The Orange Trees of Marrakesh: Ibn Khaldun and the Science of Man
by Stephen Frederic Dale.
Harvard University Press, 2015.
Hardcover, 400 pages, $31.


This book, written, by an emeritus professor at Ohio State, is a useful and quite readable companion to the Muqaddimah, the great work by the Tunisian thinker and scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406). The author describes Ibn Khaldun’s life and environment in as much detail as the sources allow, brings a lifetime of scholarship to bear on illuminating the intellectual sources of his thought—which were mostly Greek, Greco-Islamic, and Aristotelian—and comments critically on the strengths and weaknesses of his analyses. Those who have read Ibn Khaldun will find it of great interest.

The Muqaddimah was intended as an “Introduction” (the meaning of the title) to the universal history its author eventually wrote after a plan of his own invention. As an Aristotelian, Ibn Khaldun wanted to find the essential forms of things, together with their “necessary accidents”—the features that necessarily follow from those forms. When applied to the study of history, that approach meant investigating the most basic principles and features of society, how they interact, function, develop, and transform themselves, and how they vary in particular settings—nomadic, rural, and urban.

With that in mind, he downplayed the great-men-and-events approach to history in favor of social, economic, and cultural factors, viewing particulars as a manifestation of larger processes. That approach, he thought, would change history from a recitation of meaningless incidents to a true philosophical science. As such, it would be more illuminating in itself, and also become truly critical, because it could deal intelligently with historical reports by understanding their setting and the characteristic processes at work, and so their likelihood and significance.

Dale emphasizes the differing and sometimes contradictory tendencies within Ibn Khaldun’s thought, noting the latter’s comment that the inventor of a new science cannot be expected to solve all problems connected to it. He presents Ibn Khaldun as an essentially inclusive writer who wanted to produce a sort of compendium of human knowledge, and preferred to include all lines of thought that seemed to have some validity rather than impose a single scheme on everything he discussed. (That intention accounts for the long digressions on topics from alchemy to conic sections, most of which are helpfully left out of the abridged version of Franz Rosenthal’s standard English translation of the Muqaddimah.)

It is not surprising, then, that Ibn Khaldun, as a pathbreaking philosophical historian as well as an Islamic legal scholar of a deeply conservative and anti-rationalist school, is of two minds about politics and religion. He praises Islam and political justice and presents the kind of society Mohammed and his immediate successors founded as an authoritative ideal. But he also treats politics as basically independent of religion and morality, and presents history as a series of inexorable cycles arising out of the rise and progressive degeneration of dynasties due to the loss of cohesion and discipline among their adherents.

Similarly, Ibn Khaldun is of two minds about urban culture. He admires rural and nomadic tribes for their simple lives, mutual loyalty, and demanding standards of conduct, qualities that enable them to establish new regimes, but condemns them for their savagery and destructiveness. And he criticizes city dwellers for their vices and indulgences, but praises them for their intelligence and civilized culture. The title of the book suggests this latter conflict: the orange trees of Marrakesh are decorative, but produce nothing edible, and thus stand for the pointless luxuries to which cultured urban life gives rise.

The author notes that Ibn Khaldun’s fundamental approach has a great deal in common with that of a variety of modern European writers, including Montesquieu, Hume, Smith, Durkheim and the Annales school of French historians. He emphasizes, though, that the similarities reflect a similar attempt to apply Greek philosophical categories relating to causality and natural forms to the study of society, rather than the influence on later thinkers that Ibn Khaldun has never had to any great extent. His position as a North African writing in Arabic during a period of intellectual decline in the Muslim world made him rather an isolated figure.

The Muqaddimah has nonetheless been drawing more attention in recent years: it is a sign of the times that Mark Zuckerberg once selected it for his Facebook reading club. But what does it mean for us today? The growing interest is partly due to the growing prominence of the Muslim world, a prominence not entirely due to its positive achievements. It is also due, however, to the substance of the book. Not long ago we were told that we had reached a condition in which history, as a process of progressive development, had finally achieved its goal. That situation now looks to many people more like a period in which the idea of progress has played itself out, at least outside a world of political rhetoric that grows ever more disconnected from reality.

Under such circumstances a cyclical theory of history that works somewhat mechanistically and emphasizes the rise and fall of centers of power due to their relative effectiveness and the corruptions of success becomes much more plausible. Isn’t it obvious, after all, that the self-destructive loopiness of much of today’s politics is due to the enormous success of Western liberalism, a success so great that many still view it as the undoubted fulfillment of human history?

As the author notes, Ibn Khaldun’s discussion applies most directly to his own premodern North Africa, and to similar societies in the Middle East and Central Asia, in which decaying urban dynasties were periodically overthrown by more vigorous and disciplined groups, often energized by religion, and from remote rural or pastoral areas. Nonetheless, its basic principles can be applied more broadly to any situation in which there is no overall tendency of events but simply the rise and fall of ruling groups based on strength, coherence, and dedication. From that point of view, it seems that our own postmodern and (some say) posthistorical world may be one Ibn Khaldun would have understood. If so, Mark Zuckerberg may be on to something. 

James Kalb is a writer living in Brooklyn and author of The Tyranny of Liberalism.