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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 9    Issue 22   01-15 April 2015

Ibn Khaldun: The Founder of Sociology

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Muslim philosophers and thinkers, particularly Ibn Miskawayh, Ibn Sina, Al-Farabi and Ibn Khaldun, have dealt with the nature, structure and dynamics of society at considerable length. Ibn Miskawayh (d. 1030) observed that man’s nature has been constituted in such a way that he cannot live in isolation from fellow human beings. Animals are fairly self-sufficient in that they have been endowed with feathers, claws and sharp teeth, which protect them from the harshness of the weather and external dangers and enable them to procure food. Man lacks such physical resources and is consequently dependent on other human beings for his survival. Ibn Miskaway says that the existence of society is in consonance with man’s nature and his needs and is necessary for the actualization of his potentialities. Abun-Nasr al-Farabi (d. 950) says that society is a vital means for the actualization of man’s inherent potentialities and capabilities. He maintains that the unfolding of human potentialities is not possible unless the various groups in society cooperate with one another and help in the fulfillment of their collective needs.

The first systematic formulation of sociology as a distinct field of inquiry is found in the work of the 14th century North African historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun. Wali al-Din Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis in 1332 CE in an Arab family. His fame rests on a monumental history of mankind, known as Kitab al-Ibar. Ibn Khaldun died in 1406.

Ibn Khaldun’s observations and reflections on themes that are distinctly sociological are found in the Muqaddimah, or Prolegomena, which forms the first part of Kitab al-Ibar. In the Prolegomena, Ibn Khaldun discusses a wide range of subjects, including the influence of environmental conditions on society and human character, different forms of political organization and government, differences between rural and urban populations, kinship, social solidarity, and the interface between economic conditions and social organization. His analyses and conclusions were informed by textual sources as well as his personal observations and experiences.

Ibn Khaldun says that man is distinguished from animals in certain key features. These include the reasoning faculty, the capacity for making tools and instruments, and interdependence on fellow human beings. He maintained that society is necessary for human beings because individuals living in isolation could neither protect themselves from external threats nor could they fulfill their basic needs on their own. He emphasised the central role of cooperation in human society, especially in respect of the fulfillment of basic needs and protection against external threats.

Ibn Khaldun drew a line of contrast between the social organization and way of life of nomadic and pastoral communities living in villages and deserts and those of the inhabitants of cities. He suggested that nomadic life (badawah), characteristic of rural areas, and sedentary life (hadarah), which defines the urban way of life, should be viewed as ideal types. Nomadic life, according to him, represented a closely-knit, cohesive society in which group solidarity (asabiyah), based on kinship, was a central element. On the other hand, lack of cohesiveness is a defining feature of urban life. Ibn Khaldun argued that urban life was inherently inimical to social cohesion because it has a deficit of kinship, which is the bedrock of social cohesion. He argued, on the basis of his analysis of the history and societies of North Africa, that group solidarity was instrumental in the transformation of a tribe into a political power, which often resulted in the founding of a ruling dynasty or state. He considered historical change and social transformation as organic and cyclical processes.

Ibn Khaldun is relatively well-known in Western scholarship. De Slane translated the Muqaddimah in French in 1863 and Franz Rosenthal published an English translation in 1958. Some Western historians and sociologists have recognized and acknowledged Ibn Khaldun’s pioneering contribution to sociology. A. J. Toynbee hailed the Prolegomena as “undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place.” The Austrian sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz (d. 1909) included a chapter on Ibn Khaldun in his book Sociological Essays. Pitirim Sorokin, C. C. Zimmerman and C. J. Galpin regarded Ibn Khaldun as the father of sociology. Pitirim Sorokin, a well-known Russian-American sociologist, described the Prolegomena as “the earliest systematic treatise in sociology.” H. E. Barnes and Howard Becker, in their authoritative history of sociology, hailed Ibn Khaldun as “the greatest of early modern sociologists.” Ernest Gellner, a well-known British sociologist, has described Ibn Khaldun as a superb deductive sociologist, a pioneering advocate of the method of ideal types and the greatest sociologist of Islam.

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