Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406)

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IBN KHALDUN (1332–1406)

˓Abd al-Rahman b. Muhammad b. Muhammad b. Abu Bakr Muhammad b. al-Hasan, better known as Ibn Khaldun, was born in the North African region of Ifriqiyah (Tunis) in 1332. Well known and controversial in his time, his Muqaddima(Introduction), has become one of the best-known and important works on medieval historiography for modern scholars. Ibn Khaldun was also actively involved in the politics of the period and traveled extensively across Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East. He died in Cairo on 16 March 1406.

Ibn Khaldun came from an influential family that had originally settled in Andalusia at the beginning of the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. Shortly before the beginning of the Reconquista his ancestors migrated to Tunis, where they became important administrators in local governments. His father, however, worked primarily as a jurist and a scholar. Because of his father's position as a legal scholar, Ibn Khaldun was able to attain an education from some of the most famous North African scholars of the age. In the mid-fourteenth century the western Berber Marinid tribe invaded Tunis and established a short-lived dynasty. The Marinids imported a large number of legal scholars and theologians into Tunis and for a short period Ibn Khaldun, at this time in his mid-teens, was able to learn from a wide array of scholars in a variety of fields. The Marinid occupation of Tunis was, however, short and by the time Ibn Khaldun was seventeen most of the great scholars had already left Tunis for Fez, Morocco.

The Marinid occupation of Tunis left its mark on the young scholar. He came to see the period as a model for the historical development and decline of Islamic societies. He argued that Islamic societies followed a specific path of development and decline whereby desert tribes invade a given society and infuse it with a sense of vitality and what he called asabiyya (group solidarity). ˓Asabiyya becomes the foundation for all social relations and provides the fundamental motives for cultural, intellectual, and economic development. Over time, however, the sense of group solidarity breaks down, followed by a slow period of decline until a new group asserts itself into society and brings with it a new sense of ˓asabiyya.

The withdrawal of the Marinids back into Morocco left an intellectual and political vacuum in Tunis, and by 1353 Ibn Khaldun decided to migrate west to Fez. In Fez, Ibn Khaldun rose quickly into the inner circle of the Marinid sultan Ibn Abi ˓Amr. By 1357 he fell out of favor with the sultan and was thrown in prison until Ibn Abi ˓Amr's death in 1358. Ibn Khaldun appears to have attempted to remain involved in the changing political situation, but by 1359 he decided to retire from politics and accepted a position as a judge. By 1362 his position became so untenable that he was forced to flee to Granada.

Over the next twelve years Ibn Khaldun continued to involve himself in the politics of Spain and North Africa. By his late forties, however, he had tired of politics and decided to return to scholarship once again. He wrote a number of works during this period and appears to have begun developing many of his ideas on history and sociology. He wrote his Muqaddima to his world history (Kitab al-˓Ibar) between 1375 and 1379, as well as a number of other important works. By 1378, Ibn Khaldun returned to Tunis to work as a scholar and teacher. His ideas, however, were considered threatening by several of his peers and he was forced to flee to Cairo in 1382.

In Cairo, Ibn Khaldun continued to teach and write, and by 1399 was appointed judge. In 1400 he accompanied the Mamluk sultan al-Nasir to Syria during the invasion of Timur and was involved in negotiations with the Mongol leader for the surrender of Damascus. As had previously been the case, Ibn Khaldun frequently ran afoul of political powers and was dismissed from his judgeship upon his return. Over the remaining six years of his life he was appointed and dismissed from the judiciary five more times.

Ibn Khaldun remained a controversial figure even after his death. His Muqaddima, and to a lesser extent his other writings, were both respected and reviled by later scholars. In the Muqaddima, Ibn Khaldun sets forth a clear exposition of his theory of social and historical development and decline. He describes the various Islamic sciences, their development, and the process of professionalization that scholars had to endure to become certified by their contemporaries as qualified academics. This process of professional certification, according to Ibn Khaldun, which had become so extensive by the medieval period that it prevented scholars of in-depth knowledge in any one field, was one of the factors that led Muslim societies to decline. His theories about the decline of Muslim society would influence late-nineteenth and twentieth-century Muslim scholars who embraced Ibn Khaldun's theories as evidence of the need for renewal of Islamic culture and thought.

See also˓Asabiyya ; Falsafa .


Baali, Fuad. Social Institutions: Ibn Khaldun's Social Thought. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1992.

Brett, Michael. Ibn Khaldun and the Medieval Maghrib. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate Variorium, 1999.

Rosenthal, Franz, trans. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969.

R. Kevin Jaques

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Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406)

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