Ibn Taymiyya and Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī

Ibn Taymiyya and Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī

When Ibn Taymiyya believed something to be false, he was unrelenting in arguing against it. In his efforts to refute Shīʿism, Ibn Taymiyya showed no compunction in discrediting nearly all pro-ʿAlid doctrines and texts that appeared in Sunnī literature. For Ibn Taymiyya, most texts exalting ʿAlī or justifying his actions as caliph served to bolster the claims of heretics and, thus, could not be true. His preoccupation with rooting out heresy in the Muslim community is one motivating factor in his decision to compose his well-known multivolume refutation of Shīʿism, Minhāj al-sunna al-nabawiyya, that laid out his understanding of early Islamic history and the caliphate. A brief survey of Minhāj al-sunna forms the basis for this discussion of his views on al-Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī.

For Ibn Taymiyya, Shīʿism at its core was a subversive heresy that began with the legendary arch-heretic, Ibn Sabaʾ. It was Ibn Sabaʾ who conspired to kill ʿUthmān, launched the first civil war, and first proclaimed tafḍīl ʿAlī (the preeminence of ʿAlī). In Sunnī historiography, Ibn Sabaʾ was depicted as an outsider and utilized as a scapegoat to explain the conflicts that occurred after the Prophet’s death. Ibn Sabaʾ also served to illustrate and discredit the phenomenon of Shīʿism. After all, there could be no reason to doubt the illegitimacy of Shīʿism if its founder was a Jewish man who pretended to be Muslim in order to misguide and harm the community of Muḥammad.[1] Ibn Taymiyya subscribed to this view and made his prejudice against Shīʿism plain. For him, all of Shīʿism was a lie because Shīʿīs were liars.[2] This mendacity went back to the sect’s founder, Ibn Sabaʾ. Thus, Ibn Taymiyya relied on origin myths about Shīʿism to discredit it. This was a common method among heresiographers, who rarely consulted the literature produced by members of other sects when discussing their doctrines. The hazards of this method are quite obvious; frequently, information circulated about various sects was false, exaggerated, and hostile.[3]

In reading al-ʿAllāma al-Ḥillī’s Minhāj al-karāma, Ibn Taymiyya realized that his Shīʿī rival was relying on pro-ʿAlid texts transmitted in Sunnī literature to substantiate Shīʿism. Rather than affirm the authenticity of such texts, Ibn Taymiyya rejects the authenticity of nearly every report about ʿAlī’s merits and expresses disapproval of ʿAlī’s actions as caliph in order to undermine Shīʿism. He also disapproves of al-Ḥusayn’s rebellion against Yazīd b. Muʿāwiya.[4]

Although he is aware that animosity for ʿAlī or al-Ḥusayn amounts to heresy, he cannot help but justify the sovereignty and political philosophy of the Umayyads who opposed them. For Ibn Taymiyya, those who opposed or ignored the claims of ʿAlī and al-Ḥusayn were fully justified and correct in doing so. Ibn Taymiyya does not defend the heresy of hating ʿAlī and his family, but he employs his most creative rhetorical and epistemological weapons to support the political careers of their opponents.

Ibn Taymiyya is well aware that in Shīʿī historiography, the political rivals of ʿAlī and al-Ḥusayn, i.e. the Umayyads, are depicted as anti-ʿAlids. Since he considers this depiction to be false, he does not consider partisanship to the Umayyads to be misguided. As a polemicist, he zealously defends the political careers and righteousness of Muʿāwiya, Yazīd, and other Umayyads. Nowhere is the divide between pro-Umayyad polemicists and their anti-Umayyad interlocutors more conspicuous than in debates about al-Ḥusayn and Yazīd.

