Ibn Khaldun is one of the most well-known historians of Muslim heritage who propounded a new historiographical method whereby he analysed the factors contributing to the rise and fall of civilisations: the immutable cycle which governs the lifespan and nature of an empire or polity. This article is a brief but interesting introduction into his work.

Ibn Khaldun is best known for his formulation of the notion of ‘Asabiyyah, broadly translated as “group-feeling/solidarity” which is the fundamental building block which provides strength to the successful origins and development of a fledgling empire or polity. His broad interactions with a range of peoples from multiple continents contributed to his theory and model of human social organisation. His Islamic learning and scholarship also contributed to his view of history’s divine coordination by Allah.

2‘Abdur-Rahman Ibn Khaldun is considered as one of the greatest thinkers in the annals of human history. He lived in the middle-late fourteenth century and is known as the father of the disciplines of history and sociology, also making an indelible imprint in the fields of philosophy and economy.[1] He crafted an independent theory of history – an amalgam of history proper and culture, whereby he probed the “origins, rise, decline and fall of civilisations”[2] and took into consideration the complex intersection of social, economic, environmental political and moral factors in the development of civilisations.[3][4] His ideas were a product of his extensive experience in observing matters of statecraft, the scholarly Islamic education he received and various peoples he encountered across the expanse of the existing Islamic dynasties. He has influenced a broad spectrum of historians and intellectuals, from the historians of the Ottoman Empire to the Orientalists of the nineteenth century who brought his works to prominence in Europe and the West. His ideas continue to hold prominence today, having an impact on a number of modern theories and intellectual currents.

The Social & Cultural Background of Ibn Khaldun

Ibn Khaldun was born of an Arab Hadrami family and his intellect found the environment to flourish through constant interaction and exposure to elite scholarly circles. His ancestors migrated to Iberia with the Ummayads and then moved to North Africa in the twelfth century. He was educated in the traditional Islamic sciences including the Qur’an, the Hadith, jurisprudence, Arabic poetry and grammar. Through his learning he was qualified for judgeship, counsellorships and received the patronage of rulers wherever he travelled.[5] He was often in the midst of political turmoil and controversy and the warring dynastic struggles of the North African states. He was put in prison at one point for alleged subversive activities, then freed and raised desert armies in support of another ruler.[6] This extensive practical experience in partaking in and observing the affairs of statecraft and engaging with people of a variety of backgrounds, both sedentary, elite and nomadic, no doubt helped shape Ibn Khaldun’s philosophy of dynasty and civilisation.


Map of the Muslim World around 1400, a few years before Ibn Khaldun’s death.

His epistemology was shaped distinctly by Islam, evidenced throughout his works. He combines both what in Muslim terminology is the ‘Aql-Naql mind’ – revealed knowledge with human reasoning to explain the phenomenon of human social organisation.[7] This is discerned through his frequent mention of Allah being the ultimate source and cause of all events and cyclical behaviour of civilisations he describes:

“This is how God formerly proceeded with His servants. And verily you will not be able to change God’s way”[8], “God inherits the earth and whoever is upon it”[9].    

Islam, to him, was the historical articulation of a divine plan that was rational. The shortcomings and disintegration of Muslim dynasts, such as the late Umayyads and Abbasids, was not due to the deficiencies of Islam,[10] but rather the proponents and rulers of the dynasties who fell into the cycle of luxury and complacency, failing to live by proper Islamic principles. The Islamic Weltanschauung of Ibn Khaldun is thus evident through his explanation of the fall of civilisations. He makes the point repeatedly that it is due to mankind’s infractions towards the Shar’iah – through the sins of pride, luxury, ostentation and oppression – that he is led to downfall in the earthly kingdom.[11]

Methodological Approaches, Subject Matter and the Purposes and Objectives of Ibn Khaldun’s Works

Ibn Khaldun completely reconceptualised the art of presenting history by introducing a new historiographical method. He crafted an independent theory of history, where he reviewed historical experience on a universal scale and presented a general set of laws governing the evolution of civilisations.[12] He was critical of previous and contemporary Muslim historians and their method of presenting history and therefore established his new “science of civilisation” – ‘Ilm al-‘Umran.[13] His magnus opus the “Muqaddimah” translated as the “Prolegomena to History” in English is the introduction to his “Kitab al-Ibar”, his history of the world which was a history of the Berbers and a general covering of human history including the Arabs, Nabataeans, Syrians, Persians, Israelites, Copts, Greeks, Romans, Turks and Franks.[14]

