“The substantive interest of Ibn Khaldun in both the Muqaddimah and the Kitab al-‘Ibar, lies in the explanation of the formation and decline of Maghribian and Arab states” (Alatas, 2014: 22). In his study of the rise and fall of north African states, Ibn Khaldun compared the social organization of pastoral nomadic societies to that of sedentary societies. He posited that the differences observed between these two types of societies are the result of inherent differences in their ‘asabiyyah; a concept often translated as group feeling or social cohesion. “Ibn Khaldun’s thesis was that groups with strong ‘asabiyyah could establish political rule over those with weak ‘asabiyyah” (Alatas, 2014:22). He saw the progression from nomadic civilization toward a sedentary one as a natural process where the advent of sedentary lifestyle is in fact the desired outcome of bedouin life. He postulated that all human societies evolve from a rather primitive lifestyle toward a far more complex one entailing grand cities, sophisticated cultures, and an opulent lifestyle.
According to him, the concept of ‘asabiyyah plays an essential role in this progression. “He establishes asabiyya as the dynamic force in history and the development of any political system” (Mirawdeli, 2015:82). ‘Asabiyyah refers to the social bond that provides stability and strength to social groupings. “This abstract concept conveys the idea of the bond that ensures the cohesion of a social group just as, analogously, the tendons ensure the cohesion of flesh to the bones” (Baali, 1988:44). Ibn Khaldun clarified that such a bond is not only born of consanguineal relations but is also social, psychological, physical, and political in nature. The superior ‘asabiyyah enjoyed by nomadic bedouins gave them a stronger social cohesion than the sedentary groups living in urban areas where they’ve established their dynasties. This strong social cohesion gave them both “the aggressive and defensive strength” necessary to eventually take over sedentary groups with a weakened ‘asabiyyah (Mirawdeli, 2015:84). A diminished social bond leaves settled groups at the mercy of nomadic/pre-urban bedouin tribes. These tribes often relied on the cities of the settled groups to acquire the basic necessities of life. This scarcity resulting from their precarious lifestyle promoted cooperation and mutual reliance amongst the members of the tribe which brought about a stronger and more vigorous ‘asabiyyah.
Ibn Khaldun assigned to religion an important role in the creation and the strengthening of ‘asabiyyah. He used as an example the advent of Islam in the Arab Peninsula where religion provided a spiritual bond between disparate Arab tribes and gave them a common cause for which to fight (Ibn Khaldun et al. 2005: 126). Islam served as a unifying force and created a strong social cohesion amongst the Arab tribes joining the nascent Muslim nation. This unification allowed the pre-urban tribes to establish royal authority and commence sedentary life. The strength of their bedouin ‘asabiyyah and the puissance of their religious mission allowed them to expand their territory and conquer previously settled groups (Ibn Khaldun et al. 2005: 91).
“The role of religious ideology, then, lies in its significance as necessary “additional power” that supports the struggle of a powerful asabiyyah, the Quraysh in the case of Islam, to overpower those groups that are equal or superior to it in strength(…) Furthermore, according to Ibn Khaldun, religious ideology can materialize only if it conforms with and responds to the material conditions and needs of the life of the society it addresses. Islam was successful not only because Muhammad belonged to a dominating “house” with a powerful asabiyya (…) but also because his teachings were congruent with the desert vision and material reality of the Arabs” (Mirawdeli, 2015:97).
The primitive culture of the tribes is one focused exclusively on satisfying the basic needs. It is a life of austerity and extreme precarity. In what Ibn Khaldun called the stage of badawa (pastoral nomadic) the tribes are mostly preoccupied with ensuring their survival. This made unity a crucial element to the existence of the group. In order to bring this about, they needed to create a “dominating element” (Mirawdeli, 2015:84). ‘Asabiyyah allows an individual within the group to acquire a legitimate power that gives him “Mulk” a royal authority. “Hence, asabiyya expresses itself in the form of legitimatising the restraining power of a person among the group, giving him mulk, royal authority” (Mirawdeli, 2015:84). The group willingly submits to his authority which only further strengthens their cohesion as a group. Once the ruler achieves his hegemony over his own group, he is now poised to extend it to neighbouring tribes. Eventually, consanguineal relations lose their importance as the primary source of ‘asabiyyah to be replaced by a far more abstract understanding of power. The chieftain that previously held royal authority over the group is replaced by a state based on a “single great ‘asabiyyah” (Mirawdeli, 2015:85).
