Inside Damascus. Ibn Khaldun enters the reception hall of al-Ablaq palace and approaches Timur, who is sitting in a high chair among his council. Timur stands to greet his guest and indicates for Ibn Khaldun to sit at his right. After listening to the leaders of the Khanate speak for a little while, Ibn Khaldun moves in front of Timur.
Ibn Khaldun. Great Amir, I have been told that, upon meeting rulers from your part of the world, it is customary to present them with some gift, however small their value might be. But as you are as far beyond common rulers as they are beyond their subjects, I bring you five gifts instead.
Timur. Then your sensibility is five times as superfluous as that of other flatterers. Fine things are a luxury I have little use for.
Ibn Khaldun. If my Amir would like, I will take them and go.
Timur. No, stay awhile. Your thoughtfulness is much appreciated. This is, as you say, a custom of my people, and they would be displeased with me if I did not follow their ways. In truth I am constantly being bombarded with gifts, even in a remote desert camp like this one. Since there is nothing I can do with them, I send them back to Samarkand. This increases the happiness and splendor of my people, and so makes me happy, though I worry sometimes that these luxuries will make them soft.
Ibn Khaldun. It has been said somewhere that if the ruler pours out gifts and money upon his people, it spreads among them and reverts to him through taxation, and again from him to them. The wealth of the subjects corresponds to the finances of the dynasty, which in turn correspond to the wealth and number of the subjects. In this way, luxury may give additional strength to a new dynasty, as is the case with you, great Amir: it allows your group to grow and acquire more followers. As to the dangers of luxury, you are right to be concerned. There are places, however, where nomadic life remains mixed with sedentary culture: the people have some refinement without become too accustomed to it, and so retain their toughness.
Timur. Your wisdom eases my mind. It is always ideal to have the best of both worlds, when possible. So then, qadi—what have you brought me?
(Ibn Khaldun’s servant sets a number of objects before Timur, who leans forward from his chair to see them. From among these objects, Ibn Khaldun picks up the description of the Maghrib he had written and hands it to Timur.)
Timur. (Looking over the text) Ah, this is a gift I am grateful for. I will have this translated into Mongolian immediately. (He passes the text to a servant, who carries it off.) What else have you?
(Ibn Khaldun opens an exceedingly beautiful copy of the Qur’an. When Timur sees it he hurriedly arises and places it against his head. After perusing it silently for a moment, he then passes it to a frail boy sitting beside him, who examines its pages eagerly.)
Timur. Allow me to introduce you to the king. He is my stepson. He loves the Qur’an with all his heart and delights in reciting the words of the Prophet from memory.
Ibn Khaldun. Praise God that we have one so faithful as your successor.
Timur. He is a great blessing to the empire, yes. His zeal for scriptural interpretation and the prophetic traditions, however, is not matched by a passion for other subjects. As it happens, I am looking for a competent tutor to train him in the learned ways, but it is difficult to find good help. The king is a good boy, but his mind is not very subtle in certain areas. He failed to retain the teachings of his previous tutors, so I had them executed.
Ibn Khaldun. May I ask, what subjects did his tutors teach him, and what were their methods?
Timur. Logic, arithmetic, and philology. He had a special teacher for each subject, and would be immersed in the details of them for long periods of time. Instead of writing out his exercises as he was supposed to be doing, though, his teachers would often catch him composing poetry on his slate. Logic was hardest for him, which confused me somewhat, as the poetry he writes seems to express an interest in philosophical matters, and logic is the method of doing philosophy, as I understand it. To make matters worse his tutor in this subject was very severe with him and beat him on several occasions; when I discovered this I had the tutor’s hands and tongue cut off, to prevent him from teaching anything ever again.
Ibn Khaldun. You were right to do so, great Amir; severity in study is to be met with severity in life. Learning logic in such a way is of slight benefit, as it is only an auxiliary science. Its purpose is to aid the understanding of philosophy and train the mind to think in a more orderly fashion. For this reason it should be studied little by little. Prolonged study of logic takes away from the study of true philosophy—the physical and metaphysical sciences—and even confuses the problems of philosophy by obfuscating its subject in a veil of special terms, making it overly complicated. This difficulty is often an obstacle to knowledge, as logic is a large field and life is not long enough to master all of its aspects. Thus, the beginning philosophy student is apt to be corrupted by a thorough study of logic, as he will become diverted from the fundamental problems through a focus on tangential details, and wallow in an idle pastime that is of no concern to anyone. Too much logic does outright harm to students. The same is true of arithmetic and philology, which are also auxiliary sciences—if the student allows himself to become entangled in nets of disputes and quarrels, then he will fall into an abyss of doubt from which he is not likely to emerge; his mind will stop at the veil of words and not reach its objective of discovering the truth.
