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Abd al-Rahman Ibn Mohammad Ibn Khaldûn, 1332-1395

Medieval Arab 14th C. historian and social philosopher.  Ibn Khaldun (or Ibn Khaldoun) was arguably the first "social scientist" in the strictest meaning of that term. 

Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis (then part of Hafsid Ifriqiya).  His family was of Yemenite Arab origin, and had previously lived for generations in the Andalusian citadel of Seville. Like many other Andalusian Arabs, they had left during the Reconquista and re-established themselves in North Africa.

'In his early life, Ibn Khaldun took on a variety of government posts in Ifriqiya (Tunsia), Fez (Morocco), Granada (Spain) and Biaja (Algeria).  War and political intrigue eventually led him to search for the quiet of  exile in Qalat Ibn Salama, a North African fortress village in 1374.  It was here that he began writing his Kitab al-I'bar, or "universal history", which would occupy him for the next few decades. Ibn Khaldun finally settled in Egypt in 1382, where he served as the chief Malakite judge and lectured at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo.  In 1400, he was sent to Damascus to negotiate the capitulation of that city to the conquering Tatars.  It was there had he had his famous encounter with their leader, Tamerlane. 

Ibn Khaldun is best known for his monumental Muqaddimah (1377), the first volume and "prolegomena" to what eventually became his seven-volume historical treatise.  Therein, he develops a systematic theory of historical political and economic organization.  Rejecting mythical and religious explanations for the origins and laws of human society, Ibn Khaldun adopted, perhaps for the first time, the methodology of the social sciences.  

Ibn Khaldun anticipates many of the elements of the political theory of Thomas Hobbes.  "Aggressiveness is in the nature of every living creature", Ibn Khaldun claimed.  As a single man was physically unequipped to battle beasts and tame nature, cooperation among humans was necessary.  This cooperation or what he called "group-feeling" -- strongest among blood relatives --  formed at the foundation of society.   But with the advance of civilization, via agriculture and settlement, there is relief from the fight against nature and so, gradually, the need for cooperation becomes less urgent,  group-feeling dissolves and the natural aggressiveness of men re-emerges, this time directed against other men and their property.  As a result, "People need someone to exercise a restraining influence to keep them apart, for aggressiveness and injustice  are in the animal nature of man." (Khaldun, 1377: p.47) and this device was "royal authority" (ibid.), the promulgator and enforcer of laws.  "People as a rule covet the possessions of other people.  Without the restraining influence of the laws, nobody's property would be safe." (1377: p.313)).  

But who restrains the royal?  Group-feeling, once again.  A tyrant can rule by force alone, but not for very long.  For, once he becomes a tyrant, sets the conditions for the arousal of group-feeling in society against him.  A good part of the Muqaddimah is dedicated to advising princes how to avoid such an outcome.  Among these are numerous cautions on economic matters.   His consideration of the delicate interface between government and private enterprise is rather prescient of the "modern" attitude towards economic policy which only really began in Europe after the 18th Century Enlightenment.  

Ibn Khaldun introduced an archaic labor theory of value, believing labor to be a necessary and sufficient condition for value -- "gains and profits, in their entirety or for the most part, are value realized from human labour" (Khaldun, 1377: p.298).  Although deploring merchants for their "unmanly" character, Khaldun regarded commerce and the search for profit -- the activity of merchants -- as a "natural way to make a living", at least one consistent with the animal propensities of men.  He recognized the importance of private enterprise in determining the economic welfare of a nation, "Civilization and its well-being as well as business prosperity depend on productivity and people's efforts in all directions in their own interest and profit." (1377: 238). 

As a result, a prince needs to pay attention to private incentives when making economic policy decisions.   Ibn Khaldun recognized that a prince needs money to rule -- to win allies, corrupt rivals, maintain an army, build fortifications, etc. -- but the question of how to acquire revenue must be approached very carefully.  In a famous passage employing the logic of "supply-side" economics, Ibn Khaldun warned rulers not to hamper or engage in commerce themselves as, by twisting the incentives of private enterprise, it is "harmful to his subjects and ruinous to the tax revenue" (1377: p.232). Tax revenue, Ibn Khaldun claims, "can be improved only through the equitable treatment of people with property and regard for them, so that their hopes rise, and they have the incentive to start making their capital bear fruit and grow." (1377: p.234).  He condemned price-fixing as "even more dangerous, harmful and ruinous for the subjects." (ibid.) than direct government competition.  

However, the most probable outcome for a king's fall from grace is not an uprising by his own people against tyranny or impoverishment via economic overreach, but rather invasion by outsiders.  In a state of war between nations, a tyrant will hardly be able to raise an effective army among the people he rules and thus his defenses are inevitably weak, regardless of how much money he expends on them.  He makes the observation that, historically, sedentary populations usually fall to invasions by poor nomadic or barbarian tribes.  This is because the harsh way of life of nomadic peoples naturally generates a very intense group-feeling, which, when applied in aggression, turns them into an extraordinarily powerful, united and determined fighting force.  

On the whole, despite his recommendations for good rule, Ibn Khaldun was pessimistic about the lasting power of kingdoms. Eventually, drunk on power and forgetful of the past, there will be some royal down the line who will be tempted to tyranny, thereby setting the stage for being overthrown from within or without.   It is unlikely, he claimed, that a dynasty will last more than three or four generations.  



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Major Works of Ibn Khaldun

  • Kitab al-'Iba: Book of Counsels
  • Al-Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, 1377. - selections, selections [French trans. by W.M. de Slane, 1863-68, Les Prolégomènes d'Ibn Khaldoun, 1863: v.1, 1865: v.2, 1868: v.3, index]
  • Kitab al-I'bar: Universal History, 1381
  • History of the Berbers and the Muslim dynasties of North Africa (part of Kitab al-I'bar) [French trans. by W.M. de Slane,  1852-56, Histoire des Berbères et des dynasties musulmanes de l'Afrique Septentrionale. v.1, v.2 v.3, vol. 4]




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Resources on Ibn Khaldun

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