Histories & Culture
Muqaddimat Ibn Khaldun

Ibn Khaldun's most important work was Kitab al-Ibar, and the most significant section was the Muqaddimah, the “introduction”. Such "introductions" were a recognized literary form. The Muqaddimah is in three volumes and contains its author's most original thoughts. Kitab al- Ibar is one of the most important surviving sources for the history of medieval North Africa, the Berbers and. to a lesser extent, Muslim Spain.

Many of the subjects that Ibn Khaldun discusses had also concerned both Greek thinkers and earlier Arab writers, such as al-Farabi and Mas'udi to whom he refers frequently. Whether he had access to Greek sources in translation is still debated, and in particular whether he had read Plato's Republic. Ibn Khaldun's originality lies in the fact that he was con¬scious of the need to study social cause and effect in a rigorous way.

Although his work was not followed up by succeeding genera¬tions, and indeed met with some disapproval and even censure, the great Egyptian historian al-Maqrizi, who was acquainted with Ibn Khaldun, did developed some of Ibn Khaldun's ideas.

The Ottoman Turks took the most interest in his theories concern¬ing the rise and fall of empires, since many of the points he discusses appeared to apply to their own political situation.

In the Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun's central theme is why nations rise to power and what causes their decline. He divides his argument into six sections. At the begin¬ning, he considers both source mate¬rial and methodology; he analyzes the problems of writing history and notes the how historians are at times led astray.

Another aspect of Ibn Khaldun's originality is his stress on studying the realities of human society and attempting to draw conclusions based on observation, rather than trying to reconcile observation with preconceived ideas. He also stressed the importance of the interaction between people and their physical and social environment.

He argues that no society can achieve any¬thing unless there is internal consensus about its aims. He assumes the need for strong leadership, and points out that solidarity ('asabiyah) is strongest in tribal societies because they are based on blood kinship and because, without solidarity, survival in a harsh environment is impossible. The combination of this solidarity with religion tends to be irresistible.

Ibn Khaldun perceives history as a cycle in which rough, nomadic peoples, with high degrees of internal bonding and little material culture to lose, invade and take resources from sedentary and essentially urban civilizations. These urban civilizations have high levels of wealth and culture but are self-indulgent and lack both "martial spirit" and the concomitant social solidarity. This is because those qualities have become unnecessary for survival in an urban environ¬ment, and also because it is almost impossible for the large number of different groups that compose a multicultural city to attain the same level of solidarity as a tribe linked by blood, shared custom and survival experiences. Thus the nomads conquer the cities and go on to be seduced by the pleasures of civilization and in their turn lose their solidarity and come under attack by the next group of rough and vig¬orous outsiders-and the cycle begins again.

Ibn Khaldun's reflections derive from his experiences in an unstable time. He had seen Arab civilization overrun in some parts of the world and seriously undermined in others: in North Africa by the Berbers, in Spain by the Franks and in the heartlands of the caliphate by Timur and the Mongol hordes. He was aware that the Arab empire had been founded by Bedouin who were, in terms of material culture, much less sophisticated than the peoples of the lands they conquered, but whose ‘asabiyah was far more powerful and who were inspired by the new faith of Islam. He was deeply saddened to watch what he saw as a cycle of con¬quest, decay and reconquest repeated at the expense of his own civilization.

As he developed his themes through the Muqaddimah, he presented many other innovative theo¬ries relating to education, economics, taxation, the role of the city versus the country, the bureaucracy versus the military and what influences affect the development of both individuals and cultures.

Many of Ibn Khaldun’s thoughts in the Muqaddimah are relevant today.

The Pernicious Effects of Domination

A harsh and violent upbringing, whether of pupils, slaves or servants, has as its consequence that violence dominates the soul and prevents the development of the personality. Energy gives way to indolence, and wickedness, deceit, cunning and trickery are developed by fear of physical violence. These tendencies soon become ingrained habits, corrupting the human quality which men acquire through social intercourse and which consists of manliness and the ability to defend oneself and one's household. Such men become dependent on others for protection; their souls even become too lazy to acquire virtue or moral beauty. They become ingrown....This is what has happened to every nation which has been dominated by others and harshly treated.

From: Charles Issawi, “An Arab Philosophy of History: Selections from the Prolegomena of Ibn Khaldun of Tunis (1332-1406), Darwin Press, 1987.

References: Charles Issawi, “An Arab Philosophy of History: Selections from the Prolegomena of Ibn Khaldun of Tunis (1332-1406), Darwin Press, 1987; Saudi ARAMCO World, September/October 2006.