‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun
‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun
Historian, legal scholar
Early Life . The colorful life of historian ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun is in some ways typical of the career of a Muslim scholar, as he flourished in many different lands and pursued a diversity of occupations. Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, to a family of Spanish Muslims who had been part of the scholarly gentry for several generations. In 1349, at the age of seventeen, his parents died of the Black Death, the same epidemic that devastated the population of Europe.
Career . In 1350, at only eighteen, Ibn Khaldun took a post as a clerk in a government office in Tunis but aspired to leave his birthplace. After spending a few years in the service of various local governors in Algeria, he reached the court of the Marinid sultan of Morocco at Fas in 1354. He benefited from the opportunity to hear many great scholars of Islam lecture at the Qarawiyyin University in Fas, the greatest center of Muslim learning in North Africa, but he also fell foul of the political intrigues that surrounded the sultan and spent most of 1357 and 1358 in prison. After the sultan died, Ibn Khaldun was freed and worked at minor administrative posts, including a judgeship. From 1362 to 1365, Ibn Khaldun lived in Granada, Spain, where he was a friend of the prime minister, Ibn al-Khatib (1313–1375), who, like Ibn Khaldun, was a scholar as well as a government official. In 1364 Ibn Khaldun was sent on an embassy to the Christian king, Pedro the Cruel, of Castile and Leon, which enabled him to gather more information about a society different from his own. After Ibn al-Khatib became jealous of Ibn Khaldun’s talents, he moved on, serving at government posts in eastern Algeria (1365–1372) and Fas (1372–1375), before returning briefly to Granada (1375), and then going on to Tilimsan (1375). Then, fearing for his life after all the often-fatal political intrigues he had witnessed, and particularly the execution of his friend Ibn al-Khatib in Fas, Ibn Khaldun took refuge with his family in a desert castle (1375–1378). During this period he planned and wrote the earliest draft of his great al-Muqaddimah (The Introduction to History). In 1378 he returned to his native Tunis, where intrigues and jealousy of his abilities again placed him in danger. Therefore, in 1382 he accepted the invitation of Sultan Barquq of Egypt to move there. Ibn Khaldun obtained permission from the government of Tunis for his wife and daughters to follow him, and in 1384 they all died in a shipwreck near Alexandria. In Egypt, where—except for a brief diplomatic sojourn in Syria (1400–1401)—he spent the rest of his life, Ibn Khaldun avoided politics and concentrated on scholarship and teaching, holding the judgeship of the Maliki school of law six times during the years 1384–1385, 1399–1400, and 1401–1406.
Writings . Like many great Muslim scholars, Ibn Khaldun wrote a large number of books, but few of them are still read or studied apart from his autobiography and his great history, Kitab al-‘ibar (The Book of Historical Lessons), a seven-volume universal encyclopedia of world history down to his own time. Because his sources are largely those of the Muslim civilization, this work suffers from many of the same limitations as other Muslim “universal histories,” but Ibn Khaldun did consult some other sources, translated for him from Latin, which gave him an awareness of the ancient Roman republic that is not found in works by other Muslim historians of the period. Also, he recognized that different civilizations represented distinct and separate ways of thinking. His major accomplishment is the first volume of his Kitab al-‘ibar, his renowned al-Muqaddimah, which constitutes the foundation of history as a social science. Relying on empirical observation to describe society, Ibn Khaldun went on from this grounding to elaborate a complex theory of the rise and fall of states and peoples, basing his theory on the concept of ‘asabiyyah (group feeling). He used his theory to explain the rise and fall of various kingdoms in North Africa, Spain, and elsewhere. Much of his analysis is sociological, as he considers the people in general, not merely the ruling elites, using a method that is development oriented, rather than event oriented. Because his work anticipates many recent developments in the academic study of societies, he has frequently been called the “Father of Sociology.” Also his emphasis on economic activity, particularly production, prefigures the concerns of Karl Marx almost five centuries later. Widely read in Egypt during Ibn Khaldan’s lifetime, al-Muqaddimah later became influential in Ottoman Turkey and in Europe beginning in the nineteenth century.
‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, translated by Franz Rosenthal, edited and abridged by N. J. Dawood (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967).
Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, 3 volumes, translated by Franz Rosenthal (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958); abridged by N. J. Dawood (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967).
M. Talbi, “Ibn Khaldun, Wali al-Din ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Muhammad,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, CD-ROM version (Leiden: Brill, 1999).