Ibn ar-Rawandi (c.910?)

A highly enigmatic and controversial figure in the history of Islamic thought, Ibn ar-Rawandi wavered between a number of Islamic sects and then abandoned all of them in favour of atheism. As an atheist, he used reason to destroy religious beliefs, especially those of Islam. He compared prophets to unnecessary magicians, God to a human being in terms of knowledge and emotion, and the Qur'an to an ordinary book. Contrary to Islamic belief, he advocated that the world is without a beginning and that heaven is nothing special.

Medieval biographical dictionaries agree that Ibn al-Husain Ahmad ibn Yahya ibn Ishaq ar-Rawandi lived in Baghdad, but differ as to the form of his name and the date of his death, and indicate that he was intellectually unstable and that very little was known about his real thought. While he is best known as ar-Rawandi, he is also referred to as ar-Rindi, ar-Rawindi and ar-Riwindi. Also he is said to have died at a number of different dates, ranging from ah 243 to ah 301. The most accepted view is that he died about ah 245/ad 910 at the age of forty.

Islamic sources mention that Ibn ar-Rawandi was first a Mu'tazilite, then a Shi'ite and later an atheist. The same sources indicate that the Jews had warned Muslims that, as his father converted to Islam from Judaism after trying to refute the Torah, Ibn ar-Rawandi would attempt to refute the Qur'an after abandoning Islam. These sources agree that this happened, and that he wrote books for the Jews, Christians and even dualists (idolators) in which he attacked Islamic beliefs. He was said to have told the Jews to inform Muslims that Moses had said that there will not be any prophet after him. With the exception of Ibn al-Murtada (d. ah 436/ad 1044) and Ibn Khallikan (d. ah 680/ad 1283), Muslim authors distanced themselves from him and many called him 'the cursed', including Abu al-Hayyan al-Tawhidi and Abu al-'Ala' al-Ma'arri (d. ah 449/ad 1057), who themselves were considered as atheists in Islamic religious circles.

The reasons for his abandoning Mu'tazilism and later Islam entirely were a matter of controversy. Some believed that poverty pushed him to earn some money by writing books for the opponents of Mu'tazilism and Islam in general. The Ma'ahid at-tansis (Known Citations) of al-'Abbasi (d. ah 960/ad 1556) mentions that for four hundred dirhams Ibn ar-Rawandi wrote a book for the Jews, criticizing Islam. After he received the money he wished to refute it, but agreed not to do so after receiving one hundred dirhams more. Others were of the opinion that he abandoned Mu'tazilism because he did not reach the high positions in Mu'tazilite circles to which he aspired. Still others contended that the sense of rejection and loneliness he felt after having been isolated by the Mu'tazilites forced him to seek refuge in their opponents' circles. He himself claimed that he affiliated himself with different schools of thought, including atheism, in order to familiarize himself with their doctrines and learn from them.

Ibn ar-Rawandi's real thought remained somewhat unknown primarily because in the Middle Ages the authorities discouraged the reading of his books and banned their circulation. Most of the one hundred and fourteen books he wrote have been lost. Only parts of three of his works are extant. Fadihat al-mu'tazila (The Scandal of the Mu'tazilites) was preserved almost in its entirety and responded to by al-Khayyat (d. ah 300/ad 912) in Kitab al-intisar (The Book of Victory). Fadihat al-mu'tazila is a response to Fadilat al-mu'tazila (The Virtue of the Mu'tazilites), a work by al-Jahiz (d. ah 254/ad 868), in which the latter pointed out the vices of their opponents in addition to the virtues of the Mu'tazilites themselves. Following the heyday of the Mu'tazilite movement during the early Abbasid rule of al-Ma'mun, al-Mu'tasim and al-Wathiq (see Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila), the movement felt the need to defend itself against attacks by various opponents; al-Jahiz was one of its defenders. In Fadihat al-mu'tazila, Ibn ar-Rawandi presents the views of all the major Mu'tazilite thinkers and tries to show that they suffered from inconsistencies. Many fragments of ad-Damigh (A Refutation), another work of Ibn ar-Rawandi, are extant in Ibn al-Jawzi's al-Muntazam fi at-tarikh (Organization in History). In ad-Damigh, Ibn ar-Rawandi attacks the Qur'an. Finally, parts of az-Zumurrud (Diamond) are also extant in the Majalis (Councils) of al-Mu'ayyad fi al-Din (d. ah 369/ad 979). In az-Zumurrud, Ibn ar-Rawandi focuses on proving the falsehood of prophets and prophecy, which he rejects in Islam and in general.

Ibn ar-Rawandi's tremendous courage in pursuing a rational path in religious debates forced him to reach conclusions not accepted by mainstream Islam. Thus he was attacked severely by the major Muslim thinkers as early as the fourth century ah (tenth century ad), including al-Kindi, al-Khayyat, Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari, Abu 'Ali al-Jubba'i and al-Farabi.

In most of his later works, Ibn ar-Rawandi advocated rejection of religious doctrines, which he considered unacceptable to reason. Thus, he attacked the prophets and certain traditional interpretations and concepts of the Qur'an. Among his teachings were the ideas that prophets make the same kind of claims that magicians make, and that the world is eternal and its events do not prove that they have a first cause. The Qur'an, in his view, is not the eternal word of God, nor is its language miraculous; some human beings, such as al-Aktham ibn Saifi, made better statements than some of those found in the Qur'an. God was without knowledge until he created his knowledge: God is like an angry enemy who can remedy things only by imposing punishment on others and who is capable of wrongdoing. Since he can do these things directly, he needs no holy book and no prophet. However, a God who treats his creatures in this way is not wise. His lack of wisdom is also revealed in his requiring his creatures to obey him when he knows that they will not do so, and in placing them in hell for eternity if they disobey him. Heaven, as described in the Qur'an, has nothing desirable.

Ibn ar-Rawandi had a gloomy outlook on life. This is best expressed in some of his verses where he says: 'The calamities of life are numerous and continuous. Its joy, on the other hand, comes to you as do holidays.'

See also: Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

List of works

Ibn ar-Rawandi (before 910?) Fadihat al-mu'tazila (The Scandal of the Mu'tazilites). (What remains of this work can be found in al-Khayyat, Kitab al-Intisar war-radd 'ala Ibn ar-Rawandi al-Mulhid, ed. H.S. Nyberg, Cairo: Matba'at al-Kutub al-Masriyya, 1925; trans. A.N. Nadir, Le livre du triomphe et de la réfutation d'Ibn al Rawandi l'hérétique, Beirut: Catholic Press, 1957. This also contains al-Khayyat's response to the work. This is the best primary source for understanding the debates between Ibn ar-Rawandi and the Mu'tazilites.)

Ibn ar-Rawandi (before 910?) ad-Damigh (A Refutation). (Portions of this work can be found in Ibn al-Jawzi, al-Muntazam fi tarikh al-muluk wal-umam, ed. M.A.Q. 'Ata and M.A.Q. 'Ata, Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyya, 1992.)

Ibn ar-Rawandi (before 910?) az-Zumurrud (Diamond). (Parts of this work can be found in al-Mu'ayyad fi al-Din, al-Majalis al-mu'ayyadiyya lil-Mu'ayyad fi ad-Din ash-Shirazi, ed. M.A.Q. 'Abd al-Nasir, Cairo: Dar ath-Thaqafa, 1975.)

References and further reading

al-'Abbasi (before 1556) Ma'ahid at-tansis (Known Citations), ed. M. 'Abd al-Hamid, Cairo: Matba'at as-Sa'ada, 1947. (Includes a brief account of Ibn ar-Rawandi's life, works and poetry.)

al-A'sam, A. (1975) History of Ibn Ar-Riwandi the Heretic, Beirut: Dar al-Afaq al-Jadida. (A collection of the most important medieval Islamic sources, including those of Ibn al-Jawzi and al-Mu'ayyad fi ad-Din, that mention Ibn ar-Rawandi. It shows that the majority of Muslim thinkers in the Middle Ages rejected his views and tried to distance themselves from him.)

al-A'sam, A. (1978-9) Ibn ar-Riwandi fi al-maraji' al-'arabiyya al-haditha (Ibn ar-Rawandi in Modern Arabic Sources), Beirut: Dar al-Afaq al-Jadida. (Another collection of Islamic sources, dating from the fourteenth century to the present. It reveals that Muslim thinkers continued to consider Ibn ar-Rawandi a heretic. Like the above work of al-A'sam, it is helpful in presenting the most important views about Ibn ar-Rawandi, as they circulated in chronological order.)

al-Mu'ayyad fi al-Din (before 979) al-Majalis al-mu'ayyadiyya lil-Mu'ayyad fi ad-Din ash-Shirazi (The Mu'ayyadiyya Councils by al-Mu'ayyad fi ad-Din of Shiraz), ed. M.A.Q. 'Abd al-Nasir, Cairo: Dar ath-Thaqafa, 1975. (Includes parts of the az-Zumurrud of Ibn ar-Rawandi.)

Ibn al-Jawzi (before 1201) al-Muntazam fi tarikh al-muluk wal-umam (Organization in the History of Kings and Nations), ed. M.A.Q. 'Ata and M.A.Q. 'Ata, Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyya, 1992. (Includes portions of the ad-Damigh of Ibn ar-Rawandi.)

Stroumsa, S. (1985) 'The Barahima in Early Kalam', Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 6: 229-41. (Offers a non-traditional interpretation of Ibn ar-Rawandi's thought, which helps in drawing attention to his early views that are usually neglected by the majority of Islamic sources.)

Main Page