Rivers of Ink: Ibn Khaldūn’s Historical Theory

How do underequipped insurgents manage to fight off resourceful superpowers? Previously I examined historian Ibn Khaldūn’s arguments against repeating historical accounts without critical engagement. The process of taqlīd meant medieval historians engaged in circular reporting, assuming the logical fallacy of appealing to authority. In this post I will draft Ibn Khaldūn’s Historical Theory which seeks to explain the lifecycle of dynasties and the fortunes of war. To understand this, we will need to examine the crucial mechanism behind it, aṣabiyya, or group solidarity.

What is aṣabiyya?         

The term aṣabiyya is connected to the Arabic word ‘asbah; which refers to cohesion among agnates.[1] According to Franz Rosenthal, Ibn Khaldūn may have had in mind ‘usbah, which pertains to a group more generally, although the foremost connection would be blood ties. ‘Aṣabiyya is driven by “[the feeling that] no harm ought to befall them [members of kin] nor any destruction come upon them”.[2] This was exemplified in the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, which was later transmitted into the Qur’an. When Joseph’s brothers had secretly plotted to kidnap him, they assured their father: “If a wolf were to eat him [Joseph] when there are so many of us, we would truly be losers!”.[3] We could think of aṣabiyya as group morale, mutual self-sacrifice, or in Peter Adamson’s words ‘team spirit’.[4]

Sacrifice on behalf of one’s kin plays a crucial component in the Historical Theory. Why is the group the chief unit of analysis for Ibn Khaldūn? The answer lies in Ibn Khaldūn’s awareness of nature which is illustrated by conflict and predation. Just as a lion has been given claws, God has provided man with the ability to think and hands in order to craft tools. Ibn Khaldūn dismisses the individual’s defensive capacity by asserting that the “power of one individual human being cannot withstand the power of any one dumb animal”.[5] Accordingly, for Ibn Khaldūn, human social organisation is a necessity derived from the requirement to protect against others.

An exposition of the Historical Theory

Just as human society represents the manifestation of nature, the lifespan of a political regime is a reflection of the aging of a human. The Historical Theory appears in Ibn Khaldūn’s Muqaddimah; where Ibn Khaldūn applies this cyclic explanation to several dynasties in order to explain regime formation and collapse. For example, a historical account sketches how the Umayyad Caliphate established power in Iberia using group solidarity, but regime senility led to the dynasty’s collapse – paving the way for reyes de taifas (local Spanish principalities) to overthrow them.[6] Like the Umayyads before them, the weakening of ‘aṣabiyya among the reyes de taifas presented an opportunity for the Almoravids from North Africa to attain control of the peninsula. Ibn Khaldūn believes his theory has a universal application to it and the cycle is both natural and predictable.

The theory can be divided into five parts and describes two environments; the nomadic desert and the sedentary city.[7]

  1. Conquest
  2. Consolidation
  3. Stable rule
  4. Senescence
  5. Dynastic collapse

The initial military victory by a nomadic tribe over a sedentary civilisation is possible because nomads possess a stronger ‘aṣabiyya than the inhabitants of the city. In the desert, the nomads need ‘aṣabiyya because of the harsh environment and intense competition between rival tribes. Threats here are only external to the tribe. As a consequence of this, ‘aṣabiyya is required not only to protect and defend the tribe, but also to press claims. The goal of group solidarity is to attain the glory of royal authority and the eventual aim for the nomad is to achieve a sedentary life.

After conquest, a consolidation process occurs where the numerous ‘aṣabiyya, including that of the victorious group and conquered realm, are subsumed under a single leader who now governs the city. Khaldūn argues that in the consolidation process, royal authority or mulk, can only be attained through group solidarity.[8] Politics, according to Ibn Khaldūn, requires a leader who is singled out among the group; where the new leader claims “all the glory for himself and does not permit the people to share in it”.[9] Consequently, the group can now “dispense with group solidarity” because it is customary to be obedient to the ruler who, commanding an economy and army, has little need for ‘aṣabiyya to maintain power.[10] During this phase the royal deals with external threats associated with outsiders’ group solidarity and challengers from within his own tribe who may vie for or contest his authority. Once consolidation has occurred, a period of stable dynastic rule emerges.

