In our contemporary War on Terror, there is a tragic absence of an Arab-Muslim voice that crystallizes the urgency to fight the jihadis and that separates Islam from the perverted agenda of terrorism. That is why the words of a medieval scholar, Ibn Khaldun, can serve as an essential guide to our understanding of the present conflict -- and arm us with the vital ideological weapons we need to defeat Islamist terrorism.
Ibn Khaldun was a scholar from the Middle Ages who would have provided a crucial perspective that is now sorely lacking to contemporary thinkers. His work can illuminate why the terrorists are un-Islamic and a plague on civilization. Consequently, as a Muslim and an Arab we can call upon him as a mighty ally and resource in the contemporary battle for global freedom and democracy.
Khaldun's work illustrates that Islam is not in opposition to the West and that Western freedom and modernity are complementary and congruent with Islam. Most importantly, his scholarship reveals the strategic need of the war of ideas against the jihadis and provides all contemporary Muslims with the justifications they need to be full and unconditional allies with the West in our war against Islamist terror.
We may draw upon Ibn Khaldun's priceless and revolutionary insights by first situating his work within the context of a debate that occurred, not too long ago, in a world unwary of the gathering threat of global terrorism.
In the early 1990s there occurred a debate of some intensity about the evolving nature of world politics. This debate coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 bringing to an end Europe’s division into two mutually antagonistic ideological camps since the end of the Second World War, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was unprecedented. The Soviet Union was not simply another state; it was the largest empire in recent times constructed on the basis of a new militant expansionist and utopian ideology over the carcass of the defunct Czarist empire. Previous empires had collapsed at the end of some mighty war as did three of the five empires, the Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman and the Russian, as a result of the Great War of 1914-18. In other words, the internal rot of an empire, however extensive, was insufficient to bring about the collapse of an empire without external causes. In the case of the Soviet Union, a military superpower and an empire collapsed due to the internal exhaustion of its economic and political system without a major war.
The demise of the Soviet Union was a cause for celebration by all freedom loving people, and specially for those who had suffered under its totalitarian system. But after every celebration there comes a time for sober reflection, and the debate about the nature of world politics was part of this sober reflection. The Soviet Union had provided for nearly half century since 1945 a stable point of reference for the geopolitical map with which the world became familiar. Familiarity in politics, in part, means stability and predictability. The bipolar structure of the Cold War, as this period of history will now be remembered by historians, despite the knowledge that it rested on a very precarious arrangement of nuclear deterrence known as the balance of terror, provided the two superpowers assurances that come from knowledge of safely working within this structure that both had crafted together. But the end of the Cold War, according to the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, "suddenly removed the props which had held up the international structure and, to an extent not yet appreciated, the structures of the world's domestic political systems. And what was left was a world in disarray and partial collapse, because there was nothing to replace them."1
The debate about the nature of world politics in the emerging post-Cold War era was an attempt to set up some indicators of the direction in which the world was headed, of what the future might look like, of what to expect and what might be required to construct a new world order. It was not all hopeless. The collapse of the Soviet Union was unlike the Gotterdammerung of the fascist powers in Europe and the Far East in 1945. The world remained at relative peace, the great powers continued to work together in the United Nations, and the world of sovereign states, irrespective of local or regional aberrations such as in the Balkans, had come to recognize the rules of international relations and international law and agreed, by and large, to abide by them.
Hence, in retrospect the debate was in part about a safe transition between the demise of the Cold War and the emergence of a more stable post-Cold War order. Some argued that the end of the bipolar Cold War structure meant the world was returning to something like what had characterized the early period of modern history, a multipolar world of several great powers working to establish a new balance of power in a world no longer held hostage to ideologies. Others reflected on the unipolar nature of the post-Cold War world and how the United States would conduct itself as a Gulliver in the world of Lilliputians.
The boldest and most optimistic scenario of the future world system was provided by Francis Fukuyama in a paper titled "The End of History?" published in 1989. Fukuyama subsequently expanded this paper into a book. His main proposition was that with the end of Communism as a universalist ideology, Liberalism remained as the only viable political philosophy. Both Liberalism and Communism were products of the West, and during the twentieth century these two systems of political thought and practice had emerged as bitter rivals, and their contest had ended decisively with the death of Communism as a credible political philosophy.
