From Reagan to Zuckerberg, the enduring relevance of a 14th-century Arab historianby Sameer Rahim / April 30, 2018 / Leave a comment
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.