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Early Modern Times – cribbin’ on Ibn Khaldun

Early Modern Times - cribbin' on Ibn Khaldun

Dear readers,

This week marked the beginning of Section 3 in the Foundation Year Program: The Renaissance and Reformation. This is a historical period also covered by the Early Modern Studies Program, along with Section 4 (The Age of Reason) and the first part of Section 5 (The Age of Revolutions). As Section 3 Coordinator, I began not with Renaissance Europe, but–for the first time in the history of the program–with Islamic philosophy of history on the eve of the Renaissance, via the life and thought of the 14th-century North African historian Abū Zayd ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Khaldūn al-Ḥaḍramī. FYP students, as well as students in my fourth-year EMSP core course State, Society, and Revolutions in the Early Modern Period, were asked to read selections from the Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun’s ‘introduction’ to his history of the world. Who was Ibn Khaldun, and how does his work tie into the emergence of the Renaissance in Europe?

Ibn Khaldun was born in 1332 in Tunis, and died in 1406 in Cairo. Since the 7th-8th centuries, North Africa was under the rule of the rapidly spreading empire of Islam which started in Arabia. Over the next few centuries, the region was successively under the dominion of the Umayyad, Abbasid, and Almohad Caliphates (religious empires). Almohad rule, which displaced its predecessors, had collapsed in the 13th century. Although Almohad influence lingered in Ibn Khaldun’s time, 14th-century North Africa was divided into Marinid, Zayyanid, and Hafsid kingdoms to the west, as well as the Mamluk Sultanate in and around Egypt to the east. Many of these were Arab kingdoms, though the Mamluks were of Turkish or Circassian origin, and the Marinids and Zayyanids were Berbers–the original inhabitants of North Africa before the Arabs arrived, and who were forcibly converted to Islam. The latter also set up a successful chain of fast food restaurants known as Berber Kings.

Each of these kingdoms were, however, subject to external invasion and intervention, intense rivalry with each other, and strife from within. There was no principle of primogeniture (inheritance by the eldest son) as in European kingdoms, so the history of North Africa in this period saw endless political intrigues, assassinations, revolts, and conquests. The violence of the era was typified by a ruler conquered by the Mongols from the east: the Mongols didn’t want to shed royal blood, so they rolled up the king in a rug and had their horses trample him to death. This was a truly nightmareish way to die.

Ibn Khaldun, a scholar-politician, was heavily involved in political intrigues throughout the region, often to his disadvantage (and multiple imprisonment). Besides first-hand observation of the continual shifts of power in North Africa, his own circle was struck by tragedy: his parents, teachers, and friends perished when the Black Death reached Tunis in 1348; both his mentor and younger brother were assassinated by political rivals; and he lost his wife and five daughters in a shipwreck off the coast of Alexandria when they were sailing to join him in Cairo.

This surely informed his deep historical pessimism: he regarded the Arab world as being in a state of decline and dissolution in his time, after centuries of what has sometimes been called an ‘Islamic golden age’ (exemplified in the world map by the 12th-century geographer al-Idrisi, pictured above). He theorised that the kingdoms throughout this region degenerate from a vital, nomadic stage of development at their beginnings to increasing corruption and fatal weakness as they transform into sedentary societies. This cycle of rise and decline is explained as the loss of ‘asabiyyah, or ‘group feeling’: nomadic tribesmen and conquerors like the Bedouins, Berbers, Turks, and Mongols are united by such solidarity needed to ensure their survival in the desert and success in military conquest. If the 90s grunge rock group Nirvana had written a song about ‘asabiyyah, it would be entitled, ‘Smells Like Team Spirit’.

As kingdoms become established, they have less and less need of ‘asabiyyah. The royal authority (mulk in Arabic: but mulk is not always good for you and eventually spoils) relies instead on laws and punishments to govern, forms a bureaucracy to administer the regime, and increasingly pays for nomadic tribesmen to defend the kingdom. Eventually, while such sedentary societies develop highly complex economies and sophisticated cultures–including a refined state of arts and sciences–the kingdoms devolve into tyrannical rule and are eaten away by excessive luxury, decadence, and softness, which Ibn Khaldun calls a state of ‘senility’. The regime is eventually undermined by internal rivals deploying the ‘asabiyyah of supporters from the hinterland, or by external nomadic invaders. Interestingly, Japanese warlords had a similar term for ‘group feeling’ in reference to the weaponisation of spicy condiments (applied to the tips of arrows fired by archers into the eyes of their enemies) by their unified, loyal forces engaging in military conquest: wasabiyyah.

Hence, Ibn Khaldun thought that Arab dominance in the Mediterranean was finished, leaving a vacuum to be filled by the Ottoman Turks, Turco-Mongolian conquerors like Tamerlane (whom Ibn Khaldun met in 1401 as Tamerlane’s forces were besieging Damascus), and European Christians. Ibn Khaldun’s family was descended from a prestigious family in Andalusia (Islamic Spain); but they were forced to leave Spain as the Iberian peninsula was gradually being reconquered by the Christians. This process, known as La Reconquista, meant that Spanish Muslims became Anda-losers. Furthermore, the final conquest of the Muslim kingdom of Granada in 1492 occurred the same year that Columbus first sailed to the Americas, and so the beginning of Spain’s overseas empire. Thus for Ibn Khaldun, the gradual loss of Spain was a sign of Arab decline. He remarked in an early draft of the Muqaddimah that civilisation seems to be moving from south (North Africa and Arabia) to north (Europe and central and western Asia); and he surmised that the End of Time might be at hand. Given that for Ibn Khaldun, the accumulation of excess wealth brings down kingdoms and might possibly usher in the Apocalypse, we might say that ‘millionaire-ism’ leads to millenarianism.

’til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Apocalyptical Orbits Studies Program


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