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.
Childhood and Early Years
He is ‘Abd al-Ra?m?n b. Mu?ammad b. Mu?ammad b. Mu?ammad b. al-?asan b. J?bir b. Mu?ammad b. Ibr?h?m b. ‘Abd al-Ra?m?n Ibn Khald?n. According to Ibn Khald?n, his ancestors originated in ?a?ramawt, Yemen. He also traced his ancestry (through another genealogy, as supplied by Ibn Hazm in his book Jamharat ans?b al-‘arab) back to W??il b. ?ajar, one of the oldest Yemeni tribes. These genealogies point to his Arab origin, although some scholars question the authenticity of these reports because of the political climate at the time of the reports.
Ibn Khald?n was born in Tunis on 27 May 1332 /1 Rama??n 732. He received a traditional education that was typical for one of his family’s rank and status. He learned first at the hands of his father, who was a scholarly person, and not involved in politics like his ancestors. He memorized the Qur’an, learned grammar, jurisprudence, ?ad?th, rhetoric, philology, and poetry. He reached a certain proficiency in these subjects and received certification in them. In his autobiography, he mentions the names of the scholars with whom he studied.
Ibn Khald?n continued his studies until the age of nineteen, when the great plague swept over the lands from Samarqand to Mauritania. It was after this plague that Ibn Khald?n received his first public assignment, marking the start of his political career, and forever changing his life.
Al-Muqaddima: Ibn Khald?n’s Magnum Opus
Ibn Khald?n’s works can be classified in the categories of history and religion. Of his works on history, only his universal history has survived to our day. The history that was written specifically for Tamerlane, as Ibn Khald?n mentioned in his autobiography, has been lost. His religious books are: Lubab al-ma???l [Summary of the result]; a commentary on an u??l al-fiqh poem, and a few works of questionable attribution to him, namely a Sufi tract, Shif?? al-s??il [Healing of the inquirer].
Ibn Khald?n’s magnum opus al-Muqaddima can be divided into three parts. The first part is the introduction, the second part is the universal history, and the third part is the history of the Maghrib. In this section, I concentrate on the first part. The second part is similar to the standard histories of Muslim historians, and there does not seem to be much divergence. The third part, which is concerned with the history of the Maghrib, is considered a primary source work. Much of the information in this section is from Ibn Khald?n’s personal travels and contacts in the area, and is replete with firsthand accounts. An additional work that is not usually considered a part of this book is an appendix, which is an autobiography of the author.
The first part, the “Introduction,” is popularly known as al-Muqaddima; Ibn Khald?n wrote this in a span of five months. It can be divided into six parts as follows:
Human society —ethnology and anthropology
Forms of government and forms of institutions
Society of urban civilization
Science and humanity
This impressive document is the essence of Ibn Khald?n’s wisdom and hard-earned experience. He used his political and firsthand knowledge of the people of Maghrib to formulate many of his ideas and summarized almost every field of knowledge of the time. He discusses a variety of topics, including history and historiography. He rebukes some historical claims with a calculated logic, and discusses the contemporary sciences. He wrote about astronomy, astrology, and numerology; and dealt with chemistry, alchemy, and magic in a scientific way. He freely offered his opinions and well documented the “facts” of other points of view. His discussion of tribal societies and social forces is the most interesting part of his thesis. He illuminated the world with deep insight into the makings and workings of kingdoms and civilizations.
The following quotation describes his philosophy of the historical process of civilizations, including, for example, the role of economics:
“In the field of economics, Ibn Khald?n 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.”
Ibn Khald?n is well known for his explanation of the nature of state and society and for being “the founder of the new discipline of sociology”:
“Ibn Khald?n 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.”
Ibn Khald?n’s contributions to the field of history must also be noted.
“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.”
On the development of the state, and the relationship between the state and society, Ibn Khald?n believed that:
“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. 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.”
Ibn Khald?n proposed 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.”
For Ibn Khald?n, history is a constantly changing cycle, with essentially two groups of people, nomads and townspeople, with peasants in between. He characterizes each group:
“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.”
With regard to the political and social cycle, Ibn Khald?n suggests the following sequence of events:
“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 Khald?n acknowledges that there are turning points in history. He wrote that in his time, he believed the Black Death and Mongol invasions were turning points, as was the development of Europe. His observations and research focused on the etiology of civilizational decline, “the symptoms and the nature of the ills from which civilizations die.” Ibn Khald?n’s thesis, that the conquered race will always emulate the conqueror in every way, and his theory about ‘a?abiyya (group feeling/party spirit) and the role it plays in Bedouin societies is insightful. The genius of this work is his study of the science of human culture, the rise and fall of empires; Ibn Khald?n termed this the science of ‘umr?n (civilization), and it contains many pearls of wisdom. His “Introduction” is his greatest legacy, left for all of humanity and generations to come.
Ibn Khald?n’s View on Science and Philosophy
Ibn Khald?n’s view on science followed the traditional division of sciences, which involves a division into religious sciences and non-religious sciences. The non-religious sciences are further divided into useful and non-useful sciences (mainly the occult sciences such as magic, alchemy and astrology). In the Muqaddima, Ibn Khald?n reports on all the sciences up to his time, with examples and quotations. He makes it a point to refute magic, alchemy, astrology, and philosophy in his book. His work became a record of the development of sciences in his day.
Ibn Khald?n’s view on philosophy is similar to that of al-Ghaz?l?, in the sense that he attempted to reconcile mysticism and theology. In fact, Ibn Khald?n, according to Issawi,
“. . . goes further than the latter [al-Ghaz?l?] in bringing mysticism completely within the purview of the jurisprudent (faq?h) and in developing a model of the Sufi shaykh, or master, as rather similar to the theologian. 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.”
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 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 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’. 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.
Ibn Khaldun is also critical of Neoplatonic 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, 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, 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.