Ibn Taymiyya was not the first Sunnī or Ḥanbalī to defend Yazīd against his critics. In response to Shīʿīs and many Sunnīs of the sixth/twelfth century who annually commemorated the martyrdom of al-Ḥusayn and denounced Yazīd as a villain during the month of Muḥarram, some prominent Sunnīs issued legal opinions discouraging condemnation of Yazīd. These scholars include al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111), ʿAbd al-Mughīth al-Ḥarbī (d. 583/1187), ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Maqdisī (d. 600/1203), and Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ (d. 643/1245).[5] Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ argued that it was the governor of Iraq, ʿUbayd Allāh b. Ziyād, who was to blame for al-Ḥusayn’s death. According to al-Ghazālī and Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ, the claim that Yazīd ordered al-Ḥusayn’s murder was not corroborated by any authentic reports. Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ added that even if it were the case that Yazīd ordered his death, faithful Muslims should nonetheless not damn Yazīd (laʿnuhu) in their invocations.[6] The Damascene Ḥanbalī ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Maqdisī likewise contended that feeling love for Yazīd was not objectionable and that Muslims were free to venerate and love Yazīd if they so desired; by contrast, it was unlawful to attack his character or to condemn him if one did not love him.[7] ʿAbd al-Ghanī’s teacher, ʿAbd al-Mughīth al-Ḥarbī, wrote a book about the merits of Yazīd, which prompted another prominent Ḥanbalī, Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 597/1201), to write an angry refutation.[8] Whereas ʿAbd al-Mughīth declared it forbidden to condemn Yazīd, Ibn al-Jawzī denounced Yazīd in the strongest terms and considered damning him for his crimes a pious deed.

Ibn Taymiyya joins the fray on the side of Yazīd. He argues that hatred of Yazīd can be traced to the Shīʿīs who cursed him and fabricated tales about him. According to Ibn Taymiyya, no one ever spoke ill of Yazīd or accused him of any impiety before the Shīʿīs began to spread lies about him.[9] He declares as false the accusations that Yazīd was a nonbeliever, despised religion, openly drank intoxicants, or ordered the murder of the Prophet’s grandson: to the contrary, Yazīd never committed a crime that would have required a punishment (ḥadd) prescribed by Islamic law.[10] It is true that his army waged war against the Medinese Anṣār and their families in the Battle of Ḥarra, but it is slanderous to claim that he understood their deaths as vengeance for his forefathers who died fighting the Muslims at Badr and Uhud.[11] Ibn Taymiyya further claims that far from rejoicing upon hearing the news of al-Ḥusayn’s murder, Yazīd showed grief on account of it.[12] All of these defamatory claims about Yazīd, he concludes, can be traced to Shīʿī extremists (ghulāt) who desired to delegitimize his rule by slandering him. Ibn Taymiyya’s ideological commitment to opposing Shīʿism thus leads him to deny any report that portrays Yazīd negatively.

Sunnīs who attempted to defend Yazīd’s character while acknowledging the need to respect ʿAlī and his family faced the difficult challenge of balancing their Umayyad and ʿAlid allegiances in discussions of the history of conflict between these two houses. They sought to discredit Shīʿī historical grievances related to the treatment of ʿAlī and his progeny without denying the merits and tribulations of ʿAlids. To accomplish this, Ibn Taymiyya and other polemicists deflected blame for ʿAlid suffering away from their obvious political rivals (such as the Umayyads) to heretical Shīʿīs. The logic underpinning this argument was that since the Shīʿīs were obviously enemies of the rightly guided caliphs and other Companions, they must have been enemies of ʿAlī and his sons as well.

These Sunnī polemicists made two types of arguments about the treacherousness of Shīʿīs. First, some claimed that certain Shīʿīs (rāfiḍa) were secretly opposed to ʿAlī and his sons even while proclaiming love for them. For example, the legendary Ibn Sabaʾ, was depicted as inviting Muslims to believe in ʿAlī’s divinity, superiority to other Companions, his occultation, and Shīʿism in general but who secretly conspired against ʿAlī once the latter became caliph.

The second line of argument assumed that Shīʿīs were dishonest and treacherous. Even if it was not their intention to cause al-Ḥusayn’s death, they were culpable for it for (1) encouraging him to rebel against Yazīd, (2) inviting him to leave his home and come to Kūfa, and (3) failing to support him when he arrived in Iraq. The rāfiḍa were thus depicted as impious and cowardly.[13] To avoid direct criticism of al-Ḥusayn, the proponents of this argument discounted, if not entirely denied, his agency in his own political decisions and transferred it to his Iraqi partisans. This move allowed them to criticize the rebellion against Yazīd as folly without directly condemning al-Ḥusayn.

