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Impearls: Ibn Khaldûn - Master Historian of the Arabs

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Earthdate 2005-07-29

Ibn Khaldûn – Master Historian of the Arabs

A characteristic of science and mathematics, including the historical sciences, during high points in the history of the West — both at the time of the dawn of scientific scholarship with the ancient Greeks and science's modern reawakening and takeoff at the close of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance — has been the presence of a “chain” or “constellation” of scientific practitioners.  A Western scholar, of greater or lesser genius, typically had predecessors (whether living at the time or not) whose work influenced his thoughts, and the latter's results in turn went on to inspire successors.  Thus the phenomenon Newton likened to “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Among the poignancies of the history of scientific scholarship across the Medieval Arab and Islamic world, however, are those occasions when one encounters a brilliant, penetrating mind, but one who rather than circling as a bright star amongst a constellation of lesser and greater luminaries, instead passed as a lone meteor brightly illuminating the darkness, but having few or no antecedents and leaving equally few successors.

In the realm of mathematics and arithmetic, such a nearly solitary personage would include al-Kashi (i.e., Jamshid al-Kashi, died 1429), a prominent figure in the story of the evolution of our modern decimal numbering system; Impearls will likely do an article someday wherein al-Kashi's contributions will be considered.  In the domain of history, though there existed talented Arabic historians before and after him, there were none like Ibn Khaldun (in full, Wali al-Din 'Abd ar-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr Muhammad ibn Khaldûn), born in Tunis, originally of Spanish Arab stock, and lived 1332−1406.  Greatest of Arab historians, few historians in any time or place have possessed Ibn Khaldun's breadth and scope of inquiry — which basically included all of society.  Indeed, he was the first sociologist of history.

Modern scholars praise Ibn Khaldun extravagantly.  Arnold Toynbee in his monumental work A Study of History wrote of him: 1

[Ibn Khaldun was] an Arabic genius who achieved in a single “acquiescence” of less than four years' length, out of a fifty-four years' span of adult working life, a life-work in the shape of a piece of literature which can bear comparison with the work of Thucydides or the work of a Machiavelli for both breadth and profundity of vision as well as for sheer intellectual power.  Ibn Khaldun's star shines the more brightly by contrast with the foil of darkness against which it flashes out; for while Thucydides and Machiavelli and Clarendon are all brilliant representatives of brilliant times and places, Ibn Khaldun is the sole point of light in his quarter of the firmament.  He is indeed the one outstanding personality in the history of a civilization whose social life on the whole was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  In his chosen field of intellectual activity he appears to have been inspired by no predecessor, and to have found no kindred souls among his contemporaries, and to have kindled no answering spark of inspiration in any successors; and yet, in the Prolegomena (Muquddamat) to his Universal History he has conceived and formulated a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.

George Sarton in his Introduction to the History of Science put it similarly: 2

… Ibn Khaldun was a historian, politician, sociologist, economist, a deep student of human affairs, anxious to analyse the past of mankind in order to understand its present and its future.  Not only is he the greatest historian of the Middle Ages, towering like a giant over a tribe of pygmies, but one of the first philosophers of history, a forerunner of Machiavelli, Bodin, Vico, Comte and Curnot.  Among Christian historians of the Middle Ages there are but one or two who can perhaps compare with him, to wit, Otto von Freising and John of Salisbury, and the distance between them and him is great indeed, far greater than the distance between him and Vico.  What is equally remarkable, Ibn Khaldun ventured to speculate on what we should call to-day the methods of historical research….

Finally, Robert Flint in his History of the Philosophy of History wrote: 3

As regards the science or philosophy of history, Arabic literature was adorned by one most brilliant name.  Neither the classical nor the medieval Christian world can show one of nearly the same brightness.  Ibn Khaldun (a.d. 1332−1406), considered simply as an historian, had superiors even among Arabic authors, but as a theorist on history he had no equal in any age or country until Vico appeared, more than three hundred years later.  Plato, Aristotle and Augustine were not his peers, and all others were unworthy of being even mentioned along with him.  He was admirable alike by his originality and sagacity, his profundity and his comprehensiveness.  He was, however, a man apart, as solitary and unique among his co-religionists and contemporaries in the department of historical philosophy as was Dante in poetry or Roger Bacon in science among theirs.  Arabic historians had, indeed, collected the materials which he could use, but he alone used them….

Impearls will eventually quote several excerpts from Ibn Khaldun's Prolegomena or Muqaddimah, translated as “An Introduction to History,” but for now we will restrict ourselves to Ibn Khaldun's description of naval affairs, including the circumstances leading up to and encompassing the Crusades of the West; thus, it fits nicely into Impearls' series on the Crusades: Crusades V — the Crusades from an Arab point of view.  Scroll down to the next posting for the selection.


Following quotations are from An Arab Philosophy of History: Selections from the Prolegomena of Ibn Khaldun of Tunis (1332−1406), translated and arranged by Charles Issawi, 1950, The Wisdom of the East Series, John Murray, Albemarle Street, London (Butler & Tanner Ltd., Frome and London); pp. x-xi.

1 Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History, Vol. III, 1956, Royal Institute of International Affairs and Oxford University Press, London.

2 George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, 1962, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Williams & Wilkins Company, Baltimore.

3 Robert Flint, History of the Philosophy of History, 1893, William Blackwood & Sons, Ltd., Edinburgh.

UPDATE:  2005-08-29 00:40 UT:  Geitner Simmons of the ever-rewarding Regions of Mind blog links to Impearls' Ibn Khaldun articles (as well as its recent piece on zero), noting:  “Michael explains the intellectual contributions of the medieval Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun and quotes from his historical writings on the Arab admiralty.”  In an e-mail to Impearls, Geitner also wrote:  “It was a pleasure to read your observations on all those topics.  […]  Congratulations on the high standard you continue to set at Impearls.”

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