Ibn Khaldūn (1332–1406)

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Ab-Ar-Rahman ibn Khaldūn, the Muslim statesman, historian, philosopher of history, sociologist, and political thinker of the fourteenth century, is probably the greatest creative genius produced by Muslim civilization. To Arnold Toynbee, Ibn Khaldūn's philosophy of history "is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place."

Ibn Khaldūn was born in Tunis into a family of southern Arabian origin that had immigrated to Andalusia in the eighth century. With the decline of Muslim rule in Spain the family immigrated to northwest Africa, establishing itself first in Morocco and then in Tunisia. Muslim emigrants from Spain constituted an aristocracy in the Maghreb, and the Khaldūn family won fame in scholarship and statesmanship.

Ibn Khaldūn surpassed the achievements of all the members of his family. Brought up in the traditional religious sciences and the philosophical-rational sciences that formed the two major streams of Islamic culture, he studied the Qurʾan, Arabic, traditions, jurisprudence, logic, and philosophy under several of the best scholars of his time and studied, taught, and occupied high positions in Tunis, Algeria, Morocco, southern Spain, and Egypt.

Medieval Muslim rulers were eager to enlist scholars either for government service or for the prestige that goes with their presence in the court. Ibn Khaldūn enjoyed all the privileges of princely positions and suffered the odds of their fluctuations in medieval courts. He shared in the political maneuvers and conspiracies that accompanied the rise and fall of different rulers, and in trying periods, when he was in prison or was forced into exile, he devoted himself to the study of power and meditated on its historic laws and social dynamics.

Ibn Khaldūn's greatest work, Al-Muqaddimah (The prolegomena), was the first of seven volumes of his universal history of the Arabs and Berbers, Kitab al-ʿIbar. Although the last two volumes are of special value to historians as the best source for the history of northwest Africa, especially for the history of the Berbers, the introduction that outlines ibn Khaldūn's philosophy of history overshadowed the narrative. The philosophic originality of this introduction was so great that ibn Khaldūn became known as the author of Al-Muqaddimah.

Prior to ibn Khaldūn, Muslim philosophers had concerned themselves with the reconciliation of Qurʾanic truth and rational truth, but this had led to an assimilation of Greek rationalism by Muslim theology rather than to the emergence of Muslim rationalism. The concern with religion and philosophy penetrated all Muslim disciplineslaw, history, and the like. By the fourteenth century this method, which had its religious origins in the Qurʾan and the traditions of the Prophet and its philosophic origins in Greek rationalism, had reached its height.

Ibn Khaldūn was an accomplished student of Muslim learning, but witnessing the decline of Muslim power and metaphysics, he decided to seek the concrete causes of this decline. History rather than metaphysics gave the answers to his questions about the changes in Islam's fortunes.

Ibn Khaldūn sought not only historic truth but history as the way to truth. The Preface of his Muqaddimah reveals him to be a forerunner of all modern historicists. His Muslim predecessors had narrated the train of historic events; as he said, they saw history on the surface as no more "than information about political events. They over-looked its inner meaning," which "involves speculation and an attempt to get at the truth, subtle explanation of the causes and origins of existing things, and deep knowledge of the how and why of events." For Ibn Khaldūn history is therefore firmly rooted in philosophy and deserves to be accounted a branch of philosophy.

Traditional Muslim theologians, who were best represented by Mohammad al-Ghazālī, rejected the Aristotelian notion of natural causality. They conceived of God as the first and only cause of all that is. Ibn Khaldūn, as a Muslim believer, agreed with their ontology but introduced natural causality into history. Reason can see historic causes, not ontological causes. God in revelation is the teacher of ontological causes. Reason can grasp the limited phenomenon, but revelation introduces the limitless.

Ibn Khaldūn's concern with historic methodology led him to historicism. For historic accuracy Muslim historiography had relied on the criticism of the sources. It elaborated on the method of hadith, the study of the traditions and sayings of the Prophet. Ibn Khaldūn criticized this method and called for philosophical and rational methodology. The test of the accuracy of an event is not the reliability of the source but its conformity to the natural character or the natural law that the event should manifest.

To attain accuracy, the historian should therefore be a student of sociological and political causes and laws. He ought to be a philosopher of history.

[If the historian] trusts historical information in its plain transmitted form and has no clear knowledge of the principles resulting from custom, the fundamental facts of politics, the nature of civilization, or the conditions governing social organization, and if, further-more, he does not evaluate remote or ancient material through comparison with near or contemporary material, he often cannot avoid deviating from the high road of truth.

