ButI oversimplify. Apparently "Muqaddimah" means "Introduction"--in this case an introduction to The Book of Lessons and Archive of Early and Subsequent History, Dealing with Political Events Concerning Arabs, non-Arabs, and Berbers, and with their Contemporary Supreme Rulers (that from Bruce Lawrence's helpful introduction to the "Introduction"). The whole work is available in a three-volume Bollingen set at $325 (I haven't long version).
No amount of summary can do justice to the richness of this work, but it is possible to identify some themes that give some hint as to the originality and scope. As Lawrence says in his introduction, Ibn Khaldûn believes "that civilization is always and everywhere marked by the fundamental difference between urban and primitive, producing a tension that is also an interplay between nomad and merchant, desert and city, orality and literacy" (intro x). Perhaps even more extraordinary, he has a sense of process, of change--something we didn't think entered history until the age of Vico and Hegel.
He also exhibits a tireless willingness to pursue critical analysis: almost nothing passes under his gaze without some effort at informed judgment. He is a creature of his time, of course, and his judgments are not always ours. But it is always refreshing to observe his independence and vigor. Here, for example, he recalls a story he has heard about Alexander the Great:
Sea monsters prevented Alexander from building Alexandria. He took a wooden container in which a glass box was inserted, and dived in it to the bottom of the sea. There he drew pictures of the devilish monsters he saw. He then had metal effigies of these animals made and set them up opposite the place where building was going on. When the monsters came out and saw the effigies, they fled. Alexander was thus able to complete the building of Alexandria.It's a story that would do credit to Herodotus. But Herodotus would cease with the telling, or perhaps add a coy aside that he didn't know himself whether it was true. Ibn Khaldûn is not so restrained. "It is a long story," he remarks, "made up of nonsensical elements which are absurd for various reasons." Of these he offers three. One is the argument of sheer technical implausibility:
Were one to go deep into the water, even in a box, one would have too little air for natural breathing. Because of thaat, one's spirit would quickly become hot. Such a man would lack the cold air necessary to maintain a we3ll-balanced humouir of the lung and the vital spirits. He would perish on the spot.He also offers an argument from practical implausibility:
[R]ulers would not take such a risk. Any ruler who would attempt such a thing would work his own undoing and provoke the outbreak of revolt against himself, and be replaced by the people with someone else.If these two aren't enough, Ibn Khaldûn offers a third argument which we might regard as a clincher:
Furthermore, the jinn are not known to have specific forms and effigies. They are able to take on various forms. The story of the many heads they have intended to indicate ugliness and frightfulness. It is not intended to be taken literally.This stuff never stops. Go and read it for yourself.