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Ibn Taymiyyah Vs the Mutakalimoon: Theological Implications of the Story of Ibraheem and the Star

Bismillahi ar-Rahman ar-Raheem

I came across an article inadvertently on a particular website (MuslimMatters) only to have found an interesting research work that caught my eye while looking for something else elsewhere. After a cursory reading of it, I felt it was extremely beneficial to let it pass, so I decided to bring it here.

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The Qurʾān informs us, in 6:74-83, of the story of Ibrahīm with his people, and how he argued with them about God and His existence by successively rejecting the stars, moon and Sun to be real Lords, and finally turning his face to the One who created Him.

This story has been understood in various manners by different groups. Most mutakallimūn (scholars of kalām ) used this story as the solitary Qurʾānic evidence for the proof of the existence of God through the proof of the createdness of accidents (the dalīl al-ʾaʿrāḍ wa ḥudūth al-ajsām – henceforth ‘dalīl’). The Ahl al-Ḥadīth, on the other hand, never accepted this proof in the first place, much less ascribe it to the great patriarch Ibrahīm, the ‘Friend of God’. The most vocal opponent of this interpretation was Shaykh al-Islām Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728 A.H./ 1327 C.E.). In this article, the different theological implications of this story as understood by these two groups will be discussed.1

The Proof of Creation from the Createdness of Accidents

The mutakallimūn devised a unique proof in order to prove the existence of God. Most authorities ascribe this proof to Abū al-Hudhayl al-ʿAllāf2 (d. 226 A.H./841 C.E.); however, Ibn Taymiyyah believed that it was Jahm b. Ṣafwān (d. 124 A.H./ 741 C.E.)  who first introduced this proof into the Muslim intellectual world.3

Regardless of who the first proponent of this theory was, it was to become the standard proof for the createdness of the world (and hence, the existence of a Creator) for the Muʿtazilites, Ashʿarītes and Maturidites, with differences amongst them regarding the nature of an ‘accident’ and the various premises associated with this proof. The Muʿtazilite Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār (d. 415 A.H./1024 C.E.) was one of the first to succinctly articulate the four premises of this proof, all of which were accepted by the Ashʿarites as well. Firstly, one must acknowledge that there are, within bodies, certain ‘meanings’ (maʿānī) or ‘accidents’ (aʿrāḍ) such as movement and rest. Secondly, that these ‘meanings’ or ‘accidents’ are created, and not eternal. Thirdly, that bodies are concomitant with these ‘meanings’, and not preceding them. And lastly, that if bodies are not free of accidents and do not precede them, then the bodies themselves must be created.4 If all of these premises are true, then ipso facto there must be a Creator, whom we call God, who originated these bodies along with their accidents.

This evidence was mentioned by Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī5 (d. 330 A.H./941 C.E.) and al-Bayhaqī6 (d. 458 A.H./1065 C.E.), but it was al-Bāqillānī7 (d. 403 A.H./ 1012 C.E.) who was the first Ashʿarīte to expound on this dalīl and make it a fundamental principle for their school.

A few decades later, ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Baghdādi (d. 429 A.H./1037 C.E.) was to make this proof the second fundamental (aṣl) out of the fifteen fundamentals of the religion, and to then proclaim, “And every opinion that conflicts with the dalīl that proves bodies and accidents are created must be rejected.”8 All subsequent scholars of kalām incorporated this dalīl in some form or fashion in their theological works.

The Story of Ibrahīm  As The Basis of this Dalīl

Although the dalīl was almost unanimously agreed upon by all the mutakallimūn, only a handful of them actually provided any Qurʾānic basis for it. The sole evidence that was supplied was the story of Ibrahīm  with the celestial objects.

The earliest reference to theological opinions being derived from the incident of Ibrahīm  appears to be that of Bishr al-Mirrīsī (d. 218 A.H./833 C.E.).  Al-Dārimī (d. 289 A.H./901 C.E.), in his refutation of Bishr, claimed that Bishr denied God’s descent to the lower heavens in the last third of the night because of Ibrahīm ’s statement, “I do not love the āfilīn .” [The precise translation for this Arabic term (āfilīn) is crucial for our theological understanding of the verse, hence it will be left untranslated where possible.] al-Dārimī writes,

And you claimed that Ibrahīm  repudiated any love for a God that moves, meaning that if God descends from one heaven to another, or descends on the Day of Judgment in order to judge between His servants, then He has afala and moved, just as the Sun and moon did. And therefore Ibrahīm  denied lordship to these two objects. 9

Al-Dārimī then proceeded to refute this premise, and claimed that if God descends on the Day of Judgment, this does not necessitate that He will disappear (afala) into anything. The fact that the Sun or moon seems to ‘disappear’ into other matter when they set cannot be extrapolated and applied to God.10 From this refutation, it can be assumed that Bishr understood afala to mean ‘disappear’, and that he used this story to prove that accidents (in this case, motion, which is a corollary to the disappearance of these objects) cannot subsist in a Divine Essence.

