Ibn Khaldūn

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IBN KHALDŪN (ah 732808/13321406 ce) was a Muslim historian, famous as the first systematic theoretician of the social, economic, psychological, and religious forces that determine human history and society. Born in Tunis into an aristocratic and scholarly family that had left Seville for Northwest Africa almost a century earlier, he received the thorough education customary among the Muslim middle and upper classes. Entering government service shortly after he lost his parents and many of his teachers to the Black Death, he soon left Tunis and in 1354 arrived in Fez, where he was well received by the Marinid ruler but also had to suffer the customary tribulations of political involvement.

The Northwest African period of his life included a sojourn of a little over two years in Andalusian Granada (December 1362February 1365), during which he undertook a diplomatic mission to Christian Seville, and over three years of quiet retirement from active politics (13751378) in rural Qalʿat Ibn Salāmah (province of Oran). There he started work on his great history of the world (Kitāb al-ʿIbar ) and completed its "introduction," the Muqaddimah, in 1377. Returning to his native Tunis in order to complete the history, he reentered government service but soon felt that his position at court was shaky. Under the pretext of going on the pilgrimage to Mecca, he left Tunis in October 1382 for Egypt. There he spent the rest of his life as a college professor and administrator and achieved the zenith of his career with an appointment to the prestigious and influential Mālikī judgeship. His religious experience was enlarged by a pilgrimage to Mecca (13871388) and, in particular, a visit to the holy cities of Palestine (1400). A meeting with the Mongol ruler Timur in Damascus early in 1401 was another noteworthy event of his Egyptian period. He died unexpectedly in Cairo on March 17, 1406.

Ibn Khaldūn's approach to religion was conditioned by the fact that he lived in a Muslim society and was a prominent member of its religio-juridical establishment. Both as an enormously complex institution and as a powerful religious force in society, Islam is always present in his work and his thought. The encyclopedic outline of Muslim civilization in the Muqaddimah contains brief and factual sketches of the religious sciences and institutions; these sketches are admirably persuasive and have proved useful, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, as a first introduction to the subject. The historical development of the sciences connected with the Qurʾān, the prophetic traditions (adīth), and jurisprudence is analyzed in a deceptively simple manner, and the great political-theological problems agitating Muslim society, such as the character of the caliphate and the ever present messianic expectations, are discussed astutely.

A matter of vital concern in Ibn Khaldūn's life and time was the religious and social meaning of the relationship of Islam, in its dominant traditional manifestation as a sum of fundamentalist theology and law, to the individual and group emotionality of internalized religion represented by Sufism (taawwuf, "mysticism"). He is credited with a legal responsum (fatwā) and historical description and discussion of theories on mysticism, that expands on the chapter devoted to Sufism in the Muqaddimah. He supports traditional Sufism and rejects its ecstatic, seemingly antinomian forms, while being fully aware of their great impact on society. Other supernatural sciences, that were taken very seriously throughout medieval Islam, such as sorcery, astrology, and "scientific" attempts at divining the future, are discussed as to their compatibility with the traditional religious outlook. In general, Ibn Khaldūn applies a sense of realism to his basic concern with the forces governing human society. His approach to the religious/political institutions and religious sciences of Islam is predicated upon the assumption that human rationality, different though it is from revealed religion, affects them as it does all other cultural activity. Even where psychological or supernatural factors appear to be involved, humankind's task is to rely on reason, seconded by observation and experience, for understanding and explaining its world.

This approach raises the question of how Ibn Khaldūn reconciled his views on the normal course of human affairs with the dominant religious traditions and beliefs. The importance of his work results from his remarkable attempt to explain the historical processes in human terms, assumed by him to possess universal validity. Culture, equated with human life, is seen as dependent upon population density, a natural assumption in premodern times possibly confirmed for people in the fourteenth century by the devastation of the Black Death. The innate human psychological need to belong and give political support to a group dominated by one or more leading personalities, for which Ibn Khaldūn chose the code word ʿaabīyah, translated approximately as "group feeling," is instrumental in producing the circular ebb and flow of concentrations of political power necessary for all civilization; religious convictions are beneficial, at times even indispensable, for an ʿaabīyah to achieve its potential. Economic factorsto a large extent controllable by proper human management, provided that the wisdom and will for it are presentcomplete the picture of human society, or societies, as based upon reason, numbers, and psychology.

What role, then, belongs to the principal religious tenets of Islam, such as God, prophecy, and the other world? Ibn Khaldūn could not disregard this question. He takes for granted the undeniable reality of the vast metaphysical structure set up by traditional Islam. Although he argues that prophecy cannot be proved by logical means, and he explains prophecy, on the human side, as depending on an extraordinary power of the soul, he accepts as a matter of course the existence of a succession of chosen human beings who are transmitters of the divine message, culminating in the prophet Muammad. Metaphysical forces are seen to have exercised a large, and often lasting, influence in certain ages, particularly at the origin of Islam. The potential for divine interference in human affairs at any given time continues to exist. Such interference, however, as in the form of miracles whose occasional occurrence cannot be denied, constitutes an interruption of the ordinary and need not be reckoned with in studying human society and the rules governing it. The widespread speculation about the end of the world concerned him only inasmuch as it was a belief that tended to conflict with political realities. There was practically no need for him to discuss life after death, which he accepted as a powerful belief.

