Guest post by MAHMOOD MAMDANI. This paper is also available at the site of Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR)
Reading Ibn Khaldun in Kampala
“No action resulting from choice is natural.” The Muqaddimah, p. 412
Why would a reading of The Muqaddimah by teachers and students in the Ph D program at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) be of interest to a wider audience? One could put this question differently: why would a reading of a 14th century North African text be of interest to academics in 21st century Kampala? Both questions belong to a wider reflection on the subject of universalization and particularization as aspects of a single process. The universalization of particular modes of thought goes alongside the particularization of other modes of thought. The centuries between the conquest of the Americas and the decolonization movement signified by Bandung witnessed two related movements in the history of thought. On the one hand, Eurocentric thought was elevated to a universal; on the other, non-European modes of thought were containerized as so many “traditions” of no more than local significance. An assessment of the intellectual legacy of this period calls for a double task: alongside a critique of Eurocentrism, an exploration of engagements across various non-European modes of thought bounded as so many discrete “traditions.” This paper hopes to explore the difficulties involved in such an engagement in the period after Bandung.
Let me rephrase the question in line with the dominant African imagination: Why study a late 14th century text today, in sub-Saharan Africa? I can think of at least three reasons why a study of The Muqaddimah in an African academy is important today. Most importantly, it provides us with a resource to think of an alternative to Eurocentrism. If Eurocentrism claims to give us a universal history of reason anchored in Greece, the Muqaddimah offers both a discourse on the human and human reason and calls on us to think of the relation between Greeks and Persians as a way of de-centering Greece-focused Eurocentrism. At the same time, it raises critical questions about Afrocentrism which has come to identify Africa with sub-Saharan Africa, as the product of a singular experience, slavery, but with a historical archive in Pharaohnic Egypt, not very different from how 19th century Europe fashioned classical Greece into an archive for European civilization. How do we historicize Africa before the Atlantic slave trade? As a continent or as different regions? Both Ibn Khaldun and The Muqaddimah suggest that it may be productive to think of Africa before the period of Atlantic slavery in regional rather than continental terms, and that one such regional imagination would bring together the Mediterranean and West Africa in a single history.
Second, The Muqaddimah has the potential of broadening our understanding of how to use oral tradition as a resource in the writing of African and regional histories. The use of oral tradition as a source for historical information has been central to debates on the production of a history of Africa. But these debates have remained confined to the history of stateless societies in Africa. Ibn Khaldun’s discussion of isnad (the chain of transmission) has the potential of connecting it with a scholarship that has been totally set apart until now. Read the rest of this entry »