Ibn Khaldun: An African Contribution To Islamic Theology, History And Political Philosophy

The thrust of this study is an examination of some aspects of the life and thought of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), the great Tunisian Scholar, sociologist, philosopher and a person who has been adjudged by many as the greatest Arab historian. Ibn Khaldun’s ideas are also important for us in this context because of the exceptional nature of his thought especially in matters of historiography and political theory. His significance derives from the fact that, in spite of his attachment of Islam, he developed one of the earliest non-religious philosophy of history while simultaneously rejecting, too, as hypothetical the ideal state of the Muslim philosophers (falasifa). His theory of the state was constructed within the larger context of his novel study of civilization, his “new science”.
Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis in 1332 A.D to a family of very proud ancestry that had a tradition for having held high administrative and political posts for over four centuries under the Umayyad, Almoravid and Almohad dynasties. In his autobiography, at – Tari bi-ibn Khaldun, Ibn Khaldun described his father as a man of letters, law theology and as somebody whose knowledge of Arabic was deep.  In Ibn Khaldun own words:
He was outstanding in his his knowledge o Arabic and had an understating of poetry in its different forms and I can well remember how the men of letters sought his opinion in matters of dispute and submitted their works to him!
From his father, Ibn acquired his love or education and knowledge
Like medieval historiography which was influenced by Christian doctrine, oriental historiography, was influenced by Islamic doctrine.  But unlike Christianity, Islam is history-conscious. Although the early Muslim view of the purpose of history writing was to obtain pleasure of Allah, the Qur’an stresses the need for historical knowledge, especially to teach morals.  The Qur’an does not believe that nature or the will of Allah works blindly as there are certain historical reasons leading to every change or revolt.
Also, for the life of Prophet Muhammed there is sufficient evidence that he was well informed about the life and teachings of other prophets before him.  As a result of historical references in the Qur’an, the early Muslim writers showed keen interest in history. Furthermore, the idea of the continuity of priesthood as presented in the Qur’an led to a realization of the importance of history.
Moreover, in the pre-Islamic Arab society, history had a place.  There were narrators who in some ways practised history. In fact, history was used as a means of propagating political and religious ideas.  Unlike Christianity, Islam is essentially a literary activity. The sense for history and the need for history developed as part of the Islamic doctrine.  But Muslim historiography began essentially with the advent of Islam and very meager information is available about the pre-Islamic period.
Initially, Muslim historiography flourished on its own without any foreign influence.  But as the frontiers of Islam expanded foreign elements from Greek and Christian writings crept into the Muslim writings.  Nevertheless Muslim historiography was able to develop its own characteristics. Islam encouraged the presentation of the traditions  of the Prophet as well as the historical anecdotes, biographies, genealogies and accounts of Muslim conquests. The early Muslim historiographers began the vigorous attempt at historical presentation.  There were also attempts at verifying the events recorded. This was done by the institution of a system by which an event is transmitted through a chain of authorities. This was mainly because Muslims were primarily interested in the original wordings of the Qur’an.  Thus an important aspect of Muslim historiography is the emphasis on accurate reporting.
Thirdly, the Muslims also developed principle of screening available historical data and careful evaluation of sources.  Because of the need to keep closely to the wordings of the Qur’an and the Hadith, Muslim writers engaged in historical research to obtain as many versions of an account as possible.  These versions they would subject to rigorous screening to obtain the accuracy and authenticity of one. But to allow the reader to examine and evaluate their judgement they often gave all versions collated thereby giving later historians raw materials.
The main interest of Muslims scholars in historiography was in acquiring detailed and authentic knowledge of the events which were directly related to the teachings of the Prophet and his close associates.  This was because the Qur’an and the Hadith were the two antecedents by which events in any part of the Muslim world were judged. There was no distinction between history and religions.
As Islam expanded, the search for more traditions to the life and teachings of the Prophet increased.  With this increase, the method of analysis and style of presentation changed. There was a distinction between historical literature and religious literature.  The historical literature became more secular in approach and wider in scope. The events in the historical literature were compiled in chronological order while those in the Hadith were arranged subject wise.  Thus came the parting of ways between religious literature and history.
In their treatment of history, the early Muslim writers gradually advanced from a local or parochial outlook to a broad universal one.  The earlier attempts were unrefined to particular groups or tribes but with the expansion of Islam the concept of tribes or groups was broadened to that of rendition and there were attempts by some writers to synthesize the various local histories into comprehensive histories.


