Ibn Khaldun’s Mission Part 1

This is the first part of a serialized discussion on Ibn Khaldun which will be published over the coming weeks (Jan-Feb 2017) and is to support a book I am writing on the interaction between the economic and the political in the thought of Ibn Khaldun, Machiavelli, and Carl Schmitt.

Ibn Khaldun consciously set himself the task of explicating and adumbrating the process by which dynasties explode into the world, how they gain strength, how they prosper and win followers, and how they arrive at enfeeblement and senility, before being superseded by the new pretenders to the throne. It was evident to him that elites enter the world as fireworks, or as flames, or even as mere shooting stars, and that they tail off. First and foremost, the historians job was to explain these historical facts. Ibn Khaldun railed against acting as a mere hagiographer, and instead sought to engage history with the weapons of scientific and analytical reasoning.[1]

To accomplish his task, Ibn Khaldun was going to invoke, on the one hand, the principles which inspire men to fame, heroism and glory, which inculcate in groups of men the will to seek power and authority, but also, on the other hand, postulate that the personal and selfish interests of men can only come to fruition in the midst of struggles for those same reservoirs of power, authority, fame, glory, and heroism. Essentially, he juxtaposed the zealots who ‘make history’[2] with the artisans who create and represent the world and who respectively, in their social relationships, performed as discriminators or indistinguishables. Superficial similarities seem evident between the two. Both the zealot and artisan are manifestations of human will, human determination to overcome, to transcend, to transform. Both the zealots and artisans can be said to sacrifice, to go out on a limb, to stand naked and exposed, in their endeavours. Humans are inherently sociable and just as the discriminators need principles to unite under, the indistinguishables must co-operate to create. What fundamental differences are there, what can we say separates the zealous and the artistic, those who discriminate and those who do not? For one, the conquests and glory of the artisan are of a personal nature; we only speak of these esoterically. For the zealot, their triumphs and losses, rising and falling, ebbing and flowing, fate and fortunes – whether good or bad – can be spoken about in more realistic terms. For example, an artist may ‘kill themselves’ metaphorically (like Michelangelo) to execute a commission, whereas the zealot trades in life and death in a literal sense. The objects of the zealot are also vastly different to those of the artisan – glory, prestige, honour, which are to a degree personal, but more to the point which are done out of devotion for the group – whereas the artisan produces and manufactures optimally where the quality of workmanship matches a price commanded.


The discriminator inhabits a world of ‘us and them,’ for the indistinguishable competition may provide such a contrast, but once more only in a highly esoteric sense and not literally. And – and notwithstanding any deeper philosophical questions about why men must make, or what ‘making’ is – the artisan is motivated by the rational, the zealot by the irrational and the emotive. On this last point, Carl Schmitt would provide us with a wonderful image which starkly portrayed the contrast in vivid terms. Referring to Auguste Comte’s attempt to found a positivist church, where rational agents would represent the public in the political sphere in a similar fashion to aristocrats and clerics in the Middle Ages, Schmitt said that it was a

mistake to consider the modern Savant and Business Man as genuinely representative types … The Merchant sits in his office, the Savant in his study or laboratory. Both … are salaried servants of some big business concern … It would be futile to inquire if they are representative of anything. They are either private individuals or exponents, not representatives.[3]

A sign of the gulf existing between the zealot and the artisan is on show in disputes which govern the dividing lines between conservatives and liberals; for the liberal, tangible, material benefits are what dictate the shape society should take, whereas for the conservative, it are those intangible symbols of country, history, and tradition which form society. To even try to bridge this gulf is to not recognise the fundamental divergences about the nature of the ‘good’ which separate zealots and artisans, although, at the same time, some sort of truce and set of compromises can be cobbled together between the two parties. The transcendence of religious festivities may not be understood by the artisan, but they may comprehend that people spend more money when Christmas is around. The conservative might live with the hope that immigrants whom he is powerless to stop may one day accept the superiority of his world-view. ‘Blood and soil’ love of the earth confounds the rationalist, but they may enjoy the tribal spectacle and pomp of sporting occasions. On these, and many other points, the volcano of civil strife is silenced.[4]

Nonetheless, in Ibn Khaldun’s analysis, the artisan and zealot enjoy a symbiosis. In the shade of violence, underneath the canopy of domination, civilisation is made possible. Artisanship provides the ‘glitter’ for the zealot, while the zealot shelters the artisan, providing him with sanctuary. Both poles of artisanship and zealousness are abstract opposites but inform one another. They engage in a dialogue. Without civilizational development, glory is stagnant, without glory, civilisation remains merely a dream and not concrete reality.

