Middle East Encyclopedia

Encyclopedia of the Middle East

ibn Khaldoun

MidEastWeb Middle East

ibn Khaldoun - Ibn Khaldun or Ibn Khaldoun (full name, Arabic: أبو زيد عبد الرحمن بن محمد بن خلدون ‎, Abu Zayd ‘Abdu r-Rahman bin Muhammad bin Khaldun Al-Hadrami, (May 27, 1332 AD/732 AH – March 19, 1406 AD/808 AH), was born in what is now Tunis. He was a famous North African Muslim Arab philosopher and polymath. His knowledge covered alchemy, astronomy, economy, history, Islamic subjects, law mathematics, military strategy, nutrition, philosophy and sociology. 

Many consider Ibn Khaldoun to be the father or forerunner of several social science disciplines: demography, cultural history, the philosophy of history, sociology, and modern economics. He anticipated many elements of these disciplines centuries before they were founded or rediscovered in the West. However, his outlook is not always modern. He is best known for writing the Muqaddimah ("Prolegomenon"), the first volume of his seven volume writings on universal history, the Kitabu al-Ibar.

Life of Ibn Khaldoun

Ibn Khaldun's public life is documented in his autobiography, which has come down to us as the last volume of Kitabu al Ibar. Nonetheless, there are different accounts of his imprisonment at various times, and of the circumstances under which he wrote the Kitabu al-Ibar and other circumstances in his life.

Ibn Khaldoun was born to an upper class family that had migrated from Seville in Muslim Spain. He traced his ancestry to Yemenite Arabs from the Hadramuth who settled in Spain at the very beginning of Muslim rule in the eighth century, and migrated to Tunisia after Muslim Seville fell.

Ibn Khaldoun's parents were able to give him a good classical Muslim education. He  began what seemed to be a promising political career at the Chancellery of the Tunisian ruler Ibn Tafrakin with the position of Kātib al-'Alāmah, a scribe who wrote introductions to official documents.  The Marinid invasion (748-50/1347-9) resulted in the arrival in Tunis,of a large number of theological and literary scholars, and he gained instruction in Muslim philosophy and the main problems of Muslim thought. However, the Marinid occupation ended in chaos and bloodshed. Additionally, the Black Plague which ravaged the world in the middle of the century, claimed many victims in the area, including Ibn khaldun's parents. These events are reflected in his writings.

Tunis became a backwater owing to the disturbances, and Ibn Khaldoun eventually left for Fez.  Ibn Khaldun followed his teacher Abili to Fez. There, the Marinid sultan Abu Inan Fares I appointed him to write royal proclamations. Nonetheless, Ibn Khaldoun   schemed against the sultan and was imprisoned for 22 months. He was freed on the death of the sultan and reinstated him in his rank and offices, and promptly began scheming against sultan Abu Salem Ibrahim III to bring to power the sultan Abu Salem. When Abu Salem came to power, he rewarded Ibn Khaldun with a ministerial position.  But Abu Salem was soon out of power. Ibn Khaldun therefore decided to move to Granada, where he had an ally in the  Sultan of Granada, Muhammad V, whom he had helped regain power.

In Granada, Ibn Khaldoun earned the envy and ire of Muhammad's vizier, Ibn al-Khatib. Ibn Khaldun tried to influence young Muhammad to act according to his concept of a wise ruler, which Ibn al-Khatib thought foolish and naive. Ibn Khaldun was eventually sent back to North Africa. The the sultan of Bougie, an old friend from prison, welcomed him and made him his prime minister. After the death of Abu Abdallāh in 1366, Ibn Khaldun allied himself with the ruler of Tlemcen, Abul-Abbas. Abbas was defeated by Abdul Aziz however, and Ibn Khaldoun was taken prisoner and entered a monastic order. In 1370 he was freed and thereafter resided in Fez. In 1375 Ibn Khaldun was either imprisoned or  sought refuge with the Awlad Arif tribe in the town of Qalat Ibn Salama. There he lived for nearly four years, and there he wrote the Muqaddimah "Prolegomena", the introduction to his planned history of the world. According to some accounts he was imprisoned and wrote the entire Kitab al-Ibar there.

