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Ibn Khuldūn
Jamil Ahmad


Ibn Khuldūn, the talented Muslim philosopher of history and the greatest intellect of his age, is one of the most outstanding thinkers that the world has ever produced. History, before Khuldūn, was confined to the simple recording of events, without distinguishing between the probable and the improbable.

Being the founder of the science of sociology, Ibn Khuldūn had the unique distinction of treating history as a science and supporting his facts with reasoning. `There is nothing in the Christian literature of the Middle Ages' says a celebrated Western critic `worthy of being compared with it and no Christian historian wrote a version with such clearness and precision on any Muslim state.'

Khuldūn, whose origin may be traced to Yamanite Arabs of Hadramaut, was born in Tunis on May 27, 1332, where his family had settled, having migrated from Moorish Spain. Ibn Khuldūn had a chequered career during his early life, taking active part in the intriguing power politics of the small North African principalities, enjoying alternately the favour and disfavour of the rulers and at times taking refuge in distant Granada. His revolutionary spirit, being fed up with the dirty politics of those times was obliged to take a short respite of about four years in the suburbs of Tunis, where he completed his immortal "Prolegomena" in 1377. Thereafter he shifted to Tunis to finish his masterly work "Kitab-ul-Ibar" (Word History), where he could get reference books in the Imperial Library. After an eventful, adventurous life in North Africa, the great thinker sailed to Egypt in 1382.

His fame and outstanding work had preceded him in Egypt and he was warmly welcomed in the literary circles of Cairo where he was invited to deliver lectures at the famous Al Azhar Mosque. He was received by the King of Egypt, who appointed him the Maliki Judge. The intrigues and the rivalries of the court, soon forced him down and he was appointed on the same post for six times, every time losing it.

Meanwhile, he had a chance of meeting the famous Tamerlane who had invaded Syria and had to make peace with the King of Egypt. The celebrated conqueror was highly impressed with the versatility and eloquence of Ibn Khuldūn who, on his return, died in Cairo in 1406.

Ibn Khuldūn has acquired an immortal place in the galaxy of historical philosophy. Before him, history was a mere chronicle of events, recorded in a haphazard manner without caring to distinguish between the real and the unreal. Ibn Khuldūn stands out quite distinct from the rest of the historians, because he treated history as a science and not merely a narrative. He wrote history in the light of his new method of explanation and reasoning and developed it as a social philosophy. Explaining the art of writing history, Ibn Khuldūn says in "Prolegomena": `It is only by an attentive examination and well sustained application that we can discover the truth, and guard ourselves against errors and mistakes. In fact, if we were merely to satisfy ourselves by reproducing the records transmitted by tradition without consulting the rules furnished by experience, the fundamental principles of the art of government, the nature, events of the particular civilization, or the circumstances which characterize the human society; if we are not to judge of the events which occurred in distant times by those which are occurring under our eyes, if we are not to compare the past with the present, we can hardly escape from falling into errors and losing the way of Truth.'

Being the originator of sociology, philosophy of history and political economy, his works possess striking originality. "Kitab-ul-Ibar" including "Al-Tārif" is his immortal historical work which contains "Prolegomena" as well as his autobiography. He has divided his work in three parts. The first part known as his famous "Prolegomena" deals with society, its origin, sovereignty, birth of towns and villages, trades, means of livelihood and sciences. This is the best part of the book where the writer reaches the summits of creativeness, reviewing the diverse subjects like political economy, sociology and history with striking originality and brilliance. Some of the subjects dealt by Ibn Khuldūn in "Prolegomena" were dealt with also by his predecessors, but he gave a more logical shape to his theories.

Farabi's statement about the origin of towns and villages is only theoretical, while Khuldūn has viewed it from a social point of view. According to Ibn Khuldūn, the science of "Al-Umran" (Sociology) did not exist before him. It was only superficially dealt in the "Politics" of Aristotle and the celebrated Tunisian might have gone through the commentary written by Ibn Rushd (Averroes) on Aristotelian works. The striking feature of the "Prolegomena" is its theory of "Al Asbiah" which Ibn Khuldūn has advanced about the nobility or influence of the lineage of nomadic tribes.

