Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-55597f9d44-54vk6 Total loading time: 0.601 Render date: 2022-08-16T10:47:47.147Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue true


Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 July 2015

Waseem El-Rayes*
James Madison College, Michigan State University, 306 South Case Hall, East Lansing, MI 48825-1205, USA


Ever since the rediscovery of Ibn Khaldūn's Muqaddima in modern times, debates have been ongoing regarding his identity as a scholar: was he a revolutionary thinker in the modern sense of the word, breaking away from classical and medieval modes of thinking, or was he in fact a conservative Muslim scholar who did not venture far from his traditional Muslim horizons? Through a careful examination of the preface to the Muqaddima, this article shows what he thought about the nature of his project and why he thought it necessary. Accordingly, it builds the case that Ibn Khaldūn is indeed a revolutionary – but not in the modern sense of the word – who did not shy away from challenging tradition in order to reform society's moral and political horizons. An examination of the preface alone will not provide a definitive answer to the question of Ibn Khaldūn's radical vs. conservative thought, but it does put his conservatism (apparent and real) in context.


Depuis la redécouverte de la Muqaddima d'Ibn Khaldūn à l’époque moderne, l'identité intellectuelle de cet auteur fait débat: était-il un penseur révolutionnaire dans le sens moderne du terme, rompant avec les manières de penser classiques et médiévales, ou plutôt un intellectuel musulman conservateur ne s’étant pas aventuré au-delà des horizons musulmans traditionnels? Par un examen attentif de la préface à la Muqaddima, cet article montre comment l'auteur se représentait son propre projet et pourquoi il jugeait celui-ci nécessaire. Le portrait d'Ibn Khaldūn qui s'en dégage alors est celui d'un révolutionnaire – mais non pas au sens moderne du terme – qui n'a pas craint de remettre en question la tradition afin de réformer l'horizon moral et politique de la société. Cet examen de la seule préface n'apporte certes pas une réponse définitive à la question du statut radical ou conservateur de la pensée d'Ibn Khaldūn, mais il permet de mettre en contexte son conservatisme – apparent et réel.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 The Muqaddima (or alternatively transliterated as Muqaddimah) literarily means Introduction. It is part of a larger work entitled Kitāb al-ʿIbar, wa-dīwān al-mubtada’ wa-al-khabar, fī ayyām al-ʿarab wa-al-ʿajam wa-al-barbar (henceforth Kitāb al-ʿIbar). Kitāb al-ʿIbar is a seven-volume work by Ibn Khaldūn that includes, according to his own plan, an introduction and three “books.” Volume I contains the Introduction and the First Book (dealing with the development of the ʿilm al-ʿumrān or the science of culture), Volume II–V contains the Second Book (dealing mainly with the history of the Arabs), and Volumes VI–VII contain the Third Book (dealing mainly with the history of the Berbers).

2 For a representative sample of contemporary scholars' understanding of Ibn Khaldūn's thought as modern, see Fuad Baali, Society, State, and Urbanism: Ibn Khaldūn's Sociological Thought (Albany, 1988). See also Syed Farid Alatas, “Ibn Khaldūn,” in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists, Volume 1 (Malden, MA,, 2011), and The historical sociology of Muslim societies: Khaldunian applications,” International Sociology 22.3 (2007): 267–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a more balanced assessment see Muḥammad ʿĀbid al-Jābirī's Al-ʿAṣabiyya wa-al-dawla: maʿālim naẓariyya khaldūniyya fī al-tārīkh al-islāmī (Beirut, 1983) and Chaouch, Khalid's “Ibn Khaldūn, in spite of himself,” The Journal of North African Studies, 13.3 (2008): 279–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 For a reflection of this opinion see Gibb, Hamilton A., “The Islamic background of Ibn Khaldūn's political theory,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London, 7.1 (1933): 2331CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Although it is important to note here that Gibb does not necessarily say Ibn Khaldūn lacks insight, but he insists that there is “a certain tendency to exaggerate the independence and originality of Ibn Khaldūn's thought, which in turn arises from a misapprehension of his outlook, especially in its relation to religious questions” (25). See also, Maḥmūd Ismā‘īl, Nihāyat ustūrah: naẓariyyāt Ibn Khaldūn muqtabasah min rasā'il Ikhwān al-Ṣafā (Al-Mansurah, 1996).

