City Planning in Ibn Khaldun’s Thought

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia
Introduction: Who was Ibn Khaldun?

Franz Rosenthal, the translator of Ibn Khaldun’s masterpiece in literature on philosophy of history and sociology “al-Muqaddimah” (Prolegomena), noted that “writing the biography of Ibn Khaldun would not seem to be a particularly difficult task, for he left posterity an autobiography which describes the events of his life in great detail and presents the historical background clearly.”[1] Ibn Khaldun’s description of his own life gives us such an accurate knowledge of events in his life that it unmistakably stands out as the most detailed autobiography in medieval Muslim literature.[2]

            Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunisia in 733 AH /1332 CE. His full name is Abu Zayd ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Muhammad b. Khaldun al-Hidrami al-Magribi. The name Ibn Khaldun is given after a remote ancestor.

Ibn Khaldun’s family originated from Yaman, Hadramaut. In the early days of the Islamic conquest of Spain, the family came over, established itself in Seville and from the tenth century onward played a prominent role in the administration and military of different dynasties. After the fall of Seville, however, the family had to migrate to Tunisia where they in next to no time started leaving its mark on society. This was so because the refugees from Spain were on a much higher cultural level than the inhabitants of North Africa, in addition to the remarkable political, religious and scientific background and acumen that the Khalduni family possessed.[3]

In Tunisia, Ibn Khaldun received his early education. First, he was made to learn the Holy Qur’an by heart; that completed, he studied grammar and poetry, from which he passed on to jurisprudence. While still in his teens, Ibn Khaldun distinguished himself as an administrator and soldier, but soon abandoned his career and devoted himself to scholarship.[4] On account of his thirst for advanced knowledge and a better academic setting, Ibn Khaldun was unable to settle for long in one place. He thus traveled extensively throughout North Africa and Spain. This Ibn Khaldun’s quality was coupled by a period of inner unrest marked by contemporary political rivalries that inevitably affected his career. Finally, Egypt became Ibn Khaldun’s final abode where he spent his last 24 years. Here he was appointed as the Chief Malikite Judge, and was lecturing at the al-Azhar University.[5] He died in Cairo in 809/1406 CE.[6]

In his versatile and somewhat turbulent career, often connected with positions of political power, Ibn Khaldun developed into a keen observer of the political and social life of his time. “His sense of observation and his philosophical and metaphysical training enabled him to become an outstanding student of the science of man. He wrote on mathematics, theology and metaphysics, but his outstanding work is as a historian.”[7] Hence, the titles of a “philosopher of history” and a “master of the science of human behavior” are habitually given to Ibn Khaldun.

Ibn Khaldun is recognized by many as the founder and father of sociology and sciences of history. He is best known for his illustrious “al-Muqaddimah” (Prolegomena, or Introduction to his “Universal History”). In it, the author tried his best to analyze the causes for the rise and fall of civilizations and cultures, making special reference to the civilization and cultures of Muslim peoples. He successfully identified psychological, economic, environmental and social facts that contribute to the advancement of human civilization and the currents of history. He pointed out the following four essential points in the study and analysis of historical reports:

  1. relating events to each other through cause and effect,
  2. drawing analogy between past and present,
  3. taking into consideration the effect of the environment, and
  4. taking into consideration the effect of inherited and economic conditions.[8]


Ibn Khaldun’s idea of the city


Ibn Khaldun’s idea of the city must be viewed along the lines of his understanding of civilization, royal authority and dynasty. The city is a natural consequence in the progression of civilization from desert life to sedentary culture. No sooner do several human beings start to cooperate with each other, no matter on how limited a scale, and to form a sort of social organization – owing to their God-given power of thinking as well as propensity to socialization – than the first and, as a rule, rudimentary elements of civilization result. Henceforth, the growth and wealth of civilization always correspond to the growth in numbers, people’s collaboration and productivity.[9]

            Ibn Khaldun argues that since human beings must, by nature, cooperate and are at the same time hostile to each other, their social organizations must be governed by someone who is superior over others. The same person(s) shall act as a restraining influence and mediator, upholding peace and order within groups. Political leadership, based either on religious or royal authority, is therefore indispensable. The leadership enjoying the support of a large number of people with sufficient strength and importance is likely to succeed in founding a dynasty and in winning royal authority.[10]

            The goal of human organizations originating from desert life is civilization, while the goal of every civilizational march is sedentary culture and luxury. This development towards luxury, however, turns out to be the root cause of the ubiquitous degeneration of civilization, which, in turn, heralds its ultimate disintegration and downfall. When civilization reaches the inescapable objective of luxury and ease, it turns toward corruption and starts being senile, as happens in the natural life of living beings.[11] The collapse of civilization means giving way to new protagonists to emerge on the scene and operate. For Ibn Khaldun, dynasties and accomplished civilizations are inseparable; one cannot imagine a dynasty without civilization, nor could there be a civilization without dynasty and royal authority. Seeing that the relationship between the two is causal, without really knowing which is cause and which effect, “the disintegration of one of them must influence the other, just as its non-existence would entail the non-existence of the other.”[12]

            Having outlined concisely the movement of civilization as propounded by Ibn Khaldun, we may wonder about the position and role of the city phenomenon in human social organizations according to his thought. Cities could not become possible until large and well-organized groups of humans start producing more than they can consume, Ibn Khaldun asserts. The same groups thus become compelled to seek ways to store the surplus, paving the way for the emergence of crafts, specializations and professions. Cities are a product of royal authority and dynasties; their existence is conditioned by the latter.[13]“The explanation for this is that building and planning are features of sedentary culture brought about by luxury and tranquility.”[14] Such features can be generated only after an abandonment of Bedouin life and the features that go with it – as part of the dynamic civilizational evolution. Hence, the existence of Bedouins is prior to, and the basis of, the existence of towns and cities. Urbanization – and, as such, refined civilization – is found to be the goal of the Bedouin.

            The existence of cities with their monuments, vast constructions and large buildings, is perceived by Ibn Khaldun as lying outside the category of necessary matters of general concern to human beings, in the sense that they all desire them or feel compelled to have them. At the same time, however, united effort and much cooperation is needed on the part of the masses for building and maintaining cities, even though cities are established for them and not for the few.  Therefore, to build cities, people must be either forced by the stick of royal authority or induced by promise of reward and compensation. It follows that dynasties and royal authority are absolutely necessary for building and planning towns and cities.[15]

            Once a city has been built and has commenced to function in accordance with the vision and plan of the patrons, planners and builders, the life of the dynasty is exemplified by the life of the city.[16]Hence, creating large cities and high monuments could be undertaken only by strong and influential dynasties. Despite the awesome size and strength of certain dynasties, some such enterprises may take several generations to complete and may not be built by one dynasty alone. As the establishment and expansion of a dynasty is the immediate cause of the creation of a city, so does the existence of the same dynasty stand for the lifeline of its city (cities). With the dynasty as a cause and the city as an effect, the two phenomena seem to be destined for rising together and falling together in human organizations in every time and place. Ibn Khaldun explains: “If the dynasty is of short duration, life in the town will stop at the end of the dynasty. Its civilization will recede, and the town will fall into ruins. On the other hand, if the dynasty is of long duration and lasts a long time, new constructions will always go up in the town, the number of large mansions will increase, and the walls of the town will extend further and further. Eventually, the layout of the town will cover a wide area, and the town will extend so far and so wide as to be almost beyond measurement.”[17]

The city is thus recognized not only as a field of cultural and civilizational pursuits by both the masses and the members of royal authority, i.e. the ruling elite, but also as an instrument for establishing the legitimacy of one’s rule and certain political programs, and for tightening one’s grip on power by warding off the internal as well as external challenges to one’s personal, family or dynasty authority. This is, in part, the reason why Ibn Khaldun concedes that having cities is not of general concern to human beings, and building them calls for either the coercion or enticement of the masses by rulers. Along these lines, no sooner does a dynasty with its royal authority fall apart than the cities that were set up and nurtured by its human and financial resources follow suit.[18]This is so for the reason that, under the circumstances, the ruling elite becomes so engrossed in attempts to stay afloat and save itself from the calamity that it has neither energy nor time to attend to the matters pertaining to city development and sustainability. Next, once the coercion relaxes its grip and the means of enticement dry up, nor do the masses feel anymore disposed to see to that which they never really desired or felt compelled to have. Each and every member, then, will have enough concern of his own to make him indifferent to the others, including the crumbling ruling dynasty and the achievements associated with its past. In worst scenario, not only does the city gradually decay but also much of its population disperse and go away. Nonetheless, the city can be eventually saved if it is used by an incoming realm and dynasty as its capital and residence, that is, as a ground for its thriving cultural and civilizational activities. In this case, the new dynasty will protect the city. The city civilization will recover in proportion to the improved circumstances and the luxury of the new dynasty. The life of the new dynasty gives the city a new lease of life, albeit much different from the previous one.[19]   


Requirements for city planning


Ibn Khaldun recognizes two major reasons for which dynasties and royal authority call for cities. Firstly, royal authority causes the people to seek tranquility, restfulness and relaxation, and to try to provide the aspects of civilization that were lacking in the desert. The second reason is the defense of life, dynasty and civilization against rivals and enemies who are expected to plot against and, if given a chance, attack the realm.[20] Thus, Ibn Khaldun’s definition of towns and cities – albeit insufficiently comprehensive, inclusive and prophylactic – is that they are “dwelling places that nations use when they have reached the desired goal of luxury and of the things that go with it.”[21] In view of the fact that cities are built to have places for dwelling and shelter, harmful things generated by either humans or nature in both the long and short term are to be kept away from them as effectively as possible. Such is possible only if a number of matters are meticulously seen to from the moment surveying and choosing the site for the city has been embarked on, throughout the chore of planning and building the city, and finally, when the city has been completed and all the necessary conveniences and useful features have been meant to be made available in it.[22]

