Few classical thinkers are as important to modern Islam as the 13th century theologian, Ibn Taymiyyah. Widely considered a controversial figure during his lifetime, Ibn Taymiyyah remains amongst the most discussed and debated thinkers in Islamic history.

For many non-Muslims in the West, however, Ibn Taymiyyah’s legacy has been reduced to his supposed influence on Wahhabism—a reform movement inaugurated by Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab in 18th century Arabia. Literature abounds in both popular and academic sources describing Ibn Taymiyyah as the movement’s chief inspiration. Indeed, a cursory Internet search reveals that Wahhabism is often referred to as “the school of Ibn Taymiyyah.”

This is significant if only because it has greatly influenced contemporary impressions of Ibn Taymiyyah, which are increasingly distorted. In an age where Wahhabism has become a byword for an excessively strict, intolerant, and even violent form of Islam, Ibn Taymiyyah’s legacy has been cast in a “Wahhabi light.” All the negative coverage that exists about this movement (leaving aside problems of definition, or whether such publicity is even merited at all) is often projected back onto Ibn Taymiyyah in an uncritical manner.

This is perhaps most apparent in the link frequently made between Ibn Taymiyyah, Wahhabism, and the nebulous category of “Islamic extremism.” As the standard argument goes, Wahhabism is the chief source of “Islamic extremism” today, with its roots tracing back to the medieval teachings of Ibn Taymiyyah. The ultimate inspiration of fanatical groups, like Al-Qaeda and ISIS, must, therefore, be found in Ibn Taymiyyah. Consider the following quote from a major news article, which is typical of prevailing views on Wahhabism and Ibn Taymiyyah:

The exclusivism of Ibn Taymiyyah combined with the use of violence advocated by modern ultra-Wahhabists such as Al Qaeda, Isil and Boko Haram, have now given rise to cells of activists outside Saudi Arabia, ready to commit terrorist outrages such as the ones seen in Beirut, Paris, Brussels and Lahore.

Leaving aside the issue of so-called “Islamic terror,” readily associating Ibn Taymiyyah with Wahhabism is a substantial reduction and oversimplification of his scholarly legacy; it distorts more than it clarifies. In reality, Ibn Taymiyyah left a rich and complex legacy for intellectuals to parse—but one interpretation (among countless others) of this is found in the writings of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab and the Wahhabi movement. It is imperative that we recognize this, along with the fact that the Wahhabi reading of Ibn Tayymiyah is greatly contested and has indeed been challenged since the very earliest days of the Wahhabi movement itself.

Understanding Wahhabism

Wahhabism first emerged in Arabia, as a localized reform movement aimed at correcting the deviances and errors that Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab perceived to be widespread in the Muslim community. For Ibn Abdul Wahhab, many of the popular religious practices of the day—such as the veneration of saints’ graves, pilgrimage to their shrines, pleading for intercession with God from holy figures, or attachment to relics—smacked of a blatant idolatry (shirk) that reflected an excessive attachment to fellow men, rather than God. His writings consistently stressed the absolute sovereignty of God, and emphasized the need to perform all acts of worship (ibada), broadly conceived, toward God alone:

To prostrate only to God, to perform ruk‘u only to Him, to seek the removal of harm only from Him, to request benefits only from Him, to make vows only in the name of Him, to sacrifice only to Him, and all other acts of worship be performed only to Him, alone without any partners. And this is the meaning of lā illaha illallah (there is no God but Allah).[1]

As many scholars have noted, Ibn Abdul Wahhab found in these ideas a close affinity with his famous predecessor Ibn Taymiyyah, who also railed against many similar practices in  his 13th century Damascene world. It is, as such, no surprise that Ibn Abdul Wahhab regularly cited Ibn Taymiyyah in his writings. Indeed, like Ibn Abdul Wahhab, Ibn Taymiyyah’s legal rulings never tired of condemning the rampant shirk being practiced by many Muslims of the time, particularly their excessive devotion toward saints and Sufi-oriented mystics.

