A Medieval Approach to Social Sciences: The Philosophy of Ibn Khaldun: Some Historical Notes and Actual Reflections

By Patriarca, Giovanni | Journal of Markets & Morality, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

A Medieval Approach to Social Sciences: The Philosophy of Ibn Khaldun: Some Historical Notes and Actual Reflections


Patriarca, Giovanni, Journal of Markets & Morality


Due to global changes and new geopolitical assets, a renewed interest in the Islamic culture and the richness of its philosophy has appeared in Western universities and institutions. A particular outlook is rightly oriented toward the first centuries of Islam in which--apart from the conquests and territorial expansions--a new culture tried to find a proper way between the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions. Especially during the Middle Ages many thinkers contributed significantly to the development of the human civilization by translating many Greek philosophers' works and commenting on them in precious books. On this basis, we can properly affirm that a variety of matters were studied with originality and skillfulness: from mathematics to geography and physics to law. Not so far from the collapse of the Muslim domination of Spain, Ibn Kaldun was emblematic in understanding the importance and the contradictions of a declining empire.

Ibn Khaldun's life is so rich with events and vicissitudes that it assumed epical tones. A legendary aura of impassibility and courage against all difficulty accompanies the figure of this distinguished scholar of society and magisterial interpreter of history. Capable of a synthetic and farsighted comprehension of the events in a period that very often saw the ascent and decline of sovereigns and kingdoms, he was not afraid of changing allegiances and duties in an incessant saga of intrigues and betrayals. Some have seen in him an indomitable hero, others a free thinker with the typical characteristics that would have been depicted later in the Renaissance's Machiavellism. The survival law in a region of hard social disputes and bloody rebellions shows historically that his chamelionlike decisions matured thanks to an unusual sagacity and an acumen worthy of admiration.

Recent research has shown some interesting aspects that were not completely expressed in previous years. His critiques of the omnipotence of the state, his denunciation of the high fiscal charging, and his exaltation of freedom show him to be, contrary to some rhetoric, a precursor of modern political science and classical liberalism. Discovered by Western historiography in the late nineteenth century, this approach is strictly connected by a veil of misunderstood geniality that has characterized, at least until present times, all the researches and monographs of his works and their intrinsic value. Ibn Khaldun's method, deeply analytical and rigorous, has been mistakenly shown by some Western lectors to be a forerunner of the positivist theories of history to be considered, exaggerating in the contents and arguments, an idol ante litteram of historical materialism. (1)

The forced westernization, moreover, in the structural and philological studies is fruit of an unclear scientific hermeneutics with an evident attempt at manipulation that has depicted him as a scholar out of the canonical schemes of the Islamic culture. Accepting this would be as inauthentic for Khaldun himself as it would be for the history of Arab-Islamic culture and philosophy. We cannot agree with a posterior interpretation that wants, with the force of secularization and ideology, to reduce all philosophy to a pure human science devoid of any spiritual heritage and religious tradition. (2) This academic celebration, sometimes laborious and politically factious, has been transferred--especially during the period of decolonization in Northern Africa--to the Arab cultural circles that have viewed him, rightly, as a scrupulous and methodical interpreter of the ancient origins of contemporary adversities and vicissitudes. H. Corbin, one of the most important Orientalists, did not hesitate to criticize the westernizing excesses in the interpretation of Ibn Khaldun. (3) We agree with him in clarifying, in primis, that Ibn Khaldun is not an isolated case who suddenly appeared in history: He is a son of his time, of his land, and of the Islamic culture.

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