The Otherworldliness of Ibn Khaldun

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A statue of Ibn Khaldun in Tunis, Tunisia

Since the nineteenth century, when the Muqaddima (Prolegomena)—Ibn Khaldun’s immense introduction to world history—appeared in French and English translations, the fourteenth-century Arab historian has been widely admired in the West for his perspicacious theorizing about history, politics, economics, society, and religion. The most celebrated of Ibn Khaldun’s ideas, one that appealed especially to Western readers, was based on the practical knowledge of North African politics he had acquired while working for a variety of rulers. “Leadership,” he wrote, “exists through superiority, and superiority only through “‘asabiyya”—an Arabic word meaning “group-feeling,” “social solidarity,” or “clannism” that appears more than five hundred times in his text.

The origins of ‘asabiyya lie in desert conditions, where the solidarity of the tribe is vital to survival. When nomadic tribes unite, their superior cohesion and military prowess put urban dwellers at their mercy. Inspired as often as not by religion, they conquer the towns and create new regimes. But within a few generations, according to Ibn Khaldun, these victorious tribesmen lose their ‘asabiyya and become corrupted by luxury, extravagance, and leisure. The ruler, who can no longer rely on fierce tribal warriors for his defense, will have to raise extortionate taxes to pay for other sorts of soldiers, and this in turn may lead to further problems that result in the eventual downfall of his dynasty or state.

The Khaldunian paradigm has many admirers, as Robert Irwin notes in his wonderfully erudite and wide-ranging study. The historian Arnold Toynbee (1889–1975) regarded the Muqaddima as “undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place.” Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914–2003), although, as Irwin notes, “a fierce critic of Toynbee’s theories about the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations,” agreed on the merits of Ibn Khaldun’s “rich and various” writings, finding them as “subtle deep and formless as the Ocean.” The historian Marshall Hodgson (1922–1968)—whose three-volume masterwork The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization (1974) remains the most outstanding contribution to Islamic historiography written by an American—described the Muqaddima as being without doubt “the best general introduction…ever written” to what he called “Islamicate” civilization (a term he devised to distinguish it from the more narrowly religious “Islamic”).

Ernest Gellner (1925–1995), the Czech-British philosopher and anthropologist, saw Ibn Khaldun as a forerunner of Max Weber, “a superb inductive sociologist, a practitioner, long before the term was invented, of the method of ideal types”; while the conservative economist Arthur Laffer—famous for the “Laffer curve”—claimed that it was Ibn Khaldun who first conceived the idea that increased taxes can lead to declining revenues. Works of imaginative literature inspired by Ibn Khaldun mentioned by Irwin include Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s novel The…

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