Ibn Khaldun: No predecessor, no successor

Ibn Khaldun was an unequivocal scholar who had not any correspondent in his time, both in Islamic world, and in the western intellectual arena

Ibn Khaldun: No predecessor, no successor

Edip Ibrahim/World Bulletin

Ibn Khaldun’s star shines the more brightly by contrast with the foil of darkness against which it flashes out; for while Thucydides and Machiavelli and Clarendon are all brilliant representatives of brilliant times and places, Ibn Khaldun is the sole point of light in his quarter of the firmament


Ibn Khaldun was an unequivocal scholar who had not any correspondent in his time, both in Islamic world, and in the western intellectual arena. He was an industrious, as well as brilliantly intelligent scholar who managed to handle ilm in a critical manner, avoiding to fall into the trap of flattering and exalting unlike many of his predecessors, the erstwhile historians. Toynbee, pointing that he was a sole star in the sky, is right; since, interestingly enough, there is no other scholar who approaches history and society in this manner. He strictly sticks with the rationality and tries to explain everything on a rational basis which can be understood by, and explicable to everyone at each point of time-and-space-diagram without necessitating accepting some values or beliefs a priori, taking them for granted.

Here I am going to try to talk about, firstly a general evaluation of Ibn Khaldun as a distinctive scholar, including a critique of his critics. Secondly, I will try to uncover Ibn Khaldun’s historical methodology and elaborate the impact of his religious beliefs in his analysis, especially on the rapid spread of Islam in seventh and eighth centuries. Lastly I aim to explicate some of his fundamental concepts such as asabbiyyah, badawa and hadara with a view on his cyclical theory in explaining the life spans of empires.

Ibn Khaldun as a Scholar

Ibn Khaldun was interested in various scopes of science, like “the nature of society; the influence of climate and occupation on the character of groups; the best educational methods, etc.”1 These scopes are covering a very wide range of modern social and natural sciences. Today it is not that easy to have good command of geography, and history, and at the same time being an expert in educational methods, and to have the ability to analyze literal texts that are very complex and covert. This problem is related to the fact that by the modern times, especially the nineteenth century we value the compartmentalization of sciences. It is expected from the wo/men who are engaged in a kind of science, to be an expert of just one branch of science, which is a modern phenomena being challenged today. Moreover, because science is cumulative phenomenon, today we have much more quantity of information to be known, much more articles and books to be read as science is more accessible today than past times by the masses.

Another point is that Ibn Khaldun was an objective scholar at best. He tries to be impartial in analyzing the facts related to his own country and religion, and religions and states of others. “Like Spinoza, he seeks neither to praise nor to blame, but to know; to grasp the laws that govern the development of human institutions, not to pass value judgments on these institutions.”2 And furthermore, he “was a Muslim scholar who did not hesitate to criticize Islamic intellectual pursuits and political structures.”3 This is very clear and ostensible in the Muqaddimah, it is easy to pick up a point in which Ibn Khaldun criticizes something that can be counted as attached to him.

For instance, in Muqaddimah he puts forward that, “[t]he reason for this (places that succumb to the Arabs are quickly ruined) is that (the Arabs) are a savage nation, fully accustomed to savagery and the things that cause it. Savagery has become their character and nature. They enjoy it, because it means freedom from authority and no subservience to leadership. Such a natural disposition is the negation and antithesis of civilization. All the customary activities of the Arabs lead to travel and movement. This is the antithesis and negation of stationariness, which produces civilization.”4 To my mind, this part is very impressive, he continues: “For instance, the Arabs need stones to set them up as supports for their cooking pots. So, they take them from buildings which they tear down to get the stones, and use them for that purpose. Wood is needed by them for props for their tents and for use as tent poles for their dwellings. So they tear down roofs to get the wood for that purpose. The very nature of their existence is the negation of building, which is the basis of civilization. This is the case with them quite generally.”5 Moreover, he does not refrain from putting forward these statements: “[I]t is their nature to plunder whatever other people possess.”6

