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Ibn Khaldun, the Arab Philosopher who Continues to Amaze the World

posted on: Nov 7, 2018

Ibn Khaldun, the Arab Philosopher who Continues to Amaze the World

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

It was in the spring of 1961 when I was strolling down the Avenue, Habib Bourguiba, one of the main boulevards in Tunis, Tunisia’s capital when I saw a statue of Ibn Khaldun.  At that time, I had no idea who he was but as the years rolled by I came to appreciate the work of this genius philosopher-historian.  His ground-breaking non-religious philosophical and scientific approach to history places him as the founder of historiography, sociology, and economics.

His most famous work, The Muqaddima (Prolegomena (‘The Introduction’)) forming Volume 1 of his great work and comprehensive history Kitāb al-cibar would come to be ranked by 20th century British historian Arnold Toynbee “as undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.”  Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima to the cibar became one of the best-known and important works on medieval historiography in its presentation as a philosophy and scientific approach to history.

Abū Zayd Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Khaldūn al-Ḥaḍramī whose family roots originated in Hadramaut (Yemen) and immigrated and settled in Carmona in Arab Spain, sometimes at the beginning of the Arab/Islamic conquest, traced his lineage to the Kinda tribe.  By the 13th century, the family’s descendants were one of the most prominent, distinguished influential scholars, and officials of Seville.  Eventually, the descendants held in both al-Andalus and North Africa, high political administrative positions and posts under the Umayyad, Almoravid, and Almohad dynasties, as well as serving in their armies.

As the Muslim stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula waned with the Catholic advance, the family immigrated to Tunis, probably around 1258, where they became involved in administrative work in the local governments. Ibn Khaldun’s father, a legal scholar, and jurist, also worked as an administrator and was learned in theology, law, and the Arabic language.

Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis on May 27, 1332, and, thanks to his family status, had a formal and traditional education.  This gave him the opportunity to learn from some of the most famous North African scholars of his time.

He memorized the Qur’an, and became proficient and certified in the Hadith, Islamic law (shari’a), jurisprudence (fiqh), grammar, Arabic linguistics and literature, and poetry.  His later studies included among other social sciences, history, geography, mathematics, logic, and philosophy. including the works of Averroes, Avicenna, al-Razi, and Tusi.  Tragedy struck when the Plague hit Tunis and at the age of 17, he lost both of his parents.

Ibn Khaldun’s political career began when he was assigned by Ibn Tafrakin, the Tunisian ruler, to be the official seal-bearer.  This would be his introduction into witnessing court politics and the mechanisms of government, in its strength and in its weakness.  When Tunis was defeated by the Amir of Constantine (Algeria) in the mid-14th century, Ibn Khaldun left and found himself moving back and forth eventually settling in Biskra (Algeria).  However, with the Marinid conquest of Tlemcen (Algeria) by the Sultan Abū cInān of Fez, Ibn Khaldūn was invited to join the council of culamā’ and moved to Fez, where he would also further his studies.

There, he became the sultan’s seal bearer and then was promoted a number of times until he became court secretary and finally appointed Chief Justice. But because of court intrigue, conspiracies, and court rivalries, he eventually lost favor with the sultan.  Due to the tumultuous affairs of politics during his North African stay, he learned the skill of developing or dropping alliances when and if it was prudent to do so.

He left Fez for Granada and became part of the Court of the newly installed Muhammad al-Ahmar.  His position there led Muhammad to appoint him an ambassador on a mission to negotiate with Pedro the Cruel, leader of Castile where Ibn Khaldun successfully concluded a peace agreement between the two rulers.

But Ibn Khaldun was restless and after a falling out with his once friend and now rival, he returned to North Africa.  He did go this time to Bougie (Algeria) where he was appointed chamberlain (hājib) and then a year later to Biskra where he continued to be politically active, inviting tribes to pledge their loyalty at the bequest of whichever amir or sultan requested it. At the age of 45, he retired to Qal’at ibn Salāmah, near today’s Frenda in Algeria.

Away from the instability and turmoil of his time, the near day to day shifting circumstances in politics, and the intensity of court politics, he was able to dedicate himself to writing, and to concentrate on what he had learned from both book and experience. It was here that he would begin his momentous work on the Muqaddima or the Introduction to his Kitāb al- cIbar.