We should note that Ibn Khaldūn does not view the nomadic stage as an ideal, even if it embodies the strongest group solidarity. Ibn Khaldūn argues that complex culture and science production cannot occur in a nomadic lifestyle because resources are diverted to the tribe’s survival instead of entertainment or technological efficiency. For instance, Abbasid Baghdad featured the House of Wisdom; which contained uncountable original works, translated materials and even an observatory. This would not have been possible if the Arabs had retained their nomadic ways.  

Senescence of the regime occurs because the city’s inhabitants become dependent on luxuries; leading to debt and spiritual avarice. This is compounded by the waning of ‘aṣabiyya as loyalty to the king grows. “[Royal authority] requires superiority and force, which express the wrathfulness and animality of human nature” and this creates an atmosphere of disloyalty among the citizens.[11] ‘Aṣabiyya weakens because the group lacks the will and ability to share power with the sovereign. The lifespan of the regime is generally thought to be three generations, roughly amounting to one hundred and twenty years. Ibn Khaldūn had a neat trick to identify regime senility: observe for the presence of decorative orange trees because it demonstrates a society’s dependence on impractical luxuries.

Grande rue à Kairouan, Maurice Rodieux, via Wikimedia Commons

The final phase of dynastic collapse sets the stage for the civilisation to be captured by nomads who personify the ‘aṣabiyya long lost by the sedentary citizens. An alternative means of dynastic collapse may involve internal dissension where an unpopular leader is replaced by a revolt from within the elite; with the newly enthroned leader closer representing the overall ‘aṣabiyya of the group.

To summarise, ‘aṣabiyya is a causal mechanic in the Historical Theory; whose strength and weakness determines the rise and fall of dynasties. The willingness to sacrifice oneself for one’s kin is much stronger within the desert than in the city. This is because, in the city, the increasing loyalty to a ruler and reliance on luxuries steadily erodes ‘aṣabiyya to a point where it ceases to exist. Hence, the tribe can no longer press their claims, nor defend themselves from external threats.

Testing the cycle

Ibn Khaldūn saw a pattern among the historical regimes he had studied; the sacking of Baghdad in 1258CE provided a very recent case to test his theory. After a failed negotiation with the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mongols sieged Baghdad. The House of Wisdom was not spared:

In one week, libraries and their treasures that had been accumulated over hundreds of years were burned or otherwise destroyed. So many books were thrown into the Tigris River, according to one writer, that they formed a bridge that would support a man on horseback[12]

It was said the Tigris River ran black with ink and red with citizens’ blood during this calamity. Of course much of the Mongols’ ire was aimed at Caliph Al-Musta’sim who dithered during the crucial negotiations. Having taken the city, the conquerors were reluctant to spill noble blood for fear it would trigger an earthquake. Instead, in one account, the Abbasid caliph was wrapped in a rug and trampled on by elephants, whereas another claims he was locked in his palace – forced to stare at his treasures as he starved.[13] For Ibn Khaldūn, the intricacies of the siege and its outcome did not matter. Instead, he would ask us to step back to realise it was a mere repetition of a naturalistic cycle; just another nomadic group overpowering a decadent regime.

The imprisonment of Caliph Al-Musta’sim, “Le Livre des Merveilles”, Marie-Therese Gouss, via Wikimedia Commons

Modern takes on group solidarity

We can argue the Historical Theory is somewhat deterministic, especially considering the relative stability of modern-day polities. However, the concept of ‘aṣabiyya is useful in explaining why nationalism tears apart multi-ethnic empires. Ibn Khaldūn would have pointed out that the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were destined to collapse as each constituent nationality had its own ‘aṣabiyya yanking away at the peripheries. Similarly, he would argue the relative stability of western Europe was because group solidarity was largely placated by national borders; which roughly coincide with the ethnic groups living within them. The separatist sentiment of Catalans and Scots may yet prove that ‘aṣabiyya is a critical factor which determines how borders are drawn and re-drawn.

Additionally, if we inspect modern conflict, the causal mechanics of nomads conquering empires would fail because of technological and economic advances. It would be unfathomable to imagine Central Asian wanderers overpowering a nuclear-armed Russia. Nonetheless, group solidarity is an important facet of morale and has assisted modern history’s underdogs many times over. We need only glance at the Viet Cong’s resistance in the face of American B-52s, Israel warding off seven Arab armies and the Afghan defiance of three superpowers.


