Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (509)
Commemorating Ibn Khaldun
Ahmed Zaki Pasha's drive to commission a statue for Ibn Khaldun led to a month-long celebration of the mediaeval scholar on the pages of Al-Ahram in May 1932. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* reviews the debates
"Call to erect tomb and statue for Ibn Khaldun" announced Al- Ahram's editorial on 14 May 1932. The writer, Ahmed Zaki Pasha, had learned that "the brave youth and distinguished elders of Tunisia, whose great fortune it is to boast the historical figure after whom their Khaldun Society is named, have set their minds upon organising a celebration to commemorate this genius who disseminated the rays of knowledge among Arabs and non-Arabs alike."
It was in response to this news that he was issuing his call for a tomb and statue in honour of Ibn Khaldun. Although he had previously aired his appeal in another newspaper, Al- Mahrousa, he felt duty bound to repeat it. The reason: "If Tunisia can take pride in the fact that it was the country in which Abu Zeid Walieddin Abdel-Rahman Ibn Khaldun saw his first glimmer of light and assumed his first post in government; if Granada, at the time when the Arabs of Spain had receded to this state, had pledged itself to him and he to it through commitments in science and the impartation of knowledge; if the Maghreb jubilates in the fact that Ibn Khaldun had visited their capitals and their courts; if the Tartars claim credit because their tyrant Tamerlane, who had decimated every stretch of land before him, had spared Ibn Khaldun; if the Turks had translated the Muqaddima into their language twice and if France never tires of pointing out that in 1858 its presses in Cairo's Boulaq published the Muqaddima in Arabic; and if scholars of East and of the West are indebted to the bountiful fonts of this work and still imbibe from this abundant source... then it is the right of the city of Cairo to raise its head up high, for it has surpassed its peers with a distinction no others can rival and thus has greater claim to take eternal pride in a day to boast its patronage of Ibn Khaldun."
This distinction, in Sheikh Zaki's opinion, did not reside in the fact that the famous Arab philosopher and father of sociology had taught at the venerable Al-Azhar or that he had served as a judge in Egyptian courts several times or that, in Egypt, he had laid the foundations for the science of the evolution of civilisation. In such activities and scholastic endeavours Ibn Khaldun engaged elsewhere as well as in Cairo. Rather, what made Cairo unique was that "God had chosen it as the final resting place for Ibn Khaldun; his remains lie here, his soul fluttering above." Zaki continues: "Let it be known to the inhabitants of the Nile Valley and to all near and far that Ibn Khaldun is buried in the Sufi graveyard outside Bab Al-Nasr," adding that he gleaned this information from Al-Sakhawi's Al-Daw' Al- lami' fi A'yan Al-Qarn Al-Tasi' (A Bright Light on the Luminaries of the Ninth Century AH). Concluding his appeal, Zaki urged officials and scholars to begin the search for the grave of Ibn Khaldun in the area of Al-Sakhawi indicated. Once located, "it will be possible for a single organisation, or individual, to erect a tomb on that location and to erect a statue of Ibn Khaldun in one of the city's main squares."
Ahmed Zaki, dubbed the Sheikh of Arabism, took the occasion to remind those who responded to his appeal that they would not have to look far for information on Ibn Khaldun and even an image of the great scholar. He had donated his private library to the national library. Now housed in a separate section bearing his name -- the Ahmed Zaki Library -- the collection contained a manuscript of Ibn Khaldun's multi-volume history, "with marginalia in the hand of Sheikh Al-Attar". It also contained copies of all editions of the Muqaddima -- the preface to this history -- "printed in Istanbul, Cairo and other capitals of the East". However, the library's greatest source of pride was the manuscript of the Muqaddima that Ibn Khaldun had corrected himself. Finally, the library boasted a photograph of an image representing Ibn Khaldun "constructed from all the information on him unearthed by scholars".
On 16 May, two days after Sheikh Zaki's article appeared, Al- Ahram featured a short biography on this "Andalusian, North African, Arabian sociologist, historian and man of letters", as he was described by a certain Mohamed Reda. A regular contributor to Al- Ahram, particularly on subjects that tapped his considerable erudition, Reda was a librarian at the Egyptian University library.
Ibn Khaldun, he writes, "was born in Tunisia at the beginning of Ramadan in 732 AH (1332 AD). He memorised the Qur'an as a child, studied the Islamic jurisprudence of the Maliki school, committed poetry to heart and excelled in literature and history. His parents died of the plague, which killed most of his elders as well. As a young man, Ibn Khaldun made his way to the court of Sultan Abu Annan Al-Marini in Fez. The sultan took a liking to the young scholar and employed him as a scribe. However, envious courtiers spread malicious gossip, causing the sultan to suspect his scribe's loyalty. In 1356, Ibn Khaldun was arrested and remained in prison for two years."
