Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) is generally regarded as the greatest intellectual ever to have appeared in the Arab world — a genius who ranks as one of the world’s great minds. Yet the author of the Muqaddima, the most important study of history ever produced in the Islamic world, is not as well known as he should be, and his ideas are widely misunderstood. In this groundbreaking intellectual biography, Robert Irwin provides an engaging and authoritative account of Ibn Khaldun’s extraordinary life, times, writings, and ideas.
Irwin tells how Ibn Khaldun, who lived in a world decimated by the Black Death, held a long series of posts in the tumultuous Islamic courts of North Africa and Muslim Spain, becoming a major political player as well as a teacher and writer. Closely examining the Muqaddima, a startlingly original analysis of the laws of history, and drawing on many other contemporary sources, Irwin shows how Ibn Khaldun’s life and thought fit into historical and intellectual context, including medieval Islamic theology, philosophy, politics, literature, economics, law, and tribal life. Because Ibn Khaldun’s ideas often seem to anticipate by centuries developments in many fields, he has often been depicted as more of a modern man than a medieval one, and Irwin’s account of such misreadings provides new insights about the history of Orientalism.
In contrast, Irwin presents an Ibn Khaldun who was a creature of his time—a devout Sufi mystic who was obsessed with the occult and futurology and who lived in an often-strange world quite different from our own.
Awards and Recognition
- One of the Financial Times' Best Books of the Year: Critics' Picks
- One of Asian Review of Books' Books of the Year (Biography & Memoir)
"In Robert Irwin, Ibn Khaldun has finally found a biographer and interpreter almost as versatile and learned as he was himself."—Eric Ormsby, Wall Street Journal
"A compelling new account of the 14th-century Arab historian and polymath. . . . Irwin has produced an exemplary work."—Gavin Jacobson, Financial Times
"As an introduction to Ibn Khaldun’s fascinating life and times, his ideas, and how they have been understood and misunderstood over the centuries, you could hardly wish for something better."—Thomas Small, Times Literary Supplement
"Irwin wears his immense erudition lightly and gives an often very funny account of how orientalists, historians and modern Arab nationalist have interpreted Ibn Khaldun’s most famous work. . . . Irwin offers his readers a superb work of intellectual recovery, one which presents Ibn Khaldun as a creature of his time. . . . He has resurrected for us the medieval Muslim mind."—Francis Ghilès, The Spectator
"Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography is both an introduction to his work and an intervention into Ibn Khaldun studies."—Sameer Rahim, Prospect
"The great merit of Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography is that it encourages us to treat the intellectual history of the Islamic world not as a battleground for contemporary ideological struggles but as a subject worthy of investigation in its own right."—Fitzroy Morrissey, Standpoint
"Irwin’s book lives up to its name. . . . [It is] a work that will be of interest not only to students of Islamic intellectual history, but also to students of historiography, sociology, and anthropology. Irwin’s writing is accessible to all levels of readership. Well suited for seminar discussions, as it offers much to debate."—T.M. May, Choice
"Irwin’s portrait of the philosopher is beautifully written, intriguing, stimulating and movingly intimate."—Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
"In his highly readable appraisal of Ibn Khaldun’s life and work, Robert Irwin sets out to demythologize and, at the same time, remystify a man whose mind was formed far from the seminar rooms of 20th-century social science. . . . [C]oncise and compelling."—Nile Green, Los Angeles Review of Books
"I did enjoy this style of biography as Irwin brought the mind of Ibn Khaldun into focus and showed the genius that [is] worthy of standing with other ‘well-regarded’ thinkers of the past."—Gaele Hince, I am, Indeed blog
"The book is entertaining and thought-provoking in itself; it is not the last word but provides a fascinating guide to further reading."—Patrick Manning, Connections
"Irwin's book is very informative and well-argued in addressing the life and works of Ibn Khaldun in both historical and intellectual contexts."—Fadi Zatari, Insight Turkey
"This book engages the mind in a positive way and provides an academic but highly accessible introduction to a complex topic."—Abdullah Drury, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations
"Few scholars are more fun to read than Robert Irwin. Not just an authority on medieval Arabic culture, he's also a literary journalist and novelist who writes with clarity, zest, and an almost encyclopedic erudition. To illuminate the life and thought of the fascinating fourteenth-century historian Ibn Khaldun, Irwin looks at The Arabian Nights, the philosophy of Averroes, Islamic occultism, Sufism, the researches of modern Arabists, and even the science fiction of Isaac Asimov. The result is an exhilarating work of intellectual recovery—learned, entertaining, and very welcome."—Michael Dirda, Pulitzer Prize–winning critic and author of Classics for Pleasure and Browsings
"Robert Irwin takes a genuinely fresh look at one of the greatest Arab thinkers. Too often—as he shows—Ibn Khaldun has been lifted out of the fourteenth century and remodeled to fit our modern assumptions. This lively and deeply knowledgeable account makes him authentically unmodern, and utterly fascinating."—Noel Malcolm, All Souls College, University of Oxford
"Few scholars could engage Ibn Khaldun with the expansive reference and acute insight of Robert Irwin. His is a masterful study of the outstanding visionary of Islamic civilization. This book will be required reading not just for students of world history but for all who want to grasp the future of the past."—Bruce B. Lawrence, author The "Koran" in English: A Biography
"Using his virtually unrivaled knowledge of the Mamluk world, Robert Irwin puts Ibn Khaldun in his context as no one else has done. Irwin also gives a marvelous account of how Orientalists, historians, colonialists, and nationalists have interpreted Ibn Khaldun to serve their purposes, from the Ottoman Empire to the present. This is the work of a scholar at the height of his powers."—Francis Robinson, author of The Mughal Emperors
"Questioning conventional views of Ibn Khaldun, this important book reflects Robert Irwin's deep knowledge and understanding of the medieval Muslim mind."—Hugh Kennedy, author of Caliphate: The History of an Idea