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Islam and Critical Thinking:

The Legacy of Ibn Khaldun

Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq

Associate Professor
University of Bahrain

September 2017

Draft in progress
I. Introduction

A quick search on the net on Islam and critical thinking and one comes across questions or
topics like the following: “Is there room for discourse and critical thinking in Islam?”1 “Does
Islam permit critical thinking?”2 “Can an Islamic education produce critical thinking?”3 Some
authors, especially non-Muslims, are skeptical, while others are seeking to just promote more
critical discourse and dialogue among Muslims. It was not that critical thinking was ever absent
among Muslims. However, over the last few centuries, discourse gradually became particularly
focused on fiqh (Islamic law), kalam (theology), etc. with thought methodology often “text-
oriented” or “text-centered”, and not “life-centered.”4

Since 19th century, Muslim world under western colonialism, sought its renaissance not just
through political struggle for independence, but also rejuvenation of the vibrant culture and
environment of Islamic thought. Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1818-1898 AD), Jamaluddin Afghani
(1838-1897 AD), Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905 AD), Rashid Rida (1865-1935 AD), Muhammad
Iqbal (1877-1938 AD), Fazlur Rahman (1919-1988 AD) are among those who have contributed
to bring Islamic thought and the discourse about relevant thought methodology to meet the
challenge Muslim societies face in modern times. There is a yearning and aspiration to see a
new era with new generation of Abu Hanifa (d. 767 AD), Al-Khawarizm (d. 850 AD), Ibn Sina (d.
1037 AD), Ibn Al-Haytham (d. 1040 AD), Al-Biruni (d. 1048 AD), Omar Khayyam (d. 1138 AD), Ibn
Rushd (d. 1198 AD) of our modern times.

Yet, the progress seems to be inadequate, while the influence of orthodox, traditional mindset
and thought is still going strong. The impact is most visible in the educational institutions and
their outcomes and products in the Muslim world. Many among the contemporary Muslims
scholars, academics and intellectuals recognize the challenge and are dealing with it as no less
than a crisis.

In his illuminating work Crisis in the Muslim Mind, Abdulhamid Abusulayman, the founding
president of International Islamic University Malaysia, aptly identifies “crisis of thought” as the
crux of the problem and asserts: “If the Methodology of thought does not undergo change, and
if its approaches are not rectified, the Muslim mind will remain unable to take a critical or
penetrating look at anything.”5 These scholars and intellectuals are positively contributing

Abdelghani, Marwa (October 9, 2014). Patheos,
Qasmi, Muhammadullah (undated). “Does Islam permit critical thinking,” irfi.org,
Hayes, Dennis (February 14, 2014). “Can an Islamic education produce critical thinking?” The
Conversation, http://theconversation.com/can-an-islamic-education-produce-critical-thinking-23211.
Delshad, Farshid (2002). Towards Complexity of the Islamic Jurisprudence in Contemporary
Muslim Societies, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 121-142.
Abusulayman, Abdulhamid (1993). Crisis in the Muslim Mind, Herndon, Virginia, USA:
International Institute of Islamic Thought, p. 28.
toward the rejuvenation and reformation of thinking within Islamic tradition, as they see a
broad, urgent and radical need in the area of critical thinking. Tariq Ramadan observes:

Official, state educational systems in Muslim-majority societies are virtually all deficient
and in crisis. From Africa to Asia and throughout the Middle East, one can observe either
unacceptable illiteracy rates or systems and methods that kill critical thinking and
reinforce rote learning and social injustices. Reforms are urgently needed, for any
opening or democratization project is bound to fail if populations are kept illiterate or
functionally illiterate, or if their education is based on the lack of critical thinking, on
reinforcing social divides, and on protecting the interests of an elite … The absence of
critical thinking and of meaning is indeed a great danger.6

With weakened role of critical thinking, the mind and attitude can be overwhelmed by the
dominance of puritan tradition. As Prof. Khaled Abou El Fadl warns about the danger of puritan
mindset: “By declaring themselves the true soldier of God and the defenders of religion, Muslim
puritan movements are able to degrade women, eradicate critical thinking, and empty Islam of
its moral content.” 7 In the society in general and academia in the Muslim world in particular,
need for embedding critical thinking toward developing “critical pedagogical approach” is being
increasingly recognized and called for.8

Indeed, established in 1981, one of the pivotal institutions that is having impact in this regard is
International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT). Ziauddin Sardar, one of the ardent advocates of
critical thinking who finds hope a “new brand of Muslims—young, critical thinking, and often
female”9 and who identifies himself as an “optimistic Muslim” explains the role and
contribution, among others, IIIT.

