A sufi sage for the ages

Ibn Khaldun has been repackaged to serve contemporary concerns many times, but Robert Irwin's biography cuts through the myth-making

Fitzroy Morrissey

A bust of Ibn Khaldun in Begaia, Algeria: His works are a window onto a very different world from our own (REDA KERBOUCHE CC BY-SA 4.0)

When, in May last year, the Ibn Haldun University in Istanbul opened its doors for the first time, its chancellor, Recep Şentürk, explained that the aim of the university was to help Turkey, along with other countries “exploited and oppressed by the Western world”, to attain “intellectual independence”. In this regard, he said, Ibn Khaldun was a “guiding light” for the university’s objectives, thereby making out of the 14th-century North African historian and philosopher of history a model and inspiration for contemporary post-colonial scholars looking (in the currently fashionable phrase) to “decolonise” their thinking.

As Robert Irwin shows in his new book, this was by no means the first time that Ibn Khaldun had been repackaged to serve a contemporary interest. Indeed, he has been repackaged so many times and in so many ways that one begins to wonder what he wasn’t. Everybody seems to have looked at Ibn Khaldun and seen their own reflection. He has been claimed as the father of sociology by sociologists, as a philosopher by scholars of the Greek philosophical tradition in Islam (falsafah), as a model Muslim rationalist by Islamic modernists, as a Muslim jurist by the religiously inclined, as an economic liberal by free marketeers (including Ronald Reagan), and as a proto-Marxist by left-wing historians (indeed, his theories were known to Engels).

Robert Irwin’s goal is to cut through all of this myth-making and put Ibn Khaldun back in his 14th-century context. He tells us that Ibn Khaldun was a courtier and ambassador for the Merinid and Hafsid dynasties in North Africa and the Nasrids in Granada; that he was the chief qadi (judge) of the Maliki school of law and a law lecturer in Mamluk Cairo; that he helped to negotiate the surrender of Damascus to Timur (Tamerlane); that he was, like many Sunni Muslim intellectuals of his day, inclined towards Sufi mysticism, acting as sheikh of the greatest Sufi lodge in Cairo, and contributing a short treatise to an important Sufi debate on the necessity of following a spiritual master; that he was, again like many of his scholarly contemporaries, deeply immersed in the world of magic and the occult; and that he was, of course, a theorist of the rise and fall of dynasties and a historical chronicler, yet a historian who drew heavily on the Koran and “did not like thinking about causality at all”,  since “we [Muslims] were forbidden by the Lawgiver [Muhammad] to study causes”.

This does not mean that Ibn Khaldun has nothing to say to the modern reader. Most obviously, his works are a window on to a medieval world very different from our own, in which plague, nomad warriors, the brutal army of Timur, and malevolent jinn were all seen as very real threats. We learn more by taking Ibn Khaldun as our guide to this strange world than by taking our world as a guide to his thought. At the same time, however, people continue to read Ibn Khaldun because he was a man out of his time, whose great work, the Muqaddimah, so clearly stands apart from the dynastic chronicles and biographical dictionaries of scholars that were the staple of history writing in this period, by virtue of its treatment of the underlying processes of dynastic history. Moreover, there is something to be said for the validity of his theory about the rise and fall of dynasties, which he conceives as a cyclical process in which a nomadic group, strengthened by group feeling (asabiyyah) and the harshness of desert life, overturns the ruling dynasty, which has become soft and weak through over-exposure to the luxuries of the city, only to fall prey to the same process three or four generations later.

This model seems to work for the medieval history of North Africa and Andalusia — in particular, for the rise and fall of the Berber Almoravid and Almohad dynasties — and even, perhaps, for the rise of Islam and the early Islamic conquests. And then there is the encyclopaedic nature of the Muqaddimah, which deals not only with the process of history, but also with such topics as the history of the Arabs and the Berbers, Islamic theology and Sufism (both of which Ibn Khaldun deemed to have been corrupted, in the 12th and 13th centuries, as a result of being mixed up with Greek metaphysics), Arabic poetry and rhetoric, and the qualities of the ideal ruler. It was on account of this encyclopaedism that the great University of Chicago historian of Islam Marshall Hodgson described the Muqaddimah as “no doubt the best general introduction to Islamicate civilisation ever written”.

Robert Irwin, as a historian of Mamluk Egypt, an expert on The Thousand and One Nights, and himself a (former) Sufi (as detailed in his marvellous autobiography, Memoirs of a Dervish) is in many ways the ideal person to tell Ibn Khaldun’s story. Having always kept at least one foot outside academia, he has little time for orientalist-bashing for its own sake, and successfully demonstrates that it is highly reductive to argue, as some have, that our contemporary view of Ibn Khaldun is the product of orientalists writing in the service of Western imperial interests. As can be seen in the list of guises given to Ibn Khaldun set out above, “Khaldunian scholarship has not been dominated by a single colonialist agenda, but by many agendas”, including ones that are explicitly anti-Western or post-colonial, as in the case of the Ibn Haldun University. The great merit of Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography is that it encourages us to treat the intellectual history of the Islamic world not as a battleground for contemporary ideological struggles but as a subject worthy of investigation in its own right.

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