Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ibn Khaldun

Read an abridged version of The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, written in 779 AH (1377 AD) by Abd-ar-Rahman Abu Zayd ibn Muhammed ibn Muhammed ibn Khaldun, statesman, jurist, historian and scholar. The first great work of historical sociology. Came across this passage (p.183):
In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. Therefore, caliphate and royal authority are united in Islam, so that the person in charge can devote the available strength to both of them at the same time.
Ibn Khaldun goes on to say:
The other religious groups did not have a universal mission, and the holy war was not a religious duty to them, save only for purposes of defence ...
so their religious authorities do not wield royal authority.

Ibn Khaldun’s words cut through a lot modern cant about the meaning of jihad.
The idea that the Crusades had some profound causal effect on the Muslim world and the Middle East is a fashionable piece of nonsense at the moment. I have, for example, read many comments blaming the instability and violence of the Middle East on the Crusades. On a more respectable note, a friend who is a medieval scholar mentioned to me in passing scholarship that claims that the Crusades revived the concept of holy war in Islam. Historian Bernard Lewis, by contrast, tells us that:
In the vast Arabic historiography of the Crusades period, there is frequent reference to these invaders, who are always called "Franks" or "infidels." The words "Crusade" and "crusader" simply do not occur.
(The quote is from Jihad vs. Crusade A historian's guide to the new war. Wall St Journal Thursday, September 27, 2001.)

Despite ibn Khaldun’s penchant for wide-ranging historical examples, the only references to the Crusades in the abridged version were about the Christian (re)conquest of Jerusalem as part of a general Christian resurgence in the Mediterranean (p.211) and how Christian naval power frustrated Salah-ad-din Yusuf b. Ayyub’s attempt to
recover the ports of Syria from the Christian nations and to cleanse Jerusalem of the abomination of unbelief
(p.212, abridged: Vol.2, Pp42ff full version). This piqued my interest, so I checked the full version in Baillieu Library (Melbourne University). The only other references were a paragraph covering the Crusaders first conquering Syrian ports and Jerusalem and Salah-ad-din’s retaking of Jerusalem (Vol.2, p.263) and a passing reference about Crusaders taking the city of Jabalah in an anecdote about the Judge of Jabalah (Vol.2,p.263). The final conquest of Outremer in 1291, which took place 86 years before ibn Khaldun wrote, is not mentioned at all.

Yet his understanding of Christian (and Jewish) doctrine and history is quite good. Nor is he precious about Christian achievement. The Christian role in preserving Greek science and transmission to the Muslim world is happily acknowledged (Vol.3,p.115), for example. As is the (successful) soliciting from the Emperor in Constantinople the use of Rumi ("Byzantine") craftsmen in building the mosques of Medina, Jerusalem and Damascus because the Arabs of the day lacked such skills (p.321) and similarly for Greek scientific writings (p.374). The Muslim destruction of the scientific writings of the Persians is also acknowledged (p.373).

References to holy war are more numerous. In Vol.1, there are references to the founder of the Almohad dynasty (mid C12th), calling for holy war against his enemies (p.53); to jihad being a basic religious function of the caliphate (p.449); being a basic activity of early caliphate (p.454); that judges were regularly entrusted with leadership of the holy war summer campaigns (p.456); that, with the fading of the power of the caliphate, the official function declined except in a few dynasties, where it was a governmental rather than a religious role (p.465); the above-mentioned explanation of why the caliphate is both royal and religious (p.433).

(Osama bin Laden has talked of the shame of the abolition of the caliphate. This was done by Ataturk in the early 1920s. See comments by historian Bernard Lewis, Revolt of Islam, New Yorker, Issue of 2001-11-19. The bombings in Turkey may be echoes of that.)

In Vol.2, the movement of Arabs into Mediterranean naval power is explained as a result of a desire to wage holy war by sea (Pp 39-40). Ibn Khaldun also mentions the Almohad dynasty waging holy war by sea (p.43); Merinid Sultan Abu ‘-Hassan waging holy war by sea in the early C14th (p.45); describes holy war as one of the various types of wars (p.74); explains that Maghirib rulers do not use Christian troops in holy war (p.80); that the willingness of Muslims to die in holy war gave them victory over the Persians and Romans (p.134); and the above-mentioned reference to Salah-ad-din b. Ayyub al Kurdi’s holy war reconquering Jerusalem (p.263).

Clearly, the concept of jihad-as-holy war has always been part of the intellectual and cultural armoury of Islam – indeed, of its original founding and spread from Arabia – and, as such, available for recall and re-use. For example, by the Mahdi in Sudan in the late C19th (whose successor, we should remember, was the khalifa) and by the jihadi of the present day.

One suspects ibn Khaldun would have either been highly offended, or derisively amused, if you tried to imply that Islam had essentially forgotten or given up on the concept and only recovered it thanks to the Christians. Indeed, he explicitly holds that the Christians don’t have a concept of offensive holy war that Islam does. But that is a common problem of blaming the West for others’ actions – it typically ends up being very condescending to the non-Westerners. It doesn’t avoid being Eurocentric, it just finds new ways to be so.

One of the depressing things about reading ibn Khaldun is realising how much more intelligent this C14th writer is about matters economic than almost any ‘progressive’ Western intellectual, particularly Marxist or Marxist-influenced ones. He has the concepts of gains from trade (pp300, 308-9), of what we would now call ‘the Laffer curve’ (pp.230-2), of the destructive impact of government production (pp232-3), a nuanced labour theory of value (p.298), of scarcity value (p.310), of supply and demand (pp316-7), the importance of property rights for economic activity and of leaders respecting the property rights of their subjects (pp238-40), of division and specialisation of labour resulting in different levels of income for the same jobs in different places (p.274). He is very aware of continuity in institutions encouraging growth of knowledge and technology (p.282ff).

Ibn Khaldun wrote from practical experience and did not suffer the deadly delusion that human nature is malleable. History was a source of knowledge and lessons to him, not a mere record of follies and crimes to be surpassed by those of superior understanding.

But what most accounts for his lasting intellectual fame is his analysis of the rise and fall of dynasties (which he equates with states – the distinction being much less useful in Islamic history than in the West). It was in this context I first heard of ibn Khaldun.

His analysis is that rule is based on the rise of group feeling that leads to rulership over others (pp 107-8). Having conquered urban lands, the ruling group becomes distracted by the luxuries available that weakens group feeling and courage. This proceeds until it is swallowed up by other nations or dynasties (p.109). Ibn Khaldun elaborates on this theory, looking at internal dynamics. Expenses grow (p.134), the ruling group become complacent and lose their edge (p.135), rulers become more isolated seeking people directly beholden to them (p.137) leading finally to dynastic senility and wastefulness, making them ripe for eventual replacement (p.142). Decay in authority usually starts at the edges of the dynasty’s territory (p.250). He repeats the theory in different words at various places (e.g. p.246ff). He usually provides historical examples of the various processes.

There is much more on many more subjects by this Arab polymath. A remarkable intellectual work by a remarkable mind.

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