Ibn Khaldun: the man who invented modern history

From Reagan to Zuckerberg, the enduring relevance of a 14th-century Arab historian

April 30, 2018
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Ronald Reagan once cited him. Mark Zuckerberg picked his great work as one of his book club choices. And the British historian Arnold Toynbee described it “as undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.” These are pretty unusual encomia for a 14th-century North African historian—but then Ibn Khaldun was an unusually gifted man. His Muqaddimah is a book-length introduction—or prolegomena—to a much longer history of the world. Such histories were common among Arab writers, but no one before him had developed such an advanced theory about why civilisations rise, and why they fall. He looked at material factors in history and cast a sceptical eye over the outlandish stories and tall tales of previous works. A devout Muslim, he nonetheless didn’t ascribe events solely to divine ordinances: the human factor always prevailed.

Robert Irwin’s new book Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography (Princeton) is both an introduction to his work and an original intervention in Ibn Khaldun studies. Irwin, the Middle East Editor of the Times Literary Supplement and author of acclaimed books on The Arabian Nights and the Alhambra, spoke to Prospect’s Managing Editor Sameer Rahim. They met at Irwin’s home in south London where they talked about what Ibn Khaldun can teach us about the way modern societies work.

Sameer Rahim: What is it about Ibn Khaldun that appeals to figures like Mark Zuckerberg and his other modern fans?

Robert Irwin: It is the delusive appearance of modernity in Ibn Khaldun’s thinking. Sociologists and anthropologists and cultural studies people think: aha, I've found an intellectual ancestor. They argue he’s the father of ethnography, or sociology. But there are other factors: he did have a remarkably colourful career: he spent time in prison, fought in battles with the Bedouin, encountered the would-be world conquerer Tamerlane. He visited Granada and Pedro the Cruel. Moreover the scope of the Muqaddimah is enormous: it’s nothing less than the study of the principles of how to do history. He talks about the cyclical rise and fall of dynasties. For Ibn Khaldun, a wave of nomadic invaders bonded by Asabiyyah—a kind of social bonding force or esprit de corps—conquer a city. But as they settle down they become weak and decadent and therefore ripe to be conquered by another set of people. That’s the core argument of the Muqaddimah, but there’s so much else: discussions of music and Berber literature, pedagogy and economics and the occult. It’s an encyclopaedic guide to all knowledge as it existed in the 14th century.

SR: This is an introduction to his longer multi-volume history, but no one really reads that these days?

RI: The general consensus is that it’s a great disappointment. He sets out these wonderful dynamic principles and then he plods along with what is mostly a pretty conventional history. There is some stuff that is original, especially on the Berbers and the horribly complicated history of North Africa in the period. He did know important Mamluk figures including the Sultan. But generally it’s really boring.

SR: Did he write the Muqaddimah after he wrote the history?

RI: The conventional view is that he wrote them at the same time, but I’m wondering if he didn’t write the history first and then thought hang on a moment—what about the underlying meaning of all this? And then does the Muqaddimah second. But he doesn’t have the time to rethink the history before he dies?

SR: Ibn Khaldun does have a very modern-seeming impatience with the old Arab chronicles and their exaggerations though?

RI: He’s impatient with Masudi [the 10th century historian, author of The Meadows of Gold] when he talks about the existence of a City of Brass with no gates and the inhabitants all dead. Ibn Khaldun does not accept that history can and might be entertaining. Masudi was an intelligent man who didn’t believe in the City of Brass any more than Ibn Khaldun did, but he puts it down because it’s a jolly good story. But Ibn Khaldun is very dour and very serious.

SR: It is serious but it’s also compelling because he has a very curious mind. He observes something and then says: I’ve got a theory about it.

RI: There are other theorists in the Arab tradition: al-Farabi, Ibn Sina [Avicenna], Ibn Rushd [Averoes]. But they tend to theorise from theory, not direct observation, which is what Ibn Khaldun does mostly.

SR: He’s not that interested in al-Farabi’s idea, drawing on Plato, of the ideal city either.

RI: Not in the slightest. The city’s the wrong place to be: the ideal, for Ibn Khaldun, is to live rough and hard as a Bedouin. His idea of the Golden Age of Islam was not what the west thinks of as the Golden Age: the Abbasid era, with its dancing girls and poetry and wine-drinking. Instead the Golden Age was the time of Mohammed and the first four caliphs. He looked back with huge nostalgia for when things were simpler and people didn’t wear fancy clothes, and they didn't eat expensive meals.

SR: He lived in cities, he was a courtier, he was an administrator. Can you trace his own scepticism about city life and courts to his own experience?

RI: He’d not had a happy experience as an administrator in North Africa. He doesn't have a good word to say about Marrakesh or Tunis—which was a place of great unhappiness because of the Black Death. I don’t think he has much good to say about Granada. He spent an awful lot of time in the desert on official missions, tax collecting or recruiting troops. But when he gets to Cairo, he really loves it. His panegyric to Cairo is one of the great passages in the Muqaddimah so he’s not totally hostile to cities. Perhaps he was careful what he wrote about Egypt so as not to alienate the sultan or his other patrons.