It took him four years to write it and he related after its completion that “words and ideas (were) pouring into my head like cream into a churn”.[15]  Arnold Toynbee, a prolific British historian and philosopher of history of the first half of the twentieth century, described it as,

undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.[16]


The Muqaddimah: His magnum opus

The Muqaddimah is regarded as the first time a historian has attempted to uncover the structure in the changes and developments affecting human societies. It offers a rational and analytical method, encyclopaedic in detail,[17] differing from the vast majority of both medieval and modern historical works of a simple presentation of a chronology of factual events,[18] being rather an investigation as Ibn Khaldun himself articulates, of “the subtle explanation of the causes and origins of existing things, and deep knowledge of the how and why of events”.[19]

Ibn Khaldun begins the book by critiquing common historiographical errors which he had seen Muslim authors committing. This includes “accepting reports in their plain transmitted form, without checking the principles underlying such historical situations”[20] and narrating implausible events and passing them off as ‘history’. He provides the template the historian must follow in conveying deep and meaningful history:

the scholar in this field needs to know the principles of politics, the (true) nature of existent things, and the differences among nations, places, and periods with regard to ways of life, character qualities, customs, sects, schools, and everything else.[21]

Ibn Khaldun begins with a discussion of human civilisation in general, proving through deductive reasoning why human co-operation and social organisation is an inescapable necessity for survival, followed by why authority is an essential element to provide a “restraining influence”[22] to prevent injustice.

This is followed by information about the geography of the earth, the oceans, rivers, zones and where different civilisations are found. Following this, he discusses the temperate zones of the earth, the various climates and environmental conditions and their influence in the physical characteristics and behaviours of humans.

This leads to his main thesis which he is most renowned for: he posits that the environmental conditions the Bedouins in the desert are exposed to foster the values of fortitude, independence, self-reliance, courage, and above all “‘Asabiyyah”.

The harsh conditions of desert life, with the limited access to material goods, luxuries and amenities combined with strong leadership are the root basis and origins of most civilisations and empires – and especially the Islamic polities.[23]

This is when ‘Asabiyyah is at its strongest, which he claims is the fundamental block which keeps a civilisation running. The weaker the ‘Asabiyyah, the closer an empire is to collapse. “‘Asabiyyah” is a rich term which encompasses a range of meanings – authors have generally translated it through particular expressions of universal sociological notions such as “public spirit”, “social solidarity”, “group cohesion”, “espirit de corps’”.[24]

Erwin Rosenthal describes it as “the motor development of the state”[25], whilst Toynbee posits ‘Asabiyyah as the “basic protoplasm all bodies politic and bodies social are built up”.[26] ‘Asabiyyah was often based upon blood-ties or a tribal basis, and later on based on religious unity with the advent of Islam. The core of the idea is loyalty to a common leader, united under the same ideological idea and defence against external attack.[27]

A summary of the interdependent variables involved in the development of ‘Asabiyyah

A summary of the interdependent variables involved in the development of ‘Asabiyyah [28]

The central thesis of Ibn Khaldun then is that a ruler unites his virile Bedouin people with a common feeling of ‘Asabiyyah and often comes to power by overturning an existing established civilisation which has reached the end of its life-cycle, revelling in decadence and luxury. The whole conception of historical development is based upon these two dichotomous groups: the nomadic and sedentary.[29] This was witnessed with the rise of the first Islamic Caliphate, from its humble desert origins, defeating the Roman and Persian Empires.

In this first stage the leader rules over his people equitably and shares power with them[30]. This is then followed by a period of conquest and consolidation of territory, where the first stages of despotism appear. The leader picks a few of his favourite men and checks the authority of his original followers, hence establishing his dynasty.[31]

The third stage is the epoch of civilisation and decay, where an impressive civilisation is established, where the ruler and populace fall prey to the refined elements of life and luxury and focus on the acquisition of wealth in their sedentary mentality, becoming weak and cowardly, losing their former military prowess[32][33]. These factors lead to a weakening of ‘Asabiyah and the original qualities which helped establish their initial power, hence making them vulnerable to outside attacks from a fresh nomadic race who are at stage one of the cycle.