Timur. You know a great deal about this matter. Perhaps you could be the new royal tutor?
Ibn Khaldun. The Father of Victory is most gracious. I fear, though, that the many duties required of me as a judge would not leave much time for this. As it is, in my advanced age I have difficulty fulfilling my present obligations.
Timur. Perhaps, then, you know of some brief handbooks he could read?
Ibn Khaldun. Yes, many. I do not recommend them, though. Handbooks have a corrupting influence on the process of instruction. They confuse the beginner by presenting the final results of a discipline to him before he is prepared for them. In addition to this, they are crowded with ideas, and so the student must study their words carefully to understand them, which is difficult and complicated. Handbooks are inferior to the habit of studying more extensive and lengthy works. In being prevented from acquiring useful and firmly established habits, therefore, reading them makes it less likely one will acquire expert knowledge.
Timur. What you say disturbs me somewhat, as I myself enjoy learning about philosophy through dialogues such as Plato’s. These keep my attention better than listening to long treatises. Would you say that this form of composition, too, is an inferior way to learn philosophy?
Ibn Khaldun. Yes, much inferior. But even with philosophical treatises, one must be wary. The opinions the philosophers hold are wrong in most of their aspects.
Timur. I am confused. Did you not just speak of the benefits of learning philosophy?
Ibn Khaldun. No, I spoke of the benefits of learning logic for the purpose of understanding philosophy. Logic sharpens the mind in the orderly presentation of proofs and arguments, so that the habit of excellent and correct arguing is obtained. And philosophy itself has its advantages, insofar as one gains a proper understanding of the physical and metaphysical sciences.
Timur. What are you whining about then? It seems to me that you are falling into contradiction, qadi. Take care in what you say.
Ibn Khaldun. My complaint is this: that when taken too far, philosophy is dangerous. Philosophers, you see, disregard all the degrees of divine creation beyond the intellect. They are like physicists who restrict all existence to matters of the body. Existence, however, is too wide to be explained by such narrow views. There is no unequivocal conformity between the results of such thinking and the outside world. All judgments of the mind are general, whereas existents of the outside world are individual in their substances. The things of sensual perception are observable, and do not have proof in logical arguments. And though one must concede that there are certain intellectual essences that are not general abstractions, but conform to individual existents in the outside world with the help of pictures in the imagination, this is not something that should concern Muslims. The problems of philosophy and physics are of no importance for the average person in their religious duties or livelihoods. And while it is good that kings study these subjects to increase their understanding of the world, they must be wary that they, too, are not corrupted by abstractions and false doctrines.
Timur. You are most wise, qadi. If it is true that philosophy and science are as dangerous as you say, then, perhaps these books should all be burned?
Ibn Khaldun. I would not go that far. As I said, these works are a hazard only to the common people, who are apt to be led astray by snatches of skepticism. It is enough that the student should be aware of philosophy’s pernicious aspects, studying it only after he has been saturated with the religious law and has studied the interpretation of the Qur’an and jurisprudence. With this knowledge as his foundation, he can safely study other texts without fear of being seduced by them.
Timur. The king already has an excellent grasp of religious truth, and I do not think he is likely to be corrupted by worldly learning. (Gesturing towards the gifts before him) Now what else have you brought me? If all this philosophical digression is your way of postponing giving me a bad gift, I will be very displeased.
Ibn Khaldun. You have already received two gifts you were pleased with, did you not?
Timur. Yes, but one bad gift is enough to sour the treasury.
Ibn Khaldun. (Handing him the third gift) This is a famous work called Poem of the Mantle by al-Busiri.
Timur. What is it about?
Ibn Khaldun. It is a poem in praise of the Prophet.
Timur. What is so special about this? Are there not many such poems?
Ibn Khaldun. Yes, but this one is particularly venerated. It is memorized and recited by large numbers of Muslims. The work speaks of the Prophet’s birth, the miracles he wrought, his ascension, and the greatness of the Qur’an. It also speaks of us, on seeking intercession through the Prophet and the petition of one’s state, and warns about the caprices of the self in hindering this.