Featured image: Conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols 1258. Dschingis Khan und seine Erben (exhibition catalogue), München 2005 via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Rosenthal, Franz. “The Muqaddimah.” An Introduction to History 3 (1958). “Translator’s Introduction”, lxxii

[2] Ibn Khaldūn, (2015). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History-Abridged Edition; Translated by Franz Rosenthal; Abridged and Edited by NJ Dawood. Princeton University Press, chap. 2.7., 98

[3] Haleem, MA Abdel, ed. The Qur’an. OUP Oxford, 2005., p.146

[4] Adamson, Peter. Philosophy in the Islamic World: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 3. Oxford University Press, 2016.

[5] Ibn Khaldūn, chap.1., 45-46  

[6] Ibid., chap. 3.2., 124

[7] Adamson, chap. 28., 204-205

[8] Ibn Khaldūn, chap. 3.1., 123

[9] Ibid., chap. 3.10., 132

[10] Ibid., chap. 2.1., 123-124

[11] Ibid., chap. 3.23., 154

[12] Harris, Michael H. History of libraries of the western world. Scarecrow Press, 1999., p85

[13] Neggaz, Nassima. “The Many Deaths of the Last ‘Abbāsid Caliph al-Musta ‘ṣim bi-llāh (d. 1258).” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 30, no. 4 (2020): 585-612.

The Buddhist Doctrine of Momentariness

Major strands of western philosophy confidently assert the world can be investigated because it is empirical and we can use our sensory experiences as a toolkit to understand this reality. The Buddhist Doctrine of Momentariness subverts this notion by arguing that changes occur so quickly that ordinary perception would not detect that our underlying reality is impermanent, lasting only for fleeting moments. Moreover, our conventional reality is a superimposition, one which is inhabited by seemingly lasting entities such as earthen pots, cars, humans and their identities.

This post critically evaluates the Doctrine of Momentariness advanced by Sarvāstivādin Buddhist monk Vasubandhu in his seminal text Abhidharmakośakārikā. Vasubandhu was born in either the 4th or 5th century CE in the kingdom of Gandhara, now centred in modern-day northern Pakistan. Gandhara was a hotbed of fluctuating social practices and religions – enabled by its location on a critical geographical artery between the Indian Subcontinent, Central and West Asia. The Doctrine of Momentariness strongly engages in dialectical reasoning by drawing from Gautama Buddha’s teachings on impermanence (annica), discourses which by Vasubandhu’s era, had circulated the region for over half a millennia.

The illusion of permanence

Buddhist philosophical traditions argue the world is populated by many entities, but there is only one type of thing which is ultimately real; dharmas. Dharmas are irreducible properties which include colour, shape and texture. A combination of dharmas produces aggregates known as skandhas, which give rise to form, perception and consciousness. Following from Buddha’s teachings that everything is impermanent, the key proposition of the Doctrine of Momentariness is that dharmas decay as soon as they are created, thus they are only momentary. Vasubandhu contends that:

[…] it perishes just where it was born. Its movement to another place would be impossible. Thus, there is no bodily action of ‘going’[1]

For Buddhists, these indivisible momentary dharmas are the basis of our reality. Dharmas give rise to substances such as pots, flames, humans, the world; but these are not stable entities because everything is momentary. So, a stationary earthen pot when observed at a particular moment is not the same object in the next moment. How could this possibly be?

To understand this we must consider Gautama Buddha’s Doctrine of Dependent Origination (pratītyasamutpāda); everything that exists arises and passes as a matrix of interdependence. Hence, although everything is momentary,  there is a causal interconnectedness. Material similarity provides material continuity – thus, the destruction of a bundle of dharmas which pertain to a man, will not lead to the subsequent creation of a bundle of dharmas pertaining to a fly. Incidentally, in the science fiction film The Fly (1986), dependent origination is unwittingly countermanded when an error in the protagonist’s telepods triggers his metamorphosis into a petrifying human-fly hybrid.

Dependent origination acts as a constraint on the succession produced by momentariness and explains why we see a lasting image of a stationary pot when, in reality, everything lasts for a meagre moment. Buddhists argue that reality is only the configuration of dharmas in a causally-linked stream, giving the appearance of a subsisting permanent thing, when there isn’t. Just as a Hollywood film appears to be a continuous series, masking that it is an amalgamation of still images, so too is reality – although the frames according to the Buddhist are causally connected.[2] Our misconceptions of this world give rise to suffering (duḥkha), where Buddhists see suffering connected to the false continuity which we attach to this temporal life; whether coveting and cherishing material objects, dwelling on our emotional states or placing expectations on relationships.

