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Ibn Khaldun—A short introduction to Ibn Khaldun – the first ever social historian

 

 

Ibn Khaldun’s full name is Abu Zayd Abdur Rahman bin Muhammad bin Khaldun Al-Hadrami. He was born in 1332 (732 Hijri) in Tunis, in Tunisia, into a high-ranking family whose lineage goes back to the Prophet (PBUH). Having completed his education in the sciences of Islam, Ibn Khaldun, like others in his family before, became a judge and diplomat. With the gradual loss of Muslim Spain in the West as well as the rise of new dynasties in the Ottomans and the Mongols to the East, the fourteenth century was politically a dangerous time. In his lifetime, many different groups fought for control of

major regions of North Africa. Despite this, Ibn Khaldun, showing extraordinary diplomatic skills, became the Chief Judge six times under different rulers, even meeting up on one occasion with the much-feared Mongol leader Timur (Tamerlane).

Today, Ibn Khaldun is most known for being the first ever, and possibly the greatest, Muslim social and political historian and philosopher. He is widely regarded as the founder of modern social science.

For Ibn Khaldun studying history gave people a better understanding of the trends that
change society so that they could respond with wisdom and effectiveness. This is because history influences people’s motives, the past always rolls into the present, and there are always lessons to be learnt. Muslims have long had a tradition of studying history, and there have been many great historians before Ibn Khaldun. This is not at all surprising given that Allah in the Qur’an relates historical stories of Prophets and ancient civilizations
like the people of Nuh, ‘Aad, Musa, Thamud, Sulaiman, Dawud, the Romans and so on. When the Qur’an mentions something, the general principle is that we must study it. When it came to the study of social and political history, Ibn Khaldun articulated a unique approach.

His wide ranging experience with government and society, and brilliant analytical mind
gave him a rare quality of being able to form deep insights into how societies worked and changed. In 1337 Ibn Khaldun completed, amongst others, his famous book Kitab al-Ibar (“The Book of Lessons”), of which the introduction, known as Al-Muqaddimah, is most famous. The Muqaddimah lays out a thorough analysis of social history,
what makes societies work, and how social, economic and political forces bring about changes in
society.
In the Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun emphasised the importance of deriving facts from observing societies rather than proposing normative theory (ideal norms). Looking at the rises and falls of Islamic dynasties, he showed that when any group in society achieved tribal solidarity, which he called “assabiyyah”, it tended to conquer others. He found that many things in society change over time which, in turn, change the way societies work. For example, he pointed out that one of the big differences with earlier Muslim societies was the loss of religious self purification among politicians and government and the growth of what he called “royal authority” – kings and their families ruling and dominating society.

Ibn Khaldun approached history with great sensitivity. He did not just lunge into criticism of past events or people, and always attempted to reason to properly bring out the subtle points and arguments that so often go unnoticed. He suggested that earlier historians sometimes mistakenly took things as truth because they didn’t scrutinise things properly, were partisan, became overconfident in their viewpoints, or lacked real insight.

Ibn Khaldun lived out his life in Cairo and died in 1406 (808 Hijri). In today’s age when hatred and war are increasingly championed, Ibn Khaldun’s spirit remains an example of diplomacy. His approach to understanding society, too, remains a great model for each and every one us, because, no doubt, if we don’t understand the times we live in, we will not be able to deal with its issues.

By Dr Mamnun Khan

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