The overall goal of IIIT’s ‘Educational Reform’ project is ‘integration of knowledge’, and
the development of an educational system that emphasizes critical thinking, promotes
the great tradition of Islamic humanism, and aims to shape more rounded moderate
and analytical minds.”10

Critical thinking is an essential part of that desired change in the methodology of thought,
which unfortunately remains not only seriously underdeveloped in the contemporary Muslim

Ramadan, Tariq (2009). Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation, Oxford: Oxford
University Press, p. 278, 297.
El Fadl, Khaled Abou (2001). And God Knows the Soldiers: The Authoritative and Authoritarian
in Islamic Discourses, University Press of America, p. 210.
Ibrahim, Azhar (2012). “Contemporary Islamic Thought: A Critical Perspective,” Islam and
Christian-Muslim Relations, Vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 279-294.
Calderwood, Kathleen (19 July 2016). “I’m optimistic about young Muslims’: Ziauddin Sardar,”
ABC (Australia), http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/latenightlive/ziauddin-sardar-on-
Sardar, Ziauddin (2016). Islam Beyond the Violent Jihadis: An Optimistic Muslim Speaks,
Biteback Publishing.
world, but is also often viewed by many Muslims as typically western, and as such, alien to
Islamic legacy and civilization. The reality is far from it. It is a sad fact that the methodology
based on imitative (taqlidi) intellectualism and religious scholarly tradition emerged and
remained as the dominant mode.

There was a fundamental opportunity to break away from this imitative mode and balance it
with the non-imitative mode with the contributions of icons like Ibn Khaldun. However, his
trailblazing thoughts and contributions did not succeed in making any serious dent to
traditionalism and the imitative mode and rarely, if any, subsequent work was done by Muslims
to develop the fields of knowledge further in light of Ibn Khaldun’s contribution, until the West
discovered him and his works and gradually he was credited as the father of sociology or as a
close precursor to modern social sciences.

The noted historian Arnold Toynbee estimated Ibn Khaldun’s work as follows: “In his chosen
field of intellectual activity [Ibn Khaldun] appears to have been inspired by no predecessors ...
and yet, in the Prolegomena ... to his Universal History he has conceived and formulated a
philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has yet been
created by any mind in any time or place.”11

Ibn Khaldun might still be better known among non-Muslims than among Muslims for his
relevance as well as contribution to critical thinking. But those who want to explore the
systematic critical thinking tradition from the Islamic perspective, one can’t gloss over Ibn
Khaldun, as he was among the earliest among Muslim scholars in this regard, who exemplifies
the combination of both critical and creative thinking. As Tamara Sonn acknowledges:

Ibn Khaldun was also an advocate of critical thinking. He rebuked scholars who simply
transmit received wisdom without examining it in light of new information, and those
who write with political bias, ‘smearing the reputation of others’ for the sake of ‘selfish
interests and rivalries, or swayed by vendors of tyranny and dishonesty.”12

In this paper we explore the contribution of Ibn Khaldun to critical thinking legacy and glean
relevant insights and tools he identified as part of his own application of critical thinking. In this

Toynbee, Arnold J. (1935). A Study of History (London: Oxford University Press, Vol. 3, p. 322.
Quite interestingly, after the long neglect of Ibn Khaldun by Muslims, the later generation of Muslims
has been crowning him as the “father of economics,” “father of social science,” “father of sociology,”
“father of sciences of history” and so on. See Ibrahim Oweiss, “Ibn Khaldun: The Father of Economics,“
http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/imo3/ibn.htm; “Ibn Khaldun: Father of Social Sciences,”
http://www.whyislam.org/muslim-world/ibn-khaldun/; Hidayah Badron. “Theory of Society: A
Comparison by Ibn Khaldun and Karl Marx,”
Sonn, Tamara (2011). Islam: A Brief History, John Wiley & Sons, p. 61.
context he also refers to “students” who often make mistakes, which is helpful as part of
teaching resources for critical thinking and mind-building13 as well.

II. Critical Thinking in the Muslim world

The subject of critical thinking has become only more relevant in our time not just due to the
hold of blind traditionalism among Muslims, but also the misunderstanding of the non-Muslims
as if critical thinking is stranger to Islam. Consider for example the following observation:

Critical thinking is the heartbeat of freedom and a major source of knowledge in

America. Islam, on the other hand, is an unknown in the twenty-first century in part
because Islam is viewed by its adherents as the flawless, supreme religion. So its
ideology and behavior are seldom, if ever, subjected to independent, critical review.
That exemption is part of the reason why Islam remains a religious and political dinosaur
after fourteen hundred years of existence.”14

When people are driven more by emotion than true scholarship and quest for knowledge and
understanding, the kind of distorted and inaccurate view like the above is quite likely. During
the period that is known as the “dark age” (medieval period), there was darkness in the West,
not in the Muslim world. Indeed, Islamic civilization led the world in science, philosophy,
technology, language, art and in every relevant field of human endeavor. More importantly,
Islamic civilization was the conduit for the Western civilization to reconnect with the Greco-
Roman root and to build the foundation of Renaissance. Islam’s contribution to human
civilization was not based on blind traditionalism, rather on scientific bent of mind. Al-Biruni,
Ibn Rushd, Al-Ghazali, Ibn Sina were not blind followers; rather, they were trailblazers in various
fields of human knowledge. Critical and creative thinking were essential to their quest. Given
such misunderstanding and misinformation among some non-Muslims on the one hand and
ignorance among Muslims about the legacy of critical and creative thinking from within their
own history and civilization, the importance of creating awareness about and fostering critical
and creative thinking in the Muslim world is all the more important.

