Ibn Khaldun: Makers of Islamic Civilization

Ibn Khaldun: Makers of Islamic Civilization

By Mehraj Din Bhat

The intellectual tradition of Islam is replete with axiomatic personalities who have left indelible intellectual contributions in every aspect of human thought. The history of Islam’s scholarly venture can be easily gauged from the contribution to religion, philosophy, law and other corollaries of human society.
One of the important aspects of civilizational identities is the question of history? Intrinsically, history is placed by every civilization at the epicenter giving it a quasi-divine status in their ideological worldview. History is explained as a source of interpreting worldviews and primarily conceived as a two-fold phenomenon i.e. critical philosophy of history and speculative philosophy of history. The former is defined as a methodological tool for objectifying historical events while as the latter delves into the reasons, designs and purposes of historical events. The philosophy of history boils down to innumerable divisions starting from linear and cyclical conception via Cometian positivist interpretation of history to truth as a contending narrative and fragile product of historical struggle in Foucauldian paradigm. Another important aspect of history is the very philosophical connotation of its essence and existence i.e. whether history itself is factual or interpretative? Exploration of fundamental reasons for calling history factual or interpretative is also a pertinent question which needs to be addressed vis-à-vis the methodology applied to understand and interpret Islamic history?
All the historical theories are evolved from a particular historical understanding which was afterwards interpreted by scholars in their own Epistemes. Poetics of Aristotle and Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire creates a rudimentary understanding of historical evolutionism. And the medieval historical contribution of Nayef al-Rodhan’s “Sustainable History and the Dignity of Man” presupposes to establish the dignity of man. The birth of Enlightenment took a paradigm shift from a pre-modern to purely rationalized interpretation of history starting from Kant’s “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose” and “Phenomenology of Spirit” by Hegel. This understanding epitomized itself in post-modernist analysis of Michael Foucault’s “Society Must Be Defended” wherein he discusses the historic-political discourse and establishes truth as the fragile product of a historical struggle.
One among the key personalities was Ibn Khaldun—a key figure in Islamic civilization who instituted his scholarship in the philosophy of history and became a referential source for developing the historical theories in the Muslim as well as in western world. Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was a glorious scholar of pre-renaissance times towards whom the greatest historian Toynbee refers as “the philosopher of history for all times”. The book under review “Ibn Khaldun: Makers of Islamic Civilization” deals with different aspects of this resplendent personality who had left an ineffaceable mark on the history of Islamic civilization and continues to influence historians across the globe. Ibn Khaldun’s magnum opus Muqadimmah resonates with historiosophical and cyclical category of history due to the underpinnings of his work. Intrinsically, the philosophy of Islamic history evolves in its own sacred epistemological context explaining human history within the paradigm of Islamic tradition.
He founded what he called the science of human society (‘ilm al ijtima al-insani) or human social organization (‘ilm al ‘umran al-bashari) as well as a new methodology for writing history and a new purpose for it, namely to understand the reasons behind historical events. Ibn Khaldun has left behind few works other than his history of the world, Kitab al-ʻibar. From other sources, we know of several other works, primarily composed during the time he spent in North Africa and Al-Andalus. His first book, “Lubab al-Muhassal”, a commentary on the Islamic theology of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, was written under the supervision of his teacher al-Abili in Tunis. A work on Sufism, “Sifa’u al-sa’il”, was composed around 1373 in Fes, Morocco. Whilst at the court of Muhammed V, Sultan of Granada, Ibn Khaldun composed a work on logic, “allaqa li-al-Sultan”.
The first chapter of the book “Autobiography of Ibn Khaldun’s and his character” explores the intellectual context in which Ibn Khaldun evolved as a scholar of Islam which afterwards influenced his thinking and writing projects. The fourteenth century Maghreb was innocuously different from what he knew of earlier centuries. Farid Alatas draws a historical map and explains the relatively well-developed market economy and steady growth of merchant capitalism in Maghreb and how it was drastically and politically fragmented, economically depressed and under constant threat from nomadic invasions in the lifetime of Ibn Khaldun. In the second chapter “Ibn Khaldun and the Science of Society”, Farid underlines the four important aspect of Khaldun’s philosophy of history (science of society). Firstly, Khaldun’s twofold approach to history i.e. superficial understanding of history (zahir) and speculative philosophy of history (batin) which engages with the deep knowledge of the how and why of events. For this reason, history for him was counted as one of the fields of philosophy (wisdom). Secondly, his criticism on several principal sources of errors of history a new science. Moving on to the third genre is his primarily foundational structure of his science of human society. He has comprised it on three parts:
The muqadimmat or premises of the science of human society;
The theory of rise and decline of state;
The Methods underlying the essence of his new science of society;
Some of the scholars like Ayad and Erwin Rosenthal criticized theological centrism working in his approach to history. H.A.R.Gibb believed that religion acted as a lynchpin in his mode of thought and is completely compatible with a theological approach. While as Rosenthal believed that religion acted as one of the offshoots of his understanding and interpretation of history.