Ibn Khaldun insists that all the houses of the city should be situated inside a protective wall. Whereas the city itself is recommended to be strategically positioned in an “inaccessible” place, either upon a rugged hill so that access to it can be easily manipulated, subject to the prevailing circumstances, or surrounded by water so that it can be reached only by crossing some sort of bridge.[23] This way, while it will be difficult for an enemy to attack and capture the town, convenience and the movement of people and goods will, at the same time, be but a little affected. The city universal milieu is likely to be thus easily infused with the aura of guardianship, security and prudence. While emphasizing the defense factor first and foremost in the city morphology, Ibn Khaldun apparently was influenced by the extraordinary turbulent period the Islamic state was going through from the East to the West in his era. During the same time, all life aspects in Islamic cities – then the splendid cultural and civilizational centers of Muslim peoples – were heavily affected, some to such an extent that they hardly, some even never, recovered. For instance, Andalusia (Islamic Spain) was steadily shrinking as a result of the relentless Christian assaults; the entire North Africa, Ibn Khaldun’s birthplace, was in turmoil; Baghdad – the political, economic, cultural and scientific capital of the Islamic state for centuries – was razed to the ground by the invading Mongols in 657 AH/1258 CE, in addition to many a city in the eastern part of the state which suffered the same fate. Besides, in the year 804 AH/1401 CE the Mongols laid a siege to Damascus, the Syrian gateway to Egypt, and as he had been taken by the Mamluki Sultan in Egypt to the place – along with other judges and jurists to oversee and monitor the situation – Ibn Khaldun, thanks to his unusual scholarly caliber and reputation, had to be let down by long ropes over the city walls to negotiate terms with Timur, the leader of the Mongols.[24]

Also, it appears as though Ibn Khaldun was swayed in his views above all by the city form in ancient times, as well as in his own age, without venturing into envisaging possible changes in a foreseeable or distant future in connection with planning and building cities on the basis of constant changes in civilizations and general conditions of living. The predominant feature of such cities was that they were mostly small, densely populated areas surrounded by defensive walls.[25]Politically such centers were completely integrated with the surrounding countryside as a city-state.

For Ibn Khaldun, the natural environment is simultaneously an obstruction and help. City planners and builders therefore ought to seek both to invite nature’s aid and to drive back its attacks. If atmospheric phenomena and the geography of the city site are given due consideration, the placement and form of the city in relation to its site with arrangement of its axes and spaces may well be turned into a device for controlling ventilation, sanitation, heating, cooling, etc. Such a place will be safe and comfortable for living. It will be far less susceptible to illnesses caused by environmental factors than such as are neglectful of the same matter.

Furthermore, as if Ibn Khaldun wants to say that humans must live on friendly terms with nature as much as such an arrangement is possible and needed. Under no circumstances can man in any endeavor of his declare a war on the natural environment, because, on account of many a physical, mental and emotional weakness of his and his actual total dependence on environment, man and nobody else is bound to emerge at all times as a dire loser. Ibn Khaldun thus wrote: “In connection with the protection of towns against harm that might arise from atmospheric phenomena, one should see to it that the air where the town is (to be situated) is good, in order to be safe from illness. When the air is stagnant and bad, or close to corrupt waters or putrid pools or swamps, it is speedily affected by putrescence as the result of being near these things, and it is unavoidable that (all) living beings who are there will speedily be affected by illness… Towns where no attention is paid to good air, have, as a rule, much illness… When the wind gets into (the putrid air), and disperses it left and right, the effect of putrescence is lessened, and the occurrence of illness among living beings decreases correspondingly.”[26]

Apart from defense purposes and environmental factors, Ibn Khaldun talked about a number of other matters that must be judiciously dealt with as regards the importation of useful things and conveniences into cities. Such matters are: water, pastures, fields for cultivation, forest and the sea. Ibn Khaldun entitled the section of his “al-Muqaddimah” devoted to the subject at hand as “Requirements for the Planning of Towns and the Consequences of Neglecting Those Requirements”.[27]

It is not surprising why Ibn Khaldun placed the problem of water on top of his requirements for planning cities. By water he means both springs of fresh drinking water and streams and rivers. Water is the source of life not only for humans but also for flora and fauna. Without water the rest of the prerequisites for planning and building cities, even if available in abundance, will be rendered hollow and liabilities to communities rather than assets. Via plenty of water, the persistent problem of irrigation will be easily handled. Fields and crops could be thus effectively supplied with water by means of streams, reservoirs and channels. And finally, strict personal hygiene, as well as the cleanliness of open places, markets, courtyards and private dwellings – something so pertinent to the Islamic worldview and code of life that it constitutes a segment of one’s faith – could be justifiably promoted and enforced.

