Along with Herodotus and Thucydides, Ibn Khaldūn is generally perceived as one of the founding fathers of the social sciences and historiography. He began his life deeply immersed in the political world of his time occupying various governmental posts before eventually withdrawing from public life and penning the work he is perhaps best remembered for, the Muqqadimah.
Along with Herodotus and Thucydides, Ibn Khaldūn is generally perceived as one of the founding fathers of the social sciences and historiography. He was born in a family of high civil servants in Tunis in 1332 and formally educated in theology, Islamic law, grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, and philosophy. He was deeply rooted in his Islamic background, holding several high governmental and diplomatic posts in the service of Muslim rulers across the Maghreb, Spain, Egypt, and Syria over the course of his life. He successively acted as an advisor to the ruler, a public speaker, a judge of the Maliki rite, a teacher, a professor of jurisprudence, and even a prime minister. He negotiated with Pedro the cruel of Spain in Sevilla (1365) and Tamerlane on the outskirts of Damascus (1400). He eventually withdrew from political life and left for Egypt where he was a professor of jurisprudence and spent the rest of his life.
All of Ibn Khaldūn’s attempts to guide his community, advise his leaders, and reshape society through a reformed ruler ended in failure. Ibn Khaldūn lived in precarious times when the Almohad Empire in North Africa and Muslim Spain were in decline and convulsed by internecine conflicts and rebellions. He regularly found himself at the mercy of the vicissitudes of his time as rulers rose and fell including being imprisoned or forced into exile. This period of turmoil provided him with unique insights in matters of state, political dynamics, and the motives of human action from which he would later draw to formulate his science of culture.
Albeit versed in Islamic philosophy Ibn Khaldūn was critical of the theoretical approaches of the philosophers, in particular of the Neo-platonic brand, whose speculations he felt confined themselves to the ideal and understood reason as all-encompassing. Political philosophy in itself and its promotion of the ideal state (khilāfa) were inadequate and needed to be complemented by the study of history. The latter, rather than metaphysics, would provide the concrete causes of Islamic decline.
Ibn Khaldūn’s predecessors had merely skimmed the surface of historical events and had “over-looked its inner meaning,” which “involves speculation and an attempt to get at the truth, subtle explanation of the causes and origins of existing things, and deep knowledge of the how and why of events” (Ibn Khaldūn 1980). Ibn Khaldūn exposed the weaknesses of traditional Islamic historiography with its “incentive for inventing” and set out to develop a new scientific method for distinguishing true from false or erroneous reports (ḥadīth).
History was concerned with the nature and causes of actual existence and should penetrate beyond appearances and help discern patterns and general laws. This new science of history would help investigate the nature and causes of culture and social dynamics as they were rather than how they ought to be. Ibn Khaldūn eventually compiled his meditations in his Muqaddima, the work he is today foremost remembered for and the introduction to his great history of the Arabs and the Berbers, the Kitāb al-ʿibar, which was divided into a six further books. In this analysis which he penned in Algeria over the course of 4 years from 1375 onward, he came to the conclusion that “social phenomena seem to obey laws which, while not as absolute as those governing natural phenomena, are sufficiently constant to cause social events to follow regular and well-defined patterns and sequences” (Ibn Khaldūn 1980).
In the Muqaddima, Ibn Khaldūn expounded his essentially cyclical view of history and society which included the influence of the environment on social life, man’s basic needs and desires, the economical foundations of power, the forms of rule as well as its relation to religion, and the interconnectedness of material supply and demand. At the heart of Ibn Khaldūn’s analysis lay his study of the nature of society and social change. Human society, according to him, is similar to an organism with a life of its own and, as such, went through a cycle of conquest, growth, peak, and decline. For Ibn Khaldūn, there were two driving forces in human history in every civilization: ‘asabīya (sense of community) and mulk (state power). ‘Asabīya referred to “the affection a man feels for a brother or a neighbour when one of them is treated unjustly or killed” (Ibn Khaldūn 1980). This “group feeling” in particular played a key role in the rise and fall of kingdoms and dynasties and its weakening generally led to the collapse of civilizations.
In his analysis of society, which he called ʿilm al-ʿumrān, Ibn Khaldūn distinguished between primitive culture (‘umrān badawī) and civilized culture (‘umrān hadarī) or civilization (hadāra). Primitive culture satisfied man’s essential needs and was marked by the frugality of nomadic life as well as violence, courage, self-reliance, and a strong militant spirit of solidarity. Man’s desire for peace and security led him to cooperate with other men and eventually associate with others in society. Through the establishment of the state humans were able to move beyond mere survival, develop their rational abilities, and embrace a life of leisure and luxury. Once the state had achieved peace and prosperity, sciences, arts, and crafts flourished. Urban life however gradually led to the erosion of tribal virtues and the concentration of power in the hands of an absolute leader whose reliance on mercenaries led to rising expenditure and taxes and resulted in the impoverishment of the population. Spiritual, moral, and intellectual decadence soon set in. The loss of ‘asabīya marked the demise of the state and its reversion to primitivism. The cycle had reached its end.
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