'Abd al-Rahman ibn Khaldun


Historian and sociologist, he is considered the founder of modern historiography. Born in Tunis in 1332, he served at courts in Andalusia and North Africa and taught at al-Azhar in Cairo. He is the author of Kitab al- 'Ibar (Universal History), in which he treated history as a science and outlined reasons for the rise and fall of civilizations.

His Life

His parents were originally from the Hadramawt in Yemen. They had settled in Arab Spain, but after the fall of Seville, they left for Tunisia. He was born in Tunisia in 1332 C.E., where he received his early education. His parents died of the plague when he was 17. In just one year, 1347-1348, the plague killed at least a third of the population of the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. It was one of the experiences that shaped Ibn Khaldun's perception of the world. At the same time Tunis was reduced to political chaos by the Marinids occupation between 1340 and 1350, the Berber dynasty that ruled Morocco. In 1356, Ibn Khaldun set out to Fez, the Marinid capital and the liveliest court in North Africa. He was a court secretary for a short while. After a number of moves, he found himself back in Fez, where the previous Marinid ruler had been supplanted by his son, Abu 'Inan, to whom Ibn Khaldun offered his services.

He lived during a time of political turmoil and intrigue. In 1359, the ruler of Granada had been forced to flee Andalusia to Fez together with his vizier, Ibn al-Khatib. The vizier was one of the most famous scholars of the age. Ibn al Khatib and Ibn Khaldun developed a warm friendship. As a result of court intrigue, Ibn al-Khatib was accused of heresy for contradicting the 'ulama, and insisting that the plague was a communicable disease, and for that he was strangled in prison at Fez in the late spring of 1375..

Ibn Khaldun was very affected by his friend's death, and also concerned about the political and religious implications of such an execution. Not long afterward he withdrew to the Castle of Ibn Salamah, not far from Oran in Algeria. There for the first time, he could really dedicate himself to study and reflect on what he had learned from books, in the context of his experiences in the violent and turbulent world of his day.

Ibn Khaldun had repeatedly expressed the wish to devote his life to scholarship, but the political world clearly fascinated him.

During the period of calm at the Castle of Ibn Salamah, Ibn Khaldun wrote the Muqaddimah or Introduction to his Kitab al- 'Ibar (The Book of Admonitions or Book of Precepts, also often referred to as the Universal History). The Muqaddimah contains Ibn Khaldun's most original and controversial perceptions, while Kitab al-'Ibar is a conventional narrative history. Ibn Khaldun continued to rewrite and revise his great work in the light of new information or experience for the rest of his life.

Four years later in 1379 he began to feel the need for intellectual companionship and for libraries in which to continue his research.

At the age of 47, Ibn Khaldun returned again to Tunis, where "my ancestors lived and where there still exist their houses, their remains and their tombs." He planned to settle down as a teacher and scholar, and abandon all political involvement.


But that proved impossible as some considered his rationalist teachings subversive, and the imam of al-Zaytunah Mosque in Tunis, with whom he had been on terms of rivalry since his student days, became jealous. He could not leave Tunis because the sultan insisted he remain in Tunis and complete his book there, since a ruler's status was greatly enhanced by attracting learned men to his court.

In 1382 Ibn Khaldun asked permission to leave the city to perform the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, a request that cannot be denied a person in the Islamic world. In October he set out for Egypt. In Cairo, which exceeded all his expectations, the Mamluk Sultan Barquq received him with enthusiasm and gave him the position of qadi, or justice, of the Maliki School of Islamic law.

In his autobiography, Ibn Khaldun describes how his efforts to combat corruption and ignorance, together with the jealousy aroused by the appointment of a foreigner to a top job, meant that once again he found himself in a embroiled in politics. It was something of a relief when the sultan dismissed him in favor of the former qadi. Before the end of his life, Ibn Khaldun was to be appointed and dismissed no fewer than six times.

