Abd al-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldun

Abd al-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was an Arab historian, philosopher, and statesman whose treatise, the Muqaddima, in which he pioneered a general sociological theory of history, shows him as one of the most original thinkers of the Middle Ages.

Ibn Khaldun was born on May 27, 1332, in Tunis. His family, of southern Arabian origin, settled in Seville after the Moslem conquest of Spain and distinguished themselves in the political and intellectual life of the city. Shortly before the Christian reconquest they left and eventually settled in Tunis. Ibn Khaldun always felt attached to the cultural tradition of Moslem Spain.

Growing up in Tunis, Ibn Khaldun studied the traditional religious sciences including law according to the Maliki school as well as the rational sciences. He also was trained in the arts necessary for a career in government. Among his teachers, he was most impressed by al-Abili, who came to Tunis in 1347 and introduced him to philosophy.


Early Wanderings

In 1352 the Hafsid ruler of Tunis gave Ibn Khaldun a minor position in the chancery, but he left soon to join al-Abili, who had returned to Fez. During his stay in Fez (1354-1362) Ibn Khaldun pursued his scholarly interests and was actively involved in the political life at the Merinid court. Suspected of plotting against the ruler, he was imprisoned in 1357 for 22 months. Under a later ruler he again held high positions but became discouraged by court intrigues.

Prevented by the Merinid court from joining the rival court at Tlemcen, Ibn Khaldun turned to Granada, where he was accorded a royal welcome by the young ruler, Muhammad V, and his vizier, Ibn al-Khatib, an outstanding man of letters, whose friendship he had gained during Ibn al-Khatib's exile in Fez. In 1364 Muhammad V sent Ibn Khaldun to Seville on a mission to Pedro I, King of Castile. Ibn Khaldun declined an offer of Pedro to have his ancestors' possessions reinstated if he would enter royal service. Ibn Khaldun's intimacy with Muhammad V, whom he tried to direct toward his ideal of philosopher king, aroused the suspicion of Ibn al-Khatib, and Ibn Khaldun was forced to leave Granada, though with official honors, in 1365.

Ibn Khaldun accepted an invitation from the Hafsid ruler of Bougie and became his minister. When the ruler was defeated and killed by his cousin a year later, Ibn Khaldun entered the service of the cousin but soon left as a result of court intrigue. The next 9 years were the most turbulent of his life. Thoroughly disappointed with his court experiences, he tried to keep away from politics and spent most of the time in research and teaching in Biskra, at the sanctuary of the saint Abu Madyan near Tlemcen, and in Fez. He felt, however, repeatedly obliged to assume political missions for various rulers among the Arab tribes in the area. In 1375 he briefly returned to Granada but was expelled.


Writing the Muqaddima

Soon afterward Ibn Khaldun retreated to the castle of Ibn Salama in central Algeria, where he spent over 3 years in complete seclusion under tribal protection. He intended writing a history of the contemporary Maghreb and began the introduction (muqaddima) setting forth his ideas about critical historiography. The Muqaddima rapidly grew into a general theory of history, or science of civilization, as he termed it. He now widened his plans to include a universal history based on his new science. In 1379 he returned to Tunis with the permission of the new Hafsid ruler to avail himself of books and archives for his work. Under the ruler's patronage he wrote the history of the Maghreb and sections of the history of the East. His influence with the ruler and popularity among students again provoked court intrigues, and he left in 1382 for Egypt under pretext of a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The last 2 decades of his life Ibn Khaldun lived in Cairo, the splendid capital of the Mamluk empire, enjoying the patronage of the sultans Barquq and Faraj. He was granted professorships in several colleges. Six times he was appointed Maliki chief judge, though only for brief terms. Most of his time was devoted to teaching and research. He completed his history and continued improving it. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca and two trips to Damascus, the second one occasioned by the campaign of Faraj against Tamerlane in 1400. Tamerlane invited Ibn Khaldun to visit his camp; his conversations with the world conqueror, reported in his autobiography, turned mostly around the political conditions in Egypt and the Maghreb. Ibn Khaldun died on March 17, 1406.


Theory of Civilization

Ibn Khaldun's fame rests on his Muqaddima, in which he set forth the earliest general theory of the nature of civilization and the conditions for its development, intending it as a tool for understanding and writing history. He considered the permanent conflict between primitive Bedouin and highly developed urban society as a crucial factor in history. Civilization is for him an urban phenomenon to be realized only by local concentration and cooperation of men united under a strong dynastic rule. He saw group solidarity (as abiyya) as the driving force for this cooperation and the establishment of dynastic rule. The group with the strongest feeling of solidarity establishes its predominance and the rule of its leading family. The division of labor resulting from cooperation makes possible the production of conveniences and luxuries beyond the elementary necessities of life and the development of sciences. Indulgence in luxuries, however, causes degeneration and loss of group solidarity and thus results in the disintegration of the state and the group supporting the civilization. Another, less civilized group with an unspoiled sense of solidarity takes over and becomes heir to the earlier civilization.

Ibn Khaldun's history of the Maghreb, written with the insight of an active participant, presents a penetrating description of the rise and fall of dynasties and the role of Berber and Arab tribes. It is an invaluable source for the medieval history of North Africa. The other parts of his universal history generally lack such insight and source value. His autobiography, the most detailed one in medieval Moslem literature, offers a perspicacious description of his life until 1405. Of his early works, which were scholastic exercises in various fields of learning, only two are known to be extant.


Further Reading on Abd al-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldun

Ibn Khaldun's The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, edited and translated by Franz Rosenthal (3 vols., 1958; 2d ed. 1967), contains a complete translation of the Muqaddima with a detailed introduction to Ibn Khaldun's life and work. Muhsin Mahdi, Ibn Khaldun's Philosophy of History (1957), is a penetrating study. The reports concerning Ibn Khaldun's meeting with Tamerlane were translated and edited by Walter J. Fischel in Ibn Khaldun and Tamerlane (1952). Other useful sources are Nathaniel Schmidt, Ibn Khaldun: Historian, Sociologist and Philosopher (1930), and Muhammad Abdullah Enan, Ibn Khaldun: His Life and Work (trans. 1941).

Additional Biography Sources

Ali, Shaukat, Dr., Intellectual foundations of Muslim civilization, Lahore: Publishers United, 1977.

Schmidt, Nathaniel, Ibn Khaldun, historian, sociologist, and philosopher, Lahore: Universal Books, 1978.