge was certain. Due to repeated observations and empirical experience, doctors were able to find cures for many diseases and ailments. Such knowledge is objective to Ibn Sina. Ibn Taymiyya contends that ethical knowledge is more certain than medical knowledge. Humans know from repeated observations and empirical experiences that being insulted or bullied pains them, and being praised and comforted pleases them. Indeed, this knowledge of pleasure and pain, of good and bad, is experienced on a more universal scale than medical knowledge. Not everyone suffered heart inflammation so had to take medicine for it. Based on this, ethical knowledge is objective in the same way that taking medicine objectively reduces sickness (p. 72).  

In his critique of Ibn Sina, Ibn Taymiyya stresses how human nature (Fitra) is a source of ethics. His arguments are grounded in the empirical (p. 73).

Because ethics stems from human nature and is observable empirically, morality has an objectivity that makes it epistemically valuable. Ibn Taymiyya shows how ethical knowledge is more important than even miracles. Ibn Taymiyya tells us that everyone makes a distinction between truth and falsehood, honesty and lying, justice and injustice, knowledge and ignorance. If a man called himself a prophet and announced to the world that lying is good and injustice is right, then we have sufficient reasons to reject this man’s claim. We don’t even need to wait to see if a miracle occurs to support his prophethood, because our ethical knowledge has given us the certainty that God would never send such a man who tells us to lie and tells us to do injustice (p. 128-9). 

Vasalou shows how Ibn Taymiyya’s ethics was informed by his theological commitments. Asharis state that God is arbitrary in his acts and never has reasons for what he chooses. This view, Ibn Taymiyya argues, is false. If God is arbitrary in his acts, then God is not wise. This contradicts the Quran’s repeated praise of God’s wisdom (p. 140). If God chooses options without any reason, then the notion of God’s blessings to humans is incomprehensible. This contradicts the Quranic theme of God having blessed mankind (p. 141). 

Asharis state that justice is not an intrinsic feature of actions. Based on this, Asharis posit that God’s actions are not based on justice. Every act God does is correct regardless of what the act is. Ibn Taymiyya rejects this. If there is no intrinsic feature to actions, such as justice, then how can anyone claim that the Quran promotes justice to mankind? (p. 142). Asharis contradict themselves; since they negate justice in Aqida but affirm justice in Fiqh. In the legal literature, Asharis continuously affirm that justice is one of the aims of Islam (p. 160-1). 

However, what is justice? Ibn Taymiyya provides a unique answer. He states that all of God’s commands are reducible to justice. His notion of justice gives priority to human welfare (Maslaḥa) (p. 170). The consequence and result of actions define the ethical value of actions more than the actions themselves. Ibn Taymiyya states: 

The goodness and badness of human actions pertains to the benefit and harm acts involve” (ibid.) 

Ibn Taymiyya emphasises that evil acts can be done if they will result in greater good (p. 171). This is how God Himself acts (ibid.) This notion of justice as a balancing act between benefit and harm is embodied in Quran (2:219).  

To illustrate his point, Ibn Taymiyya gives two examples. Pharoah was indeed a great evil; however, a far more abundant good resulted from him. Pharoah became the symbolic warning against the evils of tyranny and despotism that the religious tradition upheld across centuries and has, even in contemporary times, played an important role in raising awareness against social injustice (p. 172). When Muhammad called the pagans of Mecca to Tawhid, they persecuted him and massacred his followers. This is a great evil, of course. But a closer look shows that a far greater good resulted from it (ibid.). If the pagans of Mecca accepted Tawhid on the spot, and never persecuted Muhammad or his followers, the Seerah of the Prophet would have been impoverished and severely limited. The only reason the Seerah is a source of inspiration throughout the centuries is due to its undying and eternal message of the struggle of living. In the Seerah, we find how the Prophet and Sahaba faced death, disappointment, betrayal, abandonment, hopelessness, shattered expectations, pain, suffering, confusion, fear, weakness, shock, disasters, loss, imprisonment, torture, poverty, sickness, etc. It is this part of the Seerah that provides practical wisdom to people facing their own despairs and troubles throughout the ages, irrespective of society or culture. Without this, the Seerah would be no more profound than Aesop’s Fables. If asked why God would allow such a despot as Pharoah to rule or why God didn’t help the pagans of Mecca to convert instantly to Tawhid, the answer will be that a greater benefit accrues from Pharoah’s tyranny and from the pagan persecution of Muhammad than if they never occurred. As can be seen, this perspective on good/evil and its relation to justice provides a new “theodicy” by which Ibn Taymiyya can answer the question of why evil exists in the world if God is Just (ibid.).  

Sophia Vasalou’s book contains far more interesting information than can ever be conveyed in a book review. Those wanting to know more details of Ibn Taymiyya’s ethical and theological position are urged to read Vasalou’s book in full. 

