Ibn Khaldun's methodology and fundamental concepts

For Ibn Khaldun, history should serve, and in reality, serves some purpose. Otherwise, it will be pointless. According to him, history deals with, savagery and sociability, why some groups gain an upper hand over the others, the reasons for increase and decrease in group feeling....

Ibn Khaldun's methodology and fundamental concepts

Edip Ibrahim - World Bulletin 

Ibn Khaldun relies on laws so much, and to him, these laws hold true for all the societies sharing the same features. It does not matter whether these societies are located in different geographies or lived in different time. Ibn Khaldun knows that the laws he determined for Arab bedouins apply, as well as, to Berbers, Turkomen, and Kurds.[1] He argues that these laws are not biologically constructed, but determined by social cohesion, lifestyle, wealth and occupation.[2] C. Isaawi claims that “when discussing the national characteristics of such peoples as the Arabs or Jews, he is very careful to stress that such features as, for example, the insubordination of the Arab bedouin or the cunning of the Jew are to be explained not by their racial origins but by their mode of life and their past history”[3] I do not agree with Isaawi in this statement. We very well know that Ibn Khaldun weighs greater importance to the other social factors, and for him the physical conditions are of great significance in determining the characteristics of nations and races. Nonetheless, in Muqaddimah, he clearly talks about the essences of the races. For instance when he mentions the people ofSudan, describes them as the wild animals who cannot speak. In Ibn Khaldunian parlance, essence of nations and races can be modified by environmental factors, but this does not mean that there is no essence. To put it correctly, there are essences/cores of nations and races which are open to external impact.

N. Schmidt points out that “he is confident that there is an intelligible sequence, a causal connection, an ascertainable order of development, a course of human events following observable tendencies, in accordance with definite laws, he also believes that in proportion as history becomes what in its nature it is, it will be able to predict the future”[4]. To me, it is very interesting to claim that, by using history, stretching the lines from past to the future, we can predict the future; since such kind of a ‘big’ claim can be made, only if is he managed to cover a sufficient amount of history from the manuscripts. And also such a claim entails a mind which can evaluate all these sources in a critical and coherent manner within the confines of a theory. However, while reading the Muqaddimah, the writer paid the price of coming up with such a theory. He spent necessary amount of mental and physical study.

He is the first scholar coming up with this kind of causal theory before his successors in Western world who appeared in the scene after several centuries. Nathaniel Schmidtt, exhibits this originality with these words: “… long before Montesqieu, he clearly discovered and laid down the law of causality in its widest application to human society; that he observed the similarity of all historic processes (‘the past and the present are as much alike as two drops of water”), and explained it by the tendency to imitation and adaptation; and that he regarded science, art, and religion as products of social action.”[5] In the Muqaddimah, as well, we see this kind of attitude to past events very overtly. Ibn Khaldun, ostensibly puts forward that events take place in line with an intelligible causal chain. In the foreword of Muqaddimah, it is very obvious: “The inner meaning of history, on the other hand, involves speculation and an attempt to get at the truth, subtle explanation of the causes and origins of existing things, and deep knowledge of the how and why of events.”[6] The following part is more interesting. He continues that “([h]istory,) therefore, is firmly rooted in philosophy. It deserves to be accounted a branch of philosophy”[7]. It is interesting, because he does not talk about historical philosophy, or any other branch of science; but a history as sub-field of philosophy. This allocation implies a lot, for me, about the scientific taxonomy of fourteenth century.

In Ibn Khaldunian paradigm, history is an independent field which necessitates some prerequisite attitudes in handling with the past. Some methodological tenets are of great importance for Ibn Khaldun. It is must, for a candidate of historian, “to know the principles of politics, the (true) nature of existing things and the differences among nations, places, and periods with regard to ways of life, character qualities, customs, sects, schools, and everything else”[8]. And also for him, historian should be able to compare and contrast the events and characteristic of societies, finding out the similarities and differences between the nations and races, and know “the circumstances and history of the persons who supported them [different dynasties and religious groups]”[9].

