Encyclopedia

Ibn Khaldun (27 May 1332 – 17 March 1406)

Ibn Khaldun was a prominent 14th‐​century historian famous for being the precursor or even founder, according to some historians, of the social sciences. His contributions to economics highlighted the value of minimal intervention. He was born in Tunisia in 1332 to an upper‐​class Andalusian family of Yemeni descent. His family’s upper‐​class status enabled him to study with the best teachers in all of North Africa. Ibn Khaldun received excellent training in classical Islamic education, memorizing the Quran and extensively studying the Hadith, Arabic linguistics, and Islamic Law. Moreover, the prominent philosopher, Al‐​Abili of Tlemcen, introduced him to mathematics, logic, and philosophy, particularly the works of Averroes, Avicenna, and Tusi, of which he mastered.

His parents both died as a result of the Black Death when he was at the age of 17. The devastating loss prompted him to leave Tunisia for Morocco, Granada, and then Egypt, where he would rise in the ranks as a political advisor, chief judge, and professor of law. Despite the challenges of political entanglement, he made himself into a great social scientist or even the first social scientist in history. Antony Black, Professor Emeritus of history of political thought, says that Ibn Khaldun was “the first to distinguish the study of human cultures from both metaphysics and natural sciences. He identified for the first time the field of knowledge which we call sociology.” Ibn Khaldun’s most influential book was the Muqaddimah: an introduction to his work on world history. In the Muqaddimah, he explains the various economic and sociopolitical trends behind historical changes.

Within the realm of economics, he explicitly explains several laws and processes that had not been highly publicized until Adam Smith. Among these subjects are the law of demand and supply, division of labor, the laffer curve, and negative consequences of the state’s involvement in production. Ibn Khaldun illustrated the process of specialization: “such include, for instance, the use of carvings for doors and chairs. Or one skillfully turns and shapes pieces of wood in a lathe, and then one puts these pieces together so that they appear to the eye to be of one piece”. His illustration is perhaps as articulate as Smith’s pin factory example, except that it preceded him by 400 years. Furthermore, he was the first to explain how the Laffer Curve works, by demonstrating that dynasties raise massive revenues from low tax rates in their beginnings and raise small revenues from high tax rates during their decline. Even Ronald Reagan quoted Ibn Khaldun’s work when explaining the relationship between tax rates and government revenue.

Within the sociopolitical realm, Ibn Khaldun developed a theory of social organization and the rise and fall of nations. He had two concepts of social life: nomadic and urban. In his model, most societies fall somewhere between this continuum. He explains that urban lifestyles create sedentary people with two main weaknesses. First, they become more politically and militarily docile, as the state grows and subjugates them. Second, they become used to a luxurious standard of living that they are no longer willing to leave behind; hence they prefer acquiescence over mobilization. Comparatively, nomadic lifestyles produce people accustomed to hard conditions, making them likely to fight back when necessary.

Most importantly, Ibn Khaldun highlights that nomadic people have strong Asabiyyah, which can be translated as “group solidarity” with “willingness to fight and die for each other.” On the one hand, Asabiyyah produces industrious people willing to endure hardship for their political authority and for civilizational growth. On the other hand, political authority seeks to weaken them, the more power it has, which leads to civilizational decline. Ibn Khaldun theorizes that a new nomadic group with strong Asabiyyah usually replaces the declining sedentary group.

Unfortunately, Ibn Khaldun has remained a largely ignored thinker who deserves more attention. John Joseph Saunders, the British historian and expert on Islamic and Asian civilization, said: “no famous thinker has suffered such long and strange neglect as Ibn Khaldun.” Nonetheless, he remains a brilliant contributor to the social sciences that economists and libertarians that will hopefully be more acquainted with. His ideas and contributions are just an example of how free‐​market economics is a focal point among civilizations, and its efficiency can be understood across different cultures, times, and geographical space.

Yahya Alshamy
Originally published