Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Is Ibn Khaldun "Obsessed" with the Supernatural?

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Is Ibn Khaldun "Obsessed" with the Supernatural?

Article excerpt

The celebrated historian and polymath Ibn Khaldun (d. 808/1406) continues to provoke a wide variety of reactions and interpretations. Two recent books--Allen James Fromherz's Ibn Khaldun, Life and Times (2010) and Robert Irwin's Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography (2018)--add to a long tradition of scholarship that asserts, in the words of Aziz Al-Azmeh, "the total otherness of Ibn Khaldun with respect to the world of today in a manner consonant with the utter otherness of his time and culture in terms of this age and culture." (1) Like Al-Azmeh, moreover, both authors present their depictions of Ibn Khaldun's "total otherness" as in some significant manner distinct from orientalist readings of the medieval thinker. (2)

Fromherz introduces his proposition of a "deeply non-modern aspect" to Ibn Khaldun's thought by complaining of the scant scholarly attention paid to his "obsession with diviners and saints, with magical books [...] numerology, astrology, magic, and a whole cornucopia of seemingly strange and fantastic 'ologies' that fill his voluminous Muqaddimah." (3) Fromherz fails to pursue this line of inquiry himself, however, and his subsequent depiction reveals instead a "man of science" devoted to the "rules of logic" and steeped in the "tradition of Islamic philosophy and rationalism." (4) Rather, the nonmodern character of Ibn Khaldun's thought is said to be evident "especially" in his "defense of [...] Islamic mysticism, or Sufism," and, secondly, in his preference--against the ancient Greek philosophers as well as their Islamic successors such as Ibn Rushd--for tribalism over "civilization of the over-ripe urban variety." (5) His Sufism led Ibn Khaldun to believe he could transcend the "dry, rational method" in favor of a mystical approach capable of finding "meaning behind the surface of events" and discovering "universal laws" of history and society "under the surface of mundane perception." (6) Tribalism prevented him from believing in "the progress of human history" and appreciating the "[c]ities, urbanism, monuments, structures, and written institutions" that "Western Europeans have assumed to be the prerequisite of true civilization." (7)

Irwin likewise asserts that "Ibn Khaldun was obsessed with the occult," ascribing the premodern "strangeness of his thinking" to his "preoccupation with occultism and futurology, as well as some of his bizarre scientific ideas." (8) To a greater extent than Fromherz, moreover, Irwin consistently emphasizes the mystical element in Ibn Khaldun's education and training (9) and the irrationality of his scientific and historical analysis. Thus, while Fromherz affirms that some of Ibn Khaldun's propositions--e.g., that the human spirit heats up when deprived of air or that sea monsters exist--appear "fabulous" in light of modern science, he also recognizes that given the state of knowledge in Ibn Khaldun's time the "important point" is "not the validity" of this or that proposition, but the naturalistic and logical "method of reasoning" he applied. (10) Irwin, by contrast, makes no such allowances, accusing the medieval thinker of "weird science" because he believed that the rays of the sun become hotter the farther they travel from the sun or that plagues are caused by the corruption of air brought about by density of population. (11)

The single point relating to the supernatural on which Irwin adopts a more moderate stance than Fromherz is Ibn Khaldun's relationship to Sufism. Whereas Fromherz casts doubt on the attribution to Ibn Khaldun of a fatwa denouncing the Sufis and urging the destruction of their books by fire and water, Irwin ascribes it to a "hardening" of Ibn Khaldun's attitude as a result of "encounters with heterodox mystics and charlatans in Egypt." (12) Irwin nevertheless ultimately agrees that Ibn Khaldun was himself a Sufi and asserts that his entire "premodern and radically different" understanding of "societies and their histories" was "one in which causation is underpinned by God's will and the primary purpose of social organization is religious salvation. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.