Abū al-Hassan al-Ashʿarī also alluded to these verses, albeit in a slightly different context, for he states, after quoting 6:76-77, “And so (Ibrahīm ), may God’s blessings be upon him, combined between the stars and moon in that neither of them could possibly be a god or lord since they both shared the attribute of ufūl. And this is the inspection (nadhar) and proof (istidlāl) that rejecters seek to reject and deviants deviate away from.”11 Al-Ashʿarī stated this in the context of trying to prove the legitimacy of ‘inspection’ (nadhr), and not in the sections pertaining to the createdness of the world, although once again it is evident that he considered the basic premises of the ‘Proof of Accidents’ to be applicable in the story of Ibrahīm , since he sees Ibrahīm  as denying the divinity of an object in which accidents subsist.

It appears that the first Ashʿarīte to give prominence to this verse in light of the ‘Proof of Accidents’ is, once again, al-Bāqillānī. Unlike al-Ashʿarī, however, al-Bāqillānī believed this Proof to be the primary evidence for the existence of the Creator. In a chapter concerning the evidences that the world is created, he mentions one of the forms of the ‘Proof from Accidents’, and then states,

And so too was the ‘Friend of God’, Ibrahīm, may God’s mercy be upon him. For he proved the createdness of objects by the changes they undergo and the fact that they move from one state to another, because when he saw the star, he said ‘This is my Lord’, to the end of the verses. So he realized that this object, since it changed and moved from one state to another, was ephemeral, controlled and created, and that it must have a creator. And that is why he said after that, ‘I turn my face to the One who created the Heavens and Earth.’ [6:79]12

From the quote and its context, it appears that al-Bāqillānī understood ‘afal’ to indicate movement and change, and that he considers Ibrahīm to have been searching for God, eventually rejecting these celestial objects in favor of the true God.

Al-Bayhaqī, another early Ashʿarīte (despite the strong influence that the Ahl al-Ḥadīth had on him, which can be seen in his theology), also referenced this verse to show that Ibrahīm proved the existence of God by showing that no body in which an accident occurs could be worthy of divinity.13 He was followed by Al-Juwaynī (d. 468 A.H./1085 C.E.) shortly afterward.14 Another scholar of the Ashʿarites of that ear was Abu Isḥāq al-Shirāzī (d. 476/1084), who was the first Director of the Nizamiyya School in Baghdad, and an immediate predecessor of the position of al-Ghazali. In his al-Ishara ila madhab ahl al-haqq (p. 152, 166) he quotes verse 6:72, and then writes,

It is not possible for the Lord to change from one state to another, or to move from one place to another. God says 6:72, and afala means to move from one direction to another and to change from one state to another. So Ibrahim said that he does not like that which changes place, or changes [in any way]. Therefore, whoever described God in a way that Ibrahīm  negated is not from the Muslims… As we have explained before, Ibrahim demonstrated that the stars, sun and moon were created by change, and uful, and movement from one state to the next. And God commanded us to follow Ibrahim in order to arrive at the truth, not like one who believes and describes the Lord with descent, and movement, and changing from one state to another, and believing in these texts in a literal manner, without interpretation.

It is interesting to note that al-Ghazālī (d. 505 A.H./1111 C.E.), the next Ashʿarite of importance, had a much more philosophical and Avicennian understanding of this story, and did not view it in the kalām perspective but rather an esoteric mystical one.15 The next Ashʿarite who had a major impact was Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606 A.H./1209 C.E.), to whom we shall return later in the article.

The Ashʿarītes were not the only mutakallimūn who viewed the incident of Ibrahīm  in such a light. Of the Maturīdites who understood this story in a similar manner was Abū al-Maʿīn al-Nasafī (d. 508 A.H./1114 C.E.). In the context of denying any attributes that necessitated movement being ascribed to God (such as God’s istiwā over the Throne), he stated since Ibrahīm  denied the divinity of celestial objects because they moved from one place to another, God himself could not be characterized by any accident.16

The Muʿtazilite al-Zamakhsharī (d. 538 A.H./ 1143 C.E.) also agreed with this view. He stated that Ibrahīm  was chosen by God to guide his people to the correct method of inquiry and proof for His existence. He was to teach them that true inquiry leads one to believe that no idol or celestial object could be worthy of worship ‘…since accidents are subsiding in them, and therefore there must be a creator who created them’.17 Al-Zamakhsharī stated that Ibrahīm said of these objects ‘This is my Lord’, not because he believed this, but rather to state the belief of the opponent, fully knowing that the statement was false, but being fair to them and showing them that he was not dogmatically inclined to believe his own teachings blindly and without conviction. Although it is stated the he said this actually believing them to be his Lords, it appears, according to al-Zamakhsharī, that the former opinion is stronger. Thereafter, Ibrahīm  stated, ‘I do not like the āfilīn’, meaning that he does not like worshiping lords that change from one state to another, that move from one location to another, that hide by coverings – for all of this is inherently characteristic of bodies (ajsām).18 It is significant to note that al-Zamakhsharī clearly states that Ibrahīm did not actually believe these celestial objects were gods, but rather was trying to prove to his people that they were not divine. This is different than the view of al-Bāqillānī, who views Ibrahīm has having been searching for God through this incident; it is possible that he derived this interpretation from al-Ashʿarī himself, although al-Ashʿarī’s quotes are ambiguous and can be read both ways.

