Rethinking Ibn Khaldun as a human rights activist in 21st century


 MAR 17, 2023 – 12:05 AM GMT+3

In Ibn Khaldun's system of thought, the state exists to protect individuals and guarantee them justice, order and security in social life. (Illustration by Erhan Yalvaç)

In Ibn Khaldun’s system of thought, the state exists to protect individuals and guarantee them justice, order and security in social life. (Illustration by Erhan Yalvaç)

If Ibn Khaldun’s works on society and civilization are revisited through a human rights lens, he can serve as a source of inspiration and guidance not only for the contemporary Islamic world but also for humanity as a whole in addressing human rights issues

Ibn Khaldun was a renowned scholar in the field of social sciences, credited with founding the discipline of “Science of Society and Civilization” (Ilm al-Umran). Born in Tunis on May 27, 1332, he lived a tumultuous life, which included fulfilling various roles such as bureaucrat, politician, diplomat, legal expert and academic, and he passed away on March 17, 1406, leaving behind a rich intellectual heritage.

Human rights are understood as the rights and faculties that ensure the freedom and dignity of the individual. In the modern world, the so-called “era of human rights,” despite all the talk about human rights, in practice, still sees persistent and serious violations. Thus, we can only speak of a real age of injustice, not a real age of human rights, due to what is occurring in this field before the eyes of humanity.

Can the thoughts of a thinker of society and civilization of the 14th century inspire us today? If so, how? We will try to answer this question on the 617th death anniversary of Ibn Khaldun.

Universality of human rights

The notion of “human dignity” is essential and is the basis of fundamental rights, par excellence. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of the United Nations, dated 1966, provides in its Preamble that, “Considering that, in accordance with the principles proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” and “recognizing that these rights derive from the inherent dignity of the human person.”

For Ibn Khaldun, thought is a faculty that distinguishes man from animals and makes him respect creatures (shurrifa). Thus, the thinker considers human dignity as a distinctive characteristic of human beings.

He also began by recognizing the universality of human rights, which are linked to the equality of men. He says, “More than one feature distinguishes men from each other; it is nonetheless true that they are all sons of Adam.” As we can see, the thinker affirms the unity of the human community, as we read in the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of Dec. 10, 1948: “The recognition of the inherent dignity of all members of the human family and of their equal and inalienable rights constitutes the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

In his well-known book, “Muqaddimah,” there is a focus on a holistic consideration of human rights instead of single isolated facts. Rather, it is a systematic and comprehensive theory of human rights. In this discourse, let us explore the basics of this concept.

Justice: Respect for human rights

The definition of justice given by Ibn Khaldun in the Muqaddimah corresponds to its modern definition: “To put everyone in his place is fair treatment (al insaf) – in other words: justice.” Justice plays an essential role in this new science. Ibn Khaldun refers to the famous circle of justice (or politics) to emphasize the methodological specificities of his science concerning politics. After he gave two examples of the circle of justice from Persian political literature, one from Mobed, the other from Anocharvan and a treatise on politics attributed to Aristotle, he says: “Whoever will look with the necessary attention and understanding to the chapter which we have devoted to the state and power will find there, in a complete form, based on proofs and clear arguments, the explanation of these maxims. And the detailed statement of what has been presented here in general terms.”

In our opinion, the circle of justice and Ibn Khaldun’s comments on it demonstrate the importance of the thinker’s work on inspiring jurists and political scientists. He developed the concept of justice and its relationship with injustice (zulm), which he established in the 42nd Part 3 title of the “Muqaddima” – one of his most crucial theories – which is similar to today’s theory of human rights.

Injustice: Violation of human rights

Ibn Khaldun transformed the traditional concept of injustice (zulm) into a new legal and technical concept. According to him: “Injustice does not mean merely the taking away from someone of money or other property of which he is the owner, without compensation and cause, although that is the generally received opinion … No one has the power to do injustice, except that over which other men have no power: Injustice is the work of people having the ability and exercising authority.”

He stated that this concept encompasses various types of violations of human rights in the broad sense, which can be perpetrated by public authorities. This definition of injustice in the broad and legal sense perfectly corresponds to the concept of violation of modern human rights.

The thinker sees injustice as a threat to the destruction of society and civilization. He says, “The state is in the form of society and civilization, and necessarily corrupts itself by the corruption of its material.” Thus, power and the state belong to society and civilization in the same way that “form” belongs to “matter.” Without power (mulk), no state (dawla), and without it, civilization itself is deprived of form. Consequently, the survival of the state depends upon the protection of human rights.

Modern human rights

In “Muqaddima,” justice and injustice are the most prominent concepts, representing respect for human rights and infringement of them. Ibn Khaldun also uses the expression “the people’s rights” in this work in the modern sense of the term “human rights.” Therefore, Ibn Khaldun is the earliest thinker to use the phrase “the rights of men” in its modern interpretation of human rights, stating that, “Those who do not respect the rights of people (hukuq an nas) have committed an injustice.”

On the other hand, referencing the function of the judicial authority (qada) in society, he emphasizes, “Human rights are taken into account thanks to the judicial authority.” Today, we are discussing the legal protection of human rights at the national level via internal jurisdictions and at the international level via international jurisdictions, such as the European Court of Human Rights. Indeed, no international protection of human rights can be seriously implemented without appropriate judicial mechanisms. It is what Ibn Khaldun proposed to us and is accepted today as the most effective system of protection in the field of human rights. He uses the same concept twice as much when describing “judicial witnessing” in Muslim states at the time: “The judicial witness receives testimony, testifies at trial, records testimony and judgment in writing in deeds to preserve human rights (hukuq an nas), properties and all transactions.”

