Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography (Robert Irwin)

I generally liked this book, by the erudite Orientalist Robert Irwin, but I am not sure why it exists. It is too academic to be popular, and too popular to be academic. I learned something about the famous medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun, but I would have been lost if I did not already know much about Ibn Khaldun and medieval Islam generally. So this is not a reference work, or even a normal biography. Really, it’s a seminar in print, discussing a grab-bag of topics about Ibn Khaldun, valuable mostly as an add-on if you are particularly interested in medieval Islam or the history of North Africa.

If a core premise can be found in this book, it is that Ibn Khaldun was a fascinating man, but not at all an early modern man, as he is often portrayed. He did not invent the Laffer Curve, as has been claimed, most famously by Ronald Reagan. He was a historian, of original mold, but he was not an economist or sociologist in any modern meaning of the term. Rather, he was that medieval type common both in East and West—the educated man seeking patronage employment by powerful men (Irwin cleverly calls him “a kind of bureaucratic condottiere”), and tailoring both his writings and their content to that goal. Ibn Khaldun was a man of his time, forgotten by all immediately after his time, and brought back to life by curious Westerners in the early modern period, and by Muslim nations in need of heroes in the later modern period.

He wrote a massive universal history of North Africa, the Book of Lessons (Kitab al-‘Ibar), but nobody reads that, then or now. He is remembered today instead for the lengthy (three volumes) introduction to that work, the Muqaddimah, which strives to be a theoretical analysis of history. For Irwin, the Muqaddimah is a an original and fascinating look into how men of the past thought. It is not, at least to the degree sometimes claimed, a modern book, but it is still valuable to moderns.

Irwin intertwines facts about Ibn Khaldun’s career with different aspects of his intellectual life. His work, over the seventy-four years of his life, largely consisted of moving around North Africa serving different masters, with occasional pauses to sit still in an isolated place and write. Irwin revolves his core analysis of Ibn Khaldun around a tale from The Thousand and One Nights, “The City of Brass,” an illustration of which graces the cover of this book. The story tells of an Umayyad’s caliph’s desire to find a jar, sealed by Solomon, containing a jinn. The caliph sends the governor of North Africa to scour the landscape for it, which he does, but not before many adventures in ruined cities and dead lands. Those ruined cities, which were in fact scattered all over North Africa, were proof, to Ibn Khaldun, of the continual decay of things. They were a message to the present. Ibn Khaldun did not believe in the future progress or improvement of Man. Quite the contrary. He wrote the Muqaddimah as both analysis and warning to devout Muslims, of how the future would be like the past, cyclical and with the constant throwing-down of the great, at least until the end of Time, which was likely near.

No doubt exacerbating his gloom about Muslim decline, Ibn Khaldun wrote as Europe was very much on the rise, and this was apparent to him. “He noted how Maghribi rulers now preferred to employ European mercenaries because of their superiority in fighting in formation. The Christian merchants who visited the Maghreb seemed to be extraordinarily wealthy.” Christians were “more versed in the crafts” and had superseded the Muslims in sea power. That the Black Death had recently ravaged the Middle East (Ibn Khaldun was born in 1332) no doubt further increasing his feeling of gloom, coloring the Muqaddimah’s picture of inevitable decay.

Ibn Khaldun therefore developed a theory that, as Irwin points out, inverted the Chinese theory of cyclical political systems (and also contradicts Edward Gibbon’s theses about Rome, in whose mind barbarism and religion were the downfall of the Empire). In Ibn Khaldun’s mind, the highest and best moral and mental attitude was exemplified by desert nomads, in particular their group solidarity, or ‘asabiyaa, and their devotion to a pure form of Islam. The peak of civilization was reached when they invaded and conquered cities, establishing themselves as the new elite of a civilization. Inevitably, their descendants grew wealthy and therefore soft, weak, and irreligious, so in the fourth generation, a new set of nomads would overwhelm the settled areas, beginning the cycle again.

Irwin thinks this is dubious history even as applied to North Africa, much less broader areas, but it is the core of the Muqaddimah. Irwin is also interested in Ibn Khaldun’s other intellectual pre-occupations, which are many. He dabbled in physical science, although like early European inquirers he blended science with astrology and alchemy. He also studied what today would be called social science, though his presentation of that is mostly as a moral scold, in a traditional Muslim vein. (Ibn Khaldun was an adherent of the rigid Maliki madhhab.) Nonetheless, Irwin gives Ibn Khaldun full credit for his “readiness to analyze, theorize, and produce generalizations based on the evidence,” comparing him to the contemporary French chronicler of the Hundred Years War, Jean Froissart, who “gave no thought to the underlying cause of the events.”

