Ibn Khaldun, an Intellectual Biography


Robert Irwin


Princeton University Press, 243 pp,  February 2018, ISBN 978 0 691 17466 2


 ‘Nothing breaks my back except my books,’ said the fourteenth-century Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun, and he meant the labour of  writing them, not the staggering load of manuscripts which he has beqeathed to us.

Wali al-Din ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) has the distinction of being quoted by Engels and Ronald Reagan, of  having impressed both Tamburlaine and Arnold Toynbee, but has received less acknowledgement in his own Arabic-speaking world, where, by curious twists of fate, he has sometimes been stigmatised as an Orientalist. Robert Irwin produced a powerful refutation of Edward Said’s condemnation of Western scholarship in ‘For Lust of Knowing: the Orientalists and their Enemies’ (2007), so it is not surprising that he now turns his attention to a medieval Islamic cleric who has also been on the receiving end of accusations of  blinkered romanticism.

Usually referred to as plain Ibn Khaldun, (‘ibn’ means ‘son  of’ and in this instance actually referred to a distant ancestor),  this prolific scholar was perhaps an observer rather than a participant in the various cultures which he inhabited: in fact, he might be called the original étranger. It was a life packed with drama – imprisoned, captured by pirates, living among the Amarzegh (or Berbers as they are generally known in the West) - and fortunately he described many of  his experiences in an autobiography recounting his travels in East and West.

Like most successful scholars and bureaucrats in the Arab world of the time, Ibn Khaldun was a devout Muslim. He was originally from Tunis, at the time a suburban backwater ruled by a petty dynasty but ambition was evidently an important part of  Ibn Khaldun’s psychological make-up and he took the main avenue open to a remarkably clever mind in a culture where religious scholars could also become leading state administrators. This was a path which took him eventually to high office in the greatest city of  Islam.

In the first fifty years of Ibn Khaldun’s life, travelling through North Africa, living in the court of Granada, he experienced a range of states and administrations in the Western Muslim world before he arrived in Cairo, probably one of the most important centres of culture, learning and trade that has ever existed, where he was to hold down a powerful position  in jurisprudence.

Ibn Khaldun himself gave a famous description of  Cairo as he encountered it:  ‘he who has not seen Cairo does not know the grandeur of  Islam. It is the metropolis of the world, garden of the universe, assemblage of the nations, the ant-hill of the human species, the portico of  Islam, the throne of royalty … .’ 

In more pragmatic terms, it was a city of probably about four million, having endured, some thirty-five years before Ibn Khaldun’s arrival, an episode of  the Black Death in 1346-7 which had reduced the population possibly by about a third, but left it still greater than any European city.  Egypt was then ruled by mamluk sultans  of slave origins, ‘mamluk’  deriving from an Arabic verb and meaning ‘the owned.’  By the mid thirteen hundreds, the rule of these ‘slaves on horseback’ had  been an established pattern for a century, based on the purchase of  young men from Turkish and Caucasian areas who were trained up as soldiers. One of  them would eventually emerge at the top of the heap and claim the throne, and some attempted to found their own dynasties, but epigones rarely had much success.

This system seems outwardly chaotic, but resulted in a powerful empire embracing much of present-day Syria and Arabia, and, with an active merchant class, its expansion included wealthy cities, adding Damascus, Jerusalem and Aleppo to the great markets of  Cairo.  By 1383, when Ibn Khaldun settled in the city, the ruling sultan was the Circassian, Barquq, whose mamluk soldiery controlled the various bureaucrats and religious leaders, and the mercantile classes. Beneath them was an urban under-class: they cannot be called a peasantry, since that implies a connection with the land, but  was constituted from the workers, beggars and servants who kept the city going. 

The financial foundation of all this was the ‘iqta system, whereby the agricultural land of  Egypt was divided up into sectors which the mamluk who had made it as Sultan awarded to his favoured supporters, keeping a good part for himself.  The owner of such a portion, which would be worked by fellahin labourers, thus had little connection with his estates, did not live there and could not pass them on to his heirs. There was nothing like the European ‘landed gentry’ system.  Anyone tackling the subject of  economics, as did Ibn Khaldun, had to grasp the intricacies of  an enormously complex system.