Skipping ahead to the part on Cairo, Reda writes, "Indicative of the virtues of Ibn Khaldun was that when he arrived in Cairo in 784 AH (1384 AD), Sultan Barquq appointed him as judge over the Mamelukes." The then 52-year-old scholar proved worthy of the Egyptian sultan's esteem, acquiring a reputation for justice and fairness: "He supported the downtrodden, accorded equal treatment to all whether rich or poor or high or low position, and eliminated corruption." Nevertheless, Reda continues, "He was not free of the envy of malicious designers. But when spurious tales and rumours about him increased, the sultan summoned judges and muftis to examine his case and it was thus established that his innocence was as clear as the sun at midday."
After performing the pilgrimage, Ibn Khaldun returned to Egypt where he lived for a short period in seclusion in Fayoum. In 799 AH (1399 AD), he resumed his position in the courts and took up residence again in Cairo where he remained until his death on 16 March 1406, at the age of 74.
Reda concludes his account with an overview of some of the scholar's work. A prolific writer, Ibn Khaldun acquired particular repute for his seven volume history, the first volume of which is the famous Muqaddima. Regarded as the formative text of sociology, this preface to his history has been translated into numerous languages, including French and English. However, his other writings on mathematics, logic and other sciences, his commentaries on the texts of other scholars and his own poetry are indicative of the enormous breadth of his erudition.
Ahmed Zaki's article stirred the concerns of many Al-Ahram readers some of whom wrote in with their comments and reservations. Aziz Khanki, for example, contributed a short addendum regarding the picture of Ibn Khaldun that Zaki had referred to. That picture, in fact, was not in the Ahmed Zaki library but in his personal possession, Khanki claimed. As proof, Khanki sent the picture to Al-Ahram, which published it next to his article. As to how the picture came into his possession, Khanki explains: "While in France, I came across an article in an Egyptian newspaper in which Ahmed Zaki called for a statue and mausoleum to commemorate Ibn Khaldun. He had further proposed creating a committee to organise a donation campaign to erect the statue in a public square in Cairo. I responded immediately with a donation of LE20. After I returned from France, Zaki Pasha visited me and presented me with a photograph of Ibn Khaldun to show to the sculptor who would be commissioned by his proposed committee."
Often with great ideas initial enthusiasm gradually fades. One suspects this is what happened in the case of the statue of Ibn Khaldun, for in his letter, Khanki noted that "circumstances have prevented the implementation of Zaki Pasha's proposal up to now and the photograph is still with me." He still believed, however, that it was a worthy idea and urged his fellow Egyptians "to cooperate in commemorating that great philosopher". By way of incentive, he reminded readers that Western nations were continually paying tribute to their great men. An example of this phenomenon could be seen in their postage stamps: "The Germans have issued postage stamps in honour of Goethe, Leibniz, Beethoven and Bach; the French of Jeanne d'Arc, Pasteur and others; the Americans of Washington, Lincoln and Monroe and Italy of Dante and Mazzini."
Some remained unconvinced. Dar Al-Ulum professor Mohamed Abdel-Ghani Hassan felt that a statue based on an imaginary construction like Zaki's photograph would "not serve the desired purpose of a statue". He explains, "A statue should present an accurate likeness of the person it is commemorating. Zaki's symbolic picture does not depict an actual human being and can only be construed as pure fancy."
Hassan's alternative was to revive the Muqaddima, to "unwrap it from its shroud", as he put it. The problem with existing publications of this work, whether printed in Beirut or Cairo, was that they were filled with typographical and spelling errors of every imaginable sort. "Imagine," he exhorts the reader, "the ordeal of Dar Al-Ulum students who have to deal with this Muqaddima that has been so distorted at the hands of the copyist and printer." Referring to the original manuscript in the national library that Zaki claimed was corrected by Ibn Khaldun, himself, Hassan then asks, "What prevents Zaki Pasha from publishing a new edition of the Muqaddima from that precious original? What benefit is there from keeping that copy imprisoned in archives as though it were a brittle old woman?" One of the most important aspects of Ibn Khaldun's history, he continues, was that it covered the history of the Berbers in more detail than any other work. If only for this reason, Ibn Khaldun's work merited presentation in a new publication, or, as Hassan put it: "What prevents Zaki Pasha from tailoring for him a new robe instead of weaving for him a shroud?" As a final note, Abdel-Ghani Hassan reminded readers that there was a street in Cairo's Sakakini district named after Ibn Khaldun. Credit for this, he said, was due to the famous short story writer Mahmoud Taher Lashin, who had taken it upon himself to pay tribute to the writers of the East.
