Ibn Khaldoun, in full Abou Zeid Abdelrahman Ibn Mohammed Ibn Khaldoun Al-Hadrami, was born in May 27, 1332, Tunis, Tunisia — died March 17, 1406, in Cairo, Egypt. He is the greatest Arab historian and social scientist. Ibn Khaldoun has been described as the founder of the modern disciplines of historiography, sociology, economics, and demography.
He who finds a new path is a pathfinder, even if the trail has to be found again by others; and he who walks far ahead of his contemporaries is a leader, even though centuries pass before he is recognized as such.Ibn Khaldoun.
Who is Ibn Khaldoun?
Multiple sources, such as Niccolò Machiavelli of the Renaissance and the 19th-century European scholars widely acknowledged the significance of his achievements and considered Ibn Khaldoun to be one of the greatest philosophers of the Middle Ages.
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He is actually the one who developed one of the earliest nonreligious philosophies of history, contained in his masterpiece, the Muqaddimah (“Introduction”). He also wrote a definitive history of Muslim North Africa.
The past resembles the future more than one drop of water resembles another.Ibn Khaldoun.
The easiest method of acquiring the habit of scholarship is through acquiring the ability to express oneself clearly in discussing and disputing scholarly problems. This is what clarifies their import and makes them understandable. Some students spend most of their lives attending scholarly sessions. Still, one finds them silent. They do not talk and do not discuss matters. More than is necessary, they are concerned with memorizing. Thus, they do not obtain much of a habit in the practice of scholarship and scholarly instructionIbn Khaldoun.
Ibn Khaldoun — Early Life
Ibn-Khaldoun was born in Tunis, Tunisia in 1332; the house where he believed to have been born is in the Khaldounia, a quarter in Tunis that still stands almost unchanged and well-preserved.
In his autobiography, Ibn Khaldoun mentioned that the family claimed descent from Khaldoun, who was of South Arabian origin, and had come to Spain in the early years of the Arab conquest. The family then moved to Sevilla, played an important part in the civil wars of the 9th century, and was long considered among the three leading families of that city.
During the following 4 centuries, the Ibn-Khaldouns successively held high administrative and political positions under the Umayyad, Almoravid, and Almohad dynasties; other members of the family served in the army, and several were killed at wars, mostly at the Battle of Al-Zallaqah (1086), which temporarily halted the Christian reconquest of Spain. But the respite thus won proved short, and in 1248, just before the fall of Sevilla and Córdoba, the Ibn-KHaldouns and many of their countrymen judged it prudent to cross the Straits of Gibraltar and landed at Sabtah (now Ceuta, a Spanish exclave), on the northern coast of Morocco.
Ove there, the refugees that came in from Spain were of a much higher level of socio-economic status than the local North Africans, and the Khaldoun family was soon called to occupy the leading administrative positions in Tunis. The Ibn Khaldoun’s father also became an administrator and soldier but soon abandoned his career to devote himself to the study of theology, law, and letters. In Ibn Khaldoun’s words:
He was outstanding in his knowledge of Arabic and had an understanding of poetry in its different forms and I can well remember how the men of letters sought his opinion in matters of dispute and submitted their works to him.Ibn Khaldoun.
In 1349, however, the Black Death struck Tunis and took away both his parents.
Ibn Khaldoun — Education & Career
Ibn Khaldoun gives a detailed recap of his education, listing the main books he read and describing the life and works of his teachers. He memorized the Quran, studied its principal commentaries, had a good grounding in Muslim law, familiarized himself with the masterpieces of Arabic literature, and acquired a clear style for writing fluent verse that was to serve him well in later life when addressing eulogistic or supplicatory poems to several rulers back then.
At age 20, when he was given a post at the court of Tunis, followed 3 years later by a secretaryship to the Sultan of Morocco in Fes. By then he got married. After two years of service, however, he was suspected of participation in a rebellion and was imprisoned. Released after nearly two years and promoted by a new ruler, he again fell into disfavor, decided to leave Morocco, and crossed over to Granada, for whose Muslim ruler he had done some service in Fes and whose prime minister, the brilliant writer Ibn al-Khaṭib, was a good friend. Ibn Khaldoun was then 32 years old.
The following year Ibn Khaldoun was sent to Sevilla, Spain to conclude a peace treaty with Pedro I of Castile. There he saw “the monuments of my ancestors.” Pedro “treated me with the utmost generosity, expressed his satisfaction at my presence and showed awareness of the preeminence of our ancestors in Sevilla.” Pedro even offered him a post in his service, promising to restore his ancestral estates, but Ibn Khaldoun politely declined. He gladly accepted the village that the sultan of Granada bestowed on him, however, and, feeling once more secure, brought over his family, whom he had left in safety in Constantine.
But, to quote him once more, “enemies and intriguers” turned the all-powerful prime minister, Ibn al-Khaṭib, against him and raised suspicions regarding his loyalty; it can be conjectured that the task of these enemies must have been greatly facilitated by the apparent jealousy between the two most brilliant Arab intellectuals of the age. Once more, Ibn Khaldoun found it necessary to take his leave, and he returned to Africa. The following 10 years saw him change employers and employment with disconcerting rapidity and move from Bejaïa to Tlemcen, Biskra, Fes, and once more to Granada, where he made an unsuccessful effort to save his old rival and friend, Ibn al-Khaṭib, from being killed by order of its ruler.