He was well-placed to understand how the city worked, becoming chief qadi, or judge, of the Malikite  religious order. The ulama, or community of devout scholars, all followers of Sunni Islam, was divided into four sects, each with differing interpretations of religious law and each allocated its own area within a madrasa or college. This gave rise to a four-sided plan which can still be seen in many surviving religious buildings, such as the mosque and college of Sultan Hasan in Cairo. In addition to the many mosques, madrasas and local shrines which abounded in the city, the khanqah, an institution to house, feed and otherwise serve the needs of communities of sufis, proliferated, usually instigated by the patronage of some powerful sultan or lord.

Ibn Khaldun was a Malikite.These were adherents of the eighth century sheikh, Maliki ibn Anas, who was celebrated in North Africa and Andalusia, but in Cairo two other orders were usually given preference, the Shafi’ites, who followed the teaching of a native Cairene holy man and the Hanafites, favoured by the ruling mamluk élite. Ibn Khaldun was not only a Malikite qadi but also became administrator of  the large khanqah founded by the Sultan Baybars II. The Malikites, though strict, were a fairly pragmatic order concerning dealings with the outside world and the khanqah post would of necessity require some practical knowledge of finance.

That, however, was only one aspect of  Ibn Khaldun’s interests. He was an immensely prolific author, best known as a historian and indeed as a writer who revolutionised historiography, albeit unintentionally, since, like most of his contemporaries, he revered tradition and did not consider originality to be a virtue. Arab historiography generally consisted of two principal forms: biographies and chronologies, which of course overlapped to some extent. Writing biographical accounts of  holy persons and religious scholars, adding to previous accumulations, was a venerable formula, having its basis in the desire to record details of  the lives of  the Prophet and his early followers. The chronological approach was similar to that of the Western chroniclers, describing rulers reign by reign, listing kings and sultans, their principal achievements and quirks.  But Ibn Khaldun analysed and framed his history, drawing conclusions and even making predictions. For him, dynasties were cyclical in nature, arising from a strong primitive incursion by forceful new groups who then became progressively weaker, only to collapse and make way for a more vital successor. It was this cyclical theory that has so greatly appealed to many Western historians, particularly Arnold Toynbee.

How did Ibn Khaldun arrive at his view of incursion, collapse and renewal?  Irwin sets out the development of  the medieval scholar’s theory, which followed a sharp twist in his circumstances. At an early stage of his career, he lived in one of the most sophisticated courts known to the Muslim world, that of  Granada. But he took himself to the semi-nomadic Berbers of  North Africa, where he began his most famous work, The Muqadimma,  a title sometimes translated as ‘Prologomena’, which was to lay the foundations of  his great history. This avowedly preliminary work, huge in itself, exists in several uncollated Arabic manuscripts and, as Irwin notes, there is no complete critical Arabic edition. We are fortunate to have a modern English version  by Franz Rosenthal* published in three volumes in 1958 (there have been subsequent reprints) which makes Ibn Khaldun’s fascinating collection of  observations, facts and legends accessible to English speakers..

Irwin is himself a noted Arabist and gives a succinct account of the background history of  Ibn Khaldun’s world, including a very clear and patient analysis of the difficult comings and goings of the petty leaders of  North African states, and follows his subject’s move to the intellectual influences he encountered in the kingdom of Granada. This was ruled somewhat insecurely by the Nasrid ruler Mohammed  Vth, whom Ibn Khaldun had encountered in Morocco during a period of exile from his throne and whom he followed in his successful return. An older scholar, Ibn al-Khatib, a man of immense learning, was Mohammed’s vizier. He was greatly admired by Ibn Khaldun, though his flowery style was not to the taste of the  younger man. Nevertheless, Ibn Khaldun described him as ‘one of the miracles of God in the areas of poetry, prose, knowledge  and culture’, and he was known as ‘the man with two lives’ because he worked both night and day. For al-Khatib, however, history was a source of virtuous examples, and he also liked the big frocks school of dramas and personalities. As Irwin notes, he did not share Ibn Khaldun’s underlying spirit of enquiry into processes, though his version of history was an endless cycle of struggles and falls.