This strict emphasis on shirk is not the most controversial aspect of Ibn Abdul Wahhab writings, however. That is reserved for his takfīr (excommunication) of those Muslims engaging in acts of idolatry. Throughout his writings, Ibn Abdul Wahhab declared that Muslims who engage in such idolatrous practices are no longer Muslim—despite their testimony of the shahada (the Muslim declaration of faith). For him, these acts contradicted Islamic monotheism (tawhid), and made those who practiced them unbelievers. We find this in several places across Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s writings:

The scholars (ulama), from all the four Sunni legal school (madhhāhib) mention in the chapter concerning the rules pertaining to the apostate (fī bāb hukm al-murtad) that if a Muslim believes that God has taken a son, he is a murtad. Likewise, if he commits shirk then he is a murtad.[2]

Know that the proofs regarding takfīr of the righteous Muslim, if he associates with God… are clearly found in the words of God, the words of the Prophet and all the words of the scholars.[3]

Clearly, these are extremely controversial positions to hold. The matter of takfīr was, and remains, a hugely sensitive issue in Islam. This is because the traditional punishment for apostasy under Islamic law is death, as well as the general urge by Muslims to keep their community unified. For these reasons, there is traditionally a great reluctance among jurists to excommunicate individual Muslims.

Many contemporary extremist groups in the Muslim world have latched onto Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s conception of takfīr and readily declared as apostates any Muslims who oppose their interpretation of the faith. Because of Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s association with Ibn Taymiyyah, these beliefs have wrongly been imputed to the latter as well. Despite having strongly condemned shirk himself, Ibn Taymiyyah actually diverged from Ibn Abdul Wahhab in his writings on takfir:

It is not permissible to call a Muslim an “unbeliever,” neither for a sin which he has committed nor for anything about which he was in error, such as questions about which the People of the Qiblah (i.e Muslims) dispute.[4]

Ruling that a person is an unbeliever is only for Allah…the verdict that a specific person is an unbeliever and the permissibility of sentencing him to death is conditional upon the prophetic proofs having reached him…otherwise, not everyone who is unaware of some matter of Islam is to be deemed an unbeliever.[5]

Sulayman Ibn Abdul Wahhab

As central as Ibn Taymiyyah has been to the formation and evolution of the Wahhabi movement, it is important to note that his writings can just as easily be used to indict Wahhabi thought. This is most clear through the life and work of Sulayman Ibn Abdul Wahhab—Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s lesser-known older brother and major critic of the early Wahhabi movement. Sulayman wrote a significant refutation of his brother’s work, called The Divine Lightning in Refutation of the Wahhabis (al-Sawa‘iq al-Uluhiyya fi-l-Radd ‘ala al-Wahabiyya).[6] The document stands as one of the earliest, if not the earliest, refutations of Wahhabism in Islamic history.

Turning to the text of Sulayman’s essay, two important points stand out. First, Sulayman agreed with his brother’s harsh criticisms of the Muslim community, particularly as it pertained to the cult of saints. He wrote that the customs of sacrificing to saints, pilgrimage to graves, and seeking intercession by holy figures were widespread and indeed examples of shirk.[7] For instance, in one passage, Sulayman complained that many Muslims seemed more interested in traveling to these graves and shrines than the Kaaba in Mecca itself.[8]

The second important point is Sulayman’s clear deference toward Ibn Taymiyyah. On almost every page, Sulayman referenced Ibn Taymiyyah, making him the most frequently cited Islamic thinker in the entire treatise. At first, one might think this is a polemical strategy; Sulayman attempted to discredit his brother by using his favorite scholar against him. But, gradually it becomes clear that Sulayman was himself a genuine admirer and champion of Ibn Taymiyyah, as evidenced by the fact that he referred to him by the honorific title, “shaykh al-islām.”[9]

With a common criticism of the cult of saints and a shared deference to Ibn Taymiyyah, how did Sulayman develop into a significant critic of the Wahhabi movement? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the issue of takfir is the reason. Sulayman consistently challenged his brother’s tendency toward takfir for self-professed Muslims. This was the central concern throughout Sulayman’s entire treatise.