Ibn Khaldun was married and had children; he had a brother Yahya ibn Khaldun who was also a distinguished historian and a sister who died young; her tombstone is in Tunis. Little is known about his personal life, as it is not an Arab custom to include personal details in one's writings. His family and household were essentially being held hostage in Tunis for his return form the hajj and then Cairo. At the personal request of Barquq, whose letter is quoted in the Autobiography, they were given permission to join Ibn Khaldun in Cairo. But the boat carrying his family sank off Alexandria and no one survived.

Three years later, in 1387, Ibn Khaldun dedicated set out to perform the hajj with the Egyptian caravan. He says little of his pilgrimage, but he mentions that at Yanbu' he received a letter from his old friend. Ibn Zamrak, many of whose poems are inscribed on interior walls of the Alhambra. Ibn Zamrak, then the confidential secretary of the ruler of Granada, asked among other things for books from Egypt.

On his return to Cairo, Ibn Khaldun held various teaching posts, but from 1399 the cycle of political appointments and dismissals began again.

In 1400, Ibn Khaldun was compelled by Barquq's successor, Sultan al-Nasir, to travel to Damascus, where he took part in the negotiations with the Central Asian conqueror Timur. The aim was to persuade Timur to spare Damascus. Ibn Khaldun describes his conversations with Timur in his Autobiography.

In the end, however, the Egyptian diplomatic delegation was unsuccessful. Timur did sack Damascus and from there went on to take Baghdad, with great loss of life. The following year, Timur defeated the Ottomans at Ankara, taking their Sultan Beyazit prisoner.

Ibn Khaldun's autobiography continues for no more than a page or two after his return from Damascus, and he mentions only his appointments and dismissals. Although he never returned to Tunis, he continued to think of himself as a westerner, wearing until the last the dark burnous that is still the national dress of North Africa. He continued to revise and correct his great work until his death in Cairo on March 16, 1406.

The contents of the muqaddimah

1. Human society, its kinds and geographical distribution.
2. Nomadic societies, tribes and "savage peoples.”
3. States, the spiritual and temporal powers, and political ranks.
4. Sedentary societies, cities and provinces.
5. Crafts, means of livelihood and economic activity.
6. Learning and the ways in which it is acquired.

His Work

Ibn Khaldun's most important work was Kitab al-Ibar, and the most significant section was the introduction or the Muqaddimah,  which is in three volumes and the repository of 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 being debated, and in particular whether he had read Plato's Republic. Ibn Khaldun's originality lies in the fact that he was conscious of the need to study social cause and effect in a rigorous way.

Although his work was not followed up by succeeding generations, 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 who took the most interest in his theories concerning 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 or fields. At the beginning, he considers both source material and methodology; he analyzes the problems of writing history and notes the fallacies which most frequently lead historians astray. His comments are still relevant today.

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 anything unless there is internal consensus about its aims. He assumes the need for strong leadership, but it is clear that, to him, a successful society as a whole must be in agreement as to its ultimate goals. He points out that solidarity, for which he uses the word 'asabiyah, is strongest in tribal societies because they are based on blood kinship and because, without solidarity, survival in a harsh environment is impossible. If this solidarity is joined to the other most powerful social bond, religion, then the combination 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 environment, 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 vigorous outsiders-and the cycle begins again.

Ibn Khaldun's reflections derive from his experiences in a radically 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 his Turco-Mongol hordes. He was well 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 conquest, decay and reconquest repeated at the expense of his own civilization.

As Ibn Khaldun developed his themes through the Muqaddimah, he presented many other innovative theories 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. It is in these themes that we find echoes of al-Mas'udi's Kitab al- Tanbih wa al-Ishraf, where he considers the factors that shape a nation's laws: the nature of authority and the relationship between spiritual and temporal powers, to name only two.

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 the scholar had already witnessed at first hand


The political upheavals caused by the various Berber dynasties in North Africa, as well as the success of the Christian powers in reducing the Muslim kingdoms in the Iberian Peninsula. Now he was about to witness another example of the rise and fall of empires, this time with an epicenter farther to the east than he had ever traveled.

References: Saudi ARAMCO World, September/October 2006.co, http://al-hakawati.net/Personalities/PersonalityDetails/145/ابن-خلدون