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Ibnul Qayyim – his life

Author: from al-Wabil as-Sayyib

For most Muslims who have heard of him, Ibn al-Qayyim al Jawziyyah’s name is inseparable form that of his teacher, the 7th / 13th century Hanbalî reformer, Ibn Taymîyah (from whom is the famous saying: “What can my enemies do to me? My paradise and garden are in my chest, and do not leave me. ») . It is true, in fact, that Ibn al-Qayyim was the principle compiler and editor of his teacher’s writings, and had it not been for him, that voluminous body of work might never have survived. It is also true that Ibn Taymîyah’s point of view had a profound effect on the young man, who at twenty-one years age, became his student and companion. One of Ibn al-Qayyim’s own students would later write, ‘Above all, his love for Ibn Taymîyah was so great that he would never disagree with anything he said. Rather, he supported him in everything and was the one who edited his books and spread his teachings.’ In fiqh and theology , both men wrote from a Hanbalî position, and Ibn al-Qayyim criticized the same things that his shaykh had so adamantly opposed: innovation (bid’ah), Greek influenced Muslim philosophy, Sh’ism, the doctrine of wahdat ul-wujûd, or ‘oneness of being’ (attributed to Ibn Arabî) and by extension, the extreme forms of Sûfism that had gained currency particularly in the new seat of Muslim power, Mamluk Egypt and Syria.

However, two elements set Ibn al-Qayyim’s writings apart from those of his shaykh. The first is his tone. Ibn Taymîyah wrote ‘with the eye’, as it were, and Ibn al-Qayyim added to that ‘the heart’. As a contemporary editor of his works has written, ‘Although he moved within the sphere of Ibn Taymîyah’s influence, following him in most of his religious rulings, he was more ready than his teacher to be lenient and amiable to those with whom he differed.’ A typical example of this may be found in his magnum opus, Madârij as-Sâlikîn (‘The Travelers Stages’), which is a long commentary on a treatise by the 5th / 11th century Hanbalite Sûfî, Abdullâh al-Ansarî al Harrawî. Taking exception to something al-Ansarî wrote, Ibn al-Qayyim prefaced his comments with, ‘Certainly I love the shaykh, but I love the truth more.’

The second is Ibn al-Qayyim’s great interest in Sûfism. Some of his major works, such as Madârij, Târiq al-Hijratayn (‘Path of Two Migrations’) and Miftah Daral-Sa’ada (‘Key to the Abode of Happiness’), are devoted almost entirely to Sûfî themes, but this allusions to these themes are found in nearly all his writings. There is no doubt that Ibn al-Qayyim addressed those interested in Sûfism in particular and al-Umur al-Qalbiyya - ‘The matters of the Heart’ – in general. In fact, in the introduction to his short book Patience and Gratitude, he sates, ‘This is a book to benefit kings and princes, the wealthy and the indigent, Sûfîs and religious scholars; (a book) to inspire the sedentary to set out, accompany the wayfarer on the path (al-sa’ir fil târiq) and inform the one journeying towards the Goal.’

The subjects dealt with by Ibn al-Qayyim- the way to God, the maladies of the heart, and the virtues- are undoubtedly also those of tasawwuf. Ibn al-Qayyim’s role is, thus, somewhat similar to that of al-Ghazalî (d. 505H / 1111C.E) two hundred years before him: to rediscover and restate the orthodox roots of Islam’s interior dimension, with the added task of correcting what he saw as new errors that had arisen due to the powerful influence of Ibn Arabî’s works. In this sense, he might be descried as a reviver of what he considered to be an authentic inclination of the heart towards Allâh, and the path towards Him.

This is the formula which, in all likelihood, accounts for the ongoing popularity of Ibn al-Qayyim’s works throughout the Arabic speaking world. His thirty or so extant books have been reprinted many times; the principle ones, including the titles cited above, have all been reprinted in both inexpensive and scholarly editions since 1990. The reader who might be attracted to the inner dimension of Islâm but not by much of what passes nowadays as Sûfism, finds in Ibn al-Qayyim an exposition of the Way to God, free of ‘mythology’ or the exclusive terminology of Sûfism, written for the generality of believers and with strict insistence upon the main sources of orthodoxy; the Qur’ân, the Sunnah, and the practices of the first two generations of Muslims.

The Life of Ibn al-Qayyim:

Shams ad-Dîn Muhammad ibn Abî Bakr ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah was born in 691H / 1292C.E in al-Zur’i, a small village fifty-five miles from Damascus. Little is known of his childhood except that he received a comprehensive Islâmic education thanks to the fact that his father was principle of the Madrasah al-Jawziyyah, one of the few centres devoted to the study of Hanbalite fiqh in Damascus; hence, the name by which he came to be known: Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyyah – ‘son of the principle of the Jawziyyah school’ – or simply, Ibn al-Qayyim.

