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Ibn Khaldūn, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān

Massimo Campanini
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Ibn Khaldūn, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān

Historian and sociologist ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Ibn Khaldūn (Tunis 1332–Cairo 1406) has been the critical conscience of the declining Muslim civilization in the so-called Middle Ages.


Ibn Khaldūn was the scion of an old Arab family who achieved prestige and status in Tunis. He received an Islamic education based on the Qurʿān, traditions (ḥadīth), jurisprudence, and literature. In addition, he was educated in philosophy, studying with Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Ābilī who taught him philosophy, mathematics, and natural sciences and was venerated by his pupil. Ibn Khaldūn 's parents died in the great plague of 1348, and he and many of his friends left Tunis. In 1352 he moved to Fez where the Marinid dynasty reigned. Ibn Khaldūn put his skills at the disposal of the energetic Sultan Abū ʿInān as a scholar and as a secretary but soon was charged with conspiracy and fell into disgrace. Released after more than a year in prison, he stayed aloof from the many claimants to power after the sultan 's death (1359). Later, he paid allegiance to the new sultan Abū Sālim and served in the maẓālim ([tribunal of] iniquities). The hostility of the courtiers, however, induced him in 1363 to leave for Granada which was ruled at the time by the Nasrids, the last Spanish Muslim dynasty.

In Granada Ibn Khaldūn became a friend of the prominent scholar and politician Ibn al-Khatīb and later was appointed an ambassador to the court of Peter the Cruel, the king of Castile. He also visited Seville, cradle of his ancestors. This swift advancement of a parvenu led to envy and misunderstanding in Granada, and Ibn al-Khatīb 's friendship was not enough to neutralize all of Khaldūn 's enemies. So Ibn Khaldūn moved to Bougie, in Algeria, to the court of the emir Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad, who appointed him to one of the highest positions in the state, that of chamberlain (1365). In Bougie, Ibn Khaldūn undertook another profession, that of jurist and teacher of Malikī jurisprudence, which was to become increasingly important in his life. He was always ready to change sides, and when Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad was defeated and killed by his rival, the emir of Constantine, he entered the service of the victor, only to leave it abruptly and escape to Biskra where he was welcomed by friends.

Ibn Khaldūn 's fame and authority grew over his lifetime. He spent many years weaving together political coalitions in a confused situation in which there was no real central power. He seems to have hoped to raise a powerful Maghribi force, supported by a strong ʿaṣabīyah (group feeling), in order to unify the land and reconstruct a centralized authority such as that which existed under the Almohad dynasty (ca. 1130–1269). Ibn Khaldūn 's autobiography reveals a growing discomfort over failures to find solutions to the political and social problems of his time. He showed a deep desire for retirement and a contemplative scholarly life, but he returned to Fez in 1372 (where he was jailed again), then to Granada and on to Tlemcen in present-day Algeria where he witnessed the murder of Ibn al-Khatīb. Persuaded of the necessity to leave the dangerous life of politics, Ibn Khaldūn and his family took refuge with the Awlād ʿArīf Berber tribe, and under their protection in the seclusion of the Qalʿah (fortress) Ibn Salāmah, he spent four years (1375–1378) on the first draft of his Muqaddimah (Introduction [to his planned history])—a work he continued to improve until the end of his life—and of the universal history, the Kitāb al-ʿIbar (Book of Admonitions), devoted mostly to the history of the Arabs and the Berbers. Although his deepest wish was probably to be insulated from public life, it is unlikely that his stay at the fortress ended his problems.

Cultural and intellectual motives, especially the need to find materials for his historical work, led him to “take up the traveler 's stick again” (as he said), and Ibn Khaldūn set out for Tunis after more than twenty years ’ absence (1378). In Tunis, he asked for the protection of the Ḥafṣid sultan Abū al-ʿAbbās and carried on writing his works while teaching jurisprudence. He soon attracted the hatred of Ibn ʿArāfah, the muftī and imām of the great mosque. Growing personal hostilities and the unfriendly attitude toward intellectual pursuits in Tunis convinced him to leave again, this time for Egypt. Claiming to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, Ibn Khaldūn stopped in Alexandria in 1382, never to return to the Maghrib. After a month in Alexandria, he moved to Cairo and entered a new phase of his life. The same year, there was a momentous change of dynasty in Egypt in which power shifted from the Baḥrī Mamlūks to the Circassian Mamlūks with the ascension to the throne of al-Ẓāhir Sayf al-Dīn Barqūq. Ibn Khaldūn probably hoped that the new Mamlūks would become the grand dynasty able to rule all the Muslim world and bring about a new era of peace. In Cairo, he devoted himself to teaching and administering justice. He was appointed many times to the office of judge, but again his career was affected by enemies and those envious of his position.