There are not a lot of works by Muslims on critical thinking, and less so on Ibn Khaldun’s
contribution to critical thinking. But contribution to this field is growing. A few notable work by
Muslims are: Nurullah (2006), Ali (2008), Solihu (2010), Endut (2013), Nordeen and Surajudeen

Farooq, Mohammad Omar (2010). “Mind-Building: A Neglected Dimension of the Prophetic
Heritage,” https://ssrn.com/abstract=1551510.
Heyboer, Marvin (2009). Journeys into the Heart and Heartland of Islam (Dorrance Publishing),
p. 6.
(2015) and Ahmed (2017).15 While in most these works, Ibn Khaldun is particularly mentioned,
some works on critical thinking from Islamic perspective focus on Ibn Khaldun and his
contribution: Baali and Wardi (1981), Machouche and Bensaid (2015) and Shabana (2017).16

III. Critical Thinking: Traits and Tools

To appreciate how Ibn Khaldun was so much ahead of his time and was a genuine trailblazer,
before getting into his contribution, let’s first have basics of critical thinking from our
contemporary literature and resources.

Critical thinking as part of human thought legacy has always been there. However, in modern
times, there was explicit emphasis and focus on critical and creative thinking as part of human
quest for knowledge, understanding and discovery. However, during the last century in
particular it has emerged as a focused discipline to be embedded in education and foster more
effective and engaging learning. Beyond merely thinking, critical thinking is “effortful and
consciously controlled”, where “evidence and reasons” are used to “overcome individual
biases.”17 Halpern (2014) defines critical thinking as following:

Critical thinking is the use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the
probability of a desirable outcome. It is used to describe thinking that is purposeful,
reasoned, and goal directed—the kind of thinking involved in solving problems,
formulating inferences, calculating likelihoods, and making decisions, when the thinker

Nurullah, A. S. (2006). “Ijtihad and creative/critical thinking: A new look into Islamic
creativity,” The Islamic Quarterly 50(2) pp. 153-173; Ali, Muhammad Mumtaz (2008). Critical Thinking:
An Islamic Perspective (Batu Caves, Malaysia: Thinkers Library); Solihu, A. K. H. (2010-2011). "The quest
for unknown: On al-Ghazālī’s critical thinking and epistemology in Islamic Tradition," Al-Fikr, Journal of
Arabic and Islamic Studies, 23-24, 97-114; Endut, M. (2013). Islamic Critical Thinking: A Study on the
Perception of Muslim Engineering Students in Malaysian Higher Learning Institutions (Kuala Lumpur:
University Malays); Nordin, Norfadelah and Surajudeen, Ahmad (2015). “Islamic Theoretical Model for
Critical Thinking and Learning of Islamic Education,” GSE E-Journal of Education, Vol. 3, pp. 34-44;
Ahmed, Irfan (2017). Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace
(Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press).
Baali, F. & Wardī. A. (1981). Ibn Khaldun and Islamic thought-styles: A social perspective.
Boston, Massachusetts: G. K. Hall and Co; Machouche, Salah and Bensaid, Benaouda (2015). "The roots
and constructs of Ibn Khaldun's critical thinking," Intellectual Discourse, 23:2, 201-228; Shabana, Ihab
(2017). “Beyond a more suitable ‘end of history’: Ibn Khaldun’s ideas and Islamic critical thinking,”
Center for Mediterranean, Middle East & Islamic Studies,
Halpern, D. F. (2014). Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking (5th ed.)
(New York: Psychology Press).
is using skills that are thoughtful and effective for the particular context and type of
thinking task.

Paul and Elder from the Foundation for Critical Thinking identifies the following traits of critical

Intellectual Traits of Critical Thinkers

Critical Thinkers Uncritical Thinkers
Intellectual integrity Intellectual hypocrisy
Intellectual autonomy Intellectual conformity
Intellectual courage Intellectual cowardice
Intellectual humility Intellectual arrogance
Fair-mindedness Intellectual unfairness
Intellectual perseverance Intellectual laziness
Confidence in reasoning Distrust of reason and evidence
Intellectual empathy Intellectual narrow-mindedness

The essence of critical thinking is to have an open as well as probing mind, where one does not
accept any idea, information, view, statement, theory or creed blindly or uncritically. As
Darlington aptly sums up: “The essence of critical thinking centres not on answering questions
but on questioning answers, so it involves questioning, probing, analysing, evaluating.”19

In the following part we explore a few salient aspects of Ibn Khaldun’s magnum opus, and see
his explicit application of critical thinking.

IV. From the Introduction to Muqaddimah20

In “preliminary remarks” to his magnum opus, Ibn Khaldun states: “Untruth naturally afflicts
historical information. There are various reasons that make this unavoidable.” So, he was fully
aware that works of history to his date had both false and inaccurate elements. He then sets
out to identify a number of reasons that lead to such falsity and inaccuracy.

Paul, Richard and Elder, Linda (2009). Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools,
Foundation for Critical Thinking, https://www.criticalthinking.org/files/Concepts_Tools.pdf.
Darlington, Roger (2015). “How to think critically,”
Franz, Rosenthal (1969). (Translation of Ibn Khaldun’s) The Muqaddimah, An Introduction to
History, Princeton University Press.
a. Bias due to partisanship

Intellectual fair-mindedness is one of the essential traits of a critical thinker. He is not after
information, facts, narratives, arguments, or evidences that are pleasing or conforming to his
established positions or pre-conceived notions. He wants to formulate his positions and
perceptions based on all the relevant resources to the best of his ability.

