100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 57



The Philosophy of Ibn Khaldun


The great name in the historiography of the fourteenth century is Abd-er-Rahman ibn-Khaldun. Here is a man of substance, even to Western eyes: solid with experience, travel, and practical statesmanship, yet familiar with the art and literature, science and philosophy of his age, and embracing almost every Muslim phase of it in a Universal History. That such a man was born in Tunis (1332) and raised there suggests that the culture of North Africa was no mere echo of Asiatic Islam, but had a character and vitality of its own. “From my childhood,” says Ibn-Khaldun’s autobiography, “I showed myself avid of knowledge, and devoted myself with great zeal to schools and their courses of instruction.” The “Black Death” took his parents and many teachers, but he continued his studies until “I found at last that I knew something”—a characteristic delusion of youth. At twenty, he was secretary to the sultan at Tunis; at twenty-four, to the sultan at Fez; at twenty-five he was in jail. He moved to Granada, and was sent as its ambassador to Peter the Cruel at Seville. Returning to North Africa, he became chief minister to Prince Abu Abdullah at Bougie; but he had to flee for his life when hiImage result for Ibn Khalduns master was deposed and slain. In 1370, he was sent by the city of Tlemcen as envoy to Granada; he was arrested on the way by a Moorish prince, served him four years, and then retired to a castle near Oran. There (1377) he wrote the Muqaddimah al-Alamat, literally Introduction to the Universe. Needing more books than Oran could supply, he returned to Tunis, but he made influential enemies there, and removed to Cairo (1384). His fame as a scholar was already international; when he lectured in the mosque of al-Azhar students crowded around him, and Sultan Barquq gave him a pension, “as was his wont with savants.” He was appointed qadi malekite, or royal judge; took the laws too seriously, closed the cabarets, was lampooned out of office, again retired to private life. Restored as chief qadi, he accompanied Sultan Nasir ad-Din Faraj in a campaign against Timur; the Egyptian forces were defeated; Ibn Khaldun sought refuge in Damascus; Timur besieged it; the historian, now an old man, led a delegation to ask lenient terms of the invincible Tatar. Like any other author, he brought a manuscript of his history with him; he read to Timur the section on Timur, and invited corrections; perhaps he had revised the pages ad hoc. The plan worked; Timur freed him; soon he was once more chief judge at Cairo; and he died in office at the age of seventy-four (1406).

    Amid this hectic career, he composed an epitome of Averroës’ philosophy, treatises on logic and mathematics, the Muqaddimah, a History of the Berbers, and The Peoples of the East. Only the last three survive; together they constitute the Universal History. The Muqaddimah or Prolegomena is one of the high lights in Islamic literature and in the philosophy of history, an amazingly “modern” product for a medieval mind. Ibn Khaldun conceives history as “an important branch of philosophy,” and takes a broad view of the historian’s task:


    History has for its true object to make us understand the social state of man, i.e., his civilization; to reveal to us the phenomena that naturally accompany primitive life, and then the refinement of manners . . . the diverse superiorities that peoples acquire, and which beget empires and dynasties; the diverse occupations, professions, sciences, and arts; and lastly all the changes that the nature of things can effect in the nature of society.


Believing himself the first to write history in this fashion, he asks pardon for inevitable errors:


    I confess that of all men I am the least able to traverse so vast a field. . . . I pray that men of ability and learning will examine my work with good will, and when they find faults will indulgently correct them. That which I offer to the public will have little value in the eyes of scholars . . . but one should always be able to count on the courtesy of his colleagues.


He hopes that his work will help in the dark days that he foresees:


   When the world experiences a complete overturn it seems to change its nature in order to permit new creation and a new organization. Hence there is need today of an historian who can describe the state of the world, of its countries and peoples, and indicate the changes in customs and beliefs.


    He devotes some proud pages to pointing out the errors of some historians. They lost themselves, he feels, in the mere chronicling of events, and rarely rose to the elucidation of causes and effects. They accepted fable almost as readily as fact, gave exaggerated statistics, and explained too many things by supernatural agency. As for himself, he proposes to rely entirely on natural factors in explaining events. He will judge the statements of historians by the present experience of humankind, and will reject any alleged occurrence that we would now account impossible. Experience must judge tradition. His own method, in the Muqaddimah, is first to deal with the philosophy of history; then with professions, occupations, and crafts; then with the history of science and art. In succeeding volumes, he gives the political history of the various nations, taking them one by one, deliberately sacrificing the unity of time to that of place. The true subject of history, says Ibn Khaldun, is civilization: how it arises, how it maintains itself, how it develops letters, sciences, and arts, and why it decays. Empires, like individuals, have a life and trajectory that are their own. They grow, they mature, and they decline. What are the causes of this sequence?

    The basic conditions of the sequence are geographical. Climate exercises a general but basic influence. The cold north eventually produces, even in peoples of southern origin, a white skin, light hair, blue eyes, and a serious disposition; the tropics produce in time a dark skin, black hair, “dilatation of the animal spirits,” lightness of mind, gaiety, quick transports of pleasure, leading to song and dance. Food affects character: a heavy diet of meats, condiments, and grains begets heaviness of body and mind, and quick succumbing to famine or infection; a light diet, such as desert peoples eat, makes for agile and healthy bodies, clearness of mind, and resistance to disease. There is no inherent inequality of potential ability among the peoples of the earth; their advancement or retardation is determined by geographical conditions, and can be altered by a change in those conditions, or by migration to a different habitat.*

    Economic conditions are only less powerful than the geographical. Ibn Khaldun divides all societies into nomad or sedentary according to their means of getting food, and ascribes most wars to the desire for a better food supply. Nomad tribes eventually conquer settled communities because nomads are compelled by the conditions of their life to maintain the martial qualities of courage, endurance, and solidarity. Nomads may destroy a civilization, but they never make one; they are absorbed, in blood and culture, by the conquered, and the nomad Arabs are no exception. Since a people are never long content with its food supply, war is natural. War generates and renews political authority. Hence, monarchy is the usual form of government, and has prevailed through nearly all history. The fiscal policy of a government may make or break a society; excessive taxation, or the entry of a government into production and distribution, can stifle incentive, enterprise, and competition, and kill the goose that lays the revenues. On the other hand, an excessive concentration of wealth may tear a society to pieces by promoting revolution.