Ibn Khaldūn lived his last adventure in October 1400 when he accompanied the Mamlūk sultan al-Nāṣir Faraj to meet Tamerlane who was besieging Damascus. The Tatar ruler appreciated him for his knowledge and shrewdness, and though Ibn Khaldūn was unable to prevent the sacking of Damascus, he perhaps succeeded in persuading Tamerlane not to invade Egypt. Ibn Khaldūn lived six years after his return to Cairo, newly appointed to and promptly dismissed from the office of Malikī judge. He died in 1406 and was buried in the Ṣūfī cemetery.


One must know Ibn Khaldūn 's biography in order to understand his thought. Without the experience of politics and the political chaos in the Maghrib, he would probably not have written the Kitāb al-ʿIbar or its famous introduction, the Muqaddimah. His purpose was to understand his epoch and to identify those inconsistencies that had to be removed in order to improve the situation of the Muslim world. Ibn Khaldūn was highly original in both these works, but his more striking intellectual innovations are found in the Muqaddimah. Throughout the book, Ibn Khaldūn returns to a common concept of Greek philosophical thought—of Plato and Aristotle alike—that man is a political animal and human beings are obliged to live in society. The idea was widespread in all of Islamic political philosophy and especially in the work of al-Fārābī. Ibn Khaldūn writes that human social organization is a necessity, a belief that the philosophers expressed by saying that “man is political by nature,” that is, he cannot do without the social organization for which the philosophers use the technical term madīnah (city).

There are two kinds of human organization, the badawī (rural, bedouin) and the ḥaḍarī (urban), the former being given priority because the bedouin are a natural group, and the desert is the source of cities and civilizations. The bedouin are strong in body, character, and morals, and courageous at war, and they are on the whole closer to being good. Urban and sedentary civilization, on the contrary, has a weak moral fiber and lacks courage. The citizens are no longer in control of their fate but are liable to corruption, and their reliance on laws destroys their fortitude and power of resistance. The ḥaḍarī is, however, also the civilization of wealth, culture, sciences, and arts, and prosperity reaches its apex in the cities. There is thus a contradiction between force and prosperity: they are in fact mutually exclusive.

The need for human social organization or civilization is explained by God 's creation of man in a form in which he can survive only with food. He instilled in man a natural desire for food and gave him the power to obtain it. Through cooperation, the needs of a much greater number of people can be satisfied. Unfortunately, aggressiveness is natural in living beings; when mankind has achieved social organization, and when civilization has been established, people need someone to restrain them and keep hostile groups apart. The person who exercises a restraining influence must, therefore, be one of themselves. He must have sufficient power and authority over them to prevent them from attacking one another. This is, in Ibn Khaldūn 's view, the very meaning of royal authority.

Ibn Khaldūn 's assumptions concerning the birth and the development of human society are not unlike those of Thomas Hobbes: humankind lives in a natural state of violence and mutual opposition; a restraining authority is needed, and he who exercises that restraint becomes the head of the state, his authority supported by ʿaṣabīyah (group feeling). That feeling is especially strong in badawī society, and weaker in the ḥaḍarī.

There are at least three kinds of ʿaṣabīyah. First is that grounded on the ties of blood (ṣilat al-raḥīm) that are the hub of primitive bedouin society. It is this close connection (iltiḥām) that moves humans instinctively to support their associates by defending them and by avenging the offenses they have suffered. ʿAṣabīyah can also be achieved indirectly through the artificial ties created by sworn alliance (ḥilf) and clientage (walāʿ). Although alliance and clientage are ʿaṣabīyah of second rank, they introduce a new force into the framework of tribal society, strengthening the ties of internal cooperation. Through group feeling the original badawī regime of life evolves into the more advanced and complex ḥaḍarī regime. Thus, group feeling is needed to strengthten the internal ties of a state, making it a powerful and feared structure, able to defend itself and to attack.

