Book Review: Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography

Robert Irwin

Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography

(Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2018, ISBN: 978-0-691-17466-2, 267 pp., $ 29.95)

Ibn Khaldun (Wali al-Din ‘Abd al-Raḥman Ibn Khaldun) who lived between 1332 and 1406 has been one of the greatest intellectuals in human history. He clearly deserves this reputation because his ideas, especially those in his opus magnum the Muqaddimah (Introduction), constitute remarkable contributions to our understanding of history, sociology, economics and international relations, among many other fields of social inquiry. Not surprisingly, there are numerous scholarly works in many languages about Ibn Khaldun’s life, ideas, as well as the impact of his ideas on the development of various social science disciplines.

Robert Irwin’s Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography is a noteworthy contribution to this ever-growing literature about Ibn Khaldun’s life, ideas and scholarly influence. Irwin is a renowned British historian, novelist, and writer. He is a Senior Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies of London University as well as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in the United Kingdom. Irwin got this book published from one of the top publishers of the academic world – the Princeton University Press. In other words, this short background information is sufficient to demonstrate that both the author and the publisher of this book are highly respected in the academic world. Not surprisingly, the book was already received very positively by variously reviewers around the world.

In this very well-written book, Robert Irwin’s main aim is not to provide an authoritative account of Ibn Khaldun’s contributions to various social disciplines or to offer a novel interpretation of his publications. His core objective is to contextualize his ideas and scholarly works by exploring them in connection with the turning points in Ibn Khaldun’s own personal life, the challenges of the historical period in which he lived as well as the characteristics of his own belief system and the dominant worldviews of the North African and the Andalusian Arab societies in late fourteenth century.

Throughout the book, Robert Irwin puts forward the following argument: the existing academic literature on Ibn Khaldun tends to distort the historically and culturally specific character of Ibn Khaldun’s ideas as they are largely abstracted from their fourteenth century specific historical and cultural context and deemed valid universally irrespective of their historically and culturally specific time- and space-bounded character. Irwin claims that Islamic belief system as well as the socio-economic and cultural life of the historical period in which Ibn Khaldun lived had shaped his life, ideas and publications considerably. Therefore, it is incorrect to treat Ibn Khaldun’s ideas and publications which are products of the medieval Islamic world as modern ideas and publications establishing the groundwork for the emergence of modern social science disciplines from historiography to economics from sociology to cultural studies.

This book is remarkable not only in terms of its scholarly content and thought-provoking argument, but also in terms of its writing style. As a novelist and literary writer, Robert Irwin uses his literary writing skills masterfully so that the reader enjoys reading such a condensed book about very complex issues of historiography, culture as well as socio-economic and political life of the fourteenth century without any difficulty in understanding or boredom at all. The Preface of the book explains Robert Irwin’s justification for writing his own intellectual biography of Ibn Khaldun. Robert Irwin also provides a very useful Chronology marking major events in the extraordinary life Ibn Khaldun from his birth on 27 May 1332 to his death on 17 March 1406.  Needless to say, both of these introductory sections of book make it easier to follow the flow of Robert Irwin’s argumentation in the main body of this book.

Robert Irwin’s Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography is divided into eleven chapters: The first chapter (Ibn Khaldun among the Ruins) outlines the influence of the devastating effects of the Black Death and failed governments on the historical evolution of settled and nomadic communities and his desire to reflect on the God’s judgement about the problems of the prevailing socio-political order.  The second chapter (The Game of Thrones in Fourteenth-Century North Africa) explores the protracted conflicts over the reunification of the lands which were previously ruled by the Almohad Empire in the thirteenth century. The third chapter (The Nomads, Their Virtues, and Their Place in History) presents Ibn Khaldun’s understanding of the nomadic societies and the importance of Ibn Khaldun’s conception of asabiyya for understanding the importance of tribal loyalty as an engine of social change in nomadic societies.

Having described the socio-historical context in which Ibn Khaldun’s ideas came into existence, in the first three chapters, Robert Irwin examines Ibn Khaldun’s opus magnum the Muqaddimah (Introduction) in Chapter Four (Underpinning the Methodology of the Muqaddima: Philosophy, Theology, and Jurisprudence). In this chapter, Robert Irwin notes that Ibn Khaldun emphases the value of jurisprudence as a response to the limitations of the intellectual debates in favor of either philosophy or theology which characterized the medieval thinking in the Middle East and North African region. As a renowned historian of the Mamluks, Robert Irwin devotes the fifth chapter (Ibn Khaldun’s Sojourn among the Mamluks in Egypt) to Ibn Khaldun’s life in Cairo as a Chief Qadi and his encounters with Tamerlane in Syria during the final years of his life.

Irwin explores the mentality of Ibn Khaldun in Chapter Six (The Sufi Mystic), Chapter Seven (Messages from the Dark Side), Chapter Eight (Economics before Economics Had Been Invented) and Chapter Nine (What Ibn Khaldun Did for a Living: Teaching and Writing). In these four chapters, Irwin describes Ibn Khaldun’s mentality as essentially subjectivist in terms of his commitment to the Sufism and his inclination to magic and superstition as well as his respect for the uses of rhetoric, poetry and oral teaching despite the fact that his ideas contributed to the objectivist labour theory of value which is central to the Marxist studies of political economy.

In the remaining two chapters – Chapter Ten (The Strange Afterlife of the Muqaddima) and Chapter Eleven (Ending Up), Irwin concludes the book by explaining how Orientalists, colonialists and nationalists have distorted Ibn Khaldun’s ideas in order to provide justification for their modernist ideas and by characterizing Ibn Khaldun as a very successful example of medieval Muslim thinkers.

Although Robert Irwin is largely careful in taking a balanced approach to Ibn Khaldun and his ideas as well as publications by situating them in their own historical and cultural context,  Irwin’s labelling of Ibn Khaldun and his ideas in terms of their strictly medieval and pre-modern character may be interpreted as his neglect of the universal character of Ibn Khaldun’s ideas which might have influenced modern thinkers in the same way as the ideas of many medieval thinkers in Europe have shaped the emergence of modern science and philosophy. In other words, Irwin’s assessment of Ibn Khaldun may be used to ignore the crucial contributions of Ibn Khaldun to the emergence and development of various social science disciplines from Sociology and Cultural Studies to Political Economy. The fact that Ibn Khaldun’s conceptualization of socio-political change is not based on causal explanations following the Aristotelian tradition, cannot be used to discredit the scientific character of his scholarly works. To the contrary, Ibn Khaldun’s conceptualizations have still been considered scientific by various post-positivist schools of thought in several social science disciplines.  

In a nutshell, Robert Irwin’s Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography is a noteworthy contribution to the academic literature about Ibn Khaldun’s life, ideas and influence. I would like to recommend this book to all researchers and students specializing in various branches of social science from history and sociology to international relations.

Prof Dr Oktay F. Tanrisever

Middle East Technical University, Ankara

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