What logic guides the development of societies? Why have some societies “progressed” further than others? For millennia, humanity has asked itself these questions and a host of possible answers have emerged.
The Muqqadimah is one of the earliest works of history that attempted to find a logic for historical events and social change, written in 1377 by the Arab historian Ibn Khaldūn. In a clear break from his predecessors and contemporaries, he rejected the idea that there were inherent qualities of a specific race (for instance, laziness or corruption), arguing instead for the importance of climate and geography in historical development.
Much of his analysis of the Mediterranean region was based on the work of geographers Ptolemy and Muhammad al-Idrisi; he refers to them multiple times to corroborate the locations of mountains, bodies of water, and geographic “zones” and it is through their work that he could present such an accurate and detailed survey of the region’s geography.
I would also like to mention a text that would be familiar to students of Western history: G. W. F. Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History, which presents a more abstract theory of human development, suggesting that history has been a straightforward process advancing towards the consciousness of freedom.
In an assertion that might leave a bad taste in readers’ mouths today, Hegel argued that world history moves east to west, from despotism to informed democracy and finally to the realization that human nature is free. With this premise, Hegel assumed that all events in human history have been necessary for the development of reason. By geolocating this process, Hegel also attempted to justify European imperialism and the exploitation of other geographic regions and their peoples.
Though both works of global history, neither Ibn Khaldūn nor Hegel acknowledge any obstructive frontiers in their texts. In studying the historical function of the Mediterranean region, Ibn Khaldūn presents the different temperaments of populations living in zones characterized by different climates and Hegel illustrates the encroachment of the Old World into North America. However, neither author presented these frontiers as clashing civilizations or ongoing struggles. Rather, they showed the development of humanity as it encountered different challenges in different geographies, though all the groups mentioned were advancing towards the same goal - temperance and reason.
Similarly, just as their geographic scope was extensive, so too was their temporal analysis of historical change; their analyses of human development extended back to the earliest events of the historic past. As both linked social development with the environment, the pace of historical change was believed to be extremely slow as well. Hegel’s analysis of the European foray into North America does present a quicker process of social change than that illustrated in The Muqqadimah, although he shied away from specific events and figures, preferring instead to discuss the macroscopic migration of communities across the continent.
Ibn Khaldūn’s approach to history was innovative for the paradigm shift it offered his contemporaries and successors: to a historiography more critical of sources, independent from bias and politics, and concerned with the linear progression of human development. Likewise, Hegel was forthright with his biases and the framework within which he worked, acknowledging that every work of history is coloured by its author.
His larger contribution, however, is the argument that human history is a continuous advance towards reason and the realization of one’s freedom. However, by suggesting this as the great aim of humanity, he attempted to explain slavery, genocide, and other such evils as necessary for the realization of the freedom of the human spirit.
Despite their superficial differences, Khaldūn’s and Hegel’s texts have three major similarities. The first is their emphasis on the role of climate and geography in determining a population’s temperament; more than biblical origin stories (in the case of Ibn Khaldūn) or inherent deficiencies of race (in the case of Hegel), one’s proximity to a comfortable climate and arable land is presented as the critical factor in achieving temperance and reason. Both authors also acknowledged a communal spirit that shapes, and is shaped by, changes in society. In both texts, this communal spirit is malleable but inevitable, and credited for much of the progress made by humanity. Finally, both authors stressed the necessity of overcoming partisanship or bias in historiography. Although both tried to remove prejudice from their texts, Hegel, who criticized the possibility of actual objectivity, was satisfied with simply acknowledging his biases as the framework within which he works.
Compared to Hegel’s Lectures, Ibn Khaldūn’s Muqqadimah was written in a clear and straightforward style, and his descriptions of the features of each geographic zone are illustrative. Hegel, however, is characteristically dense, though he was negotiating more complex and deeply philosophical ideas than the Muqqadimah.
By emphasizing the role of climate and geography over anything else, both authors were determinist in their historical outlook and accorded communities - let alone individuals - very little agency as historical actors. Indeed, both texts endowed the Mediterranean with a more instrumental role in human development than any other element, including humanity itself.
Today, as global warming and climate change pose a threat to us all, it can’t be denied that poorer nations are less equipped to prepare for floods, fires, and other disasters, while wealthier nations continue burning fossil fuels at record levels. Surely, humanity today has a greater impact on the environment than it did during the times of Ibn Khaldūn or Hegel. With the quickening pace of climate change, we will soon see what impact this will have on societal development and the pursuit of freedom, temperance, and reason.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, H. B. Nisbet, and Duncan Forbes. Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Ibn Khaldūn, Franz Rosenthal, and N. J. Dawood. The Muqqadimah: An Introduction to History. 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.