What inspired you to write this fascinating biography of Ibn Khaldun?
I was at Dartmouth College. It was the cold of a New Hampshire winter when my professor of Islamic History - Gene Garthwaite - first introduced me to Ibn Khaldun’s “Muqaddimah,” or introduction to history. I sat in the warm and comfortable Sanborn Poetry Library on campus and devoured the book with the help of hot tea and cookies. Ibn Khaldun’s perspective was radically new to me and incredibly exciting. While most of Western historiography was based on an implicit assumption that “civilization” originated in cities and that relevant history only existed in urban environments, Ibn Khaldun saw the ‘asabiyya or solidarity of tribes as the key component of civilization and historical change. I had been reading Edward Said’s “Orientalism” and I was attempting to fully understand what he meant by the orientalist assumptions of European literature. While these assumptions may be obvious to readers in the Middle East, it sometimes takes time for Western students to view their own assumptions from the outside. Reading Ibn Khaldun made those assumptions, I once held myself, abundantly clear.
How has Ibn Khaldun influenced you?
Ibn Khaldun has been a profound influence on my writing and my teaching. I teach Ibn Khaldun’s “Muqaddimah”...in my classes and refer to his ideas constantly. Ibn Khaldun inspired my other book, “The Almohads: The Rise of an Islamic Empire,” and a forthcoming title with Edinburgh University on the contacts and encounters between North Africa and Europe in the Medieval era.
Why should Ibn Khaldun be read today?
Ibn Khaldun should be read today because of his subtle and profound insights as a negotiator and diplomat who worked for both Sultan and Chieftain, who moved effortlessly between tribe and city. Tribalism inspired by religious doctrine continues to be a major cause of historical change today in the Middle East and Central Asia. Also, Ibn Khaldun understood the power of religion and the way religion could be abused and manipulated for political ends. There are numerous examples in both the West and in the Middle East of religion being used for political ends.
What could our political leaders of today learn from Ibn Khaldun?
Although written in the remote isolated Qalat Ibn Salama fortress, the “Muqaddimah” was ultimately intended as a guide for Ibn Khaldun’s Hafsid patron - the Sultan Abu Al Abbas of Tunis. One of his most consistent points in the “Muqaddimah” was that rulers must be accountable to the people they rule. While tribal revolutions were a check on authoritarianism, the sure recipe for decline in any dynasty was the distance between the ruler and his or her constituents. This distance was caused by what Ibn Khaldun called “luxury:” attempts by the ruler and his successors to increasingly dominate and control the wealth of their realms. Wealth in the USA and in other countries throughout the world is increasingly concentrated in a diminishing ruling class. Ibn Khaldun would see this situation as a dangerous sign. n
– Saudi Gazette