“Thus, Asabiyya gives a group the superiority without which royal authority cannot be achieved. At the same time, by making social organization possible, it establishes the first condition of umran. And historical evolution, the transition from Badawa to sedentary culture, is concurrent with the transformation of royal authority into a fully developed state. In this sense, civilization is no more than the manifestation of the function and reality of the State” (Mirawdeli, 2015:85).
Sedentary life on the contrary is one predicated on conveniences and luxury. With a large number of individuals living in close proximity to one another in cities they’ve settled, the production of goods increased, and a large quantity of surplus labour became available for the manufacturing of luxuries (Ibn Khaldun et al. 2005: 94). But, according to Ibn Khaldun the development of all these superfluities is what eventually triggered the degeneration of the group and led to the decline of its power and strength (Ibn Khaldun et al. 2005: 94). The simplicity, the roughness, and the simple devotion and allegiance found in the original group eroded with increasing wealth and power. The comforts of sedentary life are not however the only thing that precipitated the decline of the group. When the ruler gained absolute power and started excluding his people from the royal authority he enjoyed due to their voluntary submission to his dominance, he started to sow the seeds of discord and weakened the very ‘asabiyyah to which he owed his authority (Ibn Khaldun et al. 2005: 95).
Ibn Khaldun postulated in his theory of state formation that all human societies are caught in this cyclical process; from humble and simple beginnings, to opulent cultures and lifestyle, followed by erosion and decline. In his theory he identified four stages progressing from badawa (desert life) to hadara (civilization). The first stage is the period of establishment, where group solidarity is primarily based on familial ties and religious kinship. Life at this stage is one of great precarity and the survival of the group is what matters most. The rulers at this stage are chieftains who endeavour to “perfect themselves by exhibiting admirable qualities demonstrating, among other things, their capacity for administrating God’s law” (Dale, 2015: 187). In the second stage, the ruler succeeds in monopolizing the royal authority and acquires absolute power. This hegemony by the ruler coincides with the erosion of the ‘asabiyyah that began on the basis of familial group solidarity. The ruler can now build a proper state with features such as a complex administrative bureaucracy, a paid army, and advisors to counsel him.
The third stage is characterized by the abundance of luxury and the increasing importance of leisure as a defining aspect of sedentary life. “Monarchs now found it increasingly necessary to increase taxes to support their extravagant lives and were initially able to do so because their cowed subjects did not resist” (Dale, 2015:192). The ruler uses his authority to satisfy his personal needs. He then spends exorbitant amounts on public works and on the beautification of his cities. The state enjoys economic prosperity, and high culture is developed through the crafts, fine arts, and the sciences. Cultural pursuits gain avid supporters amongst the ruling class and the upper strata of society. Leisure and self-indulgence become important aspects of life.
In the fourth stage luxury and comfort are now defining features of society. Life is centered around the search for contentment and satiation. Complacency, corruption, and decadence take hold in the once morally upright group. The ruler indulges in depraved behavior while neglecting the state. “The nobility, superior ‘asabiyyah, and other personal traits that characterized chiefs three generations earlier had, by the fourth generation, entirely dissipated” (Dale, 2015: 192). At this point, the state is starting to decline and to disintegrate. The vital forces of solidarity and religion that once provided the group with the means to their unity and success are now all but destroyed. To ensure support for his rule and to maintain the luxuries acquired, he once again resorts to raising the taxes. As the income of the state declines, it ultimately becomes impossible for the ruler to maintain his authority.
Ibn Khaldun’s cyclical view of history
A linear view of history first emerged in the work of St. Augustine (354-430 CE) who described history as the unfolding of God’s plan. He believed that this process which started with the creation of the world would come to an end with the Final Judgement. The growth of knowledge and the recording of past events contributed greatly to the rise of the concept of linear history (Barnes, 1948: 171). Voltaire in the eighteenth century also ascribed to a similar view, albeit more secular. He divided the evolution of history into four great ages eventually culminating in the scientific enlightenment of Man. However, the idea that history repeats itself through the rise and fall of civilizations was not completely unheard of before Ibn Khaldun’s ilm al-ijtima al-insani( science of human society).