But the experience of Granada cannot have been solely intellectual: this was one of the most refinedly sensual and pleasure-loving courts in existence,  Every visitor to the Alhambra will have carried away some measure of the delights experienced by the Nasrid rulers: for me, the apogee is reached by the water-channels running down  the side of a stone staircase, so that, descending, one can trail a leisurely hand in the cooling stream. The feast arranged there to celebrate the Prophet’s birthday in 1362 featured a clock that delivered poems, perfume sprinklers,  music, fireworks, candles placed in crystal and copper holders. Ibn al-Khatib’s account of  it is one of the great set-pieces of Andalusian history.  

Ibn Khaldun, leaving Granada, promptly involved himself in dangerous North African politics, and eventually buried himself in the Algerian hinterland, living almost the life of a hermit on a cliff above a troglodyte Amarzegh village, where he studied the tribal peoples and their language. In his consideration of  Ibn Khaldun’s observations, Irwin describes Ibn Khaldun’s concept of ‘asabiyya,  the supreme virtue of these hard-living spirits, which gave them the strength to seize ultimate power.  Perhaps best translated by Irwin’s phrase, ‘group solidarity’, elsewhere sometimes rather misleadingly rendered by the French term ‘esprit de corps  which evokes a certain inappropriate light-heartedness, ‘asabiyya kept tribesmen bound together and demanded absolute fidelity, so that ther cycle of attaining supreme rule could begin. But Ibn Khaldun proposed that the dynasties brought to power by these means did not last long. After a few generations they became weakened by their luxurious habits and lax morality, and  fell when another wave  of  unspoiled invaders overcame them.  This accorded not only with the successive kingdoms with which Ibn Khaldun was personally familiar, but with the very origins of  Islamic history, when the army of the Prophet and his followers conquered the enfeebled Byzantine empire. Irwin’s recognition of  the importance of ‘asabiyya  is probably related to his understanding, demonstrated in an earlier work, The Middle East in the Middle Ages (1986), of  a smaller-scale  ‘bonding’system  which took place under the mamluks of Cairo. Thereby a leading emir or sultan could free his slaves in a complex religious ceremony, somewhat akin to the Western concept of creating a knight. This bound them not only to their former master but to one another in group devotion known as khushdashiyya. Ibn Khaldun’s admiring records of the tribal bonding he encountered among nomadic peoples give him the status some have assigned to him as the first ethnographer, but have also attracted the claims that he was mythologising their actually harsh and precarious lives.   

The over-arching question which is often asked of many leading figures such as Ibn Khaldun is: was he a sufi? His religous posts were not in opposition to this, for sufism, or dedication to finding a path to a mystical unity, was not incompatible with the practical activities of  daily living.  The most basic definition of  this form of  Islamic mysticism is that given by J. Spencer Trimingham in The Sufi Orders in Islam (1971): ‘anyone who believes that it is possible to have direct experience of God and goes out of his way to put himself in a state whereby he may be enabled to do this.’ Numerous pathways, both psychological and physical, developed for the achievement of this goal, but usually the novice followed the instruction of a particualr sheikh. Being a sufi (the word is derived from their plain woollen garments) was not like entering the Western monastic life. Men and women were eligible, and could move in and out of the path as they progressed.

Ibn Khaldun’s own account of sufism in The Muqaddima is that ‘the exertion and worship of the sufi novice must lead to a “state” that is the result of his exertions. That state may be a kind of divine worship. Then it will be firmly rooted in the sufi novice and become a “station” for him. … The sufi novice continues to progress from station to station until he reaches the (recognition of  the) oneness of God and the gnosis which is the desired goal of happiness.’ (Rosenthal, vol. III, p.78)

Modern scholars have varied in their assessments of  Ibn Khaldun as a sufi. Rosenthal, whose 115 page introduction includes a painstaking detailed biography focusing principally on the external life, says merely that  ‘he strove to strike a sound balance between the active and the contemplative aspects of his personality.’

Allen James Fromherz, whose Ibn Khaldun, Life and Times (2001), drew especially on the scholar’s autobiography, believed that sufism penetrated his thinking and theories.  Crucial passages in that autobiography describe awakenings to the inner truth of  history, and Ibn Khaldun found meanings beneath the appearances of events. These accounts, for Fromherz, parallel the discoveries of inner truths that could be made by those who followed the path of the religious devotee.

