The Middle East is not a Homogenous Place: A Brief Critique of Ibn Khaldun
by Professor A.L.I.
Marshall Hodgson points out in The Venture of Islam, that the period between 1258 and 1503 marks a consequential segmentation pertaining to areas deemed Dar al Islam. Although there remained greater unity between these lands as opposed to Dar al Harb, invading forces, and changing political boundaries alienated areas like the Maghrib. Ibn Khaldun’s excised introduction to his world history, is therefore only adequately understood in light of the framework Hodgson furnishes. Ibn Khaldun’s work is a project of categorization and development of social truths, which are designed to better interpret history. Unlike Tabari, Ibn Khaldun’s history is less fact oriented, and more devoted to principles of sociological interpretation. The lack of facts, problemetize many of his sociological examples and principles as they fail to consider that there may exist, groups outside his sphere of comprehension: the Maghrib. These excluded groups cast uncertainty into Ibn Khaldun’s social equations. His generalizations are also disputable within the area where they seem most pertinent. In essence, Ibn Khaldun’s falsafah based history, constrain and limit a thorough understanding of the states and societies that have preceded him in Islamicate history.
Ibn Khaldun asserts in his introduction the existence of two groups: sedentary and Bedouin. This universal classification scheme lacks inclusion of categories beyond the two, framed groups. Although an argument may be presented regarding his passing mention of Kurds, Turks, and Slavs as emblematic of a deeper worldly consideration; its manifest flaw are other existing groups near his sphere which problemetize his claims. Hodgson clarifies that the Maghrib was isolated especially from Persia prior to his introduction of Ibn Khaldun in his research. This point, when understood in the context of historical events explains why groups like the Mongols are not considered. The Mongols highly question the sedentary and the Bedouin classification system, as they manifest qualities from both groups that are mutually exclusive.
He later expands this classification scheme to draw out generalizations about both groups which greatly draw question to its application into the Maghrib area itself. Claims into disposition of courage to Bedouin based on their natural condition rather than the sedentary is based on weak logic. His arguments can equally be swayed by counter assertions of greater bravery by sedentary groups due the protection of an army, and walls, and the inability to flee attack. Similarly, his arguments on the purity of lineage seem applicable to his area, where as Hodgson points out there is a constant shifting of rulers, and lack of a consistently powerful dynastic tradition. He cites a hadith that elucidates the nobility of Joseph and his forefathers: Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham. His conclusions concerning the hadith that “four generations in one lineage are the limit in extent of ancestral prestige,” fails to consider other prophets that Muslims acknowledge that emerge from this dynastic tradition such as Moses, Aaron, Solomon, and David. This particular argument also displays ignorance of Shii belief in the Immamiya: the vice regency acknowledged after the prophet in the Imams, who inherit their pure lineage from Fatima and Ali, and infallibility from the Prophet.
Many of Ibn Khaldun’s statements are generalizations based on examples he has interacted with, within his isolated sphere. In what seems hubris he fails to even acknowledge the possibility of groups outside his definitions, and in some cases their beliefs and therefore remains an unreliable source for the comprehension of Islamic states and societies outside the Maghrib at any in depth level. Hodgson cleverly states,
“Ibn Khaldun’s Maghribi focus was very fruitful for him. But for a modern scholar to generalize from the Maghrib, as some do, can be very misleading, especially if his notion of the other moiety—‘the East’—is almost limited to the Jamai-Sunni Arabs in a period when the greatest cultural vitality was in the Persianate zone.”
Ibn Khaldun presents cultural insights into the areas that he discusses; but the use of Ibn Khaldun should be limited both to his sphere as well as his falsafah school, lest they restrict our historical understanding of the states and societies that comprise the Middle East.