Measuring realities

Conventional reality is one which is obscured by human cognition and assumes there is a world populated by stable entities which subsist through time. However, according to Buddhists, for something to be ultimately real, it must not disappear under analysis; also known as mereological reductionism. Vasubandhu argues:

[…] anything the idea of which does not occur upon division or upon mental analysis, such as an object like a pot, that is a conceptual fiction. The ultimately real is otherwise[3]

For instance, in a previous post I examined the argument that a laptop cannot be ultimately real as it can be broken down into parts, such as its screen, silicone chips and plastic keys. It is the configuration of these parts which gives rise to the convenient designator ‘laptop’, but the laptop is not found in any of its components. We can extend this analogy to many other objects we assign to conventional reality; whether they are cars, houses, cities, individuals and consciousness.

An object which cannot be analysed is said to have svabhāva; that it does not borrow its properties or parts from elsewhere. Because dharmas embody svabhāva, they are ultimately real. Furthermore, dharmas or property bearers, such as colour, are said to be units of ultimate reality because they do not disappear under analysis. Unlike our laptop they cannot be reduced to any parts. This characterisation of dharmas can be contested. To advance the notion of colour as a dharma Vasubandhu declares:

It is what is grasped by seeing and touch that is cognised. The ideas of wool, cotton, safflower and saffron only arise where there are different colours […] no such ideas [exist] when these are burnt[4]

“Safflower”, Johann Georg Sturm, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, colour cannot exist without the property of shape and so by Vasubandhu’s definition, this dharma cannot be ultimately real as it does not occur in isolation.[5] Similarly, a safflower would change its colour depending on its life-cycle: the bud emerges as green, turns to a vivid yellow hue and eventually browns in senescence.

Vasubandhu may respond that these changing colours are momentary, they arise, last for an instant and then disappear. This however violates the principle of svabhāva as the colours themselves then derive their properties from origination, duration and cessation.[6] The argument that dharmas are ultimately real because they do not borrow their nature from elsewhere must be abandoned.

The momentariness of all things?

It is also worth sketching the doctrine’s core argument to demonstrate Vasubandhu’s reliance on extrapolation in his understanding of ultimate reality. We will examine the argument that all entities cease without any cause and last for a mere moment below:[7]

Premise 1) Cessation occurs without an external cause, thus nothing ceases without a cause, just as nothing originates without a cause.

Premise 2) Nevertheless, thoughts, flames and sound cease without any cause and are momentary.

Conclusion) Consequently, premise 1 can be rejected, and we should recognise that cessation occurs without any causation.[8]

This is an inadequate argument because it provides an example of some things (flames, thoughts) which ostensibly cease without causation and supposes that this will be the case for all things. Even with a brief flicker of a flame, the Śaiva Siddhānta opponent Rāmakaṇṭha maintains it is implausible for the observer to perceive the flame for long enough to then demonstrate it as an example of the momentary nature of all things.[9] In the next section we shall see a fundamental challenge to the Doctrine of Momentariness which posits that there is at least one thing which lasts for more than a moment – a memory.

Causal chains and consciousness

Parrot addressing Khojasta, commisioned by Akbar, Mughal dynasty, c1556-1565, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The mind according to the Buddhist view is merely a causal series of dharmas, which momentarily exist and cease as aggregates known as skandhas. So, what proliferates our cognitions?

Vasubandhu argues it is an interplay of three things: our senses, a sense-object and attention. For example, when you hear a parrot cawing loudly, your hearing (sense), the parrot (sense-object) and awareness of the sound (attention) cluster together to create a type of consciousness we could call a hearing-a-parrot cognition. Should we then want to look at the bird and, if allowed close enough, touch it – different cognitions would be created. We mistakenly assume the mind or consciousness produces these cognitions – when in reality, cognition is only a conditioned form, a manifestation of its momentary causes.

Importantly, the destruction of a conditioned form is not contingent on a cause because it occurs in an intrinsic, or self-perpetuating manner. Vasubandhu asserts:

[…] for the cessation of conditioned things is spontaneous. Why is this? A cause is of an effect. And cessation is an absence. What is there to be done with respect to an absence? Therefore, destruction does not depend on a cause.[10]

Vasubandhu’s opponent Adi Śaṅkara, hailing from the school of Advaita Vedānta, attacks this position of the Doctrine of Momentariness by affirming that if skandhas are momentary, by the time a new skandha arises to replace it, there would no longer be a previous skandha to cause it.[11] Consequently, effects cannot arise without any cause. If every object is a manifestation of instantaneousness, there cannot be a causal process which interconnects them.

