While the critique pertaining to the various aspects of the impact of Orientalism on the social sciences has been growing since the early part of the twentieth century, very little has been said about the persistent disregard of non-Western thinkers as a source of “theoretical authority” (Alatas, 2014: 1). The theories and concepts found in their extensive body of work are very rarely applied to produce key historical and empirical information. This is particularly the case in the fields of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, where the prevailing theoretical expertise is still firmly grounded in Western Academia. Studying the work of influential non-Western thinkers as substitutes to Orientalist constructions remains for the most part a rare endeavour.
The prevailing Eurocentrism in the social sciences often manifests itself in the study of all human civilizations from a European perspective. Western thinkers become in this dynamic the sole architects of ideas, the originators of theories and concepts through which the world is assessed and interpreted, while non-Westerners are relegated to mere subjects of study and purveyors of data. The modern social sciences are heavily influenced by European philosophical traditions in their approaches and discourses. “The empirical field of investigation is selected according to European (for European read also American) criteria of relevance” (Alatas, 2007: 271). All aspects of reality, whether historical or social, are therefore organized and understood from a Western perspective.
Sociology is yet another example of a field in the social sciences where the important role of non-Western social thinkers in the development of the discipline got little to no attention. The works of seminal Western sociologists such as Durkheim, Weber, and Marx not only played a central role in the evolution and growth of sociology in Europe, but their theories and models were also applied to non-Western societies sometimes sharing very little in common with their European counterparts. Non-Western social theorists, on the other hand, were vastly excluded from the elaboration of social theory. A compelling example of this phenomenon is the treatment of Ibn Khaldun in the modern social sciences. The majority of the work on Ibn Khaldun comprises mainly of biographical studies pertaining to his life, discussions about his theory of state formation, and examinations of the methodological foundations of his work. However, the application of his theory in the analysis of existing historical situations remains sparse. For the most part, Ibn Khaldun’s work is often relegated to the margins of modern sociology either as an example of proto-sociology or the subject of investigation. His theories and concepts are described and analysed without ever being used as tools to interpret and understand history. Very few sociologists in Western academia have went beyond simply citing him as a pioneer or a founder of their discipline.
“There has always been little interest in developing his ideas, combining them with concepts derived from modern sociology and applying theoretical frameworks derived from his though to historical and empirical realities. While there are certainly exceptions that is, attempts to apply a Khaldunian theory or model to social reality, these are few and marginal to mainstream social science teaching and research” (Alatas, 2007: 271).
Modern social theory rests vastly on the ongoing overlooking of “alternative perceptions of reality” grounded in traditions other than the prevailing Western epistemology (Sunar and Yasliçimen, 2008: 412). The political, economic, social and cultural hegemony of the Western world enables the current dominance of Western though. According to Aijaz Ahmed the supremacy enjoyed by Western epistemology “represents a politically disabling contentious shift of attention from the facts of current neo-colonialism” toward less controversial areas of research (Moore-Gilbert, 1997:19). While the criticism of Orientalism and Eurocentrism in academia is well-known, the calls for the elaboration of alternative discourses remain essentially unanswered. Much like in mainstream Western academia “the prescription for autonomous social sciences are rarely put into practice even in the South” (Alatas, 2014: 9).
Very few attempts have been made to incorporate Ibn Khaldun’s theory of state formation within the framework of modern sociology. His study pertaining to the rise and fall of states, the nature of dynastic succession, as well as the role of religion as an “extra-historical unifying cohering force” (Mirawdeli, 2015:97) while often mentioned and analysed is seldom applied. His extensive work on the history of Muslim societies in North Africa and the Middle East, considered by many to be the genesis of sociological analysis, “has rarely been seriously considered as a basis for a modern Khaldunian sociology” (Alatas, 2014: 2). The persistent marginalization of Ibn Khaldun in the discipline of sociology is due to the lack of a neo-Khaldunian iteration of his theory. The primary aim of this thesis is to move beyond descriptive accounts of his work in order to demonstrate how Khaldunian theory can be applied to historical and empirical realities. The current underdevelopment of his theory finds its source in the lack of work applying his “theoretical framework to historical and contemporary data” (Alatas, 2014: 53). In order to remedy to this oversight and reiterate the place of Khaldunian theory in modern sociology, our study will revolve around the practical application of Khaldunian framework in the analysis of a critical period in Muslim history; that of the fall of the Ottoman empire and the subsequent emergence of modern states in the Muslim world.
Wali al-Din ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Muhammad Ibn Khaldun al-Tunisi al-Hadrami, known as Ibn Khaldun, was born in Tunis in 1332. His family, like many of their co-religionaries, fled Spain in the aftermath of the Reconquista and settled in Tunis in the 13thcentury. As a young man ‘Abd al-Rahman received an education encompassing both religious instruction and worldly knowledgein the form of traditional sciences. Ibn Khaldun lived in a time of great tumult where the Arab Muslim world entered a period of political disintegration and cultural decay. Greatly influenced by the ongoing upheaval around him, he sought to understand and explain the “patterns of human action in history” capable of altering the world so fundamentally (Çaksu, 2017: 41). Inspired by the works of previous Muslim historians like Ma’sudi, he wanted to chronicle the transformations taking place in his own period by detailing the “newly emerging conditions” (Dale, 2015: 1).
