Yahya Michot, Ibn Taymiyyah: Muslims Under Non-Muslim Rule

By Jamil Jan Kochai

In the preface to Muslims Under Non-Muslim Rule, Yahya Michot readily admits to the primary ideological project of his book. That is, to “correct” the image of 13th century Muslim theologian, Taqī ad-Dīn Aḥmad Ibn Taymiyyahh, by “showing how far his ideas have been misunderstood” (ix). In particular, Michot intends to demonstrate the ways in which Ibn Taymiyyah’s Mardin fatwa has been misinterpreted by academics, orientalists, and Islamists alike. Over the course of his text, Michot provides an extensive introductory argument -- wherein he explicates upon the concept of hijra, the distinction between a domain of peace and of war, and emphasizes the pragmatic and personalist nature of Ibn Taymiyyah’s writing -- a translation of the Mardin fatwa with several complementary fatwas, and fragmented interpretations of the Mardin fatwa written by famous Islamists and academics.

At just under sixty three pages, Michot’s introduction is an extensive one. Separated into four sections: “Mardin”, “An Ethic of Balance”, “Six Modern Readings”, and “An Unfaithful Posterity”, the introduction actually makes up the majority of his ideological argument and interpretation of Ibn Taymiyyah’s fatwas. The first section, “Mardin”, briefly attempts to historically contextualize the condition of the ancient city within the early 14th century, when it was conquered by the Mongol Empire of Iran. Drawing upon the works of ibn Battuta and Safi al-Din al-Hilli -- among others -- Michot depicts Mardin as a prosperous city made up of diverse populations, both ethnically and religiously (3-4). Furthermore, he determines that although Mardin was a part of the Mongol Empire, the “normal functioning of Islamic institutions” were not hindered (4). Ibn Taymiyyah then reorients the city within a modern historical context, noting that Mardin is “regularly alluded to in Islamic and Islamist writings” (7) because the city’s status as a domain of war or of peace was a subject of a fatwa by Ibn Taymiyyah. Due to the brevity of the fatwa, and the fact that Mardin’s status as a domain is never referenced again in Ibn Taymiyya’s edited work, Michot concludes that in order to understand Ibn Taymiyyah’s fatwa, it is necessary to correlate the Mardin fatwa with other carefully selected Ibn Taymiyyahn texts (10). Thus, this selective correlation of Ibn Taymiyyah’s texts will be the primary methodology through which Michot will interpret the Mardin fatwa.

In the next section, “An Ethic of Balance”, Michot begins to directly engage with Ibn Taymiyyah’s fatwa. The first issue he addresses is that of the obligation of hijra. According to Michot, “Ibn Taymiyyah’s judgement is that a Muslim in Mardin ‘disabled from putting his religion into effect (iqama)’ must emigrate to the lands of Islam” (11). But because this judgement seems to be at odds with the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) proclamation that there should be “no more hijra after the conquest [of Makka]...”, which is provided without context or even a citation, Michot spends the next few pages explicating upon what exactly Ibn Taymiyyah means by “hijra”. Michot suggests that the concept of “hijra” might be better understood as a spiritual flight from sin as opposed to a geographical emigration (12). Furthermore, he emphasizes that Ibn Taymiyyah places many preconditions and restrictions upon the physical act of emigration. Namely, that in order for hijra to become an obligation upon the Muslim, the land they reside within must first become a “domain of war” -- a term which will be more thoroughly explored in the latter portions of the text. After once more emphasizing the complexity of Ibn Taymiyyah’s ruling on hijra, Michot abruptly makes reference to the question of whether Muslims living in the west should feel an obligation to emigrate to a domain of Islam (17). Once more, Michot stresses that Ibn Taymiyyah’s judgement would neither be “predetermined”, nor “fixed”, nor “plural”, and that it would, in fact, be much more concerned with the “singular” and “personal” nature of each individual matter. At which point, Michot asserts that Ibn Taymiyyah’s thinking on the hijra is “essentially of an ethical nature” and not a political one, that the theologian is more concerned with the conditions of “souls” as opposed to “society” or “sharia” (19). How and upon what exact lines Michot is making this distinction between “ethics” and “politics”, between the “soul” and “society” is not exactly clear. This issue is further compounded by the distinction Michot attempts to make between “Islamic government” and “Islamic institution” without much further elaboration (19-20). Furthermore, in his attempt to explicate upon Ibn Taymiyyah’s understanding of the distinction between a “domain of peace” and a “domain of war”, Michot continues to reemphasize the condition of the individuals residing within the city as opposed to the government, legal institutions, and political structure of the city itself. According to Michot’s interpretation of Ibn Taymiyyah, “the status of a city or region is defined as a function of its inhabitants” (22). Again, Michot emphasizes the “personalist” aspects of Ibn Taymiyyah’s fatwa and intentionally dismisses its socio-political implications altogether. In fact, when analyzing Ibn Taymiyyah’s categorization of Mardin as a “composite domain”, that is, neither completely a “domain of war”, nor a “domain of peace”, Michot refuses to acknowledge the ways in which the political dimensions of a city may play a part in whether or not it can be deemed a land fit for Muslims. According to Michot, Ibn Taymiyyah states that in order for a region to be a domain of peace, the institutions (akham) of Islam must be implemented by an army composed of Muslims (23). And yet, Michot refuses to acknowledge that the prerequisite of a Muslim army and the implementation of Islamic institutions might in fact necessitate an Islamic political system. Michot then proceeds to describe the term “institutions” as having  a “juridical-religious” character as opposed to a political one, but fails to properly define what exactly he means by “juridical-religious” or “institution”, and how exactly he is distinguishing these terms from what he defines as strictly “political” (23). Even though Michot states that Ibn Taymiyyah understood Muslim institutions as being necessarily able to ensure the protection of Muslim lives and property, he -- once again -- denies the political nature of such a precondition and characterizes Ibn Taymiyyah’s concerns as “humanitarian” without explicating upon how a “humanitarian” concern is not also an essentially “political” one (26).