It is tempting to ascribe to Ibn Khaldūn a kind of secularism and even claim for him a tendency to separate religion from politics and sociology. This view is anachronistic and disregards Muslim reality. Ibn Khaldūn was not an original religious thinker, but he showed a deep and no doubt genuine appreciation of the importance of Islam and religion in general. As befitted his position in life, he was sincere in his reverence for traditional Islam and the dogmas and practices it had produced. His individual religious views were not such as to cause much of a stir among his contemporaries, and there was little reason for later generations to pay attention to them. It was his way of looking at history that deeply impressed succeeding historians, especially among the Ottoman Turks. The full significance of his achievement began to find worldwide appreciation in the nineteenth century.


A classified bibliography can be found in Aziz Al-Azmeh's Ibn Khaldûn in Modern Scholarship (London, 1981), pp. 229318. Among translations of Ibn Khaldūn's works, two are recommended: The Muqaddimah, 3 vols., an English translation by Franz Rosenthal (1958; reprint, Princeton, N.J., 1980), and Le voyage d'Occident et d'Orient, a French translation of the Autobiography by Abdesselam Cheddadi (Paris, 1980).

A good introduction to the thought of Ibn Khaldūn remains Muhsin Mahdi's Ibn Khaldûn's Philosophy of History (London, 1957). While there are numerous studies of his sociological, philosophical, and historical thought, few are devoted to the specifically religious aspects of his work; among them is Ignacio Saadé's El pensamiento religioso de Ibn Jaldûn (Madrid, 1973).

Franz Rosenthal (1987)

Ibn Khaldūn

views updated May 11 2018

Ibn Khaldūn 1332-1406


Ibn Khaldūn was born in Tunis in 1332 as the child of an influential and politically active family and died 1406 in Cairo. He had a traditional education, studying the Quran and Islamic law; later he also studied mathematics and philosophy. He held several official positions for different rulers in North Africas Maghreb region, but as a consequence of political changes he lost his office in Fez and moved to Andalusia, where the sultan of Granada entrusted him with diplomatic negotiations with Pedro the Cruel, the king of Castile. Eventually Ibn Khaldūn quit the service of the sultan and moved back to the Maghreb, where he held several high political offices and lived with Berber tribes. During a three-year stay with one of these tribes he wrote the Muqaddimah, which he continued to edit for the rest of his life. In 1382 he moved to Cairo, where he spent the second part of his life, becoming a close counselor of Sultan Barquq, who appointed him professor and qadi (supreme judge)an office that Ibn Khaldūn lost and regained several times. Aside from his scholarly works, he is known particularly for his encounter with the Mongolian conqueror Timur (Tamerlane) in 1401 during the latters siege of Damascus. During their meeting Ibn Khaldūn discussed the history of the Arab world with Timur before the Mongolian army razed the city of Damascus, but spared Ibn Khaldūns life.

Ibn Khaldūns main work is his world history Kitáb al-Ibar (Book of Examples), a several-volume history of the known world incorporating a comprehensive introduction, the Muqaddimah, which is considered to be a singular achievement in his time. In the Muqaddimah Ibn Khaldūn develops the science of human civilization or culture (Ilm al-Umrán) to describe and analyze the history of human society. The main concept he uses for this endeavor is the aṣabiyya. This term has been translated as group feeling, solidarity, blood ties, esprit de corps, and even national spirit. Aṣabiyya refers mainly to family ties, but Ibn Khaldūn also extends its meaning to alliances and clientships. It is conceived as a vitalizing force of group cohesion enabling its bearers to exert power. The strength of the aṣabiyya plays a determining role in the rise and fall of patrimonial empires, particularly those following the reign of the caliphs (the four kings ruling after Muhammads death). Rural tribesmen, or bedouins, are characterized as having a strong aṣabiyya in contrast to sophisticated urban dwellers, who have a weak aṣabiyya but highly developed crafts and sciences. In the Muqaddimah Ibn Khaldūn distinguishes rural or tribal life (badáwa from urban or civilized life (hadára), and a rural economy based on sustenance from an urban economy in which human labor generates value, serving to make profit and accumulate capital. He analyzes urban life, examining in detail how growing cities develop and manage their commerce, law, and education. Cities are the locations of a growing division of labor, producing specialized crafts that require time and resources to be learned. Having specific requirements that can only be met by urban civilizations of sufficient size, the sciences develop in larger, longer-lasting urban civilizations. Ibn Khaldūn discusses sciences such as reading and interpreting the Quran, jurisprudence, mathematics, medicine, natural sciences, and occult sciences. Some sciences are criticized for their lack of religious faith (e.g., Greek philosophy) or for not adhering to historical facts (e.g., astrology and alchemy). Ibn Khaldūn argues that growing sophistication leads to decadence and corruption, weakening the aṣabiyya and making urban civilization prone to attacks and destruction by tribes with a strong aṣabiyya. These tribes in turn will settle down and become urbanized, generating a cycle of fall and decline of civilizations that contrasts starkly with later European conceptions of progressive development.

