The Ibn Khaldun family were descended from a Bedouin, Khaldun, who settled near Seville in the early years of Muslim conquest. Under Reconquista pressure in the 13th century, they moved to Tunis, where they were among the educated governing elite. In 1332, the author we know as “Ibn Khaldun” was born there. He had a typical (and good) Islamic education, but just as he was about grown up, the plague struck Tunis. Both of his parents, and perhaps more of his family, died. Orphaned but with some inherited money, Ibn Khaldun set out on a career as a civil servant at the age of 20.
For twelve years, he held court and secretarial posts in Tunis and Fez. He was always clearly more brilliant and ambitious than the average civil servant, and this frequently got him in trouble. He would be suspected of rebellion and imprisoned; released, he would go to another court and after a few years the same thing happened. At age 32, he crossed to Granada, where he was a close friend of Ibn Khatib, the Vizier and plague documenter. He may have met Ibn Khatib when he, in turn, had displeased the Emir of Granada and fled to Fez. The culture and language on both sides of the Gibraltar Strait were identical.
It’s not clear if Ibn Khaldun was actually conspiring against his Emirs and Viziers. What we do know is that in his career, he crossed the Strait more than once and worked in every government in the region. In 1375, weary of the constant political fighting, he withdrew to the shelter of some Berber tribesmen in western Algeria. With his family, he lived in a desert fortress called Qalat ibn Salamah. There, he began to write a memoir that became a history of the world. Unfortunately, the Berbers were lacking a decent library, so after 3 years he went back to Tunis to complete his book. Wouldn’t you know, the Sultan of Tlemcen felt he was rebellious…and it all started again.
On pretext of going to Mecca, Ibn Khaldun went east to Cairo. Barquq, the first Burji (Circassian) Mamluk king, invited him to teach at al-Azhar School/University. Ibn Khaldun became the chief Qadi (Judge) of Maliki Islam. But personal tragedy struck: his family, who had safely followed him through his many political moves, were all lost on the ship that carried them to Egypt to meet him. Stricken, he completed his Hajj to Mecca. With a few more adventures, he finished his life in Cairo, teaching Maliki law and serving the Burji Mamluk. During his last years, he was arrested for political activism (say it ain’t so).
The reason we still know about Ibn Khaldun, who was only one of thousands of similar civil servants and judges in 14th century Islam, is that the books he wrote in Tunis were among the most original, philosophical, thoughtful works of all time. When he began to write the history of the Berbers, he started by thinking carefully about what it means to study and write history:
[The study of history] is dependent on studying numerous sources, understanding diverse subjects, having the best insight and analysis, and being able to verify the truth of sources as they can deviate and be filled with mistakes. Historical research must not be dependent on bare copying of all reports. It should instead be based on an understanding of local customs, politics, the nature of civilization, and the local conditions of where humans live. You must also be able to compare primary and secondary sources, as they can help you differentiate between the truth and falsehood, helping derive conclusions that are believable and honest. (tr. Firas Alkhateeb )
The Prologue, or Muqaddimah, lays out principles of history, political science, sociology and economics. After this first book, he went on to tell the history of “the world” in four books, and of the Berbers in the last two. Ibn Khaldun’s experience of the plague visitation shaped how he thought about writing a book. He recalled reading a book about the peoples of Europe written in the 10th century, and how that world had passed away.
When there is a general change of conditions, it is as if the entire creation had changed and the whole world been altered, as if it were a new and repeated creation, a world brought into existence anew. Therefore, there is need at this time that someone should systematically set down the situation of the world among all regions and races, as well as the customs and sectarian beliefs that have changed for their adherents, doing for this age what al-Mas’udi did for his. This should be a model for future historians to follow. In this book of mine, I shall discuss as much of that as will be possible for me here in the Maghrib. (tr. Franz Rosenthal)
Ibn Khaldun’s prologue lays out the errors that historians must avoid. They must be well-informed about the region and time, and the customs of the people, so that they don’t make ignorant errors. For example, we know that Ibn Khaldun was a judge, a Qadi, but if we read into that American norms of what a judge does, we’d probably completely misunderstand what he did in Cairo. Cultural understanding is the only way to avoid this kind of error.