After completing his fundamental studies at the Jawziyyah, Ibn al-Qayyim continued his learning in the circles of the shaykhs who filled the city’s mosques. It appears that for some period of time, he came under the influence of Mu’tazilite teachings and probably of certain mystics. In the epic-length Ode he wrote in later years, he refers to this period as being one of confusion and misguidance: ‘All these [ways] did I try, and I fell into a net, fluttering like a bird that knows not where to fly.’

This period came to an end in the year 712H / 1312C.E, when at twenty one years of age he met the man who would shape his life’s orientation in Islâm: Taqî ad-Dîn ibn Taymîyah. Ibn Taymîyah had just returned to Damascus from a seven-year stay in Egypt, the last of which he spent under house arrest. His reputation for being an uncompromising defender of the Sunnah and of Hanbalite theology was well known to the people of Syria. Perhaps it was his certitude and strength that appealed to the young Ibn al-Qayyim, who ‘like a bird caught in a net, did not know where to fly.’ In any event, a bond formed between the two men which lasted for 16 years until Ibn Taymîyah’s death.

Between 712H / 1312C.E and 726H / 1326C.E, Ibn al-Qayyim married and had three sons- Ibrâhîm, Abdullâh and Sharaf ad-Dîn. He earned his living as teacher and Imâm at the Jawziyyah school. His lessons on Hanbalite fiqh and his sermons probably showed the strong influence of his teacher for, in 726H / 1326C.E, when the authorities of Damascus ordered the arrest of Ibn Taymîyah and his followers, Ibn al-Qayyim was among them.

This imprisonment came after Ibn Taymîyah had been summoned before a council of religious scholars (ulamah) for questioning on a point of fiqh: was it permissible for someone visiting the Prophet’s – sallallâhu ‘alayhi wa sallam -  mosques in Madînah to shorten the prayers? Since the council knew in advance that In Taymîyah strongly condemned the practise of visiting saint’s tombs for the purpose of receiving blessing (tabarruk), they could easily portray his chary answer as proof that he himself propagated a dangerous innovation (bid’ah) by discouraging Muslims form visiting the burial place of their beloved Prophet – sallallâhu ‘alayhi wa sallam. This pretext was used to remove from the public eye a man they regarded as a source of unrest. The council ruled that Ibn Taymîyah and all those in Damascus who propagated his teachings – including Ibn al-Qayyim- should be rounded up and imprisoned in the citadel of the town. Although a few days later the authorities released Ibn Taymîyah’s followers, Ibn al-Qayyim alone chose to stay at the side of his teacher in prison.

Unlike his house arrest in Egypt, during which he was permitted to write and teach his followers, this time Ibn Taymîyah was not only locked up, but also denied both books and writing materials, a much harder condition for him to bear than prison itself. It has been recorded that during that final imprisonment he would find scraps of discarded paper and write with pieces of charcoal. In 728H / 1327C.E, however, having been separated for two years from all those things he had lived for, he passed away. Then and only then did Ibn al-Qayyim come out of prison to join the multitudes who followed the body of Ibn Taymîyah to the burial.

It appears that only after his teacher’s death did Ibn al-Qayyim begin his own profile as a writer. This stage of his life was also marked by much travel, learning and teaching, as well as several pilgrimages to Makkah, where he lived for some time.

Our picture of Ibn al-Qayyim in the last twenty-five years or so of his life is derived mainly from recollections of his two most illustrious students, Ibn Rajab and Ibn Kathîr. The latter wrote, ‘He recited [the Qur'ân] beautifully and was loved by a great many people. He neither envied nor harmed anyone, nor tried to find fault with them, nor harboured malice towards them. In short, there were few people like him… He was dominated mostly by goodness and a virtuous nature.’

Ibn Rajab writes, ‘May Allâh bless him, he was a person of worship and night prayers, someone who used to make prayer last as long as possible; he was devoted to remembrance (dhikr), constant in his love of Allâh, in turning back to Allâh, in seeking forgiveness, in his dependence on Allâh and in humility before Him. He reached a level of devotion which I have never witnessed in anyone else, nor have I seen anyone more vast in learning or more knowledgeable of the meanings of the Qur’ân, the Sunnah, and the inner realities of faith. And while I know he was not infallible, yet I have never seen anyone who was closer to the meaning of this word.’

In addition to these isolated glimpses of the man, there is evidence that he loved books so much that after his death his sons had to sell off much of his library, keeping only what they themselves could make use of.

Ibn al-Qayyim died in 751/ 1350, when he was scarcely 60 years old. I t is recorded that the funeral prayer, attended by many people, was offered at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. He was buried a the cemetery of Bab al-Saghîr, near the grave of his father- Rahimahumallâh.

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