Ibn Khaldun’s work was based on historical information, which he was analyzing to understand
patterns or dynamics that help explain rise and fall of dynasties and societies. As he had to
gather and sift through vast historical resources, as a critical thinker he had the intellectual
autonomy as well as the unbiased or unprejudiced stance for his pioneering and monumental
work. In sifting through and evaluating the historical resources he had access to, he was keenly
aware of the human vulnerability to bias and prejudice. As part of his critical thinking, he made
it clear that such bias and prejudice are all too common in historical sources, including that of
Muslims, and he was going to be conscientious to the best of his ability to uphold “intellectual
fairness”. He writes:

One of them is partisanship for opinions and schools. If the soul is impartial in receiving
information, it devotes to that information the share of critical investigation the
information deserves, and its truth or untruth thus becomes clear. However, if the soul
is infected with partisanship for a particular opinion or sect, it accepts without a
moment's hesitation the information that is agreeable to it. Prejudice and partisanship
obscure the critical faculty and preclude critical investigation. The result is that
falsehoods are accepted and transmitted.

Such fairness in thought, attitude and action is indeed demanded by the Qur’an from its
adherents. Indeed, it sets such a high standard of justice that the adherents are always to side
with justice, even if it is against oneself and even in regard to those for whom one might have

O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against
yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for God
can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest you swerve, and if you
distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that you
do. [4/an-Nisa/135]

O you who believe! stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the
hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that
is next to piety: and fear God. For God is well-acquainted with all that you do. [5/Al
b. Reliance on transmitters

A good part of the accumulated human knowledge has been through transmission, where a
disciple, a detractor or just an observer/author has passed on the information – with or without
any added narrative – to the posterity. Thus, the role of earlier transmitters of knowledge and
information has been crucial. Nowhere the relevance of transmission is greater and more
preponderant than in fields like history and religion.

Another reason making untruth unavoidable in historical information is reliance upon

transmitters. Investigation of this subject belongs to (the theological discipline of)
personality criticism.21

It is important to note that veracity and credibility of writers and researchers have not
diminished in modern times and, indeed, it can be argued that it has become more difficult to
pass on myths and absurdities in this age of wide diffusion of knowledge and information.
However, even in case of religion, including Islam, relevant discourses have been overly reliant
on transmission and thus also overly dependent on “personality criticism”.

Ibn Khaldun was of course more focused on historical sources that generally allowed greater
lenience to religious reports and discourses for reliance on transmitters. During a period where
there was no precedent creative work like his, it was also “intellectual courage” to not only
break away from the pivotal reliance on transmitters, but also set a new standard for critical
thinking and scrutiny. Whether he succeeded in applying critical scrutiny in every single aspect
of his work or not,22 that he was conscious about it and let his readers be candidly aware also
demonstrates his “intellectual perseverance”, another trait of critical thinkers.

c. Unawareness of the purposes of an event

One of the pitfalls of history and narrative reports is that the authors or reporters are often
uninformed about the purpose or the background of the event.

Another reason is unawareness of the purpose of an event. Many a transmitter does not
know the real significance of his observations or of the thing she has learned about orally.

Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, p. 35.
In one particular case, Ibn Khaldun may have let his guard of critical thinking down. See
Farooq, Mohammad Omar (2017). “An Appraisal of Ibn Khaldun’s Defense of Mu’awiya: The Dynamics of
Asabiyya, Mulk and the Counter-Revolution in Al-Muqaddimah,” unpublished,
He transmits the information, attributing to it the significance he assumes or imagines it to
have. The result is falsehood.23

d. Unfounded assumptions

In intellectual pursuits and works, assumptions are ubiquitous and unavoidable. However,
historians and reporters are often affected by their unfounded assumptions.

Another reason is unfounded assumption as to the truth of a thing. This is frequent. It

results mostly from reliance upon transmitters.24

e. Ignorance about conditions conforming with reality

Historians or reporters might be sincere and objective in reporting, but they might have
insufficient or distorted information about the reality, especially when the historians or
reporters are not conscious or alert about such pitfall.

Another reason is ignorance of how conditions conform with reality. Conditions are affected
by ambiguities and artificial distortions. The informant reports the conditions as he saw
them but on account of artificial distortions he himself has no true picture of them.25

f. Veneration of the great and high-ranking persons

Respect for others, including the preceding generations of the elders, scholars, saints or great
persons, is not the same thing as veneration or devotion, which often blinds people in regard to
their fairness and objectivity. Traditionalism, orthodoxy, fundamentalism, etc. often results
from such veneration.

Another reason is the fact that people as a rule approach great and high-ranking persons
with praise and encomiums. They embellish conditions and spread the fame (of great men).
The information made public in such cases is not truthful. Human souls long for praise, and
people pay great attention to this world and the positions and wealth it offers. As a rule,
they feel no desire for virtue and have no special interest in virtuous people.26

g. Ignorance of the nature of the various conditions arising in civilization

Ibn Khaldun identifies this as one of the more powerful factors. This can be due to both
ignorance and lack of intellectual perseverance.

Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, p. 35.
Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, p. 35.
Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, p. 35.
Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, p. 36.
Another reason making untruth unavoidable - and this one is more powerful than all the
reasons previously mentioned is ignorance of the nature of the various conditions arising in
civilization. Every event (or phenomenon), whether (it comes into being in connection with
some) essence or (as the result of an) action, must inevitably possess a nature peculiar to its
essence as well as to the accidental conditions that may attach themselves to it. If the
student knows the nature of events and the circumstances and requirements in the world
of existence, it will help him to distinguish truth from untruth in investigating the historical
information critically. This is more effective in critical investigation than any other aspect
that may be brought up in connection with it.

Students often happen to accept and transmit absurd information that, in turn, is believed
on their authority.27

After identifying these pitfalls in proper and critical approach to inquiry and study, Ibn Khaldun
turns to a number of examples to illustrate how he applied critical thinking to certain reports.

Case #1: Al Mas’udi’s report about Alexander

Abu al-Hasan Ali Ibn al-Husayn al-Mas’udi (d. 956 AH) was a historian and traveler. He is noted
for combining his knowledge of geography based on his travel with history. His magnum opus is
an encyclopedic, 30 volume work, Akhbar al-zaman (“The History of Time”). However, the full
work is not extant. The extant work that contains abridgment from his magnum opus still was
substantive enough that led Ibn Khaldun himself to describe al-Mas’udi as the Imam (leader) for
the historians.28

Despite his own respect and accolade for al-Mas’udi, with an unprejudiced mind Ibn Khaldun
examines some of al-Mas’udi’s reports. One such report relates to Alexander. Ibn Khaldun
provides a summary of al-Mas’udi’s report:

Al-Mas'udi, for instance, reports such a story about Alexander. Sea monsters prevented
Alexander from building Alexandria. He took a wooden container in which a glass box
was inserted, and dived in it to the bottom of the sea. There he drew pictures of the
devilish monsters he saw. He then had metal effigies of these animals made and set
them up opposite the place where building was going on. When the monsters came out
and saw the effigies, they fled. Alexander was thus able to complete the building of

Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, p. 36.
Al-Mas’udi, Abul Hasan (1841). Kitab Muruj Al-dahab Al-Mas’udi. El-Masudi’s Historical
Encyclopaedia, Entitled "Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems: " Transl. from the Arabic by Aloys
Sprenger, London: W. H. Allen. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/368842/al-Masudi.
In reflecting on this story Ibn Khaldun makes some rather scathing remarks regarding this story
based on “nonsensical elements.” Ibn Khaldun writes:

It is a long story, made up of nonsensical elements which are absurd for various reasons.
Thus, (Alexander is said) to have taken a glass box and braved the sea and its waves in
person. Now, rulers would not take such a risk.

In explaining why rulers would avoid such risk, he explains that such a ruler might be
considered reckless, stupid or crazy by the people and be replaced or there might be
contenders of power may seize such opportunity to get rid of such rulers going for fanciful
adventures. He explains:

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. That would be his end. People would not (even) wait one moment for
him to return from the (dangerous) risk he is taking.

In al-Mas’udi’s narrative the effigies were related to jinns. The Qur’an and hadith, two primary
sources of Islam, identify jinns as another species living parallel to the human species, but they
are made of fire and some believe that they can take any form at will, including human form.
Ibn Khaldun particularly criticizes al-Mas’udi here because he is supposed to be a historian and
not a fancy story-teller adding his own imaginary brush to his narrative.

Furthermore, the jinn are not known to have specific forms and effigies. They are able to
take on various forms. The story of the many heads they have is intended to indicate
ugliness and frightfulness. It is not meant to be taken literally.

In the above passage, Ibn Khaldun alerts the students, readers of history or seekers of
knowledge and understanding that they must be able to separate the fancies from facts,
especially when even a historian employs figuratives in his narrative. He then digs further into
this narrative.

All this throws suspicion upon the story. Yet, the element in it that makes the story
absurd for reasons based on the facts of existence is more convincing than all the other
(arguments). Were one to go down deep into the water, even in a box, one would have
too little air for natural breathing. Because of that, one's spirit would quickly become
hot. Such a man would lack the cold air necessary to maintain a well-balanced humor of
the lung and the vital spirit. He would perish on the spot. This is the reason why people
perish in hot baths when cold air is denied to them. It also is the reason why people who
go down into deep wells and dungeons perish when the air there becomes hot through
putrefaction, and no winds enter those places to stir the air up. Those who go down
there perish immediately. This also is the reason why fish die when they leave the
water, for the air is not sufficient for (a fish) to balance its lung. (The fish) is extremely
hot, and the water to balance its humour is cold. The air into which (the fish) now comes
is hot. Heat, thus, gains power over its animal spirit, and it perishes at once. This also is
the reason for sudden death, and similar things.29

Here Ibn Khaldun utilizes his knowledge of the nature that was best available to him at the time
and demonstrates why scientifically or from the viewpoint of nature that we know, this story is
absurd and should not have belonged to a historical work, especially of as highly respected and
well known a historian as al-Mas’udi.

