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Muslim magnate A man of magic touch

  • Imadaldin Al-Jubouri
  • May, 2019
  • 143
  • Classical creeds

SOME CONSIDER ITALIAN PHILOSOPHER GIAMBATTISTA VICO (1668-1744) TO HAVE BEEN THE FOUNDER OF PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY; OTHERS GIVE THE CREDIT TO 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 get 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 historians 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 enough evidence 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 Al-Farabi (870-950) and Avicenna ((ibn Sina, 980-1037). As an experimental philosopher he was interested in the holy experiments of the Prophet, 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 never 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 wide void between the abstractive and the experimental, the first being based on ...

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