Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani’s Biography of Ibn Khaldun (d. 808/1406)

The following is my own translation of the biography of the renowned Andalusī-North African historian ‘Abd al-Raḥmān b. Khaldūn (d. 808/1406) which was written by Ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī (d. 856/1449) in the early 15th century. Ibn Ḥajar was a leading 15th-century Shāfi’ī scholar who authored dozens of works about Islamic law, theology, history, and biography. In addition, he was an important official of state in Mamluk Egypt, holding the post of Chief Justice (qādī) several times. This biography of Ibn Khaldūn, whom he met when he was a young man, is drawn from Raf‘ al-Iṣr ‘an Qudāt Miṣr, his biographical work about the various individuals appointed to the office of judge in medieval Egypt.

Decidedly hostile, the account reflects Ibn Ḥajar’s strong opinions about Ibn Khaldūn, whose polarizing personality and actions had earned him many enemies in North Africa and Egypt, including many of Ibn Ḥajar’s own teachers. Far from being recognized as an outstanding scholar and brilliant intellectual, Ibn Ḥajar’s account illustrates that Ibn Khaldūn was not particularly highly esteemed by certain portions of the scholarly establishment. Despite the polemical nature of the text, it is an important source since it does serve as an important counterbalance to more favorable and panegyrical biographical narratives of Ibn Khaldūn provided by his students, such as Taqī al-Dīn al-Maqrīzī (d. 845/1442), or his own autobiography. It gives historians some important insight into Ibn Khaldūn’s legacy among a particular group of leading scholars (al-Bishbīshī, Ibn Ḥajar, al-Sakhawī and their students/colleagues) in 15th-century Egypt.  Moreover, the text also alllows scholars to better appreciate the manner in which hostility and prejudice towards particular individuals could be transmitted from teacher to student, which is abundantly clear in the particular case of Ibn Ḥajar, whose views on Ibn Khaldūn would heavily shape the manner in which his own student, Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad al-Sakhāwī (d. 902/1497). The final section of the biography, in which Ibn Ḥajar, rather bizarrely, accuses Ibn Khaldūn of legitimizing Fatimid genealogical claims as part of a broader scheme to delegitimize the Family of the Prophet reflects most clearly Ibn Ḥajar’s deep-seated hostility towards Ibn Khaldūn. While keeping in mind the particular socio-political, personal and intellectual context that informed Ibn Ḥajar’s opinions, his biography of the historian remains among the most important contemporary sources for Ibn Khaldūn’s life.


His full name was ‘Abd al-Raḥmān b. Muḥammad b. Muḥammad b. Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan b. Muḥammad b. Jābir b. Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm b. Muḥammad b. ‘Abd al-Raḥmān b. Khaldūn al-Ḥaḑramī, Sevillan by origin, and born in Tunis. Known as Abū Zayd Walī al-Dīn, he was among the scholars of the ninth century AH [15th century].

He was born on 1st Ramadan 732 AH [27th May 1332]. He studied under al-Wādī Āshī and Ibn ‘Abd al-Salām among others, and studied the science of Qur’anic recitation with Muḥammad b. Sa‘d b. Burrād. He also spent much of his time pursuing the study of literature, the secretarial/scribal arts (kitābah), and calligraphy until he became an expert in all of these fields. He was appointed by the ruler of Tunis to the office of Secretary of the Royal Seal (kitābat al-‘Alāmah). In 753 AH [1352–1353], he traveled to Fez where he ran afoul of the [Marinid] sultan Abū ‘Inān [r. 748–758/1348–1358]. Shortly thereafter, he experienced hardships and trials, and was imprisoned for a period of two years. [After his release from prison] he was appointed as the private secretary (kātib al-sirr) of [Marinid sultan] Abū Sālim [r. 760–763/1359–1361] and oversaw the proceedings of the maẓālim courts.

