Ibn Khaldūn

Ibn Khaldūn (27 May 1332–17 March 1406)

Today is the 690th anniversary of the birth of Abū Zayd ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Khaldūn al-Ḥaḍramī (better known to posterity as Ibn Khaldūn), who was born on this date in 1332 AD.

Ibn Khaldūn was a Tunisian Arabic philosopher who wrote a singular treatise, The Maqqadimmah, which discusses politics, history, philosophy of history, and related problems. Some have called it the first work of sociology. Most of the terminology that we have today for discussing historiography and philosophy of history did not yet exist for ibn Khaldūn, so in order to see the relevance of his work we often have to translate his ideas into a modern idiom.

A contemporary philosopher of history, Hayden White, wrote of Ibn Khaldūn:

“Readers of Toynbee’s Study will know that Ibn Khaldun has been acclaimed as the producer of ‘the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place.’ Toynbee enshrines Ibn Khaldun in a pantheon which houses Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Josephus, St. Augustine, Gibbon and Turgot; and of that group, Ibn Khaldun seems, at least at first glance, the most modern of all. Evidence of his modernity is reflected in the dispute between historians and sociologists for the honor of claiming him as their own.”

White is correct that historians and sociologists have both sought to claim Ibn Khaldūn as their own, but he further notes, “Ibn Khaldūn cannot be classified as either historian or sociologist with any sort of terminological accuracy.”

The Maqqadimmah belongs to a number of unclassifiable works that touch on many aspects of human life and experience. We all have difficulty understanding a work written in a fundamentally different historical era, with its alien presuppositions; for westerners, as well, there is the difficulty of reading a work conceived within a distinct civilization. But these barriers can be overcome. The Islamic Golden Age is in some respects less alien to us than the European middle ages, since it is, like classical antiquity, and like our our times, a time of cosmopolitanism, of aspirations to universality, of plenty, and of routine travel. We can read writers like Ibn Khaldūn, Ibn Fadlan, and Ibn Battutah as though they were contemporaries, whereas the works of Wolfram von Eschenbach and Gottfried von Strassburg strike us as strange, even when we find in them much that is familiar.

Perhaps the virtue of being readable to posterity comes at the cost being alienated from one’s own time. Barbara Stowasser wrote of Ibn Khaldūn:

“…Ibn Khaldun’s ideas were in some ways too realistic and hence revolutionary for the intellectually stagnant society in which he lived and worked. There is very little evidence that he had any impact on Arab thought in the Iate 14th or early 15th centuries. It was only in the 16th and particularly in the 17th centuries that an Ibn Khaldun rediscovery got underway, and the people who rediscovered and read and commented upon him were the Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans, as you know, concentrated much of their intellectual interest upon history and political thought, and they were fascinated with Ibn Khaldun. In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, the study of Ibn Khaldun constituted an important segment of Turkish intellectual history. It was only in the 19th century that Europe joined the Turks in reading Ibn Khaldun.” (“Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History: The Rise and Fall of States and Civilizations”)

But it is the fate of many substantive thinkers to be unappreciated in their own time. And therein lies the rub: later generations are arguably less well equipped to appreciate a work neglected in its own time. When we read Chapter VI of The Maqqadimmah we find a catalogue of knowledge (or sciences) that sets alchemy next to logic, and Sufism next to dream interpretation, which, to the modern mind, seems like a category error. In this sense, Ibn Khaldun reads more like St. Thomas Aquinas than a contemporary. Yet there are moments within The Maqqadimmah when Ibn Khaldun seems to affirm the categories of our thought and his argument makes perfect sense. Thus:

“People who grow up in villages and uncivilized (thinly populated) cities and who have an innate desire for scientific activity, cannot find scientific instruction in those places. For scientific instruction is something technical, and there are no crafts among the inhabitants of the desert, as we have stated before. These people, therefore, must travel and seek scientific instruction in cities where (civilization) is highly developed, as is the case with all crafts.” (VI, 8)

