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Unlike mathematics or physics, history is not an exact science. However, since early modern times, chroniclers of the past and present have attempted to craft some sort of systematic analysis of human behavior and evolution within specific geographical and historical contexts. This has not always been the case. Many ancient historians such as Herodotus interwove fact and fiction, reality and myth, with a storyteller's ease. Other historians, such as Plutarch, did not focus on events that they had witnessed, but on the collective testimony of the past and on the biography of "great men" rather than of society as a whole. These tendencies towards the fantastic and the fictional rather than the realistic and the analytical were exacerbated with the influx of Christianity into Europe, which often encouraged the fusing of elaborate accounts of the holiness of the saints onto historical struggles of the present. For a more systematic analysis of history in the early modern world we must look elsewhere, towards the Islamic world. We must look, in other words, to the work of jurist and historian Abdarrahman Ibn Khaldun.
Khaldun is the author of The Muqaddima, or Introduction to History, one of the earliest attempts made by any historian to examine history not as a series of events but as a series of changes that occur in human political and social organization. It attempts to explain and create a philosophy of history, rather than to re-state a culturally validated narrative. Ibn Khaldun is quite explicit in the systematic nature of his project and he states as much in the opening of his work, explicating a thesis rather than "setting the stage" for a fascinating tale.
In this book we are going to explain such various aspects of civilization that affect human beings in their social organization, as royal authority, gainful occupation, sciences, and crafts, all in the light of various arguments that will show the true nature of the varied knowledge of the elite and the common people, repel misgivings, and remove doubts. (This translation is excerpted and adapted from the translation by Franz Rosenthal, as will all of the quotes from Ibn Khaldun's monumental work throughout this paper)
The systematic nature of Khaldun's project is also evidenced in the chapter-by-chapter organization of his work.
Consequently, the discussion in this work falls naturally under six headings:
I. On human civilization in general, its various kinds, and the portion of the earth that is civilized.
II. On desert civilization, including a report on the tribes and savage nations.
III. On dynasties, the caliphate, and royal authority, including a discussion of government ranks.
IV. On sedentary civilization, countries, and cities.
V. On crafts, ways of making a living, gainful occupations, and their various aspects.
VI. On the sciences, their acquisition and study.
Like a modern historian as well, Khaldun also states quite blatantly what will be the main thesis of his text. However, unlike many modern historians he is also quite explicit in the moral project of his text. Khaldun states that in his view, what is closest to the primary structure of human needs takes precedence over the luxuries generated by more "developed" or "sedentary" civilizations. He states that there is a basic dichotomy that exists between people of the nomadic way of life and people of the sedentary way of life. This dichotomy is evidenced by the fact that nomadic people by virtue of their lifestyle can fulfill only their primary needs. Sedentary people, in contrast, can generate luxuries and enjoy leisure time because their way of life has developed and more elaborate societal structure that can cater to basic needs.
The discussion of ways of making a living was placed before that of the sciences, because making a living is necessary and natural, whereas the study of science is a luxury or convenience. Anything natural has precedence over luxury. I lumped the crafts together with gainful occupations, because they belong to the latter in some respects as far as civilization is concerned, as will become clear later.
It is worthy of note that rather than focusing on a distant, barely-remembered past, Ibn Khaldun's work was based on first-hand observation of historical events as well as readings of earlier Arab historians. Also interesting from our own, modern perspective of Ibn Khaldun's work are the parallels of his analysis between modern perspectives of Islam in America today. While Islam and the Middle East persists in modern, American discourse to be constructed as "primitive" rather than progressive, in contrast to the West, and even in Islamic fundamentalist discourse, Islam is often constructed as more "pure" when held up against the decadent West, Ibn Khaldun's work establishes a dichotomy between the current state of the Islamic civilization in which Khaldun dwelled, characterized then by great material and cultural wealth, with the lifestyles of less urbanized people. The latter group, Bedouin nomads of less densely populated areas are characterized as retaining a sense of pure solidarity that more urbanized, decadent people lack. Khaldun values the more primary lifestyle of the nomads, whom are forced to rely on themselves and small group ties to fulfill their basic needs, rather than larger societal structures. Yet throughout Khaldun's work there is an unspoken tension because the author is writing a systematic and scholarly work that would not exist without the "luxuries" of a developed, sedentary civilization that enables him to study and write. Furthermore, in this work that so values the primary and the pre-institutional, certain theories, such as Maslow's theory of a hierarchy of basic human needs and Marx's theories of the rudiments of capitalist civilization are brought out in the text of Khaldun's monumental analysis.
It must be cautioned that Khaldun does not discount the need for civilization in human societal structure. Far from it.
Human social organization is something necessary. The philosophers expressed this fact by saying: "Man is "political" by nature." That is, he cannot do without the social organization for which the philosophers use the technical term "town" (polis). This is what civilization means. The necessary character of human social organization or civilization is explained by the fact that God created and fashioned man in a form that can live and subsist only with the help of food. He guided man to a natural desire for food and instilled in him the power that enables him to obtain it. However, the power of the individual human being is not sufficient for him to obtain the food he needs, and does not provide him with as much food as he requires to live. .. he cannot do without a combination of many powers from among his fellow beings, if he is to obtain food for himself and for them. Through cooperation, the needs of a number of persons, many times greater than their own number, can be satisfiedLikewise, each individual needs the help of his fellow beings for his defense.
To live, human beings must band together. It is the different ways that they have evolved, their different ways of banding together in societal structures, Khaldun wishes to evaluate. Khaldun also acknowledges an extremely broad definition of human civilization, one that is not necessarily confined to a particular lifestyle, primitive or not:
Civilization may be either desert Bedouin civilization as found in outlying regions and mountains, in hamlets near pastures in waste regions, and on the fringes of sandy deserts; or it may be sedentary civilization as found in cities, villages, towns, and small communities that serve the purpose of protection and fortification by means of walls. In all these different conditions, there are things that affect civilization essentially in as far as it is social organization.
It is this variety in their ways of "banding together" that makes humans so interesting and both different and above the animal kingdom:
We say that man is distinguished from the other living beings by certain qualities peculiar to him, namely: (1) The sciences and crafts which result from that ability to think which distinguishes man from the other animals and exalts him as a thinking being over all creatures. (2) The need for restraining influence and strong authority, since man, alone of all the animals, cannot exist without them. It is true; something has been said in this connection about bees and locusts. However, if they have something similar, it comes to them through inspiration, not through thinking or reflection. (3) Man's efforts to make a living and his concern with the various ways of obtaining and acquiring the means of life. This is the result of man's need for food to keep alive and subsist, which God instilled in him, guiding him to desire and seek a livelihood. God said, "He gave every thing its natural characteristics, and then guided it" (20:50). (4) Civilization. This means that human beings have to dwell in common and settle together in cities and hamlets for the comforts of companionship and for the satisfaction of human needs, as a result of the natural disposition of human…[continue]
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