The concept of social science is often seen as the product of specific conditions that occurred in a precise time and space in Western civilization. In fact, Immanuel Wallerstein stated that the social sciences are “an enterprise of the modern world. Its roots lie in the attempt, full-blown in the sixteenth century, and part and parcel of the construction of our modern world, to develop the systematic secular knowledge about reality that is somehow validated empirically” (Wallerstein, 1996:2). Therefore, analyzing, interpreting, and understanding the mentalities, attitudes, and realities of civilizations that share very little in common with Western societies has always been a difficult endeavor that too often leads to a prevailing Eurocentrism in the social sciences.
Studying all human civilizations from a Western perspective, in which all aspects of reality, whether historical or social are therefore organised and understood from said perspective, renders Western thinkers the sole architects of ideas and theories, while relegating non-Westerners and their entire body of knowledge to mere subjects of study. Once ripped from its own ontological and epistemological bases in order to be reinterpreted and contextualized according to a Western worldview, even the scientific knowledge produced by non-Westerners which had “a certain duty and function” in their civilizations loses both “its capability of explaining factual conditions and its virtue of being scientific” (Sunar and Yasliçimen, 2008: 411).
The idea of a “master explanation of everything Islamic” guaranteed the continued survival of the Orientalist Grand Narrative when it comes to the study of Islam within Western Academia. The resilience of this narrative is not due so much to the result of an inherent strength of Orientalist scholarship, but rather the weakness of the non-essentialist alternatives being offered (Volpi, 2010:33). While postmodern epistemologies provide interesting new avenues of research, they nonetheless do not offer a real and robust alternative (Turner, 1994:101). The bulk of the literature pertaining to the topic of Islam in sociology tends to emphasize the politicization of the religious (or Islamism) at the expense of all the other factors that are shaping the Muslim world as a whole; hence, the persistence of the prevailing reductionist and essentialist portrayal of Muslim societies.
The present instability plaguing the modern Muslim political realm is the subject of much interest and debate in Western academia. Unfortunately, what often transpires from such studies is a rather Manichean view of Muslim societies as inherently despotic entities beholden to oriental despotism and opposed to the very concepts of modernity and progress (Kalmar, 2012:1).Orientalist thought introduced the notion that a civilization based upon Islamic precepts can only inspire undemocratic governments. Western contemporary readings of Muslim societies, for the most part, approach the subject “through the lenses of western concepts and methodologies” and in doing so reiterate unfortunately Orientalist assumptions and arguments (Volpi, 2009:22).
Ibn Khaldun elaborated a social and political philosophy centered around the concept of change. To him, no social order is everlasting and natural but rather historical, hence the “fundamental law to keep in mind about socio-political systems is that they are not static” (Kayapinar, 2008: 377). Ibn Khaldun not only reiterated the importance of change but he also offered a comprehensive analysis of its trajectory. Since every epoch and society has its own peculiarities, rules, and logic, understanding any socio-political and economic event within a certain context and timeframe requires knowing those precise characteristics. “Ibn Khaldun reduced the general dynamic of change into one single notion: assabiya” (Kayapinar, 2008: 378). According to him, this concept plays an essential role in this progression leading to change. “He established asabiyya as the dynamic force in history and the development of any political system” (Mirawdeli, 2015:82). So, ‘Asabiyyah refers to the social bond that provides stability and strength to social groupings.
To understand the contemporary politics of the Muslim world, it is necessary to begin by analyzing the traditional model, social symbols, and ideologies which have informed every aspect of community life for centuries and have been brutally interrupted by the advent of colonialism. Such an analysis in a Khaldunian framework proceeds by examining the organic model at the heart of these societies and identifying the organic relationship between its different parts (politics, economics, social framework, religious ideology, etc.…). The current crisis in the modern Muslim political realm is accompanied by the relative absence of a “compelling and widely shared overall social purpose” (Moten, 1996: 38). According to Moten, this is a direct result of the colonial experience since “the major victim of the colonial domination was the Muslim’s self-image and cultural identity” (Moten, 1996: 10). The colonial policy of progress and enlightenment through a Westernized education system marked the beginning of a strategy seeking to replace the existing educational system, perceived as inferior and backward, with European learning. This attitude vis-à-vis Islamic knowledge is perfectly reflected in “Lord Macaulay’s insistence that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” (Moten, 1996: 10). This educational policy’s main goal was to transmit European cultural values to the natives and to create “a class of clerks, collaborators and cronies to continue the cultural onslaught of the West” (Moten, 1996: 10).
However, its consequences were far more devastating and continue to impact Muslim societies to this day. Muslims educated in these Westernized educational systems became a strange mixture of the East and the West, “out of place everywhere and at home nowhere” (Moten, 1996:11). Al-Faruqi goes even further by saying that Muslims today are neither Islamic nor Western, but rather “a cultural monstrosity of modern times” (al Faruqi, 1982: 5). They’ve become a composite of diverging ideas and ideologies, alienated from their own past and yet never quite Western enough; incapable of mining their own sources and consulting the intellectual heritage of their civilization to generate sustainable responses to the social and political challenges they are facing. Even Muslim scholars educated in these Western-centric systems are often either unaware of their intellectual heritage or employ western perspectives to utilize this heritage (…) ignoring in the process “the unique idiosyncratic manners for explaining and settling social problems unique to their civilization” (Sunar and Yasliçimen, 2008: 408). Overlooking the existing differences between Muslim and Western civilization and applying a Western worldview to the problems of Muslim societies often leads to resounding failures and exacerbates the inability of achieving a consensus around a shared political and social purpose.
The majority of the work on Ibn Khaldun in sociology is comprised 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 to existing historical situations remains a rarity. The majority of the work dedicated to the thought of Ibn Khaldun vacillates between studies focusing on certain aspects of his theory/ methodology and studies trying to establish a parallel between his approach and that of Western thinkers. The latter especially often leads to anachronic readings of Ibn Khaldun. The principal difficulty seems to be the misinterpretation of his understanding of religion. Two dominant opinions about Ibn Khaldun’s approach to science and religion are found within Orientalist literature.
According to the first opinion, supported by Gibb and Richter, every social phenomenon discussed by Ibn Khaldun is connected “with the Holy Qur’an and consequently connected with the will of God” (Sunar and Yasliçimen, 2008: 415). But, according to the second opinion supported by Gumplovicz and Von Kremer, Ibn Khaldun “interpreted social phenomena in a realist way depending on reason and experiment” (Sunar and Yasliçimen, 2008: 415). If he used verses of the Qur’an it was only to escape bigoted reactions and possible accusations of blasphemy. For the most part however, Ibn Khaldun’s work is often relegated to 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. Sociological studies pertaining to Muslim societies in Western academia remain mostly grounded in Orientalist analyses. The work of Ibn Khaldun offers an alternative to the Orientalist Grand Narrative and give us an opportunity to elaborate a neo-Khaldunian sociology beyond the confines of Eurocentrism.
Very few attempts have been made to incorporate Ibn Khaldun’s theory of state formation within the framework of modern sociology. Yet, he offers us a possibility of engaging in the study of Muslim societies without the preconceptions of Orientalism. Khaldunian theory represent a sociological framework indigenous to the Muslim world. In previous centuries, his work influenced Muslim and Western scholars alike, but it also served as a theoretical backdrop to the elaboration of political reforms in the Ottoman empire. A neo-Khaldunian perspective could provide a novel way of looking at the current state of Muslim polity. Through his writings, Ibn Khaldun achieved two important goals. On one hand, he elaborated a new approach to philosophical history, with a theoretical framework and a methodology reiterating the need to engage with the study of history critically. On the other hand, his Muqqadimah provides vital information on the religious, philosophical, and literary Muslim scholarship of the fourteenth century. What is lacking today is the integration of the Khaldunian theoretical framework into the corpus of modern sociology.
Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi, Islamization of knowledge: General Principles and Workplan (Maryland: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1982), p.5
Kalmar, Ivan (2012). Early Orientalism. Imagined Islam and the notion of sublime power. London; New York: Routledge.
Kayapinar, Akif M. (2008) Ibn Khaldun’s Concept of “Assabiyya”: An Alternative Tool for Understanding Long-Term Politics, Asian Journal of Social Science, 36(3-4): 375-407.
Mirawdeli, Kamal (2015). Asabiyyah and State: A Reconstruction of Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History, Bloomington: AuthorHouse.
Moten, Abdul Rashid (1996). Political Science: An Islamic Perspective. London: MacMillan Press Ltd.
Sunar, Lutfi & Yasliçimen, Faruk (2008) The Possibilities of New Perspectives for Social Sciences: An Analysis Based on Ibn Khaldun’s Theory of “Umran”, Asian Journal of Social Science, 36(3-4): 408-433.
Turner, Bryan (1994). Orientalism, Postmodernism And Globalism. London: Routledge.
Volpi, Frederic (2009) Political Islam in the Mediterranean: the view from democratization studies. Democratization, 16(1): 20-38.
Volpi, Frederic. (2009). Political Islam in the Mediterranean: the view from democratization studies. Democratization, Vol. 16, No.1, pp.20-38
Wallerstein, Immanuel (ed). (1996) Open the Social Sciences: Report of the Gulbenkian Commission of the Social Sciences. California: Stanford University Press.