Rarely does a historian have the chance to interview one of the giants of history. Even more rarely is the interviewer himself a giant, such as the Arab scholar Abu Zaid Abd al-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldun, possibly the most distinguished historian of Islam and surely the outstanding figure in the social sciences between Aristotle and Machiavelli Ibn Khaldun was the first historian to attempt to explain history, to discover a pattern in the events and changes of human politics and sociology, a lone voice in the Middle Ages foreshadowing the sociological ideas of the modern era.
The historical figure that Ibn Khaldun met was the brilliant and ruthless conqueror Tamerlane (Timur), last of the great Mongol military leaders. Once captain of a small band in Samarkand, Tamerlane had risen to dominion over Central Asia in 1380, capturing Baghdad and overrunning Mesopotamia in 1393, plundering the Volga region and occupying Moscow in 1395, and taking Delhi and ravaging northern India in 1390. By 1400 he was knocking at the gates of the empire of the powerful Mamluks, who had ruled Egypt and Syria for a century and a half, and in January 1401 was encamped outside Damascus, once the proud capital of the first Arab empire but now, besieged by the Mongols, on the brink of surrender.
Inside the city walls, a visitor, was Ibn Khaldun, then nearly 70 years old. He had arrived in Damascus a month before with the expeditionary forces of the 13-year-old Mamluk sultan Faraj and had stayed behind when Faraj and his chief aides, learning that revolt had broken out in Cairo, had suddenly departed. Purely by chance, therefore, one of the world's great historians was on the scene as one of the world's oldest cities prepared to surrender to one of the world's most formidable conquerors. In all ways it was a historic moment, and Ibn Khaldun, quite naturally decided to take advantage of it by paying a personal visit to Tamerlane.
During the siege Tamerlane and representatives from Damascus had reached an agreement whereby the city would be granted amnesty under a governor appointed by Tamerlane. But the agreement had not yet been ratified. Ibn Khaldun decided to visit the Mongol camp while the leaders of Damascus assembled in the Great Mosque to debate, acrimoniously, whether to trust Tamerlane's promises or not. His motives were partly personal - to secure safe-conducts for himself and his associates - but also scientific; he wished to observe and question Tamerlane as part of his research on a project that had engaged him for some time: a history of the Tartars and Mongols.
As the gates, of course, were locked against the invaders, the guards refused to let him through. Ibn Khaldun's departure, therefore, was somewhat undignified for an eminent historian; like Saint Paul 13 centuries before, he was lowered in a basket from the walls. But he achieved his goal: he saw Tamerlane.
"Near the gate I found some of Tamerlane's retinue," Ibn Khaldun later reported in his autobiography, "and the representative whom he had designated to govern Damascus; his name was Shah Malik... I said to them, 'May Allah prolong your lives,' and they said to me, 'May Allah prolong your life,' and I said, 'May I be your ransom,' and they said to me, 'May we be your ransom." Shah Malik offered him a horse to ride, directing one of his men to conduct the scholar to Tamerlane's tent.
There was a brief wait in an adjoining tent; then the historian was summoned into Tamerlane's presence. "As I entered the audience tent, he was reclining on his elbow while platters of food passed before him, which he sent one after the other to groups of Mongols sitting in circles in front of his tent," Ibn Khaldun reported. "Upon entering, I spoke first, saying 'Peace be upon you,' and I made a gesture of humility. Thereupon he raised his head and stretched out his hand, which I kissed. He made a sign to sit down; I did so where I was, and he summoned from his retinue an erudite jurist to serve as interpreter between us."
Tamerlane was "between 60 and 70 years old," lame from an arrow wound in the right thigh received in a raid - whence the Persian name Timurlang (Timur-Lame), or Tamerlane. Ibn Khaldun found him "highly intelligent and very perspicacious, addicted to debate and argumentation about what he knows and about what he does not know." (In return, Tamerlane's biographer, who also recorded the interview, reported that Tamerlane was favorably impressed by the historian's "distinguished countenance and handsome appearance.")
Tamerlane opened the conversation by asking Ibn Khaldun where he had come from and why, and the two men plunged into a lengthy discussion covering many topics. Tamerlane was interested in Ibn Khaldun's Maghribi (North African) origin, which the historian chose to emphasize by wearing the costume of the homeland he had abandoned 18 years before. The Mongol general requested that Ibn Khaldun write out for him a description of the whole country of the Maghrib, "its mountains and rivers, its villages and its cities, in such a manner that I might seem actually to see it." Ibn Khaldun promised to comply.
Servants brought a macaroni soup called rishtah, to which the guest did honor by cleaning his plate, pleasing his host Ibn Khaldun explained that he had wanted to meet Tamerlane "for 30 or 40 years," because "you are the sultan of the universe and the ruler of the world, and I do not believe that there has appeared among men from Adam until this epoch a ruler like you." He then introduced his favorite theory, that 'asabiyah, group solidarity, was necessary for sovereignty, and the greater the number sharing the 'asabiyah , the greater the power of the sovereignty. "You know how the power of the Arabs was established when they became united in their religion in following their Prophet. As for the Turks ... in their group solidarity, no king on earth can be compared with them, not Chosroes nor Caesar nor Alexander nor Nebuchadnezzar."