Case #2: The story of Statue of the Starling in Rome in Al-Mas’udi’s work

Here is the narrative of al-Mas’udi’s story provided by Ibn Khaldun.

On a fixed day of the year, starlings gather at that statue bringing olives from which the
inhabitants of Rome get their oil.30

Ibn Khaldun comments: “How little this has to do with the natural procedure of getting oil!”

Case #3: The story of “Gate City” reported by Al-Bakri.

Another absurd story is reported by al-Bakri. It concerns the way the so-called "Gate
City" was built. That city had a circumference of more than a thirty days' journey and
had ten thousand gates.31

Ibn Khaldun argues:

Now, cities are used for security and protection, as will be mentioned. Such a city,
however, could not be controlled and would offer no security or protection.32

Case #4: The Story of the “Copper City” in Al-Mas’udi’s work

Then, there is also al-Mas'udi's story of the "Copper City."

This is said to be a city built wholly of copper in the desert of Sijilmasah which Musa b.
Nusayr crossed on his raid against the Maghrib. The gates of (the Copper City) are said
to be closed. When the person who climbs the walls of the city in order to enter it,
reaches the top, he claps his hand and throws himself down and never returns.33

Ibn Khaldun comments:

Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, p. 37.
Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, p. 37.
Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, p. 37.
Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, p. 37.
Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, p. 37.
All this is an absurd story. It belongs to the idle talk of storytellers. The desert of
Sijilmasah has been crossed by travelers and guides. They have not come across any
information about such a city.

All the details mentioned about it are absurd, (if compared with) the customary state of
affairs. They contradict the natural facts that apply to the building and planning of cities.
Metal exists at best in quantities sufficient for utensils and furnishings. It is clearly
absurd and unlikely that there would be enough to cover a city with it.34

After illustrating how easily we can succumb to absurdities even in the books of history, Ibn
Khaldun then also makes some observations that are relevant to methodological issues in
critical thinking. He also reflects on how Muslims are not merely to believe, but also think,
observe, inquire and study. He was acutely aware of the tradition-bound and text-oriented
mentality of not just the masses, but also the scholars. Such mentality makes a generation
betrothed to the received heritage in a blind manner. If the pursuit and cause of the truth is an
imperative for Muslims, then knowledge (based on fact and ascertained information) is vitally
important and this requires a probing approach based on critical thinking.

There are many similar things. Only knowledge of the nature of civilization makes critical
investigation of them possible. It is the best and most reliable way to investigate
historical information critically and to distinguish truth and falsehood in it.35

The accumulated body of knowledge to Ibn Khaldun’s time, except in the areas of physical and
biological sciences, was dominated by theology, jurisprudence, exegesis and history. Then, of
course, was the pivotal subject, hadith, where transmission and transmitters were central.
Indeed, it was so central that a whole discipline of ilm ar-rijal (the study of persons) was
meticulously and elaborately developed to support and develop the edifice of hadith studies.

It is superior to investigations that rely upon criticism of the personalities of

transmitters. Such personality criticism should not be resorted to until it has been
ascertained whether a specific piece of information is in itself possible, or not.36

Indeed, the discipline of hadith developed the classification of hadiths as sahih (sound or
authentic), hasan (good), dhaeef (weak), mawdu (fabricated), and so on. Each hadith has two
aspects: the isnad (chains of narrations and the narrators) and matn (the text or the content).
Quite ironically, the classification of authenticity or absence of it was determined purely based
on isnad, neglecting the matn altogether. Thus, let alone of the case of tafsir (exegesis) or
tarikh (history), even in hadith many absurdities were passed on because they passed the isnad

Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, p. 37.
Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, pp. 37-38.
Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, p. 38.
test.37 The very tendency and tradition of focusing on persons and personalities, away from the
facts and sensibilities, drew attention of Ibn Khaldun.

If it is absurd, there is no use engaging in personality criticism. Critical scholars consider

absurdity inherent in the literal meaning of historical information, or an interpretation
not acceptable to the intellect, as something that makes such information suspect.38

Acknowledging the relevance and importance of personality criticism in the context of “Muslim
religious information” (i.e., hadith and Sunnah), Ibn Khaldun shows appreciation of the deeply
embedded tendency of blinding veneration of and devotion to those who are held in awe.

Personality criticism is taken into consideration only in connection with the soundness
(or lack of soundness) of Muslim religious information, because this religious
information mostly concerns injunctions in accordance with which the Lawgiver
(Muhammad) enjoined Muslims to act whenever it can be presumed that the
information is genuine. The way to achieve presumptive soundness is to ascertain the
probity (‘adalah) and exactness of the transmitters.39

He is comfortable and convinced about the field of “Muslim religious information” being a
transmission-based field with a focus on personality criticism. Of course, one can argue in this
particular context of hadith, Ibn Khaldun was more generous and less probing than one would
have expected.

