By Elmira Akhmetova

‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Khaldūn was a Muslim historian of Arab origin. Best-known to modern readers for his Muqaddima (Prolegomena [To History]), the introductory section to his magnificent seven-volume account of world history, Kitāb al-‘Ibar (Book of History), and which outlined the basic foundations for his science of civilisation, he is commonly considered to be a founding father of the modern disciplines of historiography, sociology and economics. The well-known British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee, designated the Muqaddima as a “philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.” Another British scholar, Robert Flint, commented on the significance of Ibn Khaldūn thus: “as a theorist of history he had no equal in any age or country until Vico appeared, more than three hundred years later. Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine were not his peers, and all others were unworthy of being even mentioned along with him.”

Life and Career

‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Khaldūn al-Ḥaḍramī al-Ishbīlī, more commonly known as Ibn Khaldūn, was born in Tunis in 732AH/1332CE to an influential Arab family of the Banū Khaldūn, from the Ḥaḍramaut. His family’s high social status enabled Ibn Khaldūn to study with the best teachers in the region, providing him with a standard education in all the traditional disciplines. Subsequently, he became a court official, serving many North African rulers.

At the age of twenty, and in the midst of various inter- and intra-dynastic disputes, Ibn Khaldūn began his public career as secretary to the Hafṣid sultan of Tunis. Soon, however, he transferred his loyalties to the rival Merinide dynasty, based in Fez. Staying in Fez for almost ten years, he served the Merinides in numerous ways, but most notably by helping them negotiate with the Bedouin tribes of North Africa. During this period, he delighted in the many intrigues taking place between various members of the Merinide dynasty, who ruthlessly competed with each other for supremacy. Moreover, between 758/1357 and 760/1359, Ibn Khaldūn was imprisoned following his role in a Hafṣid conspiracy to overthrow the Merinides. He was released only upon the death of the Merinide sultan, Abū ‘Inān, after which the new sultan, Abū Salīm, appointed him to senior positions, including to the supervision of civil law. In 762/1361, however, Abū Salīm was murdered and Ibn Khaldūn was forced to leave Fez on the condition that he left North Africa altogether.[1]

Subsequently, Ibn Khaldūn was welcomed at the Naṣrid court in Granada, by Sultan Muḥammad V (r.755-760/1354-1359 and 763-793/1362-1391). During his stay in Granada, Ibn Khaldūn was given various duties, including leading an embassy to Pedro El Cruel (d.770/1369) in Seville in 765/1364. Not long after this mission, however, and due to a now obscure disagreement with an influential wazīr, Ibn Khaldūn was forced to leave Granada. Returning to North Africa, he settled in Bougie and became chamberlain to the Hafṣid prince, Abū ‘Abd Allāh. Just one year later, however, Abū ‘Abd Allāh was murdered by rebels. For the next nine years, Ibn Khaldūn travelled around central and western North Africa, developing tribal relations. It was during this period that he first recognised the fundamental differences between nomadic and sedentary lives, between rural and urban areas. This distinction inspired his interpretation of history; in the solitude of a Berber castle, he proceeded to write his Muqaddima (completed in Rajab 779/November 1377) and some parts of Kitāb al-Ibar.

In 785/1383, Ibn Khaldūn left Tunis for Egypt with the hope of obtaining a more peaceful life teaching and writing. The following year, he became Egypt’s grand judge and expert in Mālikī law. He was reportedly a very harsh judge, causing many conflicts, intrigues and dismissals. He died in Cairo in 808/1406.

Science of Civilisation (ilm al-umrān)

In the Muqaddima, Ibn Khaldūn outlined the basic theoretical and methodological foundations of his science of civilisation (ilm al-umrān). His main concern was to describe the rise and fall of various North African Muslim dynasties; by focusing on what he regarded as the essential social differences between pastoral nomadic (umrān badawī) and sedentary (umrān ḥaḍarī) societies, he provided a simple but profound explanation for this phenomenon. ‘Umrān badawī, he claimed, were societies which only produced bare necessities, while umrān ḥaḍarī involved the production of luxuries. With increased security and freedom, Ibn Khaldūn believed that people would naturally develop ‘umrān aarī from ‘umrān badawī, as they became involved in competition tied to economic production and growth. In other words, as umrān developed it would naturally increase and flourish – old cities would be rebuilt and new ones constructed. Ibn Khaldūn therefore envisaged civilisation as a product of material progress and economic development. It was a continuous, progressive process that humanity achieved through cooperation and striving. When the scale of cooperation and number of people involved increased, a larger and more improved umrān would emerge.[2]

For Ibn Khaldūn, umrān came into existence with the formation of aṣabiyya, often translated as ‘group feeling’ or ‘social cohesion’. He maintained that groups with strong aṣabiyya would establish political rule over those with weak aṣabiyya. At the same time, however, and in order to build a strong civilisation, aṣabiyya must be guided by religious law; for Ibn Khaldūn, religion gave additional power to aṣabiyya by uniting people under strong leadership.[3] Consequently, he concluded that umrān came into existence as a result of a harmonious interplay between aṣabiyya and religion.

In the thought of Ibn Khaldūn, ‘umrān was always in a state of change, from a primitive form to an advanced form. But, and just as with biological organisms, a natural and necessary consequence of this growth and maturity was an eventual decline; once ‘umrān aarī was established, it would necessarily decline back into ‘umrān badawī, creating a cyclic process that would be repeated over and over. According to Ibn Khaldūn, each stage of ‘umrān aarī would be culturally more advanced than the preceding one, but politically weaker. He also suggested that rural communities were morally stronger than urban communities; he felt the Bedouin were characterised by courage, intrepidity, freedom, morality and religion, while city-dwellers tended to embody dishonesty, a failure to maintain unity and solidarity, and (due to their sedentary lifestyle) an addiction to luxury and ease.