By 1378, Ibn Khaldoun's patron and friend  Abul-Abbas had conquered Tunis. Ibn Khaldoun returned there and completed his history. However, Abul Abbas questioned his loyalty, especially since the completed work omitted the obligatory panegyric. Ibn Khadoun claimed he was going on a Hajj pilgrimage and escaped to  Alexandria.

Ibn Khaldoun was impressed by Egypt, which had been largely untouched by the strife afflicting other Muslim lands. In 1384 the Egyptian Mamluk Sultan, al-Malik udh-Dhahir Barquq, made him Professor of the Qamhiyyah Madrasah, and grand Qadi of the Maliki school of fiqh (religious law). However, Ibn Khaldoun into political trouble and had to resign his judgeship. He also experienced personal tragedy as a ship carrying his wife and children sank off the coast of Alexandria. He decided to complete the pilgrimage to Mecca.

After his return from the Hajj in May 1388, Ibn Khaldun was again involved in in a political scrap that put him out of favor, and was later reinstated nonetheless as Maliki qadi. This repeated itself a number of times. The Mongols had now invaded the Middle East however.  In 1401, under Sultan Faraj, Ibn Khaldun took part in the siege of Damascus against Timurlane. Though the Egyptian army was abandoned by Faraj, Ibn Khaldun remained there seven weeks. He negotiated with Timurlane, who extracted information about North Africa from him. Ibn Khaldoun was also gathering information. On his return to Egypt, he composed an  extensive report on the history of the Mongol Tartars, and a character study of Timur. He sent these to the Merinid rulers in Fez.

Ibn Khaldun spent last five years in Cairo completing his writings, teaching and acting as judge, when he was not being imprisoned for seditious activities.  He died on 17 March 1406, one month after his sixth selection for the office of the Maliki qadi.

Ibn Khaldoun's Work

Ibn Khaldun's chief contribution lies in developing a method of explaining the dynamics of historical changing and analyzing society as expounded in the Muqaddimah. The Muqaddimah was originally conceived, apparently, as a brief introduction, to be tacked on to a history of the Arabs and Berbers. The full title of the entire Kittabu al Ibar means ""Book of Evidence, Record of Beginnings and Events from the Days of the Arabs, Persians and Berbers and their Powerful Contemporaries."

The work grew into a universal history, and the Muqaddimah grew into an elaborate theory of history and society. In some respects, he revived the traditions and method of Polybius and Thucydides. In others, he anticipated 19th and twentieth century writers like Hegel, Marx, Spengler and Toynbee, who sought to find "covering laws" in history.  He identified psychological, economic, environmental and social factors that influenced the course  history. He devised a kind of dialectic in which group (national or tribal) feelings, al-'Asabiyya, motivate the ascent of a new civilization and political power and subsequently, its diffusion into a wider civilization invites the advent of yet another al 'Asabiyya. He identified rhythmic repetitions in the rise and fall of dynasties and tried to explain them.

Unlike most earlier writers who limited their analyses to political issues, ibn Khaldoun emphasized environmental, sociological, psychological and economic factors governing events.

In the introductory preface to the Muqaddimah, one is immediately struck by a  tone that belongs in the 19th century and not the fourteenth, complete with admonitions about the need for scientific method, and exposition of a method for scientific criticism of historical sources, including the bible. Western civilization would not produce this sort of work for many centuries.

The most striking idea in Ibn Khaldoun's work is that great civilizations decay and invite invasion by comparative barbarians on the periphery - the dialectic of the desert and the city that is familiar to Middle East historians. The barbarians however, assimilate the refined new culture, become somewhat degenerate and lax in their turn and are vulnerable to conquest by other ruffians, who repeat the process. Both the decline of Rome and the rise and fall of various Arab and Muslim empires can be conceptualized in this way. Ibn Khaldoun also described the economy in terms that Karl Marx would use nearly six centuries later, postulating that all value is created by labor, and distinguishing between economic surplus and the minimum required for sustenance.

