Why Ibn Khaldun is Called One of the Greatest Thinkers of the Muslim World

Ibn Khaldūn was an Arab Muslim historian and historiographer, regarded to be among the founding fathers of modern sociology, historiography and economics. He came from Tunis, North Africa.

Origin and ‘Muqaddimah’

His best work is the widely known book “The Muqaddimah” (meaning: The Introduction) which he wrote in 1377. It was an introduction and first book to his planned work of universal history, but already in his lifetime it was viewed as an independent work on its own. Some modern thinkers think of it as the first work dealing with the philosophy of history, social sciences of sociology, demography, cultural history, and many more sciences.
Ibn Khaldun starts the Muqaddimah with thorough criticism on the mistakes regularly commited by his fellow historians and the difficulties which await the historian in his work. He sums up seven critical issues:

“All records, by their very nature, are liable to error…
1. …Partisanship towards a creed or opinion…
2. …Over-confidence in one’s sources…
3. …The failure to understand what is intended…
4. …A mistaken belief in the truth…
5. …The inability to place an event in its real context
6. …The common desire to gain favor of those of high ranks, by praising them, by spreading their fame…
7. …The most important is the ignorance of the laws governing the transformation of human society.”

With the seventh point (the ignorance of social laws) Ibn Khaldun lays out his theory of human society in the Muqadimmah. Al Husri (an Ottoman thinker of the 20th century) suggested that Ibn Khaldun’s Muqadimmah is essentially a sociological work, sketching over its six books a general sociology, a sociology of politics, a sociology of urban life, a sociology of economics and a sociology of knowledge.

Acceptance of information

Ibn Khaldun often criticized the “idle superstition and uncritical acceptance of historical data.” As a result, he introduced the scientific method to the social sciences, which was considered something new to his age. He often referred to it as his “new science” and developed his own new terminology for it.

His historical method also laid the groundwork for the observation of the role of state, communication, propaganda and systematic bias in history, leading to his development of historiography.

The Birth of Asabiyyah

The concept of “Asabiyyah” (meaning: ‘tribalism’, ‘clanism’, or in a modern context ‘nationalism’) is one of the best known aspects of the Muqaddimah. Ibn Khaldun uses the term Asabiyyah to describe the bond of cohesion among humans in a group forming community. The bond, Asabiyyah, exists at any level of civilization, from nomadic society to states and empires. Asabiyyah is most strong in the nomadic phase, and decreases as civilization advances. As this Asabiyyah declines, another more compelling Asabiyyah may take its place. Thus, civilizations rise and fall, and history describes these cycles of Asabiyyah as they play out.

Theories on economics

Ibn Khaldun wrote on economic and political theory in the Muqaddimah, relating his thoughts on Asabiyya to the division of labor: the greater the social cohesion, the more complex the division may be, the greater the economic growth.

Ibn Khaldun noted that growth and development positively stimulate both supply and demand, and that the forces of supply and demand are what determine the prices of goods. He also noted macroeconomic forces of population growth, human capital development, and technological developments effects on development. Ibn Khaldun held that population growth was a function of wealth.

Ibn Khaldun understood that money served as a standard of value, a medium of exchange, and a preserver of value, though he did not realize that the value of gold and silver changed based on the forces of supply and demand. Ibn Khaldun also introduced the labor theory of value. He described labor as the source of value, necessary for all earnings and capital accumulation.

His theory of Asabiyyah has often been compared to modern Keynesian economics, with Ibn Khaldun’s theory clearly containing the concept of the multiplier. A crucial difference, however, is that for John Maynard Keynes it is the middle class’s greater propensity to save that is to blame for economic depression. For Ibn Khaldun it is the governmental propensity to save at times when investment opportunities do not take up the slack which leads to aggregate demand.

Laffer Curve

Ibn Khaldun introduced the concept now popularly known as the Laffer Curve, meaning that increases in tax rates initially increase tax revenues, but eventually the increases in tax rates cause a decrease in tax revenues. This occurs as too high a tax rate discourages producers in the economy.

Ibn Khaldun used a dialectic approach to describe the sociological implications of tax choice (which now forms a part of economics theory):
In the early stages of the state, taxes are light in their incidence, but fetch in a large revenue (…) As time passes and kings succeed each other, they lose their tribal habits in favor of more civilized ones. Their needs and exigencies grow (…) owing to the luxury in which they have been brought up. Hence they impose fresh taxes on their subjects (…) and sharply raise the rate of old taxes to increase their yield (…) But the effects on business of this rise in taxation make themselves felt. For businessmen are soon discouraged by the comparison of their profits with the burden of their taxes (…) Consequently production falls off, and with it the yield of taxation.

This analysis is very similar to the modern economic concept known as the Laffer Curve. Laffer does not claim to have invented the concept himself, noting that the idea was present in the work of Ibn Khaldun and, more recently, John Maynard Keynes.

Pioneer in many fields

Ibn Khaldun is regarded to be one of the brightest and most brilliant minds of Muslim world. He contributed to many fields. Many scientists today believe that social sciences as we know it today, might have never reached such high level without the help of Ibn Khaldun. I believe he is a role model to any kind of scientist. He is the perfect example (as so are many others) of the cohesion of being a Muslim and a scientist. It’s not contradictory, as some people may believe.

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