Jeremy Graham/Dbimages/Alamy

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 Harafish.

Beyond these literary landmarks, the volume of specialist research into Ibn Khaldun is daunting. The University of Chicago’s online bibliography lists more than 850 books and articles on him, excluding items on the Maghreb and Muslim Spain (al-Andalus), where Ibn Khaldun spent the earlier part of his career. As Irwin caustically remarks, “If you tried to read everything that has been written about Ibn Khaldun, you would die before you could finish the job.” That list will doubtless grow as the ideas of the great Arab savant percolate through social media. In 2015 Mark Zuckerberg recommended the Muqaddima on his Facebook page, explaining that it “focuses on how society and culture flow, including the creation of cities, politics, commerce and science.”

Irwin’s aim in his book is to rescue Ibn Khaldun from the ever-burgeoning Khaldun industry by situating him firmly in his time and faith. As he explains in his preface:

From the nineteenth century onwards there has been a conscious or unconscious drive to Westernize his thought and to present him as a precursor of such totemic Western thinkers as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Vico, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. There is an understandable wish to make him exciting and relevant. But…Ibn Khaldun’s world had more in common with that of the Qur’an and The Thousand and One Nights than it does with modern historiography or sociology. Ibn Khaldun may have placed monkeys just below men in the Great Chain of Being, but this falls a long way short of having preempted Charles Darwin’s closely argued On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. A similar point might be made by comparing Ibn Khaldun’s notion of profit as being based on labor with Karl Marx’s elaborate exposition of the implications of the labor theory of value….

I am not interested in making Ibn Khaldun’s writings seem relevant to present-day issues…. It is precisely Ibn Khaldun’s irrelevance to the modern world that makes him so interesting and important. When I read the Muqaddima, I have the sense that I am encountering a visitor from another planet.

One part of Irwin’s strategy for rescuing Ibn Khaldun from his Western admirers is to dwell on the eventful story of his life, his religiosity, and his interest in occultism. Another is to read the Muqaddima and its successor, the Kitab al-‘ibar (The Book of Warnings), in their entirety, without focusing on only those themes that appeal to Western readers. Irwin demonstrates, for example, how his subject’s elitist outlook, his views on astrology, his belief in the reality of the supernatural and in end-time eschatology, and his strict religious orthodoxy all run counter to the idea that he was some kind of ur-progressive or avant la lettre Marxist or Weberian possessed of insights that anticipate nineteenth-century social thought.


Born in Tunis in 1332 to an upper-class family that left Seville before the city fell to the forces of the Reconquista in 1248, Ibn Khaldun was educated privately by his father, a scholar and faqih (expert on Islamic jurisprudence). He then studied logic and philosophy with the family lodger, Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Abili, a distinguished mathematician. At the age of seventeen, in the first of two devastating family disasters, he lost both his parents as well as several teachers and friends to the Black Death that spread throughout North Africa in 1348–1349. Highly educated and from a family with an impressive tradition of government service in Spain and North Africa, he soon found employment with the Tunisian ruler Ibn Tafraghin before joining al-Abili in Fez, where the sultan appointed him his secretary.

As North Africa fragmented into competing dynastic states following the collapse of the Almohad empire, Ibn Khaldun moved between various cities—including Tunis, Fez, Bijaya (Bougie), Tlemcen, and Granada—serving different rulers in a number of administrative positions. Although he was the scholarly product of an urban culture, he acquired practical experience in the lands beyond the cities (what Moroccans used to call the “lands of insolence”) when he was sent on missions to raise taxes—or armies—for his employers. While at certain times, as Irwin notes, he “seemed on the verge of becoming the power behind a throne,” at others “he ended up in prison or in flight.” Irwin writes, “he was a kind of bureaucratic condottiere and he operated in dangerous waters in which death was commonly a penalty for political failure.”

That Ibn Khaldun survived in these turbulent times, by a combination of ruthlessness, betrayal, cunning, and luck, is itself quite remarkable. His friend and rival Ibn al-Khatib (1313–1374), a distinguished writer and former chief minister in Granada with whom he corresponded extensively and whose turbulent career has many parallels with his own, was thrown into prison and strangled after court intrigues. In 1379 his younger brother Yahya, a distinguished historian and poet, was assassinated, possibly at the instigation of courtiers who resented the patronage he received from the ruler of Tlemcen.

