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Ibn Khaldun on Economic Transformation

  • Dieter Weiss (a1)

A number of Arab countries have been exposed to structural adjustment programs. Under the guidance of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, these programs are aimed at making various kinds of Arab socialist and mixed-economy regimes more “market-friendly,” a policy that started in the 1950s and 1960s in countries like Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt. Considering the mounting social tension that results from continuing population growth, urban agglomeration, and unemployment, it would be naive to expect—with Fukuyama—an “end of history” as most countries try to adopt market regimes and to strengthen civil society and parliamentary democracy. As Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) well knew, economic and social change is a never-ending process. In the search for viable and sustainable strategies it may be stimulating to consider the insights of this great scholar of the Arab world who wrote 600 years ago.


Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis into an influential clan of South Arabian origin with substantial influence in Islamic Spain and, after the fall of Seville in 1248, in north-western Africa. He was exposed to the turmoils of his time. He held his first position in 1352 at the court at Tunis at the age of 20 and then went on to high political, administrative, diplomatic, and judicial posts in the service of various rulers in the Maghrib, Spain, and Egypt.

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Author's note: This paper was presented at the Department of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University, on 24 March 1994, while the author was John Foster Dulles Visiting Professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

1 Weiss, Dieter, Wirtschaftliche Entwicklungsplanung in der Vereinigten Arabischen Republik (Cologne-Opladen, 1964), 238 f.

2 Fischel, Walter J., Ibn Khaldun in Egypt: His Public Functions and His Historical Research (1382–1406). A Study in Islamic Historiography (Berkeley, Calif., 1967), 1519; idem, Ibn Khaldun and Tamerlane (Berkeley, Calif., 1952), 30 f.; Hitti, Philip K., History of the Arabs (London, 1949), 567–68; Cl. Huart, , Geschichte der Araber (Leipzig, 1915), 2:205. Khaldun, Ibn, The Muqaddimah, trans. Rosenthal, Franz (London, 1967) (hereafter cited as Ibn Khaldun/F. Rosenthal), 1:xxxiii f.; Issawi, Charles, An Arab Philosophy of History: Selections from the Prolegomena of Ibn Khaldun of Tunis (1332–1406) (London, 1950), 14 f.; Wesendonck, O. G. von, “Ibn Chaldun: Ein arabischer Kulturhistoriker des 14. Jahrhunderts,” Deutsche Rundschau 194 (1929): 46 f. See also Sorokin, Pitirim A., The Crisis of Our Age: The Social and Cultural Outlook (New York, 1946), 301; Bertalanffy, Ludwig von, General Systems Theory: Foundations, Development, Application (New York, 1968), 11.

3 Here and following, the numbers in parenthesis refer to the volume and the page in Rosenthal's translation of the Muqaddimah cited in n. 2.

4 Rosenthal, Erwin, “Ibn Khaldûns Gedanken üden Staat: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der mittelalterlichen Staatslehre,” Historische Zeitschrift 25 (1932): 12; Schimmel, Annemarie, Ibn Chaldun: Ausgewählte Abschnitte aus der Muqaddima (Tübingen, 1951), xviii, xix, 9, 37, translates ʿaṣabiyya as “Zusammengehörigkeitsgefühl”; Khaldun, Ibn/Rosenthal, , lxi, lxxviii f., translates it as “group feeling”; Monteil, Vincent, Ibn Khaldûn, Discours sur I'histoire universelle. Al-Muqaddima. Tradition nouvelle (préface et notes) (Paris: Commission internationale pour la traduction des chefs d'oeuvre 19671968), 1:255, writes: “Ce terme, dont Ibn Khaldûn a assuré la fortune, peut ätre traduit, selon le contexte, par “esprit tribal, ou de clan; esprit de corps; tribalisme; consanguinité; liens du sang.” Schoen, Ulrich, Determination und Freiheit im arabischen Denken heute (Göttingen, 1976), 91, translates it as “Bewuβtsein, zu einer Gemeinschaft zu gehören … Clangeist.” Mahdi, Muhsin, Ibn Khaldun's Philosophy of History (London, 1957), 196, translates it as “communal ethos, community of sentiment, or social solidarity.” See also Alafenish, Salim, “Die Bedouinen in Ibn Khalduns Wissenschaft,” in Nomadismus—Ein Entwicklungsproblem? ed. Scholz, Fred and Janzen, Jörg (Berlin, 1982), 122–23; Simon, Heinrich, Ibn Khalduns Wissenschaft von der menschlichen Kultur (Leipzig, 1959), 48 f. Tibi, Bassam, Vom Gottesreich zum Nationalstaat: Islam und panarabischer Nationalismus (Frankfurt, 1987), 128; Hourani, Albert, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939 (London, 1962), 41, 52, 78; Al-Azmeh, Aziz, Ibn Khaldun in Modern Scholarship (London, 1991), 168–73; Höpp, Gerhard, “Ibn Haldun und die arabische Linke,” in Ibn Haldun und seine Zeit, ed. Sturm, Dieter (Halle, 1983), 54.

