"Civilization (`umrãn) shrank with the decrease of mankind. Cities and buildings were abandoned, roads and signposts overgrown, villages and palaces still and silent. Whole tribes and dynasties vanished. It was if the very voice of existence in the world had called out for Oblivion, and nature had responded to the call..."
The Text And Author:
~ Ibn Khaldun's description of Egypt after the Black Death, 1347, The Muqaddimah, v. I, 64-65.
"History is scattered with the debris of empires whose people talked themselves into decline and of victories won by superior morale. The course of history is influenced less by events as they happen than by the constructions - often fanciful, often false - which people put on them."
~ F. Fernandez-Armesto, Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years, 19.
Al-Muqaddimah, “The Introduction to History”, was long later and reverently referred to in the Latin West as the “Prolegomena”, but was penned by `Abd-ar-Rahman Ibn Khaldun in an astonishing five month period (July – Nov. 1377 AD/779 AH) in the Oran province of Morocco, Qal`at Ibn Salamah.
Cross-referencing and amending the text with primary sources, with the help of several Tunisian libraries, took almost four more years before the work was released to a wide reading public. In the meantime, after publication, Ibn Khaldun took his family to the coast. From November 1378 to October 1382 he toiled away, until various orthodox figures within the local teaching establishment had finally had enough of his researches and speculations. Ibn Khaldun had been supporting himself, prior to the release of his monumental work, by doing some lecturing on the side. While evidence of what he taught is scant, it is likely his more radical proposals from the work-in-progress may have been test upon the impressionable young listeners of Tunis. Frequently, his notions had very anathematic tints at the time: for example, his strongly-worded sections on the popular nonsense of astrology (forecasting, hadathan) and alchemy (I, 207 and II, 178) or his controversial account of the great 11th c. schism between the `Abbasid, Fatimad and Isma’li powers (which effectively fractured the Pax Islamica of the empire’s first four centuries). These and other ideas brought the scorn of the city’s elite and on Dec. 8, 1382, Ibn Khaldun boarded a ship bound for Alexandria, from whence he traveled by caravan to Cairo. With his arrival in the Jewel of the Nile, his reputation as a teacher and scholar had already been secured and rumours of his arrival had been circulating. He had work with the Mameluke civil administration within the month. He worked as judge, lecturer and assistant dean at the Qamhî College. His final place in history was given a remarkable flourish with his diplomatic mission under the Sultan Faraj of Egypt to the Tartars, and his meeting with Timur at the siege of Damascus in 1403. After this meeting he returned to Cairo, served out his last years as a judge (qadi), and died Mar. 17 1406 AD / 25 Ramadan 808 AH.
His family was of al-Hadramî descent, part of a clan who dwelt originally in the Hadramawat region of the southern Arabian Peninsula. However, a large cross-section of his ancestors emigrated from the region in the ninth century, as many poorer families did from the outer regions, after Tarik’s conquest of Spain (711-722 AD). Newly colonized, the valleys and rivers of Spain were a 'New World' of opportunity for less-fortunate or well-connected Muslims and Jews. People from around the known world were flocking to the region, known as the Dar Djihad, or 'realm of righteous struggle.' First had come the mercenaries and adventurers, young sons from the fishing villages of Norway, shepherds from Nigeria, loggers from Syria, all looking for a new life. Then the merchants and families followed, trade and settlement skyrocketed. By 1000 AD, Cordoba had swelled to the size of Constantinople, dwarfing the medieval cities of western Europe, still recovering from a century of plague, famine and internal strife. Even the Vikings, who had at first led raiding bands into Sevilla and Algecira (ca. 844-59) realized trade would be a far more profitable prospect with 'the Moors'. By the end of the century, they were leading English, Irish, Frankish and Slavic slaves from their docked long-ships into the booming markets of Spain. !