On the other hand, to establish the truth and soundness of information about factual
happenings, a requirement to consider is the conformity (or lack of conformity of the
reported information with general conditions). Therefore, it is necessary to investigate
whether it is possible that the (reported facts) could have happened. This is more
important than, and has priority over, personality criticism. For the correct notion about
something that ought to be can be derived only from (personality criticism), while the
correct notion about something that was can be derived from (personality criticism) and
external (evidence) by (checking) the conformity (of the historical report with general

Regardless, allowing broad leeway to personality criticism in the fields related to “Muslim
religious information,” Ibn Khaldun makes the case that such transmission-oriented,

For a detailed, critical analysis of hadith literature, see Chapter on Islamic Law and Uses and
Abuses of Hadith in Farooq, Mohammad Omar. Toward Our Reformation: From Legalism to Value-
oriented Islamic Law and Jurisprudence (Herndon: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2011).
Indeed, the entire book is an exercise in critical thinking applied to better understanding the foundation
sources of Islamic law and jurisprudence.
Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, pp. 38.
Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, pp. 38.
Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, pp. 38.
personality-focused approach is not suitable or valid when dealing with historical information
or context. He argues that to effectively and substantively study history the focus should be on
the civilization or “human social organization”.

If this is so, the normative method for distinguishing right from wrong in historical
information on the grounds of (inherent) possibility or absurdity, is to investigate human
social organization, which is identical with civilization. We must distinguish the
conditions that attach themselves to the essence of civilization as required by its very
nature; the things that are accidental (to civilization) and cannot be counted on; and the
things that cannot possibly attach themselves to it. If we do that, we shall have a
normative method for distinguishing right from wrong and truth from falsehood in
historical information by means of a logical demonstration that admits of no doubts.
Then whenever we hear about certain conditions occurring in civilization, we shall know
what to accept and what to declare spurious. We shall have a sound yardstick with the
help of which historians may find the path of truth and correctness where their reports
are concerned.41

After clarifying the nature and approach of the transmission-based studies and scholarship of
Muslims, Ibn Khaldun introduces his creative contributions in light of the critical, investigative
and theorizing approach42 he employed. In this regard, he demonstrates the highest level of
“intellectual autonomy,” one of the major traits of critical thinking, as demonstrated in the
extended excerpt below.

Such is the purpose of this first book of our work. (The subject) is in a way an
independent science. (This science) has its own peculiar object-that is, human
civilization and social organization. It also has its own peculiar problems, that is,
explaining the conditions that attach themselves to the essence of civilization, one after
the other. Thus, the situation is the same with this science as it is with any other
science, whether it be a conventional or an intellectual one.

It should be known that the discussion of this topic is something new, extraordinary,
and highly useful. Penetrating research has shown the way to it. It does not belong to
rhetoric, one of the logical disciplines (represented in Aristotle's Organon), the subject
of which is convincing words by means of which the mass is inclined to accept a
particular opinion or not to accept it.

It is also not politics, because politics is concerned with the administration of home or
city in accordance with ethical and philosophical requirements, for the purpose of

Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, pp. 38.
Farooq, Mohammad Omar (2014). “Contemporary Islamic Economic Thought,” in Hunt-
Ahmed, Karen (ed.). Contemporary Islamic Finance: Innovations, Applications, and Best Practices, John
Wiley, pp. 19-37.
directing the mass toward a behavior that will result in the preservation and
permanence of the (human) species.

The subject here is different from that of these two disciplines which, however, are
often similar to it. In a way, it is an entirely original science. In fact, I have not come
across a discussion along these lines by anyone. I do not know if this is because people
have been unaware of it, but there is no reason to suspect them (of having been
unaware of it). Perhaps they have written exhaustively on this topic, and their work did
not reach us.

There are many sciences. There have been numerous sages among the nations of
mankind. The knowledge that has not come down to us is larger than the knowledge
that has43. Where are the sciences of the Persians that 'Umar ordered wiped out at the
time of the conquest! Where are the sciences of the Chaldaeans, the Syrians, and the
Babylonians, and the scholarly products and results that were theirs! Where are the
sciences of the Copts, their predecessors! The sciences of only one nation, the Greek,
have come down to us, because they were translated through al-Ma'mun's efforts. (His
efforts in this direction) were successful, because he had many translators at his
disposal and spent much money in this connection. Of the sciences of others, nothing
has come to our attention.

The accidents involved in every manifestation of nature and intellect deserve study. Any
topic that is understandable and real requires its own special science. In this connection,
scholars seem to have been interested (mainly) in the results (of the individual
sciences). As far as the subject under discussion is concerned, the result, as we have
seen, is just historical information. Although the problems it raises are important, both
essentially and specifically, (exclusive concern for it) leads to one result only: the mere
verification of historical information. This is not much. Therefore, scholars might have
avoided the subject.

God knows better. "And you were given but little knowledge."

In the field under consideration here, we encounter (certain) problems, treated

incidentally by scholars among the arguments applicable to their particular sciences, but
that in object and approach are of the same type as the problems (we are discussing). In
connection with the arguments for prophecy, for instance, scholars mention that human
beings cooperate with each other for their existence and, therefore, need men to
arbitrate among them and exercise a restraining influence.

