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There is probably no other theologian, medieval or otherwise, who has had as much influence on the modern radical Islamist movement than Ibn Taymiyyah (1268-1328). He may be quoted by people from a variety of religious positions, but it is among the most conservative and radical religious leaders that his voice carries the most weight.

The reason why Taymiyyah has become such a powerful force among reformers and vigilantes is that he lived during a age of profound spiritual and political upheaval. In 1258, the Abbasid Empire was defeated by the invading Mongol armies, leading to the capture even of the great city of Baghdad. For most Muslims, the defeat of the caliphate was simply an impossible event - thus, it required a great deal of clever and innovative thinking in order to both explain what happened and provide people a way out.

A professor of Hanbali law, the most conservative of the four major legal schools, Ibn Taymiyyah worked in Baghdad and was forced to flee to Damascus, where his life as a refugee colored his writings. Those writings were not, however, especially popular with political leaders and he was subsequently persecuted and imprisoned in both Syria and Egypt.

What did he write which was so distressing to the political establishment? A literalist in his interpretation of religious documents, Ibn Taymiyyah believed that the ideal Muslim community had been the original community in Medina, surrounding Muhammad. Ever since, however, the quality and morality of Muslims had gradually dropped off, losing its purity. Muslim leaders, in particular, bore much of the burden for not encouraging the proper faith and attitudes among the people.

His strongest condemnations were saved for the Mongols, even though they had converted to Islam by that point. According to Ibn Taymiyyah, the mere act of conversion was not sufficient to make a person a "true" Muslim. The Mongols, for example, still tended to Yasa codes of law established by Genghis Khan instead of the sharia. As a result, Ibn Taymiyyah issued a fatwa against them, thus starting a new precedent of treating so-called apostates as worthy of violent revolution, even if they are political leaders.

This attitude has been carried on by nearly all later Islamist movements, from the Wahhabis to Sayyid Qutb to Osama bin Laden. All have attacked the validity of the alleged authority of political leaders who have failed both in their personal and in their political lives to uphold correct Muslim ideals. According to these extremists, it is the duty of true Muslims to revolt against these leaders in order to help establish a proper Islamic state - the same basic message which Taymiyyah promoted in his own day.

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