And so the clan of Ibn Khaldun finally settled in Carmona, a small city between the great centers of al-Andalus : Cordoba, Seville and Granada. In 890 AD, the patriarch of the family seems to have re-located them to the growing center of learning and commerce in Seville, and the family prospered to a great degree. Seville and Corboda were, together, the easternmost exchanges between Latin Christendom and the vast material wealth of the Caliphate. Merchants, both Islamic and Jewish, imported spices, dyes, perfumes and raw materials from as far away as Indonesia and Tibet. One example, an extant paper letter in the national museum of Egypt, documents a Jewish merchant in Cairo requesting brazilwood from India, on behalf of fabric dyers in Seville, to be routed through caravan and on to a ship owned by a Syrian. Many of these goods eventually found its way into the courts and cathedrals of Europe, hence the profit to be made in the bazaars of al-Andalus. However, once the Christian Reconquest began ca. 1085, many peoples of Spain were rendered political refugees by the escalating war.# Ibn Khaldun’s family fled to the Maghrib region of Ifriqiyah (northeast African coast) in 1248. Though much of the Crusading zeal in the Levant was beginning to wane at that time, the cities of Spain are still highly prized by the various Christian kings of the North. So the clan eventually settled in Tunis, not far from the ruin and shadow of forgotten Carthage, and there Ibn Khaldun was born and schooled.
The Historical Focus and Detail:
The Muqaddimah is a monumental survey of the medieval Islamic world, from its dark age cradle among the desert bandit-tribes of Arabia and Yemen, to its former pagan merchant-centres of Medina and Mecca, to Muhammad’s arrival and revelation. He then chronicles the struggle between the Arabs and Persians for control of the region, their uniting under the banner of Islam, and the resultant capture of most of the Mediterranean world. It then goes on in later sections to treat the various sciences, commercial endeavours, poets and thinkers of that period, again covering nearly seven centuries up until his own time. Theological questions are given weight equal to discussions of lyrical styles, the arts of rhetoric given as much attention as book-binding, Aristotle shares fairly mirrored pages with al-Tabari – which in some ways gives the work its mesmerizing, encyclopaedic breadth. But most interesting of all is his measured, impartial tone (the first truly detached historian), his extremely wide perspective (the first stab at a world history) and his carefully elaborated historical conclusions.
One of his pivotal theoretical insights was the historical power of ،asabīyah - a sort of social solidarity, unity, esprit de corps, or literally ‘group-feeling’ or fellowship- as an explanation for the great movements of civilization. It wasn't based on race, as with the early Romans, but a more motivated commonality; a lesson Rome learned too late. As Sallust put it, in the twilight of the Republic, "...idem velle, idem nolle, ea demum firma amicitia..."
To Ibn Khaldun's thinking, this communal bond brought a group of similarly motivated people together, threw them behind some great task, and often produced spectacular, world-changing results. The astounding Visigoth overthrow of the Roman legions at Adrianople in the 4th c., the brilliant 5th c. coalition of tribes who fought off the Hun incursion into eastern Europe, or the lightning-quick conquest of Spain by the Arabs & Berbers in the 8th c. were all triumphs fuelled by ،asabīyah - and more importantly, so were the peaces and new communal identities established afterwards. If you’ve ever wondered how one spirited tribe of nomads could beat down Imperial Rome, and another conqueror half the known world, this was Ibn Khaldun’s answer – a sense of a great identity beyond a state or empire, one more connected with a people’s culture and faith. He contrasted this power against nahniyah, which was a more a clannish nationalism or collective self-centeredness. Nahniyah was the force driving a high-minded culture like Rome to the brutal obliteration Carthage (they salted the earth of the site, the depleted uranium of Antiquity, to keep the city from ever being rebuilt), Titus' razing the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD or the endlessly repeated Persian Wars. Romans felt a civic pride, even honor, in such domination: the Roma Dea. The same communal unity and paranoia would deliver Christendom into its brutal persecution of heretics, pagans and other faiths during the Inquisition. It was self-righteous, egotistical sense of a powerful, united ‘Us’ - opposed to a wicked, unworthy ‘Them’.Ω
As a historian, Ibn Khaldun faced daunting challenges. The period he hoped to encapsulate stretched from the decline of Roman power to the rise of the Osmanli Turks, roughly a thousand years, and his civilization, while not the first 'universal state' was certainly the most expansive the world had ever known to that period, with upwards of 40 million people and covering nearly ten million square miles (roughly three times the territory of Rome at its apex).+ And despite the decline at the centre which The Muqaddimah details, it was a civilization which would continue to expand for another century:
“The initial Arab-Islamic sweep outward from the early 7th to the mid-8th c. established Muslim rule in North Africa, Iberia, the Middle East, Persian and northern India. For two centuries or so the lines of division stabilized…meanwhile, the Ottoman Turks appeared on the scene, they first weakened Byzantium and then conquered much of the Balkans, as well as North Africa, captured Constantinople in 1453 and besieged Vienna in 1529…”Φ
Ibn Khaldun, born though he was in Tunis, on Ramadan 1, 732 AH (May. 27, 1332), always referred to Spain as his cultural motherland – and he harboured no illusions about the semi-nomadic illiteracy of his Arabian ancestry. Here is what he says in an alternate translation of his Muqaddimah :
~ Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order , 209-10.
