Friday, November 27, 2009

Response to some issues raised by the previous post

The article I translated last week from the letters of Sidi Ahmad ibn Siddiq Ghumari seems to have raised one or two issues which might be worth addressing in a separate post. First of all, it was brought to my attention that Sheikh Gibril Haddad – may Allah preserve him – has written a short commentary on the letter I translated; I am not sure if he wrote it because someone showed him the translation I included on this site, or whether he had already written it as a response to the original letter when it was published, and I am afraid I do not have the address of the website where these comments were published; either way, the Sheikh’s comments were as follows:

The letter is thoroughly devoid of tahqiq and is merely Shaykh Ahmadal-Ghumari's opinion of Ibn al-Qayyim's opinion of Ibn Taymiyya's opinion.Yet the letter does make the important distinction that even though Shaykhal-Akbar's position and Ibn Taymiyya's position appear identical they differ fundamentally, in that the former's position is that the torment of hell does not end but that its pain is changed into bliss for its denizens whilethe latter built on some weak hadiths and aathaar that the fire of hell willbe extinguished. There is no full authoritative tahqiq on the issue I believe. Ibn al-Qayyim approached it in Hadi al-Arwah but he is overly preoccupied in justifying Ibn Taymiyya's position and defending him against Shaykh al-Islam al-Taqi al-Subki who denounced it in his Rasa'ilal-Subkiyya, in print, in which he considers Ibn Taymiyya's position a contradiction of the Qur'an tantamount to kufr, wAllahu a`lam.As for Shaykh Ahmad's disparagement of al-Subki and his son it is rejectedback to him as it shows poor judgment and only serves to ruin his own image.The unparalleled avalanche of criticism and refutations of Ibn Taymiyya both by his contemporaries and by later major authorities in comparison to thepraise heaped on al-Subki by his contemporaries *other* than his own son--such as Hafiz al-Dhahabi, for example, who considered him the greatest hafiz of his time--and later authorities, shows that al-Ghumari is leaguesoff the mark in his scoffing preference of Ibn Taymiyya over him. But Ghumari is known to be a rabid disparager of the Ash`ari School, and it is a mark of his imbalance that as much as he hates Ibn Taymiyya and reviles him in so many books of his, yet he hates the Ash`aris even more! He seems not to know that Hafiz al-San`ani the author of Subul al-Salam also authored a treatise in refutation of Ibn Taymiyya in respect to his belief in fana'al-nar--which al-Albani republished with a lengthy introduction- -among other such refutations. Yet, in the same book of al-Talidi, Ahmad al-Ghumari also heaps praises on al Albani.

Now first of all I should say that the Sheikh is absolutely right in saying that Sheikh Ahmad’s letter does not constitute any kind of argument or proof of the theological opinion in question; indeed it does not, and my intention in posting it was not to try and promote this opinion, because (a) I personally am not a follower of the views of Ibn Taymiyya/Ibn Qayyim, and (b) I do not find this issue particularly interesting. If I had wanted to do this, I would probably have translated Ibn Qayyim’s treatise on this matter, or given a link to a translation of it, or something. The actual reason I posted Sheikh Ahmad’s letter was more to do with the somewhat surprising attitude it expresses. I believe I made the mistake of assuming that Sheikh Ahmad is more well-known to English-speaking Muslims than is in fact the case; with this in mind, some additional background might valuably be provided here.
Those who are familiar with Sheikh Ahmad’s writings will know that when it came to debate and refutation, he was very much of the ‘no-punches pulled’ school of Shafi‘i, Ibn Hazm and Ibn Taymiyya of old, and – if we may say so – of more contemporary figures such as Sheikh Gibril himself. One of the figures for whom he reserved some of his harshest language was Ibn Taymiyya himself; some of the language he used against him, for example in what is otherwise perhaps his most important and useful work, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Imam al-‘Arifin, is scathing to the point of viciousness. When I obtained a copy of his collected letters, I was astonished to find several such letters in which he spoke more warmly of Ibn Taymiyya and seemed to back up some of his opinions. This showed me a side of Sheikh Ahmad which I had never seen before, and no passage was more astonishing to me than the one I translated last week. I remember reading it over and over again and being amazed, first by the fact that such an open enemy of Ibn Taymiyya would write so respectfully about one of his opinions, and secondly that an extreme literalist such as Ahmad ibn Siddiq would even hold such an opinion in the first place. I felt this alone was enough to make the passage interesting to those who are familiar with this figure, whether they are followers of his or not (I personally am not, generally speaking).

