Khaldunian theory and the Muslim political realm
The Caliphate (al-khilafa) designates the form of government that emerged in the Muslim world after the death of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)) in 632 and lasted until the early part of the twentieth century. The four rulers (Abu-Bakr, Umar, Ali, and Uthman) that reigned over the nascent Muslim nation after his death came to be known as the Rightly Guided Caliphs in Muslim historiography (Najeebabadi et al. 2000: 257). Their era is particularly admired in Islamic theology as a period of extraordinary expansion during which the tradition of electing Caliphs was maintained and the need for a unified community (Muslim Ummah) was reiterated politically and socially. By the end of the year 661, Muslims ruled over Mesopotamia, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Persia, and parts of North Africa. It is during this period that the foundation for all future Muslim empires was established (Najeebabadi et al. 2000: 257). The Qur’an and the Sunnah (in the case of Sunni Islam) became the basis upon which was built not only the political legitimacy of Muslim rulers but also the socioeconomic management of Muslim societies.
The Umayyads who ruled the Muslim empire between 661-750 expanded what was primarily an Arab-Muslim empire into Spain, Central Asia, and India (Najeebabadi et al. 2000: 19). They successfully established an effective administration across a vast territory inhabited by multiple ethnic groups with a multitude of cultures and languages. The reign of the Umayyad put an end to the election of Caliphs and began the tradition of hereditary monarchy. In 750, the Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Umayyads and ruled the Muslim world until 1258 (Najeebabadi et al. 2000: 329). Much like their predecessors, they continued to expand Muslim rule into new lands and the city of Baghdad became the political capital of the Caliphate. Despite its eventual fragmentation, the Abbasid empire established Islam into a universal and multiethnic religion; a legacy that resonates with Muslims to this day. The schism between Sunni and Shia was particularly evident in the political realm where several Shi’ite dynasties ruled over various parts of the Muslim world (Najeebabadi et al. 2000: 329).
The Fatimid dynasty was the product of a revolution mounted by the Isma’ili movement against Abbasid rule. They officially established their Caliphate in 909 in North Africa. During their reign, Egypt became an important commercial and cultural center (Alatas, 2014:113). They also established major trade routes in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Their long political decline finally came to an end when in 1171 Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub (Saladin) took control of Egypt in the name of the Abbasid Caliph. Another Shiite dynasty that reigned over vast swaths of Muslim land was originally a Sunni Sufi order that turned to Shia Islam in the fifteenth century (Alatas, 2014:113). The Safavid empire at its peak ruled over Iran, parts of the Caucasus, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Afghanistan, and parts of Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Both bureaucracy and the arts flourished under the Safavids. They established an efficient system of administration allowing for greater transparency in order to manage their vast and expansive realm (Alatas, 2014:113). Innovations in the artistic and cultural life were particularly encouraged by Safavid rulers, thus architecture and the fine arts grew exponentially under Safavid tutelage. A Sunni rebellion in 1722 eventually brought an end to their empire.
In the tenth century, Turcoman nomads from Outer Mongolia migrated to West Asia in order to avoid the impending Mongol invasion. Amongst these displaced populations were the Oghuz, a nomadic tribe of warriors known more widely today as the Seljuks. “By the eleventh century, when the Seljuk empire was centered at Isfahan, various Turcoman tribes, which were autonomous from the Seljuks, were trying to establish themselves in Anatolia” (Alatas, 2014:97). These tribes eventually formed their own principalities throughout the region. These groups possessed the ability to mobilize quickly “between a quarter and half a million cavalrymen” (Alatas, 2014: 97). Their ability to bring help and relief when needed to the centralized Seljuk state allowed the Turcoman principalities to grow in power and influence. In the fourteenth century, sixteen Turcoman principalities were established throughout Anatolia. The Seljuk empire disintegrated overtime and finally crumbled in the thirteenth century, giving way to the emergence of the Great Mongol empire. Much like the Seljuks, the Mongol empire eventually broke up into several parts as well. “One of these parts, constituting Iran, Iraq and Anatolia, became the Ilhan empire founded by Hulagu” (Alatas, 2014: 97).