In the opening pages, Sulayman wrote:

You are now pronouncing takfīr over he who witnesses that there is no god but God alone, and that Muhammad is his slave and messenger, and of he who performs the prayer and gives zakat and fasts during Ramadan and performs pilgrimage, believing in God, His angels, books and messengers … (yet) you make them unbelievers and their lands the lands of war. So we ask you…from where have you taken this madhhab?![10]

In many ways, Sulayman’s essay reflected all the fears around takfīr in traditional Islamic thought. Given the popularity of the practices Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab deemed worthy of takfir, Sulayman accused his brother of “splitting” the unity of the community. Because these sinful, blasphemous, and idolatrous practices have existed in Muslim lands for the last eight hundred years, Sulayman asked whether this meant previous generations of Muslims were unbelievers also: “if your madhhab is correct, then there has not been any Muslim left on the earth for the last eight hundred years except yourselves!”[11] The purpose of mentioning Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s madhab, or legal school, is to imply that his brother’s thoughts have no precedence in any of the four classical legal schools of Sunni Islam—Shafi’ism, Hanbalism, Hanafism, and Malikism. It was a way of condemning his brother as beyond the normative bounds of Sunni Islam. Sulayman even went as far as to say that his brother’s beliefs practically excommunicated “the entire community of [the Prophet], all of them.”[12]

Lesser Idolatry

A key pillar of Sulayman’s argument against his brother rested on the important distinction between greater and lesser idolatry. This distinction was not found in the Quran, but rather was alluded to in the Hadith traditions, and became a key construct in later Islamic thought. An act of “greater idolatry” (shirk al-akbar) is typically viewed as something so manifestly idolatrous as to directly contradict Islamic monotheism, taking the person outside of Islam. An example of this would be praying to a stone or wooden idol; one cannot seriously claim to be Muslim and perform this act. An act of “lesser idolatry” (shirk al-asghar) would be an act that is disapproved of, but considerably less serious. Religious affectation in performing prayers, so as to be seen or praised by others, would be a typical example.

According to Sulayman, the popular violations his brother railed against were shirk al-asghar—crucially falling short of apostasy. Sulayman based this argument, in part, on a reading of Ibn Taymiyyah:

From where did you get that a Muslim…if he calls out to a living or dead (saint), or makes vows to him or sacrifices to him or touches his tomb… that all this is greater idolatry (constituting apostasy) …and that he who commits it may have his good deeds wasted, wealth plundered and blood spilt (as an apostate)?[13]

If you say that you have taken this (takfīr) from the writings of the scholars (ahl al-ilm) like ibn Taymiyyah or ibn Qayyim … then we say; this is right and we agree with you in following these two figures … However, they did not say what you say; that this is greater idolatry (shirk al-akbar) that excludes one from Islam… You have taken from their writings what works for you while ignoring what doesn’t. Actually, their writings prove that these actions are lesser idolatry (shirk al-asghar).[14]

Sulayman made the case that even if these practices were examples of shirk al-akbar, this did not, in and of itself, lead immediately to takfir. The Islamic tradition demands more prudence in this situation; there is a careful, juristic process that must be followed before proclaiming takfir. In such an instance, Muslim scholars are tasked with carefully, and patiently, educating the individual in question, as they may be blaspheming out of ignorance. This is done by presenting them with the “clear manifest proof” (hujja) of their error, presumably by reference to the Quran or Hadiths. Once again, Sulayman drew on Ibn Taymiyyah to make these points:

The writings of ibn Taymiyyah … show that the ignorant and mistaken person from this umma, if they perform an act of unbelief (kufr) or idolatry (shirk), does not become an idolater (mushrik) or unbeliever (kāfir) by this (act) until the hujja is made clear to them and they then reject it.[15]

This is the central theme throughout Sulayman’s entire essay; he reckoned his brother had fundamentally misread the works of Ibn Taymiyyah.

Historical sources appear to indicate that Sulayman’s treatise received quite a favorable reception and managed to turn some against the emerging Wahhabi movement. By way of response, Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab penned his own counter essay, in which he argued again that his philosophy was completely in-line with the teachings of Ibn Taymiyyah, including the issue of takfir.[16]

As history tells us, however, this debate between the brothers would not be settled by strength of argument, but rather by force of arms, as the early Wahhabi movement gradually spread its influence through conquest across the Arabian peninsula in the late 18th century.