In Fukuyama’s view the end of history meant an end of the dialectical struggle or contest between two opposing schools of thought; and that while difficulties of all sorts remained, the triumph of Liberalism meant that ideologically speaking no other school of thought any longer possessed credible answers to meet human needs in the modern world. Liberalism, the political philosophy that addresses itself to the defence of individual freedom, human rights, free enterprise and market economy, is the child of the modern world and tested in battle of ideas prevailed and inherited the modern world which was in a great measure its creation. United States is the most striking and compelling manifestation of Liberalism in practice, and quite appropriately the end of the twentieth century left the United States as the sole model for the rest of the world to emulate in terms of Liberalism as a practical philosophy and political system in coming to terms with the complexity of the modern world.
Fukuyama’s thesis, irrespective of its merit and possibly being proven right in the very long term, was overshadowed by the events in the Balkans. As the former Yugoslavia disintegrated in the midst of ethnic-cleansing, other views of the emerging post-Cold War world took shape, the most prominent being the one offered by Samuel Huntington of the Harvard University. Huntington’s paper, "The Clash of Civilizations?", published in 1993 in the journal Foreign Affairs and later turned into a book, described a recognizable world of the mid-nineties, and drew from its turbulence the picture of an emerging world system defined in civilizational terms. Huntington suggested a world defined by civilizational boundaries would replace what had become the world order in terms of nation-states.
Huntington’s views caught the imagination of the media while the writings of Zbigniew Brzezinski and Daniel Patrick Moynihan on similar speculation of world politics did not. Events also seemed to confirm Huntington’s analysis. Over the previous two decades religion had reemerged as an almost irresistible force of mobilization re-shaping politics in unexpected ways. Gilles Kepel, a French historian, called this phenomenon "the revenge of God." In Iran the politics of religion toppled a monarch and brought to power an octogenerian cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, unleashing change in an area of the world that Brzezinski once called the "arc of crisis," whose end is still uncertain. In Eastern Europe, about the same time, a new Polish Pope stirred old emotions of religion and nationalism in new ways that would topple communism, first in Poland and then across divided Europe. The map of the world, in Huntington’s view, was being redrawn in accordance with ancient frontiers of faiths and cultures, and the new lines of conflicts in the future world would be boundaries of civilizations instead of nation-states. Huntington wrote, "In this new world, local politics is the politics of ethnicity; global politics is the politics of civilizations. The rivalry of the superpowers is replaced by the clash of civilizations."2
Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, the direction of political development, or the lack thereof, in the "arc of crisis" between the Nile and the Indus seemingly confirmed Huntington’s view. Khomeini’s revolution was in the name of Islam, his appeal was transnational, he spoke about the Islamic umma and not Muslim states as successor arrangements of political rule to European colonial powers. And then came September 11, 2001 which sort of put a seal of final proof confirming Huntington’s thesis.
Let us reconsider briefly Huntington’s idea, or concept, of "civilizations" in plural, upon which he builds his argument about the clash of civilizations. This is essential if we are to consider an alternative way to understand the same concept, that of Ibn Khaldun, which would then lead to an alternative scenario of world politics.
The notion of civilization in Western discourse is of relatively recent origin. In his admirable study Civilization and its Discontented, John Laffey, a historian at Concordia in Montreal, traced the origin of the concept locating its first European use in French towards the end of the 18th century. Civilization indicated an order of social existence marked by "refinement" that was absent among "barbarians." This idea was expanded, refined, and broadly used to indicate "culture" by which human beings distinguish themselves from each other in space geographically, and in time generationally. In Civilization and its Discontents Sigmund Freud – from whom John Laffey, it seems mischievously, took the title for his book – defined the term as follows: "the word ‘civilization’ describes the whole sum of the achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serve two purposes – namely to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations." 3
Through the 19th and into the 20th century, the concept of "civilization" spread in popular usage, more generally suggesting "refinement" in arts and sciences indicating progress, and occasionally suggesting decadence. To cite Freud one more time: "No feature, however, seems better to characterize civilization than its esteem and encouragement of man’s higher mental activities – his intellectual, scientific and artistic achievements – and the leading role that it assigns to ideas in human life. Foremost among those ideas are- the religious systems..."4
Religious systems are the most interesting of human construction in the world of ideas by which we provide meaning to our existence. And religious discourse, it may be suggested, means the totality of the effort invested in the making of a religious system and is, hence, a human discourse. In Huntington’s scheme of civilizations it is religion that sets one civilization apart from another.