SR: Is that also why he’s so complimentary about Tamerlane, whom he met and discoursed with for a month?

RI: Tamerlane is just very impressive; a totally uneducated man but very sharp. And loved talking to historians. And for Ibn Khaldun, he fits the theory of his book completely. He’s in charge of this huge nomadic horde, the Chagatai Turks, who have all this Asabiyya and nomadic vigour. It’s like a scientist meeting a new laboratory rat; he’s taking careful notes.

SR: About this term Asabiyya. It’s still invoked in Muslim circles today. (I saw someone on Twitter say: what British Muslims need is more Asabiyya.) What exactly is it: esprit de corps, group identity?

RI: Asabiyya is a kind of social bonding. The German travel writer Wilfred Thesiger describes how it develops in the desert because you’re heavily dependent on each other to survive. But it’s not just esprit de corps, it’s also elan vital, a drive to conquer, supplement that with religion and you’re just about unbeatable.

SR: It feels like a heavy male bonding—tough guys in the desert.

RI: There’s no room for women in the Muqaddimah. The only reason we learn that he had at least one wife is that he mentions casually that she drowned just off Alexandria. He was a pretty tough man: he fought in battles, he travelled in deserts, he spent time in prison, he took great risks. His brother was murdered, his best friend Ibn al-Khatib was executed. It was very dangerous to be an official in those days.

SR: And his idea was that once you move into the city, you lose the Asabiyya because you become more individualistic and atomised. The Ottomans used this theory to discuss the decay of their empire, didn’t they?

RI: The Ottomans are looking at it from a very practical point of view. After the great days of Suleiman the Magnificent and Selim the Grim, they were worried they would go the way of the Umayyads and the Abbasids. They’re trying to find a loophole in Ibn Khaldun, and break this cycle of decline. So they’re starting from that point of view. The French take him up in colonial times because he apparently does down the Arabs and praises the Berbers, which suits their divide and rule project. In Britain it’s Toynbee, who’s always questing for intellectual ancestors—and then he finds Ibn Khaldun, hooray! But for him he’s a solitary genius among these dark and barbarous Arabs. Pure ignorance on Toynbee’s part, of course.

SR: The word Arab means different things in the book.

RI: He’s sometimes using Arab to mean a racial group and sometimes he's referring to nomadic looters.

SR: But he was proud of his own Yemeni provenance.

RI: Yes, but the irony is that it looks from his name that he may not have been an Arab at all but a descendant from a Christian convert to Islam in Spain.

SR: Despite having a reputation for rationalism, he also had an interest in the occult.

RI: Occult phenomenon were everyday experiences then. Ibn Khaldun saw someone pointing at a sheep and its stomach splitting. He’s interested in predictions of the future but predicting the downfall of the dynasty is politically dangerous.

SR: How did he marry together his material theory of the rise and fall of civilisations with astrology, say?

RI: There’s a double causation: dynasties fall because of socio-economic factors and because God has doomed them.

SR: How far has your own interest in the occult shaped your reading of Ibn Khaldun?

RI: [Laughing] I would probably have to plead guilty. To some extent I put myself, rather impudently, in Ibn Khaldun’s shoes.

SR: Do you identify with him?

RI: Ibn Khaldun is a very stern, aloof figure. I don't feel an affinity with him. If anything I feel a little bit frightened of him.

SR: The whole thing about him having predicted the Laffer curve, and Ronald Reagan citing him in a speech about cutting taxes. Was he original in his economic thinking?

RI: I’ve read some very bad accounts of Ibn Khaldun from the economic point of view. What comes over mostly is very conventional Muslim approaches: that copper coinage is awful, debasing the gold and silver coinage. State monopolies are wrong. There has to be trade, but he’s very suspicious of it. He wishes that we didn’t have shopkeepers, and we didn’t have to bargain for things. He really despises it. Where he’s doing economics, he's really moralising.

SR: To what extent does his “Muslim-ness” run through his work?

RI: He’s a strictly conventional Maliki Sunni Muslim, never goes against religion. He was a master of the religious sciences, jurisprudence and theology. He’s suspicious of Shias and extreme Sufis.

SR: Did that give him a solidity that meant he could come up with all these ideas which are not really to do with Islam at all?

RI: The principles of Maliki jurisprudence helped him when looking at history: what is good evidence and what is bad evidence. But his cyclical theory of history is totally original with him. And that’s why I originally got interested in Ibn Khaldun: because I was interested in the laws of history. I have compared him to Machiavelli, Montesquieu and to Vico.

SR: One final question. Would you have felt more at home in 14th century North Africa than now?

RI: No, it was a terrifying place (laughs). The Black Death? Tribal fighting? Timur’s invasion? Ibn Khaldun didn’t think it was a Golden Age at all; he thought it was awful.