The Unleashed Thunderbolts of Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya by Yasir Qadhi

A review of Shakh Yasir Qadhi’s paper “‘The Unleashed Thunderbolts’ of Ibn Qayyim al-Ǧawziyyah: An Introductory Essay.”1

This 2010 paper by Yasir Qadhi is a study of Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya’s al-Ṣawāʿiq al-mursala ʿalā al-Jahmīya wa-l-Muʿaṭṭila (The Unleashed Thunderbolts against the Jahmites and the Negators [of Divine Attributes]). I will focus on Ibn al-Qayyim’s positions as transmitted by Yasir Qadhi.

Ibn al-Qayyim speaks against taʾwīl, the act of reinterpreting a statement in the Quran or hadith in a way that avoids its literal meaning, such as saying that when God refers to His “hand” in the Quran, this is actually a reference to His power. Ibn al-Qayyim says that there are only three possible reasons why a speaker would speak in a way that would require reinterpretation:

  • The speaker is not sincere and does not wish to express the clearest possible meaning.
  • The speaker is not knowledgeable about what he is saying.
  • The speaker is not eloquent and is unable to express himself clearly.

Naturally, since none of these apply to God or His Messenger PBUH, Ibn al-Qayyim’s conclusion is that there is no room for taʾwīl in Islam. But there is another possibility that he does not consider; perhaps God uses such expressions as tests and as encouragement for Muslims to look more deeply into the matter so that they can get to know God better.

They are tests in that they lead to disagreement among Muslims and in this way bring out their characters. Will they hold on to the tie of religious brotherhood and overcome their disagreements so that they can love those who disagree with them, or will they fail the test and use these disagreements as justifications for demonizing and dehumanizing their opponents? I believe Ibn al-Qayyim falls into the category of those who at least partially failed the test; his use of the phrase “Unleashed Thunderbolts” clearly implies that those who disagree with them deserve extreme divine punishment as Yasir Qadhi says.

Ibn al-Qayyim goes on to mention four “pillars of falsehood” (ṭawāghīt, sing. ṭāghūt) that he believes are the fundamental principles that are relied on by misguided Muslims (i.e. Ashʿarites, Muʿtazilites and philosophers) to destroy the foundations of religion.

The first ṭāghūt is the principle of the theologians such as Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210 CE) that verbal evidence do not yield certain knowledge. The theologians viewed the evidence of hadith as inherently probabilistic, since in almost all cases we can never be sure if the information was transmitted with 100% accuracy. They also viewed the process of interpreting the Quran and hadith as inherently probabilistic since we cannot always be sure that we understood the exact meaning that a verse or hadith statement is meant to convey.

Ibn al-Qayyim argues against that and says if that was really the case, life would become impossible since we could never be sure of the meaning of the statements that those around us made. Ibn al-Qayyim’s arguments as mentioned by Yasir Qadhi are all polemical and unconvincing.

The second ṭāghūt is the principle of the theologians that intellectual evidence takes priority over scripture when the two are in conflict. Ibn al-Qayyim relies on his mentor Ibn Taymiyya’s arguments against this principle, saying that reason and revelation can never be truly in conflict. Whenever reason and revelation appear to be in conflict, it is the deficiency of human reason that is to blame. Therefore when Aristotelian logic seems to support a truth that goes against revelation, the deficiency is in that logic.

This point is well made since the history of Islamic theology is full of theologians who believed that they had absolute logical proofs for their doctrines that were later proven to be logically invalid. Whenever we believe that we have discovered a fact that clearly goes against revelation, it may only take a decade or two before someone else shows us that the fact and revelation are actually not in conflict (as in the case of evolution).

Strangely, Ibn al-Qayyim goes on to argue that Hell is not eternal since it serves God no purpose to eternally punish a temporal creation. As I argue in my essay A Quranic Phenomenology of Atheism, the reason why eternal punishment may be necessary is that by disbelieving in God, a person stands up to the Infinite and asks Him to do His worst to them. It can be said that here Ibn al-Qayyim breaks all of his own principles: he ignores the literal meaning of the Quran and hadith, he prefers his own reason over revelation, and he breaks with the views of the Companions and the Salaf.

The third ṭāghūt is the concept of majāz (allegory) that is used by the Ashʿarites. Ashʿarites claim that the Quran uses allegorical language, for example when God refers to being “above” the Throne, this is merely an allegory rather than a reference to God having a direction of “aboveness” in space (since God is not in space). Ibn al-Qayyim strangely argues that statements such as “Zayd is a lion” are not actually allegorical because anyone with a sound mind can immediately understand the meaning that is meant by it; namely that Zayd is brave.

He argues that there is no textual indication that God’s attributes should be interpreted metaphorically. He says that it is demeaning to God’s exalted nature to suggest that attributes such as His being “above” do not have a literally meaning. He claims that all of the Companions and the Salaf agreed that these attributes should be interpreted literally.

The fourth ṭāghūt is the principle of the theologians that the traditions of the Prophet PBUH can only yield probabilistic knowledge. Ibn al-Qayyim’s view is that singular (āḥād) narrations (which lack multiple supporting chains) can yield certain knowledge when there is supporting evidence. I believe that Ibn al-Qayyim exaggerates the position of his opponents, since they too acted upon singular narrations despite acknowledging their probabilistic reliability. His act merely implies that his opponents are using an invalid approach to hadith–despite the fact the end result is largely the same. It is therefore merely or largely a polemical attack meant to lump together extreme rejectors of hadith with the Ashʿarites.