Ibn Khaldūns work was repopularized by orientalists in nineteenth-century Europe. He has been regarded as a forefather of history, sociology, and political science, and his economic theory was seen as anticipating the political economic theories of both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, the former in his insistence on the importance of free markets and free trade, and both in his theory of value. In all of these disciplines there is debate about the extent to which Ibn Khaldūn directly or indirectly influenced classic European social scientists. His historical analysis was reapplied in different contexts by proponents of anticolonial movements. Accordingly, his work has been situated in many different contexts, and its interpretations range from carefully applied hermeneutics to political polemics.


Ibn Khaldūn. 1958. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Trans. Franz Rosenthal. 3 vols. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Simon, Róbert. 2002. Ibn Khaldūn: History as Science and the Patrimonial Empire. Trans. Klára Pogátsa. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 2002.

Spalding, Tim. Ibn Khaldun on the Web. http://www.isidore-of-seville.com/ibnkhaldun/.

Lars Frers

Ibn Khaldun

views updated Jun 11 2018

Ibn Khaldūn

Historical work

Science of culture



Ibn Khaldūn (1332-1406), an Arab historian, statesman, and judge, was born in Tunis. His family traced its origin to a south Arabian tribe that entered Spain in the early years of the Muslim conquest. Toward the end of the ninth century, the family became known for leadership of revolutionary activities in Seville; some of its members were prominent in the administration of the city, and one of them distinguished himself in the first half of the eleventh century as a mathematician and astronomer. About the middle of the thirteenth century, when Seville was threatened by the Christians, the family left for north Africa and eventually settled in Tunis, the capital of the Hafsid kingdom. The family was granted land holdings, its members held administrative posts, and one of them wrote a handbook on administration for government officials. Perhaps because misfortune beset the Hafsids, Ibn Khaldūn’s grandfather and father retired to lead quiet lives as scholars and members of a local mystic order.

Economically well-to-do and still patronized by the rulers of Tunis, the household in which Ibn Khaldūn grew up was frequented by the political and intellectual leaders of Muslim Spain and the Maghreb. His early education included the religious disciplines (the Koran, the collection of traditions approved by the Malikite school of law which prevailed in Western Islam, dialectical theology, jurisprudence, and mysticism), the philosophic disciplines (logic, mathematics, natural philosophy, metaphysics, and politics, including ethics and rhetoric), and practical training for government service, such as the art of writing official court correspondence and handling administrative affairs. The teacher he admired most during this period was the mathematician and philosopher Muhammad Ibn Ibraūhiūm al-Aūbiliū (1282/3-1356), whom he considered the most proficient of his contemporaries in the philosophic disciplines. His studies with Aūbiliū extended over five years, from 1347 to 1352. They began with mathematics and logic and then branched out to include various other philosophic disciplines. Aūbiliū introduced him to the major works of Avicenna and Averroës and acquainted him with the more recent philosophic and theological writings of the heterodox Shrūites in Eastern Islam. Ibn Khaldūn’s early work (1351) provides direct evidence for his philosophic interest and ideas during this period. His other early philosophic works, including treatises on logic and mathematics and a number of paraphrases of Averroës’ works, have not been recovered as yet.

His involvement in the political affairs of the Maghreb and Muslim Spain began in Fez (the center of political power and cultural life in a region that, on the whole, lacked political stability) at the court of the Mariūnid ruler Abuū ’Inaūn. He was suspected of plotting against the ruler and was imprisoned in 1357. Shortly afterward he helped to overthrow Abuū ‘Inaūn’s son and supported the latter’s uncle Abuū Salim; but he failed to consolidate his position under the new ruler. In 1362 he moved to Granada, the capital of a more cultured and peaceful kingdom which suffered, however, from the military pressure of the Christians to the north and the political pressure of the Mariūnids to the south. He was welcomed by the young ruler and his vizier, the celebrated writer Lisaūn al-Diūn Ibn al-Khatiūb, to whom we owe the revealing characterization of Ibn Khaldūn as a man who commanded respect and was able, unruly, strong-willed, and ambitious to climb to the highest position of leadership. In 1364 he was sent on an embassy to Pedro el Cruel, king of Castile and Léon, to conclude a peace treaty between him and the ruler of Muslim Spain. He took advantage of his position at the court and attempted to instruct the young ruler, with the help of his early philosophic and religious works, to which he probably added his views on practical politics. Ibn al-Khatiūb resented this and forced Ibn Khaldūn to leave Granada.

He proceeded to Bougie, where his friend, the Hafsid prince Abuū ‘Abd Allaūh, had gained control. This was Ibn Khaldūn’s third and last venture in practical politics. He was in charge of the city’s affairs for a little over a year, from 1365 to 1366, and attempted desperately to consolidate his friend’s rule. But Abuū ‘Abd Allaūh’s severity, insolence, and political impotence, the dissensions among the city’s inhabitants, and the ambitions of the rulers of the neighboring cities of Constantine and Tlem-cen combined to thwart Ibn Khaldūn. Abuū ‘Abd Allaūh was defeated by his cousin, losing his life in the battle.

