Remembering Ibn Khaldun in a World of Illusionary Truths (PART 2)
by Nasser Tufail
REASONS FOR DISTORTION OF HISTORICAL INFORMATION
Untruths or “alternate facts” afflict knowledge and historical information and there are various reasons that make this inevitable. All records, by their very nature, are subject to error, and Ibn Khaldun presents some guidelines that can help minimize the likelihood. He talks about seven critical issues related to narratives and records in Muqaddimah that one needs to reflect on for rationalization and preservation of truths, and I have summarized them below:
- Partisanship towards an article of faith, sect, creed or opinion, thus precluding critical investigation, and not only unwittingly accepting falsehoods that seem to be agreeable due to bias but also propagating them;
- Overconfidence and undue reliance upon one’s sources of transmission;
- The inability to understand what is intended, the purpose of an event or the significance of it, with the result that an assumed or imagined significance (even hyperbole) is attributed to what has been learned when in fact it may not be warranted for what may simply be trivial or immaterial;
- A mistaken belief in the truth about something, mostly from unfounded reliance upon transmitters;
- Failure to place an event in its real context due to ignorance of how conditions conform with reality;
- The common desire to win the favor of the high ranking by insincerely praising them as well as embellishing and spreading their fame; (sound familiar?)
- The most important thing is ignorance of the laws and the nature of the various conditions arising in civilization that govern the transformation of human society so as to be able to investigate the historical information critically.
ROLE OF MEDIA AND POLITICS IN ALTERING REALITIES
I think the media’s responsibility in perpetuating untruths and distorting facts can be safely added to the above list. Had Khaldoun lived in our verity-challenged times, he would surely have taken today’s media to task for embracing “alternative facts” and spreading disinformation and fake news. Sensationalism, chaos and fear-arousing disinformation always sells and is good for ratings, which in turn drive advertising dollars, and the media figured that out a long time ago.
In 1835, a New York newspaper, The Sun, published articles about the discovery of life and an ancient civilization of bat-like winged humanoids living amongst bison, unicorns, goats and tail-less beavers, attributing the discovery to a famous astronomer of the time, Sir John Herschell! The newspaper readership immediately shot up and The Sun became the leading newspaper. The Great Moon Discovery soon became the Great Moon Hoax, but the shameless media outfit, rather than apologize and acknowledge their false conspiracy, announced that observations had been either put on hold or terminated because the giant lens of the discovery telescope acted as a burning glass and set fire to the observatory… and that was that! There they are, the bat-like winged humanoids inhabiting the moon for a few days… till we lost track of them owing to the observatory and the telescope going up in flames! I am sure Sir Herschell would have been amused at the audacity of The Sun.
Remember the Pizzagate story about Hillary Clinton’s alleged pedophile ring and sexually abused child sex slaves hidden at Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor in Washington? One can understand that a few nut cases will always fall for conspiracy theories, but in this case more Americans (about one third) believed that it was ‘definitely’ true or ‘most likely true compared to those who did not, which clearly shows that the mainstream media and social media (ably assisted by elusive bots and influential posters) had done a remarkable job in spreading disinformation. We’ll discuss Lady Clinton selling arms to ISIS on another day!
Governments, news industry and technology companies all have a role to play in combating fake news, but consumers of information can also help by remaining skeptical of attention grabbing and provocative news and always fact check before disseminating it. They should also rely on diverse sources.
And then there are politicians too, who are of the same ilk as media folks – and I suppose that’s just a given, as deception and untruthfulness comes with the (political) territory. Political corruption, mendacity and lack of scruples in politicians is as old as politics, and so the expression “honest politician” should be seen as an oxymoron. In the main, most politicians have no more conscience than that of a fox guarding a chicken coop, and honest politicians, if we must use that oxymoron expression, are an endangered species! Sure there are exceptions and you can find in history honest leaders like Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, whose integrity was unimpeachable, or the likes of Aurelius, Washington, Gladstone, and others, but the list will be littered with a propensity of those types who are said to have failed to sell their own mother only because there were no takers, figuratively speaking, of course!
I am reminded of a quote by a very successful and fine gentleman, Peter Scotese, whom I met in New York over three decades ago when he afforded me an introduction to the then CEO of USI Chemicals, the largest producer of polyethylene plastic resins at a time when I was dabbling in that business as a “side gig”! Peter once said: “Integrity is not a 90% thing, it’s not a 95% thing -you either have it or you don’t.”
IRRATIONAL BELIEFS AND BLIND FOLLOWING
Ibn Khaldun was very critical of “useless superstition and blind acceptance of historical data”; he dismissed the notion of focusing on the credibility of the transmitter of a narration (Hadith, for example, in the case of Islam), and instead encouraged the idea of validating the narratives/stories in light of critical thinking, rigorous observation and scientific inquiry.
