Origin and Evolution of Human Society in Ibn Khaldun's Philosophy of Human Development
by Noorudheen Musthafa
[Noorudheen Musthafa is an undergraduate scholar and independent research fellow at Madeenathunoor College of Islamic Science, Kozhikode, Kerala, India. His areas of interest consist of contemporary Islamic thought, Law and Ethics, Muslim culture and civilization, and comparative literature. This paper was presented at the 2nd National Undergraduate Research Conference, Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities (MCPH), Manipal University, India, 23-24 January 2015. It is published by CIP as a product of our global outreach to young Muslim scholars. The opinions expressed are the author's own.]
The philosopher Ibn Khaldun (1332 CE-1406 CE) lived in Tunis in North Africa. Recently, vigorous discussion and dialogue has taken place regarding his magnum opus, the Muqaddima [Prolegomena), in various academic disciplines, such as philosophy, anthropology, historiography, geography, economics, psychology, political science, etc. The work of Ibn Khaldun is used to explore the inner logic of the rise and fall of a civilization, and the origin and evolution of human society. The Muqaddima is a diverse intellectual exercise which brings together differing commentaries by Ibn Khaldun, much derived from Hellenistic knowledge. Beyond a conventional understanding of the study of past human societies, Ibn Khaldun sought to construct a sound synthesis for a philosophy of the humanities. He submitted an aesthetic framework for historiography particularly, and the humanities generally, through his Muqaddima.
Contemporary academic endeavors abound with different expressions of false consciousness regarding the humanities. Academics in modern philosophy and the humanities have been pressured to pursue the fault lines of colonial legacies. When all of knowledge is submitted to a mature determinism based on Eurocentric intellectual conceptions, some of its ethics are devalued, its contexts transformed, and contradictions revealed. There is a need to liberate such readings of the social sciences from diverse and alternative indigenous platforms. The Muqaddima sheds light on the foundation of such a methodology for humanities studies, and shows a tendency to distinguish itself from a delegitimized liberal humanism. This paper therefore offers a new solution for humanities studies in the light of Ibn Khaldun's philosophy of human society. Along with textual interpretation, the paper subjects different normative attitudes toward the humanities to comparative analysis. In addition to the study of the life and teachings of Ibn Khaldun, brief commentaries are included on the classical concepts of the Muqaddima and the need to find its possible role in contemporary humanities studies.
Keywords: Medieval Muslim Philosophy, Muqaddima, Discursive Tradition, Hellenistic philosophy
If anyone looks into the past of any of the social milieux around the planet, from the specific platform of a living world, it is important to pursue a consistent perspective for global well being. A 'nostalgic'/'back to the roots' phenomenon is necessary for today's productive existence and for an effective orientation toward tomorrow. Understanding the past is always important for an extension in the human intellect. Intellectual exercises in human history are performed in different styles, in accordance with social institutions, the manufacture of culture and geographical structures. While reviewing the human chronicle with its scenes of diversity, such a statement will accord with available testimonies from various texts and contexts. Without an overview of the events dealt with in the human discourses of the past, it is very difficult to mould new inventions to the current age. Such a retrospective examination will help to rejuvenate everyday interactions of ideas and objects.
According to evolutionary concepts, nothing in the world is ever new and there is no room for the creation of the new. But all thought and its result represent changes of specific things, with transformation happening in human discourse because of varied conditions in space and time. The philosophy of renewal involves a continuous process in the world, day by day. Such processes in the material world have been the concern of natural scientists. They are used to elucidate developments in the material world or the world of objects with the optics of natural substances, and implements that can see beyond the limits of time. The historical materialism of Karl Marx is a philosophy related to the world of matter, in place of the idealism of Hegel. The material world and ideal world were subjected to the disciplines of philosophy centuries before, as in the historical encounter between the arts of reason and revelation, while topics in medieval Islamic and Western philosophy reproduce the Greek Peripatetic and Neo-Platonic discourses.
