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Volume 17, Number 5September/October 1966

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The Scholar From Algeria

History, he said, is more than facts…

Written by John Anthony
Illustrated by Don Thompson

Man has always been fascinated by his past, and history is one of the oldest of the arts. At first it may have been confused with legend and the sagas of heroes; often it had a religious cast and purported to show the operation of the supernatural in human affairs. The Greeks were the first to secularize history, to make it a chronicle of factual events as far as these could be determined. Herodotus, who wrote in the 5th century before Christ, was called by the Greeks "the father of history."

It is only in comparatively recent times, however, that men have taken a long look at history and have tried to find out what is behind the rise and fall of dynasties, the spread and decay of civilizations. Vico, born in 17th-century Italy, is sometimes called the founder of this science. Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee are modern seekers for the pattern or design in historic events. But much earlier, in the turbulent North Africa of the 1300's, an Arab scholar and statesman named Ibn Khaldoun sat down in his study in an Algerian village to compose the Muqaddimah, an Introduction to World History. If Herodotus is the father of history, Ibn Khaldoun is the father of the philosophy of history.

The 14th century in the Maghreb—the Arab West—was an age of political turmoil and intrigue, and Ibn Khaldoun was a true child of his age. Born in Tunis in 1332 of a family originally from South Arabia, Abd al-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldoun al-Hadrami, to give him his full name, was a patrician by birth, a member of the ruling class. The University of Zeitounia, or the Olive Tree, which still exists in Tunis, was already well into its fifth century when the young Ibn Khaldoun studied there. At the age of 20 he was appointed to a minor post at the court of the Hafsid ruler of Tunis, but during hostilities between Tunis and the neighboring city of Constantine, Ibn Khaldoun absconded and fled westward. In Morocco he joined the court of the ruler of Fez, a Merinid, traditional enemy of the Hafsids. The court at Fez was a gathering place of scholars and poets, and Ibn Khaldoun continued his education there.

But he was drawn into politics and because of his Hafsid connections incurred the suspicion of the ruler of Fez, who was mounting an attack on Tunis. During the campaign, Ibn Khaldoun was put into prison, where he remained for nearly two years. Released on the death of this ruler, he threw himself enthusiastically into the political intrigues of the successors. When the candidate he supported died, Ibn Khaldoun fled to Spain.

Throughout the 14th century the Muslims were gradually being forced out of the Spanish Peninsula by the Christians. The family of Ibn Khaldoun had lived for several generations in Sevilla before settling in Tunis, and they may, like many Tunisian families today, have kept the key to their Spanish house to remind them of their lost domain. Granada, however, was still in Arab hands, and Ibn Khaldoun was welcomed there both for his family name and for his reputation as a scholar. The ruler in fact entrusted him with a diplomatic mission to the Christian King of Castille, Pedro the Cruel, who is said to have offered this Arab emissary a post at his own court and the restoration of his family property in Sevilla. Ibn Khaldoun declined the ofTer and returned to Granada. Another intrigue, however, soon forced him back to Africa.

For the next nine years, Ibn Khaldoun continued to play an ambiguous role in the dangerous game of North African politics. He frequently changed sides, traveled from court to court, was taken prisoner twice, agitated among the tribes for various masters, and was alternately prime minister, fugitive, tax collector, and retiring scholar. Disgusted with politics at last, he settled in the village of Qal'at al-Salamah in the province of Oran and there began to write the book that was to make him famous.

Enough has been said to show that Ibn Khaldoun had firsthand knowledge of the history of his own time and place. Perhaps it was his lack of attachment to any one country or ruler that explains the impartiality with which he was able to view human events. His extended travels—later in life he went to Egypt, Syria, and Arabia—and the high development of medieval Arab learning may explain his wide range of knowledge and interests. For his book is a geography as well as a history of the known world; it describes the principal races and religions with which he was familiar, the crafts, arts, and sciences, medicine, poetry, and the law of Islam; its interests range from the homely detail of how many times a teacher may strike a pupil (three) to the abstractions of economics and city planning.

But experience and learning alone cannot account for Ibn Khaldoun's extraordinary gift for deducing a few essential principles from the vast panorama of human activities and historic events. This gift can only be ascribed to genius, a term that explains nothing but merely names a phenomenon that may appear inexplicably in a village in North Africa as it does in Newr York, Peking or Timbuktu.

For the ideas of Ibn Khaldoun were far ahead of those current in the Islamic world of his time, and at least three centuries ahead of those in Europe. Unlike his contemporaries on both sides of the Mediterranean, he refused to accept history as either the reflection of God's will or the caprice of princes. Every society, he decided, is the product of forces that operated in the past, and to understand a society it is necessary to find out what those forces were. He discovered three laws: the law of causality, which operates in the affairs of men as it does in nature; the law of resemblance, for "human nature is uniform because of the common origin of mankind. There are certain constants in humanity which are met with everywhere and always, which means that the present is a criterion for judging the past"; and the law of differentiation, by which climate, geography, even diet may influence the economic and political life, the beliefs and morality of a society. Ibn Khaldoun also held a cyclical theory of history, lie saw that states, like men, have their periods of youth, maturity and old age, and thought that the cycle lasted about 120 years in each case.

Many of Ibn Khaldoun's ideas are almost universally accepted today and may even seem obvious and commonplace, but this is often the fate of once revolutionary ideas. Others of his theories have been superseded or rejected, and many of his assumptions have been proved false. But the importance of Ibn Khaldoun is that he found a new way of looking at human events and discovered patterns that no one had seen before. In his book we can find the seeds of several sciences yet to be born—economics, anthropology, political science, and of course the science or philosophy of history. Parts of his book have been compared to the work of such later geniuses as Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Gibbon and Hegel. Of course these thinkers and those sciences developed independently of Ibn Khaldoun, who was practically unknown in Europe until the 19th century. But when he was discovered, European scholars were surprised to find how much that they considered to be modern discoveries of the West had been foreshadowed in the work of the medieval Arab.

Ibn Khaldoun's life did not end with the completion of the Muqaddimah. At the age of 50 he went to Egypt, never to return to the Maghreb.Cairo was enjoying a period of prosperity and cultural brilliance under Mameluke rule. Ibn Khaldoun quickly gained the confidence of the ruler and was successively appointed university professor, college president, judge and diplomat. His taste for intngue and a knack for making enemies frequently caused his dismissal from these positions of honor, but his intelligence, talents—and intrigue again—always brought him back.

While he was in Egypt a personal tragedy occurred. His wife and children, who had followed him through all the vicissitudes of his wandering life in North Africa and Spain, had been left behind in Tunis when he first went to the Land of the Nile. A few years later he sent for them, but the ship they sailed in, which also happened to be carrying a gift of purebred Arab horses from the ruler of Tunis to the ruler of Cairo, was sunk outside Alexandria with all lives lost. Ibn Khaldoun went into retirement from grief, but his energetic and—it must be admitted—somewhat combative nature brought him back into public life.

Toward the end of his career he accompanied the Mameluke Sultan of Egypt, Faraj, on an expedition to Damascus to oppose the Tartars, who were besieging the city. The leader of the Tartars, Tamerlane, or Timur the Lame, had won over most of Asia, from China to Syria, and had dreams of world conquest. As part of a Damascus delegation sent to make peace, Ibn Khaldoun was let down in a basket from the walls of the beleaguered city to go and meet the Tartar chief. The two men, the scholar and the conqueror, were much impressed by each other. Ibn Khaldoun spent two months in the Tartar camp, and at his host's request wrote a description of the Arab West. After being permitted by Tamerlane to return to Cairo, Ibn Khaldoun wrote a penetrating analysis of his old antagonist's character, describing him as being at once cruel and extremely intelligent and shrewd.

Ibn Khaldoun died in office, as the Malekite judge of Cairo, at the age of 74. In his life and work he managed to combine the two sides of man in society: contemplation and activity, participation and understanding, thinking and doing. And in the Muqaddimah he viewed man's past and present for the first time in a scientific way, examining the causes of history rather than merely the ends.

John Anthony has worked for many years in different parts of the Arab world and is now living in Beirut. He is the author of the book, About Tunisia, published in 1961.

This article appeared on pages 12-13 of the September/October 1966 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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