Huntington sees civilization as a cultural entity, culture being "values, norms, institutions, and modes of thinking to which successive generations in a given society have attached primary importance."5 Consequently, he writes, "civilizations are the biggest ‘we’ within which we feel culturally at home as distinguished from all the other ‘thems’ out there."6
The new civilizational boundaries of the contemporary world, as Huntington presents his argument, are the old boundaries of religion, and the world so constructed is divided into seven civilizations as closed cultural entities. These entities may or may not be hostile to one another, but as cultural tectonic plates they are in movement with the proximate ones colliding. The most volatile boundary, he suggests, is the one separating the West, Judaeo-Christian in its religious identity, from Islam producing frequent conflicts between them.
Huntington’s book is a densely written study in which he reviews old and new writings about the meaning of civilization, and its implication in the making of world history quite extensively. What is then remarkable is his leaving out of his study the one prominent name of an Arab-Muslim philosopher, Ibn Khaldun, who made the subject of civilization his life long meditation and the theme of his universal history.
‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Khaldun, the most famous of Arab historians, was born in Tunis in North Africa in 1332 and died in Cairo in 1406. He belonged to a notable family of Yemeni origin arriving in Spain with the first wave of Arab conquerors in the early 8th century. The family earned prominence as scholars and administrators in the service of Arab rulers in Seville. By the time of Ibn Khaldun’s birth, the slow disintegration of Arab power in Spain (al-Andalus in Arabic) forced the family to leave for Maghreb, the Arab North Africa.
Ibn Khaldun distinguished himself as statesman, judge and diplomat in the service of several royal houses. His political career was caught in the turmoil of dynastic ambitions, wars and the long decline of Arab political power brought about by Mongol invasions. His circumstances in life brought him insights into the human condition enriching his writings as a man of contemplation and action. His fame spread and his wisdom was widely sought. The most famous episode of his life was his meeting with Timur, or Tamarlane, the great conqueror from Samarkand. Timur had Ibn Khaldun brought to his court in Damascus and kept as a guest for an extended period. Each was impressed by the other’s accomplishments, and their conversations remain one of the most fascinating record of interviews in history.
The abiding fame of Ibn Khaldun rests in his study of history in several volumes called Kitab al-Ibar. As Muhsin Mahdi, in perhaps the most important study of Ibn Khaldun’s philosophy has suggested, Ibn Khaldun chose his title carefully. Ibar as the plural of ibra means passing on, over, through, by, or beyond; also meaning "to pass from the outside to the inside of a thing."7 Ibn Khaldun’s study of history was an effort directed to pass beyond history as merely a chronological narrative of rulers and their deeds to acquiring wisdom from such a study, of distilling from the mass of facts some permanent truth for successive generations to reflect upon and learn lessons.
In defining his work Ibn Khaldun wrote it was about acquiring a "subtle explanation of the causes and origins of existing things, and deep knowledge of the how and why of events."8 In this effort he coined the term civilization, or the Arabic equivalent umran, and devoted himself to study how it comes about, evolves, spreads and then declines. His insight into this process set him apart from all other historians before and after him. On this matter Yves Lacoste, a French scholar, observed, "Thucydides invented history but Ibn Khaldun turned it into a science."9
The first volume of Kitab al-Ibar is known as the "Muqaddimah" or Introduction. The opening sentence of the "Muqaddimah" reads "history is information about social organization, which is identical with world civilization."10 Ibn Khaldun, in contrast to Huntington, conceived civilization in singular term as a human enterprise global in scope, assimilative in process and cumulative in its progressive unfolding. The sheer boldness of Ibn Khaldun’s speculative historical thinking is unique. Arnold Toynbee, author of the monumental 10-volume A Study of History, in commenting on Ibn Khaldun’s work wrote, "He has conceived and formulated a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been produced by any mind in any time or place."11
The remarkable thing we find, in the first instance of being introduced to the writings of Ibn Khaldun, is that here we have a 14th century historian-philosopher conceiving the idea of civilization in a singular sense. But on reflection we should not be surprised. Ibn Khaldun was a Muslim, and he plumbed deeply into the message of the Quran even as he read Greek philosophers. The core message of Islam is the concept of unity, tauhid, that all creation in the universe bears the stamp of a single author, of God in the singular. From this axiom Ibn Khaldun did not have to take a philosophical leap to see that behind and beyond diversity and plurality of cultures is to be found the essence of human enterprise in history, its self discovery of its common origin and its singular destiny.
Thus in Ibn Khaldun’s majestic speculation, history of mankind is a movement from ignorance to knowledge, and knowledge in all its aspects is a common, shared resource of humanity. In civilization knowledge is of a higher sort, of knowledge organized, progressively cultivated and shared among people who commonly appreciate arts and sciences.