Let us take up an enigma: 'How to make cosmic observation instruments that can look back at the history of human societies?' As such a question may concern the whole of science in general and the social sciences in particular, a good and practical answer, wedded to the reality of space and time, past and present, should be important.
The social sciences are an academic field related to the study of human society and social relations. The term is used to refer to the plurality of disciplines outside natural science. This paper introduces a medieval philosopher within a project of alternatives to the Eurocentric context that dominates current thinking in human sciences. Ibn Khaldun, from the 14th century, is renowned in both the East and the West for his Muqaddima [Prolegomena]. Hence, this paper is anchored in this particular work. Despite being introduced to and deeply learned in Hellenistic philosophy, like other medieval scholars, Ibn Khaldun did not follow that tradition blindly. His alternative historiography is that of a master. He chose to follow a unique path. In the current 'knowledge economy' where human sciences are increasingly subverted, a project exploring a medieval scholar would look less than fashionable at best. But Ibn Khaldun's significance for today lies at the intersection of possibilities for dialogue within his works on society, cultural economy and their historical evolution. Hence, this paper sets for itself a task that is simple: an introductory glimpse of that scholar, his period and his work. Toward the end of the paper, I bring in some recent theory from modern social sciences about concerns similar to those that perplexed Ibn Khaldun, as an example of the relevance of Ibn Khaldun within the modern academy.
Ibn Khaldun – Life and Intellectual tradition
Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) is a fourteenth century medieval scholar of Berber origin, born and raised in Tunis, a descendant of an immigrant family with branches in Islamic Spain and Hadramaut in Southern Arabia. His complete name is Abu Zayd Abd Al-Rahman Ibn Muhammad Ibn Khaldun Al-Hadrami. He was a scholar of religious science, natural science and social sciences, and worked as a judge, lawyer, administrator and teacher in various areas of the Muslim world. He lived in one of the most tumultuous centuries of history, because of political imbalance in the medieval Muslim lands and natural calamities in Central Europe, such as the spread of plague. He found himself affected by these fateful developments. While he entered into his intellectual exercises, the social, political, cultural, economic and geographical features of his environment influenced his thought deeply.
The Muqaddima is Ibn Khaldun's magnum opus in dealing with human society. It is an introduction (thus, a Prolegomena) to his celebrated seven-volume work, "Kitabul Iber, Wa divanul mub'tada wal khabar, fi ayyamil Arab, wal Ajam, wal Berber, wa min aa'sirihim wa min daviil sulthanil Akbar [The Book of Lessons, Record of Beginnings and Events in the History of the Arabs, Persians, and Berbers and their Powerful Contemporaries]" It comprises the history of the fall and rise of Arab and Berber societies during the late of medieval period.
In the Muqaddima, the author finds a new approach to social phenomena, after a unique epistemological break with traditional philosophy. To him history is not merely a recorded narrative, but a systematic science. He is therefore one of the forerunners of scientific history. In contrast with the mass of historians, philosophers and social scientists who were his contemporaries and preceded him, it is imperative to note that they could not have made such an effective way for human studies as that which Ibn Khaldun created. The method used by Ibn Khaldun for his philosophical understanding of society was something distinct from any methodology previously known, because of its different way of representation, observation and evaluation.
The Muqaddima and the science of human civilization
Kitabul Iber is a seven-volume history book, and is divided according to its literary outline:
The Muqaddima, its first part, is a detailed study of human society. Ibn Khaldun wrote under the headings, 'Al-Umran', 'Al-Ijtima', 'Al-Bashari', which commonly mean 'studies about society' or 'sociology'. The second part covers the history of Arabs, their generations; ancient nations, including the Syrians, the Persians, the Jews, the Copts, the Greeks, and the Romans; the advent of Islam, the life of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the era of the first four caliphs of Islam (Khulafa'u Al Rashida); the history of the Turks and the Franks, up to the 8th C. AH (14th C. CE). The third volume is a history of the Umayyads, the Abbasids and of the Berbers up to the life of the author. The fourth volume addresses the rise and fall of the Fatimids, the Carmatians, and the Muslims in Spain. The fifth contains the story of the Seljuk Turks, the Crusades and the Mamluks in Egypt. The sixth part is about the detailed interconnections and political interventions among the Berbers. The seventh part is a unique integration of various disciplines, and presents the author's effort to vindicate the merging of such disciplines to support the study of human sciences.
Ibn Khaldun wrote the Muqaddima as an introduction to his history book Kitabul Iber, but his introduction received a much wider reception than Kitabul Iber. The Muqaddima represented a fascinating, new way of looking at the origin, evolution and fall of a civilization in general, and medieval Muslim civilization in particular. In its introductory note, Ibn Khaldun explained to the reader, briefly, the purpose of his work: 'In this book of mine, I shall discuss as much of that as will be possible for me here in the Maghrib. I shall do so either explicitly or implicitly in connection with the history of the Maghrib, in conformity with my intention to restrict myself in this work to the Maghrib, the circumstances of its races and nations, and its subjects and dynasties, to the exclusion of any other region. (This restriction is necessitated) by my lack of knowledge of conditions in the East and among its nations, and by the fact that secondhand information would not give the essential facts I am after' (Ibn Khaldun/Rosenthal: 1969).
In the beginning, Ibn Khaldun wanted to carry out a deep inquiry into the rise of human civilizations. Through his idiosyncratic historical approach, he found common features among them. According to Ibn Khaldun's philosophy, the stage of nomadic life epitomized the primitive level of humanity; then such communities progressed to the stage of nobility, in the form of rulers, judges, etc., in an institutionalized format. He narrated clearly and beautifully the journey of an individual human from his isolated origin to participation in a state form. The inner logic of such incremental phenomena is the essential point in the Muqaddima.
The Muqaddima attempts to define the reasons behind the common human creations of society, and how these patterns result in the rise of historical power groups, which becomes the rationale for step-by-step growth and decline. He found that solidarity and co-operation was a prerequisite for the well-being of a civilization. A long period of individual cultivation is inevitable for the growth of an authentic human altruism. Descent, family relations, reciprocity, and empathy are the grounds for creation of human civilization. Human altruism is the basic feature for such organic development. Nomadism, as the primitive stage of human civilization, allows people to acquire an innate ability to organize their surroundings according to hegemony. Later, Ibn Khaldun examines different stages in which power is exhausted; finally society reaches systemic community as a state. Firstly, cultural hegemony is broken, then political hegemony, thanks to social cohesion and human altruism. 'Social systems, he [Ibn Khaldun] insisted, flourish most if human altruism is recruited by mild and restrained political means, which respect the limits of altruism from the outset' (A. Gierer: 2001).
According to Ibn Khaldun, the ideas of lineage and descent are imperative for creation of a power stronger than any other. He pointed out in the Muqaddima, 'Compassion and affection for one's blood relations and relatives exist in human nature as something God put into the hearts of men. It makes for mutual support and aid, and increases the fear felt by the enemy… One feels shame when one's relatives are treated unjustly or attacked, and one wishes to intervene between them and whatever peril or destruction threatens them.' (Ibn Khaldun/Rosenthal: 1969). Ibn Khaldun expresses himself with audacity, risk, confidence and frankness.
His style of thought favored an approach that contrasted with his intellectual background. His scholastic skepticism is the distinctive factor of Ibn Khaldun's works, when placed among that of other scholars in human history. There were numerous scholars of history and law, in his own period and in the past, celebrated for their pre-eminent contribution to humanity. Among them, Ibn Hisham [d. 9th c. CE], Al-Waqidi [8th-9th c. CE], Al-Baladhuri [d. 9th c. CE], At-Tabari [9th-10th c. CE], and Al-Mas'udi [9th-10th c. CE] came from the Islamic intellectual tradition. But most other works were full of serious historical errors, irrational approaches and unwonted exaggerations. Ibn Khaldun questioned the accuracy of such writings because of their lack of reasoning and of authentic solid witnesses in substance or idea. Beyond producing a thorough history of human civilization, he desired to question traditional views and to produce a distinctive, well-developed framework for humanities study and epistemology. These are the reasons for considering Ibn Khaldun a giant intellectual contributor to the writing of human history.
The Muqaddima and different conceptual systems
The conceptual generalization of the Muqaddima embodies the numerous disciplines that Ibn Khaldun acquired from his traditional teachers. His intellectual nomadism gave him access to various educational centres of the medieval Muslim world, at Cairo, Tunis, Fez, in Hijaz and in Spain. Geo-political factors in Asia, Africa and Europe, cultural interaction with different people where he went for knowledge, purchases, and services deeply influenced his Muqaddima. In the beginning chapter of the Muqaddima, Ibn Khaldun says that the whole Kitabul Iber in general and the Muqaddima in particular reflect his detailed life experience as a student, teacher, administrator and judge.
He delved in the medieval Arab educational system, rooted in the rich scholastic tradition of the classical Arab/Muslim intellect. His profound knowledge included Quranic exegesis, Hadith Science, classical Arab literature, Islamic philosophy, theology, jurisprudence, logic, astronomy, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, law and ethics and historiography. The knowledge of his age dated back to the sixth century Prophetic heritage of the 'Ahlu Suffah' (people of the platform, because they were poor and lived ascetically on a platform in the Holy Mosque of Makkah). Textual representation conformed to his devotional remarks in the Muqaddima and is the central focal point of Ibn Khaldun's methodology of intellectual investigation. Once in the Muqaddima, he commented, 'a great change takes place in the world, such as the transformation of a religion, or the disappearance of a civilization, or something else willed by the power of God' (Ibn Khaldun/Rosenthal: 1969).
The concept of Asabiyyah is the central theme of the Muqaddima. Various translations to English have been made in concern with this term. 'Solidarity', 'group feeling' and 'social cohesion' are the most widely-used among them. Ibn Khaldun says, 'Sometimes, [leadership] goes to some person from the lowest class of people. He obtains group feeling and close contact with the mob for reasons that fate (al-miqdar) produces for him. He, then, achieves superiority over the elders and people of the higher class when they have lost their own group support." (Ibn Khaldun/Rosenthal: 1969). Asabiyyah refers to the 'common socialization' that is integral to a good society and its power. The sustainability of Asabiyyah is the criterion for the rise and fall of a civilization. It needs to be enacted among the known and unknown members of the community together. When the society gets to the peak point of Asabiyyah, then the character of that society is glorious in every condition. A widespread happiness, luxury, comfort and tranquility are the important characteristics of a well-synthesized Asabiyyah society. If it causes discomfort, then from that point the society will begin its decline. The civilizational journey from nomadism to the settled stage is entwined with the power of Asabiyyah. The end of Asabiyyah means the dissolution of present society with its replacement by another noble lineage. Then, the power of culture and state transform from the present lineage to the next group, as these are continuous natural phenomena happening forever in the human world. To Ibn Khaldun, a networked continuity among different kinds of popular identity is the prime feature of a triumphant civilization.
Asabiyyah is a much-used academic term from the work of Ibn Khaldun, which abounds with numerous intellectual insights. He produced a synthesis of sociology and biology, and a new method for social science, which is today called 'sociobiology'. Asabiyyah is very important not only for the sociologists and historians, but also for evolutionary biologists. 'Modern science in general and evolutionary biology in particular, aims to gain a deeper understanding and explanation of the basic conditions of human cooperativity, which have been analyzed in phenomenological and historical terms by Ibn Khaldun.' (A. Gierer: 2001). The Muqaddima asserted it found the origins of the variety of 'civilizational metamorphoses' in Asabiyyah. While studying any single fact in history Ibn Khaldun used to make a detailed survey of it, with the help of different available perspectives that he brought together from various multiple disciplines. Ibn Khaldun created such a method for historical veracity grounded in the Islamic knowledge that he explored since his childhood. In that time there were many other intellectual traditions in the world, like the Hellenic tradition, one of the grand epistemological achievements in human history due to its extensive influence on philosophy and logic. In the period when Ibn Khaldun lived, Neo-Platonic and Peripatic intellectualism played a major part in every form of research into knowledge.