Discipline of Historical Criticism

Ibn Khaldūn also made a significant contribution to the field of historiography. In the Muqaddima, he succeeded in widening the scope of historical inquiry, giving priority to the study of social, economic and cultural matters, and setting out a system of good and sound historical criticism based on the rational evaluation of historical accounts.

Ibn Khaldūn considered early Muslim historians to have been outstanding scholars, who presented a comprehensive collection of sound historical events. Afterwards, however, he noticed a tradition develop of fraudulent stories and reports; later generations of historians, he said, habitually neglected to consider the circumstances, conditions and customs of the different nations and races their historical accounts were concerned with. In their work, they presented myth as established fact, without any supporting evidence. Ibn Khaldūn found this unacceptable. As a result, he outlined a method of historical criticism, comprising several important steps of assessment: according to him, in order to create authentic and trustworthy historical accounts, historians should possess a good command of the principles of politics, of the true nature of existent things, and of the differences between nations, places and time periods (i.e. differences in character, customs and traditions). They also needed a comprehensive knowledge of present-day conditions, which they should then compare to past conditions with an eye to the similarities and differences between the periods in question as a basis for the evaluation of historical events.

Ibn Khaldūn accordingly requested that historians be aware of the differing conditions accompanying the rise of different dynasties, in order to recognise the disparate reasons and incentives which brought them into being and eventually led to their fall. The main goals of the historian, Ibn Khaldūn believed, were to have a comprehensive knowledge of the reasons for every happening and to be acquainted with the origin of every event. He suggested that historians check transmitted information with the basic principles of their own knowledge. If they tallied, then the information should be considered sound. Otherwise, it should be rejected as spurious.[4]

Economic Thought

 Through his great sense and knowledge of history, together with his meticulous observations of men, times, and places, Ibn Khaldūn also analysed the role of wealth in the rise and fall of civilisations. For the first time, Ibn Khaldūn raised significant socio-economic questions concerning population, wealth, surplus, and the hopes of labourers vis-à-vis the fruits of their toil. By doing so, he clearly demonstrated breadth and depth in his coverage of a range of issues, including: material wealth and its relationship to labour; capital accumulation and its relationship to the rise and fall of dynasties; and the dynamics of demand, supply, pricing, and profit. By considering these factors, not only did Ibn Khaldūn plant the seeds of classical economics – production, supply, and cost – but he also pioneered an understanding of the cornerstones of modern economic theory: consumption, demand, and utility.[5]

Ibn Khaldūn’s unprecedented contribution to the field of economics places him at the very forefront of the history of economic theory. If may even make him the ‘father’ of modern economics – a title traditionally given to Adam Smith, whose eminent works were published around three hundred and seventy years after Ibn Khaldūn’s death.

When Ibn Khaldūn wrote his Muqaddima, Islamic civilisation was already in decline. Perhaps because of this, his methods and rules would remain forgotten in the Muslim world for centuries. Nevertheless, his ideas and methodology were extensively used by early modern European scholars in the fields of sociology, political science, economics and history. Ibn Khaldūn’s biography appeared in many European texts from as early as the end of the seventeenth century, with the first translation of the Muqaddima appearing in Europe in 1806.


Further Reading

Hussein, Ahmed Elyas. ‘Ibn Khaldun’s Contribution to Historical Criticism.’ In Ibn Khaldun and Muslim Historiography, edited by Ahmed Ibrahim Abushouk. Kuala Lumpur: International Islamic University Malaysia, 2003.

Al-Azmeh, Aziz. Ibn Khaldūn: An Essay in Reinterpretation. London: Frank Cass & Company Ltd., 1982.

Al-Mudamgha, Anwar Ameen. Ibn Khaldun’s Socio-Historical Theory: A Study in the History of Ideas. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1990.

Akhmetova, Elmira. ‘Defining Civilisation and Religion.’ IAIS Journal of Civilisation Studies 1, no.1 (2008): 43-65.

Firzly, George S. ‘Ibn Khaldun: A Socio Economic Study.’ Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Utah, 1973.

Ibrahim, Oweiss. ‘Ibn Khaldun, The Father of Economics.’ Georgetown University.

Available at:

Rosenthal, Erwin I. J. Political Thought in Medieval Islam: An Introductory Outline. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1985.


[1] Aziz Al-Azmeh, Ibn Khaldūn: An Essay in Reinterpretation (London: Frank Cass & Company Ltd., 1982), 2-3.

[2] Elmira Akhmetova, ‘Defining Civilisation and Religion,’ IAIS Journal of Civilisation Studies 1, no.1 (2008): 47-8.

[3] Ibn Khaldūn, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, transl. Franz Rosenthal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980, 2nd ed.), 1:320.

[4] See, Ahmed Elyas Hussein, ‘Ibn Khaldun’s Contribution to Historical Criticism,’ in Ibn Khaldun and Muslim Historiography, ed. Ahmed Ibrahim Abushouk (Kuala Lumpur: International Islamic University Malaysia, 2003), 7-8.

[5] Oweiss Ibrahim, ‘Ibn Khaldun, The Father of Economics,’ Georgetown University. Available at: (Accessed on: 13th August 2013).

Writer is a faculty member at Department of History and Civilization, International Islamic University Malaysia

In Picture: Autograph of Ibn Khaldun (upper left corner) on a manuscript of the Muqaddimah