Istanbul and the Intellectual Legacy of Ibn Khaldun

Istanbul and the Intellectual Legacy of Ibn Khaldun

The rise in prosperity and self-confidence, coupled with the growing self-awareness of Turkey as an Islamic nation, is leading to many interesting developments. One of them is the re-emergence of Istanbul as the de facto capital of the Muslim World. It has become the chief hub for political as well as intellectual conversations involving Muslims from all over the Muslim World. Whether it is the future of Syria or the future of Islamic thought, the place to discuss it is Istanbul.

From Sept. 27-29, 2013 I was in Istanbul attending the Third International Symposium on Ibn Khaldun. The conference hosted by the Ibn Khaldun Society and the Institute for Alliance of Civilizations of Fatih Mehmet University brought together scores of scholars from over 17 countries to reflect on the continuing relevance of Ibn Khaldun’s scholarship over 600 years after his demise.

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406 AD) is easily one of the most prominent philosophers and scholars in history. He traveled, lived and worked all over North Africa and Spain in various capacities; as national security adviser, diplomat, judge, political adviser, tutor to Kings, keeper of records and as a professor. His rich life and his proximity to power enriched his perspective on government and politics and the progress of history. While he enjoyed a privileged life, his last twenty odd years in Cairo, where he was judge and lectured at the prestigious Al-Azhar University, were spent in the shadow of a tragedy; he lost his entire family in a shipwreck off the coast of Alexandria in 1384.

He is widely recognized as the father of sociology and a new approach to the study of culture understood as the science of civilizations (Ilm Al-Umraan). His Muqaddimah (A Prolegomena), the introduction and book one of his Kitab Al-Ibar (A book of universal history) is truly remarkable. It is perhaps the first attempt to write history from a philosophical perspective and examine society using a scientific methodology.

Even though he is recognized for his contribution to sociology and history, Ibn Khaldun was essentially a political thinker trying to discover the laws of historical change by applying the principles and methods of philosophy. He was disturbed by the recurring political crises, the fragmentation of sovereignty and frequent rise and fall of rulers and dynasties in Western North Africa. He was disillusioned by the despotic rulers and bad governance that was rampant in his age. He yearned for a strong and powerful state and rulers who would rule in the public interest. He wished to understand what social and historical conditions produced a strong state that could provide stability and protect cities, which for Ibn Khaldun were essential for cultures and civilizations to thrive.

Ibn Khaldun made three very important contributions to social sciences. He emphasized the importance of empirical facts, developed a theory of change and identified tribal solidarity as the driver of change. Unlike theologians and philosophers who often dabbled with possibilities, Ibn Khaldun exclusively focused only on reality and employed inductive logic to understand the past and predict the future based on lessons drawn from history. He was a realist in both political and philosophical sense.

Ibn Khaldun had a cyclical conception of history. He saw repetitive patterns of rise and fall of cities and civilizations. He identified the concept of asabiyya, tribal and social solidarity as the engine of history. When tribes became cohesive, by combining identity and purpose, they became forces to reckon with. They conquered cities and build new cities and new civilizations. When tribal solidarity decays, often from exposure to luxury and high living, asabiyya collapses and the civilization declines and becomes victim to other rising new powers.

The concept of asabiyya, as an important ingredient of the medieval state, is Ibn Khaldun’s signature contribution. It anticipates the emergence of the modern nation state, which is the sum of tribal identity and territorial sovereignty. As Arab nations have recently discovered, especially in Iraq, Syria and Libya, tribalism challenges nationalism and makes defining a national identity problematic. Across the Arab World today, we are witnessing the collapse of asabiyya and efforts to reconstitute and revitalize it as Arab nations struggle to cope with the dramatic unraveling of the Arab Spring.

It was in the shadow of this Arab political drama that scholars of Ibn Khaldun met to explore his ideas and tried to understand contemporary reality in the light of his theories. Ibn Khaldun has become a symbol that represents recognition of the greatness of Islamic philosophy and civilization by the West and an aspiration of contemporary Muslim intellectuals to once again revive the culture of scientific and philosophic inquiry in the Islamic World.

Some called for making Ibn Khaldun studies an alternative social science, others called for Muslims to emulate his methods and his ambitious vision, and then there were the realists too, who like Ibn Khaldun focused on the real and not the possible, and acknowledged the limits of his specific theories while admiring his path breaking contributions.

It is difficult to say at the moment if the memories of Ibn Khaldun will revive and intellectual renaissance, but one thing is clear that as the Turkish nation rises again, reconstructing its asabiyya around Islam and not Kemalist secularism, Istanbul is becoming the center of a new and shiny intra-civilizational dialogue. To put it very simply, Istanbul today is a place that is quite happening. Ibn Khaldun once described Cairo as “the metropolis of the Earth, the garden of World, the palace of Islam…” this description now suits Istanbul better than any other city in the Muslim World.

Muqtedar Khan is a Fellow at ISPU and an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware. 

This article was published on Huffington Post on October 11, 2013. Read it here.

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