Ibn Khaldūn spent the following decade occupied for the most part with research and teaching in Baskara and Fez; we have a work on mysticism which he wrote during this period (c. 1373-1375). He was frequently asked by various local rulers to perform special assignments for them, especially in connection with their dealings with the nomadic and seminomadic tribes of the region, while he on his part preferred to dedicate himself to study and avoid political activity. While on one of these assignments he decided to withdraw to the castle of Ibn Salama (in the province of Oran), where he spent about four years (1374-1377) oblivious of the outside world. The previous twenty years had been spent in active participation in the political affairs of the Maghreb and Muslim Spain. He had personally experienced many of the important events of this region and had had access to the official documents relating to them. His official duties had brought him in contact with many important persons—ambassadors, officials, rulers, tribal chiefs, and scholars—from whom he had acquired information about events in which they had taken part and about others they had known by virtue of their official or social positions. He intended to record this experience and information in the form of a contemporary regional history of Western Islam.

After leaving his retreat in the castle of Ibn Salama, Ibn Khaldūn spent four years in Tunis but found it difficult to avoid entanglement in political affairs and to devote himself to study and writing. In 1382 he left for Egypt, where he spent the last 25 years of his life. Here he could observe a mature and settled society, sophisticated social manners, and the effects of deep-rooted traditions and of economic prosperity—all of which presented sharp contrasts to the semibarbarous and confused conditions in the Maghreb. He taught at the al-Azhar and other schools in Cairo, was received by the ruler and remained active as a courtier, and was appointed six times as grand judge of the Malikite legal school. But for the most part he devoted himself to research and writing. He consulted new books and archival materials not available to him in north Africa, traveled and observed the topography of Egypt, western Arabia, and Syria (where he met Tamerlane in 1401), met learned men from many parts of Eastern Islam, and kept revising and completing his chief work, especially Book 2, which deals with the east. He also continued to add to his long “Autobiography,” one of the most extensive in Arabic literature, which is complete up to a few months before his death (1377-1406).

Historical work

He began to write a short “Introduction” (Muqad-dimah) to such a regional history, in which he spoke of the practical lessons of history and of its “external” and “internal” aspects. He related the projected work to earlier universal histories and to regional histories dealing with Eastern Islam. While he was writing this “Introduction,” he became aware of a basic problem that made the plan of a regional history unfeasible: to understand the nature and causes of historical events, it is necessary to have correct information; but to be able to distinguish correct information from false it is necessary to know the nature and causes of these events. Ibn Khaldūn conducted a critical investigation of the works of previous Muslim historians and found that they had not possessed such knowledge or else they had not formulated it. He surveyed disciplines other than historiography, especially rhetoric, political science, and jurisprudence, and found that they too did not present a coherent account of the nature and causes of historical events. He himself had to create a new “science” to deal specifically with the “internal” aspect of history and to define its principles, method, subject matter, and purpose. Therefore he abandoned the early draft of the “Introduction,” a portion of which can still be recognized in the final version that we have today ([1377a] 1858, vol. 1, pp. 51-52).

The new science was to be based on a comprehensive study of the data furnished by the history of the world from its intelligible beginnings to his own time. In its final form, the “History” (Kitaūbal-‘lbar 1377-1382a) is divided into a Preface, an Introduction, and Books 1, 2, and 3. The Introduction deals with the problem of history in general; it was written in 1377, with a few revisions and additions made later when Ibn Khaldūn was in Egypt. Book 1 contains the new science; it was written in 1377 but underwent numerous revisions and changes throughout the rest of Ibn Khaldūn’s life. The Preface, the Introduction, and Book 1 came to be known as the “Introduction” (Muqad-dimah). Book 2 contains a universal history down to Ibn Khaldūn’s own time; a skeleton of this book was written in Tunis between 1377 and 1382 and then extensively expanded and rewritten in Egypt (1377-1382a). Book 3, the originally planned history of Western Islam, was written in Tunis between 1377 and 1382, with some additions made in Egypt (1377-1382b).

