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IbnKhaldun,'AbdalRahman(13321406)

IbnKhaldun,'AbdalRahman(13321406)
IbnKhaldun'sworkonthephilosophyofhistoryisalandmarkofsocialthought.ManyhistoriansGreek,
Roman,Muslimandotherhadwrittenvaluablehistoriography,butherewehavebrilliantreflectionsonthe
meaning,patternandlawsofhistoryandsociety,aswellasprofoundinsightsintothenatureofsocial
processesandtheinterconnectionsbetweenphenomenainsuchdiversefieldsaspolitics,economics,
sociologyandeducation.Byanyreckoning,IbnKhaldunwastheoutstandingfigureinthesocialsciences
betweenAristotleandMachiavelli,andoneofthegreatestphilosophersofhistoryofalltime.
HismostimportantphilosophicalworkistheMuqaddima,theintroductiontoamuchlongerhistoryofthe
ArabsandBerbers.Inthiswork,IbnKhaldunclearlydefinesascienceofcultureandexpoundsonthe
natureofhumansocietyandonpoliticalandsocialcycles.Differentsocialgroups,nomads,townspeople
andtraders,interactwithandaffectoneanotherinacontinuouspattern.Religionplayedanimportantpart
inIbnKhaldun'sconceptionofthestate,andhefollowedalGhazaliratherthanIbnRushdasasurerguide
tothetruth.
1.Lifeandculturalcontext
2.Philosophyofhistory
3.CritiqueofIslamicphilosophy

1.Lifeandculturalcontext
AbuZayd'AbdalRahmanibnKhaldunalHadramiwasborninTunisinah 732/ad 1332.Hewasdeeply
rootedinhisIslamicbackground,occupyinghighgovernmentpostsinGranada,Morocco,Algeria,Tunisia
andEgypt.HespentfouryearsamongtheBedouins,andnegotiatedwithbothPedrotheCruelofSpainin
SevilleandwithTimurLenk(Tamurlane)ontheoutskirtsofDamascus.HewasdeeplyversedinArabic
literature,theology,historiography,jurisprudenceandphilosophy,andwasparticularlyinfluencedinthe
latterbyAverroesorIbnRushd.HediedinCairoinah 808/ad 1406.
IbnKhaldunlivedatatimewhenitwaspossibletoreflectuponalongandprofoundperiodofIslamic
thought,andheseemstohavefeltthatpartofhisfunctionasawriterwastosumupthisperiod,withthe
furtheraimofpointingtowardsthefutureofIslamicintellectualenquiry.Asonewouldexpect,heusedthe
termsandconceptsofhistime,andsomehavearguedthathewasaculturallyspecificphenomenon(al
Azmeh1981),sothatanyattemptatinterpretinghisthoughtinWesterntermsmustdistortitfatally.Thisis
anerror.Likeallgreatthinkers,IbnKhaldun'sthoughtcontainsbothspecificanduniversalelements,andthe
lattercanreadilybeconveyedtomodernreaderswithnomorethantheusualdifficultiesoftranslationfrom
oneculturalandhistoricalperiodtoanother.

2.Philosophyofhistory
TheworkonwhichIbnKhaldun'sreputationchieflyrestsistheMuqaddima,theintroductiontohisgreat
historyoftheArabsandBerbers,theKitabal'ibar,whichisdividedintoafurthersixbooks.Inthefirst
bookhepresentsageneralaccountofsociology,inthesecondandthirdasociologyofpolitics,inthefourth
asociologyofurbanlife,inthefifthasociologyofeconomicsandinthesixthasociologyofknowledge.
Thewholeworkisstuddedwithbrilliantobservations.Thusinthefieldofeconomics,IbnKhaldun
understandsveryclearlythesupplyanddemandfactorswhichaffectprice,theinterdependenceofpricesand
therippleeffectsonsuccessivestagesofproductionofafallinprices,andthenatureandfunctionofmoney
anditstendencytocirculatefromcountrytocountryaccordingtodemandandthelevelofactivity.Inhis
writingsonpublicfinance,heshowswhyatthebeginningofadynastytaxationyieldsalargerevenuefrom
lowratesofassessment,butattheendasmallrevenuefromhighratesofassessment.Elsewherehis
observationsontheevolutionoftheArabiclanguageandscriptaremasterlyexamplesofsociological
analysis,andhisremarksonthedifferencebetweenacquiringaskillinalanguageandlearningitsgrammar,
andontheuseofintuitionasopposedtologicinsolvingdifficultproblems,canstillbereadwithprofit.
However,itisIbnKhaldun'sviewsonthenatureofthestateandsocietywhichrevealmostclearlybothhis
profundityandtheoriginalitythatmarkshimoffsosharplyfromhisMuslimpredecessorsandsuccessors.