Despite these changes, several Turcoman tribes succeeded in maintaining their independence from both the Seljuks and the Mongols. Amongst them was the Ottoman (Osmanli) principality founded by Osman of the Kayi Tribe. It is from this principality that emerged what later came to be known as the Ottoman empire (Alatas, 2014: 97). The Ottomans ruled most of the Muslim world for over six centuries, making this entity one of the most influential and prosperous empires in Muslim history. At the height of its power, the Ottoman territories incorporated most of Southeast Europe, Central and Eastern Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa.
The encroachment from increasingly powerful European nations on one hand and Tsarist Russia on the other throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century reduced greatly the vastness of Ottoman territory. Mounting economic and social problems further strained the resources of an already embattled empire. But it is the consequences of World War I that damaged irreparably the power and the authority of the Ottoman Caliph. “In March 3, 1924, the Grand National Assembly abolished the caliphate, thus ending the Ottoman dynasty and empire” and leading to the birth of the Turkish Republic (Shaw, 1977: 369). There are today more than fifty Muslim nation-states in the world spread over three continents and ascribing to a wide range of political, economic, and social ideologies ranging from theocratic governments, to secular republics, to monarchies, and democracies. These states started to emerge twenty-three years after the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate and represent a historical discontinuity. What had been the prevailing sociopolitical order in the Muslim world for thirteen centuries came to an end in the early twentieth century. The impact and legacy of Western colonialism is crucial in understanding the process of state formation leading to the emergence of Muslim nation-states after the second world war.
One of the prevailing Orientalist assumptions about the Ottoman empire is the view that it was already in decline by the eighteenth century. This idea finds its source in another Orientalist assumption which states that the Islamic civilization reached its peak during the early medieval period and that the Ottoman empire amounted to nothing more than a brief interruption in the long centuries of decline which followed (Ansary, 2010:220). This idea of a decaying empire by the late sixteenth century is reiterated by prominent Western historians such as Bernard Lewis. “For many centuries, while Europe was rising to greater and greater heights of achievements, the East was sinking in the comfortable torpor of decay (…)” (Lewis, 1994:42). According to him, by the time European powers started their incursions into Ottoman territory, the empire was but a shadow of its former self. However, many Muslim historians disagree with this narrative and maintain that despite the challenges facing it, the Ottoman empire was far from the decaying entity posited by Orientalists (Hanioglu, 2008:42).
The European penetration of Muslim lands was a slow and complex process, and not so much the ferocious military onslaught Lewis presented in his analysis. “The process was so slow, however, and so pervasive and so complex that it was hard for anyone going through the history of it all day by day to make a connection between the European encroachment and the burgeoning decay” (Ansary, 2010:220). The Ottoman empire did not simply go down in flames to conquering European armies. Despite an increasing European penetration and the growing military, economic, and administrative challenges facing it by the end of the eighteenth century, the Ottoman empire remained a military and political giant (Hanioglu, 2008:42). In fact, “long after the empire was totally moribund, long after it was little more than a virtual carcass for vultures to pick over, the Ottomans could still muster damaging military strength” (Ansary, 2010:221).
In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, Ibn Khaldun gained an important following amongst Ottoman scholars who used his ideas to address some of the pressing issues facing the Ottoman state. The prominent seventeenth century writer Katib Çelebi was one of the first Ottoman scholars to apply Ibn Khaldun’s ideas to analyze the empire’s financial woes. In his book The Mode of Procedure for Rectifying the Damage, the Khaldunian theory of cyclical rise and decline of states was applied for the first time to the Ottoman context. Another Ottoman historian who was greatly influenced by both Ibn Khaldun and Çelebi was Mustapha Naima. In his chronical Tarih-i Na’ima, he mentioned the Khaldunian cyclical theory to illustrate the contrast between nomadic and sedentary societies (Fleischer, 1983:200).
“By the eighteenth century, Ibn Khaldun was well established in Ottoman circles as having provided a framework that explained the decay of the Ottoman state. The Ottoman empire was said to be in Ibn Khaldun’s stage of stasis and decline” (Alatas, 2007:274).
The Ottoman scholars who studied Ibn Khaldun’s work started paying attention to the social, political, and economic organization of the empire trying to detect the signs of decline posited by Khaldunian theory. Scholars such as Çelebi and Naima were primarily preoccupied with elaborating institutional and administrative reforms susceptible of preventing a potential collapse. Their reading of Ibn Khaldun was therefore mainly normative and ideological (Alatas, 2007:275). His sociological arguments were used in the Ottoman context to not only champion reforms designed to strengthen the authority of the Caliph, but also to justify the holding of the Caliphate by an Ottoman dynasty.