In the case of al-Ḥusayn, since the Shīʿīs of Kūfa misled him into insurrection, they were the real culprits in his death. According to pro-ʿAlid narratives, al-Ḥusayn was compelled to revolt by his personal conviction that Yazīd was completely unqualified to serve as caliph. But in his writings, Ibn Taymiyya rejects this narrative in favor of a theory in which al-Ḥusayn was deluded by Iraqi Shīʿīs and duped into rebelling against the caliph. Yazīd, meanwhile, was the rightful caliph and an innocent victim of Shīʿī slander.

The problem with pro-Yazīd narratives such as Ibn Taymiyya’s is that they ignore the agency of al-Ḥusayn, the caliph, his army commanders, and his police force in the protracted conflict. In spite of Ibn Taymiyya’s claim that the Shīʿīs of Kūfa betrayed al-Ḥusayn out of love for this material world (dunyā), the Kūfans in fact rose up against their governor under the leadership of al-Ḥusayn’s cousin, Muslim b. ʿAqīl, though the governor successfully suppressed their revolt. The characterization of the Kūfans as acting solely from motives of expediency is untenable in view of the ruthlessness with which the governor imprisoned and executed anyone accused of providing support to al-Ḥusayn or his cousin. The governor also threatened to confiscate the property of any rebel and to punish members of his tribe in retaliation.[14] The same governor had made a spectacle of al-Ḥusayn’s ambassadors to Baṣra and Kūfa by publicly executing them and crucifying their headless corpses.[15] After Muslim b. ʿAqīl’s failed uprising, the public execution of al-Ḥusayn’s Hāshimid cousin successfully discouraged the town’s residents from continued revolt. Pro-Yazīd narratives also ignore the role that Yazīd’s police force played in seeking to arrest al-Ḥusayn and his partisans, as well as al-Ḥusayn’s decision to send multiple ambassadors to Iraq and his desire to relocate there to avoid capture.

Ibn al-Zubayr and al-Ḥusayn are depicted as vowing to never recognize Yazīd as a legitimate successor to the Prophet.[16] Both left their homes in Medina in the middle of the night to flee Yazīd’s police, which threatened to imprison and execute them.[17] In discussing this history, Ibn Taymiyya appears to downplay the desperation that Ibn al-Zubayr and al-Ḥusayn experienced under these circumstances. On multiple occasions, al-Ḥusayn stated that he was running for his life. He explained to well-wishers that whether he hid himself in Medina, in Mecca, or under a rock, the police would seize and kill him in order to eliminate all possible contenders to the caliphate and solidify Yazīd’s rule.[18] When he learned that assassins had arrived in Mecca to kill him, al-Ḥusayn was forced to leave the city without completing his pilgrimage.[19] Such narratives portray al-Ḥusayn’s purpose in traveling from Medina to Mecca and then to Iraq as not war, but an attempt to escape death and protect his family from imprisonment and execution.

Ibn al-Zubayr established himself in Mecca while al-Ḥusayn eventually decided to travel to Kūfa, the capital city of his father’s government, where many residents had already pledged fealty to him. Ibn al-Zubayr and al-Ḥusayn made their political calculations in full awareness of the fact that they had become enemies of the state as soon as they refused to pledge allegiance to the new caliph. The two had become fugitives and their actions indicate this.

For Ibn Taymiyya, however, al-Ḥusayn and Yazīd are both innocent victims of the machinations of one heretical group: the Shīʿīs. He sides with the Umayyads in condemning al-Ḥusayn’s partisans in Kūfa for their rebellion against the caliph and the heresy of their Shīʿism. Ibn Taymiyya concedes that Yazīd could have taken certain measures to ensure that al-Ḥusayn and his family were not harmed or killed by members of his state apparatus. He also acknowledges that Yazīd never sought justice for al-Ḥusayn’s murder or held his killers accountable. Ibn Taymiyya rationalizes that since al-Ḥusayn was killed to safeguard Yazīd’s sovereignty, the Umayyads may have considered al-Ḥusayn’s murder justified under the circumstances.[20] He explains that the Umayyad soldiers who killed him may have considered it a religious duty to fight him because of statements attributed to the Prophet commanding Muslims to wage war against outlaws who cause strife in the community.[21]

Ibn Taymiyya criticizes al-Ḥusayn’s decision to rebel as unsound (raʾy fāsid), because only very rarely do the positive consequences of a rebellion outweigh the evil (sharr) that results. In the case of al-Ḥusayn’s revolt, he concludes, the harm that ensued was far greater than any benefit produced by the rebellion.[22] In fact, Ibn Taymiyya asserts that the revolt yielded not a single benefit (maṣlaḥa), worldly or religious. Had he quietly remained at home, all of the evil triggered by al-Ḥusayn’s rebellion and subsequent murder could have been prevented.[23] He does not deny that al-Ḥusayn was killed wrongfully and that he became a martyr, but in contrast to the polemical lengths to which he is willing to go to exonerate ʿUthmān, Muʿāwiya, Ṭalḥa, al-Zubayr, and ʿĀʾisha, Ibn Taymiyya cannot bring himself to defend al-Ḥusayn’s conduct, because he considers Shīʿī opposition to the Umayyads misguided. His outrage at the murder of ʿUthmān, the wickedness of his assassins, and the magnitude of their crime is boundless and contrasts sharply with his near-silence on the fate of al-Ḥusayn.

In Ibn Taymiyya’s view, al-Ḥusayn had been injudicious, like his father, and both were responsible for the bloodshed that occurred during their respective political careers. He argues that ʿAlī and al-Ḥusayn alike chose to wage war even when it could have been avoided. In the case of al-Ḥusayn, a “hankering within his soul” (hawāʾ khafī) clouded his judgment and pushed him to act the way he did.[24] His reliance on Iraqi Shīʿīs was a further mistake, and his poor political strategizing led to the unfortunate circumstances that culminated in his death.

Ibn Taymiyya contends that al-Ḥusayn’s rebellion and murder led to an increase in evil (zād al-sharr) in the world,[25] evident in the number of insurrections that followed al-Ḥusayn’s murder. He does not characterize any of these rebellions as righteous, nor does he sympathize with their aims. Ibn Taymiyya consistently advocates quietism under the Umayyads.

Ibn Taymiyya also faults al-Ḥusayn’s revolt for contributing to greater ruin (fasād) in the world. He notes that God and the Prophet Muḥammad commanded the community to avoid the path of ruin and to follow the path that fosters the greater good (ṣalāḥ), and he identifies al-Ḥusayn’s movement with the former path. In support of his argument, he cites reports in which multiple Companions advise al-Ḥusayn against rebellion for this reason.[26] By contrast, in pro-ʿAlid narratives, the Companions seeking to dissuade al-Ḥusayn are motivated by his wellbeing and at no time accuse him of causing ruin. Al-Ḥusayn himself denies the accusation that his quest for justice will contribute to such ruin.[27] The accusation was likely propounded from Umayyad pulpits.

Further, Ibn Taymiyya cites ḥadīth in support of his claim that al-Ḥusayn’s rebellion against Yazīd appeared to violate the Prophet’s alleged advice to obey rulers and avoid political conflicts.[28] However, as noted earlier, this line of argument rests on ignoring the crisis al-Ḥusayn faced in Medina and Mecca that forced him to leave those cities in fear of his life. It is unlikely that either Ibn al-Zubayr or al-Ḥusayn could have remained peacefully in Medina once Yazīd became caliph. On one hand, both were steadfast in their refusal to offer oaths of allegiance to him. On the other hand, even if they became quietists, they were still his two most powerful rivals. The state had a clear interest in neutralizing the threat posed by al-Ḥusayn before he could establish himself in a location, amass sympathizers, and potentially launch an insurrection against the Umayyads. By failing to acknowledge the role that the state may have played in forcing al-Ḥusayn into flight and then into confrontation, Ibn Taymiyya falsely portrays al-Ḥusayn as having had a choice between virtuously staying in Medina, on the one hand, and following the “hankering in his soul” into a misguided rebellion on the other.

