Ab? Zayd ‘Abd ar-Ra?m?n ibn Mu?ammad ibn Khald?n al-?a?ram?, or simply Ibn Khaldun, was a historiographer during the Islamic Golden Age. Though it was in its decline (the Mongols had sacked Baghdad a century before his birth), the Islamic world continued to churn out great thinkers, arguably none greater than Ibn Khaldun. Born into a wealthy family from Tunis, he received an excellent education from scholars in Maghreb, but, following the loss of his parents to the Black Death plague aged 17, he sought to serve as a politician. Reaching office across the Muslim world, from Tunis to Damascus, Ibn Khaldun is more known for his Kit?b al-?Ibar (“Book of Lessons”). This vast work, divided into 7 books, is an attempt to record a universal history. Al-Muqaddimah (“Introduction”, Gk. ‘Prolegomena’) (1377) began as an introduction to this world history, but quickly became recognised as an independent work.
Many of its revolutionary theories are still drawn on today, almost 700 years later, and because of it, many regard Ibn Khaldun to be a pioneer of the social sciences, of historiography, sociology, economics etc. 1, as well as politics and (Islamic) theology. Its influence immeasurable, historian Arnold Toynbee called the Muqaddimah “a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place 2.” Before diving into Ibn Khaldun’s text and looking into his views on society and history, I will look briefly at ideas on these subjects ‘pre-Muqaddimah’. The earliest known attempt to demarcate distinct ages in human history comes from Greek poet, Hesiod, c. 600BC (though it could be said the account of creation/ the Fall etc. taken from Genesis is placed before this).
According to him, humans have passed through 5 distinct eras, known as the “Ages of Man”, which are as follows: 1. The Golden Age, when mankind and the gods lived in harmony and abundance; there was no need to work and no pain or fear of death.2. The Silver Age, when men live to be 100 in a constant state of conflict with each other and with Zeus, whom they refuse to worship.3.
The Bronze Age, during which men become violent and warmongering, to the point when Zeus wiped them out with a Noah-esc flood.4. The Heroic Age, an ‘improvement’ to the Bronze Age, when great heroes and demigods lived alongside man.
5. The Iron Age, where Hesiod believed he was, marked by disloyalty and selfishness, “humankind would destroy itself, and the gods would abandon them” 3. The general pattern here is that as time passes, society degenerates. With the exception of the Heroic age (which in Roman poet Ovid’s mythology is omitted), each era is worse than the one it preceded. This theory of a degenerating society is also found in the Hindu ‘Yuga’ concept, the Three Ages in Buddhism and of course in the Biblical and Qur’anic accounts of creation.
Such a prominent ideology as this needs to be kept in mind when looking at the (slightly) more recent Islamic theory, especially when considering the fact that it was the Arabs who first translated much of the Greek/ Roman works which, transmitted through Spain, in turn inspired the renaissance in Europe. Ibn Khaldun was revolutionary in his view that history should be studied, not just recounted. He boldly states, in the Muqaddimah’s opening pages, that “untruth naturally afflicts historical information 4.” Acutely aware of what Churchill meant by “History is written by the victors”, Khaldun opens his epic work by listing how and why historical ‘events’ can be afflicted by “untruth”, as well as why it is so important that accounts be appropriately scrutinised, and how one can do so.
The reason he gave for it is “simple. It is the common desire for sensationalism…and the disregard of critics, leading to failure to exercise self-criticism about one’s errors and intentions. Such historians let themselves go and made a feast of untrue statements 5.” This scientific attempt to critically analyse historical accounts is notably progressive – an idea not really seen again until the 19th century (Marx, Engels et al.). Ancient Greek thinking on the degeneration of society (above) is also echoed and discussed in the Muqaddimah. Living in a hugely politically unstable time, when empires grew and shrank like a Hoberman sphere, Khaldun perceived historical civilisations rose and fell cyclically; dynasties based in the ‘umran continuously being replaced by new ones from the badawah.
