Ibn Khaldun (1382-1395 C.E.)

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Dr Basheer Ahmed M.D,
President of IMPMS

A large number of people are not interested in history and regards this as a boring subject. Others find some consolation in remembering that their ancestors were great people who had contributed positively to human heritage. They lack vision, determination and ability to prioritize their resources for the betterment of (society). History is like the rear-view mirror provided in a moving car. To move ahead safely, the car driver needs to frequently look into the rear-view mirror in order to know the situation behind him and plan his movement forward. Knowledge of history and heritage can be a source of inspiration and can help us in moving forward in the right direction provided we learn from our past mistakes and achievements.

After the revelation of The Qur’an, first serious attempts were made to know the past. Quran repeatedly mentions the historical events and emphases the importance of seeking knowledge from the past. Allah commands readers of The Qur’an to “travel around in the Earth” and see how the people of bygone eras lived and study their fate. Several Muslim travelers who lived in between 900 and 1400 CE left enormous amount of information that was never before available to man. By the end of the fourteenth century, Ibn Khaldun had already developed social science from history of culture, now known as sociology – which was, in the words of an American historian Sheila Blair, “rational in approach, analytical in method and encyclopedic in detail” – thus further qualifying him to develop such new social sciences as economics and political science. IbnKhaldun's work on the philosophy of history is a landmark of social thought. Many historians - Greek, Roman, Muslim and other - had written valuable historiography. However Ibn Khaldun was the first historian who reflected on the meaning, pattern and laws of history and society,and gave us a profound insights into the nature of social processes and the interconnections between phenomena in such diverse fields as politics, economics, sociology and education., IbnKhaldun was regarded as an outstanding figure in the social sciences between Aristotle and Machiavelli, and one of the greatest philosophers of history.

Abd al-Rahman Ibn Mohammad is generally known as Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunisia in 1332 C.E., where he received his early education. He was still in his teens, he entered the service of the Egyptian ruler Sultan Barquq. His thirst for advanced know- ledge and a better academic setting soon made him leave this service and migrate to Fez, where he studied Quran, Hadeeth,jurisprudence, philosophy and was exposed to many theologians and scholars. He held various posts in the court of Fez(Morocco) and was officially part of the sultan’s literary circle. He spent two years in prison after he participated in a plot to liberate the former amir, and thereafter again occupied a court position under the new sultan. After numerous difficulties, he left Fez for the court of Granada. This turbulent period also included a three year refuge in a small village Qalat in Algeria, which provided him with the opportunity to write Muqaddimah, the first volume of his world history that won him an immortal place among historians, sociologists and philosophers.


He was deeply rooted in his Islamic background, occupying high government posts in Granada, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. He spent four years among the Bedouins, and negotiated with both Pedro the Cruel of Spain in Seville and with Tamurlane on the outskirts of Damascus. Egypt became his final destination, where he spent his last 24 years. Here he lived a life of fame and respect, marked by his appointment as the Chief Malakite Judge and lecturing at the AL-AzharUniversity.

Ibn Khaldun's chief contribution lies in philosophy of history and sociology. He sought to write a world history preambled by a first volume aimed at an analysis of historical events. This volume, commonly known as Muqaddimahor 'Prolegomena', was based on Ibn Khaldun’s unique approach and original contribution and became a masterpiece in literature on philosophy of history and sociology. The major theme of this monumental work was to identify psychological, economic, environmental and social factors that contribute to the advancement of human civilization and the currents of history. In this context, he analyzed the dynamics of group relationships and showed how group-feelings, al-'Asabiyya, give rise to the ascent of a new civilization and political power and how, later on, its diffusion into a more general civilization invites the advent of a still new 'Asabiyya in its pristine form. He identified an almost rhythmic repetition of rise and fall in human civilization, and analyzed factors contributing to it. His contribution to history is marked by the fact that, unlike most earlier writers interpreting history largely in a political context, he emphasized environmental, sociological, psychological and economic factors governing the apparent events. This revolutionized the science of history.Ibn Khaldun had created a new discipline, 'ilm al-'umran, the science of culture and civilization(Sociology), which no one had done so before and demarcated it from other disciplines. This science can be of great help to the historian by creating a standard by which to judge accounts of past events. Therefore he is called The Father of Sociology.

The book Muqaddima is the the introduction to his great book of history, the Kitab al-'ibar, which covers the history of Arabs, contemporary Muslim rulers, contemporary European rulers, ancient history of Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Islamic History, Egyptian history and North-African history, especially that of Berbers and tribes living in the adjoining areas. Kitab al-'ibar is divided into six books. In the first book he presents a general account of sociology, in the second and third a sociology of politics, in the fourth a sociology of urban life, in the fifth a sociology of economics.. Thus in the field of economics, Ibn Khaldun understands very clearly the supply and demand factors which affect price, the interdependence of prices and the ripple effects on successive stages of production of a fall in prices, and the nature and function of money and its tendency to circulate from country to country according to demand and the level of activity. In his writings on public finance, he shows why at the beginning of a dynasty taxation yields a large revenue from low rates of assessment, but at the end a small revenue from high rates of assessment. The last volume deals largely with the events of his own life and is known as Al-Tasrif. This was also written in a scientific manner and initiated a new analytical tradition in the art of writing autobiography

For Ibn Khaldun, human society is necessary since the individual acting alone could acquire neither the necessary food nor security. Only the division of labour, in and through society, makes this possible. The state arises through the need of a restraining force to curb the natural aggression of humanity. A state is inconceivable without a society, while a society is well-nigh impossible without a state. Ibn Khaldun gave a sophisticated analysis of how human societies evolve from nomadism to urban centers and how and why these urban centers decades and finally succumbed to less developed invaders. The ruler and his clients become isolated from the groups that originally brought them to power. Such a process of decline is taken to last three generations, or about one hundred and twenty years.

Ibn Khaldun's books have been translated into many languages, both in the East and the West, and have inspired subsequent development of these sciences. For instance, Prof. GumPloughs and Kolosio consider Muqaddimaas superior in scholarship to Machiavelli's The Prince written a century later, as the former bases the diagnosis more on cultural, sociological, economic and psychological factors. His work was regarded as undoubtedly the greatest work of his kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place. As a theorist on history he had no equal in any age or country. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Additional reading:

  • Al- Azmeh, A. (1990) Ibn Khaldun; An Essay in Reinterpretation, London: Routledge.
  • Lakhsassi, A. (1996) ‘Ibn Khaldun’, in S.H.Nasr and O. Leanman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Rputledge, ch. 25, 350-64.