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Medieval Philosophy

Ibn Khaldun and the Philosophy of History

Imadaldin Al-Jubouri on the medieval Islamic philosopher who pioneered the scientific understanding of history.

Some consider the Italian philosopher Vico (1668-1744) to have been the founder of philosophy of history; others give the credit to the French philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1755). In fact, the Arabic philosopher and historian ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was the first pioneer to discover that history, like any other science, required research. “It is the science of circumstances and events and its causes are profound, thus it is an ancient, original part of wisdom and deserves to be one of its sciences.”

In his The Introduction (1377), ibn Khaldun also wrote, “History is an art of valuable doctrine, numerous in advantages and honourable in purpose; it informs us about bygone nations in the context of their habits, the prophets in the context of their lives and kings in the context of their states and politics, so those who seek the guidance of the past in either worldly or religious matters may have that advantage.”

Ibn Khaldun’s theory divided history into two main parts: the historical manifest and the historical gist. According to him, history should not limit itself to recording events, but should examine environments, social mores and political bases: “True history exists to tell us about human social life, which is the world’s environment, and the nature of that environment as it appears from various events. It deals with civilisation, savagery and tribalism, with the various ways in which people obtain power over each other, and their results, with states and their hierarchies and with the people’s occupations, lifestyles, sciences, handicrafts and everything else that takes place in that environment under various circumstances.”

Ibn Khaldun’s method relied on criticism, observation, comparison and examination. He used scientific criticism to analyse accounts of historical events, the sources of these accounts and the techniques used by historians, examining and comparing various different accounts in order to get rid of falsifications and exaggerations and obtain some objective idea of what had actually happened. Many accounts contained lies because they had been written to flatter some ruler or to further the interests of some sect, the newsmakers and storytellers deliberately cheating and falsifying things for their own purposes. Ibn Khaldun, therefore, urged the historian to become erudite, accurate in observation and skilled in comparing text with subtext in order to be capable of effective criticism and clarification.

Although ibn Khaldun strongly believed in God, he never mentioned any celestial aim for history, or any divine end at which history would come to stop. He states, in fact, the “past is like the future, water from water”, which seems to imply that human history has no end. Ibn Khaldun went further to criticise other historians for imposing metaphysical ideas upon historical events to make the latter appear subordinate to the gods or to divine providence, turning history, properly a science, into something more closely akin to the arts and literature.

As a result, some Muslims and Westerners seized his concept of history to denounce ibn Khaldun as an atheist, a charge of which he was innocent; his point was that the science of history was not subject to metaphysics and could not be made so. Ibn Khaldun never questioned the existence of God. His work, according to him, was “inspired by God, pure inspiration”, which should be evidence enough of his belief in God.

However, his views on prophecy are crystal clear, unlike those of certain of his predecessors in Muslim philosophy, in particular Alfarabi (870-950) and Avicenna (980-1037). As an experimental philosopher he was interested in the holy experiments of the Prophet Mohammed (570-632), which means he cannot have seen history as having no end. If the existence of God is regarded as an absolute fact and His prophets and their religious experiments as proof of this fact, then the statement that in history the past is just like the future must mean it consists of a continuous series of events not stopping with any nation, but continuing in cycles.

Ibn Khaldun believed even the minutest of facts should be scrutinised in analysing historical events, since these were not simple phenomena, but complex. He regarded history as far from easy to study, being “the knowledge of qualitative events and their causes in depth.” Since metaphysical theories of history were in his view irrelevant, Ibn Khaldun imported the idea of causality from the theoretical field of philosophy into the practical arena of history by concentrating on the worldly ‘causes and reasons’ of historical events. His method was directly inductive, relying on the senses and the intellect without referring to any other norm. There was, in his view, a yawning void between the abstractive and the experimental, the first being based on logic and second on the reality of the sensible world. The subject of divine knowledge was an invisible spirit unable to be subjected to experimentation and of which there was no sensory evidence, so there could be no certain proof of it in this world. Since the sensible and the non-sensible thus had no terms in common, ibn Khaldun banished the abstractive or divine world from his logical syllogisms. This is precisely the approach taken by modern positivism, and even pragmatism followed in ibn Khaldun’s footsteps during its early stages.

