Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was an Arab philosopher who developed what is widely considered the first theory of social psychology and the factors behind changes in historical periods. As was the pattern of philosophers of that era, he also addressed just about everything else in his era.
The early life of Ibn Khaldun is pretty interesting in its own right as an example of how early experiences can impact later life choices. That said, Arnold Toynbee wrote in 1955 that Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah was “undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.” And in an era, when Arab and Muslim folk are often portrayed negatively, it seems only right to lift up some of the greats of their culture and history.
Ibn Khaldun: An Intellect Shaped by the Black Death
Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis (North Africa) in 1332 into a particularly tumultuous time. His family of administrators and scholars moved from Seville in Spain with the fall of Muslim rule there in the previous century. When the brilliant youth was only 17 years of age, the plague spread through North Africa. Not only did his parents die of the disease, but most of his beloved teachers as well.
Of the Black Death, Ibn Khaldun wrote: “Civilization decreased with the decrease of mankind. Cities and buildings were laid waste, roads and signs were obliterated, settlements and mansions became empty, dynasties and tribes grew weak. The entire inhabited world changed” (Ibn Khaldun, p. 30). Of his personal loss, he noted nothing beyond the bare boned details.
Ibn Khaldun was profoundly impacted by the Black Death and the protracted conflict between Christian and Muslim cultures of his era. It seems unlikely that his interest in the upheavals of history and their impact on human psychology was coincidental.
Ibn Khaldun’s Theory of History Emerges
In 1382, Ibn Khaldun completed his masterwork, The Muqadimmah, explicitly tying his motivation to the plague. “When there is a general change of conditions (like the plague), it is as if the entire creation had changed and the whole world had been altered … Therefore, there is need at this time that someone should systematically set down the situation of the world…” Of the specific cultural impact of the plague, he said nothing. He only briefly attributed plagues in general to overcrowded urban conditions that tended to occur towards the end of urban dynasties (p. 256).
Nor did Ibn Khaldun write anything of how these events personally shaped his viewpoint. But consider for a moment that in a matter of weeks he lost nearly every relationship of importance to him. How could he not think that he had entered a radically changed new chapter of his life? He also witnessed the end of arguably the richest cultural period of human history to date in the end of cosmopolitan and multi-culturally tolerant Iberia. How could he not think of it as an end of an age?
Ibn Khaldun introduced a new way of looking at the interpretation of history, the process and necessary conditions of scientific inquiry and the impact on culture on individual character. Indeed, he referred to his methods as his “new science.” It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that Ibn Khaldun was a transformative figure in the understanding of history precisely because he himself was transformed by its implacable currents.
Ibn Khaldun begins his classic work with a critique of the methods of historians which remains valid to this day. He noted seven flaws any historian must watch for. His list of errors included partisanship to a particular point of view, over-confidence in your sources, lack of appreciation of the intentions of those sources, mistaken beliefs, failure to place historical events in proper context, a desire to gain points with powerful others by your writing and, finally, ignorance of the laws of how human culture is transformed across time.
Social and Cultural Change per Ibn Khaldun
Ibn Khaldun has also been heralded as the founder of sociology and less often as the first social psychologist. A broad and profound thinker, his precise domains are hard to pin down, but he clearly addresses how history impacts culture and individual psychology.
In addition, Ibn Khaldun argued that there are, broadly speaking, two types of societies: rural and urban. Urban societies emerge out of rural ones. There are three basic types of rural societies: Camel-desert societies, pastoral societies and agricultural societies. In the first phase of rural societies, the focus of individuals is on material necessities. Only in the second phase, in which wealth is accumulated beyond survival needs, does the movement towards urban societies take place:
The great Arab philosopher wrote: “(People), then, co-operate for thing beyond the bare necessities. They use more food and clothes, and take pride in them. They build large houses, and lay out towns and cities for protection.”
Urban society, as defined by Ibn Khaldun, included cities, towns, and smaller communities. The harder rural live and greater survival challenges associated with it result in a type of courage and psychological strength not as readily found in urban dwellers. It also produced something Ibn Khaldun called casabiyyah or “social solidarity.”