Tamerlane demurred on a technical point: Nebuchadnezzar was not a king, "he was only one of the Persian generals, just as I myself am only the representative of the sovereign on the throne." Tamerlane had married the widow of the old Khan; the present monarch - his stepson - was with him on the expedition.
It was a strange scene: the aging historian and the savage Mongol leader conducting a historical seminar while, outside the tent, the Mongol troops polished their swords and gazed curiously at the great walls of the ancient city. And the ending was dramatic. As they talked, a messenger arrived to announce that the gates of Damascus had been opened and Ibn Khaldun was a witness as Tamerlane's guards carried the crippled conqueror to his horse, later writing: "Grasping the reins, Tamerlane sat upright in his saddle while the bands played around him until the air shook; he rode toward Damascus..."
That meeting was the first of several. In the next few days Ibn Khaldun wrote the description of North Africa that Tamerlane had requested and, returning to the Mongol camp, presented it to the conqueror -who ordered his secretary to have it translated into Mongolian. But because the military garrison of Damascus had refused to surrender, and had barricaded itself in the citadel, Ibn Khaldun had to remain in the Mongol camp for 35 days while the siege continued. During his sojourn he had several more conversations with Tamerlane, on one occasion presenting his host with gifts - a copy of the Koran, a prayer rug and four boxes of Cairo confectionery - and getting in return passports for himself and his colleagues.
Ibn Khaldun's departure, while less dramatic than their first meeting, was marked by another exchange of civilities. As the historian reported in his autobiography, Tamerlane offered to buy his gray mule, the distinctive riding animal of the Egyptian qadi , who was not permitted to walk. Ibn Khaldun replied, "One like me does not sell to one like you, but I would offer it to you in homage." With that, the two famous men parted, Tamerlane to occupy, plunder and burn Damascus, in contravention of his agreement, Ibn Khaldun to return to Egypt where, five years later, his distinguished career and his eventful life came to an end.
By the time of Ibn Khaldun, the profession of historian was already an ancient one in the Arab world. Even before Muhammad, the rawi, a sort of chronicler-entertainer, had enlivened campfires with recitals of tribal genealogies and Bedouin warfare, and with the advent of Islam, and the urbanization it generated, the rawi became a scholar. Collecting the old oral traditions - stories, poems, biographies - he wove them into narratives with a broader scope than mere tribal history, and set them down in writing.
At the same time efforts to verify the Hadith - the sayings of Muhammad and incidents in his life - were creating another current in Arab history-writing. Because each tradition had to be rigorously authenticated, Islamic historians meticulously traced each tradition back to its source, sometimes by a chain of transmitters: "It is related by A, who says he heard it from B, on the authority of C, that the Prophet said..." and so on. Establishing that A, B and C were reliable men, and that, chronologically they could have known each other, and that C could have heard the words of the Prophet, they founded a critical historical method.
In the 10th century Muslim scholars developed these disciplines still further. Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, for example, combined written sources with oral traditions which he collected in Persia, Iraq, Syria and Egypt, writing annals - history chronicled year by year. And his great successor al-Mas'udi, sometimes called the Arab Herodotus, refined history into a more sophisticated form, grouping events around dynasties, kings and peoples in an encyclopedic 30-volume history of the entire world. In becoming a historian, therefore, Ibn Khaldun joined what was already established as an honored profession.
Ibn Khaldun's contribution was, essentially, one great work: Kitab al-'Ibar ("History of the World"), which he started in 1375. Then in his 40's, he had until that time produced little in the way of writing beyond letters, poetry and a few essays written for friends and patrons. Instead he had lived history as he continued to do all his life, as a participant in public affairs.
Given his family background, a public career was only natural. Originally from southern Arabia, Ibn Khaldun's ancestors had gone to Spain in the early years of the Arab conquest and had been political and intellectual leaders there for five centuries, fleeing to North Africa in 1248 just before Seville fell to the Christian reconquest. His grandfather and great-grandfather had held positions of dignity and importance in Bone and in Tunis at the court of the Hafsid rulers. Ibn Khaldun himself grew up during a period of political upheaval, when North Africa was torn with struggles between the Hafsids of Tunisia and the Marinids of Morocco, and sometimes between factions within the two dynasties. He was married, moreover, to the daughter of a Hafsid general and, at the age of 20, held his first government office: he was "Master of the Signature" at Tunis, councillor to the Hafsid ruler.