Secondly, I found it engaging that such figures as Ibn Arabi and Ibn Taymiyya – very much the ‘chalk and cheese’ of the history of Islamic thought – could, in this most unusual of cases, have come to such similar opinions, although of course they arrived at them by following very different roads. Regardless of what one thinks about the opinion in question, I again felt that this would be of interest for the small number of people who read this blog, who seem generally to be interested in such things.

As for Sheikh Ahmad’s comments about Imam Subki, although they are fairly restrained compared to his usual manner of dealing with those with whom he disagrees, I accept that some might find them disagreeable and disrespectful; but we should also remember that Sheikh Ahmad was also himself a scholar and muhaddith, and that on many occasions the language used by scholars amongst themselves can seem harsh. Imam Shafi’i made certain statements about Imam Malik in the course of disagreements he had with him which seem very strong and even disrespectful to our ears, and this is something which one comes up against time and again when reading works of scholarly refutation in all the Islamic sciences, even grammar; sometimes the only way to reconcile ourselves to these things is to say, ‘This is between the scholars, I’m staying out.’ (Of course, Sheikh Gibril is himself a scholar and so free to give his own opinions; these comments are not directed at him.) Whatever we might feel about Sheikh Ahmad’s attitudes and positions, I do not think it can be denied that he earned his stripes as a scholar and a muhaddith, and that he therefore might have felt he had the right to make critical statements about other scholars. Imam Subki himself is famous for saying of Ibn Taymiyya that ‘his learning exceeded his intelligence’ and for declaring him an unbeliever, which I’m sure seems very arrogant and offensive to the latter’s followers; but it was Subki’s right as a scholar to make such a statement about one of his peers.

As to Imam Subki’s refutation of the Ibn Qayyim/Ibn Taymiyya argument, as a layman I cannot appreciate the scholarly aspects of either – I cannot make any judgements about the soundness of the traditions narrated to support either position, for example – but solely in terms of the strength of arguments advanced it is difficult to declare Imam Subki the outright winner. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf wrote about the Ibn Taymiyya opinion that he was ‘dumbfounded by the strength of his arguments and the subtle points he brought up on the subject.’ This is essentially how I felt when I first read it, but as Sheikh Hamza continues:
His position is, however, heterodox, and thus rejected by almost all the scholars of Islam. And while some scholars anathematised him for his views, the majority recognized it was heterodox but rooted in a sophisticated ta’wil (interpretation) that was nonetheless incorrect.’

It seems that Sheikh Ahmad was similarly impressed with the arguments – even though they were made by a man he considered to be a great enemy of his, and even though those who know the Sheikh’s works will testify that he was hardly a bleeding-heart liberal when it came to his view of unbelievers, such that he might have been inclined to give preference to the argument for emotional reasons – and since he was not inclined to bend to any number of scholars if he felt the truth lay elsewhere than in their hands, he felt no need to accept a refutation which in his eyes was less well-argued.

