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Ibn Khaldun
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Ibn Khaldun

Abu Zayd 'Abd al-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldun al-Hadrami (عبد الرحمن بن محمد بن خلدون الحضرمي, May 27, 1332/ah732 to March 19, 1406/ah808) was a famous North African historiographer, historian and proto-sociologist, who considered himself Arab.

Table of contents
1 Biography
2 Assessments of Ibn Khaldun's Contribution
3 Some Quotes from Works by Ibn Khaldun
4 External links


Ibn Khaldun is widely acclaimed as a forerunner of modern historiography, sociology and economics. He is best known for his Muqaddimah (Prolegomena). Generally known as Ibn Khaldun after a remote ancestor, he was born in Tunis in 732 A.H. (1332 C.E.) to an upper class family that had migrated from Seville in Muslim Spain. His ancestors were Yemeni Arabs who settled in Spain in the very beginning of Muslim rule in the eighth century, but after the fall of Seville, had migrated to Tunisia. In his history, he describes his family, the Banu Khaldun, as follows:

"And our ancestry is from Hadhramaut, from the Arabs of Yemen, via Wa'il ibn Hajar, from the best of the Arabs, well-known and respected." (p. 2429, Al-Waraq's edition)

However, a few biographers (eg., Mohammad Enan) question his claim, suggesting that his family may have been Berbers who pretended to Arab origin in order to gain social status. One website - Salaam.co.uk - claims, without giving any sources, that this ancestry was through his mother and that his father was "a native of Berber" (sic), although this contradicts Ibn Khaldun's own words, since he traces his genealogy back to Khaldun through his father's side:

"Abd ar-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn Jabir ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Abd ar-Rahman ibn Khaldun. Of my genealogy back to Khaldun I recall only these ten, although there must have been more..." - (p. 2428, Al-Waraq's edition)

Ibn Khaldun studied the various branches of Arabic learning with great success. In 1352 he obtained employment under the Marinid sultan Abu Inan Fares I at Fez. In the beginning of 1356, his integrity having been suspected, he was thrown into prison until the death of Abu Inan in 1358, when the vizier al-Hasan ibn Omar set him at liberty and reinstated him in his rank and offices. He here continued to render great service to Abu Salem Ibrahim III, Abu Inan's successor, but, having offended the prime minister, he obtained permission to emigrate to Spain. Ibn al Ahmar, who had been greatly indebted to his good offices when an exile at the court of Abu Salem, received Ibn Khaldun with great cordiality at Granada. The favours he received from the sovereign excited the jealousy of the vizier, and he was driven back to Africa (1364), where the Hafsid sultan of Bougie, Abu Abdallah, who had been formerly his companion in prison, received him with great cordiality.

On the fall of Abu Abdallah, Ibn Khaldun raised a large force amongst the desert Arabs, and entered the service of the sultan of Tlemcen. A few years later he was taken prisoner by Abdalaziz (Abd ul Aziz), who had defeated the sultan of Tlemcen and seized the throne. He then entered a monastic establishment, and occupied himself with scholastic duties, until in 1370 he was sent for to Tlemcen by the new sultan.

After the death of Abd ul Aziz he resided at Fez, enjoying the patronage and confidence of the regent. In 1375, he took refuge among the Awlad Arif tribe of central Algeria, in the town of Qalat Ibn Salama; there he took advantage of his seclusion to write the Muqaddimah (or "Introduction", to his subsequent history.) In 1378, he entered the service of the sultan of his native town of Tunis, where he devoted himself almost exclusively to his studies and wrote his history of the Berbers.

Having received permission to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, he reached Cairo, where he was presented to the sultan al-Malik udh-Dhahir Barkuk, who insisted on his remaining there, and in the year 1384 made him grand cadi of the Maliki school of fiqh or religious law for Cairo. This office he filled with great prudence and probity, removing many abuses in the administration of justice in Egypt.

At this time the ship in which his wife and family, with all his property, were coming to join him, was wrecked, and every one on board lost. He endeavoured to find consolation in the completion of his history of the Arabs of Spain. At the same time he was removed from his office of cadi, which gave him more leisure for his work.

Three years later he made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and on his return lived in retirement in the Fayyum until 1399, when he was again called upon to resume his functions as cadi. He was removed and reinstated in the office no fewer than five times. He died on March 17, 1406, and was buried in Cairo.

He also wrote historical narratives based on the accounts of Timur, the Mongol leader.


The only complete English translation of the Muqaddimah is by Franz Rosenthal (3 vols., Princeton, 1958). N.J. Dawood produced a one-volume abrigement in 1967.

Assessments of Ibn Khaldun's Contribution

British historian Arnold J. Toynbee called "undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place."

Bernard Lewis describes Ibn Khaldun as "the greatest historian of the Arabs and perhaps the greatest historical thinker of the Middle Ages" (from The Arabs in History, 1950, page 160)

Some Quotes from Works by Ibn Khaldun

On economics

"In the early stages of the state, taxes are light in their incidence, but fetch in a large revenue...As time passes and kings succeed each other, they lose their tribal habits in favor of more civilized ones. Their needs and exigencies grow...owing to the luxury in which they have been brought up. Hence they impose fresh taxes on their subjects...[and] sharply raise the rate of old taxes to increase their yield...But the effects on business of this rise in taxation make themselves felt. For business men are soon discouraged by the comparison of their profits with the burden of their taxes...Consequently production falls off, and with it the yield of taxation."

This is in essence equivalent to the modern economic concept known as the Laffer Curve

On the Arabs

"Arabs dominate only of the plains, because they are, by their savage nature, people of pillage and corruption. They pillage everything that they can take without fighting or taking risks, then flee to their refuge in the wilderness, and do not stand and do battle unless in self-defense. So when they encounter any difficulty or obstacle, they leave it alone and look for easier prey. And tribes well-fortified against them on the slopes of the hills escape their corruption and destruction, because they prefer not to climb hills, nor expend effort, nor take risks. Whereas plains, when they can reach them due to lack of protection and weakness of the state, are spoils for them and morsels for them to eat, which they will keep despoiling and raiding and conquering with ease until their people are defeated, then imitate them with mutual conflict and political decline, until their civilization is destroyed. And Allah is capable of their creation, and He is the One, the Victorious, and there is no other lord than Him." (original text)

Note on Ibn Khaldun's use of "Arab"

Some scholars believe that, in many instances, Ibn Khaldun uses the name Arab to mean bedouin. Other scholars, such as Mohamed Chafik, deny this.

From Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History pp. 14-16 (1950)

"From late 'Abbasid times onwards the word Arab reverts to its earlier meaning of Bedouin or nomad, bcoming in effect a social rather than an ethnic term. In many of the Western chronicles of the Crusades it is used only for Bedouin, while the mass of the Muslim population of the Near East are called Saracens. It is certainly in this sense that in the sixteenth century Tasso speaks of

'Altri Arabi poi, che di soggiorno, / certo non sono stabili abitanti;' (Gerusalemme Liberata, XVII 21.)

"The fourteenth-century Arabic historian Ibn Khaldun, himself a townsman of Arab descent, uses the word commonly in this sense."

Some text from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica

External links