In his diagnosis of “the causes of lies in history”, ibn Khaldun identifies a number of reasons, such as: sectarianism, misplaced trust in the sources, ignorance of some hidden purpose and the wish to flatter rulers. Hence, many historians, copyists and tellers have made the mistake of accepting untrue accounts or recording events that did not take place because they have relied on report alone, without bothering to research its sources closely for truth or falsehood, compare it with anything else or apply their own intelligence to it. In this they have showed themselves to be poor historians. For example, al-Mas’udi and various other Arab historians accepted that the Israelite armies led by the Prophet Moses numbered 600,000 or more men aged twenty and upwards. If we examine this tale carefully it is clearly false. When Jacob and his kinsmen entered Egypt there were only seventy of them. Only four generations separated Jacob and Moses. Where, then, did Moses get this huge multitude of youths and men? The Israeli themselves, moreover, reported that Solomon’s army numbered 12,000 and his horses 1400, while calling his kingdom the vigour of their state and an expansion of their reign.

Al-Mas’ud also succeeded in ignoring physical reality. How exactly was this huge army squeezed into the maze? How could so massive a force have been lined up and moved in so limited an area of land? In the area of historical knowledge al-Mas’ud did no better. Historically each kingdom was manned by a certain number of garrisons according to its size. A kingdom having six hundred thousand or more fighters would have had borders far exceeding the limits of the ancient kingdom of Israel.

In his prescription of “requirements for a historian”, ibn Khaldun stated that several things were essential if a historian were to be qualified to deal with historical events and stories:

1. An understanding of the rules of politics and the nature of people.

2. Knowledge of the natural environment and how it differs according to time and place.

3. Acquaintance with the social environments of the various different nations in terms of way of life, morals, incomes, doctrines and so forth.

4. An understanding of the present time and an ability to compare it with the past.

5. Knowledge of the origins and motives of states and sects, their declared principles, their rules and major events in their histories.

To achieve a critical understanding of historical events, then, the historian must study the general circumstances of the period with which he is dealing and compare the particular events in which he is interested. He should then explore any similar events that have taken place at other periods along with the general circumstances of these periods. When he has completed these two main stages he should be able to recognise events as reasonable and probably true, or unacceptable and almost certainly false. Certain events need only be studied separately, along with the general circumstances of their periods, to know which parts of them must be true or false.

In his analysis of ‘the intellect’, ibn Khaldun believes the intellect has limits it cannot exceed and that these prevent it from reaching a complete understanding of God and His attributes. This is its reality, and man cannot upgrade it or increase its level of capability. Ibn Khaldun insisted that the intellect could not be aware of “the reality of the soul and the divine” or of anything else existing in the higher world, because it was incapable of reaching, knowing or proving it. We can be aware only of what is material; if a thing is immaterial we can neither prove it nor base any proof upon it.

Ibn Khaldun offered the intellect little encouragement to dwell on metaphysics, preferring to emulate Algazel (1059-1111), by dealing a final and near-fatal blow to philosophical thought by the Arabic-Islamic intellect. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that in closing one door ibn Khaldun threw open to the human mind an entirely new one: the sociology and philosophy of history.

Since the 18th century, the western world has taken ibn Khaldun seriously, especially as his scientific ideas were very much like those that were to develop much later on in human history. He has, however, still not taken his rightful place as the founder of philosophy of history and the pioneer of sociology, although translations of his historical and social treatises have helped to some extent.

© I.M.N. Al-Jubouri 2005

Imadaldin Al-Jubouri has written several books in Arabic and in English. His History of Islamic Philosophy has just been published.

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