Mystical Ibn Khaldun by Robert Irwin

The fourteenth-century Maghrebi philosopher of history Wali al-Din ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) has been thought by many to be the most profound thinker Islam has ever produced. The nineteenth-century pioneers of Islamic modernism Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh made a close study of Ibn Khaldun’s masterpiece, the Muqaddima (The Prolegomena) and taught from it. Taha Husayn, in his lifetime Egypt’s leading man of letters, wrote a thesis at the Sorbonne in 1917 on Ibn Khaldun that was subsequently published in French and Arabic. Later Ibn Khaldun’s ideas about the decay and collapse of empires were studied by the Islamic activist Sayyid Qutb.

The world historian Arnold Toynbee, who produced a ten-volume study of the rise and fall of civilisations, described the Muqaddima as ‘undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place’. According to the philosopher, sociologist and anthropologist Ernest Gellner, Ibn Khaldun was ‘a superb inductive sociologist, a practitioner, long before the term was invented, of ideal types, a brilliant account of one extremely important kind of society’. Gellner presented him as a value-free sociologist whose theoretical models were relevant for the modern Middle East. Ibn Khaldun’s ideas were cited with approval in Bruce Chatwin’s novel Songlines and they underpinned the Dune cycle of science fiction novels produced by Frank Herbert.

Much of the Muqaddima was written in 1375 in a remote castle in north-west Algeria, but Ibn Khaldun continued to revise it almost until his death in Egypt in 1404. The Muqaddima, which began as a preface to a history of the Berbers, occupies three fat volumes in its English translation, while the standard Arabic edition of the chronicle itself, the Kitab al-‘Ibar, is in seven volumes. It is on the Muqddima that Ibn Khaldun’s chief claim to fame rests, rather than on the ’Ibar. The Muqaddima is divided into six parts: 1. human society in general; 2. nomadic society; 3. states, caliphs, kings; 4. civilised society, towns; 5. trade, ways of earning a livelihood; 6. sciences and arts. Because the book is so long, it has been selectively read and selectively abridged. By the time readers of the Muqaddima get to volume three they are apparently fagged out and one consequence of this is that they miss the importance of divination and occultism more generally in Ibn Khaldun’s thinking.

The first question Ibn Khaldun asked himself was why do historians make mistakes? Three things lead to error in writing history. Firstly, partisanship; secondly, gullibility; thirdly, ignorance of what is intrinsically possible. It is this third issue that he mostly sought to address, for inferior historians are ignorant of the general laws that govern the formation and dissolution of human societies. They have not studied the underlying laws of history, but are only the compilers of events. Ibn Khaldun scrutinised accounts of past events and sought to assess them on the grounds of plausibility. One needed to take account of cause and effect, then of how things work when the situations are similar and then of how things work when the situations are dissimilar. This was an unusual thing for an Islamic historian to do.

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