Thefore, before proceeding, this section can be summarized by stating that all the groups of kalām (the Muʿtazilites, the Ashʿarites and the Maturidites) affirmed that the primary proof of God’s existence was the ‘Proof of the Createdness of Accidents’. Many of the primary architects of these three schools also sought to prove the legitimacy of this proof from the story of Ibrahīm. In order to understand the story as substantiating this Proof, they translated afala as ‘motion’; hence, they claimed, since this great Patriarch denied divinity to the stars, moon, and Sun because of ‘motion’, and motion was an accident, the Qurʿānic story was in fact a direct evidence for the validity of the ‘Proof of the Createdness of Accidents’.

Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī and the Story of Ibrahīm

Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606 A.H./1209 C.E.), the single greatest Ashʿarite theologian of medieval Islam, took the story of Ibrahīm to a new level. He used this incident as one of the primary evidences in proving that God cannot have a direction or body, or occupy space. Al-Rāzī states that Ibrahīm proved the createdness of the celestial bodies by the fact that change occurs in them, which eventually led him to turn his face to the true God. He claims that this story proves, in three ways, that God cannot be a body, have a direction or occupy space:19

Firstly, since all bodies share certain similarities, what is allowed for one body must also be allowed for others. Therefore, if God were a body, He would be characterized with what bodies are characterized with, and accidents could subsist in Him just as they subsist in other bodies. But since Ibrahīm clearly showed that objects which change from one state to another cannot be divine, it follows that God, who is divine, cannot be a body.

Secondly, at the conclusion of this inspection, Ibrahīm said that he turned his face to the One who created the Heavens and Earth (‘alladhī faṭar al-samāwāti wa al-arḍa’, [6:79]), for which God praised him. And the very fact that God praised him at this point shows that all that was required of Ibrahīm  was to acknowledge God as the creator, for if God were also a body or substance, an Ibrahīm  was required to know this, God would not have praised him until Ibrahīm  had reached this knowledge.

Thirdly, if God were a body, this would necessitate that other bodies be similar to Him in His Essence. This, in turn, would imply that He had partners similar to Him. Yet Ibrahīm  says, in these same series of verses, “…and I am not of those who ascribe partners to Him” [6:79], thus showing that God does not have a body.

From this, it can be seen that al-Rāzī gave this story more theological prominence than any Ashʿarīte before him, specifically in denying ‘bodiness’ (jismiyyah), spatial occupation (taḥayyuz) and change (taghayyur) in God through it.

In his tafsīr, al-Rāzī discusses this incident in far greater detail, and, as is characteristic for him in this work, mentions dozens of issues pertaining to it.20

Of these issues is the question: was Ibrahīm sincere in his claim that these celestial objects were actually gods, or was he merely arguing with his people in this manner? According to al-Rāzī, many scholars of exegesis of the past believed that Ibrahīm grew up in a cave, sheltered from society, and that his mother had placed him there and occasionally came to take care of him in order to protect him from the King, who had promised to kill all male babies born in that year (due to a vision he had seen). When Ibrahīm came of age, he began questioning his parents and the people around him, ‘Who is my lord?’ and, not being satisfied with their answers, embarked on this journey in which he eventually ‘discovered’ the One True God. According to this interpretation, the story is to be taken as Ibrahīm’s personal journey and quest to discover God. However, according to al-Rāzī, this cannot be the correct opinion, for twelve reasons, which he lists (one of which is that the claim that these celestial objects are creators is blatant disbelief, and this cannot be presumed of Ibrahīm).21

Therefore, according to al-Rāzī, there are only two possibilities left. The first is that Ibrahīm did not intend to ascribe lordship to these celestial objects, but rather intended something else (and here he lists seven possibilities of what might have been intended and how this phrase can be correctly interpreted; for example, that he was merely stating what his people believed in order to show them the futility of that belief). The second possibility is that this incident occurred before Ibrahīm became an adult (i.e., before puberty), and thus it would not be considered a sin (since before this age one is not held accountable for what one does). This second opinion, states al-Rāzī, is plausible, even though the first one is stronger.22

