Magazine | April 2, 2018, Issue

A Scholar and His Times

Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography, by Robert Irwin (Princeton, 272 pp., $29.95)

Despite never having finished his graduate thesis, Robert Irwin has taught medieval and Islamic history and literature at such places as Oxford, Cambridge, and St. Andrews. Over the decades, he has come to know Ibn Khaldun and the 14th-century world surrounding him very, very well. With this book, he distills his insights so that a reader can get an understanding of Ibn Khaldun on that thinker’s own terms, rather than — as is too common in writing about him — as a precursor to Adam Smith, Durkheim, Marx, or some other popular intellectual figure.

Ibn Khaldun is often presented as something of a voice in the wilderness, a man before his time and indeed apart from his culture and faith. In his book the Muqaddimah (1377), he lays out the analytical tools he thought necessary for understanding world history. These range from proto–social sciences to a cyclical theory of the rise, decay, and rejuvenation of civilizations that has captivated readers across the ages. The sheer novelty of a 14th-century scholar exploring political economy and speculating about evolution stands out.

As a historian and a novelist, Irwin has a unique gift for introducing readers to unfamiliar worlds, and Ibn Khaldun’s ideas become even more interesting in that context. This was a man who lived through the Black Death, fell in and out of favor with rulers across North Africa, and even once decided to research nomadic civilizations firsthand by spending some time in discussion with the Turco-Mongol military chief Tamerlane (from which he wisely knew when to withdraw).

There aren’t many medieval historians who have both been cited by a U.S. president on tax policy in a nationally televised address and inspired the world of a major science-fiction franchise, but Ibn Khaldun managed both. (President Ronald Reagan invoked him; Frank Herbert based Dune, at least in part, on his thought.) The great English historians Arnold Toynbee and Hugh Trevor-Roper, who disagreed tremendously with each other on many things, found common ground in assessing Ibn Khaldun as the greatest of their field. So who exactly was he?

Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis in 1332, in the shadow of ancient ruins, Carthaginian and Roman, that dotted the landscape as a visual reminder of how great civilizations decline and fall. He began his studies under his father, a noted jurist, and continued them under a series of great scholars who came to live in Tunis. He mastered theology and the other liberal arts. The Black Death wiped out his entire family and many of his teachers; thereafter, he spent much of his life moving from place to place, not always by choice. He ended up in Egypt and faced disaster yet again: The ship carrying his wife and daughters sank off the coast of Alexandria.

His training prepared him well for a variety of roles, from minister to teacher to diplomat. At one point in his career, he was one of the mazalim judges — exercising the function to which Edmund Burke referred when, in his famous prosecution of the impeachment of Warren Hastings, he praised Islamic law as “binding upon all, from the crowned head to the meanest subject.” The mazalim judge, in his role as investigator of official misconduct, tended to become embroiled in rivalries and court intrigue. Such dramatic action looms large in Irwin’s account of Ibn Khaldun’s life and intellectual development, with one chapter aptly titled “The Game of Thrones in Fourteenth-Century North Africa.” It was as a result of this stormy political climate that Ibn Khaldun often found himself stripped of his position and needing to move, whether it was because he had lost a ruler’s favor or because that ruler had been overthrown. (He was relatively fortunate: Some did not survive court intrigue.)

His experiences of serving under successively failing dynasties, living through the Black Death, and wandering through the ruins in North Africa drilled deep into him the impermanence of political orders. His study of the nomadic Berbers of North Africa was not unlike Tacitus’s studies of the Germans: It convinced him that the arrival of nomadic rulers could, by displacing decadent and stagnant dynasties, rejuvenate a polity. His theory of history is very far removed from the Whiggish idea of continual improvement, and yet it signals that decadence and decay are not permanent.

Irwin draws attention to Ibn Khaldun’s years of service as a jurist within the Maliki rite. (This is one of the four schools of religious practice in orthodox Islam, each of which possesses its own methodology, and each of which is considered valid. In larger polities, there would be four law courts, one for each of the schools.) He credits this legal training as a major influence on Ibn Khaldun, an aspect of his thought that has been overlooked by many commentators, despite the deep praise for the science of jurisprudence in the Muqaddimah. As Irwin notes, the Maliki tradition of jurisprudence has a unique methodology for deriving original meaning from historical sources and for determining the normative practice when multiple authentic sources seem to say different things. Ibn Khaldun applied this legal approach to his historical methodology. (I would have liked to see it explored in even greater depth; interested readers might wish to consult Yasin Dutton’s 1999 book The Origins of Islamic Law for deeper context.)

Many Americans who are familiar with Ibn Khaldun’s name probably recall it from President Reagan’s citation, but Irwin states outright that Ibn Khaldun did not invent the Laffer curve. In fact, his views on taxation were much more radical (by our standards, at least): He considered virtually all taxation beyond the basic and small religious taxes to be illegitimate appropriation of other people’s property. Equally wrong, in his view, were state monopolies and price controls, which would be attacked by later Muslim scholars following in his tradition.

Irwin’s book does for one of the greatest scholars of the Middle Ages what his volume The Arabian Nights: A Companion (1994) did for that monumental classic of Arabic fiction. It is an excellent introduction for a new reader, but just as useful for someone who has already encountered the work. This biography is unlike anything else about Ibn Khaldun that has been published in English: It makes the past less foreign.

Jibran Khan is the Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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