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The Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun

By Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, Oxford

The Muqaddimah of ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Muhammad al-Ishbili, known as Ibn Khaldun (732-808/1332-406), was written in 1377. It is considered the first work on philosophy of history or cultural history. It is Book One of his world history, the Kitab al-ʻIbar wa diwan al-mubtada’ wa al-khabar fi tarikh-i al-ʻarab wa al-ʻajam wa al-barbar wa man ʻasarahum min dhawi al-sultan al-akbar (Book of Lessons, Record of Beginnings and Events in the History of the Arabs, non-Arabs and Berbers and their Powerful Contemporaries). However, already in his lifetime, the Muqaddimah or Preface came to be regarded as an independent work.

Ibn Khaldun was conscious of developing a new science of history-writing according to a new, critical historical method. He criticised previous historians for accepting reports on the basis of the credibility or dignity or status of the reporter, without too much questioning, and without any substantial effort to understand and explain why certain events happened when and where they did. He also criticised some of them for partiality or prejudice – for uncritically favouring the viewpoint of a particular dynasty or religious sect or national group. He argued that all reports about the past should be questioned as to the plausibility of the claims in them. For example, if a report said that the Israelites fielded an army of 600,000, he would ask: how is that possible, given that, in the same period, the Persians who were masters of a large empire could assemble at most an army of 200,000? How could an army of 600,000 be raised, given the population and territory of the Israelites? How could it be fed? How could it be controlled and manoeuvred on the battlefield? In short, the material conditions of the time and place make it extremely unlikely that the claim of such a large army is true.

In fact, this plausibility argument had already been developed and applied within the sub- discipline of rijal in hadith criticism. The sophisticated study of the chains of authorities for Prophetic traditions and Companion reports looked very critically at claims that A narrated to B who narrated to C who narrated to D and so on. They checked to determine whether B could really have met and heard from A. They checked also how far the content of the traditions, as reported through different chains of authority, were concordant or divergent. In this way, the hadith scholars were able to grade narrators and narrations according to accuracy, reliability, and general trustworthiness. However, it is true that, when it came to the history of events (as distinct from religious teachings), and especially military and political events, people did not adhere to the same scholarly standards, and the criteria of plausibility were not consistently applied.

If we accept that a report about the past can be criticised on the basis of plausibility relative to material conditions at the time, it becomes possible also to explain what happened on the basis of those conditions. This is what Ibn Khaldun tried to do. He looked at climate, geography, trade routes and patterns of trade, population density, the life style of particular groups (city-dwelling or nomadic, for example), the distribution of wealth and military power in the society, the status of learning and the sciences, of crafts and manufactures, etc. On the basis of such information he would try to explain individual historical events. He himself had been, willingly and unwillingly, directly involved in political events and his life was a tangle of disasters and successes according to the ups and downs of the rulers by whom he was employed as political ambassador, as diplomat and counsellor. Both from long experience and long study Ibn Khaldun developed the ability to identify patterns in historical events. Thus, as well as reporting events as realistically as possible, and trying to explain how they happened when and where they did, he studied the patterns in events and looked for general explanatory concepts that could help scholars and political elites to understand and perhaps avoid some of the consequences of policies (such as unjust taxation, manipulation of prices and currency values, political favouritism, corruption of the legal system, etc.)

Most famously Ibn Khaldun developed the concept of ‘asabiyyah, i.e. clan solidarity or ‘group feeling’. He noticed, especially in the history of North Africa and Spain, the rise and fall of dynasties on the basis of the strength or weakness of the ‘asabiyyah of the groups competing for power in a particular territory. He believed that ‘asabiyyah is a vital energy of self-belief and resolve, which enables the group to act cohesively and fight steadfastly, but over time, especially after power and luxury have corrupted the ideas, ideals and purposes that had held the group together, ‘asabiyyah declines. Ibn Khaldun does not claim that ‘asabiyyah is by itself a sufficient explanation of the success and endurance of dynasties: he also has much to say about how this ‘asabiyyah is strengthened or weakened through developments in political and economic relationships within the group, with the people it governs and with rival groups. Nevertheless, this concept is a major pivot of his analysis of socio-political and economic structures, and of his account of historical cycles.

Ibn Khaldun reflects extensively on the quality and status of knowledge in different fields and the manner and methods used to teach and develop the disciplines within those fields. He believed that humans are distinguished by the faculty of thinking; they are able, through reflection on their perceptions and observations of reality, to develop concepts and ideas and general purposes, and then act, collectively, to realise those purposes. The mark of a human is being able to set out an order of actions that will result in the achievement of a purpose. For example, if you want to have shelter, you must have a roof, but the roof must have walls to rest on, and the walls must have appropriate foundations. In such ways, humans have been enabled by God to plan and order their thoughts and actions. Human knowledge itself can be studied in this orderly way. Like many others before him, Ibn Khaldun developed a hierarchical classification of human knowledge, within two broad categories: that which is based on revealed authority or religious knowledge, from which are derived values and certain elements of law; and that which is based on human experience and reflection or natural knowledge including philosophy or hikma, mathematics, and sciences like botany, zoology. A third category of knowledge is based on neither the authority of religion or human intellect. Rather, it is based upon and exploits human psychological weaknesses, and it is thoroughly reprehensible: sorcery, fortune-telling, letter-magic, and alchemy are examples of these reprehensible kinds of knowledge-seeking.

Ibn Khaldun’s strong orientation to reality, to learning from observation and experience, makes it predictable that he would be a strong critic of abstract philosophy (in the Greek style) and of the extremes of Sufism, whose claims to mystic knowledge, even if true, had negative consequences for people’s willingness to reform themselves and their societies on the basis of their own moral and political efforts. The same orientation to practical realities makes it predictable that we can learn a great deal from Ibn Khaldun about the practice of teaching and learning. For example, he emphasised the importance of teaching basic skills in language and arithmetic – i.e. the skills of orderly thinking and clear expression – before even the teaching of the Qur’an; he emphasised the need to teach the agreed general principles and fundamentals of a subject before distracting students with details and controversies; he distinguished essential knowledge (for example, of general linguistic skill) from auxiliary, specialist subjects (for example, grammar and philology); he mentioned the need to avoid teaching summaries of summaries of important texts, and instead to teach the original texts themselves; he highlighted the importance of travelling in search of the best teachers of a subject; he stressed the need to establish a warm, trusting relationship between teachers and students. Above all, Ibn Khaldun was fully aware of the reality that education – what is valued in knowledge and how that knowledge is transferred to the next generation – is integrated into the religious, social, political and economic life of the community, is a part of its whole history.