Islamic Studies Ibn Khaldun
Michael Leezenberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0038


Although Ibn Khaldun (b. 732/1332–d. 808/1406) does not appear to have exerted any constitutive influence on any of the founders of the modern social sciences, he is often described as a precursor or ancestor of sociology. Among others, he is the author of a voluminous world history, the Kitāb al-ʿibar or Book of Examples, part of which is a chronicle of the various local dynasties—many of them of Berber extraction—in North Africa. Another part of this work deals with other Muslim lands, and even with the non-Muslim world, making it one of the first Islamic attempts at world history. By far the most famous part of this book, however, is the Muqaddimah, or introduction, in which Ibn Khaldun formulates the principles of what he himself described as a new science serving as an auxiliary for historiography. This ʿilm al- ʿumran, or “science of civilization” as he called it, attempts to formulate general laws of history, as a principled means of establishing the veracity of historical reports. The most important of these laws is the circular, or pendulum-swing, movement between rural or tribal (badawa) societies and urban civilizations (hadara). Rural societies are bound together and strengthened by a bond of ʿasabiyya (solidarity or group spirit), which also enables them to conquer more refined urban civilizations. Once in power, however, the new dynasty will progressively become weakened by the refinements of urban life, and after several generations it will be overthrown by a new rural group still held together by its ʿasabiyya. Among contemporaries, Ibn Khaldun’s ideas did not generate much interest, but in later centuries he has been read with great interest by both scholars and policymakers, and both inside and outside the Muslim world.

General Overviews

The widespread belief that Ibn Khaldun had little or no resonance among Muslim authors prior to his “rediscovery” in the 19th century is seriously mistaken. Although local historiographers paid little or no attention to the “new science” developed in the Muqaddimah, and exclusively referred to him as a run-of-the mill chronicler, later Egyptian authors, such as al-Jabarti and al-Tahtawi, wrote about him in a manner that clearly presumes their audience to be familiar with his work. His cyclical views of history became especially popular among historiographers and reformers of the 17th-century Ottoman Empire, such as Naʿima and Katib Celebi. In the 18th century, the Muqaddimah was even translated into Ottoman Turkish by Mehmed Sahib Pirizade. This translation formed the basis of the first printed Turkish edition, published in 1860. Fischel 1952 and Fischel 1967 are important studies about two major phases in Ibn Khaldun’s life. Shatzmiller 1982, Rosenthal 1968, and Khalidi 1994 position him among classical Muslim hisotoriographers, whereas the papers collected in Lawrence 1984 discuss his relation to Islamic tradition more broadly. For the Ottoman reception of his work, see Fleischer 1984.

  • Fischel, Walter J. Ibn Khaldūn and Tamerlane: Their Historic Meeting in Damascus, 1401 A. D. (803 A. H.). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952.

    A study of Ibn Khaldun’s legendary encounter with the Central Asian conqueror; contains an extensive bibliography.

  • Fischel, Walter J. Ibn Khaldun in Egypt: His Public Functions and His Historical Research, 1382–1406: A Study in Islamic Historiography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

    A study of what is perhaps the most consistently successful period of Ibn Khaldun’s capricious career.

  • Fleischer, Cornell. “Royal Authority, Dynastic Cyclism, and ‘Ibn Khaldûnism’ in Sixteenth-Century Ottoman Letters.” In Ibn Khaldun and Islamic Ideology. Edited by Bruce B. Lawrence, 46–68. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1984.

    Provides a more detailed discussion of the reception of Ibn Khaldun in the Ottoman Empire in the Early Modern period. Also published in Journal of Asian and African Studies 18 (1983): 198–220.

  • Khalidi, Tarif. Arabic Historical Thought in the Classical Period. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511583650

    A more general study of the medieval Islamic historiographical tradition out of which Ibn Khaldun emerged.

  • Lawrence, Bruce B., ed. Ibn Khaldun and Islamic Ideology. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1984.

    A collection of papers focusing on the reception of Ibn Khaldun’s work in premodern and modern Muslim lands.

  • Rosenthal, Franz. History of Muslim Historiography. 2d ed. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1968.

    An older but still useful overview of the major classical Muslim historians. First edition published in 1952.

  • Shatzmiller, Maya. L’historiographie Mérinide: Ibn Khaldūn et ses contemporains. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1982.

    Study emphasizing the differences between Ibn Khaldun and the local historiographical tradition of his age.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.