WHAT WOULD IBN KHALDUN SAY?

by Gerald A. Honigman

The Middle East has been front page news for a half century now.

To much of the world, the Arab-Israeli conflict, in particular, has posed quite a dilemma. And Arabs have frequently tried to portray the impasse as one between themselves and "the Zionists," not Jews. While listening to a typical Friday sermon by a typical imam would frequently burst this bubble, most folks outside of Asia don't get to do this sort of thing.

For many, encased in an innocent ignorance, this has allowed Arabs to vilify and demonize the tiny, reborn Jew of the Nations--Israel--without the stigma (in at least some circles) of the post-Auschwitz anti-Semite. Anti-Zionism is thus declared to be kosher, while anti-Semitism is not. While the two are not necessarily the same, very often they actually indeed are.

So, before considering Ibn Khaldun's ideas, it makes sense, especially for the objective but unknowing reader, to elaborate somewhat on the above issue.

Zionism has meant different things to different people over the millennia. The connecting thread woven throughout all variations, however, has always involved Jews being in their land and at least somewhat in control of their own destinies. Whether they were biblical tears shed by the rivers of Babylon some two thousand years earlier, or writings such as those of the medieval poet, Yehuda HaLevi, proclaiming a desire to be a pauper in Zion rather than a prince in Muslim Spain (where Jews had it relatively good), these ancient ties have bound Jews to Israel for most of man's recorded history. The animosity which often greeted them in the Diaspora helped to assure that those ties would not be forgotten.

For religious Zionists of all degrees and persuasions, the Hand of G_d was at work in all of these events throughout the ages leading up to the rebirth of Israel in 1948. It took, after all, the rejection by the non-Jewish world of even the most assimilated of Jews -- men like Alfred Dreyfus -- before the rebirth of political Zionism could become a reality in the late 19th century. But not all were religious Zionists.

Many Jews had indeed tried just about everything to gain acceptance in the non-Jewish world, but the Dreyfus Affair, pogroms, and numerous other problems culminating in the Holocaust kept on occurring in the "enlightened " and "modern" age anyway. It was as if G_d was sending a message: "You have no alternative...Israel must be reborn whether you Jews like it or not!"

So Zionism came to have another meaning. It represented for many a chance for Jews to simply bring a semblance of normalcy into their lives. Since the fall of Judaea to Rome, too often bloodbaths, forced conversions, expulsions, inquisitions, blood libels, demonization, ghettoization, and every other imaginable humiliation culminating in the Holocaust was the plight of the Jew in the Diaspora.

There are churches to this very day which have stained glass windows or murals depicting Jews stabbing the Host of the Christian Communion in order to supposedly kill Jesus "yet again." And the Arab world provides widespread anti-Semitica to its own people as well. They were G_d killers in the West and/or kilab yahud-- "Jew Dog" -- slayers of prophets in the East. So, not all who dreamt of a return to Zion did so out of an urge to become "a nation of priests" or a "light unto the nations."

While the high ideals of religious Zionism still remained in many a Jewish heart and soul (even among the agnostics), the chance to change their age-old tenuous existence in both the Christian and Muslim halves of the Diaspora was also a major motivating factor. Besides wanting to escape forever the mandatory ghetto (and subconsciously the evolved ghetto mentality) of the former and the mellah of the latter -- and the negative effects and consequences such existence both produced on and brought out from themselves over the centuries -- Jews just wanted to have a nation like all others. Over three thousand years earlier, when most other folks were still worshipping stone idols and practicing fertility rites, the Jews' ancestors were pleading with the Prophet Samuel to intercede with G-d to allow them to have a worldly king -- for some different but yet also some similar reasons.

Jews wanted to be farmers (they had largely not been allowed to own land), barbers, street cleaners, policemen, doctors, scholars, soldiers, statesmen...whatever...but masters of their own fate, not the perpetual stranger in someone else's land or pawn being played in someone else's games (usually with deadly consequences to themselves). Jews had often been allowed to settle in a land only after agreeing to take on unpopular tasks and jobs.

Some, like Karl Marx, would seek solutions to these problems in a broader context, via political and socio-economic reform. Ironically, while Marx despised his Jewish roots, he sounded like a Hebrew Prophet in his demand for justice for the poor and the oppressed. Isaiah and others would have understood his passion well....Indeed, they were his teachers.

