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

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

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

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.