Ibn Khaldun - Anthropologist/Sociologist/Historian Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Ibn Khaldun - Anthropologist/Sociologist/Historian

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The Middle Ages are often thought of as a time of ignorance and superstition in Europe, though in fact, during this period Islam and Islamic civilisation had advanced far beyond the West in terms of science, medicine, philosophy, mathematics, and technology. Many of the subjects which we learn in school today were invented by medieval Muslims, who translated and worked from ancient Greek manuscripts. These classical tomes whose influence faded after the fall of the Roman Empire and spread of Christianity survived in newly-conquered Muslim lands in the Middle East. One of the greatest minds of medieval Islam was Ibn Khaldun (1332 - 1406), a historian and philosopher who revolutionised the way we look at history and at society.

The Man

Ibn Khaldun (Abd al-Rahman Ibn Muhammad) was born on 27 May, 1332 in the city of Tunis , capital of the Hafsid Sultanate. His family, originally Yemenite Arabs, had fled there a few years previously from Seville to escape the Christian Reconquest of Spain, but had soon gained power and prominence within the Hafsid1 government. Ibn Khaldun was a privileged child and was well-educated in the educational fundamentals of the day: the Koran, Arabic poetry, Muslim law, and Aristotelian philosophy/physics2. He entered government service but at the tender age of 22 left the service of the faltering Hafsids and moved to Fez3, seat of the Merinid Sultanate.

Political instability and a constantly shifting balance of power, characteristic of North Africa in this period, had a great effect on Ibn Khaldun's thinking about the rise and fall of kingdoms. After three years in Fez, he experienced the first of many stretches of imprisonment. He remained incarcerated for more than a year and a half until the reigning Sultan died and his heir had many political prisoners released. The Hafsids, however, were again becoming powerful in the region and remembered the desertion of the young Ibn Khaldun. To escape the entire mess, he moved as close as he could to the region from where his family had come, taking up residence in Grenada, the last Muslim kingdom in Spain.

Ibn Khaldun: Statesman

In 1362 Ibn Khaldun headed a delegation to draw up a peace treaty between Grenada and the Christian Kingdom of Castile. The two parties met in Seville, and Ibn Khaldun was given a personal tour of the city by the Castilian King Pedro the Cruel. During that time, King Pedro offered Ibn Khaldun a secret deal: if he would turn against Grenada he would be rewarded with the return of his family's ancestral land in Seville and a place in the Castilian government. He refused, and called off the treaty negotiations immediately.

He continued at this pace throughout his life, switching governments several more times. He was briefly Grand Vizier for the Hafsid-related Emir of Bougie4, fled into the desert for a year, built an army of desert Arabs, took a position under the Sultan of Tlemcen5, then revisited the prisons of Fez when that Sultanate conquered Tlemcen in 1372. He was forced into service as a military leader fighting for Fez, fled back to Spain, was forced to return to protect his family, and fled back into the desert where he experienced the first peaceful period of his life during the seven years under the protection of the desert tribe of Awlad 'Arif. It was during this period that he wrote his Kitab al-'Ibar, or History of the World. The first chapter of this work, appropriately entitled Muqaddimah or Introduction, laid out the first known theory on the mechanisms of history. See below for more detail on this.

Soon after finishing his Magnum Opus, Ibn Khaldun returned to Fez. In 1384 he received permission from the Sultan of Fez to take a pilgrimage to Mecca, as required by Muslim law. Upon reaching Cairo, however, he was forbidden to leave. His entire family died in a shipwreck while journeying to join him in Cairo. Except for a brief visit to Mecca in 1387 and several state trips to Damascus, Ibn Khaldun remained in Cairo for the remainder of his life, serving well and competently as a judge and reformer of the judicial system. During one visit to Damascus, he had the opportunity to watch the surrender of the city to the Mongol Khan, Tamarlane and even to meet the great conqueror in person. He later wrote about this incident at great length. He died in Cairo on 17 March, 1406 and was buried in that city's Sufi Cemetery.

His Work

Of course, history, in the sense of a written record of past events, existed before Ibn Khaldun. Ancient writers like Tacitus and Thuycides became famous for their historical accounts. It is also true that a sense of history as having purpose existed before Ibn Khaldun. In fact, it is one of the basic premises of Christianity. That said, Ibn Khaldun made a great contribution to the progress of western thought by his theory of history as logical procession of events which follow from each other in reasonable ways. He himself considered this conclusion to be so significant that he devoted most of the Muqaddimah (Prolegomena to History) to explaining the details, declaring several times that he had created an entirely new field of study. By changing history from the telling of stories to an observable science which could explain and perhaps even predict human behaviour, he claimed to have changed the understanding of human behaviour entirely. Although many of his basic explanations are today discarded, the idea that such explanations could exist has led modern thinkers to claim Ibn Khaldun as a founder in the philosophy of history, historiography, anthropology, and sociology.

What It's All About

The most basic premise of the Muqaddimah was that the purpose of civilisation was to bring people together in larger and larger groups so that they could produce things that they couldn't produce individually and to provide for common defence. However, he also recognised that people as a general rule are selfish, violent, and cruel and that bringing them together in cities exacerbates these tendencies. Therefore, the purpose of the dawlah6 can be seen as being a way to keep a densely-packed society together despite its inherent tendency to fall apart. The responsibility of a good leader was to keep society stable and the measure of his greatness was the degree to which he succeeded.

The thing which kept some societies together while others fell apart was something called 'asabiyah. This is an Arabic word which can mean 'solidarity' or 'group consciousness' but is usually translated 'group feeling'. At the most basic level, 'asabiyah is something that a person feels for his family. In this respect, it might also be translated as 'brotherhood'. When a ruler is successful he manages to spread the 'asabiyah to all members of the society, so that all think of one another as they would think of their own brothers. Because of the limited scope of his study and his inability as a medieval Muslim to think of religion in a functionalist way, Ibn Khaldun never mentioned the role which religion can serve in promoting 'asabiyah.

Predictive History

Ibn Khaldun stated that, given the natural progress of things, a dawlah would fall apart in four generations. This is based on his observation that, while the concentration of people makes possible the specialisation to support a full-time government and army (and religious hierarchy, although he appears to have missed that part) it also introduces luxuries into people's lives which eventually corrupt them with selfishness and deteriorate the 'asabiyah. A particularly strong ruler can delay the collapse, but in Ibn Khaldun's theory, events are inherently cyclical and each dawlah contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

Unfortunately, perhaps because of Ibn Khaldun's own experience which mostly dealt with very similar and short-lived states, some of his conclusions are very obviously in opposition to observed history. Some dawlahs last considerably longer than four generations for reasons other than strong group feeling, while others, including many that are strongly unified in nationalism, fall apart almost instantly. Even today, there has yet to be any definitive theory which will allow for the prediction of future history. Nevertheless, Ibn Khaldun's work changed the way in which humans understand each other and made possible the study of human behaviour in a logical way.

1Hafsid/Banu Hafs: Berber dynasty of the 13th–16th Century in Ifriqiyah (Tunisia and eastern Algeria), founded by the Almohad governor Abu Zakariyya' Yahya about 12292The writing of Aristotle would be included in both categories today3Present-day Morocco4Present-day Algeria5Present-day Morocco6An Arabic word meaning both state and dynasty

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