The fourteenth-century Maghrebi philosopher of history Wali al-Din ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) has been thought by many to be the most profound thinker Islam has ever produced. The nineteenth-century pioneers of Islamic modernism Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh made a close study of Ibn Khaldun’s masterpiece, the Muqaddima (The Prolegomena) and taught from it. Taha Husayn, in his lifetime Egypt’s leading man of letters, wrote a thesis at the Sorbonne in 1917 on Ibn Khaldun that was subsequently published in French and Arabic. Later Ibn Khaldun’s ideas about the decay and collapse of empires were studied by the Islamic activist Sayyid Qutb.
The world historian Arnold Toynbee, who produced a ten-volume study of the rise and fall of civilisations, described the Muqaddima as ‘undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place’. According to the philosopher, sociologist and anthropologist Ernest Gellner, Ibn Khaldun was ‘a superb inductive sociologist, a practitioner, long before the term was invented, of ideal types, a brilliant account of one extremely important kind of society’. Gellner presented him as a value-free sociologist whose theoretical models were relevant for the modern Middle East. Ibn Khaldun’s ideas were cited with approval in Bruce Chatwin’s novel Songlines and they underpinned the Dune cycle of science fiction novels produced by Frank Herbert.