Applying Ibn Khaldūn: The Recovery of a Lost Tradition in Sociology The writings of Ibn Khaldūn
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 Applying Ibn Khaldun
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Ibn KhaldunSyed Farid Alatas,
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Islam, Orientalism and Intellectual History



  • Introduction
  • The errors of history and the new science: Introduction to the
  • Muqaddimah
  • Ibn Khaldūn’s theory of state formation
  • Ibn Khaldūn and modern sociology: An aborted tradition
  • Pre-modern readings and applications of Ibn Khaldūn
  • A Khaldūnian theory of Muslim reform
  • Ibn Khaldūn and the Ottoman modes of production
  • The rise and fall of the Safavid state in a Khaldūnian framework
  • A Khaldūnian perspective on modern Arab states: Saudi Arabia and Syria
  • Towards a Khaldūnian sociology of the state
  • Bibliographic remarks and further reading


Ibn Khaldūn as a sociologist

The basic argument of this book is that there is a modern sociology to be reconstructed from the writings of ‘Abd al-Rahmān ibn Khaldūn that would have much relevance to the study of history and contemporary society, but that this reconstruction and application has generally not taken place because of the relative neglect of Ibn Khaldūn as a theorist.

One of the most conspicuous features of Orientalism, a persistent feature that has survived for centuries, is the neglect of the theoretical authority of so-called Oriental thinkers.

Although the critique of Orientalism and related problems such as Eurocentrism in the social sciences and humanities has been around since at least the latter part of the nineteenth century,[01]Alatas, Alternative Discourses, 26–31. the serious consideration of the thought of seminal non-Western thinkers as sources of theories and concepts that are applicable to historical and empirical data is largely absent.

The task of studying alternatives to Orientalist constructions is the logical result of the critique of Orientalism but has, with a few exceptions, not been undertaken. This is particularly true of the fields of Islamic, Middle Eastern and North African studies.

The present study focuses on the historical sociology of a thinker whose theoretical authority over his subject matter and potential relevance to times and places beyond his own have been largely neglected.

Why should a social thinker like Ibn Khaldūn be excluded from the serious study of the history of sociology, sociological theory or historical sociology? A quick review of contemporary histories of social thought and social theory will reveal that very little attention is given to non-Western precursors of sociology or non-Western social thinkers who were contemporaneous with the European founders of the discipline.

Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Western sociologists, on the other hand, were more aware of the role of non-Western thought in the development of Western sociology as a discipline. This interest will be found to have waned in most of the twentieth century up till today.

The nineteenth century European founders of sociology such as Marx, Weber and Durkheim had such an impact on the development of sociology and the other social sciences that many theories and models derived from their works were applied to areas outside of Europe: that is, to the non- Western world.

 The same attitude was not applied to non-Western social thinkers. Without suggesting that European or Western ideas have no relevance to non-European realities, this chapter suggests that multicultural sources of sociological thought and theory should be considered.

The study of the rise and decline of states, of dynastic succession and the role of religion in the Muslim East and West (al-mashriq and al-maghrib), have yet to benefit from a systematic application of the theory of Ibn Khaldūn.

The chief reason for this is that Ibn Khaldūn has always been at the margins of the modern social sciences and, at most, regarded as a precursor of modern sociology, but not a sociologist in his own right. Consequently, his work on history and his elaboration of the science of society (‘ilm al-‘umrān), deemed by him as a prerequisite for the study of history, has rarely been seriously considered as a basis for a modern Khaldūnian sociology.

Ibn Khaldūn died 600 years ago, but his ideas have endured. Nevertheless, there is a way in which he has been appropriated, resulting in his somewhat marginal status in contemporary sociology.

What is being said here with regard to the state of Ibn Khaldūn studies in the West holds equally true for the Arab and Muslim worlds. Since the education systems in the Muslim world are mirror images of those in the West, it follows that the problems of Eurocentrism are defining features of the social sciences there as well, with the added dimension that in the Muslim world Eurocentrism implies alienation from the Muslim tradition of scholarship.

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An examination of sociological theory syllabi in many Muslim countries illustrates just this point. I have seen course outlines for introductory and advanced courses on classical social thought and social theory in universities in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Bangladesh, Indonesia and

Malaysia and have found this alienation to be a persistent theme.2 There is a remarkable lack of diversity across these countries as far as the teaching of sociological theory is concerned. There is an overwhelming emphasis, often exclusive attention, to nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European and North American male theorists such as Marx, Weber and Durkheim.

