Sunday, November 11, 2007

Ibn Khaldun's The Muqaddimah

It had long been my intention to write a post on this book or its author, Ibn Khaldun, for this book or work for want of a better word, is unrivalled, even now, a few centuries later and the man who wrote it, Ibn Khaldun, still very enigmatic and just as brilliant.

Ibn Khaldun, statesman and jurist, scholar and historian, philosopher and political theorist was born in Tunis in the 14th century, whose family having enjoyed privileges in Moorish Spain, emigrated to Tunisia after the fall of Muslim Spain. Ibn Khaldun belonged to a privileged background and his education was traditional. He studied mysticism later and philosophy that was influenced by the Greeks. As was the rule, he entered the employment of various rulers and was a working politician too. Ibn Khaldun wrote his history of the world in 1377, "with words and ideas pouring into my head like cream into a churn". Afterwards he travelled a lot, mostly around the Muslim west. Towards the end of his life, he was a religious judge and died in 1406 in Cairo, where he is buried in its Sufi cemetery.

It is exactly 3 years when I bought the Muqaddimah and I have read this strange, fantastic and sometimes magnificent book from time to time. Lets see what Arnold Toynbee says about The Muqaddimah , ........ "the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place............the most comprehensive analysis of how human affairs work that has been made anywhere". It seems that it was certainly far ahead of its time as for enumerating concepts is concerned though I am not sure if this is the first history ever. However, there can be no doubt that this work is a philosophy of history, and hence a very rational work considering the times it was written in. Muqaddimah or Introduction is actually his introduction to his world history and book 1 of his history. Ibn Khaldun is never outside conservative thought but if he was alive today, he would be classified as right leaning but not an overt conservative.

Ibn Khaldun enumerates and classifies, he explains in a rational and analytic manner, away from conventional historiography and he does not seem to accept unverifiable data. He begins this work by praising God or Allah, as it is He who created races and nations and also reminding us that time wears us out. Ibn Khaldun tells us that history, its inner meaning involves speculation and an attempt to get at the truth, subtle explanations and deep knowledge. However, it is firmly rooted in philosophy. Little effort is being made to get at the truth. the critical eye is not sharp. Blind trust in tradition is an inherited trait in human beings. He reminds us that it takes critical insight to sort out the hidden truth and it takes knowledge to lay truth bare and polish it so that critical insight may be applied to it.

Ibn Khaldun thus devises a systematic plan to write his history, with the introduction dealing with civilization, authority, government. the 2nd book deals with races, dynasties and predominantly of the Arabs, Israelis, the cop ts, Greeks etc. The 3rd book deals with Berbers. Ibn Khaldun reminds or warns us in his foreword that this book forces stubborn stray wisdom to return to the fold. It gives cause and reason. In other words, this book has become unique, as it contains knowledge and familiar if hidden wisdom. The first part thus is on human civilization in general, then on the parts where civilization is found, the earths temperate and intemperate zones and a fascinating chapter on the influence of climate upon human character.

Ibn Khaldun is never hesitant to recognise the interaction between man and his environment and yet man can think and co-operate and this results in an urbanization, a polity but since man is animal by nature, he needs a restraining influence, someone to govern. Reading this brilliant work, I felt that Ibn Khaldun is a brilliant sociologist, for his concern is primarily man, his organisation, reasons and causes. He writes in detail about various types of men and those who are prone to supernatural perceptions and dream visions. He discusses prophet hood and prophecy and soothsaying and differentiates them. Ibn Khaldun is quite famous for his concept of asabiyah or solidarity or group feeling. Without it, individuals can achieve nothing, and he attributes Arab success to this asabiyah, saying in one chapter that religious propaganda cannot materialize without group feeling. Only tribes held together by group feeling can live in the desert.

Ibn Khaldun traces how dynasties originate, rise, stay and fall and reminds rulers that exaggerated harshness is harmful to authority. The middle portion of this work deals with governance, its types and ways, financial and political techniques, the police, diplomacy and the ministry of official correspondence and writing. The end chapters classify crafts, like calligraphy and midwifery, also book production and his important ideas on urbanization and civilization, what he calls umraan. The last chapter sees his notions and philosophy on man, his rational distinguishing ideas on scholarship, scientific instruction and research. I cannot fully elucidate the great knowledge in this work, but will try to quote from it in the future. I will end by quoting a passage from his on instruction. To end, this work is at once brilliant and unique, and worth reading a few more times for I think it predates many ideas that are actually in vogue now.

"Linguistic expression is merely the interpreter of ideas that are in the mind. One person conveys them to another in oral discussion, instruction, and constant scientific research. Words and expressions are media and veils between the ideas. They constitute the bonds between them and give them their final imprint. The student of ideas must extract them from words that express them. For this he needs a knowledge of their linguistic meaning and a good linguistic habit. When he has a firmly rooted habit as far as semantics is concerned, so that the correct ideas present themselves to his mind when he hears certain words used, and naturally, the veil between the ideas and understanding is either totally removed, or becomes less heavy, and the only task that remains is to investigate the problems inherent in the ideas".


Sharif said...

Khaldun is definitely a genius of his time, no doubt. However, there are problems with translation and also how to interpret reading, especially "secularizing" him to fit in into the "modern" world.

These two books deal with such issues.
1. Ibn Khald¯un in modern scholarship : a study in orientalism by Aziz al-Azmeh.
(1981). This is a very hard book to follow, polemical at some times, but still makes some good points on how to read Khaldun.

2. Another work, more approachable, by Islam Obscured by Daniel Varisco, deals with anthropological representation of Islam, has a small section on Khaldun. Varisco is highly critical of Ernest Gellner reading of Khaldun.

KUBLA KHAN said...

I have read Islam obscured, and it is definitely better than say Levi strauss's general views on the orient, islam etc.
Ibn khaldun was a genius yes and should be viewed within the limits of those times. the muqaddimah is a great work and demands to be read, again and again.