Ibn Khaldun and Change
World Info can be thought of as a commentary on the work
of Ibn Khaldun, who is said to have been the first social scientist.
He lived from 1332-1406 and was a Muslim philosopher and statesman
who provided a useful way of looking at the political and social
conditions of the pre-modern world. He was born in Tunis and
died in Cairo, where he is buried in the Sufi cemetery. He travelled
to Morocco, Spain, Damascus and other parts of the Muslim world.
He witnessed the attack of Tamurlain's troops on Damascus, and
spoke with Pedro the Cruel of Castile.
Government in our world has to deal with closely packed masses
of people. In the ancient world the towns were smaller and more
widely spaced. Government was more a matter of maintaining the
peace between the towns than anything else. The army in settled
countries was the first call on the resources of the government
- and almost the last call as well. Every country had considerable
areas of wild land not settled by farmers. The army's main task
was to guard the settled land from attack by the nomads.
There was a limited amount of settled land, and outside the
governed areas there were huge regions where nomads lived without
any government at all. These nomadic areas in North Africa, Arabia
and the central part of Eurasia were one of the great uncertainties
of political life. Out of them came from time to time invasions
of the settled areas. See Mongolia
Ibn Khaldun described this process in his book Al Muqaddimah
- the Introduction to History. His explanation of the rise
and fall of states was that there was a constant renewal or replacement
of the ruling group by nomads conquering the towns and settled
lands. This was followed by a period when the invaders lost the
skills of the desert and acquired the vices and slackness of
town life. This observation fits very well the history of western
Eurasia and north Africa until quite recent times. Only in the
20th century did the nomads of the world become absorbed into
the political systems, as air transport, space surveillance and
electronics make it impossible for anyone to be unreachable by
the administrator and tax-man. The last nomadic conquest was
that of Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud who created Saudi Arabia in 1921.
(But perhaps there has been a change and it is now the businessman
from the more recently settled areas, such as Australia, or the
penniless immigrants and refugees who tend to excel in business
in the older industrial countries and then prosper in competition
with the older inhabitants.) Thus the fall of the Roman empire
in the west was, according to Ibn Khaldun's theory, the result
of more vigorous Germanic tribes overcoming the soft living men
of the cities. The same applied to the Arabs when they overcame
Byzantium and Persia. In turn the Mongols organized by Genghis
Khan invaded the world of Islam, grown soft after centuries of
luxury. In Ibn Khaldun's own world of the Maghrib - he was born
in Tunis of Hadhramauti
ancestors - the pattern is plain as a succession of armies led
by preachers came out of the Mauretanian desert to conquer the
Muslims of the Maghrib and Spain.
Ibn Khaldun says:
| It can be noted that
those people who, whether they inhabit the desert or settled
areas and cities, live a life of abundance and have all the good
things to eat, die more quickly than others when a drought or
famine comes upon them. This is the case, for instance, with
the Berbers of the Maghrib and the inhabitants of the city of
Fez, and as we hear, of Cairo. It is not so with the Arabs who
inhabit waste regions and deserts, or with the inhabitants of
regions where the date palm grows and whose principal food is
dates, or with the present day inhabitants of Ifriqiyah (Libya)
whose principal food is barley and olive oil, or with the inhabitants
of Spain whose principal food is durra and olive oil. When a
drought or a famine strikes them, it does not kill as many of
them as of the other group of people, and few, if any, die of
hunger. ... Those who die in famines are victims of their previous
habitual state of satiation, not of the hunger that now afflicts
them for the first time. p67
He expounds the theory known in Lancashire as "clogs
to clogs in three generations" - though he makes it in four.
Prestige is an accident that affects
human beings. It comes into being and decays inevitably. No human
being exists who possesses an unbroken pedigree of nobility from
Adam down to himself. ... Nobility originates in the state of
being outside. That is, being outside of leadership and nobility
and being in a base, humble station, devoid of prestige, as is
the case with every created thing.
It reaches its end in a single family
within four successive generations. This is as follows: The builder
of the family's glory knows what it cost him to do the work,
and he keeps the qualities that created his glory and made it
last. The son who comes after him had personal contact with his
father and thus learned those things from him. However, he is
inferior to him in this respect, inasmuch as a person who learns
things through study is inferior to a person who knows them from
practical application. The third generation must be content with
imitation and, in particular, with reliance upon tradition. This
member is inferior to him of the second generation, inasmuch
as a person who relies upon tradition is inferior to a person
who exercises judgment.
