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Ibn Khaldun, the Father of Sociology

An avid reader, great traveller, experienced politician and extraordinary historian, Ibn Khaldun was one of the greatest and most influential men in the medieval Arab World

Mohammed Elrazzaz, Wednesday 15 Aug 2012
Statue of Ibn Khaldun
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“He who has not seen Cairo knows not the glory of Islam, for it is the metropolis of the Earth, the garden of the World, the forum for the gathering of nations, the birthplace of humanity, the palace of Islam, the throne of power, a city adorned with palaces and mansions, embellished with colleges and schools.” – Ibn Khaldun in his Diaries

A stone’s throw from the Complex of Qalawun where Ibn Al-Nafis once lectured is another pearl of Mamluk architecture: the Mosque-Madrasa of Al-Zahir Barquq, founded by the first Sultan of the Burji Mamluks. It was in this Madrasa that a prominent Tunisian historian and judge of Andalusi origins would lecture on Maliki Fiqh (jurisprudence)...his name was Ibn Khaldun; his legacy is a radical change in the way we perceive, compile and analyse history.

Born in Tunis to a family that once lived in Seville and that had fled Al-Andalus under the pressure of the ‘Reconquista’, he had his first lessons at Masjid Al-Qubba, a mosque that still stands today in the Tunisian capital. Later he studied at Al-Zaytuna Mosque-University and travelled around Al-Maghreb and Al-Andalus before finally moving to Cairo, the place of choice for countless other intellectuals and scholars that were drawn to the city, being a major centre of learning (Baghdad had already been sacked by the Mongols a century earlier, and Cordoba was no more under the Islamic rule).

The famous historian Ibn Taghribirdi tells un in his ‘Al-Nujum Al-Zahira’ that Ibn Khaldun was already a much respected jurist and judge by the time he arrived at Cairo, but his fame would grow as he lectured where Ibn Al-Haytham once did: Al-Azhar, the world’s second oldest university (second only to Al-Qarawiyyin in Fez). His students hailed his knowledge while the other teachers, jealous of his popularity, criticised his unusual method of lecturing and his uncompromising character.

It was not long before the Mamluk Sultan, Barquq, would elevate Ibn Khaldun to a rank that befitted his calibre. Ibn Khaldun tells us in his diaries that, around 1384, the Sultan appointed him as the Maliki Qadi (Judge), which would mark a new episode of his life in Egypt. A considerable part of his career would be shaped by his relation to Barquq and his son Faraj. He had his ups and down with Barquq, but he was smart enough to navigate the hardships that he faced.

Between Madrasas: From Barquq to Sarghatmish

The fourteenth century was one in which magnificent madrasas were built throughout the Muslim World. Al-Madrasa Al-Yusufiyya in Granada (Nasrid), the Bou Inania Madrasa in Fez (Merinid) and the Madrasa of Sultan Hassan in Cairo (Mamluk) are just a few examples, but it was at the Madrasa of Barquq that Ibn Khaldun lectured in the Maliki iwan. Upon entering this Madrasa, a long corridor leads us into the open-air courtyard, flanked on all four sides by iwans (vaulted halls that are walled on three sides, with the fourth opening into the courtyard). There came a time when students from all over the Muslim World flocked into iwans like these where they received valuable lessons on fiqh. They studied and resided at these madrasas, and many of them became prominent scholars and intellectuals.

In addition to his monumental madrasa, Barquq is famous in the history of Cairo’s urban development for another very good reason: It was during his reign – and with his support – that the Prince Jaharkas founded Khan Al-Khalili, which is a short walk from here. But one would have to exit the city by the southern Gate of Bab Zuweila and walk for quite some time to visit yet another madrasa where, according to Ibn Al-Furat’s ‘Tarikh Al-Duwal’, Ibn Khaldun was appointed as professor hadith later in his life: the Madrasa of Sarghatmish.

This madrasa, built during the reign of Sultan Hassan by the Mamluk Prince Seif Al-Din Sarghatmish in Slaiba Street, is modest in scale and ornament when compared to other Mamluk madrasas, but Al-Maqrizi tells us that it was very popular among the Egyptians. Adjacent to the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, it shows a clear Persian influence in its domes, and conforms to the tradition cruciform plan, with four iwans and an open-air courtyard. One only has to imagine Ibn Khaldun sitting in one of the corners to appreciate its history.

The Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun

“It is (Al-Muqaddimah) a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.” - Arnold J. Toynbee

Toynbee was one of many intellectuals impressed and influenced by Ibn Khaldun. The list goes on to include names like Hegel, Descartes, Montesquieu, Marx, etc. ‘Al-Muqaddimah’ was just the first book of Ibn Khaldun’s ‘Kitab Al-Ibar’, a world history composed of seven books. His critical approach to interpreting history and the novelty of the concepts that he introduced made him way ahead of his time…a time marked by political turmoil that was part-and-parcel of his life wherever he went. It happened in Granada, Bijaya, Tunis, and even in Cairo, but destiny had one more surprise in store for him, a most unexpected encounter.

It all happened following the death of Barquq and the rise of his son Faraj to power. The Mongols under Tamerlane, having sacked Aleppo, marched on to besiege Damascus. Ibn Khaldun accompanied the young Sultan as he headed to Syria to rescue the city, but Faraj, as inexperienced as he was, decided to rush back to Egypt to crush a local revolt, leaving the city at the mercy of the ruthless Mongols. Ibn Khaldun suddenly found himself in the awkward and hazardous position of having to negotiate with Tamerlane. Ibn Khaldun would live to tell about this experience, something that further consolidated his image as an eloquent negotiator and a witty diplomat.

An avid reader, a great traveller, an experienced politician and an extraordinary historian, his political endeavours did not interfere with his dedication to formulating his views on history in his celebrated masterpiece. A contemporary, and at times, colleague, of such figures as Ibn Al-Khatib, Al-Maqrizi, Al-Askalani, Ibn Battuta and others, he surpassed them all as he carved his name among the greatest scholars of the Middle Ages. 

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