IbnKhaldunfullyrealisedthathehadcreatedanewdiscipline,'ilmal'umran,thescienceofculture,and
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regardeditassurprisingthatnoonehaddonesobeforeanddemarcateditfromotherdisciplines.This
sciencecanbeofgreathelptothehistorianbycreatingastandardbywhichtojudgeaccountsofpastevents.
Throughthestudyofhumansociety,onecandistinguishbetweenthepossibleandtheimpossible,andso
distinguishbetweenthoseofitsphenomenawhichareessentialandthosewhicharemerelyaccidental,and
alsothosewhichcannotoccuratall.Heanalysedindetailthesourcesoferrorinhistoricalwritings,in
particularpartisanship,overconfidenceinsources,failuretounderstandwhatisintended,amistakenbelief
inthetruth,theinabilitytoplaceaneventinitsrealcontext,thedesiretogainthefavourofthoseinhigh
rank,exaggeration,andwhatheregardedasthemostimportantofall,ignoranceofthelawsgoverningthe
transformationofhumansociety.IbnKhaldun'sattitudetothestudyofsocialphenomenaissuffusedwitha
spiritwhichhascausedseveralcommentatorstocallhimthefounderofsociology.Hisattemptatcreatinga
theoreticalstructurefortheanalysisofhistoryisaveryimpressivecontributiontothephilosophyofhistory
(seeHistory,philosophyofSociety,conceptof).
ForIbnKhaldun,humansocietyisnecessarysincetheindividualactingalonecouldacquireneitherthe
necessaryfoodnorsecurity.Onlythedivisionoflabour,inandthroughsociety,makesthispossible.The
statearisesthroughtheneedofarestrainingforcetocurbthenaturalaggressionofhumanity.Astateis
inconceivablewithoutasociety,whileasocietyiswellnighimpossiblewithoutastate(seePolitical
philosophyinclassicalIslam).Socialphenomenaseemtoobeylawswhich,whilenotasabsoluteasthose
governingnaturalphenomena,aresufficientlyconstanttocausesocialeventstofollowregularandwell
definedpatternsandsequences.Henceagraspoftheselawsenablesthesociologisttounderstandthetrend
ofevents.Theselawsoperateonmassesandcannotbesignificantlyinfluencedbyisolatedindividuals.
Thereisverylittletalkof'greatmen'inIbnKhaldun'sbookswhileindividualsdoaffectthecourseof
events,theirinfluenceisverylimited.
TheoverwhelmingimpressiongivenbyIbnKhaldun'swritingsisthatsocietyisanorganismthatobeysits
owninnerlaws.Theselawscanbediscoveredbyapplyinghumanreasontodataeitherculledfromhistorical
recordsorobtainedbydirectobservation.Thesedataarefittedintoanimplicitframeworkderivedfromhis
viewsonhumanandsocialnature,hisreligiousbeliefsandthelegalpreceptsandphilosophicalprinciplesto
whichheadheres.Hearguesthatmoreorlessthesamesetoflawsoperatesacrosssocietieswiththesame
kindofstructure,sothathisremarksaboutnomadsapplyequallywelltoArabBedouins,bothcontemporary
andpreIslamic,andtoBerbers,TurkomenandKurds.Theselawsareexplicablesociologically,andarenot
amerereflectionofbiologicalimpulsesorphysicalfactors.Tobesure,factssuchasclimateandfoodare
important,butheattributesgreaterinfluencetosuchpurelysocialfactorsascohesion,occupationand
wealth.Thiscomesoutveryclearlyinhisdiscussionofnationalcharacters,forexampleofArabs,Persians
andJews,whereheiscarefultopointoutthatwhatareregardedascharacteristicfeaturescanbeexplained
bysociologicalfactorssuchasnomadism,urbanizationandoppression.Similarly,differentsocialgroups,
suchastownspeople,nomadsandtraders,havetheirowncharacteristicsderivedfromtheiroccupations.
IbnKhaldunseesthehistoricalprocessasoneofconstantcyclicalchange,duemainlytotheinteractionof
twogroups,nomadsandtownspeople.Theseformthetwopolesofhismentalmappeasantsareinbetween,
supplyingthetownswithfoodandtaxrevenueandtakinghandicraftsinreturn.Nomadsarerough,savage
anduncultured,andtheirpresenceisalwaysinimicaltocivilizationhowever,theyarehardy,frugal,
uncorruptinmorals,freedomlovingandselfreliant,andsomakeexcellentfighters.Inaddition,theyhavea
strongsenseof'asabiya,whichcanbetranslatedas'groupcohesion'or'socialsolidarity'.Thisgreatly
enhancestheirmilitarypotential.Towns,bycontrast,aretheseatsofthecrafts,thesciences,theartsand
culture.Yetluxurycorruptsthem,andasaresulttheybecomealiabilitytothestate,likewomenand
childrenwhoneedtobeprotected.Solidarityiscompletelyrelaxedandtheartsofdefendingoneselfandof
attackingtheenemyareforgotten,sotheyarenomatchforconqueringnomads.
