Book review: Robert Irwin brings 14th century historian Ibn Khaldun back to life in ‘An Intellectual Biography’

Ibn Khaldun’s bibliography is huge, and books about him are constantly published. (Shutterstock)
Updated 13 June 2018
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Book review: Robert Irwin brings 14th century historian Ibn Khaldun back to life in ‘An Intellectual Biography’

  • Irwin avoids the tendency to Westernize his thoughts, and ignores a plausible influence over Machiavelli, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Marx and Durkheim
  • Ibn Khaldun’s ideas are a product of his time, and Irwin places him firmly back in his context, in the Arab world during the 14th century

BEIRUT: More than 600 years after his death, Ibn Khaldun is alive and well. One of the world’s greatest minds, Ibn Khaldun is best known for his masterpiece, “The Muqaddimah” (1377), a book about the principles of history and the rise and fall of dynasties. This all-time classic continues to generate unabated interest.

In 2015 Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s new-year resolution was to read an important book every two weeks. For his 11th pick, he chose “The Muqaddimah.” “While much of what was believed then is now disproven after 700 years’ progress, it’s still interesting to see what was understood at the time and the overall world view when it’s all considered together.”

Ibn Khaldun’s bibliography is huge, and books about him are constantly published. The latest on the market is “Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography.” Its author, Robert Irwin, joins a long list of Ibn Khaldun’s admirers. “It feels as though I have been living with Ibn Khaldun since I first read ‘The Muqaddimah’ as a student in the 1960s. So it was high time that I took a close look at the assumptions and vocabulary that underpinned his thinking. To spend so much time with a polymathic genius has been both demanding and exhilarating,” Irwin said.

This biography is a tour de force. Irwin avoids the tendency to Westernize his thoughts, and ignores a plausible influence over Machiavelli, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Marx and Durkheim. Ibn Khaldun’s ideas are a product of his time, and Irwin places him firmly back in his context, in the Arab world during the 14th century.

To comprehend the nature of his authority and genius, one needs to study Ibn Khaldun in his own time. “It is precisely Ibn Khaldun’s irrelevance to the modern world that makes him so interesting and important. When I read ‘The Muqaddimah,’ I have the sense that I am encountering a visitor from another planet, and that is exciting,” Irwin said.

Irwin, a specialist in medieval Arabic culture, plunges his readers into the adventurous life of one of the greatest Arab thinkers with a remarkable ease and brio. Understanding Ibn Khaldun’s work helps us to cast a fresh and more critical eye on our modern world.


Ancient musical instruments get an airing in Athens

Updated 21 June 2018
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Ancient musical instruments get an airing in Athens

  • The phorminx, the kitharis, the krotala and the aulos — string and wind instruments reconstructed by musical group Lyravlos — echoed among marble statues in Athens’s National Archaeological Museum.
  • Music was an integral part of almost every aspect of ancient Greek society, from religious, to social to athletic events.

ATHENS: Hymns sung to the Greek gods thousands of years ago resonated from ancient musical instruments in Athens on Thursday, transporting a transfixed audience to antiquity.
The phorminx, the kitharis, the krotala and the aulos — string and wind instruments reconstructed by musical group Lyravlos — echoed among marble statues in Athens’s National Archaeological Museum as part of World Music Day celebrations.
A family of musicians, Lyravlos have recreated exact replicas of the ancient instruments from natural materials including animal shells, bones, hides and horns.
Music was an integral part of almost every aspect of ancient Greek society, from religious, to social to athletic events. Today only some 60 written scores of ancient Greek music have survived, said Lyravlos member Michael Stefos.
Stefos said they interpret them as best they can, relying on the accuracy of their recreated instruments.
“Joking aside, ancient CDs have never been found,” he said.
Their performance included a hymn to the god Apollo, pieces played at the musical festival of the ancient Pythian Games in Delphi and during wine-laden rituals to the god Dionysus.
Michael’s father Panayiotis Stefos, who heads the group, travels to museums at home and abroad studying ancient Greek antiquities and texts in order to recreate the instruments.
“Usually each instrument has a different sound. It is not something you can make on a computer, it will not be a carbon copy,” said Stefos.
The difference with modern day instruments?
“If someone holds it in their arms and starts playing, after a few minutes they don’t want to let it go, because it vibrates and pulsates with your body,” he said.
French tourist Helene Piaget, who watched the performance, said it was “inspiring.”
“One sees them on statues, on reliefs, and you can’t imagine what they might sound like,” she said.
World Music Day is an annual celebration that takes place on the summer solstice.