Timur. It sounds like a very great poem indeed. Its author must have been very learned to write such a thing, yes?
Ibn Khaldun. No, not really. He composed it while paralyzed from a stroke, and sang it to Muhammad repeatedly as he asked to be cured. Then al-Busiri fell asleep. In his dream he saw the Prophet, who wiped his face and covered him in his Mantle. When al-Busiri awoke, he was able to walk once again.
Timur. A miracle! And you say he knew nothing of philosophy in writing this?
Ibn Khaldun. Nothing more than a passing acquaintance. He was a Sufi mystic. He had a much better understanding of happiness than the philosophers do.
Timur. I must confess, this has always puzzled me. I once met a philosopher who began discussing this subject, and so I asked him, ‘How many men have you killed in battle, that you are so happy?’ What he told me was remarkable—he said he had never witnessed a battle! I told him that his joy must be very small in comparison to that of others. I know the ways of Persians differ from the way of Mongols, but still—he had never even killed anyone! I was so astonished that I decided to increase his happiness tenfold, and put him in the front lines of my army when next we fought the Mamluks.
Ibn Khaldun. And did this philosopher find a greater happiness there?
Timur. I am not sure; after the battle his body was discovered among the fallen. It grieved me somewhat, as this was the first time I had met a real philosopher, and I was keen to discover the effects of my experiment on him. I hope he has achieved a greater happiness in heaven, but I cannot say this for sure. The state of his soul is unknown to me.
Ibn Khaldun. Unfortunately, the way the philosophers seek happiness in this world often makes their souls unfit for bliss in the next.
Timur. Ah yes, that is another thing that continues to puzzle me. I never did get around to asking the philosopher exactly what made him so happy; not only were the raptures of combat foreign to him, but not once during our discussion did he speak about the joys of being a Muslim. Perhaps you could clarify what he was talking about?
Ibn Khaldun. Gladly. Those of high birth and in control of the group feeling are too proud to engage in scholarship, and as a result it is an occupation left to weaker races. Most philosophers in the Arab world, like the one you met, have been Persians. People of this culture have a skeptical outlook and one must be wary of them. These Persian thinkers have inherited the Greek view that happiness consists in intellectual pleasure: that is, in coming to perceive existence as it is, by means of logical arguments. But this is entirely false. Man, you see, is not only a corporeal being, but is also mixed with a spiritual part. He accordingly experiences both corporeal and spiritual perceptions, the former through the intermediary of the brain and organs, the latter through its own essence. While it is true that man enjoys his bodily perceptions, such as light, sound, or those perceptions produced by the powers of the brain—imagination, thinking, memory—the soul finds even greater joy and pleasure in the perceptions that come without an intermediary—that anticipatory inkling of the happiness promised in the world to come. This higher joy can only be experienced by removing the veil of sensual perception and by forgetting all corporeal perceptions, as the Sufi poet al-Busiri did. When seeking this sort of perception, the powers of the brain work against man; intellectual speculation and scientific knowledge are a hindrance, and reading the works of Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, or al-Farabi only add to the obstacles on the road to happiness. There are too many scholarly books to read, and too much technical terminology in them. A person’s entire lifetime is not enough to learn it all. Even if someone was able to do this, he is not able to perceive existence as it is by himself. Furthermore, a man can only improve his soul so much by adopting praiseworthy character qualities and avoiding blameworthy ones—though it is true there is great joy in the spiritual perception that takes place according to rational and established norms. But the happiness beyond such joy cannot be encompassed by anybody’s perception. Ibn Sina and other competent philosophers knew this. They have clearly said that spiritual essences cannot be known in their reality and attributes, and there is no way to learn about them. One must always keep this in mind when reading them, as well as their tendency to press observations on life into the mold of their preconceived theories and their way of making deductions. Philosophers over-generalize and rely on analogical conclusions too heavily. Their opinions on politics and the outside world are thus untrustworthy and they commit many errors. The student who studies them should take care to travel a good deal and meet many different kinds of scholars, so that he may compare and contrast their various terminologies and ideas, and thus not fall into the trap of adhering too much to any one outlook. In this way he is able to judge things by their particular circumstances and not be infected too much with analogy and generalization.
Timur. Thank you for that explanation. Now I do not feel so bad about letting that philosopher be killed. It seems true happiness was beyond him, and he is better off dead.