    There are moral forces in history. The solidarity of the people sustains empires, and this can be best secured through the inculcation and practice of the same religion; Ibn Khaldun agrees with the popes, the Inquisition, and the Protestant Reformers on the value of unanimity in faith.


    To conquer, one must rely upon the allegiance of a group animated with one corporate spirit and end. Such a union of hearts and wills can operate only through divine power and religious support. . . . When men give their hearts and passions to a desire for worldly goods, they become jealous of one another, and fall into discord. . . . If, however, they reject the world and its vanities for the love of God . . . jealousies disappear, discord is stilled, men help one another devotedly; their union makes them stronger; the good cause makes rapid progress, and culminates in the formation of a great and powerful empire.


    Religion is not only an aid in war, it is likewise a boon to order in a society and to peace of mind in the individual. Only a religious faith adopted without questioning can secure these. The philosophers concoct a hundred systems, but none has found a substitute for religion as a guide and inspiration for human life. “Since men can never understand the world, it is better to accept the faith transmitted by an inspired legislator, who knows better than we do what is better for us, and has prescribed for us what we should believe and do.” After this orthodox prelude our philosopher-historian proceeds to a naturalistic interpretation of history.

    Every empire passes through successive phases. (1) A victorious nomad tribe settles down to enjoy its conquest of a terrain or state. “The least civilized peoples make the most extensive conquests.” (2) As social relations become more complex, a more concentrated authority is required for the maintenance of order; the tribal chieftain becomes king. (3) In this settled order wealth grows, cities multiply, education and literature develop, the arts find patrons, and science and philosophy lift their heads. Advanced urbanization and comfortable wealth mark the beginning of decay. (4) The enriched society comes to prefer pleasure, luxury, and ease to enterprise, risk, or war; religion loses its hold on human imagination or belief; morals deteriorate, pederasty grows; the martial virtues and pursuits decline; mercenaries are hired to defend the society; these lack the ardor of patriotism or religious faith; the poorly defended wealth invites attack by the hungry, seething millions beyond the frontiers. (5) External attack, or internal intrigue, or both together, overthrow the state. Such was the cycle of Rome, of the Almoravids and Almohads in Spain, of Islam in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Persia; and “it is always so.”

    These are a few of the thousands of ideas that make the Muqaddimah the most remarkable philosophical product of its century. Ibn Khaldun has his own notions on almost everything but theology, where he thinks it unwise to be original. While writing a major work of philosophy he pronounces philosophy dangerous, and advises his readers to let it alone; probably he meant metaphysics and theology rather than philosophy in its wider sense as an attempt to see human affairs in a large perspective. At times he talks like the simplest old woman in the market place; he accepts miracles, magic, the “evil eye,” the occult properties of the alphabet, divination through dreams, entrails, or the flight of birds. Yet he admires science, admits the superiority of the Greeks to the Muslims in that field, and mourns the decline of scientific studies in Islam. He rejects alchemy, but acknowledges some faith in astrology.

    Certain other discounts must be made. Though Ibn Khaldun is as broad as Islam, he shares many of its limitations. In the three volumes of the Muqaddimah, he finds room for but seven pages on Christianity. He makes only casual mention of Greece, Rome, and medieval Europe. When he has written the history of North Africa, Muslim Egypt, and the Near and Middle East, he believes that he has narrated “the history of all peoples.” Sometimes he is culpably ignorant: he thinks Aristotle taught from a porch, and Socrates from a tub. His actual writing of history falls far short of his theoretical introduction; the volumes on the Berbers and the Orient are a dreary record of dynastic genealogies, palace intrigues, and petty wars. Apparently he intended these volumes to be political history only, and offered the Muqaddimah as a history—though it is rather a general consideration—of culture.

    To recover our respect for Ibn Khaldun we need only ask what Christian work of philosophy in the fourteenth century can stand beside the Prolegomena. Perhaps some ancient authors had covered part of the ground that he charted; and among his own people al-Masudi (d. 956), in a work now lost, had discussed the influence of religion, economics, morals, and environment on the character and laws of a people, and the causes of political decline. Ibn Khaldun, however, felt, and with some reason, that he had created the science of sociology. Nowhere in literature before the eighteenth century can we find a philosophy of history, or a system of sociology, comparable in power, scope, and keen analysis with Ibn Khaldun’s. Our leading contemporary philosopher of history has judged the Muqaddimah to be “undoubtedly the greatest of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.”* Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Sociology (1876-96) may compare favorably with it, but Spencer had many aides. In any case we may agree with a distinguished historian of science, that “the most important historical work of the Middle Ages”* was the Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun.


* Ed. Note: Durant, adopting Ibn Khaldun’s thesis, further elucidates this when writing in 1968: “It is remarkable how many American Negroes have risen to high places in the professions, arts, and letters in the last one hundred years despite a thousand social obstacles.” Lessons of History, 30.

Ed. Note: Ibn Khaldun originated the “Laffer Curve” 600 years before Laffer!

* Toynbee, Arnold J., A Study of History, 10v., 1935-54, III, 321.

* Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science, 3v. in 5, Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1927-48, III-2, 1770.