Ibn Khaldûn’s book “The Muqaddimah” has brought me to enter the scholarly activities around the 14th century. Yes, the 14th century, seven hundred years ago. A period of time that never before I cared so much, until now. Especially with my recent visit to Andalusia (where I witnessed the remnants of Islamic greatest achievements in Granada and Cordoba) the world’s history between (roughly) the 8th until 15th century cannot be neglected to understand where we are standing in the present day.
I recalled how Yasin, my tour guide and a good friend in Granada, described that every component of Alhambra is a pinnacle of scientific and artistic achievements during that time. I imagine, at that time, people were able not only to develop scientifically but also to practically apply those scientific advancement in their everyday life. It was a period when spiritual devotion elevates one’s scientific exploration.
It was based on that curiosity that I looked for any publications written by Muslim scholars at that time, especially in the social sciences. Then I came across Ibn Khaldûn’s “The Muqaddimah.” Ibn Khaldûn himself is known for his historical analysis of the Arabic world but, as I read further, his writings are also about sociology, anthropology, political science, economics, and business management. And wait, his analyses and theorizations are still very relevant with what we are dealing now in the 21st century! Socially, we seem to be not so much different from those in Ibn Khaldûn’s era.
This led me to explore other Muslim scholars (especially in philosophy and social sciences) such as, that I am trying to read so far, al-Ghazali, al-Kindi, and Ibn Battuta. All with two questions: What are their views of the world? And how their views relevant (or not) with the current scientific discourse? If the modern day social sciences pride themselves to refer to the work of Karl Marx, Max Weber, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, Anthony Giddens or Joseph Schumpeter, why don’t they refer as far back as those scholars in the 8th–15th century? Especially given the high relevance of the latter in today’s era.
Then I came to the conclusion that—as far as I read—what have been thought, discussed, and debated by our 20th and 21st-century scholars are not something new if compared to the problems back in the 14th century. In fact, our scholars in the past have been able to settle the problems in a much simpler and concise way than what is proposed now. If, in the past, we already possess such knowledge, then how come that we lose the knowledge now? When was it that we ‘lost the memory’ of such knowledge? We claim to live in the modern age, but it seems that we are now ‘re-inventing the wheel’ by discussing what has been discussed before. What exactly is this “modernity” means?
I believe that we can learn a great deal by coming closer to the writings of the great scholars in the past. Given the strong influence of the Middle Ages Muslim scholars in the subsequent scientific “progress” (what is ‘progress’ anyway?), it would be a significant blindspot for us if we never came across the works produced during that period. Their worldview, based on the faith that there is no god but God, is unique. And this colors their theorization in a way that is different from the modern day, secularistic view. As a Muslim student, I feel incomplete and unjust if I read so much about the writings of the Western scholars but never touched any work by the great Muslim scholars. Pak Sony Warsono, a respected senior lecturer from Universitas Gadjah Mada, said to me that Islam is currently not in a favorable “swing.” This is a reminder that every nation, every group of people, every ummah has its own rise and fall, and one cannot quicken or delay the time designated to each. What should we do (especially for Muslim scholars), then, to advance our knowledge and science for a better understanding the world? To improve ourselves, Ibn Khaldûn advises us to travel “in quest of knowledge” and meet “the authoritative teachers of his time” (Ibn Khaldûn, 2015, p. 426). If this means that you have to go to the US or Europe or Australia or Egypt, please go for it. Go for it.
Ibn Khaldûn. (2015). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History (F. Rosenthal, Trans.). Woodstock: Princeton University Press.
Thanks to the invention of a PhD position, I am able to spend my time thinking, reflecting, and writing about something of “very little practical relevance” and instead carried away to contemplate the doings of people and how could we make sense of why they do what they do in the way they do.