This is as if to say that there was an absence of European and American women, or Asian, African and Latin American men and women, who theorized about the state of society during the same period.

The bulk of research and writing on Ibn Khaldūn consists of (1) biographical details of his life; (2) descriptive restatements of his general theory of state formation or discussions on specific concepts contained in his work; (3) comparisons between his theory and that of the founders of modern Western social science; (4) references to his historical narrative of North Africa (al-maghrib) as a source of historical data and information on the region; and (5) analyses of the methodological foundations of his writings.

There has been very little by way of theoretical applications of Ibn Khaldūn’s theory of state formation to empirical historical situations. This is partly due to the continuing presence of Eurocentrism in the social sciences that stands in the way of the consideration of non-European (for European read also American) sources of theories and concepts.

This is, in fact, the manner in which Ibn Khaldūn’s thought is marginal to the modern social science.

While he is well known and often referred in those areas of study to which he is relevant, there is a profound indifference or neglect of the theoretical applicability of his ideas.

This book provides an overview of Ibn Khaldūn and his sociology, discusses reasons for his marginality, and suggests ways to bring Ibn Khaldūn into the mainstream through the systematic application of his theory. The point is to move beyond works that simply state that Ibn Khaldūn was a founder of sociology or provide descriptive accounts of his works. By Khaldūnian sociology I am referring to theoretical applications that include the integration of concepts and frameworks from Khaldūnian into modern social science theories.

The life of Ibn Khaldūn – APPLYING IBN KHALDŪN

‘Abd al-Rahmān bin Muhammad bin Muhammad bin al- assan bin Muhammad bin Jābir bin Muhammad ibn Ibrāhīm bin ‘Abd al-Rahmān bin Khaldūn (732–808 A /1332–1406 AD) is probably the most well known among Muslim scholars both in the Muslim world and the West as far as the social sciences are concerned.

Much is known about Ibn Khaldūn’s life because of his autobiography, which accounts for his life up to the year 1405, about a year before he died. Born in Tunis into the house of Khaldūn (Banū Khaldūn), he traces his descent to an Arab tribe from the South Arabian region of the adamant ancestors had settled in Seville, Andalusia, in the early period of the Arab conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.

They left Andalusia for the Maghrib (North Africa) after the Reconquista, settling in Tunis in the seventh/thirteenth century.3 One of the more prominent of Ibn Khaldūn’s ancestors was one Kurayb who is said to have revolted against the Umayyads towards the end of the ninth century and established a quasi-independent state in Seville.[02] Rosenthal, “Translator’s Introduction”, xxxiii–xxxiv.

It is known that the Banū Khaldūn played an important role in the political leadership of Seville.

Khaldūn bin ‘Uthmān established himself in Carmona, Andalusia with a small group of adramīs where the family was founded. Two sons of Khaldūn, Kurayb and Khālid, were active participants in successful revolts against the Umayyad rulers in Seville towards the end of the third/ninth– tenth century.[03] Ibn Khaldoun, Autobiographie, 18.

By this time, the house of Khaldūn had established itself as an eminent family of politicians and men of knowledge. Kurayb was eventually killed but the Khaldūns remained in Seville during the entire Umayyad period, gaining prominence once again after the conquest of Seville by Ka’b ibn ‘Abbād, when they were given ministerial and other high posts in the latter half of the fifth/eleventh century. During this period, Ibn ‘Abbād entered into an alliance with the Almoravid (1053–1147) ruler of North Africa, Yūsuf ibn Tāshfīn, and together they defeated Alfonso VI, king of Castille (479 A /1086 AD).[04] Ibn Khaldoun, Autobiographie, 22; Enan, Ibn Khaldūn, 7.

Almoravid rule over Andalusia gave way to that of the Almohads (1147– 1275), where the Banū Khaldūn continued to enjoy authority under the rule of Abū afs, chief of the intāta tribe, who became the ruler of Seville and western Andalusia.[05] Ibn Khaldoun, Autobiographie, 23 As Almohad power began to decline and its territories fell gradually into the hands of the king of Castille, Abū Zakariyyā, the grandson of Abū afs, emigrated to Tunis (Ifrīqiyā) in 620 A /1202 AD, of which he declared himself an independent ruler.