He noted that the Arab empire, which was beginning its decline, had been founded by nomadic Bedouins much less developed than their predecessors, but was now becoming “seduced by the pleasures of civilisation” and in turn “coming under attack by the next group of rough outsiders beginning the cycle again 6.” “It should be known that the world of the elements and all it contains comes into being and decays 7” is an extract from chapter II of the Muqaddimah, indicating Khaldun’s theory on this. Khaldun outlined 3 types of (Islamic) society, or dynasty, thusly: 1. Caliphate, which is under the divine nature of ‘sharia law’, making it natural for the believer to follow it and “causing the masses to act as required by religious insight into their interests in the other world as well as in this world 8.
“2. Kingship or ‘mulk’ (under sharia law), when the decline of religious influence leads to the degeneration of the caliphate into a kingdom, and the original, natural obedience becomes external to people as rule of law 7.3. Monarchy (under political law), when religion becomes something that only scholars are able to interpret, and the believing community degenerates, losing the ability to do so. Expanding on ancient classifications of ages, Ibn Khaldun “rationally and analytically applied it to his day” (Dawood 1969), using it to explain the courses of history and the social shifts of his time.
He believed his methodology was “a new science” of such importance it had to be formed, so successive generations – heirs to the world – could not only accurately know the past, but learn and advance from it. No real advancement of this theory, nor much further thought into historiography, took place for half a millennia. The general consensus up to around the Victorian era was that society was in a state of decline – either looking at ancient civilisations (Greece, Rome) as the peak of technical accomplishment, or accepting the Judeo-Christian account of human’s Fall from commune with God. Then Khaldun’s works began to be translated into European languages. Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) looked at history in a very similar way to Ibn Khaldun, painstakingly analysing underlying causes of social change through time. Marx’s theory of ‘historical materialism’ also identified distinctive stages of (European) history, though saw each as defined by people’s relationships with each other in relation to material goods. Also, unlike Khaldun, his 6 stages are ‘progressive’ rather than ‘cyclical’, with each following stage the result of the previous’ collapse. They are these: 1.
Primitive communism – A hunter-gatherer society where everything is shared as a matter of survival.2. Slave society – As private property is established, class systems begin to form with slaves and the ruling class.
Agriculture is learnt and ideas of state-rule begins to be formed. Once a state becomes too big (e.g. Roman empire), it collapses.3. Feudalism – Empires diverge and become nation-states, ruled by an aristocracy and stratified into many classes.
A revolution (such as the French 1789) by proto-capitalists paves way for capitalism, driven by desire for profits held back in the Feudal system.4. Capitalism – Means of production is controlled by the bourgeoisie, who pay the proletariat for its labour, who accept it to survive. This instability in society is made clear to the working class, who further revolt to create a socialist state. It was in this 4th age that Marx was writing from (and where we remain today, lazy proles…), though he continued, looking ahead into the future – first socialism, followed by pure communism.
Both Marx and Khaldun concluded, from their somewhat different interpretations of the past, that history is dynamic, shaping and being shaped by society’s ever-changing shape. One description of Marx’s view of history is that of a river, looking “much the same day after day, but actually constantly flowing and changing, crumbling its banks, widening and deepening its channel 9”. One could say this just as easily describes Ibn Khaldun’s view on history. Marx’s contemporary, Friedrich Engels, wrote their shared theory of historical materialism is “to designate the view of the course of history, which seeks the ultimate causes and the great moving power of all important historic events in the (economic) development of society brackets mine.” Other theories began to take shape around this time. Stemming from the growing popularity of the theory of evolution (Lamarck, Darwin et al.), social evolution proposed the idea of society’s development from primitive to civilised.
Auguste Comte developed “The Law of Three Stages”, an idea with a good deal of support at the time (Spencer, Darwin etc.). Starting in the Theological stage (stratified into Fetishism, Polytheism and Monotheism), society travels through the Metaphysical stage to the Positivity stage, where scientific reasoning is the method of justification – the most evolved state of human thinking 10. Another proponent of social evolution was American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan, who, in his book Ancient Society (1877) proposed 3 periods in human history: 1.