The fourth generation, then, is inferior
to the preceding ones in every respect. Its member has lost the
qualities that preserved the edifice of its glory. He despises
those qualities. He imagines that the edifice was not built through
application and effort. He thinks that it was something due to
his people from the very beginning by virtue of the mere fact
of their descent, and not something that resulted from group
effort and individual qualities. For he sees the great respect
in which he is held by the people, but he does not know how that
respect originated and what the reason for it was. He imagines
it is due to his descent and nothing else. He keeps away from
those in whose group feeling he shares, thinking that he is better
than they. p. 106
He develops his theory further. What causes a tribe to be
able to act together is what he calls "group feeling".
..when a tribe has achieved a certain
measure of superiority with the help of its group feeling, it
gains control over a corresponding amount of wealth and comes
to share prosperity and abundance with those who have been in
possession of these things. It shares in them to the degree of
its power and usefulness to the ruling dynasty. If the ruling
dynasty is so strong that no-one thinks of depriving it of its
power or of sharing with it, the tribe in question submits to
its rule and is satisfied with whatever share in the dynasty's
wealth and tax revenue it is permitted to enjoy. ... Members
of the tribe are merely concerned with prosperity, gain and a
life of abundance. (They are satisfied) to lead an easy, restful
life in the shadow of the ruling dynasty, and to adopt royal
habits in building and dress, a matter they stress and in which
they take more and more pride, the more luxuries and plenty they
acquire, as well as all the other things that go with luxury
As a result the toughness of desert life
is lost. Group feeling and courage weaken. Members of the tribe
revel in the well-being that God has given them. Their children
and offspring grow up too proud to look after themselves or to
attend to their own needs. They have disdain also for all the
other things that are necessary in connection with group feeling....
Their group feeling and courage decrease in the next generations.
Eventually group feeling is altogether destroyed. ... It will
be swallowed up by other nations. p.107
This is not an unreasonable theory of political and economic
change. It fitted many of the facts of the period up to Ibn Khaldun's
time. Even though there are no nomads left today we might recall
that in the 20th century guerrillas and armed political parties
with "group feeling" fought against highly trained
and technological armies and won (see Vietnam and Afghanistan) and are doing so now (2006) in
Iraq and Afghanistan.
Moreover, migrations of peoples are still occurring, especially
from the poorer south to the richer north.
It is too soon to tell whether elected governments (elected
by people relatively richer than the world average), operating
market economies, can renew themselves sufficiently to avoid the
stagnation of luxury Ibn Khaldun describes. In the business world
company structures which allow "take-overs" may similarly
have the effect of allowing the business to be renewed by new
blood, the equivalent of the new tribe from the desert (though
in Germany and Japan, two of the world's most successful economies,
takeovers are difficult). In the Islamic world the most successful
states have been those which recruited their governing class
from the nomads - such as the Mameluke
state of Egypt and Syria in which the army and ruler had to be
recruited from the Turkish tribes of the Caucasus and the sons
of the rulers were forbidden to inherit. These states might be
considered as a practical application of Ibn Khaldun's philosophy.
Another application may have been the Janissary Guard - soldiers
formed in the Ottoman Empire from the children of the subject
peoples, including Greeks, Slavs, Romanians and Bulgarians and
converted to Islam.
Perhaps we should note that both the British and United States
armies these days are recruiting people from other countries,
such as Fiji, Nepal and the Philippines.
Although there are no nomads of the political kind left in
the modern world there remains the possibility of migrations
of refugees on a large scale which could accomplish the same
result. Who can foretell what will happen when the world's climate changes
and large numbers of people have to find new homes?
The study of history should show us that political units and
borders can change profoundly and suddenly. The system of states
in Europe changed radically three times during the 20th century
- in 1918, 1939, 1945 - and may be about to (1990) change again.
Empires have vanished. The Russian Empire was transformed into
the Soviet Union and has also disappeared. In Africa the potential exists for even greater
changes as all the borders there are disputed.
The present system of states is endorsed by the United Nations.
Legitimacy in practice is marked by membership. Does this mean
all change is forbidden? This seems unlikely.
In the modern world Climate
Change, the end of cheap oil,
and the spread of technological weapons all make change likely.
Moreover the west has an abundance of people who have grown used
to luxury and forgotten the poverty of their great grandparents
in the Depression of the 1930s. Is the cycle going to continue?
Perhaps western Hegemony
itself is coming to an end.
Adapted from E.G.Matthews The Rise of the Islamic World
Quotations from "The Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun,
translated by Franz Rosenthal, abridged by N.J.Dawood (1967)
See also Aramco