Michot begins the subsequent section, “Six Modern Readings”, by delving into his research methodology, which, apparently, consisted of him using a Google-search of the word Mardin in order to collect a sampling of present opinions on Ibn Taymiyyah’s Fatwa (27). Though it is not exactly clear by what logic Michot decided to select the six texts that he did, the first four thinkers, at least, seem to share certain political ideologies. The first four texts were all written by prominent Islamists, including Muhammad Abd as-Salam Faraj, Shaykh Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, Muhammad b. Abdullah al-Masari, and Shaykh Abdul Aziz b. Salih b. Sulayman al Jarbu. Michot describes the final two texts as being written by authors “less radical” than the preceding four thinkers (31). They include a Syrian academic named Zuhayr Salim and Shaykh Sadaldin b. Muhammad al Kibi. Michot then proceeds to briefly elaborate upon how each of these thinkers is misinterpreting Ibn Taymiyyah’s fatwa in one way or another. According to Michot, the six authors “share the same cavalier disregard for medieval history” by simplifying “the historical reality” of Mardin (32). Namely, almost all of the thinkers identify the rulers of Mardin as non-Muslim, which Michot deems to be inaccurate. Another issue Michot has with the six modern readings is their emphasis upon the Mardin fatwa by itself and without any sort of “intertextual clarification” (37). The final and most significant critique from Michot is that almost all of the texts, save for Shaykh al-Kibbi, adopt a “political approach” to the text as opposed to a “spiritual”, “personalist”, or “juridico-religious” viewpoint (37). He reproaches Faraj for compounding the terms “institutions of Islam” with “Islamic government”, but never actually clarifies why the term “institutions” cannot, at least to some degree, carry with it political connotations (38). Similarly, Michot critiques Shaykh Azzam for being unable to expand upon the difference between “institutions of Islam” and “the sovereignty of a legislation or government” without expanding upon this exact difference himself (39). According to Michot, Azzam is much too concerned with the matter “of institutions, of legislation, of governments, in short, of politics” -- again, without articulating how this specific use of the term “institution” can be political, but not the term “institutions of Islam” -- as opposed to matters of “persons and souls” (41).

In the final section of his introduction, An Unfaithful Posterity, Michot reaffirms his central critique that Ibn Taymiyyah has been misrepresented through an inaccurate politicization of his texts. This misrepresentation is referred to as an “unfaithfulness” to Ibn Taymiyyah’s true meaning (46). Subsequently, Michot makes the claim that he does not intend to defend his own “interpretation” of Ibn Taymiyyah, but that he is merely allowing Ibn Taymiyyah “to speak for himself through a series of text that complement and confirm each other” (48). Of course, the fact that he has carefully selected and arranged these texts in order to promote a specific ideological presentation of Ibn Taymiyyah doesn’t seem to register with Michot as an attempt to “impose” his vision of Ibn Taymiyyah. He describes his approach as “philological” and “historical” and doesn't seem to acknowledge the ways in which it is also deeply ideological. After asserting that to use Ibn Taymiyyah’s writing to “mongolize” an existing state is to betray Ibn Taymiyyah, Michot proceeds to describe Ibn Taymiyyah’s writing as having certain elements of a “non-violent quietism” (56). Subsequently, Michot criticizes the “anachronistic” tendency of Islamists to politicize Ibn Taymiyyah’s historically specific fatwa (57-58). He then goes onto to emphasize how Ibn Taymiyyah was, in fact, quite opposed to “political philosophy”, citing an instance in which he criticized the “political pretensions” of Aristotle (58). Finally, in the conclusion to his extended introduction, Michot reasserts that in their “anachronistic politicization” of the Mardin fatwa, they have overlooked all the ways in which Ibn Taymiyyah’s teachings may hold great interest for a modern Muslim spirituality.