However, a critical problem emerges when considering the example of thoughts as a phenomena which cease without causation. Here, Śaṅkara combines the problem of memory with dependent origination:

[…] human dealings cannot be said to be dependent on mere similarity, for the experience is of the existence of the entity itself [the self] (expressing itself as, that very person) and not of mere similarity with that (as would be expressed in, am like that person)[12]

If our memories are momentary then how can we perceive lasting entities which require recognition over time? For instance, my memories of a childhood summer trip to Bangladesh requires the invocation of myself as a seven year old. Admittedly, Śaṅkara’s attack simplifies Buddhist understandings of reality. Vasubandhu could rebuke Śaṅkara by arguing that dependent origination necessitates similar enough, but momentary experiences which can connect mental dharmas to give rise to a memory.

Furthermore, contending that every experience of memory requires a continued existence of the self is mistaken. For instance, simply remembering a friend’s birthday does not require any acknowledgment of the self. Nevertheless, there are many memories, such as childhood trips or recollections of traumatic and euphoric moments, which do require acknowledgments of myself. Keeping this in mind, appeals to dependent origination cannot be made because Śaṅkara has shown that the momentariness of dharmas and their aggregation into skandhas prevent them from creating causal chains which connect our memories through time.[13] Thus, we can conclude that at least some memories last longer than a short flash of time and consequently, not everything is momentary.

The Doctrine of Momentariness challenges our traditional understanding of the empirical world. In some ways it is comforting to recognise that our interactions and position in this reality are transient and that our suffering is a consequence of our attachment to the ephemeral. Nonetheless, the doctrine relies on some measure of inscrutability to advance this argument, especially with regards to the momentariness of dharmas, which hinders its analysis. Furthermore, mereological reductionism as a test of reality fails because dharmas, representing the basic units of ultimate reality, do not satisfy the svabhāva requirement. Finally, the doctrine faces a devastating attack when causality is linked with the phenomena of memory.


Featured image: The Conversion of Sundarananda, © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

[1] Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as philosophy: an introduction. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007, p.120-123

[2] Von Rospatt, Alexander. “The Buddhist Doctrine of Momentariness A Survey of the Origins and early Phase of this Doctrine up to Vasubandhu.” (1995), p.1

[3] Siderits, “Buddhism as Philosophy”, p.111-12

[4] Ibid., 114

[5] Rasmussen, Will. “Lecture II. Buddhism: Abhidharma and the Metaphysics of Empty Persons.” 6AANB017 Indian Philosophy B. Online Lecture, King’s College London, 2020

[6] Ibid.

[7] Siderits, “Buddhism as Philosophy”, p.120-123

[8] Katsura, Shoryu. “Some cases of doctrinal proofs in the ‘Abhidharma-kosa-Bhasya’.” Journal of Indian philosophy 31, no. 1/3 (2003), p.110

[9] Watson, Alex. “The Self as a Dynamic Constant. Rāmakaṇṭha’s Middle Ground Between a Naiyāyika Eternal Self-Substance and a Buddhist Stream of Consciousness-Moments.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 42, no. 1 (2014), p.185

[10] Siderits, “Buddhism as Philosophy”, p.120-123

[11] Adamson, Peter, and Jonardon Ganeri. Classical Indian Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 5. Oxford University Press, 2020.

[12] Carr, Brian. “Śaṅkara and the Principle of Material Causation.” Religious studies (1999), p.424

[13] Adamson and Ganeri, “Classical Indian Philosophy”

King Menander’s Chariot

How do we determine what is ultimately real? Conventionally, we could argue that we can use our common sense faculties to investigate empirical reality. The laptop I am writing this post on has to be real because I can feel the keys and hear them chatter away upon typing. For early Buddhists, however, reality was measured very differently. For something to be real, it cannot disappear under analysis. Simply put, the world does not exist of any ‘wholes’, only ‘parts’ – and this extended to notions of the self.

