Theater of Cruelty

The big thinker is pulled out of the mole bag

Ibn Khaldun. An Intellectual Biography
Forfatter: Robert Irwin
Forlag: Princeton University Press (USA)
A new biography of the Arab 1300 number historian Ibn Khaldun has recently been published. Is he now getting his renaissance?


In the Saudi Arabian city of Damman, a large shopping center bears the name of Ibn Khaldun. In Casablanca, this is the name of a modern football stadium, and there is hardly any city in the Arab world that does not have a street named after the great historian of the 1300. Which is really a bit interesting, because he has been forgotten and overlooked for many years, and is only in the 20. century again became a name.

Abd al Rahman Ibn Muhammad Ibn Khaldun lived in it 14. century and goes on to be one of the greatest intellectual capabilities in Arab history. The philosopher may be the right term, but the one he himself withdrew from. He considered himself a specialist in Hikma, which can best be described as the sciences not originated by the Qur'an and the hadiths. This was unusual in his day, so he first of all nourished himself as a lawyer and adviser to a number of different rulers in North Africa, and in addition he became the originator of a history theory that has come into wide political application in modern times.

The Black Death

Robert Irwin, a senior scientist at the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies in London, has written an intellectual biography of the great thinker.

Ibn Khaldun lived in the aftermath of the black pandemic, which reduced the population of Europe by more than a third and also left its deep traces in North Africa. Irwin believes that this has helped shape his intellectual pessimism, which he embodied in his famous cyclical theory. That the story goes in ring, however, is not his invention. Ancient Greek historian Polybios described how monarchy is followed by aristocracy, then to become democracy and return to monarchy. Long later in history, the self-taught German historian Oswald Spengler wrote his book The downfall of the evening (1918–22), foreseeing how successful European materialism would end in violence, which would then continue into a resurgence of Europe.

For Ibn Khaldun, it was self-evident that any dynasty would perish.

For Ibn Khaldun, it was self-evident that any dynasty would perish, and he gave it an approximate life of three generations. The great German writer Thomas Mann used the same framework when he wrote his novel about the merchant family Buddenbrooks, which went over similar genres from flourishing and greatness to dramatic decline. Ibn Khaldun used the calipers of the Umayyade dynasty as a piece of teaching. He argued that its founder Mu'awiya should be counted in the ranks of the great caliphs of the Prophet Muhammad, but soon the subsequent caliphs fell for the pursuit of wealth and earthly joys. The development could not be reversed, he said, so that it led directly to the creation of the Abbaside Caliphate, which simply repeated the process with unmistakable consequence.

Ibn Khaldun read his own time in the same way. The heyday of the Arabs was too down, and he foresaw that the Berbers and Turks would take over. This came largely to keep up.


When Ibn Khaldun died in 1406, his thinking quickly went into oblivion. He did not leave behind any philosophical school, and there is nothing in the terminology called Khaldunism. Nevertheless, he and his main work, the book You will turn them off, have had an afterlife, albeit odd detours.

Ibn Khaldun and his main work, Muqqadima, have had an afterlife, albeit in odd ways.

Several modern scholars see Ibn Khaldun as a product of Orientalism. As the European colonial powers began to subjugate North Africa, Khaldun was re-cultivated, which was supposed to provide a useful insight into the mentality of the Muslim populations. Irwin believes that this is going too far, but even claims that Europeans viewed Khaldun's critical attitude towards Islam as a key to North African communities. Of course, this also did not bear any kind of fruit. In fact, the dominions of the colonial powers were given the same fate as the dynasties that had served as inspiration for Khaldun's thinking: They succumbed. It is likely that Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz picked up this thread and had Ibn Khaldun in mind when writing the novel Malhamat al-harafish in 1977. It's about simple people (rabbitfish) in Cairo and the meeting between Puritanism and the criminal underworld.

The word malhamate really means "slaughter", but is also the term for a particular genre of apocalyptic prophetic literature that the novel embodies. And from here, the use of Ibn Khaldun's thinking in parts of the current political discourse of the Arab world is far from over. It is often heard here that the Arab world is entering a new era of greatness and that it will emerge on the ruins of Western culture. The best representative of this downfall is Donald Trump, who heads a decadent dynasty, to now stick to the terminology. In other words, American materialism and Western culture have now been dominant in the number of generations that mean it is falling. And this is probably a stellar example of how the forgotten Grand Master Ibn Khaldun has been pulled out of the mole bag and gained his contemporary renaissance, albeit in a different context.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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