But Ibn Khaldun’s history was not merely speculative, however grand its vision. He wrote from experience and observation, and in this sense he was a pioneer of modern sociology.
The critical distinction he made in explaining civilization was between primitive culture (umran badawi) and civilized culture (umran hadari). Primitive culture belongs to people who live outside of cities where civilized culture is born, organized and developed. The Arab-Islamic civilization was urban, found in great cities of Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Fez, Cordoba, Granada, Delhi, Samarkand, Bukhara, Isfahan. Outside of cities were deserts and mountains where people lived nomadic lives of primitive simplicity.
Ibn Khaldun wrote: "The bare necessities are no doubt prior to the conveniences and luxuries. Bare necessities, in a way, are basic, and luxuries secondary. Bedouins, thus, are the basis of, and prior to, cities and sedentary people. Man seeks first the bare necessities. Only after he has obtained the bare necessities does he get to comforts and luxuries. The toughness of desert life precedes the softness of sedentary life. Therefore, urbanization is found to be the goal to which the Bedouin aspires."12
City life was sedentary. Here leisure and consumption of luxury created demand for arts and sciences, and the progressive expansion of knowledge. All of this, however, came at a cost. Civilized culture was prey to men of the deserts, or men of primitive culture. The bedouins possessed group solidarity (asabiyya) lacking among city dwellers, and this gave them the military edge to contest for power when attracted by the richness of urban centres. Rome was overrun by barbarians as was the Arab kingdoms of al-Andalus by harsh men lacking refinements of princes who ruled in Seville, Granada, Cordoba. But in this struggle between the primitive and the civilized resided the dialectics of history, the motor of progress, as the primitive restored vitality to the civilized weakened by an inherent tendency of decadence, and the civilized in turn raised the primitive to knowledge and an expanded horizon of understanding and appreciating the finer things of life.
Ibn Khaldun would have readily recognized our world of accelerating globalization, of the process of increased shared civilizational values in arts and sciences, in the making of international law and international institutions, such as the United Nations, providing a universal standard of acceptable and unacceptable norms of political and social behaviour. He would understand how this process of globalization, until lately known as modernization, is uneven, unequal and at times burdened with conflict. But he would see beyond the immediate obstacles to the progressive unfolding of a universal civilization in a highly integrated and interconnected world where, despite the apparent differences of languages, tastes, local customs and traditional religious practices, there might now be found a common core of values in the making accepted in Beijing and New York, in Moscow and Cairo, and where the Brahmins of India could be as much at home in Jerusalem, as the Jews of Paris and the Catholics of Rome could find comfort in the refined surroundings of Sao Paulo and Sydney.
I have found a far richer and subtle understanding of world history in the writings of the 14th century philosopher-historian from Tunis than in the work of the 21st century political scientist from Boston. Huntington sensed evidence of the clash of civilizations in the conflicts of our time. Ibn Khaldun, however, most likely would have told us about September 11 and after that he recognized the terrorists as none other than the people with a mind-set of primitive culture, of the bedouins he wrote about in his Kitab al-Ibar, and that the present war against terrorism, contrary to being a clash of civilizations, was one in which a nation representing civilization was engaged in containing and bringing to justice those who wage war against it.
This alternative understanding of world politics, of the unceasing process fed by many streams of diverse cultures into the making of a global civilization, derived from the writings of Ibn Khaldun, a scholar most responsible in laying the foundation for the scientific study of civilization (ilm al-umran), provides a more optimistic view of where we are headed on this crowded planet. It is perhaps not an irony that a man of learning removed from us by seven centuries, who in his time survived by staying a step ahead of fanatics threatening him for what he wrote and taught, opens for us a more sober and reassuring glimpse of our world than so many contemporary thinkers striving to make sense of the sound and fury surrounding us.
1. Hobsbawm, E., Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991. (London, 1994), p. 255.
2. Huntington, S.P., The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking of World Order. (New York, 1997), p. 28.
3. Freud, S., Civilization and its Discontents. (New York, 1961), p. 40.
4. Freud, p. 45.
5. Huntington, p. 41.
6. Huntington, p. 43.
7. Mahdi, M., Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History. (Chicago, 1964), p. 65.
8. Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah. Franz Rosenthal’s translation. (Princeton, 1967), p.5.
9. Lacoste, Y., Ibn Khaldun: The Birth of History and the Past of the Third World. (London, 1984), p. 142.
10. Ibn Khaldun, p.35.
11. Toynbee, A., A Study of History. (Oxford, 1934), p. 322.
12. Ibn Khaldun, p.93.