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Ibn Khaldun

Ibn Khaldun, full name Abu Zayd 'Abd al-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldun al-Hadrami (عبد الرحمن بن محمد بن خلدون الحضرمي), May 27, 1332/ah732 to March 19, 1406/ah808) was a famous North African historiographer and historian, and is widely acclaimed as a forerunner of modern historiography, sociology and economics. He is best known for his Muqaddimah (Prolegomena).



Ibn Khaldun's life is relatively well-documented, as he wrote an autobiography (al-ta`rIf bi-ibn _haldUn wa-rihlatuhu .garban wa-^sarqan, published by Muhammad ibn Twt al-Tanj, Cairo 1951), in which numerous documents regarding his life are quoted word-for-word. However, the autobiography has little to say about his private life, so that little is known about his family background. Generally known as Ibn Khaldun after a remote ancestor, he was born in Tunis in 732 A.H. (1332 C.E.) into an upper-class Andalusian family, the Banu Khaldun . His family, which held many high offices in Andalucia, had emigrated to Tunisia after the fall of Seville at the beginning of the Reconquista, around the middle of the 13th century. Under the Tunisian Hafsid dynasty some of his family held political office; Ibn Khaldun's father and grandfather however withdrew from political life and joined a mystical order.

In his autobiography Ibn Khaldun traces his descent back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed through an Arabic-Yemeni tribe from Hadhramaut, which came to Spain in the eight century at the beginning of the Islamic conquest. In his own words: "And our ancestry is from Hadhramaut, from the Arabs of Yemen, via Wa'il ibn Hajar, from the best of the Arabs, well-known and respected." (p. 2429, Al-Waraq 's edition). However, a few biographers (eg., Mohammad Enan) question his claim, suggesting that his family may have been Berbers who pretended to Arab origin in order to gain social status. One website - - claims, without giving any sources, that this ancestry was through his mother and that his father was "a native of Berber" (sic), although this contradicts Ibn Khaldun's own words, since he traces his genealogy back to Khaldun through his father's side:

"Abd ar-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn Jabir ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Abd ar-Rahman ibn Khaldun. Of my genealogy back to Khaldun I recall only these ten, although there must have been more..." - (p. 2428, Al-Waraq 's edition)


His family's high rank enabled Ibn Khaldun to study with the best North African teachers of the time. He received a classical Arabic education, studying the Koran and Arabic linguistics, the basis for an understanding of the Koran and of Islamic law, Hadith and Fiqh. The mystic, mathematician and philosopher Al-Abili introduced him to mathematics, logic and philosophy, where he above all studied the works of Averroes, Avicenna, Razi and al-Tusi . At the age of 17 Ibn Khaldun lost both his parents to an epidemic of the plague which hit Tunis.

Following family tradition, Ibn Khaldun strove for a political career. In the face of a constantly changing political situation in contemporary North Africa, this required a high degree of skill, developing alliances and dropping them appropriately, to avoid being sucked under by the demise of rules who at times held power only briefly. Ibn Khaldun's autobiography, in which he spends time in prison, gains the highest offices and enters exile, at times reads like an adventure story.

Early years in Tunis and Granada

At the age of 20, he began his political career at the Chancellery of the Tunisian ruler, Ibn Tafrakin , with the position of kAtib al-'alAmah, which consisted of writing in fine calligraphy the typical introductory notes of official documents. In 1352 Abu Ziad, the Sultan of Constantine, marched on Tunis, and defeated it. Ibn Khaldun, in any case unhappy with his respected but politically meaningless position, followed his teacher Abili to Fez. Here the Merinid sultan Abu Inan Fares I gave him a position as a writer of royal proclamations, which didn't prevent Khaldun from scheming against his employer. In 1357 this brought the 25-year-old a 22-month prison sentence. At the death of Abu Inan in 1358, the vizier al-Hasan ibn Omar set him at liberty and reinstated him in his rank and offices. Ibn Khaldun then schemed against Abu Inan's successor, Abu Salem Ibrahim III, with Abu Salem's exiled uncle, Abu Salem. When Abu Salem came to power, he gave Ibn Khaldun a ministerial position, the first which corresponded with bn Khaldun's expectations.

