Meet Ibn Khaldun: The 14th century Historian

I recently read a book, Makers of Islamic civilization, Ibn Khaldun. Subhan Allah! it is an amazing read.I would like to share some facts about him which is really amazing.

Ibn Khaldun is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest social scientists of the Middle Ages, and considered by many to be the father of historiography, sociology, economics, and demography studies

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Ibn Khaldun was one of the most remarkable Muslim scholars of the pre-modern period. He founded an entirely new science that he called the science of human society (ilm al ijtima al insani) or human social organization (ilm al umran al bashari). It had little impact on the development of Muslim thought for several centuries but greatly impressed European thinkers from the nineteenth century on, some of whom regarded Ibn Khaldun as a progenitor of sociology

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Meet Ibn Khaldun: The 14th century Historian 8

Before Ibn Khaldun’s time, Arab historians like Al-Waqidi and Al-Baladhuri had documented significant historical incidents, particularly focusing on war stories during the Prophet’s era. However, it was Ibn Khaldun who elevated historical recording to a methodical and scientific level.

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Born on May 27th, 1332 CE, in Tunisia, Ibn Khaldun was steeped in a rich intellectual environment from a young age. Under the tutelage of his father, a distinguished scholar, he mastered various disciplines including Arabic grammar, jurisprudence, mathematics, logic, and philosophy. By the age of 19, Ibn Khaldun had already established himself as a prodigious intellect, ready to embark on a lifelong journey of learning and exploration.

Throughout his life, Ibn Khaldun held various positions ranging from judge to government advisor, which necessitated frequent travels across Europe, Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. These experiences shaped his worldview and provided him with firsthand observations crucial for his seminal work, “The Muqaddimah.”

The Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun

“The Muqaddimah,” meaning “The Prologue,” was Ibn Khaldun’s magnum opus, completed within six months when he was just 30 years old. It served as the cornerstone of his seven-volume set, delving into the intricacies of human society, geography, anthropology, economics, and more. Through his analysis, Ibn Khaldun introduced concepts like ‘Asabiyyah’ (social cohesion) and emphasized the cyclical nature of history, where civilizations rise and fall in predictable patterns.

The problem of historical writing was dominated by tales of the absurd and impossible. Ibn Khaldun said that only knowledge of the nature of society can yield proper history as such knowledge would lead the scholar to reject the impossible and absurd. Society itself may be either nomadic (umran badawi), which is found in outlying regions and mountains, in pastureland, in wasteland regions and on the fringes of deserts, or sedentary, which is found in cities, towns, villages and small communities .

The factors of society or those things that affect society essentially are what constitute Ibn Khaldun’s
new science. This is reflected in the division of the Muqaddima into six chapters

  1. human society in general, its types and the regions of the earth that are inhabited;
  2. nomadic society;
  3. dynasties, caliphal authority and kingship;
  4. sedentary society;
  5. crafts and the modes of making a living;
  6. the sciences and their acquisition
Ibn Khaldun muqaddimah

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In his work the Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun emphasizes human beings’ faculty to think (fikr) as what determines human behavior and ubiquitous patterns. This faculty is also what inspires human beings to form into a social structure to co-operate in division of labor and organization. According to Zaid Ahmand in Epistemology and the Human Dimension in Urban Studies, the fikr faculty is the supporting pillar for all philosophical aspects of Ibn Khaldun’s theory related to human beings’ spiritual, intellectual, physical, social and political tendencies.

Beyond “The Muqaddimah,” Ibn Khaldun penned several other works exploring diverse subjects crucial for understanding societal structures. His contributions to sociology were profound, as he delved into theories of conflict, the dichotomy of sedentary versus nomadic life, and the dynamics of power.

One of Ibn Khaldun’s most enduring legacies lies in his economic theories, which resonated even with modern scholars. His insights on taxation, social cohesion, and the management of currency were remarkably ahead of his time. In fact, Arthur Laffer, a prominent economist, credited Ibn Khaldun’s ideas in the development of the Laffer Curve, a concept addressing the effects of taxation on economic output.

Ibn Khaldun’s holistic approach to history, encompassing not just events but also the social sciences, earned him admiration across centuries. Arnold J. Toynbee, a British historian, hailed “The Muqaddimah” as “the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.”

Reference-

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This series-“Makers of Islamic civilisation -Ibn Khalidun” by Syed Faraid is conceived by the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, is published and distributed by Oxford University Press (India). The books in the series written by leading scholars in the field, aim to provide an introduction to outstanding figures in the history of Islamic civilization. They serve as the essential first point of reference or study of the Persons, events and ideas that have shaped the Islamic world and the cultural resources on which Muslims continue to draw.

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