Maladministration and the abuse of power is widespread, the expenses of the ruler and state build-up leading to increased taxation. These are the symptoms of the disintegration of the empire and are an inevitability which cannot be circumvented in the Khaldunian thesis. The victors then undergo this same process, and thus this cycle keeps on repeating itself.

This, then, is the story of human history Ibn Khaldun asserts.[34] This entire cycle of the rise and fall of civilisations is calculated to last for three generations, which is about 120 years according to Ibn Khaldun.[35]

A "graph"ical summary of Ibn Khaldun's cycle of civilisations

A “graph”ical summary of Ibn Khaldun’s cycle of civilisations


The Impact of Ibn Khaldun on Ottoman Historians

It has been claimed by Orientalist scholars that Ibn Khaldun was not overly prominent prior to being discovered by them in the nineteenth century and that he “was not a famous Muslim scholar before he achieved fame among non-Muslims of expansionist Europe”[36].

Recent research, however, has proven this not to be the case: many manuscripts, and later published copies of the Muqaddimah, existed in the libraries of Istanbul and other Ottoman cities, with many commentaries written on the illustrious work by Ottoman scholars[37].

The first confirmed date of Ottoman adoption of Ibn Khaldun can be traced to 1598 when the scholar and poet Veysi acquired a manuscript of the Muqaddimah in Cairo. However, Ottoman scholars did not till the mid-seventeenth century make explicit references to Ibn Khaldun. The polymath Kâtip Çelebi appropriated Ibn Khaldun’s stages of civilisation analogous to the human body, of growth, maturity and decline[38].


The polymath Kâtip Çelebi

Muṣtafa Na’īmā had an immense enthusiasm for Ibn Khaldun. He explored the decline of the Ottoman Caliphate in describing that it was entering into its “penultimate phase”[39] and made recourse to Ibn Khaldun’s formulations on the cyclical pattern of societies and the tension between nomadic and sedentary polities[40]. It was in the early eighteenth century that Ibn Khaldun’s popularity was firmly established amongst Ottoman historians. Müneccimbaşi, the author of a universal history in Arabic, adopted Ibn Khaldun’s methods of historical inquiry and in 1725, chief Islamic scholar Pîrîzâde Mehmed Sâhib Efendi produced the first ever translation of the Muqadimmah to Turkish. Henceforth Ibn Khaldun became a celebrated intellectual in the pantheon of Ottoman intellectuals and statesmen.[41][42]

The Muqaddimah existed in the libraries of Istanbul and other Ottoman cities

The Muqaddimah existed in the libraries of Istanbul and other Ottoman cities

Concluding Observation and Thoughts

Ibn Khaldun has carved out an immutable arena for himself in the historical and sociological spheres in both the Orient and Occident. He has conveyed a unique formulation of the cyclical nature of history with regards to the rise and fall of civilisations. However, some of his ideas seem relevant only to the medieval period of history, beginning to lose relevance with the phenomenon of modernity.

With the rapid urbanisation and modernisation of society and the virtual non-existence of nomadic societies with military clout, his established theory of the virile nomadic peoples overturning the decadent sedentary population is no longer witnessed in modern history. Rather the power and economic structures and variables of military warfare are now vastly different with shifts in state power occurring in varied ways.

Some of his other theories however, have universal appeal, such as his assertion of ‘Asabiyyah being the building block of cohesion for a state to function efficiently. The modern global landscape and its arrangement is incredibly intertwined on the notion of ‘Asabiyyah. The Westphalian separation of nations in the form of the nation-state is based upon the cultural homogeneity of each specific nation, who build a sense of ‘solidary’, ‘group-feeling and cohesion’; in other words ‘Asabiyyah, to function more productively. Governments strive to ensure that the ‘Asabiyyah of the population do not wane, with various measures in place to ensure loyalty to the home nation’s values and ideals.  It may thus be said that Ibn Khaldun’s notion of ‘Asabiyyah has only increased in its relevance and actuality in the social organisation of human societies than the time he proposed his ideas.

The reason why Ibn Khaldun is held in high regard is due to his efforts in seeking to answer the fundamental ontological operations of the earth, its relationship with human beings, and the laws which govern the panorama of human history. He was a thinker who has relevance in all ages and a universal appeal which resonates with the curious and intelligent mind irrespective of his or her era.

Author: Tarek ‘Abdur Rahman who is in his 4th year at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, studying Arts/Education, majoring in History & minoring in English.