It is strange that the most learned among the Moslems who have excelled in the religious or intellectual sciences are non-Arab ('Ajam) with rare exceptions - and even those savants who claimed Arabian descent spoke a foreign language, grew up in foreign lands, and studied under foreign masters...the first Moslems were entirely ignorant of art and science, all their attentions being devoted to the ordinances of the Koran...Arabs knew nothing of the way by which learning is taught, of the art of composing books...the Arabs, who had recently emerged from a nomadic life, found the exercise of military and political command too engrossing...they left literary studies to the Persians and the mixed races (al-muwalladun)...~
By all accounts he was privy to, the Arabs and Berbers had sailed across at Gibraltar five centuries previous, and had liberated the region’s people from the slothful rule of the fallen Visigoth warlords; and since that time Spain had be transformed into the most bountiful province of the Islamic world. As historian Fernandez-Armesto sees it, regions of conflict like Moorish Spain become catalysts for historical transformation: "if cultures and civilizations are the tectonic plates of world history, frontiers* are the places where they scrape against each other and cause convulsive change." (ibid, 20) In other words, despite his religion and ancestry, Ibn Khaldun felt his future (and that of his people) to be bound to "the West." His writings clearly echo that he felt little emotional connection for any place or people east of Cairo, though his did not deter his rigorous historical attention. But the inexorable loss of Andalusia’s farmlands, market-towns, mosques and libraries did radically shape his perspective, just as the on-going Crusades of the Latins for Jerusalem, the reassertion of Italian hegemony over the Mediterranean, constant political coups and breakdown at home, and finally the arrival of the Black Death in 1349. He wrote with the tone of a man who know his world is dying. After all, Ibn Khaldun’s father had lived in the bleak period after the arrival of the Mongols, and though communication between the eastern and western frontiers of the Islamic world had broken down, the destruction of Baghdad was a grave shock for Muslims. The Mongol and Turkomen warriors had inflicted a wound just as deep as the Sack of Rome by the Vandals had been, or loss of Constantinople to the Turks was about to be, for the West. As a result, the Tunisian scholar felt quite sure the period of urbanity (tamaddun) and civility (`umrãn) which his culture had enjoyed was passing away, and that the world he knew had grown old and gray; his unique vantage-point of a civilization in decline, as the old Arabian-African culture was overshadowed by the newly ascendant Portuguese, Ottoman and Mogul empires.
