The Father of Social Science

Monday, August 17th, 2015

Ed West writes about the father of social science, 14th century Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun, and his notion of asabiyyah, or social capital:

Born in Tunis on May 27, 1332, Ibn Khaldun pioneered the fields of sociology and history, as well as touching on economics and science, during his long life spent serving as an ambassador and supreme justice across the Islamic Mediterranean. His history book the Muqaddimah puts him up with Herodotus and Thucydides as one of the fathers of that discipline, while the Scottish theologian Robert Flint once said that ‘Plato, Aristotle and Augustine were not his peers, and all others were unworthy of being even mentioned along with him’. Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi, said of him that ‘he has every claim to be called the world’s first sociologist. Not for another 300 years would the West produce a figure of comparable originality.’

Ibn Khaldun was very much a product of the pan-Islamic world, which was then coming to the end of its golden age. His family had originated in southern Arabia in the 9th century before moving to Spain, although they may have originally been Berbers who adopted an Arab identity in order to acquire status. They had fled from Seville following its capture by the Christians in 1248 and his family held office under the Berber Hafsid dynasty that had come to power in North Africa in 1229, but his father and grandfather had retired from public life – and Ibn Khaldun’s turbulent life would suggest their decision to be wise.

As a boy, Ibn Khaldun was taught by some of the best scholars in the Maghreb, learning the Koran as well as Islamic law, grammar, rhetoric, mathematics and philosophy. Among the Muslim thinkers he studied were Avicenna, the eleventh-century author of the Book of Healing who produced hundreds of works during the peak of Islamic intellectual flourishing; Averroes, the great philosopher of medieval Cordoba, who promoted the work of Aristotle; and the Iranian Fakhruddin Razi, who first posited the multiverse hypothesis in the 12th century. Ibn Khaldun would also have read much Greek philosophy, which had been translated into Arabic in Mesopotamia by Syriac-speaking Christians fluent in both languages.

The Hafsids were the latest in a series of Arab and Berber dynasties that had come to power in North Africa as the strength of previous rulers had faded, until their energy eventually burned out in turn, a cycle that would influence Ibn Khaldun’s thinking. He saw that empires rise when their peoples have strong asabiyyah, but once established slowly begin to lose what might now be called social solidarity or social capital, and are then in turn overthrown by newcomers.

A great traveler, Ibn Khaldun was taken even further by his imagination; the historian Arnold Toynbee described the Muqaddimah (literally ‘The Introduction’ – it was supposed to be part of a larger volume, the Kitab al-Ibar, or ‘Book of Lessons’) as ‘undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place’.

Ibn Khaldun charted the story of the world from creation, which began with ‘the minerals and progressed, in an ingenious, gradual manner, to plants and animals’ and onto human history. Anticipating Darwin, he wrote: ‘The animal world then widens, its species become numerous, and, in a gradual process of creation, it finally leads to man, who is able to think and reflect. The higher stage of man is reached from the world of monkeys, in which both sagacity and perception are found, but which has not reached the stage of actual reflection and thinking. At this point we come to the first stage of man.’

Human society, he argued, has laws like with any other science and for that reason Ibn Khaldun is widely considered the father of sociology, or as he called it ‘ilm al-’umran, ‘the science of culture’. He wrote: ‘Human society is necessary since the individual acting alone could acquire neither the necessary food nor security. Only the division of labour, in and through society, makes this possible. The state arises through the need of a restraining force to curb the natural aggression of humanity. A state is inconceivable without a society, while a society is well-nigh impossible without a state. Social phenomena seem to obey laws which, while not as absolute as those governing natural phenomena, are sufficiently constant to cause social events to follow regular and well-defined patterns and sequences.’

He also covered the sphere of economics, among his most famous quotes being that ‘it should be known that at the beginning of the dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments.’ This formed part of his essentially cyclical view of history and society, and would inspire the Laffer Curve, as coined by the economist Arthur Laffer in the 1970s, who later credited Ibn Khaldun with the idea.


  1. T. Greer says:

    Readers might be interested to read the introduction to Ibn Khaldun and Asabiyah that I wrote for the Scholar’s Stage. I’m inclined to say that it is the best essay I have ever yet written for that forum.

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