By contrast, after the fall of Abu Salem through Ibn Amar Abd Allah, a friend of Ibn Khaldun's, Khaldun was disappointed, receiving no significant official position. At the same time, Amar successfully prevented Ibn Khaldun - whose political skills he was well aware of - from allying with the Abdalwid s in Tlemcen. Ibn Khaldun therefore decided to move to Granada. He could be sure of a positive welcome there, since at Fez he had helped the Sultan of Granada, the Nasrid Mohammed V, regain power from his temporary exile. In 1364 Mohammed entrusted him with a diplomatic mission to the King of Castille, Pedro the Cruel, to sign a peace treaty. Ibn Khaldun successfully carried out this mission, and politely declined Pedro's offer to remain at his court and have his family's Spanish possessions returned to him.

In Granada however Ibn Khaldun quickly came into competition with Mohammed's vizier, Ibn al-Khatib, who saw the close relationship between Mohammed and Ibn Khaldun with increasing mistrust. Ibn Khaldun tried to shape the young Mohammed into his ideal of a wise ruler, an enterprise which Ibn al-Khatib thought foolish and a danger to peace in the country - and history proved him right. At al-Khatib's instigation, Ibn Khaldun was eventually sent back to North Africa. Al-Khatib himself was later accused by Mohammed of having unorthodox philosophical views, and murdered, despite an attempt by Ibn Khaldun to intercede on behalf of his old rival.

In his autobiography Ibn Khaldun tells us little about his conflict with Ibn al-Khatib and the reasons for his return to Africa. The orientalist Muhsin Mahdi interprets this as showing that Khaldun later realised that he had completely misjudged Mohammed V.

High political office

Back in Africa, the Hafsid sultan of Bougie, Abu Abdallah, who had been his companion in prison, received him with great cordiality, and made Ibn Khaldun his prime minister. During this period Ibn Khaldun carried out an adventurous mission to collect taxes among the local Berber tribes. After the 1366 death of Abu Abdallah, Khaldun changed sides once again and allied himself with the ruler of Tlemcen, Abu al-Abbas. A few years later he was taken prisoner by Abdalaziz (Abd ul Aziz), who had defeated the sultan of Tlemcen and seized the throne. He then entered a monastic establishment, and occupied himself with scholastic duties, until in 1370 he was sent for to Tlemcen by the new sultan. After the death of Abd ul Aziz he resided at Fez, enjoying the patronage and confidence of the regent.

Ibn Khaldun's political skills, above all his good relationship with the wild Berber tribes, were in high demand among the north African rulers, whereas he himself began to tire of politics and constant switching of allegiances. In 1375, sent by Abu Hammu, the Abdalwadid Sultan of Tlemcen, on a mission to the Dawadida tribes, Ibn Khaldun sought refuge with one of the Berber tribes, the Awlad Arif of central Algeria, in the town of Qalat Ibn Salama . He lived there for over three years under their protection, taking advantage of his seclusion to write the Muqaddimah (the "Introduction" to his planned history of the world). In Ibn Salama, however, he lacked the necessary literature to complete the work. As a result, in 1378, he returned to his native Tunis, which in the mean time had been conquered by Abu al-Abbas, who took Ibn Khaldun back into his service. There he devoted himself almost exclusively to his studies and completed his history of the world. His relationship with Abu al-Abbas remained strained, as the latter doubted his loyalty, especially after Ibn Khaldun presented him with a copy of the completed history, but simply omitted the usual panegyric to the ruler. Under pretence of going on the Hajj to Mecca - something an Islamic ruler could not simply refuse permission for - Ibn Khaldun was able to leave Tunis and sail to Alexandria.

Last years in Egypt

In comparison to the Maghreb Ibn Khaldun must have felt Egypt was a paradise; indeed he himself said "He who has not seen it does not know the power of Islam." While all other Islamic regions had to cope with border wars and inner strife, Egypt under the Mamluks was experiencing a period of economic prosperity and high culture. But even in Egypt, where Ibn Khaldun spent the rest of his life, he could not stay out of politics completely. In 1384 the Egyptian Sultan, al-Malik udh-Dhahir Barquq, made him Professor of the Qamhiyyah Madrasah, and grand Qadi (supreme judge) of the Maliki school of fiqh or religious law (one of four schools, the Maliki school was widespread primarily in West Africa). His efforts at reform encountered resistance, however, and within a year he had to resign his judgeship. A contributory factor to his decision to resign may have been the heavy personal blow that struck him in 1384, when a ship carrying his wife and children sank off the coast of Alexandria. Ibn Khaldun now decided to complete the pilgrimage to Mecca after all.

