Al-Muqaddimah for Ibn Khaldun; On Law, Authority, and Power


Al-Muqaddimah for Ibn Khaldun was published in 1377 and is regarded to be among the first writings on universal history. It is also a philosophical commentary on a wide range of issues that range from sociology, cultural history, science, economics, demography, and law among others. His writings are borrowed from his observations, knowledge of the Maghreb people, and their politics to formulate his historical and histographical standpoints. Moreover, through his work on the foundations and impacts of Islamic civilization throughout history are revealed. In light of the aforementioned, this essay shall discuss his writings on authority, power, and divine law (Sharia). Furthermore, it explores the relevance of these fundamental philosophical postulations in contemporary governance and the administration of justice.  

            To address the thesis above, this paper shall be organized in three parts. The first one shall discuss Ibn Khaldun’s precepts on authority and power as well as Sharia Law. Part two elaborates on the basis of his concerns on who rules and the nature of the law that applies in a particular nation-state. In the subsequent part, it discusses the application of Sharia law in a contemporary state. The final part of this paper shall be a conclusion.


Ibn Khaldun is credited for being the father of Islamic jurisprudence, otherwise known as fiqh, and his first postulate is the divinity of the said law. According to him, the basis of Islamic law is God’s revelation to His chosen servants whom He gave the responsibility to teach others so that they lead them to salvation from Hellfire (Khaldun 70). Therefore, God gave his messengers knowledge and manifested his wonders through their words indicating that there are things beyond man’s knowledge. This was made possible because the recipients of this knowledge meditated upon it in order to understand the revelations that God gave them (Khaldun 70). Moreover, it was impossible for servants of God to gain such knowledge unless He taught them (Khaldun 70). Consequently, Sharia law is a revelation that was made to Prophet Mohammed who then acquainted man with the knowledge of God’s expectations from them while on earth (Ganai 109). In this regard, the genesis of Sharia law indicates its divine nature because it encompasses knowledge for life that man can hardly develop in the absence of God.

            The revelations that were given to Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) are evidenced in the Quran, a miracle in itself. In this regard, Khaldun (1967) states that “…the evidence of the Quran which was revealed to our Prophet, is the greatest, noblest, and clearest miracle”(p. 73). He also asserts that the miraculous origin of the Quran is a testimony of its truthfulness. Apart from that, the contents of this revealed text further verify its divine origin (Khaldun 73). The Quran was received directly from God and this sets it apart from other divine books such as the Gospels or even the Torah (Mahdi 74). He argues that prophets who wrote other holy books received their contents in a state of revelation and then translated the same in their own words. On the other hand, Prophet Muhammad received the Quran in its literary form from God (Khaldun 74). Since the Quran is a direct revelation from God and a miracle, it holds a special place in the order of divine books.

            There are two scientific distinctions that Ibn Khaldun draws from the existing Islamic culture and has a bearing on the origin of Islamic law. The first one is the natural or philosophic science while transmitted science is the second distinction (Mahdi 73). Khaldun describes natural science as “…that which a man can know by the nature of his thought, and through human perception, can arrive at their subject matter…” (Mahdi 74). On the other hand, transmitted (or positive) science is based on the traditions that have been communicated from God through the Prophet (S.A.W) (Mahdi 74). Therefore, the legislator and drafter of Sharia law is God and human reasoning has no place in determining its genesis and existence. However, man has a responsibility to reason and apply these commands to specific and appropriate life’s circumstances (Mahdi 74). This positive science is also a legal science that is divinely inspired by God otherwise referred to as column shar‘iyya (Mahdi 74). As such, Sharia is not only a teaching but also a command to man on how to guard his soul against evil.