In his conclusion, Yasir Qadhi mentions that Ibn al-Qayyim’s attack is one of the most sophisticated ones ever launched against the Ashʿarites. He calls for reassessing common views of Ibn al-Qayyim and Ibn Taymiyya as shallow literalists. I agree that despite the failure of many of their attacks and their polemical style, they were worthy opponents of the theologians who must be taken seriously. Recent Western scholarship has continued to support this thesis, a good example being the 2010 book Ibn Taymiyya and His Times.

A Selection from Aqiday Mardia of Mawlawi Tawagozi by Baba Ali Qaradaghi

Mawlawi Tawagozi (1806-1882, known simply as Mawlawi in Kurdish) was an Islamic mystic and one of the great poets of Kurdistan, belonging to the Hawrami minority that I belong to. This book is a 160-page commentary on a small selection of Mawlawi’s 2450-verse poem Aqiday Mardia (The Approved Aqeedah), which tries to offer a journey through the field of Islamic theology, mentioning the foundations of belief (aqeedah), philosophical arguments by detractors, and Ashaari responses to them, with Sufi language and feeling spread throughout.

The poem is written in the Sorani dialect rather than Mawlawi’s native Hawrami, and makes ample use of Arabic and Farsi as classical Kurdish poetry does. It was finished in 1864 CE.

I stumbled on this book on the internet and was immediately interested, since it is regarding an Islamic topic (aqeedah), it involves Mawlawi, and it also involves Baba Ali Qaradaghi (بابا علي ابن شيخ عمر القرة داغي), a family friend and Islamic scholar of the Quran-focused school. I was involved with typing up the manuscript of his book Yawmul Mawti Yawmul Baa`thi (The Day of Death is the Day of Resurrection), a book that dares to challenge nearly the entirety of Islamic eschatology (the events that will happen around the time of the end of the world).

In typical Sufi fashion, his expressions of love for his sheikh Uthman Sirajuddin Naqshbandi take so many verses that one wonders what kind of force there was to drive someone to expend so much effort in expressing it.

Mawlawi explains that iman (faith in God) is either acquired through kashf (God removing the screen that hides Him from our eyes), through daleel (clues), or through taqleed (having faith because someone you love and admire has it). He has no hope of achieving the first status (of kashf), since it is only for the greatest masters, therefore what he aims at are the second (and the third, if I remember correctly).

He mentions the hadith narrations that say the Muslims will separate into 73 sects, all of which will be thrown into Hell except one, and says that he hopes that through the great and pure early and late scholars and mystics to be able to find his way into being among the firqa al-nājiya (the one group that does not get thrown into the Hellfire). See this post for the likely falseness of these narrations. A Salafi brother used this hadith as evidence to me that not being Salafi was almost certainly a surefire way of going to Hell.

At some point he starts with a tafseer (interpretation) of Surat al-Ikhlas (chapter 112 of the Quran, made up of only 4 verses), which in English can be translated as:

1. Say, “He is God, the One.

2. God, the Absolute.

3. He begets not, nor was He begotten.

4. And there is nothing comparable to Him.”

He says that the fact that the chapter starts with a command (“Say”) disproves physical determinism (that humans have no free will). The existence of a command implies the possibility of both obeying and disobeying the commander, therefore humans have free will. This is a false or incomplete line of reasoning, since you can use a remote control to issue a command to a device, with the device having no choice but to obey.

In a discussion of the Night Journey of the Prophet ﷺ, he addresses those of his time who were saying the telegraph is greater than the Prophet’s journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, since telegraph is near-instantaneous:

هەی تەل! هەی نەی کەی پێی گەی هەی نەی خۆی
وەک ماری زامدار هەر پێچدا لە خۆی
فەرقیان هەی فام ئەهلی زەمانە
هەر لە سەر زەمین تا ئاسمانە

Hey line, it is not for you to reach it, you will not
Even if like a wounded snake you coil yourself
Their difference, O sound-minded people of this age,
Is like the difference between the earth and heaven

In the first verse he is addressing a telegraph line, saying you will never reach the greatness of the Night Journey, or God’s power, or something like that. The telegraph had been in development and use in Europe for over 30 years at this time, so it makes sense that he would have heard of it. Baba Ali suggests that he may have even seen a working telegraph system.

He delves into the issue of free will versus determinism. In some verses, whose Kurdish translation is included by Qaradaghi, the Persian poet Khayyam asks the server to serve him wine, saying that God already knows he was going to do this, and this it was already written, implying that therefore he has no responsibility for the action, and therefore it is not really sinful. Khayyam is referring to Islam’s free will paradox; if an action is truly “free”, it should not be predictable. And if it is predictable, if it is already known and written, how can it be free?

Mawlawi answers the question by not answering it, in the mainstream Sunni fashion. He attacks the various theories others have put forward and concludes that the Ashaari creed is the true one (that our actions are already written, and that we are responsible for them, don’t ask why), and that we must act by the dhaahir of Shariah, do what it asks us and avoid what it prohibits us, without caring about philosophical concerns.

He talks about God’s perfection, the impossibility of any human to ever truly know and encompass Him, and ends by saying that you (the reader) is a pitiful mortal, so what business do you have worrying about such matters?

Being asked to believe in free will and predestination at the same time has always felt to me like being asked to believe in the Christian Trinity, that the Son is not the Father, and neither of whom are the Holy Spirit, but that all three are God. I have discovered a satisfactory solution to this paradox, which I call the Theory of Delegation, that satisfies the Quran and does not require one to believe in seemingly contradictory propositions. I haven’t published it due to its highly sensitive nature. I plan to read more first.

The Baghdad-based Sufi Kurdish Islamic scholar Abdul Kareem Mudarris has written a full commentary on this poem, which I found online and perhaps will read some day as a poetic introduction to the field of aqeedah.