By Pamela Toler
If you spend any time studying history in a serious way–whether in school and/or as a dedicated history nerd–you end up with a list in your head of Great Historians of the Past: Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, the Venerable Bede, Gibbon, Macaulay, Prescott. Even after their historical works were revised or even rejected by later scholars, they remain as monuments of thought, analysis, and masterful story telling.
I had finished my graduate school coursework and was well into my dissertation before I added fourteenth century Arab historian and social observer ibn Khaldun to my personal list of history all-stars.
Ibn who? I thought you’d never ask.
Ibn-Khaldun is sometimes seen as the last great scholar of the Islamic golden age, now considered by those in the know as one of the founders of modern historiography, sociology, and economics. He was born in Tunis in 1332 to an Andalusian family of scholars and officials who had fled Spain after Seville fell to Ferdinand of Castile in 1248. ( NOT the Ferdinand of Ferdinand and Isabella. The Christian reconquest of Spain took several centuries. ) When he was seventeen, his parents and teachers died in the Black Death, as did almost half the population of Europe and Asia.
Like many others caught in the chaos that followed the Black Death, ibn Khaldun left his home in search of something: stability, a career, adventure, a life. He was well educated and had no trouble finding work in the courts of North Africa and Islamic Spain. Although he claimed that he wanted to devote his life to scholarship, he repeatedly became entangled in court intrigues thanks to either bad luck or bad judgment.
In 1375, after he failed to save a friend who was tried and executed for heresy, ibn Khaldun withdrew to the Castle of ibn Salamah, near Oran in Algeria, to immerse himself in his books and try to make sense of his experiences. During his years of retreat, he completed what would be his best-known and most original work: the Muqaddima, or Prolegomenon. Intended as the first volume of history of the Arab peoples, the Muqaddima is an introduction to the writing of history and a discussion of the nature of the state and society. In it, he explores the idea that writing history is an act of interpretation and suggests a rigorous process of fact checking as a necessary part of the work.
The most important part of the book is the Islamic equivalent of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Drawing on his personal and family experience and the history of the Arab world, ibn Khaldun analyses how civilizations breed their own decline, moving from strength to luxury to moral laxity and decay. Historian Arnold Toynbee, himself the author of a twelve-volume study of the rise and fall of civilization, described the Muqaddima as “undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet 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.”
After four calm years at the Castle of ibn Salamah, ibn Khaldun needed conversation and a research library so he could work on the main body of his history. He returned to Tunis, where he was immediately sucked into the usual morass of academic, religious and political intrigues. He escaped Tunis under the pretext of going on the hajj, only to fall into similar turbulence in Cairo. Over the course of twenty-five years, the sultan appointed him as a judge and subsequently dismissed him six times.
In 1400, ibn Khaldun was given another chance to help write history, this time as a source. The sultan of Cairo insisted that he join a delegation to Damascus to negotiate with the renowned Mongol conqueror, known in the west as Tamurlane. When the delegation received word of the rebellion back in Cairo, they returned to the west, leaving ibn Khaldun behind in the besieged city of Damascus. The historian was determined to meet with the renowned conqueror. Since the gates of the city were locked, he had himself lowered over the walls in a basket. Ibn Khaldun met with Timur several times over the course of the month, enjoying wide-ranging conversations about history, North African culture and Timur’s conquests. Ibn Khaldun recorded those conversations, as well as a first hand account of the siege of Damascus in his autobiography, now a major resource for anyone writing about Timur.
Ibn Khaldun returned in Cairo in 1401 and resumed the cycle of appointment and dismissal. He died there five years late.
A version of this post previously appeared in History in the Margins
Pamela Toler is a freelance writer with a PhD in history and a large bump of curiosity. She is particularly interested in the times and places where two cultures meet and change. She is the author of Mankind:The Story of All of Us–a companion book to the History Channel series.