Rediscovering Ibn Khaldun, a pioneering Arab medieval mind

Robert Irwin is uniquely suited to unravel the complexity and ambiguity of Ibn Khaldun’s world.
Sunday 25/03/2018
Cover of Robert Irwin’s “Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography.”
Fresh look. Cover of Robert Irwin’s “Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography.”

Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis in 1332 and lost his parents, as well as many of his teachers, at the age of 17 to the Black Plague, which claimed tens of thousands of lives in North Africa as it did in Europe soon afterwards. The author of “Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography,” Robert Irwin, reminds us that Ibn Khaldun grew up in the shadow of ruins, which he compared to “faded writing in a book.”

Leptis Magna, Dougga and Timgad were relics of an older Carthaginian and Roman civilisation, symbols of a region that was far more populated and prosperous a millennium earlier. This led to his attempt to explain the general laws that govern the formation and dissolution of societies.

Irwin explains that Ibn Khaldun had only a slight influence on his contemporaries and immediate successors but was rediscovered and appropriated by European thinkers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Since then he has been seen as a precursor to Niccolo Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim.

Having written extensively on medieval Arab history, Irwin is uniquely suited to unravel the complexity and ambiguity of Ibn Khaldun’s world where “causation is underpinned by God’s will and the primary purpose of social organisation is religious salvation.”

In 1377, tiring of the violent twists and turns of politics in the region, where he had acted as adviser to the rulers in Tunis, Tlemcen, Fez and Granada, Ibn Khaldun retired to the fortress of the Banu Salama tribe near Frenda, in western Algeria, to write “Al Muqaddimah: Prolegomena.” After completing his celebrated study on the laws of history, he moved to Cairo where he was chief judge of the Maliki rite of Islam.

The first question Ibn Khaldun asks is why do historians make mistakes? “Three things lead to error in writing history. First, partisanship. Second, gullibility. Third, ignorance of what is intrinsically possible.”

It was this third issue he sought to address since earlier chroniclers had not given serious consideration to the general laws that govern the formation and dissolution of human societies.

The most famous concept he developed was that of “assabiyya” (social solidarity) among nomads, what their virtues were and their place in history. He argued that, after a newly triumphant ruler and his tribal following had installed themselves in a city, an inevitable decay would set in over three or four generations, as the regime came to indulge in luxury and extravagance.

As the bonds created by tribal solidarity and nomadic austerity weakened, the ruler came to rely on mercenaries and, to pay his troops, imposed taxes that were not sanctioned by Islam.

The pessimism of Ibn Khaldun has a moral and religious, not a sociological, basis. Irwin argues that Ibn Khaldun’s irrelevance to our times is what makes him so interesting. The rise and fall of Maghrebi dynasties seven centuries ago has no bearing on our understanding of the region today but demonstrates that there are other ways of looking at the world than the ones we in the West take for granted.

By the early 19th century, Ibn Khaldun’s ideas regained their relevance. “Muhamad Ali, the ruler of Egypt between 1805 and 1848, read Ibn Khaldun and had him retranslated into Turkish. Together with the writings of Machiavelli and accounts of the campaigns of Napoleon, the political and social thought of Ibn Khaldun may have had a role in shaping Muhamad Ali’s statecraft,” Irwin writes.

The early 19th-century Austrian orientalist Joseph von Hammer likened Ibn Khaldun to “an Arab Montesquieu.” Emile-Felix Gauthier, who taught at the University of Algiers a century ago and “deployed his scholarship to disparage both Arab and Berber culture,” stripped Ibn Khaldun of what he saw as his “superficially medieval identity (to reveal him) to be in reality a modern Frenchman and one moreover who would have approved of the French empire in North Africa.” He detected “a perfume of Renaissance” about him.

Irwin insists this is a travesty of a deeply religious man who, throughout his life, expressed great admiration for the Berber monarchs he served. In the 1930s, historian

Arnold Toynbee found Ibn Khaldun’s pessimism attractive as much as his moralising portrait of the inevitable cycle of political decay brought about by luxury and greed.

The prize for quoting Ibn Khaldun to serve their own purposes must, however, go to Ronald Reagan who, at a news conference in October 1981, quoted the medieval philosopher in support of what is known as supply-side economics. Though Ibn Khaldun was almost unique among Arab medieval thinkers in writing about economics, Irwin pithily remarks that it is quite “marvellous that he should have anticipated American Republican party fiscal policy.”

Irwin wears his erudition of medieval Arab culture lightly. He demonstrates that comparisons between Ibn Khaldun and Machiavelli make little sense, even though the latter’s masterpiece, “The Prince,” is as gloomy a work as “Al Muqaddimah” and both were born of political disappointment.

“Machiavelli’s interested himself in the psychology of rulership, the quest for glory and the role that personality played in high politics. These things did not interest Ibn Khaldun,” Irwin writes. “Machiavelli argued that vices had their virtues and that the ruler might act immorally if necessity demanded it. The intensely religious and moralistic Ibn Khaldun would have found such cynicism abominable.”

“Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography,” Robert Irwin, Princeton University Press, 2018.

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