Ibn Khaldun

An Intellectual Biography

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Robert Irwin
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , February
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


No one writes Islamic history better than Robert Irwin. Even when he is wrong, Irwin asks the big questions, draws on an extraordinarily rich reservoir of historical and literary references, and knows how to turn a phrase so that it will stick in your mind long after you put down the book. Better still, when he is writing about Ibn Khaldun it is as if he is writing about an old companion, someone he has known intimately for decades. Irwin delivers Ibn Khaldun in his totality, a medieval man with powerful theoretical models and a strong belief in the supernatural. Ibn Khaldun’s political career in the North Africa is compared to the Game of Thrones and his meeting with Tamerlane is superbly told. And with the same light touch and wit, Irwin reaches out for comparisons—with Machiavelli, Confucian cyclical models of history, and Edward Gibbon—and revels in literary adaptions of Ibn Khaldun, from Naguib Mahfouz’s Harafish (Maktabat Misr, 1977) to Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert’s Dune (Analog, 1965).    

Irwin’s Ibn Khaldun is, first and foremost, a man of his time. Irwin finds him interesting because he is from “another planet,” formulating a radically different approach to history, where “causation is underpinned by God’s will and the primary purpose of social organization is religious salvation” (xiii). Therefore, the contrasts matter more than the comparisons. Ibn Khaldun is not the father of sociology, nor a Marxist manqué. His modern interpreters make him more systematic than he really was. He believed in the power of sorcery, numerology, and divinatory techniques, and in the ability of people’s souls to cling to money unjustly taken from them. Neither is he a philosopher or a Sufi. There are few traces of Aristotelian philosophy and no explicit references to mystical experiences; the impact of Sufi theories on his thought has been exaggerated.

Instead, Irwin suggests that the primary motivation for Ibn Khaldun was to deliver religious warnings, and that Maliki jurisprudence furnished a key model for his historical methodology. This I find less than convincing. Irwin is quite careless in his account of Maliki jurisprudence, caricaturing it in one paragraph as austere and patriarchal. Irwin also overemphasizes the importance of madhhab identity, incorrectly stating that Shafi‘i courts only catered to those affiliated with the Shafi‘i school, and misrepresents Islamic legal methodology as denying the role of independent judgment. All in all, this doesn’t stick, precisely because Irwin offers us such a rich Khaldunian tapestry, full of independent judgment and with little trace of formal jurisprudence or legal principles. Ibn Khaldun’s God is mentioned a lot but doesn’t do much. In the conclusion, Irwin elegantly retracts: Ibn Khaldun’s ideal audience was not his fellow scholars, but himself, “to clear his head of all those ideas” (206).

The primary agents in Ibn Khaldun’s cyclical theory of history are the Bedouin. Irwin rightly places them at the center of the book and explores the triangular links Ibn Khaldun makes between Arabian genealogies, the Arabic language, and moral behavior. He insightfully notes that Ibn Khaldun’s focus is the Arabic-speaking peoples, and that he shows little interest in Turks or Mongols (Berbers appear to be an exception). Yet, the term Bedouin is used inconsistently, both by Ibn Khaldun and by Irwin. The Bedouin are sometimes described as camel-herding nomads, sometimes as sheep-rearing transhumants, sometimes as an umbrella term for all country folk. The tribal genealogies, even Ibn Khaldun’s own, are very likely to be works of fiction. Irwin fudges all this by attributing the confusion to Ibn Khaldun; this may be true but doesn’t explain the power the idea of the Bedouin held for his intellectual oeuvre. Nor does Irwin question the absence of the peasantry in Ibn Khaldun’s work, although peasants were surely the majority of the population in 14th-century North Africa and Egypt. 

The most enjoyable part of this enjoyable book is Irwin’s exploration of Ibn Khaldun’s afterlife. Already by the early 19th century, Ibn Khaldun was known as the Oriental Montesquieu. His ideas were harnessed to justify the French colonial project in Algeria as well as by a generation of French anti-colonialists. Toynbee saw in him an intellectual ancestor. Taha Husayn chose him as the subject of his dissertation. Ronald Reagan cited him in support of supply-side economics. His laws of history inspired a range of authors, especially of science fiction. Every major scholar of Islam has tried his or her hand in distilling from Ibn Khaldun something about the essential aspects of Islamic civilization. 

This modern attraction for Ibn Khaldun is pervasive. It must be due to something ingenious and original in his intellectual output. As Irwin says, Ibn Khaldun is unusual among medieval historians for his preoccupation with the general laws of history and with abstractions. He is not one for personality analysis and dramatization. He does theory and analysis and uses logic and observation to cast doubt on reports and to make generalizations. Irwin wanted to “de-modernize” Ibn Khaldun, wary of contemporary scholars creating an Ibn Khaldun in their own image. But he ends up with the medieval Muqaddima continuing to speak across generations with what could perhaps be described as a modern flavor. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yossef Rapoport is Reader in Islamic History at Queen Mary University of London.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Irwin is senior research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and a former lecturer at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. His many books include Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents and Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics, and the Sixties, as well as seven novels. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.


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