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Ibn Khaldun : Who was he ?

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According to Ibn Arabshah, Ibn Khaldun, the illustrious scholar and Timur, the founder of the Timurid empire met in 1401 AD at Damascus. There are different versions of this meeting but that they met has been established as a fact through different historical accounts. The most reliable account of this meeting is from Ibn Khaldun himself. When they met, Ibn Khaldun explained some of the theories of his book Muqaddimah. There is an anecdote which says that Timur enquired from Ibn Khaldun about the fate of political dynasties. Khaldun’s opinion was that the glory of a political dynasty usually started fading from the fourth generation, unless diligent efforts were made by those concerned to prevent it. It definitely proved correct in the case of Mongols.

Who was Ibn Khaldun? We know a lot about him from his autobiography. In fact, Ibn Khaldun’s description of his own life is one of the most detailed in Medieval Muslim literature. He was born on May 27, 1332 in Tunis and died in 1406. His ancestors belonged to an ancient Arab tribe and migrated to Spain in the early decades of the 8th century. There are some accounts that doubt his Arab lineage and claim that it was to ‘get ahead’ in society. By the time of Ibn Khaldun, the days of Arab predominance in Spain and North Africa were long over and hence, this account can be viewed with scepticism as there was no influence to be gained through claims of an Arab ancestry. Ibn Khaldun belonged to an upper class, aristocratic family who had significant political and intellectual influence in Seville. He had the benefit of having access to the finest education from an early age. Unfortunately, at the age of 17, he lost both his parents to the Black Death, an epidemic that hit Tunis in 1348-49.

He strived for a political career which required aligning and re-aligning with regimes of that time. Since this was a time of political upheaval and regimes were short-lived, he had to do this quite often. His career took him from the chancellery of the Tunisian ruler Ibn Tafrakin to Fez, where over a period of time, he got a ministerial position. He also spent some time in Granada but realised that the environment was not ideal for him and the ruler adopted a cold attitude towards him.

Ibn Khaldun found himself in a a time of confused and short lived dynasties. What made him different from his contemporaries was that even though he was part of this mayhem, he was able to observe all this as a social scientist and thus was able to write a book like the Muqaddimah. He lived in the Western Algerian town of Qalat ibn Salama for a period of three years, where devoid of any public duties, he worked on his book. In 1378, he returned to Tunis to complete his book as he lacked some texts in Qalat ibn Salama. During the later part of his life, he had tired of politics and of continuously shifting loyalties.

In 1382, he travelled to the port of Alexandria and later moved to Cairo. He never returned to Tunis. Under the Mamluks, Egypt was enjoying a period of stability and prosperity. He must have hoped to live in peace at Cairo. He was invited to Al Azhar for a lecture on Maliki jurisprudence and the Muqaddimah. He was an eloquent speaker and prominent scholars of Egypt were in attendance. He was introduced to the Mamluk Sultan al Sahib Burquq. He enjoyed the Sultan’s patronage and after two years in 1384, was appointed the Chief justice of the Maliki school, one of the highest posts in the state. He suffered personal tragedy when a ship carrying his wife and children sunk off the coast of Alexandria. After this , he wished to renounce public life and resigned in 1384. He performed Hajj in 1387. After this, he spent his time in academic pursuits till his death.

His contribution in other fields like Sociology, Philosophy and Economics are also noteworthy. The concept of Asabiyya or social bonding is his thought. Some of his original thoughts on the economy were, the importance of consumption in keeping the economy alive, labour theory of value and that prices depended on supply and demand. The Laffer Curve of taxation named after the economist, Arthur Laffer was inspired by Ibn Khaldun’s work who had said “At the beginning of a dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments.” In addition to this, he was a master of the religious sciences, jurisprudence and theology.

He was one of the finest scholars of his time. It is heartening to note that there is increased recognition for him in recent years. Fun Fact : In 2011, Ibn Khaldun’s birthday was recognised by a Google Doodle.


  1. https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/philosophy/ibn-khaldun-the-man-who-invented-modern-history
  2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/06/01/trump-is-giving-arthur-laffer-presidential-medal-freedom-economists-arent-laughing/
  3. https://fee.org/articles/the-laffer-curve-was-discovered-by-medieval-islamic-philosopher/
  4. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ibn-Khaldun/The-Muqaddimah-Ibn-Khalduns-philosophy-of-history
  5. The Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun , Translated from the Arabic by Franz Rosenthal (Princeton Classics)

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