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Ibn Khaldun

Ibn Khaldun

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Published by: mmavongou on May 13, 2011
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IBN KHALDUN, Wali al-Din 'Abd al-Rahman b. Muhammad b. Muhammad b. Abi BakrMuhammad b. al-Hasan (732-84/1332-82), one of the strongest personalities of Arabo-Muslim culture in the period of its decline. He is generally regarded as a historian,sociologist and philosopher. Thus his life and work have already formed the subject of innumerable studies and given rise to the most varied and even the most contradictoryinterpretations.
I. Life.
Ibn khaldun's life may be divided into three parts, the first of which (20 years) wasoccupied by his childhood and education, the second (23 years) by the continuation of hisstudies and by political adventures, and the third (31 years) by his life as a scholar,teacher and magistrate. The first two periods were spent in the Muslim West and thethird was divided between the Maghrib and Egypt.
At Tunis.
Ibn khaldun was born in Tunis, on 1 Ramadan 732/27 May 1332, in an Arab family whichcame originally from the Hadramawt and had been settled at Seville since the beginningof the Muslim conquest (Ibn Hazm, Dhamhara, ed. Levi-Provencal, 430), playing there animportant political role. The family then left Seville for Ceuta immediately before theReconquista. From there they went to Ifriqiya and settled in Tunis during the reign of theHafsid Abu Zakariyya' (625-47/1228-49). Ibn khaldun's great-grandfather, Abu BakrMuhammad b. al-Hasan, who wrote a treatise on Adab al-katib (see E. Levi-Provencal, inArabica, ii (1955), 280-8), was put in charge of the finances during the reign of AbuIshaq (678-81/1279-83). The usurper Ibn Abi 'Umara (681-2/1283-4) put an end to hiscareer and to his life, having him strangled after confiscating his possessions andsubjecting him to torture. His son, Muhammad, also occupied various official positions,both at Bougie and Tunis, and died in 737/1337, after renouncing political life upon thefall of Ibn al-Lihyani (711-7/1311-7). The latter's son, the father of our Ibn khaldun,wisely avoided politics, leading the life of a faqih and man of letters (Ta'rif, 10-15).He was thus able to ensure that his son 'Abd al-Rahman received a very thorougheducation. The latter also attended courses given by the most famous teachers of Tunis,to whom he devotes lengthy sections in his autobiography (Ta'rif). He thus received aclassical education, based essentially on the study of the qur'an, of hadith, of the Arabiclanguage and of fiqh. The Marinid invasion (748-50/1347-9) resulted in the arrival inTunis, with the sultan Abu 'l-Hasan, of a large number of theological and literaryscholars. This widened the horizons of the young Ibn khaldun, who was thus enabled,particularly under the supervision of al-Abili, to learn about the philosophy and the mainproblems of Arabo-Muslim thought. He was however to undergo much suffering. TheMarinid occupation ended in disorder and bloodshed, and in addition the terrible BlackDeath which ravaged the world in the middle of the century, coming from the East,claimed many victims in the country, among them Ibn khaldun's parents. He was at thistime 17 years of age and was to retain all his life a memory of the horror of this event,which is reflected in many passages in his Ta'rif and his Muqaddima. This was the firsttraumatic experience of his life, which was later to have an undoubted influence on thedirection of his thought. In addition, the departure of the Marinid scholars left a greatintellectual vacuum at Tunis, and it seems that at this time the sole aim of the young Ibnkhaldun was to leave Tunis for Fez, then the most brilliant capital of the Muslim West. Hestates (Ta'rif, 55) that he had a great thirst for learning. His elder brother, Muhammad,dissuaded him from his project, but not for long.
At the court of Fez.