5 See also Ritter, Hellmut, “Irrational Solidarity Groups: A Socio-Psychological Study in Connection with Ibn Khaldun,” Oriens 1 (1948): 4.

6 See, on monetary crises during Ibn Khaldun's times, Labib, Subhi Y., “Handelsgeschichte Ägyptens im Spätmittelalter (1171–1517),” Vierteljahresschrift für Sozial—und Wirtschaftsgeschichte 46 (1965): 266 f.

7 These recommendations contrast with those given by Malthus, Thomas Robert, Essay on the Principle of Population, 6th ed. (1798), suggesting public health standards be deliberately lowered to fight population growth:

To act consistently, therefore, we should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use. Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our lowns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases.

Cf. Oser, Jacob and Blanchfield, William C., The Evolution of Economic Thought (New York, 1975), 107–8. See on the history of pests and famine in the Middle East, Kremer, Alfred von, Kutturgeschichte des Orients unter den Chalifen (Aalen, 1966), 2:490 f; Dols, Michael W., The Black Death in the Middle East (Princeton, N.J., 1977), 13 f.

8 Boulakia, Jean David C., “Ibn Khaldun: A Fourteenth-Century Economist,” Journal of Political Economy 79 (1971): 1117. Andic, Fuat M. and Andic, Suphan, “An Exploration into Fiscal Sociology: Ibn Khaldun, Schumpeter, and Public Choice,” Finanzarchiv 3 (1985): 456–59.

9 Spengler, Joseph J., “Economic Thought of Islam: Ibn Khaldun,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 6 (19631964): 289 f.

10 Cf. Daghistani, Abdulaziz I., “The Race of Development: Egypt vs. Others,” L'Egypte Contemporaine 401 (1985): 6 f.

11 Weiss, Dieter, “The Struggle for a Viable Islamic Economy,” Muslim World 79 (1989): 4658.

12 Möller, Alex, Billerbeck, Klaus, Heimpel, Christian, Hillebrand, Wolfgang, Taake, Hans-Herbert, Weiss, Dieter, Proposals for the Solution of the Most Important Structural, Economic and Financial Problems of the Arab Republic of Egypt. Report to the President of the Arab Republic of Egypt Anwar El Sadat (Berlin, 1980), 48. Weiss, Dieter, “Institutional Obstacles to Reform Policies: A Case Study of Egypt,” Economics 47 (1993): 66 f.

13 Weiss, Dieter, “Introducing Market Elements into a Socialist Economy: The Experience of Eastern Europe and the People's Republic of China,” L'Egypte Contemporaine 415–16 (1989): 4244.

14 Cf. WorldBank, World Development Report 1991 (Washington, D.C., 1991), 145 f.

15 Weiss, , “Institutional Obstacles”, 7275.

16 Cf. World Bank, 145–46; Weiss, Dieter, Structural Adjustment Programs in the Middle East: The Impact of Value Patterns and Social Norms (Berlin, 1992), 12 f.

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