Other Al-Ahram readers took the occasion to remind people that Zaki's ideas were not new. In fact, writes Mahmoud Abu Rayya, Ahmed Zaki himself had issued this appeal eight years earlier in Al- Mahrousa. "The reason I remember his delightful articles, which appeared in that newspaper in August 1923, is that they were an answer to an 'open letter' I had written to that newspaper asking for clarification on an article I had read in Al-Hilal to the effect that the Ahmed Zaki collection possessed a copy of the Muqaddima in Ibn Khaldun's own hand. Zaki Pasha kindly apprised us that the manuscript in question had been corrected by Ibn Khaldun himself and that this precious copy is the only one of its kind that exists."
Abu Rayya had launched his own drive to have that immortal work published for the benefit of the public. Regretfully, however, "no matter how hard I tried my appeal fell on deaf ears." He continues, "At the beginning of this year I wrote to His Excellency the Minister of Education urging him to devote his attention to that splendid work, of which the Encyclopaedia of Islam has said, 'The Muqaddima of Ibn Khaldun, in terms of profundity of thought, clarity of expression and soundness of judgement, remains incontrovertibly the greatest book ever written by a Muslim.' I continue to hope that the minister realises our aspiration instead of consigning my appeal to the valley of neglect."
Apparently there were other priceless copies of the Muqaddima in existence, if not as valuable to scholars as the manuscript in the Zaki library. In a letter to Al-Ahram, Egyptologist Tawfiq Iskaros relates that he had come across an article in The Egyptian Gazette of 27 April 1867, reporting that the khedive had awarded "superior gifts and appropriate awards" to outstanding graduates of Egyptian schools. Among the recipients were three who had received a copy of the Muqaddima "bound in high quality leather", and three others who had received that work "bound in medium quality leather".
Another reader, Abdel-Wahab El-Naggar, recounts that Sheikh Mohamed Abduh had had his students, of which he had been one, study diverse passages of the Muqaddima. At the same time, the famous Islamic reformer wrote on the subjects discussed by Ibn Khaldun "in a manner that comprehended the differences in circumstances and conditions between the present and Ibn Khaldun's times". These writings had been bound together into a volume of considerable size, which, unfortunately, had disappeared during the upheaval of the Orabi Revolution. El-Naggar recalls, "Our imam and professor deeply regretted the loss of that tome and only hoped that whoever took it would recognise its value and publish it after his death."
The reminiscences and facts in the letters of Abu Rayya, Iskaros and El-Naggar sparked widespread interest in the mediaeval historian. Indeed, we could describe May 1933 as Al-Ahram's Ibn Khaldun month, so many were the letters that poured into its offices on the father of sociology and his relationship to Egypt.
One enthusiast, Rifaat Fathallah described Ibn Khaldun as much more than a great man from the East. "He was a universal monument whose penetrating insight pierced to the core of the workings of society and the affairs of the world. His cry was heard by all intellectuals, and the echo of this cry continued to reverberate in their ears until the name Ibn Khaldun became a part of their very souls, a piece of their heart, a song reiterated in the chirping of their pens."
Sadeq Ibrahim Argoun, in his letter to the editor, relates that he had broached Sheikh Mohamed El-Khidr of the Islamic Guidance Society on the idea of hosting a commemorative ceremony in honour of Ibn Khaldun. To his surprise, he relates, the sheikh told him that the idea had already occurred to him and, moreover, that two years previously, the celebrated scholar, Ahmed Taymur had embarked on a search of Ibn Khaldun's grave, albeit without success.
Argoun took the opportunity to observe that, contrary to Taha Hussein's remark that Ibn Khaldun was a Berber, he was "Maghrebi of birth, Egyptian in residence and his final resting place is at the roots of the Arab tree". He then offered an etymology of Ibn Khaldun's name. "Don", he explained, was the Spanish for "master". "It is not unlikely that his name was originally Don or Master Khaled, a not uncommon titular formula in the Maghreb, but was then manipulated by the linguistic practices of Andalusia until it was transformed to conform to the familiar model of many Andalusian names, such as Zeidun, Hamdun, Khaldun and Abdun." If this etymology was indicative of Ibn Khaldun's Arab origins, he continues, more concrete evidence could be found in that historian's own account of his lineage, which he traced back to one of the Arab commanders who conquered North Africa. In all events, Argoun concludes his letter: "If our Tunisian brothers have moved to revive the memory of that great man, they are no more deserving of that honour than we. We must roll up our sleeves and earnestly set to work in order to make Egypt the home for commemorating this man who rests in its soil, the pride of Islam and the master of historians."