While remaining firmly grounded in the traditional approach to historical writing of his predecessors, he nonetheless sought to transcend what he saw as shortcomings in their method. He exhorted historians to abandon the writing of narratives focusing solely on “transient political and military events” (Dale, 2015: 2). He advocated instead for a transformation of history into an integral part of the staple Aristotelian sciences such as physics, mathematics, and astronomy. History according to him should become both a subject and a method entailing a radical new approach to historical research.
“A beneficiary of the same Greek intellectual bequest that subsequently influenced the social and political thought of Montesquieu, Hume, Smith, and Durkheim, he argued that history ought to be practiced as a science, a philosophical discipline.” (Dale, 2015: 2).
In 1378, he completed his Kitab al-‘Ibar, a historical study on the Arabs and Berbers. This book contained his famous Muqaddimah, a prolegomena in which he introduced what he believed to be a new science. He called it ‘ilm al-‘umran al-bashari(science of human social organization) or ‘ilm al-ijtima al-insani(science of human society). “The basis of Ibn Khaldun’s new science of society was his critique of the state of historiography among the historians of the Arab East and West up to his time” (Alatas, 2014: 13). According to him, in the study of history ascertaining the probability and possibility of events is the only way to distinguish the true from the false, and this can only be achieved through the investigation of human society. Relying solely on the authenticity of chains of transmissions, as was the method of choice in historical investigation amongst Muslim scholars, was a process Ibn Khaldun found to be inadequate when bereft of an investigative approach.
“While there were outstanding historians among the Muslims of the past, later historians introduced untruths and even gossip which were passed on to succeeding generations of historians. The false and the nonsensical in history were not rejected as historians tended not to look into the causes and origins of events and conditions” (Alatas, 2014: 14).
Ibn Khaldun’s main concern was what he perceived as a lack of critical perspective in the study of history. He worried that this oversight would allow mistakes and weak suppositions to permeate historical records and taint the veracity of the recorded information. He posited that history became over time a discipline where the surface occurrences of history were hardly distinguished from “its inner meaning” (Alatas, 2014: 14). Historians simply relied on the work of earlier scholars without investigating the origins of the events in question and trying to discern the truth from false reports. They were instead preoccupied primarily with the preservation of historical information as it had been recorded by prior generations. For Ibn Khaldun however, “the discipline of history requires not only a sound command of numerous sources but also a good speculative mind”, since historical information cannot simply be trusted without proper scrutiny (Alatas, 2014: 14). Relying solely on the reported information, no matter how reliable the source, was in his opinion insufficient as a method. He proposed instead an autonomous science with “human social organization and society” as its main object and tasked with establishing the veracity of historical events and ascertaining their probability (Alatas, 2014: 21). This new science was to become a prerequisite for the study of history. He saw them as complementary since his science of human society endeavored to uncover the inner meaning of history. Ibn Khaldun distinguished the outer forms of history that he called zahirfrom its inner meaning which he referred to as batin. The outer forms referred to facts and reports while the inner meaning alluded instead to accounts of cause and effect. He was very much aware that his science of human society was in fact unique in both its scope and objective. While it bore a passing resemblance to rhetoric, politics, and other existing fields it nonetheless brought forth a singular contribution and a unique approach to history.
“Such is the purpose of this first book of our work. (The subject) is in a way an independent science. (This science) has its own peculiar object—that is, human civilization and social organization. It also has its own peculiar problems, that is, explaining the conditions that attach themselves to the essence of civilization, one after the other, Thus, the situation is the same with the science as it is with any other science, whether it be a conventional or an intellectual one, It should be known that the discussion of this topic is something new, extraordinary, and highly useful. Penetrating research has shown the way to it.” (Ibn Khaldun, Rosenthal, Dawood, Lawrence, 2005: 38).
He was particularly concerned with the rise and decline of states and societies and was trying to offer an explanation to this phenomenon. He quickly realized that he needed to first understand the nature of certain key elements such as the connection between the state and society, the nature of human organization, and the role of group solidarity and feeling in the evolution of human society. To comprehend the nature of human organization, he looked closely at factors that he believed triggered social change like urban institutions, the economic life, the organizational ability of the state, and existing solidarity/group feelings (Mahdi, 1957:235).
“Ibn Khaldun conceived of this new science of human society as consisting a number of sub-areas as follows: (1) society (‘umran) in general and its divisions; (2) Bedouin society (al-‘umran al-badawi), tribal societies (qaba’il), and primitive peoples (al-wahshiyyah); (3) the state (al-dawlah), royal (mulk) and caliphate (khilafah) authority; (4) sedentary society (al-‘umran al-hadari), cities; and (5) the crafts, way of making a living occupations. These areas can be seen to cover what in modern terms would encompass human or social ecology, rural sociology, political sociology, urban sociology, and the sociology of work” (Alatas, 2014:21).