(Bou Inania Madrasa, Fez, Morocco)

Shortly afterwards, he went to al-Andalus, arriving in Granada in 764 AH [1362–1363] and was received by Ibn al-Aḥmar [Muḥammad V, r. 754–760/1354–1359, 763–793/1362–1391], who made him one of the members of his court. He was sent as ambassador [by Nasrid emir Muḥammad V] to the court of the Christian king [Pedro I, r. 1350–1369] in Sevilla, who treated him with dignity, kindness and generosity, and bestowed upon him  various gifts. Thus, he [Ibn Khaldūn] successfully completed his diplomatic mission.

(Granada, Spain. Capital of the Nasrid kingdom)

(Travels of Ibn Khaldūn in North Africa, 1354-1378)

In 766 AH [1364–1365], he made for Bijaia, where he was appointed to administer the affairs of that realm for a short time. Shortly afterwards, he journeyed to Tlemcen after being invited by its ruler, and he spent some time in Wādī al-‘Arab. He then traveled to Fez from Biskra, but was set upon by robbers along the way. The ruler of Fez died shortly before Ibn Khaldūn’s arrival in that city, where he would spend another two years of his life before traveling back to al-Andalus. After that, he went to Tlemcen where he remained for four years. In Rajab 780 AH [November 1378], he left that city and traveled to Tunis, where he stayed for a short time before seeking the permission of its ruler to make the Hajj, which the latter granted. He sailed to Alexandria, arriving in Egypt in the month of Dhū-l-Qā‘idah 784 AH. [January 1383]. He made the pilgrimage and then returned to Egypt, joining the service of [emir] Alṭunbughā al-Jūbānī [d. 797/1395] until the Sultan al-Malik al-Ẓāhir Barqūq [r. 784–791/1382–1389, 792–801/1390–1399] appointed him to the post of chief Mālikī justice of Egypt. His period as a judge was a difficult one. He treated people quite harshly and would often impose physical punishments on those he accused. When he was angered by someone he would shout: “Arrest them!” and would have them beaten until their necks turned red.

(Mamluk Sultanate around 1400)

I read written in the hand of [Jamāl al-Dīn] al-Bishbīshī [d. 820/1417][1]: “[Ibn Khaldūn] was eloquent, intelligent and handsome, and was pleasant when he was not in office. However, when he was in office he was intolerable; indeed, it was impossible to be in his company.”

Lisān al-Dīn ibn al-Khaṭīb [d. 776/1374] mentioned him in his History of Granada (Tārīkh Gharnāṭah) but did not describe him as possessing (legal) knowledge,[2] but only described his literary works and some of his poetry, which is rather mediocre. He tried his best to hide his defective skill in poetry, even though he was quite competent in poetic criticism.

Al-Rikrākī was asked about [Ibn Khaldūn] and he replied: “He is ignorant of the legal sciences (al-‘ulūm al-shar‘iyyah) but he has some acquaintance with the rational sciences (al-‘ulūm al-‘aqliyyah) but not advanced knowledge of them. He had considerable oratory skills, even greater than those of Shaykh Shams al-Dīn al-Ghumārī.”

(Colophon of a MS of Ibn Khaldūn’s Lubab al-Muhassal fi Usul al-Din, a short work of Islamic theology and philosophy completed when he was 19)

When he arrived in Egypt, he was greeted warmly and generously by its people. However, when he was appointed to public office he began to treat them harshly, imposing punishments on many of notable clerks and witnesses. It is said that the Maghribis expressed shock and disbelief when they heard that he had been appointed to the post of chief justice and ascribed this fact to the Egyptians’ lack of knowledge. When Ibn ‘Arafah [d. 803/1401] arrived in Mecca for the Hajj, he even proclaimed that “we used to consider the judgeship to be among the most noble of offices. However, when we heard that Ibn Khaldūn had been appointed to this post, we then considered it to be among the worst.”[3]


(“Circle of Justice” from Ibn Khaldun’s al-Muqaddimah. 15th c. MS, British Library Add. 9574, s. 29v)