In terms of political dynasties, they tend to proceed through five stages, typically within three generation, as reflected by the behavior of its rulers: success, consolidation, leisure and tranquility, contentment and peacefulness, and finally waste and squandering.
Casabiyyah or “Social Solidarity”
Ibn Khadun suggested that this sense of social solidarity is more strongly present in rural societies or tribes and captures various aspects that might be called common sentiment, feelings of solidarity and a collective consciousness. Properly organized, Ibn Khaldun believed casbiyyah could work in any given society as a force for protection and positive change. Casabiyyah has its basis in the ecological, biological and ethical.
The strength of such social bonds, and the pull for helpful intervention that it evokes, depends on the sense of kinship and proximity of others. He wrote how “one feels shame when one’s relatives are treated unjustly or attacked, and one wishes to intervene between them and whatever peril or destruction threatens them … If the direct relationship between persons who help each other is very close, so that it leads to close contact and unity, the ties are obvious … If, however, the relationship is somewhat distant, it is often forgotten in part … Clients and allies belong in the same category. (Ibn Khaldun, p. 98)
A sense of honor spurs such assistance and a sense of shame results whenever one is unable to help kin, friends or allies. Ibn Khaldun did not address how a crisis like the plague could impact social solidarity.
The role played by urban culture
Ibn Khaldun consistently argued that the more difficult desert life produced higher character, while the more sedentary urban life tended to demean it, Of urban dwellers, Ibn Khaldun wrote: “They are accustomed to luxury and success in worldly occupations and to indulgence in worldly desires. Therefore, their souls are more colored with all kinds of blameworthy and evil qualities. The more of them they possess, the more remote do the ways and means of goodness become to them. Eventually they lose all sense of restraint.” (p. 94).
But why should this be so? Ibn Khaldun argued that “the quality and the number of the crafts depend on the greater or less extent of civilization in the cities and on the sedentary culture and luxury they enjoy, because (highly developed crafts) are something additional to just making a living … These activities are man’s prerogative. They are the sciences and the crafts” (p. 343). Ibn Khaldun appeared to assume that the larger the city, the more likely they collectively were beyond subsistence living and thus had more opportunities for a wide variety of professions.
Interestingly enough, of all the arts, crafts and sciences, he felt singing as a product for popular consumption was the last craft to be attained in an urban culture and thus the most susceptible to loss when a city went into decline (p. 331).
Ibn Khaldun’s psychology of vanquished peoples
In a way that had rarely if ever been articulated so completely before, Ibn Khaldun noted that vanquished individuals and groups assume the superiority of those who vanquished them, however erroneous that assumption might be. “Therefore, the vanquished can always be observed to assimilate themselves to the victor in the use and style of dress, mounts, and weapons; indeed, in everything” (p. 116). Further, apathy and loss of hope comes over a vanquished people when they lose control over their own affairs and the vitality of their culture is diminished (p. 117).
The nature of the stigmatized other
Ibn Khaldun also wrote on the psychology of those in out-groups—servants, slaves, and Jews—and why they often seemed to display negative characteristics. He discouraged severe treatment of servants and slaves who lied, arguing that the fear of punishment led them to avoid telling the truth for fear of negative consequences in the first place. While holding to the stereotype of the servant as untrustworthy, he laid responsibility for the development of that character at the feet of their masters. Similarly, while Ibn Khaldun accepted the anti-Semitic stereotype of Jews as deceitful and untrustworthy, he argued this character was developed because of a history of mistreatment (Ibn Khadun, 2005). This interpretation is far from ideal, but for its time was relatively progressive.
The Future after Ibn Khaldun
As Europe recovered from the devastating impact of the Black Death, a new and richer future was on ready to be realized. Ibn Khaldun would have readily recognized it as a new epoch. European historians came to call it the Renaissance.
Ibn Khaldun (1967). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Tr. and introduced by Franz Rosenthal. Abridged and edited by N. J. Dawood. Princeton, MJ: Princeton University Press.