A statue of Abu Mohammad Ali Ibn Hazm in Córdoba Image Credit:

Historian, jurist and theologian Abu Mohammad Ali Ibn Hazm was born on November 7, 994, in Córdoba, Spain, and died on August 15, 1063, in Manta Lisham, near Sevilla. He was probably one of the first Muslim scholars who delved into comparative religion. Ibn Hazm was a prolific writer who allegedly produced more than 400 books — only about 40 survived — but sheer numbers cannot possibly measure Ibn Hazm’s philosophical output. Beyond his productivity, his breadth of learning and mastery of the Arabic language stand out, especially so for a Spanish-born Muslim thinker who invented a school of jurisprudence and earned the moniker of a purist.


Life and times

Ibn Hazm was born into a notable Andalusian family that claimed descent from a Persian client of Yazid, the son of the first Umayyad ruler of Syria, Mu‘awiyyah. Although Muslim families in Iberia (later Spain) frequently assumed genealogies that identified them with the Arabs, it is unclear whether such was the case in this instance. Suffice it to say that enough scholarly evidence existed to suggest that Ibn Hazm was probably deeply rooted in both Oriental as well as Western backgrounds, most probably emerging from a mixed Muslim-Christian family from Manta Lisham. An assumption is made that his great-grandfather may well have converted to Islam, and that his grandfather moved to Córdoba, then the thriving capital of the Caliphate. His father, Ahmad, was a devout and learned man, who held a high position under two governors, “Al Mansur and his successor, Al Muzaffar, a father and son who ruled efficiently in the name of the Caliph Hesham II.”


Like all precocious youngsters, Ibn Hazm was a keen observer and quick learner. Naturally, because of his father’s access at the palace, the young man benefited from excellent educational opportunities. More important, the relatively easygoing, even if conservative, environment, allowed him to scrutinise powerful men. He thus assessed for himself early on the mantle that made most men — and some women in the harem too — had taken on as he accumulated experiences that taught him valuable lessons about the body as well as the soul.


Al Muzaffar’s death in 1008 shattered the relative stability that the Umayyads imposed during more than two and a half centuries and what followed was internecine warfare, a particularly vicious civil war that lasted until 1031. The result was an abolished Caliphate, replaced by a large number of petty states with local political structures that uprooted established families beholden to a central ruler.


Consequently, Ibn Hazm’s kin faced hardship, especially after his father died in 1012. The son continued to daringly support Umayyad claimants to the high office of caliph, but that was neither wise nor practical. By relying on his pen, he expressed his revulsion acerbically and mordantly at the way the body politic behaved. Of course, local rulers frequently imprisoned him, which gave the erudite young man additional time to hone these skills. In fact, by 1031 Ibn Hazm was a veteran of local jails, where he wrote some of his most polemical tracts — all carefully laid within literary prose. Amazingly, although he became a controversial figure, Ibn Hazm somehow managed to stay on safely in Manta Lisham.


An opus on jurisprudence

A master of the Arabic language, Ibn Hazm was best known for his prolific writings on jurisprudence, but also for a charming short essay known as “Tawq Al Hamamah” (The Ring of the Dove). The 7,000-word pamphlet — masterfully translated by Arthur John Arberry, the British orientalist who translated the Quran and several of Rumi’s major works — dealt with the concept of love (it is available online at http://www4.gvsu.edu/wrightd/HNR215%20and%20216C/TheRingoftheDoveFall2007.pdf). Boldly, Ibn Hazm provides in it a cathartic analysis of the concept as he differentiates between divine love, the highest form of love that could possibly exist, and affection, the lowest form invented by man. He was heavily influenced by Plato’s “Phaedrus”, a dialogue with Socrates that employs a fresh technique — to pose one question to “reveal the importance of the next thereby juxtaposing ‘the false’ and ‘the real’ to discover the difference”. Plato intended to highlight how one could demonstrate the truth of the connection between “intimacy” and “real” knowledge, whereas Ibn Hazm developed the idea further by showing how love brought together otherwise incomplete beings. The opening and closing paragraph of “The Ring of the Dove” explain it best:


Love has certain signs, which the intelligent man quickly detects, and the shrewd man readily recognises. Of these the first is the brooding gaze: the eye is the wide gateway of the soul, the scrutiniser of its secrets, conveying its most private thoughts, and giving expression to its deepest-hid feelings. You will see the lover gazing at the beloved unblinkingly; his eyes follow the loved one’s every movement, withdrawing as he withdraws, inclining as he inclines, just as the chameleon’s stare shifts with the shifting of the sun. Genuine love occurs when the lover sees beneath the surface of the appearance something which presents an idea of his own nature, and thus becomes strongly attracted by it. Weaker forms of affection result when the individual is limited to the form of the appearance, but perceives nothing deeper beyond it. ...


... I pray that Allah may so grant that we shall never complain, save only unto Him: may He restore us yet to the best that we have ever known. Verily, what He has spared to us is more than what He has taken away, and that which He has left to us is greater than that He has deprived us of. Infinite are the gifts of God that encompass us, unbounded the graces of God that overwhelm us, words can never express, thanks equal to His benefactions. All these things spring from His abounding generosity. We have no authority over ourselves, for from Him we come and to Him we return: every loan must revert to the lender. Praise be to Him first and last, at the ending as at the beginning.



