Ibn Khaldun: The 13th century Muslim intellectual and founder of the social sciences

Who was Ibn Khaldun, the founder of the social sciences?
7 min read
28 September, 2023
Ibn Khaldun is often called the father of the social sciences. But his legacy extends far beyond that title and is influential to other disciplines, including economics and political science. We trace his legacy, from Karl Marx to Adam Smith.

Ibn Khaldun was born on May 27, 1332, in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. He came from a lineage of academics and bureaucrats and showed exceptional intellectual aptitude from a young age.

Despite starting out as a calligrapher in Tunis, he rose to become a prominent intellectual figure. Ibn Khaldun discovered a passion for mathematics under the guidance of his instructor, Al Abili, from Tlemcen, Algeria.

He received a well-rounded education from prominent intellectuals in North Africa and became proficient in philosophy, economics, and social sciences.

At the age of 45, in 1377, he wrote The Muqaddimah, a significant and influential book that focused on global history. This scholarly text is widely recognised as a groundbreaking work that explores the realms of social sciences, demography, and cultural history.

However, the contributions made by Muslim intellectuals to the field of science have been largely overlooked by the global community, and Ibn Khaldun's scholarly pursuits have similarly received inadequate recognition. Despite inspiring Western thinkers, who drew from his perspectives, Ibn Khaldun's name has not been referenced in Western textbooks.

"Rather than being a precursor, Ibn Khaldun's legacy offers a unique perspective on social science that is not bound by Western positivism"

Ibn Khaldun, a renowned theorist associated with the Ash'ari theological and Maliki legal schools, has made significant scholarly contributions to the field of social sciences. His works offer an alternative perspective to the prevailing Eurocentric and positivist approaches, which are commonly considered the only valid paradigms in the discipline.

It is important to recognise that Ibn Khaldun's contributions go beyond being a precursor to contemporary positivist social sciences, including sociology, economics, and political science.

Although he laid the foundation for these disciplines, his works offer a distinct perspective that is not limited by the prevailing Eurocentric and positivist paradigms. Thus, characterising Ibn Khaldun as a precursor does not accurately reflect his contributions to the field.

Furthermore, comparing Ibn Khaldun to contemporary philosophers such as Marx or Durkheim demonstrates an incomplete comprehension of their respective concepts, methodologies, philosophical perspectives, epistemological frameworks, and approaches. Rather than being a precursor, Ibn Khaldun's legacy offers a unique perspective on social science that is not bound by Western positivism.

Ibn Khaldun's approach to social science is rooted in his adherence to the principles of the Islamic faith and his recognition of the inherent interconnectedness of various facets of human existence.

He adhered to the multiplex worldview (marâtib al-wujûd), which acknowledges three primary tiers of existence: the tangible and observable realm, the intangible and imperceptible realm, and the realm of the divine. This differs from Western positivism, which places a greater emphasis on empirical observation and measurement.

Ibn Khaldun employed a comprehensive epistemological framework referred to as marâtib al-ulûm in the Arabic language. This framework acknowledges reason, senses, divine revelation, and spiritual revelation (kashf) as distinct sources of knowledge.

Therefore, the inclusion of a scholar with diverse perspectives in the context of reductionist or uniplex social scientists, who adhere to a singular level of existence and rely solely on observation or interpretation as a source of knowledge while dismissing divine revelation and spiritual epistemology, presents a perplexing scenario.

Ibn Khaldun was a pioneering social scientist who rejected the methodologies of his predecessors and introduced new ideas in the realms of scientific and philosophical thought. He had a unique ability to observe historical social phenomena from an external perspective and a deep understanding of philosophical concepts. He advocated for scientific and rational inquiry to develop ideas and perspectives, rather than pursuing idealised concepts.

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In his seminal work, The Muqaddimah, he introduced the concept of historical social life as an independent area of scholarly inquiry and posited that historical social space focuses on "what is occurring" rather than "what ought to be."

Ibn Khaldun was also the first to document the free-market economy and introduce the notion of the labour theory of value, which was later expanded upon by Karl Marx.

He analysed the interplay between several economic mechanisms, including demand, supply, pricing, and profits, and his contributions to urban lifestyles, occupational pursuits, commercial activities, and interconnections in production position him as a pioneering figure in the development of contemporary economics.

Despite being mostly overlooked by Western intellectuals, many of his ideas were appropriated and presented as original by them. Moreover, Ibn Khaldun's findings revealed that the cost of production played a pivotal role in determining price fluctuations in agricultural commodities cultivated in fertile versus infertile soils.

"To address Eurocentric biases, Khaldun's authentic legacy needs to be employed in tackling present difficulties"

Ibn Khaldun is widely recognised as a pioneer in the field of modern political philosophy because of his comprehensive examination of topics such as statehood, politics, property, and governance.

He is additionally acknowledged for his contributions to the study of modern civilization's history through an exploration of material culture found in various civilizations, including infrastructure such as roads, bridges, palaces, and temples. Within the realm of society, Ibn Khaldun delved into various topics including the development and dissemination of knowledge, as well as the advancement of sciences.

As a result of his contributions, he is widely recognised as the progenitor of the sociology of knowledge. Ibn Khaldun's impact transcends the realm of social sciences due to his establishment of fundamental principles in the field of macroeconomics. These principles include the notion of "aggregate effective demand," the multiplier effect, and the principle of income and expenditure equality.

The theory proposed by Ibn Khaldun on growth, which centres on the accumulation of capital through human labour, along with his notable contributions to the field of international economics, exemplifies his analytical acumen and astute insights. Ibn Khaldun's perspective on the advantages of international trade underscores its potential to enhance well-being, financial gains, and overall economic growth. The contributions of Ibn Khaldun have exerted a profound and enduring influence on various fields of study.

Adam Smith is widely recognised as the "Father of Modern Economics." However, prior to Smith, Ibn Khaldun presented a compelling argument in favour of a free market and the indispensability of choice. Although Ibn Khaldun made significant contributions to economic theory, it is widely acknowledged that Smith holds the title of the "Father of Economics."

To emulate Ibn Khaldun's intellectual legacy, researchers should explore his genuine concepts, ontological framework, epistemological principles, and methodological approach. One approach is to position him as an alternative to the Eurocentric social scientific discourse. This would foster intellectual autonomy among dissatisfied social scientists.

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Ibn Khaldun's economic ideas proposed 500 years ago had remarkable similarities to those of Smith. Ibn Khaldun's examination of the value and its correlation with labour, his conceptualisation of capital accumulation and its connection to the ascent and decline of dynasties, his comprehension of demand, supply, prices, and profits, his exploration of money and the governmental role therein, as well as his theory on taxation, exhibited a remarkable level of foresight and sophistication that surpassed the prevailing knowledge of his era. Ibn Khaldun is widely recognized as a prominent figure among contemporary social scientists, but he is not the only luminary in this field.

When considering many perspectives, Ibn Khaldun emerges as a more favourable exemplar due to his astute powers of observation and his capacity to discern the underlying causes of events.

It is essential to recognise the theoretical contributions of Ibn Khaldun, which are firmly grounded in social reality and influenced by a philosophical framework. The accurate dissemination of information regarding Ibn Khaldun and the global support for his legacy hold considerable significance. To address Eurocentric biases, Ibn Khaldun's authentic legacy needs to be employed in tackling present difficulties.

Ibn Khaldun passed away on March 17, 1406, during his stay in Egypt. He was interred in the Sufi Cemetery adjacent to Bab an-Nasr in Cairo at the age of seventy-four.

Dr Ufuk Necat Tasci is a political analyst, academic, and journalist. His research areas and interests include Libya, the foreign policy of Turkey, proxy wars, surrogate warfare, and new forms of conflict and history

Follow him on Twitter: @UfukNecat