Or, in the science of the principles of jurisprudence, in the chapter of arguments for the
necessity of languages, mention is made of the fact that people need means to express

Here, in acknowledging the limitation of our knowledge and understanding at any particular
time, Ibn Khaldun shows his intellectual humility.
their intentions because by their very nature, cooperation and social organization are
made easier by proper expressions Or, in connection with the explanation that laws
have their reason in the purposes they are to serve, the jurists mention that adultery
confuses pedigrees and destroys the (human) species; that murder, too, destroys the
human species; that injustice invites the destruction of civilization with the necessary
consequence that the (human) species will be destroyed.

Other similar things are stated in connection with the purposes embedded in laws. All
(laws) are based upon the effort to preserve civilization. Therefore, (the laws) pay
attention to the things that belong to civilization. This is obvious from our references to
these problems which are mentioned as representative (of the general situation).

We also find a few of the problems of the subject under discussion (treated) in scattered
statements by the sages of mankind. However, they did not exhaust the subject. For
instance, we have the speech of the Mobedhan before Bahram b. Bahram in the story of
the owl reported by al-Mas'udi. It runs: "O king, the might of royal authority materializes
only through the ' religious law, obedience toward God, and compliance with His
commands and prohibitions. The religious law persists only through royal authority.
Mighty royal authority is accomplished only through men. Men persist only with the
help of property. The only way to property is through cultivation.

The only way to cultivation is through justice. Justice is a balance set up among
mankind. The Lord set it up and appointed an overseer for it, and that (overseer) is the

There also is a statement by Anosharwan to the same effect: "Royal authority exists
through the army, the army through money, money through taxes, taxes through
cultivation, cultivation through justice, justice through the improvement of officials, the
improvement of officials through the forthrightness of wazirs, and the whole thing in
the first place through the ruler's personal supervision of his subjects' condition and his
ability to educate them, so that he may rule them, and not they him.”

In the Book on Politics that is ascribed to Aristotle and has wide circulation, we find a
good deal about (the subject which is under discussion here). (The treatment,) however,
is not exhaustive, nor is the topic provided with all the arguments it deserves, and it is
mixed with other things. In the book, (the author) referred to such general (ideas) as we
have reported on the authority of the Mobedhan and Anosharwan. He arranged his
statement in a remarkable circle that he discussed at length. It runs as follows: "The
world is a garden the fence of which is the dynasty. The dynasty is an authority through
which life is given to proper behavior. Proper behavior is a policy directed by the ruler.
The ruler is an institution supported by the soldiers. The soldiers are helpers who are
maintained by money. Money is sustenance brought together by the subjects. The
subjects are servants who are protected by justice. Justice is something familiar, and
through it, the world persists. The world is a garden ...", and then it begins again from
the beginning. These are eight sentences of political wisdom. They are connected with
each other, the end of each one leading into the beginning of the next. They are held
together in a circle with no definite beginning or end. (The author) was proud of what
he had hit upon and made much of the significance of the sentences.

When our discussion in the section on royal authority and dynasties has been studied
and due critical attention given to it, it will be found to constitute an exhaustive, very
clear, fully substantiated interpretation and detailed exposition of these sentences. We
became aware of these things with God's help and without the instruction of Aristotle or
the teaching of the Mobedhan.44

The extended excerpt presented above shows Ibn Khaldun’s intellectual confidence about the
importance and nature of the contribution he was making. As Allen Fromherz summarizes the
position of Ibn Khaldun in the intellectual legacy of the humanity:

Ibn Khaldun’s theories have caught fire among intellectuals of both East and West far
outside the medievalist and orientalist community. Ernest Gellner, one of the most
influential intellectuals and anthropologists of the twentieth century, used Ibn Khaldun’s
ideas as one of his primary inspirations. Arnold Toynbee, that icon of historical writing,
called Ibn Khaldun the greatest history of all time. Many thinkers, political scientists and
theoreticians have practically adopted Ibn Khaldun as one of their own, as a
contemporary, as a modern, or even postmodern thinker.”45

Also notable is the fact that in presenting his critical and creative intellectual enterprise, Ibn
Khaldun underscored that he was being inspired and guided from within his religious root of
thought: “We became aware of these things with God's help and without the instruction of
Aristotle or the teaching of the Mobedhan.”46

V. Conclusion

Critical thinking is an important part of human legacy and vital for human beings’ quest for
truth and knowledge. It is unfortunate that despite the pioneering contribution of Ibn Khaldun
to foster critical and creative thinking, the Muslim world basically ignored or forgot him and
kept their heads buried in the traditional, transmission-based, text-oriented approach to
thought. Many contemporary Muslim scholars, intellectuals and scientists are contributing to

Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, pp. 41.
Fromherz, Allen (2010). Ibn Khaldun: Life and Times (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).
Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddimah, pp. 41.
the rejuvenation of critical thinking tradition within Islamic tradition. As Sardar (2016) affirmed:
“So the Muslim community is by no means passive.”47

As part of that rejuvenation of thought methodology, Muslims are taking renewed interest in
Ibn Khaldun, recognizing his pivotal contribution and trying to build on his tradition. Hopefully,
this humble contribution will encourage or inspire Muslims in particular to foster critical and
creative thinking among themselves in light of the contribution of Ibn Khaldun.

Sardar, 2016, op. cit.