Al-Rāzī also discussed the precise meaning of ufūl. ‘Ufūl’, he claims, means ‘to disappear after an object has appeared’. And the reason that ufūl shows the createdness of a body is because it indicates motion. Now it is possible that one might question, al-Rāzī states, as to why Ibrahīm had to wait until the objects disappeared before pronouncing their createdness, since the objects would have been moving ever since their appearance? To this, he replies that, while there is no doubt that the rising of these objects and their setting both show that they are created, the fact of the matter is that the evidences that are employed by the prophets must be crystal-clear, such that even the most foolish person can see their validity. And the evidence of the createdness of an object by its motion, whilst completely valid and indubitable, is really only understood by the most honored of God’s servants. As for the evidence from their disappearance, this is a matter that all of mankind will be able to comprehend. Hence, in Ibrahīm ’s wisdom, he used the actual disappearance of the object instead of its motion to prove its createdness.23

Al-Rāzī also derives three rulings from Ibrahīm’s testimony of ‘I do not love the āfilīn’ [6:79]. Firstly, this proves that God cannot be a body (jism), since if He were a body, He would also be hidden (āfil) from us, and thus not worthy of divinity. Also, this would imply that He cannot descend from the Throne to the skies, otherwise this would be a type of ufūl as well. Secondly, this verse clearly proves that created attributes cannot subsist in God, otherwise He would be subject to change. Thirdly, this verse also proves that the religion must be based upon examination, not blind following, otherwise there would be no benefit in Ibrahīm’s search and investigation.24

As a last point that is relevant to this discussion, al-Rāzī states that this incident is one of the greatest evidences against the ḥashawiyyah25 since Ibrahīm was praised by God for his being guided to the truth through this examination and investigation. This proves, according to al-Rāzī, that there is no station (maqām) after that of the prophets which is better than the station of investigation and research,26 meaning ʿilm al-kalām.

It is interesting to note that in this section of his tafsīr, al-Rāzī did not explicitly mention the ‘Proof from Accidents’ and its premises, although it is clear that he alluded to it more than once.

We have seen how some of the famous proponents of kalām viewed the story of Ibrahīm. It is now time to turn our attention to one of the greatest critics of ʿilm al-kalām, Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728 A.H./1327 C.E.), and see his perspective on the ‘Proof’ and its relationship to the story of Ibrahīm.

Ibn Taymiyyah’s Response to This Proof

Ibn Taymiyyah dedicated a significant portion of his writings to refute the premises and implications of this Proof; in fact he claimed that the salaf’s disapproval of ʿilm al-kalām was due primarily to this very Proof.27

For Ibn Taymiyyah, the Qurʾānic methodology of proving the existence of God was far superior than the ‘Proof of Accidents’ employed by the mutakallimūn. Ibn Taymiyyah believed that man had ingrained in him a belief in God, and that this belief, embodied in the fiṭrah, or innate subconscious nature of man, was an integral part and parcel of the human conscience. And since the Prophet had stated that ‘Every child is born upon the fiṭrah…’, Ibn Taymiyyah felt there was no need to construct elaborate proofs for the existence of God. According to him, the existence of God is more obvious that the existence of man himself. And it is for this reason that the overwhelming majority of mankind, from all generations and in all places, acknowledged a belief in a supreme deity, and those who strayed from this belief are the exception rather than the rule.28

However, Ibn Taymiyyah did believe that the Qurʾān addresses those who denied the existence of God. He felt that the strongest proof, after the fiṭrah of man, was the proof from the ephemeral nature of creation itself, including the createdness of man. For man knows instinctively that he is created, just as he knows that the other animals, plants, minerals, clouds and objects around him are created. And every creation is in need of a Creator. Thus, the fact that man is a created object is evidence in and of itself of the existence of a Creator, and is itself not in need of evidence. The Proof of the people of kalām, however, is meant to prove the createdness of man, whereas the Qurʾānic methodology is to take this for granted and use it to prove the existence of a Creator, as, for example, in 52: 35, “Were they created from nothing, or did they create themselves?”29

Another Qurʾānic proof of the existence of God, according to Ibn Taymiyyah, is the miracles of the prophets, such as the miracles given to Moses, Jesus, and Muḥammad.3

In light of these authentic, Qurʾānic evidences, Ibn Taymiyyah argues, there was no need to resort to methods which none of the prophets ever called to. For no one can argue that the prophets of God proclaimed to mankind that they should believe in ‘substances’ and ‘accidents’ and try to prove the existence of God through such means. In fact, none of the Companions of the Prophet did so either. Therefore, Ibn Taymiyyah argues, it must be that those who use this evidence are following a path other than the path of the Prophet and his Companions.31

Furthermore, Ibn Taymiyyah felt that this Proof was overcomplicated in its premises, and self-evident in its conclusions. Additionally, the groups of kalām differed amongst themselves in many of the premises of this dalīl, most of which were not indubitable, and the rest of which were so perplexing that only the most intelligent of people could understand them. This Proof, according to him, is ‘…like a piece of lean camel meat placed on the peak of a steep mountain; neither is it easy to climb nor is it juicy meat [worthy] to take’. 32

