Article abstract: Ibn Khaldūn formulated highly original and widely acclaimed theories on the rise and fall of empires and established himself as one of the most distinguished intellectual figures of Western Islam in the late Middle Ages.
Abū Zayd ʿAbd al-Rahmān Ibn Khaldūn was born in North Africa to a respected family of Muslim public servants and intellectuals. The Khaldūn clan, believed to have resided in Andalusia, Spain, since the eighth century, had left the Iberian peninsula and settled in Tunis shortly before the last stage of the Christian reconquest of much of Muslim Andalusia in the mid-thirteenth century.
The successful advance of the Spanish Christian armies that displaced the Khaldūn family was one of many factors leading to political instability in the western Mediterranean, a situation that continued to characterize the area throughout Ibn Khaldūn’s life. Centralized political power, in the once-extensive and glorious Islamic empire, had disintegrated, leaving a collection of small, often-poor kingdoms of indeterminate frontiers, constantly threatened from without and suffering from endemic political strife. Palace plots, court intrigue, political assassinations, armed revolts, and usurpations were commonplace.
The tumultuous career of Ibn Khaldūn must be understood in the political context of the period. Much of what is known about his career comes from his own autobiographical recollections, wherein the author candidly shares his failures as well as his triumphs. Expected to follow family tradition and pursue a career in learning and public service, Ibn Khaldūn received a classical education that included instruction in both religious and secular subjects. This dual orientation, and the conflict inherent in it, would be a permanent feature of Ibn Khaldūn’s career and thought. He was schooled in the Koran, Islamic law, and Arabic grammar, as well as in philology, poetry, logic, and philosophy. He received his first official appointment in 1352 at age twenty, when he was named sealbearer by the Hafsid ruler of Tunis. His duty was to sign and seal the sultan’s chancery documents. Ibn Khaldūn, however, soon became embroiled in the political maelstrom of the region, falling prey to his own restlessness and political ambitions.
After the defeat of the ruler of Tunis by the emir of Constantine, Ibn Khaldūn moved to Tilimsan, where he accepted the patronage of Sultan Abu Inan, who appointed him to a post similar to the one he had held in Tunis. In 1357, however, Ibn Khaldūn was discovered conspiring against his master and was kept in prison for nearly two years, gaining release after the sultan’s death. When the Marinid Abu Salim became ruler of Morocco—a development Ibn Khaldūn had supported—the ruler appointed the young scholar secretary of state and judge. Ibn Khaldūn occupied these positions until 1362, when palace intrigues led him to seek protection in the Nasrid kingdom of Granada, across the Strait of Gibraltar. His stay in Iberia was marred, however, by a growing rivalry with the Granadine prime minister Ibn al-Khatib, leading Ibn Khaldūn to accept the opportunity to become prime minister in the court of the newly successful Hafsid conqueror of Bejaia. Back in North Africa in 1365, Ibn Khaldūn combined his ministerial duties with writing and teaching jurisprudence. It was a prolific and relatively stable period of his life.
After his benefactor was defeated and killed—at the hands of a royal cousin—Ibn Khaldūn, who had initially welcomed the usurper and remained in his government, fell out of favor and left Bejaia to pursue a policy hostile to the ruler. After changing political sides several times, Ibn Khaldūn decided in 1375 to retire from public life, at least temporarily, in order to devote himself to writing. He settled among nomadic tribes, where he composed the first drafts of his most important historical works. Growing tired of isolation after four years, he sought to return to a more active life in his home city of Tunis.
When, at age forty-four, Ibn Khaldūn abandoned his political career to live among the nomads to reflect and write, he was motivated by a desire to understand and reconcile the conflict he had experienced between spiritual demands and political realities. He also wished to understand the social milieu of various periods in the past, an interest that led him to the study of history. His approach to the past, his emphasis on the role of social causation in particular, sets him apart from traditional historians. Ibn Khaldūn perceived the writing of history as requiring two separate—and innovative—steps. The first was to ascertain the truth of a particular event; this step would be accomplished through the verification of all facts related to the event. The second was to understand the event as the logical outcome of the interplay of forces within the society in which it occurred. Pursuing this dual approach, Ibn Khaldūn attempted to discover the value system of a particular society, to extract its first principles, believing that these were responsible for historical change. He was interested first and foremost in the Islamic world, the world with which he was most familiar. He examined the growth and development of Islam through the centuries in order to formulate a theory that would explain the rise and decline not only of the powerful Islamic state but also that of all great empires through the ages. His observations were recorded in Muqaddimmah (1375-1379; The Muqaddimah), a work that outlines the principles of what Ibn Khaldūn called the “science of human association,” a discipline he believed to be totally new.
The low ebb of Islam during Ibn Khaldūn’s...
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