A Muslim Founder of the Social Sciences?

By Nile GreenNovember 3, 2018

A Muslim Founder of the Social Sciences?

Ibn Khaldun by Robert Irwin

FOUNDER OF SOCIOLOGY, forerunner of Marx, economist, and anthropologist avant la lettre: over the past century few medieval thinkers have been lauded with so many modernist labels as Ibn Khaldun. Spreading his fame westward, the world historian Arnold Toynbee described his masterpiece, the Muqaddima, as “the most comprehensive and illuminating analysis of how human affairs work that has been made anywhere.” By the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was even citing Ibn Khaldun in support of Republican tax policies. But then, ever since he was first introduced to Europe by the Austrian Baron von Hammer-Purgstall, this “Arab Montesquieu” (in the baron’s telling phrase) has been claimed for many schools and causes, most of them secular and some quite at odds with his own pious principles. In his highly readable appraisal of Ibn Khaldun’s life and work, Robert Irwin sets out to demythologize and, at the same time, remystify a man whose mind was formed far from the seminar rooms of 20th-century social science.

Born in Tunis in 1332 to a family of aristocratic pedigree, like countless itinerant Muslim clerics of his time, Ibn Khaldun spent most of his career as a freelance bureaucrat roaming between the competing courts of the Maghreb. His was a life not without excitements, or at least dangers: there were the years of intrigue at the tumultuous center of politics followed by exile and new beginnings; of diplomatic missions to places as differently perilous as the Christian court of Castile and the dominions of Berber tribesmen; the weeks of unsettling interviews with the would-be world conqueror, Tamerlane. In one of Robert Irwin’s many memorable phrases, Ibn Khaldun was “a kind of bureaucratic condottiere,” though it is not for his life he is usually remembered, despite leaving his own written account of it. Rather, it is for the Muqaddima he first composed during two years of self-imposed seclusion in a remote castle in Algeria. Though usually rendered as “Prolegomena,” the Arabic title is more plainly translatable as “Introduction,” which is indeed how he intended it: as an introduction to the study of history that identified general characteristics, patterns, and indeed cycles, behind the fleeting turn of events. Given its author’s capacious intellect and disciplined curiosity, what began as the literal introduction to a larger work grew into a masterpiece in its own right, approaching 1,500 pages.

It is on this comparatively short introduction rather than the even longer chronicle that followed it that Ibn Khaldun’s fame has ever since rested; or rather, dwindled for centuries before a latter-day upswing. Almost 40 years ago, the bibliography of studies of the Muqaddima compiled by the Syrian scholar Aziz al-Azmeh already reached over 800 items, rendering it difficult and perhaps unnecessary to say anything truly original. The main lines of interpretation and debate were already laid out decades ago: between Ibn Khaldun as the Hellenist rationalizer, whom the Egyptian Greek economist Charles Issawi called “an Arab philosopher of history,” and the Sharia-steeped moralist seeking to reconcile the hidden laws of the human world with the Qur’anic revelation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the former image that has underwritten his reputation as the sociological forerunner of Durkheim, Comte, and Marx. Robert Irwin, however, makes plain his preference for the latter, more religious reading of Ibn Khaldun, and takes it as the task of his intellectual biography to demonstrate how brilliant insights into historical process could emerge from the study of scripture, theology, and religious law.

If this sounds a somewhat dry agenda, its execution is considerably more vivid via a tour d’horizons of the distant world of the medieval Maghreb. As Irwin explains early on, “When I read the Muqaddima, I have the sense that I am encountering a visitor from another planet — and that is exciting.” At the center of his task is incorporating into our understanding of Ibn Khaldun the religious, moral, and even magical elements typically excised from the selective translations and famous quotations from his work, which means accounting for his fascination with freak events, the occult, and miracles as well as group solidarity and state formation. “There have been other ways of looking at the world than the one we mostly take for granted today,” Irwin continues, and Ibn Khaldun offers the “modern reader access to a premodern and radically different approach to understanding societies and their histories.”

In conceiving his book as an “intellectual biography,” Irwin primarily sets out to restore Ibn Khaldun to his time and place in a way that explains rather than reduces the significance of his insights. With this in mind, we first meet the young Ibn Khaldun “among the ruins,” amid the vestiges and memories of former peoples that lay the first seeds of his subsequent theorizing on the rise and fall of dynasties and civilizations. These melancholy surroundings partly comprised the material ruins of Carthage and Rome that still lie strewn across North Africa, including near the castle where the Muqaddima was composed. But the ruin was also an abstract site, rendered discursive and moral by qasida poems, popular legends, and Qur’anic accounts of the destruction of wicked peoples. Born 74 years after the Mongols executed Baghdad’s last caliph, and witnessing the Black Death sweep through the lands of Islam at the age of 16 (taking his parents with it), Ibn Khaldun was raised among concerns that Muslim, or at least Arab, civilization was reaching the divinely appointed time of its own downfall.

Having thus positioned his subject in his pessimistic age, in the course of a little over a hundred pages Irwin follows him from this formative first context through the Andalusian, North African, and Egyptian courts where he found employment, before dying in 1406 in Cairo, where he was buried in a Sufi cemetery. At each point on the itinerary, Irwin pauses to examine the books, intellectual methods, and debates to which Ibn Khaldun was exposed. A specialist on the Mamluk period and its literature, Irwin is on familiar ground here, and his narrative sets a jaunty pace through terrain he knows well.