The last outcome of the social and political mechanism of ʿaṣabīyah is political authority, for people cannot survive in anarchy without a ruler who keeps them apart and restrains them. Human nature requires that he be a ruler who exercises a powerful authority. In this connection, group feeling is absolutely necessary, for aggressive and defensive enterprises can succeed only with its assistance. Royal authority of this kind is, in Ibn Khaldūn 's view, a noble institution toward which all claims are directed, and one that needs to be defended. Even religion is subordinate to the laws of group feeling. Though the natural condition of humans does not require religion, and the state could be established without it, religion is useful for the better governance of society. Prophet Muḥammad succeeded in making Islam triumphant because he was supported by the strong group feeling of the Meccan emigrants (muhājirūn) and the Medinan helpers (anṣār).

According to Ibn Khaldūn, there are three kinds of royal authority or sovereignty (mulk): natural sovereignty (mulk tabīʿī), which is pure tyrannical autocracy; political or rational sovereignty (mulk siyāsī), corresponding to the secular state, ruled in accordance with rational principles; and finally the caliphate (khilāfah), which is tantamount to a rational and political mulk but whose legislation is of divine and revealed origin. The successor of the legislator Prophet, the caliph (khalīfah), is fully involved in defending and implementing this perfect set of legal arrangements.

The caliphate is the perfect form of royal authority; present society, however, features natural sovereignty in the best cases but tyranny in the worst. The basis of royal authority is no longer reason and morality, but superiority and force, which express the wrathful animality of human nature. But force can turn lawful sovereignty into tyranny, while the kingdom can endure only under just rule. Justice is the very foundation of government and sovereignty. Injustice (ẓulm) in Ibn Khaldūn should not be understood, as it commonly is, simply as the taking of money or other property from its owners, without cause or compensation. Whoever takes someone 's property, or uses him for forced labor, or presses an unjustified claim against him, or imposes upon him a duty not required by religious law, does an injustice to that person. An injustice is committed by those who collect unjustified taxes, by those who infringe upon property, by those who take away property, by those who deny people their rights commit an injustice, and in general by those who take property by force. It is the ruling regime that suffers from all these acts, inasmuch as civilization, which is the substance of the regime, is devastated when people lose all incentives to pursue their aspirations.

There is a retrospective utopia in Ibn Khaldūn 's work. The epoch of Medina and the first caliphate were the most nearly perfect human societies that ever existed, while his contemporary state was marked by injustice and violence. Ibn Khaldūn 's retrospective utopia is founded on a highly realistic and pessimistic vision of history. This realism led the Arab thinker to put history at the center of his worldview. As he wrote, “In its inner soul, history is speculation and verification of the truth; shrewd explanation of the causes and the origins of the existing realities, and deep knowledge of how and why the events are occurring. In this sense, history is strongly rooted in philosophy [ḥikmah] and must be understood as a philosophical science.”

In Ibn Khaldūn 's philosophy of history, states, like human bodies, are doomed to a natural decline and death. States decline because of the loosening of the ties of ʿaṣabīyah and because rulers no longer act with justice but become tyrants. On the one hand, luxury and civilization destroy the purity of badawī customs while urban society loses its vigor and yields to inactivity and unrestrained expenditures. On the other hand, rulers make the state their own property and interfere in the productive process by transforming the market economy into a private estate; all the good qualities of the pristine state vanish. The cyclical process of history consists of the cyclic transition from rural (badawī) civilization to urban (ḥaḍarī), and back again. The process is not wholly negative and repetitive, though, because the civilizational achievements of the previous ḥaḍarī phases are not completely lost. A kind of evolution is at work in history, although Ibn Khaldūn did not foretell its outcome.