Ibn Taymiyyah reserved his harshest criticism for this Proof because of its implications in the theological understanding of God’s Attributes. Ibn Taymiyyah pointed out that the mutakallimūn relied primarily on this Proof in order to reinterpret God’s Attributes away from what he perceived to be their primary meanings. This is because, from the perspective of Ibn Taymiyyah, the mutakallimūn did not even spare God from the premises and intricacies of this Proof, and in their over-zealousness to ensure that God was not a ‘body’, denied ‘accidents’ (ʿaraḍ) as subsisting in Him. Since each group amongst the people of kalām had its own definition of ‘accident’, they differed in their understanding of God’s Attributes. For the Muʿtazilites, all of God’s Attributes could be construed as accidents, whereas for the Ashʿarītes it was only those Attributes which changed over time (i.e., those related to the Will of God). Based on this distinction, Ibn Taymiyyah said, the Muʿtazilites rejected all affirmatory Attributes and claimed that to affirm such an Attribute as subsisting in God would imply that God was a body, hence created.33 The Ashʿarites, on the other hand, affirmed eternal, unchanging Attributes, but refused to affirm God’s ‘descent’ (nuzūl), ‘rising over the throne’ (istiwā), a speech that was related to His Will, and most other attributes mentioned in the Divine Texts. In fact, Ibn Taymiyyah states, the majority of theological deviations of the groups of kalām stem from the implications of this Proof.34

And since the solitary Qurʾānic evidence that the mutakallimūn had for this Proof was the story of Ibrahīm, Ibn Taymiyyah critiqued their understanding of it in many works. Ibn Taymiyyah writes of the mutakallimūn, “So they said: any accident that occurs within Him (i.e., God) is ufūl, and the Friend of God (i.e., Ibrahīm ) said, ‘I do not love the āfilīn’’, and an āfil is a being that moves – one which is a place of accidents. Thus, the Friend of God negated his love for any being that is a place for accidents, for it cannot be a God.”35

Ibn Taymiyyah’s Understanding of the Story of Ibrahīm

Ibn Taymiyyah criticized the mutakallimūn in a number of ways for reading this Proof into the story of Ibrahīm ; below is a list of the primary critiques found in his writings.36

The First Point

Ibn Taymiyyah argues that this story has been entirely misunderstood by the mutakallimūn. According to the mutakallimūn, when Ibrahīm said to the three celestial bodies, ‘This is my Lord’, he actually meant in his heart that this celestial object was the being that created him.37 In other words, Ibrahīm was sincerely searching for the divine being that created him, and so in turn presumed this being to be a star, then the moon, then the Sun, and finally realized that it was a Divine God that was different from these celestial objects.

However, Ibn Taymiyyah sees Ibrahīm as a ḥanīf, one who was always turned to God, and not as an atheist or idol-worshiper searching for the true God. The purpose of the story was not Ibrahīm’s personal search for God, but rather his way of arguing with his people and showing them the futility of their worship of celestial objects. In other words, Ibrahīm was not actually ascribing divinity to these celestial objects, but rather merely showing this people the error of their ways; this entire story is a debate tactic against his people, and not a personal search for the truth.

Ibn Taymiyyah calls this misunderstanding of the mutakallimūn ‘…the most misguided of all their misguidances’.38

The Second Point

The scholars of kalām, according to Ibn Taymiyyah, understood the meaning of ufūl as ‘movement’, and this was the basis of their taking the story of Ibrahīm  as the sole Quranic evidence for their Proof. According to them, Ibrahīm denied the Lordship of a being that moves, because movement is an accident, and accidents are created, thus rendering the bodies they reside in created as well.

However, Ibn Taymiyyah argues, ufūl does not mean ‘movement’ (al-ḥaraka wa al-intiqāl) in the least. In fact, all linguists and grammarians of the Arabic language have agreed that ‘afala’ means to disappear and be covered up (al-ghayb wa al-iḥtijāb), and not merely to move.39 Never once did the Arabs call any object that moved āfil, or any object that changed āfil, for one who walks or prays is not called such, despite his movement or change in posture. And nor did the Arabs use this word to describe temporary attributes that a body is characterized by, such as sickness or change in color, for one does not say that the Sun afala if it becomes yellowish or red, but only if it disappears.40

Ibn Taymiyyah argues that had the meaning of ‘afala’ been ‘to move’, Ibrahīm  would not have had to wait until the Sun and moon were fully apparent, as the verse states that he waited until after the Sun and moon had become apparent in the horizons (‘fa-lamma raʾā al-qamara bāzighan…’ and ‘…al-shamsa bazighatan’ [7:74,75]). Rather, he could have deduced this Proof from the very first instance the Sun and moon had risen up into the horizon. So the fact that Ibrahīm  had to wait until the particular object was fully visible in the sky (bāzigh), and then the ufūl occurred, shows that it was not by the movement of the objects but rather by their disappearance that Ibrahīm claimed these beings could not be the Lord.41

