Written by Adil Salahi
originally published by Impact magazine.
“You claim to be a Muslim, surrounding yourself with a Judge, a sheikh, and one who calls for prayer. Your father and grandfather, on the other hand, were unbelievers. Yet they did not do the terrible things you have done. They honoured their agreements, while you do not, and you have perpetrated much injustice.” Finishing his words, the speaker looked straight into the face of his addressee, who was none other than Kazan, the Tartar king who was preparing to attack Damascus, realising that it was ripe for him to take, abandoned by all support particularly with Egyptian units withdrawing back to Egypt. With them went most government officials, judges and scholars. Thus, the city became deserted from any political and religious authority. A number of non-Muslims were pleased, and established contact with the invading forces. That gave them the audacity to make their un-Islamic feelings and practices public. Some of them went as far as to pour wine in mosques. Criminals were able to leave prison without fear of being caught, and theft became rampant.
But who in such circumstances could address the fearsome king of the Tartars in this way? None other than Ahmad ibn Taimiyah, one of many scholars in our history who are always mentioned together with, or ahead of, the rulers as the main players to influence events. Ibn Taimiyah’s life was a long series of jihad in its fullest meaning. By contrast, many scholars sought a safe place in Cairo or Damascus when the Tartars were earlier marching through the lands of Islam. His own family had moved to Damascus from North Syria for the same reason when he was only seven years of age. Now, in 699 AH, at the age of 38, Ibn Taimiyah stood firm trying to reverse a trend of weakness that went through the Muslim world. Realising the danger threatening Damascus, he called a meeting attended by the notables of the city who could not flee with the withdrawing forces. The meeting decided to send a delegation to Kazan, the Tartar king, who, like many of his soldiers, had embraced Islam, without really experiencing what this true faith means in practice. He was the fourth Muslim king of the Tartars, and he was renowned as a fierce ruler and a hard hearted invader. When the delegation was admitted into his presence, their chief, Ibn Taimiyah addressed him in the words quoted above.
Kazan was taken aback by the fortitude of the scholar. He decided to serve dinner for the delegation first, but Ibn Taimiyah would not touch any food. To the king’s question about the reason for his abstention, he said: “How could I eat your food when all the meat you serve is from sheep you have stolen from ordinary people, and all your vegetables and fruit have been taken from people’s farms without payment?” Kazan was angry, but he felt in awe of the scholar who, in turn, felt much stronger as he believed that God would support him as long as he was trying to remove oppression. With the discussion progressing in this mood and Ibn Taimiyah showing no hesitation or fear of what might happen to him, Kazan had to give way. He later said to his generals: “I have never seen a more courageous person than this man. His words have touched my heart, and I felt that I had no option but to grant him what he wanted.”
Kazan listened to the requests of Ibn Taimiyah and granted them. That meant that he would not attack Damascus for the present time, although he realised that the people would have time to prepare for the protection of their city. He also agreed to release all Muslims he had taken prisoner. But Ibn Taimiyah insisted that he should also release all prisoners his soldiers had taken, including those who were Christians and Jews. He told him that he would not go back to Damascus unless those prisoners were allowed to come back with him. He confronted him with the Islamic principle that applies to such minorities in Muslim land: “They enjoy the same rights and bear the same responsibilities as we do.” Kazan had no option but to release them.
The city was in peace, but not for long. In the following year, reports were coming through that the Tartars would be coming back. Ibn Taimiyah now took up the role of a military commander, encouraging people to rise up to their duty of jihad. He told them that they could leave their city fleeing the invaders, or they could stand up to them and seek God’s help. People responded to him and were willing to fight. Their morale was boosted when they heard that Sultan al-Nasser Qalawoon of Egypt raised an army to fight the Tartars. But they later heard that he decided to turn back to Egypt. Once more, the people of Damascus were in panic. But they requested Ibn Taimiyah to try to save the situation.
Again Ibn Taimiyah went at the head of a delegation, but his task this time was to meet al-Nasser Qalawoon after his army had been dispersed. He was very strong in his appeal. He said: “If you have given up Syria, we would have chosen a ruler to protect it against its enemies; but why should we when Syria is under your rule. If it was not and its people appealed to you for help against an enemy, you would be duty bound to come to its help. What is your responsibility towards it when you are its ruler, and its people are your subjects?” Ibn Taimiyah continued urging Sultan Qalawoon until he agreed to his request and ordered that an army should move immediately to give help to Syria.
Ibn Taimiyah went back to Damascus at full speed. There he found the people in panic. The Governor and his assistants began to prepare to flee, but his return with the news of the forthcoming help encouraged them. The Tartars also postponed their attack, but the danger was not lifted. In fact, the attack took place in 702, but then they had to face the two armies of Syria and Egypt. Ibn Taimiyah was at the front, armed with sword and shield. The Sultan asked him to join him in the battle, but he apologised, saying: “It is the Prophet’s Sunnah that a man should fight with his own people; and as I am from Damascus, I should stay with the local fighters.”
The battle took place in Ramadan, and Ibn Taimiyah encouraged people not to fast, because the Prophet and his companions did not fast when they met their enemies in Ramadan. Victory was assured for the Muslim army, and Damascus was again safe.