In Part I of Embracing Apocalypse I delineated the way the Islamic State is anchored in the past as part of an evolved adaptation: multidimensional and multi-generational. The pervasive influence of Ibn Taymiyya, al Shayyk al Islam cannot be overestimated. In Part II I want to discuss the instantiation of the Islamic State in the present, and most particularily the memetic inerrency of the Uncreated Quran and the certainty of prophetic knowledge.
The way I became muminah, a believer, was the Quran. It hit me like a tidal wave. And that is the core problem for all the jihadologists and political scientists cranking out books and making a living from the monetizing of islamic “terrorism”– to understand Islam one must contemplate Quran…but if one contemplates Quran, one becomes muslim.
Here is a pretty good description of Taymiyya’s radical hermeneutics based on his Introduction to Principles of Tafsir. The only thing the monograph glosses over is Taymiyya’s insistance on an arabic Quran, which I believe is critical. In the West it is often said that Islam needs a “reformation”, like protestantism or reform judaism. But the problem for everyone desperately trying to craft a more “moderate” version of Islam is that tafsir has already had its reformation in the person of Ibn Taymiyya.
The small treatise Muqaddima fī uṣūl al-tafsīr (An Introduction to the Foundations of Qur’ānic Exegesis) by Ibn Taymiyya has had a remarkable influence on the history of Qur’ānic exegesis. Barely 15 folios, it not only proclaims a new hermeneutical program that became the foundation for a subgenre of tafsīr that would generate several major Qur’ānic commentaries, but it boldly attempts to overhaul the entire history of Qur’ānic exegesis.
Thus the transformation here, though subtle, is nonetheless profound: the Prophet is presented as having commented on the Qur’ān, in the manner of an exegete, to his Companions and hence there is another corpus of prophetic material that is, strictly speaking, not part of the traditional understanding of the Sunna. The Sunna in turn is understood by Ibn Taymiyya to include a prophetic commentary on the Qur’ān. Granted he does not explicitly make this point, yet it is an inescapable conclusion that follows from the import of his statements in this chapter.Ibn Taymiyya’s aim is thus to turn the commentary literature into prophetic knowledge, and as such interpretation itself, as issuing from an infallible individual, becomes a type of knowledge that is in agreement with his definition of what constitutes knowledge. One needs only to verify that it is indeed from Muḥammad for it to become authoritative. Hence inherited interpretations are to be assessed in the same way as one assesses Hadith, using the customary tools of the science of Hadith.This is a rather radical redefinition of Qur’ānic exegesis—elevating it to the level of prophetic knowledge.
Another important concept developed by Taymiyya is the idea of the Quran being self-defining.
Explaining the Qur’ān with the Sunna is a common enough hermeneutical Sunni strategy that is not surprising here. It is the notion of interpreting the Qur’ān with the Qur’ān that seems to be the novelty. This hermeneutical device is not unknown in the tradition; many examples from the interpretive tradition show that the exegetes were well aware of this possibility as a method of interpreting the Qur’ān. It is Ibn Taymiyya’s placing it at the top of a hierarchical order of interpretation that is the interesting development here.
What Ibn Taymiyya was doing was replicating in the interpretation of the Qur’ān the same steps one followed in the discovery of God’s law, as formulated by the Sunni jurists. According to Sunni legal theory, the sources of the Sharī‘a are the Qur’ān, the Sunna, the consensus of the community and juristic analogy; thefirst two elements in both theories are thus the same. The brilliant stroke on the part of Ibn Taymiyya is to draw this parallel between the two systems. He makes his theory almost impossible to unseat as long as one also upholds the rules of the Sunni juristic practices as outlined in uṣūl al-fiqh manuals.