Ibn Khaldun’s first mention in European sources can be traced back to the seventeenth century when a biography detailing his life appeared in d’Herbelot’s Bibliotheque Orientale. It was only a century later, at the height of Western colonialism, that prominent Orientalists like Silvestre de Sacy, Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, and William MacGuckin de Slane provided the first translations of Ibn Khaldun’s work in French and German. These were based on extracts of hisMuqaddimahand only offered a quick and incomplete overview of his overall body of work. A more serious study of Ibn Khaldun was undertaken in the nineteenth century in mainstream sociology with several Western scholars recognizing him as the founder of sociology.
Both Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838-1909) and Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943) saw themselves as students of Ibn Khaldun. Oppeinhemer was often referred to as the “reviver of Ibn Khaldun”, while Gumplowicz dedicated an entire chapter to the scholar where he spoke highly of his work and called him “an Arab sociologist of the fourteenth century” (Alatas, 2014:44). Ibn Khaldun was recognized as the founder of sociology by many notable Western sociologists in the nineteenth century. Howard S. Becker and Harry Elmer Barnes, in their book Social Thought from Lore to Sciencededicated to the history of sociology, credited him with being the “first to apply modern-like ideas in historical sociology” (Alatas, 2014: 145). They were particularly admirative of his contribution to conflict theory. Unlike many other Western scholars, they recognized the uniqueness of Ibn Khaldun’s historical, political, cultural, and social context. They were conscious of the fact that he lived and wrote in a context quite different from that of nineteenth century Europe. They were able to detect those elements in his work that resonated with their own era, and in doing so restated the ageless and universal features of Khaldunian theory.
“Becker and Barnes themselves, in their chapter titled “Struggle over The Struggle for existence”, recognized him as an early conflict theorist and one emphasized causal principles in history at a time when ‘providential’ viewpoints everywhere held sway” (Alatas, 2014:44).
In his methodology, they saw a direct critique of documentary history, especially his elaboration of laws relating to society and social change. According to them, his greatest contribution as a social thinker was his treatment of historical material. “Much like Durkheim, Weber and others he was a human mind trying to comprehend rather than catalogue the specifically social factors in man’s living and doing” Alatas, 2014:44). Another example of European-led revival of Ibn Khaldun can be found in Jose Ortega y Gasset’s article titled Ibn Khaldun reveals the secrets to us: thoughts on North Africa. He tried to integrate Khaldunian concepts into mainstream social sciences. Ortega however betrayed his Orientalist perspective of Islam and Muslim societies when he described native Africans as “generally not thinkers” and declared Ibn Khaldun to be “an eminent exception, who has a clear and insightful mind in the way of the Greeks” (Alatas, 2014:44).
In Muslim readings of Ibn Khaldun, his work was not reduced to a mere object of study but was rather considered as genuine tool in the analysis of “historical and contemporary development of states” (Alatas, 2007:272). Long before Western scholars became aware of Ibn Khaldun, his contemporaries in the Muslim world were already applying his writing and producing a body of work inspired by Khaldunian theory. Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad bin al-Azraq al-Andalusi (1428-1491) was one of his fervent disciples who not only produced a comprehensive synopsis of the Muqaddimahbut also wrote about the connection between ethics and royal authority from a Khaldunian perspective. Another influential historian inspired by Ibn Khaldun was the Egyptian al-Maqrizi who even went to his lectures in Cairo. He dedicated a detailed entry to him in hisDurar al-‘Uquda biographical dictionary in which he showered the scholar with high praises. He described theMuqaddimahas a perfect example of Ibn Khaldun’s unparalleled mastery of historiography. “It reveals the truth of things, events and news; it explains the state of the universe and reveals the origins of all beings in an admirable plain style” (Rabbat, 2000:24).
In the twentieth century a few Muslim and Western scholars attempted to use Ibn Khaldun to study “the contemporary realities of their societies” (Alatas, 2007:272). While in the context of Western academia figures such as Ernst Gellner and Yves Lacoste led the effort to apply Khaldunian theory, their counterparts in the Muslim world were also undertaking “important theoretical appraisals of his work” (Alatas, 2007:273). Ibn Khaldun’s influence could be felt amongst key Muslim reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century including Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad ‘Abduh, and Rashid Rida, all of whom pioneered Islamic modernism. Much later, philosophers such as ‘Abid al-Jabir (1971) and Ali Oumlil (1979) continued to strive for the understanding of Khaldunian thought outside of the prevailing Orientalism and Eurocentrism in the modern social sciences. For the most part however, Ibn Khaldun has been reduced to an object of study as the more practical aspects of his work fell into disuse. While Khaldunian theory faded from memory, Orientalist thought gained in prominence amongst many sociologists as the primary framework for the production of knowledge about Islam, the Orient, and Muslims.
Sociological studies pertaining to Muslim societies in Western academia remain mostly beholden to reductionist and essentialist analyses. The Orientalist Grand Narrative’s assumption that Muslim societies are inherently chaotic and violent and are antithetical to good governance persists and is even enjoying somewhat of a rebirth in the current political climate. Yet, the work of ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun offers the possibility of not only elaborating a modern sociology (neo-Khaldunian sociology) but also studying Muslim societies beyond the confines of Orientalism and Eurocentrism.