The Books' Form and Philosophy:
Though compared to many histories (a 14th c. Gibbon, or Muslim Machiavelli), and praised by still more (Arnold Toynbee, our finest meta-historian, called the it, “the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place.”), the Muqaddimah finally departs from them all by borrowing elements of each. There are sections with the narrative whimsy of Herodotus, others with the careful chronology of Tacitus; at times, the reader can detect the political acuity of a Livy, at other moments the personal attention of a Plutarch. The tone is by times militant, like Ammianus; other times almost apologetic, like a Polybius. It is the careful modulation of each temper for its particular time that makes for something wholly new, namely something close to objectivity, and unlike almost all his predecessors in Antiquity, he completely rejects any notion of random Fate, which he calls al-miqdâr but the Romans called Fortuna, governing events. History is made up of events, and these events, behind which there is a intent or meaning often lost to many (I, 57-58): “often a writer does not know the significance of his observations or the things he’s learned…he records the facts, attributing to it the significance he assumes or imagines it to have.” Which in turn, leads to historical error. It is the historian’s job is to trace those often obscure causes, and to do so carefully and in-depth. The very first sections (I, 2-12) over some twenty pages are detailed examination of how errors creep into historical accounts: broad assumptions, uncritical copyists, biased or exaggerating witnesses, inaccurate governmental reporting, etc. He instructs the prospective historian to question every source (there must be many) and read all the material available in order to be truly thorough:
History is a discipline widely cultivated among nations and races. It is eagerly sought after. The men in the street, the ordinary people, are always curious about it. Kings and leaders vie for its honour. Both the learned and the ignorant are able to grasp it…but the inner meaning of history involves speculation and an attempt to get at the truth, subtle explanation of the causes and origins of existing things, and deep knowledge of the how and the why behind events.” (I, 2)
Other crucial issues tackled afresh by Ibn Khaldun, in the first volume alone, included extended discussions on the acquisition and translation of Babylonian, Chaldean, Syrian and Greek texts by Islamic scholars working under the Caliph al-Ma’mûn (I, 63), the uses of religion for the exertion of political power – “Arabs can obtain royal authority only by making use of some religious colouring” (I, 273), the threat of any religious fundamentalism or extremists (ghulâh) – “most men who adopt such ideas will be found to be deluded and crazy, or swindlers who with the help of their claims, seek political leadership – which they crave and would not be able to obtain in the natural manner (I, 289); advice to Princes – “it is a drawback in a political leader to be too clever and shrewd; the necessary reflection and depth for these simply that a person thinks too much” (I, 341); some extremely insightful expositions on the nature of Church and State within medieval Islam, and their relation to holy war (I, 344-415). The issues of political and religious extremism were pivotal to the historian's view of the 14th century, most likely because he'd experienced the effects himself - the Caliphate of his homeland had been torn apart by the struggle between moderate and fundamentalist Islam (the al-murabitun (people of the monasteries), or Almoravid extremists of Morocco had seized control in Spain on a platform of devout Puritanism), his family had been ejected from their homes by the Spanish Reconquest, as would thousands more Muslims and Jews be exiled, converted or killed before the process was over. His own loyalty to the religious authorities of Fez had been thrown into question, he was even jailed for nearly two years under political suspicion in 1357. As a liberal, open-minded Muslim, he has nothing but scorn and pity for extremist Islam, which he sees as a perversion of the faith; he gamely pokes fun at Caliph al-Ma'mun for trying to tear down the Pyramids? - "...he did not have much success..." - and bury the Sphinx as idols. (II, 209)
The second volume turns its attention towards the various political institutions, administration and notable figures of the Umayyad dynasty acting under the Caliph: the wazirث (vizier, or minister),
Wazirs were not limited to the military, there was wazir of health, and wazir of education, wazir of military, wazir of trade, etc. All fell under the ra'es al wazirah, or prime minister, second only to the Caliph in importance.
katib (secretary); hâjib (gatekeeper, or chamberlain), as well as detailing the other figures around Court (II, 6-24) including muezzin (missionary), ‘alâmah (signatory) or sahib al-madînah (town chief). He discusses the importance of naval control in the Mediterranean: how the Muslim navies had made great strides at first, that even the Crusades in Syria and Jerusalem seemed but tiny annoyances, but how finally “the maritime habits were forgotten, and the Christians rediscovered their naval training, and Muslims came to be strangers again to the Sea.” (II, 36-40). The reasons and justifications for wars are outlined (II, 66) – and interestingly Ibn Khaldun decides only wars to defend the faith or enforce a dynasty have casus belli; battles of jealousy, zeal, hatred or vengeance are imply savage and inhumane, and have no place among the civilized peoples of the world. He also perceptively notes a final outburst or flame of war often marks a civilization in its death-throes – “there often appears at the decline some show of power that gives the impression the senility of the society has been stalled. It lights up brilliantly just before it is extinguished, like a burning wick…” (II, 108). But he also captures his culture in stunning detail as well: the origin of the treasure map, a grift wrought by Berber students on gullible nobles (II, 281) or the slick ability of merchants to capitalize on the abundance or dearness of a commodity from one region to the next (II, 299). One of the most interesting passages in the book comes in the middle of the second volume, while Ibn Khaldun is discussing the conversion and pilgrimages of Constantine's mother, Helena, and the impact her faith was to have on her son and all of Rome. (II, 226) He could only have read that in the histories of Procopius (d. 501 AD), Ammianus Marcellinus' Res Gestae (ca. 391 AD) or Eusebius' Life of Constantine. Regardless of the source, that a 14th c. Muslim historian, writing from a hillside retreat in Tunisia, would reach that level of specificity and accuracy, about events in pagan Rome a thousand years past, is what is so important about this work and which continues to stun historians with its insight today. Nothing approaching The Muqaddimah's vast, reflexive complexity would emerge from a European historian for another few centuries, indeed, not really until Edward Gibbon took up the pen. Dante would be Ibn Khaldun's closest intellectual analogue in the West for quite some time.