The third chapter dealing with the state and the sovereignty is the best part of the book, where the learned author has propounded his advanced political theories which were later on incorporated in the works of such celebrated political thinkers as Machiaveli and Vico. Like that of Ibn Khuldūn, written in stormy times in Italy a century later, Machiavelli's "Prince" bears a close resemblance to the "Prolegomena", and it is just probable that the famous Italian might have borrowed some of his ideas from the works of Ibn Khuldūn. `At any rate', says Prof. Gumplowicz, `the priority must be rightly attributed to the Arab sociologist as regards those counsels which Machiavelli, a century later, gave to the rules in his "Prince" '. Colosia says, `If the great Florentine instructs us in the art of governing people, he does this as a far-sighted politician, but the learned Tunisian (Ibn Khuldūn) was able to penetrate into the social phenomena as a profound economist and philosopher, a fact which urges us to see in his work such farsightedness and critical art, as was totally unknown to his age'.

Ibn Khuldūn, whose keenness of observation is equalled by his versatility, sums up the qualities of a ruler in the following words. `The sovereign exists for the good of his people. The necessity of a ruler arises from the fact that human beings have to live together and unless there is someone to maintain order, society would break to pieces'.

The second part of "Kitab-ul-Ibar", which comprises four volumes, namely second, third, fourth and fifth, deals with the history of the Arabs and other Muslims as well as contemporary dynasties, including Syrians, Persians, Saljukids, Turks, Jews, Greeks, Romans and Franks. The real historical work begins with the second volume which deals with Jews, Greeks, Romans and Persians of the pre-Islamic period. The advent of Islam, the life of the Holy Prophet and the history of the Rightly Guided Caliphate (Four Caliphs) are dealt with in a special supplement to the second volume. The third volume, deals in detail with the Caliphate of Ummayads and Abbasides. The fourth contains the history of Fatimides in Egypt and of Moorish Spain up to the time of the Banu Ahymer dynasty. The fifth volume refers to the rise and fall of Saljuk power, the Crusades and the history of the Mamluk dynasty of Egypt up to the end of 8th century A.H. His sources, in this volume may be traced to the historical works of Ibn Hasham, Masūdi and Tabari.

The third part of his great historical work "Kitab-ul-Ibar", comprising two volumes, namely sixth and seventh, elaborately deals with the history of Berbers and other neighbouring tribes as well as contains the autobiography of the author, known as "Al Tārif". The history of Berbers describes in much detail their origin, greatness, kingdom and dynasties in North Africa. The author having a first hand knowledge of the region and its inhabitants has masterly dealt with the subject matter which is very factual and precise. Ibn Khuldūn has minimized the greatness of Arab achievements both in the domains of conquests and scholarship. On the other hand, he has boosted the qualities of Berbers, as he was born in the land of Berbers and he could not help being partial towards them who were ruled by the Arabs since the 1st century A.H. The sixth and the major part of the seventh volume of his book deals with the history of the Berbers.

"Kitab-ul-Ibar", ends with several chapters written about the author's own life and is known as "Al-Tārif" (Autobiography). There is another copy of "Al-Tārif" preserved in Egypt which relates the events of his life, till a few months before his death. Ibn Khuldūn has adopted a more scientific method in the arrangement of his autobiography which he has divided into chapters, connected with each other.

Before him autobiographies were usually written in a `diary form', events having no connection with each other. Ibn Khuldūn was the first to write a long systematic autobiography, while shorter autobiographies were written by his predecessors, including Al-Khatib and Al-Suyuti which were formal, hence insipid. The autobiography written by Ibn Khuldūn is a frank confession of deeds and misdeeds of a dynamic personality expressed in a most impressive language. The author has portrayed his career with exceptional frankness and liberty, which has made his autobiography all the more interesting and appealing. Moral lapses are not uncommon in great personalities and these, when viewed in the light of their achievements, lose their nasty significance whatsoever. The "Al-Tārif" may be favourably compared with the autobiography of Benvenuti Cellini, the celebrated Italian artist. Both have an air of frankness in them.

It was during the nineteenth century that the translation of his works in various European languages enabled the West to realize the greatness of this historian and appreciate the vigour and the originality of his thought. `Ibn Khuldūn', writes D. Boer, `is undoubtedly the first who tried to explain fully the evolution and progress of society, as being caused by certain causes and factors, climate, the means of production, etc., and their effects on the formation of man's mind and sentiment as well as the formation of society. In the march of civilization, he perceives an organized internal harmony'.

Thus the enlightened West is immensely indebted to the learned Tunisian, for the lead given by him in diverse fields of sociology, historical and political economy which paved the way for later development in these sciences.

(Extracted from "The Hundred Great Muslims"

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