When jurists would come to greet him, he would not do them the courtesy of standing up to return their greeting and would make flimsy excuses for anyone who faulted him for this. Ibn Khaldūn’s attitude and conduct greatly antagonized the Egyptians, until a major rivalry emerged between himself and al-Rikrākī. During a gathering of scholars, Ibn Khaldūn even produced a written fatwa which criticized Barqūq that he claimed was written in the handwriting of al-Rikrākī. Al-Rikrākī denied this and pleaded with those who had seen this paper not to believe it; indeed, it was eventually revealed to be a forgery. When Barqūq found out about this, he removed him from his post and restored Ibn al-Khayr to his office. This occurred in Jumāda I 787 AH [June 1385]. His first tenure as judge lasted for a little less than two years. He did not hold this post again until 13 years and 3 months after his removal. He performed the Hajj pilgrimage in 789 AH [December 1387]. He was frequented by many people during this period and his conduct improved considerably; he became more amiable and showed more deference to his superiors. Despite this improvement, he refused to abandon his Maghribi garb and adopt the outfit customarily worn by Egyptian judges since he loved to behave differently than everyone else.

(Minaret of the Madrasa of Sultan Barqūq. Photo taken from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/af/Flickr_-_HuTect_ShOts_-_Minaret_of_Madrasa_and_Khanqah_of_Sultan_Barquq_%D9%85%D8%A6%D8%B0%D9%86%D8%A9_%D9%85%D8%AF%D8%B1%D8%B3%D8%A9_%D9%88%D8%AE%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%87_%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%84%D8%B7%D8%A7%D9%86_%D8%A8%D8%B1%D9%82%D9%88%D9%82_-_El.Muiz_Le_Din_Allah_Street_-_Cairo_-_Egypt_-_29_05_2010_(2).jpg)

At the time when Nāṣir al-Dīn b. al-Tanasī died, Ibn Khaldūn had taken up residence in Fayyūm to teach in the college in al-Qamḥiyyah. Al-Malik al-Ẓāhir [Barqūq] had messengers sent to him informing him of his restoration to office. He was reappointed to the judgeship on the 15th of Ramadan 801 AH [May 20th 1399]. Upon assuming the office, he resumed his previous tyrannical and iniquitous conduct. However, unlike before, he now greatly increased the number of representatives and witnesses that he summoned to court. This behavior led to a massive outcry against him and he was dismissed and replaced by one of his subordinates, Nur al-Dīn ibn al-Jalāl on 12th of Muḥarram 803 AH [September 1st 1400]. During these controversies, he requested from the chief chamberlain that he be allowed to face his detractors directly. He was slandered and accused of various things, most of which had no basis in fact. He continued to be publically humiliated in every way until he was officially dismissed from the judgeship. When Ibn al-Jalāl died four months later, in Jumāada, Jamāl al-Dīn al-Aqfahsī was appointed for a brief time before being dismissed four months later, in Ramaḑān. After his dismissal, Ibn Khaldūn was reappointed.

(Gold dinar of Sultan Barqūq. Taken from http://old.stacksbowers.com/BrowseAuctions/LotDetail.aspx?AuctionID=6104&Lot=33417&LotID=461654)

This took place after his safe return from the Great Strife (al-fitna al-‘uẓma). Despite his dismissal from office, he had journeyed [with the court to Damascus] and was present in Damascus when Timūr [r. 771/1370–8071405] besieged the city. He engaged in some trickery and managed to gain an audience with Timūr, to whom he introduced himself and by whom he was treated honorably and generously. During this meeting, he responded to Timūr’s various questions and inquiries about the history of the Maghrib [for more on this meeting, see here]. He was then permitted to depart back to Egypt after Timūr gave him provisions, gifts and other honors. Upon his arrival to Egypt, he was reappointed to the judgeship, which he held for ten months before being temporarily removed and replaced by Jamāl al-Dīn al-Basāṭī for the remainder of the year. After being restored to office, Ibn Khaldūn resumed his usual conduct. He also expanded his residence on the shores of the Nile, would often indulge in listening to singing girls, spend his time with young men, and married a woman with a young brother of ill-repute. This led people to slander and defame him further.

