“Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography” by Robert Irwin

Ibn Khaldun’s manuscript of the Muqaddimah Ibn Khaldun’s manuscript of the Muqaddimah

Ibn who? He may have been one of the most important intellectuals ever produced by the Muslim world, but I suspect few beyond specialists know him, if at all, beyond his name and that of his most famous work, the Muqaddima (Prolegomena), by far the greatest and most significant study of history ever produced by a Muslim scholar.

Robert Irwin is the ideal person to remedy this ignorance, and, as Michael Dirda wrote for the book’s cover, “the result is an exhilarating work of intellectual recovery.” As the author of such works as Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents, a wonderfully intelligent defence of the work of orientalists against Edward Said and his school, Irwin is uniquely equipped to tackle a thinker like Ibn Khaldun and situate him in his own times as a man of his own times, not someone “ahead of his time” or some kind of proto-modern philosopher whose ideas can be applied to today’s problems.

Irwin’s thesis is that not only was Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) very much a 14th-century Muslim, but that he was in all likelihood a Sufi, he preferred nomads to city-dwellers, he believed in the occult or, as Irwin puts it, “the reality of the supernatural,” and his world was not at all like ours, however much we might try to fit it in. Irwin goes on to criticize the habit many scholars have had of turning Ibn Khaldun into a “modern” man, refashioning him in an image which makes him more like us and a lot less like himself.

In the end, it’s what isn’t modern which makes Ibn Khaldun a fascinating figure, and Irwin’s journalistic and novelistic skills make this book an absolute joy to read. However, it’s not just one of those popular “romps” through history; Irwin is a seriously erudite scholar who can actually engage readers and catch us up in his own enthusiasm for his subject while at the same time keeping us respectful of his knowledge and learning.

Irwin has produced a tour-de-force.

Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography, Robert Irwin (Princeton University Press, February 2018)
Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography, Robert Irwin (Princeton University Press, February 2018)

Ibn Khaldun was a politician, historian, jurist, theologian, physiologist, psychologist and a number of other things as well, indeed a much different intellectual figure from the plethora of narrow specialists and niche experts of our own day who seem to populate the universities and the broader world of learning. It must be very difficult for writers of that ilk to tie him down, but they have, through the years, attempted to do so, and he has been transformed into a proto-Durkheim, a proto-Marx or an anthropologist, depending on the view of the scholar writing about him. “In so many ways,” Irwin tells us,


he was outstanding and exceptional; yet in other ways his thinking was that of a thoroughly conservative Muslim.


However, within the vastness of the Muqaddima, Ibn Khaldun did create theoretical models to explain the world, but the information he worked from was medieval, not modern, so what we learn from him is how people in the Muslim world of his time saw things work. Reading him gives us two perspectives, the intellectual and the ordinary, even the highbrow and the lowbrow. Ibn Khaldun might have been a genius, but he was also a regular Muslim who read the Qur’an, the Hadiths and Muslim law and took them as he found them.

In a review like this it is difficult to sum up a thinker like Ibn Khaldun, who did not write in a systematic way. The Muqaddima may be defined as a book about the laws of history, but in fact it deals with almost the whole spectrum of Islamic culture at the time, even though Ibn Khaldun intended it to be a Prolegomena (three volumes) to his chronicle history, the Kitab al-Ibar (seven volumes). Perhaps like Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, it was the Prolegomena which became famous, or like Darwin’s Origin of Species being read far more than The Descent of Man.

In this book, as Irwin tells us, Ibn Khaldun asks, at the beginning, an important question, “why do historians make mistakes?” He suggests that there are three reasons, namely “partisanship”, “gullibility” and “ignorance of what is intrinsically possible.”

He points out that the third is the most important, because historians often have not paid attention to the laws of human society and that they miss the “inner meaning” of history when they just write chronicles of events. Here we can draw a parallel; in the West, history was often simply recording a series of events, such as in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or Holinshed’s Chronicles, on which Shakespeare drew for his plots. Historians should be studying cause and effect, Ibn Khaldun believed, and they should compare how things operate within situations which may be the same, or different. To understand how all this works in the context of Ibn Khaldun’s world, Irwin suggests that we try to push our modernity aside, or, as Coleridge suggested with drama, “suspend disbelief.” If Ibn Khaldun took the supernatural seriously, then to understand him we can’t just dismiss it as superstition; we must simply accept that Ibn Khaldun’s world isn’t ours.

We must simply accept that Ibn Khaldun’s world isn’t ours.

Irwin has produced a tour-de-force of intellectual biography. There is much more to his book than I have described above; he considers Ibn Khaldun as a politician who served a succession of Arab rulers, as a Sufi mystic and even as an economist (Engels read him), all of which are discussed in the context of their times.

Chapter 10 deals with what Irwin calls “The Strange Afterlife of the Muqaddima”, which informs us what became of it after the author’s death and its discovery by the West around 1697, when Ibn Khaldun made a brief appearance in a French compilation, the Bibliothèque orientale, where the writer, Barthélémy d’Herbelot, got most of his information wrong, being correct only in noting Ibn Khaldun’s date of death. He moved through the 19th century at the hands of German and French scholars, arriving rather late in England when Arnold Toynbee called the Muqaddima “the greatest work of its kind.” Following Toynbee, a translation came out, and Ibn Khaldun’s influence even spread to the literary world, including Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov in the science fiction genre. Ibn Khaldun became a sociologist in the hands of Ernest Gellner, and a philosopher through Muhsin Mahdi. Arab nationalists claimed him as one of their own and he has even been dubbed “a product of orientalism.”

Robert Irwin sails through all this with his wide, generous intellect and engaging style, bringing not just a man to life through what he did, but through what he thought and who he actually was. And at the end of the book he observes that


few today would share Ibn Khaldun’s positive vision of tribal loyalty as an engine of social change,


perhaps something which observers of contemporary American culture might take to heart.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.