Ibn Khaldūn

Ibn Khaldūn
   Islam’s most admired historian, ‘Abd-ar-Rahmān Abū Zayd ibn Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldūn—generally known simply as Ibn Khaldūn—is chiefly remembered as the author of the MUQADDIMAH (literally, “Introduction,” namely to a work of universal history). But Ibn Khaldūn’s life was politically active as well as contemplative and intellectual.
   Born to a family of politically influential scholars and scribes in the North African city of Tunis, Ibn Khaldūn received an extensive early education in the KORAN, in Arabic, in Muslim law, and in the sciences of mathematics and logic as well as philosophy (particularly the Islamic Aristotelians).He later studied Arab mysticism (Sufi). Thus Ibn Khaldūn was trained to take the position of a court scribe, in the tradition of his family. The BLACK DEATH of 1349 killed his parents and many of his teachers, and the young Ibn Khaldūn soon left Tunis for the position of scribe at the court of Fez, the center of political power of the Merinid dynasty in North Africa at the time. But Ibn Khaldūn was restless and temperamental, and he moved restlessly from court to court, always seeking more influence. In 1362 he was in the court of Muhammad V in Granada, and in 1365 he was appointed hajib (the head of the government) in the Hafsid city of Bougie, though his career was in ruins after the emir of Constantine occupied Bougie the following year, sending Ibn Khaldūn into a decade of minor appointments and uncertainty.
   By 1375, Ibn Khaldūn was worn out by his political career and by the constant strife between the Merinid and Hafsid dynasties of northwest Africa, and he retired to the fortress village of Qal’at Ibn Salāmah in what is now Algeria, where, in seclusion between 1375 and 1379, he began what was to be a history of the Arabs and the Berber people, but which developed into a new philosophy of history, his Muqaddimah. In it, he argues that the laws of God can be demonstrated to be the foundation of the good society, both economically and socially. The state is established to defend the community against aggression and violence from within and without, to protect private property, to prevent fraud and theft, and to protect the currency. But more generally, his study of history led him to postulate that empires rise and fall according to a three-stage pattern, during the first stage of which empires are established because human beings seek civilization and its economic and cultural benefits as a good. But in the second stage, the dynasty inevitably becomes corrupt and exploits its citizens, the state weakens, and, in the third stage, a new and vital society overthrows them and creates a new empire.
   Perhaps it was the perspective given him by his study of history that reinvigorated Ibn Khaldūn to reenter public life. In 1384 he accepted an appointment as a judge in Cairo, where he was also appointed an instructor in Islamic law at the Qamhîyah College. From that point until his death in 1406, Ibn Khaldūn was (off and on) chief judge at the Malikite school of law, and at times administrator of Sufi institutions in Egypt.He continued his interest in historical scholarship and in Islamic law and its application in everyday life. Aside from his Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldūn is known for his History of the Berbers, our chief source of information about the history of North Africa and the Berber people during this turbulent period. Some of his earlier works made him famous in his own time even as a young man: philosophical treatises on logic, on arithmetic, and on law; a commentary on a well-known poem in praise of Muhammad called the Burda, and a summary of the work of AVERROËS. He also met with the famous Tatar conqueror Tamerlane in 1400, and left an important historical account of that meeting. But the wide-ranging social, economic, and historical philosophy of his Muqaddimah has ensured Ibn Khaldūn his own place in the history of civilization.
   ■ Al-Azmeh,Aziz. Ibn Khaldûn: An Essay in Reinterpretation. London: Routledge, 1990.
   ■ Baali, Fuad. Social Institutions: Ibn Khaldûn’s Social Thought. Lanham,Md.: University Press of America, 1992.
   ■ Ibn Khaldûn. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Translated by Franz Rosenthal, abridged and edited by N. J. Dawood, with a new introduction by Bruce B. Lawrence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005.
   ■ Mahdi,Muhsin. Ibn Khaldûn’s Philosophy of History: A Study in the Philosophic Foundation of the Science of Culture. London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1957.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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