The third chapter, “Ibn Khaldun on Education and Knowledge”, primarily focuses on the classification of Knowledge in a Khaldunian paradigm. The extraordinary importance of sciences in Islam functioned as a guide to those who sought an understanding of the range of sciences in existence and the relationship between them for bringing out a intellectually brimming worldview. Al Attas has given a list of subjects which primarily fall into three categories of Khaldunian classification of knowledge. Firstly, there are philosophical sciences (al-‘ulum al-hikmiyya al-falasafiyya) which fall primarily in a ‘particular’ rational category and (al-‘ulum al-naqliyya) traditional sciences which derives their authority from religion. There is a third category that Ibn Khaldun discusses, that is, the magical sciences (‘ulum al-sihr wa-l-talismat), sciences that are forbidden by religious law. Farid has also given a cursory estimation of Khaldun’s approach towards philosophy.
Ibn Khaldun critiqued that the philosophers are wrong on several counts and believed that it is wrong for Muslim philosophers, to derive existent things from the first intellect (al-‘aql al-awwal) instead of from the Nessary Being (al-wajib) (pp.87). They neglect the levels of divine creation beyond the first intellect and restrict themselves to the affirmation of the intellect and disregard what is beyond it, as if existence itself is that narrow.
Farid Alatas in chapter four “The reception of Ibn Khaldun” dwells on responses of scholars in Muslim vis-à-vis western world towards Khaldunian discourse and divided it in three broad categories. His reception in (i) pre-modern Muslim world, (ii) western world and (iii) his marginal status in contemporary social sciences, both in Muslim societies and in the west (pp.100). Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani’s fervent criticism and labeling Khaldun’s “science of human society” as mere rhetoric seems an exaggeration on the part of Ibn Hajar due to substantial status quo of Khaldunian historical contribution in intellectual history. Intrinsically, Ibn Khaldun got admirers like Katib Celebi and al-Naimi, and they adopted his approach in their seminal writings. Katib Celebi’s work “Dustur al-amel li-islah il-hilel” (The mode of procedure for rectifying the damage) and Al-Naimi’s “Tarikh-i-Naimi” also discusses Khaldunian cyclical theory of the rise and decline of states and the conflict between nomadic and sedentary societies. Ibn Khaldun was given much importance in post-nineteenth century western world and his work was situated as a landmark in modern social sciences.
Farid argues in chapter five “The significance of Ibn Khaldun for the modern social sciences” the relevance of Khaldun in the field of modern social science. He believes that a case can be made to develop what we might call Khaldunian social science, which would combine his theoretical insights with those of modern social sciences. Alatas not only believed in a ambiguous worldview but drafted a framework for implying the importance of Ibn Khaldun social sciences today at three levels:
The development of alternative arguments for application to old topics or issues in Islamic studies;
The development of Khaldunian sociology in the context of modern social sciences;
The implementation of Ibn Khaldun’s approach.
These topics are further delineated by Alatas in great detail in the book trying to construct an alternative narrative of understanding and implying historical reception in Khaldunian paradigm. Ibn Khaldun argues while deliberating on the first level, the issue of Qurayshite imamate and places it in its socio-historico-political context. Ibn Khaldun believes that the “strong status-quo and group feeling” was the reason behind Prophetic injunction of conferring allegiance to the imam of Qurayshite descent which can be implied in the contemporary times to the strong and respected group in a particular Muslim community. Alatas believes that Ibn Khaldun remains underutilized as a source of concepts for modern social science and can be applied for resolving important events of history.
In chapter six, Al Attas has given a list of intellectual pursuits carried down in history on different aspects of Ibn Khaldun vis-a-vis his intellectual historical quest for developing an alternate philosophic-historical narrative. According to Alatas, the best manuscript of Ibn Khaldun’s Muqadimmahis written by Abdes-selam Cheddadi (2005) in 5 volumes. He also provides us useful information like the name of the first translation of the Muqadimmah into a European Language i.e. William McGuckin de Slane of Paris, 862-68 C.E. The intellectual brevity of Ibn Khaldun can be apprehended by looking at the reception of Khauldian historical contribution in academia. The comparative analysis like Maj al-Din Umar Khayri’s “Tasis ilm al-ijtima: Ishkaliyat al-mawdu wa-l-minhaj inda Ibn Khaldun wa-Aujust Kumt wa Imal-Dukyam” and Bryan Turner’s “Sociological founders and Precursors: The Theories of religion of Emile Durkhiem, Fustel De Coulanges and Ibn Khaldun” establish the relevance of Khaldunian philosophy of history to contemporary social science discourse.
This book is a brief but intellectually engaging work highlighting some of the key debates discussed by one of the most resplendent figures of Islamic intellectual history. Farid Alatas discursively establishes the relevance of Ibn Khaldun to historical studies and modern social science research. The author not only highlights his intellectual relevance vis-à-vis offers critical analysis of Ibn Khaldun’s theory. The lacunae in his theory on philosophical grounds that relate to methodological or theological or other issues is also given due space in the last pages of this scholarly venture. It can act as a lynchpin for all those who are interested in understanding the discourse presented by Ibn Khaldun in his magnum opus Muqaddimah and and can lso provide a theoretical framework for constructing a better understanding of historical discourse in human societies.

—The author is a PhD candidate at Shah-i-Hamadan Institute of Islamic Studies, University of Kashmir. He can be reached at: bhat.mehraj7@gmail.com


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