Zionism meshed together all of these diverse fears, hopes, and dreams. And the key to its future had everything to do with transforming the powerless state of the Jews as a people...

Enter "Abd-ar-Rahman Abu Zayd ibn Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldun.

Ibn Khaldun was born in the early 14th century C.E. He was one of the most important philosophers, jurists, and scholars Islamic -- or any -- civilization would ever produce. His name surfaces even in the contemporary West every once in a while. On March 19, 2003, for example, an AP story mentioned the release of an Egyptian-American human rights activist, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, from a seven-year sentence in prison. He had founded the independent think tank, the Ibn Khaldun Center, and proved to be too independent for the Egyptian government's wishes (1). Ibn Khaldun had spent much of his later life in Cairo.

Graduate students in Middle Eastern Affairs usually come to know Ibn Khaldun through his work, The Muqaddimah. It is actually the introduction to and Book I of his Kitab al-'Ibar, the History of the World. Besides simply giving an account of events, he offers a rational explanation of the "hows" and "whys" they occurred. He uses frequent historical illustrations to make his points. It is here that this great Muslim scholar, who died almost six hundred years ago, has some very important things to say about Jews and Israel. Among other things, he detailed the prolonged forced Arabization process of Berber North Africa as well (2). While he offers good critique and discussion about biblical and other accounts regarding Jews in general (i.e. he relates the Roman conquest of Jewish Jerusalem -- something Arafat & Co. deny ever even existed), it is his perspective on issues we have already covered above that is now of special concern (3).

Before The Muqaddimah was introduced into this essay, we had reviewed the powerlessness of the Jewish experience and the negative consequences which had derived from this. Ibn Khaldun spoke to this matter as well. Let's listen:

Students, slaves, and servants brought up with injustice and tyrannical force are overcome by it...it makes them feel oppressed...induces them to lie, be insincere...their outward behavior differs from what they are thinking. Thus they are taught deceit and trickery...they become dependent on others...their souls become too indulent to acquire...good character qualities. Thus they fall short of their potentialities and do not reach the limit of their humanity. That is what happened to every nation which fell under the yoke of tyranny and learned the meaning of injustice.

One may check this out by observing any person who is not in control of his own affairs and has no authority on his side to guarantee safety. One may look at the Jews (as an example)...The reason is what we have said (4).

However one chooses to respond to his assessment, Zionism's non-religious raison d'etre would have been obvious to Ibn Khaldun, one of the world's most important thinkers six centuries ago. He devoted much time and effort to the evolution and development of the Jewish nation, its early struggles with its adversaries, and its later fight for freedom with the mighty Roman Empire and its consequences. He then followed this with an analysis of the Jews' tragic condition of powerlessness throughout subsequent generations (5).

Ibn Khaldun would have well understood the rebirth of Israel and the 'asabiyah -- group consciousness (emphasized throughout his writings) -- which made it possible...even if it was a consciousness born not only out of a "noble house" but also from the desperation of the Jews' perpetual victim, scapegoat, and whipping post status. While he commented that the Jews, who had one of the most "noble houses" in the world, had subsequently lost their 'asabiyah and for centuries suffered constant humiliations, he would have applauded and understood their desire to end this unfortunate turn of events (6).

The Muqaddimah emphasizes that the Jews were forced to wander in the desert for forty years due to their "meekness." Ibn Khaldun stressed that this was necessary so that a new generation would arise with a new, more powerful 'asabiyah (7).

At a time when Arabs are demanding a 22nd or 23rd state (most having been created by the conquest of non-Arab peoples and their lands), chances are more than good that this great Muslim scholar would have approved and viewed the long-awaited resurrection of Israel as an answer to the unique plight of stateless Jews...the end of an even more tragic and extensive wandering and period of meekness and powerlessness in the desert.


Footnotes

1. Nadia Abou El-Magd, "Egyptian Court Frees Rights Activist," Daytona Beach News-Journal, 3/19/03.

2. Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah -- An Introduction To History, Ed. by N.J.Dawood ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), p.30.

3. Ibid, pp. 184-185.

4. Ibid, p..425.

5. Ibid, pp. 184-185.

6. Ibid, pp. 94, 102-103, 135.

7. Ibid, p.110.


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