It is hardly surprising that the scholarly Ibn Khaldun tried to extricate himself from public affairs on several occasions, recalling that as early as his mid-thirties he had been “cured of the temptation of office” and intended to devote his energies to reading and teaching. But his reputation and perhaps his ambition soon drew him back into the fissiparous politics of North Africa and al-Andalus, a region whose history Irwin describes as “a twisted and violent tale of contested thrones, betrayals, exiles, imprisonments, and murders,” whose governments were both weak and oppressive, and where, as the historian Patricia Crone wrote, “most high-ranking governors and generals died violent deaths; and torture, assassination, and extortion were matters of routine.”

In 1375, then in his early forties, Ibn Khaldun was able to seclude himself with his family in Qal‘at Banu Salama, a fortress in western Algeria perched atop a cliff from which he could survey fields of grain on the plain below. It was from this vantage point that, over a period of four years—and far from libraries and intellectual companionship—he worked on the first drafts of the Muqaddima and the Kitab al-‘ibar before returning to Tunis, where “he could check his facts in the city’s libraries and where he would be tempted to meddle in politics once more.” Though he found preferment in Tunis and became a confidant of the ruler, he came under attack from the chief qadi (judge), and secured permission to leave the court on the pretext of attending the Hajj (“a pious stratagem that was often used by politicians and scholars as a way of gracefully retiring from a fraught environment,” according to Irwin). Arriving in Cairo, where his fame had preceded him, he suffered his second great family disaster. His wife and five daughters, who were due to join him, were all lost in a shipwreck off the coast of Alexandria, along with his library.


In Cairo, where he secured the patronage of the Mamluk sultan Barquq, Ibn Khaldun became chief qadi of the Maliki school of law in 1384. He was dismissed the following year, only to obtain further positions as a teacher, scholar, and head of a Sufi college. While popular with students, who flocked to his lectures, he was resented by some of his peers as an aloof—not to say arrogant—outsider who “refused to wear the official dress of an Egyptian qadi and instead continued to wear the Moroccan burnouse.” He was greatly admired by two of his best-known students, the historian Taqi al-Din al-Maqrizi (1364–1441), who praised the Muqaddima as “the cream of knowledge and sciences and the pleasures of sound intellects and minds,” and Muhammad ibn ‘Ammar, a professor of Maliki law who considered the Muqaddima a great work of literature.

Others were much more ambivalent, as Irwin notes. Although he conceded that Ibn Khaldun’s lectures were excellent, fluent, and interesting, Ahmad ibn Hajar, another former student who would rise to eminence as a scholar, berated him for using a style so seductive that it could make “lies seem like truth.” When he sat as a judge, Ibn Hajar noted, he was known as “the spearhead” for his tendency to fly into rages with his neck throbbing red. Ibn Hajar repeated the opinion of some senior judicial colleagues that Ibn Khaldun’s knowledge of Maliki law was too weak to qualify him as a proper ‘alim (religious scholar).

Not only did he forge a fatwa attributed to another, more eminent jurist, Ibn Khaldun’s lifestyle was allegedly louche and decadent, delighting as he did “in the company of singing girls and young men.” Ibn Hajar’s student Shams al-Din al-Shakhawi (1427–1497) was even more hostile, denouncing Ibn Khaldun as “rude, arrogant, sexually immoral, and a forger,” while the historian Badr al-Din al-‘Ayni (1361–1451) accused him of homosexuality. These negative accounts seem at odds with the image of the austere intellectual that emerges from Ibn Khaldun’s own account of his life and that of his biographer Ibn Taghribirdi, who praised him “for his austerity and incorruptibility and his refusal as qadi to be swayed by the demands of the powerful.”

Given the rancorous character of intellectual life in medieval Cairo, many of the slurs on Ibn Khaldun’s good name can doubtless be dismissed. However it does seem clear that he was capable of acts of personal betrayal in the course of his adventurous and dangerous career. He showed neither loyalty nor gratitude to the Mamluk sultan Barquq, who had brought him to Cairo. When Barquq was briefly overthrown in an attempted coup by rebel emirs, Ibn Khaldun was one of the scholars who signed a fatwa against him, causing him to be stripped of his offices on Barquq’s return to power. (This did not prevent him from being restored to office later.) When Barquq was succeeded by his ten-year-old son al-Nasir Faraj, who was under the tutelage of two rival emirs, Timur, the Central Asian conqueror known in the West as Tamerlane, saw an opportunity to invade Mamluk-ruled Syria and Egypt. Ibn Khaldun was part of a delegation sent to mediate with the conqueror. When Faraj and his entourage, fearing plots at home, returned to Cairo, Ibn Khaldun stayed on to meet Timur, an encounter Irwin justly sees as comparable to Napoleon’s famous meeting with Goethe in 1808.