After his return in May 1388, Ibn Khaldun concentrated more strongly on a purely educational function at various Cairo madrassas. At court he fell out of favour for a time, as during revolts against Barquq he had - apparently under duress - together with other Cairo jurists issued a Fatwa against Barquq. Later relations with Barquq returned to normal, and he was once again named the Maliki qadi. Altogether he was called six times to this high office, which for various reasons he never held long.

In 1401, under Barquq's successor, his son Faraj, Ibn Khaldun took part in a military campaign against the Mongolian conqueror Timur, who besieged Damascus. Khaldun doubted the success of the venture and didn't really want to leave Egypt. His doubts were vindicated, as the young and inexperienced Faraj, concerned about a revolt in Egypt, left his army to its own devices in Syria and hurried home. Ibn Khaldun remained at the besieged city for seven weeks, being lowered over the city wall by ropes in order to negotiate with Timur, in a historic series of meetings which he reports extensively in his autobiography. Timur questioned him in detail about conditions in the lands of the Maghreb; at his request, Ibn Khaldun even wrote a long report about it. As he recognised the intentions behind this, he did not hesitate, on his return to Egypt, to compose an equally extensive report on the history of the Tartars, together with a character study of Timur, sending these to the Merinid rulers in Fez.

Ibn Khaldun spent the following five years in Cairo completing his autobiography and his history of the world and acting as teacher and judge. He died on 17th March 1406, one month after his sixth selection for the office of the Maliki Qadi.


Unlike most Arab scholars, Ibn Khaldun has left behind few works other than his history of the world, the kitAb al-`ibAr. Significantly, such writings are not alluded to in his autobiography, suggesting perhaps that Ibn Khaldun saw himself first and foremost as a historian and wanted to be known above all as the author of the kitAb al-`ibAr. From other sources we know of several other works, primarily composed during the time he spent in North Africa and Spain. His first book, lubAb al-muhassal, a commentary on the theology of ar-Raz, was written at the age of 19 under the supervision of his teacher al-bil in Tunis. A work on Sufism, ^sifA' al-sA'il was composed around 1373 in Fez. Whilst at the court of Mohammed V., the Sultan of Granada, Ibn Khaldun composed a work on logic, `allaqa li-l-sultAn.

The kitAb al-`ibAr (full title: kitAb al-'ibAr wa-diwAn al-mubtada' wa-l-_habar fI ayyAm al-`arab wa-l-a^gam wa-l-barbar wa-man `A.sarahum min _dawI al-sul.tAn al-akbar Book of Evidence, Record of Beginnings and Events from the Days of the Arabs, Persians and Berbers and their Powerful Contemporaries), Ibn Khaldun's main work, was originally conceived as a history of the Berbers. Later the focus was widened so that in its final form (including its own methodology and anthropology) it represents a so-called "universal history". It is divided into seven books, the first of which, the Muqaddimah, can be considered a separate work. Books two to five cover the history of mankind up to the time of Ibn Khaldun. Books six and seven cover the history of the Berber peoples and of the Maghreb, which for the present-day historian represent the real value of the kitAb al-`ibAr, as they are based on Ibn Khaldun's personal knowledge of the Berbers.

For sociology it is interesting that he conceived both a central social conflict ("town" versus "desert") as well as a theory (using the concept of a "generation") of the necessary loss of power of city conquerors coming from the desert. Following a contemporary Arab scholar, Sati' al-Husri, it can be suggested that the Muqaddimah is essentially a sociological work, sketching over its six books a general sociology; a sociology of politics; a sociology of urban life; a sociology of economics; and a sociology of knowledge. The work is based around Ibn Khaldun's central concept of 'asabiyah, or "social cohesion." This cohesion arises spontaneously in tribes and other small kinship groups; and it can be intensified and enlarged by a religious ideology. Khaldun's analysis looks at how this cohesion carries groups to power but contains within itself the seeds - psychological, sociological, economic, political - of the group's downfall, to be replaced by a new group, dynasty or empire bound by a stronger (or at least younger and more vigorous) cohesion.

