The most remarkable figure in medieval historiography was Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun, known to us modernly simply as Ibn Khaldun. He was an urbane and well-traveled figure, whose life experiences taught him intimate lessons on both rulers and ruled. He was born in Tunis, North Africa, in 1332 and received the best education of his day; his absorption of knowledge was made easier, he tells us, by his zealous devotion to travel and study.
The Black Plague that was then sweeping the Mediterranean region orphaned him, but his abilities brought him to the attention of local notables, and by his mid-twenties, he had served as secretary to the sultans at Tunis and Fez.
A brief period of incarceration confirmed his status as a man of importance; in those turbulent times, prison was practically a rite of initiation for the corridors of power. By 1370 we find him shuttling from one North African potentate to another, where presumably he was able to exercise his formidable diplomatic skills. He removed himself from public life in 1377 to begin work on his masterpiece, which has come down to us with the title of Muqaddama (مقدّمة), or “Introduction.”
The title is misleading; it was meant to be an “introduction” to a world history proper, but it actually is a self-contained work laying out an exhaustively detailed philosophy of history. It is the crowning achievement of medieval historical works, and an incredible performance for one mind. Arnold Toynbee rated it “undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any time or place.” In its vision and execution, the work is unsurpassed for its time.
His conception of history was broad-minded:
History has for its true object to permit us to understand the social state of man; to reveal to us the phenomena that naturally accompany primitive life, and then the refinement of manners…the diverse occupations, professions, sciences, and arts; and lastly, all the changes that the nature of things can effect in the nature of society.
Unlike his contemporaries, he sought natural and scientific explanations for events, rather than the intercession of divine favor or the operation of chance. Here is the world’s first scientific historian. Empires are like organisms, and their life trajectories can be plotted like points on a bell curve from their beginnings to their deaths. He begins with the forces that shape man and his environment: climate and geography.
Climate is an overwhelming influence. The cold north begets a serious temperament, discipline, and light complexions; the hotter climates produce a more pleasure-loving specimen of humanity, with a softer deportment. Food also matters. The light diets of the desert peoples promote quickness of mind, and make them ideally suited for commercial activity and scientific inquiry. Yet despite these climate and diet factors, no one people can be said to be “superior” to another; climate and geography can change, and peoples can migrate from one place to another. National character turns out to be more malleable than we might believe.
Societies may be divided broadly into two classes: nomadic and sedentary. Nomads preserve the “traditional” masculine virtues of warfare, honor, endurance, and comradeship. While the do not carry civilization themselves, they are the conquerors of the sedentary, civilized peoples, and then absorb those qualities. (We see this pattern frequently in history: e.g., the Dorians moving into Greece, the Teutonic tribes into Italy, the Mongols into China, etc.). Economic factors also matter, but are less compelling. Ibn Khaldun notes that excessive concentrations of wealth in a society can promote revolution.
Religious creeds also matter. Empires usual arise and are sustained by the unanimity of their prevailing religious system; when a religion decays, so too does the empire. Religion serves an indispensable purpose as a unifier and moral-giver to a community. Here he speaks frankly as a man familiar with the exercise and nature of power:
To conquer, one must rely upon the allegiance of a group animated with one corporate spirit and end. Such a union of hearts and wills can operate only through divine power and religious support…When men give their hearts and passions to a desire for worldly goods, they become jealous of one another, and fall into strife…If, however, they reject the world and its vanities for the love of God…jealousies disappear, discord is stilled, men help one another devotedly; their union makes them stronger; the good cause makes rapid progress, and culminates in the formation of a great and powerful empire.
We find nothing this canny or perceptive in political thought until Machiavelli a century and a half later. Ibn Khaldun recognizes religion not just as a tool for empire, but as an unsurpassed source of consolation for the bereaved, infirm, aged, and sick. He thinks it unwise to fuss too much about the truth or falsity of religious creeds; their importance lies not in their theologies, but in the social goods that they do.
Empires follow predictable stages of growth and development:
1. Nomadic, barbarian tribes move in to occupy a sedentary, “civilized” culture by force or infiltration.
2. The need for order grows, now that there is more to govern. Thus the tribal chief takes on the duties of a monarch. Monarchies, Ibn Khaldun correctly notes, are the most common form of government in history for good reason.
3. Slowly a new civilization is created that combines elements of the nomadic conqueror with the civilized conquered. New types of cities are created. Achievements in art, architecture, literature, science, and philosophy follow from this hybrid vigor.
4. As wealth and power grow, a slow but sure weakness begins to creep into the hearts of the citizenry. The binding force of religion begins to lose its hold on the minds of men; effeminate qualities begin to appear that undermine traditional masculine, martial virtues; and men begin to prefer luxury to work.
5. This luxury and weakness attracts the attention of barbarians on the society’s frontiers. Hungry mouths are drawn the the sight of urbanized weakness. New nomads move in, destroying or changing the civilization, and beginning the cycle again.
Not since Plato’s cycle of political polities (aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny) was there such a complete and accurate description of social forces. Ibn Khaldun is rightly described as the founder of sociology; his book is packed with additional observations (too numerous to describe here) on economics, ethnic characteristics, war, and monetary policies.
He was still, in many ways, a product of his time, and occasionally sullies his pages with portents and prophecies, but these flaws can be easily forgiven. Here, at least, is a comprehensive philosophy of history and social development, free from religious chauvinism or racial animosity. One only has to compare him to European historians of roughly the same era, such as Joinville and Villehardouin, to appreciate the magnitude of his achievement.
His last years were eventful and perilous. He was appointed as a judge by Egyptian Sultan Nasir al-Din Faraj, and joined him on a military campaign against Timur (Tamerlane). When this army was defeated by the Tatars, Ibn Khaldun was apparently sent to the ferocious Timur as a diplomat to seek favorable terms.
The old scholar charmed the intimidating conqueror with his urbanity and wit, and concluded a favorable peace. This story has the ring of fable, but we may indulge its pleasantness. He died in Cairo in 1406 at the age of seventy-four, leaving behind him a new philosophy of history, and a new lens with which to view the unfolding events of the world.
Find out more about character and virtue in my bold, ground-breaking new translation of Sallust’s The Conspiracy of Catiline and The War of Jugurtha: