Ibn Khaldûn

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Ibn Khaldûn

Excerpts from The Muqaddimah (1377)

Translated by Franz Rosenthal

Edited by N. J. Dawood
Published in 1989

The Renaissance is generally considered to be an era in European history only, yet a similar cultural and intellectual revolution took place in the Arab world. The greatest Arab figure of this period was the Muslim philosopher and historian 'Adb al-Rahman Ibn Khaldûn (known as Ibn Khaldûn; pronounced kal-DOON; 1332–1395). (A Muslim is a follower of Islam, a religion founded by the prophet Muhammad.) Ibn Khaldûn is best known today for The Muqaddimah (pronounced moo-kah-DEE-mah), which was the introduction to the first volume of Kitāb al-'bar, a history of the world.

Ibn Khaldûn completed The Muqaddimah in 1377, around the same time humanism (a movement devoted to the revival of ancient Greek and Roman culture) was gaining momentum in northern Italy. Like the European humanists, he used ancient Greek concepts to examine his own society and he placed humans at the center of the world. The Muqaddimah represented a significant leap forward in scholarship at the time. Unlike most philosophers who came before him, Ibn Khaldûn attempted to discover patterns in social and political organizations. (A philosopher was one who studied all learning except the technical and practical arts.) He used new scientific methods (systematic analysis based on direct observation) and terminology, which involved explaining and analyzing historical events instead of simply giving a chronological account. The Italian diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527; see entry) has been credited with introducing this technique in The Prince (1513), a description of the perfect ruler, and in his history of Florence, Italy (1526). Modern scholars note, however, that Ibn Khaldûn used the same approach more than one hundred fifty years earlier. In The Muqaddimah he identified psychological, economic, environmental, and social factors that contribute to the making of human civilization and history. Ibn Khaldûn is considered the pioneer of sociology (the science of society, social institutions, and social relationships), which was developed in the mid-nineteenth century. The Muqaddimah is now regarded as one of the great masterpieces of all time.

Ibn Khaldûn has long political career

Ibn Khaldûn came from an Arab family of scholars and politicians who originally lived in Yemen (a country on the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula) before settling in Seville, a city in the Muslim-controlled region of Andalusia in southern Spain (see accompanying box). When Muslims were driven out of Andalusia in the early thirteenth century, Ibn Khaldûn's family moved to Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia in North Africa. Ibn Khaldûn was born in Tunis in 1332. While he was growing up his parents were active in the intellectual life of the city, associating with leading politicians and scholars from North Africa and Spain. Ibn Khaldûn was educated first by his father and then by prominent Muslim scholars. He memorized the Koran (holy book of Islam) and studied grammar (rules for use of a language), law, rhetoric (art of effective speaking and writing), philology (study of language in literary works), and poetry. In 1352, at the age of nineteen, Ibn Khaldûn entered the service of Sultan (king) Barquq, the Egyptian ruler of Tunis. This marked the beginning of Ibn Khaldûn's long political career. While serving with various rulers in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and Spain, he acquired knowledge of politics and history that later formed the basis of his scholarly work.

Muslims in Spain

Ibn Khaldûn came from an Arab family of scholars and politicians who originally lived in Yemen before settling in Muslim-controlled Andalusia, the southern part of Spain. In C. E. 711 Muslims from Arabia and Berbers (non-Arab wandering tribes) from North Africa invaded Spain, where they were known as Moors. At the time of the Moorish invasion, Spain was occupied by Germanic tribes called Visigoths and Christianity was the dominant religion. After winning several major battles, the Moors conquered the Visigoth capital of Toledo in 712 and soon pushed the Germanic tribes into the northern frontiers of Spain. The Moors established a flourishing new culture based on their study of advanced civilizations of past times and their own era. Moorish farming techniques brought the dry land to life. Moorish architects renewed cities with intricately decorated mosques (Muslim houses of worship), lush gardens, and paved streets. They built the Great Mosque of the city of Córdoba in 786 and the Alhambra (a grand palace) in the city of Granada in the 1300s. The Moors introduced the secrets of making medicine and of producing steel, skills they had learned from the Far East (countries in Asia). Their philosophy made the cities of Córdoba, Granada, and Toledo important centers of learning.

Eventually feuds and disputes arose among the Muslim ruling families. In the eleventh century Christian states in the north of Spain took advantage of Muslim unrest and set out to recapture territories conquered by the Moors. The Moors surrendered Toledo to the Christians in 1085. In 1150 a new group of Berber conquerors, the Almohades, came to Spain. They controlled the Moorish regions until 1212, when they were defeated by Alfonso VIII of Castile at the battle of Navas de Tolosa. After that time, only Granada remained under Muslim control.

In 1354 Ibn Khaldûn left Tunis to join the ulama (religious council) in Fez, the capital of Morocco. While living in Fez he continued his studies and met the eminent scholars of the day. He also became involved in court politics, often taking sides as sultans fought for power in North Africa. He was imprisoned from February1357 until November 1358 for participating in a plot to return an dethroned sultan to power in Algeria. Eventually Ibn Khaldûn rose to the position of chief justice of the ulama. After being denied the post of chamberlain (chief officer in the household of a king) in 1362, he decided to escape the political turmoil in North Africa. He moved to Granada, the only important Arab-controlled state left in Spain. In 1364 the sultan of Granada, Ibn al-Ahmar, appointed Ibn Khaldûn head of a mission to meet with Peter the Cruel, the king of Castile, to seal a peace treaty between Castile and the Arabs. During his stay in Castile, Ibn Khaldûn visited Seville, the city of his ancestors. Peter invited Ibn Khaldûn to join the Castile court, offering to restore his family property, but Ibn Khaldûn declined the post. Ibn Khaldûn had become aware that his presence in Granada was arousing the jealousy of the Muslim scholar Ibn al-Khatib, who was Ibn al-Ahmar's prime minister (chief executive of a government). As a result, Ibn Khaldûn left Spain and returned to North Africa.