During this period Ibn Khaldoun served as prime minister and in several other administrative capacities, led a punitive expedition, was robbed and stripped by nomads, and spent some time “studying and teaching.” This extreme mobility is partly explained by the instability of the times. The Almohad Empire, which had embraced the whole of North Africa and Muslim Spain, had broken down in the middle of the 13th century, and the convulsive process from which Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia were subsequently to emerge was under way; wars, rebellions, and intrigues were endemic, and no man’s life or employment was secure. But in Ibn Khaldoun’s case two additional factors might be suspected—a certain restlessness and a capacity to make enemies, which may account for his constant complaints about the “intriguers” who turned his employers against him.
The Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldoun
In 1375, craving solitude from the exhausting business of politics, Ibn Khaldoun sought refugee in Algeria for about four years, “free from all preoccupations,” and wrote his massive masterpiece, the Muqaddimah, an introduction to history.
His original intention, which he subsequently achieved, was to write a universal history of the Arabs and Berbers, but before doing so he judged it necessary to discuss historical method, with the aim of providing the criteria necessary for distinguishing historical truth from error. This led him to formulate what the 20th-century English historian Arnold Toynbee has described as “a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place,” a statement that goes even beyond the earlier eulogy by Robert Flint:
As a theorist on history he had no equal in any age or country until Vico appeared, more than three hundred years later. Plato, Aristotle and Augustine were not his peers . . . .Robert Flint.
Ibn Khaldoun went even further with the Muqaddimah. His study of the nature of society and social change led him to evolve what he clearly saw was a new sciences, such as for example what he called “the science of culture” and which he defined thus:
This science . . . has its own subject, viz., human society, and its own problems, viz., the social transformations that succeed each other in the nature of society.Ibn Khaldoun.
Obviously, for Ibn Khaldoun, history was an endless cycle of flowering and decay, with no evolution or progress except for that from primitive to civilized society. But, in brief descriptions of his own age, which have not received as much attention as they deserve, he showed that he could both visualize the existence of sharp turning points in history and recognize that he was witnessing one of them: “When there is a general change of conditions . . . as if it were a new and repeated creation, a world brought into existence anew.” The main cause he gives for this great change is the Black Death, with its profound effect on Muslim society, but he was fully aware of the impact of the Mongol invasions, and he may also have been impressed by the development of Europe, the merchants and ships of which thronged the seaports of North Africa and some of the soldiers of which served as mercenaries in the Muslim armies.
Ibn Khaldoun’s Journey to Egypt
After have completed the first draft of the Muqaddimah, nostalgia for the more active world of politics, drew him back to seek city life. A severe illness finally convinced him to leave his refuge; he secured permission to return to Tunis, where he “engaged exclusively in scholarly work,” completing much of his history. But once more he aroused both the jealousy of a prominent scholar and the suspicion of the ruler, and in 1382, at age 50, he received permission to sail to Egypt, ostensibly for the purpose of performing the pilgrimage to Mecca.
After 40 days Ibn Khaldoun landed in Alexandria and shortly afterward was in Cairo, then, as now, by far the largest and most opulent city in the Arab world. Its impact on him was profound: “I saw the metropolis of the ear, the garden of the world, the gathering place of the nations . . . the palace of Islam, the seat of dominion . . . .” His curiosity about Cairo was evidently of long duration, for he quotes the replies several eminent North Africans had made to his enquiries on their return from that city, including: “He who has not seen it does not know the power of Islam.”
Within a few days “scholars thronged on me, seeking profit in spite of the scarcity of merchandise and would not accept my excuses, so I started teaching at Al-Azhar,” the famous Islamic university. Shortly afterward, the new Mamluk ruler of Egypt, Barquq, with whom he was to remain on good terms except for one or two brief periods of misunderstanding, appointed him to a professorship of jurisprudence at the Quamḥiyyah college and, within five months, made him chief judge of the Mālikī rite, one of the four recognized rites of Sunnite Islam. Barqūq also successfully interceded with the ruler of Tunis to allow Ibn Khaldoun’s family to rejoin him, but the ship carrying them foundered in the port of Alexandria, drowning all on board.
Ibn Khaldount did make a big impact and he was, as described by many sources, such as Niccolò Machiavelli of the Renaissance and the 19th-century European scholars, to be one of the greatest philosophers of the Middle Ages. Indeed, it is perhaps not too fanciful to attribute to Ibn Khaldun’s influence the remarkable revival of historical writing in 15th-century Egypt and North Africa.
Later, several distinguished 16th- and 17th-century Ottoman scholars and statesmen took a keen interest in Ibn Khaldoun’s work, and a partial translation of the Muqaddimah into Turkish was made in the 18th century. But it was only after the 1860s, when a complete French translation of the Muqaddimah appeared, that Ibn Khaldun found the worldwide audience his incomparable genius deserved.
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