In some other respects, Ibn Khaldoun was very much a product of the Middle Ages however. He discredited alchemy on various grounds, but he accepted supernatural explanations as well. This aspect is often overlooked by those seeking to read modern ideas back into his work. He quoted a treatise on alchemy by one Ibn Bishrun, and wrote: 

The truth with regard to alchemy, which is to be believed and which is supported by actual fact, is that alchemy is one of the ways in which the spiritual souls exercise an influence and are active in the world of nature. (It may) belong among the (miraculous) acts of divine grace, if the souls are good. Or it may be a kind of sorcery, if the souls are bad and wicked.

It is obvious that (alchemy may materialize) as a (miraculous) act of divine grace. It may be sorcery, because the sorcerer, as has been established in the proper place, may change the identity of matter by means of his magic power. People think that a (sorcerer) must use some substance (in order) for his magical activity to take place. Thus, certain animals may be created from the substance of earth, of hair, or of plants, or, in general, from substances other than their own. That, for example, happened to the sorcerers of Pharaoh with their ropes and sticks. It also is reported, for instance, of the Negro and Indian sorcerers in the far south and of the Turks in the far north, that by sorcery they force the air to produce rain, and other things.

Thus, like Herodotus, who was the father of History, Ibn Khaldoun offered a mixture of insight and ignorance. 

The remaining volumes of the Kitab al-I'bar deal with the history of Arabs, contemporary Muslim rulers, contemporary European rulers, ancient history of Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Romans, Persians, etc., Islamic History, Egyptian history and North-African history. The last volume deals largely with contemporary events and the events of his own life and is known as Al-Tasrif.

Ibn Khaldoun also wrote additional works on logic, theology and mathematics which have not survived.

Ami Isseroff

October 10, 2008

Synonyms and alternate spellings: ibn Khaldun

Further Information:  

ibn Khaldoun (Wikipedia)

Ead, Hamed, A., Alchemy in Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah, 1998

USA Credit Card - Donate On-Line - Help us live and grow

Encyclopedia of the Middle East

Note - This encyclopedia is a work in progress. It is far from complete and is being constructed and improved all the time. If you would like to contribute articles or expansions of existing articles, please contact news (at) mideastweb.org.  Suggestions and corrections are welcome. The concise version of this dictionary is at our Middle East Glossary.

Spelling - Spelling of words in Middle-Eastern languages is often arbitrary. There may be many variants of the same name or word such as Hezbollah, Hizbolla, Hisbolla or Husayn and Hussein. There are some conventions for converting words from Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew There are numerous variant renderings of the same Arabic or Hebrew words, such as "Hizbollah," "Hisbulla" etc. It is not possible to find exact equivalents for several letters. 

Pronunciation - Arabic and Hebrew vowels are pronounced differently than in English. "o" is very short. The "a" is usually pronounced like the "a" in market, sometimes as the "a" in "Arafat."  The " 'A " is guttural.  " 'H "- the 'het ('Hirbeh, 'Hebron, 'Hisbollah') designates a sound somewhat similar to the ch in "loch" in Scots pronunciation, but made by touching the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The CH should be pronounced like Loch, a more assertive consonant than 'het.

The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

Copyright 2007- 8,  MidEastWeb for Coexistence RA.

All original materials at MidEastWeb are copyright by MidEastWeb and/or by their authors unless otherwise noted. Please do not copy materials from this Web site to your Web site or to forums without permission. Please tell your friends about MidEastWeb. Please forward these materials in e-mails to friends with links to this URL - http://www.mideastweb.org and to the URL of the material. You can print out materials for your own use or classroom use, giving the URL of  MidEastWeb. For pages marked Copyright, printed material should bear this notice:

"Copyright by MidEastWeb for Coexistence R.A - Middle East Resources. - http://www.mideastweb.org. All rights reserved. "

and should give the URL of the original. Reproduction in any other form - by permission only. Consult detailed terms of use and copyright information

Mideastweb: Middle East Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Issues in a Nutshell Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Brief History Zionism Zionism: Definition & brief history

ibn Khaldoun