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  • Ibn Khaldūn:A Philosopher for Times of Crisis
  • Tamara Albertini (bio)

I am most grateful to Philosophy East and West for publishing a special issue on philosopher Ibn Khaldūn (732–808 a.h./a.d. 1332–1406). The time is particularly propitious since his ideas are currently permeating the political and cultural climate of his native North Africa. The team contributing to the present issue comprises six authors from four different continents. Ridha Chennoufi and Mehdi Saiden are philosophers from the University of Tunis (Tunisia), the city in which Ibn Khaldūn was born. M. Akif Kayapınar is a political scientist teaching at Istanbul Sehir University (Turkey), while Jeremy Kleidosty does research at the Centre of Excellence on Reason and Religious Recognition, University of Helsinki (Finland). Cynthia Scheopner is a Ph.D. recipient from the Department of Philosophy and a coordinator in the College of Social Sciences at the University of Hawai'i. Finally, Lenn E. Goodman is a philosopher from Vanderbilt University and an expert on Jewish and Islamic thought. The diversity among these scholars is in itself a testament to Ibn Khaldūn, whose philosophy has inspired scholars in different countries and of various academic backgrounds.

In one of his most recent publications, Algerian writer Kamel Daoud includes a short text in which he imagines contemporary travelers from different Arab countries sharing how their revolutions began (or are still being halted). After all travelers finish making their profound statements about the massive failures of their respective governments, they notice that one among them had remained silent during the entire conversation. They press him hard until "The traveler cleared his voice and whispered: 'I am the unknown people. The wandering Arab. The continuation of history. Volume II of the scream and the mason of a future Granada. Some call me Ibn Khaldūn'" (my translation).1 How does Ibn Khaldūn, a philosopher born in Tunis more than six centuries ago, end up playing a role in the coming-to-terms with the "Arab Spring"? It has become fashionable to call Ibn Khaldūn a Muslim Machiavelli, Max Weber, Hegel, or a combination thereof. While these comparisons help the nonspecialist to get a quick sense of where some of his significant accomplishments lie—political philosophy, economy, sociology, and philosophy of history—one needs to be careful not to introduce an established [End Page 651] (Western) figure to give status to the unknown or less known (non-Western) author. The Orientalist bias in such an approach needs no further comment.

Ibn Khaldūn was a celebrity and was both recognized and attacked in his world for the originality of his ideas long before the entrance onto the world stage of the Western figures whose counterpart he is alleged to be. What makes him significant is not that ideas similar to his have found acceptance or are deemed exceptional intellectual contributions in another or later tradition. As M. Akif Kayapınar proposes in the present issue of this publication, it may at any rate be best to focus on differences rather than on similarities and parallels. An important lesson of comparative philosophy, and of intercultural studies in general, is not to value those traits primarily in another philosophical tradition that carry weight in one's own. On the one hand it betrays an uncritical mindset vis-à-vis one's own tradition, taking it to be a universal standard of sorts, while on the other it adumbrates the appreciation for intellectual and scientific discoveries, theories, and observations for which there are no known equivalents or that are tackled differently from the way they are in one's home culture.

However, to indicate, as Tunisian philosopher Ridha Chennoufi does in this issue, that both Machiavelli and Ibn Khaldūn "help us understand reality as it is and not as we would like it to be" is, culturally speaking, making a neutral statement. It only implies that the two authors are consulted in their respective traditions in times of crisis. In other words, they are relevant since each plays an essential role for the political analysis in his society of origin and neither one is great because the other has already...