For the next decade Ibn Khaldûn had a precarious political career as warring rulers sought control of North Africa. Finally, in 1374 he and his family took refuge at Qalat Ibn Salama, a small village in the province of Oran in Algeria. Ibn Khaldûn devoted his time to writing The Muqaddimah, which he completed in 1377.

Things to Remember While Reading Excerpts from The Muqaddimah:

  1. Ibn Khaldûn followed in the tradition of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 b.c.e.). Like Plato, Khaldûn felt that the way an individual leads his or her life is directly related to the society as a whole. Both philosophers thought a virtuous person can exist only when the society is virtuous, but they also said that certain types of people were more fit to rule over society than others. Nevertheless, there was a significant difference between Plato and Ibn Khaldûn—Plato came up with his theory largely on his own, whereas Ibn Khaldûn's ideas were based on an established tradition. Plato described a perfect society in his famous work The Republic. He outlined laws and discussed how people should live, placing a "philosopher king" at the head of the society. Plato then wrote The Laws, which contained thousands of other laws to be used in his ideal society. Ibn Khaldûn did not have to do this. He based his concepts on the Koran, which provided an existing set of rules and laws. Moreover, the Koran was already the central text for the lives of millions of Muslims and could therefore be readily adopted. Ibn Khaldûn's method was a major innovation in the field of philosophy.
  2. Muslims regard the Koran as the perfect miracle because it was directly given to the prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632) by God. Unlike the Torah, the holy text of Judaism, and the New Testament, the holy text of Christianity, the Koran was not compiled over many years and subjected to changes by theologians. Instead, the Koran was immediately memorized by Muhammad's followers, who later wrote it down word for word as spoken by the prophet. Even today one can look at a Koran published in Russia and one printed in Africa, and the Arabic text will be exactly the same. Furthermore, a Koran written more than a thousand years ago contains the same text as one printed today.
  3. The following excerpts are from chapter 2 of The Muqaddimah. In sections 3 through 7 of that chapter Ibn Khaldûn explained why the Bedouins, Arab tribes that wander in the desert, were superior to people who have dwelled only in cities. He argued that the Bedouins lived closer to their own human nature and were therefore ideally suited to follow the teachings of Muhammad.

What happened next…

Continued unrest in North Africa made Ibn Khaldûn's political career uncertain. Finally, in 1382, he settled in Cairo, Egypt, where he spent the last twenty-four years of his life. Respected as a public figure and scholar, he was appointed chief judge of the Mâlikite community. Political opposition forced him out of office three times within five years. Nevertheless, he tried to fight corruption and favoritism, and he was serving as a judge at the end of his life. In 1383 Ibn Khaldûn completed Kitāb al-'bar. He also wrote poems, an autobiography (account of his own life), and a book on mathematics, and he lectured at Al-Azhar University as well as other universities. In 1400 Sultan Faraj of Egypt asked Ibn Khaldûn to accompany him on a military expedition to Damascus, a city in Syria and the center of the Arab world. It was about to be attacked by the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane (also called Timur; 1336–1405). After staying in Damascus for two weeks Faraj had to return to Cairo to put down a revolt. He left Ibn Khaldûn and Damascan leaders to deal with Tamerlane. Ibn Khaldûn was selected to conduct negotiations and he spent thirty-five days in the invader's camp. Tamerlane was so impressed with Ibn Khaldûn's arguments on behalf of Damascus that he freed the citizens before he raided the city. Ibn Khaldûn died in 1406 and was buried the Muslim cemetery outside Cairo.

Did you know…

  1. In 1382 Ibn Khaldûn went to Alexandria, Egypt, to make preparations for the hajj. The hajj is a pilgrimage (religious journey) to Mecca (the city in Saudi Arabia where Muhammad was born) that all Muslims are required to make at least once. When Ibn Khaldûn was unable to join the caravan bound for Mecca, he turned toward Cairo instead. He received a warm welcome from the academic community and spent the rest of his life in the city. Ibn Khaldûn finally made his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1387.
  2. In 1384 Ibn Khaldûn's family died when the ship carrying them from Tunis sank near the harbor of Alexandria.

For More Information


Ibn Khaldûn, 'Adb al-Rahman. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Translated by Franz Rosenthal. Edited by N. J. Dawood. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Web Sites

"Ibn Khaldûn." Columbia Encyclopedia. [Online] Available http://www.bartleby.com/cgi-bin/texis/webinator/sitesearch/?query=khaldun&db=db&cmd=context&id=38d47ecd1af#hit1, April 10, 2002.

Marvin, Christ. "Ibn Khaldûn: Iranian Muslim Philosopher." [Online] Available http://www.trincoll.edu/depts/phil/philo/phils/muslim/khaldun.html, April 10, 2002.

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