Ibn Khaldun: Anatomy of Al-Muqaddimah Pt. 2

This is the fourth 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 theme of the book I am working on is the way in which personal interest overtakes an original, pristine, group-ethic based on firmly shared principles, where the zealot (the political type) and the artisan (economic type) provide a juxtaposition. Ibn Khaldun was both a zealot, exploding out of the desert of academic civilisation at the time, but he also applied all the techniques of high Islamic civilisation and artisanship to his enterprise, placing great store on his imagination and creativity. Since he was a zealot, he hearkened to tradition. In his critique, he presents himself and the other ‘rightly-guided’ historians like at-Tabari and al-Mas’udi as those representing the ‘true’ historical tradition, and the later historians, who compose the majority, as filling the ranks of the ‘false’ or unprofessional researchers.[1] There is more than a hint here of his dichotomy between the dynamic Bedouins and ossified sedentary dwellers, or those with effective group-feeling and those sinking into decay. So, psychologically he may have felt that he was doing far more than merely writing a book on history but that his endeavour was in and of itself a rejuvenating factor within the house of Islam. Ibn Khaldun seems to link thoroughness in the kingdom of the intellect with the freshness and energy of a newly-emerging civilisation.

Ibn Khaldûn … characteriz[es] … historians and distinguishes the few, commonly accepted and respected, authorities whom he calls experts and leaders (fuḥūl, a’imma) from the many childish dilettantes (mutaṭaffilūn), the imitators (muqallidūn), and the writers of skeleton summaries (aṣḥāb al-ikhtiṣār). The works of both groups are subjected to a distinction in their method; and here Ibn Khaldûn differentiates the method of critical enquiry (naẓar) from mere copying (naql). This in turn leads Ibn Khaldûn to the distinction between two attitudes of mind among the students of history: the critical (nāqid) attitude which penetrates into the origins, nature, and causes of events and studies them on the background of their general properties (both constant and changing); and the uncritical (literally, stupid: balīd) attitude which compiles information with no regard to origin, nature, or causes. Finally, Ibn Khaldûn distinguishes between the ‘Ibar as a book of history from all previous histories. The ‘Ibar is concerned with both the external and internal aspects of history; it developed from its author’s awakening to the necessity of a critical attitude toward historical information, and it employs the critical method. In contrast to all previous histories known to its author, it seeks the true nature and causes of historical events in an explicit and systematic fashion.[2]

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Dismissing the dross that came between him and the purer historians, Ibn Khaldun stated certain conditions the genuine historiographer must meet. He must:

(1)   Investigate the origins of dynasties.

(2)   Determine forms of governmental organisation.

(3)   Analyse how dynasties interact with one another, why they separated or merged with one another.

(4)   Explain how dynasties superseded one another.[3]

From this brief summarization, we learn that Ibn Khaldun took the view that the content (how the dynasty originated) had to be considered along with form of the dynasty. This is more of a subtle point that may be at first appreciated. For example, nowadays it is natural for scholars to discuss the forms when it comes to politics (whether a nation-state is a democracy, republic, monarchy, etc …) but to then assume the content comes with such forms (e.g. economic liberty is often portrayed as something that can only exist in a democracy, which is as absurd as saying that tyranny could never occur in the same form of government). To his great credit, Ibn Khaldun did not repeat this mistake and considered both the form and content of political communities in his historical analysis.

Before him, Muslim scholars had treated the subject of government, but the objects of investigation were generally the Sultans, Imams, and official departments. Al-Dinawari was an example of this tradition. At other times, the great philosophers of early Islam devoted their energies to adumbrating the virtues of the ideal city in neo-Platonic or neo-Pythagorean manner, Al-Farabi a notable example of this tradition, although here once more the ‘great man’ took centre stage, he needing to be a man of virtue. In these neo-Platonic/Pythagorean speculations, the laws (again another Platonic influence) permeate the entire structure and these needed to be sublimely instituted. Cities had to be perfectly constructed. Taxes and levies on the population is another noteworthy aspect of these books, i.e. the wise ruler not over-burdening his subjects, as are several other pertinent topics, e.g. war and military strategy.[4]

On the face of it, Ibn Khaldun deals with all of these topics, but whereas those earlier philosophers dealt with these topics on an ‘ought’ basis, i.e. the ruler ought to do this or that, what Kant would call the world of the Sollen, Ibn Khaldun investigated politics, history, culture, and economics, largely from an ‘is’ basis, i.e. this ‘is’ what happens in reality, what Kant would term Sein. Ibn Khaldun was astute enough to notice that many of those who did not do what they were ‘supposed’ to do (in a strictly moral sense) prospered culturally, and without a strong and stable political order – and emphasis on the Sein – the way that Muslims ought to behave in the world of the Sollen would be impossible to realise. As we have seen from his own life, Ibn Khaldun saw power politics – the domain of the ‘is’ – as an amoral domain where, like love, ‘all is fair’, while he was scrupulous about the theory, practise, and application of law, viewing it as a domain where a universal ethical outlook was appropriate.

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Ibn Khaldun laid down the law when it came to analysing history, politics, culture, and economics, going deep down into the basement of civilisation. Despite his earnest religious convictions, he was not going to impose his own system on the world. In no way was he an ideologue. Rather, he genuinely subscribed to the notion that hidden forces were at work that were amenable to being understood by human reason, these forces could be set at the disposal of any of God’s creation, and furthermore that the dynamics of history were as immutable as scientific laws.

(To be continued …)

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[1] Ibn Khaldun,  A. A-R. b. M. (Rosenthal, F.; Trans.) (1958). The Muqaddimah [pdf version]. Retrieved from http://scribd.com; 55.

[2] 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; 147.

[3] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah; 56.

[4] Enan, M.A. (1941). Ibn Khaldun: His Life and Work. Kashmiri Bazar, Lahore: Shaikh Muhammad Ashraf; 137-144.

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