Born in Tunis, North Africa, in the fourteenth century, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406 CE) has been lauded as the discoverer of the true scope and nature of history, as the founder of sociology, and as one of the greatest historians of all time.
Ibn Khaldun was educated and trained in the traditional sciences and, according to his autobiography, he studied with great zeal. After losing his parents to a plague aged 19, he took up various positions in courts travelling extensively around North Africa. In 1382 he sailed to Cairo where he spent most of the rest of his life teaching and lecturing.
Khaldun lived through a time of continuous struggle and political upheaval, as the power of the Islamic states was beginning to decline. This led him to contemplate great philosophical, economic and historical issues, which is reflected in his writings.
The Muqaddimah (the Prolegomena)
The extensive historical work Kitab al- ‘Ibar (the Book of Lessons) is an attempt by Khaldun to write the history of the world. It is in the first part of this work, the Muqaddimah, that his philosophical reflections are documented.
"It should be known that history, in matter of fact, is information about human social organisation, which itself is identical with world civilisation. It deals with such conditions affecting the nature of civilisation, as, for instance, savagery and sociability, group feelings, and the different ways by which one group of human beings achieves superiority over another."
In the Muqaddimah, Khaldun draws up a broad science of society and human culture that he claimed was the first of its kind. He saw the events of history as completely of this world, with God stepping in to regulate the process only as a last resort. He perceived history as a science that is orderly and rational and therefore can be explained by an observer: "We find the universe governed by an accurate system through which prevails the law of cause and effect."
Khaldun stood witness to what was perceived to be a dying social order that had passed its prime. But his vision of history was cyclical and contained the hope of continual renewal. He was convinced that everything that is valid for the future could be found in the past and the present.
The notion of asabiyah is fundamental to Khaldun's work and he sees it as the main driving force in the development of society. Difficult to translate, asabiyah correlates roughly to ‘solidarity' or ‘group cohesion'. Without this cohesion, Khaldun believes that no group can be strong enough to defend itself against its enemies or survive.
In the Muqaddimah, Khaldun describes how closely tied tribes or groups enter into conflict with other groups and will subjugate them if it has the stronger asabiyah. Thus, a new asabiyah is formed and the strongest asabiyah dominates. However, this dominance may be followed by periods of barbarism and decay which will eventually improve because better and more refined groups will again conquer.
Along with the prominence of asabiyah, the economy and religious faith are considered important factors in the Muqaddimah. For Khaldun asabiyah is essential to maintaining religious law: "Group feeling is necessary to the Muslim community. Its existence enables the community to fulfil what God expects of it."
Picture 1: Flag of Tunisia, Wikipedia
Picture 2: Ibn KHaldun Statue, Wikipedia