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The Scholar and the Sultan: A Translation of the Historic Encounter between Ibn Khaldun and Timur

Ibn Khaldun’s account of his encounter with Timur outside Damascus in 803/1401 is taken from the autobiographical section of his monumental historical chronicle, the Kitāb al-‘Ibar. It is an invaluable piece of history which provides an important contemporary account of the conqueror Timur. It also brings together two of the most significant historical personalities of the late fourteenth century, one being a world conqueror and the other a first-class intellectual. These two figures conversed about topics including the topography of North Africa, the reliability of Tabari’s history, the nature of the caliphate, and Ibn Khaldun’s own theory of group solidarity (‘asabiyya). There are also many important tidbits of historical information provided within the text, especially with regards to Ibn Khaldun’s discussion of the expectation among astrologers and mystics in the fourteenth-century Islamic West that the conjunction of planets would announce the arrival of a figure of major historical importance at the end of the century. Ibn Khaldun’s letter to the “king of the Maghrib” (probably the Hafsid caliph Abū Fāris ‘Abd al-‘Azīz II, r. 1394-1434, or possibly the Marinid sultan Abū Sa’īd ‘Uthmān III, r. 1399-1420) is also of particular interest given the amount of detail he provides about the Mongol conquests in the East and the immediate historical context of the rise of Timur. It is clear from the text that, although Ibn Khaldun is clearly disturbed by the brutality displayed by Timur during the course of his conquests (and during the siege of Damascus), he nevertheless admired the conqueror as a cultured, intelligent sovereign whose vast domain was a testimony to his supreme military capabilities.

This text was translated several decades ago by Walter J. Fischel in his Ibn Khaldun and Tamerlane (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1952), pp. 29-47. Although a fine effort in many ways, Fischel’s translation exhibited certain problems in that some terms were slightly mistranslated and in the sense that the translator opted for a more literal meaning to the extent that the sense of the passage was slightly lost. As such, although I have largely adapted this translation from Fischel’s, I have consulted two editions of Ibn Khaldun’s Arabic text (published in 2009 and 2010 respectively) in order to make the necessary changes. In some places, Fischel’s translation has been significantly emended, while in other places it remains virtually untouched. I hope that this small work is beneficial to everyone interested in Islamic history and thought. (more…)