(Mihrab of the Madrasa of Sultan Barquq. Photo taken from https://www.flickr.com/photos/jlascar/14803204015)

I read the following written in the handwriting of Jamāl al-Dīn al-Bishbīshī in his book “The Judges” (al-Qudāt): “Despite all that he himself was engaged in, he was also notoriously scornful and disrespectful of other people. Even when the chief ustādār [chief of staff] gave testimony in court, Ibn Khaldūn would reject its validity, despite the fact that this individual was one of [Ibn Khaldūn’s] greatest supporters. The only notable aspect about his tenure as judge was his maintenance of the office, until he was removed from office on 17th Rabī‘ al-Awwāl 806 AH [October 3rd 1403] and then reappointed in Sha‘bān 807 AH [February 1405]. During this final tenure in office his conduct was characterized by excessive leniency, deficiency, and incapacity. He did not remain long in office and was removed in late Dhū-l Qā idah [May 1405].


(Manuscript of Ibn Khaldūn’s “History”. Atıf Efendi Kütüphanesi, Istanbul MS 1936. His handwriting can be seen at the top left of the folio)

I read the following written in the handwriting of al-Bishbīshī that one day when he was near the neighborhood of al-Ṣāliḥiyyah he saw Ibn Khaldūn journeying home with one of his subordinates, Tāj al-Dīn ibn al-Ẓarīf, walking in front of him. When he turned around and saw al-Bishbīshī, he recited the following words of God: “If God wills misfortune for a folk, there are none than can repel it” (Q. 13: 11). When Ibn Khaldūn caught up to him, he reprimanded Ibn al-Ẓarīf and asked why he recited this verse. He said: “I wanted al-Bishbīshī to convey this to Jamāl al-Dīn al-Basāṭī.”

I read written in the handwriting of Shaykh Taqī al-Dīn al-Maqrīzī [d. 845/1442] in his description of Ibn Khaldūn’s “History”: “the Muqaddimah is truly unique and such a major achievement that only with great effort and difficulty could a scholar write something comparable. It is the very essence of knowledge and the sciences and a delight for all discerning and intelligent minds. It reveals the truth of historical events and narrations, explains the nature of existence, providing insight into everything in the universe. This is all conveyed most eloquently in beautifully-written prose.”[4]

(Autograph manuscript of Ibn Khaldūn’s “History.” Atıf Efendi Kütüphanesi, Istanbul MS 1936)

This description of the Muqaddimah simply underscores his rhetorical skill and wordplay in the tradition of al-Jāḥiẓ, but not done as impressively. The rest of [al-Maqrīzī’s] sentiments are not entirely justified. It is only Ibn Khaldūn’s eloquence and rhetorical ability that successfully embellishes the work, giving mediocrity the appearance of excellence.

Our teacher, al-Ḥāfiẓ Abū al-Ḥasan b. Abī Bakr would go to great lengths to express his animosity towards Ibn Khaldūn. When I asked him about the reason for this hostility, he said that he was informed that Ibn Khaldūn mentioned al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī (may God be pleased with them both) in his “History” and said: “[al-Ḥusayn] was killed with the sword of his grandfather.”[5] When our teacher mentioned this specific sentence, he was moved to tears as he cursed and reviled Ibn Khaldūn.

