Ibn Khaldun Research Paper

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Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) is widely regarded as the greatest Arab-Muslim historian and sociological thinker of the premodern period. His writings have been compared to those of intellectual giants such as Aristotle, Thucydides, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Machiavelli, and Vico, as well as to world historians of the twentieth century.

While the fame of Ibn Khaldun (or Abu Zayd ‘Abd ar-Rahman ibn Khaldun) is largely a result of his historical and sociological thought, he also led a career as a well-traveled statesman, which included the kind of cross-cultural encounters normally associated with the great premodern travelers Marco Polo (1254–1324) and Ibn Battuta (1304–1368/69).

Ibn Khaldun’s family came to Spain during the Arab conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. During their four centuries in Spain, they served under the Umayyad, Almoravid, and Almohad dynasties, holding high positions in administrative and military affairs. His family left Spain in 1248 and settled in North Africa.

Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis. His father, himself a scholar, ensured that Ibn Khaldun received a thorough education, rooted in the study of the Qur’an, Arabic grammar, and jurisprudence. Ibn Khaldun took particular interest in his teachers, chronicling their lives and the subjects that they taught. But in 1349, the seventeen-year-old Ibn Khaldun lost his great mentors and parents to the Black Death, the great plague that ravaged Afro-Eurasia in the fourteenth century. Ibn Khaldun later came to recognize the Black Death as a contributing factor to the political instability of Muslim regimes in Spain and North Africa during the fourteenth century.

In 1350 Ibn Khaldun began a chaotic odyssey through North Africa and Muslim Spain. From 1350 to 1375, he served numerous masters as secretary, ambassador, and chamberlain, was imprisoned, and even lived among the Bedouin tribes of Algeria. In 1362 he crossed into Granada, entering into the service of the sultan of Granada as an ambassador to the Christian king of Castille, Pedro the Cruel. Ibn Khaldun’s mission went so well that he was offered a position in Pedro’s service. Although he declined to serve in Christian Castille, Ibn Khaldun’s experience in Christian Spain offers historians an illuminating, non-European view of the Christian expansion into Muslim Spain.

After an intense quarter-century of political life, Ibn Khaldun retired to the castle of Qal’at ibn Salama (near present-day Frenda, Algeria) in 1375. He began writing his massive seven-volume historical work, Kitabal-‘ibar (Universal History), which includes his masterpiece, the Muqaddimah (Prolegomena to History). The Kitab al-‘ibar also contains a definitive history of North Africa as well as a candid autobiography, detailing his numerous political and academic appointments. He continued his scholarship until his departure for a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1382, which led him to a new career in Cairo.

In 1382, Ibn Khaldun met the Mamluk sultan of Egypt, Barquq, who appointed him as a lecturer at al-Azhar University as well as the chief qadi (judge) of the Maliki school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. In 1400, Ibn Khaldun accompanied the sultan as an emissary to the conqueror Timur (Tamerlane, 1336–1405), who was in the process of laying siege to Damascus. Ibn Khaldun’s encounter with Timur illustrates the decline of Arab power in the face of Central Asian invaders, yet it also underscores the unity of an Islamic civilization that connected Muslim Spain, Mamluk Egypt, and Turkic-Mongol Central Asia.

In the Muqaddimah Ibn Khaldun explored religious, economic, and geographical determinants of social organization. However, the most important element of his science of social organization is asabiyah (social solidarity). He reasoned that small, rural societies have the strongest social cohesion and the potential to become great empires, while large, urbanized states tend to become corrupted by luxury. This weakening of social solidarity led, he theorized, to economic and social decay, which ultimately caused societies to fall prey to a stronger conqueror. Thus, Ibn Khaldun’s astonishingly modern philosophy of history and social organization articulated universal cycles of cultural change and the rise and fall of civilizations.

Although Ibn Khaldun lived and wrote in the fourteenth century, his approach to history foreshadowed that of twentieth-century world historians such as Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler. Like today’s world historians, Ibn Khaldun was concerned with cross-cultural interactions, large-scale comparisons between empires, and patterns of history that affect empires and cultures. Therefore, Ibn Khaldun’s work is likely to become more widely recognized as the field of world history continues to grow.


  1. Baali, F. (1992). Society, state, and urbanism: Ibn Khaldun’s sociological thought. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  2. Fischel, W. (1967). Ibn Khaldun in Egypt. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  3. Issawi, C. (1950). An Arab philosophy of history: Selections from the Prolegomena of Ibn Khaldun of Tunis (C. Issawi, Trans.). London: John Murray Publishers.
  4. Lacoste, Y. (1984). Ibn Khaldun: The birth of history and the past of the Third World (D. Macy, Trans.). London: Verso.
  5. Mahdi, M. (1957). Ibn Khaldun’s philospophy of history. London: Allen and Unwin.
  6. Rosenthal, F. (1957). Introduction to Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah: An introduction to history (F. Rosenthal, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  7. Schmidt, N. (1930). Ibn Khaldun. New York: Columbia University Press.

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