            Man is different from other creations of God because he has a soul that can receive whatever is evil or good that makes the Quran a good guidance (the basis of law) for his life. Khaldun (1967) says, “…the soul in its first natural state of creation is ready to accept whatever good or evil may arrive and leave an imprint on it” (p. 94). Consequently, the Quran is supposed to guide man on how to live through the good influence that it has on a man’s soul. To be specific, it has a restraining effect on the conduct of man through encouragement and discouragement that emerge from it. In this regard, Khaldun (1967) states that when Muslims received God’s law (in the Quran as taught by Prophet Mohamed), they became a restrained society. The reason for this restraint is their receipt of oral Quranic precepts, belief in its truth, and unflinching observation of the same (Khaldun 96). Therefore, Sharia law is guidance for man and a restraint for his soul against the evil that may overcome him in the absence of guidance.

            God’s law is a standard for humanity to transform their evil nature as well as customs and evil traditions. Besides, in his natural state, man has the potential to be evil or good (Khaldun 97). Unfortunately, evil easily resides in a man in the absence of religious guidance as a model for his own moral enhancement. The greatest form of evil that can manifest from man is mutual aggression and injustice (Khaldun 97). To demonstrate man’s propensity for evil and the retraining effect of Sharia, he argues that a covetous man is likely to grab his neighbor’s property, but the law has a restraining effect over him (Khaldun 97). For this reason, Islamic law is necessary to transform those who submit to it and restrain the rest from committing acts of aggression or injustice.   


Group feeling are the basic ingredients for authority and subsequently power because it makes people gravitate towards mutual interests that they feel obliged to defend or even die for (Khaldun 97). In this regard, members of a group are inspired to give their strength and life to counter any threat posed against their common interests. Moreover, they develop affection for one another to the extent that they would be willing to die for each other (Khaldun 97). Notably, group feelings are created when people come together to fend off possible aggression.

To appreciate the necessity of groups, Khaldun uses Bedouin civilization as an illustration in comparison to those living in the cities. He begins by arguing that Bedouins, an ever-mobile pastoralist community, differ with other sedentary groups (Khaldun 91) because their lives are driven by the quest to meet their basic survival needs and nothing more. On other hand, sedentary communities begin with meeting their basic needs before they progress to luxuries and comfort. In this way, settlement of the diverse communities is defined by their economic activities hence Bedouins settle in the desert while farmer communities settle in farmlands before forming urban communities (Khaldun 92). Notably, both communities cooperate socially to meet their diverse basic needs. However, sedentary communities relax and begin to pursue comfort and luxuries once they have achieved their basic needs (Khaldun 92). Their customs also transform as they develop an identity around common cuisines, increased rate of consumption, modern housing, festivities, and crafts. Since their production is most probably in surplus, they begin to engage in commerce or crafts (Khaldun 92). For some Bedouins, progression to urban life remains an aspiration that they may achieve, but are least suited for because they are customized to the desert life.

Social organization around common interests is also defined by the need to protect their economic activities whether it is farming or pastoralism. This also determines their lifestyles as farmers restrict themselves to their farms since there are no arable lands in the desert (Khaldun 92). On the other hand, pastoralists are compelled to move from place to place in search of pasture at the risk of constant attacks by militia groups that occupy mountains and thrive on the injustice of killing and robbing them of their livestock (Khaldun, 93). He further argues that some Bedouins aspire for the comfort of sedentary life as they progress from necessities to comfort which leads them an urban sedentary lifestyle. Therefore, they abandon their pastoralist lifestyles and ‘yoke’ themselves into the city life (Khaldun 93). Here, they join other tribes in fortified walls and lined up streets who depend on others for their defense from aggression (Khaldun, 94). Meanwhile, their counterparts who remain in the desert are able to cope better in terms of their personal defense because of their fortitude and courage.

Social organization around common socio-economic activities of interest is the basis of authority and power. This comes in the form of group and group feelings and is informed by the need for aggressive and defensive strengths that is necessary to guarantee survival (Khaldun, 123). He further posits that power and authority over a group come with privileges such as the pleasure of the body, a good life, and joy of the soul, authority is always contested. This leads to infighting and war since the said authority is never given on a silver platter (Khaldun 123). Once one party emerges successful, others within the social group have no option, but to submit to the authority that rules over the established dynasty (Khaldun 124). Khaldun’s arguments arise from the formation of Kingdom’s in the Gulf region that were predominantly made of Bedouin pastoralists and the families that dominated the communities in history.