Savagery (fire, weaponry, pottery)2. Barbarism (agriculture, metals)3. Civilisation (script, states, technological advancement) Through these distinct eras, each with notable advancements, Morgan claims, “mankind commenced their career at the bottom of the scale and worked their way up from savagery to civilization through the slow accumulation of experimental knowledge”, mirroring Ibn Khaldun’s, and Marx’s, view that “these three distinct conditions are connected with each other in a natural as well as necessary sequence of progress 11.
” He, along with his peer, E. B. Tylor, carried out extensive ethnographic research amongst ‘indigenous’ peoples, whom they claimed were further down the evolutionary ladder 12. Tylor looked at these stages and noted that “so far as it reaches back, history shows arts, sciences, and political institutions beginning in ruder states, and becoming in the course of ages, more intelligent, more systematic, more perfectly arranged or organised 13.” Inspiring Marx and Engels, their works linked the ‘evolution’ of man to his technical development. Though such thought promoting unilineal evolutionary theories appear, on the surface, to hold water, they have since been reassessed and generally rejected by more modern thinkers as ethnocentric and placing too much association between civilisation and physical concepts. It has perhaps been somewhat remiss of me to almost all but leave Ibn Khaldun’s concept of ‘asabiyyah’ until now, with so few words left to outline such an important component of his work. A forerunner of the science, Khaldun was deeply sociological in his radical approach to looking at the past, analysing human nature within it.
He wrote, in the opening line of the ‘First Prefatory Discussion’, “Human social organisation is something necessary”, before going on to say, “without it, the existence of human beings would be incomplete… It is the meaning of civilisation, the object of the science under discussion 14.” Here, Khaldun lays out his basic theory: in order to survive and advance, “mutual co-operation must exist” between men for the obtainment of “food for his nourishment and weapons for his defence 15”; such an association being both necessary and inevitable – a very similar idea to Aristotle, who wrote, “man is, by nature, a political animal 14” (4).
Translated by Franz Rosenthal (1967) as “group-feeling”, asabiyyah is a pre-Islamic notion of social solidarity and shared purpose which is at the very heart of Khaldun’s science of society. Most strong in the badawah stage, Khaldun argues it is this social cohesion which allows peripheral people groups to overthrow settled civilisations, examples of which can be found throughout history – Islamic and not. He writes, “Social organisation enables them to cooperate… and start with the simple necessities of life, before they get to conveniences and luxuries 16”, saying the latter is the cause of a society’s weakening group-feeling – “Arab group-feeling was completely destroyed and as a result the caliphate lost its identity 17”.This idea of dynamic opposition between the nomadic badawah and the settled ‘umran is a definite foreshadowing of Marx’s ‘dialectal materialism’ (Das Kapital – 1867) where contrasting forces collide to create new social forms.Marx said of society, “it does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand 18.” Links can also be drawn between Khaldun’s asabiyyah and Morgan’s early writing on kinship.
Asabiyyah, it has been argued 19, is “primarily based on the perception of kinship.” In his major work (Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family – 1871), Morgan states his belief in a “natural valuation of genealogical ties”, as well as wider, non-genealogical social groups. The belief at that time was this was a purely human trait, therefore he explains why societies are formed in the first place. There are very definite similarities between Ibn Khaldun’s approach to scientifically studying history and society and many of the Victorian era’s preeminent thinkers, despite such a vast cultural and generational divide.
Khaldun was certainly ahead of his time with his thoroughness to get the ‘why’ – folk were only just catching up to him 500 years later… Bibliography 1 W. E. Gates (1967) – “Journal of the History of Ideas” (Vol.
28, 3) – p. 415 https://www.jstor.
org/stable/pdf/2708627.pdf2 A. J. Toynbee (1934) – “A Study of History” (Vol. 3) – p.
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18, 1948) – “Karl Marx” (Life) – p. 6610 V. K. Maheshwari (2013) – “Auguste Comte’s “Law of the Three Stages””11 L. H. Morgan (1877) – “Ancient Society” –p.
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F. Rosenthal 1967) – “The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History” – p. 30018 K. Marx (1858) – “Grundrisse”19 E. van der Steen (2013) – “When tribes are in charge: Tribal societies in the 19th century and in the Bible” – p.