But Ibn Khaldun would not limit his mind to Hellenic knowledge, even as he mastered its subjects. Hadith science as a unique discipline, much reputed in Islam, had great influence on the construction of Ibn Khaldun's philosophy of human society. His subjective consideration of facts provided accuracy in his historical understanding. The Muqaddima took all rituals, traditions, etc., along with its social investigation, in a way that had not been accepted in social studies before Ibn Khaldun.
In recent years, the anthropology of Islam and of Muslim societies particularly, gained much popularity after the formation of the 'discursive tradition' concept of Talal Asad, showing a close similarity to Ibn Khaldun's studies of human civilization. According to the concept of 'discursive tradition', studies that will best treat Islamic societies and Muslim civilizations will focus on anticipations and continuities, rather than conflict and transformations. Asad argues that Islam should be understood as a tradition consisting of 'discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history. An Islamic discursive tradition is simply a tradition of Muslim discourse that addresses itself to the conceptions of the Islamic past and future' (Talal Asad: 1986). Asad formed his discursive tradition contra the 'discursive formation' of Michel Foucault, which emphasized contradictions and discontinuities. To Asad, understanding is parallel to continuity, with roots traced back through previous centuries, to the place where its fundamental, normative consciousness was created. Asad asserts that a discursive tradition 'seeks to understand the historical conditions that enable the production and maintenance of specific traditions, or their transformation, and the efforts of practitioners to achieve coherence'.
Every society has its own identities, which comprise numerous cultural constraints, ritual practices, devotional precepts, etc. For those who engage with the study of such societies, it is imperative to consider all of its heterogeneous factors for a clear understanding of it. The normative phase is a heritage of every civilization, and its folk phase may become involved with any deviation from its textual or normative factor. Thus may come the transformation of social ethics. But the normative phase is the fundamental factor of that living constellation. While studying Muslim civilizations and Islamic society particularly, and the whole human society and civilization generally, it is necessary to make an effective calculation of the dissonance between the normative form and the folk form. And the status of that society, whether it passed through any transformations, the crucial reasons for rise and fall, etc., only can be understood with a unique philosophical balance between the living society and its cultural foundations.
When Ibn Khaldun decided to study medieval North African Berbers and Arabs, his was an effort to understand the normative factor of Muslim-majority populations. He studied the rituals, tradition, beliefs and ethics of those communities, then introduced living objective considerations. Ibn Khaldun additionally pondered natural science and logical reasoning. Both Ibn Khaldun and Talal Asad pursue reason rather than acceptance of circumstances and expectations lacking logical reasoning. Ibn Khaldun's philosophy of human society is distinguished by its logical methodology and integration of reason and revelation.
Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddima, Darul Kutub, Lebanon, 1970.
F. Rosenthal, tr. with N.J. Dawood (eds.), The Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun, Princeton, 1969.
Talal Asad, 'The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam', Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, Washington, 1986).
Muhammad Abdullah Enan, Ibn Khaldun: His Life and Works, Kuala Lumpur, 2007.
Alfred Gierer, 'Ibn Khaldun on solidarity ("Asabiyyah"), Modern science on cooperativeness and empathy: a comparison", in Philosophia Naturalis 38, 200
Samuli Schielke, Snacks and Saints; Mawlid festivals and the politics of festivity, piety and modernity in contemporary Egypt, Amsterdam, 2006.
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