Ibn Khaldun, 'Abd al-Rahman (1332-1406)

Ibn Khaldun's work on the philosophy of history is a landmark of social thought. Many historians - Greek, Roman, Muslim and other - had written valuable historiography, but here we have brilliant reflections on the meaning, pattern and laws of history and society, as well as profound insights into the nature of social processes and the interconnections between phenomena in such diverse fields as politics, economics, sociology and education. By any reckoning, Ibn Khaldun was the outstanding figure in the social sciences between Aristotle and Machiavelli, and one of the greatest philosophers of history of all time.

His most important philosophical work is the Muqaddima, the introduction to a much longer history of the Arabs and Berbers. In this work, Ibn Khaldun clearly defines a science of culture and expounds on the nature of human society and on political and social cycles. Different social groups, nomads, townspeople and traders, interact with and affect one another in a continuous pattern. Religion played an important part in Ibn Khaldun's conception of the state, and he followed al-Ghazali rather than Ibn Rushd as a surer guide to the truth.

  1. Life and cultural context
  2. Philosophy of history
  3. Critique of Islamic philosophy

1. Life and cultural context

Abu Zayd 'Abd al-Rahman ibn Khaldun al-Hadrami was born in Tunis in ah 732/ad 1332. 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 Timur Lenk (Tamurlane) on the outskirts of Damascus. He was deeply versed in Arabic literature, theology, historiography, jurisprudence and philosophy, and was particularly influenced in the latter by Averroes or Ibn Rushd. He died in Cairo in ah 808/ad 1406.

Ibn Khaldun lived at a time when it was possible to reflect upon a long and profound period of Islamic thought, and he seems to have felt that part of his function as a writer was to sum up this period, with the further aim of pointing towards the future of Islamic intellectual enquiry. As one would expect, he used the terms and concepts of his time, and some have argued that he was a culturally-specific phenomenon (al-Azmeh 1981), so that any attempt at interpreting his thought in Western terms must distort it fatally. This is an error. Like all great thinkers, Ibn Khaldun's thought contains both specific and universal elements, and the latter can readily be conveyed to modern readers with no more than the usual difficulties of translation from one cultural and historical period to another.

2. Philosophy of history

The work on which Ibn Khaldun's reputation chiefly rests is the Muqaddima, the introduction to his great history of the Arabs and Berbers, the Kitab al-'ibar, which is divided into a further 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 and in the sixth a sociology of knowledge. The whole work is studded with brilliant observations. 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. Elsewhere his observations on the evolution of the Arabic language and script are masterly examples of sociological analysis, and his remarks on the difference between acquiring a skill in a language and learning its grammar, and on the use of intuition as opposed to logic in solving difficult problems, can still be read with profit.

However, it is Ibn Khaldun's views on the nature of the state and society which reveal most clearly both his profundity and the originality that marks him off so sharply from his Muslim predecessors and successors. Ibn Khaldun fully realised that he had created a new discipline, 'ilm al-'umran, the science of culture, and regarded it as surprising that 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. Through the study of human society, one can distinguish between the possible and the impossible, and so distinguish between those of its phenomena which are essential and those which are merely accidental, and also those which cannot occur at all. He analysed in detail the sources of error in historical writings, in particular partisanship, overconfidence in sources, failure to understand what is intended, a mistaken belief in the truth, the inability to place an event in its real context, the desire to gain the favour of those in high rank, exaggeration, and what he regarded as the most important of all, ignorance of the laws governing the transformation of human society. Ibn Khaldun's attitude to the study of social phenomena is suffused with a spirit which has caused several commentators to call him the founder of sociology. His attempt at creating a theoretical structure for the analysis of history is a very impressive contribution to the philosophy of history (see History, philosophy of; Society, concept of).

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 (see Political philosophy in classical Islam). Social phenomena seem to obey laws which, while not as absolute as those governing natural phenomena, are sufficiently constant to cause social events to follow regular and well-defined patterns and sequences. Hence a grasp of these laws enables the sociologist to understand the trend of events. These laws operate on masses and cannot be significantly influenced by isolated individuals. There is very little talk of 'great men' in Ibn Khaldun's books; while individuals do affect the course of events, their influence is very limited.