4 Muhsin Mahdi, Ibn Khaldūn's Philosophy of History: A Study in the Philosophic Foundation of the Science of Culture (Chicago, 1964).

5 Ibn Khaldūn, Muqaddimat Ibn Khaldūn, Prolégomènes d'Ebn-Khaldoun, Texte arabe publié d'après les Manuscrits de la Bibliothèque Impériale, ed. Marc Quatremère (Paris, 1858; reprint Beirut, 1970). All references are to the Quatremère edition. An uppercase Roman numeral indicates the volume, an Arabic numeral indicates the page, and following a colon, an Arabic numeral indicates the lines. I have consulted Abdesselam Cheddadi's excellent five-volume edition of the Muqaddima (Casablanca, 2005), but here I follow the pagination and line numbers in the Quatremère edition.

6 For an excellent modern source on al-Masʿūdī's works, see Tarif Khalidi's Islamic Historiography: The Histories of Masʿūdī (Albany, 1975).

7 The punctuation follows the rhyme of the sentences. I use a semicolon to punctuate sentences sharing the same rhyme. A period is used to separate sentences with different rhyme.

8 The word ayyām can either refer to “days,” “times,” or be used as an expression that refers to the “battle days of the Arabs” (ayyām al-‘arab).

9 This literally means “error and fancy are kinsmen to reports and companions” (wa-al-ghalaṭu wa-al-wahmu nasībun li-al-akhbāri wa-khalīl).

10 A more literal translation of this sentence would be something like: “And the truth, its authority, is not resistible; and reflection's flame overwhelms the wickedness of falsehood.”

11 Literally, “tracking” (iqtifā’).

12 Literally, “in these times” (fī hādhihi al-aʿṣār).

13 The phrase “well comprehends” is a loose rendition of the more literal translation “comprehensively comprehend the reports of the created.”

14 Ibn Khaldūn's passing reference to the “spiritual aspect” of his journey to the East provides a practical reminder of how “the passing of days changes conditions and how it transforms the customs of nations and generations” (I.4: 12–13). The East, which is the seat of the two holiest sights in Islam and is the origin of the two most powerful Arab dynasties (the Umayyad and the Abbasid) has long ceased to be under Arab control. The memory of those other “foreign kings” and “Turkish dynasties” who replaced the dynastic rule of the Arabs is far removed from the present – or at least from the present memory of the people of the Maghrib – that Ibn Khaldūn had to go to great lengths, geographically speaking, to recover some of their historical accounts. This passing reference also communicates how, with the declining power of the Arabs in the East, the Maghrib has become a more isolated region.

15 However, there is one explicit transition, marked by the declarative hādhā (“this,” meaning ‘having said this’), separating what I describe as the general introduction (I.2–3: 9–10) from the rest of the preface (I.3–8: 10–9). This apparent transition in the argument is no mere accident; for the content of this brief part sets the tone for the rest of the discussion in the preface, justifying its treatment as a general introduction.

16 Mustafa al-Shakʿat, in his book al-Usus al-islāmiyya fī fikr Ibn Khaldūn wa-naẓariyāti (Cairo, 1986), takes issue with this strange sentence. In commenting on Ibn Khaldūn's opening paragraph, al-Shakʿat observes: “These are, in excessive summation, the virtues of the science of history as written by Ibn Khaldūn at the beginning of the Muqaddima. And this indicates his estimation of this noble science, although the use of rhyme prose, which is the style that this great scholar employed in this preface, lead him to commit – unintentionally – an error; for it is not reasonable that the learned and the ignorant can be equal in their understanding of history – unless we are referring to simple accounts and conventional stories within the realm of what is unquestionable…” (emphasis mine; page 39). Of course, by adding one word (not) Ibn Khaldūn could have easily changed the meaning of the sentence to the negative without affecting the flow of the rhyme prose: “the learned and ignorant are not equal in their understanding of [history].”

