Ibn Khaldun

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Observations on History

Estimating the Size of Armies

The Science of Society

Attributes of Man

Empires have Their Natural Term




Abu Zaid ibn Mahommed ibn Mahommed ibn Khaldun (1332-1406 CE) was born in Tunis. He studied various branches of Arabic learning and held high positions in Tunis, Granada, Fez, and Cairo, where he became a judge of Muslim law in 1384 CE. At this time a ship containing Ibn Khaldun's wife, children, and all of his property was wrecked, with no survivors. These were volatile times and he was repeatedly removed from his position and subsequently reinstated. There were intrigues against him in both Tunis and Granada.  Ibn Khaldun was thrown into prison at one time, at another he raised a large force in Tunis against the desert Arabs. In 1400 CE he was sent to Damascus with an expedition to oppose the Mongolian conqueror, Tamerlane. After the expedition failed, Tamerlane permitted Ibn Khaldun to return to Egypt, where he died.

Ibn Khaldun wrote A Universal History, which deals primarily with the history of the Arabs of Spain and Africa. In his introduction, he puts forward his views on the science of history and the development of society. Extracts are given below. Here we see not only how an original historian invents his calling, but also how unstable societies can be when newly founded by nomads taking up a permanent residence. For Ibn Kahaldun  such societies last only for three generations, or 120 years. This presumably accords with his experience, and explained for him why he experienced such turmoil in his life.


Observations on History

1   Know that the science of history is noble in its conception, abounding in instruction, and exalted in its aim. It acquaints us with the characteristics of ancient peoples, the ways of life followed by prophets, and the dynasties and government of kings, so that those who wish may draw valuable lessons for their guidance in religious and worldly affairs.

2    The student of history, however, requires numerous sources of information and a great variety of knowledge; he must consider well and examine carefully in order to arrive at the truth and avoid errors and pitfalls. If he rely on bare tradition, without having thoroughly grasped the principles of common experience, the institutes of government, the nature of civilization, and the circumstances of human society, and without judging what is past and invisible by the light of what is present before his eyes, then he will often be in danger of stumbling and slipping and losing the right road. Many errors committed by historians, commentators, and leading traditionalists in their narrative of events have been caused by their reliance on mere tradition, which they have accepted without regard to its worth, neglecting to refer it to its general principles, judge it by its analogies, and test it by the standard of wisdom, knowledge of the natures of things, and exact historical criticism. Thus they have gone astray from the truth and wandered in the desert of imagination and error.

Especially is this the case in computing sums of money and numbers of troops, when such matters occur in their narratives; for here falsehood and exaggeration are to be expected, and one must always refer to general principles and submit to the rules [of possibility].


Estimating the Size of Armies

  3    For example, Mas’udi and many other historians relate that Moses—on whom be peace!— numbered the armies of the Israelites in the wilderness, after he had reviewed all the men capable of bearing arms who were twenty years old or above that age, and that they amounted to 600,000 or more. Now, in making this statement he forgot to consider whether Egypt and Syria are large enough to support armies of that size, for it is a fact attested by well-known custom and familiar experience that every kingdom keeps for its defense only such a force as it can maintain and furnish with rations and pay. Moreover, it would be impossible for armies so huge to march against each other or fight, because the territory is too limited in extent to allow of it, and because, when drawn up in ranks, they would cover a space twice or three times as far as the eye can reach, if not more. How should these two hosts engage in battle, or one of them gain the victory, when neither wing knows anything of what is happening on the other? The present time bears witness to the truth of my observations: water is not so like to water as the future to the past.

4    The Persian Empire was much greater than the kingdom of the Israelites, as appears from the conquest of the latter by Nebuchadnezzar, who attacked their country, made himself master of their dominions, and laid waste Jerusalem, the chief seat of their religion and power, although he was only the governor of a Persian province: it is said that he was the satrap of the western frontiers. The Persians ruled over the two ‘Iraks, Khurasan, Transoxania, and the lands opening on the Caspian Sea—an empire far more extensive than that of the Israelites; yet their armies never equaled or even approached the number mentioned above. Their army at Kadisfya, the greatest they ever mustered, was 120,000 strong, and each of these was accompanied by a retainer. Saif, by whom this is related, adds that the whole force exceeded 200,000. According to ‘A’isha and Zuhri, the troops under Rustam who were opposed to Sa’d at Kadislya were only 60,000 strong, each man having a follower.

5    Again, if the Israelites had reached this total, vast would have been the extent of their kingdom and wide the range of their power. Provinces and kingdoms are small or great in proportion to the numbers of their soldiery and population, as we shall explain in the chapter concerning empires in the First Book. Now, it is well-known that the territories of the Israelites did not extend, in Syria, beyond al-Urdunn and Palestine, and in the Hijaz, beyond the districts of Yathrib and Khaibar.

      Furthermore, according to the trustworthy authorities, there were only four fathers between Moses and Israel. Moses was the son of ‘Imran the son of Yas-hur the son of Kahat or Kahit the son of Lawi or Lawa the son of Jacob or Isra’ilu ‘llah. This is his genealogy as given in the Pentateuch. The length of time separating them is recorded by Mas’udi, who says that when Israel entered Egypt and came to Joseph with his sons, the Patriarchs and their children, seventy persons in all, they abode in Egypt under the dominion of the Pharaohs, the kings of the Copts, two hundred and twenty years until they went forth into the wilderness with Moses, on whom be peace. It is incredible that in the course of four generations their offspring should have multiplied so enormously.


The Science of Society

6    That being so, the rule for distinguishing the true from the false in history is based on possibility or impossibility; that is to say, we must examine human society, by which I mean civilization, and discriminate between the characteristics essential to it and inherent in its nature and those which are accidental and unimportant, recognizing further those which cannot possibly belong to it. If we do that, we shall have a canon for separating historical fact and truth from error and falsehood by a method of proof that admits of no doubt; and then, if we hear an account of any of the things that happen in civilized society, we shall know how to distinguish what we judge to be worthy of acceptance from what we judge to be spurious, having in our hands an infallible criterion which enables historians to verify whatever they relate.

    Such is the purpose of the First Book of the present work. And it would seem that this is an independent science. For it has a subject, namely, human civilization and society; and problems, namely, to explain in succession the accidental features and essential characters of civilization. This is the case with every science, the intellectual as well as those founded on authority.

7    The matter of the following discourse is novel, original, and instructive. I have discovered it by dint of deep thought and research. It appertains not to the science of oratory, which is only concerned with such language as will convince the multitude and be useful for winning them over to an opinion or persuading them to reject the same. Nor, again, does it form part of the science of civil government; i.e. the proper regulation of a household or city in accordance with moral and philosophical laws, in order that the people may be led to live in a way that tends to preserve and perpetuate the species.

      These two sciences may resemble it, but its subject differs from theirs. It appears to be a new invention; and indeed I have not met with a discourse upon it by any one in the world. I do not know whether this is due to their neglect of the topic—and we need not think the worse of them for that— or whether, perhaps, they may have treated it exhaustively in books that have not come down to us [as in the case of Thucydides and Sima Qian].

8    Amongst the races of mankind the sciences are many and the savants numerous, and the knowledge we have lost is greater in amount than all that has reached us. What has become of the sciences of the Persians, whose writings were destroyed by ‘Umar (may God be well-pleased with him!) at the time of the conquest? Where are those of Chaldaea, Assyria, and Babylonia, with all that they produced and left behind them? Where are those of the Copts and of peoples yet more ancient? We have received the sciences of but one nation, the Greeks, and that only because Ma’mun took pains to have their books translated from the language in which they were composed. He was enabled to do this by finding plenty of translators and expending large sums on the work. Of the sciences of other peoples we know nothing.

9    Now we shall set forth in this Book the various features of civilization as they appear in human society: kingship, acquisition of wealth, the sciences, and the arts. We shall employ demonstrative methods to verify and elucidate the knowledge spread amongst all classes, to refute false opinions, and to remove uncertainties.


Attributes of Man

10  Man is distinguished from the other animals by attributes peculiar to himself. Amongst these are:

      (1) The sciences and arts produced by the faculty of reflection, which distinguishes men from the animals and exalts him above the rest of created beings.

      (2) The need for an authority to restrain and a government to coerce him. Of the animals he is the only one that cannot exist without this. As for what is said concerning bees and locusts, even if they have something of the sort, they have it by instinct, not from reflection and consideration.

      (3) The labor and industry which supply him with diverse ways and means of obtaining a livelihood, inasmuch as God has made nourishment necessary to him for the maintenance of his life and has directed him to seek it and search after it. He gave unto all things their nature: then He directed.

      (4) Civilization: i.e. settling down and dwelling together in a city or in tents for the sake of social intercourse and for the satisfaction of their needs, because men are naturally disposed to help each other to subsist, as we shall explain presently. This civilization is either nomadic or residential. The former is found in steppes and mountains, among the pastoral tribes of the desert and the inhabitants of remote sands; the latter in towns, villages, cities, and cultivated tracts, whither men resort for safety and in order to be protected by walls. In all these circumstances it exhibits the phenomena characteristic of a social state.

11  Accordingly, the matter of this Book must be comprised in six chapters:

   I. Human society in general, its various divisions, and the part of the earth which it occupies.

 II. Nomadic civilization, with an account of the wild tribes and peoples.

III. Dynasties, the Caliphate, kingship, and the high offices of government.

IV. The settled civilization of countries and cities.

 V. Crafts, means of livelihood, and the various ways of making money.

VI. The sciences, and how they are acquired and learned.


Empires have Their Natural Term

12  An empire, as we remarked, seldom outlives three generations. The first maintains its nomadic character, its rude and savage ways of life; inured to hardships, brave, fierce, and sharing renown with each other, the tribesmen preserve their solidarity in full vigor: their swords are kept sharp, their attack is feared, and their neighbors vanquished.

13  With the second generation comes a change. Possessing dominion and affluence, they turn from nomadic to settled life, and from hardship to ease and plenty. The authority, instead of being shared by all, is appropriated by one, while the rest, too spiritless to make an effort to regain it, abandon the glory of ambition for the shame of subjection. Their solidarity is weakened in some degree; yet one may notice that not­withstanding the indignity to which they submit, they retain much of what they have known and witnessed in the former generation—the feelings of fierceness and pride, the desire for honor, and the resolution to defend themselves and repulse their foes. These qualities they cannot lose entirely, though a part be gone. They hope to become again such men as their fathers were, or they fancy that the old virtues still survive amongst them.

14  In the third generation the wandering life and rough manners of the desert are forgotten, as though they had never been. At this stage men no longer take delight in glory and patriotism, since all have learned to bow under the might of a sovereign and are so addicted to luxurious pleasures that they have become a burden on the state; for they require protection like women and young boys. Their national spirit is wholly extinguished; they have no stomach for resistance, defense, or attack. Nevertheless they impose on the people by their bearing and uniform, their horsemanship, and the address with which they maneuver. It is but a false show: they are in general greater cowards than the most helpless women, and will give way at the first assault.

      The monarch in those days must needs rely on the bravery of others, enroll many of the freedmen, and recruit soldiers capable, to some extent of guarding the empire, until God proclaims the hour of its destruction and it falls with everything that it upholds. Thus do empires age and decay in the course of three generations.



Adapted from  Prolegomena by Ibn Khaldun, translated in part by Reynold A. Nicholson in Translations of Eastern Poetry and Prose. Cambridge University Press, England, 1922.

                                           Adaptation and selection Copyright © Rex Pay 2000