The North African landscape surveyed by the fourteenth-century Tunisian historian and polymath, Ibn Khaldun, was beset by political disintegration, instability, and plague. Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) is, of course, the most towering Tunisian writer and intellectual of his era—indeed, one of foremost historical thinkers of all time. He is also our most trusted source for the history of his own time, recorded primarily in his voluminous Kitāb al-ʿIbar. This work’s celebrated Muqaddimah (Introduction) sets out sweeping and powerful theories regarding the rise and fall of political dynasties and civilizations based on his critical reading of earlier histories and keen observation of his own unsettled times.
With the collapse of the Almohad empire in the mid-thirteenth century, and as European powers came to dominate Mediterranean trade routes, North Africa was divided among three rival powers: the Marinids, whose seat was Fez; the Zayyanids (also called Waddadids) in Tlemcen; and the Hafsids in Tunis. The Hafsids styled themselves the true inheritors of the Almohad legacy, a legacy the Almohads themselves betrayed. The definitive break came in 1230, when the Almohad caliph al-Maʿmun not only rejected key points of Almohad practice, but also scandalously announced that the Mahdi or Rightly Guided One was not Ibn Tumart, the founder of the Almohad dynasty, but rather Jesus, son of Mary. Abu Zakarriya, the grandson of Abu Hafs, one of Ibn Tumart’s closest associates and the source of the name ‘Hafsid’, established the Hafsids’ independent seat of government in Tunis. Under the Hafsids Tunis was economically and culturally vibrant, nourished by trade with Sicilian merchants and the arrival of refugees from Islamic Spain.
Tunis’ fortunes would decline beginning in 1345 when the death of the sovereign Abu Bakr prompted first a Marinid invasion and a subsequent period of divisions and rivalries. Plague hit Tunis especially hard. Ibn Khaldun relates its devastating effects: ‘Cities and buildings were laid waste, roads and way signs obliterated, settlements and mansions became empty, dynasties and tribes grew weak. The entire inhabited world changed.’ Indeed, it was that devastation that he credits as the impetus behind his historical project:
It is as if the entire creation had changed and the whole world been altered, as if it were a new and repeated creation, a world brought into existence anew. Therefore there is a need at this time that someone should systematically set down the situation of the world among all regions and races, as well as the customs and sectarian beliefs that have changed for their adherents…
Some measure of political stabilization was achieved, however, beginning in 1370; recovery was more emphatic under Abū al-Fāris ʿAbd al-Azīz (reigned 1394-1434 ), who undertook intense diplomatic activity and patronized the construction of a library and hospital, improved fortifications (ramparts) around vulnerable cities, and built numerous guest houses (zawiya-s).]
As he documents in his autobiography, al-Taʿrīf, Ibn Khaldun’s restless intellect and his unsettled times prompted moves both west, to capitals such as Fez and Granada, and east, to Cairo, where he held the post of chief Maliki judge of Egypt. His travels put him in correspondence with many of the outstanding personalities of his time: kings and princes from Pedro of Castile to Tamerlane, illustrious scholars such as the Granadans Lisan al‑Din Ibn al‑Khatib and Ibn Zamrak, and rivals such as the Tunisian jurist Ibn ʿArafa. One thread that runs throughout Ibn Khaldun’s work is his attachment to independent, critical thought and his disdain for the institutionalized—often rote and unthinking, in his view—education in the Maliki madrasas that had begun to prevail in his time.
In addition to his well-known historical work, Ibn Khaldun—like his contemporary Ibn al‑Khatīb—also wrote a (still underexplored) text on the Sufi thought and social currents of his time. Like Ibn al-Khaṭīb’s Rawdat al-Taʿrīf, Ibn Khaldun’s Shifā’ al-Sā’il speaks of an intense engagement with Sufism while maintaining a critical scholarly regard towards certain branches and practices.
While Tunis had a long-established Jewish community, during this period, it does not appear to have produced significant works of scholarship or literature and it did not attract Spanish Jews as other North African cities did. [It has yet to be determined whether it managed to attract any of the ‘Jewish Sufis’ who were well established in Cairo during this period.]
Tunis had long been a regular stop for Catalan and Italian trading vessels; while pirate activity sometimes interfered with this traffic, in the later fourteenth century, the busy port welcomed the arrival of an enigmatic figure, the Mallorcan Anselm Turmeda (1355-1423). Ordained a Franciscan friar, a confessor to the Aragonese royal family, Turmeda left Europe under mysterious circumstances late in the fourteenth century only to reappear in Tunis as a Muslim convert known as ʿAbd Allah al-Tarjuman. In Tunis, Turmeda continues writing in Catalan for a European audience—a number of works from this time give both his Christian and Arabic names—producing esoteric prophetic and apocalyptic works commenting on the tangled Papal intrigue of the Western Schism, as well as political affairs in Spain. Turmeda’s Dispute de l’Ase [The Debate Between the Friar and the Ass] was long celebrated in Cataluña as a seminal work of Catalan imaginative literature. Translated into a number of European languages in the decades following its composition, this often biting and irreverent work displays an impatience with all forms of human hypocrisy (most especially of the clerical kind) in a debate which pits Friar Anselm against a host of animals who accuse him (and mankind as a whole) of abusing and subjugating animals out of arrogant presumption and cruelty.
Turmeda’s notoriety in the Islamic world is due to an autobiographical account, written in Arabic, of his conversion to Islam. The Tuhfat al-adīb fī radd calā ahl al-Ṣalīb [The Gift of the Writer to Refute the Partisans of the Cross] provides many intriguing details of Turmeda’s youth in Mallorca, but also of social and political life in late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century Tunis. The book became well known a century after its composition, when its translation into Turkish attracted great notice to its fierce anti-Christian polemic. Turmeda’s personal story, that of a Catholic cleric turned Muslim, serves to lend authority to the scathing indictment of Christianity, yet basic errors with regard to the tenets of Catholicism and other evidence suggest that its polemical section was likely the work of a recently expelled Spanish Morisco, and was added at the time of its translation.