The Importance of Precedent

It is beyond the scope of this short essay to make a value judgment as to which of the brothers offered the “correct” reading of Ibn Taymiyyah’s works, and on what basis. Both Sulayman and Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab (and their respective supporters) would certainly claim to be the “real defenders” of Ibn Taymiyyah. This essay is, however, concerned with Ibn Taymiyyah’s intellectual legacy, and so, what is important, is highlighting the debates, rather than judging their substantive merit.

Ultimately, this 18th century feud between Sulayman and Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab is important today for two key reasons. First, it challenges simplistic impressions of Ibn Taymiyyah as a “proto-Wahhabi” thinker. Of course, it is a truism of intellectual history that important thinkers are interpreted differently by their followers. Yet, Sulayman still provides an interesting case study by which we can see the complex legacy of Ibn Taymiyyah, and also the various (even contradictory) ways in which his works have been interpreted. Indeed, Sulayman shows us that the Wahhabi movement offers but one, highly contested, interpretation of Ibn Taymiyyah’s works and thought. From Sulayman, we see that challenges to the Wahhabi appropriation of Ibn Taymiyya are as old as the Wahhabi movement itself.

Second, it is important to highlight something else about Sulayman’s treatise, aside from what it reveals about Ibn Taymiyyah and his legacy. Despite all his fierce criticisms, Sulayman disagreed with his brother only on the seriousness of the violations witnessed in the community. The real issue for Sulayman is whether the clear decadence of the Muslim community is grounds for takfir. This is significant because it gives us an important insight: even some of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s fiercest opponents accepted or even shared his criticisms of the Muslim community.

In the mass of critical literature against Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab and the Wahhabi movement today, this important sense of context is missing. Behind popularized slogans against Wahhabi Islam as “extremist” or “un-Islamic” lies a particular thinker who existed within a certain context and had a specific kind of engagement with the classical Islamic tradition. Put differently, Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab is not an aberration; he and his movement were a product of Islamic thought, rooted in a deference to the classical writings of Ibn Taymiyyah and criticisms of the contemporary community, which were affirmed and shared by even his closest opponents.

The debate between Sulayman and Muhammad over Ibn Taymiyyah provides but a snapshot of what the intellectual history of any major faith tradition is truly about.


[1] Muhammad, Ibn ‘Abdul Wahhāb. ‘Risā‘il Shaksiyya’, in Mu‘allafāt al-Shaykh al-Imam Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, 5 Vols (Riyadh: Jāmiat al-Imam Muhammad bin Saud al-Islāmiyya, 1398H), 5/137. See also, 44, 52, 111, 150.

[2] Ibid, 152.

[3] Ibid., 173.

[4] Taken from Yahya Michot, Ibn Taymiyyah: Against Extremisms (Beirut: Ali Bourak, 2012), 234.

[5] Ibn Taymiyyah, al-Istighaatha fi-l-Rad ‘ala al-Bakri (Riyadh: Dar al-Watan, 1997), 1/381-382.

[6] Sulayman, Ibn ‘Abdul Wahhāb. as-Sawā‘iq al-Uluhiyya fi-l-Radd ‘ala al-Wahhabiyya (Istanbul, Turkey: Dār al-Shifqa bi-fāteh, 1979).

[7] Ibid., 7, 36, 37, 38.

[8] Ibid., 47.

[9] Ibid., 27.

[10] Ibid., 5.

[11] Ibid., 41.

[12] Ibid., 28.

[13] Ibid., 6.

[14] Ibid., 6-7.

[15] Ibid., 10.

[16] Muhammad, ibn ‘Abdul Wahhāb. ‘Mufīd al-Mustafīd fī kufr tārik al-tawhīd’, in Mu‘allafāt al-Shaykh al-Imam Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, 5 Vols (Riyadh: Jāmiat al-Imam Muhammad bin Saud al-Islāmiyya, 1398H), 1/290-320.

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  • Nadim Mahjoub

    This is the second essay in this collection. Unfortunately, it confirms the fragmentaion of social thought. What about adding a couple of paragraphs on the social and political context in which Ibn Taymiyyah lived? Was he of the establishment/normative version of Islam” or of the opposition?