According to Timur’s hostile biographer Ibn ‘Arabshah, Ibn Khaldun made a sycophantic address, promising Timur that he would rule over Egypt and praising Allah “that I have lived long enough to see this man, who is truly a king and knows rightly how to rule the Sultanate.” This may be discounted as based on spite, but Irwin gives some credence to the allegation that in the course of their thirty-five days of conversation Ibn Khaldun discussed astrological predictions, based on a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, that “a powerful one…would arise in the northeast region of a desert people, tent dwellers, who will triumph over kingdoms, overturn governments, and become masters of most of the inhabited world.”

Drawing on an impressive amount of scholarship in a style that is refreshingly free from the recondite language used by many academic writers, Irwin presents Ibn Khaldun as a man of his time who displayed the attitudes, prejudices, and limitations of his background. Unlike his Western admirers, who tend to disseminate their ideas as widely as possible, he was an unabashed elitist and kept his knowledge for the few. As well as benefiting from his family’s sophisticated intellectual milieu, he had imbibed al-Abili’s disdain for madrasa (religious college) education and his hostility to the proliferation of textbooks, which he considered inferior to oral instruction. Throughout his career he held, in Irwin’s words, that

oral transmission of knowledge was primary. Rather than praise books as vehicles for the transmission of knowledge, Ibn Khaldun wrote about them as if they were a veil that the student had to strip away in order to properly understand what he was studying.

Rather than seeing his writing as sufficient in itself, he doubtless saw it as an adjunct to oral explication.

Such a prejudice may not have been uncommon in a manuscript culture in which masters maintained the distinction of sitting on chairs while students sat at their feet (which is how the word “chair” came to signify a university professorship); but it also indicates a reluctance to disseminate knowledge beyond a privileged circle. In this respect Ibn Khaldun’s elitist commitment to oral dissemination seems consistent with the probability that he was a “moderate” adherent of Sufism (Islamic mysticism) in the tradition of the scholar-theologian al-Ghazali (circa 1058–1111). The Muqaddima often cites al-Ghazali’s work on the spiritual revitalization of Islam, and although none of his contemporaries regarded Ibn Khaldun as a Sufi and we do not know which order he may have joined or who his murshid (spiritual guide) was, Irwin thinks that “circumstantial evidence overwhelmingly indicates that he was a Sufi.”

Ibn Khaldun condemned extreme utterances of “theophanic self-glorification” such as “Glory be to Me!”—attributed to Bayazid al-Bistami (d. 874–875)—or the notorious “I am the Truth,” for which the Sufi master al-Hallaj was executed in 922 (a sentence approved by Ibn Khaldun in one of his fatwas). But he was far from a crypto-rationalist philosopher obliged “to lead the life of an investigator in a community that was intolerant and antagonistic to philosophy,” as the Iraqi-American historian Muhsin Mahdi (1926–2007) argued.* Irwin points out that in the seminal faith-versus-reason debate between al-Ghazali and Averroes (the Latinized name of Ibn Rushd, 1126–1198) raised by the former’s attack on philosophy in The Incoherence of the Philosophers and Averroes’s rejoinder in The Incoherence of “The Incoherence, Ibn Khaldun clearly sided with al-Ghazali. “He who wants to arm himself against the philosophers in the field of dogmatic beliefs should turn to the works of al-Ghazali,” he wrote in the third volume of the Muqaddima.

This was not an orthodox mask for Ibn Khaldun’s supposedly heretical rationalism. Irwin points out that Ibn Khaldun also shared al-Ghazali’s occasionalist view of causation, based on the theology of Abu’l Hasan al-Ash‘ari (d. 936), according to which there is no necessary link between cause and effect without God’s agency. In al-Ash‘ari’s famous example, cotton does not burn when set on fire unless God chooses to allow it: in Irwin’s words, “what we call cause and effect are nothing more than God’s habit.” Al-Ash‘ari’s philosophy of occasionalism has sometimes been cited as the reason why Muslims failed to produce a scientific revolution at a time when their knowledge of the natural world was greater than that of Europe.