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During the same time Banū Khaldūn left Seville, fearing Christian encroachment on the city, and settled in Ceuta, off the North African coast, which was under afsid rule.

Then, the fourth grandfather of Ibn Khaldūn, al- asan bin Muhammad, joined Abū Zakariyyā’ in Bona (in present-day Algeria), enjoying his protection and patronage. Abū Zakariyyā’ died in Bona in 647 A /1247 AD and was succeeded by his son al-Mustansir Muhammad, who was in turn succeeded by his son, Yahyā in 675 A /1277 AD. The throne was eventually seized by the brother of Al-Mustansir, Abū Ishāq, who appointed Abū Bakr Muhammad, Ibn Khaldūn’s great-grandfather, Director of Finances (‘amal al-ashghāl). Later on, Sultan Abū Ishāq named Muhammad, the historian’s grandfather, Chamberlain to the Crown Prince, Abū Fāris. [06]Ibn Khaldoun, Autobiographie, 24.

At this time, the authority of the afsids began to weaken and a pretender to the throne, Ibn abī ‘Imārah, seized power, murdered Abū Bakr ibn Khaldūn and confiscated his wealth. Ibn Khaldūn’s grandfather, Muhammad, remained at the afsid court until Tunis was taken by Abū Yahyā ibn al-Lihyānī, during which time Muhammad was appointed chamberlain for a while. e died in 737 A /1337 AD. [07]Ibn Khaldoun, Autobiographie, 25–6.

This Khaldūnian predilection for office continued in the family after they had left Anadalusia for North Africa. They settled in Tunis, where Ibn Khaldūn was born.

Ibn Khaldūn’s life is usually divided by historians into three periods. The first, of 20 years, was that of his childhood, youth and education. Ibn Khaldūn then spent the following 23 years continuing his studies and working for various rulers. e spent the third period of 31 years as a scholar, teacher and magistrate.[08] See Merad, “L’Autobiographie”, 54; Talbi, “Ibn Khaldūn”, 825; and Talbi, Ibn Khaldūn et l’histoire, 6.

Born in the month of Ramadān in the year 732 A /1332 AD, Ibn Khaldūn studied the various Islamic sciences such as Qur’anic recitation and its styles, Qur’anic orthography, Malikite jurisprudence, the hadith or traditions of the Prophet, and poetry. e studied under several well-known scholars and also received the ijāzah or permission to transmit teachings in language and law from Shams al-Dīn abū ‘Abdallāh Muhammad bin Jābir bin Sultān al-Qaysī al-Wādīyāshī, the greatest hadith authority of Tunis.12

The Marinids’ hold over Tunis under Abū al- asan and his son, Abū ‘Inān, was precarious and intermittent and ended a decade later when the afsids regained power. While this would have seemed to be a period of political instability, Ibn Khaldūn gained in terms of his education because of the availability of great scholars who accompanied Abū al- asan to Tunis as part of his retinue. During the second period of his life, Ibn Khaldūn was involved in a great deal of political adventure and intrigue.

During the reign of the afsids, Ibn Khaldūn was appointed to the post of Master of the Signature (Sāhib al-‘Alāmah) by the powerful chamberlain, Abū Muhammad ibn Tāfrāgīn. Ibn Khaldūn was not happy in this position as he missed his intellectual pursuits under the various masters that he had studied with previously, many of whom had left Tunis or died during the Great Plague in 748 A /1348 AD, which took Ibn Khaldūn’s parents as well.13

Ibn Khaldūn had to wait for an opportune moment to abscond from the despot Ibn Tāfrāgīn. This moment came in 753 A /1352 AD. The ruler of Constantine, Abū Zayd, grandson of Sultan Abū Yahyā, amassed his troops and marched on Tunis. e was met by Ibn Tāfrāgīn and his forces, accompanied by the young and newly appointed Master of the Signature.

