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Adam Smith is seen as the “father of modern economics.” A recent article in evonomics highlights ideas of the 14th century scholar Ibn Khaldun, who detailed very similar ideas 400 years earlier.

Adam Smith famously wrote about the division of labor giving the example of a pin factory where work was shared among many individuals doing a single task repeatedly accomplishes more than an individual trying to build an entire pin himself.

Ibrahim Oweiss, economics professor at Georgetown University, notes Ibn Khaldun established the study of the science of civilization.

“His significant contributions to economics, however, should place him in the history of economic thought as a major forerunner, if not the ‘father,’ of economics, a title which has been given to Adam Smith, whose great works were published some three hundred and seventy years after Ibn Khaldun’s death. Not only did Ibn Khaldun plant the germinating seeds of classical economics, whether in production, supply, or cost, but he also pioneered in consumption, demand, and utility, the cornerstones of modern economic theory.”

James Bartkus, business professor at Xavier University of Louisiana, and Kabir Hassan, finance professor at the University of New Orleans, also mapped out the similarities between Khaldun and Smith in a blog post on the subject. They note in his 1377 work, Al-Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun showed division of labor is a necessary condition of survival by demonstrating the different tasks that must be completed to gather basic food. Ibn Khaldun wrote:

“It is beyond the power of one man alone to do all that, or (even) part of it, by himself. Thus, he cannot do without a combination of many powers from among his fellow beings, if he is to obtain food for himself and for them. Through cooperation, the needs of a number of persons, many times greater than their own (number), can be satisfied.”

In Ibn Khaldun’s view, such cooperation is necessary for survival and from the surplus goods resulting from cooperation, laborers can trade with inhabitants of foreign city. Years later, Adam Smith also wrote cooperation can lead to international trade.

Bartkus and Hassan also note both Ibn Khaldun and Adam Smith pointed to labor, rather than gold and silver, as the primary source of a nation’s wealth. Ibn Khaldun argues:

“The common people who hear them think that the prosperity of these peoples is the result of the greater amount of property owned by them, or of the existence of gold and silver mines in their country in larger number (than elsewhere)… A large civilization yields large profits because of the large amount of (available) labor, which is the cause of (profit) (4:280-281).”

Whereas Smith states:

“It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased; and its value, to those who possess it, and who want to exchange it for some new productions, is precisely equal to the quantity of labour which it can enable them to purchase or command.”

Khaldun’s work also explored supply and demand, how population growth affects the economy and tax theory, ideas that were seen as groundbreaking when western economists wrote on them centuries later.

Though it’s not known whether Adam Smith read Khaldun, it is quite possible he came across Khaldun’s ideas at Glasgow or Oxford Univeristy.

"Ever since the Crusades, which lasted from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, most Western philosophers attempted to discount the impact of Muslim scholars through a multiplicity of approaches, which included using Muslim ideas without mentioning the name of a Muslim author."

And so Khaldun’s work, like many Muslim scholars, was largely forgotten in the west but his ideas were appropriated and disseminated under new names.

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