A progressive exploration of the great books
The Great Books of Science
Ibn Khaldun,Tunisia. 1400
The life of Arab polymath Ibn Khaldūn or Ibn Khaldoun is very well documented. The historian, demographer, economist, philosopher, and perhaps the world’s first sociologist was born in present-day Tunisia in 1332. He is also considered the father of demography, cultural history, historiography, and modern economics. His best known work is the Muqaddimah.
Ibn Khaldun wrote an autobiography so much is known about his life and background. He was born into an upper-class Andalusian family which had emigrated to Tunisia after the fall of Seville to Reconquista forces around the middle of the 13th century.
Under the Tunisian Hafsid dynasty some of his family held political office which enabled Ibn Khaldun to study with the best North African teachers of the time. He received a classical Arabic education, studying the Qur'an and Arabic linguistics. The mystic, mathematician and philosopher Al-Abili introduced him to mathematics, logic and philosophy.
After his parents died of plague when he was just 17 Ibn Khaldūn entered the world of dangerous world of Arab politics. He quickly won minor office, but after scheming against an opponent the 25-year old found himself in prison. A year later his rival died and the Ibn Khaldūn again found himself back on the fast track to high office. But shifting alliances and power struggles saw the young scholar move from Tunis to Fez to Granada in modern day Spain as both a diplomat and exile
Back in Africa, the Hafsid sultan of Bougie, (who had been his companion in prison) made Ibn Khaldūn his prime minister. Ibn Khaldūn's political skills, and his good relationship with the wild Berber tribes, made him a valuable political ally, but the 43 year old was already growing tired of court intrigues. In 1375, while on a diplomatic mission to a Berber tribe he sought refuge with them and lived there for over three years to write the Muqaddimah, his introduction to his planned history of the world.
But without the necessary texts to complete his history, Ibn Khaldūn returned to his native Tunis, where he devoted himself full time to his studies and completed his history of the world.
Ibn Khaldun eventually found himself in Egypt ostensibly to study but his reputation preceded him and he was again drawn into politics and was made professor and a grand judge. Personal tragedy struck a year into his new job when his wife and children drowned in a shipping accident near Alexandria.
After a haj to Mecca Ibn Khaldūn returned to Cairo completed his autobiography and his history of the world and returned to his position as teacher and judge. He died on 17 March 1406.
Ibn Khaldūn has left behind few works other than his history of the world, "Book of Evidence, Record of Beginnings and Events from the Days of the Arabs, Persians and Berbers and their Powerful Contemporaries." It is divided into seven books, the first of which, the Muqaddimah. Books two to five cover the history of mankind up to the time of Ibn Khaldūn. Books six and seven cover the history of the Berber peoples and of the Maghreb.
Within the Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldūn developed the concept of "town" versus "desert," as well as the idea of a "generation.” The Muqaddimah is essentially a sociological work; that includes politics, urban life, and economics. Ibn Khaldun's central concept is that of “asabiyah,” or "social cohesion", "group solidarity", "blood ties," or "tribalism." Ibn Khaldun describes how this solidarity arises spontaneously in tribes and is then intensified and enlarged by a religious ideology in larger societies. He also describes how this system can be superseded by a system or empire that has stronger social ties such as the ancient Berber tribes who were absorbed into the Muslim empire.
Famously Ibn Khaldūn's introduced the notion that when a society becomes a great civilization it is inevitability followed by a period of decay. He details the process of collapse, conquest by barbarians who in turn assimilate the finer cultural aspects of the conquered civilization. The barbarian society eventually becomes a civilized society. This process is them repeated.
Interestingly, Ibn Khaldun describes the value of work, the value added nature of labour and its impact on the economy which is a precursor of Marxism. He is also the first writer to explicitly express the importance of profits versus sustenance and the value of a political economy.