Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1394, (17 - 23 May 2018)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1394, (17 - 23 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Messages to the planet

Robert Irwin, Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018, pp.243 - Reviewed by David  Tresilian

Messages to the planet

It is only towards the end of his new life of the 14th-century Arab polymath Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406 CE) that British Arabist Robert Irwin discusses one of the central mysteries of the great man’s career. 

Often ignored by his Arab contemporaries, Ibn Khaldun’s earliest real admirers were the Ottoman Turks who discovered his work after their conquest of Egypt in 1517. After that he became a kind of guiding light for generations of European Orientalists who found in Ibn Khaldun’s book the Muqaddima, the “Introduction” to his longer history of the Arab world, the keys to understanding the mysteries of Arab social and political development.

The famous French Orientalist Antoine Silvestre de Sacy, one of the founders of the modern discipline, published translations from the Muqaddima. Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, who did for German Orientalism what De Sacy did for French, described Ibn Khaldun as an “Arab Montesquieu”, a recognised founder of modern historiography, sociology and political science.

When the Egyptian educationalist Rifaa Al-Tahtawi visited Paris in the 1820s, he also discovered Ibn Khaldun. Among the French, Ibn Khaldun “is known as the Eastern Montesquieu or the Montesquieu of Islam”, he wrote. “The rediscovery of Ibn Khaldun by Arab intellectuals in the 19th and 20th centuries was made possible by European publications,” Irwin comments. “Like the Thousand and One Nights and the Rubaiyat of Umar Khayyam, the writings of Ibn Khaldun can be seen as a western cultural re-export to the Middle East.”

However, as he goes on to say there have been almost as many Ibn Khalduns as commentators upon him, making it difficult to see him for who and what he was. For some French 19th-century Orientalists, Ibn Khaldun was “a gentleman historian, like the Duke de Saint Simon… in reality a modern Frenchman and one who would have approved of the French Empire in North Africa.” 

German and Austrian scholars were keen on Ibn Khaldun because for them he was a kind of Hegel in mediaeval Arab dress. For the 20th-century British historian Arnold Toynbee, Ibn Khaldun was an Arab Edward Gibbon, the 18th-century author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. For the mid-century French historian Yves Lacoste, Ibn Khaldun was an anti-colonialist and freedom-fighter, assisting “the people of North Africa in the liberation of their past”. 

According to the British philosopher and anthropologist Ernest Gellner, Ibn Khaldun was a sociologist in the mould of Max Weber, one of the founders of the modern discipline. “Like so many who have studied Ibn Khaldun, Gellner created an Ibn Khaldun in his own image… [making him into] ‘a superb inductive sociologist, a practitioner, long before the term was invented, of [Weber’s] ideal types,” Irwin writes.

It is little wonder, then, that when the Syrian scholar Aziz Al-Azmeh turned to Ibn Khaldun in his Ibn Khaldun: A Study in Orientalism, what he saw was not a 14th-century Arab writer with some claim to originality — Al-Azmeh “seems to have wished to cut Ibn Khaldun down to size,” Irwin says — but a kind of monster of the Orientalists, a “freak or satyr”, a mediaeval historian “whose writings were forgotten about ‘until rescued by the representatives of an alien culture’” in 19th-century Europe. 

Irwin cannot be accused of wanting to “cut Ibn Khaldun down to size”, and in fact he says that he has “spent most of my life communing with a man who has been dead for over six hundred years”, hardly something anyone would do unless there was much to learn. However, communing with the dead or not, Irwin has written a fresh and stylish biography of Ibn Khaldun that can be read with profit, even relish, by anyone interested in the history of the Middle East and its historiographical traditions.

 He agrees with Al-Azmeh that “from the 19th century onwards there has been a conscious or unconscious drive to westernize Ibn Khaldun’s thought and to present him as a precursor of such totemic western thinkers as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Vico, Marx, Weber and Durkheim.”

“There is an understandable wish to make him exciting and relevant. But, of course, Ibn Khaldun’s world had more in common with the Quran and the Thousand and One Nights than it does with modern historiography or sociology… It is precisely Ibn Khaldun’s irrelevance to the modern world that makes him so interesting and important. When I read the Muqaddima, I have the sense that I am encountering a visitor from another planet,” Irwin comments.