His last volume is devoted to science and art - and his expositions and insights on jurisprudence, theology, translation as well as Aristotle (whom he calls 'The First Teacher'), algebra, calligraphy, astronomy, logic and poetry are dizzying in their detail, to the point where one even questions his motivation. His parents had died of the plague, his world seemed grim, when he would have begun the last section of his "Introduction" - tragedy, upheaval and conflict would follow him his whole life in fact, taking his family in a shipwreck of the Egyptian coast, then later throw him at the feet of one of the most savage conquerors in history. Aristotle sagely wrote in his Poetics (1459a-b) that writing history, as an art, can't really be taken seriously - events are too chaotic, their procession too formless, to have any real unity or drama. I think Ibn Khaldun would have disagreed with the First Teacher here; the historian is not merely a recorder, and the drama is in fact tragedy. The Muqaddimah reads in many sections like an frenzied flight into detail, and his historical reflection an attempt to impose an ornate symmetry upon the chaos of his world. If that is not art, what is? And that art, of writing history, is often based on a single formula: we forget so as to remember, just as we remember so that we might forget.א Put another way – history, just like writing, much less an act of memorial than it is quest for oblivion. So much of what swirls round us begs to be wiped away - on account of either its banality or horror. The past, in its distance, depth and detail, becomes a salve for what we find most crippling in the present. And as with all medicine meant to ease our pains, we tend towards overdose - so that the more remote and intricate - the better. Christopher Dawson, in his Dynamics of World History, wrote that ‘it is the mysterious and unpredictable aspect of history which is the greatest stumbling block to the rationalist…always looking for neat systems of laws and causal sequences…history is impatient of all such artificial constructions.’ This is how the intensity of Ibn Khaldun's scrutiny comes off ultimately – a struggling onward to understand in spite of that impatience. The process, as it unfolds in his writing, is as despairing as it is magnificent, and surely makes the work one of the pinnacles of human historiography.
All quotes textual references (volume and section) from the second, revised edition of the Rosenthal translation, Al-Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History / in three volumes (Princeton, 1967)
! R. Fletcher's Moorish Spain (London, 1992), p. 42, 62, 84, 95.
# idid., pp. 107-113. The heightened tension in the region exploded when the new Almoravid fighters from North Africa entered the scene, accused the Caliphs' soldiers of impurity and laxness in the jihad, and began a) ransoming priests, b) looting churches, and c) seizing the lands and farms of non-Muslim farmers in the north. This was all bad for the Cluniac order, the prime mover in the Church administration of Spain, and they immediately felt the sting in their tithes and coffers. The priests and monks appealed to the piety of the noblemen, who rallied their troops, and a move towards 'regime change' in Islamic Spain began. One Cluniac monk from Gaul was so impressed by the progress of the Christians over the next decade, he decided to make it Church policy: that was Pope Urban II in 1095 and he called it crusading.
Ω Arnold Toynbee, “The Growth of Civilizations”, vol. 3 of his Study of History (Oxford: London, 1956), pp. 321-2 and 475-6.