The question of Ibn Khaldun’s inner religious life really falls into two parts. Was he a sufi in a fairly strict sense, i.e. did he follow the teachings of a master in order to penetrate inner mysteries step by step? If so, was this responsible for his questioning  and theorizing about the meaning of history? This is an extremely difficult problem to settle because it relates to the processes of  a mind of great learning and complexity. Ibn Khaldun’s views on history were set forth in his own introductory material and they also form a justification of the writing of  historical material. ‘It is eagerly sought after … .  For on the surface history is no more than information about political events, dynasties and  occurrences of the remote past …  .The inner meaning of history, on the other hand, 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.’ (Rosenthal, vol. I, p.6)

But does this search for inner meaning demonstrate that Ibn Khaldun can be accounted a sufi? There is no carefully studied path set out, no mystical goal, and one might well argue that searching for the inner meaning of things was a habit of  thought in the culture in which Ibn Khaldun lives – one might say an influencing philosophical climate in the sense in which Michael Baxandall sees the ideas of John Locke manifested in the work of Chardin.  All this supports the conclusion of  Irwin, who, although he believes that Ibn Khaldun was a sufi, does not accept that any particular path was responsible for Ibn Khaldun’s intellectual leaps in historical argument. As for other doctrines, Irwin summarises the various arguments of  Ibn Khaldun’s possible inheritance from Greek philosophy and science, arguments behind which one can often see, without needing a sufi-style  coup de foudre, some later author’s desire to appropriate the medieval savant for one culture or another.  Here, Irwin strongly defends Ibn Khaldun as a Muslim thinker, profundly formed by his own religion.

Yet there is a tendency in Ibn Khaldun, and indeed in Irwin, himself to stray off  the straight and narrow, to be tempted  by the delights of the glittering peculiarities of  the past, those sports and anecdotes that make both these historians so readable, the details that, as John Aubrey said, ‘How these curiosities would be quite forgot did not such idle fellows as I am put them down.’  The notes on sorcery, talismans and alchemy in the later books of  The Muqaddima are particularly enjoyable. Amongst such tempting ‘curiosities’ is the story, taken  by Ibn Khaldun from an earlier writer, of Alexander the Great’s invention of a glass box in which he could travel under water. Ibn Khaldun points out a difficulty in this: that Alexander’s air would run out and he would become overheated.  Irwin takes up this story with enthusiasm but complains that Alexander’s real problem was that he would be suffocated.  The reader can only boggle at two such brilliant minds at work on this preposterous project. We must surely applaud Irwin for his refusal to pedagogically point out that Ibn Khaldun’s ‘Ruby Island’ , where the very pebbles are rubies, is obviously the crater of a volcano.

Again and again, this section of  The Muqaddima will repay the eclectic dipper-in. If you want power over rulers, here are quite unnecessarily detailed instructions on making the lion seal which will give you absolute control. Or you may need to beware of  ‘rippers’,  who need only point at a garment to see it torn to shreds. Note also that the ‘evil eye’ is a natural gift, not under the control of the projector.  

These fascinating excursions are usually not at all necessary for the theoretical  arguments being put forth under the solemn mantle of the Malikite qadi, but they are the fruit of a mind capable of  extraordinary imaginative power. So, with his incisive intellect, Irwin brings a deep and sensitive understanding of Ibn Khaldun’s mental journeys. Irwin is especially observant of Ibn Khaldun’s  reactions to the ruined antiquities which surrounded him in Egypt and North Africa and the gloomy speculation of  the past which their contemplation arouses.

Irwin, the modern scholar, is himself also a novelist, whose first work of fiction, The Arabian Nightmare, (1983), invented a legend: the terrible dream which can spread like an infection. His creative sensibility does not detract from the cutting-edge of  Irwin’s intellectual analysis: on the contrary, it gives a deeper understanding of another aspect of the medieval sage. Don’t we all truly want to believe that somewhere ‘Ruby Island’ exists?


Note: Rosenthal’s edition  calls it ‘The Muqaddimah’: Irwin refers to ‘The Muqaddima’.  Both are accepted transliterations from the Arabic.