Ibn Taymiyyah’s View on Fitrah
By Yasien Mohamed
Adapted with slight modifications from "Fitra: The Islamic Concept of Human Nature" © 1996 TA-HA Publishers Ltd.
According to Ibn Taymiyyah every child is born in a state of fitrah; in a state of innate goodness, and it is the social environment which cause the individual to deviate from this state. There is a natural correspondence between human nature and Islâm; man is suited for Dîn al-Islâm and responds spontaneously to its teachings. Dîn al-Islâm provides the ideal conditions for sustaining and developing man’s innate qualities. Man’s nature has inherently within it more than simply knowledge of Allâh, but a love of Him and the will to pracitise the religion (dîn) sincerely as a true hanîf. This points to the element of the individual will, a pro-active drive which purposefully seeks to realise Islamic beliefs and practices. Ibn Taymiyyah responded to Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr’s notion of fitrah and argued that it is not merely a dormant potential which should be awakened from without, but rather the source of awakening itself, within the individual. The hanîf is not the one who reacts to sources of guidance, but one who is already guided and seeks to establish it consciously in practice. The central hadîth refers to a change which may be affected by the social environment; Ibn Taymiyyah maintained that this change is one from a given state, a positive state of Islâm, to Judaism, Christianity, Magianism, etc. The social environment may be also guide the individual to îmân and good conduct so that the motivation in him to do good may be expressed, aided by external sources of guidance. Ibn Taymiyyah was of the view that the human soul possesses an innate receptive capacity and a need for Islâmic guidance while Dîn al-Islâm is an adequate stimulus for this capacity and a sufficient fulfillment of this need.
Moreover, if sources of external misguidance are absent, the fitrah of the individual will be actualised involuntarily and good will prevail. In support of this view, Ibn Taymiyyah cited Abû Hurairah’s reference to the central Qur’ânic âyah (30:30) after the latter’s quoting the central hadîth. In other words, whenever Abû Hurairah, may Allâh be pleased with him, reported the central hadîth, he used to recite after it the following Qur’ânic âyah:
‘Set your face to the dîn in sincerity (hanîfan: as a hanîf) which is Allâh’s fitrah (the nature made by Allâh) upon which He created mankind (fatara’n-nâs). There is no changing the creation of Allâh. That is the right dîn but most people know not.’ (Qur’ân 30:30)
Abû Hurairah’s citation of this âyah after the hadîth apparently means that the fitrah of the hadîth refers to the fitrah of the Qur’ânic âyah, which is a good fitrah because the right dîn is being described as Allâh’s fitrah. The logic of this argument is that Abû Hurairah, may Allâh be pleased with him, meant that fitrah is associated with Islâm (al-Qurtubi, 1967). And according to Ibn Taymiyyah it is the social circumstances, as represented by the parents, which causes the child to be a Jew, a Christian or a Magian.
Since the Prophet, may Allâh bless him and grant him peace, did not mention the parents changing the child from a state of fitrah to a state of Islâm, we must suppose that the child’s state at birth is in harmony with Islâm, in the widest sense of submission to Allâh (Ibn Taymiyyah, 1981). Another implication of this view of fitrah is that, while good constitutes the inner state of a person’s nature, evil is something that happens after the person is born. That is to say, deviation after birth is due to the corrupting influence of the social environment.
Ibn Qayyim (d. 751 A.H.), a disciple of Ibn Taymiyyah, held similar views on the positive interpretation. He did not regard fitrah as mere knowledge of right and wrong at birth but as an active, inborn love and acknowledgement of Allâh which reaffirms His Lordship. He also explained that Qur’ân 16:78 (‘And Allâh brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers, knowing nothing…’) does not refer to innate knowledge of Allâh or Islâm, but rather to knowledge of the particulars of religion in general which is why the latter type of knowledge is absent at birth. Moreover, fitrah is not merely the capacity or readiness to receive Islâm, in which such a condition can be unfulfilled when parents choose Judaism or Christianity as the child’s religion; Ibn Qayyim argued that fitrah is truly an inborn predisposition to acknowledge Allâh, tawhîd and dîn al-Islâm.
Imâm an-Nawawî (d. 676 A.H. / 1277 C.E.), a Shâfi‘î faqîh who wrote one of the principal commentaries on Sahîh Muslim, defined fitrah as the unconfirmed state of îmân before the individual consciously affirms his belief. We have already alluded to this positive view of fitrah and the implications it has for children whose parents are polytheists.
Al-Qurtubî (d. 671 A.H.) supported the positive view of fitrah by using the analogy of the physically unblemished animals in the central hadîth to illustrate that, just as animals are born intact, so are humans born with the flawless capacity to accept the truth; and, just as the animal may be injured or scarred, so can fitrah be corrupted or altered by external sources of misguidance.
Notes and References
 Ibn Taymiyya Dar‘u Ta‘arud al ‘Aql wa al Naql. Vol. 8, ed. Muhammad Rashad Sa’im. (Riyadh: Jami‘at al-Imam Muhammad ibn Sa‘ud al-Islamiyyah, 1981), Vol. VIII, p. 383 and pp. 444-448.
 Ibid., p. 385.
 Ibid., p. 385.
 Ibid., pp. 463-364.
 Ibid., p. 367. cf. also al-Qurtubî, Al-Jâmi‘u al-Ahkâm al-Qur’ân, p. 25.
 al-Asqalânî, Fathul Barî, p. 198