The overwhelming impression given by Ibn Khaldun's writings is that society is an organism that obeys its own inner laws. These laws can be discovered by applying human reason to data either culled from historical records or obtained by direct observation. These data are fitted into an implicit framework derived from his views on human and social nature, his religious beliefs and the legal precepts and philosophical principles to which he adheres. He argues that more or less the same set of laws operates across societies with the same kind of structure, so that his remarks about nomads apply equally well to Arab Bedouins, both contemporary and pre-Islamic, and to Berbers, Turkomen and Kurds. These laws are explicable sociologically, and are not a mere reflection of biological impulses or physical factors. To be sure, facts such as climate and food are important, but he attributes greater influence to such purely social factors as cohesion, occupation and wealth. This comes out very clearly in his discussion of national characters, for example of Arabs, Persians and Jews, where he is careful to point out that what are regarded as characteristic features can be explained by sociological factors such as nomadism, urbanization and oppression. Similarly, different social groups, such as townspeople, nomads and traders, have their own characteristics derived from their occupations.

Ibn Khaldun sees the historical process as one of constant cyclical change, due mainly to the interaction of two groups, nomads and townspeople. These form the two poles of his mental map; peasants are in between, supplying the towns with food and tax revenue and taking handicrafts in return. Nomads are rough, savage and uncultured, and their presence is always inimical to civilization; however, they are hardy, frugal, uncorrupt in morals, freedom-loving and self-reliant, and so make excellent fighters. In addition, they have a strong sense of 'asabiya, which can be translated as 'group cohesion' or 'social solidarity'. This greatly enhances their military potential. Towns, by contrast, are the seats of the crafts, the sciences, the arts and culture. Yet luxury corrupts them, and as a result they become a liability to the state, like women and children who need to be protected. Solidarity is completely relaxed and the arts of defending oneself and of attacking the enemy are forgotten, so they are no match for conquering nomads.

Ibn Khaldun then traces very clearly the political and social cycle. Nomads conquer territories and their leaders establish a new dynasty. At first the new rulers retain their tribal virtues and solidarity, but soon they seek to concentrate all authority in their own hands. Increasingly they rule through a bureaucracy of clients - often foreigners. As their former supporters lose their military virtues there is an increasing use of mercenaries, and soldiers come to be more important than civilians. Luxury corrupts ethical life, and the population decreases. Rising expenditure demands higher taxes, which discourage production and eventually result in lower revenues. 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. Religion can influence the nature of such a model; when 'asabiya is reinforced by religion its strength is multiplied, and great empires can be founded. Religion can also reinforce the cohesion of an established state. Yet the endless cycle of flowering and decay shows no evolution or progress except for that from the primitive to civilized society.

Ibn Khaldun does occasionally refer to the existence of turning points in history, and thought that he was himself witnessing one of them. The main cause for this great change was the Black Death, which had a profound effect upon Muslim society, together with the Mongol invasions; and he may also have been impressed by the development of Europe, whose merchants and ships thronged the seaports of North Africa and whose soldiers served as mercenaries in the Muslim armies. He suggests that a general change in conditions can produce an entirely new social and political scene, rather as if a new world had been created.

3. Critique of Islamic philosophy

Ibn Khaldun wrote on other topics apart from history, although in his autobiography he is rather coy about admitting it. In his Shifa' al-sa'il (The Healing of the Seeker), he responds to the question as to whether it is possible to attain mystical knowledge without the help of a Sufi master leading the novice along the path. Ibn Khaldun tends to follow al-Ghazali (§3) in reconciling mysticism with theology, but he goes further than the latter in bringing mysticism completely within the purview of the jurisprudent (faqih) and in developing a model of the Sufi shaykh, or master, as rather similar to the theologian. The fourteenth century, in which Ibn Khaldun was working, was very strongly influenced by what Fakhry (1970) calls 'neo-Hanbalism', which brought with it a strong suspicion of the claims of both mysticism and philosophy. Philosophy was regarded as going beyond its appropriate level of discourse, in that 'the intellect should not be used to weigh such matters as the oneness of God, the other world, the truth of prophecy, the real character of the divine attributes, or anything else that lies beyond the level of the intellect' (Muqaddima 3, 38). He refers to the intellect as like a balance which is meant for gold, but which is sometimes inappropriately used for weighing mountains. Logic cannot be applied to this area of enquiry, and must be restricted to non-theological topics (see Logic in Islamic philosophy).

