The Garden of Earthly Delights

Ibn Khaldūn (1332-1406 C.E.) –  was a North African polymath — an astronomer, economist, historian, Islamic scholar, Islamic theologian, hafiz, jurist, lawyer, mathematician, military strategist, nutritionist, philosopher, social scientist and statesman (!!!!!!!) —born in North Africa in present-day Tunisia. He retreated into the desert in 1375 and emerged four years later having written one of the most important ever studies of the workings of history.

This volume, commonly known as Muqaddimah or ‘Prolegomena’, became a masterpiece in literature on philosophy of history and sociology. The chief concern of this monumental work was to identify psychological, economic, environmental and social facts that contribute to the advancement of human civilization and the currents of history. In this context, he analysed the dynamics of group relationships and showed how group-feelings, al-‘Asabiyya, give rise to the ascent of a new civilisation and political power and how, later on, its diffusion into a more general civilization invites the advent of a still new ‘Asabiyya in its pristine form. He identified an almost rhythmic repetition of rise and fall in human civilization, and analysed factors contributing to it.

Ibn Khaldun’s writings seem particularly relevant today after reading this:

I’ve mentioned more than once in these essays the foreshortening effect that textbook history can have on our understanding of the historical events going on around us. The stark chronologies most of us get fed in school can make it hard to remember that even the most drastic social changes happen over time, amid the fabric of everyday life and a flurry of events that can seem more important at the time.

The twilight years of Rome offer a good object lesson; so many people were convinced that the Second Coming might occur at any moment that the collapse of classical civilization went almost unnoticed; only a tiny handful of writers from those years show any recognition that something out of the ordinary was happening at all.

Reflections of this sort have been much on my mind lately, and there’s a reason for that. Scattered among the statistical noise that makes up most of today’s news are data points that suggest to me that business as usual is quietly coming to an end around us, launching us into a new world for which very few of us have made any preparations at all.


  1. Author
    ptsp 6 years ago

    Ibn Khaldun lived at a time of disruption and instability throughout the Islamic world. The lands of the Levant had been subject to the Crusades until the crusaders were swept away by the Ottoman Turks in the fourteenth century. 1258 Genghis Khan and his Mongol forces swept through the Fertile Crescent, in the process destroying forever what was left of the Abbasid Caliphate, before being halted by the Mamluks in southern Syria (modern Palestine). However, within fifty years, the Mongols had themselves became Islamized. In the early fourteenth century, Mongols from Central Asia under the leadership of Timurlane again invaded the northern Eurasian continent (today’s Azerbaijan, North India, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq) as far as Damascus before he turned north to defeat the Ottomans in Anatolia. In the west, the Spanish Reconquista was in the process of driving the Muslims from Spain.

    Ibn Khaldun did not see this period as one of transition but of decline interrupted by vain attempts at renewal. He concentrated on the understanding and meaning of the history through which he had lived, focusing on the rise and fall of dynasties or states (dawla), examining the development of the internal structures of the society in which he lived. He concluded that the progress of history—the emergence of communities and the creation and decline of the dynastic state—hinged critically on group solidarity (asabiyya), culture (umran) and power. In his view, the social nature of man impelled him to form cooperative communities for survival. The form that the community took was conditioned by the specific circumstances of its material existence—the climate and material environment. Nomadic society based on kinship possessed the strongest characteristic of solidarity. By its nature, nomadic life was non-territorial, frequently marginal, distinctly egalitarian, and precarious. The coming together of tribal solidarity and vitality with the prophetic impulse of Islam transformed nomadic solidarity into an inspired historic movement. The expansion of Arab tribal power resulted in a dynastically ruled complex community pursuing both nomadic and sedentary lifestyles. A dynastically ruled state, however, contained within it the seeds of its decay and destruction. The security of existence in settled communities, the comparative luxury, the segmented character of labour, the conspicuous consumption of the elite eventually led to a decline in resolute boldness and integrity, and to rising corruption. Populations debilitated by desire and moral decline and most importantly by a loss of a sense of solidarity resulted in the fall of dynasties from internal decay or conquest.

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