Finally, the following sentence from Ibn Khaldun shows that the thinker considers the protection of human rights as the main function of the judiciary as it is understood today: “The judge must inquire into the conditions and conduct of judicial witnesses, in order to ensure their probity. He should not neglect this point, because he has to safeguard human rights (hukuq an nas).”

Prior to several Western political thinkers, such as Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke, Ibn Khaldun began by examining human nature to justify the need for the protection of human rights. He pointed out that human nature contains a double dimension: an animal side and a human side. “Man, as an animal, is inclined by his nature to aggressiveness (udwân) and injustice (violations of human rights).”

“In men, evil shows itself in many forms, the most obvious of which are injustice (zulm) and aggressiveness (udwan). He who fixes his eyes on the good of others will not fail to put his hand there unless an authority prevents him from doing so. Also, the poet was right to say: Injustice is a quality of the human soul; if there is a man who abstains from it, it is always for some reason.”

Therefore, he justifies the need for authority in human society with man’s animalistic nature. He believes that political authority is essential in social life because the animal nature of man contains aggressiveness (udwân) and injustice (zulm). This tendency toward aggression and injustice (violation of the rights of others, especially the rights to life, the right to security and the right to property) in human nature, constitutes a threat to social life. Reason is part of humans’ good nature. Power and politics emerge from this ability to prevent acts that arise from the tendency toward aggression and injustice in human nature. Therefore, human nature is a primary factor in justifying the thinker’s state theory. Whenever he speaks of the necessity of authority, he is referring to this nature.

The thinker explains the raison d’etre of authority (future states) as the need to prevent injustice (zulm) against each other, that is, violations of human rights, in social and civil life. This prevention of human rights violations concerns, in particular, the right to life, the right to security and the right to property. So these rights constitute the raison d’être of the political authority, which extends to the state as a global political society.

Good governance: A crucial element of human rights

Ibn Khaldun sees good governance as the main element for the protection of human rights and discusses it as the quality of a political leader in a separate chapter. He points out that “a powerful chief treats all men according to the rules of equity (al insaf), that is to say, with justice. “Power is only linked to the noble qualities of the politicians in power. When the good qualities begin to disappear, one must expect the fall of one’s state.”

He notes that excessive use of force undermines the power itself. This is a very modern and democratic perspective. What matters for a political leader is that his governance must be good and beneficial for citizens.

He was aware of the threat that the state posed to human rights, even though its authority was originally established to protect them. He mentions that: “In capitals and cities, it is government authorities (hukkam) and states (duwel) that prevent people from attacking each other. They control the people to prevent attacks and acts of hostility. Constraint (qahr) and government (sultan) suffice to contain bad passions, with the exception, however, of the tyranny of the ruler himself.”

These expressions show the necessity of the restriction of state power. This is why he often emphasizes the indispensable relationship between the prevention of human rights violations and the continuity and protection of society, civilization and the state.

To limit absolute power, Ibn Khaldun finds it essential that power and the state respect human rights. He posits this with a social law that expresses it strikingly: “Violations of human rights (injustice) herald the ruin of society and civilization.” In other words, violent and arbitrary power hastens its fall. Ibn Khaldun thus warns against a reversal of the government against its subjects, which causes the collapse of states.

In his new science, we find a systematic and holistic theory of human rights. A holistic approach to the new science of Ibn Khaldun reveals that his social and political theories contain a robust theory of human rights in the modern sense.

An examination of Ibn Khaldun’s “Muqaddima” reveals that he was the first to refer to “people’s rights” in the modern sense of human rights. He placed the prevention of human rights violations at the heart of the political stability of society and the state. Despite the contemporary view of human rights as the foundation for a nation-state, Ibn Khaldun argued that such rights should be rooted at the level of society, civilization and the state.

He explained the notions of justice and injustice in a way that is still relevant today. On the other hand, he clearly expressed in his new science that the universal values on which modern human rights are based are rooted in human dignity and the universality of fundamental rights.

In Ibn Khaldun’s system of thought, the state exists to protect individuals and guarantee them justice, order and security in social life. Subsequently, the state as an organized political power had to act according to its raison d’etre to ensure security and the prevention of human rights violations in social life.

The human being is at the same time free from birth and had to lead a social life. Therefore, a social organization as a society and civilization is necessary. Thus, providing security and preventing the violation of the rights of others is the reason for the existence and legitimacy of political power and the state. Moreover, the survival of society and civilization necessitates the establishment of a balance between freedom and authority.

He considers the violation of the fundamental rights of individuals by the state, which was created indeed to safeguard them, as a violation of human rights in the legal and technical sense. The violation of human rights by the state leads to the disintegration of society and civilization, which leads to the loss of power and the collapse of the state.

For Ibn Khaldun, law, justice, good governance and the prevention of injustice are essential to the survival of humanity on earth like societies, states and civilizations. He considers these notions as essential elements of social life and civilization.

When one re-reads the thinker of society and civilization in this way, Ibn Khaldun can inspire and guide both the Islamic world today and all of humanity to overcome their human rights challenges.


A member of the Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC) of OIC


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