This quote highlights a theme that runs throughout Ibn Khaldun, and that is the contrast between sedentary life in cities and the nomadic life of the Bedouin of the desert. As we can see in the above passage, Ibn Khaldun gives cities their full measure, acknowledging that craft specialization is only to be found in cities, but he also sees the problems with urban life, which are distinct from those of village and desert. He makes some interesting observations on juvenile delinquency:

“The city, then, teems with low people of blameworthy character. They encounter competition from many members of the younger generation of the dynasty, whose education has been neglected and whom the dynasty has neglected to accept. They, therefore, adopt the qualities of their environment and company, even though they may be people of noble descent and ancestry. Men are human beings and as such resemble one another. They differ in merit and are distinguished by their character, by their acquisition of virtues and avoidance of vices. The person who is strongly colored by any kind of vice and whose good character is corrupted, is not helped by his good descent and fine origin. Thus, one finds that many descendants of great families, men of a highly esteemed origin, members of the dynasty, get into deep water and adopt low occupations in order to make a living, because their character is corrupt and they are colored by wrongdoing and insincerity. If this (situation) spreads in a town or nation, God permits it to be ruined and destroyed. This is the meaning of the word of God: ‘When we want to destroy a village, we order those of its inhabitants who live in luxury to act wickedly therein. Thus, the word becomes true for it, and we do destroy it’.”(IV, 18)

For Ibn Khaldun, then, civilization and its cities are a mixed blessing, and while the Bedouin of the desert do not possess craft specialization, they are also free of the vices and luxury of urban life. Ibn Khaldun also discusses this contrast as it touches upon law:

“When laws are (enforced) by means of punishment, they completely destroy fortitude, because the use of punishment against someone who cannot defend himself generates in that person a feeling of humiliation that, no doubt, must break his fortitude. When laws are (intended to serve the purposes of) education and instruction and are applied from childhood on, they have to some degree the same effect, because people then grow up in fear and docility and consequently do not rely on their own fortitude. For this (reason), greater fortitude is found among the savage Arab Bedouins than among people who are subject to laws. Furthermore, those who rely on laws and are dominated by them from the very beginning of their education and instruction in the crafts, sciences, and religious matters, are thereby deprived of much of their own fortitude. They can scarcely defend themselves at all against hostile acts. This is the case with students, whose occupation it is to study and to learn from teachers and religious leaders, and who constantly apply themselves to instruction and education in very dignified gatherings. This situation and the fact that it destroys the power of resistance and fortitude must be understood.” (II, 6)

One can see in passages like this why many have identified Ibn Khaldun as a sociologist, or a theoretician of culture. In Muhsin Mahdi’s book-length study, Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History: A Study in the Philosophic Foundation of a Science of Culture, Mahdi characterizes Ibn Khaldun’s effort as being toward a “science of culture.” He finishes off his book by taking a swipe at Hegelian philosophies of history:

“Ibn Khaldun did not turn to history to find his standards and goal, or to see how the Idea progressively realizes itself and learn its future course so that he could join the predetermined course of history. For him, future action cannot he determined by any science. It continues to be the product of an art which requires the knowledge of the end of man and society, and the knowledge of the actual circumstances supplied by history, but which must he perfected through experience. Having equipped himself with such knowledge, it remains the responsibility of the wise man to decide what is best under particular circumstances. He is not relieved of the task of making right choices. History, even when ascertained and explained in the light of the new science of culture, may help the wise man to make a better choice, but it does not and cannot choose for him.”

I suspect many people would agree with this, whether or not they have read Ibn Khaldun, or what any interest in philosophy of history. But while Ibn Khaldun did not seek his standards and goals in history, he did understand the importance of understanding history on its own merits.

Further Resources


Muhsin Mahdi. Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History: A Study in the Philosophic Foundation of a Science of Culture. (2015). doi:10.4324/9781315670188

White, H. V. (1959). Ibn Khaldûn in World Philosophy of History. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 2(01), 110. doi:10.1017/s0010417500000578 White, H. V. (1959). Ibn Khaldûn in World Philosophy of History. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 2(01), 110. doi:10.1017/s0010417500000578



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