Although in its final form Ibn Khaldūn’s “History” was expanded to include the new science of culture (Book 1) and a universal history (Book 2), the chief interest of the work as a whole continues to center on the history of the contemporary Maghreb, in which the “History” culminates and which is Ibn Khaldūn’s main contribution to historical scholarship. Ibn Khaldūn conceived of his own time and region as having a crucial place in world history. He divided world history into four major epochs or ages, each dominated by a group of nations and having its own characteristic conditions: political organizations, arts, languages, habits, conventions, and so forth ([1377a] 1858, vol. 1, pp. 44-45, 51-53). The third epoch started in the seventh century with the rise of Islam and of the Arabs; in the eleventh century the rule of the Arabs was challenged by the Turks in the east, the Berbers in the Maghreb, and the Christian Franks in the north, and by the fourteenth century this third epoch had come to a close and a new and fourth epoch had begun. Eastern Islam was deep-rooted in cultural traditions and resisted the changes leading to the end of the third epoch. In the Maghreb, where cultural traditions were more superficial, the end of the third epoch came sooner; by the middle of the fourteenth century the conditions characteristic of the third epoch had disappeared completely and a new epoch had already begun, which would eventually have radically new cultural characteristics. But because the new epoch was then still in its infancy, Ibn Khaldūn could not easily describe it in a manner that would take all its potentialities into account. This difficulty, which seems to have directed his attention to the necessity of undertaking a comprehensive study of the beginnings of earlier epochs and their subsequent developments, in turn led him to the discovery of the new science of culture or the comparative and descriptive account of the rise and decline of cultures in general. However, his chief purpose remained that of describing and making intelligible the beginnings of the new epoch. This led him to place special emphasis on historical beginnings in general and to pay particular attention to the physical conditions that surround and influence the emergence of culture.

Science of culture

Ibn Khaldūn’s major contribution to the history of social thought is his new science of culture (‘umraūn). The genesis of this science can be traced in the Preface, the Introduction, and. Book 1 ([1377a] 1858, vol. 1, pp. 1-8, 8-55, and 56-68, respectively), which present a systematic critique of Islamic historiography and of the Islamic legal-religious disciplines that provided traditional religious Islamic historiography with its principles and method. The aim of this critique is to show that to write history properly one must have knowledge of the nature and causes of historical events, their permanence and change, and their homogeneity and heterogeneity; this knowledge should provide the basis for the examination of reported information. While errors are inherent in historical accounts for a number of reasons (i.e., partisanship, overconfidence in the sources, failure to understand the intention of the reports, unfounded cred-ulousness, failure to understand the events in their proper context, and interest in gaining favor with the powerful and the influential), the most significant cause of error is “ignorance of the nature and modes of culture” ([1377a] 1858, vol. 1, p. 57). In a carefully structured dialectical argument and through the examination of carefully chosen historical examples, Ibn Khaldūn showed the need for a systematically organized body of rational knowledge about the nature and causes of historical events in general and about human culture—the sum of all conventionalized social habits, institutions, and arts. He found two rational disciplines that dealt with problems similar to those of the new science: rhetoric and political science. But while the final end of rhetoric is to sway the multitude and that of political science is to order the city, the new science would be concerned primarily with understanding the nature and causes of actual historical events, and it would serve as a tool for rectifying reports about such events. Since history is a practical art useful to the statesman, the final end of the science of culture is to help produce the kind of history needed for excellence in the art of ruling; thus, the science of culture would contribute to the final end of political science.

Ibn Khaldūn proceeded next to expound the principles upon which he intended to construct the new science. In section 1 of Book 1 ([1377a] 1858, vol. 1, pp. 69-220), entitled “On Human Culture in General,” he presented six such principles: (1) man’s need for association (the evidence for this proposition is drawn from the investigations of animal and human nature conducted in natural philosophy); (2) the distribution of culture on earth; (3) the physical-geographical basis of culture : the temperate and intemperate zones and the influence of the climate on the physical characteristics of human beings; (4) the influence of the climate on man’s moral habits; (5) the effects of the abundance and scarcity of food on men’s bodies and habits (in points 2 to 5 Ibn Khaldūn simply restated the conclusions of the various branches that make up traditional natural philosophy, including geography and medicine); and (6) the classes of men who perceive the unseen by natural disposition or by effort: Ibn Khaldūn’s own explanation of prophecy, soothsaying, dream vision, divination, magic, and so on, in this discussion is based on the natural properties of the human soul. All the principles of Ibn Khaldūn’s science of culture are derived from traditional natural philosophy. His claim that the conclusions of the new science were natural, demonstrative, and necessary was to a large measure based on the fact that he considered all the principles of the new science to have these characteristics. He consciously avoided principles that were mere guesses, opinions, or generally accepted notions.

While Ibn Khaldūn admitted that the final end of the new science—that is, the rectification of historical reports—was not particularly noble, he asserted that “the problems it treats are noble in themselves and within their proper sphere” ([1377a] 1858, vol. 1, p. 63). He divided the subject matter of the new science into five major problems, which are discussed in sections 2-6 of Book 1, starting from what is prior or necessary and natural: (1) primitive culture and its transition to civilized culture; (2) the state; (3) the city; (4) practical arts and crafts; and (5) the sciences. These problems are treated genetically, analytically, and teleologically: the “efficient cause” of culture is social solidarity (‘asabiyya); the organizing principle or “form” of culture is the state; and the “ends” of the state are the good of the ruler in this world, the good of the ruled in this world, and the good of the ruled in the world to come. He placed emphasis on the typical movement from primitive to civilized culture, which in turn declines and reverts to primitive culture—a cycle of birth, growth, and old age analogous to the life of individual human beings. He saw this “natural” cycle most clearly in those regions of north Africa and the Near East which are situated between the desert and settled culture, and he was aware that it does not obtain universally or at all times. In isolated regions in the intemperate zones, primitive cultures may persist over long periods without developing into civilized cultures. In the temperate zone, on the other hand, the establishment of cities, the development of the arts, and the formation of a social solidarity conducive to peaceful cooperation enable a society to develop and maintain civilized culture over thousands of years without serious interruptions.

