Ibn Khaldun

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Ibn Khaldun (1332 - 1406) was an Arab writer from North Africa noted for his philosophy of history. His works were rediscovered in the 19th century and translated into western languages.

Ibn Khaldun laid down the principles for the historical method in his book Muqaddimah [1]. In short, he warns about the many ways that can induce historians into errors. He shared the same methods as modern historians, but also the idea of the past as strange and in need of interpretation. In respect to universal historiography he was the first to lay the foundation of the pragmatic method and make social evolution the object of historical research. Humphrey (1985) explains that Ibn Khaldun was also the first to argue that history was a true science based on philosophical principles As a historian, Ibn Khaldun said, must not trust plain historical information, as it is transmitted, but must also know clearly `the principles resulting from custom, the fundamental facts of politics, the nature of civilisation' and the `the conditions governing human social organisation'; and finally he must `evaluate remote or ancient material through comparison with near or contemporary material.'

The originality of Ibn Khaldun was to see that the cultural difference of another age must govern the evaluation of relevant historical material, to distinguish the principles according to which it might be possible to attempt the evaluation, and lastly, to feel the need for experience, in addition to rational principles, in order to assess a culture of the past. For all of Ibn Khaldun's ability to be on the winning side in the many political vicissitudes that came his way, he strikes the reader as scrupulously honest in dealing with the past. History, according to him, involves speculation and an attempt to get at the truth, `subtle’ explanation of the causes and origins of existing things, and a deep knowledge of the how and why of events. Historical knowledge, thus, is not the same as factual data about the past, but consists `of the principles of human society' which are elicited from these data in a complex process of induction and deduction.’ Mere piling up of facts is not the object of historical study if these facts cannot be determined correctly, there is no basis for historical knowledge in the true sense. And, following a long held Muslim tradition, and along with most Muslim historians, Ibn Khaldun agreed that facts depended on the authorities who had transmitted stories about the past, and that these transmitters should be men widely recognized for their erudition and probity.

Ibn Khaldun advises that historians rely on the past for understanding the present, that they use their own experience to understand the underlying conditions of their society and the principles governing them. In studying the past, they must discover the underlying conditions of those times and decide whether and how far the apparent principles of their own age are applicable. The understanding of the past, thus, becoming the tool by which to evaluate the present. Ultimately, once they fully understand the laws of human society, they can apply them directly to any new body of historical information they confront, which exactly fits in with the opening statement made at the start of the essay by De Somogyi (1958)

See also



  • De Somogyi, J. (1958), ‘The Development of Arab Historiography, in The Journal of Semitic Studies, Vol 3).
  • Fischel, Walter J. Ibn Khaldun in Egypt: His public functions and his historical research (1382-1406) A study in Islamic Historiography, 1967.
  • Humphreys, R.S., (1985), "Muslim Historiography," in Dictionary of the Middle Ages, vol 6, pp 250-5.
  • Mahdi, Muhsin. Ibn Khaldun’s philosophy of History: A study in the philosophic foundation of the science of culture 1957.
  • Lacoste, Yves, Ibn Khaldun: The birth of history and the past of the third world. Tr. David Macy. Verso, London, 1984.
  • Muhammad Hozien. Ibn Khaldun: His Life and Work, 1332 - 1406 / 732 - 808 (2001) online edition