Ibn Khaldun: An Essay in Reinterpretation

Ibn Khaldun: An Essay in Reinterpretation

Ibn Khaldun: An Essay in Reinterpretation

Ibn Khaldun: An Essay in Reinterpretation

Excerpt

That the absolute difference introduced by the passage of time between us and past authors is a fact of paramount importance to our evaluation of past discourse is one of the foremost scholarly commonplaces of our epoch. The two great strands of historical conception that prevail in our epoch—history as a continuous evolutive process, and history as the succession in time of abiding structures—disagree on everything but that history labours to produce difference. Yet despite explicit general assent, the past is often detemporalized in actual historical practice. This was noted by Arnaldo Momigliano in a lecture on Polybius between the English and the Turks (J. L. Myers Memorial Lecture, Oxford [1974], p. 13): 'We must be free to ask our own questions, to build our own models of the past and make our own evaluation of it. This means that we can no longer accept Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Tacitus and Ammianus as guides to their respective periods. We must measure the exact size of even the greatest of our predecessors; we must understand from what point of view and with what limitations he wrote; and we must ultimately subordinate him to us…'

Ibn Khaldũn has proved to be what is perhaps the great predecessor most resistant to this act of subordination. Not only is he considered the true historical source of his time; he is also taken as the unchallenged sociological and cultural interpreter of medieval North Africa and much of medieval and modern Arab-Islamic culture as well. The validity of his discourse is considered to be so universal as to confer upon his ideas the status of progenitor—or, at the very least, anticipator—of a great variety of modern ideas. So unassailable has this position occupied by Ibn Khaldũn's thought been that the general accepted description of his thought has gone unchallenged even by scholars who took to criticizing the undue modernization of his writings. Even these scholars have accepted what is in fact an ahistorical description of Ibn Khaldũn's historical and 'sociological' methods and conceptions.

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