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Ibn Khaldun

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Biography I - Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406CE)

Part One

'Abdur-Rahman ibn Muhammad is generally known as Ibn Khaldun after a remote ancestor. His parents, originally Yemenite Arabs, had settled in Spain, but after the fall of Seville, had migrated to Tunisia. He was born in Tunisia in 1332CE, where he received his early education and where, still in his teens, he entered the service of the Egyptian ruler Sultan Barquq. His thirst for advanced knowledge and a better academic setting soon made him leave this service and migrate to Fez. This was followed by a long period of unrest marked by contemporary political rivalries affecting his career. This turbulent period also included a three year refuge in a small village Qalat Ibn Salama in Algeria, which provided him with the opportunity to write Muqaddimah, the first volume of his world history that won him an immortal place among historians, sociologists and philosophers. The uncertainty of his career still continued, with Egypt becoming his final abode where he spent his last 24 years. Here he lived a life of fame and respect, marked by his appointment as the Chief Malaki Judge and lecturing at the Al-Azhar University, but envy caused his removal from his high judicial office as many as five times.

Ibn Khaldun's chief contribution lies in philosophy of history and sociology. He sought to write a world history preambled by a first volume aimed at an analysis of historical events. This volume, commonly known as Muqaddimah or 'Prolegomena', was based on Ibn Khaldun's unique approach and original contribution and became a masterpiece in literature on philosophy of history and sociology. The chief concern of this monumental work was to identify psychological, economic, environmental and social facts that contribute to the advancement of human civilization and the currents of history. In this context, he analysed the dynamics of group relationships and showed how group feelings, Al-'Asabiyyah, give rise to the ascent of a new civilisation and political power and how, later on, its diffusion into a more general civilization invites the advent of a still new 'Asabiyyah in its pristine form. He identified an almost rhythmic repetition of rise and fall in human civilization, and analysed factors contributing to it. His contribution to history is marked by the fact that, unlike most earlier writers interpreting history largely in a political context, he emphasised environmental, sociological, psychological and economic factors governing the apparent events. This revolutionised the science of history and also laid the foundation of Umraniyat (Sociology).

Apart from the Muqaddimah that became an important independent book even during the lifetime of the author, the other volumes of his world history Kitab al-I'bar deal with the history of Arabs, contemporary Muslim rulers, contemporary European rulers, ancient history of Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Romans, Persians, etc., Islamic History, Egyptian history and North-African history, especially that of Berbers and tribes living in the adjoining areas. The last volume deals largely with the events of his own life and is known as At-Tasrif. This was also written in a scientific manner and initiated a new analytical tradition in the art of writing autobiography. A book on mathematics written by him is not extant.

Ibn Khaldun's influence on the subject of history, philosophy of history, sociology, political science and education has remained paramount ever since his life. His books have been translated into many languages, both in the East and the West, and have inspired subsequent development of these sciences. For instance, Prof. Gum Ploughs and Kolosio consider Muqaddimah as superior in scholarship to Machiavelli's The Prince written a century later, as the former bases the diagnosis more on cultural, sociological, economic and psychological factors.

Part Two

"Whoever takes someone's property, or uses him for forced labor, or presses an unjustified claim upon him. It should be known that this is what the Lawgiver had in mind when he forbade injustice."

Ibn Khaldun, considered the greatest Arab historian, is also known as the father of modern social science and cultural history. Born in Tunis to a politically influential and devout family, his early education was marked by the high intellectual stimulation that such affluence afforded. In 1349CE the Black Death struck Tunis and took away his mother and father, as well as many of his teachers. He was therefore eager to exchange the loneliness of Tunis for a political post in Fez, the current center of political power and cultural life in North Africa. But Ibn Khaldun had a restless spirit, and spent much time traveling from city to city and from political post to political post in the Muslim world.

In 1375CE, craving solitude and exhausted by the business of politics, Ibn Khaldun settled down with his family near what is now the town of Frenda in Algeria and there wrote his masterpiece, the Muqaddimah. What began as a universal history of the Arabs and Berbers, developed into a philosophy of history. The subsequent study of the nature of society and societal change led him to develop what he understood to be a new science of culture.