[1] Ronald A. Messier, “The Worlds of Ibn Khaldun: Introduction.” The Journal of North African Studies 13, no. 3 (2008): 275, accessed October 1, 2015, 10.1080/13629380701844482.

[2] Yolanda Gamarra, “Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406): A Precursor of Intercivilizational Discourse.” 28, no. 3 (2015): 455, accessed October 1, 2015, doi: 10.1017/S0922156515000217.

[3] Gamarra, “Precursor of Intercivilizational Discourse,” 455.

[4] Qadir, “Social and Political Ideas,” 118.

[5] McCorriston, “Pastoralism and Pilgrimage,” 615.

[6] McCorriston, “Pastoralism and Pilgrimage,” 615.

[7] Mahmoud Dhaouadi, “The Ibar: Lessons of Ibn Khaldun’s Umran Mind.” Contemporary Sociology 34, no. 6 (2005): 586.

[8] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah (Unabridged), 77.

[9] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah (Unabridged), 80.

[10] Bruce B. Lawrence, “Introduction: Ibn Khaldun and Islamic Ideology,” in Ibn Khaldun and Islamic Ideology, ed. Bruce B. Lawrence (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1984), 8.

[11] H. A. R. Gibb, “The Islamic Background of Ibn Khaldūn’s Political Theory.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 7, no. 1 (1933):  31, accessed October 1, 2015, doi: 10.1017/S0041977X00105361.

[12] M. Abdul Qadir, “The Social and Political Ideas of Ibn Khaldun.” The Indian Journal of Political Science 3, no. 2 (1941): 118.

[13] Ali Çaksu, “Ibn Khaldun and Hegel on Causality in History: Aristotelian Legacy Reconsidered.” Asian Journal of Social Science 35, no. 1 (2007): 79.

[14] Qadir, “Social and Political Ideas,” 118.

[15] Dawood, “Introduction,” in The Muqaddimah, viii-ix.

[16] Hayden V. White, “Ibn Khaldûn in World Philosophy of History.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 2, no. 1 (1959): 112.

[17] Dawood, “Introduction,” in The Muqaddimah, ix.

[18] Yusuf M. Sidani. “Ibn Khaldun of North Africa: An AD 1377 Theory of Leadership.” Journal of Management History 14, no. 1 (2008): 76.

[19] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah (Unabridged), trans. Franz Rosenthal, 55, accessed October 1, 2015,  https://asadullahali.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/ibn_khaldun-al_muqaddimah.pdf.

[20] Ibn Khaldun, An Introduction to History The Muqaddimah, trans. Franz Rosenthal (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967), 11.

[21] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, 24.

[22] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, 47.

[23] McCorriston, “Pastoralism and Pilgrimage,” 616.

[24] Yves Lacoste, Ibn Khaldun: The Birth of History and The Past of the Third World (London: Verso, 1984), 101.

[25] Lacoste, Ibn Khaldun, 100.

[26] Lacoste, Ibn Khaldun, 101.

[27] Qadir, “Social and Political Ideas,” 121.

[28] Çaksu, “Ibn Khaldun and Hegel,” 75.

[29] Lacoste, Ibn Khaldun, 92.

[30] Qadir, “Social and Political Ideas,” 125.

[31] Qadir, “Social and Political Ideas,” 125.

[32] Lacoste, Ibn Khaldun, 92.

[33] Qadir, “Social and Political Ideas,” 121.

[34] Qadir, “Social and Political Ideas,” 121.

[35] Qadir, “Social and Political Ideas,” 125.

[36] Nurullah Ardiç, “Genealogy or Asabiyya? Ibn Khaldun between Arab Nationalism and the Ottoman Caliphate,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 71, no. 2 (2012): 317.

[37] Ardiç, “Genealogy or Asabiyya?,” 317.

[38] Cornell Fleischer, “Royal Authority, Dynastic Cyclism, and ‘‘Ibn Khaldunism’’ in Sixteenth-Century Ottoman Letters,” in Ibn Khaldun and Islamic Ideology, ed. Bruce B. Lawrence (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1984), 47.

[39] Fleischer, “Royal Authority,” 47.

[40] Fleischer, “Royal Authority,” 47.

[41] Ardiç, “Genealogy or Asabiyya?,” 318.

[42] Fleischer, “Royal Authority,” 48.