The Third Point

To believe that Ibrahīm actually intended that the star, moon and Sun was his Lord when he said ‘This is my Lord’ is actually an evidence against the Proof, and not for it. For Ibrahīm saw the star rise and set, and likewise the moon and Sun, and they continued to move throughout this rising and setting. Yet never once while witnessing this motion did Ibrahīm deny divinity to these celestial objects, rather, he waited until they manifested themselves and then eventually disappeared before making this claim. Thus, according to the interpretation of the mutakallimūn, Ibrahīm tacitly allowed these beings the attribute of divinity despite their motion, showing that motion in and of itself does not disqualify an object from being divine.42 Rather, Ibrahīm did not concern himself with the accidents of these celestial objects to disprove their being gods; instead he used the fact that they disappeared and were not permanent for this claim.43 So the story of Ibrahīm is closer to being an evidence against this Proof rather than being one in support of it.44

In Ibn Taymiyyah’s view, this is yet another example of a maxim that he frequently quotes: there is no textual evidence that the people of deviation (ahl al-bidʿa) use to try to justify their deviation except that that very text can be used against them rather than for them.45

The Fourth Point

Ibn Taymiyyah argues that this understanding of the verse has not been narrated from any of the pious predecessors, from the scholars of exegesis or from the scholars of the language. Rather, this is an innovated interpretation which earlier scholars clearly pointed out, such as ʿUthmān b. Saʿīd al-Dārimī (d. 289 A.H./901 C.E.).46

The Fifth Point

According to Ibn Taymiyyah, the people whom Ibrahīm was addressing already believed in a Supreme Lord. There was no need, therefore, to prove His existence. Unlike the people of Egypt at the time of Moses, who followed Pharaoh’s claim of being the Lord, the people of Ibrahīm  were polytheists who worshipped celestial objects, but also acknowledged the One God to be Supreme. In fact, these people did not even believe these celestial objects to be the Creator, and that was why Ibrahīm pointed out to them that if the star, moon and Sun were not Lords (rabb), then why should they be worshiped? The people of Ibrahīm  acknowledged God, and this is proven in the Qurʾān itself. Ibn Taymiyyah quotes 26: 75-77, when Ibrahīm  says to his people: “Do you see that which you all worship? You and your forefathers of old? Then they are all hated to me, except for the Lord of the worlds.” And again in 43: 26-27, “I have dissociated with all whom you worship, except for the One who created me, for He will guide me.” In both these verses, Ibrahīm mentions that his people believed in the Supreme God and worshiped Him, hence he had to make an exception in his dissociation and hatred. And it was because of this that he said, at the conclusion of his conversation with his people in these very verses, “And I am not of those who associate partners (to God)” [6: 78].  Therefore, his people, like other pagan cultures, believed in God but worshiped objects besides Him, in this case celestial objects, building temples in their honor.47

So the point of the story, according to Ibn Taymiyyah, could not have been to prove the existence of God, but rather that only He was worthy of worship, and not these celestial objects.48

The Sixth Point

It is well-known, Ibn Taymiyyah argues, that not a single intelligent person in the history of mankind has every claimed that one star was exclusively responsible for the creation of all other stars, the Sun, moon and the rest of the creation.49 In fact, even the people of Ibrahīm did not state this, so how could this be assumed of Ibrahīm, the prophet of God?50

The Seventh Point

Ibrahīm only denied his love of the āfilīn, for he said after viewing these objects, ‘I do not love the āfilīn’ [6:76], and did not mention anything other than that.51 Therefore the elaborate conclusions that the mutakallimūn derive from this story are not explicit in it.

Conclusion

The story of Ibrahīm  in 6:74-83 is seen by a certain group of the mutakallimūn as a solid Qurʾānic evidence for the proof of the existence of God from the createdness of accidents. Some of them, such as al-Bāqillānī, claimed that Ibrahīm was actually searching for God, and through this search rejected the stars, moon and Sun as gods due to the existence of an accident, in this case movement, within them. Others, such as al-Rāzī, understood from this incident that Ibrahīm was arguing with his people and trying to convince them of the existence of God by showing that celestial objects could not be divine because of their motion. In all cases, an underlying assumption was made of the validity of the dalīl al-ʾaʿrāḍ wa ḥudūth al-ajsām (‘Proof from Accidents and The Createdness of Bodies’), and that this story somehow validated this dalīl.

On the other hand, the scholars of the Ahl al-Ḥadīth did not agree with this dalīl in the first place, and therefore ipso facto rejected it as being proven by the story of Ibrahīm. Early Ahl al-Ḥadīth scholars such as al-Dārimī countered this understanding, but the Ahl al-Ḥadīth needed to wait for their most eloquent and famous spokesman and defender for a more complete and thorough refutation of the mutakallimūn in this regard, and it was thus Ibn Taymiyyah who provided them with that refutation.

It appears, however, that Ibn Taymiyyah was not aware of al-Rāzī’s specific interpretations of this incident, for although he addresses some of al-Rāzī’s points which are common to other mutakallimūn, he does not tackle the points that are unique to him. Had he read al-Rāzī’s tafsīr on this section, there is little doubt that he would have addressed al-Rāzī’s reading of this incident, as he did in numerous other cases.