As part of this new science, Ibn Khaldun aimed to analyze objectively economic issues, and to show the consequences of various policies. He thought that those things mandated by God can be shown scientifically to be the best social policies, and that this is the natural consequence of the fact that economic principles and the foundation of the good life were both created by God. These laws dictated that the state has certain limited functions: the defense of the community against injustice and aggression, the protection of private property, the prevention of fraud in exchanges between citizens, the overseeing of the mint to safeguard the currency, and the wise exercise of political leadership. He denounced high taxation and government competition with the private sphere because they lower productivity, take away the incentive of people to work hard, and ultimately ruin the state.

(s) The Political Economy of the Classical Islamic Society by Imad A. Ahmad, and Ibn Khaldun's Philospohy of History by Mushin Mahdi (University of Chicago Press, 1971).

Biography II

Ibn Khaldun is universally recognized as the founder and father of Sociology and Sciences of History. He is best known for his famous 'Muqaddimah' (Prolegomena). 'Abdur-Rahman ibn Muhammad, generally known as Ibn Khaldun after a remote ancestor, was born in Tunis in 732H (1332CE) to an upper class family that had migrated from Seville in Muslim Spain. His ancestors were Yemenite Arabs who settled in Spain in the very beginning of Muslim rule in the eighth century.

During his formative years, Ibn Khaldun experienced his family's active participation in the intellectual life of the city, and to a lesser degree, its political life. He was used to frequent visits to his family by the political and intellectual leaders of western Islamic states (i.e., North Africa and Spain), many of whom took refuge there. Ibn Khaldun was educated at Tunis and Fez, and studied the Qur'an, Prophet Muhammad's Traditions and other branches of Islamic studies such as Dialectical theology, Shari'ah (Islamic Law of Jurisprudence, according to the Maliki School). He also studied Arabic literature, philosophy, mathematics and astronomy. While still in his teens, he entered the service of the Egyptian ruler Sultan Barquq.

Ibn Khaldun led a very active political life before he finally settled down to write his well-known masterpiece on history. He worked for rulers in Tunis and Fez (in Morocco), Granada (in Muslim Spain) and Biaja (in North Africa). In 1375CE, Ibn Khaldun crossed over to Muslim Spain (Granada) as a tired and embittered man solely for the reasons of escaping the turmoil in North Africa. Unfortunately, because of his political past, the ruler of Granada expelled him. He then went back to Algeria to spend four years in seclusion in Qalat Ibn Salama, a small village. It was in Qalat he wrote Muqaddimah, the first volume of his world history that won him an immortal place among historians, sociologists and philosophers. The uncertainty of his career continued because of unrest in North Africa. Finally, he settled in Egypt where he spent his last twenty-four years. Here, he lived a life of fame and respect, marked by his appointment as the Chief Malaki Judge. He also lectured at the Al-Azhar University.

Ibn Khaldun had to move from one court to another, sometimes at his own will, but often forced to do so by plotting rivals or despotic rulers. He learnt much from his encounters with rulers, ambassadors, politicians and scholars from North Africa, Muslim Spain, Egypt and other parts of the Muslim world.

Ibn Khaldun is most famous for his book 'Muqaddimah' (Introduction). It is a masterpiece in literature on philosophy of history and sociology. The main theme of this monumental work was to identify psychological, economic, environmental and social facts that contribute to the advancement of human civilization and the currents of history. He analyzed the dynamics of group relationships and showed how group feelings, Al-'Asabiyyah, produce the ascent of a new civilization and political power. He identified an almost rhythmic repetition of the rise and fall in human civilization, and analyzed factors contributing to it.

Ibn Khaldun's revolutionary views have attracted the attention of Muslim scholars as well as many Western thinkers. In his study of history, Ibn Khaldun was a pioneer in subjecting historical reports to the two basic criteria of reason and social and physical laws. He pointed out the following four essential points in the study and analysis of historical reports:

  1. relating events to each other through cause and effect,
  2. drawing analogy between past and present,
  3. taking into consideration the effect of the environment, and
  4. taking into consideration the effect of inherited and economic conditions.

Ibn Khaldun's pioneered the critical study of history. He provided an analytical study of human civilization, its beginning, factors contributing to its development and the causes of decline. Thus, he founded a new science: the science of social development or sociology, as we call it today. Ibn Khaldun writes, "I have written on history a book in which I discussed the causes and effects of the development of states and civilizations, and I followed in arranging the material of the book an unfamiliar method, and I followed in writing it a strange and innovative way." By selecting his particular method of analysis, he created two new sciences: Historiology and Sociology simultaneously.