Principle and interest, represented in human form by the zealot and the artisan, respectively, claimed their place in Ibn Khaldun’s grand scheme. At the beginning of any dynasty’s life, there would be the urgency which calls forward the great surges, revolutions, conflicts and dramas of arms, money, supplies, and furious aggression which appear on the horizon of history. By the end of the dynasty’s life, luxury and decadence would do to a dynasty what force of arms couldn’t, and eventually unseat the incumbent, the flagging shell, the ossified grandeur, before some new elite writes its own story, its own version of events, prints its own distinctive stamp.


Exegesis of the historical manuscript was his aim, and in that enterprise the zealot and artisan would be central figures. With his great mission in mind, Ibn Khaldun set out to accomplish in the realm of the intellect what he was unable to accomplish in the halls of power and intrigue. He instituted himself as the grand monarch of historiography, overthrowing the previous chroniclers within the house of Islam, who – while fastidious in their mining of sources and critical in their assessment of narrators – seemingly never advanced to the point where history could be understood as a science in the same way as other ‘Islamic’ sciences were fashioned. Instead, the intellectual predecessors of Ibn Khaldun formulated history as an incoherent stream of events, these events reported in the same faithful manner as an award-winning reporter would comment on breaking stories, but these events would also be presented as haphazardly as an evening news bulletin. Nonetheless, in spite of the seeming chaos and arbitrariness, some pattern did seem to be evident; this was Ibn Khaldun’s firm conviction.

Throughout his sojourns in North Africa, the Iberian peninsula, and the Levant, Ibn Khaldun witnessed, among other things, still-born attempts to grab power, dynasties in full bloom, centres which once were glorious but which not had lost their lustre, successful usurpers, and conquerors who scythed the opposition like a harvester in a wheat-field. At the same time, he saw varying levels of prosperity and observed the vast gulf in civilized complexity which separated certain cultures. In particular, he homed in on the Bedouins, knowing – even from the annals of Islamic history – that it was often the poor who inherited some portion of the earth, and furthermore, it was the most rough-hewn stones who historically could throw themselves to the summit, to the point where they began to be seen as the very crowning jewel of humanity by at least by some portion of humanity.

Of course, success and failure couldn’t have come about Allah’s will and in one sense it was enough to leave the bric-a-brac of history rest at that. But, it is also true to say that Allah’s will animates matter and therefore, since the Creator is imbued with purpose, the creation must also be, to some degree, rendered intelligible.

So in spite of faith in Divine Providence, a natural philosopher shouldn’t desist from designing both causal chains and also ends to which physical and natural bodies tend to; the acceptance of God’s power and creation, on one side, doesn’t mean that humans shouldn’t seek to understand things on their own terms. This world-view defined how Ibn Khaldun, religious judge and secular historian, approached the historical method; underneath the chaos, certain laws existed that rendered the workings of history comprehensible ( … to be continued …)


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[1] One famous example of a controversial academic struggle between two historians concerned A. J. P. Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War (1961). The book was written with the intent of casting a cold eye over WWII. In particular, Taylor intended to analyse Hitler as a historical figure. This method was in opposition to the popular mood (even held today) of merely castigating him as a monster. While undoubtedly such an approach was academically sound, Taylor found himself up against powerful enemies, most notably Hugh-Trevor Roper who also wrote about issues of historical importance (it is a moot point whether Roper was a professional historian). For example see: Goda, N. J. (2001). A. J. P. Taylor, Adolf Hitler, and the Origins of the Second World War. The International History Review, 23(1), 97-124.

[2] I have deliberately put this in abbreviations; perhaps no terms is more odious to my ears and empty of meaning. Everyone ‘makes history,’ whether for good or bad, but the phrase has an especially positive currency for liberals who believe their world-view is an inevitability and any step on the way is ‘history.’ In the way I have meant it here, it is in the sense those events which stand as landmarks in history are generally those which are brought about as political events.

[3] Schmitt, C., & Codd, E. M. (1931). The necessity of politics; an essay on the representative idea in the church and modern Europe. London: Sheed & Ward; pp. 58-59.

[4] On this note, I call to the readers’ attention W. B. Yeats’ poem September 1913. Although it was written in support of an artistic project, and against an infrastructural project, the close collaboration between artists and revolutionaries in the burgeoning Irish independence movement at the time make it a poem of zealousness aimed against mere artisanship.



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