He was not yet t0 when, towards the end of 751/1350, the powerful chamberlain IbnTafragin appointed him to the office of writer of the 'alama (the ruler's official signature)on behalf of the sultan Abu Ishaq. He accepted, without, it seems (Ta'rif, 561), theintention of remaining long in the post. The invasion of Ifriqiya by the amir of Constantine, Abu Yazid (753/135t), provided him with the desired opportunity. Undercover of the defeat, he parted company with his master, took refuge for a time at Ebba,then reached Tebessa, then Gafsa, before arriving at Biskra, where he spent the winterwith his friends the Banu Muzni. Thus the second period of his life, which was bothscholarly and adventurous, began with one of those changes of direction which were torecur on later occasions and which have been severely criticized by the majority of thosewho have made a study of his life and work. But it was in fact probably not a bad thing:intuitively, Ibn khaldun was refusing to be engulfed in an Ifriqiya which was then in theprocess of disintegration and whose court furthermore was far from providing anexample of loyalty and good behaviour.Meanwhile, the Marinid Abu 'l-Hasan, after an unfortunate adventure, had been killed(75t/1351), leaving the western territories of the Maghrib to his son Abu 'Inan, who inany case had not waited for his death before supplanting him in Fez. Once again theMarinid hegemony seemed to be consolidating itself. Abu 'Inan seized Tlemcen(753/135t) and reduced Bougie again to submission. From Biskra, Ibn khaldun offeredhim his services. On his journey he met the Marinid chamberlain Ibn Abi 'Amr, appointedgovernor of Bougie, who invited him to his new residence, where he lived for some time(until the end of the winter of 754/1353-4), before being summoned to the court at Fez.He was officially part of the sultan's literary circle (madhlisuh al-'ilmi) and soonafterwards also formed part of his secretariat (kitabatuh), though without muchenthusiasm it seems, for such a post 'was not in the family tradition'--that is to say itwas beneath their dignity. This remark reveals a far-reaching ambition in a young man of barely 23 years. Somewhat disappointed, he therefore continued to occupy himself mainly with his studies. 'I devoted myself', he writes (Ta'rif, 59), 'to reflection and tostudy, and to sitting at the feet of the great teachers, those of the Maghrib as well asthose of Spain who were residing temporarily in Fez, and I benefited greatly from theirteaching'. In brief, his desire for learning still took precedence over his political interests.Nevertheless, it may be that, taking advantage of the sultan's illness, he took part in aplot aiming to liberate the former amir of Bougie, Abu 'Abd Allah, and to re-install him inhis former kingdom. He himself denies this and refers to intrigues, jealousy and malice(Ta'rif, 67); he was certainly thrown into prison however, remaining there for two years(758-9/1357-8) until the death of Abu 'Inan. This was followed by disturbances, byclashes between the claimants to the throne, and by treachery and bloodshed. Ibnkhaldun, now set free, took part in all this according to the custom of the time. Changesof loyalty were common and he was no exception and found himself appointed, inSha'ban 760/July 1359, to the office of Secretary of the Chancellery (kitabat al-sirr wa 'l-tarsil) for the new sultan, Abu Salim. In order the better to perform his role andconsolidate his position, he even made the effort of becoming court-poet ('akhadhtu nafsibi 'l-shi'r', Ta'rif, 70), and he quotes long extracts from his work as a panegyrist. But thiswas all wasted effort, since his fortune declined. Two years later he left the chancelleryfor a judicial post, the mazalim. Then further disturbances resulted in the accession of anew sultan. Ibn khaldun changed his allegiance in time, and considered that he wasunjustly deprived of any fruits of the victory. He did not hide his ill-humour, madeenemies and, after many difficulties, he obtained permission to withdraw to Granada(autumn 764/1362).
At the court of Granada.
In Ramadan 760/August 1359, a palace revolt had driven Muhammad b. al-Ahmar fromthe throne, so that, in Muharram 761/December 1359, he had taken refuge in Fez withhis famous vizier Ibn al-khatib. There was formed at this time, between the latter andthe young Ibn khaldun, a real friendship which, apart from inevitable spells of 
unpleasantness, was to withstand the test of time. In Jumada II 763/April 1362,Muhammad b. al-Ahmar regained his throne and Ibn al-khatib his former rank. Thefriendship established at Fez ensured that Ibn khaldun, forced in his turn to flee to theother side of the Mediterranean, was received in Granada with the highest honours. Atthe end of 765/1364, he was even sent to Seville, charged with a delicate peace missionto Pedro the Cruel. This contact with the Christian world, then in the midst of a period of change, had an important influence on him. On his return, the Nasrid amir showeredfavours on him (Ta'rif, 85). Ibn khaldun then sent for his wife and children to come toConstantine. But Ibn al-khatib felt some resentment at the success of his young friendand Ibn khaldun preferred not to take full advantage of his favoured position (spring766/1365).
