Breaking with tradition: Robert Irwin rethinks Ibn Khaldun

Breaking with tradition: Robert Irwin rethinks Ibn Khaldun
Book review: Irwin revisits the Arab world's most famous thinker, and tries to dismantle the idea of him as a modern man living in premodern times, writes Usman Butt.
5 min read
02 Apr, 2018
Some see Khaldun as a forerunner of the modern disciplines of sociology and economics [Getty]
Robert Irwin is no stranger to controversy. The novelist and historian's spirited critique of Orientalism, and of Edward Said in 'For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies' have made him unfashionable among the younger generations of Middle Eastern historians. 

While this does not mean he is without admirers, it is uncommon to find his book on Middle East studies reading lists at universities, whereas Edward Said's 'Orientalism' enjoys a lasting place of prominence on such courses.

Just over 10 years since his last book, Irwin is back with another target in mind; the great Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), or contemporary interpretations of Khaldun's life and works to be more exact.

'Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography' takes on the task of chronicling Khaldun's life and ideas, and dissecting how others have come to understand him. No easy feat and certainly an ambitious undertaking, for Ibn Khaldun is one of the most cited, written about and referenced Arab thinkers ever.

Over the ages, historians and sociologists from Silvestre de Sacy, Arnold Toynbee to Ernest Gellner have made all kinds of claims about Ibn Khaldun, including crediting him with inventing sociology and political science, among other things.

The tendency to see Khaldun as a modern man living in premodern times is exactly the idea Irwin aims to dismantle in his new book.

Khaldun was not a secret modern rationalist living in the middle ages, but very much a man of his time with a deep interest in Sufism, orthodox Islam, occultism and futurism.

This desire to shatter modern scholarship on Ibn Khaldun at times overshadows the book

He was in every sense of the word a man-of-his-time. His premier work al-Muqaddima (the Introduction) is steeped in metaphysical discourse and, according to Irwin, of little use in the modern world.

The Muqaddima has nothing to teach us about how modern society and politics works, he had nothing important to say about economics, and beyond 14th century North African politics, the ideas are antiquated.

These arguments are unlikely go down well, as both in the Arab and western world, Khaldun is seen as somewhat of a prophet for modern times. US President Ronald Reagan famously quoted Ibn Khaldun to support his argument for lower taxes, "May I offer you the advice of the 14th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, who said, 'At the beginning of the empire, the tax rates were low and the revenues were high. At the end of the empire, the tax rates were high and the revenues were low.'"

Irwin does not dispute the quote from Reagan but he does point out Khaldun had no interest in economics and had no substantive theory on it. 

Fundamentally, Khaldun's writings were not history or science in the modern sense, rather they were both philosophical and mystical works with much more in common with his contemporaries, than with Karl Marx or Max Weber.

The approach employed by Irwin places Ibn Khaldun in a society recovering from the Black Death, which claimed both of his parents. Khaldun's concern is not materialism (which would define him as a modern thinker according to Irwin) but morality, Ibn Khaldun was a moralist and ethical thinker, not a scientist.

"Although he was preoccupied with knowledge of the future, he had no sense of social or technological progress, and he had no programme of reform." Irwin writes, "Come to that, there was not going to be much future for things to change in, for he believed that he lived close to the End of Time."

In many respects this is the key argument from the book, Ibn Khaldun was not interested in material progress but in diagnosing what went wrong morally with his society ahead of any final divine judgment.

Fascinating as Irwin's argument is, as he himself says, "How relevant can Ibn Khaldun be in a world of globalisation, digitisation, nation-states, democracies and dictatorships?

"So I am not interested in making Ibn Khaldun's writings seem relevant to present-day issues. It is precisely Ibn Khaldun's irrelevance to the modern world that makes him so interesting and important. When I read the Muqaddima, I have the sense that I am encountering a visitor from another planet - and that is exciting."

It is hard to escape the feeling that Irwin is making Ibn Khaldun seem as alien to the modern world as possible.

It is hard to escape the feeling that Irwin is making Ibn Khaldun seem as alien to the modern world as possible

Undoubtedly, Irwin has pointed to some very important facets of the life and times of Ibn Khaldun, and his expertise in Medieval Mamluk sources means he has much to add to this debate, however, this desire to shatter modern scholarship on Ibn Khaldun at times overshadows the book.

Despite these misgivings, Robert Irwin's contribution to the literature by and concerning Ibn Khaldun, is an important part of the contemporary debate. 

Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.

Follow him on Twitter: @TheUsmanButt

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.