As a partisan of nature and reason, Ibn Khaldūn belonged to a small but potent group in the Islamic community. This group was encouraged and protected by some intelligent rulers, and it was able to perpetuate itself and make its impact felt even in the religious disciplines. Ibn Khaldūn was the only representative of this group who made a frontal and massive attack on history, one of the fortresses of traditional religious learning. He trained a small number of students in Egypt, including the great historian al-Maqriūziū (1364-1442). In later times his works influenced the study of politics and history by scholars in the Maghreb, Egypt, and Turkey; in the eighteenth century he was discovered by Western orientalists and, through them, by a wider public that saw in him the father, or one of the fathers, of modern cultural history and social science.

Muhsin Mahdi

[For the historical context of Ibn Khaldūn’s work, seeHistoriography, especially the articles onafrican historiographyandislamic historiography; Islam. See alsoAfrican society, article onnorth africa.]


(1351) 1952 Lubaūb al-Muhassal fiū Usuūl al-Diūn (Gist of the Compendium on the Principles of Religion). Tetuán (Morocco): Editora Marroqui.

(c. 1373-1375) 1957-1958 Shifaū’ al-Saū’ il li-Tahdhiūb al-Masaū’ il (A. Guide For Those Who Try to Clarify Problems). Istanbul: Osman Yalcin Matbaasi.

(1377a) 1858 Muqaddimah Ibn Khaldūn (Prolégomènes d’Ibn-Khaldoun). 3 vols. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale.

(1377b) 1934-1938 Les prolégomènes d‘Ibn Khaldoun. 3 vols. Paris: Geuthner. → The French translation of Ibn Khaldūn 1377a and of the earlier portions of Ibn Khaldūn 1377-1406.

(1377c) 1950 An Arab Philosophy of History: Selections From the Prolegomena of Ibn Khaldūn of Tunis. London: Murray. → Selections from Ibn Khaldūn 1377a in English translation.

(1377d) 1958 The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. 3 vols. New York: Pantheon. → An English translation of Ibn Khaldūn 1377a. Contains a bibliography.

(1377-1382a) 1867 Kitaūb al-‘lbar (History). 7 vols. Bulak (Egypt): al-Matba‘a al-Misriyya.

(1377-1382b) 1847-1851 Kitaūb al-Duwal al-lslaūmiyya bi-l-Maghrib (Histoire des Berbères et des dynasties musulmanes de I’Afrique septentrionale). 2 vols. Algiers (Algeria): Imprimerie du Gouvernement.

(1377-1382c) 1925-1956 Histoire des Berbères et des dynasties musulmanes de I‘Afrique septentrionale. 4 vols. Paris: Geuthner. → A French translation of Ibn Khaldūn 1377-1382b.

(1377-1406) 1951 al-Ta‘rif (Autobiography). Cairo: Laj-nat al-Ta‘lif.


Ayad, Mohammed K. 1930 Die Geschichts- und Gesell-schaftslehre Ibn Halduns. Stuttgart and Berlin: Cotta.

Fischel, Walter J. 1952 Ibn Khaldūn and Tamerlane. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. → Pages 29-48 contain a translation of the last portion of the “Autobiography.”

Fischel, Walter J. 1967 Ibn Khaldūn in Egypt; His Public Functions and His Historical Research (1382–1406): An Essay in Islamic Historiography. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Mahdi, Muhsin (1957) 1964 Ibn Khaldūn’s Philosophy of History. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Schmidt, Nathaniel 1930 Ibn Khaldūn: Historian, Sociologist and Philosopher. Columbia Univ. Press. → Mainly of bibliographical interest.

Simon, Henrich 1959 Ibn Khaldūns Wissenschaft von der menschlichen Kultur. Leipzig: Harrassowitz.

Ibn Khaldūn

views updated Jun 11 2018

Ibn Khaldūn

(b. Tunis, 27 May 1332; d. Cairo, 17 March 1406)

history, sociology.

‘Abddash;al-Rahman, the son of Muhammad, derived his family name, Ibn Khaldũn, from a remote ancestor named Khaldũn, who is said to have settled in Spain in the eighth century, not long after the Muslim conquest. His family gave up its patrician home in Seville before the Christian conquest of the city in 1248, crossing over to northwest Africa and eventually establishing itself in Tunis. Close ties with the ruling circles in northwest Africa and excellence in legal and religious scholarship were a family tradition. After the ravages of the Black “Death, which killed his parents, Ibn Khaldũn entered the service of the Hafsid ruler of Tunis. He soon was dissatisfied and, in 1352, left to look for a more flourishing intellectual atmosphere and more promising career opportunities. Accepting an invitation of Abũ ‘Inān, the Merinid ruler of Fez, Ibn Khaldũn arrived at Fez in 1354. There he completed his education, profiting form contact with the able scholars assembeld at Abũ ‘Inans’s court. Early in 1357 his Tunisian connections made him suspect to Abũ ‘Inān he was imprisoned and was not released untill Abũ ‘Inamacr;n’s death, twenty-one months later.