He also questioned the way numbers are reported in many accounts of the past. He pointed out that numbers may be inflated according to someone’s hopes, such as overstating the size of an army. We need to take what we know about probability in the present, and apply it to the past: how likely is it that this size army could be raised from that size of a kingdom? How possible would it be for the King of Yemen to invade Morocco, as one legend claimed, given the amount of food and water he’d have needed to cross North Africa?
Ibn Khaldun applied his questioning not just to numbers, but to other claims. When we see a story about some historical figure, we must ask if it’s consistent with the customs of the time, what else we know about the person, and how human psychology generally runs. What is likely, what is probable? What is even possible? “For,” he said, “the past is more like the future than two drops of water.” His own past roles in so many kingdoms and Emirships made him highly aware of human political psychology.
He also criticized past legends that didn’t accord with observable natural science. We can hear echoes of his friend and rival, Ibn Khatib, who suggested that if a disease was obviously contagious, we must challenge hadiths that deny it. This may have been a leading topic among the intellectuals of the Spanish-Moroccan culture. They sought to apply what they could see and know, to work out natural and logical explanations.
Now it might seem, at this point, that Ibn Khaldun’s outlook was pretty modern. In his view, it certainly was: he was part of the post-plague new world. There are still some jarring points in which he isn’t in line with the modern world we know. In particular, he had a very strong sense of tribal and personal identity that trumped all of his other concerns.
When he evaluated Moses’ claim of his army’s size, he judged the possibility of such numbers against the timeline of Moses’ given genealogy. He knew of four generations from Jacob, so four it must have been, and no more. We’d never do this now, we’d assume that it was a truncated list that skips the forgettable names. But to Ibn Khaldun, the one non-negotiable was that you must never question someone’s claims of identity. It was almost a religious principle: “people are to be believed regarding the descent they claim for themselves.” (tr. Rosenthal)
It’s not hard to find the Ibn Khaldun family’s story traced in his principles. His family had been the nobility of Sevilla before it fell to Christians. If he made a claim about his descent, he was not able to prove it, because they had left Spain as refugees. He wanted to be trusted, so he set it out as a principle. Further, his family had been upper class, rulers; they expected to be such in Tunis, too. And they were. He felt it was only right, and he resented social climbers. In degenerate Spain, ever since they had lost their dynastic traditions, “professional men and artisans are to be found pursuing power and authority and eager to obtain them.” They did not understand “group feeling.”
By contrast, he saw his social class as best able to understand history and perhaps the world. They had retained the “group feeling” of tribal solidarity as Arabs and, in Spain, as Umayyads.
…those who have experience with tribal conditions, group feeling, and dynasties along the western shore, and who know how superiority is achieved among nations and tribal groups, will rarely make mistakes or give erroneous interpretations in this respect.
It’s clear that Ibn Khaldun had an ambitiously thoughtful mind and a clear sense of his role in history. He was right, too. In 1377 when his book was published times had begun to change rapidly and the speed would only pick up. His record of Muslim history in the Maghreb cannot be valued. But he went beyond this: applying what he’d observed in his many political posts, he worked out principles of economics and sociology (we see a bit of this in his “group feeling” comments).
He saw cycles of history, in particular the same cycles we’ve observed in Muslim history: the influx and taming of nomads. Living among Berbers and Bedouins, and also in developed cities like Granada, Ibn Khaldun saw very plainly the tension between the two lifestyles. Nomads had a super-efficient lifestyle that made their religion burn intensely hot. They were the ideal practitioners of Mohammed’s faith, because their lifestyle still fitted his prescriptions precisely. So they would swarm a city, only to gradually adopt its ways, until another way of nomads came along who were still pure and hot. It was a novel way to look at history, to abstract a general plot from specific instances. It was moralistic but not in the old way. He was observing a natural explanation in customs and “group feeling,” rather than just saying that each losing group had been wicked.
After Ibn Khaldun’s death, no serious imitators arose. We know less about the region’s history after his time simply because he did his work so well. Probably everything I’ve ever blogged about Morocco and the Berbers, and perhaps about Spain and Cordoba, traces back to Ibn Khaldun’s hand. So here’s a big hat tip to Wali al-Din abu Zayd Abd ar-Rahman ibn Muhammed ibn Muhammed ibn Abī Bakr Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan ibn Khaldun.