For Ibn Khaldun, history should serve, and in reality, serves some purpose. Otherwise, it will be pointless. According to him, history deals with, savagery and sociability, why some groups gain an upper hand over the others, the reasons for increase and decrease in group feeling. And dealing with crafts and institutions, and telling the stories of royal authority are all within the scope of the science of history. In this respect, Ibn Khaldun appreciates the dynasties, the higher echelons in the society, compared to the ‘losers’ of the society.[10] For instance, some viziers are also to be included in the scope of history, since they fulfill the requirements for entering into picture as a member of royal authority[11]. In this topic, he argues that “[h]istorical interest now was concentrated on the rulers themselves and on the mutual relationships of the various dynasties in respect to power and predominance”[12]. However, he keeps wazirs as exception since they are also within the state apparatus. In his words,

“An exception are the wazirs who were very influential and whose historical importance overshadowed that of the rulers. Such wazirs as, for instance, al-Hajjaj, the Banu Muhallleb, the Barmecides, the Banu Sahl b. Nawbakht, Kafur al-Ikhshidi, Ibn Abi ‘Amir, and others should be mentioned. There is no objection to dealing with their lives or referring to their conditions for an importance they rank with the rulers.”[13]

So the men who, in a way, are attached to the royal authority, are also the subjects of history, as well as the rulers of dynasties.

Ibn Khaldun, also, places a great emphasis on the circumstances of nations and groups and also the environmental factors surrounding societies. According to him, historian should have a sense of these circumstances in order to base the histories of societies a plausible platform, so that these histories are understood by people easily. So it is a requirement for an historian to have good command of geography and general conditions of the region that he has studied. He puts forward that “[d]iscussion of the general conditions of regions, races, and periods constitutes the historian’s foundation. Most of his problems rest upon that foundation, and his historical information derives clarity from it”[14]

In the Muqaddimah, it is very common that, frequently, the author makes analysis of context. He is very much aware of the difference between text and the context, and he knows how far the context has an impact on the text. For instance, while he critiques Ibn Rushd, he founds Ibn Rushd onto his time and space, and talks about the political conditions as the main factor spurring him to read events in a particular manner. According to Ibn Khaldun, “[h]e [Ibn Rushd] mentioned prestige in the Rhetoric, one of the abridgements of the books of the first science. ‘Prestige,’ he states, “belongs to people who are ancient settlers in a town.” He labels this kind of explanation as faulty and far from being truth. And he explains this alleged faulty arguing that “Averroes [Ibn Rushd] grew up in a generation (group) and a place where people had no experience of group feeling and were not familiar with the conditions governing it. Therefore, (Averroes) [Ibn Rushd] did not progress beyond his well-known (definition of) ‘house’ and prestige as something depending merely on the number of one’s ancestors, and did not refer to the reality of group feeling and its influence among men.”[15] From this excerpt, we can easily understand that, he, very cleverly approaches to arguments ideas knowing that they should be based on their contexts. This entails a coherent grand methodology, especially when we consider the time of Ibn Khaldun when science is not as available and accessible as modern times, especially, today.

Just as he scrutinizes the account of one scholar meticulously, he places high emphasis on comparing the authors that he quoted in his books “in order to establish the truth of every fact”[16].

As a founder of history as a science, he knows how he should approach the records, evident very well. We know that a historian has to have a good command of logic, on the grounds that historian is in pursuit of truth. Attaining truth entails a critical mind having the ability of differentiating between accurate and inaccurate evident. This also requires being able to compare the similar and different material related to the same phenomenon, and after cross-checks finding out the truth which is covered by dusts. In order to attain truth, he states, one must know the circle of possibility [daire-i mumkinat]. He puts forward that;

“… to establish the truth and soundness of information about factual happenings, a requirement to consider is the conformity (or lack of conformity of the reported information with the general conditions). Therefore, it is necessary to investigate whether it is possible that the (reported facts) could have happened. This is more important than, and has priority over, personality criticism. For the correct notion about something that ought to be can be derived only from (personality criticism), while the correct notion about something that was can be derived from (personality criticism) and external (evidence) by (checking) the conformity (of the historical report with general conditions).[17]

In this excerpt, we see that he has a very sharp and powerful logical background in order to asses the reliability of the reported facts.