Ibn Khaldun is also critical of Neoplatonic philosophy (see Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy). The main object of his criticism is the notion of a hierarchy of being, according to which human thought can be progressively purified until it encompasses the First Intellect which is identified with the necessary being, that is, God. He argued that this process is inconceivable without the participation of revelation, so that it is impossible for human beings to achieve the highest level of understanding and happiness through the use of reason alone. Interestingly, the basis of his argument here rests on the irreducibility of the empirical nature of our knowledge of facts, which cannot then be converted into abstract and pure concepts at a higher level of human consciousness.

Ibn Khaldun also had little respect for the political theories of thinkers like al-Farabi (§4), with their notions of rational government being based upon an ideal prophetic law. He saw little point in using theories which dealt with ideals that have nothing to do with the practicalities of contemporary political life. Although Ibn Khaldun rarely agrees with Ibn Rushd, there is no doubt that his thought is strongly marked by the controversy between him and al-Ghazali, the latter being acknowledged as the surer guide to the truth. The basis of Ibn Khaldun's critique of philosophy is his adherence to the notion of the state. Religion has a vital role in society, and any argument that it can be identified with either reason or contact with God is to threaten that function. This is doubtless the basis of his attack on Islamic philosophy and on mysticism.

Although Ibn Khaldun is hostile to a version of Islamic philosophy, his discussion of society is full of observations and ideas which clearly have as their source philosophical distinctions. For example, his account of the three stages in the development of the state, from the nomadic to the militant and finally to the luxurious and decadent is modelled on the three types of soul in Greek thought (see Soul in Islamic philosophy §2), as is his notion of 'asabiya, of the spirit of cohesion, as a point of equilibrium between different aspects of the soul. One of the features of Ibn Khaldun's work which makes it so thought-provoking is the tension, which he never finally resolved, between a concern to acknowledge the facts of historical change while at the same time bringing those facts under very general theoretical principles. His contribution to the philosophy of history is outstanding.

See also: Culture; History, philosophy of; Political philosophy, history of; Political philosophy in classical Islam

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

List of works

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) Shifa' al-sa'il li-tahdib al-masa'il (The Healing of the Seeker), ed. M. al-Tanji, 1957; trans. R. Pérez, La voie et la loi ou le maître et le juriste, Paris: Sindbad, 1991. (Ibn Khaldun's work on Sufism.)

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) Muqaddima, ed. and trans. F. Rosenthal, The Muqaddimah, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967. (Outstanding translation of this key introduction to Ibn Khaldun's history of the Arabs and Berbers, the Kitab al-'ibar.)

References and further reading

al-Azmeh, A. (1981) Ibn Khaldun in Modern Scholarship: A Study in Orientalism, London: Third World Centre. (A lively defence of the view that most previous commentators have misunderstood Ibn Khaldun.)

al-Azmeh, A. (1990) Ibn Khaldun: An Essay in Reinterpretation, London: Routledge. (A guide to the general thought of Ibn Khaldun.)

Fakhry, M. (1970) A History of Islamic Philosophy, New York: Columbia University Press; repr. 1985. (A useful account of Ibn Khaldun's position in Islamic philosophy as a whole.)

Issawi, C. (1986) An Arab Philosophy of History, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Translation and commentary on some important texts.)

Issawi, C. (1994) Ibn Khaldun on Roman History: A Study in Sources, Princeton, NJ: Princeton Papers in Near Eastern Studies. (Ibn Khaldun's treatment of Roman history.)

Lakhsassi, A. (1996) 'Ibn Khaldun', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 25, 350-64. (Comprehensive guide to Ibn Khaldun's thought, emphasizing the links between his social theories and philosophical ideas.)

Mahdi, M. (1957) Ibn Khaldun's Philosophy of History, London: Allen & Unwin. (A study of the philosophical foundations of his theory of culture.)

Rosenthal, E. (1956) 'The Theory of the Power-State: Ibn Khaldun's Study of Civilization', in E. Rosenthal, Political Thought in Medieval Islam, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (A masterly summary of Ibn Khaldun's political philosophy.)

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