Home » History » Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) on the Importance of History

Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) on the Importance of History

“[…] History is a discipline that has a great number of approaches. Its useful aspects are very many. Its goal is distinguished. History acquaints us with the conditions of past nations as they are reflected in their national character. It acquaints us with the biographies of the Prophets and with the dynasties and policies of rulers…The writing of history requires numerous sources and much varied knowledge. It also requires a good speculative mind and thoroughness, which lead the historian to truth and keep him from slips and errors. If he trusts historical information in its plain transmitted form and has no clear knowledge of other principles resulting from custom, the fundamental facts of politics, the nature of civilization, or the conditions governing human social organization, and if, furthermore, he does evaluate remote or ancient material through comparison with near or contemporary material, he often cannot avoid stumbling and slipping and deviating from the path of truth…

“It should be known that history is informative about human social organization, which itself is identical with world civilization. It deals with such conditions affecting the nature of civilization as, for instance, savagery and sociability, group feelings [‘asabiyya], and the different ways by which one group of human beings achieves dominance over another. It deals with [political] authority and the dynasties that result in this manner and with the various ranks that exist within them. Also with the different kinds of gainful occupations and ways of making a living, with the sciences and crafts that human beings pursue as part of their activities and efforts, and with all the other institutions that originate in civilization through its very nature. Untruth naturally afflicts historical information. There are various reasons that make this unavoidable. One of them is partisanship for opinions and schools….Prejudice and partisanship obscure the critical faculty and preclude critical investigation. The result is that falsehoods are accepted and transmitted…Another reason is the fact that people as a rule approach great and high-ranking [historical] persons with praise and encomiums. They embellish conditions and spread their fame. The information made public in such cases is not truthful. Human souls long for praise and people pay great attention to this world and the positions and wealth it offers. As a rule, they feel no desire for virtue and have no special interest in virtuous people. Another reason making untruth unavoidable, and this one is more powerful than all the reasons previously mentioned, is ignorance of the nature of various conditions arising in civilization. Every event (or phenomenon), whether (it comes about in connection with some) essence or (as a result of) action, must inevitably possess a nature peculiar to its essence as well as to the accidental conditions that may attach themselves to it. If the student knows the nature of events and the circumstances and requirements in the world of existence, it will help them to distinguish the truth from untruth in investigating the historical information critically.”

(From the Muqaddima, trans. Franz Rosenthal)


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