For me the great irony here, which was another reason I felt people might be interested in the article, is that Ibn Taymiyya, the man castigated by so many for his ‘literalism’, is here placed on the side of his own bête noire, Ibn Arabi, the metaphysician and mystic, whilst on the other side we have the great Ashari theologian castigating him for his lack of literalism. I find this similar to what Sheikh Sa‘id Ramadan Buti does in his important work as-Salafiyya, quoting passages of Ibn Taymiyya which the uninformed might take to be the work of an advocate of wahdat al-wujud like Ibn ‘Arabi. Many people have simplistic idea of Ibn Taymiyya – this is true of both his most loyal followers and his harshest opponents – and I think it is nice to see him in a different light sometimes.

I do not think that it is a bad thing that Sheikh Ahmad, who as we have seen was capable of excessive partisanship and vicious invective, was also capable, on occasion and seemingly almost despite himself, of giving his opponents their due and acknowledging their efforts or their learning, or that he was even concerned with reconciling the views of thinkers who on the surface seem to be so far apart that any reconciliation would be utterly impossible. Such efforts – regardless of their specific content – exhibit an admirable level of objectivity and detachment, which is something we could all learn from.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ibn ‘Arabi and Ibn Taymiyya on the Hereafter

Shaykh Ahmad ibn Siddiq Ghumari:

Ibn Qayyim provided the proofs for the matter of hell’s coming to an end (fana an-nar) and did so in a perfectly sufficient manner, and some of the great gnostics followed him in this; and he affirmed that a day will come when watercress shall grow therein; although Sha‘rani answered this by saying that this refers solely to the highest lever wherein dwell the sinful believers, not the levels wherein the unbelievers dwell. The evidences regarding this are somewhat conflicting, yet the proofs of the opinion which states that hell will either come to an end in itself – as Ibn Qayyim maintains – or that the pain therein will end whilst the formal image of it remains – as the Shaykh al-Akbar (Ibn ‘Arabi) affirms – are stronger.

The sufficient proof of this is that God’s mercy is more powerful than His wrath, and always takes precedence over it; now this precedence and power would be meaningless if it were left unmanifested and if consequently the manifestation of wrath were not ended. When the manifestation of mercy is revealed to the denizens of hell and the manifestation of wrath ends for them, this will either take the form of the torment (‘adhab) becoming sweetness (‘udhuba) and the pain ending whilst its image remains in order that God’s warning be fulfilled, as the Shaykh al-Akbar maintains, or else it will take the form of the complete end of hell as others maintain. Yet this latter opinion could be reconciled with the opinion of the Shaykh al-Akbar by asserting that the meaning of the end of hell is the passing of its pain and torment, not the formal image of these things which will in fact then become bliss itself. Therefore the two opinions are essentially the same in my view, and this is our inclination – indeed, it is the conviction with which we stand before God Almighty.

And those who look to the inner meaning of this matter will come to know that nothing exists except the Act of God, first and last. As for Taqi ad-Din Subki’s attempted refutation of Ibn Taymiyya in this regard, I gained nothing from it when I read it twenty years ago, except the knowledge that Taqi ad-Din Subki – never mind his son Taj ad-Din – was not what I used to think of him, and certainly not what his son claimed about him. Back then, when I finished reading his work, I wrote a short rebuttal of it, the essence of which was the contention that between Subki and Ibn Taymiyya was a vast gulf of knowledge and strength of reasoning, and that the latter was leagues more knowledgeable than the former.

- Taken from the collected letters of Ahmad ibn Siddiq Ghumari, edited by A. Talidi.

Ahmad in Siddiq Ghumari (1901-1960) was universally acknowledged by scholars of hadith as one of the greatest such scholars of his time; he is known by many as ‘The Final Hafiz’, meaning the final scholar of the Islamic community who could be genuinely said to have earned the rank of hafiz, ‘memoriser’, traditionally given to those who have memorised over one hundred thousand hadiths and their chains of transmission. He was also a Shaykh of the Shadhili-Darqawi-Siddiqi tariqa, following in the footsteps of his father Muhammad ibn Siddiq Ghumari, one of the great Sufi Shaykhs of Moroccan history. He died in Cairo in 1960 and was buried there, God be pleased with him.