Ibn Khaldun, ‘Abd al-Rahman


Ibn Khaldun, ‘Abd al-Rahman
(732–808/1332–1406)
   Ibn Khaldun is something of a sui generis figure in the Islamic philosophical tradition. An enormously original and important thinker who stands out even more strikingly because of the age of intellectual decline in which he lived and thought, Ibn Khaldun eschewed the traditional concerns of most previous philosophers (logic, natural science, psychology, metaphysics/theology and ethics), devoting his energies instead to the formation of the human sciences and their philosophical foundations. He was born of Arab descent in Tunis and held numerous high government posts throughout Northern Africa and Andalusia before intermittently serving as a judge and teaching Malikite jurisprudence at several prestigious universities in Cairo. His controversial and troubled political career no doubt provided him with some of the hard-won empirical insights that would eventually be systematized in his groundbreaking Prolegomena (Muqaddima) to the Book of Lessons (Kitab al-‘ibar). The latter work – a sprawling universal history of the Arabs and Berbers – constitutes a remarkable intellectual achievement in itself, but is dwarfed in importance by its multi-volume introduction, which sets forth the basic principles of the first genuinely scientific study of human society and history. Ibn Khaldun was well aware that he was forging a new discipline altogether, which he named the ‘science of culture’ (‘ilm al-‘umran). Previous scholars, he believed, had failed to understand the true significance of history, through their lack of distanced objectivity and their inability to grasp the larger, universal laws that govern the development of human society.
   What Ibn Khaldun found when he studied the data of past and present societies was a cyclical model of history driven by the interactions of two basic social groups: the nomads and the townspeople. The nomads are rural folk, essentially savage and uncivilized (badawi), but at the same time possessing kind of simple, natural virtue. Tough, self-reliant, fiercely independent, warlike and possessed of a strong sense of social solidarity (‘asabiyya), they are the engine of conquest that leads to the establishment of empires. Yet the consequent shift to urban life and the arts, sciences and culture that come with being civilized (hadari) brings with it new luxuries and indulgences that gradually undermine the simple tribal virtues that made them a force to be reckoned with in the first place. Within a few generations, the nomads grow acclimated to their comfortable new way of life, losing their warlike virtues and relying increasingly upon foreign mercenaries for their military might. The new complex realities of governing an empire drive the rulers to consolidate their own power, which leads in turn to the development of an elaborate bureaucracy, often comprised of conquered foreigners. As they grow increasingly corrupt and decadent, it becomes harder to sustain their moral authority and support accordingly wanes. Expenditures rise, requiring ever higher taxes, which discourage production and result (paradoxically) in lower revenues. All these developments corrode social solidarity, leaving the townspeople ripe to be conquered by another uncultured but vital and cohesive nomadic society, much like they had once been. Although on Ibn Khaldun’s account there appears to be an almost inexorable logic to the emergence, flourishing and decay of civilizations, religion functions as a bit of a wild card, reinforcing social solidarity and helping to found great empires. He does acknowledge as well that a radical change in overall conditions (due for example to disease, technology or invasion) might possibly give rise to a whole new arrangement. Indeed, Ibn Khaldun believed that he himself was witnessing the emergence of a new world (in Europe), even while his own society was decaying.
   Ibn Khaldun did not consider himself a philosopher, nor was he viewed this way until relatively recently. Indeed, he was quite critical of philosophy, specifically the Neoplatonic-Aristotelian school, which seemed to view reason as a sufficient means for the attainment of comprehensive knowledge, virtue and happiness. However, his suspicion of philosophy was of a considerably higher caliber than the garden-variety anti-intellectual Neo- Hanbalism so prevalent during his era; his orientation is rather more like that of al-Ghazali, whose critique of the philosophers was based on a thorough understanding of their methods and an appreciation of their legitimate insights. Ibn Khaldun’s objection to Neoplatonic- Aristotelian philosophy is two-fold. First, it fails to recognize the inescapably empirical character of all knowledge. In attempting to draw conclusions that go far beyond the limits of experience, its metaphysicaltheological speculations exceed the legitimate bounds of reason. Second, it has a corrosive effect on religion, and by extension, on social solidarity, which according to Ibn Khaldun is the essential force that sustains society. Yet, while critical of the perceived transgressions of speculative philosophy, Ibn Khaldun by no means renounced reason altogether. He admitted that it provided valuable training for the mind, so long as one was inoculated against its excesses by a preliminary study of the traditional Islamic sciences. More importantly, his whole philosophy of history is itself a product of reason – not a hubristic reason that strives fruitlessly to grasp transcendent realities, but a reason that is always tethered to the concrete particularities of historical experience, in order to reveal the larger patterns and laws that govern human society. Ibn Khaldun’s philosophy of history and science of culture are so novel and ambitious that it is difficult to identify any real intellectual predecessors. Nor did he have any true successors, at least not until the emergence of history and sociology as scientific disciplines in the modern period.
   Further reading: al-Azmeh 1981/2003; Ibn Khaldun 1950/87, 1958/67; Mahdi 1957/64; Zaid 2003

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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