Since domestic animals are a vital feature of every household: for breeding, for milk, and as the most standard mode of transportation, good pastures are another utility in cities. The better and nearer they are, the more convenient is it for the people to make full use of them. Having pastures far away from the city is troublesome for humans and livestock alike.[28]

Having a sufficient amount of fertile fields for cultivation is another thing that city planners and builders must see to, because grain is the basic food. Fields should be positioned near waterways for irrigation purposes. As they are to be near the city proper so that the needed grain could be obtained easily and quickly, especially in cases of emergency such as environmental disasters and an impending enemy assault.

Forests are also of the basic requirements for the planning and building of cities. They are needed basically for firewood and as a building material. Several crafts and industries depend on timber, like carpentry, paper production, and, to some extent, architecture.[29]

Lastly, the city is highly recommended to be situated close to the sea in order to facilitate the exportation and importation of goods from and to foreign countries. As to the subject of the city’s closeness to the sea, Ibn Khaldun admits that it is not always viable. As such, it would be inappropriate to place it at the same level of importance with the rest of the discussed requirements.[30] As a matter of fact, by referring to the subject of the sea, Ibn Khaldun implied just any form of reasonable accessibility to the city vital for its economic wellbeing, but which will by no means jeopardize the city defense system exposing it to unsolicited risks. Hence, the city’s nearness to the sea, in the sense of economic convenience and accessibility, has been cited as one of the principal requirements for city planning, whereas, at the same time, the problem of the sea’s existence as such has been conceded as not at all “at the same level with the afore-mentioned requirements”.

While dwelling on the issue of the requirements for the planning of cities, Ibn Khaldun was quick to point out that the highlighted requirements, although seeming universal and applicable to every situation, differ in importance in keeping with the different needs and the necessity that exists for them on the part of the inhabitants.[31] Whether those requirements are evenly addressed and their implications thoroughly taken into account, or whether some of them need be given more consideration than the others, is also governed by various indigenous geographical, climatic, cultural and other inherited factors and features of every setting. Even though Ibn Khaldun failed to explicitly mention the latter point, yet that he was fully cognizant and mindful of its significance could be unmistakably deduced from the contextual clues.

According to Ibn Khaldun, so grave are the consequences of neglecting the delineated requirements for planning and building cities that the general welfare of the city dwellers, as well as the very existence of the city, are put at stake. Differences with respect to these things make the difference between good and bad cities. In order to illustrate his point, Ibn Khaldun gave an example of the earliest cities of Islamic civilization, such as Qayrawan, Kufah, Basra, and others, which were famous as rather inconvenient and were ready to fall quickly into ruins. Ibn Khaldun’s argument is that the Arabs, the builders of the said cities, possessed a Bedouin civilization, and were imbibed with the Bedouin outlook and unfamiliarity with crafts. No sedentary culture existed among them at the time of building the cities. As a result, they paid little attention to the requirements of city planning so as to make the right choice concerning the city site, the quality of the air, the water, the fields, the woods, and the pastures. What the Arabs were interested in seeing to instead was that which “seemed important to them, namely, pastures for (their) camels and the trees and brackish water suitable to (camels). They did not see to it that there was water (for human consumption), fields for cultivation, firewood, or pastures for domestic animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, and so on.”[32]

As a final point, we shall venture into concluding that Ibn Khaldun’s ideal city is characterized, from the standpoint of city planning, by the following traits and features: a high standard of security; excellent safety and physical health; cleanliness; the existence of sufficient amenities; sustainability; accessibility; meeting the demand for infrastructure and housing; promoting and maintaining required agricultural and industrial activities; peaceful coexistence with the natural environment; the creation of strong communities with sound social integration; the maintenance of political control or prestige.

These city characteristics and values, aside from being enjoyed by the inhabitants, can furthermore promote the city, both locally and internationally, and with it the whole region it belongs to, as well as the vision and policies on which the city has been founded. The favorable universal milieu of the city would render it attractive for the masses, professionals and intellectuals alike. They would throng to it, aiming at settling in it or in its immediate vicinity. Most of them would aspire to become part of the city’s ever-growing bureaucracy or to engage in trade. Not only the city proper, but also the whole surrounding region, would in turn be converted into a hub of all sorts of productive and beneficial human activities. Indeed, this is the highest gain that the city can make, considering that cities and the things that go with them are not necessary matters of general concern to human beings, in the sense that they covet them or feel compelled to have them – as explained earlier. 