To understand the prevailing political instability in the modern Muslim world, it is crucial to revisit the end of the Ottoman empire. However, in order to avoid falling into the usual pitfalls of Orientalism, a change of perspective is required. Khaldunian theory offers a framework and a methodology indigenous to the Muslim world. This theory was the primary tool used by Muslim scholars to study the patterns and rhythm of their own history. It was through Khaldunian concepts that they analyzed their political institutions and proposed the necessary reforms. The advent of colonialism led to the dismantlement of Muslim scholarship and halted any and all efforts to further develop Ibn Khaldun’s ilm al-‘umran al-bashari (science of human social organization).
Fanon analyzed in-depth how colonized societies become subjugated in all aspects. The rise of Orientalism as a form of scholarship dedicated to the study of the Orient and Islam is part of a broader pattern in which the production of knowledge is part and parcel of the grand colonial project. The colonial realm is a compartmentalized and Manichean world, where the “colonial subject is a man penned in: apartheid is but one method of compartmentalizing the colonial world” (Fanon, 1963:15). Through its policies and academics, the colonizer implants in the mind of the colonized that all essential values are Western values, and “remain eternal despite all errors attributable to man” (Fanon, 1963:15). The colonized becomes convinced of the pertinence and accuracy of these ideas; his very thought process has now fallen prey to the same colonial incursion ravaging his land. “The white colonists attack the traditions and myths—above all, their myths—of the racially colonized while clandestinely creating and perpetuating myths of their own concerning the racially colonized” (Rabaka, 2010:121).
These concocted myths and stereotypes not only become part and parcel of the colonial narrative, but they are also eventually internalized by the colonized. This leads to the emergence of many of the problems Fanon addresses throughout his corpus. Disrupting and shattering indigenous cultures triggers amongst all colonized peoples an inferiority complex. They position themselves in relation to the culture and the language of their colonizers. “The more the colonized has assimilated the cultural values of the metropolis, the more he will have escaped the bush” (Fanon, 1952:2). The psychological, social, emotional, economic, and political impact of this mythical portrait of the racialized subject entrenches even further the dichotomy between the colonizer and the colonized. Constantly attacking, challenging, and weakening severely any lingering inkling of autonomy or sovereignty from the pre-colonial era reiterates this binary power-dynamic between the colonialists and the colonial subjects.
“Colonization is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures and destroys it” (Fanon, 1963:170).
In order for the colonial project to reach its desired supremacy, the indigenous population must be convinced of the benefits of colonization. This can only happen once they are completely alienated from their own indigenous culture. The peoples of the colonies were reduced to entities with no history of their own, no art, no past, and certainly no future (Said, 1993:193). The inherently destructive nature of colonial domination was quick to disrupt in remarkable ways the cultural and intellectual life of the conquered.
The present instability plaguing the modern Muslim political realm is the subject of much interest and debate in Western academia. What often transpires from such studies is a rather Manichean view of Muslim societies as inherently despotic entities opposed to the very concepts of modernity and progress. “This idea has a pedigree of many centuries, and the classic term for what it refers to is oriental despotism” (Kalmar, 2012:1). Orientalist thought introduced the notion that a civilization based upon Islamic precepts can only inspire undemocratic governments, often using the current political situation in various Muslim countries as a compelling example. Western contemporary readings of politics in Muslim societies approach the subject “through the lenses of western concepts and methodologies” reiterating Orientalist assumptions and arguments (Volpi, 2009:22).
Khaldunian sociology is a historical sociology which can be applied to a wide range of societies where social bonds based on kinship played an important role in the formation of their states. Ibn Khaldun’s theoretical framework provides us with the ability to understand the dynamics leading not only to the rise of these states but also their potential decline, while keeping in mind the distinctive characteristics of each society. “The central concept of ‘asabiyyah is also sociological as it refers to a type of social cohesion founded on the knowledge of common kinship or descent” (Alatas, 2014:146). A Khaldunian framework offers us the possibility of analyzing the woes of the modern Muslim political realm from a new and fresh perspective, outside of the usual reductionist and essentialist portrayal of Islam as an entity possessing an anti-modern core.
Peace be upon him
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