Ibn Khaldun is generally regarded as a historian, philosopher and sociologist.  He was born in Tunis in May 1332 and received education based on the studies on the Qur’an and Hadith.  Among his contemporaries, he stood in a class of his own because of the massiveness of his literature, the secularization of his thoughts and the scholarly presentation of his materials.  The major ones among his books include Ibar (Universal history), the Muqadimma, the Ihata, a commentary on the order and outline of logic, a treatise on Hadith, among others.  The greatest of Ibn Khaldun’s works was the Muqadimma, which gives a very comprehensive account of North African history.  A lot of information is owed to the book for our knowledge of North Africa especially before the 7th century Arab conquest.  The work was of high quality, factual and analytical, especially with those aspects dealing with Islam in North Africa. While the book according to modern standards can be condemned as mere compilation, there is no doubt that the book thundered historical development at the time it was written.  It was a good example of excellent scholarship. In fact, in intelligence, experience and imagination, Ibn Khaldun equaled Thucydides and Machiavelli. Thus he was referred to as a giant in Muslim historiography, just as St. Augustine was the greatest writer of the Christian historiography.
However, the fame of Ibn Khaldun did not derived from the superiority of skill as an empirical historian, rather it was as a philosopher of history that he distinguished himself.  According to him, the Muqadimma is an introduction into the historian’s craft.  In the Muqadimma Ibn Khaldun elaborated the main principles of his philosophies which by all account stand above those of his philosophies which by all account stand above those of his predecessors and contemporaries and has not been equaled since.  His philosophy of history was based on the systematic attention to elaborate the nature of human society with the view of equipping practicing historians with a criterion by which recorded events and changes in history can be studied and judged.
Like St. Augustine, Ibn Khaldun was moved to historical scholarship by the prevailing circumstances of his time.  He was disillusioned with the decline of classical Islamic civilization, but unlike him, rather than explaining the misfortunes of Islam in Allah, he sought solutions from history.  Nevertheless some of his work, according to him, even in history there are divine intervention which cannot easily be removed. To Ibn Khaldun, history is a discipline firmly rooted in philosophy.   It is not a narration of events but involves an accurate perception of the forces and origins of events. He demonstrated this conception of history in his attempt to find the causes of the declined Muslim civilization.  Another contribution of Ibn Khaldun to historiography is that he gave certain factors as limitations to historical works:
  1. Partisanship on the part of the author.
  2. Overconfidence in the veracity of sources.
  3. Paul to understand events in their proper context.
  4. Failure to understand the nature of the report.
  5. Ignorance of the nature and mode of culture.
To produce a good historical work, Ibn Khaldun advocated an extensive material from many sources, a critical analysis of these materials, cross-checking of these materials, orderly presentation and the study of past works in order to avoid the mistakes of preceding writers.  In his works Ibn Khaldun tried to avoid things he criticized in his predecessors and to follow the pieces of advice he gave. No doubt Ibn Khaldun was not an armchair historian. He went out to collect materials from private hands and libraries all over North Africa. He travelled widely to have first hand experience for closer observation.  In fact, he refused to discuss events on which he had scanty information and which concentrated on the Maghrib. In this regard, he surpassed St. Augustine as the Bible properly interpreted was his main source. He also critically examined his materials and refused to accept any evidence at its face value no matter its source. Besides, he realized that mere exhaustive collection of materials cannot lead to a rational and accurate presentation without the historian using his speculative mind to bear on them.  Another area where Ibn Khaldun excelled his generation was his great concern for objectivity. He was remarkably detached from the events he narrated and wets an impartial observer. In spite of religious disposition and political experience, Ibn Khaldun’s work was not a praise of any individual nor for the defence of the Islamic State, but was simply a presentation of human activities at the time.
Furthermore, realizing that  historical event cannot be understood in isolation from environmental conditions.  He interpreted his materials within the geographical context within which they took place.  This he did excellently well in the treatment of the influence of geographical environment on the Bedouin Arabs.  Moreover, his realization of the interplay that environmental factors on historical development, led him to the belief that general laws could be propounded on historical development led him to believe that general laws could be propounded on historical development.  Thus he propounded Hasabiyyah, i.e., group factor as a basic factor in historical causation.  By this Ibn Khaldun had taken history a long way by not keeping to providence or the will of Allah.
Ibn Khaldun is a theorist of the modern state.  This conception of the state, however, is not borne out of Islamic orthodoxy but squarely located within the context of his “new science”, the study of culture. To Ibn Khaldun, the falasifa ideal state was unacceptable while giving preference to the only states he recognized: the Siyasa diniya, a state with close affinity to the Khilafa or Imama of the furish, and Siyan Aqliya, the power state founded upon Imman reason.
Ibn Khaldun’s unhesitating preference is for the power-state and he succeeded in describing its nature and organization with great candour. Although he was unmistakably clear of the primacy of the state built on the prophetically revealed law, he insisted with great conviction in against the philosophers – that prophecy is organization in a state.  As far as he in concerned the power – state is man’s natural and logical response to his needs as a rational, social being; moreso when empirical evidence reveals that the majority of mankind exists without prophets. In such societies, rulers exercise authority by power and / or Asabiyaa, which unites their supporters and provides group cohesion. In Ibn khaldun’s theory of the state, Asabiyaa gained a decidedly prime position as the motive – force of the power – state. For Asabiyya is a corporate feeling, a common bond arising, in the first instance, from blood ties cum family tradition and forging a sense of social solidarity. It provides for unity of purpose, common action and constitutes on  indispensable driving force in the formation of states and dynasties. Its aim is mulk,  dominion.
Asabiyaa provides enabling teeth to the necessary restraining force. At first, it sustains the ethnic chieftain, who is primus  inter pares,  and maintains his authority through the Asabiyya that animates his family and clan. Subsequently, the chief aims at sovereign power and employs this powerful feeling of solidarity for his own ends. Indeed, Asabiyya is a concept of Ibn khaldun that has attracted the hostility and condemnation of Orthodox Muslim philosophers who regarded it as antithetical to the teachings of Islam. Yet, Ibn khaldun remains undaunted arguing that Asabiyya is even vital to the success of prophecy and dawah, the call to religion. Nonetheless, he was realistic enough to recognize that urban life is a threat to Asabiyya as it leads to the erosion of power and influence of the ethnic chieftain.       
Closely related to the theory of Hasabiyyah is the idea that history moves in circles.  He believed that every civilization has a rise, growth and decline.  The significance of this is that it clearly shows Ibn Khaldun’s concpetion of history as an objective explanation of causes and courses of event.  Lastly, it must be recognized that the Prolegomena of Ibn Khaldun is one of the most important works of historiography. In it he emphasized the importance of sociology to history.  He sought to study the past not only in terms of the actions of individuals but also through an analysis of the laws, customs and institutions of the different people as well as the interaction of the state and society.  Just as Ibn Khaldun had no known predecessor in the history of Muslim thought, so he had not worthy successor.

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