Realizing that fez was heading toward increasing political instability, Ibn Khaldün succeeded, with difficulty, in obtaining permission to leave the city. In December 1362 he reached Granada, where he was cordially welcomed by its ruler, Muhammad V. A diplomatic mission undertaken for Muhammad V in 1364 offered Ibn Khaldün the opportunity for a brief visit to his ancestral city, Seville. In the spring of 1365 an invitation extended to him by the Hafsid Abü Abdalläh of Bougie made it possible for him to return to northwest Africa. During the following decade his activities had to be adapted to turbulent course of northwest African power politics.

An attempt to escape to Spain did not succeed, and ultimately Ibn Khaldün took refuge in Qal’at Ibn Saläma, a small village in the Algerian hinterland northwest of Biskra. Here, during a stay of over three years (1375-1378), he started work on his world history. In November 1377 he completed the first draft of its “Introduction” (Muqaddima), which was to bring him lasting fame. By then, however, he was becoming restless in the isolation of Qalʿat Ibn Saläma. He asked for and obtained permission from the ruler of Tunis, the Hafsid Abü ’-ʿAbbäa, to return to the city of his birth. According to Ibn Khaldän himself he soon gained the confidence of Abü ’l-‘Abbäs but thereby aroused the envy of other courtiers and officials, who undermined the ruler’s trust in him. Feeling uncertain of his situation, he thought it advisable to escape from Tunis. To this end he used the time-honored subterfuge of declaring his intention to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. He arrived by boat at Alexandria on 8 December 1382 and proceeded to Cairo, where he arrived on 6 January 1383. He remained in Egypt for the rert of his life, edcept or periods of travel in Syria and Palestine and an eight-mouth trip to Arabia in connection with the pilgrimage.

Ibn Khaldün’s talents as a scholar and diplomat were soon utilized by the new ruler of Egypt, Barqüq (1382-1399), and his career finally reached fulfillment. Ibn Khaldün was given various academic positions; and coveted appointment to a judgeship came to him for thr first time on 8 August 1384, when he was made Egyptian chief judge of the Mälikites, many of whom had—like himself—strong ties to northwest Africa. Judgeships were highly sensitive positions dependent on political circumstances and the ruler’s favor. Thus, it is not astonishing that Ibn Khaldün was deposed from the judgeship and reappointed to it five more times, the last reappointment coming a few days before his death. During his twenty-three years in Egypt, Ibn Khaldütook an active part in internal Egyptian politics and in international affairs, capitalizing, in particular, upon his northwest African connections.

In 1401, during a military expedition to Syria initiated by Barqüq’s young successor, Faraj, a memorable meeting took place between Ibn Khaldün and the great Tamerlane, who was then laying siege to Damascus. despite all his judicial, political, and academic activities, Ibn Khaldün found the time to continue his scholarly research, mainly with a view to improving an expanding his great historical work, Since he wrote an autobiography, possibly the longest work of its kind until then, and was also much noticed by contemporary biographers, the story of his life is known in considerable details; but larger questions of the sources of his genius and the psychological motivation for his many extraordinary activities can only, if at all, be answered by uncertain and unsatisfactory speculation.

Ibn Khaldün entitled his world history “Book of the Lessons and Archive of Early and Subsequent History, Dealing With the Political Events Concerning the Arabs, Non-Arabs, and Berbers, and the Supreme Ruleers Who Were Contemporary With Them.” Its introduction and first book became known as an independent work, entitled “The Introduction” (Muqaddima), even during the lifetime of Ibn Khaldün, who was convinced of his work’s originality and significance. The Muqaddima was indeed the first large-scale attempt to analyze the group relationships that govern human political and social organization factors. Against a background of Muslim legal thought and Islamized Greek philosophy, human society is described as following a constantly repeated rhythm of growth and decay. which includes a continous slight forward movement provided by the retention of certain cultural achievements of earlier generations.

Human beings require cooperation for the preservation of the species, and they are by nature equipped for it. Their labor is the only means at their disposal for creating the material basis for their individual and group existence. Where human beings exist in large numbers, a division of activities becomes possible and permits greater specialization and refinement in all spheres of life. The result is ’ umrän (“civilization” or “culture”), with its great material and intellectual achievements, but also with a tendency towards luxury and leisure which carries within itself the seeds of destruction.

Large concentrations of people are possible only urban environments, which therefore present the opportunity for the highest flowering of civilization. The force that makes people cohere and cooperate and then aspire toward the achievement of political control is called ʿ asabiyya, which may be translated roughly as “group feeling.” Originally a negative term with the connotation of “unfair bias” and as such generally condemned, it was applied in positive sense by Ibn Khaldün. ʿAsabiyya is man’s psychological attraction to those of the same blood and racial origins. Outsiders may come to share in the ‘ asabiyya of a group through long and close contact.