In a chapter entitled “Messages from the Dark Side,” Irwin reminds us that although Ibn Khaldun has long been presented

as the precursor of Comte, Durkheim, and Marx, it must be remembered that he inhabited a different and darker world than the one known to European economists and sociologists. It was one in which plants, stones, and planets had talismanic powers…haunted by spirits and presided over by an all-seeing God.

For Ibn Khaldun the supernatural was “real,” which he claimed to know from personal experience. He gave an account of “rippers” in North Africa “who could tear apart the stomach of an animal or a garment just by pointing at it.” The seal of a lion on a ring, he thought, could give its wearer “indescribable power over rulers,” a phenomenon directly “attested by experience.” “It should be known that no intelligent person doubts the reality of sorcery,” he wrote.

Ibn Khaldun’s fascination with the occult was consistent with his Sufi orientation, according to which the manifest or exterior world, known as the zahir, is complemented by the unseen or inner world, known as the batin. The zahir–batin duality was often emphasized by the Ismailis, the Shia subgroup who held the Fatimid caliphate in North Africa and Egypt from 909 to 1171. Although Ibn Khaldun was firm in his Sunni rejection of Shia claims to religious and political authority, he appears to have been drawn to the Ismaili vision of a hierarchy of beings that included plants, animals, humans, and the spiritual world of angels, and according to which certain humans could acquire the power to see the future.

Like other medieval writers cited by Irwin, he was fascinated by sorcery and techniques of divination. It appears to have been this visionary outlook based on the reality of numinous forces, rather than a proto-Marxian vision of revolutionary reform or a Hegelian idea of history as spiritual progress, that shaped his understanding of the dynamics of power among the Arab and Berber tribes of his native North Africa. Indeed his overall view of history was deeply pessimistic and informed by a belief that the end of time was imminent.

In his penultimate chapter, “The Strange Afterlife of the Muqaddima,” Irwin considers the trajectory of Khaldunian studies in the West. He points out that while Ibn Khaldun founded no “Khaldunian school” of historical writing among his Arab successors, his earliest serious admirers were Turks who appear to have found the Muqaddima among the looted manuscripts brought from Cairo to Istanbul after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517. The chapter could well be expanded into a book and deserves more detailed consideration than can be given here. What stands out in Irwin’s impressively broad reading of this literature is how Ibn Khaldun’s reputation and authority were first exported to the West, then reimported in a modified form into Arab-Muslim culture. The Arab writer, Irwin writes,

has been stretched out on a Procrustean bed, in which certain parts of him have been lopped off in order to make him fit on a piece of furniture that is of modern design. The discarded parts include, among other things, his devotion to Maliki jurisprudence and his preoccupation with occultism and futurology, as well as some of his bizarre scientific ideas.

Similar comments, however, could be made about Isaac Newton, whose belief in the need for an “immaterial” agency in the movements of the stars and planets and interest in occultism and apocalyptic futurology are not far removed from those of Ibn Khaldun. If Newton’s bizarre religious beliefs do not invalidate his legacy in cosmology and gravitation, the same could be said of Ibn Khaldun’s legacy in the admittedly more contestable field of social scientific analysis.

His most penetrating insight, on the role of ‘asabiyya in state formation and dissolution, is still relevant today. The ‘asabiyya of current Arab regimes depends on factors unavailable in the past, such as the use of modern bureaucratic methods and the manipulation and coercion of intelligence and security services. The power of government now extends into the remotest parts of the countryside, including mountain valleys and steppes, where its writ was often ignored in the past. But in modern Arab politics the ‘asabiyya of the ruling group is still important. In some countries, like Syria and Iraq before the American invasion, this may be a political party controlled by a group bound by ties of kinship and sectarian solidarity. In others, as in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, it is the ruling family itself, bound by blood as well as by common interests. As the United Nations Arab Human Development Report stated in 2004 about the Gulf and the Arab World generally:

Clannism [‘asabiyya] in all its forms (tribal, clan-based, communal, and ethnic)…tightly shackles its followers through the power of the authoritarian patriarchal system. This phenomenon…represents a two-way street in which obedience and loyalty are offered in return for protection, sponsorship and a share of the spoils…. Its positive aspects include a sense of belonging to a community and the desire to put its interests first.

More than six centuries after Ibn Khaldun’s death the modern world has much to learn from studying him. After the Muqaddima itself, Irwin’s intellectual biography—scholarly, broad-ranging, yet thoroughly readable—is an excellent place to begin.