Later, when the Hafsids showed signs of collapse, Ibn Khaldun, in the first of many timely shifts of allegiance, left Tunis and went to Fez, capital of the rival Marinids. That proved to be an unlucky decision; the Marinids, suspicious of his Hafsid connections, threw him in prison, where he languished for two years, until the reigning Marinid died and he was freed. In Fez, however, where he stayed for several years, he was able to both observe and take part in the political chess games which he later described in his history: rulers becoming figureheads controlled by their ministers, ministers assuming the role of kingmakers, selecting their favorite candidates from members of the dynasty and backing them. Ibn Khaldun himself played the game with enthusiasm and considerable skill.
In 1362, seeing that the government in Fez was becoming increasingly unstable, Ibn Khaldun departed for Granada, the only Muslim state of importance left in Spain, whose ruler, Muhammad V and prime minister, Ibn al-Khatib, he had befriended earlier when they were in exile in Fez. Two years later, he was entrusted with an important diplomatic mission to the Christian king Pedro the Cruel of Castile in his capital of Seville. Pedro was so attracted by the personable young ambassador that he tried to induce him to join his entourage, promising to restore confiscated Khaldun family estates in Seville.
Ibn Khaldun's brilliance and personal attraction, however, had drawbacks. In Granada they caused a bitter rivalry to develop between Ibn Khaldun and the prime minister, Ibn al-Khatib, who was jealous of the newcomer's growing influence. As a result he had to leave suddenly, returning to North Africa to become prime minister to the Hafsid amir of Bougie (Bijaiah). Later Ibn Khaldun joined the amir's cousin Abu al-Abbas when he seized power, and then, when he fell out of favour with Abu al-Abbas, fled again, this time to Algeria.
The next several years involved endless political tightrope-walking and narrow escapes. Hiring out as an agent among the Arab tribes which controlled the interior, Ibn Khaldun worked first for the sultan of Tlemcen, a new state located in northwest Algeria between the Hafsids and the Marinids, then against the same sultan and for the Marinids. Twice he tried to flee to Spain. The first time he was intercepted, the second time Granada was persuaded to extradite him. Yet he managed to survive.
In 1375 Ibn Khaldun and his family retired to a castle near Oran where, under the protection of the powerful local chieftain, he spent three peaceful years working on his history of the world. He finished the first volume, the Muqaddimah ("Introduction to History"), in 1377 a work drawn from his reflections on the events that he witnessed and took part in, and which now almost wrote itself. As he described it, "the words and ideas pouring into my head like cream into a churn, a finished product, synthesized and homogenized."
For the main body of his projected history, however, Ibn Khaldun needed access to libraries. Applying to Abu al-'Abbas, the Hafsid amir, Ibn Khaldun won permission to settle in Tunis to teach and study. Unfortunately, Abu al-'Abbas, out of fondness for his company, or suspicion of his capacity for intrigue, insisted on taking Ibn Khaldun along on his military expeditions, a development that the historian, now middle-aged, found taxing and uncomfortable. Eventually, therefore, he moved to Cairo where, at last, he found a safe, permanent residence.
Under its Mamluk rulers, Cairo was then a prosperous and beautiful city and Ibn Khaldun accepted with pleasure a professorship at al-Azhar University. There, and later at two other institutions, he lectured on Muslim law and traditions; he also gave courses on the Muqaddimah , the first volume of his universal history, which had already achieved the status of an independent work.
He was not, however, through with politics. When he had been in Cairo a year, Sultan Barquq appointed him Chief Malikite Judge of Egypt, a position that carried enormous prestige, but entailed dangers. Himself incorruptible, he was soon in conflict with corrupt notaries, clerks, and lawyers. And in 1389 a military junta overthrew Sultan Barquq and demanded that Ibn Khaldun, the chief qadi , validate the new government. Joining with other legal authorities in Cairo, Ibn Khaldun pronounced the coup legitimate. But then, to the embarrassment of the judges, Sultan Barquq made a comeback.
For Ibn Khaldun this was a difficult moment. The Sultan had not only appointed him chief judge but had also intervened with authorities in Tunis and won the release of Ibn Khaldun's family, who had been held by the amir when the historian moved to Cairo. Ibn Khaldun, however, had not lost his capacity to survive. By writing a poem asking the Sultan's pardon and stating that he had acted under duress, he was not only restored to favor, but once more appointed Chief Judge.
It was during this period in Cairo that Ibn Khaldun was stricken with a personal calamity: his family, on their way to join him, were drowned when their ship was wrecked in sight of the harbor of Alexandria. "The tragedy was great and the sorrow overwhelming," Ibn Khaldun wrote later. "I felt like giving up the world..." Instead he left Cairo and made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Despite his difficulties, Ibn Khaldun continued to live an active life. After Sultan Barquq's death he accompanied the sultan's heir Faraj to Damascus - where he met Tamerlane - and, after his return to Cairo, served as a judge for four more terms. His last appointment came in March, 1406, only a few days before his death.
Frances Carney Gies, a Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Michigan, is the co-author of numerous books on history and a contributor to the Encyclopedia Britannica.