Messages to the planet

MESSAGE TO THE PLANET: However, Ibn Khaldun is a visitor from another planet who bears an important message and one that has seduced generations of writers on the Arab world.

Perhaps the most important part of that message has to do with his notion of asabiyya, or group solidarity, and its relationship to historical change. “The most famous and perhaps the central thesis of the Muqaddima is that, in the harsh conditions of desert life, tribal groups of necessity develop a special kind of group solidarity… called asabiyya,” Irwin writes.

“A leader who controlled an asabiyya group of sufficient strength and importance might succeed in founding a dynasty and in winning mulk [kingship] for himself and his family… But within a few generations, perhaps three, maybe four, these conquering tribesmen lost their asabiyya and became civilized… The ruler became vulnerable when his government was seen as corrupt and extravagant; his rule was finally doomed when it was seen as impious. His regime would fall to an assault by the next wave of puritanical tribesmen from the desert… and so the cycle continued.”

Born in Tunis in 1332 CE to a family with a record of government service, Ibn Khaldun lived a famously peripatetic life. He was appointed to important positions at court in Fez in Morocco and later in Granada in Muslim Spain before apparently deciding to settle down to a career as a man of letters in what is now Algeria. Unlike that of many other figures from the period, the outline of Ibn Khaldun’s life is broadly clear because he himself left a record of it in his Taarif, a sort of autobiography, as well as in comments in the Muqaddima and elsewhere. 

In 1382, he moved to Cairo where he became a teacher at Al-Azhar and other religious schools. “He who has not seen Cairo does not know the grandeur of Islam,” Ibn Khaldun wrote in the Taarif. “It is the metropolis of the world, garden of the universe, assemblage of the nations, ant-hill of the human species, portico of Islam, throne of royalty, a city embellished with palaces and arcades, decorated with dervish monasteries and with schools, and lighted by the moons and stars of erudition.”

Perhaps some of what he says was for the benefit of the book’s imagined audience, since Ibn Khaldun owed his position to members of the Mameluke caste that ruled Egypt and much of the wider Middle East at the time. According to Irwin, quoting from Ibn Khaldun’s Ibar (the history to which the Muqaddima is the introduction), he saw the Mamelukes, members of a Turkic slave-warrior caste, as “a gift of God for the salvation of Islam”. Originally brought to Egypt under the 13th-century Ayyubid sultanate, the Mamelukes had saved the country from the kind of destruction suffered by the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad at the hands of the invading Mongols in 1258 CE.

Unfortunately, a lot of what Ibn Khaldun wrote about the Mamelukes is “nonsense”, Irwin says, not least because much of the disorder of the period was the result of power struggles within the ruling caste. “Not only did he neglect the role of tribesmen in politics and warfare in Egypt and Syria, but he also took little or no account of the other disasters that befell the sultanate,” he says. “His Pollyannaish presentation of the Mameluke sultanate in the Muqaddima was perhaps intended to please the sultan and the emirs.”

Pollyannaish or not, Ibn Khaldun did not shirk dangers. When the Central Asian warlord Timur, known in the West as Tamerlane, decided to invade the region in 1400, capturing Aleppo and other cities in northern Syria, Ibn Khaldun joined the Mameluke army sent out to stop him, “almost certainly because he was curious to meet Timur”. This he did outside Damascus in “a meeting that can be compared to that of Aristotle and Alexander the Great, or Goethe and Napoleon,” Irwin writes. 

Ibn Khaldun saw Timur as a “man of the century”, possibly foretold in prophecies, telling him, according to the latter Arab historian Ibn Arabshah, that “Egypt refuses to be ruled by any ruler but yourself and or to admit any empire but yours.” 

Fortunately, Egypt escaped Timur’s invasion, unlike Damascus, which was looted by Timur’s troops and its inhabitants put to the sword. Ibn Khaldun himself also survived this brush with power, dying in office (as judge in the Maliki School of Islam) in Cairo in 1406 and being buried in one of the city’s cemeteries. 

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