Ibn Khaldun belonged to an aristocratic family from Seville, Spain but he was born in 1332 in modern-day Tunisia. In 1362, at the age of 30, he moved back to Spain and entered into the service of the Sultan of Granada where he served as Secretary of State and an Ambassador to the court of Pedro the King of Castile. Pedro received him with great honor and offered to restore his family’s properties in Seville if he chose to stay.
Following political upheavals in Spain, Ibn Khaldun moved back to North Africa and devoted himself to writing. In 1377, he finished Muqadimah, his introduction to his Book of History. The renowned British historian Arnold J. Toynbee called Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, the prologue to History of the World, “undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place… the most comprehensive and illuminating analysis of how human affairs work that has been made anywhere.”
Ibn Khaldun was the first scholar to draw the distinction between agrarian and pastoral societies. He pointed out how agrarian societies developed complex social organizations and economies, rooted in urban settlements and supported by agricultural surplus, as opposed to pastoral societies, where a nomadic existence does not allow for a more complex social order. According to Khaldun, nomadic tribes’ social cohesion (assabiya) is based more on family and tribal affinity than on a complex social order, more prevalent in cities and urban settlements.
In this prologue, Khaldun presents his principles of writing history. He was the first historian who said that a historian’s job is not to collect dates and record events but also explore the social and economic causes that precipitated an event. As a result, Khaldun did not depict the rise and fall of a dynasty simply on the personal attributes of a given ruler. He searched for causes of decline in social and economic spheres, such as disruption of social order, or irrational taxation of population.
For instance, Khaldun postulated that high taxation levels, often used to support a corpulent royalty and a professional army, could negatively impact the health of an economy. He pointed out that increasing taxes beyond a certain point could become counter-productive and ultimately yield less revenue to the coffers of the State. Unbeknownst to many, Khaldun’s theory on higher taxes has become a favorite argument of many fiscal conservatives in the United States. Supposedly American economist Arthur Laffer sketched out this taxation concept, now known as the Laffer Curve, for Nixon administration officials Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in 1974 in order to illustrate the relationship between high taxes and a lower yield in revenues.
Another of the theories Khaldūn put forward was the cycle of dynastic rise and fall. According to him, after an empire reaches a high point in power, prestige, and culture, it slowly begins to decline. This leaves it vulnerable to the next cohesive group of barbarians who could conquer the weakened empire. However, once the barbarians solidify their control over the conquered society, they become attracted to its more refined aspects, such as literacy and arts, and either assimilate into it or appropriate such cultural practices. Eventually the former barbarians will peak, and then weaken, and will be conquered by a new set of barbarians, who will repeat the process. Some contemporary readers of Khaldun have read this as an early business cycle theory, though set in the historical circumstances of the mature Islamic empire.
Later in his life Ibn Khaldun moved to Cairo where he was offered the position of Chief Judge (Qadi) and a professorship of Jurisprudence. In 1384, a tragedy of immense proportion struck Ibn Khaldun, he lost his entire family and his writings and book collection when the ship carrying them wrecked in the Mediterranean near Alexandria. He died in 1406, at the old age of 74, as a broken man and was buried in Cairo, Egypt.
On BBC Radio 4’s Melvyn Bragg discusses Ibn Kahldun’s work and life with guests Robert Hoyland, Robert Irwin and Hugh Kennedy. Listen to the pod cast here: