Weekly Middle East Historical Figure – Ibn Khaldun

A statue of Ibn Khaldun in his native Tunis, where he is revered as a national hero

May 27th, 1332 AD (732 by Islamic reckoning) marked the birth of one of the Middle East’s greatest minds, Ibn Khaldun of present-day Spain and North Africa.

Ibn Khaldun left behind an indelible mark on the Islamic world through his monumental work Kitābu l-ʻibārwhich attempted to create a ‘universal history’ of mankind.  The encylopedic work was divided into seven books and through them Ibn Khaldun wrote down the history of all peoples (who he knew of) while also devoting extensive areas to the history of the Berber peoples of Northern Africa.  The Berber sections are particularly valuable for historians as these sedentary people rarely left behind writings of their own and Khaldun’s description of them is one of the few available to historians.

The most famous part of this work though, is Khaldun’s theory about the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations throughout history.  Khaldun theorized that all civilizations will enter into a period of decay after their golden age and be conquered by less civilized, or ‘barbaric,’ people.

These barbarians will eventually lose their nomadic ways and become weak by accepting the sedentary lifestyles of cities and empires.  Then they too will succumb to another group of barbarians, and the cycle will continue.  This idea, along with others, were some of the first sociological theories in history and laid the groundwork for later historical work in that vein.

Ibn Khaldun’s legacy is so well-known worldwide that British historian Arnold Toynbee went so far as to say that Khaldun’s universal history “is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.”

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