Whatever the case might be, Ibn Taymiyyah tried to prove, using other Qurʾānic verses, the Arabic language, history and common sense, that Ibrahīm was not searching for God nor was he using accidents to prove His existence, but rather was merely showing his people the foolishness of worshiping created objects that appear and disappear, instead of worshipping God alone, who is Ever-Present.


[1] There are, of course, many other theological interpretations of this incident, including philosophical and Ṣufistic ones, the most prominent of these being that of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505 A.H./1111 C.E.) in his Mishkāt al-Anwār, ed. Abu al-ʿAlāʾ al-ʿAfīfī (Cairo: Dār al-Qawmiyyah, 1964) p. 67-68. However, these interpretations are beyond the scope of this article.

[2] Qaḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār b. Aḥmad, Sharḥ Uṣūl al-Khamsah, ed. ʿAbd al-Karīm ʿUthmān (Cairo: Maktabata Wahbah, 1996), p. 94.

[3] Aḥmad b. ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm b. Taymiyyah, Minhāj al-Sunnah ed. Muḥammad Rashād Sallām (Riyadh: Jāmiʿat al-Imām Muḥammad b. Saʿūd al-Islāmiyyah, 1986), v. 1, p. 310.

[4] See: Sharḥ Uṣūl al-Khamsah, p. 95.

[5] Abū al-Ḥasan Alī b. Ismāʿīl al-Ashʿarī, Kiāb al-Lumaʿ fī al-Radd ʿalā Ahl al-Zaygh wa al-Bidaʿ, ed. Hammūda Ghurābah (Cairo: Al-Maktabat al-Azhariyyah li al-Turāth, n.d.), p. 76. However, in another work of his, he severely criticised this dalīl and called it a product of the ‘philosophers and people of deviation’; see: Risālah ilā Ahl al-Thagr, ed. Muḥammad al-Julaynid (Riyadh: Dār al-Liwāʾ, 1410 A.H.), p. 52-55.

[6] Abū Bakr Aḥmad b. al-Hussayn al-Bayhaqī, al-Iʿtiqād wa al-Hidāyah ilā Sabīl al-Rashād, ed. Aḥmad Abu al-ʿAynayn (Riyadh: Dār al-Faḍīlat, 1999), p. 34.

[7] Abū Bakr b. al-Ṭayyib al-Bāqillānī, al-Tamhīd, ed Imād al-Dīn Ḥaydar (Beirut: Dār al-Thaqāfah, 1994), p. 37-43..

[8] ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Baghdādī, Uṣūl al-Dīn, (Beirut: Dār al-Ṣādir, n.d., reprint of the Turkish edition of 1928.) p. 58

[9] ʿUthmān b. Saʿīd al-Dārimī, Naqḍ ʿUthmān b. Saʿīd ʿalā al-Mirrīsī al-Jahmī al-ʿAnīd fī mā aftara ʿalā Allah fī al-Tawḥīd, ed. Manṣūr b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Simārī (Riyadh: Maktaba Adwā al-Salaf, 1999), p. 164.

[10] ibid., p. 164.

[11] Kiāb al-Lumaʿ fī al-Radd ʿalā Ahl al-Zaygh wa al-Bidaʿ, p. 24.

[12] Abū Bakr b. al-Ṭayyib al-Bāqillānī, al-Inṣāf fī ma yajibu Iʿtiqāduhu wa lā yajūz al-Jahl bihī, ed. Imad al-Dīn Ḥaydar (Beirut: Alim al-Kutub, 1986), p. 44.

[13] al-Iʿtiqād wa al-Hidāyah ilā Sabīl al-Rashād, p. 34.

[14] Abū al-Maʿālī ʿAbd al-Malik b. Abdallah al-Juwaynī, al-Shāmil fī Uṣūl al-Dīn ed. ʿAlī Sāmī al-Nashshār (Alexadria, Munshiʾat al-Maʿārif, 1969), p. 246.

[15] Mishkāt al-Anwār, p. 67-68.

[16] Abū Al-Maʿīn Maymūn b. Muḥammad al-Nasafī, Baḥr al-Kalām (Cairo: Maṭbaʿat al-Kurdī, 1911), p. 23-24.

[17] Maḥmūd b. ʿUmar al-Zamakhsharī, al-Kashshāf, ed. Abd al-Razzāq al-Mahdī (Lebanon: DarIḥyā  al-Turāth al-ʿArabī, 1997) v. 2, p. 39.

[18] ibid., v. 2, p. 39.

[19] Fakhr al-Dīn Muḥammad b. ʿUmar al-Rāzī, Asās al-Taqdīs fī ʿIlm al-Kalām (Lebanon: Muʾassasat al-Kutub al-Thaqāfiyyah, 1995), p. 27-28.

[20] Fakhr al-Dīn Muḥammad b. ʿUmar al-Rāzī, al-Tafsīr al-Kabīr (Lebanon: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-ʿArabī, 2001), v. 5, p. 30-50.

