Historical Figures

Ibn Khaldun

In the fourteenth century, the Arab civilization entered a period of recession and decline. From east to west its former glory fades. In Al-Andalus, the Reconquest was slowly but inexorably recovering the most important cities in the south of the Peninsula and after the Almohad defeat in Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), the Christian advance accelerated. A century later, only the Nasrid kingdom of Granada enjoyed a certain prestige.

Ibn Khaldun was born on May 27, 1332 in Tunis. The data we have about his life we ​​owe to the historian himself who wrote his autobiography, something quite unusual for that time and even more exceptional in the Arab world. We know that he came from an old Arab family from Hadramawt, linked to the political struggles of the Easterners, and that he emigrated to the West to settle in Al-Andalus (first in Carmona and then in Seville). The Christian push forced the Banu Khaldun family to cross the strait again and, after spending time in Ceuta, they finally settled in Tunisia, where Ibn Khaldun was born.

The first years of his life were spent in Tunisia where he received an education befitting his status. Along with the studies of the Koran and the Hadith (Arabic language and jurisprudence), he studied philosophy and social sciences. In 1349 his parents and his teachers died from the plague epidemic that hit the city. After this event, a new stage in the life of Ibn Khaldun began, which led him to work in the service of the most influential sultans in North Africa. During these years, his stay in Fez stands out, in the court of Abu Iman, where he resumed the study of traditional sciences and ventured into the world of pure sciences (mathematics and astronomy).

In 1362 he was in Granada at the service of the Nasrid king Muhammad V. There he held different positions, among which the diplomatic mission to the court of the Castilian king Pedro I stands out (located in that time in Seville) to discuss the conditions of the truce reached between the two kingdoms. The Castilian monarch, impressed by Ibn Khaldun's personality, invited him to join his "side", an invitation he rejected. One of the features of the life of the Arab historian was his continuous participation in different conspiracies and palace intrigues, which meant that he changed his lord on numerous occasions and was dismissed and even imprisoned at some point.

In 1375 he decided to retire to the fortress of Beni Salama. The four years that he was voluntarily confined there he dedicated to the elaboration of what will be his great historical work: Al-Muqaddima (The Prolegomena ). In 1379 he left his seclusion and went again to Tunis where he began to spread his work. Just three years later he set sail for Alexandria. Mamluk-ruled Egypt welcomed him enthusiastically and named him a qadi. The last episode of his political life was the embassy he led to meet Tamerlane in Damascus, a Tatar chief whose army was besieging the city and seeking to conquer the Muslim world. He died on March 17, 1406.

Ibn Khaldun was the author of numerous works on law, literature, religion, and philosophy, the vast majority of which are not has come down to us. His recognition, however, is due less to the contributions made in these matters than to his work as a historian. Although in this field he does not have an abundant production, the few works he wrote are of great importance. Among his historical works, his autobiography stands out (not because of its quality, but because it is quite unusual). In it he collects his experiences although, in accordance with the habits of his time, he only focuses his attention on the facts and does not express his emotions or collect any psychological element.

Your Universal Story (Kitab al-Ibar), also known as History of the Berbers , relates in seven volumes the Arab-Islamic history from the creation of the world to the fourteenth century. Of the seven volumes, only the first enjoys special recognition. This is the Introduction to Universal History (or The Prolegomena ). Such has been the impact of this volume that for two centuries it has been published separately and as an independent work, undoubtedly because it is in it that Ibn Khaldun condenses all of his thought. He manages to capture the deep feeling of historical events and abstract the causes that motivate them, thus anticipating the European nineteenth-century historiography.

The Prolegomena They can be defined as an introduction to the historian's work or as a synthetic encyclopedia of the methodological and cultural knowledge necessary to make a history based on scientific criteria. Its author makes a complex analysis of society, without omitting any detail. It seeks to understand the fundamentals of the social behavior of human beings, the basic processes of historical development and the motivations of people. In other words, we are before a compendium of the history of man.

The work is divided into six chapters. The first deals with society, with the physical world where groups and communities live and how that environment influences them. The second studies rural or primitive societies. The third analyzes the forms adopted by states and governments, that is, the institutions that constitute human communities. The fourth delves into urban and more evolved societies. The fifth delves into the ways of life of humanity. And in the last one he suggests the means to transmit the arts and culture.

Ibn Khaldun's universal conception of knowledge makes him delve into various disciplines, of which sociology and economics play a very prominent role. Both matters are treated extensively in Al-Muqaddima , and from them he draws conclusions similar to those that the philosophers of the Enlightenment and even the Marxists would enunciate centuries later.

By way of summary, suffice it to say that, in the social sphere, Ibn Jaldun postulates that man cannot live in isolation, but rather needs to do so in society, forced by the natural conditions that surround him:societies, structured in families or clans, are organized by a group spirit and are directed by the most powerful clan, whose power, although respected, can be achieved by any of the others. Religion is not a determining factor for these groups, who can be governed by civil norms, although society will be all the more perfect the more influenced it is by religion. The last stage of human organization is made up of sedentary societies that, as they increase in number, lose group identity and become weaker, remaining at the mercy of the invasion of other groups guided by a tribal or despotic chief, which begins again the cycle. Along with the socio-political component, he enunciates in the economic field theories about the specialization of society, the accumulation of wealth and economic crises.

Ibn Khaldun proposes a theory of history based on empiricist and positivist approaches. Given the complexity of his thought, we will limit ourselves to summarizing his fundamental principles based on the theses of Miguel Cruz Hernández. Ibn Khaldun assumes that history must be based on the analysis of concrete facts that always have a causal explanation. We must bear in mind the psychological characteristics of human groups, the economic and social characteristics and the political events that condition the historical process. The explanation of historical facts should be sought, whenever possible, in natural causes. Finally, the purpose of history is sociological because it aims to study the social situation of man and report on the phenomena that affect it. All of which means that the historical unit is not formed by individuals or states, but by homogeneous social groups. The specific individuals who are the protagonists of the story are not individual conductors of the mass but a product generated by these groups.