IbnKhaldunthentracesveryclearlythepoliticalandsocialcycle.Nomadsconquerterritoriesandtheir
leadersestablishanewdynasty.Atfirstthenewrulersretaintheirtribalvirtuesandsolidarity,butsoonthey
seektoconcentrateallauthorityintheirownhands.Increasinglytheyrulethroughabureaucracyofclients
oftenforeigners.Astheirformersupporterslosetheirmilitaryvirtuesthereisanincreasinguseof
mercenaries,andsoldierscometobemoreimportantthancivilians.Luxurycorruptsethicallife,andthe
populationdecreases.Risingexpendituredemandshighertaxes,whichdiscourageproductionandeventually
resultinlowerrevenues.Therulerandhisclientsbecomeisolatedfromthegroupsthatoriginallybrought
themtopower.Suchaprocessofdeclineistakentolastthreegenerations,oraboutonehundredandtwenty
years.Religioncaninfluencethenatureofsuchamodelwhen'asabiyaisreinforcedbyreligionitsstrength
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ismultiplied,andgreatempirescanbefounded.Religioncanalsoreinforcethecohesionofanestablished
state.Yettheendlesscycleoffloweringanddecayshowsnoevolutionorprogressexceptforthatfromthe
primitivetocivilizedsociety.
IbnKhaldundoesoccasionallyrefertotheexistenceofturningpointsinhistory,andthoughtthathewas
himselfwitnessingoneofthem.ThemaincauseforthisgreatchangewastheBlackDeath,whichhada
profoundeffectuponMuslimsociety,togetherwiththeMongolinvasionsandhemayalsohavebeen
impressedbythedevelopmentofEurope,whosemerchantsandshipsthrongedtheseaportsofNorthAfrica
andwhosesoldiersservedasmercenariesintheMuslimarmies.Hesuggeststhatageneralchangein
conditionscanproduceanentirelynewsocialandpoliticalscene,ratherasifanewworldhadbeencreated.

3.CritiqueofIslamicphilosophy
IbnKhaldunwroteonothertopicsapartfromhistory,althoughinhisautobiographyheisrathercoyabout
admittingit.InhisShifa'alsa'il(TheHealingoftheSeeker),herespondstothequestionastowhetheritis
possibletoattainmysticalknowledgewithoutthehelpofaSufimasterleadingthenovicealongthepath.Ibn
KhalduntendstofollowalGhazali(3)inreconcilingmysticismwiththeology,buthegoesfurtherthanthe
latterinbringingmysticismcompletelywithinthepurviewofthejurisprudent(faqih)andindevelopinga
modeloftheSufishaykh,ormaster,asrathersimilartothetheologian.Thefourteenthcentury,inwhichIbn
Khaldunwasworking,wasverystronglyinfluencedbywhatFakhry(1970)calls'neoHanbalism',which
broughtwithitastrongsuspicionoftheclaimsofbothmysticismandphilosophy.Philosophywasregarded
asgoingbeyonditsappropriatelevelofdiscourse,inthat'theintellectshouldnotbeusedtoweighsuch
mattersastheonenessofGod,theotherworld,thetruthofprophecy,therealcharacterofthedivine
attributes,oranythingelsethatliesbeyondtheleveloftheintellect'(Muqaddima3,38).Hereferstothe
intellectaslikeabalancewhichismeantforgold,butwhichissometimesinappropriatelyusedforweighing
mountains.Logiccannotbeappliedtothisareaofenquiry,andmustberestrictedtonontheologicaltopics
(seeLogicinIslamicphilosophy).
IbnKhaldunisalsocriticalofNeoplatonicphilosophy(seeNeoplatonisminIslamicphilosophy).Themain
objectofhiscriticismisthenotionofahierarchyofbeing,accordingtowhichhumanthoughtcanbe
progressivelypurifieduntilitencompassestheFirstIntellectwhichisidentifiedwiththenecessarybeing,
thatis,God.Hearguedthatthisprocessisinconceivablewithouttheparticipationofrevelation,sothatitis
impossibleforhumanbeingstoachievethehighestlevelofunderstandingandhappinessthroughtheuseof
reasonalone.Interestingly,thebasisofhisargumenthererestsontheirreducibilityoftheempiricalnatureof
ourknowledgeoffacts,whichcannotthenbeconvertedintoabstractandpureconceptsatahigherlevelof
humanconsciousness.
IbnKhaldunalsohadlittlerespectforthepoliticaltheoriesofthinkerslikealFarabi(4),withtheirnotions
ofrationalgovernmentbeingbaseduponanidealpropheticlaw.Hesawlittlepointinusingtheorieswhich
dealtwithidealsthathavenothingtodowiththepracticalitiesofcontemporarypoliticallife.AlthoughIbn
KhaldunrarelyagreeswithIbnRushd,thereisnodoubtthathisthoughtisstronglymarkedbythe
controversybetweenhimandalGhazali,thelatterbeingacknowledgedasthesurerguidetothetruth.The
basisofIbnKhaldun'scritiqueofphilosophyishisadherencetothenotionofthestate.Religionhasavital
roleinsociety,andanyargumentthatitcanbeidentifiedwitheitherreasonorcontactwithGodisto
threatenthatfunction.ThisisdoubtlessthebasisofhisattackonIslamicphilosophyandonmysticism.
AlthoughIbnKhaldunishostiletoaversionofIslamicphilosophy,hisdiscussionofsocietyisfullof
observationsandideaswhichclearlyhaveastheirsourcephilosophicaldistinctions.Forexample,his
accountofthethreestagesinthedevelopmentofthestate,fromthenomadictothemilitantandfinallytothe
luxuriousanddecadentismodelledonthethreetypesofsoulinGreekthought(seeSoulinIslamic
philosophy2),asishisnotionof'asabiya,ofthespiritofcohesion,asapointofequilibriumbetween
differentaspectsofthesoul.OneofthefeaturesofIbnKhaldun'sworkwhichmakesitsothoughtprovoking
isthetension,whichheneverfinallyresolved,betweenaconcerntoacknowledgethefactsofhistorical
changewhileatthesametimebringingthosefactsunderverygeneraltheoreticalprinciples.Hiscontribution
tothephilosophyofhistoryisoutstanding.
Seealso:CultureHistory,philosophyofPoliticalphilosophy,historyofPoliticalphilosophyinclassical
Islam
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CHARLESISSAWI
OLIVERLEAMAN
Copyright1998,Routledge.
Listofworks
IbnKhaldun(13321406)Shifa'alsa'illitahdibalmasa'il(TheHealingoftheSeeker),ed.M.alTanji,
1957trans.R.Prez,Lavoieetlaloioulematreetlejuriste,Paris:Sindbad,1991.(IbnKhaldun'swork
onSufism.)
IbnKhaldun(13321406)Muqaddima,ed.andtrans.F.Rosenthal,TheMuqaddimah,Princeton,NJ:
PrincetonUniversityPress,1967.(OutstandingtranslationofthiskeyintroductiontoIbnKhaldun'shistory
oftheArabsandBerbers,theKitabal'ibar.)
Referencesandfurtherreading
alAzmeh,A.(1981)IbnKhalduninModernScholarship:AStudyinOrientalism,London:ThirdWorld
Centre.(AlivelydefenceoftheviewthatmostpreviouscommentatorshavemisunderstoodIbnKhaldun.)
alAzmeh,A.(1990)IbnKhaldun:AnEssayinReinterpretation,London:Routledge.(Aguidetothegeneral
thoughtofIbnKhaldun.)
Fakhry,M.(1970)AHistoryofIslamicPhilosophy,NewYork:ColumbiaUniversityPressrepr.1985.(A
usefulaccountofIbnKhaldun'spositioninIslamicphilosophyasawhole.)
Issawi,C.(1986)AnArabPhilosophyofHistory,Princeton,NJ:PrincetonUniversityPress.(Translationand
commentaryonsomeimportanttexts.)
Issawi,C.(1994)IbnKhaldunonRomanHistory:AStudyinSources,Princeton,NJ:PrincetonPapersin
NearEasternStudies.(IbnKhaldun'streatmentofRomanhistory.)
Lakhsassi,A.(1996)'IbnKhaldun',inS.H.NasrandO.Leaman(eds)HistoryofIslamicPhilosophy,
London:Routledge,ch.25,35064.(ComprehensiveguidetoIbnKhaldun'sthought,emphasizingthelinks
betweenhissocialtheoriesandphilosophicalideas.)
Mahdi,M.(1957)IbnKhaldun'sPhilosophyofHistory,London:Allen&Unwin.(Astudyofthe
philosophicalfoundationsofhistheoryofculture.)
Rosenthal,E.(1956)'TheTheoryofthePowerState:IbnKhaldun'sStudyofCivilization',inE.Rosenthal,
PoliticalThoughtinMedievalIslam,Cambridge:CambridgeUniversityPress.(AmasterlysummaryofIbn
Khaldun'spoliticalphilosophy.)

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