I’ll set the scene by taking us back to the second century BCE, in an Indo-Greek kingdom of Bactria, a vestige of Alexander the Great’s failed invasion of India. After introducing himself to king Menander I, the Buddhist monk Nāgasena insisted that he can be referred to by his name, but that this name was merely “a counter, an expression, a convenient designator, a mere name […] for there is no person to be found”. [1] In the monk’s view, the name ‘Nāgasena’ was a useful term to describe the way in which something is arranged based on its constituent parts; in this respect a seemingly conscious being with human body parts. In reality, the name was a placeholder, nothing more, and there wasn’t an enduring identity behind it. This led to a fascinating philosophical debate.

In response to Nāgasena’s introduction, the king mocked him, asking that if there were no persons, then who was it that patronised the priests with clothing, food and medication? In a further caustic attack the king asserted if Nāgasena were to kill another monk, there would be no one to accuse for the murder. The cross-examination continued as Menander asked in turn if Nāgasena was found in his body parts, his perception or his consciousness? Nāgasena declined each of these, leading to Menander  to conclude that the word ‘Nāgasena’ could only be an empty phrase, not a convenient designator as initially claimed.

In response, Nāgasena mirrored the king’s reasoning by pointing to the chariot which the king rode in. Could we identify the chariot in its axels, its wheels, the banner-staff, the yoke, or the reins? The monk declined to find the chariot in any one of its components. The king finally understood that analogously, one cannot find oneself in our constituent parts; neither body nor consciousness.

Let’s go back to our laptop. It comprises a screen, the keyboard, the motherboard, with an array of microchips among others. Yet, I would not equate any one component for the actual laptop itself. Therefore, the laptop is not ultimately real as it disappears under analysis. Wholes cannot exist because they ultimately can be broken down into parts. Our world is full of many parts, on whose specific configurations we give names to; whether it is earthen pots, laptops, cars, cities, you and me. Yet, ultimately they are conceptual fictions, no different to Menander’s chariot.


Featured image: “Buddha panel from Afghanistan”, Asian Civilisations Museum (Singapore), courtesy of Vinayak Hegde, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as philosophy: an introduction. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007. p.51

Copper Cities and Glass Submarines

Sometimes we may read a history book and find ourselves thinking, “hang on, this doesn’t seem right”. Ibn Khaldūn, a 14th century historian born in what is now Tunisia, had similar thoughts when he evaluated mediaeval historical accounts. Historical works prior to Ibn Khaldūn were narrated through a process known as taqlīd, where reports were reproduced because the authors trusted the authority of the historians before them. Consequently, new historical works were mere repetitions, devoid of critical engagement with their sources.

In order to demonstrate the limitations of taqlīd, Ibn Khaldūn recalls the historian al-Mas’udi’s claim of a desert city gilded in copper. He reasons this would be impossible considering the metal’s scarcity would limit its usage to utensils and it would be unthinkable for copper to coat an entire settlement.[1]

Additionally, Al Mas’udi’s recounting of a 13th century retelling of Alexander the Great’s efforts to build Alexandria did not go unnoticed. When the city was under construction, monsters rose from the oceanic depths, causing a nuisance to the architects and builders. Alexander authorised a plan where he entered a glass box attached to a rope. With pen and papyrus in hand, the box containing Alexander was lowered to the bottom of the sea where he could accurately sketch the creatures. Using these illustrations as a blueprint, the king instructed the workers and magical jinn to build metallic replicas of the sea monsters. Acting as colossal scarecrows, these effigies scared off the sea monsters, making possible the establishment of Alexandria.

16th Century Islamic painting depicting Alexander the Great, lowered in a glass diving bell. OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP); “Seas, Maps and Men”

Ibn Khaldūn  pointed out the absurdities of Al Mas’udi’s story asserting Alexander would most likely have suffocated in a submerged glass box. Additionally, Ibn Khaldūn contends:

Now, rulers would not take such a risk. Any ruler who would attempt such a thing would work his own undoing and provoke the outbreak of revolt against himself, and (he would) be replaced by the people with someone else.[2]

By evaluating these supposed retellings it is clear why critical reflection of sources was necessary. For Ibn Khaldūn, in order to accurately understand history, it is not sufficient to merely criticise the personality of the historical transmitter, but also to have knowledge of the true nature of civilisation. This raises a plethora of questions which I will explore in greater detail in an upcoming post.


Featured image: ‘Der el Ber Tunis’, Ludwig Hans Fischer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Ibn Khaldūn, (2015). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History-Abridged Edition; Translated by Franz Rosenthal; Abridged and Edited by NJ Dawood. Princeton University Press. 37.

[2] Ibid., 36.