ARAB CULTURE: Ibn Khaldun



In view of our desperate need to know more about the Arab word, I am happy to post this bio by John Gehl of the Arab scholar and statesman Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), who is celebrated as a pioneer in the philosophy of history. He was one of many Muslim historians who wrote detailed histories of the world, attempting to synthesize the knowledge and lore of the ancient civilizations of Persia, Byzantium, and the Near East.  Scornful of other historians' blind trust in tradition, Ibn Khaldun took pains to explain the phenomena that he recorded. He believed that dynasties have a natural lifetime just like individuals, because they draw their strength from a sentiment he called "group solidarity," which is difficult to maintain for more than three forty-year generations. He noted that a proper understanding of events can be achieved only by comprehending human society in its different manifestations, distinguishing the nomadic from the sedentary, and studying the effects of geography and climate on them.

His masterful history of the world, The Book of Lessons and Archive of Early and Subsequent History,
which contains his theories of history and society, was called by English historian Arnold Toynbee "the most comprehensive and illuminating analysis of how human affairs work that has been made anywhere." Because he took a scientific view of the rise and decay of human societies, arguing that such changes followed empirically verifiable laws, his analyses are not without relevance to modern problems. His scholarly output encompassed today's disciplines of history, sociology, anthropology, folklore, geography, linguistics, economics and political science.

Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis to a family with roots in the aristocracy of Seville, Spain. In 1352 he entered the service of the Sultan of Fez, but in 1356 he was imprisoned for two years under suspicion of political disloyalty. After spending some years in Granada, Spain, he returned to Africa and entered the service of the Sultan of Tiemcen. After various vicissitudes, including further imprisonment and a period of residence in a monastery, he obtained employment with the Sultan of Tunis. After visiting Mecca in 1384, he was appointed grand qadi in Cairo, Egypt, an office from which he was removed and reinstalled no fewer than five times. He died in Cairo in 1406.

As an example of his writing, we include the following quotation on economics (anticipating the Laffer curve), taken from the Wikepedia Web site: "In the early stages of the state, taxes are light in their incidence, but fetch in a large revenue...As time passes and kings succeed each other, they lose their tribal habits in favor of more civilized ones. Their needs and exigencies grow...owing to the luxury in which they have been brought up. Hence they impose fresh taxes on their subjects...[and] sharply raise the rate of old taxes to increase their yield...But the effects on business of this rise in taxation make themselves felt. For business men are soon discouraged by the comparison of their profits with the burden of their taxes...Consequently production falls off, and with it the yield of taxation."

RH: Was this written by President Bush? Perhaps Ed Jajko and WAIS historians have some comments.

A long quotation by the medieval Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun sounded so modern that I asked: Was this written by President Bush?

John Heelan pocks up the theme: Although not a historian but having a profound interest in Al Andalus, I can confirm the importance of Ibn Khaldun's history as a lever to aid the understanding of Moorish Spain.  Much of his societal theory was derived from observing the successive invasions by the Almohadas and the Almoravides, and especially the rise and fall of the latter empire. Ibn Khaldun's words on why Berbers were formidable fighters might give President Bush pause for thought when facing Islamic backlash in Iraq and Islamic defense of Iran.

"Vast and powerful empires are founded on a religion.  This is because dominion can only be secured by victory, and victory goes to the side which shows most solidarity and unity of purpose.  Now men's hearts are united and co-ordinated, with the help of God, by participation in a common religion... Religious fervour can efface the competitiveness and envy felt by members of the group towards each other, and turn their faces towards the truth.   When once their eyes have been fixed on the truth, nothing can stand in their way, for their outlook is the same and the object they desire is common to all and is one for which they are prepared to die..."  [quoted in Moorish Spain
by Richard Fletcher (1992) p.106].

Given the growth of Christian religious fundamentalism in the US, perhaps a true "Crusade" will be Bush's next ploy?
Ibn Khaldun said of governments "They impose fresh taxes on their subjects...[and] sharply raise the rate of old taxes to increase their yield...But the effects on business of this rise in taxation make themselves felt. For business men are soon discouraged by the comparison of their profits with the burden of their taxes. Consequently production falls off, and with it the yield of taxation."  George Sassoon says: I heard once that the economic decline of Spain dated to the time when a 10% tax was levied every time that goods changed hands, not just on the final sale to the consumer, like today's value added tax (VAT).  Maybe a WAIS historian would care to elaborate on this.  

RH: Is this anti-VATism? Informed comments on this aspect of Spanish economic history would be welcome.


Ronald Hilton 2004

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last updated: February 27, 2005