Despite their submission to the new dominance established over them, it begins as a strange concept altogether. He argues that the stability of these family dynasties is dependent on loyal foot soldiers and a host of other families that enjoy close links to them as well as other tribal groups of different descents (Khaldun 124). Moreover, the dynasties undergo one succession upon another and they become a Royal family whose right to leadership is as established as the precepts of a divine book that is cast in stone (Khaldun 124). He further opines that members of the royal family can break away from the established group and form their own hegemony in remote regions (Khaldun 125). Significantly, if the members of this new community adopt and support him, a new group feeling emerges. This new group vests the new King with authority and power that follows a similar pattern to that of the family where their new monarch seceded from (Khaldun 125). Power is exclusively left to the new leader of the group and obedience to his authority is unquestioned as would be the foundations of their faith.

Religion plays an important role in the establishment of dynastic power and authority, but it cannot operate outside the group feeling. This is because individual desires coalesce around common goals and interests that religion impresses upon the hearts of its followers (Khaldun 126). On the contrary, where there is no religion, jealousy, division, and worldliness reign. As a result, people under the established dynasty are unable to develop mutual interests which lead to a collapse due to the absence of the group feeling (Khaldun 126). In this regard, religion enables individuals to divorce character traits that divide them and weaken the group feeling that is instrumental for maintaining the growth and sustainability of a dynasty. Therefore, religion is an additional power to group feeling that helps to assert the power and authority of a dynasty (Khaldun 126). In light of this, group feeling is the primary source for determining who rules, the power he wields, the authority he exercises, and the extent of submission from subjects.


Sharia law continues to influence law and governance structures in many Islamic societies today. In this regard, Organization of Islamic Countries met in 1977 to align their socio-political and economic systems to the tenets of Islam (Muslim 265). Importantly, they recognized that the ancient Islamic codes were less suited for modern trends and therefore required change. This is because the socio-economic and political realities have changed since the establishment of ancient Kingdoms, their colonization, and subsequent decolonization (Muslim 266). Fundamentally, Khaldun (1967) argues “…the condition of the world and of nations, their customs and sects do not persist in the same form or in a constant manner. There are differences according to days and period and changes from one condition to another…” (p. 24). In this regard, the revelations of the prophet should remain unperturbed, however, concepts in Hadith should be relooked and conformed to modern realities (Muslim 265). This means that reforms are necessary on how Sharia law is implemented.  

            Ibn Khaldun’s concern on who rules in a dynasty is in line with the much-needed reforms in today’s Islamic societies. He argues that when a dynasty has been established, there is a tendency for rulers to resort to comfort and luxury and full disregard of the group feelings (Khaldun 126). If anything, dynasties are suited where there is a homogeneous tribal formation (Khaldun 127). For him, whoever rules is a concern for Khaldun because they demand absolute loyalty and their authority is hardly questioned (Khaldun 126). This puts to question the relevance of modern absolute dynasties in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.


Ibn Khaldun appreciates the genesis of Islamic law as well as authority and power of Islamic dynasties. To him Sharia law is God given, and dynasties are a product of the need for human survival and success. In this regard, group feeling was essential for the formation of old Bedouin Kingdoms, but not today’s heterogenic societies. However, he is keen to identify the need for reforms to reflect changing circumstances. These reforms are relevant for governance and the application of Sharia law.

Works Cited

Khaldún, Ibn. “al-Muqaddimah, An Introduction to History, vol. I, edited and translated by Franz Rosenthal, Bollingen Series 43.” (1967).

Mahdi, Muhsin. Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History: A study in the Philosophic foundation of the science of culture. Routledge, 2015.

Muslim, Abdul Ghafur. “Islamization of Laws in Pakistan: Problems and Prospects.” Islamic Studies vol. 26, no. 3, 1987, pp. 265-276.


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