(Manuscript of Ibn Khaldūn’s “History” preserved in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, Spain. BNE MS 5214. This section deals with the martyrdom of al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī at Karbala in 61/680)

This particular sentence cannot be found in the current version of Ibn Khaldūn’s “History” (Tārīkh). Perhaps he had mentioned it in a previous draft but removed it from the final copy.[6] It is quite astonishing that our companion al-Maqrīzī would greatly praise Ibn Khaldūn, since the latter—contradicting the opinions of others in doing so—affirmed the legitimacy of the genealogy of Banū ‘Ubayd, who were caliphs in Egypt and are famously known as the Fatimids, back to ‘Alī [b. Abī Ṭālib].[7] Ibn Khaldūn refuted the document from the great scholars [of Baghdad] rejecting Fatimid genealogical claims by stating that they only did this in compliance with the orders of the Abbasid caliph.


(Map of the Fatimid Caliphate at its greatest extent)

Our companion [al-Maqrīzī] was a descendant of the Fatimids and thus admired Ibn Khaldūn for having upheld their lineage as legitimate.  However, he was oblivious to Ibn Khaldūn’s nefarious intentions. It was Ibn Khaldūn’s hatred for the Alids [descendants of ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib] that led him to uphold the Fatimids’ genealogical claim. This is because the Fatimids held heretical belief, with many of them being outright unbelievers who claimed divinity, such as al-Ḥākim [bi Amr-illāh], and others were extreme rejectionist Shi‘ites who killed large numbers of Sunnis. They would also openly curse the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad in their mosques and gatherings. So, if this was their conduct and also truly descended from ‘Alī then this would be a mark of shame upon the Alids. This is one reason why there is such disgust with them. We seek refuge in God Almighty.

[Ibn Ḥajar al-Asqalānī, Raf‘ al-Iṣr ‘an Qudāt Miṣr (Cairo, 1988), pp. 233–237]

[1] A leading Egyptian scholar and one of the teachers of Ibn Ḥajar al-Asqalanī, al-Bishbīshī was one of Ibn Khaldūn’s major opponents and rivals

[2] In fact, Ibn al-Khaṭib (among others) does emphasize Ibn Khaldūn’s competence in the legal sciences (al-‘ulūm al-naqliyyah) in his Iḥāṭah fī Akhbār Gharnāṭah and underscores his knowledge of uṣūl al-fiqh  (Principles of Jurisprudene)

[3] Ibn ‘Arafah was perhaps the leading opponent of Ibn Khaldūn in Tunis. The hostility stemmed from both court intrigue and rivalry, as well as serious intellectual disagreements.

[4] This quote is taken from al-Maqrīzī’s biography of Ibn Khaldūn in the Durrar al-‘Uqūd al-Farīdah fī Tarājim al-A‘yān al-Mufīdah.

[5] This is also a phrase that has often been (mis)attributed to the Andalusī jurist Qāḑī Abū Bakr b. al-‘Arabī (d. 543/1148) in works condemning the latter’s pro-Umayyad stance in his work al-‘Awāṣim min al-Qawāṣim. While it is highly unlikely that Ibn Khaldūn held this position, it does reflect that he was associated by some Egyptian scholars with an Andalusī-North African school of thought renowned for its pro-Umayyad sentiment, despite the fact that his own intellectual circle were highly critical of the Umayyads (including his teacher, Ibn al-Khaṭib, and his student, al-Maqrizī)

[6] This is makes very little sense in light of the major emphasis placed by Ibn Khaldūn in his Tārīkh on the massacre of al-Ḥusayn b. ‘Alī at Karbala and his strong condemnation of the conduct and policies of Yazīd b. Mu‘āwiyah

[7] For Ibn Khaldūn’s affirmation of the legitimacy of Fatimid genealogy, see https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2014/02/25/ibn-khaldun-d-1406-on-the-the-alid-lineage-of-the-fatimids/

2 thoughts on “Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani’s Biography of Ibn Khaldun (d. 808/1406)

  1. Salam,

    “…but he has some acquaintance with the rational sciences (al-‘ulūm al–naqliyyah)…”

    I was wondering why you decided to translate ‘ulum al-naqliyyah as rational sciences?

    JazakAllah & Wassalam

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