Ibn Khaldun’s Mission Part 2

This is the second part of a serialized discussion on Ibn Khaldun (see the previous post here) 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.

The Empire Ibn Khaldun constructed – by and large while in his country retreat at Bani Salama, Algeria, from 1374-1377 – goes under the popular name of Al-Muqaddimah, the Prolegomena or, alternatively, the Introduction to History. Al-Muqaddimah is roughly translated as ‘premise’ or ‘proposition’ but can have many other meanings such as the idea of an analytical proposition (a proposition that is logically true without needing any further elaboration). This is only a short-hand, however. The entire tome is in reality composed of a short introduction and book, called Al-Muqaddimah, and a collection of five other books termed by Ibn Khaldun the Kitab al ‘Ibar, roughly translatable as the Book of History. Ibn Khaldun himself originally meant the former to only contain a short introduction, with the latter to serve as his book of history, but he later incorporated the first book into the Prolegomena.[1]

The original Prolegomena commences by describing why history is popular and sought after by people of all classes. He then divides history into a superficial part that we sense and that exists in the realm of facts, and a part where speculative reasoning enables us to analyse the seeming randomness of events.[2] Speculative reasoning involves ascribing some sort of ‘brain’ to history, and this also implies that human affairs are governed by a higher plan.

The inner meaning of history … involves speculation and an attempt to get at the truth, subtle explanation of the causes and origins of existing things, and deep knowledge of the how and why of events.[3]


Although we have said that Ibn Khaldun composed a book of history which complemented the short introduction, it is evident from the very title that he was intent on systematizing the kaleidoscope of historical events. For his Kitab, Ibn Khaldun deliberately chose the word ‘ibra as an adjective, as opposed to synonyms like tarikh or khabar, the latter words more indicative of history as a set of arbitrary but chronologically ordered events than ‘ibra. Mahdi tells us that the root of ‘ibra has connotations of a ‘crossing beyond’ (i.e. like a bridge over a river) or of connecting two points. It can intimate a violation of something, as well as a penetration into the inner meaning of a concept. Mystics also used the term in a special sense in their meditations. It can even call to mind death, but in a special sense; even here, it contains the idea of ‘piercing a veil,’ and there is always the connotation of a revealing of some sort. This sense of ‘ibra was inherent in the revealed books of Islam and the Prophet-hood of Muhammad.

[‘I]bra was most commonly used in the Koran and in the Tradition of the Prophet. Man was urged to ‘consider’ the past as the evidence. allusions, and examples, through which he could pass from the appearance of things to the knowledge of the unseen … The Islamic community was urged to view past events, both reported and experienced, as ‘indications’ that should awaken its moral sense and enhance its ability to act according to the demands of God : to penetrate behind the apparently meaningless succession of events and discern the ever-present design of the Creator.[4]

Although he was writing a scientific enterprise, Ibn Khaldun chose history as this was a branch of learning that could be taught to the masses, unlike, say, mysticism or the intricacies of law. In fact, in a manner of speaking, we could say that history was ‘democratic.’ In Islam, it did not stir controversies like theology or philosophy. The learned and unlettered, rich and poor, master and slave, alike could meet on the common ground of historical interpretation. It was not a theoretical or ‘pie-in-the-sky’ field, but contained a means of understanding existence, and furthermore could be pressed into practical service. Diverse groups within the house of Islam could each interpret history in its own way without coming to blows as was, for example, the case with theology. As well, in contrast to something like mysticism, someone could merely read history without delving into its finer points but could also treat it as an ‘ibar, as a bridge to deeper truths.[5]

History is a discipline widely cultivated among nations and races. It is eagerly sought after. The men in the street, the ordinary people, aspire to know it. Kings and leaders vie for it. Both the learned and the ignorant are able to understand it. For on the surface history is no more than information about political events, dynasties, and occurrences of the remote past, elegantly presented and spiced with proverbs. It serves to entertain large, crowded gatherings and brings to us an understanding of human affairs. (It shows) how changing conditions affected (human affairs), how certain dynasties came to occupy an ever wider space in the world, and how they settled the earth until they heard the call and their time was up.[6]

Mahdi also astutely points out that while history and the study of revelation both are similar to the degree that they investigate and even interrogate sources to ensure that the correct material is published and taught, commands dwell in the realm of the ‘ought,’ what should be done, while historical reports dwell in the realm of the ‘is,’ what actually happened. Ibn Khaldun also makes this distinction between politics, which again is an ‘ought’ science, and sociology, which is factual.[7] This distinction is crucial and often missed by even modern academics; while law and morality are not true or false but prescriptions to a better or ideal life, history – or indeed the natural sciences – purport to be factual accounts. Legal rulings and moral teachings cannot be reduced to mere social ‘facts,’ as legal and moral realists want to do. There will always be an ‘ought’ involved even if a historical report of what, for instance, a Prophet said is determined to be correct or reliable. On the other hand, history, among other sciences, must aim for accuracy, something which is denied to the moral or legal world where beliefs as a guide to action are what count.



Book Cover DesignPixlr_Smashwords Hi Res colmgillis2d (1)Emroidery of the Eternal (1)Mysteries of State Image


[1] Ibn Khaldun,  A. A-R. b. M. (Rosenthal, F.; Trans.) (1958). The Muqaddimah [pdf version]. Retrieved from http://scribd.com; 846. Corbin, H. (1993). History of Islamic philosophy. London: Kegan Paul International; 279; Alatas, S. F. (n.d.). Ibn Khaldun and Contemporary Sociology. SSRN Electronic Journal SSRN Journal 2006 Vol 21(6): 782–795; Adem, S. (2005). Ibn-Khaldun as a Modern Thinker. Area Studies Tsukuba, 24, 129-152; Ibn Khaldun: The Last Greek and the First Annaliste Historian. International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. 38, 431–451; Mahdi, M. (1957). Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History: A Study in the Philosophic Foundation of the Science of Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; 63.

[2] Ibn Khaldun,  The Muqaddimah; 55

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mahdi Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History; 67-68. Later, Mahdi gives the following impressive account of Ibn Khaldun’s theory of language; “Language, according to Ibn Khaldûn, is not a product of nature, but, like other arts, a habitus {malaka) … To express meaning through words is to clothe mental images with external forms … The spoken word mediates between the speaker and the hearer. It interprets meaning but also conceals it, it is simultaneously a bridge and a veil … Understanding is a struggle with words and meanings, and a continuous exploration of the relationship betweeen them. To understand the meaning we have to understand the word that expresses it, and to understand the word we have to understand the meaning for which it stands. Through this process, meanings, words, and their relationship, become more precise, the veil recedes, and we progress to knowledge.” Ibid.; 113

[5] Ibid.; 116-117

[6] Ibn Khaldun,  The Muqaddimah; p. 55

[7] Mahdi Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History; 155, 157-158, 168-169


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