Throughout the centuries, many historians and philosophers, such as Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Montaigne (1532-1592) held a cyclical view of history. In the modern age, both Arnold Toynbee (1884-1975) and Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) adhered to a cyclical view of history in which civilizations continuously rise and fall. In fact, Toynbee posited that the cyclical nature of history emerged as the predominant view when ancient civilizations like the Babylonians made discoveries in the field of astronomy (Bailey, 1958: 93). As they observed recurrent cosmic events (lunar month, solar year, night and day cycle), the repetitive nature of life shaped their view of history. This cyclical conceptualization is also found “in the mentality of the old Hindu civilization as well as in the rhythm of the Yin and Yang of ancient China” (Bailey, 1958: 94). In fact, the notion of world-cycles was also central to the ancient Greeks’ understanding of cosmic time. This idea was later inherited by Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius who strongly believed in the uniformity of the world.
“The idea was adopted by the Stoics and championed by Marcus Aurelius who was convinced that the world is so uniform that a man of forty has seen all that past generations saw or that future generations may see” (Bailey, 1958: 94).
The Italian philosopher Giovanni Battista Vico elaborated in the early 1700s what he called the theory of historical returns (ricorsi). His cyclical understanding of history was mainly based on his anti-Cartesian view of humanity and his rejection of Man’s supposed rationality. Vico dismissed the natural sciences capacity to explain human phenomena, and much like Ibn Khaldun in the fourteenth century, he set out to create a “new science which could shed light on the developments in collective life” (Bailey, 1958: 94). His investigation into the human past led him to identify three stages in the life cycles of nations. These cycles followed a single constant pattern that he dubbed the storia eterna ideale. According to Vico, the progression of each nation through these stages (the eras of gods, of heroes, and of men) was preordained by Divine Providence. As a devout Christian he regarded “the old Testament’s story, until the end of the Flood, as an accurate narrative”, and in doing so played an important role in the preservation of Christian historiography.
“He believed that each nation passed through identical stages from ‘barbarism of the senses’ to true civilization and then into decadence resulting from overintellectualism, the ‘barbarism of reflection’. Here the cycle begins all over again” (Bailey, 1958: 94).
There is an obvious difference between Ibn Khaldun’s style of investigation of history and the method used by previous philosophers and historians (Korkut, 2008: 548). Having developed a theory explaining the structure of social events, he proceeded to elaborate an investigative method to analyze them. He propounded that all social events are unique and warned against the all too common mistake of “applying a solution to a certain social problem as remedy for another (…)” (Korkut, 2008: 548). He described social phenomena as dynamic and prone to changes as opposed to being static. Hence, a solution devised for a certain social event becomes inapplicable to another. “In tandem, each social event is circumscribed by the moral, psychological, and physical atmosphere of the society from which it spurts; indeed, the relevant causes of each society are distinctive” (Korkut, 2008: 548).
Alatas, Syed Farid (2014). Applying Ibn Khaldun: The Recovery of a Lost Tradition in Sociology. London; New York: Routledge.
Mirawdeli, Kamal (2015). Asabiyyah and State: A Reconstruction of Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History, Bloomington: AuthorHouse.
Baali, Fuad (1988). Society, State, and Urbanism: Ibn Khaldun’s Sociological Thought, Albany: State University of New York Press
Ibn Khaldun; Rosenthal, Frantz; Dawood, N.J; Lawrence, Bruce B (2005). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
Dale, Stephen Frederic (2015). The Orange Trees of Marrakesh: Ibn Khaldun and the Science of Man. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Barnes, Harry Elmer (1948). Historical Sociology: Its Origins and Development, New York: Philosophical Library.
Bailey, Robert Benjamin (1958). Sociology Faces Pessimism: A Study of European Sociological Thought Amidst a Fading Optimism, The Hague: Nijhoff.
Korkut, Senol (2008) Ibn Khaldun’s Critique of the Theory of “al-Siyasah al-Madaniyyah”, Asian Journal of Social Science, 36(3-4): 547-570.