Ibn Khaldun argued that history is subject to universal laws and states the criterion for historical truth: "The rule for distinguishing what is true from what is false in history is based on its possibility or impossibility: That is to say, we must examine human society and discriminate between the characteristics which are essential and inherent in its nature and those which are accidental and need not be taken into account, recognizing further those which cannot possibly belong to it. If we do this, we have a rule for separating historical truth from error by means of demonstrative methods that admits of no doubt. It is a genuine touchstone by which historians may verify whatever they relate."

Because of his emphasis on reason and its necessity in judging history and social events, some scholars have claimed that Ibn Khaldun tried to refute conventional religious knowledge and substitute for it reason and rational philosophy. This claim is unfounded. It is known that some schools teach things which are irrational in nature. But this is not true of Islam which has always encouraged observation and thinking, and reminded the nonbelievers for not using their reason and thinking. An example is the Verse 164, Chapter 2 of the Qur'an: "Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the benefit of mankind; in the rain which God sends down from the skies; and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that he scatters through the earth; in the change of winds and the clouds which they trail like slaves between the sky and the earth; - (here) indeed are signs for people that are wise and think." Qur'an 2:170: "When it is said to them: 'Follow what God hath revealed.' They say, 'Nay: We shall follow the ways of our fathers.' What! even though their fathers were devoid of wisdom or reason and guidance?"

Ibn Khaldun remarked that the role of religion is in unifying the Arabs and bringing progress and development to their society. He pointed out that injustice, despotism, and tyranny are clear signs of the downfall of the state. Ibn Khaldun points out that metaphysical philosophy has one advantage only, which is to sharpen one's wits. He states that the knowledge of the metaphysical world particularly in matters of belief can only be derived from revelation.

He was a pioneer in education. He remarked that suppression and use of force are enemies to learning, and that they lead to laziness, lying and hypocrisy. He also pointed out to the necessity of good models and practice for the command of good linguistic habits. Ibn Khaldun lived in the beginning period of the decline of Muslim civilization. This experience prompted him to spend most of his efforts on collecting, summarizing and memorization of the body of knowledge left by the ancestors. He vehemently attacked those unhealthy practices that created stagnation and stifling of creativity by Muslim scholars.

Ibn Khaldun emphasized the necessity of subjecting both social and historical phenomena to scientific and objective analysis. He noted that those phenomena were not the outcome of chance, but were controlled by laws of their own, laws that had to be discovered and applied in the study of society, civilization and history. He remarked that historians have committed errors in their study of historical events, due to three major factors: (1) Their ignorance of the natures of civilization and people, (2) their bias and prejudice, and (3) their blind acceptance of reports given by others.

Ibn Khaldun pointed out that true progress and development comes through correct understanding of history, and correct understanding can only be achieved by observing the following three main points. First, a historian should not be in any way prejudiced for or against any one or any idea. Second, he needs to conform and scrutinize the reported information. One should learn all one could about the historians whose reports one hears or reads, and one should check their morals and trustworthiness before accepting their reports. Finally, one should not limit history to the study of political and military news or to news about rulers and states. For history should include the study of all social, religious, and economic conditions.

The Muqaddimah was already recognized as an important work during the lifetime of Ibn Khaldun. His other volumes on world history Kitab al-I'bar deal with the history of Arabs, contemporary Muslim rulers, contemporary European rulers, ancient history of Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Islamic History, Egyptian history and North-African history, especially that of Berbers and tribes living in the adjoining areas. The last volume deals largely with the events of his own life and is known as At-Tasrif. As with his other books, it was also written from an analytical perspective and initiated a new tradition in the art of writing autobiography. He also wrote a book on mathematics which is not extant.

Ibn Khaldun's influence on the subject of history, philosophy of history, sociology, political science and education has remained paramount down to our times. He is also recognized as the leader in the art of autobiography, a renovator in the fields of education and educational psychology and in Arabic writing stylistics. His books have been translated into many languages, both in the East and the West, and have inspired subsequent development of these sciences. Prof. Gum Ploughs and Kolosio consider Muqaddimah as superior in scholarship to Machiavelli's The Prince written a century later, as the former bases the diagnosis more on cultural, sociological, economic and psychological factors.

(s) The abridged and edited version of The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, published by the Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series, Fifth Printing, 1981.

Be Mindful O Mankind!

To all who love and revere the Book, And earnestly strive to find in it, Not a reflection of their own fancies, But a clue to Unity, Discipline, And the call to higher matters of the spirit, The Fruit of Life, Thought and Study.
- 'Abdullah Yusuf Ali (d. 1373H), may Allah have mercy upon him

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