Ibn Khaldūn 's heritage can be seen in the wide success his thought enjoys in contemporary Arab thought. Not only did he understand the dynamics of social and political evolution in the Arab world and suggest a new methodology for the analysis of history, but he provides the tools for predicting the development of Arab-Muslim societies. Many Arab scholars have studied his thought from a theoretical perspective, two of whom are the Moroccans Abdallah Laroui and Muḥammad al-Jābrī. In Laroui 's view (Islam et modernité [Islam and Modernity], Paris, 1986) it is possible to find a common ground between Ibn Khaldūn and Machiavelli, because each has overcome—in his own cultural environment—the methodological dichotomy between ideal analysis and factual description. Human acts are the outcome not of reason but of historical laws. Notwithstanding this limitation, they can be dealt with rationally; they are not rational, but they can be rationalized. The study of society through history and the study of politics interact, because politics is the core of society, and society is the main object of historical inquiry. It is for this reason that Ibn Khaldūn and Machiavelli have so often been compared. Ibn Khaldūn is radically pessimistic about his political reality, although he tries to rationalize the political and historical data.

An essential feature distinguishes the two thinkers, however. While Ibn Khaldūn maintains a substantial religious outlook, Machiavelli believes that religion is a hindrance to the management of power. A common methodological ground can be identified, and this is useful from the perspective of contemporary Islamic political thought: Laroui argues that Ibn Khaldūn is useful for the Arab mind both for rebuilding the science of history and for laying the groundwork for secularism in the state, along with a keen awareness that time destroys and returns everything. Al-Jābrī (Introduction à la critique de la raison arabe [Introduction to the Criticism of Arab Reason], Paris, 1994; Naḥnu wa-al-turāth [We and Our Heritage], Beirut, 1980) believes that Ibn Khaldūn is in the mainstream of the rationalistic Andalusian-Maghribi philosophical tradition, whose main representative was Ibn Rushd (Averroës). Ibn Khaldūn was part of a tradition willing to make history a science grounded on rational demonstration in order to discover the natural properties of civilization. Furthermore, through his thought and methodology, Arabs would be able to reform their mind and find their own way to modernity.

See also ʿAṣABīYAH and PHILOSOPHY.


  • Ahmad, Zaid. The Epistemology of Ibn Khaldūn. London and New York, 2003. Find it in your Library
  • Campanini, Massimo, ed.Studies on Ibn Khaldūn. Monza, Italy, 2005. Find it in your Library
  • Cheddadi, Abdesselem. Ibn Khaldûn: L ’homme et le théoricien de la civilisation (Ibn Khaldūn: The Man and the Theoretician of Civilization). Paris, 2006. Find it in your Library
  • Al-Azmeh, Aziz. Ibn Khaldūn: An Essay in Reinterpretation. London and Totowa, N.J., 1982. Find it in your Library
  • Al-Azmeh, Aziz. Ibn Khaldun in Modern Scholarship: A Study in Orientalism. London, 1981. Find it in your Library
  • Ibn Khaldūn. Discours sur l ’histoire universelle (Discourse on Universal History). Translated from the Arabic by Vincent Monteil. Beirut, 1967–1968. Find it in your Library
  • Ibn Khaldūn. Le voyage d ’Occident et d ’Orient (Travel in the West and in the East). Translated by Abdesselem Cheddadi. Paris and Arles, 1995. Ibn Khaldūn 's autobiography. Find it in your Library
  • Ibn Khaldūn. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Translated from the Arabic by Franz Rosenthal. New York, 1958, and Princeton, 1967. Find it in your Library
  • Lacoste, Yves. Ibn Khaldoun: Naissance de l ’histoire, passé du tiers monde (Ibn Khaldūn: The Birth of History and the Past of the Third World). Paris, 1966. Find it in your Library
  • Mahdi, Muhsin. Ibn Khaldūn 's Philosophy of History. London, 1957. Find it in your Library
  • Nassar, Nasif. La pensée réaliste d ’Ibn Khaldūn (The Realist Thought of Ibn Khaldūn). Paris, 1967. Find it in your Library
  • Talbi, Mohammed. Ibn Khaldoun et l ’Histoire (Ibn Khaldūn and History). Tunis, 1973. Find it in your Library
  • Turroni, Giuliana. Il mondo della storia secondo Ibn Khaldūn (The World of History According to Ibn Khaldūn). Rome, 2002. Find it in your Library
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