In this kind of the city, the smooth and effective transportation of all sorts of desirable goods shall be assured, and trade with the outside world set to grow and intensify. As a result, supply of goods and services would exceed, or at least match the demand for them, keeping the prizes at a desirably low level. Any unjustified prize hike intended by some unscrupulous traders could be controlled without much effort. The markets would be able to cater to the needs of the populace, be they necessities and foodstuffs or simply conveniences and luxuries. The people’s income will grow large; so will the expenditure, because the two balance each other in every city. And if both income and expenditure were large, the inhabitants would become more favorably situated, and the city would develop and expand rapidly.[33]At the end, the city (state) treasury would be enriched by the taxes collected from the thriving businesses, making it a considerable source of earning which, if properly managed, would always have potential to grow and flourish. New swelling revenues could be generously used, among other things, for further development, urbanization, intellectual pursuit, comfort, and improving defense.


A Critique of Ibn Khaldun’s theory of the city and city planning


The following are the most important points that one can bring up as to the subjects of the city and city planning in Ibn Khaldun’s thought:

1. Ibn Khaldun’s understanding of requirements for city planning has obviously been inspired by Islam – a comprehensive code of life – the principal objectives of which center round the preservation of (1) the religion, (2) the soul (life), (3) the intellect, (4) progeny, and (5) property (private, that of the community and the whole world). It stands to reason that Ibn Khaldun’s study and analysis of historical reports, as well as current socio-political and economic phenomena, via relating events to each other through cause and effect, and via drawing analogy between past and present, is just a response to a multitude of the Qur’anic verses calling for such an organized inquiry. Some sections of more than a few such verses – every so often even complete verses – have been placed at the end of nearly all the al-Muqaddimah chapters for no other reason but to indicate and authorize this Ibn Khaldun’s methodology and line of thinking.

2. When dwelling on the subjects of the city and city planning at his own time and through the Muslim history, Ibn Khaldun draws greatly throughout on his vast experience. Certainly, his most valuable asset for that matter was the intimate, firsthand knowledge of the western portion of the Muslim world, further enriched by his turbulent colorful political and intellectual career. In this manner, Ibn Khaldun was enabled to diversify his inquiry methods with regard to the western part of the Muslim world, ranging from ethnographic fieldwork to documentary historical research. Of his methods, Ibn Khaldun seemed to have a preference for direct social observation at the level of everyday life and interpretative understanding of the meaning of human inventions. However, in relation to the eastern portion of the Muslim world, which he did not visit beyond Damascus and the holy cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, Ibn Khaldun made use of nearly the same methods but had to rely on a variety of inferior and second-hand sources.[34]In both cases, however, his examination and selection of available data, together with their sources, was exceptionally meticulous, systematic and critical. Hence, at the outset of his al-Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun spoke in general terms about the sources of error in historical writing, warning that although the writing of history requires numerous sources and greatly varied knowledge, “errors and unfounded assumptions are closely allied and familiar elements in historical information. Blind trust in tradition is an inherited trait in human beings.”[35]

3. Ibn Khaldun was the first to state clearly and to apply some basic principles on which sociology must rest. Of such principles, three are of particular significance insofar as the problem of city planning is concerned: firstly, that social phenomena seem to obey laws which are sufficiently constant to cause social events to follow regular, well-defined patterns and sequences. Secondly, these laws can be discovered only by gathering a large number of facts and observing concomitances and sequences; and, broadly speaking, these facts can be gathered from either, or both, of two sources: records of past events and observation of present events. Explanation then consists in relating the correlations thus observed to accepted principles of different fields related to human existence. And thirdly, much the same set of social laws operates in societies with the same kind of structure, however much these societies may be separated by space or time.[36]

4. In order to substantiate and illustrate his points, Ibn Khaldun often referred to various Muslim cities with different backgrounds, characteristics, achievements and prospects, such as Baghdad, Cairo, Qayrawan, Kufah, Basra, Fez, etc. But, surprisingly, when the chronological context of his massive “Universal History” brings him to the creation of those cities, Ibn Khaldun, time and again, shies away from elaborating on such remarkable milestones in the history of Islamic civilization. In some cases – such as the case of Qayrawan[37] and Cairo[38], to name a few – the only thing that he records is that such-and-such a city was marked out and built in such-and-such a year. It is not surprising, therefore, that perhaps the main criticism leveled against Ibn Khaldun is that the work “Universal History” repeatedly fails to fulfill the promise of the Muqaddimah.[39]

The only real exception to this approach, however, is the case of the city of Baghdad,[40] built by the ‘Abbasid caliph al-Mansur in the year 145 AH/762 CE, about which Ibn Khaldun furnishes us with much details. One of the reasons for this might be the fact that by the creation of Baghdad some high standards in general planning and urbanization were set, not only within the boundaries of the Islamic state but also abroad. So superb was everything about the city of Baghdad, in terms of choosing its site, planning its components, and the structural design of its walls, gates and main edifices, that “in a few years the town grew into an emporium of trade and commerce and a political center of the greatest international importance. As if called into existence by a magician’s wand this city of al-Mansur fell heir to the power and prestige of Ctesiphon, Babylon, Nineveh, Ur and other capitals of the ancient Orient, attained a degree of prestige and splendor unrivaled in the Middle Ages, except perhaps by Constantinople…”[41]

Due to its outstanding historical position and role, the city of Baghdad naturally attracted more consideration on the part of historians, resulting in the survival of an enormous body of trustworthy records in relation to the city miscellaneous aspects. And for Ibn Khaldun, having the status of a historian first and foremost, such was the thing that mattered most every time he wanted to discourse on any historical occasion. Like in the case of most historians, the length of Ibn Khaldun’s accounts too frequently has been governed solely by the amount of true and accurate facts obtainable.