Zahirite school of jurisprudence

Remarkably, this quest to understand divine love, which clearly incorporated Catholic dogma, led Ibn Hazm to develop a fully fledged school, which became known as the Zahirite school of jurisprudence. The Sunni Zahiri school differed from the four traditional Muslim schools of religious jurisprudence (Hanafi, Shafi‘i, Maliki, and Hanbali) in the sense that it adhered to the “exoteric or apparent [zahir] meaning of the religious text, in accordance with the principles of grammar, the hadith [traditions] of the Prophet [PBUH] and the consensus [ijma] of the community.”


As the name indicates, the zahir principle of legal theory relied exclusively on the literal meaning of the Holy Scriptures, and although Ibn Hazm’s approach failed to gain the popularity that the four traditional schools received, no one denied that it added value to Muslim theological studies. By comparing the study of religious pluralism practised in Spain — among Jews, Christians and Muslims — Ibn Hazm pioneered such studies, enlightening future generations of erudite men, who freely ploughed into the Andalusian’s writings.


Opponents of the Zahiri school were those who relied on esoteric meanings of the Word, including Isma‘ilis, who believed that a Muslim ought to look beyond the surface of the text to discover what it really means. Mu‘tazilites, for their part, relied on qiyas (analogy) to grasp the true nature of God, while many Muslim philosophers argued that reason was in fact the most vital tool to gain access, or even to decipher the true meaning of scriptures. Most were appalled by the Zahiri interpretation. In fact, over the years, the dispute revolved over the ways in which theologians interpreted key texts, something that was bound to occur given that dogmas were gradually transformed into laws that men could or ought to follow.


Ibn Hazm rejected the basic notion that one needed analytical tools to understand the meaning of sacred texts. He believed that the Mu‘tazili or even Ja‘afari (Shiite) interpretations, which maintained that one needed to rely on analogy — by necessity from our human understandings — to better comprehend God’s will, was just too esoteric and incorrect.


According to Ibn Hazm, it was not necessary to grasp God with any degree of rationality since He is a unique being. A believer ought to simply accept God through faith. A Zahirite must therefore only use “reason to get an accurate view of the language of the relevant texts and the supplementary hermeneutical material, and stop there”. As Al Gazzali, a fully fledged Zahiri, later explained: Mu‘tazilites “wanted to explain away faith as opposed to embracing it”. The crux of the argument, thus, was whether a believer accepted the Quran as the word of God, taking it as the Word without questioning it, or whether one interpreted its contents.


Ultimately, it was important to ask what role, if any, did reason play in Ibn Hazm’s understandings. To be sure, the concept was valuable, perhaps even essential, in understanding facts, since a human being needed to rationalise every situation. Nevertheless, the Andalusian categorically rejected the idea that a believer can or ought to use reason “to identify the Word’s ethical or religious character”. Reason had a role to play in revelation but only as a subsidiary feature. In comprehending religious language, for example, a believer must “use reason to interpret the text, but [he] must be aware of the dangers of over-elaborating and departing from the apparent meaning”. A believer must also avoid polemical exercises that will lead one to question the mysteries of the Creator, draw the faithful towards disputes as to what a particular text means and press one to create and follow man-made laws. Ibn Hazm proposes to avoid such exercises by accepting the “apparent meaning of the text and maintain the autonomy of God”.


Legacy to Arabs and Muslims

The Zahiri school was closely associated with the Hanbali school, at least in its early history, probably because the Hanbali school followed authentic hadiths and opposed reasoning in the course of interpreting scriptures. For his part, Ibn Hazm did not reject rationality to comprehend scriptures, but insisted that the concept ought to only be used within the context of the revelation. Whether this approach, which was “based on the idea that the language and context of religious texts [were] sufficient” for readers, was indeed enough, proved highly controversial over the centuries. Distinguished theologians who approved and/or followed this form of thought included Al Gazzali, Al Tabari, Ibn Tumart, and Abu Qayyim Al Jawziyyah, although more liberal Sunni voices insisted that it was essential to use concepts such as analogy to gain true insights. In modern times, puritan Sunni Muslims have relied on some of Ibn Hazm’s writings, but have rejected others, especially his numerous comparative references to other faiths. No matter how unpalatable some of his ideas were, everyone, however, agrees that he has added immense value to the field.


List of works

Ibn Hazm, Tawq al-Hamamah, trans. A. J. Arberry as “The Ring of the Dove”, London: Luzac, 1953


Ibn Hazm, “al-Fisal fil milal wal ahwa’ wa‘an nihal” (Treatise on Religions and Schools of Thought), Cairo: Maktabat al-Khanji, undated


Ibn Hazm, “Mudawat an-Nufus” (Character and Behaviour), ed. and trans. N. Tomiche, Beirut, 1961


Selected readings

Roger Arnaldez, “Grammaire et théologie chez Ibn Hazm de Cordoue: essai sur la structure et les conditions de la pensée musulmane” (The Grammar and Theology of Ibn Hazm of Cordoba: Essay on the Nature and Structure of Muslim Thought), Paris: Vrin, 1984


Anwar G. Chejne, “Ibn Hazm”, Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1982


George Hourani, “Reason and Revelation in Ibn Hazm’s Ethical Thought”, in George Hourani (ed.) “Reason and Tradition in Islamic Ethics”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 167-189


James Pavlin, “Sunni Kalam and Theological Controversies”, in Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Oliver Leaman, eds., History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, 1996, pp. 105-118


Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is the author of the just published Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia (London: Routledge).


This article is the eighth of a series on Muslim thinkers who greatly influenced Arab societies across the centuries.