17 This is consistent with the view held by classical medieval philosophic tradition that does see much philosophical value in historiography. For example, see Aristotle, On Poetics, Translation by Seth Benardete and Michael Davis (South Bend, 2002), 1451a-b.

18 Though it is not clear from this passage who these “most-outstanding historians in Islam” are, Ibn Khaldūn's next discussion makes it obvious that these historians are not the leading scholars who are credited due to their large compilations of historical information – vs. the ‘booklet-sized’ compilations of the fuḥūl – with the establishment of the discipline (cf. I.3: 11–16, and 18–19). If the “most outstanding of the historians in Islam” are not the ones who are credited with establishing the historical tradition, then they might be those individuals who reported – as eyewitnesses or perhaps through contact with eyewitnesses – on events that later shaped Muslims' understanding of their past and worldview.

19 The word fuḥūl (sing. faḥl) means “manly,” or more accurately “virile” or “potent.” It is a word commonly associated with the most outstanding of Arab poets (fuḥūl al-shu‘arā’), usually in reference to the preeminent poets of the pre-Islamic era, but it can also refer to some early post-Islamic poets.

20 Although no explicit reason is given for the intruders' malfeasance, partisan motivations might have played a part considering the earlier remark that history is a source of competition among “kings and lords” (I.2: 11; cf. I.57: 10–15).

21 The structure of these six short sentences makes them easier to read as three longer pairs of combined sentences. Thus, the re-punctuation of this argument as well as a minor emendation of the text produces the following: “verification is seldom done, [for] the side of scrutiny is, in general, a dreary one. Error and fancy are close companions to report, [for] imitation, to the descendants-of-Adam, is venerable and highborn. Intrusion on the fine-arts is long and wide, [for] the pasture of ignorance among which mankind dwell, is noxious” (I.3: 5–8).

22 The correct chronological order would require that al-Ṭabarī (which is listed second) and al-Asadī (listed fifth) to exchange places.

23 So it appears that the original “outstanding” historians shall remain nameless.

24 To better understand how general histories form the bases for the writing of particular histories we must reflect on the importance of six notable scholars of history that Ibn Khaldūn mentions in the beginning of this part of the preface. The collective work of these men represents about two hundred years of historical studies (ca. 761-ca. 956). Each one of the six scholars had his own approach to recording history and each differed from the rest with respect to his partisan views and political sympathies, to say nothing of each one's degree of intellectual competence. What is noteworthy is that they all dealt with core subjects that are of paramount importance to Islamic historiography. Collectively, they provide an authoritative and comprehensive view of the early history of Islam. The centrality of this comprehensive account for writing the histories of later Islamic periods can be appreciated when considering the content of this early history: the life of the prophet Muḥammad, the problem of political succession after his death, the political circumstances surrounding the reign of the four rightly-guided caliphs, the religious fallout from the first and second fitna, the rise and fall of the Umayyad dynasty, the emergence and decline of the Abbasid dynasty, the ascendancy of non-Arab rulers, and so forth. No account of the political and social history of later dynasties can be complete without reference (both chronological and logical) to how that history fits within the larger context of Islamic history, and no proper evaluation of the legitimacy and power of such dynasties can be done without referring back to the most legitimate or to the most powerful form of government in early Islamic history. Through their “universal histories” and in their differing degrees of competence, these six scholars (among others) helped situate the writing of the local histories of later dynasties, regions, and groups of people.

25fa-yabqā al-nāẓiru mutaṭalliʿan baʿd” (I.5: 4).

26 Literally “generated a book on history” (anshaʾatu fī al-tārīkhi kitāban; I.5: 14).

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *