Relevance of Ibn Khaldun’s Ideas to the Discourse on Good Governance


[This is the 14th in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Good Governance in Islam: Classical and Contemporary Approaches held in Herndon, VA. These notes have only been lightly edited and represent my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone. Names of participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the organizers.]

“Relevance of Ibn Khaldun’s Ideas to the Discourse on Good Governance”

by Professor Seifuddein Adem, Institute for Global Cultural Studies, Binghamton University, NY

I try to Islamize modernity using the Afro-Muslim Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun (1332-1374) as the point of entry. He was not an ivory tower theorist, but like Thucydides, participated in great events of his time. He wrote comprehensively of Islamic civilization and his ideas are similar to ones we see today: an alternative conception of world order and post-hegemonic philosophy. We can gain self-understanding from an examination of his thought process.

I will compare his ideas with a random selection of modern thinkers. He is comparable to Descartes in realizing that the ability to think distinguishes man from other living creatures. He systemized thought like John Locke. Is Ibn Khaldun a modern thinker? When does modernity begin?

His relevance today is in the cyclical rather than linear conception of history. Ibn Khldun has been vindicated in his analogy between imperial overstretch to the completion of lifespan.

Why is Ibn Khaldun marginalized? He is aware of complexity, linguistic and cultural factors, and the nature of hegemonic discourse.

Discussant : Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Minaret of Freedom Institute

Descartes (not post-enlightenment) epistemology, Ibn Khaldun ontology. Philosophers, mainly  but not exclusively Muslim, systemized thought before Ibn Khaldun. I do agree that he anticipated Hobbes and that he differs from Hobbes pessimistic view. I am not convinced Ibn Khaldun’s climatic explanations of racial difference differs significantly from the ancients. Is social contract idea the same in Ibn Khaldun and Rousseau? I think Machiavelli is more like the mirror of princes treatment. I think Ibn Khaldun is different in an important way, in that he is normative and not purely deterministic. On the question of when does modernity begin, I side with Khalid Blankenship that it begins in the seventh century. I agree with your analysis of Ibn Khaldun’s obscurity, but I point out that he was more ignored by Muslim society than by Western society.

Adem: We agree more than we disagree. When I compare different philosophers, it is not to say they are saying the same thing but they had similar interests. It is true that IK has been ignored by Muslims as much as by Arabs. I think he was rejecting the prevailing view which is why I see his view as post hegemonic. I will take your points into account.

Discussant Ali Mazrui, SUNY Binghamton

Toynbee called the Muqaddamah the greatest work of its kind in any time or place.

General Discussion:

To what degree is Ibn Khaldun descriptive rather than analytical? I have another maxim: power resides more among those who control the means of distraction than those who control the means of production. History is about power and agency, but there is also a sacred history and we must tap into the broader picture.

Speak of how Ibn Khaldun distinguished himself from the Negroes.

I think it is a mistake to peg Hobbs as someone who sees man as bad; he rather said that man is rational in a dark and mysterious place.

Adem: I don’t read Arabic; my work is based on the translation of Rosenthal. As to the Africanity of Ibn Khaldun, there is uncertainty of his origins, but in his writings he refers to his home of Tunisia as Afriqiyya. As to Hobbs one can be rational and bad at the same time. Nothing in his books indicates that he is optimistic about human nature.

Sub-Saharan Africa came under Islamic influence somewhat late. Whatever Ibn Khaldun’s origins may be, he was a north African thinker and fits into that well. The Muqaddimah was an introduction to his history of the Arabs and the Berbers, but above all he was a judge, a jurist, and belonged to the Islamic religious establishment and made his livelihood not as a historian but as a jurist.

Ahmad:  Ibn Khaldun claimed Arab descent and his climatic views of race would put north Africa in the same climatic belt as Arabia in any case.

Adem: Ibn Khaldun refers to tropical Africa to explain his climatic theory (although not by name). As far as I know he didn’t finish that larger work.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute






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