After the introduction, Michot presents us with the actual fatwas of Ibn Taymiyyah. At about forty pages, it only makes up a little more than one-fourth of the entire book. The first fatwa is titled “Flee Mardin”, and it concerns the obligation of hijra. At the beginning of this fatwa, Ibn Taymiyyah almost immediately emphasizes the “Law” or the “sharia” of Islam, stating that “To give assistance to those who depart from the Way/Law of the religion of Islam (sharia) is also forbidden” (63). If, as Michot suggests in his introduction, Ibn Taymiyyah is more interested “in the conditions of the souls...than in society, in God’s Law (sharia)” (19), why does Ibn Taymiyyah first emphasize a strict accordance to the sharia? Perhaps Michot has underestimated the degree to which Ibn Taymiyyah associates an accordance to the sharia with the practice of Islam. In the next fatwa, “The True Emigrant”, Ibn Taymiyyah asserts that when one makes hijra, one’s objective must be going to Allah and His Messenger and not that which is worldly. Over the course of this fatwa, Ibn Taymiyyah especially emphasizes that the status of a city -- that is whether or not it is a domain of peace or of war -- is concomitant to the condition of its inhabitants (73-74). Thus, if a city’s inhabitants are unbelievers it becomes a domain of unbelief. The third fatwa, “A Double Reality” is concerned with the ways in which hijra can be a form of quitting (hijra tark) but also a turning away as a penalty (hijra ta’zir) (86). The fourth and final fatwa, “Appropriate Severity”, explicates upon when and how and to what degree an individual should be punished by the penalty of hijra. In this fatwa, Michot includes a subheader emphasizing the pragmatism of Ibn Taymiyyah.      

The next portion of the text consists of excerpts from each of the “Six Modern Readings” previously mentioned in the introduction. The fragmented nature of these excerpts cannot be underemphasized. Rather than including entire chapters or sections, Michot excerpts a few pages from each of the readings. At times, he will cut away mid sentence (103) or he will conclude a section of the text just as the writer is beginning to explicate upon a central notion (104). This technique of fragmentation and rearrangement is made even more frustrating by the copious amount of footnotes. Faraj is given a mere six pages (including the illustrations Michot has seemingly selected at random and without any real purpose). Azzam is given four pages. Al Masari is also allowed four. Al-Jabur has three. Salim is given four. While Michot excerpts a single paragraph from Al-Kibbi.

Ultimately, the primary shortcoming of Muslims Under Non-Muslim Rule is its very premise. That is, Michot’s intention to “correct” Ibn Taymiyyah’s image is hampered by the unrelenting and uncritical nature of his ideological project. In the section of his introduction aptly titled, “An Unfaithful Posterity”, Michot asserts that he does not intend to pass from the “unfaithful” politicization of Ibn Taymiyyah by Islamists into an a-political reading of Ibn Taymiyyah, and yet, time and again, his project to de-politicize Ibn Taymiyyah is very apparent (58). Without ever properly defining what exactly he means by “political”, Michot spends the majority of the text attempting to paint Ibn Taymiyyah as a personalist, a spiritualist, a moderate, and even “utilitarian” (20). Thus, in his attempt to wrest Ibn Taymiyyah away from the distorted and “unfaithful” visions of the Islamists, it seems as if Michot is attempting to reappropriate Ibn Taymiyyah in the rhetoric of utilitarianism, pragmatism, moderation, and, in general, secular Enlightenment thought. Michot’s primary critique of Azzam’s reading of Ibn Taymiyyah was the shaykh’s emphasis upon “the political” as opposed to “the personal”, but it is precisely this distinction between the political and the personal, the law and the self, the public and the private spheres that reveals the secular European ideology Michot is attempting to impose upon Ibn Taymiyyah’s texts. At one point, Michot describes the Islamist attempt to politicize the Mardin fatwa as “anachronistic” (57-58), and yet, Michot seems unaware of the ways in which his application of Enlightenment concepts - utilitarianism, pragmatism, the private sphere, the public sphere, the separation of the personal and the political - to a thirteenth century Islamic scholar can also be anachronistic. Thus, it is in Michot’s failure to recognize the ideological history upon which his argument, interpretation, and representation are based that causes his book to be unsuccessful in its goal of presenting a fair vision of the great theologian.

Jamil Jan Kochai is an MA Candidate in the Department of English at the University of California, Davis.


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