Furthermore, Ibn Khaldun might have dwelled more on the subject of planning and building the city of Baghdad than on other Muslim cities also because his explicated essential requirements for the planning and building cities are to a large extent exemplified by the caliph al-Mansur’s position on the same in connection with Baghdad. He, thus, might well have held Baghdad – until Mongols razed it – as an example of good, effective and successful city. Surely, the following declaration of al-Mansur while searching for the site of the future capital of the Islamic state completely corresponds the thrust of Ibn Khaldun’s views on the matter: “What I want is a place that is comfortable for the people and congenial for them as well as for me, a place where the prices will not become high for them and the food supplies will not prove too hard to obtain. If I live in a place where it is impossible to import anything by land or sea, the prices will be high, goods will be scarce, and shortages in the food supply will cause hardship for the people.”[42]

5. Ibn Khaldun should have – after all – referred at appropriate junctures to the precious experience of the Prophet (pbuh) pertaining to the subject in question, at least highlighting the Prophet’s philosophy and underlying principles of urbanization and development. Indeed, one of the Prophet’s cherished achievements is that he, under the aegis of revelation, turned the community of Yathrib, which consisted of several insignificant loosely interrelated settlements, into a dynamic, cohesive and alluring prototype Islamic city, i.e. Medina. The Muslims all over their vast territories have been emulating for centuries the function, spatial organization and content of the city of Medina – the first Islamic capital – as much as the indigenous geographical, climatic and other inherent factors and conditions permitted.

6. Ibn Khaldun’s approach is purely scientific.[43]He affords no room whatsoever for folk tales, legends, myths, fictions, and all that, to influence his inquiry into the concept of the city as well as requirements for city planning and the consequences of neglecting those requirements. A noteworthy instance of this is his scientific explanation of the causes of some form of the putrid fever in several cities in northwest Africa on the basis of his direct observation of atmospheric phenomena. In so doing, Ibn Khaldun repudiated a popular folk belief that the fever was caused when a copper vessel was found during an excavation. The vessel contained some magic spell against pestilence. However, after its seal had been broken a puff of smoke came out, thus making its magic efficacy to disappear. Feverous diseases began to occur from that time on. “The story is an example of the feeble beliefs and ideas of the common people”, was Ibn Khaldun’s concluding remark.[44]

7. Ibn Khaldun’s contention that cities are a goal of dynasties, royal authority and sedentary culture does not appear universally acceptable, from the perspective of the earliest and exemplary implementation of the pristine Islam in a pure, unworldly type of state, at least. Judging by the Prophet’s urbanization scheme in Medina, as well as by the creation of the first Muslim cities, such as Qayrawan in Africa, Fustat in Egypt, Kufah and Basra in Iraq, during the era of the first four rightly guided caliphs, the city according to the genuine Islamic worldview is seen as the ground for the people’s interaction with Allah Almighty – their Creator and Lord -, space, the environment and, of course, themselves at various scales, given that the city is a scene where they live, work, play, learn, worship, actualize and promote the message of Islam. The city in Islam is a microcosm of Islamic culture and civilization, in that individuals, families and virtually every other unit in the hierarchy of the Islamic socio-political, economic and religious structure, are bred and nurtured therein. It follows that dynasties, royal authority and sedentary culture – the elements that needed quite a long time to take root in Islamic civilization – are not the exclusive prerequisites that call for urban settlements; the intrinsic religious factor of Islam ought to be taken into account as well. It was, maybe, because of this that some people could not help inferring that one of Islam’s conspicuous qualities is that it prefers the sedentary to the nomad and the city dweller to the villager.[45]However, Ibn Khaldun’s constant conviction that the early Muslim state – a period of about forty years – represents an intervention of the supernatural in human affairs[46] may well suggest his readiness to consider the same period with all its features and accomplishments an exception to his views and theories.

8. Ibn Khaldun does not provide us with the principles, regulations and procedures as to the shaping of the urban environment. Nevertheless, that implies neither that they were totally absent then, nor that he was indifferent to the subject matter. Ibn Khaldun’s emphasis on generating in cities an atmosphere of ease, tranquility, healthiness, comfort and universal justice, as well as a setting conducive to germinating and promoting crafts, sciences, trade and industries is the best proof in favor of our assertion. What’s more, the Islamic law is infused with so many standards that significantly governed the shaping of the Islamic built environment from the very beginning of its existence. Some of such standards are legal restrictions regarding private property rights, privacy protection, cleanliness, the width of thoroughfares, peaceful coexistence with nature, duties and rights of neighbors, duties and rights of road users, the Prophet’s declaration that “there is no harming nor reciprocating harm”, etc.

9. Ibn Khaldun’s requirements for the planning of cities are not inclusive. A few more aspects he could bring up, such as religious and political considerations, which, though not as important as those spoken of, yet they sometimes played as vital a role in the process of planning and building cities. For instance, cities like Karbala and Najaf in Iraq, and Kazimiyyah[47] in Iran have been established mainly on the strength of certain religious considerations. In case of these and other similar cities, the religious factor evidently cast a shadow over all the other planning considerations. Also, many cities were created to meet certain political requirements. They served – among other things – as new political centers meant to be associated with some newly-emerged regimes bent on commemorating their hard-fought victory over their political rivals. Apart from economic, topographic, environmental and other relevant concerns, a top priority in this type of cities have always been putting an end to the remnants of enemy’s presence and influence, as well as legitimizing and promulgating by whatever it takes a new authority, struggle, ideals and institutions. In point of fact, in the chapter “Cities that are the seats of royal authority fall into ruins when the ruling dynasty falls into ruins and crumbles”, rather than in those chapters that deal with the issue of planning cities, Ibn Khaldun visibly alluded to the importance of politics in planning and building some cities, but fell short of recognizing it as a city planning requirement. He said, for example: “…Each nation (dynasty) must have a home, (a place) where it grows up an from which the realm took its origin… When the realm expands and its influence grows, it is inevitable that the seat of government be amidst the provinces belonging to the dynasty, because it is a sort of center for the whole area. Thus, the (new seat of government) is remote from the site of the former seat of government. The hearts of the people are attracted to the (new seat of government), because the dynasty and government (are there)…In general, when a dynasty chooses a city for its seat of government, it causes disintegration of the civilization in the former seat of government…It is the nature of a new dynasty to wipe out all the traces of the previous dynasty…”[48]    




The Islamic theory of general planning and urbanization is as old as the Muslim community. Its fundamental principles have been comprehensively laid in the Holy Qur’an, as well as in the sayings and practices of the Prophet (pbuh). Certainly, the best example of the earliest Islamic planning and urbanization is the establishment of the Muslim community in Medina in the wake of the migration (Hijrah) from Makkah. Henceforth, the matter was evolving steadily, corresponding with both the rapid spread of Islam throughout the world and the incredible growth of the civilization and cultures inspired by the Islamic worldview.

Urbanism, urban development and city life have been a major concern of more than a few Muslim thinkers before Ibn Khaldun. Al-Farabi (339 AH / 950 CE) – for instance – wrote his famous al-Madinah al-Fadilah where he expounded his views of the city phenomenon and city life. But for al-Farabi the city he talked about was a utopia rather than a practical and sensory phenomenon and experience. Hence, al-Madinah al-Fadilah is to be seen as a speculative and subjective work. A similar attempt to study city life was made by Ikhwan al-Safa in their Rasa’il (treatises).[49] In his famous book Suluk al-Malik fi Tadbir al-Mamalik (The Manners of the Ruler in Administering People), Shihab al-Din Ahmad Ibn Abi al-Rabi’ (272 AH / 885 CE) discussed – among other things as regards the city, state and Islamic polity – the requirements for planning and developing cities, which are very much reminiscent of those underscored by Ibn Khaldun.[50] The book was dedicated to the Abbasid caliph al-Mu’tasim (227 AH / 842 CE.[51]

Ibn Khaldun dwelled on the subject of the city and city planning as part of his sociological thought. According to him, cities are a product of royal authority and dynasties because building and planning can only be features of sedentary culture brought about by luxury and tranquility. Such features are generated only after an abandonment of Bedouin life, which is prior to, and the basis of, the existence of towns and cities. The existence of cities with their monuments, vast constructions and large buildings, is perceived by Ibn Khaldun as lying outside the category of necessary matters of general concern to human beings. Therefore, to build cities, people must be either forced by the stick of royal authority or induced by promise of reward and compensation.

            Ibn Khaldun recognizes two major reasons that call for cities. Firstly, royal authority causes the people to seek tranquility, restfulness and relaxation, and to try to provide the aspects of civilization that were lacking in the desert. The second reason is the defense of life, dynasty and civilization against rivals and enemies.

Ibn Khaldun was very much concerned about the natural environment too, considering it to be simultaneously an obstruction and help. City planners and builders, thus, ought to seek both to invite nature’s aid and to drive back its attacks.

Apart from defense purposes and environmental factors, Ibn Khaldun talked about a number of other matters that must be dealt with if useful things and conveniences are to be introduced into cities. Such matters are: water for drinking, irrigation and cleanliness purposes; pastures for the livestock of the inhabitants; fields suitable for cultivation; forests for the supply of firewood and building material; and the sea to facilitate the import and export of goods.