The test of any introduction to Ibn Khaldun, though, is how successfully it communicates the sheer excitement of his ideas. Determined to historicize his subject out of the clutches of his secularizing and modernizing champions, Irwin makes the test that much trickier by declaring from the outset his disinterest in making the Muqaddima “relevant.” Instead, in four chapters devoted to different aspects of Ibn Khaldun’s thought, there is as much emphasis on moral and metaphysical concerns as on the social and material forces that won him the admiration of later positivists. Thus, a chapter on the Muqaddima’s methodology emphasizes the centrality of the Maliki legal school in which Ibn Khaldun studied and later taught, affirming H. A. R. Gibb’s reading of the text’s central political lesson as being the historical costs of disobeying divine law as one people after another roll through the Qur’anic cycle of the rise and fall of kingdoms. Other chapters take up themes that modern commentators have emphasized, such as the comparative social structures of townsmen and tribesmen, and the importance of economic factors in historical change. Here too Ibn Khaldun is presented as primarily a moral thinker whose “ideas about economics drew upon ethics, hikma, Islamic law, and personal observation,” as well, most importantly, as al-Ghazali’s Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (“Revival of the Religious Sciences”). Rather than allowing his posthumously recognized magnum opus to dominate his biography, Irwin positions the Muqaddima among its author’s other works, which are similarly infused with this moral vision, not least the disappointing historical chronicle that followed the Muqaddima. For even by its title, Kitab al-‘Ibar (“The Book of Warnings”), the latter echoed the Qur’anic model of historical narrative as the provision of admonishing lessons.

However, it is in two chapters on Sufism and occultism that Irwin takes readers furthest from the textbook picture of Ibn Khaldun as the father of the social sciences, remarking that “he inhabited a different and darker world than the one known to European economists and sociologists.” Affirmed by the Qur’an as many supernatural forces were, Ibn Khaldun believed in the power of sorcery and miracles, numerology, and letter magic, predictive dreams and astrology, all of which he discussed in the Muqaddima (though he also warned about frauds and charlatans). The sheer force of Irwin’s revisionism runs the risk of making first-time readers unfamiliar with Ibn Khaldun wonder what all the fuss was about. But far from trivializing, these sections form part of a determinedly holistic approach to what is, after all, a medieval intellectual biography. Irwin speculates fruitfully about the possible connections between his subject’s interests in history and divination as respectively licit and illicit methods of making the future knowable.

Turning to the question of Ibn Khaldun’s connections with Sufism, Irwin notes rightly how integral Sufi ideas were by the 14th century to the religious education of Muslim clerics. Most of Ibn Khaldun’s mentors and closest associates were Sufis, and he himself wrote a short but positive treatise on Sufi doctrine, while declaring in the Muqaddima that “Sufism belongs to the sciences of the religious law that originated in Islam.” Even so, Irwin refuses to overplay its impact on his broader ideas and argues against Allen Fromherz’s case in his Ibn Khaldun: Life and Times for reading the Muqaddima as a specifically Sufi interpretation of history.

Given that Ibn Khaldun’s reputation rests solely on the Muqaddima, Irwin is right to devote his last and longest chapter to the great book itself, tracing its own reputation over the centuries. Rather than being historiography to be sifted and subsumed at the start of his study, Irwin’s approach turns the scholarship on the Muqaddima into part of its own story by way of a reception history, echoing a wider trend over the past few years in which books, and not only authors, have become the subject of biographies. While the Muqaddima “was all but forgotten in the Arab world” till modern times, it did generate a degree of interest in the 17th- and especially 18th-century Ottoman Empire, where it was translated into Turkish and thence probably transmitted to Hammer-Purgstall during his years as a diplomat in Istanbul. From this point on, a large proportion of Ibn Khaldun’s readers and commentators appear to have been European Orientalists whose dialogue with Muslim scholars ensured the belated but concurrent first printings of the Muqaddima in Cairo and Paris.

Autograph manuscript of the “Muqaddima” from Istanbul.

As the text became more accessible through publication and translation, its stature expanded accordingly among Arab as well as European and increasingly American scholars, most notably the Chicago world historian Marshall Hodgson. The field of world history had developed a special relationship with Ibn Khaldun ever since Toynbee integrated him into his own vision of the rise and fall of civilizations. For Hodgson, the Muqaddima provided penetrating lenses for viewing world history that were polished long before the rise of the West. And yet for Hodgson, as well as for other promotors of the pioneer sociologist approach, making Ibn Khaldun amenable to modern academia required something of a trade-off. Less the trained exponent of Sharia and reconciler of the moral vision of the Qur’an with the visible facts of the world, Ibn Khaldun assumed the more secular form of the Arab heir to the Greek philosophers. There is still a good case to be made for this view, as recently shown in Stephen Dale’s The Orange Trees of Marrakesh: Ibn Khaldun and the Science of Man.

That is not, though, the approach of Robert Irwin, who points repeatedly to the Muqaddima’s criticism of philosophy (falsafa). Rather than domesticate Ibn Khaldun through the cultural halfway house of Graeco-Arab philosophy, or familiarize him through anachronously secular epithets, Irwin prefers to position him in the medieval society he endeavored to make sense of. To “modernize Ibn Khaldun,” he remarks in his closing statement, “and to elide the strangeness of his thinking is to denature him.” It will not be the last word: the mental riches of the Muqaddima will continue to provoke both new readings and the retrenching of old positions. But for now at least, in this concise and compelling biography Robert Irwin has snatched the Muqaddima from the modernists and returned it to the medievalists.


Nile Green holds the Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA.

LARB Contributor

As Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA, Nile Green brings global history into conversation with Islamic history. He has researched and traveled in around 20 Muslim countries, including Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen. His many books include The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austens London, Global Islam: A Very Short Introduction, and How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding. Green also hosts the podcast Akbar’s Chamber: Experts Talk Islam, which is available on all major platforms.


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