Ibn Taymiyya on the Incoherence of the Theologians’ Universal Law: Reframing the Debate between Reason and Revelation in Medieval Islam
This article analyzes the overarching themes and goals of Ibn Taymiyya’s roughly forty arguments against the philosophers’ and theologians’ “Universal Law” for the figurative interpretation of scripture, to which he dedicates approximately 500 pages of his 10-volume Darʾ taʿāruḍ al-ʿaql wa’l-naql. While Ibn Taymiyya himself presents these arguments in a disjointed and seemingly random fashion, this study demonstrates that by carefully breaking down, regrouping, and reconstructing them, we can discern a coherent attempt on Ibn Taymiyya’s part to reconfigure the very terms of the debate between reason and revelation in medieval Islam in several important ways. Firstly, he deconstructs what it means for reason to “ground” our knowledge of revelation. Next, he redefines the opposition at stake not as one of “reason vs. revelation,” but as a purely epistemological question of certainty vs. conjecture, with both reason and revelation serving as potential sources of both kinds of knowledge. Finally, he builds on this insight to replace the dichotomy “sharʿī-ʿaqlī,” in the sense of “revelational vs. rational,” with the dichotomy “sharʿī-bidʿī” in the sense of “scripturally validated vs. scripturally non-validated,” arguing that revelation itself both commends and exemplifies the valid use of reason and rational argumentation. By this move, Ibn Taymiyya attempts to introduce a new paradigm in which it is the epistemic quality of a piece of knowledge alone that counts, simultaneously subsuming reason itself into the larger category of “sharʿī,” or revelationally validated, sources of knowledge.
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