Still, we should not conclude that Ibn Khaldun was a modern man; his interests “give his writing the perhaps delusive appearance of modernity.” Contrary to later legend, Ibn Khaldun was in no way a philosopher, though his “capacity to reason abstractly and to generalize about social and historical phenomena” seemed to point in that direction. He was an Ash’arite occasionalist, uncomfortable with scientific causality, and what works of Aristotle he refers to were not actually works of Aristotle. Of course, in medieval Islam being a philosopher was dangerous; several rivals of Ibn Khaldun, other scholar-bureaucrats, were executed for heresy, although at this remove it’s hard to tell if that was a pretext and they merely lost some power struggle at the court they served. But there is no evidence that Ibn Khaldun was a frustrated philosopher.

Whatever the ups and downs, and there were many, he led an interesting life. For example, in 1400, the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane invaded northern Syria, and threatened Damascus. Ibn Khaldun, fascinated by what this said for his own thesis of nomadic “improvement” of decadent societies, accompanied the Mamluk sultan to defend Damascus, and stayed when the sultan decamped back to Cairo. Tamerlane, who like many conquerors enjoyed the company of scholars, especially those who flattered him, allowed Ibn Khaldun to spend a month with him. Fortunately for Ibn Khaldun, he was given leave to return to Cairo (falsely promising he would come back to Damascus), before Tamerlane sacked the city, as usual killing or enslaving almost all the inhabitants. All this is captivating history, and shows Ibn Khaldun as multidimensional, even if, as Irwin notes, we know little about his personal life.

Other topics Irwin briefly talks about, in a fairly scattered fashion, are whether Ibn Khaldun was a Sufi (probably yes, he concludes); sorcery and the occult; eschatology; an obscure divination machine, the low social status of schoolteachers; poetry; rote learning; and oral vs. written transmission of history. At greater length Irwin discusses Ibn Khaldun’s thoughts on economics, including that “he was original and almost unique among medieval Arab writers in” writing on economics. Most of Ibn Khaldun’s thoughts on economics are also through a moral lens, but he did anticipate the labor theory of value and offered insights into factors affecting profitability. On the other hand, his famous complaint than in its waning days a regime increases tax rates isn’t a foretaste of the Laffer Curve; it’s part of Ibn Khaldun’s basic pessimism that everything, including productivity, inevitably declines. For him, higher taxes were due to demands for more money, to spend on luxuries, in a time of declining income, not a misguided attempt to raise more money from the same level of productivity.

Irwin concludes with an analysis of modern usages of Ibn Khaldun, starting with French colonialists and Orientalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who resurrected Ibn Khaldun from endless years of being totally forgotten. Their purpose was both academic and practical; they hoped, or some of them hoped, to gain insights into their rule in North Africa. German Orientalists originated the concept of Ibn Khaldun as a proto-modern, a precursor of Hegel and Comte. In the English-speaking world, Arnold Toynbee in the twentieth century popularized Ibn Khaldun as a shining light in a dark time, casting him as part of a line of “thinkers who were ready to make generalizations,” from Thucydides to H. G. Wells. Irwin also discusses in detail modern English translations of the Muqaddimah, pro and con, plus and minus. His basic point for all these moderns is that “many who have studied Ibn Khaldun . . . [have] created an Ibn Khaldun in [their] own image.” True, no doubt, but all this is inside baseball, really of very limited interest to the general reader, even one with an interest in medieval Islam.

Many have wondered why Ibn Khaldun wrote his massive books, since nobody asked him to and his peripatetic ways meant that his books never received a receptive audience. Irwin says, “I suspect that Ibn Khaldun’s ideal destination audience was himself and that he wrote to clear his head of all those ideas and insights that boiled and seethed within it.” I think this makes a great degree of sense; some people are just driven to write, and it seems like Ibn Khaldun was one of those. That doesn’t mean I’ll go read the Muqaddimah myself, or even an abridged version, since the return on investment seems low. But that should not detract from the accomplishments of an interesting polymath in an interesting time. I suspect, though, that for the casual reader, there are better summaries of Ibn Khaldun than this book.

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