Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) was a popular preacher and Muslim legal scholar in Damascus under Mamluk rule. He is primarily remembered for writing polemics against almost everyone (Jews, Christians, Alawites, Twelver Shiites, wild Sufis, the Mongols who had recently converted to Islam, Persian speakers, Sunni Muslims who engage in popular practices such as shrine visitation and praying to saints), and the famous traveler Ibn Battuta described him as having “some kink in his brain” (Gibb trans.). He is a leading authority cited by Wahhabis and other Salafis today. So one does not expect him to be a main resource on the religion of his opponents. But in reading this week from one of his polemics (against those Muslims who participate in non-Muslim festivals), I came across his account of what happened on Palm Sunday, a version of the events which I had never heard:
[Christians] very much venerate the last week of their fast (Lent), by calling the Thursday and Friday falling with this week as Great Thursday (Maundy Thursday) and Great Friday (Good Friday). They are particularly observant about the rituals of this week, which is reminiscent of the worship done in the last ten days of Ramaḍān in Islam. The Sunday, which marks the beginning of this week, is also celebrated by them and is given the name of Shaʿānīn (Palm Sunday). What follows is a report given by some on the authority of the Christians: Palm Sunday is the first Sunday of their fast. On it they go out carrying olive leaves, etc., imagining that this would enact the scene and events of the day when Christ, mounted as he was on a she-ass followed by her colt, entered Jerusalem, enjoining that the reputable be done and the disreputable be abandoned, whereupon the riff-raff stormed him, the Jews having appointed some of them with sticks to smite him with, but leaves sprouted on those sticks and the rabble fell in prostration before him. Thus Palm Sunday is celebrated in imitation of that event. (M. U. Memon, Ibn Taimīya’s Struggle against Popular Religion [The Hague: Mouton, 1976], 211)
Several notes are in order here. First, it is easily forgotten that Ibn Taymiyya was living in a Damascus and in a Syria with a still very large Christian population. According to the geographer Yāqūt al-Hamawī (d. 1229), the first caravan stop north of Damascus on the main road toward Aleppo was the town of Qara, which in the early 1200s was still entirely Christian. Ibn Taymiyya himself must have stopped there when he traveled to Damascus from his native Harran as a child with his father. In such a context, Ibn Taymiyya opposed Muslims participating in Christian festivals because he worried Muslims would be tempted to receive baptism or relativize Islamic exclusivism, a point which he made explicit (Memon 213).
The particular Christians in view here are clearly Syriac Christians, as the name given to Palm Sunday derives from the Hebrew hoshīaʿnā (–> hosanna) through Syriac oshaʿne (rarer indefinite oshaʿnīn), which was used as the name of Palm Sunday in the Syriac Christian denominations. This fact is not surprising, but given the sometimes sectarian violence currently taking place in Syria, it is worth remembering that there was a large Christian population there speaking a non-Arabic language in their church services, and this language influenced the Syrian Arabic of Muslims as well.
Although Ibn Taymiyya’s comparison with the festival high-point of the last third of Ramaḍān is surprisingly sympathetic, his purpose in relating these details was not out of human interest. Earlier he had written, “In enumerating some of their disreputable religious practices I am indeed motivated by my own observation of some Muslim groups who have succumbed to them, while many of them do not even know of the Christian origin of these practices. Accursed be Christianity and its adherents!” (Memon, 210). On the other hand, as a Muslim believer in the prophethood of Jesus, he saw no reason to reject the miraculous nature of the report. Instead, he took an agnostic approach to the subject: “The miracles which they attribute to Christ come well within the sphere of possibility. In this matter we do neither refute them, since this is possible, nor rely upon them, since they are ignorant and corrupt” (Memon, 212). Ibn Taymiyya categorically rejected participating in Christian festivals, but not the truth he believed had been revealed through the prophet Jesus, provided the Christians had not yet corrupted it, in his view.
Ibn Taymiyya, of course, represented no one but his own scruples, yet he documented a world in which Syrian Muslims were interested in the celebrations of their non-Muslim neighbors and participated in decorating Easter eggs and other seasonal practices. (Indeed, in the 980s the geographer al-Muqaddasī asserted that Muslims decorate Easter eggs even more than the Christians!) I encountered this world in Aleppo in 2010, when a friend and I walked up to a church as a young man stepped outside, talking on his cellphone. Thinking he might be the church’s caretaker, I waited for him to finish his conversation and then politely asked if we might view the church. The young man smiled, shook our hands, and said, “I am a Muslim. My wife is a Muslim. But I bring my wife to see the church. It is for all people. Welcome.” In the current civil war, this world is perhaps now vanishing, and it has long been ignored by scholars who took Ibn Taymiyya as more representative than the populace he critiqued. To lose sight of this diverse world is to misunderstand where the Middle East has come from, which we do to the detriment of our humanity and the peril of those who live there now.