Not long afterwards, Sheikh Mohamed El-Khidr, himself, wrote to Al-Ahram to inform readers that the Islamic Guidance Society had resolved to pay tribute to the great men of the East and that the first candidate for tribute was none other than the philosopher Ibn Khaldun. Egypt, moreover, should take immediate action in this regard, now that Tunisia had founded a Khaldun School alongside the Zeituniya Mosque. He added that the inaugural ceremony for that school had been attended by top Tunisian government and religious officials.
Mohamed Mohamed El-Hariri, senior clerk in the Helwan district court, was particularly keen on locating the grave of Ibn Khaldun, and he had a pretty good idea where it might be. In the vicinity of Bab Al-Nasr, he writes, there is an ancient mosque, called the Khanqah of Said Al-Su'ada, which served as a gathering place for Sufis. "To the south of this mosque there are some ruins in which are located graves that still contain the remains of great men who are presumed to have been members of the Sufi order that frequented this mosque. The grounds of this Khanqah extended to the area known as Bab Al-Futuh and contained, among other things, baths and stores."
Adding to the likelihood that Ibn Khaldun was buried in that plot was the fact that it contained the grave of the philologist Ibn Hisham Al-Ansari, a contemporary of Ibn Khaldun who had died shortly before the great historian. El-Hariri continues, "I am inclined to believe that the grave of Ibn Khaldun is located between Bab Al-Nasr and Bab Al-Futuh and, most likely near the former gate, near his friend Ibn Hisham Al-Ansari. With persistence one achieves one's aim. In this spirit, we must begin our search in that spot, where we can hope to find a peace of stone bearing an inscription of symbols that will guide us to the grave of Ibn Khaldun."
An article by an Al-Ahram staff writer offered the first concrete evidence that the newspaper had actively taken up the call to locate the grave of Ibn Khaldun, build a tomb on that site and create a statue. Towards this end, the "Elderly journalist", as he signed himself, made a novel proposal. He had observed that many societies in Europe, the US and even Asia, bear the name "Friends of such and such a personage". Forming a Friends of Ibn Khaldun Society would not require considerable effort, great expense or even many members. "Three, five or perhaps ten individuals dedicated to literature or history should be quite sufficient for our task." This task was to "renovate that dilapidated grave that all agree contains the remains of the great sociological philosopher and to commission a statue". The statue itself did not have to be a larger than life monument on the scale of the statues of Ibrahim Pasha or Lazughli. "A small bust, in marble, bronze or Egyptian granite, is quite sufficient for the purpose, on the condition that the statue is placed in a central square in the city."
More important than a statue, in the opinion of the "Elderly journalist", was "continual study and the effort to disseminate information about Ibn Khaldun in one of our nation's newspapers or magazines or through a specialised annual, or non-annual, periodical". He went on to list a number of practical recommendations that ostensibly would constitute the Friends of Ibn Khaldun agenda. The society should sponsor or campaign for a new publication of the Muqaddima, "after revisions are made from available manuscripts", which would appear in an edition affordable by the general public and in a collector's edition. It should also produce a biography of Ibn Khaldun as well as selections of the Muqaddima annotated for students. Thirdly, the minister of education should be encouraged to include the study of Ibn Khaldun in the history of literature curriculum of secondary schools and to offer a specialisation in Ibn Khaldun to students of Al-Azhar and the Egyptian University. Finally, the society should lobby for the creation of an Ibn Khaldun Library, which would house the various publications of his works and all books, theses and articles on Ibn Khaldun and his works, "whether written in Arabic or in any other Eastern or Western language".
Unfortunately, Al-Ahram fails to inform us whether any of these recommendations was ever taken up. It does, however, inform us that the Alexandrian Society for the Dissemination of Culture had also decided to commemorate "the great Oriental scholar, Ibn Khaldun, on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of his birth". In a statement to the press, Khalil Shaybub announced they had extended an invitation to writers and intellectuals who wished to participate in this activity to send in the papers they wished to present well in advance, "so as to facilitate preparations for this commemorative occasion". He added that the organisers preferred papers "that shed light on the scholastic aspect of Ibn Khaldun's history".
On Friday 17 June 1932, the Civil Servants Club in Alexandria hosted the society's inaugural ceremony for the commemoration of Ibn Khaldun, sponsored by Prince Omar Touson. Speakers included Sadeq Shaybub on "Ibn Khaldun the man", Bashir El-Shindi on "Ibn Khaldun in Egypt", Mohamed Said Ibrahim on "Ibn Khaldun the historian", Mustafa Fahmi on "Ibn Khaldun the social philosopher", and finally Khalil Shaybub on "Ibn Khaldun the economist".
One assumes that the celebration was a success. Curiously, however, after an entire month of talk on Ibn Khaldun, it was the only such occasion to be recorded in Al-Ahram.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.