From these statements it is not so difficult to extrapolate that he does not experience any grievance while critiquing the people of his nation. We know that he places high emphasis upon the nature and the essence embedded in human beings as an innate character. L. E. Goodman says that, “Human nature continues to play a major role in history according to Ibn Khaldun; for as the author of the Muqaddimah frequently remarks, habit, custom is second nature. Man’s character is ‘conditioned’ by his way of life; and that in turn is determined in large measure by environment.”7

Therefore, we would exaggerate, if we call him an essentialist, if not racist. While reading the Muqaddimah, it is not that facile to grasp a coherent way of explaining the issue of essence and nature. Somewhere, as aforementioned, he states that nations and groups have essences that cannot be changed. But somewhere, he holds that the groups are subjects of their physical environment and way of life.And he criticizes the former historians on the grounds that they cannot understand groups and races change over time.8 However it is not so much clear in Muqaddimah, whether nature is innate and immutable, or it is a function of time factor.

Ibn Khaldun was a knowledgeable man about the history and geography of his time, especially that of Maghrib, (the North-West Africa). Yet, of course, there were limitations about the scope of his knowledge; he knew little about what happened in China in his time, namely in the fourteenth century. At the same time, though he calls Aristo as muaallim-i sani (the second teacher), his knowledge about the Antique Greek world is fairly limited. As Nataniel Schmidt put: “He says that he has learned that civilization was in a flourishing state among the Christians, but obviously knows little about it. He came into personal contact with Timur, and knew his career, but was not aware of the overthrow of Yüan dynasty in China and the establishment of the Ming dynasty by Wang fu in 1368. Though he was a student of Aristotle, in an Arabic version, he was profoundly ignorant of Greek and Roman history.”9 Alt Schmidt, on the other hand, appreciates the value of his ground-breaking work, Kitaba’l-Ibar. “In spite of these serious limitations, his history was more universal than any that had been written before his time.”10

Ibn Khaldun claims that what he has done is original and it does not have any correspondent before him, to his knowledge. He “regarded himself as the discoverer of the true scope and nature of history. According to him history is the science that deals with the social phenomena of man’s life”11. In his Muqaddimah, he reiterates that his work is not a copy of someone, which so makes it unequivocal. “It should be known that”, he tells, “the discussion of this topic [ilm-i umran] is something new, extraordinary, and highly useful. Penetrating research has shown the way to it. It does not belong to rhetoric, one of the logical disciplines (represented in Aristotle’s Organon), the subject of which is convincing words by means of which the mass is inclined to accept a particular opinion or not to accept it.”12 He, thus, simply states that he will only discuss the history and circumstances of races and nations of Maghrib as he only know these regions very well. To him, Mas’udi, a renowned historian, told the history of Eastern countries since these regions are within his field of interest and knowledge.13

His Methodology

Ibn Khaldun’s displays a very distinctive and assertive methodology. He keeps criticizing the former historians like Tabari, Mas’udi for their faults in writing the history of their field of interest, claiming that what he has achieved has no correspondent before.

Ibn Khaldun was not a philosopher only; he was, at the same time, a historian. It can be said that he is a genius historian opening up new horizons for the students of this field of social science. “He was an historian, who like any other Muslim or Western historian, was dependent on the records of the past, on the authorities which preceded him.”14 However, he made use of these records in a very critical manner, and paying attention to the smallest details, especially in case there are differences in the accounts of different writers on the same event. He does not use to take the records for granted, but “compares these authors with each other, checks their respective statements, notices their divergences, differences or similarities, in order to establish the truth of every fact, be it a date, a name, a place, etc.”15.