Ibn Khaldun. Praise God. That way of seeking happiness is liable to corrupt the happiness of others, by leading them away from the truth. The numerous aspects of verbal disputes and doubts concerning the nature of right and wrong logical evidence are all similar: they are all very technical matters. If you cannot follow them, you will not be able to distinguish what truth there is in them, for the truth becomes distinguishable only if it exists by nature. All the doubts and uncertainties will remain.
Timur. I am glad you are here to warn us of this. The question remains, though: how am I to teach my stepson philosophy?
Ibn Khaldun. Let him be his own teacher. The natural means for the perception of the truth is man’s ability to think when it is free from all imaginings and when the thinker entrusts himself to the mercy of God. If he is afflicted by such difficulties and hampered in his understanding of the problems by misgivings or disturbing doubts, cast them off! Let him discard the veil of words and the obstacles of doubt! Have him leave all the technical procedures and take refuge in the realm of the natural ability to think given to him by nature! Encourage him to let his speculation roam in it, according to whatever he desires! If he does that, the divine light will shine upon him and show him his objective. This is what the Sufi mystics have done.
Timur. This advice puts my mind at ease. Now, I believe you still have two more gifts?
(Ibn Khaldun hands him an elegant prayer rug. Timur kisses it. He is then lifted from his chair by servants and kneels on the rug to say a brief prayer, after which he is again lifted and placed back in his chair.)
Timur. As you can see, I too have problems fulfilling my duties. My lame leg is a defect that affects my full ability to act. My freedom of action is hindered; my right hand cannot properly grasp a sword. I cannot even pray without physical assistance. I can merely give directions, not lead by example. Inactivity makes me languid.
Ibn Khaldun. Your example provides more inspiration than ten able-bodied generals, oh Father of Victory.
Timur. You are very kind.
Ibn Khaldun. As I said before, I, too have a hard time carrying out my obligations. I have always been disciplined in my studies, but as I grow older my mind is slowing. I have difficulty remembering details that I could once recall with perfect clarity, and I cannot concentrate very long on a task. I am forced to delegate much of my work to pupils.
Timur. You and I are not so different after all, qadi. Now, what is the last thing you have brought me?
(Ibn Khaldun places four boxes of sweets in front of Timur. He opens one of the boxes, smells them, and unsheaths a shaky sword towards the scholar.)
Timur. You have done marvelously well with your first four gifts. And now I find that you have brought me Damascene sweets?
Ibn Khaldun. Great Amir, I would never insult your divine person so. These are Cairene sweets.
Timur. Ah. (Lowering his sword) Very good. I was given some sad examples of a local bakery earlier and did not much care for them. My displeasure was quickly remedied, and the baker is now dangling from a spear outside the city. (He distributes the boxes of sweets among those present at his council.) These things please me. You have very good judgment. I have had to kill more than one visitor who brought me bad presents.
Ibn Khaldun. May God aid you! —I have something more which I wish to say before you.
Ibn Khaldun. I am a stranger in this country in a double sense. First, because I am away from the Maghrib, which is my homeland and my place of origin; the second absence is from Cairo, and my people are there. I have come under your protection, and I hope that you will give me your opinion regarding what may solace me in my exile.
Timur. Whatever you desire I shall do for you.
Ibn Khaldun. My state of exile has made me forget what I desire; perhaps you—may God aid you—will know for me.
Timur. Move from the city to the encampment and stay with me, and if God wills I will fulfill your highest aim.
Ibn Khaldun. Give an order for me to that effect to your deputy.
(Timur signals Shah Malik to execute this. Ibn Khaldun thanks and blesses Timur.)
Ibn Khaldun. That is not all. I have still another request.
Timur. What is it? Speak wisely, qadi. Men who ask for too much get more than they desire.
Ibn Khaldun. These Qur’an teachers, secretaries, bureaucrats, and administrators, who are among those left behind by the Sultan of Egypt, have come under your rule. The King surely will not disregard them. Your power is vast, your provinces are very extensive, and the need of your government for men of this capacity is great.
Timur. And what do you wish for them?
Ibn Khaldun. A written guarantee of security to which they can appeal and upon which they can rely, whatever their circumstances may be.
Timur. Because these sweets are so delicious, I will have my secretary write an order to this effect for them, and have it affixed to the Sultan’s seal.
Ibn Khaldun. Your generosity surpasses my gratitude for it.
Timur. We shall see. I will call on you again before I am through with this place.
(Ibn Khaldun once more thanks and blesses Timur, then departs with the secretary.)