“Blindly Following Ancient Customs and Traditions doesn’t mean that the dead are alive, but that the living are dead.” [Ibn Khaldun]
«اتباع التقاليد لا يعني أن الأموات أحياء، بل إن الأحياء أموات»
It is often the case that attitudes, ideas and opinions once adopted are seldom pondered over again, no matter how unfounded and deleterious they may be, and once formed they are regarded with an inviolability or sanctity that renders them eternal. If one goes by his avant-garde thoughts regarding faith and the importance of being self-critical as well as employing curiosity, thought and inquiry to achieve spirituality as well as prosperity and progress, one might deem Khaldun as a Martin Luther or John Calvin of Islam! He had a perceptive mind and was certainly ahead of his time.
SUPPLY SIDE ECONOMICS AND “THAT” LAFFER CURVE
Back in 1981, at a news conference, President Reagan was asked by a reporter to explain how he could rationalize his tax cuts with increased military spending at the same time, referencing the analogous “guns and butter” analogy which didn’t work for President Johnson. After providing a brief of background on his economic policies, Reagan, reminding the audience that he was an economics student in college, promptly invoked Ibn Khaldun as an exponent of his “supply side economics”, paraphrasing him thusly: “In the beginning of the dynasty, great tax revenues were gained from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, small tax revenues were gained from large assessments.” Here is that clip:
Although Reagan, or perhaps his notes/speech writer, got Ibn Khaldun’s existence on planet earth wrong by about 550 years (he lived around 650 years ago, not 1,200 as Reagan erroneously claimed), he was not off the mark in getting the quintessence of Khaldun’s “supply-side economics” ideas right. And that brings us to the “Laffer Curve” I alluded to earlier.
The Laffer Curve is a theory put forward by supply-side economist, Arthur Laffer, which essentially shows the correlation between tax rates and the tax revenue collected by governments, wherein cutting tax rates (to an optimum) can actually increase tax revenue due to economic incentives and investments encouraged by lower taxes. Conversely, there is a threshold rate above which any further increase in the tax rate will actually lead to a decrease in total tax revenues as the incentive to invest, work and produce diminishes. In simplistic terms, here is what the Laffer Curve looks like graphically:
Interestingly, Arther Laffer did concede that the concept was not devised by him and the Laffer Curve was based on ideas that had appeared in Ibn Khaldun’s work. As an amusing sidebar, I should mention that Khaldun was also a strong proponent of gold/silver pegged currencies in monetary systems (Islamic in his time). With a slight stretch of imagination, an argument can be made that his gold monetary standard idea was a forerunner to Bretton Woods, at least indirectly – the Bretton Woods system required currencies to be pegged to the US dollar, which in turn was pegged to gold.
There is a section in Khaldun’s work dealing with the rise and fall of civilizations which is not germane to subject being discussed, but I’ll briefly mention in passing the concept of what he terms “Asabiyyah” – tribalism/clanism or modern day nationalism, and its historical context related to the rise and fall of civilizations. At a macro level, he suggested that empires begin with tribalism/clanism, sometimes even taking on a barbaric dimension, become great civilizations at their high points (education/literacy, arts, architecture, culture, etc.) and often end with a period of decay when they again become tribalistic or clannish. One wonders what Khaldun would have to say if he was around today about the current world events and all the turmoil taking place around us.
Khaldun’s family, which held several high offices in Al-Andalus during Moorish rule, had emigrated to Tunisia after the fall of Seville to the Reconquista around the middle of the 13th century. Almost a century later, after a series of “intrigues” in Tunis and Fez, including one that cost him a couple of years in prison, Ibn Khaldun himself decided to move to Granada where he was given a warm welcome by the then Sultan of Granada, Nasrid Muhammad V, whom Khaldun had helped regain power from his temporary exile in Fez. In Spain, he is known as Ibn Jaldún. The great British historian, Arnold Toynbee described Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah as “undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.”
Click here for more of Nasser Tufail’s musings: From Siberia with Love – Reflections on a Trans-Siberian Rail Passage
Nasser Tufail grew up in Pakistan and after finishing his secondary education at a boarding school, moved to the USA where he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies in Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and MBA. After working in the field of aviation and IT for such companies as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and IBM in various engineering and management positions, he ventured out on his own and founded two IT companies involved in Business Intelligence, Data analytics/mining and Supply Chain Execution. He sold his stake in the businesses and took early retirement to travel and see the enchanting world. He has lived in 6 countries and travelled extensively to scores of others in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. He currently resides with his lovely wife and best friend, Selma, on the Costa del Sol in Spain.