Who was Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406)? Despite his fame as one of the greatest Muslim thinkers in history, his personal story is not well-known. That is sure to change with the superb new biography of the intellectual giant by Allen James Fromherz. His original portrait of Ibn Khaldun reveals the man behind the ideas that have shaped our knowledge in history and the social sciences.
Allen James Fromherz is an Assistant Professor of Medieval, Mediterranean and Islamic History at Georgia State University. A graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of St. Andrews, Fromherz is the author of “The Almohads: The Rise of an Islamic Empire” (2010). Fromherz notes that some influential scholars have discouraged potential biographical studies of him because they believed the sources are too slim, incomplete or inconclusive. Fromherz, on the other hand, discovered essential clues about Ibn Khaldun’s personality and private life from his autobiography and a wide range of primary sources.
Born into an aristocratic Tunisian family, Ibn Khaldun was destined for success. Gifted with superior intelligence and guided by excellent teachers, he mastered his broad studies and developed an independent outlook. “Ibn Khaldun,” Fromherz writes, “was not educated in the pressure-cooker of political indoctrination that often characterized the madrasa, but by experience, travel, and encounters with a wide array of teachers.”
Ibn Khaldun’s parents, relatives and close associates died in the global pandemic of the “Black Death” in the 14th century. He wrote that “the entire creation” and “the whole world had been altered” by this devastating plague. In Fez, Morocco he studied with a prominent group of scholars and married the daughter of a famous general. His erudition earned him a series of judicial and diplomatic appointments in Spain and North Africa. Fromherz maintains that diplomatic skirmishes moved Ibn Khaldun to “look at society from a cool, clinical distance”.
Ibn Khaldun’s scientific methodology was innovative and remains influential to this day. His “Muqaddimah” (1377) is not only an introduction to history; it is a key to understanding history itself. According to Fromherz, Ibn Khaldun’s original insight is that “tribal solidarity, or ‘asabiyya’, was the primary explanation for the rise [and fall] of empires, rulers and dynasties.” His powerful insight is a window to interpreting our past and present. n
“Ibn Khaldun, Life and Times”, Allen James Fromherz, (Edinburgh University Press, 2010)
– Saudi Gazette