At the court of Bougie.
It is true that at this time there arose a unique opportunity for him to satisfy hisambition. His friend, Abu 'Abd Allah Muhammad, with whom he had already been in aconspiracy at Fez, had in fact regained his kingdom of Bougie, and offered him the officeof hadhib (chamberlain), which was at that time the most important office in the state,and appointed to the vizierate his younger brother Yahya [see next article]. Ibn khaldunheld at the same time posts as teacher of fiqh and as preacher. But this success wasshort-lived. In the following year, the amir of Constantine, Abu 'l-'Abbas, took theoffensive and inflicted a crushing defeat on his cousin Abu 'Abd Allah Muhammad, whowas killed in the battle. Ibn khaldun, refusing suggestions that he should continue thestruggle in support of one of the younger sons of the dead ruler, handed over the town tothe conqueror (Sha'ban 767/May 1366) and himself entered his service. This was not tobe for long, however. Ibn khaldun saw which way the wind was blowing: he resigned intime, and took refuge at first with the Dawawida Arabs, then with his friends the BanuMuzni at Biskra, whereas his brother Yahya was arrested. To the offer by the sultan AbuHammu, in a letter of 17 Radhab 769/8 March 1368 (Ta'rif, 102-3) of the office of hadhibat Tlemcen, he replied with a courteous refusal, sending him instead his brother Yahya,who had in the meantime been set free. He explains his motives thus: 'I was in factcured of the temptation of office (ghiwayat al-rutab). Furthermore I had for too longneglected scholarly matters. I therefore ceased to involve myself in the affairs of kingsand devoted all my energies to study (al-qira'a) and teaching' (Ta'rif, 103).Thus at Biskra he attempted to lead the life of a man of letters. He carried on a longcorrespondence, much ornamented by rhetorical flourishes, with his friend Ibn al-khatib(Ta'rif, 103-30). However he could not resist intrigue. He gave his support, against Abu'l-'Abbas, to the alliance between the Hafsid of Tunis and the 'Abd al-Wadid Abu Hammuof Tlemcen. He next took it upon himself to raise support for the Marinid Abu Faris. Hewas constantly on the move, attempting to form from the small tribal units a forcecapable of supporting a really great power. But on each occasion events upset hiscalculations. The claimants were simply too numerous, and this resulted in a new seriesof changes of front which were basically perhaps only his unsuccessful attempts to backthe winner. But in the Muslim West of the 8th/14th century no winner existed.Furthermore his friends the Banu Muzni were beginning to object to the suspiciousactivities of their guest. Ibn khaldun tried once again to escape the lure of politics. Hetook refuge in the ribat of Abu Madyan, 'preferring', he writes, 'to live in retirement anddevote myself exclusively to learning, if only I might be left inpeace' (Ta'rif, 134). He wasnot left in peace, nor was he of a temperament to remain so for long. Thus, after somenew setbacks in the central Maghrib, he met with failure in Fez (774/137t). Welcomed atfirst, he was later arrested, then released, and finally permitted to withdraw to MuslimSpain (spring 776/1375), where he wished 'to settle permanently, withdraw from theworld, and devote my life to learning (qasd al-qarar wa 'l-inqibad wa 'l-'ukuf 'ala qira'atal-'ilm)' (Ta'rif, 226). Yet again he was disappointed. He had become a politicalpersonality with a reputation which could not fail to arouse mistrust. He washenceforward condemned to offer his services for hire, and to be regarded with mixed

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