L’alimentation dans l’œuvre d’Ibn Khaldun

Coline Ferrant, membre de Solal actuellement en thèse à Northwestern University, partage avec nous sa lecture de la Muqaddima d’Ibn Khaldun. Elle montre qu’aux yeux de ce savant du XIVe siècle, l’alimentation était au fondement de la société humaine.

Si vous utilisez ce texte, merci de citer sa référence:

Ferrant Coline, Food in Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, Solal Sociologie de l’alimentation [blog], https://solal.hypotheses.org/426.

Food in Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah

Muqaddimah, written by late 14th century North African Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun, is an early attempt at universal history, an endeavor to « explain such various aspects of civilization that affect human beings in their social organization, as royal authority, gainful occupation, sciences, and crafts, (all) in the light of various arguments that will show the true nature of the varied knowledge of the elite and the common people, repel misgivings, and remove doubts »[i].

In this creative reflection, I examine the place of food in Muqaddimah. Through an integrated narrative based on selected extracts from the whole source, I demonstrate that for Ibn Khaldun, food actually undergirds humanity and society.

I rely on the canonical 1958 translation by Franz Rosenthal (Ibn Khaldun 1958 [1377]). For flow and readability purposes, I use « double quotes » for specific passages (whose locations within the book are in endnotes), and ‘single quotes’ for words and sentences that are recurring throughout the source.

* * *

 According to Ibn Khaldun, food is the God-granted basis of human subsistence: « God created man and preserves his life through nourishment. »[ii] The very human body is constituted through food. This is, precisely and graphically, how it unfolds: « The nourishment that enters the mouth and is chewed by the jaws undergoes the influence of the heat of the mouth, which boils it slightly. Thus, its composition is slightly altered. This can be observed in a bit of food that is taken and chewed well. Its composition then can be observed to be different from that of the (original) food. The food then gets into the stomach, and the heat of the stomach boils it, until it becomes chyme, that is, the essence of the boiled (food). (The stomach) sends (the chyme) on into the liver, and ejects the part of the food that has become solid sediment in the bowels, through the two body openings. The heat of the liver then boils the chyme, until it becomes fresh blood. On it, there swims a kind of foam as the result of the boiling. (That foam) is yellow bile. Parts of it become dry and solid. They are black bile. The natural heat is not quite sufficient to boil the coarse parts. They are phlegm. The liver then sends all (these substances) into the veins and arteries. There, the natural heat starts to boil them. The pure blood thus generates a hot and humid vapor that sustains the animal spirit. The growing power acts upon the blood, and it becomes flesh. The thick part of it then becomes bones. Then, the body eliminates the (elements of the digested food) it does not need as the various superfluities, such as sweat, saliva, mucus, and tears. »[iii]

Further, occupational hierarchy, social differentiation, and social order stem from food: « The necessary character of human social organization or civilization is explained by the fact that God created and fashioned man in a form that can live and subsist only with the help of food. »[iv] Indeed, Ibn Khaldun writes: « The individual human being cannot by himself obtain all the necessities of life. All human beings must co-operate to that end in their civilization. »[v] Picture how workers of many different occupations cooperate to produce and distribute wheat, one necessary foodstuff for human subsistence: « No one, by himself, can obtain the share of the wheat he needs for food. But when six or ten persons, including a smith and a carpenter to make the tools, and others who are in charge of the oxen, the plowing of the soil, the harvesting of the ripe grain, and all the other agricultural activities, undertake to obtain their food and work toward that purpose either separately or collectively and thus obtain through their labor a certain amount of food, (that amount) will be food for a number of people many times their own. »[vi]


Besides food, dependent ‘needs of life and civilization’ are ‘dwelling and clothing’ (in more vivid words, ‘shelter and warmth’), as well as the ‘crafts’ and ‘tools’ that ensure their accessibility for all people. Regarding food, these crafts are ‘preparation and cooking;’ these tools are ‘vessels’ and ‘ustensils.’ Early civilization people, whose character was « intemperate » and whose « thinking [did] not go far enough to enable them to practice human crafts, » ate « unprepared and uncooked food. »[vii] In that sense, « food is the main factor in perfecting human life, »[viii] fostering thinking and crafting.

The ‘bare necessity’ for human subsistence is ‘grain’ – oftentimes ‘wheat,’ sometimes ‘barley.’ Secondary foodstuffs include « corresponding foods, such as beans, chick-peas, peas, and other edible grains; and wholesome foods such as onions, garlic, and the like. »[ix] Still, humans can live free from grain: « If a man accustoms himself to the use of milk and vegetables instead of wheat, until (the use of them) gets to be his custom, milk and vegetables become for him (his habitual) food, and he definitely has no longer any need for wheat or grains. »[x] This is the case of desert civilizations, to the benefit of body and intellect: « The desert people who lack grain and season body and better in character than the hill people who have plenty of everything. Their complexions are clearer, their bodies cleaner, their figures more perfect and better, their characters less intemperate, and their minds keener as far as knowledge and perception are concerned. »[xi] Some humans can even live utterly free from food, through austere practicing: « Those who have accustomed themselves to suffer hunger and do without food. Such things are reported about trained (ascetics). »[xii] They turn even saner, « free from corrupt superfluities and mixed fluids that destroy body and intellect. »[xiii]

Instances of desert civilizations are « the inhabitants of the Hijaz and the Yemen, or the Veiled Sinhajah who live in the desert of the Maghrib on the fringes of the sandy deserts which lie between the Berbers and the Sudanese Negroes » and « the Arabs who roam the waste regions, »[xiv] while sedentary civilizations are found among the ‘Arabs’ as well as the ‘Berbers.’ Contrary to desert civilizations and their healthy focus on « the necessities of life and a life of austerity, » sedentary civilizations, and especially their royal authority, fall prey « to the luxuries and a life of comfort and beauty. »[xv]

The new role of food in sedentary contexts result in changes in lifestyles, as well as in the occupational hierarchy and social order: « The reason for this is that, as long as sedentary civilization is not complete and the city not fully organized, people are concerned only with the necessities of life, that is, with the obtaining of food, such as wheat and other things. Then, when the city is organized and the (available) labor increases and pays for the necessities and is more than enough (for the inhabitants), the surplus is spent on luxuries. »[xvi]

On the one hand, sedentary civilizations exalt God-given human crafts and necessities. Foodstuffs come to incorporate « fine cuisine »[xvii] and ‘delicacies.’ Food crafts and tools are « perfected and refined to the limit, »[xviii] creating novel occupations such as « the cook, the biscuit baker, the harisah baker. »[xix] Yet, on the other hand, sedentary people eat unnecessary quantity and diversity of foodstuffs, and indulge in excessive preparation and cooking: « They eat a great deal and rarely restrict themselves to one particular kind of food. They lack caution in taking food, and they prepare their food, when they cook it, with the admixture of a good many things, such as spices, herbs, and fruits, (both) fresh and dry. They do not restrict themselves in this respect to one or even a few kinds. We have on occasion counted forty different kinds of vegetables and meats in a single cooked dish. »[xx] This stands in stark contrast with the limited foodstuffs, « little prepared or not prepared at all, save that it may have been touched by fire, »[xxi] characteristic of desert civilizations.

Ibn Khaldun contends that what is even more reprehensible is how sedentary civilizations experience food.  ‘Austerity’ and ‘subsistence’ degrade into harmful ‘desire’ and destructive ‘pride’. These behaviors originate in the royal authority and eventually permeate all people: « They take pride in such things and vie with other nations in delicacies, gorgeous raiment, and fine mounts. Every new generation wants to surpass the preceding one in this respect, and so it goes right down to the end of the dynasty. The larger the realm ruled by a dynasty, the greater is the share of its people in these luxuries. The limit eventually to be reached is set for a particular dynasty by its own power and by the customs of its predecessors. »[xxii]

Dire consequences follow. On the political and economic fronts, the excesses of the royal authority lead towards disaster, as « the income of the dynasty is too small to pay for such expenditures. »[xxiii] On the moral front, nasty traits breed, such as « humiliation, » « shame, » « arrogance. »[xxiv] On the medical front, illnesses increase, for « the air in cities becomes corrupt through admixture of putrid vapors because of the great number of superfluities (in cities). It is the air that gives energy to the spirit and thus strengthens the influence of the natural heat upon digestion. »[xxv]

Destruction of humanity, through sexual depravity, is the ultimate aftermath: « Among the things that corrupt sedentary culture, there is the disposition toward pleasures and indulgence in them, because of the great luxury (that prevails). It leads to diversification of the desires of the belly for pleasurable food and drink. This is followed by diversification of the pleasures of sex through various ways of sexual intercourse, such as adultery and homosexuality. This leads to destruction of the (human) species. It may come about indirectly, through the confusion concerning one’s descent caused by adultery. Nobody knows his own son, since he is illegitimate and since the sperm (of different men) got mixed up in the womb. »[xxvi]

 * * *

I conclude by recapping Muqaddimah‘s framework of the history of humanity and society: « We say that man is distinguished from the other living beings by certain qualities peculiar to him, namely: (1) The sciences and crafts which result from that ability to think which distinguishes man from the other animals and exalts him as a thinking being over all creatures. (2) The need for restraining influence and strong authority, since man, alone of all the animals, cannot exist without them. It is true, something has been said in this connection about bees and locusts. However, if they have something similar, it comes to them through inspiration, not through thinking or reflection. (3) Man’s efforts to make a living and his concern with the various ways of obtaining and acquiring the means of (life). This is the result of man’s need for food to keep alive and subsist, which God instilled in him, guiding him to desire and seek a livelihood. God said: ‘He gave every thing its natural characteristics, and then guided it.’ (4) Civilization. This means that human beings have to dwell in common and settle together in cities and hamlets for the comforts of companionship and for the satisfaction of human needs, as a result of the natural disposition of human beings toward co-operation in order to be able to make a living, as we shall explain. Civilization may be either desert (Bedouin) civilization as found in outlying regions and mountains, in hamlets (near suitable) pastures in waste regions, and on the fringes of sandy deserts. Or it may be sedentary civilization as found in cities, villages, towns, and small communities that serve the purpose of protection and fortification by means of walls. In all these different conditions, there are things that affect civilization essentially in as far as it is social organization. »[xxvii] Among the four features that distinguish man, the satisfaction of human needs through food is the structuring one – allowing the development of crafts, necessitating an authority, and differentiating civilizations.

Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah illustrates how seemingly mundane food can be the very linchpin of a grand treatise on humanity and society. Relatedly, food is a subtle lens to read, understand, and study Muqaddimah, a founding source of anthropological theory. (I envision funny publication projects aimed at rendering such olden, hefty volume accessible to present-day, hurried readers: « Muqaddimah in 50 Foods, » « Learning to Cook with Muqaddimah, » and the like.)


I thank Robert Launay for commenting and Maggie Monahan for copyediting.


I am a student in the Dual PhD in Sociology between Northwestern University and Sciences Po. At Northwestern University, I am a fellow of the Sociology Department, and at Sciences Po, of the Center for Studies in Social Change (Sciences Po / French National Center for Scientific Research). I am also an associate fellow at Food and Social Sciences (French National Institute for Agricultural Research), and a graduate affiliate at the Buffett Institute for Global Studies (Northwestern University). My dissertation research examines food, eating, and daily life among the immigrant working-class in Chicago and Paris.

Reference Cited

Ibn Khaldun, Abd Ar Rahman bin Muhammed. The Muqaddimah. Translated by Franz Rosenthal. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958 [1377].

[i]Book One of the Kitab al-‘Ibar. Section “The nature of civilization. Bedouin and settled life, the achievement of superiority, gainful occupations, ways of making a living, sciences, crafts, and all the other things that affect (civilization). The causes and reasons thereof.”

[ii]Chapter V “On the (various) aspects of making a living, such as profit and the crafts. The conditions that occur in this connection. A number of problems are connected (with this subject).” Section 28 “The craft of medicine is needed in settled areas and cities but not in the desert.”


[iv]Chapter I “Human civilization in general.” First prefatory discussion.

[v]Chapter IV “Countries and cities, and all other (forms of) sedentary civilization. The conditions occurring there. Primary and secondary (considerations) in this connection.” Section 11 “With regard to the amount of prosperity and business activity (in them), cities and towns differ in accordance with the different size of their civilization (population).”


[vii]Chapter V, op. cit. Section 24 “The waft of architecture.”

[viii]Chapter V, op. cit. Section 23 “The craft of agriculture.”

[ix]Chapter IV, op. cit. Section 12 “Prices in town.”

[x]Chapter I, op. cit. Fifth prefatory discussion “Differences with regard to abundance and scarcity of food in the various inhabited regions (‘umran) and how they affect the human body and character.”




[xiv]Chapter I, op. cit. Fifth prefatory discussion, op. cit.

[xv]Chapter III “On dynasties, royal authority, the caliphate, government ranks, and all that goes with these things. The chapter contains basic and supplementary propositions.” Section 10 “By its very nature, the royal authority claims all glory for itself and goes in for luxury and prefers tranquility and quiet.”

[xvi]Chapter V, op. cit. Section 16 “The crafts are perfected only if there exists a large and perfect sedentary civilization.”

[xvii]Chapter II “Bedouin civilization, savage nations and tribes and their conditions (of life), including several basic and explanatory statements.” Section 1 “Both Bedouins and sedentary people are natural groups.”

[xviii]Chapter V, op. cit. Section 16, op. cit.


[xx]Chapter V, op. cit. Section 28, op. cit.

[xxi]Chapter II, op. cit. Section 2 “The Arabs are a natural group in the world.”

[xxii]Chapter III, op. cit. Section 10, op. cit.

[xxiii]Chapter III, op. cit. Section 46 “The authority of the dynasty at first expands to its limit and then is narrowed down in successive stages, until the dynasty dissolves and disappears.”

[xxiv]Chapter III, op. cit. Section 32 “The ranks of royal and governmental authority and the titles that go with those ranks.”

[xxv]Chapter V, op. cit. Section 28, op. cit.

[xxvi]Chapter IV, op. cit. Section 18 “Sedentary culture is the goal of civilization. It means the end of its life span and brings about its corruption.”

[xxvii]Book One of the Kitab al-‘Ibar. Section “The nature of civilization. Bedouin and settled life, the achievement of superiority, gainful occupations, ways of making a living, sciences, crafts, and all the other things that affect (civilization). The causes and reasons thereof.”

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