[21] ibid., v. 5, p. 39-40.

[22] ibid., v. 5, p. 40.

[23] ibid., v. 5, p. 43.

[24] ibid., v. 5, p. 45.

[25] A derogatory term used to primarily describe the Ahl al-Ḥadīth, from ḥashā meaning ‘to gather everything’. The intention is to state that the Ahl al-Ḥadīth would merely gather every narration and text and jumble it all together, without examination or understanding of what they were gathering.

[26] ibid., v. 5, p. 50.

[27] Majmūʿ al-Fatāwā, v. 16, p. 473. A more detailed discussion of Ibn Taymiyyah’s response to this dalīl is worthy of a separate dissertation in and of itself; for the purposes of this article only one aspect, that of the theological implications of the story of Ibrahīm , is being considered in great detail.

[28] See Aḥmad b. ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm b. Taymiyyah, Darʾ Taʿāruḍ al-ʾAql wa al-naql, ed. Muḥammad Rashād Sallām (n.d.) v. 8, p. 90-91, 482.

[29] Darʾ Taʿāruḍ al-ʾAql wa al-naql, v. 7, p. 219.

[30] See ibid., v. 3, p. 308-318, v. 8. p. 238-239.

[31] Aḥmad b. ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm b. Taymiyyah, Bayān Talbīs al-Jahmiyyah, ed. Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Qāsim (Riyadh: Dār al-Maʿrifah,  1421 A.H.),  v. 1, p. 255.

[32] Majmūʿ al-Fatāwā ed. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Muḥammad b. Qāsim and Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Muḥammad (no publication details), v. 2, p. 22.

[33] As an example of this, Qaḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār writes, concerning the divine attribute of life (al-ḥayāt), “The essential point here is that if God were living with a ‘life’ (ḥayāt) – and ḥayāt cannot be recognized unless the place in which it resides is recognized – this would imply that the Eternal has a body (jism), and this is impossible. And the same applies to ‘power’ (qudrah), since ‘power’ cannot be acted with until the place in which it resides also participated in that act even if it be in a partial manner. So (if this were the case) it would be obligatory that God be a body (jism), allowing accidents to occur in Him, and this is not possible.”[33] See his Sharḥ Uṣūl al-Khamsah, p. 200-201.

[34] See, as examples: Majmūʿ al-Fatāwā, v. 8, p. 149; Minhāj al-Sunnah v. 1, p. 311; Darʾ Taʿāruḍ al-ʾAql wa al-naql v. 6, p. 183; Bayān Talbīs al-Jahmiyyah v. 1, p. 131.

[35] Majmūʿ al-Fatāwā, v. 6, p. 252.

[36] The division of these critiques into ‘points’ was done by the author to simplify the presentation of Ibn Taymiyyah’s thoughts, which, as typical, are scattered in numerous books and fatāwā. However, in more than one work, he states that this understanding can be refuted ‘…min wujūh: awwaluhā…’ and so forth. See for example, Darʾ al-Taʿāruḍ, v. 3, p. 313, in which he lists four of these seven points explicitly.

[37] As the quotes above show, this is not the belief of all the scholars of kalām, and in particular the Muʿtazilte scholars explicitly deny it.

[38] Aḥmad b. ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm b. Taymiyyah, Bughyat al-Murtād, ed. Mūsa b. Sulaymān al-Duwaysh (Madinah: Maktabat al-ʿUlūm wa al-Ḥikam, 2001), p. 359.

[39] Bughyat al-Murtād, p. 359, Majmūʿ al-Fatāwā, v. 6, p. 252,  Darʾ al-Taʿāruḍ, v. 1, p. 313.

[40] Darʾ Taʿāruḍ, v. 1, p. 109.

[41] Bughyat al-Murtād, p. 360, Majmūʿ al-Fatāwā, v. 6, p. 253.

[42] Darʾ al-Taʿāruḍ, v. 1, p. 313.

[43] Aḥmad b. ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm b. Taymiyyah, Sharḥ al-Iṣbahāniyyah, unpublished doctoral dissertation edited by Muḥammad al-Ṣaʿwī (Riyadh: Imam Muḥammad b. Ṣaʿūd University, 1408 A.H.), p. 137.

[44] Darʾ al-Taʿāruḍ, v. 1, p. 111.

[45] Majmūʿ al-Fatāwā, v. 6, p. 254.

[46] Darʾ al-Taʿāruḍ, v. 1, p. 314. For al-Dārimī’s quote, see above.

[47] Darʾ al-Taʿāruḍ, v. 1, p. 110, Majmūʿ al-Fatāwā, v. 6, p. 254.

[48] Sharḥ al-Iṣbahāniyyah, p. 137.

[49] Bughyat al-Murtād, p. 360.

[50] Majmūʿ al-Fatāwā, v. 6, p. 254.

[51] Bughyat al-Murtād, p. 360.