Ibn Khladun: An Intellectual Biography-a Review


I mention Khaldun enough so it is about time I review a book about him.

I have to admit, Robert Irwin’s ‘Ibn Khladun: An Intellectual Biography’ did not immediately meet with my approval. One of his earliest statements is that the great historian’s views of the cycles of nomadic Bedouins coming and going in power in North Africa is not applicable to many other places on Earth. I disagree entirely-with the added proviso that as long as one is aware of the local histories in detail-and I myself came to Ibn Khaldun through matching his thinking up with my first historic love: the Turko-Mongolian world. Though the author later quantifies that to some degree. But I would add also that Khaldun’s thought does in fact become more universally applicable to the cycles of history if one looks for the equivalent of nomads in these settings-potentially powerful outsider groups with strong in-group cohesion. A society with no nomads still has the underclass, highly traveled professional workers, diplomats and mercenary generals for hire as was common in Enlightenment Europe, privateers and upstart naval powers, and the like. One could, and in fact I feel like perhaps later I should, write the history of naval power from a Khaldunian perspective. All show the upstart but well organized outsider taking over the decadent wealth which often was not made by its present adherents but rather inherited by them, setting up their new, more youthful, and vibrant regime in its place or at its expense, and then succumbing, with the passing of generations, to the same maladies of their former foes and who are in turn replaced by new upstarts on their own periphery. So did it go with Venice, Spain and Portugal to the Dutch and then the British and then the Americans. So will it be again.

But this criticism aside, the overview Irwin gives us of both Khaldun’s career and the life his works have taken on since his death are both critical and laudatory, and put the man in context. As a thinker who is often projected by moderns to be one of them, it is important to see his historic context and actual views (including now laughable ones about sorcery and supernaturalism) restored to discussion of his record. Additionally, Irwin retains enough detachment to be able to postulate about the normal human foibles that Ibn Khaldun suffers from. He also retains a very even overview of later thinkers, both modern and not, who interpreted the thinker for their own ends. Most interestingly was his apparent growing popularity in the Ottoman governing and thinking classes that showed they were far more aware of the potential of their decline than most empires at their height are. I am very tempted to think that the nomadic Turkic background of the state contributed to this self-awareness and critical openness. It was also interesting having his time in the Mamluk Sultanate covered, as it was both a government that reflected some knowledge of the need to keep the ruling class recharged with fresh blood (Mamluks were imported Turko/Circassian/Balkan slaves who had been raised as nomadic cavalry who were then drawn into the military of Egypt under Sultans also descended from such stock) but also one which by Khaldun’s time was starting to degenerate even despite this caution.

Still, all things political being either in a state of rising and falling-with falling more commonplace-one can say that the Mamluks were in fact enormously successful compared to most of their contemporaries as well as a rare medieval state that could long term sustain being both an art patron and a vigorous military power. And its fall had more to do with the technological changes elsewhere invalidating the nomadic cavalry focused military than internal factors when the chips were down. Firearms matter and it was the Ottomans who jumped on that wagon first as a way to organize the core of their armies.

The best part of Irwin’s work, however, is in recognizing the pessimism of Ibn Khaldun. Here was a man born and raised in 14th Century North Africa who all around him saw signs of ruins of richer and more powerful civilizations long dead in the past. If Carthage and the Almohads could fall, why not the Hasfids who he worked for? Why not everyone else until the end of time? Though nomadic regime change could bring in fresh blood for a time, it would only be for a limited amount of it. Meanwhile, the Sahara grew and prestige of the region shrunk. This was the core of Ibn Khaldun’s work…work that would go on to influence such fiction greats as Asimov’s Foundation and Herbert’s Dune. And in a remarkable in-person meeting years after most of his writings, Ibn Khaldun would meet Emir Timur outside of Damascus during the very siege that the Turkic conqueror was conducting, and in so doing get to see the only example of rising in his lifetime and discuss theories of history with him-an academic case study made real in the flesh.

Would all us scholars be so lucky.

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