Ibn Khaldūn managed to steal away from the Tunisian camp and slowly travelled to the west, seeking refuge and help along the way. In Tlemcen he met up with Sultan Abū ‘Inān, who warmly welcomed him and in Batha’ was given a reception such as he had never seen by the Chamberlain Ibn abı ‘Amr, whom he then accompanied to Bougie to witness and participate in the conquest of that city. Ibn Khaldūn stayed in Bougie until the end of 754 A /1353 AD.14

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Upon his return to Fez, Sultan Abū ‘Inān began to assemble men of learning, during which time, Ibn Khaldūn says, his name was mentioned in the course of the selection of scholars for participation in discussions and consultation. e was eventually appointed to the scientific council of the sultan in 755 A /1354 AD.15

This gave Ibn Khaldūn the opportunity to meet with scholars from the Maghrib and Andalusia who visited the court of Fez, many of whom are listed by Ibn Khaldūn and include various well- known personalities. There was the master Muhammad bin al-Saffār, originally from Marrakesh and the foremost authority of his time on the Qur’an. There was also the grand cadi (qādị̄) of Fez, Muhummad al- Maqqarī from Tlemcen, and the scholar of the intellectual and rational sciences, Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Sharīf al- asanī, also known as al-‘Alawī.16

Whenever a situation was unfavourable to him, Ibn Khaldūn would try to leave. For example, he wished to leave Fez and return to Tunis. The ruler of Fez was reluctant to let him go for fear that he may collude with his enemy, the ruler of Tlemcen. Ibn Khaldūn was eventually allowed to leave on condition that he did not go to Tlemcen.

e chose to go to Andalusia where he entered into the service of the ruler of Granada, Sultan Muhammad. There Ibn Khaldūn met with the famous vizier and renowned writer and poet, Ibn al-Khatīb.17

When Ibn Khaldūn fell out of favour with Sultan Muhammad, he moved to Bougie in North Africa in the middle of 766 A /1365 AD, where he was appointed Chamberlain (wilāyat al-hijābah). is duty was to manage the affairs of the state and the relations between the sultan and his subjects.18 Ibn Khaldūn reports that he was extremely well received with much pomp and ceremony.

e. was met by a procession and the inhabitants of Bougie rushed to touch his robe and kiss his hands. e found it to be a memorable day indeed. Ibn Khaldūn says that he deployed all his effort at managing the affairs of the ruler. In addition to his duties as Chamberlain, he was also put in charge of the Friday sermon at the mosque of the citadel.19

As happened before, after a while things did not proceed smoothly. Antagonism developed between Muhammad and his cousin, Sultan Abū al-‘Abbās, the ruler of Constantine. The sultan had set his sights on the conquest of Bougie, which he marched on in 767 A /1366 AD and defeated and killed Muhammad.

Some of the inhabitants of the city asked Ibn Khaldūn to take power and proclaim one of the sons of Muhammad as ruler. e refused and instead handed over Bougie to Abū al-‘Abbās, who continued to have Ibn Khaldūn serve in his former position.20

Such was the life of Ibn Khaldūn until he finally decided to withdraw to a life of scholarship. This took place in the isolated fort, the Qal’at Ibn Salāmah in Algeria.

It is here that the third period of Ibn Khaldūn’s life begins. Ibn Khaldūn held posts in many of the courts of the Maghrib and Andalusia. Ibn Khaldūn lived during the period of the political fragmentation and cultural decline of the Arab Muslim world.

The picture of chaos and disintegration that Ibn Khaldūn grew up with must have influenced the development of his thought. The uncertainties of politics and the lure of scholarship, as well as a number of unsuccessful stints in office, finally led to his withdrawing into seclusion to write his introduction to the study of history. The previous period of politics and intrigues had given way to reflection on the meaning and pattern of history.

The result of four years of isolation was the Muqaddimah or Prolegomenon to his larger work on the history of the Arabs and Berbers. This was completed in 1378 and introduces what he believed to be a new science that resembles what is now

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References / Footnotes

01Alatas, Alternative Discourses, 26–31.
02 Rosenthal, “Translator’s Introduction”, xxxiii–xxxiv.
03 Ibn Khaldoun, Autobiographie, 18.
04 Ibn Khaldoun, Autobiographie, 22; Enan, Ibn Khaldūn, 7.
05 Ibn Khaldoun, Autobiographie, 23
06Ibn Khaldoun, Autobiographie, 24.
07Ibn Khaldoun, Autobiographie, 25–6.
08 See Merad, “L’Autobiographie”, 54; Talbi, “Ibn Khaldūn”, 825; and Talbi, Ibn Khaldūn et l’histoire, 6.