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Ibn Khaldún was born in Tunis in 1332 as the child of an influential and politically active family and died 1406 in Cairo. He had a traditional education, studying the Qur’an and Islamic law; later he also studied mathematics and philosophy. He held several official positions for different rulers in North Africa’s Maghreb region, but as a consequence of political changes he lost his office in Fez and moved to Andalusia, where the sultan of Granada entrusted him with diplomatic negotiations with Pedro the Cruel, the king of Castile. Eventually Ibn Khaldún quit the service of the sultan and moved back to the Maghreb, where he held several high political offices and lived with Berber tribes. During a three-year stay with one of these tribes he wrote the Muqaddimah, which he continued to edit for the rest of his life. In 1382 he moved to Cairo, where he spent the second part of his life, becoming a close counselor of Sultan Barquq, who appointed him professor and qadi (supreme judge)—an office that Ibn Khaldún lost and regained several times. Aside from his scholarly works, he is known particularly for his encounter with the Mongolian conqueror Timur (Tamerlane) in 1401 during the latter’s siege of Damascus. During their meeting Ibn Khaldún discussed the history of the Arab world with Timur before the Mongolian army razed the city of Damascus, but spared Ibn Khaldún’s life.
Ibn Khaldún’s main work is his world history Kitáb al‘Ibar (Book of Examples), a several-volume history of the known world incorporating a comprehensive introduction, the Muqaddimah, which is considered to be a singular achievement in his time. In the Muqaddimah Ibn Khaldún develops the science of human civilization or culture (‘Ilm al-‘Umrán) to describe and analyze the history of human society. The main concept he uses for this endeavor is the ‘asabiyya. This term has been translated as “group feeling,” “solidarity,” “blood ties,” “esprit de corps,” and even “national spirit.” ‘Asabiyya refers mainly to family ties, but Ibn Khaldún also extends its meaning to alliances and clientships. It is conceived as a vitalizing force of group cohesion enabling its bearers to exert power. The strength of the ‘asabiyya plays a determining role in the rise and fall of patrimonial empires, particularly those following the reign of the caliphs (the four kings ruling after Muhammad’s death). Rural tribesmen, or bedouins, are characterized as having a strong ‘asabiyya, in contrast to sophisticated urban dwellers, who have a weak ‘asabiyya but highly developed crafts and sciences. In the Muqaddimah Ibn Khaldún distinguishes rural or tribal life (badáwa) from urban or civilized life (hadára), and a rural economy based on sustenance from an urban economy in which human labor generates value, serving to make profit and accumulate capital. He analyzes urban life, examining in detail how growing cities develop and manage their commerce, law, and education. Cities are the locations of a growing division of labor, producing specialized crafts that require time and resources to be learned. Having specific requirements that can only be met by urban civilizations of sufficient size, the sciences develop in larger, longer-lasting urban civilizations. Ibn Khaldún discusses sciences such as reading and interpreting the Qur’an, jurisprudence, mathematics, medicine, natural sciences, and occult sciences. Some sciences are criticized for their lack of religious faith (e.g., Greek philosophy) or for not adhering to historical facts (e.g., astrology and alchemy). Ibn Khaldún argues that growing sophistication leads to decadence and corruption, weakening the ‘asabiyya and making urban civilization prone to attacks and destruction by tribes with a strong ‘asabiyya. These tribes in turn will settle down and become urbanized, generating a cycle of fall and decline of civilizations that contrasts starkly with later European conceptions of progressive development.
Ibn Khaldún’s work was repopularized by orientalists in nineteenth-century Europe. He has been regarded as a forefather of history, sociology, and political science, and his economic theory was seen as anticipating the political economic theories of both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, the former in his insistence on the importance of free markets and free trade, and both in his theory of value. In all of these disciplines there is debate about the extent to which Ibn Khaldún directly or indirectly influenced classic European social scientists. His historical analysis was reapplied in different contexts by proponents of anticolonial movements. Accordingly, his work has been situated in many different contexts, and its interpretations range from carefully applied hermeneutics to political polemics.
- Ibn Khaldú 1958. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Trans. Franz Rosenthal. 3 vols. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Simon, Róbert. 2002. Ibn Khaldún: History as Science and the Patrimonial Empire. Trans. Klára Pogátsa. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 2002.
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