History, as an original-independent science, is his invention. Before Ibn Khaldun, there was the notion of past, some people tell the stories of ancient people, however, as an independent science we had not history. Schmidt, again, claims that “nowhere does the conception appear of history as a special science having for its object all the social phenomena of man’s life. This is Ibn Khaldun’s contention. If it is proper thus to extend the scope of history, and if history is a science, the great Tunisian who laid down and defended these propositions seems, in this respect, to have had no predecessor, and it may well be claimed that he was the discoverer”16

While he invents this novel science, he was not bigoted; he, comprehensively, covers all the regions of the world in history. And he pays attention to each, without any discrimination. Nonetheless, it should be considered normal that he highlights Maghrib much more than the others, since as he states, he knows his country and where he lives better than the faraway regions. It should not be forgotten that in Muqaddimah he allocated tens of pages to the zones (iklim) of the world (his original taxonomy) and analyzes the people of these zones covering various ‘nations and races’. So he cannot be accused of not being impartial in approaching the society of his own, and the ‘other’s.

In Ibn Khaldun’s understanding, different from the conventional historians as story-tellers without critical stance, history has a hidden mind and structure. The events taking place which are taken, generally, as pop-up, in fact, are a part of big structure, and a chain in the sequence of history. For instance, he claims that we cannot accuse Caliph Umar for toppling down Persians, in war of Qadisiyya, this event, to him, should be placed in the historical sequence of cause-and-effect.17 In his words:

“In the past,, the Persians filled the world with their great numbers. When their military force was annihilated in the days of the Arabs, they were still very numerous. It is said that Sa’d (Abi Waqqas) counted (the population) beyond Ctesiphon. It numbered 137,000 (individuals), with 37,000 heads of families. But when the Persians came under the rule of the Arabs and were made subject to (oppression by) force, they lasted only a short while and were wiped out as if they had never been. One should not think that this was the result of some (specific) persecution or aggression perpetrated against them. The rule of Islam is known for its justice. Such (disintegration as befell the Persians) is in human nature. It happens when people lose control of their own affairs and become the instrument of someone else.”18 (Emphasis is mine)

The last sentence is striking; he uses present tense and puts: “it happens …”. This is a statement of a law like an absolute degree. In any case, this example is given within the section titled “A nation that has been defeated and come under the rule of another nation will quickly perish.” At the beginning, he puts the law, all-embracing and overarching to foster the arguments and examples he uses in the section.

Next: Ibn Khaldun’s Methodology and Fundamental Concepts

1 Issawi, C., An Arab Philosophy of History, London: London W. Press, 1950 p. x

2 Issawi, C., An Arab Philosophy of History, London: London W. Press, 1950 p. 13

3 Lawrence B. B., ed., Ibn Khaldun and Islamic Ideology, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1984, p. 5

4 Ibn Khaldun, trans. by Rosenthal F., The Muqaddimah, 2nd edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 302

5 Ibn Khaldun, trans. by Rosenthal F., The Muqaddimah, 2nd edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 303

6 Ibid, p. 303

7 Goodman, L. E., “Ibn Khaldun and Thucydides”, Journal of the American Society, Vol. 92, No. 2. (Apr. – Jun., 1972), p. 255

8 Ibid, p. 9

9 Schmidt, N., Ibn Khaldun, Historian, Sociologist And Philosopher, New York: Ams Press, 1967, p. 13

10 Ibid, p. 13

11 Ibid, p. 17

12 Ibn Khaldun, trans. by Rosenthal F., The Muqaddimah, 2nd edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 78

13 Ibn Khaldun, trans. by Rosenthal F., The Muqaddimah, 2nd edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967, p.65

14 Fischel. W. J., “Ibn Khaldun’s Use of Historical Sources”, Studia Islamica, No. 14. (1961), p. 109

15 Ibid, p.  118

16 Schmidt, N., Ibn Khaldun, Historian, Sociologist And Philosopher, New York: Ams Press, 1967, p. 19

17 Ibn Khaldun, trans. by Rosenthal F., The Muqaddimah, 2nd edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 301

18 Ibn Khaldun, trans. by Rosenthal F., The Muqaddimah, 2nd edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 301

Last Mod: 16 Kasım 2013, 09:59
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