Ibn Khaldūn

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2381

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.

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Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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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 lifetime, the fourteenth century, attributed by traditionalists to society’s abandonment of the original Islamic ideals, was perceived rather differently by Ibn Khaldūn. He viewed all historical events as a natural—and entirely nonspiritual—process resulting from history’s own dynamics. While Ibn Khaldūn believed that Allah, omniscient and omnipresent, was behind all change, he dismissed as hypocritical those traditionalists who embraced an idealistic thought-style, insisting on the primacy of the spiritual in the material world. Truly pious men, Ibn Khaldūn argued, would retire from this world to devote themselves to worship; they would not meddle in the affairs of society, because the spiritual and the secular have different spheres. Even the Prophet Muhammad himself, according to Ibn Khaldūn, operated within a particular social system, achieving his sacred mission within the limits set by the system’s rules.

Rather than appealing to spiritual causation, Ibn Khaldūn believed that societies are controlled by forces generated from inside the sociopolitical group. Man, he stated, is a social being who seeks naturally to associate with others and form a community. What follows is the emergence of a leader who gives cohesiveness to the group, nurturing the growth of an essential quality known as ʿasabiyah, or group spirit. It is the degree of ʿasabiyah present in a society at a particular point in its history that determines its success. Change comes about when local chieftains, backed by their group’s high level of ʿasabiyah, attack neighboring tribes, grow, and eventually establish a dynasty. Larger populations in turn lead to the founding of cities, greater prosperity, division of labor, capital accumulation, and the flourishing of arts and crafts. Larger populations also make possible the creation of empires. Furthermore, while civilization (here contrasted to the primitive existence of nomadic tribes, described as illiterate and violent) can only exist under the auspices of an empire, it also contains the seeds of its own destruction. ʿAsabiyah weakens with the passage of time, and the vigor and energy that made for successful conquest give way to vice and moral laxity. Dynasties also founder; by their fourth generation, qualities of leadership among the rulers have usually dissipated and have been replaced by a desire to dominate others. Empires thus weakened become the target of fierce and ambitious new groups and are eventually defeated by them, and a new historical cycle is ready to begin.

History, then, argues Ibn Khaldūn, is the rise and fall of empires resulting from the inevitable clash between civilization and nomadism. This process, although essentially cyclical in structure, is not repetitive in its outcome; it builds upon itself. Each new empire does not reject the accomplishments of the one it replaces; instead, it absorbs and integrates many of those qualities and uses them to refine its own institutions and values. Something new and different is thus created. Furthermore, a new empire, at least during its formative years, promotes novel forms of cultural and artistic expression and represents an unequaled opportunity for religious and moral renewal.

Perhaps in search of his own moral renewal, Ibn Khaldūn left Tunis in 1382 to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. En route, however, he stopped in Cairo and was prevailed upon to stay there. His family, traveling from Tunis to join him, died in a shipwreck in 1384. During his time in Cairo, Ibn Khaldūn devoted himself to preaching, teaching, writing, and carrying out the duties of a Malikite judge. Although he believed that during this stage of his career he had comported himself with the utmost honesty, he was unable to escape censure. Ibn Khaldūn died in 1406, shortly after being named judge for the sixth time; he was buried in a Cairo cemetery.


Ibn Khaldūn’s views of the historical process emphasize the temporal over the spiritual and employ a relativist, nonabsolutist interpretation of Islamic principles. A case in point is the interpretation of the traditional dictum, traced to the Prophet himself, that a caliph must be from the tribe of Quraysh. Since there were no survivors of this group by Ibn Khaldūn’s time, a fact ignored by traditionalists, Ibn Khaldūn argued that the reason that the Prophet had chosen the Quraysh was that this tribe was the strongest in Arabia during his lifetime. As conditions had changed markedly in the intervening seven hundred years, argued Ibn Khaldūn, the caliph should come from a tribe whose present qualities of strength most resembled the Prophet’s original choice. In this instance, as in countless others, Ibn Khaldūn proposed a temporal and revisionist interpretation of the tradition and sayings of the Prophet.

The ambitious and universal qualities of Ibn Khaldūn’s quest for the causes of historical change have contributed to making The Muqaddimah a document of importance for several disciplines; the text has been adopted by sociologists, economists, and historians as a meaningful statement and antecedent of their own methodology. Through the centuries, the work has been used to support a wide array of ideologies, ranging from orthodox Marxism to supply-side economics.


Azmeh, Aziz al-. Ibn Khaldun in Modern Scholarship: A Study in Orientalism. London: Third World Centre for Research and Publishing, 1981. Initially a doctoral thesis, this book sets out to reconstruct Ibn Khaldūn’s thought with reference to the intellectual and cultural climate in which he lived. The author aims both to inform the reader concerning the most distinguished and innovative elements of Ibn Khaldūn’s work and to reclaim (and rescue) Ibn Khaldūn from thinkers in numerous disciplines who over the centuries have misappropriated his thoughts and misapplied his ideas. Includes a very useful eighty-six-page bibliography of works on Ibn Khaldūn in various languages.

Fischel, J. Walter. Ibn Khaldun in Egypt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. In this specialized study, Fischel, a well-known student of Islamic culture, appraises Ibn Khaldūn’s contribution to the field of historiography. Asserting that Ibn Khaldūn’s life and experiences are closely related to his ideas, Fischel explores in great detail the historian’s years in Egypt. The second part of the book is devoted to identifying the Egyptian influence in Ibn Khaldūn’s works.

Lacoste, Yves. Ibn Khaldun: The Birth of History and the Past of the Third World. Translated by David Macey. London: Verso Editions, 1984. Written by an eminent geographer, this book explores ways in which to apply Ibn Khaldūn’s analysis of the complex forces operating in fourteenth century North Africa to twentieth century problems of underdevelopment in the Third World. Lacoste considers the The Muqaddimah a work of extraordinary genius, without precursors and successors; he views the work as the outcome of Ibn Khaldūn’s struggle to reconcile rationalism and mystical tendencies both in his own thought and in the society in which he lived.

Lawrence, Bruce B., ed. Ibn Khaldun and Islamic Ideology. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1984. This collection of articles resulted from a symposium at Duke University to commemorate the 650th anniversary of Ibn Khaldūn’s birth. In “Ibn Khaldun and His Time,” Franz Rosenthal argues against efforts to view Ibn Khaldūn in the light of recent theories or as a forerunner of some subsequent ideology. What is of interest, Rosenthal asserts, is the man Ibn Khaldūn in relation to his times. Other noteworthy articles in this volume explore such topics as the literary merits of The Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldūn’s attitude toward Jewish history, and the impact of his ideas on Islamic society.

Mahdi, Muhsin. Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964. This work examines the philosophical principles on which Ibn Khaldūn’s new science of culture is based to demonstrate that he ultimately relied on philosophical principles to explain history. The author rejects as unproductive the efforts of other commentators who attempt to show that Ibn Khaldūn should be considered the father of the modern social sciences. Mahdi treats Ibn Khaldūn’s religious and philosophical principles as essential components of his thought, not merely vestiges of the historian’s medieval upbringing.

Rosenthal, Franz. Introduction to The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, by Ibn Khaldūn. 3 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1958, rev. ed. 1967. Rosenthal has provided an excellent and complete English translation of Ibn Khaldūn’s most important work—though at times his use of many modern expressions is rather baffling. He introduces the first volume with a long and informative section on the life and work of Ibn Khaldūn and the many factors that might have influenced his views.

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