Considered the greatest sociological work ever written of all time, his Muqaddima laid the foundations for a philosophy of history based on sociology and the material factors that influence human and social events all within a scientific approach to history.  He discussed a historical method providing the standards necessary for distinguishing historical truth, authenticity, and facts from myth, rumor, and conjectures.

In his Muqaddama he presents for the first time, cilm al-cumrān, social science, that interconnects human civilization and social facts as a whole to understand history and how to write it.  It is the science of culture and civilization, the study of the nature of society and social transformations. For the first time in written history, Ibn Khaldun presents the theory of historical development aware of the physical conditions such as climate and geography as well as the moral and spiritual forces that prevail.

His history covers politics, nomadic life, sedentary and urban life, sociology, economics, taxes and tax theory, education, and medicine. He even touches on what we call today environmental studies where there are a cause and effect on population and businesses. He reasons why civilizations rise and fall, the rise and decline of the state and dynasties, the latter explained with his theory of casabiya – the bonds of social solidarity and tribal loyalty, or social cohesion that are determining factors affecting the state and the effect on how dynasties come to rule and then their decline. Ibn Khaldun hypothesizes that although casabiya manifests itself primarily among tribal groups, it further becomes based on social, psychological, physical, and political and religious factors, stronger than on those of genetics or kinship.

Seeking intellectual stimulation Ibn Khaldun returned to Tunis to teach and continue in his scholarly research.  However, once again he was forced to leave his city of birth wanting to avoid tension and the rising jealousies from his peers.  In 1382 he received permission to leave to perform the hajj. His wife and children remained in Tunis. When he reached Egypt, he was impressed with Cairo while, the Mamluk Sultan Barquq, impressed with Ibn Khaldun, appointed him Qadi (judge), a position which he would be dismissed from then re-appointed to, a number of times.   It was also during this period that personal tragedy struck. The boat on which his wife and family had boarded to join him sank off the coast of Alexandria. They all perished.

In 1400, Ibn Khaldun accompanied Sultan Nāṣir al-Dīn Faraj and his troops to Damascus in the Mamluk march to prevent the siege of the city by Timur (Tamerlane) and his Tatars.  With an unexpected turn of events in Egypt, the Sultan returned while Ibn Khaldun remained in Damascus. It was at this time that he would meet, probably in one of the most famous encounters in history, Timur, whose wars had given him the renown as ‘scourge of Asia’. When provisions were being negotiated with the Damascene notables and Timur, it was then that the Tatar ruler asked to meet Ibn Khaldun.

Ibn Khaldun’s autobiography paints a clear picture of the meeting in detail, his conversations with him about the great kings and generals of the past, the Abbasid Caliphate, casabiya, notwithstanding his mission to seek safety and security for the people of Damascus and for those men of the Sultan who had remained.  It was during this meeting that Timur requested that Ibn Khaldun, in a detailed and precise manner, writes for him a description of the whole region of the Maghrib and the areas around it, including its topography, cities, and villages.  Yet, despite, Ibn Khaldun’s meeting with Timur, the Tatar ruler continued his mission of sacking the city, plundering, looting and killing.

Back in Cairo, Ibn Khaldun was again appointed a judge and continued to work on and revise his history.  Here he died in 1406 and was buried in the cemetery outside Bāb al-Naṣr, one of Cairo’s main gates.

With his demise, the world lost, a great theorist.  In the words of 19th century Scottish theologian and philosopher Robert Flint, he “had no equal in any age or country until Vico appeared, more than three hundred years later. PlatoAristotle, and Augustine were not his peers, and all others were unworthy of being even mentioned along with him.”

In his position as Qadi, Ibn Khaldun had pursued justice and truth which in the end guided his road in his study of history.  In the words of Flint, “Arabic historians had, indeed, collected the materials which he could use, but he alone used them”.

The political and bitter turmoil in the time in which he lived, a first-hand witness to the ins and outs of government, learning the significance of alliances and rivalries in seeking power, experiencing the rise and fall of dynasties in the Maghrib, al-Andalus, and in the East, and even the curse of the Plague and other misfortunes, through these experiences along with his scholarship and independent thought, all shaped his outlook and pioneering approach to history.

Although Ibn Khaldun authored a number of other works that are no longer extant, it is his Muqaddima, in the end, that stands at the forefront of his works.  From this, he has left his mark as the greatest historical philosopher Islam produced and making him the founding father of modern historiography, sociology, and economics.