Adapted from:

Nebil Husayn, Opposing the Imām: The Legacy of the Nawāṣib in Islamic Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), Chapter 5.

[1] Anthony, The Caliph and The Heretic, 58-103, 111-16, 122, 126-30; Barzegar, “Remembering Community,” 98-125.

[2] Ibn Taymiyya, Majmūʿ fatāwā, 13:209; Ibn Taymiyya, Minhāj, 1:59-63.

[3] For example, see Daftary, The Ismāʿı̄lı̄s, xvi, 7-19.

[4] Ibn Taymiyya, Minhāj, 4:243, 247, 248, 256, 257, 264, 389, 392, 530, 559.

[5] Ibn Ḥajar al-Haytamī, al-Ṣawāʿiq al-muḥriqa, 223; Ibn Ṭūlūn, Qayd al-sharīd min akhbār Yazīd, 57-60, 70.

[6] Ibn Ḥajar al-Haytamī, al-Ṣawāʿiq al-muḥriqa, 223.

[7] Ibn Rajab, al-Dhayl ʿalā Ṭabaqāt al-Ḥanābila, 4:34; Ibn Ṭūlūn, Qayd al-sharīd min akhbār Yazīd, 70. See also Cook, Commanding Right, 142 n. 199.

[8] Al-Dhahabī, Siyar, 21:160; Ibn Ṭūlūn, Qayd al-sharīd min akhbār Yazīd, 70. See also Cook, Commanding the Right, 142-43. Ibn al-Jawzī’s refutation is still extant, see Ibn al-Jawzī, Yazīd.

[9] Ibn Taymiyya, Majmūʿ fatāwā, 3:409. See also ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd, Ibn Taymiyya, 88.

[10] Ibn Taymiyya, Raʾs, 207. See also ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd, Ibn Taymiyya, 372.

[11] Ibn Taymiyya, Majmūʿ fatāwā, 3:409.

[12]idem, Raʾs, 207.

[13] Ibn Taymiyya, Minhāj al-sunna, 2:90-2.

[14] Al-Balādhurī, Ansāb al-ashrāf, 2:81; Ibn Aʿtham al-Kūfī, al-Futūḥ, 5:38, 40, 50; al-Ṭabarī, Tārīkh, 4:277-9.

[15] Ibn Aʿtham al-Kūfī, al-Futūḥ, 5:37.

[16] Al-Dīnawarī, al-Akhbār al-ṭiwāl, 262-4; Ibn Aʿtham al-Kūfī, al-Futūḥ, 5:14.

[17] Al-Ṭabarī, Tārīkh, 4:251-2.

[18] Ibn ʿAsākir, Taʾrīkh, 14:216; al-Ṭabarī, Tārīkh, 4:289, 296.

[19] Al-Yaʿqūbī, Taʾrīkh, 2:249; Ibn Ṭāwūs, al-Luḥūf, 39-40.

[20] Ibn Taymiyya, Raʾs, 207. See also ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd, Ibn Taymiyya, 383.

[21] Ibn al-ʿArabī, al-ʿAwāṣim, 338; Ibn Taymiyya, Minhāj al-sunna, 4:553.

[22] Ibn Taymiyya, Minhāj al-sunna, 4:528.

[23]Ibid., 4:530.

[24] Ibn Taymiyya, Minhāj al-sunna, 4:543. See also ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd, Ibn Taymiyya, 393.

[25] Ibn Taymiyya, Minhāj al-sunna, 4:530.

[26] Ibn Taymiyya, Minhāj al-sunna, 4:530.

[27] Ibn Aʿtham al-Kūfī, al-Futūḥ, 5:21; al-Khuwārizmī, Maqtal al-Ḥusayn, 1:273.

[28] Ibn Taymiyya, Minhāj al-sunna, 1:541-2, 4:553.