Ibn Khaldūn called this introductory science to the study of history the science of ʿumran, or the science of civilization, and claimed to be its originator.

Civilization is the beginning and end of social development and political organization. Man is born naturally sociable. Society rises through man's ability to cooperate with other men for the satisfaction of his natural needs. Countrymen or nomads in primitive or tribal societies seek the satisfaction of their elementary need for food; townsmen in urban and more complex societies pursue higher economic, intellectual, and spiritual needs. Political organization, or the state, arises from individual and social needs for restraint, arbitrage, defense, and prosperity.

Asabyia, or group feeling, is the way to achieve leadership, enforce authority, and expand. Political organization or statehood leads to power and prosperity. The state is the form of civilization.

Arts and sciences can prosper only within a state. Resulting luxury is conducive to social and political disintegration. Like individual human beings, all societies, states, and civilizations go through cyclical states of emergence, growth, and decay. Civilizations, however, live longer than states, for the cultural faculties acquired by individuals and societies enable civilizations to survive political disintegration. The systematic formulation of this organistic theory of civilization is full of original observations about the influence of climate on social organization, the forms of society, the economic forces, the relation between labor and value, the psychological, social, and economic foundations of power, the forms of the state, the relation of state and religion, the role of education in society, the interdependence of prosperity and culture, and many other subjects.

Because these observations were formulated as natural laws, Ibn Khaldūn has been studied not only as a philosopher of history but also as a sociologist, political thinker, economist, educator, epistemologist, and historian of Muslim sciences. Guided by their own disciplines or convictions, different scholars have proclaimed him a forerunner of Niccolo Machiavelli, Giambattista Vico, Baron de Montesquieu, G. W. F. Hegel, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, Toynbee, and others. In his methodology and style Ibn Khaldūn is more a modernist than a medievalist. This partially explains his limited influence in medieval times and growing influence in modern times.

Al-Muqaddimah was written at a time when translation from Arabic into Latin had waned. Rediscovered by modern scholars and orientalists in the nineteenth century, excerpts of the book have been translated into French, German, Italian, English, and Japanese.

Ibn Khaldūn has also been rediscovered by modern Muslim and Arab authors. More books in Arabic have been written about him than about any other medieval Muslim thinker. He has influenced historic, sociological, and political writings.

See also al-Ghazālī, Muhammad; Culture and Civilization; Darwin, Charles Robert; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Historicism; Islamic Philosophy; Logic, History of: Logic in the Islamic World; Machiavelli, Niccolò; Marx, Karl; Montesquieu, Baron de; Philosophy of History; Toynbee, Arnold Joseph; Vico, Giambattista.


Ibn Khaldūn's Kitab al-ʿIbar was published in seven volumes (Būlāq, 1867) and translated into French by M'G. de Slane as Histoire des Berbères (Algiers: Algerian Government, 18511856). Al-Muqaddimah has been translated by Franz Rosenthal as The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, 3 vols. (New York: Pantheon, 1958); it has also been translated into French by M'G. de Slane, 3 vols. (Algiers, 18621868).

Most of the biographical data covering Ibn Khaldūn's long and interesting career can be found in his autobiography, At-Ta-rif bi-ibn Khaldoun wa rihlatuhu gharban wa-Sharqan, translated by Muammad Tawit at-Tanji as Biography of ibn Khaldoun and Report on His Travels in the West and in the East (Cairo, 1951).

Drawing from the autobiography and other sources, Walter J. Fischel wrote the story of Ibn Khaldūn's meeting and peace negotiations with Tamerlane in Ibn Khaldūn and Tamerlane (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952) and Ibn Khaldūn's Activities in Mameluk Egypt 13821406 (Berkeley, 1951).

For works on Ibn Khaldūn see Gaston Bouthoul, Ibn Khaldoun, sa philosophic sociale (Paris, 1930); Muammad Abdullah Enan, Ibn Khaldoun: His Life and Work, translated by Ashraf (Lahore: Muhammad Ashraf, 1941); Abd el-Aziz Ezzat, Ibn-Khaldoun et sa science sociale (Cairo: Tsoumas, 1947); Muhsin Mahdi, Ibn Khaldūn's Philosophy of History: A Study in the Philosophic Foundation of the Science of Culture (London: Allen and Unwin, 1957; paperback ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964); Sobhi Mahmassani, Les idées économiques d'ibn Khaldoun (Lyon, 1932); and Hussein Taha, La philosophie sociale d'ibn Khaldoun (Paris, 1925).

Hassan Saab (1967)

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Ibn Khaldūn (1332–1406)

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