Political leaders and dynasties attain their eminence by virtue of the ability to concentrate the group feeling upon themselves and thereby profit from its natural bent for acquisition of power. The achievement of political predominance sets in motion a process of territorial overexpansion that dilutes the group support of the dynasty. More important, it also marks the beginning of an inevitable three-generation cycle of weakening the dynasty’s moral fiber. The dynasty becomes alienated from its supporters, and its realm falls prey to others who are fired by strong and unspoiled group feeling.

All the factors of environment an human psychology operate without the direct intervention of the superhuman, divine establishment. Ibn Khaldün accepts as a fact that God created these factors and saw to it that they would operate as they do. He also acknowledges the existence of occasions on which God directly intervenes in history—for instance, by sending a prophet with a divine message to mankind. But unusual events of this sort bring about only an intensification of the normal situation or an abnormal interruption that soon comes to an end, permitting resumption of the normal development of human affairs.

In the course of reviewing the totality of the institutions of Muslim society in order to illustrate his sociological views, Ibn Khaldün shows himself an able and effective historian of science and scholarship. In the sixth chapter of the Muqaddima, he presents a number of usually brief sketches of the various religious and legal disciplines, of the natural sciences, and of the function of language and literature, together with instructive essays on the methodology of scholarship. Although he neglects certain recondite and remarkable achievements of Muslim science, he gives an acceptable picture of the more obvious elements in the development of each science and successfully captures the general flavor of medieval scholarship and the broad outlines of its history. The reality of some of the occult sciences was not denied by Ibn Khaldü who believed in the legitimacy of white magic and the existence of black magic. Yet, taking sides in an old controversy, he rather lengthily refuted the claims of astrology and alchemy. He was especially concerned with showing the harm that belief in the reality of astrology and alchemy is able to do to human society. A treatise on elementary arithmetic written in his earlier year is not preserved. It was probably of no scientific importance.

As a descriptive historian Ibn Khaldün ranks among the greatest of the Muslim world. He saw no need to spell out constantly and in detail how the ideas expounded in the Muqaddima applied to individual historical exposition bore out these ideas, as in fact it does to some degree. In large portions of his his history he was naturally obliged to follow one or another of the older standard works.; but he also utilized unusual sources some of them of Christian or Jewish origin. He searched for the best information available to make his history of the world as balanced and complete as possible in his time and place. He helped to increase the intense interest in history current in the Egypt of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and among later Ottoman historians and statesmen.

In nearly every individual instance the source of Ibn Khaldün’s information an ideas can be traced, with the noteworthy exception of the origin of the concept of ʿ asabiyya in a sense that he uses it. But the synthesis, according to all we know, is entirely his own. It stands out boldly in the Muslim context, his own. It stands out boldly in the Muslim context, no matter how greatly it is indebted to Muslim scholarly tradition. It is a summing up of Muslim medieval civilization, but it also points beyond its own time to fundamental problems of the modern science of sociology.


I. Original Works. W. McG. de Slane translated the Muqaddima as Prolégoménes historiques d’Ibn Khaldoun, 3 vols. (Paris, 1862-1868); there is also an English trans. by F. Rosenthal, The Muqaddimah (New York, 1958), 2nd ed., 3 vols. (Princeton, 1967), published as vol. XLIII of the Bollingen Series; and a French trans. by V. Monteil, Ibn Khaldün, Discours sur l’histoire universelle, 3 vols. (Beirut, 1967-1969).

The section from the History on northwest Africa was translated by de Slane as Histoire des Berbeéres et des dynasties musulmanes de l’Afrique septentrionale, 4 vols. (Algiers, 1852-1856; new ed., Paris, 1925-1956).

The Arabic text of the complete Autobiography was edited by M. Ibn Täwit al-Tanji,ʾ as al-Ta‘rif bi-Ibn Khaldün (Cairo, 1951); an English trans. of the report on the meeting with Tamerlane is by W. J. Fischel, Ibn Khaldün and Tamerlane (Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1952).

Further works are Lubäb al-Muhassal, L. Rubio, ed. (Tetuà;n, 1952); and Shifā’il li-tahdhib al-masā’il, M. Ibn Tāwit al-Tanji, ed. (Istanbul, 1958).

II. Secondary Literature. A bibliography by W. J. Fischel is appended to Rosenthal’s trans. of the Muqaddima and is further updated by Fischel in his Ibn Khaldün in Egypt (Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1967). See also ’Abd al-Rahmān Badawi, Mu’allafāt Ibn Khaldün (Cairo, 1962); and M. Talbi, “Ibn Khaldũn, “in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed. (Leiden-London, 1968 [1969]), III, 825-831. Some of the more recent works on Ibn Khaldũn are (listed chronologically) Muhsin Mahdi, Ibn Khaldũns Wissenschaft von der menschlichen Kultur (Leipzig, 1959); W. J. Fischel, Ibn Khaldũn in Egypt (Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1967);M. Nassar, La pensée réaliste d’Ibn Khaldũn (Paris, 1967); and M. M. Rabīʿ, The Political Theory of Ibn Khaldũn (Leiden, 1967).

Franz Rosenthal

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