+ Roman provinces covered an est. 3.5 million sq. miles during the 2nd c. AD and was believed to have 60-70 million citizens. Much of this, however, if guesswork as census-taking was a terribly tricky task for a oft-disliked imperial power. Skipping out on the headcount was a frequent practice, in many frontier regions and outer lying provinces, usually preceding a communal protest of tax evasion. Apparently the latest census conducted in Russia faced the same challenges. The Arab Empire, at its peak in the 10th c. on the other hand, had it comparatively easy when it came to population counts, which was pegged around 40 million souls. Owing to the wide-spread use of paper & papyrus, increased literacy, better mathematical understanding and obligatory church payments, zakat, from every good Muslim (or subject Christian/Jew - dhimmi, jizya, kharaj), there were excellent record-keeping practices and subsequently a better understanding of population levels throughout the Caliphate. See Charles Issawi, "The Area and Population of the Arab Empire," in The Islamic East, 700-1900: Studies in Economic and Social History, ed. Udovitch (Princeton, 1981), pp. 375-396, and J.F. O'Callaghan, A History of Medieval Spain (London, 1975), 144-5.
Φ Huntington darkly concludes that “Islam is the only civilization which has put the survival of the West in doubt, and it has done that at least twice.” Though how much the West was truly threatened by the 8th c. Mohammedans’ push over the Pyrenees is questionable. Gibbon famously quipped in his 52nd chapter that they’d be teaching the Qu’ran in the halls of Oxford if the Arabs had been able to duplicate the momentum and distance of their two decade advance from Gibraltar, but I suspect the climate as they moved north had more to do with their settling for Spain than any Frankish cavalry charge. I mean who wanted to be in Europe in the middle of the Dark Ages anyway, the place was crawling with Vikings and plague. Huntington tends to be a little melodramatic though – but he does have the right idea about civilizations, not states or races, being the true actors of history. Of course he lifted this notion pretty much wholesale from Arnold Toynbee’s Study of History, written in the early 1940s : ‘…the intelligible unit of historical study is neither a nation state nor (at the other end of the scale) mankind as a whole but a certain grouping of humanity…” – in other words, civilizations, 24 of which Toynbee then spends the next twelve volumes (!) of his Study enumerating, comparing and examining. Needless to say, he went kind of crazy near the end of this process, got a little religious and poetical (probably why most historians wrote him off), and so he doesn’t really get much time in most history courses anymore despite the prestige he enjoyed during his lifetime. If you read even the two volume abridgment though, I guarantee you’ll never read history the same way again – and if you think him completely mad, try the last vol. in the series, which he title Reconsiderations, a phenomenal intellectual defence of his work from the siege he was under by armies of pissed-off academics in about a dozen disciplines.
~ Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah (Beyrout, 1900), p. 543, quoted R.A. Nicholson's A Literary History of the Arabs (Cambridge, 1969), 277-8.
* If you take a frontier to be a line or border of contact between two civilizations, incidentally, then the Arab Empire, stretching as it did from the Malay Archipelago to the Moroccan Coast, was really just one big frontier, easily dwarfing any other cultures' in history to that point. Only the ascent of the British empire overshadowed the Arab Empire of the 10th c. in scope.
? Documents from the 15th c. show this was still going on after Ibn Khaldun's time, as Islamic authorities tried to dissuade local customs of sacrifice to the Sphinx. When Napoleon Bonaparte's troops arrived in 1798, the great statue was buried up to its neck in sand. They hauled away hundreds of neglected obelisks, landmarks, tokens and, of course, the Rosetta Stone as well, all of which were ignored as junk by the Egyptians at the time. See Alexander Stille, The Future of the Past (NY: 2002), 10, 30-1.
Wazirs were not limited to the military, there was wazir of health, and wazir of education, wazir of military, wazir of trade, etc. Each fell under the ra'es al wazirah, or prime minister, second only to the Caliph in importance.
א Henri Pirenne, another fine historical mind, formulated this another way in his introduction to A History of Europe (London, 1948), which he wrote while under house arrest by the Germans: “I am alone here with my thoughts and if I cannot succeed in controlling them, they will end by allowing themselves to be controlled by my sorrow, my ennui and my anxieties for my dear ones…the essential thing is to kill time and not allow oneself to be killed by it.” And so he wrote a 600p. history of Europe from memory. That tired metaphor, of time as a river, contains a ripple of truth. But those drawn to history’s shore should at least know her true power and name: Lethe.