Ibn Khaldun: Anatomy of Al-Muqaddimah Pt. 1

This is the third part of a serialized discussion on Ibn Khaldun (see the previous post here) which will be published over the coming weeks (Jan-Feb 2017) and is to support a book I am writing on the interaction between the economic and the political in the thought of Ibn Khaldun, Machiavelli, and Carl Schmitt.

We see that in the very names he accorded to the two parts of Al-Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun appealed to both our imagination and intellect. Referring to history writing as an art (fann), as opposed to the mere presentation of facts, Ibn Khaldun yet adopted a scientific approach which subjected history to causal factors (nawāmīs al-sababiyya) and, to re-emphasize, this was in opposition to the broad strain of Islamic historians who framed history largely in terms of Divine Providence.

The father of sociology pursued historical research ‘outside’ of the domain of pure theology, proclaiming that history “is firmly rooted in philosophy,” and “deserves to be accounted a branch of (philosophy).”[1] At the same time, Ibn Khaldun was committed to a true and factual account; he was determined that history would not be based on either myth (khurāfa) or on fictions. Yet again, he was not a relativist; the world had certain forms, but at the same time was subject to changes, and Ibn Khaldun sought to rationally understand both the forms and the content of these forms, the permanent and the temporal, the stable elements and the drivers of historical evolution.


Methodologically, Ibn Khaldun was distinguished from other Arabic historians by treating history as a science, as opposed to a narrative, and the purpose of his historical method was to develop a technique that would enable him to separate the true from the false and what is possible from what is impossible.[2] In addition, he also was not merely looking for the ‘efficient cause’ (e.g., if we were to discuss WWI, this cause would be the shooting of Franz Ferdinand that started WWI) when analysing history, but the underlying causes (e.g. for WWI, the development of European state-hood lay behind the events which exploded in 1914). Causes constituted the horizon of his epistemology,[3] yet he was not an occasionalist (at least not in a scientific sense) who saw humans as ‘floppy’ puppets, or chess-pieces, directed by the Creator.[4] Ibn Khaldun’s presentation of history will not be merely a repetition of events and facts, but rather the presentation of material that enables us to glimpse into the inner core of what we are presented with.[5]

In keeping with his entire critique of civilisation (and possibly also taking a ‘stab’ at the decay of Muslim power), Ibn Khaldun praises the early Muslim historians who were meticulous in their recording and collection of events, but then laments the unprofessionalism of later historians, who listened to specious gossip, fabricated events, and who based their method on gross exaggerations. This arose from a lack of personality and group-think. He claimed in the part of his discussion dealing with the corruption of historical research that “[b]lind trust in tradition is an inherited trait in human beings.”[6] Even with a historian like al-Mas’udi whom he admires, Ibn Khaldun notes certain exaggerations he made with respect to the Children of Israel at the time of Moses, a mistake easily corrected by considering conditions at the time.[7] In the same way as slight corruption in a dynasty has a snowball effect on the health of their successors, the sloppy historians then corrupted later generations of historians who took on both their inventions and their bad habits. Perhaps even more bitingly, Ibn Khaldun also accused these historians of lacking imagination, and one might say that he was hinting here at his own abilities. Despite the lack of imagination possessed by many historians, it was  yet forgivable for the earlier historians, but less mercy was to be shown to more recent predecessors. His reasoning here was that while the genuine historians could only mine information and were living either historically in, or close to, the sources they reported from, whereas these later historians could apply a more global perspective from a safe historical distance, rather like observing a landscape from a mountain. Yet, this they did not do so and instead merely copied those who had beat their own track.[8] When analysing the fate and fortunes of a dynasty, all these feeble-minded historians do is

report the historical information about it (mechanically) and take care to preserve it as it had been passed on down to them, be it imaginary or true.

However, Ibn Khaldun continues, they

do not turn to the beginning of the dynasty. Nor do they tell why it unfurled its banner and was able to give prominence to its emblem, or what caused it to come to a stop when it had reached its term.[9]

(To be continued …)


Book Cover DesignPixlr_Smashwords Hi Res colmgillis2d (1)Emroidery of the Eternal (1)Mysteries of State Image


[1] Ibn Khaldun,  A. A-R. b. M. (Rosenthal, F.; Trans.) (1958). The Muqaddimah [pdf version]. Retrieved from http://scribd.com; p. 55

[2] Enan, M.A. (1941). Ibn Khaldun: His Life and Work. Kashmiri Bazar, Lahore: Shaikh Muhammad Ashraf; pp. 121-126

[3] Salama, M. (2011). Islam, orientalism and intellectual history: Modernity and the politics of exclusion since Ibn Khaldūn. London: I B Tauris & Co; pp. 79-82; Ibn Khaldun and Hegel on Causality in History: Aristotelian Legacy Reconsidered. Asian Journal of Social Science, 35(1), 47-83.

[4] For more on occasionalism and its place in Islam, see section 1.1 of the following article: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/occasionalism/#IslOcc

[5] Mahdi, M. Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History; p. 24; Mahdi, M. Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History; pp. 64-72

[6] Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah; p. 55

[7] “For example, al-Mas’udi and many other historians report that Moses counted the army of the Israelites in the desert … He had all those able to carry arms, especially those twenty years and older, pass muster. There turned out to be 600,000 or more. In this connection, (al-Mas’udi) forgets to take into consideration whether Egypt and Syria could possibly have held such a number of soldiers. Every realm may have as large a militia as it can hold and support, but no more. This fact is attested by well-known customs and familiar conditions. Moreover, an army of this size cannot march or fight as a unit. The whole available territory would be too small for it. If it were in battle formation, it would extend two, three, or more times beyond the field of vision. How, then, could two such parties fight with each other, or one battle formation gain the upper hand when one flank does not know what the other flank is doing!” Ibid. pp. 59-60.

[8] Ibid. pp. 55-56.

[9] Ibid. p. 56.


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