However, his circle of possibility is not so much wide, therefore, he can exclude some facts, by rational considerations, which are so normal for us. For example, he talks about a report of adultery by Tabari. The event takes place in this way: “It is the story of al-‘Abbasah, ar-Rashid’s sister, and Ja’fer b. Yahya b. Khalid, his client. Ar-Rashid is said to have worried about where to place them when he was drinking wine with them. He wanted to receive them together in his company. Therefore, he permitted them to conclude a marriage that was not consummated. Al-Abbasah then tricked in her desire to be alone with him, for she had fallen in love with him. Ja’far finally had intercourse with her – it is assumed, when he was drunk – and she became pregnant. The story was reported to ar-Rashid who flew into a rage.” Ibn Khaldun, then, criticizes this account very harshly, by arguing that this fictitious story is irreconcilable with the noble pedigree, religiousness, and the exalted rank of Abbasah. She was of the lineage of the uncle of the Prophet Muhammed, al-‘Abbas. Then, also, for him, it is impossible that the caliph Rashid, drink alcohol, since he was a very pious ruler who cannot commit such a sin. To my mind, it is not that easy to understand why genius Ibn Khaldun makes like these statements. It is impossible that he was not aware of the story of the prophet Joseph. In the Quran, when the wife of the wazir called him the have intercourse, Joseph, says that, “May Allah protect me from this!”[18] And in another verse, he says that “[y]et I am not holding my soul to be immune from sin, for the soul incites to evil…”[19] Even though he is aware of this event as a man who memorized all of the Quran at a very young age, it is very bizarre that he cannot think of such an adultery.

He, also, comes up with criticism to the erstwhile historians, since they did not regard logical-rational methods, and accepted all the information transmitted to them, in a way. For instance, he accused them for including the stories to the history which involves some superhuman creatures which are not available in real world. He criticizes Mas’udi directly in this subject, because he tells the story of Alexander who cannot build Alexandriabecause of sea monsters. In the account of Masudi, “[h]e [Alexander] took a wooden container in which a glass box was inserted, and dived in it to the bottom of the sea. There he drew pictures of the devilish monsters he was. He then had metal effigies of these animals made and set them up opposite the place where building was going on. When the monsters came out and saw the effigies, they fled. Alexander was thus able to complete the building of Alexandria”.[20] Ibn Khaldun, criticizes this account, holding that these are absurd, they are impossible to happen in our world. And also, “rulers would not take such a risk”[21]. And also, he gets further and talks about the invisibility of the forms jinns.

All in all, methodologically, Ibn Khaldun, sticks to the rational tenets to reach meaningful truths. In the next section, I will try to explain the tension between Ibn Khaldun as rational scientist, and Ibn Khaldun as a pious Muslim, a Maliqi qadi.


[1] Issawi, C., An Arab Philosophy of History, London: London W. Press, 1950 p. 8

[2] Ibid, p. 9

[3] Ibid, p. 9

[4] Schmidt, N., Ibn Khaldun, Historian, Sociologist And Philosopher, New York: Ams Press, 1967, p. 20

[5] Schmidt, N., Ibn Khaldun, Historian, Sociologist And Philosopher, New York: Ams Press, 1967, p. 6

[6] Ibn Khaldun, trans. by Rosenthal F., The Muqaddimah, 2nd edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 6

[7] Ibn Khaldun, trans. by Rosenthal F., The Muqaddimah, 2nd edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 6

[8] Ibid, p. 56

[9] Ibn Khaldun, trans. by Rosenthal F., The Muqaddimah, 2nd edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 56

[10] Ibid, p. 71

[11] This use, ‘royal authority’ is preferred by F. Rosenthal in his translation of Muaqaddimah, for the Arabic word dawlah, which is translated as “state” some other scholars. In general I have preferred to harness “state” as more correct translation.

[12] Ibid, p. 63

[13] Ibid, p. 63

[14] Ibn Khaldun, trans. by Rosenthal F., The Muqaddimah, 2nd edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 63

[15] Ibn Khaldun, trans. by Rosenthal F., The Muqaddimah, 2nd edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 276

[16] Issawi, C., An Arab Philosophy of History, London: London W. Press, 1950 p. 118

[17] Ibn Khaldun, trans. by Rosenthal F., The Muqaddimah, 2nd edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 76

[18] Maududi, S. A. A., The Holy Quran, 3rd edition,Lahore: Islamic Publications, 12/23

[19] Maududi, S. A. A., The Holy Quran, 3rd edition,Lahore: Islamic Publications, 12/53

[20] Ibn Khaldun, trans. by Rosenthal F., The Muqaddimah, 2nd edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 73

[21] Ibid, p. 73

Last Mod: 22 Kasım 2013, 17:13
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