While there is much to recommend her book, there is also much to criticise. Her book is replete with repetitions, rhetorical questions, unnecessary circumlocutions, and dizzying back-and-forths, that all together make her book not user friendly as an academic resource. She could have organised her book in a more clear and structured manner instead of the rambling style that it has. 

Her major argument is the least persuasive part of her book. She shows, rightly so, how Ibn Taymiyya took his concept of the ethical from Fakhrudin Al-Razi (p. 121-2). She then concludes that Ibn Taymiyya’s ethics is not so different from Ashari ethics (p. 130, 253). The conclusion is too strong. Consider: from an outsider perspective, there are more similarities between the Four Madthabs than there are differences; yet, from an insider perspective, it is established beyond doubt that there are significant differences and even conflicts amongst the Four Madthabs. To claim that the Four Madthabs are almost identical to each other is to ignore the very real differences amongst them, both in theory and practice. In the same way, both Ibn Taymiyya and Asharis operated in a philosophical tradition that provided similar concepts and contours. This fact alone is not enough to show that Ibn Taymiyya was actually a closet-Ashari. To claim otherwise is to ignore the very real polemical intent that Ibn Taymiyya gave to his incisive criticism of Ashari ethics.

Many passages where Vasalou argues her various points sound impressive at first glance. A second glance is enough to show the weakness that cripples her conclusions. An example picked at random. Vasalou writes: 

What was the status of acts prior to the advent of revelation? “Before this revelation” is always after another, sufficiently to place in question whether “before revelation” as a category exists at all. In this light, the appeal to what is before revelation, far from being an appeal to “pure” reason, is an appeal to the human mind as already informed by the divine speech” (p. 243). 

This sounds impressive until you realise Vasalou totally ignores the “Fatrah” which is a time interval in history where no Prophet was found nor was the previous Prophetic message retained; so, the people living in the Fatrah had no connection to “divine speech” at all. The classical scholars have discussed the Fatrah in depth. This fact alone undermines her entire argument in the quoted paragraph.

Despite the book’s shortcomings, as Ibn Taymiyya would say, there is more maṣlaḥa (benefit) in reading it than mafsada (harm); so, a person has good reason to be enthusiastic about Sophia Vasalou’s masterly contribution to Islamic studies. 

People engaged in educating other about Islam can benefit from Vasalou’s book in four ways. Firstly, even amongst those well-versed in Ibn Taymiyya’s works, it is difficult to convey Ibn Taymiyya’s ideas to non-Muslims. This is because the idioms and terminologies associated with Ibn Taymiyya’s work are those based on the Arabic discourse. Vasalou provides, as it were, a translation of Ibn Taymiyya’s ideas into the idioms and terminologies of Western academia. This will help educators to articulate the arguments of Ibn Taymiyya in a language and form that is easily understandable by non-Muslims. 

Secondly, reading works written on Ibn Taymiyya from an outsider perspective, i.e. non-Muslim understanding, will help enrich a Muslim’s understanding of Ibn Taymiyya. While this perspective may not be entirely agreeable, it nonetheless highlights many elements of Ibn Taymiyya’s thought that go unnoticed when Muslims discuss Ibn Taymiyya. An analogy may be helpful here. Many curious non-Muslims read the Quran. They then talk to their Muslim friends about their understanding of the Quran. More often than not, it is the Muslims hearing the perspective of the non-Muslim who will gain new insight into the Quran. This new insight is usually certain elements in the Quran that the Muslims were so familiar with, they overlooked its significance, but which the non-Muslim noticed on a first reading. The same can be said of academic books on Islamic studies written by non-Muslims, especially Vasalou’s book. Obviously, such an approach must be understood within the framework of the established body of knowledge of the valid classical scholarly tradition.

Thirdly, because the field of Islamic philosophy is so large, it can be a daunting task for a person to try to navigate himself through it without getting confused. By focusing solely on Ibn Taymiyya’s ethics, Vasalou was able to provide a rich, focused, and highly readable navigation through the various other ethical theories and philosophical stances in the Islamic tradition. Ibn Taymiyya becomes the figure that allows a person to access the larger spectrum of Islamic philosophy but without losing focus. And since Ibn Taymiyya’s works are much discussed nowadays, it will be doubly beneficial to take this approach in studying Islamic philosophy. You will learn a great deal about Ibn Taymiyya specifically and a great deal about Islamic philosophy generally. 

Finally, the argument from morality for God’s existence is an axiomatic argument that is based on the existence of objective moral values. Ibn Taymiyya’s account of theistic moral realism can be useful to those that advance such an argument. They can refer to his work to substantiate the key assumption that the argument from morality adopts, thereby grounding the argument in the Islamic scholarly tradition.