[1] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, Translated from the Arabic by Franz Rosenthal, (London: Rotledge and Kegan Paul, 1986), see the translator’s introduction.

[2] Ibid., see the translator’s introduction.

[3] Issawi Charles M. A., An Arab Philosophy of History, (London: John Murray, 1958), p. 2.

[4] Ibid., p. 3.

[6]The Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed., s.v. “Ibn Khaldun”, vol. 3 p. 827.

[7] Nasr Seyyed Hossein, Science and Civilization in Islam, (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1987), p. 57.

[9]Muhammad al-Sharqawi, al-Tafsir al-Dini li al-Tarikh (n.pp: Dar al-Sha’b, n.d.), vol. 1 p. 72.

[10] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, vol. 1 p. 284.

[11] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 296.

[12] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 301.

[13]Hisham Ja’it, “Nazrah Ibn Khaldun li al-Madinah wa Mushkilah al-Tamdin”, in Ibn Khaldun wa al-Fikr al-‘Arabi al-Mu’asir, n.edit.(Cairo: al-Dar al-‘Arabiyyah li al-Kitab, 1982), p. 490-499.

[14]Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, vol. 2 p. 235.

[15] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 235.

[16]Sati’ Abu Khaldun al-Husari, Dirasat ‘an Muqaddimah Ibn Khaldun (Cairo: Matba’ah al-Khanji, 1961), p. 528-531.

[17] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, vol. 2 p. 235.

[18]Hisham Ja’it, “Nazrah Ibn Khaldun li al-Madinah wa Mushkilah al-Tamdin”, in Ibn Khaldun wa al-Fikr al-‘Arabi al-Mu’asir, p. 490-499.

[19] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, vol. 2 p. 237.

[20] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 237.

[21] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 243.

[22]Sati’ Abu Khaldun al-Husari, Dirasat ‘an Muqaddimah Ibn Khaldun, p. 525-528. Fuad Baali, Society, State and Urbanism: Ibn Khaldun’s Sociological Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), p. 84-85.

[23] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, vol. 2 p. 244.

[24] Issawi Charles M. A., An Arab Philosophy of History, p. 5.

[25]Max Weber, The City (New York: The Free Press, 1966), p. 75.

[26] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, vol. 2 p. 244, 245.

[27] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 243.

[28] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 247.

[29] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 357, 363, 391.

[30] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 247.

[31] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 247.

[32] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 247.

[33]Ahmad Bu Dharwah, al-Iqtisad al-Siyasi fi Muqaddimah Ibn Khaldun (Beirut: Dar Ibn Khaldun, 1984), p. 191-200.

[34]Muhammad al-Talibi, “Manhajiyyah Ibn Khaldun al-Tarikhiyyah”, in Ibn Khaldun wa al-Fikr al-‘Arabi al-Mu’asir, p. 30-40.

[35] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, vol. 1 p. 7.

[36] Issawi Charles M. A., An Arab Philosophy of History, p. 7-8.

[37] Ibn Khaldun, Tarikh Ibn Khaldun, (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1979), vol. 3 p. 11.

[38] Ibn Khaldun, Tarikh Ibn Khaldun, (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-Lubnani, 1958), vol. 4 p. 100.

[39]The Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed., s.v. “Ibn Khaldun”, vol. 3 p. 829.

[40] Ibn Khaldun, Tarikh Ibn Khaldun, vol. 3 p. 196.

[41]Hitti Philip K., History of the Arabs, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), p. 293.  

[42]Al-Tabari Ibn Jarir, The History, Translated and annotated by John Alden Williams, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985), vol. 28. p. 238-242. Ibn al-Faqih, Kitab al-Buldan, (Beirut: ’Alam al-Kutub, 1996),p. 282.

[43]The Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd. ed., s.v. “Ibn Khaldun”, vol. 3 p. 830. Muhammad al-Sharqawi, al-Tafsir al-Dini li al-Tarikh, vol. 1 p. 69.

[44] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, vol. 2 p. 245.

[45]L. Carl Brown, “Introduction”, in From Madina to Metropolis, ed. L. Carl Brown (Princeton: the Darwin Press, 1973), p. 38.

[46] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, vol. 1, Translator’s Introduction.

[47] ‘Uthman Muhammad ‘Abd al-Sattar,al-Madinah al-Islamiyyah, (Kuwait: ‘Alam al-Ma’rifah, 1988), p. 95.

[48]Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, vol. 2 p. 298-299.

[49]Fuad Baali, Society, State and Urbanism: Ibn Khaldun’s Sociological Thought, p. 90.

[50]Shihab al-Din Ahmad Ibn Abi al-Rabi’, Suluk al-Malik fi Tadbir al-Mamalik (Cairo: Dar al-Sha’b, 1980), vol. 2 p. 420-422.

[51]Muhammad ‘Abd al-Sattar Uthman,al-Madinah al-Islamiyyah, p. 25.


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