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The burning flame of violence analysed by Arab historians six centuries ago

World Tamalika Basu 24-Jan-2020
Ibn Khaldun
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The persecution of various minority groups throughout parts of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the subcontinent is gaining prominence every day on the pages of newspapers or TV screens. India’s amended citizenship law has resulted in chaos on a national scale. Protests and demonstrations are taking place in several cities throughout the country.

On the other hand, in Myanmar, the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims, the persecution of the Uighur people in China and the plight of the Ahmadiyya Muslim population in Pakistan all point to serious societal discord and the growth of an extremist mentality.

In our analysis of this phenomenon, we usually look to the writings of various Western philosophers, political theorists and sociologists. However, in the course of history, we are bound to recognise the relevance of Ibn Khaldun’s to our understanding of present-day turmoil.

Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunisia in the year 1323. His best known work is the Kitāb al-ʻIbar, which incorporates the Muqaddimah. Recent scholarship has interpreted this book as a philosophy of history and as the primary origin of modern sociology. It has also been argued that this book was the forerunner of social Darwinism. It also contained the seeds of both Keynesian and supply-side economics as well as exploring topics related to the natural sciences.

Ibn Khaldun was born in an era when the power and domination of Islam had begun to crumble. Islamic thought had fallen into neglect and was of little interest to western scholars. For this reason, the works of Ibn Khaldun initially received little international attention . In the West, Ibn Khaldun became known in 1697 in a posthumous publication of Barthélemy d’Herbelot de Molainville. About a century later, in 1806, the French orientalist Silvestre de Sacy published his own biography of Ibn Khaldun, including a translation of several passages from the Muqaddimah. In 1812, the Austrian orientalist Baron Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall would describe Ibn Khaldun as an ‘Arab Montesquieu’.

From the middle of the nineteenth century, Ibn Khaldun became known to researchers in Europe as the author of economic, philosophical and political theories that would become established in the West centuries later. Ibn Khaldun’s theories would resonate in the writings of Machiavelli (1469-1527), and subsequently those of  Montesquieu (1669-1755), Adam Smith (1723-1790) and August Kuyt (1798-1857). Indeed, Ibn Khaldun discussed the dynamics and philosophy of history long before Giambattista Vico.

The Muqaddimah begins as a warning about the seven mistakes that are often made in historical writing. Ibn Khaldun criticises historians for fallacies which range from prejudice towards certain communities to indifference towards human progress. A central concept discussed in the Muqaddimah, however, is the phenomenon of ‘assabiya, a sense of social solidarity which deteriorates as society advances. This involves a cyclical view of history, including the assertion that ruling dynasties contain the seeds of their own destruction given that solidarity ebbs as a sovereign is tarnished by corruption and a new dynasty emerges on the periphery as a potential challenger.

As we witness the removal of dictators, mass uprisings and the establishment of democracy in Arab states we are reminded of Khaldun’s philosophy. In addition, we have presided over the rise and fall of the hereditary head of state in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh where corruption is the root cause of public awakening. In Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun said that the ruler or civilisation was destroyed when the ruler abstained from his productive work, living a long life without consultation while oppressing the people. An economic aspect of this is analysed by Khaldun. He claimed that the stability of a dynasty is directly related to the taxation of the country. In the beginning an empire’s tax rate is lower but the revenue is higher. On the other hand, during the fall of the empire the tax rate is high but the revenue is low.

In fact, according to Islamic law, the theory refers to limited taxation. The amount of zakat is only 2.5 percent on the accumulated wealth (gold, silver or currency) and this tax is for the poor, not for the government. Other taxes such as land taxes, per capita taxes sit uneasily with Islamic doctrine. Ibn Khaldun argues that a government will see greater success only if it adheres to Islamic principles and does not try to impose additional taxes on the people.

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