Assessments of Ibn Khaldun's Contribution

  • British historian Arnold J. Toynbee called the Muqaddimah "undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place."
  • Bernard Lewis describes Ibn Khaldun as "the greatest historian of the Arabs and perhaps the greatest historical thinker of the Middle Ages" (from The Arabs in History, 1950, page 160)
  • Abderrahmane Lakhsassi writes: "No historian of the Maghreb since and particularly of the Berbers can do without his historical contribution."

Some Quotes from Works by Ibn Khaldun

On economics

"In the early stages of the state, taxes are light in their incidence, but fetch in a large revenue...As time passes and kings succeed each other, they lose their tribal habits in favor of more civilized ones. Their needs and exigencies grow...owing to the luxury in which they have been brought up. Hence they impose fresh taxes on their subjects...[and] sharply raise the rate of old taxes to increase their yield...But the effects on business of this rise in taxation make themselves felt. For business men are soon discouraged by the comparison of their profits with the burden of their taxes...Consequently production falls off, and with it the yield of taxation."

This is in essence equivalent to the modern economic concept known as the Laffer Curve.

On the Arabs

"Arabs dominate only of the plains, because they are, by their savage nature, people of pillage and corruption. They pillage everything that they can take without fighting or taking risks, then flee to their refuge in the wilderness, and do not stand and do battle unless in self-defense. So when they encounter any difficulty or obstacle, they leave it alone and look for easier prey. And tribes well-fortified against them on the slopes of the hills escape their corruption and destruction, because they prefer not to climb hills, nor expend effort, nor take risks. Whereas plains, when they can reach them due to lack of protection and weakness of the state, are spoils for them and morsels for them to eat, which they will keep despoiling and raiding and conquering with ease until their people are defeated, then imitate them with mutual conflict and political decline, until their civilization is destroyed. And Allah is capable of their creation, and He is the One, the Victorious, and there is no other lord than Him." (original text)

Note on Ibn Khaldun's use of "Arab"

Some scholars believe that, in many instances, Ibn Khaldun uses the name Arab to mean bedouin. Other scholars, such as Mohamed Chafik, deny this.

From Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History pp. 14-16 (1950)

"From late 'Abbasid times onwards the word Arab reverts to its earlier meaning of Bedouin or nomad, becoming in effect a social rather than an ethnic term. In many of the Western chronicles of the Crusades it is used only for Bedouin, while the mass of the Muslim population of the Near East are called Saracens. It is certainly in this sense that in the sixteenth century Tasso speaks of
'Altri Arabi poi, che di soggiorno, / certo non sono stabili abitanti;' (Gerusalemme Liberata, XVII 21.)
"The fourteenth-century Arabic historian Ibn Khaldun, himself a townsman of Arab descent, uses the word commonly in this sense."

Some text from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica

See also


  • Ibn Khaldun: The Muqaddimah: an Introduction to History. Translated from the Arabic by Franz Rosenthal. 3 vols. New York: Princeton 1958.
  • Ibn Khaldun: The Muqaddimah: an Introduction to History. Trans Franz Rosenthal, ed N.J. Dawood. 1 vol (abridged) 1967.
  • Muhsin Mahdi: Ibn Khaldun's Philosophy of History. London 1957.
  • Walter Fischel, Ibn Khaldun in Egypt; his public functions and his historical research, 1382-1406; a study in Islamic historiography. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1967.
  • Mahmoud Rabi', The political theory of Ibn Khaldun, Leiden 1967
  • Ibn Khaldun: al-Ta'rf bi-ibn Khaldn wa rihlatuhu gharban wa-sharqan. Published by Muhammad ibn Twt al-Tanj. Cairo 1951. (Autobiography, Arabic)

External links

  • Ibn Khaldun on the Web
  • Ibn Khaldun: His Life and Work, by Muhammad Hozien
  • Muslim Scientists and Scholars - Ibn Khaldun
  • Dutch biography
  • Chapters from the Muqaddimah and the History of Ibn Khaldun in Arabic
  • "Les Arabes n'tablissent leur domination que sur des pays de plaines"
  • Ibn Khaldun Discussion
  • The Ibn Khaldoun Community Service Award

Last updated: 02-06-2005 12:42:22
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01